“No man is an island.” John Donne

In terms of theatre making I would be inclined to agree with Donne, particularly when it comes to directing. In our weekly sessions, we have been talking about the different dynamics and relationships directors have e.g. the actor/director relationship or the director/new playwright relationship. One of the sessions that really interested me was the director/designer relationship as, for me, this is a fairly new relationship that I have discovered during my practice as a trainee director.

I recently scratched a show that I wrote and co-directed, 2:1, which was a physical theatre piece at RichMix. We worked very closely with a young graduate designer, Natalie Jackson, who we first met when we started R&Ding the work last summer. We had some ideas of what we wanted design-wise but no money and no idea how to realise our vision. So we sent an email out to the course director of the theatre practice course at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and two designers who had just graduated a few weeks previously got in touch, as they thought our project was interesting and wanted to come down for a meeting and to have a look at our rehearsals.

I felt very much out of my comfort zone having never worked with a designer before, and having no real idea about design as a concept. Luckily, having met our designers and talked through the piece, they had lots of ideas and concepts, which we actually began trying in the rehearsal process. Having so little money forced us to be creative and our designers were excellent at helping us create a visual world for the characters to inhibit whilst on stage.

As soon as we were able to get funding from Arts Council England to scratch 2:1, the first people we called were our designers. Natalie Jackson was available and we decided to continue working with her. Having experience of the show and the latest script, Natalie came to our first meeting with a strong design concept and a whole sketchbook full of ideas. After this initial meeting we decided on some set and costume ideas, and she then went on to create a model box. Then, as before, Natalie would come to some rehearsals to try out different design concepts.

Natalie was also able to introduce us to other creatives who she had worked with including our lighting designer, and a very talented carpenter and stage manager. I would say the experience of working with a designer is a very important part of the process of being a director.

Here are a few tips on developing the designer/director relationship:

– Develop a good relationship with drama schools and art schools. Go to design graduates’ final exhibitions, get to know the head of courses and keep in touch with them. This is a great way to meet new talent and nurture those relationships as early as possible.

– Bring your designer into the process as early as possible. Working with a designer really informed the way I worked with my actors, the actors were aware of the set and stage so worked in rehearsals with the ‘invisible’ set. As theatre directors, we tend to see things textually, so it is good to have an outside ‘visual’ eye as early as possible.

– Don’t leave you designer broke. It sounds obvious, but don’t assume your designer has money to buy materials. Whether the materials are £20 or £200, always communicate with your designer about whether they need to get money before they source materials and the same goes for their travel arrangements. Make sure this is discussed BEFORE they start working.

– Make a budget and stick to it. Following on from the last point, decide a budget beforehand and stick to it. Of course things sometimes change, but having a proper budget will keep you on track, no matter how small that budget is.

– Take on board your designer’s opinions. Really listen to your designer, and try and get them in as many rehearsals as possible. Let them get to know your actors and your creative team. Ask their opinion and take on board what they say.

Emma Dennis-Edwards