Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Practitioners' Round Table: Australian Theatre Design - Past, Present and Future

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Practitioners' Round Table: Australian Theatre Design - Past, Present and Future

Article excerpt

Note: Coloured versions of the images used in this article may be found as a slideshow at australasian-drama-studies/issues/issue-61 /Round


This round table brings together artists from a range of differing design perspectives, including video artist Sean Bacon (SB); Clare Britton (CB) from visual theatre company My Darling Patricia; set designer and Company ? Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers (RM); author, set and costume designer Imogen Ross (IR); and lighting and occasional set designer Nick Schlieper (NS), with Miranda Heckenberg (ΜΗ).' Considering their various work commitments, which included touring and travelling interstate and overseas, it was difficult, to say the least, to find a window of opportunity to bring these artists together. But on a Sunday morning in March 2012, we convened in the upstairs Belvoir Theatre rehearsal room for this conversation.

One of the aims for this focus issue is to include the voices of practitioners and to provide an insight into the developments and issues affecting contemporary performance design in Australia. A partial snapshot of current scenographic practice is captured through the contexts, influences, trends and challenges identified by these round table participants. This has a documentary purpose but it also brings the contemporary into conversation with the past, to consider how the status, role and working structures of designers have been perceived over the past few decades. A week before the round table, I emailed a set of possible discussion points as well as the following provocation from Pamela Zeplin, made at the 1989 conference of the Australian Production Designers' Association (APDA),2 on theatre design and architecture:

It is now possible for designers to take responsibility for their malaise, to be vocal - and literate - and to demand change. Otherwise they should cease whingeing and accept the present conditions. Australian designers deserve to be seen as much more than macro window dressers or sensible visual servants but until they actively demand reform their contributions will amount to no more than filigree upon the failure of Australian theatre.

Her conference paper was published three times over the next three years, first in Lowdown as 'Literally a Dumb Situation: Unstable Status of the Theatre Designer in Australia'3 and then in the APDA News and finally in the conference proceedings as 'The Space Between: Political Space + Theatre Artist'.4 Zeplin is an art historian whose research on theatre design started with an MA in which she conducted a revisionist history, arguing that, outside the stranglehold of the J. C. Williamson commercial theatre empire, between 1900 and 1950 there was a previously unrecognised group of 'career' designers developing in the little theatre and 'amateur' theatre scene in Melbourne.5

In her work on theatre design, Zeplin argues that the absence of analytical writing has had a profound impact on the status of the designer. Her history gives weight to her claims that a lack of critical engagement with theatre design and the concomitant lack of records or documentary material have had a direct impact over the long and short term. Her rallying cry has been echoed in most material on Australian theatre and performance design published since. Tom Bannerman, in the APDA News in 1992, urged designers to use the newsletter as a forum for debate and discussion.6 So it was sadly ironic that, at the same time as the association was in the process of petering out of existence, Zeplin's entry on 'Stage Design and Effects' was published in Currency Press's Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995), concluding with the statement that 'a heightened political awareness of the designer's role continues to be fostered by such organisations as the APDA'.7

In 2001, twelve years after the APDA conference, Performance Design in Australia, edited by Kristen Anderson and Imogen Ross, was published and includes, early in the book, an interview with Zeplin who repeated that 'In the broader arena of performance appreciation, that of audiences, academics and reviewers, the design is not often seen as worthy of critique or study'. …

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