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Training as a Theatre Designer

Before we get any further we really should point out a few things about any job in the theatre –

  • The pay is awful.
  • The pay for designers is worse than awful – even when you are successful. It’s not uncommon to spend more money on your design, artwork, model box and research than you recuperate in wages or a fee.
  • It’s just as hard to become a famous designer as it is a famous actor.

Now that we have the bad stuff out of the way let’s talk about some of the various paths to becoming a designer. The most common route is similar all around the world –

  • Take a higher education degree in Theatre Design / Performance Design / Scenography.
  • Make the grade, and then get a job as a Designer. Easy!

Easy? Well on paper, yes! In reality it’s much harder. Let’s look at those steps in more detail.

Number 1 – “Take a higher education degree in Theatre Design / Performance Design / Scenography”

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What do you need to get into a Drama School, Art College or and Art University?*

Depending on your age they will normally ask for the following:

Under 25

  • Further Education (High School Level) qualifications in Art and possibly theatre.
  • An Art Foundation qualification. (less so these days but AS Levels are normally required)
  • A portfolio of work, including: examples of 3D work (photos are acceptable but at least one actual example is good), examples of figure drawing with clothing or costume, and some examples of art and design work for performance.
  • A knowledge and *passion* for Theatre / Dance / Opera / Performance Art / Puppetry.

Over 25

  • A portfolio of work, including: examples of 3D work (photos are acceptable but at least one actual example is good), examples of figure drawing with clothing or costume, and some examples of art and design work for performance.
  • A knowledge and *passion* for Theatre / Dance / Opera / Performance Art / Puppetry.
  • Art / Design qualifications, however not essential for mature students.

Those are the general requirements, however theatre is very much about people working together – I don’t think I have ever been for an interview with a Director or Production Manager which wasn’t conducted in a cafe, coffee shop or even (on two occasions) a Chinese restaurant!

What your offer

When you go for your College or University interview, they will not only be looking at your artistic ability but also what kind of person you are. They want to see what you have to offer to the theatre, art and performance industries.

  • Personality – are you a person that can be worked with easily?
  • Oral communication – could you passionately communicate the concepts and methods in your portfolio? For example, could you talk about them without actually showing the interviewer your work?
  • Passion – are you passionate enough about your work and theatre to subject yourself to a life of low wages, long hours and little recognition outside of the theatre world?
  • Understanding and flexibility – Being a designer often means being the artistic hand of a director. A director will rarely give you free reign – occasionally they will work with you to conceptualise the production, however it’s more likely that they will tell you their vision and together you will work it through to create the design. Sometimes they will dictate the design from the colour of the actors’ shoes to the exact construction of the entire design. Compromise is something designers do a lot; it doesn’t mean losing anything, but finding a better, more practical and often a more creative solution.

Pretty much everything else is down to talent, though remember talent is not enough alone. Theatre is an industry which operates under hard rules – opening night is not a flexible date, those who can’t fit into the life and rules don’t last long, no matter how pretty their designs.

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Is there another way?

Yes, many designers take different degrees, some of them not art degrees. But it is harder. A Theatre Design degree will introduce you to a large number of theatre contacts and companies, so getting that first step in the door will be easier, especially as most theatres have experience with working with the colleges and universities.

There really is no “how to” if you choose not to take a qualification – even those who already work in theatre and wish to become a designer often go and take a theatre design qualification.

What course should I choose?

There are a vast number of courses around the world The SBTD has a list of courses in the UK. and UISTT has details of courses in the USA. Its beyond the scope of our site to list and every course in the world, ask your careers advisor or local theatre for advice.

What should I look for in a theatre design course?

  • Practical work – courses that offer the opportunity of designing or working on live shows.
  • Industry Links – courses that have good links with the industry.
  • Work Placement – courses that send you out into the industry, not to simply to observe, but to take part – some courses in the UK expect you to be designing shows for professional companies by your final year.
  • Tutors – Ideally the teaching staff should have a high level of professional experience.
  • Tutor / Student ratio – Theatre design is not something you can learn buried at the back of a lecture theatre. Actually in our experience few theatre design courses have lectures, so it’s no surprise that some of the best courses have small year groups and a generous number of tutors.
  • Variety – Look for courses that teach a wide range of subjects. Most designers in Europe follow the “Holistic” model of design and are responsible for stage, costume, prop and sometimes lighting design. A course that teaches not only these subjects but also design for dance, opera design, history of performance and contemporary performance studies, puppetry, costume construction, scenic construction, installation design and corporate design will not only prepare you better for the realities of theatre design but will also give you more choices and make you a much more valuable employee.
  • Fun – Your time at University or College should be some of the best days of your life, so make your decision carefully. Visit the city it’s situated in, visit the local theatres and if possible visit the campus while current students are living and working there.

After Graduation

Once you have graduated the hard work really begins. It’s unlikely you will get a design job straight away. Instead you will have to start from the bottom and build up. Many graduates get a job working as a scenic artist or props maker in order to get to know theatres and directors. Additionally working in community theatre is a good way introducing you to theatre professionals. Working as a designers’ assistant is another way to meet designers and directors and often a first job might come from the recommendation of the designer you assisted.

Finding Out More

Remember the best people to speak to are current and ex students and of course the universities and colleges themselves.

*Information is specific to UK courses but may apply to other countries

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