As theatre designers we have to tell the world what we do and how we do it. Most theatregoers – let alone the wider general public – don’t know, and it is not essential they do.
What is paramount is they want to go to see theatre and hopefully have a memorable experience.
We should never assume the profession itself knows – albeit it should.
The very existence of our work is irrevocably tied to that of the writer, director, performers – and the audience. Our work is more widely seen than that of an independent exhibiting visual artist. However, once a live performance season has gone to heaven, indelible images live on in the tangible form of the designs, photographs and models, video clips etc, creating the opportunity for we the designers to leverage our work through exhibitions within the organisations we work for – and beyond.
Audiences generally are fascinated by how work moves from page to stage. They are intrigued by costume designs, conceptual drawings, artwork and scale models when well presented. In the right context they are serious educational tools.
My personal examples this century are my solo shows:
- My Page-To-Stage exhibition at The Japan Foundation Gallery in Chifley Square featured an extensive 80-piece visual storyboard concurrent with Lulie The Iceberg, a collaboration with Tokyo’s famous shadow puppet company – The Kageboushi Theatre Company – in tandem with the season at Roslyn Packer Theatre with Sydney Theatre Company.
This exhibition of the designs from a Theatre of Image production greatly enhanced audiences’ understanding of the evolution and creation of the shadow puppets and stage action. Attendance broke all records at The Japan Foundation Gallery and hours had to be extended.
- Pixel & Friends…The Colour Show – a chamber work commissioned by The Powerhouse Museum – combined live music and dance integrated with digital animation. The 69 pictures which formed the storyboard were framed and exhibited in the museum’s Turbine Hall in conjunction with the performance next door.
Tours of the storyboards formed a learning experience – in particular for school children attending a performance.
- Two years ago my Art For The Theatre was again a solo exhibition of work from 11 productions from Theatre of Image’s repertoire. It was opened at Danks St Galleries Sydney by former Art Gallery of NSW director Edmund Capon, with a view to placing theatre design in the context of the visual arts. It was a commercial exhibition and sales were very strong.
With our access to new technology, the 21st century theatre designer has a wider skillset. Nonetheless our individual creative imaginations are crucial to the living theatre, along with the capacity to collaborate, communicate – even take the lead when need be – and forge true and enduring creative partnerships.
The Swedish Museum of Performing Arts, Stockholm, is an outstanding example of an inventive and most accessible way of presenting all performing arts disciplines through the designers’ eyes.
Australia has yet to have a permanent, dedicated collection of design for stage and screen in any museum, and Sydney, which still does not have a performing arts museum has virtually no collection at all.
As generational change takes place in our profession, we designers need to step up to the plate and ensure our status is recognised and appreciated within the context of the creation of any live performance. Designers cannot exist without a director – unless like me, they become an auteur and decide to do it all ourselves.
We designers need to educate new directors to recognise us as equals. We are artists. The unconscious and thoughtless expression – “just a designer” – has too easily fallen from the lips of a number of artistic directors and managers over the past decade. The expression suggests we are an adjunct to the director – unless we step outside the conventional definition.
The past shows that public exhibitions of our work – both here and overseas – expand the knowledge of our contribution to live performance. It needs to begin with us in promoting our own work beyond the confines of the stage.
Everyone benefits. It can lead to surprising offers from directors and managers we have not worked with before. A personal example of mine is when at a relatively young age I held a solo exhibition of my designs at The Holdsworth Galleries Sydney. On seeing this exhibition John Bell and I began our artistic relationship and friendship – which continues to this day.
So we designers need to elevate our status by individually lobbying our directors and managements for equality – which should also translate into equal billing and greater exposure. After all, individual companies have the resources to mount exhibitions of our work.
Kim Carpenter AM APDG
Theatre of Image
27 November 2017