In Defense of Craftspeople
The Importance of Nurturing the Maker in Addition to the Designer
From where I sit, I'm not sure who is promoting careers for craftspeople in our field.
There are plenty of programs at universities preparing students for careers in design, but what happens to the students who enroll only to find that they aren't a designer at all? Who is recognizing that they might have a stable, very employable talent as a technician? And who is telling them that this is a valid and valued career?
With a staggering number of new design graduates joining the workforce every year, there is an over-saturation of young talent trying to break in to a relatively small pool of working designers at major regional and Broadway theatres. In an industry that is constantly shifting and evolving to incorporate new technologies and new stage effects, the importance of cultivating talented makers in addition to designers is paramount to the success of stagecraft. While it is important for universities to continue to educate and produce young, talented designers, it is also important that they pay equal attention to those students who will end up working to bring designs to life. Relegating jobs like electrician, prop master, scenic artist, and stitcher to the level of 'a stepping stone to designer' discredits and discourages students who might end up excelling in these very specific, very highly trained careers.
I often find myself wondering how many young professionals trying to work as designers (or who have given up on pursuing work in theatre all together) might have another calling, if only someone had recognized and nurtured that talent.
I started out pursuing a degree in scenic design. I, like many high school students, didn't fully realize how the break-down jobs within the theatre worked. While I certainly enjoyed scenic design, I didn't find drafting scenic plans as thrilling as creating the photographs to hang on the walls of a set. By some stroke of fate, I ended up with a job as props master on a school production as a freshman and quickly realized that I liked this much more than designing. I managed to work as a props master for the majority of my collegiate career, but all of my coursework (save for a half semester seminar as a freshman) was design-based.
I came to a seminal point in my career as a props master while freelancing at a theatre with a cooperative design degree program offered by a major university. While I was working on building a prop, a professor paused to discuss career plans with an undergraduate student nearby. What he told this student still bothers me today.
“When you get to New York, whatever you do, don't start trying to break in by doing props. It's not worth your time and effort. If you want, you can try to use it as a stepping stone, but it's not really worth it.”
Sure, this student wanted to be a designer and perhaps encouraging him to focus only on assistantships was a valid piece of advice, but the suggestion that a career in stage craft and not design was a waste of time and something to not dirty your hands with bothered me deeply. This was a sentiment I heard all the time; that these sorts of jobs were ones you took to get some place else, not end career goals. Even while I was an undergraduate, craft-based jobs were all treated as positions you had to fill on your way to the end goal of designing a main-stage show as a senior.
But how will the American theatre, specifically technical theatre, thrive if we continue to breed environments where craft positions are treated as secondary? How will shops at regional theatres survive if their core, resident workforce is not treated with the same level of respect and gravitas as the designers they work to support?
“Doing new work is the most important thing a theater can do... the art forms that rely on a small pool of classic work from a very narrow timeframe or subject matter are calcifying quickly, and becoming less and less valuable to more and more people. Theater cannot go in that direction.”
Working as a designer requires unique training, vision, and commitment, but I'd argue that the same level of education and skill is required for any craftsman job. The issue is that the support system for these positions is not there. Gone are the days when scenic designers sketched plans for each prop and costume designers provided enough detail in renderings for stitchers to build from. With the increasingly hectic schedules of the modern designer, coupled with the cost of living for freelancers, there is simply not enough resources or time for most designers to bother with these things. Thus, the task of interpreting and problem-solving increasingly falls on the craftspeople. And the education for these positions is most often acquired on the job instead of during school.
I call upon the administrations of secondary and higher education theatre programs to take a second look at the message they are sending to their students. If our students continue to be told that going on tour or working as a freelance props master or being employed in a costume shop or taking electrician calls are just ways to get your foot in the door to designing, we are going to continue to have a job market where the turn-around in these positions is frequent and the long-term viability of a job in one of these fields is unimaginable. Until we actively promote the option of a long-term career in these fields, we cannot expect that our core workforce in the shops of theatres will actively feel a valued part of a greater whole.
At the same time, professional theatre companies with full-time staff positions need to do their part to invest in young craftspeople as part of the push to promote and legitimize these career paths. I do applaud the viability of internships in crafts fields for young craftspeople offered by so many regional theatres as an important part of training for students and recent graduates. However, it is the transition from intern to employee that remains stagnant for young craftspeople. The availability of full-time staff work in these fields is shifting and less available to early-career artists.
Companies are consolidating their staff and seeking employees who have a wide range of skills instead of a single refined skill set. I've seen job postings for positions such as “Scenic Artist and Props Master” to “Technical Director and Production Manager” to “Scenic Designer and Props Master” to “Stitcher/Dyer/Milliner/Draper.” By hiring fewer people, theatres attempt to cut their spending by cutting down staff size. Take a moment to think about how many people you know who are great scenic designers who can also build furniture, edit graphics, do molding and casting, and know the best way to make a fake a Renaissance oil painting in a gilded frame? Or someone who can not only make impeccable CAD draftings and figure out automation, but also oversee five departments while attending four meetings a week? Those people exist but they are few and far between.
By investing in employees with specialties, companies will have a more efficient staff who spend less time on research and 'faking it', instead putting their efforts into a higher quality product. Higher quality from craftspeople equals happier designers, happier shops, and better theatre.
If young props artisans, stitchers, and electricians are offered the chance for advancement in their specialized fields and a fair living wage, the core work force of our shops would grow with the theatre where they work and connect with their communities in ways that freelancers cannot. Theatres only survive if they connect with their cities and engage their communities as a whole. Young artists who grow with a company that invests in their interests will, in turn, provide the theatre with an employee who is engaged, experienced in the company workings, and rooted in the community. Those connections stretch to better local businesses as a whole, as long-term craftspeople create connections in their cities with lumber yards, fabric stores, and other companies.
There are students and graduates out there who are skilled, seeking to build on their skills, and who can be a huge asset to theatre companies. What they need is the push and support to pursue these careers with the confidence that they these jobs are viable and valued. Because if professionals and educators can begin to better recognize and encourage young talent, our field will be all the better for it.