For almost two decades, Ming Cho Lee and his wife Betsy have put together a clamorous coming-out party for emerging designers. Held every spring at Lincoln Center, Ming’s Clambake bears the official name of Stage Design Portfolio Review. During this two-day showing of portfolios, the brightest talents from the top design schools all over the country come to New York City to display and confer about their handiwork with Lee and other professional designers and teachers in the U.S.
After this year’s Memorial Day weekend, however, the Lees are calling it quits. “I am glad I won’t be doing it again,” says Betsy Lee, the main planner of the whole affair. “For years, I’ve had a tiger by the tail. It’s time to move on. It’s time for someone else to think about what the Clambake should be.” “We don’t want the Clambake to become ossified and dated,” adds Ming Cho Lee, who at 78 remains a titan of American scenic design. “It should be interesting to see if enough people will be interested in the rather horrendous responsibility of doing it.”
Upon learning this news, the Lees’ friends, peers and colleagues are heaving a symphonic sigh of heartbreak, disappointment, accolade and worry. “Wow,” the Broadway scenic designer John Lee Beatty exclaims. “Time is passing.” “It’s the end of an era, the end of a helpful tradition,” the young costume and scenic designer Clint Ramos avers. Speaking from London, the British designer Pamela Howard pledges, “In the U.K., we have never quite had a Clambake. I will come for the last time.” So will California-based scenic designer Ralph Funicello, who notes, “I have been a reviewer at the Clambake about five or six times, and hope to have my schedule clear to go back for the last one this spring.”
“Clambake is one of a kind,” states Susan Hilferty, the costume designer and Broadway luminary. “It’s a red herring to think that it will be replaced by something else.” Susan Tsu, the Pittsburgh-based costumer, agrees: “There is simply nothing like it in the business, and it is all due to Ming and Betsy’s caring, vision and influence in the U.S.” Adds Elizabeth Hope Clancy, another costume designer: “The Clambake is simply the most fabulous place to meet people, to get to know the new crop of students and reconnect with old colleagues and friends. It’s a powerful forum that will be sorely missed.”
“As we sometimes joke,” offers Ellen McCartney, head of design at California Institute of the Arts, “if a bomb went off at the Clambake, there would be no design for the next several years.” “Our profession makes an amazing show of solidarity by supporting it every year,” confirms Susan Mickey, the costume designer and University of Texas–Austin professor. “Designers from around the country come to Clambake because they want to honor Ming. It’s a large pyramid of people who have been influenced by him in some way as an educator and mentor. But if Ming and Betsy weren’t doing it, would people come?”
As can be gleaned from this outpouring of parting shots, gratitude and emotional remarks, Ming’s Clambake has made a colossal difference. Reactions to its winding-down signals the belief—widely shared even by those designers and professors who tend to begrudge the autonomy and undemocratic sway that the Lees have possessed over the stage design world as a consequence of this annual forum and schmooze-fest—that the gathering fulfills a vital need. Because the Lees have been unswerving in their devotion to the portfolio review, the Clambake became a remarkable, internationally recognized institution that has served and ministered to the art, the profession and the academic industry in incalculable ways.
“Ming and Betsy believe in theatre-design teaching,” says Beatty. “Obviously the Clambake is a service to the schools that attend it. I’ve always wondered why the schools can’t organize it themselves, because it is a tremendous amount of work. It’s astonishing that Betsy and Ming have been willing to take it on.”
“Although I’m certain some programs feel they have been slighted,” adds lighting designer Don Holder, “Ming and Betsy have been very fair when it comes to making difficult decisions. They understand that strict limitations must be imposed due to the availability of space and the capacity of the judges to provide an honest and valuable critique to all the participants. I’ve seen many emerging new voices at the Clambake these past few years, and I’m excited to see how their work develops. I hope that someone (or some group of people) will step forward to keep this event alive.”
There’s a possibility that one of Ming’s former students—Hilferty and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg have frequently been cited—might try to find a way to keep the Clambake going.
The ritual of a portfolio review, intended as both as a major new-talent picnic and a culminating phase of a graduate student’s training, goes back to 1976, when the now-defunct League of Professional Theater Training Programs, founded by J. Michael Miller and the heads of the 13 affiliated college programs that founded it (Sharon Jensen was the executive director), showcased graduating students from both their acting and design programs. The portfolio review, in effect, began as a sort of audition. It represented a more systematic attempt of getting an overview of the state of design education in the U.S. and determining whom, among the latest crops of graduates being turned out, might be ripe for the picking as apprentices or new hires for forthcoming projects. Before the review’s advent, teachers from various programs contacted the same group of professional designers to ask for interviews with their graduating students, who otherwise would have had to drag their work from studio to studio in New York City.
“I thought that was a terrible waste of time,” recalls Ming Cho Lee, who has taught and mentored almost two generations of designers at the Yale School of Drama since 1970 and is rightly dubbed “the dean of designers.” “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to gather all the best graduating MFA students from all the reputable design-training institutions and put them together in one space at one time?”
The League, which had invested its energy in setting higher standards for teaching, sponsored the event. “We literally agreed on a napkin in a restaurant,” Miller recalls. During that first go-around, the League took over the offices of the U.S. Center of the International Theatre Institute, located across the hall. Later the portfolio review became a moveable feast that sprung up in other schools, like New York University, Juilliard School and Parsons School of Design (twice). More significant, the League footed the entire bill—until the National Endowment for the Arts, a major donor in the early 1980s, decided that it would no longer invest in umbrella organizations to parcel out funding.
With the loss of NEA support, the League increased its dues and put the show on anyway for a couple more years. “It was always a difficult dollar to raise for design,” says Jensen. In particular, Lee remembers, “Betsy, Sharon, John Conklin and myself knew Robert L.B. Tobin,” an important arts patron, heir to one of the largest Texas fortunes and a self-avowed frustrated designer. The last year that the League organized the portfolio review was 1987, and Tobin simply wrote a check to fund it.
Then, for two years, there were no portfolio reviews. In 1990, the Lees came to the rescue.
Ironically, the NEA made that rescue possible. Lee won a $25,000 cash award from the endowment in recognition of his work as a distinguished theatre artist. With the staunch support of Rob Marx, executive director at the time of New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (which still houses and helps finance the Clambake), Lee committed his prize money to reviving the portfolio review. “Rob felt the loss of not having such an event annually,” Lee says. “I also felt that it was really detrimental for students and teachers and the schools. The design world became an isolated island. I felt it was extremely unhealthy. We think we’re doing a great job at Yale, but we have no idea what the other programs are doing—if New York University is doing a better job, or what Carnegie Mellon University or the University of Texas–Austin are doing.”
So unswerving was the Lees’ faith in the necessity of the Clambake that, for several years after 1991, the Chinese-born designer funded it out of his own salary. Although the Lees did not require them to contribute, various schools have. Designer John Conklin and the Tobin Foundation for Theatre Arts have also thrown in financial support. During the early transitional years, the Lees could not have pulled it off without the existence of the Alliance for the Development of Theatre Artists, created in 1978 and now the umbrella nonprofit organization of the Actors Center. “We feel strongly that the Clambake should be independently funded,” Lee says. “We should not be asking for fees for students to participate.”
There are logical and whimsical reasons for renaming the second life of the portfolio review a “Clambake”—it’s got nothing to do with seafood, mollusks or beaches. The term refers to the two days of free lunch at nearby restaurants, where respondents like Conklin, Beatty, Hilferty, Tony Walton, Adrienne Lobel, Santo Loquasto, David Gallo, Lee himself and others hobnob and break bread with the new generation of scenic, costume and lighting designers. “That aspect is not flip or irrelevant,” Beatty insists. “That’s a communal part of the experience. It might seem like a side issue, but the lunchtime opportunity for teachers and directors to share a meal with students is very important to us. It’s an ongoing affirmation of the whole process. We wouldn’t miss lunch for the world.”
On a spiritual and less gustatory level, the “Clambake” moniker has to do with the caprices of Ming Cho Lee’s intellect, independent mind and sophisticated artistic taste—as well as his missionary zeal to add a critique process that would put a little extra pressure on what is basically a private venture, a crucible in which he hopes to produce some pearls. There’s a metaphorical aptness, too, to the name: He feels strongly that set designs are illustration rather than art. Like the non-nacreous pearls that some clams can produce, the actual models, renderings, models and other artifacts of stage design possess little commercial value outside of the performance.
Closed to the public, the Clambake is an invitation-only event. During the first iterations of the portfolio review, the League established a steering committee (which included Conklin, Lee, Howard Bay, Jules Fisher, Jane Greenwood, Desmond Heeley, Carrie Robbins, Robin Wagner and Patricia Zipprodt) to set up the standards to decide which schools would be invited—and which ones had programs that were no longer doing well. This group also set up rules on how to review the students. Although the team process was not supposed to be confrontational, some reviewers in the pre-Clambake days were very nasty and destructive. Susan Tsu recalls, “Designers and directors were put into roaming teams of about seven who went en masse to each student’s table. People showed off for each other, and many students got either ignored while the review process went on or were eaten up in the process.”
Lee himself likens the team-reviewer process to “preparing soldiers to fight a war in Afghanistan,” adding “No matter what we did, we could not prevent some directors or designers from lashing out.”
Beatty remembers: “We used to have violent discussions about the portfolio review that we kept mostly to ourselves. There were clashes of aesthetics, too. A number of us used to go out after the review just to decompress—it was so daunting. Some people, to be honest, were pulling away because it was too harsh an experience. For the students, it was an oral exam as well as a showing of your work. The professionals would discuss your work in front of you. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Thank God, I didn’t have to do this.’ I would have been intimidated.”
By all accounts, Ming’s Clambake softened the critique process. For one thing, it became a free-for-all—everyone could do what he or she wanted. “Clambake was something of a liberation,” Lee says. “If you want to talk, be my guest. If you have nothing to say, then don’t say anything. Theatre is a very messy profession. When you organize it too well, you lose the humanity and the human interaction.”
Ellen McCartney elaborates on Lee’s point: “Clambake is not a job fair—it’s a celebration. And it will not make or break your career. There’s a status involved in being selected to present at the Clambake. Everyone is looking at each other’s chops. How good are you? Are you better than me? They’re actually assessing, one, did they get a good education at their school, and, two, how do they stand up in a huge crowd like this.”
Several recent graduates who participated in the Clambake this past spring at Fordham University had only positive things to say about it. Jason Coale, a scenic designer based in Kansas City, had once driven a van from Missouri to New York to be an observer at a past Clambake. Even though he knew what to expect, Coale could not help but speak glowingly of meeting the likes of Beatty, Michael Yeargan and George Tsypin. “Suddenly all the legends whose works I’ve studied were standing there and seeing my work,” Coale says. “John Lee Beatty sat down with me for an hour! He went through my drawings and talked about my work, project by project. Hal Prince showed up briefly and remarked that my work is very colorful. George Tsypin stopped at my station quickly and said my work stood out in a positive way. That kind of compliment I’m not going to get again. I wrote it down.”
California-based Ian Garrett, who studied lighting design at CalArts, lost his voice entirely, which he felt took the reviewers’ guard down. “I had a marathon experience of trying to get everything printed,” he recalls. “I ended up going to five Kinkos in 12 hours. Clambake is almost a stamp of approval. It is the designer’s debutante ball.”
Kate Eloise Mallor, a costume designer from Los Angeles, professes that “it’s absolutely nervewrecking to show your work, like ripping out your guts and putting them on display. But once I realized that no one was going to cut my throat for having some funky out-of-proportion poses, I relaxed into it.” Lee and Hilferty spent a long time with her. “I still have the sketches Ming did at my table,” she says. “We talked about Hedda Gabler for over half an hour, and it was extremely helpful to my understanding of the play. Susan Hilferty was so sharp and elegant, and I have tremendous admiration for her work.”
Sara C. Walsh, a product of New York University, where Hilferty’s design department holds an annual design show in the fall, speaks of the significance of the Clambake as an element in her decision to choose a school. “Before I started grad school, I was looking to go to a school that participated in Clambake. This was very important to me. It held out the difference of being involved in a school that will be able to get you a job.”
In a hugely competitive field, where the starting salaries or design fees per project can barely make a dent on paying back student loans—a crowded marketplace that forces newbies “to learn to say yes to everything and not burn bridges,” as one aspiring professional puts it—the Clambake’s very real ability to secure real work for a few recent graduates tests the very soul of the Lees’ original intent. Nothing if not a symbol for one’s seriousness about being a theatre designer, the Clambake “is a chance for the graduate to get in touch with people whom they never met before and to confront different ways of looking at design before they scatter into their individual niches in the profession,” says Ming Cho Lee.
“For me,” says Betsy Lee, “it’s important that the conversations be among colleagues, rather than master and student. We prefer the word ‘response’ rather than ‘critique.’”
“The Clambake has been such a force for the good since the day it started,” avows J. Michael Miller. “The quality of scene and costume design in the U.S. did improve as a result of this interchange between training programs and the profession. It’s been a process of renewal of the profession itself well over a generation. I can’t imagine that it won’t go on.”
Do the Lees have an idea about who might take over the Clambake, if it were to be revived in some form in the distant future?
“I don’t want to have anything to do with that,” Betsy Lee replies. “It’s for someone else to think about. Whoever does the next step needs to start fresh. We created the Clambake in our image. Maybe they should reinvent it in their own.”