A fascination with light has long sustained Tláloc López-Watermann. As a ninth grader growing up outside Santa Fe, NM, he became enamored with illumination, and has pursued this interest at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle; through an overseas internship at Deutsche Oper Berlin; as an Allen Lee Hughes fellow at Arena Stage; and, in summers at Utah Festival Opera. Now 25, he is currently a second-year MFA student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. It is, he says, a “comprehensive education in the art of design — I've been shown things I've never seen before.”
But in January, he placed a call to NYU's Stern School of Business. Something, he feels, is missing from the Tisch curriculum: a grounding in the basics of business. “We hear a lot of scary stories from our teachers, who are honest about the reality of the business. And I thought, ‘You know, I'm in this institution, which clearly has resources in other departments for me.’ And I wonder if I need to tap into them while I'm here.”
When she graduated from the CalArts School of Theatre, Laura Mroczkowski, resident lighting designer at Los Angeles' REDCAT Theatre, felt similarly detached from real-world knowhow. “I wish there were a few more things that they had taught us on the business side, which I had to pick up on my own. I wish CalArts had a class that was more about how to set up a contract; what agents are for and what they mean to your career; and how to deal with unions regarding what they will do for you and what you need to do for them. I realize you pick this material up as you go along and that each situation is different, but I would have hoped for a bit more preparation.”
There is nothing adversarial in her tone. REDCAT is a CalArts venue, and her mentors, including acting dean Jon Gottlieb, are a phone call away. Next year, López-Watermann will be enrolled in Tisch's third-year Thesis Portfolio, which incorporates business planning with portfolio building. Student satisfaction in their programs, as expressed to ED, is high, and the instructors are bullish on the current and recent crops of students. Teaching, says Gottlieb, “is about the giving back, and the energy you get from students — the things you've taken for granted for a long time are the same things that fill them up with vigor and excitement. It's a contagious enthusiasm.”
The flu bug that has bitten the arts, however, has students seeking preventive measures. “Graduates must know that the not-for-profit arts are suffering severely right now, and that not taking that into consideration is foolhardy,” says Taylor Saleeby, a May 2003 graduate of St. Louis' Webster University, who today handles scheduling and artist services at the Los Angeles Opera. “The smaller companies can hire two stage managers, not four, or just a designer and not a designer assistant besides. There are not as many options as perhaps we are taught to believe that there should be in an ideal theatrical climate. Instead of moving around, people are clinging to their jobs because they're nervous, so the availability of incoming slots is limited.”
Forewarned is forearmed. The notion is that knowing more about how to conduct business better prepares a student for the realities of the marketplace. “By a business class, what I mean is, what does it mean to go into an interview and actually lay out your portfolio, or why do I have contracts and not a salary at a position I've been hired for? Is a union contract good or bad for me? Those types of considerations,” says Mroczkowski. “But I also realize that these are arts, and not business, schools.”
Craft and commerce can make for uneasy bedfellows in design programs. “I look at the way we spend money on art supplies on a single project and wonder if we have enough education in how to deal with money when we're out on our own,” says López-Watermann. “There's a fear of talking about it, and a feeling that too much talking about it detracts from the art of what we're doing.”
Which is not to say that there isn't some green mixed in among the ivory towers. “We're pragmatic enough to tell them what it means to be unemployed,” says Peter Sargent, the dean of Webster's Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. The concern on the academic side is that an overemphasis on the subject may take away from the chalk-and-blackboard fundamentals.
“Talking about money is like talking about sex,” says Tony Award-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty, who when ED caught up with her was juggling her duties as Tisch's design chair with fitting flying monkey wings for the Wicked tour. “You're talking about it before the students know exactly what it is you're talking about. They're often shocked when they find out what the fees are. It's a crisis what designers make-criminal, in many cases. There's no lack in talking about the subject, but a huge issue is that this is a freelance profession. It is very confusing for anyone who has not been involved in freelance work how to even begin the conversation. The most calls we get from graduates are about contracts and money, trying to put a value on what we do as artists.”
But first, before grappling with the business side, students have to be able to define what kind of artist they want to be. “Any great designer needs to understand how plays are chosen, what happens in the rehearsal room, why a theatre was created in the first place and what its mission is, the role of the board of directors and why certain artists work there,” says Hilferty. “At NYU, I push to make it a program that develops individual talents. But that means the students have to know where their leanings as an artist are.”
It also helps to know what kind of lifestyle might be best for a student's burgeoning career. “Living as a freelancer threw me off,” says Saleeby. “I wish I had taken that into consideration when I was first starting out. I think there are a lot of students who work in 14 different states and don't know how to file taxes when they're on their own. It threw me for a loop. Know your bottom line as a person and base your career around that, rather than live your life through your career.”
In university programs, art — and the business of art — go hand-in-hand. The more immersive the experience, the more a student learns about both. The university system does not lack for options to get students designing, through internships, resident theatres, and designer showcases, and instructors do bring in business professionals like tax and entertainment lawyers, and accountants and financial planners, to get students thinking about those topics. The internet is chock-full of resources. “We used to have those big books for students to go through when they were considering internships, but the information is all online now,” says Gottlieb. “Googling through the web gets them thinking more broadly about what might be out there where they want to be when they graduate.”
“The world beyond the university is part of what we teach,” says lighting designer Brackley Frayer, an instructor at the University of Las Vegas. “A lot of the companies in town have been very good at providing internships for our students, and when a trade show like LDI is in town I'll get the students as many passes as I can. The more real-world activity I can expose them to the better.”
“It's all well and good to tell people what it is and what it's like, but you just can't learn that way,” Hilferty says. “That can actually distort somebody's sense of it, because they really haven't had the experience. It's completely experiential. You only get the knowledge by having experienced it in some way.”
“A lot of it is just experience,” affirms freelance sound designer Cricket Myers, a CalArts graduate (‘03) who recently assisted on the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Brooklyn Boy. “Jon [Gottlieb] made a real effort to take us to the Taper and was really interested in getting us the connections that we needed, which makes a huge difference. And at school I worked with rental companies and learned how to negotiate for equipment based on a budget. But I had to get out there and work at a hundred different theatres before I really knew anything about the business. Every one holds a different surprise.” Adds Kat Slagell, a PA for Primary Stages in New York and the production manager of Union Ave. Opera Theater in St. Louis, “A mentor sometimes won't give you the answer till you're done with a project, which I think is best. I can do what I need to do, even without being a technical director or a master electrician, because of my time at Webster and the crews I had to be on.”
“Most great artists start with a community of their own making,” says Hilferty. To save on rent, and pool resources, recently graduated designers cluster together. Freelance costume designer Jennifer Fisher lives with Slagell and other Webster grads in an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “School was amazing but I had more of a reality check when I started working,” she says. “Living with my fellow graduates, and listening to what everyone has to say, helps keep you level and positive.” LD Tony Mulanix, a CalArts (‘04) graduate who assisted Chris Akerlind on Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center, agrees that it's helpful to sort out career issues within a “familiar support system” made up of fellow alums.
When it comes to figuring out how best to balance business and art in the theatrical profession, students and faculty are in it together. Webster's theatre program was started to present to its students “the real world of professional theatre as opposed to the mock-heroic world of academic theatre,” Sargent affirms, and its courses reflect this thinking. Integrating the real world into the classroom is a continual challenge given a hobbling economy and technological strides. “Right now, there is this concept of how video comes into play with the other design elements, not just as playback, but as additional lighting texture,” says Gottlieb. “Sound technology is also changing; you have to keep yourself up on it, but also keep the tools the students are working on as up-to-date as possible.” Proof that a designer is always a student and that the complexities of the business are ever-present whether in or out of the classroom.
Robert Cashill is a former editor of Lighting Dimensions.