The Society of British Theatre Designers

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The Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) was formed in 1975. It had its origins in the Society of British Theatre Lighting Designers (SBTLD) formed in 1961.

Early years

An earlier attempt to form an organisation for designers, the Association of Theatre Designers and Craftsmen (ATDC), in the 1950s, foundered. The designer John Bury once recalled that the ATDC, or possibly another one sometimes referred to as being a Guild, was so ill attended that for some considerable time it had money in the bank but was unable to gather enough members together to vote it out of existence and distribute the funds to the members.

The Society of British Theatre Lighting Designers

The aims of the SBTLD had been:

“(a) To establish a body of Professional Lighting Designers whose purpose is to advance the standards of lighting in the British Theatre, (b) To establish within this society a code of professional conduct (c) To act as an advisory body on the use, design and manufacture of theatrical lighting equipment”

Its approaches to managers, aimed at increasing lighting design fees, were consistently rejected. The managers claimed that what they were seeking was impossible as it was, relatively, more than scenic designers generally were then paid. John Bury worked as both a set and lighting designer and was keenly aware that all designers could benefit from such an organisation. Basil Dean, who had been much involved in advancing the arts of lighting and scenic design, along with his work as an impresario, had strongly maintained that all designers must remain together.

Designers organise

In the late 60s Patrick Robertson conducted the first extensive survey of working conditions in repertory theatres and called a meeting of designers, in the bar of Nottingham Playhouse, to discuss what might be done to gain industrial recognition. Stories were shared of leaking workshop roofs, under-staffing, appallingly long hours for little return and a general concern for the future of the profession. Many theatres had set up design departments during the sixties, most work was carried out by designers on resident contracts. Discussions seem to have been held with Equity but nothing concrete came of this initiative.

In 1975 the SBTLD became the SBTD, which for a few years was the only dedicated organisation for designers.

One of the largest ever meetings of designers was held in November 1975 when 150 theatre designers met in the demonstration theatre of Strand Electric in King Street, Covent Garden. They heard what it was hoped the SBTD might do for them. The meeting in itself constituted a remarkably positive response, by being what might, then, have been the largest ever gathering of British theatre designers.

In 1976 John Bury, Ralph Koltai, Timothy O’Brien and Tazeena Firth took an exhibition of their work to the delayed Prague Quadriennale, PQ’75, a four yearly exhibition of world theatre design, and won a Gold Medal. The exhibit had been organised by the exhibitors, in future the SBTD would take on this role, and that of determining, for the most part through open exhibitions the work that would represent Britain’s designers.

An initial central aim of the SBTD was to decide on a means by which designers could gain union membership. The three possibilities of joining Equity, or NATTKE, or going it alone were intensively debated in 1976. Designers working in theatres attached to local authorities had been put under increasing pressure to join NATTKE. At a General Meeting of the Society on 3 March 1977 at St. Martin’s in the Fields Church, London, it was formally announced to members that Equity was prepared to accept applications for membership of Equity from Designers. The SBTD then focused on enabling its members to exhibit, spurred on by the success at PQ ’75. The first exhibition of the SBTD was mounted at Central St Martins in the summer of 1977, opened by John Geilgud.

Since then the SBTD has mounted exhibitions, generally at four yearly intervals from which the British exhibit for the next Prague Quadrennial has been chosen. It has maintained a newsletter, now Blue Pages, and established its own website, and continued to provide advice to numerous bodies, often on issues concerning training an education.

As was noted above, Basil Dean staunchly maintained that all designers should remain together, forming ‘the scenographic team’. The title of the 2007 SBTD exhibition was Collaborators; all designers collaborate as part of their work, both with one another, with directors, choreographers and writers in creating productions. Designers are notorious non-joiners but the SBTD continues to provide a creative home and an invaluable link for all its members.

The author gratefully acknowledges material and thoughts from Lawrence Blackmore, Ralph Koltai and Francis Reid.

David Cockayne 2009