SCENE/CHANGE, over the last two years, has been shining a light on the creative process and fostering a positive and supportive community to empower Designers – and I’m proud to have been part of the action!
I got involved in Scene/Change in order to wave the flag for Design Assistants and Associates. I love the collective effort that makes theatre and have found myself a very happy facilitatory niche working as an Associate and Assistant to some brilliant and inspiring Designers. But… Covid-19 exposed how vulnerable we all are. For me, it was also a wake-up call for how specifically insecure we Design Assistants are: we are casual workers. Our workflow and our income was - and still is - totally unprotected. I had been bumbling along, working hard and loving my job and then suddenly… no safety net!
As part of Scene/Change’s “Dialogue in strange times”, I invited all Design Associates/Assistants/Modelmakers/Draughters/Illustrators etc. to take part in a public zoom event. To connect and share experiences of working within the design ecosystem.
More S/C events and conversations followed, focusing on the specific issues raised. We talked about how to define our roles – what is the difference between an Assistant and an Associate? We worked on creating job descriptions. We discussed our pay, how to make the current system better, how to negotiate and what to expect, about professionalism, acknowledgement and crediting. We talked about equal access and diversity. How are opportunities offered? What is the impact of disability? How do we make it a more open and less competitive and exclusive industry? We considered ideas for moving forward; sponsorship for professional development training and more placement opportunities for Associates in theatres, for example.
I found these conversations quite emotional; it’s a small world, but Assistants are often hidden away in Designers’ studios, in sheds and attics, so I found it very powerful, and galvanising, to meet and share experiences with other people doing similar jobs to me. I was shocked by reports of bad practice and exploitation. A working group came together out of our big zooms: about 12 of us, plus a few extra and between us we have written bits, edited bits and I have collated it into a whole; our proposals for a way forward.
VISIBILITY - Not only do Assistants and Associates often work without contracts, but our work is also often unseen and frequently un-credited. Visibility of the work of design and design jobs themselves is a big issue in our industry and no matter how much we aim to champion greater diversity, we are really not enabling it if we don’t have clearly- recognisable career options. Even after graduating from a degree in Theatre Design, I didn’t really understand what range of job opportunities could be available.
To quote a fellow Design Associate, Rachel Wingate “I know we prefer the shadows and the spotlight is ghastly, but if we don’t promote ourselves nobody will, and the makers are as important as the actors. Theatre is a massive team sport, and this needs recognising.”
MONEY/EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES - Being able to see the variety of design roles which exist will help increase workforce diversity, but only if it is in conjunction with establishing reliable, sustainable jobs and transparent career paths. Within the hostile political and social circumstances we now face, the issues of access and inclusion are now even more critical. The precarity of our profession currently excludes those who do not have the privilege or support to choose such an insecure career.
FORMALISING RELATIONSHIPS - Visibility and validation come hand in hand, and as long as Producers don’t know who we are, or understand what we do, they can’t be expected to see why we should be properly contracted and paid for our work. Most Assistants are employed by the Designer via verbal agreement, text or email: the work can be sporadic and irregular and depends solely on the rhythm and longevity of the Designer and their work. Meanwhile, pre-pandemic, often Designers supplemented the design costs of a production, leading to many of the awkward corners and dysfunctions of the working relationship.
So, we have put together this set of guidelines on pay and working practice to support our profession. And by creating job descriptions, we have taken a step towards formalising, and therefore safeguarding our roles and livelihoods. Every Designer/Assistant relationship is different, and personal – these are guidelines not rules! We offer this as a starting point, acknowledging our relatively narrow perspective, very much open to comment and review. If we want our industry to be aspirational then we must treat our work with respect and professionalism. We aim to help improve communication and understanding between Producers, Designers, Associates and Assistants - building the foundations of a working environment for our freelance discipline that is fit for purpose.
Scene/Change is disruptive action!
Love and solidarity, Ruth x
Our Scene/Change Guidelines for Employing Design Assistants and Associates can be downloaded here.