Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Canary in a culture mine

Stage designer Lindsay Anne Black retiring because of chemical sensitivities

Toronto set designer Lindsay Anne Black is retiring this year because of multiple chemical sensitivity, a combination of environmental allergies that makes working in her field impossible.

Despite brief dreams of being a fly-girl on In Living Color, nearly everything in Lindsay Anne Black’s childhood hinted at a future in stage design. Her mother was a painter with a passion for performance and period costumes. Her father worked in heavy machinery and was adept with carpentry and electronics.

Trolling books for inspiration, late nights painting in an empty theatre, creating tiny details half the audience won’t notice, even the voluminous paperwork that comes with the job are all a joy for Black.

“The only part I dislike is the shopping,” she laughs. “But even that can be satisfying at times, or at least funny. Like when you suddenly find yourself face to face with a life-sized meerkat statue in the Lansdowne Value Village.”

Her singularly focused passion is part of what’s going to make giving it up so hard. Since 2008, Black’s been dealing with multiple chemical sensitivity, a combination of environmental allergies that makes working in her field impossible. Theatres are a virtual toxic stew of paint fumes, off-gassing plastics and fabric-dye vapours. For someone with Black’s condition, that’s meant everything from hives to heart palpitations to asthma attacks, even a terrifying near-psychotic episode once.

“By January, it became painfully clear I couldn’t continue,” she says. “It took me another month to come to terms with it and start the process of turning down offers of new work. I feel like I’m being forced to give up my whole identity.”

Black still has two more projects to complete before she calls it quits: As You Like It, in High Park this summer, and Daniel MacIvor’s Bingo! at Factory Theatre. Does knowing the projects will be her last change the process?

“There’s some added pressure, but I’m pretty sure it’s coming only from myself,” she says. “When it comes down to it, I’ve worked extremely hard on every single one of my designs, so in a way, it’s not that different. I’ll admit I’ve caught myself a couple of times thinking, ‘This is the last time you’ll do this.’ Sometimes it’s lucky we work in the dark during tech week.”

As for future plans, things aren’t clear, though a job that would let her work from home and avoid environmental exposure would be ideal. She’s also building a website called Canary in a Culture Mine where she’ll interview other artists and discuss the impact of chemical sensitivities on cultural workers.

“Hopefully, it can be a cautionary tale of extraordinary woe and also a valuable health-and-safety resource to theatre students and other artists at risk,” she says. “If I can’t change this situation for myself, at least I can help other people. Otherwise, why the fuck did I do all of this?”