I wrote the below blog post for the Society of British Theatre Designers, who published it here.
One of the many small wonders of this largely wonder-free year has been watching so many designers apparently become activists overnight. I suppose it oughtn’t to have been surprising. Designers are nothing if not problem-solvers, three-dimensional thinkers, and imaginers of new worlds. Yet before this year, the spectacle of a campaigning designer was not one I was accustomed to.
It’s obvious why. Designers (and I’m principally talking about set and costume designers in this post, but it’s true of lighting design, sound design, and all other design areas too) are commonly at work on multiple projects, haring from tech to production meeting to white card presentation, transporting a model box 250 miles, supervising a paint call and attending a costume fitting – and that’s just Monday. The rest of the industry are accustomed to complaining about the length of the working day; we don’t hear these complaints from designers because they don’t have time to make them.
In the context of this astonishing overwork, pay and conditions for designers remain absolutely shocking. The standard ITC contract on which many agreements are based hasn’t substantially changed since 1993 (the other industry standard, the UK Theatre/SOLT one, is rehashed every four years but is yet to address many of the above concerns). In the meantime the industry as a whole really has changed. Three decades ago, for example, it was standard practice for set and costume to be created by two separate designers specialising in the respective areas. Now, one designer almost always does both jobs - for one fee. Too many productions don’t budget for the cost of a model box, although they regularly come in at well into three figures just for the basic materials, to say nothing of overheads or weeks of time.
Over the past decade we’ve seen a move towards using 3D modelling softwares like vectorworks and AutoCad in the design process, which you’d imagine might reduce the need for physical models. But where the software aids construction, it isn’t always as helpful to directors who prefer a physical model. So it often becomes an additional piece of work, taking additional time. This in its turn relies on designers having access to expensive software with annual licenses that take a sizeable chunk out of a freelancer’s annual income. And that’s before you’ve put the time into learning how to use new and ever-changing tools.
So much of this and other design work, meanwhile, remains largely invisible to the wider team. Some would be shocked if they knew the truth; others do their best not to look at it because they know what they’ll see. Divide your designer’s fee by the time they’ve actually spent on the work, and you’ll terrifyingly often find they’re barely making minimum wage. On the Fringe, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever doing so: those most at risk of overwork, burnout and exploitation are those in the wild west, with no production management or venue support, and without even an inadequate contract to protect them.
It would be wrong to say there’d been no efforts to organise against this before March 2020. In fact, there’s nothing new about designer-activism – it’s just received shamefully little attention industry-wide. The Society of British Theatre Designers, the Equity directors’ and designers’ group, and others have all been working hard on this for years. Throughout this pandemic they’ve continued to do so, and there’s been progress. But partly because, as with many freelancers, the operations of power are heavily stacked against designers, it’s hard to think of a big win to point to. As ever it’s a graphic reminder that venues and management own the means of production and are not on the side of labour. We’re an industry that pretends to be about people but that people can be habitually valued so little reveals how little beyond lip service this goes.
But as the sector has been stripped bare this year, of course these conversations have been put on hold. Like every advance it looked like we might have been making as an industry, the most precarious, the most poorly-paid and the most overworked are those in danger of getting the worst deal in whatever brave new world the survivors construct around themselves in the next year or two.
Of course this all goes double for designers of colour, disabled designers, non-gender-conforming designers, working class designers, and designers from other marginalised identities, backgrounds – and locations. It might appear obtuse to start an argument on behalf of designers when there are so many apparently more pressing problems. But like in so many other areas of the sector, these are the pressing problems. If we’re not treating everyone well, we’re going to remain inaccessible to everyone who doesn’t look or sound like the usual suspects.
So the really surprising – and thrilling - thing about seeing all these designers seeming to become activists this year, was that it wasn’t even on this subject that their activism focused. I’m thinking of Bethany Wells raising thousands for struggling artists by designing and selling tote bags. I’m thinking of #scenechange wrapping our theatres as a reminder that we all still exist. I’m thinking of Max Johns, just as I began writing this, producing a blueprint for sustainable practice in design and making, of the Freelancers Make Theatre Work campaign, of the Ecostage/SBTD Sustainability working group. It’s amazing what good people can do when they’re not working back-to-back fourteen-hour days.
As we all work together to rebuild the sector, I hope all of this won’t be forgotten. I’m grateful to my designer friends and colleagues for everything they’ve done this year. You have my solidarity. I want to play my part in building a sector that’s more hospitable for everyone, and the writing of this blog comes as part of a journey out of my own ignorance – too much of what I’ve described here has been as invisible to me as it appears to be to the sector as a whole.
So what can be done, practically? Firstly, join your professional organisation, join your union. Your representatives are fighting hard on your behalf and their voice gets stronger with every new member. And on an individual level? Early career designers – ask for what you need. Even if it’s not forthcoming, companies need to know what they’re really asking. Too often these systemic failures are built on the ability of those in positions of power to ask the impossible – their permission to do so must be continually resisted. Directors and theatre-makers, as well as producers – we need to get better at having these conversations with our teams. Ask designers what they need to do the job, ask them how much time it will actually take and adjust the budget accordingly. I’ll be doing this from now on. What else? And who’s with me?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will