It’s been a tense week for 12 of the UK’s brightest theatre designers. They are waiting to hear which of them has won the biennial Linbury Prize for Stage Design, due to be announced by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre on 9 November.
The Linbury has only been going since 1989, but its beneficiaries – Tim Hatley, Es Devlin, Vicki Mortimer, Patrick Connellan et al – have become the new vanguard of British theatre design.
From over 150 entrants this year, the judges arrived at a shortlist of 12, all of whom have received £500 towards the preparation of a portfolio to be exhibited at the National Theatre from 10 November for a month. Once selected, the 12 finalists were given attachments to professional theatre companies (Royal Court, Young Vic, Welsh National Opera and English Touring Theatre), each company taking three young designers to work on schemes for the same production.
The designs of the overall winner (who gets £4500) and three runners-up (£1500 each) will be used for real next year, each of them receiving a commission fee of £3000.
Winning the Linbury, or being a runner-up, improves your chances of being employed as a designer tenfold. As with acting, the flood of young designers coming into the theatre far outnumbers the number of jobs available, which leads to all kinds of exploitation by employers.
Despite its glamorous image, theatre design is, for the most part, underpaid and overcrowded. It’s only a small coterie of gifted and dedicated obsessives who earn big money and get booked up for years in advance.
John Napier, one of the most successful theatre designers of the late 20th century, (not to mention one of the richest, with Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Starlight Express to his credit), says it is all about getting your work seen. ‘Being exhibited at the National Theatre so early on in your career is obviously an enormous boost to anyone’s career,’ he says. But not everyone aspires to Napier’s international profile.
Linbury finalist Jonathan Bauser, 24, says he is not interested in doing big musicals. ‘I’ve heard more established designers say, “Get a couple of musicals under your belt and you’re made for life”, which is probably true, but I’d rather do the kind of things that interest me.’ Bauser finished a one-year theatre design course with Motley in August and has been working with former Linbury winner Devlin at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Bauser prefers the idea of theatre design to film design because of the more equal status of director and designer in theatre. ‘In film, the director is king,’ he says.
Another finalist, Max Jones, says other design disciplines don’t compare with the buzz you get from working in live theatre.
Paradoxically Jones admits that he finds a lot of theatre boring. ‘I’m hoping to turn my low threshold of boredom to advantage by making theatre more interesting and exciting through my designs.’
The Linbury Prize Finalists exhibition is on at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Exhibition Foyer, South Bank, London SE1, from 10 November until 8 December. Theatre Design Week, which starts on 9 November, will include a programme of events, films and talks across London celebrating British theatre design