Imagine you're working on, say, eight productions. One is a musical. Two are new plays. You have a first artistic conference on one. You're in tech on another. And, oh yeah, you can't afford an assistant.
That's not unusual for young designers who work mainly at small theatres. Costume designer Rachel Healy wishes she had someone to keep her organized and to track shows character by character — “to have a checklist in their hands instead of my head.” She'd like another voice in fittings. And should she need a walking stick from the early 1900s, it would be wonderful for someone to research options. Healy's idea of a vacation? Working normal hours at a theatre that actually has a shop.
A 10'×12' bedroom serves as costume shop for Alison Heryer. It would be great to send someone across town for thread and to find someone who knows how to put things together from a pattern, but when theatres do provide an assistant, it may be someone who can't thread a machine. “If I ever had the opportunity to do a show with full shop support, I'm not sure how I would handle it,” Heryer says. “I am so used to working on my own.”
Scenic designer/LD Brian Sidney Bembridge wishes he had someone to bounce ideas off who would also schedule meetings, do some drafting, and keep an eye on his wallet, cell phone, and keys. He'd like a note-taker, too — “that sounds so pretentious” — but how nice it would be to never take his eyes off the stage. He used a light-up pen at the Arden Theatre Company when the Lookingglass Theatre Company moved its production of Hard Times to Philadelphia. “I had to hide the pen,” says Bembridge, LD on that, who noticed people glance at him when he turned it on.
Sound designer Josh Schmidt feels the ideal colleague would have skills that are different from his and would be a collaborator more than an assistant; “when theatres have house engineers, it's a great relief.” Paper work and programming are part of his process, and he likes to be at rehearsals. If he had an assistant, maybe to focus on one aspect of construction or implementation, he would want the person there from day one to go through the process with him. “The discipline of sound design is still evolving,” notes Schmidt, and so is the role of the assistant.
So how do independent designers stay organized, and sane, without outside help?
“Caffeine,” Bembridge advises.
Healy gets up early and works late, but she's learning how to budget time and know which ends to cut. “I work very hard and then I try to give myself at least one day off a week, like any normal person would have,” she says, explaining her vision is clearer when she returns to her work. When she first graduated from North-western, she took everything. She now “would turn down a show if I had to compromise myself and the show” to do it.
Skipping steps can be useful. Bembridge usually doesn't do renderings. By going right to the model, he saves time and directors can see spatial relationships quickly. “I always bring a blade and scissors,” he says, explaining that he can take models apart on the spot and let directors play.
When Bembridge designs lights, he says VectorWorks or CAD might help, but he prefers to do his plots by hand. “Even in CAD, the weight of a line might not be exact when you get to the theatre. There is usually nothing that is perfectly square.”
Limiting jobs to those close to home saves flying and driving time for those who work in cities with active theatre scenes.
A day job that provides money for personal use and easy access to helpful people can help reduce stress. When Haley worked in the Goodman Theatre costume shop, she picked up techniques from crafts people, made good connections, and the designers who came through inspired her. Now she does adjunct teaching at DePaul University. Teaching can provide a pool of assistants for those who can afford to pay them.
Heryer, who sometimes must use what she finds in actors' closets, wishes companies would pool their resources. The Costume Exchange, a defunct Chicago collective once run by Steppenwolf shop manager Caryn Klein, kept stock designers could rent at reasonable prices and provided machines for their use. “It is kind of a legend to me,” Heryer says.
Healy says small theatres may provide help in unlikely ways. An actor may struggle to figure out how to wear something. A director might enjoy crafts and help build a hat. “When everyone knows the costume designer is having sleepless nights, people pitch in,” she says.
Working without an assistant also has an upside. “Sometimes, when you're juggling a lot of shows, magical things can happen,” says Healey, whose work on one show can give her ideas for another. “I'm on fire when I do a lot of things at once.”
“If you love the work you're doing, you'll get it done,” Bembridge remarks. “People either leave or get stronger.”
“The people you get to work with and the final products make it worth the effort,” says Heryer. “You go crazy and swear up and down you're not going to do it anymore, and then you see the show.”
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