An interview with: Max Jones

Max is a Bristol born, London based Production, Set and Costume Designer who graduated from The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2001. He is a winner of The Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design, and throughout a 20-year freelance career has designed for productions across the UK and abroad. Max is currently a member of SBTD, Bectu and Equity, and sat on the Equity Directors and Designers committee between 2019-2021. Max is also a founder member of Scene/Change.

What is your history with Equity?' Are you a member/how long for...if not, why not?

I have been working as a freelance Production, Set and Costume Designer in UK theatre for 20 years, but only became an Equity member for the first time in 2019. I had become increasingly frustrated over the years by the appalling rates of pay for Designers working in UK Theatre, so approached Fiona Watt (then Chair of the SBTD) to see what efforts were being made to challenge the situation and offer my support. Fiona invited me to join a small working group that had been established to consult on and renegotiate improved terms and conditions across the existing agreements for Designers working in the UK. Operating under the banner of ‘The Value of Design’, a cross-organisational campaign consisting of members from SBTD, ALPD, and both unions Equity and BECTU was formally launched at the National Theatre in April 2018. Whilst supporting Fiona and the VoD campaign effort, it became apparent to me that all routes towards improvement would at some point lead to a negotiating table within Equity, and in order to be eligible to attend those formal meetings I would first have to become an Equity member. So, I joined and immediately stood for a position on the Equity Directors and Designers Committee, on which I subsequently sat between 2019-2021. I would like to say that I fended off hundreds of UK designers for that privilege :) …but in reality, I was uncontested. An indication of the UK set and costume design community’s ambivalence towards union membership over recent decades.

What would you like to see Equity action in the coming years?

For Designers, the headline action required is clear - to reform all existing Agreements for Designers working across UK theatre, and work toward improving Designers fees as matter of urgency. Rates of pay for Designers working in UK Theatre, relative to their working hours, are nothing short of appalling. Employed mostly as freelancers; Production, Set and Costume Design are extremely precarious professions which are also subject to high overhead costs. Lifelong career sustainability is largely impossible without some form of external/alternative financial support, and efforts towards a more inclusive and diverse workforce will falter whilst such high dropout rates from our profession, caused by these unsustainable rates of pay over the last decades, continue to prevail. Access/opportunity must come hand in hand with improved career sustainability/viability.

The design profession in UK theatre is in need of stabilising. Whilst I think on balance it is very important that a union Agreement for Designers is preserved in some form, the current minimum rates attached to the UK theatre/SOLT/ITC agreements are damaging and, unchecked, have contributed to suppressing rates of pay for designers for quite some time. With many designers now working well below minimum wage the existing minimum rates need firmly rejecting. Equity must continue to put pressure on UK Theatre/SOLT/ITC members, working alongside Bectu, SBTD, Scene/Change etc to overhaul the existing arbitrary and out of date fee structures, and devise employment guidelines and rates of pay that are fit for purpose. This is especially urgent post-pandemic, especially now that new Project Grants/NPO applications are being submitted to Arts Councils across the UK. Funding a lot of the work that will be produced over the coming years, and yet budgeting with existing ‘minimum’ rates of pay as appropriate ‘going’ rates of pay… which they are not, by a long way.

Designers pay and working conditions in the UK need to be an Equity headline, not a footnote. We are in need of a more robust set of union rates and guidelines for Designers that will support our early career practitioners, often un-represented, and safeguard them from exploitation. Working as an essential resource to better educate our next generation of producers and theatre management. If Equity can work visibly and with urgency towards this end, then I also hope that the UK set and costume design community will be inspired to engage more actively in this process over the coming months and years.

This is important because unions aren’t going to be able to solve this problem by themselves… UK Designers (and their agents) will need to play their part too. We can bang the diversity and inclusion drum as much as we like, but whilst designers continue to accept such low fees, we undercut our contemporaries and effectively close the door behind us to a more diverse talent pool. If we can’t all work together towards improving these rates of pay and keeping that door open, it’s quite likely the UK design community will look very similar in 20 years’ time.

The recent Scene/Change fee survey revealed a median day rate for freelance Designers of £93p/d across all UK main stage theatre productions submitted (the lowest reported was £42p/d!) and then £70p/d across all studio theatre productions submitted. These findings are pretty dire, and surely must put our profession amongst the lowest paid in any building… neither appropriate nor sustainable, now or in the future. UK Set and Costume Designers, at all levels, are going to have to start saying No.


Career far and why?

Ah yes, the art! …I have to remind myself these last few years that’s what I actually do for a living, and not just volunteer advocacy :)

One of the joys of the job is the wide variety of professional encounters, experiences and learning that it can bring. I think from this perspective, working several times at Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo over the recent years has been a real highlight for me. I’ve absolutely loved it, and I think it has had a really profound impact on me personally as well as professionally.

I’ve been designing for 20 years now, and whilst as a theatre artist and individual you are of course in a constant state of growth, it’s fair to say now that I can do my job. I can deliver. What the Japan experience offered me was a cultural provocation which has had a lasting effect on my work. I had to think more critically about the nature of my artwork, to think about how I communicated my designs to a Japanese speaking production team, and how those designs would be interpreted by a Japanese audience. As a British Designer, the multi-layered cultural complexity to designing in Japan, both technically and conceptually, really challenges my practice and I believe it is now better for it. These productions have given me the most satisfaction creatively, and also personally. The opportunity to do four shows over a number of years with the same company in Tokyo, has allowed us to develop a really strong and collaborative relationship with the team, and also enabled my work to become increasingly more expressive.

(… and the food is incredible!)