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NIDA confers honorary degree upon Brian Thomson AM

The inaugural honorary degree of Master of Fine Arts was conferred upon Brian Thomson AM by Jennifer Bott, AO, NIDA CEO at the NIDA Graduation Ceremony Sunday 26 May 2019.

Photo: Brian Thomson AM receives the honorary degree of Master of Fine Arts.

The inaugural honorary degree of Master of Fine Arts was conferred upon Brian Thomson AM by Jennifer Bott, AO, NIDA CEO at the NIDA Graduation Ceremony Sunday 26 May 2019.

From the original production of The Rocky Horror Show, to winning a Tony award for The King and I, to extravaganzas on Sydney Harbour, Brian Thomson AM has created many of the most iconic stage sets ever designed by an Australian – and has been described by authoritative theatre critic Harry Kippax ‘as being among the handful of the world’s greatest theatre designers’.

Despite Brian’s exceptional career, he has also found time since the early 1990s to teach NIDA Design students and has mentored many into the profession. His loyalty and dedication to NIDA and his nurturing of students past and present has been outstanding. 

Fifty years ago, Brian Thomson met director Jim Sharman - from this chance meeting, he made his theatre debut in 1971 when he designed set and costumes for Jim’s legendary productions of As You Like It for the Old Tote Theatre and Hair for producer Harry M. Miller.

Brian designed sets for the original Australian and London productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. He designed the enduring cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show and won the 1996 Tony award for the Broadway production of The King and I which also played at the London Palladium. He designed Kylie Minogue's Intimate and Live Tour in 1999, Kylie Minogue's Goddess floats for the 2012 Mardi Gras and was supervising designer for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Closing Ceremony, the 2001 Centenary of Federation Ceremony, the 2003 Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony and the Closing Ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. He has also designed The Harbour Bridge Effect for Sydney New Year’s Eve celebrations from 2005 – 2010, and is the designer by appointment to Dame Edna.

* In 2005 Brian was awarded an Order of Australia for his contribution to the Arts.
* In 2017, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sydney Theatre Awards.
* He is the first designer to be an Associate Director for a theatre company (Sydney Theatre Company 1981)
* The first Australian designer to win a Tony Award on Broadway;
* The first designer to design the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour;
* He has designed sets for more productions in the Sydney Opera House than any other designer.

Brian’s envious and ground-breaking career has been achieved through his evocative, poetic and bold visual gestures and his willingness to stand up for an idea no matter the material or personal cost. He has said 'I have been witness to a whole succession of devasting performances given by extraordinary people, [John Bell as Arturo Ui, Tim Curry as Frankenfurter, Robyn Nevin in A Cheery Soul, Judy Davis as Lulu, Peter Carroll as Diaghilev and Mel Gibson in A Shadow Knows]. I guess that is what I look for in the theatre – who is really going to excite me? I like to think that maybe that my work helped push that person a bit towards that'.

Brian Thomson has also enjoyed a significant film career, in 1982 he production designed Gillian Armstrong’s second feature film Starstruck and NIDA is very excited to be developing this new stage musical, which will open in October in the Parade Theatre.

Director Jim Sharman says this of Brian, 'He is one of the great stage wizards. He creates imaginative, iconic spaces that uniquely define productions and generate performance energy. Brian’s work responds to a simple scientific fact: the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound – what you see defines everything else.

Architecturally-trained, Brian emerged as designer at a time when Utzon’s great sails were being hoisted over Sydney Harbour, and the artists Christo and Jean–Claude had wrapped the coastline in billowing canvas. These cultural events helped transform a colonial backwater into an international city.

They greatly influenced Brian and created an awareness of how visual culture can impact on the growth of a society. In an era when our stages tended toward the provincial and the decorative, Brian introduced a bold new design language. It was influenced by modernism, minimalism and the ‘take no prisoners’ iconography of pop art. The results were radical, stunning, contentious. Brian’s designs went on to pioneer global awareness of Australian stage and screen culture.

There’s a lifetime of challenge and rigour in Brian’s subsequent catalogue of achievement. As a personal observation, I feel it’s never strayed too far from the notion that performance should also be playful and fun. Behind all Brian’s work and subsequent influence, be it frivolous or austere [and there’s plenty of both] lurks the twinkle of a mischievous child’s eye. Long may that eye blink in surprise and wonder at the folly and grandeur of it all.'

Dr Peter Cooke, Professor and Head of School of Drama of Carnegie Mellon University sends his congratulations and these words ‘Beginning in the late 1960s Brian Thomson changed the aesthetic and visual language of Australian Theatre Design. Through his use of pop iconography, sophisticated semiotics, new materials and insightful dramaturgical awareness, his scenography seduces as it informs. With an aesthetic lineage linked to Margaret Preston, Florence Broadhurst, Robert Helpmann, Martin Sharp, Reg Mombasa and Barry Humphries, Australian Theatre imagery has been redefined and triumphantly transformed under Brian’s modernist and incredibly focused gaze.’

Dr Julie Lynch, Director, Centre for Design Practices at NIDA, acknowledges that ‘while Brian is a talent and force to be reckoned with, he is a very generous soul; he is passionate about all aspects of our industry, and as well as teaching at NIDA - he continues to promote young talent - particularly NIDA design graduates. I hope Brian will continue to teach at NIDA for as long as possible.’

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