Written by Gennie Neuman Lambert
November 7, 2016
This advice was passed along to me while I was in graduate school. Asking yourself this question can help you decide if a project is worth your time. Navigating the design world is complex, so if an opportunity presented to you fulfills at least one of these things (money, networking, or artistic expression), consider it. This discernment, however, requires practice. The most successful creatives constantly evaluate their professional choices, designing their lives to work for them.
Unlike traditional 9-5 employees, artists need to identify their own priorities and make a conscious effort to take care of themselves and their art. New designers may need to take whatever comes along – either to get things started or provide for themselves financially during dry spells – but as their resources and industry contacts expand, they can then focus on projects that will help them thrive personally and professionally. Whether your motive is creative growth, paying the rent, or professional development, be mindful of the projects you choose and why you are choosing them.
Here are some more questions to consider before committing to a new project:
1. Is the project congruent with my personal values? This is the most important question to ask yourself. Your projects define you as an artist, therefore, your choices are significant. Some personalities live in a black-and-white world, always standing confident – pillars of righteousness and virtue. If you are one of these types, skip the next two paragraphs and to move on to the next discussion point.
If you dwell in the gray, reflect on your artistic interests and boundaries before you make a big decision. If you have doubts about a show, even if it is sought-after show, it could be still be a poor fit for you. Trust your instincts. Stand by your choices. Backing out after the contract is signed is unprofessional.
For example, I thought art directing a demon movie and set decorating a creepy old Victorian house would be fabulous, so I agreed to do it. The script was good in terms of horror movies, and after spending time in the theater, I was excited about adding a movie to my portfolio. After a day or so, I realized that I just don’t like or relate to horror movies, and I’m uncomfortable with the negativity of the genre. I found a boundary with the genre I didn’t know I had, so I turned it down. However, it opened my schedule up for projects that were much more in-sync with my creative voice. Although I turned it down before any official paperwork was done, I still felt bad about saying yes, then no. Don’t do it.
2. Do I have the time and resources to follow through? This is the question I’ve struggled with most often. In the theater, standards are high, fees are low, and deadlines are tight. Time and money management is essential for producing a good show and making a living as a professional designer. Artistry aside, there is some practical information that you need from the company in order to and make an informed decision.
If the show is large and you have a professional scene shop build and paint the set,
· what is your budget? How is it broken down among set construction, prop, and paint departments?
· when are your final materials due? (Model, renderings, construction drawings, paint elevations, etc.)
· do you have architectural drawings for the theater space?
· what shop is building your set and where is it?
· do you have the time to do all the studio work yourself? If not, is the fee large enough to hire an assistant?
· when is tech and do I have other commitments during this time? (This should be noted for shows of any size)
If the show is small and the company’s resources are limited,
· can they afford a shop to build?
· do they have petty cash for you to buy materials? (Do. Not. Ever. Agree to be compensated after the shopping trip. Doing this can destroy both your finances and trust in mankind.)
· do you have space and tools to do the work?
· they may want you to do the build the set and props, paint, load-in ect. Do you have the time to take on craft roles and are you being compensated accordingly?
· and if you are working for free, do you have financial support from another source?
Be honest about your abilities, and look after your own interests and livelihood. To avoid awkward and angry emails about money or your production role, negotiate these things before committing to the project. When the director or producer calls to discuss the show for the first time, listen to the basic creative concepts first. If it’s something you’re interested in and the budgets, design fees, and job description are not mentioned, tactfully bring up the basics as soon as possible.
Walking them through your basic design process and how the contract and payments work in conjunction is a good way to do this. If the fee is larger, some design fees are split into three payments: at the beginning of the project, when the drawings are turned in, and opening night. Establish a written agreement concerning this discussion. Make sure any paperwork the company needs from you is submitted to the appropriate person. Late paperwork can delay your payment by weeks, or even months. Schools and public institutions have lots of red tape and freelancers’ paperwork generally takes much longer to process – for reasons I’ll never fully understand or accept as valid.
3. Is this company a good group of people? Theater is a collaborative art, and relationships are important for creating quality work and getting your name out there. While the design concepts are being created, mutual trust, respect, and availability are important between the director and the design team. Ask yourself if these personalities can work towards a common goal. I’m not saying to be overly suspicious and cautious about every person that comes your way – you’ll never work enough that way. However, if the design team and the director can’t collaborate well, even the best written play will be a dumpster fire.
Be positive and give people grace, but don’t work on a project if you know you will be mistreated or undervalued. I’m grateful to the design teams I’ve been part of over the past few years that have set my expectations high. Through rewarding experiences, I’ve learned that good-ol’ Sesame Street “cooperation” really does “make it happen.”
I first heard the quote from lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana, and it has been a little gem in my pocket ever since. It brings the present moment into focus, steering us away from the myth that some cosmic force is going to make us wake up awesome one day.
You may be at home, staring at your model, thinking about how much you want to sleep rather than take this time to decide where Peter Pan’s big entrance window should go. However, what you choose in those mundane moments will help build your career and strengthen (or weaken) your voice. Be mindful, and make your craft meaningful.