Lessons I Learned the Hard Way
La Esquinita is a series that serves as a production notebook for Latina/o designers and artisans working on stages across the nation. In La Esquinita, designers and artisans share their process and production work, plus overall thoughts on dynamic collaboration. This series will provide glimpses of the off-stage world where you will find these master artisans, technicians, and designers remembering and retelling their experiences in creating the evocative theatrical landscapes we see today. Welcome to our corner!
I always say that theatre found me. It was never the first plan because being in the arts is never the first plan when your family builds homes, roads, and installs telephone lines. I believe in fate just enough not to ignore a clear sign from the universe. After dropping out of college, I worked a dead-end job for a few years and interned at a series of odd places. Based on a friend’s recommendation in the late ’90s, I started working in a costume shop, mostly pulling rental shows for theatres and schools in the area. My grandparents offered to help me get back into college if I moved from the Dallas area to Tucson, AZ. And shortly after the move, my grandfather passed away from lung cancer. Sitting in the parking lot of the hospice after grandpa passed, I made a decision.
The next morning, I changed my undeclared major at the community college to Theatre. I promised myself to work only in theatre until I knew whether it was a good fit or not. Dependent on theatre work to keep a roof over my head, food in my belly, and art supplies on my drawing table, I worked a silly number of jobs in a short time. This is an incomplete list: part-time manager at the Arizona Theatre Company box office, member of several electrics crews, over-hire with IATSE working wardrobe and electrics, did laundry and maintenance for a small Equity theatre, amongst other stuff. And while working in a temporary management position, I saw the importance of empowering all levels of an organization to contribute to the larger picture.
Every precious learning opportunity and crummy job along the way has informed how I see myself in this field.
I’ve learned what it feels like to work for someone and value situations where I work with someone instead. I learned to value craft and my work as an artist sometimes without any encouragement. I also learned to look for a challenge in any assignment. Every precious learning opportunity and crummy job along the way has informed how I see myself in this field. So, for you early career folks starting off in this business of theatre, here are some lessons to consider:
Lesson 1: When you’re going to stand on your feet all day and make tough decisions, those decisions and your attitude are guaranteed to be better if you’re comfortable.
When you wear paint clothes everyday, your self-esteem can suffer. I’ve been stared at in grocery stores and restaurants. People have followed me in stores, assuming I’ll rob them blind by stuffing merchandise in my over-sized work clothing. Standing on a street corner waiting to walk to my car after working a 14-hour day, someone once yelled at me to “get a job.” Mothers—this is true—have body-blocked their children as I approach. While I’ve never wanted to be a person that struck fear in the hearts of Midwestern mothers, living with this sort of reaction to your work attire provides an interesting perspective.
Lesson 2: When charging and/or designing, avoid working without a Technical Director.
Many of my early designs came in the “build-paint-prop-install-strike-other duties as assigned-for-some-small-fee” category. One of these was a production of a children’s show. Very specifically, the script stipulated that the characters be cast as adults. To replicate a child-scaled world, the director and I decided to make all of the scenery and props oversized. Set in a New York City playground, the composition included a large cinderblock wall upstage and chain-link walls on both stage left and right. The cinderblock wall was built and lovingly painted in the director’s garage and moved over to the theatre in a rental truck. We started load-in and were abruptly stopped short when we realized that the loading door was just under 7’-0” tall and my wall, well…it was 14’-0” tall…oops! This painted cinderblock wall was cut in half, shoved through the door and eventually put back together leaving an ugly scar as a reminder. Planning for any work has to begin long before you reach the loading dock door. Know the size of your theatre’s loading door and how it all needs to make it to the stage.
When I walk through those city blocks of mahogany, oak, distressed, stained, burled, good and bad wood grain in my memory, I can’t help but remember that it put a roof over my head, paid for a car, and bought quite a few dog treats.
Lesson 3: Find out what hours you’re able to work in the space. And consider quitting smoking.
I worked briefly for an Irish theatre company/coffee shop before it went out of business. When I took the job, I had no idea that I would only be able to work when patrons weren’t in the shop. That left the magic hours between midnight and 4:00am for all set construction and painting. And my design for Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde included a parquet floor. Now, in the abstract, a parquet floor seemed like exactly the right floor treatment for the style of the show. In reality, I had four shifts between midnight and 4:00am, in addition to my classes, and my two part-time jobs. In night one, I managed to lay out and basecoat that parquet floor due in large part to the help of a dear friend. Night two was a solo adventure. I was still a smoker at the time and late in the night, I went outside to take a break, smoke a cigarette, and gripe to a friend. I smoked and talked on my cell phone and felt sorry for myself, collar turned up against the “cold” Arizona night—it was probably sixty degrees. Near the end of my rant on the phone, I quieted a bit, seeing someone approach and not wanting to attract their attention. As they walked by, this kind-intentioned person dropped change on the sidewalk in front of me. Sixty cents.
Lesson 4: Sometimes when you need a mixed-race baby for a show, you’ll have to take a deep breath, believe that your country can change for the better and spray paint that “baby.”
Working in the university environment has brought a whole new host of challenges. I design four to six shows a year, and mentor student designers on eight to ten shows. Each of those brings a new challenge. It’s what I signed up for and what I love most about this new chapter in my life. What I didn’t really expect was how often my problem solving skills would be tested in extreme ways.
Several years ago, I designed a production of Titus Andronicus, where the creative team decided that Aaron and Tamora’s son should look African, but have blue eyes that mimicked the actress’. At the time, I was a visiting professor at Texas State University, located about twenty-five miles south of Austin. Being in a diverse area, I’d naively assumed that I’d be able to find a doll targeted at African-American children. I was horrified as I went to store after store that only sold Caucasian dolls. After spending weeks of my free time on this, I finally decided I needed to make my own. Standing outside the theatre with a baby covered in masking tape, I primed and then spray-painted that baby.
Lesson 5: You can do the same thing hundreds of times and still find a new valuable lesson. There is no one way. Make those choices!
From my first community college show to charging a few seasons at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, I’ve painted a fair amount of scenery. To date, I’ve worked on over 150 backdrops (thanks Music Theatre of Wichita!), painted for dozens of small Equity-theatre and community theatre shows, and painted some “big ol’ regional theatre scenery.” From carefully faux-finished tables in black boxes to opera-scale Bavarian cottages, there was a wood-grained product in all of them. I’ve probably painted a few city blocks worth of wood grain. From scumbled neutral bases and delicately layered glazes to a three-step process, my student has affectionately termed my “mac and cheese” method, I’ve had some time to practice and addressed each variable with creativity and nimbleness.
When I walk through those city blocks of mahogany, oak, distressed, stained, burled, good and bad wood grain in my memory, I can’t help but remember that it put a roof over my head, paid for a car, and bought quite a few dog treats. In many ways, wood grain has been the backbone of my career. This is a snapshot, but every day I find that teaching and design are both about one thing: making decisions. Whether well-researched and thoroughly planned, or hastily assembled, you’ve got to put something into the world in order to move forward.
There is no surer way to fail than to choose not to work.
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I'm just so angry at those mothers! Couldn't they identify an artist when they saw one?! I really related to that section regarding attire. I worked as a scenic artist/carpentry production combo at a regional theatre in NY. I would just be so exhausted and by the time I could go to the store for groceries, it would be a random time of day, I was covered in paint, I smelled, and had zero patience, and yet I also felt somewhat empowered in all of that. It's important to hear a different perspective.
Really enjoyed reading about the 'magic' work of designers. I know it's nitty gritty, but what designers do is pure magic! Thanks for sharing, Tara. I, too, enjoyed your sense of humor, especially the 60 cents...
Really glad to finally read more about your work Tara! I have to say your profile has the best sense of humor to it. I've enjoyed reading this piece over and over. :)
Thanks!! It's been fun to see it evolve and come together.