Whitecard Collective: Graduate and emerging designers during a pandemic and beyond

The life of a designer can be a lonely place - and we’ve all been there, haven’t we?


We’re all warned that the ‘early career’ years will be a financial and emotional assault course: navigating low pay and barely-there budgets, little technical support and resources, juggling ‘side-hustles’ and securing work in the first place. And that’s before we mention the words ‘Global Pandemic’...


Whitecard Collective seeks to provide Graduate and Early Career Designers with a virtual space to come together in the midst of this unprecedented crisis and beyond. A safe platform to share our concerns, fears and offering mutual support. During a time when Theatre is looking tentatively to a new era, the landscape of live performance is transforming quickly and quite possibly irreversibly. But many budding creatives find ourselves ‘locked out’, feeling very much without place or purpose.


But could this moment be an opportunity? How can we empower the future voices of Performance Design and bring about the changes that we all want to see? How can we determine that our collective voice is heard throughout our community, and by those with the power to ensure that Our generation will not be ‘left behind’?


Our first conversations came about in an open Facebook group (now approaching 100 members) and small zoom hangouts. Shared challenges and concerns quickly began to emerge, relating not only to the practical and economical (terminated contracts, productions 'postponed until further notice’, designers left ‘stranded’ by lockdown and desperation for funding), but also with mental battles: the usual anxiety, stress, uncertainty, here amplified by such a colossal upheaval. We are often told that our passion and belief are the key to breaking through as artists- ‘this career is only for those who really want it’ - but what use is that passion and drive when theatres have shut their doors indefinitely?

In reality, the issues Covid-19 has illuminated are the existing issues that have underpinned the industry for years: poor working conditions, overwork, low pay and precarity. The devastation we feel now at being stopped in our tracks, having ‘only just begun’, brings us face to face with the dreams of talented designers who have stood here before: those who couldn’t make ends meet, or who lacked the immense financial and emotional security, support and privilege that is often required to get off the ground. Huge strides have been made in recent years to make theatre a more inclusive world, both onstage and, bit by bit, in backstage and creative roles. But has it been enough?


How many practitioners will disappear as a result of this pandemic, unable to consider this a viable career much longer? Which of us will ‘fail’, and which creative voices might be lost?


Graduate voices are a key part in rewriting this story, and as Whitecard Collective we have made a great start by building connections with The Society of British Theatre Designers, SceneChange and Equity. We are leading the conversations on the needs specific to ‘early career’ practitioners and have been met with overwhelming openness and willingness to listen to our voices; and by a genuine consensus that we must adapt together.


This moment offers a unique chance to regroup and rethink. It offers an opportunity for dialogue between previously solitary designers, emerging across scattered courses, educational institutions and the consequent organic micro-communities of alumni and localities. Many of the schemes that have traditionally attached early career designers to established Theatre buildings have dwindled and disappeared, and yet so much of our essential development takes place via this type of professional experience following our studies.


So what will a rethink of our resolutely freelance model look like, and how can it function while designers are still setting out and finding their feet?


One area with exciting potential is mentorship schemes, which many of our members have expressed would guide and enhance their reintroduction to the industry - the more we learn from the best people in the field, the stronger the designers we become! We are working with SBTD to consult on exactly what mentees want to get from these schemes, and crucially, how to connect them to the right mentors.


Another focus has been how early career practitioners might be at the centre of pioneering new types of theatre-making in this climate. So how can we rethink theatre, virtually and spatially? How can we navigate the challenges of a socially-distanced but nonetheless collective, authentic and live experience, and what do early career designers bring to this table?

2020 Graduates start their careers in a world so different to any previous graduating class. Entering the industry with a reduced level of practical experience due to the cancellation of final shows, most are worried about their finances, having had so little return on the investment needed to train, with many not qualifying for any government funding schemes (SIESS). Recent Grads have not yet had the chance to build vital contacts or to partake in crucial networking opportunities to uncover their new professional community. They are asking themselves: in a post-covid world, who will take a risk on my inexperience? More even than for a conventional design graduate, ‘It feels like starting from scratch.’

But this group also inhabits an interesting position - their training experience has been integrally linked to the digital, and their debut comes at a moment when in some senses we are all ‘starting from scratch’. As a generation of digital natives, they possess skill sets and approaches that will flourish in this brave new world; current students are already experiencing producing their very first shows for non-conventional audiences, transferring presentations and productions to a digital format, connecting to the world in a way never seen before.


The future of this approach to work is not yet clear, but it is certainly dynamic, responsive, and a key part of the recovery and reinvention intrinsic to the next chapter in the success story of UK theatre.


We are a Whitecard model: - not yet fully-defined, but containing an immense potential just ready and waiting to be realised.


Find us and join in at https://www.facebook.com/groups/535746323995495/




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