Any transitional stage in life has its challenges, but making a successful move from student to professional has to be one of the most difficult changes you will make, and choosing a career as a designer in the entertainment industry only further complicates the situation.
Trust me; I know.
I recently completed my MFA in Lighting Design, and figuring out how to dive headfirst into a career was one of the most intimidating processes I've ever gone through; granted, the end result is one that I'm very happy with, but getting here was no easy task. One thing that seemed to completely elude me until I was well into graduate school was what the life of a professional designer was like. It was truly difficult to ascertain what a career as a designer would entail, and now knowing this, I think it's very important for students considering the design path to understand what awaits them on the other side of that degree. Successfully making the transition presents some challenges. Among these are how much and what type of work you're willing to take on and how you can market yourself for financial and professional fulfillment.
The biggest reality shock many of my colleagues and I faced when entering the professional world was determining how much and what work we should take. Many of us are used to the academic environment, where everyone pitches in wherever necessary to get a show up and running. Unfortunately, this mentality — while perfectly suitable in an educational setting — isn't always the case in a professional atmosphere. Don't get me wrong; theatre naturally lends itself to a collaborative environment, but that doesn't mean you'll be picking up a hammer or paintbrush to pitch in with the set as often as you may have in school. In some places, you're actually not allowed to help out in certain areas, even if you want to.
More importantly, the theatre has to understand how valuable your time is. If you are the designer on a show, most theatres won't pay you extra for lending a hand in set construction. Moreover, as a full time designer, you'll most likely be working on several shows at once, so helping out in unrelated areas becomes even less feasible if you want to remain sane and healthy. Once you leave the hallowed halls of academia, you must consider that this is how you have chosen to support yourself. Taking on a design pro bono or picking up a hammer and paint brush when you should be working on your next plot may not be as beneficial as you'd think. Your time and skill is a marketable commodity, so don't forget that. It's too difficult a lesson to have to learn in reality. For better or worse, there is a significant difference between academic and professional theatre.
The entertainment industry is a very small one, and it does not take long for employers and colleagues to begin to recognize names, so marketing yourself is key. I'm not implying you should go out and hire a PR team to write your next press release. However, make sure you're being recognized for the right reasons. This may sound like common sense, but it's more difficult than it seems. Designers and directors want to work with collaborators who can both take and give criticism constructively. A designer who immediately gets defensive when his ideas are questioned will never achieve his true potential. On the flip side, learn to give criticism constructively. A designer who has no tact doesn't have many friends, and believe it or not, a designer who keeps quiet in production meetings and doesn't voice an opinion at all is looked at just as questionably. It's about mastering the art of diplomacy without compromising your opinions. Ensuring that people know who you are for the type of work that you do — from the meeting table through the last preview — will play a huge role in determining the type of work you do and how much you end up getting on a regular basis.
One more point that may be a no-brainer for some of you: Take pride in yourself and your work, and I mean both physically and mentally. You are a designer, an artist. Good theatrical designers are some of the most well rounded artists in the world because we have to understand so much about all of the art around us to create successful, convincing, conceptual designs. Artistry is not something that everyone has innately, so be proud that you are able to harness your natural talent and skill. Let it sink in that you have created a work of art that can be experienced and enjoyed by patrons for the length of the run, whether it's two performances or 200.
Always remember self-criticism is a vital skill for any designer, but don't forget to celebrate your ability. If you can't critique your own work, you'll never grow as a designer and never challenge your own boundaries, but the opposite is also true. Occasionally take the time to be proud of what you do, to show others that you have the capacity to look back and say, “This show looks good.” Just don't get cocky. Nobody likes cocky.
If you do nothing else, make sure you love what you get up every morning to do; it's the key to creating good art and, more importantly, being happy and satisfied with your life.
Larry Zoll is in the systems division of Barbizon Light of New England where he specializes in theatrical lighting and themed environments. You can see his work at www.zolldesign.com.