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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

This makes me feel a little bit better about my Summer Stock experience:


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

grant proposal continued

Describe in detail your work process from inspiration through completion on a recent production you have designed.

A recent production I designed is entitled Deshar Alhat. The translation of this Sephardic Jewish term is Leave Sunday. The production was a choreographed abstract narrative including twelve dancers, six female and six male. When presented with the production material by the choreographer, I began reading about Sephardim. The books included Jubana and Farewell Espania: The World of Sephardim Remembered, as well as internet resources including the Jewish Virtual Library and the Center for Jewish History. Jubana offered and easy-to-read, contemporary insight into what it is like to be a Cuban-Jewish Americanas well as a first-hand account of Castro’s takeover and of a family’s emigration to the United States. Books such as Farewell Espania offered a more extensive look at Sephardim, offering stories dating back millennia. This allowed me to to recognize basic themse about this culture, a major theme being diaspora. Deshar Alhat means “leave Sunday.” As the choreographer describes his work as abstract narrative, I matched my design process. We met after several months of individual brainstorming to discuss preliminary research and drawings as well as to view the movement. In viewing mmovement, I took note of what functional qualities were necessary in design. It was important to consider partnering, upside-down movement, and excessive floor dancing, which requires special construction methods and design qualities.

As choreographer/artistic director knows better his audience, we select styles, research details, and fabric together. Then I measure and make color selections coordinating with dancer’s features. Because this work was so solemn in them and the dance would create distinct imagery we decided that the piece could not be “over-designed,” in contrast to the piece I designed for the same company the prior year about Xavier Cugat, a thirties Hollywood musician. (This piece included necessary details all the way down to shoe fasteners.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Betrayal set

music man photos

TCG grant app--first two questions

Help edit my grant application. Please? Here is a link to the grant description and requirements: http://tcg.org/grants/cdpdesign/cdp_des_index.cfm

1) What inspired you to become a designer? What subsequent influences-theatrical or otherwise-have influenced your career aspirations?

Candlewood Playhouse 1990: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile,” I hear belted across the audience Thursday, Friday, Twice on Saturday, and then again on Sunday. “Let me entertain you,” I see a woman take off too many articles of clothing. In the Connecticut suburbs of New York City I am witness to my sister, a young stage actress, every night of my childhood whether at home at the piano, or in the theater.

Later love of geometry and fabric developed as a young child (twelve or so). My best friends mother, Pat, was a seamstress (the seamstress in town who made everyone’s prom and wedding dresses). My mom asked her for sewing lessons for me. Pat of course was too proud to take money, so my mother paid her in groceries. Pat taught me everything I needed to know to complete a garment from a pattern.

When I was sixteen, I discovered classes for high school students at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I convinced my parents to let me take Metro North to New York City on Saturdays to study draping. My father was worried about me getting to school so he made sure to give me fifteen dollars cab fair every weekend, but I saved the money, walked to school, and spent it in the garment district.

Through high school and college, the idea in my head and the final outcome could always be critically compared. But after a decade of design execution, I feel I am adept at executing ideas.

Whenever I am in an art museum, I have this restless feeling of wanting to be as close to a work as possible so as to feel what the artist was doing when he was creating—the strokes and blending of color, the planned and improvised, instinct, intent.

In live performance, a viewer has more insite into these processes. As not-for-profit theater seems to be growing more and more engaged with its community through talk-backs, tours, and educational endeavors, a patron of this form can truly immerse himself as much as he desires. As a designer, ther is the ongoing opportunity to literally enter your artwork—by viewing from the audience during technical rehearsals, editing work on the stage, and returning to the audience. Work as a designer is dually rewarding because of its collaborative nature. You don’t answer only to yourself, there is a director and a board of directors, and a community who are in your mind who must also be satisfied and inspired.

2) Discuss your strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Why is this the right time for you to apply for this program?

Some of my strengths are a commitment to a high-quality, aesthetically interesting product, the ability to work with a broad spectrum of personalities, humility, a welcoming and mature attitude to criticism, flexibility, a fresh outlook on old and new stories, commitment to appropriate means of story-telling with a balance of inspiring innovation, self-motivation (I wake up early and work very long hours on interesting projects), a genuine interest in life and people, excitement about life and work, work within budgets, interested in solving problems outside the theater
world such as human rights standards, energy conservation, and recycling.
Some weaknesses are that I work so much I am out of balance in personal life. Also, I would like to me more direct and exact in design (i.e. get it right the first time) rather than having to explore a solution during production. I feel this comes with age and experience.

This is the right time for me to apply for this grant because I have built up many well-nourished contacts in the Chicago theater community. Whenever I finish a design project, I feel as though I have poured my entire life into them. All of my time, exhausted all of my friends help. I wonder “How many more do I have of these in me?” When I finish a show, I feel I have just run a marathon. I always accept the projects that come my way and I always end up working just as hard on all of them no matter how much they pay. With this grant in my future, I would be able to look more critically upon design offers, editing options so that my life goals always stay in sight.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Deshar Alhat
As I sit listening to Ruddigore, my upcoming design project, I'm wondering where I even begin to start describing the last three months of my life. There is no need to specify that i am writing about the "costume" section of my life, because lately costuming is my life! In October the Harold Pinter play, Betrayal opened in a very small black box theater. My good friend did the lighting, so it was that much more enjoyable to work on. This show was unique because not only did I design costumes, but the set as well. The set design was difficult for two reasons; I have no background in set design and we had no budget. So basically I did some rendering and model making and the director did some thrifting, and together we built something that loosely resembled the renderings and actually worked very well for the play.

For those of you who don't know the story, it goes backwards in time basically starting from the end of a love affair and reversing to the beginning. The telling of this story is applaudable for the mere fact that writers rarely tell a love story in that direction. More often we hear see the acts leading up to the truest of love, but when do we ever get to wittness its undoings--and backwards for that matter? The peice was definitely a theater-goers choice. Not for the masses and not for the family and not for the romantic-once-a-year-date-to-the-theater. Although the audiences were half-full at most, I felt I was working on a real thesbien's play. The fact that there was no musical element helped me pay more attention to the language and rythm of the writing, realizing that Pinter was not only a master of pauses (as he is famed for) but double-entendres as well. I watched the play several times during the tech process and liked it more every time, where as usually I feel more and more annoyed with a work the more I am forced to watch it.

As far as costuming goes, there was almost no budget, so I made an art of pulling from stock. The director came up with Memory Waistland as a visual tag for the production aesthetic which I feel read in the set. But if I had to describe in two words the costumes I would have called them British Cottage. The two men characters are both in literature, one an agent responsible for finding new talent in fiction and the other in publishing. The third character is the publisher's wife, who was also having an affair with the agent, the publishers best friend. And it goes backwards in time over two decades, and their are four different settings, and we had 20 square feet of stage, and we had no crew. But the cast was great and overall, I think it was an artistic success.


The work I was most excited for this year, Music Man, for a professional, partial-equity theater, was a logistical nightmere! "Lately I feel more like a racecar driver than a costume designer," I told one of my seamstresses. I never found a rental I could live with, let alone one that I liked. I ended up pulling and collaging from four rental houses, one lending, several thrift stores, and building a small collection of pieces. It was nice to work with some costume builders who I really enjoyed. One artisan, who is much older than me, had her own private studio where she also built costumes for movies that had come and left Chicago. She knew all the right questions to ask and did impecable work. I made patterns and then she built the costumes for Marian the Librarian. Marian had three major costume changes from her librarian suit for the first act, to her dancing dress in the beginning of the second act to her stunning and glamourous dress during the climax of the play and the famous song "Till There Was You," which I could have sworn was written by the Beatles.

Also, I was treated like dirt by the production manager:

"Hi, I'm here to measure the cast," I show up on the first day of rehearsals.
"Well I really wish you wouldn't," she glares at me. I stare back confused. With no production schedule update in the past four months, no indication of scheduling fittings for me, and no planned production meetings I really didn't think anyone would measure the cast for me. Nore did I think anyone was about to call me to ask when I wanted to measure and fit. I'm 26 years old, I look like I'm about 19, I dress like a little punk, and I'm always really excited about what I'm doing. My appearance and overzealousness seem to clash with jaded production managers who don't care if I can afford rent and food.
"Well Director said that tonight would be a good night for me to take measurements because the entire cast would be here." I explain.
"Mmmm Hmm." she doesn't smile and only looks at me with disdain. After about fourty-five seconds of ignoring me she goes on, "It's just kind of akward to break the cast up during their first full read-through. Sometimes Director ends up pissing himself off." This would be the first time she called me awkward.
"Oh sure, if tonight's not a good night, then when might be a good time? I guess I should have called you first."
Blank stare. Actually, I don't think she even looked at me. I think she continued to ignore me. Then "wait over there," she barked. Pointing to the quary of student folding tables and soda machine. Rehearsals took place in the basement cafeteria of a day-care center. She began sending me actors one at a time after tapping them on the shoulder.
A few months earlier, she had emailed the design team to see if we could do an additional tech rehearsal which wasn't in our original contracts. The email recipients proceded to list off days when they would be interested in production meeting. In response to my email of availability all she wrote was "That's great but can you do the extra tech rehearsal?" In other words, fuck the production meeting. We'll just give you all that extra rehearsal at the last minute and hope for the best.
When I realized she was not going to coordinate a meeting between the director, other designers and me, I proceeded to meet with the director on my own and do my best with the set renderings, his concept, and my own ideas. To be continued...