Since the 1960s Pamela Howard has graced the world of theatre, and is an inspiring example of an artist who has continued to evolve and broaden their horizons. Throughout her long-spanning and exceptionally diverse career, Howard has defied definition time and time again. As well as being one of the most internationally respected theatre designers, she’s also branched out into the arena of education, serving as a professor in renowned art and theatre departments around the world, and notably as course director for theatre design at Central St. Martins. Howard is also a published writer and the author of the bestselling work ‘What is Scenography?’ And with an already overflowing portfolio, Howard has recently expanded her influence into the field of theatre directing and opera, and is showing no signs of slowing down.
In fact, Howard, now in 60s, is accelerating at full force. As if to illustrate the upwards trajectory of her career, one of Howard recently designed and directed a production of The excursion of Mr Broucek to the Moon, which describes how a Czech man, bored with the limitations of the world, dreams he escapes to the moon, where he meets people that are vaguely familiar to his life in Prague. This uncanny feeling of meeting people one already knows a theme that permeates Howard’s work, and is obvious as soon as one takes a glimpse at the character deisgns she has created over the years.
Take the character sketch for Fyokla, the bossy marriage broker, or Podkolyosin, a ‘reluctant suitor’, protagonists in her recent production The Marriage, one has a distinct feeling of ‘déjà vu’, these characters are strangely familiar to us all. This all makes sense when noting that these characters are all modelled on people from Howard’s past – the weird uncle, the bossy aunt, the nutty professor, all have their place in Howard’s kaleidoscopic world. Glimpsing at her designs, one can’t help but see a similarity between Howard herself and the fruits of her imagination – draped in flowy woollen fabrics, and intriguing jewellery, with a burning mound of red hair, Howard looks akin to one of her own curious creations. Alien-looking figures with pinched, sheepish faces, peer out of their little microcosms, huddling in odd formations, looking a little unstable on their spindly feet but, at the same time firmly rooted in their unique environment, where the rules of symmetry and geometry are loose and evasive.
In Howard’s designs, life’s absurdities, quirks, and impossibilities come to the foreground in vivid fashion, as we see the world through her idiosyncratic lens. A flying pig in a maid’s apron, an army of street cleaners, a shaman smoking bubbles out of a pipe, all seem oddly natural and indigenous to this bizarre landscape.
The overwhelming feature of Howard’s work is its vitality. Each of her drawings is infused with a life of its own, every character acknowledges you; staring, glaring or teasing you from the page, inviting a discourse or a momentary recognition. And there is something undeniably funny about her creations. Absorbed in their own absurd little world, we have no choice by to play by their, and I guess ultimately her, rules.