Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an adaptation of the keynote address given by set/costume designer and author Charles Berliner at the Fifth Annual Design Showcase West held at UCLA in June. The two-day event featured a student showcase with exhibits in costume, set, sound, and lighting design.
We have gathered at this fifth anniversary of Design Showcase West to encourage and celebrate our soon-to-be colleagues who face the challenge of creating entertainment industry design for the familiar media of today and the unknown media of tomorrow.
About 150 years ago, most of what we knew about the performing arts' visual element existed only in memorabilia of scenery and costume sketches. A sketch is still often used as an initial communicative tool, and today that sketch could just as likely be with added sound — aural and visual. It is interesting to note that the last major exhibition of theatrical scenery and costume designs by living designers at a major art museum was the 1987 exhibit Contemporary American Stage Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was not by accident that the curator made certain that work of easel artists David Hockney and Jim Dine were a part of that presentation. Twenty years later, we are left to contemplate whether we will ever again see such an exhibition. A question to those exhibiting today: As entertainment industry designers, should the visual inspiration that we create to communicate our ideas be considered “works of art” or “artwork?” I believe that the answer can be found here at Design Showcase West. Just look at the event sponsors.
You have the principal in this effort, the UCLA Theatre, Film and Television Department — and I'm not just saying this because I taught at UCLA for 10 years — providing the venue and representing the various academic institutions that have guided you “artistically” to this point. But then you also have the three additional event sponsors (not necessarily in this order, of course): United Scenic Artists, Local USA-829; The Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphics Artists, Local 800; and the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892. These three locals are part of a larger union entity. Under the leadership of current international president Thomas C. Short, these are all member locals of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories, and Canada, AFL (American Federation of Labor)-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), and CLC (Canadian Labor Congress), known in the business as “IATSE,” or simply “the IA.” I love saying the whole thing!
Unions are an important part of our entertainment industry workplace. Unless you are very lucky, no one employer is likely to pay for a lifetime of healthcare or give you a pension plan. The local union, as the one constant in your working life, will provide for coverage, acting as a repository on your behalf, for contributions from various employers. As a union member, you are part of a professional community who do the same work as you. You need not be an isolated, lone “Don Quixote” of Cervantes fame, fighting the “windmills of their minds” on your own. Your union brothers and sisters will always be there.
The late Howard Bay was my design ancestor/guide. With first-hand knowledge of our field as one of the most recognized theatrical designers of the 20th century, he ventured into academia, with eyes wide open and carrying enough toothpicks of professional business sense to place under, and prop up, the eager young eyes of his graduate students at Brandeis. A respected designer's designer, at different times during his life he served more than 20 years as president of United Scenic Artists.
We were initially scenic artists, theatrical designers, and everything else! We decorated and dressed all aspects of the performing arts. However, after 400 years, this “One, Singular ‘Design’ Sensation” would change forever. Before long, design for film was another career possibility, and along the way, through mid-century, grand events such as ice shows and industrials joined the stalwart design arenas of opera and dance. Later, media such as television, theme parks, music videos, game design, etc., came into our professional lives. Today, it's all out there, and with the ever-growing technology, who knows what you may be doing tomorrow? Why, perhaps as I recently did, using the basic tools of our profession, you may even write and illustrate a children's book.
Bay often remarked that Broadway, like Everest, is a mountain that will always be there to climb. However, there are many other wonderful entertainment design “mountains” out there. Artistically rewarding as a climb, the often-repeated statement, “They certainly pay much better than most work in the theatre!” is unfortunately a sad, but true, cliché. To become a cliché, there is some innate truth to the idea, concept, or statement, and sometimes a cliché can inspire us, both visually and otherwise, in our endeavor to reach a goal.
So in closing, let's go back to the question: Is what we do “works of art” or “artwork?” Of course, the answer is that it is both. Our collective works of art often appear to be so effortless and project appropriate that they disappear, as they should. Therefore, we must demand that our seen-and-heard designs are recognized and well paid for as artwork. To those assembled who are about to embark on a career journey and to those in “mid-journey,” I give you the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II to comfort you on your way:
“Climb every mountain/Ford every stream/Follow every rainbow/'Til you find your dream.”
Now go out and climb those mountains, and make sure you're well-paid for it!
Looking back at the industry and Creative Stage Lighting's first 30 years, it seems as though the time has gone by in a blur. When considering what might happen during the next 30 years, the energy within the thought is overwhelming and extremely exciting! The maturity of the industry through the development and use of standards, succession planning, creating alternative lighting sources, preservation of environments, safety developments, reductions of energy, size, weight, and costs, coupled with faster delivery, longer accessibility, and more self-fulfillment enabling strategies being designed and deployed all make for an amazing consideration of how manufacturers and distributors will compete for and satisfy the needs of the market.