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.

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There's a tie here to shifting trends in Higher Ed and a flagging economy in general. Culturally we moved towards the belief that more theory is better and tended to sideline skills to be taught on-the-job. (This was once the basic difference between a Liberal Arts Degree and a more traditional BA I think). I would say we're now in the process of re-evaluating this position across the board.

The thing that I see as wanting in Theatre production, both educationally and professionally, these days is a respect and appreciation for the small design skills and moments. What we don't seem to teach or value much is the ability to design in another person's style. There's an extreme value (both artistically and monetarily) in the ability to quickly and accurately choose Just The Right detail for a piece. Yes, it has generally been the responsibility of Designers to make all these decisions (and many do still covet and value those choices) but there are plenty of designers out there these days who are more than happy to have - and in fact, need - help with all the "little stuff". Personally, I think this is a great moment of opportunity for a lot of creative people.

What if we could find the place between Designers, Craftspeople and Managers where everyone's investment in those "little bits" of design was more valued by all? We could teach and encourage more craftspeople to comfortably make choices in a given style. Designated design assistants could be used to make all those choices based on an understanding of the production, designer, aesthetic and production values of the company. How exciting would it be to have more people invested like that in the design process? Letting go of your own ego and designing as though you were someone else is a hard thing to do well without some training and support tho'. Really good assistants and associates learn it but I don't think anyone is teaching it in an academic setting.

It might not be easy but personally, I think this one shift would make our productions far more specific and vital and us all a whole lot happier and less resentful of what someone else "isn't doing" as well as addressing some of the long term issues you bring up.

Thank you for your engaging article but don't be quite so discouraged about the education and training of craftspeople. As the head of technical production at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee I'm proud that our BFA program is ONLY focused on teaching prop craftspeople, electricians, carpenters, technical directors, sound engineers- NO designers. Yes, we teach design classes but as a way to understand the overall arc of doing theatre. Our graduates are working all over the United States doing theatre, event production, film, community work, commercials- everything. A degree in technical production opens so many doors... and even a few have turned into designers! That whole "multi-tasking" ability of knowing how to hang, focus, and program makes a very smart lighting designer and it's the same across all areas of production whether in the prop shop, costume shop or the scene shop. An approach to theatre embracing the philosophy that all parts of the process are equally valuable and that collaboration is the key means a greater understanding and appreciation for all.

Sandy, your program is a rare and great one! My real concern is about students who go in thinking about being designers and end up finding a niche elsewhere...so many programs are so heavily design-based and have only a general smattering of courses in other skills instead of an ability to focus in a crafts area. I was lucky to end up somewhere that allowed me some freedom to pursue a study of those skills, but I know many programs around the country are solely designed based and only really offer classes outside design as foundation courses. I totally agree that an embrace of all parts of the process is the most important thing theatres and schools can continue to strive for and teach!

I have mixed feelings about this post. I think you are right that not every theatre student should be trained as a designer.There are those that want to be a designer but simply don't have the talent OR what is more common have an unbelievable talent in another aspect of the theatre world.

What I don't agree with is your negative feelings to the job postings that fill multiple roles. While I think your points are very well thought out and I can see no particular fault with them I think you are missing other variables that come into play.

I disagree that a "jack of many trades" will be a master of none as many people are often talented in more than one area of our field. You as a props master would have to admit that many of the skills you have would fall equally as well into a scenic painter's role or even that of a carpenter.

The other harsh reality that we have to face as theatre practitioners is that our business is under hard times and many theatres must find those people who can be a "jack of many trades" simply to keep the doors open. What saddens me about these positions is that many very qualified people who trained to just be scenic designers raise their noses at the position because it isn't a design role.

I look back and read my ramblings and realize that I'm tired and may or may not be speaking coherently. I hope that some of this is agreed upon to a certain extent.

All in all... very good well thought out post.

I am lucky to be at a University where these sort of practical, hands-on skills are not only valued, but highly encouraged. The majority of graduates from the production program at ryerson theatre school in Toronto become technicians, carpenters, tailors, cutters, painters, props masters... It goes on. The faculty are also keen on connecting students with professionals working in the craft they'd like to pursue. Several begin working paid jobs before they graduate, and go on to long careers.

It was a similar situation at school for me (at Emerson College, where I made connections that allowed me to begin working professionally before graduation. Coincidently, my father is a Ryerson alum!), but there tends to be an attitude at many places still that you are working as a technician because either you're trying to become a designer or failed at being one, rather than because you were trained to do you job in the same way designers were. I'm glad to hear Ryerson is training students across multiple fields and encouraging careers in crafts jobs!

Thanks for your thoughtful article. I also read the recent NY Times article, which I found truly depressing. I have been fabricating props, models, costumes, millinery, etc. for over 35 yrs., and it galls me when people try to introduce me as a designer as if it's just not good enough to be a craftsperson. Without us, designers could never realize in 3-D what they've only got on paper. Even though I'm based in NYC, I rarely hire young freelancers as they're mostly skilled on the computer rather than practical building skills. Computers are great research and drafting tools, but they still don't build the stuff. I have, however, become a designer by default, as what I get from a lot of designers these days are photos culled from the internet; no technical drawings or knowledge of materials. They expect me to figure that out, and I do. This goes for Broadway and television, which is where most of my contracts are derived. I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars worth of props and scenic pieces for Broadway have ended up in dumpsters because some designers no longer bother to figure out if the pieces will even fit backstage or in the flies. Several times a year recent theatre grads contact me and ask to interview. I am happy to do this, but I feel sorry for many of them, as designers are a dime a dozen in NY right now. I so applaud the few technical programs out there that stress real craft skills; it's very heartening to see.

Well said. We all know the other side of being a "jack of all trades" is being a "master at none". You're right when you say that this ideal of having the fewest people costs us the most. There is great term from the defense industry that leads us to the point, 'feature creep', the idea that if you have a device that since it does X it can do Y and Z as well. This leads to eventually adding AA, BB, and CC to it as well until the whole thing falls apart because it's unwieldy and unusable. Frequently the best devices and roles are those that do one thing or a small set of things that are closely related and does it well. But that is also not regarded as cost effective so how do we overcome this desire for 'feature creep'?

Additionally, you're right in your assessment of new designers who are encouraged to not know the how of things, the number of fresh from school LDs who can barely hang a light stunned me in my last years in the industry. Definitely education can be improved to increase technical skills and teamwork which is less necessary at a design level but dire at a tech level. And with skilled craftspersons in an age of consolidation can we get enough of them employed to counter 'feature creep'?

In the time between writing this and the posting here on HowlRound, the NYTimes has also published an article about craftsmanship and the decline in people having the skills to use tools, etc."The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country." Another reason to promote these jobs to students! http://www.nytimes.com/2012...