The future by design

In this time of crisis the design community are looking for ways to respond to the immediate problems and also see how we can be part of the transformation that will see theatres being reopened with an inevitable shift in audience numbers, expectations and demographics. As shapers of theatrical space and dramaturges of narrative through the use of the space, we feel we are ideally placed to be at the heart of discussions about how theatres in the future will work. Will it be promenade, site specific, drive through even, how much will be filmed to go straight to broadcast without an audience? At the moment I feel the moral burden on theatres has been to try and honour those shows already in rehearsal or a long way down the development track. This is praiseworthy, but ultimately backward looking and was based on the notion that we might have a few months break and then could return as normal. With the increasing likelihood of social distancing being in place well into next year and a legal requirement on employers to preserve the 2m gap it is difficult to see how theatre practice can go back to ‘normal’, we will have to adapt rapidly in the way we rehearse, tec and perform work.

Another realisation of this enforced rest, once the fever and admin clear out had passed( I think many in our community have been ill as we travel so much ), is to see how much we have all been part of a production machine; meeting a series of rigid deadlines, churning out productions, with limited rehearsal times on diminishing budgets. When the machine stops the work collapses. We have often looked to Europe with envy at their resident ensembles, longer development and rehearsal periods and the way shows can be embedded in the rep of a company to grow and have longer richer life. Now the contrast seems stark in the extreme. The French and German governments, often already with well funded state/regional arts centres, are committing to support their artists whatever it takes. Meanwhile, many of us fall through the various support schemes, we can’t be furloughed as we are all freelance. I for one am lucky at the moment that most companies I was working with have honoured final payments, however the future looks bleak without new commissions and theatres reviving shows they have already paid for the next few years . My savings set against the looming tax bills will rapidly dry up. We feel the theatres who employ us need to have duty of care to all the freelance workers they employ, not just us designers but costume and prop makers, technicians etc. The British theatre has allowed itself to become totally outsourced , I have written about this before and this crisis only amplifies the need to get designers back into buildings and in dialogue with those that run them.

There is likely to be a period of programming in theatres which, if we are not careful, looks very timid in its ambition; monologues, semi staging readings etc . This may look to a cash strapped organisation like a way to get the doors open and dispel the fear for an audience of coming back to these potentially crowded spaces. Even an empty space requires design, the choice of the right props, the costume, the light how the audience interact with this space are all part of what we do in creating the world of the play. A group of us designers were discussing these worries and all agree that this is the moment for Artistic Directors across the country to get in touch with a range of their freelance collaborators to really debate the ideas and to allow us to be part of the welcoming. We will be making contact and hope that this can be a period of rebirth and readjustment to a new more sustainable theatre future. Both for the mental well being and creativity of the freelance community, but also in addressing the next looming crisis of how theatre can become carbon neutral. There will be a role for all of us to play through SBTD, Equity and more informal groupings, but this needs to work on many complementary levels. High level strategic campaigning with government and arts funders, working directly with the larger companies such as RSC and RNT who already have designers embedded within them, promoting regional connections that strengthen the local craft ecology around specific theatres and through individual personal collaborations which we all have. I sense we are just emerging from our headless chicken phase and ideas will start to flow and who knows where we will end up!

Thoughts collated from emails and a zoom chat amongst whom were Soutra Gilmour, Rajha Shakiry, Ben Stones, Rae Smith, Katrina Lindsay , Anna Fleischle, Elizabeth Clachen and others


  1. I would like to be a part of any design group discussion.
    George Tarbuck
    Lighting Designer
    Director – Edinburgh Lighting and Sound School

  2. Helen Millar says

    Brilliant,Tom As audience member do so agree theatre does need a new vision

  3. David Cockayne says

    I completely agree about the existing contrast between theatre in the UK and in the rest of Europe. The loss of standing companies, and the repertory theatres, in the UK, along with the focus of funding on the basis of “excellence” on a top-down basis has made this worse. Equity has a document, Performance For All, which aims to address this and which asks for the UK’s 0.3% of GDP funding to be raised to Europe’s average of 0.5% of GDP. The manifesto it presents needs focus and priority but it would change the landscape of UK theatre for the better. We need funding at all levels and especially to support new work.

  4. Eimer Murphy says

    Hi from Ireland Tom, listening in with interest.

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