Gemma Tipton

Theatre design is about scene-setting but not scene-stealing, it takes centre stage while creating a backdrop. Theatre designers are collegiate when it comes to production, and yet may find it a lonely role while developing their art. It makes sense to come together. The six years of the Irish Society of Performance Designers (ISPD) have seen the Society quickly establish itself as the key representative of, and resource for, the powerful work made by designers in Ireland today.

Celebrating the work of performance designers, from emerging talent to award-winning famous names, ISPD acts as a resource hub and forum for conversation, advocates for its members, holds masterclasses, shares information, develops mentorship opportunities, and expands the understanding of this essential art. Performance design looks back through centuries of theatrical tradition, and yet it is at the forefront of embracing change. New ways of thinking and working, fresh approaches and evolving technologies, challenge and stimulate as ideas take root and grow.



As a small country, Ireland frequently finds itself hugely advantaged by our collective communities. Networking is in our national psyche, although we may prefer to call it catching up and helping out. Once a dark drain of talent, the Diaspora extends those networks around the world, although these days Ireland’s reputation speaks for itself. Meanwhile, we also have the incredible legacy of successive generations of writers to draw on and, in the Abbey Theatre, the oldest National Theatre in the English-speaking world.

“It’s about community,” says Catherine Fay, Chair of ISPD, setting out the agenda of the Society in making sure design in and from Ireland maintains and builds on its place in the expanding international conversation. Fellow designer, Deirdre Dwyer agrees. “Design is cross-disciplinary, and depending on your role, you’re working with directors, writers, lighting designers, sound designers, costume designers, set designers, but you rarely get to sit down with people who do your own job. Just being in a room, sharing your thoughts, worries and challenges, and discovering different methods, is incredibly valuable.”



While part of ISPD’s role is to do with creating a legacy for a sector that has often been diffuse – its work, though memorable, often also ephemeral – other legacies have more recently come into play. During the pandemic, theatre designers had a pivotal role in the move to streaming, creating worlds to take people out of their socially distant situations; while those film and television projects that could remain in production did powerful work in bringing people together. However, the early days of lockdown also gave space for reassessment, shifting perspectives and perceptions of what is or is not sustainable in terms of work uncertainties and workloads. The return to live theatre in front of audiences has made those questions even more urgent.

One positive legacy of Covid-19 came out of the Irish Government’s emergency payments schemes, which gave artists and designers the experience of having a guaranteed and regular income, many for the first time in their careers. Now, thanks to strategic and dedicated lobbying from a range of arts organisations, a welcome Basic Income for the Arts scheme is being piloted. “This is part of what it means to come together,” says Fay. “It’s what can come out of that collectivity.”


Making More

When ISPD was initiated, then as the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers (ISSSD), back in 2017, a fundamental belief of those involved was the idea that the more you share, the more there is. Early members included Ciarán O’Melia, Liam Doona, Alan Farquharson, Alma Kelliher, Sarah Jane Shiels, Peter Power, Moggie Douglas, Niall Rea, Katie Davenport, Ciara Murnane, Kata Rozvadska and Eimer Murphy, as well as Fay and Dwyer. Now the membership has expanded, reaching out also to those based overseas.

Coffee Spills meetings are held to give space for what Fay describes as “mind spills”, and while these initially were held in Dublin, they are spreading to cover Galway, Cork, Wexford, Sligo and Belfast. “We’re planning design talks around that, as well as informal gatherings and networking.” The realisation that chance encounters can spark new ideas, partnerships and projects, has allowed for many collaborative opportunities to be developed. “Zoom has been a useful tool,” agrees Dwyer. “But you miss the collegial cup of coffee beforehand, and maybe the glass of wine after, the soft networking.”


Advocating for More

While the benefits of getting people together can initially be intangible, ISPD also works towards defined and necessary targets and goals. One of these is currently the development of a rate card, on the basis of a broad-ranging survey analysing rates of pay and how they break down across the different aspects of theatre design. “We’re looking for transparency when talking about money.” says Dwyer, going on to explain that while there are laudable policies about paying artists, a system of standard baseline payments would make such policies more enforceable and robust.

Another area of work is in exploring how opportunities can be created for people wanting to break into the industry, or find greater mobility within it. The era of in-house designers is largely gone, and these days almost all work is generated through word of mouth. ISPD is exploring mentorships, educational programmes, and a scheme to pilot paid roles for assistant designers across the sector, which would become a powerful tool in opening access and extending diversity within an industry that has often relied on people being able to work, if not for free, then at least for very low rates of pay when starting out.


Looking Ahead

In the project, The Next Four Years, curated by Tom Creed for the Prague Quadrennial, a group of talented designers have been invited to imagine the future. Asking creative people to imagine opens doors to powerful possibilities and thought-provoking results. Similarly, ISPD has been imagining a future for performance design, its potential shaped and enhanced by supported development. Goals include international exhibitions, residencies, venue partnerships, educational links, and working towards the establishment of a National Design Centre, with shared facilities, creative play spaces, and accommodation for visiting designers.

Balancing the dreams designers realise daily out of their own creative minds with the practicalities of life in the industry, from insurance to rate cards, ISPD is at the forefront of the move to increase respect and recognition for this vital element of theatrical production. Their own strategy for the next four years represents a comprehensive list of actions that should have far-reaching positive effects. Work is already underway, and they have the talent and capacity to do all this, and more. And, as they say in their own words: “occasionally throw a party”.


Gemma Tipton is a writer on contemporary art and culture based in Ireland