Sometimes, The Indignity Is Worth It

I remember my graduation from NYU's MFA program in the Spring of 2002 like it was yesterday. I crossed that stage as fast as my Prada shoes could carry me, eager to receive official documentation of what I'd known all my life: that I was a Master. (A Master of Fine Arts, technically, but why split hairs?)

It wasn't until the next day that the panic set in.

It suddenly dawned on me that I'd been a professional student since age five. Going back to school each August was something I took for granted. Now, after two decades, that crutch was no longer there. Would I succeed? Would I even survive?

I knew NYU had given me the best education I could have asked for, but my years there had been somewhat sheltered. I was about to enter a work force filled with talented professionals; if I valued a roof over my head and food in my stomach, I'd have to succeed as one of them. The scariest part was that this transition into career mode was one I had to make all on my own.

I imagined that the first step would be deciding which part of the costume design business I wanted to be in. I was qualified for both design jobs and assistant work, but knew each would take my career in a different direction. What I didn't realize was that a designer's direction is pretty much decided by the opportunities that come his or her way.

No sooner had I graduated than I started getting calls from directors I'd met at various NYU functions. (You'd be surprised how many contacts you can make at a Clambake.) They all promised “great opportunities” to design shows they were putting on. I couldn't believe it: I was already being offered design jobs at the tender age of 24! Not that I hadn't always pegged myself as a genius, but it was nice to have it confirmed.

Only after my initial meetings with these directors did I see them for what they were: indentured servitude. If you don't know how much money young designers make, you might want to sit down. One director offered me a show that needed 15-25 costumes — about 200-300 hours of work — for which they would pay me a whopping $300. So much for the “great opportunity.” Still, I knew it was just this kind of low-budget, time-consuming job that would get me the real-world contacts I needed. I decided that in this case, the indignity was worth it.

Of course there was still the issue of rent and groceries to deal with, so I immediately began looking for additional work. As I had extensive experience as a design assistant, I figured I'd have no trouble finding a gig. I started by writing letters to every designer whose work I admired. Then I waited. (And waited.) While I got a few responses and showed my portfolio a couple of times, there was not a job offer to be had.

Just when I was starting to consider a “great opportunity” at my local McDonald's, I was offered a job as a shopper for Tricorne, LLC. While I wouldn't have chosen to be a shopper at the time, in hindsight I realize I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my first few months post-grad. Shopping for shows like Flower Drum Song, Amour, and Mamma Mia introduced me to the costume world from the perspectives of both designer and dressmaker. I got to see every aspect of the process, from beading and dying, to trim and fabric sources. I had no idea how much I had to learn about professional costume design until I started that job. I've come to see the experience as such an essential part of my education that I don't know how I could have made it this far without it.

More importantly, it opened the right doors for me. A few months into my job at Tricorne, and thanks to the contacts I made there, I was offered a job on my first Broadway show. It was an assistant position for the Broadway revival of Nine. I'd be working with stars like Antonio Banderas and — even more dreamily — Chita Rivera. Was I ready for this kind of responsibility? Everyone else seemed to think so, but I myself was dubious.

Much to my surprise, it became immediately clear how prepared I was. My key to success had always been organization, so I concentrated on not letting any of my work get out of control. The fact that the show was relatively small for a Broadway musical made this a reasonable goal. I worked closely with the designer, Vicki Mortimer, and her associate from England, Lynette Mauro. From the very beginning, we acted as a team. We talked through all the major design decisions and I was included in every fitting. Observing an experienced designer like Vicki working with actors was the best training an assistant could ask for. Most of all, I felt like the show was as much mine as it was hers. After opening night, Vicki and Lynette asked if I would be the US associate designer on the show. Later, Vicki asked me to be the associate designer for the upcoming revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Ironically, it was just this kind of success that led to one of the biggest challenges I've faced since leaving school: the decision to join the United Scenic Artists union. I was lucky. Rather than having to work my way into the union, I received entry when I was offered an assistant position for another Broadway revival, Big River. I had heard so many different stories about what it was like to be a member — good, bad, and ugly — so I decided I needed to make an informed decision.

First, I spent hours online reading about the pros and cons of the union. Joining is an enormous financial commitment. Entry fees run $2,000-4,000, followed by quarterly dues and other miscellaneous expenses. Contrary to my assumption, once you are in the union you are not guaranteed a union job. On the upside, as a working member in the union you are automatically offered pension, welfare, and — most importantly — health insurance benefits. For a freelance artist, this is an invaluable commodity. You also have access to a range of jobs for which non-union workers are not able to apply.

In the end, the pros outweighed the cons and I joined. For me, it was the right thing to do, and I am now a proud member of USA 829. I would advise anyone thinking of joining to wait until they are sure that they will be able get jobs under the contract and are ready for the financial responsibility.

Over a year has passed since I graduated, and I feel like my career is off to an even better start than I had hoped. I'm a perfectionist, though, so if I had to do it over, there are some things I would change.

First, I'd take a year off after I finished undergrad. I think having had some time in the “real world” would have helped my post-grad transition be a less stressful experience. It would also have been a great time to scope out different grad programs to be sure I was choosing the right one for me.

Secondly, I would have tried to get a bit more professional New York theatre experience while I was still in school. I had a great job at the Santa Fe Opera every summer, but it didn't prepare me for New York City's cutthroat theatre world. I would have been at an incredible advantage if, upon graduation, I had already been familiar with the resources the city had to offer.

Finally, if I had it to do over, I would have sought out some of those “great design opportunities” while I still had the security blanket of my school stipend to fall back on. I realize now that there are always small, poorly paid projects available for the taking, and they have the huge upside of helping you make solid contacts. As with any artistic career, it takes hard work and sacrifice to get where you want to be. The more experience you can get, the more likely you are to find work. If you can do it while your major expenses are covered by money that is coming from the government, so much the better!


There Is No Ming In The Real World

Ming Cho Lee looms large at Yale. That is to say that while I was a student in the Design Department at the Yale School of Drama, I was constantly concerned about Ming's response to my design work. Or, to put it bluntly: would Ming hate what I had created and would I have to start all over again? In fact, at Yale I perfected the fine art of lightly gluing or tacking down furniture and walls in my set models in case Ming suddenly insisted that something be changed or removed, perhaps because it didn't “ring true.” I suspect that many of my classmates felt similarly, and I gather that many of the other Yale designers who came before me have a very good idea of what I'm talking about. Ming's teaching method may have been frustrating or hard-to-stomach at times, but there was always the comfort of knowing that an extremely gifted and caring teacher was in control of our student-universe, insisting that we correct our mistakes and, if we were lucky, applauding our successes.

Out in the real world, there is no Ming, figuratively speaking, and since graduating from Yale, my career has been a fast-paced, and often chaotic grab bag of assisting, teaching, and designing. Most of my design projects have veered toward the downtown New York theatre scene, largely projects with incredibly small budgets and minimal design fees. One of my first design gigs right out of school was remounting a show I had done at Yale as part of the Drama League's New Directors/New Works program. We presented our three-hour long show during August in a space in the upper levels of a building belonging to Pace University with absolutely no air conditioning. I still wince thinking of the frightening series of twists and turns it took to fit the 4×8 platforms through the elevator door during load-in.

Other shows have provided similarly colorful moments. Once I spent a day driving with a producer out to Long Island in a rental truck to pick up 56 bags of cedar mulch that we used as a floor for a production of Spring Awakening. For the same production I had to find four pristine king-sized mattresses for no more that $50 each. Friends and colleagues called me from the street whenever they came across a discarded mattress, although neither they nor I had a truck on-hand. In order to procure 75 red wine bottles for a production of Blood Wedding, I asked all of my friends to drink lots of wine and save their leftover bottles. I quickly decided that I needed to pitch in and lend a hand to the effort myself.

Assistant work has provided me glimpses of the more rarefied side of the design world. I worked as a studio assistant to Santo Loquasto for several months and remember very fondly sneaking a peek at Maria Bjornson's half-inch model for Les Troyens during a meeting at The Met. Seeing the thick, fully bound set of drawings for Cabaret in Robert Brill's studio brought me face-to-face with the serious realities of a Broadway show. Younger designers that I've worked for, such as Louisa Thompson and Alexander Dodge, have been excellent guidance counselors, providing advice on everything from tax laws to what jobs to avoid even if you're best friends with the director. Perhaps my most lucrative assignment was spending six weeks last summer in Santa Barbara at the Music Academy of the West where I oversaw the installation of a rental set of Albert Herring. The Music Academy, I discovered, is just about the most beautiful place on earth and sure beats spending July in New York City. The highlight of my summer was having my portfolio reviewed by Marilyn Horne who kindly let me know that the Marschallin's entrance in Act III of Der Rosenkavalier must be upstage center.

Despite small budgets and some less-than-glamorous circumstances, I've created my personal handbook of sayings, or slogans, to get me through the design process with integrity. “Pick your battles” seems to be the most useful since I am rarely in a position to get everything I might ask for. I pay particular attention to masking since I know that poor masking is the true sign of an unprofessional, or not well-thought-out design. Another reality that really hit home for me this past year is that theatre is a collaborative art and that I depend on the ideas of directors and other designers to get at the final product. I don't do this alone, and there seems to be a certain modesty and elegance in accepting the ideas of others and giving credit where it is due. I often joke these days that the sound designer is the person who always has the most brilliant solution to the most difficult problem in the set.

Gradually over the past year, I have noticed that my design budgets have gotten larger and better supported, and that gives me hope. One of my most recent shows in New York, St. Scarlet, was a major success for me. It was a chance to design a realistic interior, and it led me to commit something just short of a crime for downtown theatre: putting a box set in the Ontological. After a year of experimental theatre, I surprised myself with the pleasure that I found in picking the wallpaper and wallboard, detailing the staircase and sleuthing out the perfect kitchen chairs. And here's where I must give credit where credit is due: Yale taught me to approach my design with confidence. I held onto details that were important me, and didn't waver when I placed my walls at right angles or specified a realistic floor to ceiling height. Of course, I made some mistakes, but felt that I could proceed with a certain clarity of design perhaps in part because Ming insisted that a design “ring true.”


The Career Path Is Logarithmic

I am discovering that supporting oneself as a young artist requires some creative occupational diversification. In the last year and a half, I have worked on theatre, musicals, films, television, art installations, recordings, live music and live events (and I painted a garage). But somehow in the end, they all inform each other. Whether on a purely technical level, creatively, or in the diplomacy of collaboration, all these disciplines are about solving problems. The same self-interrogation that makes a design project interesting can make mixing a TV show a valuable experience. There will always be something I didn't know or expect. It's just my job to notice.

The seeds of this realization were planted in the theater school at California Institute of the Arts. When I decided to go back to school, I had very little theatrical background and no idea how naïve about it I was. When I designed my first show, I found out I could put speakers anywhere I wanted. When I designed my second show, I couldn't believe how it broke me. By the end of my first year, my entire conception of theater and what it could do had changed. When I graduated, I was ready to push beyond the proscenium arch, ready to create new forms and new expressions. My colleagues and I were all set to redefine and shatter preconceived notions of the nature of theater. But when I was thrown from the parapets of the ivory tower, I hit the ground and I had no idea what any of that meant. Suddenly I was faced with a great open void; suddenly I had to pay rent.

As difficult as it was to see then, the advice was, “Look, the career path is logarithmic. Just be patient and take every job that you can.” Since I was not willing to do anything but pursue a career as a designer I had to figure out a way to stay available for design work while still supporting myself. So I picked up whatever I could find: crew calls, rental houses, assisting when I could, anything sound-related. But most of it didn't seem to have much to do with the work that I did in school. Setting up PA systems doesn't involve a lot of conceptual and collaborative energy. Mostly it involves lifting heavy things. But eventually I developed enough contacts around Los Angeles that I could do technical jobs while designing plays and musicals in smaller venues. And not long after that, I was able to limit the bread-winning jobs to designing, assisting and mixing. But I still had to figure out what this groundbreaking new theatre was.

When I asked around, I found that some of my classmates who had recently graduated weren't really sure how to be groundbreaking either. So we started a support group. We decided to meet weekly to talk, read plays and see what developed. A splinter from this group evolved into a theatre company that is now producing work and continues to hold weekly readings where anyone who wants to have their own or someone else's text read can do so. What has evolved is a discussion forum that is not centered on a playwright, a play or a specific topic, but one in which anyone is free to riff off of anything that is exciting about the work or wherever the discussion leads. This discourse develops our ability to ask provocative questions and produce inspiring ideas. The discussion always seems to lead to some strange and wonderful cross-media conundrum, such as how to manifest the graphic melodrama of death in Japanese animation on a stage with live actors who cannot actually be split in two.

Since I have been a part of this group, I find that I approach design work with much the same strategy, whether it's discovering the sound that a director's image makes or just getting four singers to sound good against a drum kit in a theatre the size of a large closet. Every job is useful. Asking myself the right question makes the seemingly less interesting one much more rewarding. If I find myself bored, I must be missing something.

Thus far, I seem to have the rent covered and the creative wheels spinning. Have I figured out how to create groundbreaking theatre, new expressions and new forms? No, not really. There is no scale that measures the amount of earth being moved by new theatre. But I do know that the next job I take will surprise me somehow. In both my career and my creative development, I think I will always be “just on the verge of…” something, because the “verge” moves every time I think I get there. Perhaps this is what they mean by groundbreaking experimental work. It doesn't have anything to do with creating the next big thing; it has to do with changing the goal once you you've reached it.