Creative Lives — “Make people dance to your drum beat”: Theatre designer Tom Scutt
Tom Scutt’s theatre designs push at the limitations of what can be done on a stage. Whether it’s making a set out of trees for a performance of Medea or building a cross-shaped, light-up platform for Jesus Christ Superstar, Tom plays with space, dimensions, levels and materials while also drawing on elements of music and art installation to produce striking theatrical displays. This doesn’t just apply to his theatre repertoire; he has worked on live musical performances for Christine and the Queens and Sam Smith, as well as taking the lead on production design for events like the MTV Video Music Awards. Tom recently embarked on his directorial debut with a stage adaptation of Peter Strickland’s subliminal horror film, Berberian Sound Studio. He talks to us about how he manages the scope and variety of his different projects, how he turns a concept into a spectacle and how he feeds his creativity by experiencing and responding to the world around him.
Associate Artist, Donmar Warehouse
Curator, Donmar on Design festival
Resident Artist, Somerset House Studios
Creative Director for Christine and The Queens at Salle Pleyel Paris and Sam Smith at Tate Modern
Theatre Designer, The National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court, Almeida, Old Vic, Young Vic, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House, Opera North, English National Opera, West End and Broadway
Production Designer, MTV Video Music Awards (2015, 2016)
Production Designer, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, V & A (2018)
Director, Berberian Sound Studio, Donmar Warehouse (ongoing)
BA Theatre Design, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (2003–2006)
Tom Scutt. Photo: Logan Havens
How would you describe what you do?
My professional origins are in theatre. Over the years, I have built up a body of stage work in which my designs aim to embody the spirit and atmosphere of the play. Inevitably, this means that my work is often non-naturalistic and in dialogue with other mediums such as musical performance, installation and exhibition design. The mission, for me, is to strike oil by tapping the heart of an idea.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Few working days are typical as creativity isn’t orderly. Different projects mean that every day varies. It’s vital to ensure that I remain present at the heart of the process, which can mean I am on the move a lot depending on where projects are happening. Finding inspiration on the move and being able to produce swiftly are paramount. The varied schedule is one of the great things about the job – a consistent inconsistency.
“Limitation always inspires greater creativity.”
What do you have to keep in mind when working with different spaces and live events?
Limitation always inspires greater creativity. My high school maths teacher once said to my parents, “Tom will always get from A to B but will go via P, Q and Z to get there.” Not great for maths, but great for theatre. Adventuring and exploring different pathways can throw up all sorts of useful creative fodder. However, while limitations of space will throw up fun problems to solve creatively, limitations of budget generally won’t.
You work on such a variety of projects, with varying challenges. How do you go about approaching new projects?
While retaining an open mind about new adventures, it’s also important to be very selective and know where your voice is best placed. My work has a fundamental sense of musicality. That means I am either attracted to projects that feature sound in some way, or else my ideas come from sonic inspiration. I also aim to concretely synthesise the idea or concept of a piece. No matter what the nature of the project is, the endeavour is the same. To find the key that will unlock the rest of the process. It’s a satisfying penny-drop moment that I search for on every project.
Little Shop of Horrors, Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
How collaborative is your role?
Open, confident dialogue with compassionate and curious team members is vital for anything to spark. There are many ongoing discussions about the level of control and ownership a theatre designer has over their work and the show that they are contributing to, but ‘control’ is a difficult word to lead with when you have signed up to be part of a collaborative art form.
I actually believe that flirting with the idea of no control is the way to true collaboration. To allow oneself to disappear into the collective brain in pursuit of the singular idea is, for me, the best way forward. Follow ideas with passion but be open to change. Isn’t it a John Denver lyric? “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
In terms of work-life balance, that can only be a personal, unique endeavour. It has a lot to do with self-worth, values and world-views which will always differ from person to person. I’ve learnt to take what I need and not apologise for it. That’s so important.
There are countless things that are great about the job, like the benefit of a daily injection of inspiration. The thing I find worst about it is the discord between what we do and the public perception of it. Critical discourse about stage design is improving but it has a long way to go in terms of understanding the process of creation and approaching a play through design. We live in an extraordinarily visually literate society; theatre criticism has a huge amount of catching up to do to meet our audiences.
Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Every event informs the next in surprising ways. They become a chain of inspiration, so it’s difficult to unpick them. The project that has challenged my view on this job the most is my latest – I have just finished directing for the first time. I chose to adapt Peter Strickland’s brilliant subliminal horror movie, Berberian Sound Studio, for the Donmar Warehouse.
It quickly became clear to me that the project was the natural collision of the disparate strands of all the design projects I had been part of in recent years. Part play, part installation, part choreographed dance, scenographic dramaturgy, opera and musical performance. It coalesced as a kind of sound installation which I found really fascinating in a theatre like the Donmar.
“No design process will ever come to a rewarding conclusion unless you can understand and balance everybody’s vision and needs, including your own.”
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
It’s critical to be able to empathise with and manage people. It’s something that crops up time after time, in my experience. No design process will ever come to a rewarding conclusion unless you can understand and balance everybody’s vision and needs, including your own. In theatre, understanding what the playwright intends, along with the director’s take, and also the needs of the actors and the crew, is essential. Understand who you’re working with and what they’re after. Only then can you achieve what you want.
What do you like about working in London?
Irreverence. Caustic humour. Cloudy skies. The immediate access to cultural history among people who are fearlessly looking to change it.
What tools do you use most for your work?
In our studio we use Vectorworks and CAD software (2D/3D), SketchUp, Rhino, Cinema 4D, Photoshop. I also use Procreate on my iPad.
Berberian Sound Studio, Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Marc Brenner
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Kermit the Frog.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
The theatre side of my life came from my father. He was an English and drama teacher so I would spend many hours in the theatre from a very young age. I always knew that I wanted to be something connected with live performance. My mother is a deeply perceptive person and has a great intuition for understanding people. As I’ve moved through my career I’ve realised how inheriting even just a small fragment of that has helped me in the day-to-day management of my work.
“We need to ensure openness to embrace designers who are coming into the industry from a less conservative angle.”
How useful have your studies been in your career?
Essential. When I left college 13 years ago, a degree in theatre design was vital to get the necessary grounding in the craft and successfully gain employment as an assistant. Things have changed a bit. I’m hopeful that the kinds of designs we are starting to see on our stages mean that a different route in is possible. We need to ensure openness to embrace designers who are coming into the industry from a less conservative angle.
When you started out, did you find your feet quickly?
I moved rather quickly into designing my own shows in London and didn’t spend a long time assisting other designers. I found out what worked and what didn’t by f*cking it up in public under my own name! First hand experience is tougher but you learn faster.
Woyzeck, OId Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I was lucky enough to be a winner in the Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design. Through that competition I worked with Headlong Theatre which comprised of Rupert Goold, the current artistic director at the Almeida Theatre, Henny Finch, the current executive producer at Donmar Warehouse, and Ben Power, the current deputy artistic director at National Theatre. It’s one of very few opportunities for young designers to make much-needed grass roots contacts.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
The challenges are more like small rumblings from a system that sometimes fails to protect us. The things I’ve learnt are: protect your wellbeing, your home life and your principles. Designers hold more influence than the public-facing theatre hierarchies might suggest. We are worth a lot. This is a huge lesson to learn. Once I crossed that threshold, everything felt more in focus.
Julie, National Theatre. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
How do you anticipate your professional and creative development?
I’ve learnt that my work thrives on the unexpected. There are many projects I have taken on in recent years that I never would have imagined putting my mind to. That surprise is the creative catalyst that launches new ideas, so remaining open-minded and curious is essential.
Could you do this job forever?
The nature of the job, as I view it, changes consistently from project to project. Could anyone do the same thing forever? No. Could I do this endlessly evolving job forever? Yes.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I would pass on the two most important pieces of advice that I’ve been given. The first is stop being influenced by books, catalogues and documentations of other designers’ work. You can only respond to the world you know and that means: GO OUTSIDE. Experience, respond, absorb, document. You will cultivate your own creative voice and that’s what people are going to be interested in.
The second piece of advice was given to me more recently and it seems so obvious that it’s easy to forget: don’t let anything kill your creativity. Existing structures, hierarchies and processes may not tally with your world view. Don’t feel that you have to conform to the tracks that have been laid out, especially to the detriment of your creative energy. Fight for and pursue your own gut feeling and make people dance to your drum beat.