Movement Theatre Company focuses on designers as art shifts online

Movement Theatre Company focuses on designers as art shifts online

New commissions from Movement Theatre Company hand control (and funds) to designers

As the art world shifts its focus to the digital sphere, what happens to designers who work in three-dimensional spaces?

The Harlem-based Movement Theatre Company presents one solution: virtual commissions. Launched as part of its “1MOVE” program, “DES19NED BY … “ presents an opportunity for early-career designers to create digital content in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 15 commissioned artists will each receive $500 to support their work. The results will be shared in an online video gallery, set to open early June 2020.

“While live theater is on pause, theatrical designers are hit especially hard,” the Movement’s producing artistic leadership team said in a joint statement. “Unlike playwrights and actors, there are few opportunities for designers to continue their artistic work while the creative field is shut down, so we wanted to find a way to support those who are in the early stages of their careers and may need the most assistance.”

The commissions from the Movement Theatre Company, which develops and produces new works by artists of color, will give designers “absolute freedom as the lead artist.” In turn, the move not only gives the commissioned individuals a platform, but autonomy over the process.

The designers chosen to create commissions for “DES19NED BY … “ include Ao Li, Chen-Wei Liao, Dina El-Aziz, Edurne Fernandez, Kimie Nishikawa, María Feuereisen, Megumi Katayama, Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, Omar Madkour, Reza Behjat, Riw Rakkulchon, Rodrigo Muñoz, Stefania Bulbarella, Wenzheng (Wen) Zhang and Yee Eun Nam.

With audiences not expected to return to theaters (at least in a normal capacity) any time soon, organizations across the country and abroad have been forced to shrink creative teams, including designers. In arts and culture fields, 95% of artists reported income loss, with 66% stating that they were no longer able to access the “supplies, resources, spaces or people necessary for their work.”

Facing mass layoffs and canceled contracts, several funds — including Wingspace Relief Fund for NYC Designers and Dramaturges — have emerged to provide emergency assistance to artists affected by the COVID-19 health crisis and related closures. But Clint Ramos, who co-curated Movement’s inaugural class of commissions, stated that prior to the pandemic, designers faced unique challenges in receiving funding and support.

“Even before the pandemic, there is a dearth of resources for theater designers — not as much as there are for actors, directors and playwrights,” Ramos said. “Both individual giving and institutional grant/fellowship programs often forego designers. Through this commission, we are saying that designers are essential contributors to the theatrical process and that sustaining them from an earlier point in their career ought to be a priority.”

As the transition to digital spaces continues to play out, so do methods of creation. The recent adaptation of Bard College Theater and Performance Program’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest” to a virtual stage offers another vision of what this future may look like. When the play was canceled amid the government’s social distancing orders, the production team decided to translate the piece for Zoom. In doing so, they worked to reimagine the design to fit the platform specifically, creating unique backgrounds that warped the digital space (much like how set props transform the stage).

“I am a living organism and I exist with other people,” lighting designer Cha See, who co-curated the commissions alongside Ramos, said. “Humanity is still my priority. We all need to look after one another especially at this time under COVID-19.”