Scenography is a Living Form of Art: Meeting Pamela Howard

Pamela Howard in Her Workspace
BY Paul Terian

With a chuckle, PAMELA HOWARD calls herself “a crazy grandmother.” Colorful, exuberant and eclectic, she proves to be a well-rounded theater practitioner. For the past fifty years she has directed, written, drawn, curated, and taught extensively as both a director and designer, with a special focus on opera, musical theatre and events.

Awarded the OBE for her lifelong services to drama in 2008, Howard serves as Professor Emeritus at the University of the Arts in London (Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design). In addition to realising over 200 productions at all major national and regional theatres in England, she has collaborated extensively with companies and artists from the U.S., Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece and Taiwan in recent years. A wide and popular readership has enjoyed her richly illustrated book, What is Scenography? (Routledge, 2001) since its first publication; the expanded, second edition was recently published in July.

She lives near the sea in West Sussex, England. Visit her website at www.pamelahoward.co.uk.

How I Began…

I am often asked how I became a theatre designer, or a scenographer, and how did I know that such a profession existed. From a young age, I went on my own to see visiting ballet companies, finding the cheapest seat at the very edges of the upper circle. I very much enjoyed seeing the dancers smoking in the wings waiting to come on, or preparing themselves for the moment they would step into the acting area and become another person. I realized that the picture they danced in front of on the stage had something to do with the story that was being told, and the moving colours of their costumes are part of that overall picture. I was fascinated by the on and the offstage world, co-existing, dependent on each other yet invisible to the public… I could see how the scenery was constructed, and sometimes I could see the stagehands moving pieces into place, and whispering to each other, as the dancers danced in another world of light and sound. I was fascinated by the on and the offstage world, co-existing, dependent on each other yet invisible to the public unless they cared to look beyond the ethereal dancers. I listened to conversations in the auditorium, and once heard an argument between two elegantly dressed men about the merits of the design we were watching. One man indignantly said of the designer, “He pays no attention to what the piece is about — he just does exactly what he wants, and it’s the same thing every time.” I thought this sounded an interesting way to live one’s life. A short time later, in the class at school, we were asked to write down what we wanted to be when we left school. Most girls wrote ‘ice skater; ballet dancer; air hostess; hairdresser.’ I wrote ‘theatre designer,’ because I thought — I love reading and history, and theatre design just draws it; I also thought, mistakenly, that I could spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I wanted. We handed the papers in, and my future was decided. I did not realize this was only a questionnaire. I thought I had committed myself, and my job was now simply to follow the route and do it.

EXCERPT FROM What is Scenography?
BY PAMELA HOWARD
(Routledge, 2009), pp. xxii-xxiii

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