Balancing life as a designer and instructor: An educator's survival guide

Chris Parry was panicking. The lighting designer had just started teaching at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and things weren't going well. Growing up in England, he'd always thought his teachers always had all the right answers. Now, only a few weeks into teaching an eager group of young aspiring designers, not only did he feel that he didn't have that right answer for his students, he was also deathly afraid of telling them he didn't know something. Parry was feeling such enormous pressure he went to the chair of the department, prepared to call it quits.

“Look, I think I may have made an awful mistake,” he told the chair. “I'm not enjoying this at all.”

The chair calmed him down. “We employed you because you're a talented artist, because of who you are, because of what you do,” he told the designer. “With that comes all your quirks and foibles. Don't try and hide that from the students. Some will accept it and some won't. And that's okay.”

Parry took three months off and decided to come back. That was almost 15 years ago; today he is the head of the UCSD lighting design program. “I now see myself as much more of a mentor than a teacher or professor,” Parry says. “I tell students that I'm a working designer who happens to teach, rather than a teacher who also designs. I think that's an important distinction.”

Just as every design is different, and every student is different, so too is every designer/instructor. Ask anyone who's done it and they'll tell you that balancing work as a teacher of undergrad and grad students while still finding the time for the work you yourself trained for can be one of the most challenging juggling acts around, requiring an inordinate amount of time, patience, and skill, not to mention easy access to a decent airport. They'll also tell you that, when done right, it can also be one of the most rewarding.

For those working designers contemplating a trip to the halls of academia to add to their already busy schedules, it can be one of the most difficult decisions they'll ever have to make. And once they've made the leap, there are a wide variety of issues that must be faced, from mundane problems like time management and administrative headaches to trickier subjects like student/teacher relationships and university politics. We asked a number of current instructor/designers how they've fared over the years: what's worked, what hasn't, what they'll never do again, and what they'd tell others contemplating the leap.

Period of Adjustment

In addition to discovering that he didn't have to have all the right answers for his students, Parry soon found that what he taught, and how he taught it, was completely up to him. “I was entirely on my own — very scary,” he recalls. “I was also unsure that I could actually teach my design process at first. I'd never had to personally analyze it before.” He eventually learned how to create lesson plans from a teacher-advice department on the campus of UCSD, pulled together his thoughts on how he learned to design, and asked other LDs who taught for their ideas, too. “Eventually I sifted it all, and through trial and error came up with my own method and style that works for me — and hopefully works for the students too.”

Brackley Frayer, head of design/technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had a similar adjustment to make. “I had no training in grad school on how to teach so the first year was a learning experience for me on the structure of a class,” he recalls. “Knowing how much material will fill up an hour of class time, what projects to begin with, how to calculate grades, and so on.”

Sound designer Tom Mardikes, associate professor of theatre sound design at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, says the toughest adjustment for him was to not churn out a lot of little Tom Mardikes. “What was most difficult here for me was to let people be themselves,” he says. “It took the most time to learn to let people grow, and not force it. Let people fail: That's why there are student productions.”

“I think finding a way to guide the students to do good work without actually designing it yourself was very difficult at first,” agrees set designer Chris Barreca, head of design at CalArts. “Ming Cho Lee had a way of pestering us with questions at Yale [where Barreca was a grad student], and although my questions are very different, I found that the Socratic method works very well in dealing with such an abstract problem as design.”

Another hard lesson, says Cindy Limauro, professor of lighting design at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, is not taking a student's failure personally. “There is only so much a teacher can do,” she says. “The responsibility ultimately lies with the student.” Mardikes agrees, saying, “It is painful to realize that some students have it and others never will.”

Stan Kaye, associate professor and head of the graduate lighting design program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says the toughest part about taking a teaching position in a new city is that you may be at the mercy of your geography. “The biggest lesson is making peace with the idea that you do what comes to you, wherever you are.” Though he was trained as a theatre designer, when Kaye moved to Nebraska to teach, the dearth of theatre work forced him to work as an ETC dealer on the side. When he got the U of F gig, he found work in theme park design. “You take whatever work is around you,” he says. “The trick is not to become isolated and become an academic exclusively. I think that's dangerous.”

Day-to-Day Challenges

Of course, that often entails holding down at least two jobs at once, a task that's easier said than done. Ask any instructor/designer what is the biggest challenge they face in their dual careers and the answer is, inevitably, a no-brainer: time. “Maintaining a professional career often takes you away from the students at inopportune times,” says Ann Archbold, head of the MFA lighting design program at Florida State University's School of Theatre. “My tech weeks somehow always fall during my students' tech weeks, so not being there to support and nurture them is difficult. Yet my professional work ultimately enhances their education.”

At times it becomes hard enough just to get any sleep, much less successfully juggle both roles. For six years, while teaching at University of Washington, CalArts, and UCSD, lighting designer Peter Maradudin would teach Mondays and part of Tuesdays, which allowed him to maintain a 15- to 17-show annual production schedule. “What that really meant was that on what would normally be my day off, I would get up at 5am on Monday, fly to whichever school, teach all day, see a student show that night, critique with the students until about 1am, get up for a 9am class, bolt out the door around 11am to the airport and be back for tech or preview by late afternoon Tuesday. I would cram in, in about a day and a half, about a 25-hour work week teaching classes, not counting the prep time that I would have to find for classes and the normal 60-hour tech week during production, plus running an architectural firm. A 100-hour work week was not uncommon.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Maradudin opted to take this year off.

Costume designer Helen Huang, a full professor at the University of Maryland, has a similar schedule, teaching Mondays and Wednesdays. “Sometimes I fly out Tuesday for a fitting at a regional theatre, fly back the same day, teach on Wednesday, and then fly out again. Sometimes I fly back to school, teach, have a meeting, take a taxi to the airport, and fly back to the theatre without ever going home.

“It's especially difficult for a costume designer, I think,” she adds, “because you have to be around for fittings, both in your professional job and at school too. We have an MFA program and I work very closely with my students so I go to their fittings too.” Huang notes that such a juggling act becomes even harder when there are children at home; she has two. “It's a triple challenge,” she says.

Barreca notes that such a schedule has taken its toll on more than a few friends. “The issue has to be how long can you do that and have your work not suffer?” he says. “When do you need to take a break? How can you let others take up the responsibilities?” He says the major factor in his survival has been his colleagues at CalArts.

The Political Hot Potato

Of course, in a university setting, survival and colleagues don't necessarily go hand in hand. Between jealous co-workers, intractable institutions, mandatory committee work, and dogmatic chairs, academia is riddled with the careers of well-meaning instructors who saw their tenure go up in smoke because they were never able to successfully navigate their school's often turbulent office politics.

“Henry Kissinger once said that ‘the reason the politics in academia are so vicious is because the stakes are so small,’” notes Kaye. He feels that the faculty are as responsible for helping a new hire gain tenure as the individual faculty member. “It is not the job of the faculty to make it difficult for the person to achieve tenure. It is the job of the senior faculty to help the person achieve success. The individual must be proactive in working toward success, and should seek out mentors within the faculty who can help and aid the person in their development within the department.”

“[Politics] is truly the most frustrating part of teaching,” says Archbold. “As lighting designers, we are problem solvers. What often seems like the most logical solution in our eyes can turn out to be the most problematic one. It can be incredibly difficult at times to stay above the fray.”

“If you try to stay above the fray, you'll eventually drown in the fray,” adds Mardikes. “First you have to learn the system, develop allies and friends, and maintain your integrity. It is a different world than the theatre, so dive in and enjoy it.”

Huang says that perhaps there shouldn't be a fray at all. She notes that in Europe and Asia, most design schools are housed in a conservatory setting. “Design is usually a studio, a field, or a lab. Setting design in a university situation is really strange.”

But since that won't become the norm here anytime soon, the best thing an aspiring instructor/designer can do is be prepared for inevitable conflicts, even in the most stable of settings. “If you are a working designer who designs outside of the university, then there will be people that may be jealous of who you are and could be threatened by your presence,” says Frayer. “I have found that if you are supported by a good administration who wants you out there designing and representing the university, then it does not really matter what other people think. If, on the other hand, the administration doesn't support you, well, then, you might want to take a look at a copy of Artsearch and move on.”

Some Sound Advice

If, after hearing about all the dangers and caveats of this rewarding but exhausting academic life, you are still interested in pursuing the dual career of designer/instructor, our experts are not short on words of wisdom. First and foremost, says Limauro, don't bother until you've established yourself as a designer and therefore have something real-world to give back to students. “A well-established professional designer has a much easier time maintaining their professional career once they've gone into teaching,” she notes. “It is extremely difficult for someone who goes into teaching right away to establish a professional career, and often it is impossible to compete with the professional designer for jobs.”

If you've reached that stage, the next obvious step is to pick a school that's a good fit with your skills and goals. “Find a place that will be supportive of your professional endeavors,” says Archbold. “Do your homework about the program and its mission. And finally, be sure that you are ready to become more settled in your lifestyle and your career. The benefits of a steady paycheck, insurance, and retirement plans can be very alluring — make sure you are ready.”

“Determine if the institution you wish to join values academic training or professional training,” suggests Mardikes. “Political problems and jealousies seem to predominate in academic programs. I prefer professional training; everyone is doing too many interesting projects to squabble.

“Universities divide workloads into Teaching, Research, and Service,” he continues. “Research is usually valued as writing articles and books, but can be valued as creating art. Make sure you negotiate a contract where you are rewarded for your creative professional work as an artist. Service can be campus committee work or even noble things like USITT involvement. Be clear on how the university views Service, because it can be a real time absorber. Do not consider taking an appointment on a full-time basis if the position is not offered as tenure-track. This is an important rights issue, and the job is marginalized without that important designation.”

And before you say yes to anything, be absolutely sure this is what you want to do; it's more than just your future at stake. “Be very clear why you are teaching,” says Kaye. “We don't need any more mediocre teachers. There are many designers who are great artists; that does not make them good teachers. United Scenic Artists is a labor union, filled with some of the best design talent in the world, but it says nothing about how good a teacher one is.”

“Teaching, if one is not careful, can be completely consuming,” warns Maradudin. “By that I mean that students can be, much to their credit, energy vampires. They demand your attention much more than you might think going in. If a student is in trouble, or communication at the school is not as good as it could be, the temptation to wade in there and save the day is almost irresistible. And it is tempting to try to be both teacher and friend. It is tempting to make choices based on a desire for your students to like you as a person. That is a terrible, terrible trap. It's not unlike the argument that what a child needs is a parent, not a friend. Same with teachers. A student needs you as a teacher, first and foremost, and you are doing both of you a favor if you leave it at that. You also end up saving a little bit of yourself.”

What You Get in Return

For those of you who haven't been completely demoralized and intimidated by the challenges and advice given by these veterans, let us now turn to the rewards, which they all say are many. The first is rather obvious. “My design work makes me a better teacher and my teaching makes me a better designer,” says Limauro.

“My philosophy is that in order to become a good teacher, you have to become a good designer,” adds Huang. “They reinforce each other. So when I learn and grow as a designer, I see that as a benefit to my program and to the students. And to see the students grow and develop a professional attitude from that is rewarding. At the same time, when my own children see how engaged I am in the work I'm doing, I feel it's being passed on to them.”

Then there are the day-to-day, real-world benefits, which should not be taken lightly. “It's a pretty good living,” says Mardikes. “Face it: American higher education has been underwriting regional theatre design for the last 25 years. LORT should give higher education some kind of appreciation award.

“There is great freedom in doing both,” he adds. “Neither job truly ‘owns’ you. If you are sick of teaching, you can walk away and still have a career in theatre.”

If you've never experienced it before, the simple act of teaching should not be overlooked, either. “It is exciting to bring my ideas and challenges into the classroom,” says Archbold. “Whenever possible I take my students with me which allows them to see firsthand that I practice what I preach. We can work on projects in the moment rather than read about them in textbooks.”

Sometimes, it even goes beyond what you can teach them during the school day. “It's very gratifying when they learn something from you that you didn't teach in the classroom,” notes Parry. “For example, one student who had been watching and assisting me during a tech week at the RSC said, ‘Wow, you're always so patient and calm on the headset — how do you do it?’ It really made me think — I'd actually never thought about it much before, but then I realized I was. And I introduced it into my classes.”

And on top of everything else, says Barreca, it might make you live longer — or at least better. “I believe that I am a younger man because I'm a teacher,” he says. “That means I'm still hungry and interested. It comes from constantly being around the next hungry generation. It also means I'm rarely satisfied, sort of like my newborn daughter. I guess I have learned as much from them as they from me.”

An Educator's Checklist of Dos and Don'ts

As one of the longest-lasting instructors at New York University — she's taught costume design there for almost 30 years now — Carrie Robbins has seen a lot of instructors come and go. She says she's stuck with it all these years because of the intellectual stimulation she derives from working with students (the regular salary doesn't hurt either, she adds).

“Teaching was always, and still is, lots of fun for me,” she says. “I'm lucky. My students at NYU have always been bright, interested in what we're talking about, and they've never hesitated to challenge me on my own work, which keeps me on my design toes.”

For this story, Robbins was kind enough to offer us her highly personal list of dos and don'ts for aspiring designer/educators. They are:

  • Don't

    do it just because you're looking for a cheap assistant or free labor.

  • Don't do it if you don't want to share your ideas.

  • Don't do it if you are running out of ideas and figure you might pick up a few from the students.

  • Don't do it if you expect to get your ego stroked. You might get that stroking, but it could be from your students' desire to get a good grade — which is actually quite reasonable on their part.

  • Don't do it unless you intend to show up — regularly.

  • Don't do it to make a lot of money.

  • Don't do it if you don't practice in your design work what you intend to preach/teach in your classroom.

  • Don't do it if you can't take genuine pride in your students.

  • Don't do it if you don't have a sense of humor.

  • Do

    it if you really enjoy talking about design — and not just your own.

  • Do it if you like to share ideas, and don't mind the occasional challenge to those ideas.

  • Do it if you're ready to make a reasonable time and energy commitment.

  • Do it if you really are ready to pass on some of what you've learned and genuinely want to save some other folks some painful lessons you had to learn the hard way!