Project 3: Dear John


Dear John explores the feminist strategy of ‘breaking up’ with theatre design by letter, following twenty years of practice and significant experience of sexism in professional contexts during this time. The letter was split into sections and posted back to me from different locations that were important within my professional journey, sometimes posted by me, sometimes by friends in those locations. When I received the letter back, I pieced together the sections and read it. This marked the point at which I left ‘theatre design’ and embraced scenography - see Practice Review Part 1, slide 41, for the significance of that choice of term to this project. The project revealed the potential of autoscenography to operate as a cathartic process and to mark a turning point in the practice of the originating scenographer.


Dear John is an autoscenographic exploration of the scenographer’s feminist values and politics in relation to their practice, thereby manifesting the personal and self-accountable qualities of autoscenography identified in Autoscenography, She Wrote. It occurred half-way through the PhD journey, at a point where I had been reflecting on my experiences as a freelance theatre designer, and on the renewed creative positivity I felt thanks to the move towards practice research. 

The project gives space to a feminist reflection on the traditions and habits of my former professional life and marks the point at which I embarked fully on the autoscenographic project. The project foregrounds the autobiography of a female-identifying backstage worker in a way that begins to address Gale & Gardener’s (2004) highlighting of this as an under-represented area of life-writing. While not intended to provide analysis of the way performance design can be unconsciously or even explicitly gendered – e.g., the feminisation of costume as a discipline, or historic gender inequality within high-status theatre organisations – the project stems from real-world experiences which mirrored these phenomena. Dear John is partly a critique of the institutions of British theatre-making which I occupied for many years, often structured as a conventional top-down creative hierarchy and demonstrating patriarchal power dynamics.

The project draws strength and inspiration from the feminist discussion of building and occupying space identified in Part 2 of the Practice Review, particularly the writing of bell hooks (2000, 2001) and Sara Ahmed (2017). Dear John works to spatialise my feminism through autoscenography and the postal service, manifesting a new space of practice separate to the dominant contexts in which ‘theatre design’ happens. The project explores the DIY or self-assembly dimensions of feminism invoked by Ahmed (2017), via handwritten note. It also puts hooks’ theoretical conflating of love and work into practice by framing the decision to ‘switch lanes’ professionally as the end of a love affair gone sour and staging the break-up accordingly.

Page 111

Dear John continues this project’s exploration of scenography enacted on unconventional ‘stages’, in this case the UK postal system. It was created for a small audience of myself, my research peers and my PhD supervisors. It is the most intimate in scale of the four autoscenographic projects within the PhD, exploring the quality of the 'super-local' identified in Autoscenography, She Wrote, in a different way to Project 1 - it is situated in the hands and immediate kinesphere of the scenographer, and in UK locations which have contained professional meaning for her. As the recipient of the Dear John letters (receiving these on behalf of my practice) I gave myself an experience of ‘place orientation’ (Hann 2019) through scenography. The project is composed of letters held in the hand having travelled and passed through the other hands and locations of the project, creating an ‘affective atmosphere’ (Hann 2019) that is particular to me. This is scenography constructed for - and working for - the scenographer.

Following on from Project 2, where the scenographer’s emotions became part of the project, Dear John made space for anger, deliberately placed within the visual constraints of floral notepaper in sugary colours which reference the ‘good girl’ behaviour I felt I was expected to exhibit within my practice. To be anything other than apologetic, flirtatious or grateful in my work as a theatre designer was to exhibit the worrying signs of being ‘difficult’, which is a transaction described by Ahmed through the character of the ‘feminist killjoy’ (Ahmed 2017).

Dear John adopts an aesthetic that should be understood as ‘radical softness’ (Mathis 2015). ‘Radical softness’ proposes sharing emotions – in this case, love, pain, heartbreak – as a political act. It is cousin to Ahmed’s 'willfulness'  (2017) – the perception of a woman challenging problematic contexts by ‘acting out’ – and to hooks’ application of a ‘love ethic’ to institutional circumstances that undermined her progress in her field (hooks 2001). Thus Dear John uses a soft, stereotypically feminine aesthetic to acknowledge and frame the sexism I experienced within performance-making, and the unfolding of the project is communicated through the photo-story below. In this way, the project investigates another way of disseminating practice research: how do you tell the story of this autoscenography to an audience who were not there to see it? 

Dear John continues to refract the concept of entfernung (Heidegger 2010, resonating since Project 1) as a time-based, reflective phenomena through choice of locations and collaborators for the project, which have meaning for my practice in the present and in the past. Unlike the previous two projects, Project 3 does not feature the figure or bodied-ness of the autoscenographer as a part of its imagery, but certainly contains her voice – one can read this as an exploration of bifurcation (‘throwing’ the voice into an object – in this case a letter) and an exercise situated in the scenographer’s subjectivity, explored in Part 2 of the Practice Review (Her Master's Voice 2012 and Elnile 2020).

Page 112

Dear John: How to manage scenographic feminist rage and break up with Theatre Design

Step 1: Approach friends for help.

Step 2: Post Dear John letter sections to helpful friends. Realise you missed one and post it a day later.

Step 3: Post the first of two sections of Dear John back to yourself, starting with London's West End.

West End 

I posted this letter on the Strand, which is the nearest post-box to the theatres of London’s West End. The West End is arguably the jewel in the crown of any ambitious British theatre designer. I designed a show which went into the West End only once. It was called Grumpy Old Women Live 2: Chin Up Britain! If I tell you the red-carpet guest of honour for the gala night was Su Pollard, this will give you some idea of where, and to whom, it was pitched. There were three good things about working on the ‘Grumpy’ franchise. One was that it allowed me to work with Jenny Éclair, the celebrated British comedian. The show provided me with focus and support at a time when my family was coping with my mother’s illness. Finally, it was a show for a female demographic who are often commercially invisible, and they appeared to have an amazing time at every performance.

I chose the West End because it’s the Theatre Design ideal I’m really giving up on, in shifting my practice. 

Page 113

Step 4: Post another section of Dear John back to yourself from Edinburgh, while the Fringe is on.


I posted the letter on Nicholson Street in Edinburgh, in the tipping rain. I chose this post box because it was near to where I was working in George Square, and also because of its proximity to the Pleasance. The Pleasance Courtyard gave me my first real front-of-house theatre job and taste of freelance theatre life. I ran around this area between shifts in 1997 getting my A-level results in the phone box on Nicholson Street and calling the boyfriend I’d recently met. I racked up enormous phone charges on the phone card that my father (who paid the bill) had some things to say about.

I chose Edinburgh because it has played a central role in shaping my performance tastes and my theatre design career. It has always held the possibility of a shift in focus for my work – I have thought about this every time I have been to the Edinburgh fringe as a designer, as an audience member or as a FOH usher. Edinburgh is the bridge between the work I have done and the work I want to do. This is reflected in the time I post the letter – designing Mr Men and Little Miss: Live on Stage while simultaneously embarking on Dear John.

Step 5: Joyce posts back a section of Dear John from Crowborough, East Sussex.

Joyce / Crowborough

Joyce was a long-term friend of my mother. Joyce’s son Roger and I played together as children, memorably drawing a big blue letter ‘T’ on the leg of the dining table together in felt-tip pen. Joyce later became a supply teacher at my primary school and taught me from time to time as 'Mrs Balcombe'. Joyce lives on the estate in Crowborough where my last family home in East Sussex was - the house from which I went to secondary school and then my foundation art course in Brighton. It’s also the house where my mother died. Joyce posted Dear John from the post box at the top of the road. It is not the one on Millbrook Road where most of our household letters were posted, but Joyce thought it made a nicer picture. She was right. The post box on Millbrook Road is below. Any letter I wrote to a boyfriend or pen pal, any mix tape or homemade card, went into this post box.

I chose Crowborough because it’s where my ambition to work as a theatre designer was birthed and nurtured, and where, through the support and encouragement of teachers and my parents, my artistic identity began to take shape.

Page 114

Step 6: Laura posts back a section of Dear John from Wimbledon, London.

Laura / Wimbledon

Laura is a designer of theatre and opera. We trained on the same Theatre Design course at Wimbledon School of Art. Laura recently took the decision to stop doing costume supervision, which has been her chief means of supporting herself since we left art school. She is doing this to focus on design, which at present is not paid well, but she’s finding opportunities and working every spare hour she has on her productions. Laura posted the letter from this post-box on Merton Hall Road near WSA. Laura is a kind and generous friend, and a designer who is passionate about costume detail. She has given a significant amount of time to opera and community-based performance projects.

I chose Wimbledon because it is where I formally trained in Theatre Design, on the course of the same name.

Step 6: Rose posts back a section of Dear John from Leeds.

Rose / Leeds

Rose is a good friend of my partner, Rhodri. She is a formidable person: a fell runner and a spectacular writer on diverse subjects. Rose was kind enough to give me a place to stay when I presented at my first conference in Leeds and drove me to the University campus on the first day, offering practical and calming words of advice in the car. We went for a wonderful walk on Ilkley Moor after the conference to celebrate. Rose posted the letter from the University campus, having struggled to find a post box and come to the conclusion that students no longer need to post letters.

I chose Leeds because it was where I gave my first conference paper. This was well received and yielded an invitation to publish for the first time. It was a place where I felt empowered and visible, and discovered the possibility for humour and playfulness within my research.

Step 7: Rhian's mother Diana posts back a section of Dear John from Aberystwyth.

Rhian / Aberystwyth

Rhian and I taught together on the MA Collaborative Theatre Practice programme at Guildhall. Rhi is a Production Manager by trade but has significant experience of devising theatre and dance performance. It would be easy to assume (given her practical role) that she’s all about organisation rather than art. But her understanding of the art of performance-making comes through in every exchange I see her have with students of theatre making. Rhian’s Mum Diana kindly posted the letter in Aberystwyth, which is near where Rhi grew up. Letters from Aberystwyth are post-marked Chester and North Wales she warned me, to forestall any disappointment.

I chose Aberystwyth because it’s the site of my first academic conference attendance, and the place where (fifteen years later) I found the voice of my PhD, cried in front of an audience, and started thinking about why that was interesting.

Page 115

Step 8: Rhian's partner posts back a section of Dear John from inside the National Theatre.

National Theatre (NT) London

I worked at the NT aged 32, when a show I had designed did a three-night run in a ‘dark’ slot following a successful UK Tour. I had an interview with the then Artistic Director following this event, which came to nothing. This may have been because a) I was preoccupied by an internet date I was going on later that day or perhaps because b) I misguidedly included a design for a phallus prop in my portfolio thinking it would be funny, which it wasn’t. 

I chose the NT because it’s the place I always aspired to work as a theatre designer, and to which I've been going all my life - thanks to my mother, for starting me early.

Step 9: Receive Dear John back through the post. The section from Leeds never arrives.

Step 10: Open Dear John using an old piece of family cutlery.

Page 116

Final Step: Read Dear John.

Dear Theatre Design,

This is the easiest letter I have ever had to write: it’s not me, it’s you.

I’ve been spending more time in the garden recently. I read that developing new interests can be a sign of preparing to leave a relationship behind. I’m not leaving you for gardening, but I found myself looking at a pot-bound geranium recently, thinking: That’s me. I haven’t stopped growing, but the pot is too small and it’s slowing me down.

I am tired of you, Theatre Design. I was going to write ‘bored’, but it’s not boredom. You have been endlessly, unrelentingly stimulating. 

A moment’s lull, and I happen to tell a friend of my totally open weekend, my intention to relax, to go for a walk with my boyfriend. This is a signal to those I serve to hove into view with a gripe, an extra task, a telling-off for a perceived creative slight, a disappointed face. You’re a lazy designer. A boring designer. Not the designer they wanted. Not the designer they usually work with. Not the designer they read about. Not fabulous enough. Not intuitive enough. Not grateful enough. Not dirty enough. Not working class enough. Not posh enough. Not ‘woke’ enough. The peace of mind that was coming is blown away. Tension sticks to me like a burr.

Page 117

You’ve gone over, like a rose.
You’re still emerging, like a grub.
You’re exciting, because they said so.
You’re a safe pair of hands, because they said so.
You’re an artist because they said so.
You’re a silly little girl because he said so.
You’re from The Princess Diana School of Theatre because he said so.
You’re a very attractive woman because he said so.
You’re greedy.
You’re bad-tempered.
You’re difficult.

Well. Not anymore.

No more having to listen as someone tells me what ‘set design’ is. No more watching as a beautiful idea is mangled and badly handled. No more delivering ‘the vision’ (I despise the vision) of another, who never trained or tried at your profession but is a self-declared expert in it. No more performing gratitude for gatekeepers who decide one day that they’re willing to bestow upon you a generous extra favour. No more listening to lectures on collaboration from autocrats.

Page 118

No, Theatre Design, you are not for me. Limiting, hampering, cramped. 

I’m going on a permanent holiday. I am going where there is air and space. Time and place. I am going to live in Scenography. I’m going to live with my old friend: Art.

Goodbye, Theatre Design. We have grown apart. 

I have walked

and run

and danced

away from you.

Susannah Henry (Halfway through my PhD, post-upgrade)

Following this exploration of scenographic feminist rage, which marked a transition in my scenographic practice, the next section documents another turning point couched in lived experience; that of moving house, while concluding the Practice Review.

Page 119

←    Previous    —    Next    → 

Using Format