Design: Anya Sainsbury on the Linbury Prize

11th December 2007



Anya Sainsbury, who set up the prestigious Linbury Biennial Prize for theatre design, talks to the Theatre Museum’s Geoffrey Marsh about 20 years of helping young designers, and comments on this year’s winners.

The judges have a very good eye – and they can sort out a short list with concentrated hard work and efficiency.



Anya Sainsbury, who set up the prestigious Linbury Biennial Prize for theatre design, talks to the Theatre Museum’s Geoffrey Marsh about 20 years of helping young designers, and comments on this year’s winners.

Recording date: 11 December 2007

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is FOCUS ON DESIGN and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.

Geoffrey Marsh: For people interested in theatre design, there is not just one, but two exhibitions currently on in London. At the National Theatre in the Lyttelton foyer, there are the finalists and winners of Linbury Prize, and we’ll be talking to Anya Sainsbury, who established the award a little later. And at the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington, there’s ‘Collaborators’, the Society of British Theatre Designer’s exhibition of work for the British stage from the last four years. The exhibition at National Theatre runs until 5 January 2008, and the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum runs till November 2008. And my guest today is Anya Sainsbury, who after a distinguished career with the Royal Ballet decided to go in a different direction and established the Linbury Prize. Good morning, Anya. Thanks very much for coming in to the museum, and could you tell us a little bit about what your idea was before you established the prize and how it developed?

Anya Sainsbury: Right. Well, when I gave up dancing, I decided I’d try my hand at theatre design, and I knew Nico Georgiadis from all the productions he’d designed, particularly for Kenneth McMillan, and I knew he’d taught at the Slade, and rather cheekily I said, “Could I possibly come, part time because I just had a baby, and study theatre design with you?” So that’s what I did. As a dancer we are very accustomed to having designers around us with new productions and costume-fittings, and we got to know quite a lot of the designers. So having gone and done my two years there, it didn’t lead to a great new career by any means, but it did give me abiding interest in theatre design, so that when my husband and I set up for Linbury, the Linbury trust, I decided that one of the things I might like to do one day would be to set up some sort of, I wasn’t even sure it would go to be a prize, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but doing something for young theatre designers.

GM: So you had the idea and what developed?

AS: Well I asked quite a few of my friends, some of whom had been on the theatre design course at the Slade, like Peter Logan, Derek Jarman, also Malcolm Pride who was then Head of Theatre course at Wimbledon. And I said listen I want to do something, what could I do, and so it’s very hard for theatre designers, young theatre designers coming out of a school and a course, theatre design course, to get their work shown, so the obvious thing was then to exhibit it. So we went to the Theatre Museum, which was then in Russell Street, and I had been on the board, Advisory Board I think you were called, of the Theatre Museum and saw it being set up in Russell Street, and so I said, “Would we be able to have a space in the temporary galleries to do an exhibition of young theatre designers’ work?” And they said yes! So in 1987 we had our very first theatre design competition, yes it was a competition because there were three prize winners as result of that.

GM: And having got it established, and of course it’s in its twentieth year, how has it developed over the last twenty years to obviously the very important role it has nowadays?

AS: Yes, well, as I said 1987 it was a competition, we had 24 finalists. It was quite a big, big exhibition, bigger than it is now in fact, twice as big, we have 12 finalists, and then it was 24, and we’d chosen them not, at that stage we hadn’t even thought of going into the colleges that had theatre design courses, we just put it about we wanted people to send in portfolios, so we did it purely from portfolios. I think one of the provisos was that they shouldn’t have had a major production onstage, but many of them had had small productions, and were more mature than they are today. Then, between ‘87 and ‘89, the real big change happened, and I’d got together a very strong and very passionate little committee which included Alison Chitty and Pamela Howard and Bob Crowley, and one or two others. And we asked ourselves what would really be the most wonderful thing, wonderful prize we could give a young designer just coming out of college, by now we thought we should get them from the college situation, as graduates from college. And we realised, I think fairly quickly, I don’t remember the light bulb going on and saying “Yes”, we ought to give them the prize of doing a production, working with a professional director, working on a production, having an exhibition, and then out of that exhibition a prize winner would emerge. So that was a kind of breakthrough moment. Then things happened sort of gradually. Every time we had — by the way it’s the Linbury Biennial, it’s every two years — every time we had Linbury Biennial Prize, we’d always have our post-mortem and see what had happened best and what hadn’t worked and what could be improved. So over the years, it’s developed. And at one time we had fifteen, that’s right, at one time we only had three companies, today we have four companies, commissioning companies, we had three, and those three directors had to have five young, young designers under their wing, and give them help they would need to produce a design. And they all came back to us and said, “Listen, we can’t cope with five”, so we reduced the numbers, they could manage three, they thought. So it’s three designers per commissioning company and director. But we were able to give four companies the chance. So we have four companies, four productions at the end of it, and twelve finalists.

GM: Because I think one of the fascinating things in the exhibition at the National is to see those different takes on the same production, the extraordinary Variety that the finalists came up with.

AS: Yes, and I suppose that’s also affected by the director themselves, and how precise a brief he’s given them, or how, kind of, open skies brief he’s given them, and that’s very noticeable. So some productions would be very, very, very different, and some would be, you know, quite similar, very recognisable, that it had to be that production. Others, you know, it, it is a part of the excitement.

GM: You’ve obviously got a great knack of picking winners, because I think every winner over last twenty years, or virtually every winner, has gone on to a very distinguished career in design. I mean looking back are there any particular favourites that you’ve had, I mean, obviously…

AS: Well, first of all, it’s not my knack. We have very distinguished judges, and I am always amazed at the first sift we called it, when we’ve got a hundred, or sometimes hundred and twenty portfolios, and I stand behind our three judges, and this year we had Tim Hatley, who was indeed one of our winners and has done very well, Anthony Ward, who was in that 1987 competition at the Theatre Museum I mentioned and a wonderful Frenchman, very, very distinguished and well-known called Jean-Guy Lecat, who worked tremendously closely with Peter Brook, and I would stand behind them, with a vast table in front of them of huge piles of these great black portfolios, and they, they did have an extraordinary knack, as you call it, just an eye, they can always agree. So there’d be a ‘maybe’ pile, and a ‘definitely not’ pile, and a ‘very interesting’ pile, and then from that they had to bring it down to I think about thirty-six that day. And then they saw those thirty-six, they called those thirty-six designers, to bring their portfolio, same portfolios, and go through them, so it was a sort of, you know, eye-contact situation. And from that they narrowed it down to I think twenty-one, twenty-two. And those twenty-two were then seen by our four directors of the four commissioning companies in July at the National Theatre on big tables.

GM: So it gives all of those people a chance at least to meet some professional directors, even if they’re not selected as finalists.

AS: It does, it does, and there’s quite a lot of feedback they get from that, so that all the way long a line, although they may not make the first or second sift, they’ve had contact with very distinguished designers themselves. Can I just tell you about the marriage bureau, because that’s one of the things we developed fairly recently sort of three biennials ago. Now the Marriage Bureau came about just us saying what else could we be doing for these finalists here with the wonderful exhibition? And so we, Pamela Howard I think, came up with the idea of getting young directors, but who’d had some experience, and young choreographers to come on a certain day and kind of with a stop watch, say, “You are going to meet all these twelve, and you’ve got, kind of four and half minutes with each one.”

GM: So it’s a sort of speed dating for theatre designers.

AS: It is, absolutely speed dating. But it’s very popular and we’ve refined it down to a fine art, but it doesn’t stop the buzz and the real excitement going on. And this year I haven’t heard you know, that there’ve been marriages made in heaven yet, but phones had been ringing, emails have been whizzing around.

GM: So turning to the exhibition at the National there’s obviously the twelve finalists and the four winners, would you like to say a little bit about the winners, and what would you feel about their work?

AS: The overall winner was Garance Marneur, French but she studied at the Central St Martin School. And I think she, we all agreed there was a great beauty to her design. It was beautifully crafted, but it was beautiful to look at, beautiful to look at; and what it could do, she had, it was made in what seemed like sort of frayed plywood panels that would move, open or shut, to make the spaces smaller and she was, she was very articulate, she obviously had a very strong aesthetic, a strong vision, and she made it beautifully. The other one, very strong, and it was, it was quite close in the final judging, was Tom Scutt from the Royal College, Welsh College of Music and Drama, which I must say I think has come up as a design course, very, very strongly over, maybe six, seven years; I remember suddenly scene them creeping in, and making an impact, and it’s got stronger and stronger, so, and Tom Scutt was… actually I can’t think of the word, when you get your degree

GM: Graduated?

AS: Graduated — graduated a year ago. What, because it’s a biennial, that’s another little thing we fill the gap in. We knew that for a long time we were missing a whole year’s worth of talent, and so finally we cracked it, and we have, over the last, I think three biennials, sort of six years included those graduates, who graduated the year that we missed. The fallow year, we used to call it, and so that gap has been filled and Tom actually came from 2006 graduation. And therefore he had, you know, a little bit more experience, and they do get quite a lot of experience at this particular college. So he did the very fine set. It was one of those productions, Gulliver, which Rupert Gould had given them pretty well, you know, “Take Gulliver and do something.” There wasn’t in fact a script yet. They just went away, read the story and you know had their ideas and, and put something down. And so that particular section, the Gulliver section, is very diverse takes on the story of Gulliver. And I think I think Tom Scutt again did a very beautiful, very well thought out set and costumes.

GM: I think also one of the great things about going to the exhibition is it really illustrates this mixture of the craft skills of the designer, in producing models and that sort of thing, combined with the intellectual. I think that’s what’s really interesting about being able to see those two things put together. And obviously, for anybody who goes to the exhibition, they’ve got the opportunity to obviously see the real production by these designers in, they’re all going to be in 2008, will they be?

AS: I think they’re meant to be. They don’t always make it. In fact, the 2005, one of the 2005 winners, not one of, the overall winner, Patrick Burnier, got the commission to do Wayne McGregor’s piece originally called Origins, and it’s now called something like Entity? And that’s coming on in March 2008. So it, that’s few years late, but anyway it’s worth waiting for.

GM: You’ve mentioned that the competition only runs every two years, so you must have a little bit of a sigh of relief of having sort of got one out of the way, but presumably you almost have to start work immediately on the next two years away. If there are students listening in who are thinking they might like to be part of the Linbury 2009 could you just say a little bit about the process, and the dates, and how, how the competition would be working in the next few years?

AS: They can find all that out, I’m not very good at remembering everything, I ought to say, so it’s, the safest thing is to go on to the website, and it’s www.linburybiennial, and Linbury by the way, is L-i-n-b-u-r-y, not L-i-n-d-b-u-r-y, which some people think, Linbury biennial all in one, dot org dot uk. And it’ll tell you and because of the, the fallow year, the people in 2008 will be, will be eligible for the 2009. So I think that’s worth stressing too. If you are going to be graduating in 2008, you’re still absolutely eligible for the 2009 biennial.

GM: Good. And just finish on, I suppose there’s a lots of competitions surround the arts, and some of them come and go, or their reputation perhaps comes and goes. I think one of the extraordinary things about the Linbury is the over-all quality you’ve been able to achieve over the years. And, as we said, that almost all the winners have gone into sort of distinguished careers. You’ve been doing it for twenty years now are you going to do it for another twenty years?

AS: I’ll be ninety-five! No, I’m not, I’m not.

GM: What do you do with a competition once started? It’s a bit like being an entrepreneur, you have to hand the company over somebody at some point.

AS: Well, I, of course I will.

GM: So, I understand that the National are going to take over, sort of, the managing it.

AS: Yes. Since, since the 1987 one, which was at the Theatre Museum, we have consistently gone and been welcomed, and helped enormously by the National Theatre, they seem to like us, and like having us there. And have certainly picked up some, quite a few designers themselves over the years, like Tim Hatley and Vicky Mortimer and Anthony Ward and Ez Devlin, and more to come, I’m sure. They keep a very good weather eye out for who has won, and keep their tabs on them, and track them as many other directors apparently do, so it’s very nice for us. And you ask about the future, because we’ve had this very close relationship, we felt it was logical, really, to make the whole thing even closer with them, so that, whereas we’ve had this wonderful company called Calloways to administer and do all the donkey work and set whole the prize up and do all the administrative jobs there are. We’ve decided, and very amicably with Calloways, that the National Theatre will do that for us in-house, they will manage the prize and administer the prize and they’ve already got some bright people working alongside Calloways themselves.

GM: So the competition’s safe for the future.

AS: I think the competition is safe, safe for the future and, and the Linbury Trust themselves are happy to, to sponsor and support it.

GM: Well I know that the, I think the whole theatre design profession is really delighted to have such a fantastic prize, which is so supportive of people at what is the most difficult part of their career. So I think thanks for coming and describing it, and for anybody who is interested, just to repeat, the exhibition is running in the Lyttelton foyer at the National Theatre, till 5 January and it’s well worth seeing whether you’re a student, someone who’s thinking about going in theatre design, or just anybody who is interested in seeing how stage design is done and developed. So thank you very much Anya.

AS: And can I say directors and choreographers should go because if they’re looking for a designer, they’re right there.

GM: So, go down to the National Theatre. Thanks very much.

AS: Thank you.