In a montage of routine morning greetings and coat-dumping in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion editor Miranda Priestly, played with implacable verve by Meryl Streep, says the following over her shoulder while sailing past her assistant: “Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning.” When I saw that scene at a special preview screening for New York’s finest fashion assistants in 2006, I shivered and clutched the arm of a co-worker. For me, the movie was no mere comedy, but a starkly accurate portrayal of my daily life as an editorial assistant at a fashion magazine and the difficulty—even impossibility—of being an assistant.
Fashion is a separate universe with its own rites of passage and rules for hazing, but theatre does not lack for colorful characters or ritualistic methods of climbing the proverbial professional ladder. Whether your aspirations involve acting, directing, design or writing—even if you’re armed with an MFA—it seems that assisting someone (or at least having the word “assistant” in your job title) is an essential stepping-stone on the way to being an artist-in-charge.
As you will read in this, our annual “Approaches to Theatre Training” issue—and as you may have discovered already—not all professionals make the same demands on those who aid them. While fetching coffee proves to be a running joke (and reality) throughout all these articles—“Eliza, I don’t drink coffee,” my fashion editor once intoned, “I drink espresso”—it is clear that some employers want their assistants to mind-read, while others expect well-timed, articulate artistic input. Other bosses, much to the glee of their protégés, eventually hand over the reins and put an assistant in charge once a production is up and running. From warm and fuzzy to brusquely pragmatic, the experiences and expectations described here are as idiosyncratic as the artists behind them. The path for those wanting to lend a hand, and seeking a career leg up, is wildly varied.
Director/writer David F. Chapman, who sent us the e-mail that initially inspired this package of articles, gives an exhaustive overview of the topic: the array of tasks assistants do, how to get in on gigs and—most important to many—knowing when and how to transition out of the assisting track.
In Harrison Hill’s “I Get a Sidekick Out of You,” assistant Ilana Becker provides a blend of cheerful energy and confidential advice to directors Anne Kauffman and Terry Kinney while also perusing a fledgling directing career of her own. Mike Lawler’s “Design Is Not a Private Affair” turns an eye toward the technical and covers not only design opportunities but also the particularities of assisting in a design-related capacity.
Finally, a package of articles about the thorny field of assistance wouldn’t be complete without confessions from those in the trenches. “On the Job” gives voice to the unheard (and provides essential anonymity to some) as current and erstwhile assistants describe with hilarity and heartache the highs and lows of helping out. As these war stories prove, no one assisting job is quite like the next. An assistant’s best asset may be the ability to blend in when needed, offer critical feedback when called upon and roll with the punches always. Terry Berliner, in her 10 points of advice for budding assistants, sums it up with her first and last points: “Shut up and listen,” and “Have no fear, there will be a time when your opinions matter.” Read on.