The Motley Legacy

Design by Motley
Michael Mullin, Associated University Presses, 1996
Chapter 14: The Motley Legacy (1966-) p.207-9

Through all these changes, the Course remained consistent in its aesthetic and organization. “It’s all based on the work of Michel Saint-Denis…(who) believed that the most important person in the theatre was the dramatist, then the actors,and then the director and designer”, Margaret Harris told critic Michael Billington (The Guardian, 31.1.91). “He argued that the designer’s job was to show the play and the actors to the best possible advantage. Also that they should not decorate: they should design. I suppose that is why our designers are very popular with dramatists. Edward Bond said that he couldn’t have written for the theatre if it hadn’t been for the Course, especially Hayden Griffin.”

Over the years the number of students has increased only slightly from the orginal eight to ten. Each year, more than 100 submit portfolios of their work and are interviewed. From these, about twenty-five applicants are selected for second interviews by Margaret Harris, Hayden Griffin and, since 1992, Alison Chitty. In that crucial interview, emphasis falls not only on abilities but personality: “We look, of course, for talent, imagination, and energy, but we also take great account of suitability of temperament, attitude and approach”, warns Margaret Harris in the school’s prospectus. Her aims hearken back to the L.T.S. ideal of a ‘company’ who work in happy collaboration, rather than a group of individuals in creative competition with each other. Over the nine months’ work a bond forms among the students that carries over into later collaborations among the graduates of the Design Course and the many theatre artists who have worked with them.

By no means exclusively British or Anglo-American, the Design Course’s graduates work in theatres all over the world. Most of them, it is true, work in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States [and Ireland]. The roster of the graduates’ homelands, however, reads likes a miniature United Nations: Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Gibralter, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Libya, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, the United States, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Referrals from graduates have kept up its international scope. It is no exaggeration to say that through these graduates Motley’s influence continues in theatres throughout the world.

What distinguishes the Motley Design Course from courses in design at the Central School, the Slade, or the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, for example, is its close connection with the working theatre from the highest levels – the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, the West End, and the BBC – to the more modest experimental and regional theatres. Other theatre training programmes grew out of art schools. Motley’s came from the theatre world and remains immersed in it. “Students are encouraged to approach design for theatre as an organic process involving the script, the actors and the space, so that the final product is a cohesive theatrical event”, states a description of the course from the 1970s. Its instructors are active theatre professionals who come in as part-time lecturers or tutors. In an average year, two dozen directors,  three choreographers, four designers, four lighting designers, and four technicians come into the School, sometimes giving lectures and often working closely with individual students. These theatre artists, in turn, invite the students to dress parades, technical rehearsals, and performances of plays, ballets and operas in production. The opportunity to receive instruction from such a wide spectrum of theatre artists has prevented the development of any recognizable Motley ‘house style’, other than the unremitting respect for the text’s meaning, the actors’ needs, the director’s concept, and the audience’s understanding.

Neither Margaret Harris nor the Design Course has espoused anything like a flashy, high-tech environment. Its quarters have always been workmanlike to the point of shabbiness, caused in part by scarce funds, but also by the minimalist – ‘use only what you must’ – Motley approach. On a typical winter’s day in the early 1990s, for instance, one could pass through the Almeida Theatre and climb stone steps to an upper floor. After negotiating a room filled with the detritus of theatre – some broken props, a hat-rack, a very dilapidated sofa, empty coffee cups – one could climb more stairs, at last stepping into a large studio well-lit by a skylight. On paint-spattered worktables sit half constructed set models; costume renderings are pinned to a drawing table; paintbrushes and paints, pencils, sketches, bits of model-making material, old newspapers, more coffee cups abound. In silent concentration, several students are hard at work; two are constructing set models, another frowns over a costume rendering, another is cutting balsa wood into what will become timbers for a set model. In one corner, three others [chat] about the dress rehearsal at Covent Garden the previous evening. Later that day, a director renowned for his biting intolerance of below-standard work will be coming to assess the projects and to talk about his own work.. A few jokes are being made about what he’ll say about who’s work. The atmosphere is secure, almost familial.

The telephone rings in an office down a narrow hallway. Ranged on shelves along the hall are scripts and art books; in filing cabinets are folders sorted by year and subject, fashion photographs, and items of interest clipped from Vogue and the Sunday supplements. Everything seems a jumble, albeit an interesting jumble, for it is here in the ‘library’ that students will look first for ideas; later they will look in London’s art galleries, museums, or research libraries. At a battered desk in her office, Margaret Harris is on the phone talking with people looking for design work or looking for a designer. She will later join the students for the assessment of their work by the director, whom she has known for many years. Sitting at another desk, administrative director Chris Rodgers is speaking with a public relations firm that is launching a fund drive in aid of the school’s ailing finances. The school, she is explaining, is entirely supported by donations or by fees paid by the students, not by government grants or subsidies. The occasion for the fund drive is an exhibition, Design by Motley, opening at the Royal National Theatre later that week – a transfer from America. One o’clock, and time for Margaret Harris to meet a publisher and his assistant about the revision and reissue of Motley’s Designing and Making Costumes for the Stage. Then comes the director’s visit, followed by a general summing up with the students after he has gone. About seven o’clock or so, Margaret Harris leaves for her flat in Barnes in her blue Renault.

In a typical year, students design several productions, making sketches for costumes and sets. When these are satisfactory, they make scale models that depict the appearance of different moments onstage under theatrical lighting. These ‘projects’ – designs for sets and costumes – are often initiated by directors considering productions in particular theatres. For them, the Design Course offers an experimental laboratory in which they can test production ideas with a willing design student. Such collaborations often bear fruit in the form of later employment. During the Course, students receive instruction in lighting, technical drawing, costume design, period costume, cutting, scene painting, propmaking and make up. Throughout the emphasis is on making designs and set models that would work in actual productions. No pat, how-to training, the Motley Design Course encourages its students “not to accept the easy and conventional solution but to dig deeper into the possibilities”. It is that quest for the “imaginative, inventive and adventurous” that has characterised Motley’s own work and the work of their students.

The Course culminates in an opportunity for each student to design an actual production for a drama school, an opera school, or another low budget but real-world theatre organization. The results are presented in an annual exhibition presided over by Margaret Harris and often opened by such notables as Sir John Gielgud or, until her death, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Established theatre artists flock to it – interested in seeing the work of the latest Motley group. In no crass way, it also serves as an informal hiring fair, both for the graduates and for those who come to see and renew ties. For two weeks or ten days in July, with Margaret Harris greeting her old friends and students, one has a glimpse of that collegiate warmth that must have infused the Motley studio in St Martin’s Lane many years ago.

There is a personal dimension to this instruction that forges close ties among all who have studied with Margaret Harris. Each student has a different but equally personal story. Mitsuru Ishii, once Motley’s student, is now a prominent designer working in Japan, the United States and England in the theatre and television. He set aside a degree in law from Tokyo University to come to London and study set and costume design at the Central School. Once in London he realised that his funds would not support a three-year course of study. He called on Margaret Harris. Recognising his extraordinary talent, she created an extra space for him in that year’s course. He perfected his English working in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Since 1975, when he returned to Tokyo, his designs have blended Japanese and Western motifs – most recently in a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute produced by NHK, the Japanese national television company. When former students come through London, they stop by to visit and to reinforce that worldwide network of theatre artists with ties with Motley. Once, when asked by an impertinent interviewer if she wishes she had married and had had children, Margaret Harris smiled and said, “Why should I? I have hundreds of children, most of them grown up, thank God, as it is”.

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