Drawn to the Light: The Freehand Drawing from the Dramatic Text as an Illumination of the Theatre Designer's Eye of the Mind

By Field, Sue | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Drawn to the Light: The Freehand Drawing from the Dramatic Text as an Illumination of the Theatre Designer's Eye of the Mind


Field, Sue, Australasian Drama Studies


Note: Coloured versions of the images used in this article may be found as a slideshow at: www.latrobe.edu.au/humanities/research/research-journals/ australasian-drama-studies/issues/issue-61/Field

The drawing is the act of articulating an idea. The drawing is intended to persuade the director to go with it. It is the best time of all, doing the drawing. At that early stage it is a pure and untroubled thing - nothing to do with the practicalities of realism. It is a piece of art to seduce.1

This statement made by the celebrated Australian theatre designer, the late Tony Tripp, encapsulates this article, which seeks to examine freehand drawing from the dramatic text as a critical methodology in the creative production of the Australian theatre designer. Three drawing exhibitions held in Melbourne exemplify this rich and untapped part of Australian history: 'Creative Australia and the Ballets Russes' (2009), 'Drawn to the Stage - Australian Stage Design from the Arts Centre's Performing Arts Collection' (2007) and 'Creating a Scene: Australian Artists as Stage Designers 1940-1965' (2004). All provided a fascinating insight into an extraordinary period of accelerated creative output that occurred in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when theatre design was largely dominated by painter-designers such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Leonard French, Donald Friend, Kenneth Rowel and Loudon Sainthill. However, they also exposed the dearth of contributions from contemporary designers, with none more recent than 1991.2 Tim Fisher, the senior curator and program manager of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust, justified the lack of contemporary drawn works with this comment: 'By "contemporary" I do not mean the speculative and often piecemeal collecting of the newest, youngest or cutting edge designers whose place in history is unproven ,..'3

Are not the drawings of the 'unproven' contemporary Australian theatre designers also worthy of artistic and scholarly recognition, interpretation and analysis? In the future, are we to look only at retrospective exhibitions of freehand drawings for the stage in terms of 'proven' market value or as fossilised collections of a forgotten 'art- form'? Are the Australian painter-designers of yesteryear, amazing and innovative as they were, the only ones worthy of scholarly dialogue in the twenty-first century?

Arnold Aronson questions: 'Could we not take a stage design - a theatrical environment - and wade into the depths of its forest of symbols, its spatial dynamic, and its existence as a site for revelation?'4 This article extends Aronson's suggestion, and proposes that the 'thinking' drawings of Australian theatre designers, more so than theirfinished, built designs, exist as the primary 'sites of revelation'. The premise underpinning the above arguments is that the dramatic drawing is a theatrical 'illustration' - not in terms of its popular, somewhat parochial, meaning but in terms of its original, etymological source: to 'enlighten'. Hence to draw - 'to illustrate' - is to illuminate and reveal both the palimpsest5 and the mind's eye of the theatre designer, the source of originality, astonishment and wonder. As part of a complex collaborative art-form, these drawings are an authentic and seminal expression of the theatre designer's creative oeuvre. They are unique in their potential 'difference' within the greater context of drawing, which now in the twenty-first century demands exclusivity and acknowledgement by Australian academics, historians and even theatre practitioners themselves.

My argument is to draw attention to the paucity, in Australia, of theoretical discourse pertinent to theatre design and, specifically, to the freehand drawing of the 'unproven' contemporary theatre designer. To this end, I examine the work of established, yet apparently still unproven, Australian designers such as Dan Potra and Michael Scott-Mitchell. My particular focus is the freehand, generative 'thinking' sketches applicable to the set design and the exploratory rehearsal drawings of the performers in 'character' within the dramatic space.

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