One day in mid-sip of a chai latte, Dorothy was sucked up into a whirlwind. When she touched down she found herself in a new kingdom, a completely foreign land full of flora and fauna and a cast of characters unlike anything she had known back home. While the Emerald Empire had boasted such wonders as glittering skyscrapers and singing hairdressers, this new land, while not as sparkly, offered such oddities as a view of the horizon, free parking and neighbors who were, well, neighborly. Dorothy had discovered the Midwest. And I was Dorothy.
There's No Place Like Home
I had been working as a freelance set and costume designer out of New York City for 25 years when the call came from Webster University in St. Louis. Would I consider a Visiting Professor-ship in Theatre Design? I had been commuting to St. Louis for 20 years, designing for both the Opera Theatre and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. I had even subbed as a teacher at Webster for a semester. But those gigs were measured in months. This teaching position was a commitment not of weeks but of years.
After 25 years in New York, my life, my career, and my social circle all revolved around Manhattan. Even with a pied-a-terre as a security blanket, moving lock, stock, and barrel 1,000 miles due west was a scary proposition. After much nail biting, and with the full support of my spouse, I took the leap and accepted the position. I was Dorothy doing a reverse commute.
My first year living full-time in St. Louis has been a fascinating study in contrasts. Where NYC is big and grimy and aggressive, St. Louis is small and clean and polite. Initially, I was wary of how nice St. Louisans are. In NYC, I was lucky if someone held a door for me while struggled with an armload of boxes. When I arrived in St. Louis, I was met by the head of my department and a crew of his students who unloaded my moving van for me! And nobody tried to steal a thing! I mumbled to my equally stunned husband, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.”
A Twister of Technology
That was one year ago. Now that I'm settled in my new home I am taking advantage of the many design opportunities in my new backyard. In addition to the Opera Theatre and the Repertory Theatre, St. Louis boasts two Shakespeare companies, the Black Repertory Theatre, Stages St. Louis, the Muny (the nation's oldest and largest outdoor theatre,) as well as dozens of other designer-friendly venues.
Living in the center of the country in no way limits my design opportunities. In many ways it has enhanced them. I continue to freelance all over the country. The reason I've continued to work without interruption can be summed up in one word: technology. Ten years ago I had only a phone, a fax and FedEx to communicate with the world. Today I can choose from a smorgasbord of techno-wonders to keep me in the loop.
Thanks to brilliant computer geeks everywhere, I can copy, scan, fax, and send photos all from a single machine. I used to have to wait for blueprints to arrive in the mail; now I get a JPG file and I'm good to go. There was a time I actually traveled with a bulky Polaroid camera to document my prop shopping. Now I use a digital camera with a memory stick.
My email has become my lifeline to the world. It's my first “wake up” call in the morning and my last stop on the way to bed at night. With a click of the mouse I can check in with folks around the globe without having to worry about bothersome time zones. The recipients of my information neither know nor care from whence their information comes; NYC, St. Louis or Timbuktu, it's all just a click away.
After my move I did a little research on phone services and discovered the wonders of Vonage, a service that allows me to keep my coveted New York City “212” area code and add my St. Louis number onto a single bill. Colleagues in NYC call my old number and folks in St. Louis dial my new number, and all the calls are zapped to me wherever I am. This service saves everyone the price of a long distance call and saves me from missing important calls.
In the “olden days” designers used to schlep their portfolios to interviews. Traveling to interviews, whether across the country or simply up the block, can be both expensive and time consuming — not to mention a pain in the neck, back, and feet to a designer in heels. Though I still believe a face-to-face meeting is the best way to show my work, I am ever cognizant of the financial constraints on theatre budgets. Producers can't afford to pay me to travel to them, and I can't always afford the time or money to take a trip out of town. Sending my actual portfolio is a nail-biting experience. And sending slides? Fugged-aboudit. I now send interested producers and directors to my website. They may peruse my work at their own pace, and I avoid a chiropractic bill.
I'm Frightened, Auntie Em!
Despite the technological advances that have helped me continue to work across the country, my move to the Midwest has created an ache of longing for the myriad goods and services I took for granted in NYC.
Though technology has made giant strides in accessing visuals through services such as Google and Corbis, I find I miss the tactile aspects of research. I itch for the hands-on experience of trolling the stacks at the New York Public or Fashion Institute of Technology Libraries. And any designer who hasn't experienced the New York Public Library Picture Collection just hasn't lived.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was always my second stop on any project. Their Costume Collection is an education in itself. Being able to study a period garment at close range is nirvana for me. Suddenly history comes alive before my eyes. The Cloisters in upper Manhattan has the same effect as it opens a window to a Medieval world long past. Nothing on Google will ever replace these experiences.
But even without the pleasures of hands-on NYC research, I find the design process is essentially the same. Once the research is complete, I switch gears and enter production mode. Unfortunately, the Midwest is found wanting here as well. My first shock came when I entered the local art supply store. Though the selection was decent, the prices gave me sticker shock. And they say New York is expensive. I wonder if artistic expression is reserved for the rich in America's Heartland. Artists here must order through catalogues for reasonable prices.
Similarly, fabric and display materials are severely limited in St. Louis. I made the mistake of trying to find swatches for an opera while in town. While I was amazed at the plethora of quilting fabrics that greeted me at every turn, I could not find a single four-ply silk crepe to save my life. Once again, ordering by phone is the modus operandi for production folks in St. Louis. In NYC, I can experience instantaneous gratification by dashing out to buy what ever I want, whenever I want it. In the Midwest, I must plan ahead and hope the delivery arrives in time.
Clicking My Heels
Yes, living and working in St. Louis demands a different mindset, but I've learned to appreciate what the Midwest has to offer: that luminous horizon that I rarely saw in NYC, the abundant free parking, and all of the delicious niceness of Midwesterners. Learning how to compensate for what's lacking has provided me with a new perspective. While I value all NYC has to offer, I've had the chance to re-evaluate my need to live there 24/7. It is a shift in strategy that has enriched my life — both professionally and personally.
In many ways I work harder as a designer here in St. Louis because of the need to travel. I make frequent runs out to NYC to find research, supplies, and inspiration. I fly back to St. Louis with my horde. But then, I get to kick back on my porch and enjoy the view. Perhaps I have discovered the best kind of life. New York City and St. Louis. There is no place like home — both of them.
Marie Anne Chiment is a set and costume designer for opera, theater and dance. She is currently serving as Visiting Associate Professor of Design at Webster University. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org; her website is at www.chiment.com.