A-B list on scenic design education

In the spring of 2019 I was asked as an associate professor at the New School in NYC to comment on the education of scenic designers. In response, I created an A-B list (with inspiration from my former professors Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s A-B Manifesto (2009)), where A is the status quo or current situation, and B is my thoughts and wishes for a rethinking or refocusing of the subject.

A → B

Disciplines → Responsibilities

The traditional approach to a design process for a performance is to have a director leading multiple pre-established departments of disciplines (sound designer, set designer, video designer, etc.) The director is responsible for “merging” distinct artistic disciplines into a coherent design – so in a sense, the director is the overall performance-designer in the more traditional process.

In contemporary experimental work we often hear of inter-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary processes, which try to push those traditional roles. My approach is somewhere in between: To acknowledge how disciplines can be useful (productive) as a way to establish areas of responsibilities, and then (try) to forget them. This means that as a designer I am not merely concerned with my particular design in a project, and I will engage just as deeply with the sound, music, text, movement and all the other aspects that make up the performance.

Obviously as a designer I do not magically turn into a performer or a musician overnight – even though I engage fully and equally in the development of these aspects as well. This is where it is useful to think of not disciplines but responsibilities: By the end of the day I am the one who is responsible for delivering diagrams, technical specs, and the final content of the video.

Text → Concept

Traditionally, the text is the primary departure point for a performance, and everyone in the design process is informed by the text as the focal point of the performance. But the hierarchy should be flattened, and the text is only part of the performance, and will influence it accordingly.

This obviously applies to the creation of entirely new (devised) work, but also applies even when working with a more classic text work. Designing for a Mozart or a Shakespeare work does not mean that you as a designer should focus on the text (or musical score, libretto etc.) and design from that. Rather, the artistic team should create a concept (of course, in that case, from serious considerations, analysis etc. of the original text as well as other sources and processes), and this concept becomes the focus point for the design process.

Rehearsal → Rendering

The word rehearsal literally means “repeat aloud”, but in contemporary performance the spoken text is equal to all other elements, and therefore the word rehearsal is already, in a way, insufficient. The word itself also has teleological connotations: as if we already know what the final product must be (which we do not).

Instead I suggest: rendering. Every time the work is performed it is a rendering. Every time it is rendered it exists in a real way equal to any other time. It has other practical implications: design for performance involves sophisticated technologies which either function or do not: and the work cannot wait for a sophisticated technology to work on the last day of tech rehearsals or opening night: the design, in a way, is the work, merely rendered in various versions.

Set → Image

Traditionally, the set is the space for the performance, with elements that are used by the performers (stairs, chairs, walls). In my design process, the set is the container for the image. The image is the overall design, where all elements make up an entire picture (often framed by the stage opening but not necessarily). The elements in the image are not necessarily to be “used” by the performers in a dramatic sense – the images are the performance, and the image is everything (light, sound, performers, movement, text, objects and so forth).

Industry standards → Local practicalities

The idea of industry standards is an outdated idea, especially if you are a designer working globally. There are local practicalities – communities where certain ideas, workflows and techniques are more common and accepted as a “normal” or standard way of working – but around the United States as well as globally, designers are met with vastly different platforms and workflows. This changes the way designers work. 

Knowing tools is – of course – very important, but being flexible and open to other ways of working is a necessity when each venue and situation will do things slightly or even vastly differently from one another. Designing, creating and working with systems and protocols is a way to render content physical, and content and concept is the performance, not specific software, tools or brands.