If you sneak up to the third floor of the National Theatre any time during the next week, you’ll find a small but stunning exhibition of exciting, intricate and bold stage design. These models, sketchbooks and fabric swatches – designed for upcoming productions by the some of the UK’s largest theatre, dance and opera companies – are the work of the twelve finalists of The Linbury Prize, all of whom, should they win, are hoping to see their ideas come to fruition as a full scale production.
Founded in 1987, The Linbury Prize is the most prestigious theatrical design award for emerging young designers in the UK. Each year, a team of expert judges sifts through more than 80 portfolios sent in from recent graduates of stage design courses around the country in order to narrow down a shortlist of 12, who then work with commissioning companies to produce a response to a brief for an upcoming show.
Olivier- and Tony-award winner Christopher Oram is judging for the first time this year, and described the experience of walking into the office for the first day of selection as “Dickensian, or something out of Hogwarts; there are piles and stacks of portfolios”. Approaching the task, Oram notes that he felt his main goal throughout the process was to “identify the people that you think are going to be the most use to the industry, the most exciting voices to be heard”. Though initial entries can be variable in quality, Oram notes that many of the portfolios demonstrated “really beautiful, brilliant, extraordinary vision” and that, perhaps most importantly; the best work exhibited “really crisp, clear sharp design aesthetic within the presentation side of it as well as the actual work itself, which makes me think you really know how to present yourself in a real world context.”
The commissioning companies this year included the National Theatre of Scotland, the English Touring Opera, Nottingham Playhouse and the Scottish Dance Theatre, who selected who they wanted to work with through interviews with the finalists. Cecile Tremolieres, who graduated earlier this year, was initially surprised to find herself assigned to the Scottish Dance Theatre, as she reveals “I didn’t have any dance in my portfolio, and I’ve never designed for dance before, but you have to be really open.” After heading up to Edinburgh to watch and meet the company, the three designers assigned to the project were given a wide open brief: “with dancing you don’t have a play or a text. Also we didn’t have any idea of the choreography or any music, and the theme was really big”, she adds. Tremolieres approached the task by initially “reading a lot and watching a lot of movies about dance”, and ultimately decided that the best way to frame and reflect the intention of the piece was to create a design concept that “questioned dance as an art form… I was really happy to do that project, but it was really challenging when you don’t know anything about dance… in three months I’ve learned more than in three years of uni”.
In order to reach the final 12, each of these young designers has had to display maturity, vision and a work ethic that sets them apart from the crowd. Madeleine Girling recalls “from the first few weeks of starting my course [at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama] I was made aware of The Linbury Prize, and I remember coming to see the exhibition in my first year, and being kind of told by my tutors that that was the goal”. As a finalist, working with The Nottingham Playhouse has already taught her “the practical side of things is really important. Obviously there’s a lot more money involved and a lot more people, so as well as being creative it’s important to think really logically and practically.” However, for Girling the highlight has been “seeing everyone else’s work. It’s quite nice to see how different everyone is, and I think it’s quite defining to see your work amongst everyone else’s – you sort of understand what sort of designer you are.”
For those thinking of entering in 2015, or even just looking into stage design courses, Faye Bradley, a finalist with the English Touring Opera, shares that “the best advice is just to do something that you feel really reflects you. Obviously you’ve got to stick to the brief, but I think it is showcasing your work – so as long as your design is you – that’s the most important thing really.” Tremolieres adds that it’s important to stay “open, proactive, and really serious. Be clear about what you want and what you present, and never think you’re doing enough work”.
Though all of the finalists are hoping to be named the overall prize winner, as Oram points out, the professional experience is the true value of The Linbury Prize. “To be a finalist is a fantastic opportunity to work with people and learn,” he explains. “The best outcome is not to go around for the rest of your life saying ‘I won a prize’, but to go round saying ‘I learned a lot’ by having that fantastic opportunity to work at that level at that stage in my career. You have to learn from it; the prize isn’t the prize, the prize is the experience of the job in the real world.”
The Linbury Prize exhibition runs until 30 November at the National Theatre. To coincide with this year’s Linbury Prize exhibition, a discussion with past Linbury winners Patrick Connellan (first winner in 1987), Ben Stones (group winner in 2003), and Garance Marneur (overall winner in 2007) about the early stages of developing their work in stage design and how the Prize has affected their careers will be taking place on 27 November at 6pm in The Shed.