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THE DESIGNER: Decorator or Dramaturg?


Platform Paper 46


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In 1979 the situation for Australian designers was grim... A decade later little seems to have changed as regards the status of stage design in this country [...] Designers, of course, rate even lower than artists... doormat status... Disempowered [...] quasi-artists [...] mere functionaries... impotent [...] lacking confidence and prestige.1

Enough! Enough! This was how theatre academic and arts writer Pamela Zeplin described the standing of Australian theatre design to an international conference of performance designers in 1989. I nearly threw her paper across the room. I had begun my career as a designer after graduating from NIDA in 1979, when the situation was apparently so 'grim'. I certainly would not have stayed and built a career as a performance designer in Australia if our status had been so unpromising.

No, this Platform Paper is not a whinge about how bad things are for Australian performance designers. Our position-as costume and set designers, lighting and sound designers-is on the whole a good-news story, characterised by increasing professionalism with relatively stable and increasingly diverse employment models and a relatively secure place in the creative life of our industry. Over my more than thirty years designing for theatre I have found designers to be largely confident, articulate, effective and appreciated. We are paid (if not exactly a fair hourly rate) at least on a par with directors and actors; we are able to sustain a career as designers (providing we survive our first tenuous five or so years) and are as likely to earn prestige (if that is what you want) as anyone else in the Australian arts sector.

Australian theatre designers are lauded in Green Room, Helpmann and Toni awards, have their work presented and praised internationally, lead companies, direct and co-devise work and have feature articles written about them in the popular press. Excellent!

But there remains an element of truth in Zeplin's diatribe. In Australia performance design is only noticed when it is big or beautiful or bad. When could you say you were last aware of the design for more than its surface? Aware of the countless subtle ways in which the design supported the authorial, directorial and performative intentions? For our audience this is as it should be-the design just quietly working 'behind the scenes' to make the production work. But theatre is a visual medium and for you, the reader, whether as theatre-maker or theatre-lover, an awareness of the visual language of this medium, and an appreciation of the designer's role in orchestrating it, is a special, necessary understanding.

Through this awareness design becomes as deserving of the same depth of respect that we afford the work of other professionals like engineers or architects whose rigorous technical and intellectual discipline bolsters their public image; the same esteem of 'pure creativity' afforded artists such as dancers, painters or writers; and the courteous authority vested in a senior manager.

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About the Author

Stephen Curtis is one of Australia's most respected designers for the stage and for film.