No part of the theatremaking team works so intimately with space as a designer. Space is one of the most politically charged fields in theatre, but the politics of space is all too easily forgotten. Theatres, in their relative uniformity – a black box with sound and lighting fixtures – seem to ask us to make work that floats without roots.
As a designer, it is easy to see these spaces not in relation to geography or history but as a blank canvas: where the sets we design exist only in relation to the text, actors, sound, lighting elements and the architecture of the building. And even then, how much time is allowed in most processes to interrogate the politics of that architecture? Architecture too is deeply political.
When I studied set design, the majority of my syllabus was focused on designing speculative projects for theatres such as the Almeida and the Hackney Empire. We designed sets for Chekhov, Beckett and Dürrenmatt.
It was required that we do weeks of careful and detailed research into the time period and geography of, say, Chekhov – but no time or attention was given to the real geography of the space or the real cost of the design.
Who are the community that live near the theatre? What is the history of that community? What is the colonial or neo-colonial history of that building? What impact is that history having in this moment? What is the ecological cost of our proposed design, where might those materials come from and how are they manufactured?
Why is Chekhov’s life and community and aesthetic given more attention than the actual spaces that we are making in and the people we are making for?
There is also a kind of blankness and (false) idea of objectivity to the way in which we think about designers themselves. There have been lots of important conversations about who is cast in, and who directs, a show but much less thought is given to who the designer is – our lived experiences have a huge impact on our aesthetic values and biases. In this space where we imagine the designer or design as objective, the most dominant aesthetics reproduce themselves. It means that often design works towards a reassertion of white middle-class aesthetics as the default.
There are amazing designers and directors who are making and thinking about these questions but in my experience these questions are not in the middle of most processes. Design is powerful and political – aesthetics are political.
When Anna Himali Howard and Camilla Clarke made A Small Place last year at London’s Gate Theatre, they turned the space into a library that was open and free to use all day. This act acknowledged the politics of space – it was responding to the closure of free civic spaces. The design was a practical, intentional, beautiful space that lived in the reality and politics of that building.
This kind of thinking could be the model from which we work. Lots of the amazing work that does recognise this geography and politics happens in the ‘community’ sections of theatre programmes – and is given less funding time and marketing.
My project Prayer imagined what it would be to plant a garden in the Gate. This idea of growing, nurturing and planting allowed me to think about process and land in a new way. The physical realisation of this idea proved in many ways to be impossible, but what has been amazing about the project is that it allowed design to be a question rather than an answer.
That thinking, dreaming, research, meditating on was made possible by my attachment to the Gate as an associate artist. It has been useful to me as an artist and to the Gate’s programming.
I have been thinking and speaking about Prayer for almost three years. This slower pace gave me space to realise that design has a specific potential, separate from its role in support of text.
Sets are active spaces for acts of transformation – more so, for example, than an art installation. Sets could be where we test out, in small ways, the most radical or hopeful version of how a space might operate. They are really good spaces to try to imagine politics that feel impossible. Design not as any kind of backdrop but as an active site of change. This possibility requires that designers think about the politics of the space.
Designers need to be given a bigger stake in the making process, not necessarily as leaders: I would argue that theatremaking needs less-defined power structures and more horizontal methods of making or at least more genuine collaboration.
Maybe designers need to be more like artists in residence, working for a year or more in one building in full-time employment? Maybe that artist in residence needs to live in the community that the theatre occupies?
Maybe there needs to be a reimagining of the design process so that it starts with the space and designers are given the time and funds to think with care and detail about that space? Maybe, who we think is qualified to be a set designer needs to radically shift and maybe set design courses are not where this thinking is going to come from?
If design has this potential for reimagining then it will only have power if we create long, well-funded opportunities for new voices for whom this reimagining is urgent and who have a real stake in and understanding of the communities that the building sits in.
It’s impossible to imagine that we can reduce the ecological cost of theatre making without designers and visual artists being in the core creative team of a theatre building. We need space, time and power to imagine new aesthetics and processes. We need to be involved in programming.
With funding and time, it is possible to reimagine design as a practice that is less extractive and focused on specificity and care. Set design could be a laboratory for new ways of thinking about the politics of space and a tool to imagine new futures.