“Design is the art of compromise.” is an uncompromising statement. It forces us to confront the negative concepts we have of compromise and elevates that to an art form. Seriously? Nobody likes to compromise. Dictionaries talk of expediently accepting standards below desirable and of settling disputes by making concessions.

And yet nothing is perfect so compromises are inevitable. If I move the masking off stage I accept the show won’t mask from seat A1, and I’ve traded that for better views for many more people or bigger dance numbers or whatever. That’s a good compromise – an optimal trade-off given an unmoveable constraint (the shape of the building).

There are many more subtle compromises. Almost every light you focus is a compromise between where the wanted light is going and what the beam flare is spilling onto that it shouldn’t. Time is finite so there’s always a time tradeoff – more time spent plotting the finale or more time spent making the more mundane bits slightly better. The rig is finite – should there be more lights dedicated to specials that are used briefly or a better general cover that will be used throughout the show? Making a given dance number flashy is more effective if you don’t make all the other numbers flashy, but in keeping your powder dry the other numbers are somehow not as pleasing. These are all more interesting compromises because they don’t have obvious solutions. They require skill, judgement and experience to get right, and “right” is a matter of opinion – it’s art not science. Bring it on – it’s why designing things is interesting!

Compromises can mount up though. For every idea, light or cue that makes it into a production there are probably several ideas that don’t – each show is a tradgedy of discarded ideas and unexplored potential. These ideas go silently to their graves, known only to the designer, who is in danger of measuring the show against what might have been. I’m often critical of my own work and of the productions I’m involved in. And kindly rational souls tell me “don’t be silly – given the circumstances you were working under it was the best that could be achieved”.

This is where it gets ugly though because it forces you to evaluate the circumstances and how you feel about them. If a production company says to me “there’s no budget this year because we’re saving everything for our big centenary show next year” and I understood the rationale at the outset and it still seemed worth doing, fair enough. I chose to accept the constraints. The bad ones are the ones where the circumstances that lead to compromise were avoidable or unnecessary. The shows where the budget is wrong simply because the people who set it were out of touch, uninterested, on auto-pilot or just “doing the same as last year”. The ones where despite knowing when the show was many months in advance there’s still no useful run-through until three days to go. The ones where these failure modes were pointed out when accepting the project and yet the errors are still repeated as a sort of slow-motion car crash. Doing your best “given the circumstances” is less consoling if the circumstances are infuriating. The gap between what you produce and what might have been grows so it’s less rewarding – but the effort that goes in goes up since you’re also working around the problems. Less for more.

The pernicious long term effect of all this is it forces you to choose your shows more carefully, to take a chance on fewer things, to negotiate harder up front, to force choices and budget before accepting the project. I don’t want to travel too far down that road. Perhaps its time for a long break from shows…

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