Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt says his "spoils me rotten." A scene shop owner calls production designer David Jenkins' "the fastest pencil in the East." Costume designer Gabriel Berry thinks many of them negotiate with shops better than she does.
Assistants. Some designers hire them to take over humdrum tasks. Others view them as fellow artists. Some can't get along without them. Others can't get along with them. Most busy designers, however, rely on at least one "second in command" to get them through a project.
Berry's father died as Italian Girl in Algiers moved from the Glimmerglass to City Opera, and her assistant, Sarah Holden, took over. "I don't think I was ever even missed," says Berry, who had no qualms, partly because they had been through the show once.
MacDevitt's longtime associate, John Paul Szcepanski, took a Neil Simon show on the road, redoing the design for different venues. "There are things he does that I don't even know he does," says MacDevitt.
Jenkins has been working with Leigh Rand, who teaches modelmaking and drafting at NYU, for some 25 years, and he tries to organize the workload so she can arrange her calendar. Assistants often do research. "I want the goodies, but I'm not good at the foraging," says set designer David Gallo, who has an associate on every show take charge from start to finish. "I can get distracted in the bookstore and read a comic instead of researching 19th-century chateaux."
When a theatre budgets for an assistant, set designer Christine Jones feels at home. "Even if it is a small amount of money, the gesture itself shows respect, consideration, and support for the designer's work." Having one allows her to "step back and look at the broader picture while someone else figures out some of the more complicated details. I always feel like I am receiving a gift when someone has transformed a half-drawn pencil sketch into a beautifully realized, three-dimensional, colored model," says Jones.
Scenic designers rarely build their own models but often paint them. Gallo has one model builder on staff full time, and adds up to four more as needed. Rand usually drafts a design from Jenkins' rough modeling and rough drafting. Sometimes, a finished model is constructed using her drafting, a way to make sure the drafting is clear before drawings go out to shops. Jenkins, who claims his version of "hands on" sometimes becomes just plain "meddling," usually does followup visits to shops and keeps close tabs on dressing and props. He spent his early years in small theatres where detail counted. "The titles on the books, light switches, and other real details became terribly important. Lately, I'm trying hard to let go of this obsession, but old habits die hard," he says.
Gallo also delegates drafting, except when things get so busy that it's faster to draw it himself than to explain himself; he does elaborate roughs first. When a project is near completion, Jones may move on to another while an assistant drafts. And Kellogg, who no longer lives in New York, has had trusted assistants draft long distance when she's very busy. "That makes me nervous," she says, "but it usually works out just fine."
Set and projections designer Laura Olinder uses an assistant to cut gels and assemble slides for her, selecting colors and images and painting backdrops herself. Sometimes she prefers to do it all herself "because the process is very organic and I'm making it up as I go along, not with a preconceived idea I could have someone else carry out."
Similarly, nobody else can do costume designer Jess Goldstein's sketches--he designs as he draws. He visits the fabric store, even if an assistant has done the preliminary shopping. The assistant who brings him precisely what he asks for won't be able to spot "another fabric that might take me in a better direction," he explains. Assistants help Goldstein when costumes need replacing mid-run and he is involved in another project. They sometimes represent him at a late dress rehearsal or preview. He uses two assistants when projects overlap, leaving each on a given project when he moves on.
Costume designer Laura Crow also finds inspiration in fabric shopping, but an assistant often does her purchasing, arranging for the fabric to be shipped to the theatre. Crow also uses hers to recopy notes, hit the Xerox machine, visit the post office, and keep up with script and bible updates.
Lighting designer Donald Holder has two longtime associates he trusts to focus a plot without him, if he can't be at a theatre when focusing begins. But he always takes care of the initial layout. "I would never ask an assistant to create a light plot based simply on a list of lighting ideas for a show." Nor would he feel comfortable letting an assistant build light cues or begin to light a show without him.
In ideal situations, MacDevitt gives a rough plot and paperwork to an assistant, who completes the drafting (spread sheets and lifts), then joins him in the theatre to run the focus call and keep on top of which electrician is in which position and what lamp is next. "In tech rehearsals and beyond that, an assistant would keep track of every light cue, and the count of it, if it's a musical," he says. Three assistants may be necessary here: one to track followspots, another on moving lights, and a third to handle notes. The first assistant would meet with the electrician to help with color and instrument changes. MacDevitt can arrive later, a couple of hours before the company, for focus notes and cueing. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski uses assistants only in the theatre: to run focus, take and organize work notes, and update paperwork. "I frankly wish I had the ability to give more of that stuff to other people in the studio. Somehow all of it is part of the process."
Where do good assistants hide? Jones says she has luck "letting assistants find me." Olinder hires friends she's worked with and volunteer interns from schools. Many check design shows; the NYU design show and "Ming's Clambake," Ming Cho Lee's annual graduate portfolio review, are popular.
Designers also ask each other. "There's a lot of horse trading," set designer Edmunds says. Douglas Cox, who answered the phone for Don Holder, says he's gotten many jobs with top lighting designers "knocking on doors and networking." Gallo shares a studio with four other designers. When he doesn't need one of his many part-time or occasional assistants, someone else in the studio is likely to call out, "Who needs a job next week?"
Often, a theatre provides assistants. "Some fill that role much better than others," says Jenkins, who prefers not to name names. Goldstein has sometimes found his at theatres--a stitcher or a shopper who wants to move on, someone he has worked with in some way, but not someone who has written him a letter. He searches for assistants who can think on their feet--and think the way he does. Aesthetic compatibility is a must when he sends someone out to swatch for him or to represent him. He has to enjoy their company, and they have to be "as compatible with directors and actors as I tend to be."
Berry favors assistants who don't come out of universities, people "without orthodoxies," and sometimes without a theatre background, but she has also had success hiring out of NYU. Kate Edmunds studies portfolios and makes sure she'll be comfortable with the person in her studio: "Do they bathe?" can be a criterion.
Sometimes designers who teach use their students. Here, though, roles may conflict. A teacher will give the job to whoever most needs the experience, a designer to the person who can do it best. Scheduling is also a problem when students are in class. Some feel assisting is essential to an education, to make connections and experience real-world situations; others find it's disruptive to take students out of class. Many limit students to summer and post-graduation work.
Edmunds hires new people for a few days first, protecting herself and their pride if things don't work out. Often they work out too well, and "good assistants run off with fellowships and projects of their own." And why not? Berry worries that good assistants can be pigeonholed, "forever known as 'So-and-So's assistant.' You can assist for two or three years, but after that, why?" she asks, adding that she wishes that more designers would push their assistants' careers.
Assistants become a part of your life, and you a part of theirs," set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg says. "The parent/child thing comes up all too often." But Kellogg takes great pride when her "kids" become recognized designers on her own. "Just think how Ming must feel," she says, "when at least half the best designers working have been through his studio."
Decreased funding for the regionals means that fewer designers use fewer assistants, or pay them from their own fees. But Kevin Cwalina, an assistant in Gallo's studio, says the commercial theatres are worse. "Producers want to change a lot of stuff to make it cheaper, and they don't want to pay for the changes." Edmunds uses assistants when a producing organization provides them and adjusts her approach when it does not, perhaps providing a blueprint model rather than a full painted model. "I have several different working methods that tie into a producer's ability to financially support the design," she says.
And what of the poor assistant? Berry believes they should be making more money than she does, since they've come to the city after she did and have higher rents. MacDevitt agrees that the money's lousy, but he sees assisting as a "system of paying your dues....it's a way to be connected to the people you really respect and are the best at what they're doing." Some designers worry that others use assistants for grunge work. "I want assistants that are designers, someone who's better than I am," says Berry. She sometimes turns down jobs that will interfere with jobs in progress, and when she does, recommends an assistant for it.
Gallo values input from everyone in his studio. "Everyone feels comfortable enough to say, 'That was the ugliest thing.' I don't need a room full of people to tell me I'm fabulous." He doesn't ask assistants to represent him at design meetings, but does encourage them to come and communicate for themselves. "Some designers don't want their associates to know what show they're working on," he laments. He uses people between their own design jobs, who are likely to leave for creative projects. "People are happiest when in pursuit of their own goals," he reflects. His associates and assistants tend to return.
MacDevitt doesn't use lighting designers to do office work, and his office assistant has no theatrical aspirations. "I'd feel guilty asking a young designer to file or get me stamps; I don't feel bad asking them to do drafting," he explains, because that's a way to learn. And Jenkins cautions colleagues who work with assistants: "Please don't ask them to walk the dog or feed the cat."