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London Theatre Studio


The London Theatre Studio (1936-39) was a drama school in Upper Street, Islington, London, founded by French actor and director Michel Saint-Denis. It was the first British drama school to incorporate theatre design into the curriculum and it transformed the way that acting and stage design were taught in this country.


Design was taught by Sophie Harris, Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris, and Elizabeth Montgomery, the trio who worked collectively under the name of Motley. Other staff included: Managing Director of the Studio Saint-Denis who taught directing; Assistant Director George Devine who taught, acting, directing and lighting; and Richard Southern who taught the history of stage design and technical scenery classes.


The London Theatre Studio was forced to close at the start of WWII, but many staff and students were reunited under Saint-Denis in the post-war Old Vic Theatre School

Margaret Harris was later a director of the Motley Theatre Design Course, a historian of which has observed that her aims "...hearkened back to the London Theatre Studio ideal of a ‘company’ who work in happy collaboration, rather than a group of individuals in creative competition with each other”.


Old Vic Theatre School


The Old Vic Theatre School (1947-52) was set up by Michel Saint-Denis, George Devine, and Glen Byam Shaw along the lines of the London Theatre Studio. Margaret and Sophie Harris again ran the theatre design programme which was offered alongside the drama training. Several other staff from the London Theatre Studio taught on the courses, as well as LTS graduates such as theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert. After the closure of the Old Vic School many of its staff and students were influential as teachers at other British drama and theatre design schools.


The Theatre Design Course


In 1962, Sadler's Wells Opera announced the appointment of their first permanent creative team of Glen Byam Shaw as Director of Productions, John Blatchley as his assistant and Margaret Harris (of the Motley Theatre Design Group) as Head of Design, stressing that "apart from their eminence in the world of theatre, they have been connected with teaching, both on the dramatic side and design.


In 1966 a room was found for Margaret Harris to teach in, in nearby St John Street, and the Sadler's Wells Theatre Design Course began with 8 students. Students were to come from various parts of the world and disciplines so they could learn from each other. They were taught the techniques of their craft by staff at Sadlers Wells Opera and others. Projects were to be mainly led by directors. In an interview with Michael Billington in 1991, Harris explained her philosophy of teaching: “It’s all based on the work of Michel Saint-Denis…(who) believed that the most important person in the theatre was the dramatist, then the actors, and then the director and designer. He argued that the designer’s job was to show the play and the actors to the best possible advantage. Also that they should not decorate: they should design. I suppose that is why our designers are very popular with dramatists”.


In 1969, Sadlers Wells Opera moved to the London Coliseum and became English National Opera. For a time the school moved into the vacated space at the top of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, where former student Hayden Griffin joined to teach alongside Harris. In 1971, the school moved to Camperdown House, Aldgate to be near the company, and at this point became the English National Opera Theatre Design Course.


In 1979, organisational changes at English National Opera necessitated the school moving to the Riverside Studios, then under the Artistic Directorship of David Gothard. It became the Theatre Design Course at the Riverside. The aims and training of the school were in harmony with the Riverside ethos and the school developed further ideas and flexibility.


This arrangement lasted until 1987, when management changes at Riverside led to Artistic Director Pierre Audi welcoming the school at the Almeida Theatre which was also far-reaching in its ethos and exposed the young designers to Pierre's experimental programming of drama, contemporary music and opera.


By 1991, Pierre Audi had become Artistic Director of De Nederlandse Opera, and the school once again found itself without a home. It temporarily resided at the Royal National Theatre Paint Frame, and then, in 1992, in a warehouse in Shelton Street, Covent Garden. Finding itself for the first time independent of a producing theatre, the school renamed itself the Motley Theatre Design Course, after the Motley Theatre Design Group. Alison Chitty RDI OBE joined Harris as co-director.


Motley Theatre Design Course


Motley biographer, Michael Mullin:

"What distinguishes the Motley Theatre Design Course from (other) courses in design is its close connection with the working theatre from the highest levels - the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, the West End, and the BBC - to the most modest experimental and regional theatres.  Other theatre training programs grew out of art schools.  Motley's came from the theatre world and remains immersed in it.  'Students are encouraged to approach design for theatre as an organic process involving the script, the actors, and the space, so that the final product is a cohesive theatrical event', states a description of the course from the 1970s.  Its instructors are active theatre professionals who come in as part-time lecturers or tutors.  In an average year, two dozen directors, three choreographers, four designers, four lighting designers and four theatre technicians come into the school, sometimes giving lectures and often working closely with individual students.  These theatre artists, in turn, invite the students to technical rehearsals and performances of plays, ballets, or operas in production.  The opportunity to receive instruction from such a wide spectrum of theatre artists has prevented the development of any recognisable Motley 'house style', other than the unremitting respect for the text's meaning, the actors' needs, the director's concept, and the audience's understanding.

In 1994 the school moved to the scene dock in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Former students Anthony Lamble and Ashley Martin-Davis joined the school as Associate Directors.


In early 2000, Margaret Harris, who was still teaching at the age of 95, fell ill and died a few months later. The school continued to adhere to her teaching philosophy.

In December 2010, Alison Chitty and Ashley Martin-Davis announced that they would be leaving at the end of the academic year and the course was suspended until now.


Genesis Theatre Design Programme will revive the course and continue the work of the Motley Theatre Design Group, Michel Saint-Denis, George Devine, Glen Byam Shaw, Hayden Griffin, David Gothard, Pierre Audi, Alison Chitty and all the hundreds of directors and designers who have influenced us.

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