The Designs in the Collection reflect changing tastes in theatrical presentation in Australia from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries. Designs are a common theme represented in the collecting areas of Dance, Theatre, Opera and Music. Currently the Performing Arts Collection holds over 8,000 designs, including costume and set design drawings, technical plans, and set models created by some of Australia's most influential designers.
The creation of design drawings, plans and models is a fundamental step in the creative development process of any production. Working closely with a creative team which may include the director, producer, writer, choreographer or composer, the designer's role is to create a three dimensional environment for the performers to inhabit and to convey the essence of a work by giving the stage and the performers a unique visual identity.
A designer conveys the visual and technical requirements necessary to realise this concept through the use of annotated drawings and scale models. Working drawings, are often marked with constructions and measurement advice, and tagged with swatches of fabric or proposed colour palettes. These drawings are then passed on to technicians, construction crews, prop-makers, costumiers, milliners and wig-makers so that the many specialists needed to realise the designer's vision are all working from the same basic information.
Many of the designs have spent years within company production departments before making their way to the Collection. This is particularly true of designs created for repertoire-based companies such as The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia, which rely on drawings and models to ensure that works are re-staged to the designer's original specifications. It was also the case with the earliest designs represented in the Collection, which relate to productions first mounted by J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd (The Firm) at the turn of the twentieth century.
Hundreds of costume and set designs by leading British and European designers were imported along with the scripts, scores and notes necessary to re-stage major international musicals and pantomimes in Australia. These designs were interpreted and reproduced by the staff in the J.C. Williamson wardrobe department and paint room at Melbourne's Her Majesty's Theatre and kept for future reference. Annotations in various hands show that the designs were re-used over successive generations of production staff with some designs even making their way to the Tivoli Theatre for use during the 1950s and 1960s.
While 'The Firm' continued to stage elaborate theatrical spectacles, local designers including John Truscott, Anne Fraser, Kenneth Rowell and William Constable were being fostered by amateur companies such as the National Theatre Movement, the Little Theatre (later St Martin's Theatre), Ballet Guild and the fledgling Borovansky Ballet. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many Australian artists also turned their hand to designing for theatre, dance and opera. Notable examples in the design collection include Sidney Nolan's set design for the ballet, The Display and Arthur Boyd's costume designs for Frank Thring's production of King Lear.
With limited opportunities for training in Australia, designers such as Kenneth Rowell, Warwick Armstrong and Loudon Sainthill gained experience and employment in Britain during this period. The emergence of government-funded national ballet and opera companies, and state theatre companies during the 1960s and 1970s, however, saw an increase in opportunities for professional designers to work in Australia.
From Angus Winneke's striking designs for the Tivoli showgirls of the 1940s to 1960s, to Noel Crombie's distinctive costumes for rock band Split Enz during the 1980s, designs have reflected changing fashions and cultural mores. This is particularly evident in design for 'new circus' where design has moved away from the glitz and glamour of traditional circus attire to more colourful unisex, tank-tops and body-suits utilising new fabrics such as Lycra. Set design has also been influenced by the technological developments in specifications for materials used to construct sets and by the introduction of computer technology which allow sets to be moved with a degree of control unimaginable a mere fifty years ago.
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