Paul Steinberg, a set and costume designer and a master teacher in the Design for Stage and Film Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, mentored the set designer Emily Phillips as part the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for designers. Phillips assisted Steinberg as he designed a Munich production of the Handel opera Rodelinda; then Steinberg advised Phillips while she designed the Pierre de Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro for Target Margin Theater in New York City. Phillips has gone on to become an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
PAUL STEINBERG: In Munich, Emily had arranged a meeting with [opera designer] Constance Hoffman, and I went along. Emily said to me, kind of shyly, “You know, I had wanted to contact you to be a mentor, but the TCG administration said that you wouldn’t want to do it, because you primarily design opera in Europe.”
EMILY PHILLIPS: When I met Paul and we started talking, I was surprised by his openness and generosity—I was told he would not be interested, but what I found instead was someone who was incredibly supportive.
STEINBERG: It’s funny, when you’re talking about two adults, the idea of a mentor…I don’t equate myself with Plato or Socrates.
PHILLIPS: Within the world of design, people hold their cards very close to their chest. Paul has an amazing amount of experience and he shares that. That’s a very rare quality. The theatre design world can become extremely competitive. Sometimes there is this idea that there’s only so much pie to be shared.
STEINBERG: It’s not like being a dentist. One can go in and out of fashion, like a fashion designer. I had a period of five years where I didn’t work, and now I have work for years in advance.
PHILLIPS: One important thing is that when I was doing Figaro, Paul got what I was doing—he got my design. That was because we have similar ways of looking at things, I believe. It was never a matter of there being this one thing that Paul said or did. It was the whole picture, a worldview and an open-mindedness. Also, one of the things that had a great impact on me is when Paul talked about not having any work for five years but still persevering.
When I left the States, it was very intentional, because the kind of work that I wanted to do was not necessarily being done that much over here. And as an African-American, female set designer, I was constantly being pigeonholed in terms of the kind of work I was supposed to be doing based on an exterior idea of my sex and race that had nothing to do with my work. That can be very isolating, and so finding people who can speak beyond those terms was very important.
STEINBERG: Something that I always say to my students is that there’s no such thing as set design per se. It’s the space that a performance happens in. There are no rules, and, frankly, the only guidelines for me are sightlines. I do design plays as well, but opera tends to be more abstract because music is abstract, and I think it’s taught me to approach a written text in a more open and less literal way.