Theatre design is a remarkably wide ranging and exciting area to study.
Fundamentally it is concerned with the design and realisation of all the visual aspects of performance; set, lighting, costumes, props and more. Although we often think of theatre design in terms of drama, theatre designers also work with dance, opera, musical theatre and other types of performance. In many cases, they are also interested in related areas such as design for film and television, exhibition, museum and heritage design as well as live and site specific art.
Without designers, the visual potential of performance cannot be fully achieved. The designer must develop the overall concept of a production alongside directors, choreographers and producers and then be able to translate this shared vision into artistic and technical information; scale models, costume designs, plans, drawings and so on.
Designing for the theatre can appear glamorous but behind every production - not just the big West End shows - there will often be months of painstaking work: researching and developing, building and preparing. Designers will constantly be on call to all the technical departments, explaining and working through the design to ensure that the original vision is fully achieved on stage. They must also attend rehearsals, costume fittings and the all-important technical and dress rehearsals.
Successful theatre designers are extremely hard working - late nights and weekend work are a very normal part of the experience. Very few designers are "resident" in a theatre, so have their own studio or room from which they work. Almost all work up and down the country and abroad. It is quite a nomadic existence and there will often be extended periods of work away from home, as well as lots of travelling to and from theatres, rehearsal rooms, scenic construction companies and costume makers.
This freelance life is common to many people who work in theatre design although more specialist aspects - for instance costume making, prop making or scenic construction - will more often be based with a theatre or in an independent production company.
A busy theatre designer will work on a variety of different sorts of production during a year - although as careers progress they may become attached to particular types of work, or build working relationships with particular theatres and directors. Designers at the top of their profession can command high fees for their designs and will often also receive a percentage of the shows' profits during its run - so a West End hit or a touring production can earn you a great deal of money. Most designers won't be quite so lucky and will normally expect a fee of between around £2,000 to £6,000 for each show they design, depending on the scale of the production and who they are working for. Consequently, most designers will be working on more than one production at a time and inevitably there can be periods of "resting" whilst looking for the next show to work on.
Students who wish to study theatre design will be excited by the visual aspects of performance and the potential of live events. They are creative, imaginative problem-solvers with a real interest in collaborative working. They will be strong visual artists interested in drawing, painting and 3D work, often preoccupied with atmosphere and character. They will normally have a strong interest in research and enjoy seeing live theatre, reading, visiting galleries and engaging with cultural and creative events and activities.
At A-level, theatre design candidates should study an arts subject and often have studied English language and literature. Many applicants also complete a one year Foundation Diploma in art and design. The eclectic nature of theatre designer means that recruitment is from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and experiences. The most important attributes are enthusiasm, commitment and energy.
You can gain first hand experience of theatre design work by going to see as much live theatre as possible. Most theatres also have open days and many will be happy to offer short periods of work experience.
After graduation, theatre designers work across all areas of design for the performing arts. Many have gone on to direct, perform and write for theatre film and television. A theatre design degree is also an excellent first degree for people wishing to work in arts education and offers a superb grounding for anyone wishing to have a really thorough understanding of the role of the creative arts, socially and culturally.
If you are interested in applying to study theatre design, take the time to research your options. The UK has many excellent courses. Some are very specialised, others offer a broad variety of experiences, allowing you to develop a specialist focus as you progress. Always visit the courses you want to apply for. They all run open days so speak to staff and students to find out all you can - choosing the right course is a really important decision.
Liam Doona is principal lecturer in Theatre Design at Nottingham Trent University and academic team leader for Interactive Arts
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