Tom Scutt: Fearless Design

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Fear is a word that any creative type can relate to. It’s an emotion, a mindset that seems to come along no matter the how good or bad the situation. There is always some element of fear that seems to creep up on you without knowing it. But fear can have some good effects too. Fear, according to Scutt helps you “keep your wits about you.” And being a young creative, in Tom’s case a scenic and costume designer who just received his first Tony Award nomination for King Charles III, fear has begun to creep in.

You’re probably assuming that Tom’s fear is about whether he will win or lose the trophy on June 12. But that’s not it. It’s the realization that he’s at the point in his career where he has lost a certain anonymity in this business. He’s no longer just a designer; now he’s “Tony nominee Tom Scutt,” and he could become “Tony Award winner Tom Scutt.”

You see, up until now Scutt has created designs for shows on Broadway and in the West End, and even for MTV’s Video Music Awards without feeling like there are eyes on him. “It’s a gear shift”, he tells me, as we make our way to my favorite West Village bar, The Beatrice Inn. When we get there, it’s filled with its typical chic downtown crowd. Yet Scutt, with his tall slender frame and signature round glasses, keeps me transfixed amongst glittering and stylish distractions. We connect as young professionals in the theater industry with grand ambitions and we find ourselves in similar positions of dealing with anxiety about what the future holds.

We order two Hendricks and tonics and begin to talk about building a career, and how the industry dictates certain steps to success. But Scutt has no interest in climbing proverbial ladders. He would rather be “doing projects because you’re passionate about them, not because they’re part of a grand scheme to climb your way to the top.”

Scutt is a passionate young designer who, like many young artists, is just figuring it all out. In a world filled with old-fashioned traditionalists, there is nothing more enthralling than to watch the excitement that Scutt has when he speaks about creating and working in the theater. “It’s so important to keep your wits about you, to keep doubting and checking yourself and more than ever listening to your gut instinct in making decisions, rather than any strenuous or exterior impetus,” he says.

Scutt’s first Broadway project was Nick Payne’s Constellations, and he built the set with his bare hands. “There was no model box,” he explains. “We filled the stage with balloons, and I placed them myself—sort of like an art instillation.” For Scutt, it’s about doing what is right for the project, and not doing what will make one remembered or “stand out.” He prefers the anonymity that comes from his work being seamless with the production and its storytelling.

This idea is never truer than with King Charles III, which ran on Broadway this past fall. “King Charles is a world that isn’t startlingly original, in terms of the visual language,” he says. “The staging is boldly austere, but the costume world is totally taken from heritage.” Scutt was “frankly surprised” when he got nominated for the show, because he truly feels he just designed a world that exists—with nothing splashy, new, or innovative. His work featured a provocative, minimalistic set and black costumes, all of which were crowned by lavish and detailed finale pieces for the coronation scene. Despite Scutt’s modesty regarding his work on King Charles III, it is an example of what good design does: It served the material so perfectly while inviting imagination to take hold as you filled in the gaps due to the lack of the obvious on stage.

Two of Tom Scutt’s design sketches for King Charles III

But is that the calling of a great designer? To be in service to the project rather than in search of recognition? This leads us back to where we began: fear. Winning a Tony Award will no doubt tempt a gearshift in the mind—a change in priorities to uphold the reputation of someone who is no longer anonymous and now carries consumer expectations.

Scutt is usually surrounded by collaborators, producers, and production executives who are twice his senior, and he says it’s one of his goals to continue to balance the “anxiety of age and levels of insecurity of youth” to allow him to “skew my opinions of my self confidence so I can be a more capable designer.” Just the day before our meeting, Scutt presented his set design to the senior team for the upcoming Video Music Awards (VMAs) at a long sparse table centered in an empty cavernous Madison Square Garden. The table was filled with familiar industry faces that can stare with the intensity of experience and wisdom, as you stare back with youth and trembling excitement.

In this meeting, however, Scutt didn’t feel his usual trepidation at being surrounded by well-seasoned creative teams. He has pushed himself to face the reality that he is entering a new chapter in his career, a chapter in which he no longer has to look back on pitch meetings “embarrassed” at his delivery fueled by the arrogance of youth. It’s the confidence that he is hitting milestones that were never planned. Scutt’s life is structured by the work he is doing, whether it’s a play on Broadway, a small tour in the UK, or the VMAs in a 40,000-seat arena. It’s about the work, and that wipes away the fear that comes along with forcing yourself to do certain things as a young creative in this business because you “feel the need to climb the ladder.”

In a season of many young artists making their marks, Scutt is no doubt a part of a new generation that is revolutionizing theatre in all areas. We wrap up our drinks at 2 a.m. — after eight hours of discussing both Scutt’s work and being young in the industry. (He’s afraid of the spotlight hindering his focus work; I’m more nervous about finding a cab to get home.)

But whether he’s designing a huge television event or a small show, Scutt does not want to compromise his vision. Whatever he’s working on, he keeps his focus on the work. “We should always keep live the idea in our mind of revolution,” Scutt says, “keeping that fresh, youthful, original spirit that is constantly changing.”

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Styling by Kayla Foster