“Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?” so goes the lyric from the opening number of A Chorus Line sung by an aspiring triple-threat. For aspiring theatre designers, the answer to the lyric is yes…and no. Design faculty at top colleges can easily see through the gloss of a slick portfolio. An attractive presentation is nice, but if the talent and the ability are not there, the presentation is moot.

In the Fall 2004 issue of the U/RTA Update, U/RTA executive director Scott Steele noted that portfolios are partly about concealing weaknesses. But a designer's strengths should not be buried for the sake of presentation. A portfolio that is all “bells and whistles” keeps university design recruiters from seeing what really exists in the student's mind, what gifts the students truly have, or even where the real talent deficits may hide.

Know How

For example, if you cannot adequately represent your designs by taking pencil to paper, you already have an uphill battle. “I'm looking for art skills traditionally called ‘visual arts,’ which is problematic in the American educational system in terms of training designers,” says Richard Isackes, chair at the University of Texas, Austin, and a set designer. “Most candidates have been theatre majors in their institutions, which seems completely appropriate but the skills of a theatre designer really start with skills of a visual artist.” He added that some of the best designers he has seen have come out of architectural programs.

“Far and away the most important skill to me is drawing,” Isackes continues. “Drawing is a learned skill. It is not a skill that I can teach at the beginning of a graduate training program along with all the other things that need to be taught in terms of learning how to design for performance.”

Isackes is particularly interested in students who have adequate experience in figure drawing because he believes that is where one really learns to draw. “A basic understanding of perspective, drafting, and two- and three-dimensional work is also essential,” he says. “There are fundamental classes that are taught in most college art departments where they can get these skills. If they know how to draw, I can teach them how to make a model; I can't teach them if they don't have basic skills.”

Drawing is also imperative from a lighting design point of view, especially examples of hand drafting, which should not be ignored just because computer drafting is available. “You can't be a lighting designer without the ability to hand-draft,” says Bill Teague, a professor of theatre at the University of Alabama who teaches both lighting and technical theatre design. “It's a skill you just have to have. You can hire someone to do the computer renderings.”

Scenic, costume, and lighting designers need to show an impressive command of the visual media, according to Dave Tosti-Lane, chair of the Performance Production Department at Cornish College in Seattle. “They should be able to draw — freehand, not just in Photo-shop — draft, deal with color, and understand color both in light and pigment,” he says. “Lighting designers should be able to represent their ideas graphically and be able to communicate a lighting idea to someone who does not speak the language of the designer, which is really the key for all designers: find a way to translate your ideas so that people who think differently than you can understand them.”

A student's portfolio should not only present their capabilities, but also the direction they hope to pursue. “I don't respond well to a student's portfolio that is so broad that they set themselves out as a jack of all trades, which is not realistic in terms of what the industry is,” says Peter Beudert, a set designer and the head of design and technical production at the University of Arizona. “I encourage students to have as much specificity as possible in terms of where they think their strengths are or what they want to work on in grad school. That tends to be one thing that some students don't achieve too well.”

The Right Stuff

It is also important to not only show your final work but how you got to that point. “Show process, show process, show process,” is Tosti-Lane's mantra. “Don't just show pretty pictures, but try to show the progression from research through sketching, through rough model or fabric swatches, through final design and photographs of finished work,” he says.

Beudert echoes this sentiment and adds that it's just like having to show your work in an algebra class. “The resulting beautiful image that demonstrates their work can be achieved in a lot of different ways. The artistic impulse that got them there is critical,” he says. “You should include casual sketches and a finished product, as well as notes taken during the process that reflect how you got where you're going, particularly as we see more and more digital portfolios. The steps you took which reflect your thinking as well as your way of working are as revealing as anything else.”

Teague also likes to see how potential lighting design majors achieve their finished rig. “It doesn't matter to me if you tear up a Rosco swatch book and tape it so it becomes a backlit slide, but I do like to see the colors represented graphically,” he says. “I also like to see cheat sheets and hookups. A lot of that gets lost today. I really like to see realized work, obviously. Good photographs of the finished product are pretty important.”

Teague feels it is advisable to keep the narrative to a minimum. “I don't know that a long, windy statement of purpose is necessarily important, but a paragraph or two about their approach to the show would be okay,” Teague says. “It's important to know what impact your colleagues' work had on your lighting. What other designers did and how you responded to them is not a bad thing to include, but not for every piece in the portfolio.”

Beudert says that it helps him understand how the student's de-sign process works if there is an accompanying statement of purpose with certain projects. “If they put into words what they thought about the design or work process, that indicates a process of synthesis that is important for someone going to graduate school,” he explains. “Graduate school is, after all, an academic environment and success in graduate school requires that kind of [writing] ability. If you choose to go to grad school, you can't forget about the academic aspect.”

By the Book, CD, or Website

It probably goes without saying that the contents of your portfolio matter a lot more than the context, but your presentation should be somewhat aesthetically pleasing without being “slick.” “It's nice to be neat and well organized,” Isackes says. “Some of the most exciting students I've seen are not particularly neat or well organized, but I do look at neatness and tidiness because that's not an unimportant value.”

Although Cornish does not offer an MFA, Tosti-Lane and his colleagues are heavily involved in coaching their students in proper portfolio preparation for graduate school. “We generally suggest that they arrange their portfolio with realized productions first and paper projects after, though exceptions are made when classroom work is particularly stunning,” he says.

The first step that Tosti-Lane and his colleagues take in portfolio prep is having students buy the pages first rather than purchasing an expensive carrying case. The students use the pages to experiment with the best way to present their work. The next step is all about layout and deciding what goes first, second, etc., and labeling everything properly. Finally, during their last semester, students have their last public portfolio review where they present their portfolios to the entire department (faculty and students). “We also invite guests including production managers and artistic directors from local companies, other designers, and various other potential employers,” Tosti-Lane says. “Students often wind up getting work from these presentations, and their portfolios are generally excellent.”

Then there is the issue of whether you should have a portfolio at all, at least in traditional terms. Many students are putting their portfolios on CD, DVD, or websites. Teague is a big fan of multi-media portfolios, if, for nothing else, sheer convenience. “I think you'd be crazy not to use a website or a CD,” he says. “I can see everything I need to see from a CD and it's just so convenient.” He added that hand drawn work can be easily scanned and computer work can just be saved.

Tosti-Lane is very comfortable reviewing work on a website or CD — he recently received a DVD from a BFA candidate — but he says that designers should not rely on just a multi-media portfolio. “If they have a really good presentation on CD or a website, then they can probably make the decision to go smaller with their paper portfolio, but there are still enough potential employers and grad school evaluators out there who are computer challenged,” he explains. “If anything, I might lean toward either website or DVD at this point — DVDs are easy to make and more and more people have DVD players at home.” He added that he would advise a student using a DVD portfolio that they might also do a simple QuickTime and Windows Media version and carry them on a CD, in case the reviewer doesn't have a computer with a DVD drive.

DVDs, CDs, and to some extent Web portfolios can work especially well for a sound designer because they have the capacity to introduce time-based events. “The danger is always that you'll wind up presenting to someone who just doesn't have the gear to play back your presentation,” Tosti-Lane says. “I suppose the fallback is to always bring something that you can play it on — laptop, portable player, etc. But do not commit yourself solely to this technology; always have a real, honest to goodness, hold-it-in-your-hand-and-turn-the-pages portfolio.”

A digital portfolio does, however, give a professor an instant insight into a student's ability, and Beudert likes being able to get that first impression of a student's work. “However, I always need to see the real thing at some point because I think there's an awful lot a digital portfolio can mask,” he says. “It's easier to oversell your work in a digital portfolio. I would certainly take in a student after having only seen their work in a traditional portfolio but I can't say the same is true with only a digital portfolio.” He added that sound designers in particular can benefit from a mostly digital portfolio but that he needs to see how visual artists draw, paint, and draft, even if it is only in CAD.

“I think it is quite telling how students present their work,” Beudert continues, “although some students may not be terribly well coached. However, when you speak with a student you try and establish a connection to their work. I prefer to encounter a student who has an artistic investment in their work but their skills may need improvement and that's what graduate school can do. The reason you're going to school is that you want to learn more. If you were perfect, there'd be no need to go to grad school, and that's less of an interest to me.”

Beudert added that he has seen portfolios that are, in a word, fantastic, and he encourages those students to skip graduate school altogether. “Quite frankly what are they going to get out of three years in school when they probably need to spend that time working in theatre, whereas other students need that environment and could benefit from grad school [in order to improve their design skills]. What graduate school can't do is create a passion that isn't there.”

Everybody Says Don't!

Even MFA design faculty have their pet peeves. Here are a few missteps to avoid when assembling your work for review:

  • Leave out your professors' projects, no matter how much you helped.
  • No basic scene painting projects. Everyone has those.
  • Leave out bad, sloppy, or illegible work or drawings (duh).
  • Don't put in too many photos of the same type of show. Demonstrate variety.
  • A neat portfolio will not disguise a lack of ability. But don't be haphazard or sloppy either.
  • No reviews, certificates, or letters of recommendation, but do keep these things handy (in a pocket or a folder).
  • Only include projects you truly believe in.
  • Make sure each project is clearly labeled.
  • Do not include any bowls of candy or other snacks at a portfolio review; it won't make anyone like your work more.

No Techie Left Behind…

Just because you are pursuing an MFA as a stage manager, technical director, or sound designer does not mean you should relegate your portfolio to a simple resume and transcript. You should also be well versed in the various technical languages as well as a commitment to collaboration. But just like everyone else, you need to show your work, processes, and finished product.

Sound Designers: Sound designers should be able to sketch out a visual representation of their speaker location in a set, so be sure to include speaker diagrams, equipment lists, checklists, cue lists, etc. Be able to communicate your ideas as an artist, not just your equipment choices and the physical layout of the system. “Your research probably needs to be even more thorough than the other designers, because many people will not be used to thinking of sound other than in terms of specific cues, volume, and so on,” says Tosti-Lane. It is also recommended to include a CD of carefully prepared examples, along with a method for playback (laptop, CD player with headset, etc.).

Technical Directors: TDs need to show that they are more than the just person who builds the sets. Show that you are a master of many skills but especially adept with collaboration, organization, and graphic presentation. “A good TD can make everyone else's work so much easier, but a lackluster TD can make everyone's life difficult,” Tosti-Lane says. Realized projects are really key for a TD's portfolio, as well as carefully documented examples of how the process was moved forward by your proactive efforts.

Stage Managers: Demonstrate your organizational drive; communicate just how comfortable the director, design team, and actors will be under your hand. You should show an understanding of all the various skills, but you need not show proficiency in each one. However, you should include your drawings and your work in at least one design area. Also, be sure to have at least one complete prompt book and examples of the forms you used to give an idea of your methodology. “They need to convince the reviewer that they can communicate with everyone on the team, and that they know how to deal with the difficult people as well as the pussycats,” Tosti-Lane says.