In this our fourth year of rounding up some of the most promising young designers working in the theatre today, we bring you perhaps our most diverse group yet. From a costumer working in both film and theatre, to an LD establishing a solo career while assisting one of the industry's leading designers, to a set designer who's already trying his hand at producing, to a sound designer who never finished school but still managed to mentor under two leading artisans, this year's group of four once again show that there are many paths to success. Get to know them: their future is now.
It's every young designer's mantra, ingrained in them by his or her teachers, peers, and even this magazine: Diversify. Don't stick to one niche. Work wherever you can: theatre, concerts, film, industrials, special events, weddings, etc.
Easier said than done, of course. Each genre has its own maze of players, rules, and modes of operation; only some play well with others. Yet in a few short years, costume designer Sarah Beers has been able to make her mark in both theatre (St. Scarlet for WET, Tape for Naked Angels, The Time of Your Life at Williamstown Theatre Festival), and independent film (XX/XY, The Year That Trembled, Standard Time), even managing a few credits along the way in mask design for opera and regional theatre.
“There are these two worlds that don't really overlap,” Beers says of film and theatre. “I've been lucky enough to be able to balance these two worlds, which is terrific, because they have a very different energy and a different process.”
Beers grew up in Vermont and was exposed to theatre and opera by her mother and aunt. She began making her own clothes at an early age, but never thought about costuming as a career until she was an undergraduate student at Connecticut College. “I've always been interested in making stuff, in having an idea, testing it, and seeing if I could make it work,” she says. “And then it took off in a different way, in that I found costuming to be specifically so psychological, almost anthropological. You're analyzing and breaking down a character, seeing why this person would wear these things. And that became much more interesting than the actual clothes.”
Because her dual interests in college were theatre and sculpture, an art teacher suggested she apply for a program that would send her to New York for six months to work at an Off Off Broadway theatre and with a sculptor for credits. That program got her a gig at the Pearl Theatre, working with several costume designers, including Chelsea Hammond; Beers continues to work there today. In her senior year she received a Watson Fellowship, which enabled her to work both in London at the Royal Opera House and in Geneva with a marionette company.
After graduation, Beers ended up back in New York working for several shops, including Lynne Mackey Millinery and Parsons Mears, all the while pursuing design work. “I'd do my nine-to-five, or really nine-to-seven, at the costume shops and then come home and sew, shop, and put together stuff for various showcases.” Her first major credit, ironically enough, came with the Pearl Theatre Company on a production of Candida. “It was great because I had formed this bond with the people there and they knew me enough so there was a certain amount of trust in place to begin with. They also have the facilities, which a lot of small theatres in Manhattan don't, to actually do a lot of work on site, which was very helpful too. It was a very positive experience.”
Her film work began about the same time. A Vermont-based director, Jay Craven, tapped her to serve as costume shop manager for the film A Stranger in the Kingdom. “I was in charge of overseeing dressing the extras and dyeing,” she says. “That costume designer recommended me to another costume designer who worked in the city, and it just kind of went from there.” Her credits include The Year That Trembled with Craven; the film version of The Guys, based on the play about 9/11, and the upcoming hip-hop comedy Death of a Dynasty, where she got to dress a cast that ranged from P Diddy to Lorraine Bracco to Michael Musto to Mariah Carey. “It had all sorts of cameos,” she says of the latter project. “It was crazy and fun.”
With shows like Julia Jordan's St. Scarlet, A.R. Gurney's O Jerusalem at the Flea, and the Naked Angels production of Tape, Beers seems to have found something of a niche as a designer of contemporary costumes, but she says that's just sort of the luck of the draw. “I find a lot of my work in both theatre and film is not necessarily period specific, but it's really more about the subtleties of breaking down the ethnic and financial background of the characters, trying to find the little clues that provide signs as to why this person would choose to wear these things.”
Beers has learned to adjust to the two very different methods of working in film and theatre. “The rehearsal process is the biggest difference,” she notes. “For a theatre piece there's a longer rehearsal period and things get discovered. Whereas a film is shot inconsecutively and you just have to roll with the punches more. But it's essentially the same process whereby you break down the script and figure out the worlds of the characters and get a closet going based on what type of people they are.”
Her costume projects have kept the designer from pursuing much mask work, though she has designed and built masks for the Blue Light Theatre production of Princess Turandot and The Skin of Our Teeth for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. “I haven't pursued masks too heavily, partly because I've been more heavily interested in the costume thing,” Beers explains. “And also, I didn't want to limit myself to that specific world. But it's something I really want to explore in the future. We'll see.” Can you say triple threat?
Adam Rapp's play Stone Cold Dead Serious got a lot of press attention this spring, including a strongly favorable notice from The New York Times. That was good news to David Korins, who not only designed the play's scenery, but was also co-producer, along with the play's director Carolyn Cantor. Together, they are behind the Edge Theater Company, an Off Off Broadway troupe.
In other words, Korins, less than five years out of college, is not only regularly designing in New York, he is also, at times, his own producer. “Carolyn and I had collaborated on other productions before starting Edge,” he says by way of explanation. “Many times when you work with small theatre companies, you end up being production manager, associate producer, scenic artist. She had had similar experiences. We came together because we wanted to be able to pick our own work. “It made sense to try producing ourselves.”
By creating a not-for-profit company, Korins and Cantor figured it would be easier to raise funds. Indeed, they appear to take a notably clear-eyed approach to the realities of theatre production. “We do it the right way,” he says. “We try to pay everyone who works with us. We don't like to ask anyone to do it for free. It is all about supporting the artist.”
The first Edge production was Life's a Dream by Calderon de la Barca. “It was hugely ambitious, and we actually made money,” Korins says. “When the dust settled, we had to do it again.” Next up was Stone Cold Dead Serious, a wild, picaresque tale about a troubled Mid-western teenager who escapes his grotesque family and, with his mute girlfriend, makes his way to New York, in order to appear on a violent, bizarre television game show. Korins' astonishingly complex design conjured up several locations, including a filthy lower-middle-class den, a car interior, a Bowery flophouse, and a vast, sterile hospital room. The design was notable for blending naturalistic detail with theatrical flexibility; a photo-realistic house interior was followed by a cunningly realized, skeletal car unit. The transitions were achieved with remarkable swiftness. Another designer might have taken it easy and created some kind of one-size-fits-all setting, but Korins says that the play needed his more bravura approach: “It's a journey play and I felt the character's journey had to be supported.” His design earned him an American Theater Wing's Hewes Design Award nomination.
Korins, a native of Mansfield, MA, attended University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with no dreams of becoming a set designer (he ran on the UMASS track team). “There's no undergrad design major there, but I took a class in beginning techniques in design.” Teachers took notice; soon he was assisting on school productions. On the advice of a professor, Miguel Romero, he went to Williamstown Theatre Festival for the summer. “It was there that I saw the full strata — real working designer, assistant designer — and saw I could make a career out of it. I went back to Williamstown five years in a row; after three years I was hired to be the head of the scenic design department.
After graduation, Korins spent an additional year at UMASS, working on a custom-designed honors degree in theatre, then he was off to New York. He did some assisting, but quickly got involved with a company, The Rude Mechanicals, where he became resident set designer. “They're a company of ACT-trained actors,' he says. “They do re-imagined classics or plays with muscular or poetic language.” which they have the chops to do.” His productions there have included Caryl Churchill and David Lan's A Mouthful of Birds, Charles Mee's The Bacchae 2.1, and Valparaiso, by the novelist Don DeLillo; the latter production also received much press attention, including a favorable review in the Times.
In the tradition of one thing leading to another Korins has also been spending time in New Orleans, designing for Southern Repertory. “It was taken over by Ryan Rilette, one of the founders of the Rude Mechanicals,” he says, adding the his productions there have included Bat Boy: The Musical, Spinning Into Butter, and The Santaland Diaries.
It's an eclectic lineup of projects, but then, Korins says, “I feel like my strength is that I don't have a personal agenda. I take the playwrights' words — and the director's interpretatio — nd filter them through my own storytelling ability. Sometimes I do tons of research and sometimes I work from one single image. You just have to trust your instincts.”
Coming up, he's branching out into other media. He's production designer on a feature film scripted by Rapp, titled Winter Passing, and he's involved in a potential project for HBO titled Family Bonds, which he describes as “The Sopranos meets Cops.” On the theatre front, there's a new play for City Theatre in Pittsburgh and two productions for the Edge. “We're going to open them a few weeks apart, so there should be a big buzz.” Given the way things are going for Korins, the buzz should be guaranteed.
Every designer has their own epiphany, that moment when they first discover the kind of power their work could have over a project. For this year's lighting designer to watch, Jason Lyons, that moment came back in high school, working as a board op on a local community theatre.
“The first couple of shows I had done were these small little plays, and they were very realistic,” he recalls. “When I first watched them I wasn't really paying attention, but then as I kept watching over and over, I started noticing these little cues, which you barely noticed, that had a great effect on the feeling of the show. And it just kind of sucked me in, so I started to look for that in everything I saw. I just fell in love with the idea: the complete control you can have over a feeling without being overt about it.”
Lyons has shown such control over a series of impressive projects in the last year, including Comedians and The Women of Lockerbie for The New Group, and the musical entertainment Kiki & Herb: Coup de Theatre, all for director Scott Elliott. Lyons has also been a long-time assistant and later associate for one of Broadway's hottest lighting designers, Brian MacDevitt, who was also one of his instructors at SUNY Purchase, where he received a BFA from their design program.
Lyons' high school experience was like many other designers. His first foray in theatre was as an actor, but quickly realized there was a lot of other stuff happening backstage. “The guy who was running our theatre program had just started working at a summer stock theatre and he dragged me up there,” Lyons recalls. “I started as a carpenter and then as an electrician and then got close to the lighting designers. That just kind of peaked my interest from there; I did it all through high school and kept going back to summer stock until college.”
Purchase opened Lyons' eyes up to the real possibilities of lighting design, thanks to the guidance of instructors MacDevitt, William Mintzer, and David Grill. “Until I got to Purchase, I didn't really understand what design was overall,” he says. “In high school, it was just about making sure all the parents could see their kids' faces: front light and down light, and then there'd be a color change, and that would be it. To really get into the nuts and bolts of it, and to tie lighting to the story, that came from Bill Mintzer and then got cultivated when I started having classes with people like Brian and Dave.”
While still in school, Lyons interned with MacDevitt on various shows, and with Grill on the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, where Grill served as associate under Ken Billington. After graduating, Lyons worked on a number of dance projects, always a great opportunity for lighting designers to get experience. “I made a lot of contacts with the dancers at Purchase, and, when they graduated, I started doing work with them, just at random little venues all over the city. At one point I met this choreographer Scott Rink, who I've now been working with for the last four years.” His work with Rink includes stints at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival; this fall he'll be lighting the choreographer's first full-length ballet, an adaptation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a co-production of the Minnesota Dance Theatre and American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company.
Even while working on his solo career, Lyons continued to assist MacDevitt “It was a natural progression, coming out of Purchase, to go to his studio,” he explains. “I've always liked his work a lot; I think he's a really smart designer who's not afraid to take the different road. Working with him felt like my grad schooling; it was like getting an MFA sitting in his studio.”
Lyons' association with MacDevitt eventually led him to his first big design gig: Mike Leigh's Smelling A Rat, directed by Scott Elliott, for the New Group. “Scott called Brian looking for a designer, Brian suggested Scott talk to me,” he explains. That project led to the other New Group productions of Comedians and The Women of Lockerbie, and then to Kiki and Herb's Coup de Theatre.
Despite his success as a designer — he'll be working with Elliott again this fall on a revival of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon — Lyons still works with MacDevitt. “A lot of people feel like it's hard to make the transition from being an assistant or associate to being a designer, but I don't feel like where I'm at it's like that at all,” he explains. “Working with Brian still really helps me. I get to meet different people on every show I work with him on. If they go on to do something else and need a designer, hopefully they'll call me. A lot of my work has spawned out of my assistant work with Brian. I've been really lucky in that way.”
The term “trial by fire” isn't often used in the literal sense, but don't tell that to Elizabeth Rhodes. This year's young sound designer to watch, who's done impressive work on such shows as The Winter's Tale and The Underpants at Classic Stage Company in New York, and Stones In His Pockets at the Alley Theatre in Atlanta, was in the middle of tech for one of her highest-profile projects, the premiere of John Patrick Shanley's acclaimed Dirty Story for the LAByrinth Theatre Company, when she got a call from a friend, politely informing her that her apartment might be on fire.
There was a huge blizzard that day, and her friend was going to a matinee at a theatre near Rhodes' house, when he found her block blocked off by myriad police cars and fire trucks. “He said, ‘There's a very real possibility that your apartment building is on fire,” she recalls. “‘I can't tell exactly, and I don't want to alarm you, but I though I should say something so you weren't totally surprised.’ That was around noon, and because I was in tech I didn't get home until midnight. There were still three or four fire trucks when I got there, and they had contained it well, but it was definitely a huge fire. I lived on the fourth floor of a walkup, and I could see all this water flowing out of doors and down the stairs. I walked into my apartment; the windows were shattered, but luckily there was no water. I took inventory: the computer does not look wet, so that should leave immediately. All of my sound equipment seems okay: sampler, soundboard, amplifier. The worst that had happened was that CDs had been stepped on. I called my friend and said, ‘I think I can't stay here tonight.’
Luckily, Rhodes' work on Dirty Story was nearly complete. “I was pretty much just fiddling with levels here and there,” she says. “I attended the previews and did any of the notes I needed and addressed everything I could.” Not that the fire had any effect on her work; reviewing the play on the Entertainment Design website, David Barbour noted: “Elizabeth Rhodes' sound design, with its wicked use of movie themes including Exodus, The Magnificent Seven, and You Light Up My Life, is as effectively satirical as anything in the text.”
Rhodes (she goes by Betsy but uses Elizabeth as her professional name) has carved something of a niche for herself as a sound designer who can find just the right song to help underscore an onstage mood, a trait she credits her background as a singer. (“I really didn't like performing — the idea of people standing there watching me work was just not a pleasant thought.”) “I tend to like other people's stuff because it's more developed than the ideas I've come up with,” she says. “I get pretty bored by my own music. I feel I get better choices by using stuff that was not originally intended for that exact moment.”
A student at Valparaiso University in Indiana, Rhodes stumbled into theatre about halfway through her first year, but left after her third upon deciding that “college was not going to prepare me sufficiently to be employed.” She landed at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and found herself working with Martin Desjardins in the sound department. During that period, Anne Bogart's SITI Company often came through while working on shows, and Rhodes got to know that group's sound designer, Darron L. West. Both were heavily influential in her development as a designer. “As an engineer I was very much trained by Marty,” she explains. “As a designer I'm a lot more like Darron.”
Moving to New York with several other ATL apprentices and interns, Rhodes found work with one of West's former assistants, Kurt Kellenberger, which led to regular work as an engineer on a variety of show, all the while finding design work on small showcases in between. While working with West on the CSC production of The Misanthrope, she met one of the actors, John Rubin, who also directs; they worked together on Trail of Her Inner Thigh for the LAB-yrinth and have done other shows since. Her work on Inner Thigh caught the attention of CSC director Barry Edelstein, who then asked her to design Steve Martin's The Underpants and later The Winter's Tale.
“Winter's Tale was kind of an odd show [to design], because Michael Torke was the composer on that, and there was a live pianist onstage,” Rhodes says. “Michael Torke is relatively well known, and the pianist missed tech to do a show at Carnegie Hall, so there were really big music people involved. There were a handful of sound needs, but I felt my biggest job was to make sure that all of their stuff was showcased, while also filling the sound effects that were needed. But with Barry's shows the sound is nowhere near as important as it is with John's shows. John conceptualizes through sound, so it's a different way of working. But I feel like I'm there to do whatever needs to be done and support everything that's going on.”
Rhodes is currently finishing up the summer season for the Penguin Rep, a small barn theatre in upstate New York But more important, after six months of living out of boxes, she has finally found a place to live.