I'm a big believer in saying yes to all scales of projects, and theatrical projects have quite a range of scales. There aren't many industries where one can work on a project back to back with another, and the difference in production capital can be as much as 10 times the amount. Even a designer in demand with a range of projects on his or her radar will frequently take a “smaller” show. Yet no matter what scale you're working in, the money is always tight and tensions are always high. Entertainment production at every level is an expensive business with no sure-fire formula for success. One director I've spoken to says there are better odds at the track than in opening a new musical.
No job too small, the saying goes. We take on these smaller shows for many reasons: friendship, future opportunity, a sense of responsibility to the project, excitement over a new challenge. Perhaps it just fits into a hole in the schedule. And yet often the small show requires a more personal involvement. These projects can't always afford to hire on your assistants. Perhaps it requires a certain degree of production involvement beyond putting your own personal touches into the project. Often these shows require concessions on equipment and experimentation to develop the product. I worked on a small show recently that couldn't afford a rear-projection screen of the size required. The scenic designer did test after test with sizing different materials until we found an acceptable alternative. Smaller shows require understanding of how to create a look for very little money, regardless of the discipline.
Then there is the really big show: a massive undertaking full of promise and potential for longevity. This is the show that pays your bills and puts your kids through diapers, camp, maybe even college. On a larger production, the first thing the show buys is time. More capital usually means more rehearsal time, more build time, more technical rehearsal time, and the opportunity to work with both state-of-the-art equipment and top technical personnel. As a projection designer, I like to be on the cutting edge of technology. Yet the kind of equipment we projection designers use, while promising in its design, is often not troubleshot in a real situation. Successfully incorporating new technology into a project requires time to test it out; this translates into a longer relationship with the equipment than on a show with limited capital. Understanding the level of your commitment and how much time is required versus the fee you are to receive should make it clear that there isn't always a big difference between the “big” and “small” shows.
The idea that there are no small shows seems especially true in projection design. Regardless of the scope of the project, projection can be a major expense in a production budget. The creation of animation or film is an expensive process. The equipment is rare and complicated; it is certainly not cheap.
So how do you get many projects, big or small, done at the same time? With many hands, of course. The importance of hiring and cultivating assistants to your work cannot be overlooked. The ideal assistant enhances and reflects your creative vision. I prefer assistants with different skill sets to take on different tasks. In my work there is a certain print shop mentality: “Customer care first,” “Quality is our motto,” “No job too small,” “Same-day service.” These tasks can be set up and handled by assistants while you concentrate on the critical details of each show. This makes it possible to take on the large project in conjunction with the small. Having your team in place allows you the onsite time at the venue without having to worry about the next project, no matter what the scope.
Keeping them can be a little harder…
Michael Clark's recent projects include Night In Tunisia at the McCarter Theatre and the touring production of Spiderman Live.