As the plane landed, the lighting designer felt terrific. Work was starting at a well-equipped theatre, with an exciting director. But wait--wasn't someone supposed to meet him at the airport? "For me, a basic thing is feeling appreciated as a human being," explains the lighting designer, who asked to remain anonymous. "You want to feel wanted, needed, and respected. It's bad enough that artists in our society are treated like children. Can't they be well cared-for children?"
When ED asked over 70 designers to name the most and least designer-friendly theatres in the country, many commented on extra-artistic issues. One designer asked the Milwaukee Rep to give him money to find a hotel on his own, "one that has heat." Another avoids the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis because "there's nothing to do in Webster Groves." The Seattle Rep, the Intiman, and the Old Globe are among those venues designers applaud for providing creature comforts.
Which are the best theatres and the worst? Depends on who you ask, and when. "Just when you think the crew and shops at a given theatre are perfect, running well, producing beautiful, detailed scenery, just at that very moment when you notice how well it's all going, it falls apart," set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg reflects. "If I say such-and-such a place was great, or terrible, by the time I get back there again, it could be exactly the opposite." Set designer Neil Patel agrees. "Places fluctuate, staffs change, the administrative situation may change," he says. Two designers, for instance, expressed disappointment in the South Coast Rep, which has been losing some of its best craftspeople to nearby commercial shops.
One designer may have had wonderful experiences at a theatre that made another miserable. Kellogg and lighting designer Paulie Jenkins report good experiences at the Alliance, for instance, but another designer had problems there. And before you write off South Coast Rep, note that Jenkins says she loves working there, Ralph Funicello says the theatre has an incredibly good scenic artist, and set designer John Iacovelli calls it "the Cadillac of theatres" when it comes to designer salaries. It also isn't unusual for a theatre to get mixed notices from the same designer; one who loves the shops at Tennessee Rep, for instance, may have problems with management there.
"The Rep of St. Louis and the Milwaukee Rep are 'factory-like,'" says a designer. "They give you no time to turn a show around, and settle for mid-level production quality." Another designer describes the time the Oregon Shakespeare Festival built a show early and would not let him make changes as rehearsals progressed. Another wishes the New York Shakespeare Festival had not lost its shop and that it jobbed out more efficiently. A fourth says the Colorado Shakespeare Company had neither the staff nor the raw materials to do a production at the level the theatre demanded. Four other designers might sing the praises of these theatres.
Lighting designer Peter Maradudin recalls the Guthrie under Garland Wright. "I was never paid so well...and it was all about designing. It wasn't about the wearisome logistics that go along with designing." He would give notes and then show up for rehearsal, with everything focused as requested. But costume designer Virgil Johnson found the same theatre under the same administration "a little over-organized...it had grown from a hands-on theatre with designers involved in painting and gluing and trimming to a working factory." Still, Johnson says, "Everything was finished for the first dress rehearsal," and tech week was tension-free.
Noting that the artistic director sets the tone for a theatre, Patel says those who can balance the priorities of an institution with those of an individual production will create the most designer-friendly houses. "My focus is the show I'm working on," he says, "to make it as good as it can be." But he knows that if the staff is treated humanely, the same experienced people will be at the theatre the next time he is. "In the best places, prop masters come to techs and take notes. The tech director watches transitions. Everyone has an investment in the show. In bad places, they go home at five. I've given tech notes to people who haven't watched the show--you wonder why they're working in the theatre," Patel adds.
If the staff has read the script, if the theatre doesn't let bureaucratic efficiency defeat artistic goals, and if budget limitations are spelled out in advance, designers are likely to be happy. Patel finds Center Stage ideal, also naming the Long Wharf, the Guthrie, and the Steppenwolf for "really committed and experienced technical staff."
When artistic directors impose a vision instead of hiring artists who already share it, or when they bypass directors and give designers notes on design, nobody is happy. Iacovelli says there are stages in the process when you need the help of an artistic director--and others, while you're working things through, that you need protection from them.
If theatre staff and resources affect the quality of design, designers sometimes affect the ambiance of the theatre. When costume designer Mara Blumenfeld worked as an assistant at the Goodman, she observed "how the personality of different designers could affect the atmosphere of a shop. The energy you bring into a production is definitely contagious, whether it's a positive or negative attitude."
Funicello finds most theatres are supportive when a designer has reasonable expectations. He has come to know the shops and the staffs at many theatres, what they can and can't do--and therefore what he can expect to do in any given venue. He recalls the early days at the American Conservatory Theatre, when collaboration occurred not only on a show but between productions in rep. If a colleague was storing his show on the floor, Funicello would design a flying show, sharing the storage space. "You couldn't kill off the staff or take up all the storage space. A lot of designers are not used to caring about what comes next or what came before," he says.
Lighting designer Cameron Harvey, who doubles as producing artistic director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, favors designers who understand institutional needs, those who can achieve high artistic standards "within the resources of the producing theatre...and work harmoniously with the technical staff." Those who offer a fall-back position when requesting additional time or money and who have accounted for the shop's strengths and weaknesses in the design are ideal, he adds.
Jenkins says the experience is best when it is truly collaborative. Working on Blue Window at the South Coast Rep was "fabulous, a true collaboration from the beginning with the other designers, even with the actors, which continued all the way through the process." The Mark Taper Forum, which introduces everyone, even the staff, at the first rehearsal, makes "you feel like you're part of the theatre. There are other theatres where the only people you meet are the director, the other designers, and the electrician." Costume designer Laura Crow notes how important it is for theatres to schedule meetings and fittings carefully. "It is not very gratifying to try to collaborate with missing members of the design team," she says.
On visits to the Steppenwolf, set designer James Schuette has found the "almost family-like atmosphere extends to non-company members." He has always been supported by painters, and by an integrated company that includes playwrights and actors. Virgil Johnson points out that because it is an actor's theatre, actors become involved in costume decisions. Time consuming? Sure, but rewarding, because "the art of the stage is paramount."
Funicello loves the Mark Taper Forum, which founder Gordon Davidson still runs. "There is none of the melding of approaches that happens when you go through artistic directors," he says, adding that he finds Davidson eccentric, willing to change the season at the last minute, even willing to substitute plays after the design due date. And he's not complaining.
Good theatres appreciate good design. Schuette loves the Minnesota Opera, because staff understands "the nuances and the concept behind" his work, "not just the nuts and bolts." Maradudin says the Guthrie and the Seattle Rep have more than fantastic facilities. "Both respect the designer as artist and trust the designer. If I ask for something, they don't say, 'Do you really need that?' The Berkeley Rep is just as fantastic," even though it has fewer resources. "Their production departments are willing to attempt anything," he says.
Linda Buchanan finds scenic designers agree that the production staff at the Goodman "is tremendously supportive and dedicated, and really concerned about the effectiveness of the production, often suggesting elegant solutions to problems." Costume designers concur. Calling the Goodman "a costume designer's dream," Johnson says the theatre "realizes the art in the design." He has done some 25 productions there, usually big period pieces with 60 to 100 costumes, and finds that building and rentals are always well organized. And recently, when costume designer Nan Cibula Jenkins' husband became seriously ill, the shop supported her needs thoroughly.
"What makes an experience with a theatre rewarding is the relationship you have with the production staff," Blumenfeld suggests. "The best experiences I've had were because of the energy and commitment of the staff working on the production. It's not necessarily the size of a shop or the amount of the budget, although it's always great to work with a shop like the Goodman or the Huntington that has a full staff and higher budgets, but the support you get from a theatre in terms of realizing a design."
Designers give high marks to shops that are computer-literate (and with Internet access), theatres that provide assistants early in the process, theatres that call designers with all necessary information so they don't have to make a billion calls to get it. Maintaining shop staffs is a plus, but some theatres are adept at extending them when necessary. When local scenic artists couldn't do what set designer Ming Cho Lee wanted for The Notebook of Trigorin, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park jobbed someone in from the Yale Rep. The Indiana Rep added cutters for a musical Virgil Johnson was doing there. Johnson says the fine shop manager, "sensitive to design needs," pulled it together.
Of course, there is the green stuff. Iacovelli, who teaches and designs two series for TV, says these jobs subsidize his career in theatre. "I always have to ask myself, 'How much is my fun going to cost me?'" It hurts when friends in the film industry refer to his regional work as a nice hobby: "This is who I am," he protests. A regional trustee for USITT, Iacovelli says, "Regional designers are very underpaid and undersupported; most carpenters make more than the designers."
"Many theatres have become armed camps of sorts," one designer says, "with pass codes, keys, and locked doors without doorpeople. They forget that the designer doesn't have the relevant information that they take completely for granted. If you look at it symbolically, it tells you a lot about the plight of the freelancer: locked out."
What's the situation like out there generally? Many say shop staff turnover is greater than it ought to be, because theatres generally can't afford to pay shop people what they're worth. Many scene shops can do crafts and props, but their scenic artists are usually inexperienced. And, as ever, tech time is too often too limited.
Lighting designer Pat Collins finds very little difference between one theatre and another--they all have the same problems, she says. Ming Cho Lee finds them all supportive. Funicello, who once was depressed at openings because it meant he had to move on and leave the "family" of crew and technicians who remained, finds continuity and the joy of reconnecting to the same people. "There's always a lot of cross-pollination," he says.
The basic problem that affects theatres across the board and on the boards is decreased funding, which means decreased resources and higher ticket prices. And that can mean more conservative work. Funicello notes that as founding artistic directors--those "obnoxious, egocentric people...with vision" have passed away or retired, "the board becomes the throughline at most institutions." Board members know how to raise money and run businesses, but sometimes they forget that the bottom line at a non-profit is not profit, but art.
1. Artistic directors who appreciate the art of design.
2. Company managers who provide creature comforts.
3. Caring and experienced tech and crafts people.
4. Theatres that encourage collaboration between artists.
5. Theatres that take artistic risks.
1. Too little money for supplies and salaries.
2. Artistic directors who impose a vision.
3. Scheduled design meetings that don't happen.
4. Too little tech time.
5. Rigid schedules that don't allow design changes.