Winning the Linbury Prize
This is an article I wrote for the Society of British Theatre Design magazine -
The Blue Pages.
My Linbury Prize experience feels like it actually started in a hospital in North London, on a particularly sunny day last August. The day of the first interviews with the judging panel, I was being treated for a semi-serious majorly-annoying kidney problem. Since making it through the portfolio round, I had planned that day out, I would be waking up in a state of calm, perhaps being helped along my morning routine by some cartoon birds and Disneyesque woodland creatures, while I whistled a tune and tried on blazers. But instead I was rigged to a drip, clutching my side, and arguing with an underpaid and overworked nurse.
“The what!? Finberry Prize?... Never heard of it. You stay here and get some rest.”
I had first heard of it at 16, while attending Richmond College. The sixth form college had (has?) 4000 students over 2 years, it was a vast university like institution, which happened to boast one of the few Theatre Design A-level courses in the country. The teacher (I’m sorry to say I have completely blanked on her name… but maybe that’s a good thing) would tell us that there were some young designers, none of us of course, but some that are lucky enough to be long-listed for this thing, this mystical concept, this honor, called the Linbury Prize.
“And I was one of those people!” I said to the doctor on his rounds. I had nervously jabbed out an email the day before to Bella Rodrigues, wonderful, lovely, fellow Portugueezer Bella. Who thankfully had said hopefully other arrangements could be made. I carried on making reasoned and logical pleas to the Doctor “Gimme the good drugs and send me off to make that teacher-whose-name-I-can’t-remember proud!”
I would like to quickly crow bar in some politics, if that’s all right. The road to that day of interviews had overcome a bigger blockage than this 3 years earlier. I was leaving college the year it was announced that university tuition fees would be rising from £3000 to £9000. Most degree courses only take students with an art foundation, applying a year later would have added £21,000 to my tuition bill alone. At 18 I had decided that was grossly luxurious, and that if I did not get into university that year I would quit education and potentially the arts. On the rounds of interviews I fell in love with Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, and thankfully they let me come and play despite having no Art Foundation. But still, how many other potential arts based a-level students were not lucky enough to sneak in before the massive rise, and have left education since?
The doctor had decided I was allowed to go. Next stop Finberry Prize. Small catch being that the cannula in my arm would have to stay in, as I would have to come back tomorrow for more drugs to be put through it. The judges I was to meet and go through my portfolio with were designer royalty; Tom Piper, Sophie Jump, and Tom Scutt. On the tube I rehearsed meeting them, and mastered the knack of extending a hand to shake while keeping the gross needle clad in baggy yellow jumper sleeve. Thankfully they were all so lovely and engaging I quite forgot the whole thing while I was there. It honestly was an honour to have them just looking through our embryonic bodies of work. To have people you admire so fiercely spot the reference in a costume design, challenge your anachronisms, and be nice to you. Like cooking for master chefs, it is not about explaining your ingredients (they already know all that) but instead about why you have cooked it at all; and where the concept came from.
My flatmate, creative sounding board, and sister from another mister, Frankie Bradshaw and I were both through to the next round; meeting the artistic directors of 4 theatres two weeks later. Side note; I was still hiding a drip needle in my arm that interview (not the same one… huge apologies to all the squeamish people by the way) partly for on-going treatment, partly because I am a terribly superstitious person, and it had worked last time.
Meeting all of the directors, I remember thinking how different it was to meeting the designers. Instead of serving a whole meal to Michelin star chefs to chew over slowly, it felt more like presenting 1 teeny tiny shot of your favourite drink, knocked back and more demanded. It’s important to say that in both rounds of interviews we only had 10 minutes with each judge. When looking round the room, and seeing a sea of real grown up, well dressed, women (mainly women… still an anomaly… But that’s a whole other article) it felt a little like we should use those 10 minutes to do the splits, or Molly Ringwald’s Breakfast Club lipstick trick, in order to be in some way memorable and set ourselves apart from the pack.
That short space of time felt shortest on the table with Jimmy Fay and Cirán McAuley there interviewing for the Lyric Belfast, I can not remember clearly what we discussed, but I know that there was a considerable amount of laughing. That night, back at our mess of a flat, myself and Frankie both remarked how much fun them Belfast guys were.
It was a weird day when we found out that we had both been picked to represent the same theatre, so relieved and happy to have made it through, and both sad to realise we would be in closer competition than if we were in separate categories. All 12 finalists were emailed our scripts a few days later, I rang Frankie (slightly tipsy) from the press night of Splendour at the Donmar, which I had assisted Peter McKintosh on. We had a brief discussion about how it was “set proper old and that” and confessed our trepidations.
The thing I’ve discovered about designing such well-worn and recognisable shows is that it is hard to know where boring clichés stop, and the necessary images begin. Waiting for Godot has to have a tree, right? Malvolio will at some point don yellow stockings, yeah? Stanley will always yell “Stella!” up a beautiful ironwork staircase. It’s necessary for the story telling. And most of the time these things are delicious, like when someone in a film says the name of the film. But occasionally, if done too keenly or with too much self-awareness, you take a second to appreciate their attempt to follow in the long tradition of doing this show, and that can be distracting… Like when someone in a film says the name of the film. This was the fear with my girl Saint Joan. That recognisable image of her that has undoubtedly already jumped into your head, was that night striding around in mine… on a horse, with a sword, and beautiful pixie cropped hair. Already iconic, PLUS so recently captured perfectly in the National’s 2007 production with Anne-Marie Duff! Designed by Rae Smith! Did I mention it was at the National!
On reading the script though I realised my “in” with Joan, firstly I learnt (please do not judge my naivety, I am in fact 12 years old, and it’s hard to keep abreast with the historical context of scripts when I have maths homework to do and Peppa Pig to watch) that it is a big metaphor for the Easter Rising. It felt quite remarkable to be tackling a text with such weight in the area it is about. Secondly I realised I knew Joan. I’d seen her on street corners in Camden yelling that Jesus was coming, and trying to our save souls. I’d seen her kicking off in huge a Starbucks that was throwing old food away instead of giving it to the hungry. I’d seen her in celeb interviews, in dead-eyed, drug addicted, truly talented people; Amy Winehouse or Alexander McQueen, being pushed away from their work and forced to play the fame game. She was on telly last year fighting patriarchy in Russia, her political message scrawled on her breasts. She’d asked me for change once in Soho. She went to my school.
Then I stumbled across that image of Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope, and we were off.
The first trip to Belfast was a bit of a whirlwind, the Lyric had put us up in a hotel round the corner, and booked our flights – Frankie and I were rock stars. Jabbering away on the plane and drinking juice cartons like there was no tomorrow. We were silenced when we got to the theatre. Red brick and polished concrete, wooden slats and tall windows, a café looking out over the river Lagan, angles angles angles. Safe to say if you have not seen that handsome theatre, the very least you should do is google it.
After some Guinness and good craic (I’m practically a local see?) it was back to London, heads bulging with ground-plans and fly floors, removable floor staging and all the endless possibilities that come with brand spanking new state of the art theatres. And to Joan, like a new and needy partner, I had to find the time around other work, to spend lavishing her with attention. I was assisting all day, and then staying up late at night, scrolling Pinterest, to keep her happy.
This went on for a few months, flitting back and forth to Belfast to meet Jimmy, or meeting him in the Foyles café by Tottenham court road, where I would present him little sketches of men in suits, office interiors, and Sinead’s latest tattoo, that would set him off, waxing lyrical about the context and meaning and powerful moments. Eventually we had a cohesive concept and world.
The next exciting person to meet in this long list of humbling introductions was our group’s mentor Jon Bausor. If there were pictures of his studio on google I would tell you to look at them too. An array of 1960s furniture spread over chipped painted floor, low desks, potted plants, a large industrial window. With in seconds of looking at the roughest white card known to man he got the concept, fine tuned some of the rougher moments, cut some of the unnecessary decorative elements, and sent me off to make the final model.
What followed was two solid weeks of model making mess, so much mess it spread from my bedroom floor in Kentish Town, all the way to my mum’s kitchen table in Tottenham, then that mess was thrown in a box. Joan my demanding other half had claimed my social life, sanity, and sleep, and now we were off to the National.
I think all 12 of us would happily admit the various states we were in over the two day get in. There was soldering, painting, glueing, coffee, admiring, lighting, scoffing, napping, more coffee, and even some casual chatting. Once it was all in, Frankie and I stood admiring our designs, which were next to each other. Chalk and cheese but both looking pretty damn fine. We went home, laughed some more at how ridiculous it all was, and slept.
The hilariously named Marriage Bureau was a few days later I think, speed dating with 3 or 4 directors for 15mins, then all change. For 3 solid hours. I met some truly wonderful and interesting people, and have met with quite a few since. But I must say 3 non stop hours was pretty exhausting. The first hour I managed to be wonderfully erudite, “The design is really a comment on how our capitalist society – amplified currently by the conservative government – has led to a place of faceless corporations monopolising every aspect of modern life. This office could be a government building, a prison, a church, a school, it’s where the man in the second row works. The character of Prince Charles, buying ridiculous clothes and messing up daddy’s empire still exists today, but instead of a trying to be King, he’s a CEO. Now tell me, what are you working on at the moment?”
But two and half hours in I could barely remember my own name, “I dunno… It’s modern innit? What you up to mate?”
Saying that, it is remarkable how well you can get to know someone, even in a group, even in that short time frame, even after meeting so many people. I recommend to future finalists, spreading the word that everyone is going to the bar after, partly because you’ll need a drink, and partly because you can relax a bit more and talk out of those groups, and with out the design right next to you.
Although having the design right next to you and answering questions about it came in useful a few days later, when that was repeated one on one with the designer judges from the first round.
They were challenging, and critical, and correct about the imperfections. I honestly walked away reminding myself what fun it had been just to be given the money to read a script and make a model. The design process, and meeting all the life impacting people was more than enough. It was incredible to meet all the wonderful designers and be apart of those twelve talented young people. How it was unbelievable that you could walk into the National Theatre and see my interpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan in an exhibition. Everyday since the winners were announced I have to pinch myself that this September, my Joan is going to be full size and running around on the Lyric stage. But honestly the experience of the Linbury was worth all the stress and fear and work in itself.