Hello, my name is Jon Bausor, a theatre designer based in London. In the past months I've had numerous conversations with colleagues from across the industry about our profession, its current state and its future.
I’ve decided to put these thoughts and questions down, in no particular order, to begin a debate and hopefully a change within stage design and the wider theatre profession. Whilst this is undoubtedly an incredibly scary time the enforced hiatus provides us with a unique opportunity to evaluate, change and reinvent what was there before. Lets collectively take responsibility and use it as a positive moment to act together towards a #scenechange.
Most theatre designers come from privileged, white and financially supportive backgrounds which allow them to sustain themselves during the long climb on the badly paid ladder to “making it”.
As a result, there aren’t enough designers who embody other narratives of professional success, and we therefore lack alternative role models. The new, post C-19 generation is going to inherit even more debt than the ones who’ve graduated through the early 90s and 2008 recessions.
The current set up perpetuates a London-centric theatre. Most can’t afford to live in London but the need to be here is seen as paramount to becoming a successful designer. There just isn't the opportunity and funding outside of the capital.
Once upon a time, before freelancing existed, there was a team of directors and designers, plus associates, attached to each major regional venue all dedicated to creating work within and for that community (e.g. Citizens Theatre Glasgow, Nottingham Playhouse). Can funding become more regionalised and the onus be taken away from working outside of London?
Despite the visible efforts made by major theatres to diversify casting, as well as writers and directors, we are not seeing this reflected in the world of stage design at all. What if the energy of the white middle class was genuinely used and focused to fight for a more racially, physically and financially equal one?
Additionally, we hardly see designers as spokespeople or generators of change within the industry. Is this because there is less interest in a designer’s opinion or is it because we are always set to be a second violin to a director? Is it because there are no aspirational ‘’top jobs’’ for designers as there are for directors as artistic leaders of buildings and companies?
The current fashion for promotion of the individual designer or their “studio”, with no acknowledgement or sense of collaboration with a larger team communicates a false idea about how things are created. In reality each design is a result of an intricate ecosystem of design associates, model makers, draughts people, builders, engineers, painters, props and costume supervisors and makers.
Can we try to show more transparency within the creation of work, giving more credit to the assistance and the set, prop and costume support that goes into putting designs on stage? This might lead to more associates and crafts people getting more of a break and financial recognition.
The Mayor’s study from 2008 estimated that London theatre industry’s carbon footprint alone amounted to 50,000 tonnes a year. Whilst this has improved there is still a substantial amount of waste in set building, where new designs are executed without consideration of reusing or recycling existing pieces. There is a huge potential in reimagining and reusing - do we always need new doors, staircases, floors, etc? Obviously there is an economic reason for this, as it’s often cheaper to start again, but is there a way to incorporate sustainability into our theatre designs?
Is there a way to create a kit of elements that could be used and reused by the industry as a whole, sharing storage costs between theatres? Could we adapt more of a ‘skip theatre’ idea, where previously used and discarded materials aren’t thrown away. Should we implement Carbon Offset Budgets and Carbon Allowances per show, as well as the material/labour budgets we work to?
CAD and other computer design softwares are creating an exactness of detail that often doesn't allow for improvisation, re-imagination or reuse. By drawing a model, it becomes concrete and there is no room for change or the incorporation of the recycled. As a production/factory line things have become more efficient but in theatre we don’t mass produce. Instead we are producing one-offs in a boutique way. Does the process reflect this or is it leading to more waste for the sake of efficiency and ease?
Could we create a more apprentice based graduation scheme that grows the skills of young designers, allowing them to assist and experience all sides of the profession whilst being supported by the theatre industry as a whole, rather than the model expenses or finances of the more established designers. This would produce more places for young graduates to work, as it would allow more designers to employ them.
Is there a version of the Birkbeck or RTYDS schemes for directors that could be set up for theatre designers handpicking the cream of graduates to be placed in major theatres and assisting the designers that work in them. This would give them essential technical training as to how theatre is made, how sets are built etc, training that they often sadly seem to lack after 3 years in university.
It's a terrible fact that more deaths of C-19 in the world have occurred in individualistic capitalist societies than community based ones. Can we learn from this and become less selfish individuals led less by the ego and more towards fairness, community and wellbeing? I think we’ve all relished the enforced time over the last months to think kindly about the world and others rather than pounding a constant treadmill of work that hasn't allowed anything other than a myopic viewpoint. I feel more creatively alive than ever, and rested. How can we keep it that way?
The immediate problem we face is the complete halt of the industry we work in. Theatre cannot, for the time being carry on in its usual way, in its set up of audience that doesn’t allow for required social distancing etc. We must solve that.
Theatre doesn’t need to be restricted to indoor space for instance. The whole point is that it can be done anywhere with the right design.
We designers are the imaginators and the problem solvers. Give us £50 and we’ll conjure something up. Now let’s all put our heads together whilst everyone is listening!
Thanks for taking the time to read.