It depends on how far you go back. As a kid in elementary school I was very interested in painting and art. Those were the Boy Scout badges I wanted. I did a summer art program and was able to choose a major and two minors. I chose art as my major and piano and theater as my minors. It was my first taste of theater. I wasn't able to take any art classes through high school, and until college it was all about theater. I was going to be an actor. Visual art was forgotten.
Then I took a lighting design class at the end of my freshman year of undergrad. It was awesome. In high school I had no clue. We had foam scenery and 15 pars along the front of the stage and we were lucky if the walls didn't fall down and that was it. I had no concept of design as a form of art within the theater. So I discovered lighting design and was fascinated by the idea of being able to tell a story with something so intangible. My undergraduate design program was very small. We weren't expected to want to design so we had to ask for it. I began to design lights for shows and then wanted to expand into scenery. I also wanted to get into costume design but I had so little knowledge of fabrics and garments that it terrified me. And what I realized was that I had always had this passion for art and theatre design allowed me to rekindle that relationship with visual creation. I have always enjoyed drawing and sketching and I always doodled in the margins of my notebooks so I was beginning to put those skills to more practical use and fuse that passion with my current passion for theater. I designed a few shows in undergrad, and really loved doing that, but I also loved acting and had to make the difficult decision whether to pursue design or acting as a career.
I was very aware of the market demand for a designer versus an actor in the real world. And I also love the feeling of being able to draw something on paper and then that thing becomes realized in real life. I love being able to draw a room on paper and shortly thereafter, it exists. There is something amazing about walking into a space for the first time and seeing the scenery or seeing the mockups of the costumes, or seeing the lights come on for the first time. That feeling for me has always surpassed anything I felt as an actor. Acting came with a lot of fears. So design was right for me. I chose design and never looked back. I went to graduate school for Scenography which meant that I studied scenery, lighting, and costumes.
You have three areas of expertise. What are the great things and the difficult things about being able to do all three?
I think that for me it's really about breadth vs depth. I have the breadth to do all three disciplines but I don't have a particularly extensive stored knowledge in any of the three areas. My peers that only do costume design have a greater knowledge of fabrics at the tip of their fingers whereas I have to go to a shop and feel the fabric and look at it and make decisions based on research rather then just knowing that a particular fabric is the best choice. But I think that I know where to get that information that another designer may just have stored away in their mind, and that is what allows me to do all three visual design disciplines successfully. I'm always able to find the information that I may not have from experience. Similarly with lighting, there is a variety of instruments and light boards and intelligent fixtures that I may not have a deep knowledge of but that's information that I can access easily. And I like learning new things and a professor of mine in undergrad really emphasized that half of knowledge is knowing where to find knowledge.
When you're doing a scene design in an indie space, how do you approach that differently from a show in a big space with lots of resources?
I've actually changed my approach to those kinds of shows over the past few years. When I first graduated from grad school I was the resident designer at a children's theater and all of the shows needed to be able to tour. I went from grad school, designing big shows on a big stage with a scene shop, to this children's theatre with scenery that the TD and I put together and then packed up and sent on the road. So I had to think very functionally about how scenery was going to break down and get put back together and travel. So when I started doing some indie shows, mainly with Flux Theater Ensemble, I began by thinking practically and thinking about how scenery could be achieved with the means available. Around my third or fourth show, I think Ajax in Iraq, I decided to just design whatever I wanted and to figure out the practicalities later. That's what I was doing with big shows, and I always kept in mind some things like scale and proportion but I let go of some of the worries about money and materials and just designed the show. Also, when I'm doing off off Broadway I like to use as much of the space as possible. I like to use the architectural elements of the space and the environment of the space. So now I just treat indie theater the way I treat every other design I do, it's just in a smaller room.
What are some of the challenges that you've faced? Looking back how would you approach things differently?
I think that a lot of the challenges that I've dealt with come down to communication. A lot of issues can be avoided with just more specific or more frequent communication. And that goes for all theater, both downtown theater and regional theater and everywhere else. I've trained myself to always reach out. It can't hurt to send an email out and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Adding an extra little line to an email or sending a text or email takes just a minute and can save a lot of headache later on. Having a few extra phone calls just to make sure that everything that I need to communicate is clear can be incredibly helpful. As a visual artist there is definitely a limitation on what a sketch or drawing or drafting can communicate and it's best to just get on the phone or get in a room with someone and just make sure that everything is super clear. You don't want to be in a situation where you're waiting on someone but that person thinks that they are waiting on you or there are questions in emails that never get fully addressed. Because I do multiple shows at a time in different cities I have to really take the time to stay on top of communication. And that's really all people want. They want someone who is available for answering questions. I don't have to be on site, I just have to be willing to pick up my phone and answer questions.
As someone who works with a lot of different companies and a lot of different budgets how do you organize your calendar so that you can make it work as a designer?
It can definitely be feast or famine sometimes with both finances and mental health. Things have shifted for me over the years I've been in New York. I started working as a studio assistant in William Ivey Long's design studio. I was able to break away and do my own designs and still have a steady income. I've also worked for some other designers on a show by show basis and it can be tricky to fit in those indie shows because they don't have as much money to go around but take just as much time as larger shows. But the more I work the better I understand how much time a project is going to take both in pre-production and in the load-in and tech phases. Right now I'm in the middle of four shows back to back. When I booked these in June I knew that I had to arrange them so that I had enough time to meet deadlines and be on site. Because of this I'm able to fit in indie projects, which are exciting and rewarding in a different way.
What is something that you've worked on recently that you've felt really good about?
I'm that guy that always wishes for another day or another minute or another 15 bucks to fix some little detail. I get really picky and the notes get really tiny. I just opened The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Lafayette College, in a black box with cinderblock walls. We painted the whole interior and created a false proscenium, and build a set of risers for the children. We did all of this great decorating using Lafayette College's actual colors and mascot. So the idea is that when an audience walks into the room it's familiar. It turned out so well in large part due to the technical director there, Zach Tysinger, who executed everything at such a high level before I arrived and then we worked together to finish off a lot of things. It was a very successful and rewarding process. There were still many things that I would want to adjust but overall it was a great experience.
What are some things that we can do as a community of indie theatre people to make things easier for designers and productions?
I think the biggest thing to remember is that we're not competing with each other. It's about collaboration and not about competition. We all want to make great art and that's not easy in this city. And we are all doing it on a shoestring. So certainly sharing props and costumes is a great way to start. Perhaps theaters sharing space in a scene shop or costume shop, or rehearsal space or publicizing for each other, We need a broad safety net. There is that time-money-manpower triangle that we have to negotiate. And I think that sharing physical objects can cut down on time because there's less time spent looking for that object or looking for something that is similar that will work. It's just about collaborating and understanding that if one show does well that doesn't mean that the other shows don't do well. There's no limitation to how many productions can be successful. We're all in it together.
What are some things that we as a community can do better?
I think it's good to start a production with a complete team of designers, rather than hiring lights and sound after costumes and scenery have already been designed. We should have those early, initial design meetings with everyone present. The design team should work as a team. The early conceptual conversations can be really valuable to everyone, and it's more exciting to get feedback from the other designers rather than have my work be finished by the time that they are hired. And the designs are better if we work as a team.
Something I've also thought about is that there is really not a place online that reviews design specifically. Designers don't ever really get coverage in reviews to the same degree as scripts and actors and direction. Maybe that's because we are the support staff, but it would be nice to see someone who has been or is a designer writing about indie design.