Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lets Hear it For New York

Dear New York,

You are like a very hard nut. Difficult to crack but meaty, fatty, tasty, and substantial inside. You get stuck in my teeth and at the back of my throat.

Life here has been the emotional roller-coaster I have desired for so long. After having settled into Chicago like an old boot, I am finally back in high heels. Well maybe just a wedge shoe for now.

The transition went something like this: Working for free for a popular scenic designer to working for a normal wage for a fabric painter to working as a union stitcher to working as a tailor for an established fashion designer, all the while maintaining a relationship with a european opera designer and designing one show which will now not be produced any time soon. The costume designers who graduate from Hale say not to do anything except design if that is what you want to do. I moved here with that in mind, but this practice lasted for about a week.

I had insomnia for the first time in my life. A nasty stomach flu for longer than when I ate some bad food in the third world. Something I would never tell clients or employers is that I need what I do more than anything else. Making costumes or painting or working in a theater keeps me calm and patient and excited and sane. When I think about travel, I wonder if there will be anything where I'm going related to costumes or textiles.

But having given freelancing a few months and not doing anything too commital, it seems to agree with me. Realizing that people react to me with respect in most technical work environments has given me the confidence to pursue design that sitting at home waiting for it to happen never would have.

Population of NYC=8.5 million
Population of Chicago=3 million

Square miles of NYC=304
Square miles of Chicago=234

The city is dense and you can disappear and be noticed at the same time. It smells of grease and exhaust and I am falling back in love.

I am so exhausted that I am not writing well now. But maybe you can enjoy some renderings for the ballet that will not be produced (at least this year).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I will never go away again!

The moment I returned to New York I phoned my old favorite downtown restaurant. The concierge notified his staff of my return and the prepared the finest chicken and beats and we all sang and danced and had the grandest time! Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, that wasn't me, that was Dolly!

More accurately, I have returned dirty subways, impatient assholes, hilarious accents, and a general jadedness authentic only to the great NYC! Very quickly I realized that here I would have to say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to the recent Chicagoan who had unknowingly let too much of that good-natured midwesternness rub right off of the bread bowl and into her heart and soul. I guess I had forgotten New York facade. There are almost nationalistic differences between the greetings of a Chicagoan and a New Yorker. Not only do they not want to talk to you, but when they finally let you talk it's like you took way too long. The great things I have missed are Pizza, pizza, pizza...the close proximity of everything; a city that by geographic constraints can't sprawl, the subway art; the way artists have found their way into every blank space on new york subways, streets, and buildings.

Yesterday I visited my favorite museum, Manhattan Museum of Modern Art. They had everything from a Leatherman's multi-tool to a small collection of Chagall. There was also a special exhibit on scenic and costume rendering for stage and film including some artists I hadn't know to do stage like Rivera and Tchelitchew.

I think I was most fascinated by Rivera's. He had one performer dressed as a gas station in the ballet called High Power about industrialization.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cool Story

I often wonder "how will I do it," and remember I don't know exactly what I want to do. A good story about fate and wonder:


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

$388. A four day trek across America pulling over on the side of a 75mph highway to pee so I can save time. Motel 6. Love's truck stops. Oklahoma. Amarillo, Texas for the second time in my life (one too many). Monday morning after moving into my house-share on the outskirts of Artsy Fartsy (the name of the town for lack of a better pseudonym). I couldn't be farther away from the Opera and in the same town. At 8:40 I get into my hunter green honda with a cracked windshield and both bumpers falling off. I need new tires badly but I pretend that my procrastination in due to lack of time in my schedule. 11 minutes from work, I think. Ok, 9 mintues early isn't as early as I'd like but at least I'll make it. Artsy Fartsy is, however, located on Route 66, is one of the first settlements in the southwest and the roads are named, shaped, and function more like Boston than any other cities west of the Mississippi like Chicago, St Louis, Omaha, Denver, and Tuscon. I am headed for the relief route which bypasses all the lights. I turn on Calle de Lopez and not Lopez Lane. My tires crack on gravel and quiet onto dirt. I am headed in the right direction. Just around the bend I can see the cars racing on the bypass. Cactus, tumbleweed, maybe even a prairie dog, I deadend. I could drive over some desert flora and cut onto the road. 8:52. Damn. Denial tells me that I can still make it. At 8:57 I am a few miles down the relief route and I finally call. "Costumes this is Joanne," a soft british accent greets.

"Hi, this is Me I got lost, could you tell Boss I'm going to be a little late. I'm on the bypass and will be there in about five minutes?" On time is late, I think. As an apprentice at Artsy Fartsy Opera this was the motto. Never be late. Which I have to say in such a collaborative field is maybe the number one rule to live by. Things can't get done if you are not there. Or they just go on and get done without you incorrectly or you miss out on something spectacular.

Most assistants start a week or two before their designer as to feel their way around work, prepare information, fittings and aquaint themselves with their surroundings. In the case of the shitty economy, contracts have been shortened to absolute necessity and since I am new to this position, the designer I'm assisting starts the same day. Boss calls me right after my visit to the Will Rogers museum and the conversation is very short, "Listen, Monday is your first day, it is your designer's first day, and it is also World Famous Fashion Designer's first day. I'm not going to be able to spend too much time with you," in a calm, concerned, and mentorly way of course. "Ok, I'm a little confused about the God costumes," I say. "Well so am I, we'll figure it all out when you get here." Well at least he called to tell me, I am comforted. Artsy Fartsy Opera remains non-union at least in the technical areas by billing themselves as an educational program. They take in students and there is a lot of mentoring and portfolio reviewing. The low hourly rate also affords more time so that a higher quality of work can be produced. This is what brings wonderful artisans back, encourages them to work longer hours, and frankly puts on a damn good production. I am working with a Draper who has been coming back for 25 years.

It's 9:15 and I have finally managed to park, make my way to the Costume Shop, and tumble into work. "Hi, sorry I'm late." Boss greets me with an honest hug, "You are late," as it is frowned upon. Here is your draper, here is your craftsperson, find some new fabrics for these sketches, fill in your paperwork, here are all these people I kind of remember and like sixty-five others, writed it all down, commit it to memory, show the designer his parking spot and rehersal hall, bathroom, production office, decode the production calendar, put your inventory into Sherlock (what the hell is that?), daily schedule, draper info, fend off the girl who wants your job and will try to make you look bad, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. In short, my summer stock from last year ran into a busy fall working for a completely overloaded fashion designer masquerading as a costume designer (i.e. she donated money to the ballet so she got to design there twice) which cut into production on my many-paneled cheesecloth, chiffon, and giant veil premier, and segwayed directly into my first experiment in set design, childrens theater remount, my biggest show yet, Music Man, which I took too much noticeable time off from my full time job and pissed off the Union, made my steady job awkward, kept me from my family at the holidays for even less money, and the hags gossipping as if we lived in a town as small as my pinky.

I wish there was a name for that feeling you have when you cram so much stuff into your brain and your body that you feel stuffed, so stuffed that you can't think or eat or communicate. You can't do what you love which is communicate ideas through images and texture. Or comment critically on society because you can't make it through sentence in your book at night withough falling asleep or wake up early enough to get the news. You want to vomit out all the gossip, bullshit, and bad blood created by clashed egos and legal hurdles, fear and insecurity and just fucking make art. Gut wrenchingly and euphorically, like when I was in school and thought I would just die without time to create.

Is this the right mentality to start a job I've been waiting for for two years? But you can't help what life brings you. You can't say "Hey snap out of it, and be the happy-go-lucky, carefree, watch out world, crowd pleasing, fearless girl of 20." But what I have been able to do is give myself time and space and desert air, a long contemplative hike through a Southwest monsoon, mountainscapes at dusk, and letting the last four years of my life in Chicago sneak up into a small fold. I'm listening to all the mentors around me, listening to Verdi and Mozart and Gluck, listening to the strength of the opera stars, and learning that I'm taking home more than my $388 paycheck, and it goes directly to my heart and not citibank.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Season 2

I am back in a place I love. The southwest. Where people wear cowboy hats and tattoos, eat Christmas-colored plates of Mexican food, and the weather's uncertain temperament matches my own. I drove several days to get here, New York to New Mexico with stops in Chicago, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City. Unlike the uncertainty I felt about everything last summer, I feel secure in the fact that the people here care. In such a large company, with so many fledging young designers, technicians, and performers, you would expect some to feel forgotten or overlooked, some to feel mistreated or exploited. But for such an old company, with so many who have come and gone, I have only heard exceptional stories. Although I will have new, more administrative tasks this year as opposed to my former summers here as a technician, and am a little nervous, at least I can sigh in releif that people care. And the nerves aren't coming from any energy I've ever felt here. They are coming from the terrible repertory company in the midwest and other not-so-up-to par places who treat employees like the fat at the end of a pork-rind or some other vile cut of meat.

What was I thinking driving 2500 miles to a 1 month job? Along the way I saw an accident which really shook me to the bone and made me happy to be alive. A semi actually drove over a sedan in western Oaklahoma. Traffic was backed up for miles and people had parked their cars and gotten out. A helicopter was parked on the highway. Smaller fender benders seemed to have occured just behind the major accident. (Sign of the cross) I called my boyfriend right away.

Tomorrow I start. This will be my first official "design assistant" post which seems to be a stepping stone in a young designer's career and also a career in and of itself: challenging, stimulating, and decent-paying.

Monday, April 27, 2009

You know that famous saying,"Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes?" Well I'm amazed this year that I was able to survive, and it took taxes to review what I actually did in 2008. Ten shows! On top of my regular job. And one of them was hellish enough to put me into a different career. I went running back to my costume shop job in hopes of never finding such negativity, egotism, and what's the word when someone from a really small town thinks they own the world because they've never seen anything bigger?

In a way it has made me even more cautious. How much info do you have to dig up about a theater and its employees before you commit to a job in hopes that it won't ruin your life? In my case last year, I didn't do any digging. I was so excited to be able to "design" that I took jobs right away with very few questions. And in doing so, I caution young designers. Many theater companies are looking to save money in any way they can including exploiting and deteriorating young artists. When I graduated from college, I was sure to balance what would be my day-to-day activities with an "impressive" sounding job. I knew that seeming to others that I had a good job was important, but it was more important to my own happiness and sanity that I a)got along with my co-workers, b)had at least a little autonomy and flexibility, c)like 50% of my daily activities, and d)made enough money to make all of my bills. All this I had in my full time part shop/part wardrobe position. In hopes of advancing and fulfilling a big dream of mine to be a Costume Designer, I took many short jobs which a)compromised a job I already loved and maybe took a little for granted, b)set me apart from my beloved co-workers, c)demanded I perform even more work for A LOT less money, for example, advertising a position as "Costume Designer" when really you would have to act as the whole shop. I definitely drew the line at running the shows., and d)hardly made any money.

I was lucky to have been the only one around when a Major Choreographer came to the costume shop where I work. The company didn't want to spend any money on costumes so it came down to me to "design" them, i.e. pull them from stock. He was a very salty and sarcastic man and wanted me to give him all of my time while I was also putting back together about 6 other shows. And the company swore they didn't have any money! After finally agreeing on some very simple tux-like outfits for the men and a teal color for the woman and seeing it on stage once, choreographer gave me the reins, "Just go for broke," he told me. Go for broke. I though. Go for broke. Hmmm. I don't want to go for broke. I have a lot of friends who find it romantic to be starving artists, to just get by, but often times they seem miserable and unable to work due to worry and job searching. I ended up adding my own artistic embellishments and working really hard to make the piece look polished and beautiful, which I think is what he really wanted. But I sure as hell didn't spend my own mone on the peice. The business of Costume Design is constantly humbling in realizing that many times you are just a means to an end. The Director will be glorified and the leading man or ladies, but the designer is this weird go-between for directors and crew which takes thorough (almost unnatural) proactivity, mind-reading, communication, and acting skills. It takes forgetting yourself and telling everyone else their bodies and work are beautiful and moving. It takes sifting through requests which really aren't your responsibility. Hmmm, this person wants me to find him tissues and food right now in the middle of my first dress rehearsal? Which I have done. But I am drawing the line. And I am definitely not going for broke.

I am now aware that companies will chew you up and spit you out in order to do something inexpensively. Some of them are nice and accomodating and you want to go back even though the pay is so low and others are nasty, jealous, unprofessional, and backstabbing and could never pay you enough to withstand the emotional tolls. And maybe I won't recover. But I sure as hell know that I will not work for another company unless they are recommended by a friend or I have a sense that they function professionally and with a greatfullness to supplement the shitty pay.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Only Roses Only Roses

Auto pilot. Did you ever feel like even though you are "making art" you were on auto pilot. A show is a show is a show. Each one is a little different and moving in it's way, but eventually you have to organize and pump them out each in a similar fashion. Which goes something like this:

Listen to music/read script/watch movement.
Have initial emotional reaction which leads to a visual element.
Historical research/contemporary research.
Meet with director to understand their intentions.
Do initial visual boards and sketching.
Talk to director about initial visual boards and sketches.
Do more sketching and research and collages.
Meet with director again. Decide on costumes.
Measure actors.
Change designs do to conflicting body types.
Pull rehearsal pieces.
Buy fabric and materials.
Meet with the director again.
Decide what to build and what to rent.
Make patterns.
Cut pieces.
Talk to makeup artist.
Write thank you notes.
Dry Cleaning.
Rental returns.
Donate built costumes.
Find another job.

And if you have nobody in place to do these things with or for you, you do them yourself. In the past year, I designed 8 shows, worked in production on 2 premiers, and remounted 10. I've learned a lot and I think for the next few months I need to lay low and recoup and let all the hands on experience sink in.