Several years ago, I was invited to join a team of teachers for an introductory theatre class at a local college. We came together for a training, and the first task was to get to know each other. We sat around a large set of tables—some actors, some directors, some designers. The first eight or ten people to introduce themselves were all teaching voice or movement or acting, and each one of them shared their name, their role, and then something about their methodology. “I use Alexander technique,” “I trained in the LeCoq school,” or “I work with Viewpoints.” All the other people in the room nodded as they spoke. This shared vocabulary allowed the speakers to quickly share their philosophies about their work, allowed the listeners to understand our colleagues’ work, and allowed all of us to envision how we might work together. When it came to the first designer in the circle, she said, “Well, I’m a set designer, and I mean, I just do it?” Everyone chuckled and nodded, and every other designer in the room breathed a sigh of relief because it’s what we were all thinking too.
I’ve been “just doing” costume design for over twenty years, working primarily in academic and storefront theatre in Chicago, with over 120 productions on my resume. As a theatrical designer, my work is partly about my own artistic process, but it is also largely about collaborating with other people. In my time “just doing” this work, I have had collaborations that were smooth and some that were fraught; I’ve worked with directors who told me exactly what everyone should wear and directors who had no opinions about clothes. In all that time, what I did not have is a shorthand—a common language describing how I’ve been trained as a designer and my philosophy of design collaboration. Instead, a large portion of the unspoken work of each design meeting is figuring out what methods I have in common with my collaborators and where we differ. Can theatrical designers—and the directors we collaborate with—make this process easier and free up some energy for the work of making theatre?
For many designers, one easy way to be sure that you are working with a collaborative team that shares your methods and vocabulary is to collaborate with people that you trained with—to do most of your projects with artists who came from the same graduate or undergraduate program. I certainly followed this plan for my first few professional projects after completing graduate school at Northwestern. So the first time I worked with an Off-Loop company in Chicago (let’s call them Theatre A) that didn’t involve any of my MFA cohort, I was very nervous: What would they expect of me? How would they value my particular method of sharing research and design ideas, giving and receiving feedback, and participating in shaping the show?
In all that time, what I did not have is a shorthand—a common language describing how I’ve been trained as a designer and my philosophy of design collaboration.
That first experience with Theatre A was eye-opening. I had stumbled into a group of collaborators that shared and valued my working methods. For me, that meant sharing copious visual research with the full design team before starting sketches; getting and giving feedback about both my own and other designers’ work with the full team; and being present for the entire tech process as the show came together. As an emerging designer, I thought I had hit the jackpot.
The second time Theatre A hired me, they had a new artistic director, and the director of the show was new to me as well. I expected that collaborative process to go just as smoothly, but the institutional expectations of design collaboration had changed with the new personnel. I fumbled through that process, discovering at each step that now the director’s expectation was to share research and sketches primarily with the director only; that this production would prioritize set design before all other areas in shaping the show; and that my feedback and opinions both in pre-production and in tech were expected to focus solely on my own design area. There are designers for whom this collaborative method will sound very comfortable. For me, it was an unpleasant culture shock, and I did not work for that company again.