Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy. Creating an exhibition in lockdown

Each year the Theatre Collection co-leads a MA unit for the History of Art Department. ‘Curating the Collection’ is an Independent Study Unit, for which students work as a team to research and curate an exhibition based on the Theatre Collection holdings. To start the process, there may be an overarching theme, a new acquisition to showcase, or an event to tie in with (for example Shakespeare 400 in 2016 or the Old Vic Bicentenary in 2018). But within these themes, the students are free to explore the collections, interpret and devise their own exhibition. The unit teaches them a range of curatorial skills, from original research to mounting and framing, writing display texts and organising publicity and a private viewing. The unit provides essential experience for those students wishing to pursue a career in museums and galleries.

For the 2020 exhibition,we wanted to showcase twentieth-century set and costume designers, and an introductory session with the students looked at a range of items that included art college notebooks as well as finished designs for major productions. The students became really engaged with the idea of the creative genesis of a designer and how they developed their ideas. In particular, the work of Julia Trevelyan Oman, Ralph Adron and Yolanda Sonnabend.

The students were especially interested in the idea of translating fantasy and fairy tale into workable sets and costumes, looking at examples of design from ballet and children’s theatre.

The students formed a strong collaborative team at their first session and were exploring all kinds of possibilities for their exhibition. This year we had planned for the exhibition to be staged in the Theatre Collection reading room and library. Past exhibitions there had worked well, with items framed and hung on the walls of these rooms. The MA students however had additional ideas for installations, to recreate a designer’s desk and utilise the surrounding bookshelves.

‘Looking through Yolanda Sonnabend’s uncatalogued archive was an interesting process and inspired a lot of different ideas within our group. We admired all the work she put into each design and the various forms of inspiration taken to make them. Her studio was a big part of her identity as everyone who talked about her always mentioned it, and so it became important for us to exhibit it in some form.’  (Adriana, MA student)

We were all very excited by the potential of these ideas. This was in February.

Due to the rapidly developing situation around COVID-19, the University took the decision to close on Wednesday 18 March and move the remainder of the teaching term online. We put out a call to the History of Art students who arrived on Tuesday 17th and undertook a herculean amount of image scanning and last-minute research in our library. Enough material was gathered but we had to make the decision and break it to the students that the eventual exhibition would be virtual and not in a physical space. There would be no private view but potentially an even wider online audience for their work. Plans had to be changed or even discarded, but the ideas continued to flow, with regular classes and group discussions online.

‘Once we agreed that our exhibition would be moved online  we began to reconsider the shortlist and the objects we originally intended on displaying. We asked ourselves the questions, how does a digitised version of an object affect its interpretation? We realised that, unfortunately, many of the large set design drawings by David Walker that we’d been considering, would not translate due to their size and we decided to leave these out of the exhibition entirely. We had also planned to stage a desk installation as a way to recreate the studio space of Yolanda Sonnabend, to show the chaotic yet productive environment in which she worked. We adapted this idea to a digital platform by presenting objects that showcased Sonnabend’s design inspirations and her design process by displaying personal artefacts and early draft work for various productions.’  (Rebecca, MA student)

As museums and galleries across the world found ways to attract new audiences through online exhibitions, our students were learning new skills that would be very relevant in the ‘new normal’ of planning and staging exhibitions. And it enabled them to think about their audiences and how people can access and understand an exhibition without a physical gallery framework.

‘All of the designers made the most of constraints. The move to an online exhibition has resulted in sharper text and clearly articulated curatorial positions, as there was less space for writing and the items included were reduced. However, this sharpness comes at the expense of physically attending the exhibition. It is not just the scale of individual works that becomes less clear in an online world; it is also the scale of the designers’ archives as a reflection of their talents that becomes less obvious too.’  (Ewan, MA student)

The exhibition Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy celebrates the work of the chosen designers by focusing on their work processes and influences. The first section in particular focuses on children’s theatre and the Ralph Adron designs for Unicorn Theatre’s Lizzie Dripping and the Witch and The Blue Monster. The second section of the exhibition looks at how all three designers approached the ballet of The Nutcracker.

‘Co-curating this exhibition has left me with a deep respect for theatre design. Researching the careers of our chosen designers has made me realise that theatre design is more than realising an aesthetic vision; theatre designers are charged with creating magic.’  (Annie, MA student)

With a final flourish of inventiveness, the students got in touch with Ralph Adron and, through email conversations with him, were able to learn more about his ideas and the challenges that designing for the stage can raise. The exhibition therefore also includes explanatory quotes that add yet another dimension to the works.

‘We were incredibly fortunate that Ralph Adron, one of the designers upon whose work we had created the exhibition was available to answer our questions. Ralph (we quickly became on first name terms in email) reminisced not only about the productions of his we had focused on, Lizzie Dripping and The Witch, The Blue Monster and The Nutcracker but also the processes, working practices and experience of working as a stage designer in his heyday. The insights provided were invaluable in contextualising the decisions made in respect of staging, costume and set designs and the inspirations behind the creative process of a designer.

Some of the correspondence reminded Ralph of elements that he had designed but not remembered or thought about for over 40 years. I was glad that he could see that we were interested in his works and he was also interested in our ideas, themes and inspirations for the exhibition. A wonderful source of enriching information for our exhibition but also a warm and generous person who is still providing delight through his artistry and creativity.’   Lyndon (MA student)

‘One of my favourite design tasks was arranging Ralph Adron’s mice on the title page, as though they were hanging [the title] up themselves! The theme of the exhibition was all about bringing fantasy alive, further, it brought an element of fun to welcome the online visitors into viewing the rest of the curated collection.’   Alicia (MA student)

The exhibition can be seen here and celebrates not just the creativity of the three designers but also the hard work and dynamic adaptability of the MA students. It’s been a privilege to work with them and we wish them every success in their careers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.