Scenography as a Profession

Text by Laura Gröndahl

The job description and artistic identity of a modern-day scenographer began to take shape in the 1960s with the professionalization of amateur-based theatres around Finland, with television establishing itself against the backdrop of general modernization, and with the principle of a Nordic welfare state providing high-quality culture to every citizen no matter where they lived. Public funding for arts increased, new theatre buildings were erected even in small towns, and their staff multiplied in a matter of decades. The regional theatre system was born, collective agreements were concluded in the field of theatre, and university-level education for the main theatre professions was developed.

The scenographer of a modern theatre was an artistic designer in charge of visual and spatial dramaturgy who worked in close connection with the directorial and dramaturgical solutions of a production.

Designing sets for big stages required a new kind of know-how including knowledge about both modern theatre thinking and about various techniques and materials. The evolution of stage lighting made painted backdrops a thing of the past. Scenography was now thought of as three-dimensional space that enabled movement and action. The changing lighting cues, circular stages, and power-driven hoists introduced a temporal dimension into set design. Scenography began to be understood as an art form that required independent creative thinking and a solid general culture in addition to manual skills. As the technical staff of theatres grew in numbers, the construction and painting work could be left to skilled craftsmen. “Never take your hands out of your pockets when you go to a workshop” was a piece of advice that the seasoned scenographer Ensio Suominen gave to his younger colleagues. More and more women came to the field when it became physically lighter and when the meaning of education increased.

Never take your hands out of your pockets when you go to a workshop

The new-born television provided an entirely new playground for young doers in the 1960s. Even though the studio sets of the early days owed a lot to theatrical traditions, they were rarely expected to represent realistic milieus. Television theatre was made with Brechtian stylization in mind, and scenographers were given a free hand to create abstracted, sculpture-like spaces in the studios for many entertainment and documentary programmes. Contrary to theatres, the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the Mainostelevisio (a commercial TV company) had a good many scenographers working under the same roof. They formed a small work community of their own that actively influenced the development and identity of the branch.

In the 1980s, scenographers’ life appeared to be quite the proverbial bed of roses. Institutional theatres had lots of money and nobody was calling for financial results. Funding for free groups also increased little by little. There were numerous job opportunities for visiting scenographers and permanent positions to be filled especially in provincial towns. Television had evolved from a spotty black-and-white apparatus into an artistic instrument to reckon with and provided ample production resources. The self-understanding of scenographers as professionals and their awareness of their own importance kept increasing. Other theatre makers, critics, researchers, and journalists also began to grasp the value of visual design. Ralf Forström, an illustrious scenographer, made it to the first page of the Iltalehti afternoon newspaper.

For scenographers, the depression in the 1990s meant a new kind of employment situation that has remained unchanged since. Theatres cut down their budgets and began leaving positions unfilled. The FTE person years of permanently employed scenographers in theatres subsidized by law decreased by almost 50% between 1992 and 2015. Most of the Yleisradio and Mainostelevisio scenographers were laid off in employee cooperation negotiations. The public art institutions that have been criticized for being costly and bureaucratic and for operating in an old-fashioned way have now begun to be reformed. At the same time, the professions born out of their needs are also changing. The new challenges faced by scenographers are linked with the overall change in working life. Permanent professional identities and steady employment relationships are on the wane and a long-time commitment to an employer, to a work community, or to social institutions is not expected from people. There are more and more scenographers who currently work as freelancers, are active on a wide variety of performing arts, and may engage in secondary occupations to ensure their livelihood.

The new challenges faced by scenographers are linked with the overall change of working life

On the other hand, modern-day scenography requires special skills of the kind that could not have been even dreamt of a few decades ago. Digitization of cinematography enables using computer-generated virtual environments and combining effects with scenes shot at a studio. Theatre settings are more and more frequently based on lighting and projections. Camera techniques have become part of the normal production toolset. Visual aesthetics such as the authenticity of period description are subject to increased demands because audiences are used to top-level international films and quality series. The previous practice in which set designers worked smoothly in theatre, in film, and in television while sidelining in costume and lighting design is no longer sufficient. Scenographers for performing arts, film and television, costume designers, and lighting designers are nowadays trained separately. There are around fifteen of them graduating with different orientations each year while, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were three students admitted in the “pan-scenographic” training each year.

Theoretical debates and artistic research on scenography have gained momentum in the 21st century both in Finland and internationally. These past few years, there has been talk about “expanded scenography” where staging is perceived as an articulation of space and of visual experience on a general level and not only in the framework of stage, film, or TV art. This may also entail experimental performances where the scenographer’s ideas or existing surroundings or materials are used as starting points instead of the play-text or of a notion for directing. The Finnish theatre makers of the 21st century have consciously striven to steer clear from the artistic and professional niches established in the big institutions and from schematic pre-planning. A collective process often replaces the preponderant position of the director. The divides between theatre professions have become flexible, and nobody is believed to have an exclusive right to a given form of expression. The members of a team may take part in each other’s work, with a scenographer practising with actors or a sound designer suggesting a spatial solution. Instead of permanent job descriptions, the team often defines itself how to distribute and share current tasks and areas of responsibility. The professional and artistic identity of the scenographer is like born anew with every production, and, these days, almost anything can in principle be part of it.