For three or so years in the late 1970s, costume designer Susan Tsu spent her mornings pounding on the door of famed Cuban-born designer Randy Barceló to rouse him from his typically deep sleep. She would make coffee for him as he prepared for the day, and routinely helped cheer colleagues after the sometimes tempestuous Barceló had stormed out of the room, leaving bruised egos in his wake. “I don’t know if being an assistant to Randy is anything that one would consider a normal job,” Tsu tells me from her office at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she is now professor of costume design for the School of Drama. “Those times that I assisted as a young person, there was an awful lot that I had to figure out—things that weren’t necessarily forthcoming from the designer. Nor should they have to be.”
The array of challenges facing up-and-coming stage designers are revealed in Tsu’s memories of assisting Barceló (who died in 1994). Does one rely on academic training, where professors can devote time to fundamental skill development, and then simply make the leap to the professional world? Or should early-career designers seek more practical, entry-level training, where one can learn how to prioritize, work in a variety of real-world situations, and deal with what veteran lighting designer John Ambrosone calls “the politics of art”? There is, of course, nothing preventing designers from doing both; however, the two experiences—and therefore the lessons learned—are bound to be vastly different.
“A lot of programs mistakenly believe that a student can graduate straight from a program and automatically become an assistant at a high level,” Tsu tells me. “That’s not something that we encourage our students to do.”
Ben Marcum, who has been working sound at Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville for 11 seasons, agrees. Before his promotion to the position of supervisor/associate designer, Marcum spent all of his time at ATL assisting designers, and continues to do so from time to time. “I think that in every way it is more valuable to assist or design in the professional world. I am not saying that the academic world is bad, but it is completely different. Because this business is an ever-changing beast, I think that there is a huge wealth of knowledge that can be learned working side by side with a designer who has been working the ropes for years.”
As Tsu’s experiences with Barceló suggest, not all assisting gigs are the same. Neither are they all as useful for assistants as they could be. “It naturally depends a lot on the designers they work with,” says Jim Guy, properties director at Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. “Some designers treat their assistants strictly as gofers.” Much the same could be said of assisting in any performance discipline, from directing to dramaturgy. The idea that an assistant is the procurer of coffee is not a new one, and not always inaccurate. But the nature of theatrical design, in all its variations, makes the practice of attaching oneself to a master practitioner uniquely valuable—some would say essential.
The Mentoring Tradition
Before Jim Guy took up residence at Milwaukee Rep in 1998, he developed and headed the MFA props program at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign for seven years. Before that, he worked his trade in regional theatre, learning as he went. “When I started out, my first longtime gig was working my way up through the props department at the Cleveland Play House,” Guy told me recently from his office at Milwaukee Rep. “During all of that time the resident designer at the Play House was Richard Gould. He was the resident designer there for 18 years, and I was there for 10. We refer to it as the Richard Gould University of Props.”
When lighting designer Brian Lilienthal finished his BFA at Emerson College in Boston, he started looking for his next career step. Soon he found what he was looking for in an ARTSEARCH ad: American Repertory Theater in nearby Cambridge was in the market for a design assistant. At the time, John Ambrosone was the resident lighting designer of ART, and it was he who interviewed Lilienthal. “Someone told me once,” Ambrosone says, tongue only half in cheek, “that the great lighting designer Tharon Musser’s number-one qualification for hiring new assistants is: Do I want to sit next to you for 16 hours a day?” Following Musser’s formula, Ambrosone decided he could stomach Lilienthal for those long hours, so he hired him. They worked together as designer and assistant for two seasons before Lilienthal headed off to graduate school at CalArts.
“Working as an assistant at ART was the place where I learned how the business really works—how one can navigate the professional theatre,” Lilienthal told me recently from Dartmouth College, where he was designingBreaking E.D.E.N. The time Lilienthal spent assisting Ambrosone and Michael Chybowski, who also designed regularly at ART, was a crucial episode in his career. “Undergrad certainly gave me a lot of the tools,” he says. “But I didn’t really feel like I grasped the concept of how to do my work outside an academic institution until I started assisting.” His relationship with Ambrosone proved to be a true mentorship relationship, an experience akin to apprenticing a master craftsman. “I was working directly with him constantly so he was able to show me, ‘Hey, this is how it goes.’ He really took me under his wing.”
The tradition of veteran designers training the next generation—taking on assistants and allowing them to observe and learn while they work the trade—existed well before the abundance of programs across the country began providing BFAs and MFAs in everything from costume design to stage management. In fact, the line connecting the pioneers of modern theatre design to the designers of today is long and direct. Among the great designers of the 20th century, the prolific and innovative Ming Cho Lee apprenticed under trend-setting designer Jo Mielziner, beginning in 1954. Long a professor at Yale University, Lee was known for over a decade for his Clambake—an annual Lincoln Center event that encouraged and showcased the work of early-career designers. The line flows backwards from Lee, Mielziner and other major figures like Boris Aronson, to Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, considered the fathers of modern stage design.
In the other direction, we can fast-forward two generations past Lee and find the likes of Erica Beck Hemminger, an associate designer in the studio of Derek McLane. A Tony-winner for his design of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, McLane studied under Lee at Yale in the early 1980s. He hired Hemminger as an intern directly out of grad school and she has worked in his studio ever since: “It’s not common to stick with one designer, but for me it’s worked out, because Derek is really great to work for.” Hemminger’s training and work with McLane undoubtedly draws upon the history and inspiration of Lee and Mielziner.
Examples of these almost genealogical connections over time—Mielziner to Lee, Lee to McLane, then McLane to Hemminger—are everywhere you look in the design field. Lilienthal, who is connected through Ambrosone to Frances Aronson, has recently moved into the role of mentor himself. As the resident lighting designer at ATL, he decided that providing an internship for aspiring lighting designers was essential. “One of the great things about John was that he never wanted me to become a little John Ambrosone—he wanted me to do what I do, and be my own person,” Lilienthal recalls. “That stuck with me, and when I took on a design intern in Louisville—Rachel Szymanski—I in turn passed that sense of independence on to her.”
“Brian and I are always talking about styles, concepts, overarching creative ideas, etc.—everything and anything that relates to lighting design comes up in conversation,” Szymanski says of her relationship with Lilienthal. “He is interested in actually teaching me about lighting design and not just how to assist. For example, I struggle with color choices. He and I have spent a lot of time discussing what color does to a stage and the different uses of it. We discuss the theories behind balancing the colors of a show and how to really paint a scene appropriately.”
Although color is one of the basic building blocks of lighting design, its implementation is affected by an array of technological advances that now come routinely into play, making the formerly impractical into reality and easing the burden of pre-production work. While the fundamentals established by the likes of Mielziner, Lee and their predecessors still linger, in the form of craft, technique and ethos passed from one generation to the next, technology is continually progressing, leading designers down new and exciting avenues.
Hemminger and her generation have seen the technology change with astonishing rapidity. “The time that I spend on a computer is significantly more than it was even five years ago,” she says. From moving lights to advances in LEDs, the knowledge base of competent assistant lighting designers grows almost daily. “The larger the lighting rig, the more technically educated minds are needed on a production,” confirms Ambrosone. “There can be multiple programmers on a show now, and the assistant lighting designer needs to be aware of what the automated lights are doing, at the same time he or she is in tune with how the L.D. is composing the show artistically.”
Ambrosone assisted the late lighting designer Craig Miller on the Tony-nominated 1985 Broadway production ofThe Wind in the Willows, one of the first shows to use moving lights. “He used two Morpheus PanaSpots,” Ambrosone recalls. “I was a second assistant, and my job was to keep track of where they were in each cue, what color and what pattern was used. I thought it was the most complicated thing ever attempted in lighting at that time. Now I laugh at that memory, thinking it was so hard.” Such technology often has a tendency to change the nature of the work and the way traditional techniques are viewed and valued. Hemminger’s studio work for McLane, for example, still requires a lot of old-fashioned hand drawing rather than computer drafting, and Hemminger understands why. “It’s not a technical drawing—it’s a drawing,” she emphasizes. “It is a piece of art not just for technical information. It should evoke the feeling of the piece.”
From Classroom to Theatre
After spending several years heading an MFA program, Milwaukee Rep’s Guy understands the groove that divides the university from the professional stage: “I don’t know that the academic world absolutely prepares you for the professional world—I think that most of us on the design end have learned on our feet.” Guy believes that formal training can be invaluable and can compliment the practical experience of assisting or apprenticing with the right designer—but that there are practical lessons that can only be learned in the field.
That doesn’t mean that the university experience should be discarded. On the contrary, the opportunity to work with professionals within academia can be a richly rewarding situation, especially for students that find the right program. “When young designers are looking at academic programs, they shouldn’t just look at the track record of the people who are coming out of the program,” Guy says. “Who’s teaching the program is key in terms of the opportunity being extended.”
How to exist as an artist in a rigorously collaborative art form is a skill set that is difficult to acquire in most academic environments. Ambrosone knows this as both a seasoned lighting designer and associate professor of lighting design at Virginia Tech. “Every team on a show is a group of artists with different temperaments and personalities and quirks, good and bad,” he reasons. The ways an assistant can contribute to (or make worse) the often complex social situations that arise in the course of production are critical lessons. “Just being dead quiet when you need to be, or knowing when to get up and walk away for a few minutes if someone needs space—those are people skills that you can’t be taught in classes. You just learn them on the spot.”
Szymanski has taken these cues from Lilienthal at ATL. “You can take classes on the technical aspects, and you have to rely on yourself for ingenuity—but you cannot learn how to work with people in a vacuum,” she says. “Being able to sit in a theatre and watch and learn how to interact with other professionals has been an extremely valuable lesson.”
The essence of being an assistant is absorbing information, both for the sake of the designer who has hired you and for the assistant’s own edification. “There are constant teachable moments going on when you’re in an assisting situation,” says Ambrosone. “The assistant needs to learn the significance of what’s happening without it necessarily being said.”
A colleague of Susan Tsu at CMU, Brian Russman, worked as an assistant or associate designer on Broadway and regionally in theatre, dance and opera for about 12 years. Now assistant professor of costume production for CMU’s School of Drama, Russman has a wealth of firsthand experience to offer his students in preparing them for the life of an assistant in NYC. It was a degree of burnout, he confesses, that led him to academia. “I was working at the top levels of Broadway as an associate,” Russman noted recently via e-mail. “The higher up the ranks as an assistant/associate I was getting, I was feeling less and less involved in the art of the process.” Russman, whose Broadway assisting credits include The Pillowman, Boeing-Boeing and Billy Elliot, tells his students at CMU that one of the cornerstones of assisting is learning to trust. “The more you trust, the better relationship you will have, and the better product you and your mentor will create together.”
Of course, much of the value of the apprentice relationship is the opportunity to learn creative problem-solving skills. Christopher McCollum, now the resident scenic designer at Theatre Memphis, has worked as an assistant or intern to a handful of leading designers, including John Conklin and John Lee Beatty. In the 1990s he spent about five years assisting auteur Robert Wilson, including work on his Zurich Opera production of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
Working as an assistant to the aesthetically austere Wilson taught McCollum a lot about the “less is more” approach, he says. “I discovered how much you can do with very minimal things—which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re simple. Because of the nature of the simplicity, some technical solutions have to be extremely complicated. For Lohengrin, Wilson created a square—it was just a light box that was eight by eight—that for him represented a bed. It appeared during a transition, and he wanted it to come up out of the floor. And during the course of that scene he wanted it to tilt backwards. And then it also became black.” It goes without saying that the challenge of such projects can either bolster or destroy an assistant—and that such effects would be extremely difficult to pull off without them. “Wilson really wants these things to be art products rather than just props,” McCollom notes, “and that demands a level of craft-making that isn’t usually called for.”
The Next Generation
In tandem with his job at Milwaukee Rep, Guy is also the president of the Society of Properties Artisan Managers (that’s right, SPAM), an organization made up of prop masters across the country. As part of its work, SPAM offers a free mentoring program to young theatre artists interested in props on a case-by-case basis. “One of things we constantly ask in SPAM is ‘Where in the hell are we going to get the new prop people?’” Guy says. “You know, who takes over after me?”
At the same time, Guy acknowledges that not all assistants, in props or otherwise, are so green that they need to be taught the basics—nor are they all in the assistant game just to move on to being designers in their own right. Tsu concurs that many who take on the role of assistant are themselves making sophisticated contributions to the projects at hand. “When I go and work in the regional theatres, there can be highly skilled assistants who need zero training,” she tells me.
As an example, Tsu points to Mary Scott, the assistant working with her on Romeo and Juliet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Scott, whose title at OSF is costume project manager, has been an “amazing source person” for Tsu. “For instance, in Romeo and Juliet we have a number of uniforms that ideally would be built, because they’re from the 1840s and I have very specific feelings about how the tailoring should happen for that period,” Tsu elaborates. “But because of budget, Mary has sourced a lot of reenactment-type items. She got all of the materials there to the shop in order for us to look and make decisions.” Because OSF is such a large organization, usually building three to five shows at the same time, having project managers enables designers like Tsu to focus on the big picture. This is a prime example of how critical assistants are in regional theatres, where accomplished designers regularly bounce around the map designing sometimes dozens of productions each year.
“There are some assistants who enjoy being nothing but an assistant for most of their careers, and that’s great,” Ambrosone says. “But there is an assumption on my part that they would one day like to do the job I’m doing, and I know that they will if they’re good at it.” Accordingly, Ambrosone takes his mentor role quite seriously—in no small part because of the influence mentoring had on his own career. “I had a great relationship with Frances Aronson, and it got to the point where I did a lot of shows with her, and she would actually ask me to focus lights for her,” he says proudly. “She said, ‘I hate to focus—you know what I want, you can do it for me.’ She knew she could trust me. You want to gain that trust from the designer you’re working for.”
Guy summed up his aspirations for the next generation of designers as we concluded a phone conversation. “I just glanced across my office as I’m talking to you about this, and I’m looking at two pictures stuck up on my file cabinet across the room,” he noted. “One is me with my own mentor, Richard Gould. And right next to it is a picture of me and Sean McArdle, who was one of my all-star graduates. I look at these pictures and all I can think is that we stand on the shoulders of the ones who came before us.”