It is not the first time I ask myself this question, but it seems a good time now to ask other designers this question too - and not only designers, but also directors, people who run houses and have companies, programmers and funding organisations. Most of us are happy to work away in the background doing way more than our contracts or the understanding of our role would require us to do, but what if we didn’t keep it in the background anymore but spoke up about our role and figured out how it firstly should be understood, and secondly be communicated?
Having attended one of the SceneChange zoom meetings recently and listened to us talking to each other, maybe for the first time - on this scale anyways - it got me thinking: Don’t we do a lot more than what is typically assigned to the role of the designer and don’t we also want to do more? Don’t we have to do more in the future and start thinking outside of our designer box? Might we otherwise risk our demise? Relevant points were made about communicating our responsibilities as designers and also where those end. Relevant points about getting paid enough and standing our grounds were raised. This poses a problem for a lot of us who aren’t in the position to do so; are just not established enough; don’t work for institutions that do things properly, or have an agent. Not only that, it poses a problem for all of us going forward as funding will have to go towards adapting to the new rules and regulations. Less sold tickets will mean less money earned, which will threaten jobs, wages and fees.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. A lot of us see a potential in this situation: a potential to reinvent not only theatre but also our role as designer. Already we substantially contribute to a production conceptually, often being involved right in the beginning, shaping every aspect of a show. Sometimes, we are initiators of projects and sometimes we start our own company. Clearly, we have ideas and we can make a difference. So how can we communicate what we do or want to do going forward more effectively?
I’m not necessarily saying we need to take on more work, but what we could do is shift the focus of our work from a materialistic to a much more conceptual and holistic approach. Some of us made the great point of possibly making a compromise in the material budget rather than taking a decrease in our fee. But what that means is that our work needs to manifest in other places than the set and costumes on stage. (Thinking about making theatre more sustainable, this can only be a great development.) A lot of us are already designing auditoriums, seating, immersive and promenade experiences and even new forms of theatre spaces. Some of us understand our practice as Scenography: the incorporating of everything that is there and making it into a scene - a much broader understanding of what a theatre designer does. We are used to taking what is there and repurposing it. That is where our chance lies now. And while we’re at it, we might as well just start thinking of ourselves as ideas people, who not only think about how a production looks, but also help in conceiving it.
We have the chance now to rethink theatre, take over spaces - theatres, as well as other spaces - that will become vacant, because they were not commercially viable anymore. Now is the time to talk to directors, producers, production managers and people who run houses and companies and bring our ideas to the table and ask to be paid for it. Let’s talk about how we can get start moving from what we are now, to what we might be in the future.