Building a Career in Stage and Costume Design

How Barry Kay’s international career evolved

In the introduction to their statistical analysis “Metamorphoses – Performing Arts in Flanders since 1993” 1, the Belgian theatre academics Joris Janssens and Dries Moreels assert as follows:

The house artist building a career in a single [performing arts] organization is becoming more and more of an exception. Individual artists follow individual paths through a number of houses. They now seem to be emerging as the ‘elementary particles’ of the performing arts scene – the building blocks of production.

While Janssens and Moreels are referring to the all-encompassing spectrum of stage artists, albeit with an emphasis on performers and dancers as the central concern of their research, other contributing artists, including designers, are therefore merely mentioned peripherally. Be that as it may, in the context of diversifying creative individuality, and furthering and broadening artistic scope, the above does in fact also apply to quite an unexpectedly high percentage of stage and costume designers – and is by no means a recent phenomenon. Indicative of it are Barry Kay’s work history and that of his colleagues, sharing the same professional development.

Despite some theatres still engaging in-house designers, or designers-in-residence, to this day – far more customary until half a century ago – those aspiring to establish themselves independently to expand the range of their creative activities have been and are following their own path to become what is nowadays sometimes called a consultant designer. It is the best, if not the only, way for them to explore and work in a multitude of different environments or to embark on an international career. This is what Barry Kay chose to do as early as in the mid-1950s.

Both in-house tenures and in-house administrative strategies offer, by their very nature, only limited scope for artistic differentiation of expression, variation, interpretation – and, by and large, for a designer’s potential and aptitude. Seen from the perspective of how some designers have decided to go about their careers, namely freelance, of which Kay is an example, their independent involvement as elementary particles of mounting productions has become a determining factor. Compared to in-house restrictions, which can be artistically inhibiting, this very independence allows for far more creative diversity and infinitely greater flexibility and freedom of constructive, reciprocally influential exchanges of ideas between designers and artistic directors and producers.

Characteristic of modern-day performance and repertoire planning is that it is less common, if at all, for theatre administrations to engage an independent designer directly. Instead, many choreographers and directors of renown have increasingly exercised what they seem to consider their incontestable right – to pick the designer with whom they prefer to collaborate. Underlying this approach are the mutually beneficial gains for all involved, and, last but not least – for the theatre organization itself. Without doubt, the visual presentation of productions. especially so in the context of narrative performances, including dance, depends after all on designers and their contributions – the interacting building blocks as parts of the components making up the whole.

Harold Holt 2Commonwealth of Australia mediating contacts for Barry Kay

Frederick Ashton promising to view Barry Kay’s designs

During Kay’s early professional days in Australia, when he had already attained some freelance design commissions, such as from Walter Gore, but was concurrently still training and gaining experience as a stage and costume designer, he was – out of necessity – a member of the in-house design team of the Melbourne University Union House Theatre. As soon as he settled in England in 1956, he however worked without permanent affiliation to any particular theatre – by choice.

Documentation held at the Archive shows that in his ambitious efforts and intent of advancing independently, he sought introductions through personalities well-connected to the establishment of the performing arts, or through institutions furthering them, to assist him in being considered for design assignments by performing arts companies and theatres or artistic director-producers. Some of them had heard or read of Kay’s talent and success and approached him on their own accord offering him design commissions.

Although Barry Kay never designed for Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton, both of whom he held in high esteem, de Valois most likely arranged the contact to Ashton. It is believed that it was he who referred Kay to Peter Darrell, co-founder with Elizabeth West of Western Theatre Ballet. Darrell, who “throughout his life endeavoured to give young dancers, choreographers, composers and designers the opportunity to show their work” 3, was the first influential person in England to invite Kay to design for him. Impressed by his work, Darrell asked him to provide the costume and sets designs for The Prisoners. The ballet was premièred at the Dartington Festival, Devon, in June 1957.

Designing this production constituted Kay’s début in the performing arts scene in England. The fruitful working relationship that evolved between him and Darrell established the former as one of Western Theatre Ballet’s principal, yet independent, designers for a number of years to come. His successful creations drew the attention of choreographers and directors, who eventually engaged Kay to design their own productions. Over time, one referral and assignment led to another, and before long he was working for, among others, Kenneth MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev, as well as for Margaret Webster, Colin Graham, Peter Dews and Rudolf Hartmann, with engagements at national and international companies and theatres.

The British Council assuring Barry Kay of support in England

Bryan Bailey, director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, proposing design assignment

The positive effects of such progressive symbiotic alliances significantly forged Kay’s career. All the same – irrespective of the success of overall productions being measured by how audiences perceive them and, more so, by full houses, translating into full box offices – Barry Kay found that “a designer’s success is primarily defined – among professionals at any rate – by what the critics will have to say”. As challenging as it may be, for the work of designers to be scrutinized in this way is, on the grounds of survival, undeniably of concern to them. Future engagements, thus the continuance of their careers, ultimately rest upon the success ratings given them by the critics and the far-reaching ripple effects this can have in either direction.

At times, Kay therefore anticipated some of the critics’ reviews not without a certain amount of apprehension. For, as he said himself: “No matter how favourably your work may have been received in the past, an artistic director will always assess your next potential engagement by how the critics rated what you designed last time. Whether you will be chosen again to design another production, or whether you will get recommended, hinges entirely on how you’ve been judged by the critics. A critic can make you or break you.”

Based on how Kay’s creative accomplishments scored in reviews, the rating ratio between favourable and not so favourable appears to have been around 95:5 percent. To all intents and purposes, this is only reasonable and well within the permissible for a distinguished artist – especially so, given that a critic’s evaluation is inevitably subjective. A critic is, after all, no less fallible than a designer!

At any rate, the following opinions speak for themselves:

Clement Crisp, ballet critic of the Financial Times, who saw “great virtue” in Barry Kay’s work, wrote in his testimonial: “Kay was essentially an artist able to give savour to every form of theatrical expression…, he found a way of keeping a stage action fluid, and dressing the dance in a fashion both apt in period and vivid in dramatic impact…, in theatricality and bravura effects he was never timid, never polite…, [albeit in one instance] slightly over the top in matter of decorative caprice.” 4

In his tribute to Barry Kay, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan stated: “It was obvious that here was an artist of great talent, with concern for historical detail and a secure knowledge of how costumes should be made for the theatre… I always found that in working with Barry not a lot needed to be said. He intuitively knew my aims, his response to the music was closely allied to mine and his set models and costume designs so clear and evocative that the task of choreographing was made much easier.”

Barry Kay’s career spanned well over thirty years. Most of them he spent designing for renowned choreographers and directors at international theatre companies. Taking into account the number of productions that were toured worldwide, his work has been seen, among others, in Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Scandinavia, Australia, the USA, Canada, Russia and Japan.

The Curator – July 2008