Collaboration for the stage – Guest Writer: Hamish Ellis

An old friend once said; “theatre is just a bunch of people in a room; what makes it good is when they talk to each other”. This week our guest writer Hamish Ellis discusses the importance of collaboration in theatre design and the value of discussion.

What is the most important relationship in theatre? Between the cast? They have to act together after all. The cast and the director? That would be obvious wouldn’t it? A relationship between the person with apparent overall artistic control and the people who are delivering that message must be important. Is it between the writer and the director? Maybe, with new writing it is very important. What was in the mind of the playwrite and the specific point they were trying to make with this work? However, I believe none of these relationships come close to the most important; I believe the most important working relationships in theatre are between designers.

[Iain] That first production meeting does feel a little like this. Imagine everyone wearing hoodies and/or scarves. 

As a technician and occasional lighting designer myself perhaps I am biased but I’m sure almost everyone can agree that stage, lighting, AV and sound designers (and yes, the director too) have to work together before a cohesive piece of theatre can appear on stage. An amazing stage design can be put into a venue, but if the director doesn’t know about it and if they don’t tell the cast about it, it will remain unused and it might as well not be there. If the lighting designer too doesn’t know it’s there, it won’t get lit. Then no one would see it. And that’s pointless. A friend of mine once said they hate LDs because “they take a set that looks great, and make it look awesome.” True as this may be, a show will only look awesome if all of its constituent parts are great to begin with, and work together. Sound designers are integral to a show, not visually, but in the feeling of a show. This can be portrayed in as little as a few sounds in the auditorium pre show right through to an epic sound- scape that frames the whole show, and if a director doesn’t work with their sound designer either, no-one will be heard or nothing will make any impact on the audience. If the sound and the lights don’t match up the whole show will feel disjointed, your ears telling you one thing and your eyes another.

The process of how these things come about is different for almost every show due to its requirements and as a result of the personalities involved. Some directors take a huge interest and ask for very specific things, others are happy to suggest emotions or even a colour and let the design team get on with it. But a dialogue has to take place so that all the people work from the same place with the same end goal in mind. Everything must come back to what the work is trying to get across. The work of the creatives must be collaborative, or none of the play will fit together.
That is not to say that a cast is unimportant. Some people claim that technicians have no respect for actors. That is rarely true; we could never do what they do. I think the point techies would highlight is that rehearsals can happen for months and then transfer almost directly to the stage. This can’t happen with tec; You can’t build the set than just pop it into the room down the road, you can’t rig, focus, plot and have the lighting prepared so that you just have to walk into a room, warm up and go. Production designs exist in the mind of a designer for months until they have a week maybe, in student theatre even less, to create everything for the show and transfer their vision into reality. I’m sure everyone can imagine the extra stress and different demands this places on a person. It’s also much harder to show a director what it is you are planning on doing to what they perceive as their show, especially with lights. Sets can be shown in model box, sound can be played, even if it’s not in its full glory, but lighting, that will only be seen at the tech run.

[ShefDrama] Especially if your theatre is still using these. Which can only be operated by a team of highly trained octopus with a penchant for arts.

I think this is why so few people wish to design at a student level; Your position in the hierarchy is much lower than it is in the professional world. As a designer you may say that you want the actors lit for the whole show to keep the energy up, but the director may call for a blackout because a scene-change is a little more complex than expected and by the time it’s two days till opening you have little choice but to comply. I believe that it is much harder to be a creative with the ability to drive a performance at student level than it is in the professional world where you can go to a vast number of rehearsals, have the performance space for (a little bit) longer and put yourself on an equal footing with the director in terms of creative input.
What I have been talking about is perhaps epitomised by the recent Oliviers wins for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Those involved in the production talk of collaboration between everyone, and 7 awards for lighting, sound, stage design, direction, lead actor, supporting actress and best new play show that getting everything together can truly create an amazing experience, both for those involved and those that watch.

Hamish Ellis
May 2013

Hamish is currently working with Somebody’s Theatre for their fringe show “Shake The Dust”. All proceeds of which are going to the excellent charity Rethink. You can find more information at and on twitter @somebodystheatre. For more exciting words from Hamish Ellis you can follow him on twitter using @hasmishellis1. You can reach us in the Theatre Department through “” or through @shefdrama

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