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Brian Richards + Marco de Kretser
From A Webpage To A Webstage
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How Can Theatre Inspire The Future of Websites?

Oscar Wilde regarded the theatre as the greatest of all art forms:

“[It is] the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Great theatre should challenge us to think and investigate a world of tensions, reflecting the human experience in all its complexity. How different then is the website’s homepage from facing the stage in a dark auditorium as the curtains rise up?

I have often thought that stage design is not that far removed from the design of a website. Yet the lack of theatricality in web design falls well short of the scenographer’s hand: a master of space, emotion and perspective.

I think there are lessons here we can all learn for modern web design. After all, to quote Oscar Wilde, we are sensory human beings...

Scenography at Its Finest

I reached out last week to a friend and colleague, Tracy Grant Lord, a leading set and costume designer actively working with theatre companies internationally.

Tracy’s attention to detail is impressive. With each line of a script, she searches for perspective and themes, identifying ways she can guide the audience’s response to what is occurring on stage. Theatre has always been, as Tracy says, “a mechanical exercise”, using the intricacies of sound, light, movement, costume, and word to interpret the story. You have a defined space to work in, with sight lines, foregrounds, backgrounds, distance, and scale.

Tracy Grant Lord's set design for the Scottish Ballet’s performance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Photo by Rich Dyson.

There are many tricks to call upon, of course; however, all of them are essentially mechanical. Whether you're moving a bowstring on the violin, fading lights or getting actors on and off stage, Tracy quotes: “The crew behind the tools are all part of the craft, working in collaboration through constraints to budget, time and space to create that moment, looking for the tensions in the script and projecting emotional performances to thousands of people”.

From Mechanical to Digital

From the mechanical to the digital realm, the same creativity is crucial in designing engaging websites. A drop-down menu is not dissimilar to a moment that sparks a pivot in a play. A user experience is not too far removed from an audience’s experience. As we click into something of interest, what happens to our emotions as new information is revealed before us?

How might we analyse a users needs in the same way that a scenographer dissects a script — to extract storylines, choreograph transitions between ideas, and identify ways to motivate action towards a particular outcome?

A performance that begins in Act Three, when the villain is defeated, will have nowhere near the impact without Act One’s drama and Act Two’s excitement. In a similar vein, if Act Three is when the user purchases on a website, it is the role of Act One and Two to dare, charm and inspire through a multi-sensory experience.

Tracy explains to us the functional elements of a stage and how that guides her designs. Photo by Marco de Kretser.

Functionality vs Creativity

In theatre, you need an intriguing plot, but you must also get people on and off stage.

In websites, there are also inherent functions a user expects: contact details, about information, add-to-cart buttons and so on… and the user must be able to navigate between these groups of information with ease. You can bolster functionality through creativity: high-quality imagery, sound, stories, animation or other media. Their use can make or break how daring something feels, but it must not be at the expense of functionality.

You must be able to get people on and off stage.

As codeless web-building tools become more common, they are democratising the ability to produce aesthetically pleasing, minimal websites. It is, therefore, the role of the strategic designer to weave emotional stories through easily navigable information, producing websites that truly resonate with audiences rather than those that are *just* beautiful.

Guide me through your story. Immerse me in those special moments in your world. Invite me in.

And when the curtains eventually close, leave me wanting more.

Being with Tracy in her enchanting studio is akin to observing the skills of a watchmaker. Photo by Marco de Kretser.


Tracy Grant Lord is a leading Australasian set and costume designer of ballet, opera and theatre based in Auckland and working with major performance companies including Royal New Zealand Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and the Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland Theatre Companies.

Her work has been toured to critical success throughout the United Kingdom, China, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, in particular several productions for the Royal New Zealand Ballet including Liam Scarlett’s acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and both Cinderella, and Romeo and Juliet which received an Olivier Award Nomination for Best New Dance Production in the UK. Assignments in Helsinki and Seattle with theatre companies will be a feature of her work this year.

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