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Rules to Live By

Every year around this time, teachers go about the process of putting together lesson plans, syllabi, and projects for the coming term. If they are anything like me, I’m sure they do so with the hope that some of it will stick – that it will be helpful for at least one of those students and help develop positive life skills. If I’m honest (and a bit cynical), I’m sure that roughly 98.9% of what I put out there gets lost in the ether or ignored. The optimist in me, though, knows that 1.1% is more than enough to go out there and change the world for the better!

Almost fifty years back, Sister Corita Kent, an instructor at Immaculate Heart College is Los Angeles and somewhat unlikely figure in the LA art scene created “Some Rules for Students and Teachers” in the Art Department and actually managed to create something that has affected generations of artists and students for years afterward. These rules were created for a class she taught in 1968. Kent was a friend of a number of celebrated artists and thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller and John Cage. In fact, many people mistakenly attribute this list of rules to Cage, due to the fact that he is credited for the last rule. Though he did not pen these rules, he was definitely fond of them and spread them around. His lifelong partner Merce Cunningham was said to have them posted on his studio wall. One of the things that has always struck me about this list is, even though it was made for artists, it works for students and teachers of all persuasions. Student or teacher, you could do worse than keep these ten rules in mind as you head back to school this fall.

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

Design & technology instructional videos

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I have recently been busy putting together a series of video playlists on my YouTube channel. These are supplemental videos for my QLab and Dance Production books. The QLab playlist is a series of instructional videos specifically for QLab 3 tools and tricks. The Dance Production playlist is a collection of videos related to a wide range of topics. Though it is created to accompany the dance production text, it would also be useful for anyone wanting to learn more about design and technology, in general. I hope you find these useful and, as always, please share with your friends and give feedback. If there is a topic you would like to see addressed, please let me know!

New QLab 3 instructional video

A quick post, since I’m in the midst of opening 3 shows at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. I just uploaded a new QLab 3 instructional video onto my YouTube channel. This one details the process of using a Fade Cue to fade out a Video Cue in QLab 3. The Fade In video was one of my more popular with over 10,000 views, so I hope this one will be equally useful to folks wanting to learn a bit more about the software. All the best!

Like Somebody is Watching…

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Over the last year, I have spent a lot of my time researching a number of different aspects of dance for my forthcoming book Dance Production: Design & Technology. This process has been an utterly enjoyable one for me, greatly due to the fact that it gave me a wonderful excuse to meet some amazing folks across all areas of the dance industry. From the beginning, I wanted to interview a wide spectrum of professionals working in a number of different areas of dance – design, choreography, management, etc. Along the way, I picked up a lot of great information, anecdotes, and advice. As I was going through the process of final edits for the text this last week, I came across a quote from Campbell Baird that really struck a chord with me. Campbell is a top-notch scenic and costume designer and a genuinely nice person. When asked about advice for young designers wanting to embark into the world of dance design, one of his statements was this:

Learn what dancers do… Learn to admire their incredible devotion to an art form that, at best, can only give them fifteen to twenty years of a performing career. Every day they start over in class, take corrections, and try to improve.

This really got me thinking about the role of the professional dancer (especially in the ballet world), where class work is an expectation of the job from the novice to the master. No matter the status of the dancer, from the principal to the members of the corps, you are expected to continue in your training and explore how better to improve yourself. I respect this so much and believe there is a lot to be learned from this model. How much better would it be, in so many different industries, if those at the top of their game were expected to do this?

As a design professor, I have to admit to requiring things of my students that I sometimes simply cannot find the time to incorporate into my own freelance work while balancing the rigors of being a full-time professor, husband, father of two, and writer. I always feel just a bit sheepish, when I can pull up my designs from early in my own career as examples but sometimes not my most recent gig. How much more effective might I be at my own job if I had the equivalent of the morning technique class to remind me of what areas I was letting slide? For better or worse, there is no equivalent of the morning technique class in my field.

There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “dance like nobody is watching.” This certainly isn’t the life of any dancers I know. Most everyone I know dances like somebody is watching, even if no one else is in the room. Maybe we could all learn a bit from that idea, as well. Live your life as if every morning you have to show up, start over, take corrections, and try to improve. All things considered, it makes for a pretty damned fine work ethic.

Trust the process

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Most artists are familiar with the phrase, “trust the process.” It is true for scenic painting more so than any other artistic endeavor I have ever worked on. Scenic painters recreate the work of a scenic designer, taking a small rendering painted in 1/2″ scale and creating the life-size version of the object. As a student, you are taught the basic techniques that allow you to do this – cartooning, enlargement tricks, geometry, wet-blending, glazes, color-mixing, etc. (it’s a substantial list – scenic painter’s are kind of amazing creatures!) Because of the nature of painted scenery for the stage, it is often large and awkward to analyze close. This leads to the two cardinal rules – step back to get some perspective, and trust the process.

As a teacher who has worked with a number of students learning this trade over the years, I always enjoy watching them experience this firsthand. I tell my students, don’t believe what you think you see, look three steps ahead and see what it’s going to be. Trust the process. Scenic painting is one of those things in life that works that way – most often you spend a good portion of the middle of the project wondering what you’ve done wrong and how it will ever look right. This is true for so many painters I have spoken to. Without the proper encouragement, a beginner might just stop out of frustration. That’s where the reminder come in – relax, and trust the process. you can’t see it right now, but this is going to be perfect. Sure enough, when they push on through that frustration and self-doubt, 90% of the time they come to realize the painting was there all along. It was just waiting to be revealed.

For whatever reason, this has struck a chord with me over the last few weeks in talking to some other friends and colleagues. More often than not, when you feel bogged down and troubled by what’s going on around you, just take a few minutes to step back and get some perspective on the moment. Relax, and trust the process. Things can often seem chaotic in the middle of the project. It’s not until you place that final brush stroke that you can truly step back, admire your work, and realize “hey, maybe I did know what I was doing, after all!”

Choose Your Company Wisely

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Choose your company wisely. Most of us have heard this old adage so many times that we don’t give it a second thought. When working in a field as small as the entertainment industry, though, the sentiment should serve more as a way of life than a suggestion. As a freelance theatrical designer, I get the opportunity to work in a number of different settings. Some have been idyllic families that are hard to say goodbye to after opening night and others are the stuff of dysfunctional legend that remind me how lucky I am to have a “day job” in an amazing university. In either situation, the success or failure of the collaboration invariably comes back to that thought of how we choose our company.

When my wife and I moved to Michigan in 2008, my first production at Eastern Michigan, Romeo and Juliet, featured a guest director from Chicago named David Blixt. As luck should have it, it was one of those instant friendships that was struck up where you meet someone and seem to know all the same inside jokes without ever having met. Within a short period of time, David’s wife, Janice Blixt became the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. I recall vividly the evening that Jan and David came over to our apartment to discuss the future of the MSF with my wife and I. By the end of the evening, I had agreed to become the Technical Director / Resident Scenic Designer and my wife Katie to be the sound designer / composer.

In those first years, the budget was lean and that meant a relatively small number of designers and technicians we could bring in. Luckily, I have been blessed over the years by working with a number of amazing folks who love to tell a story on the stage. It was in those times that I truly realized the importance of choosing my company wisely. It is one thing to consider that phrase as it relates to your friends, it is something altogether different when you are choosing to bring people together for a communal experience that unites two dozen actors, designers, and technicians together for 10 weeks through the good, the bad, and the ugly of a classical repertory theatre company.

As the Technical Director, I have been responsible for some good hires and some bad fits. Those bad fits weren’t always bad people and, in almost every instance, they were people who excelled at the job they were hired to do. The simple truth was that working in a repertory theatre company is a delicate balancing act of professional and personal life. Sometimes the folks who are the best at their jobs simply don’t play well with others. This ties into one of the most important lessons that I try to impart on my students: strive to be someone that other people like being around.

Having done this for awhile now, I have the benefit of having watched a lot of stories, both successes and failures. Those idyllic families I mentioned at the top of the story all had something in common; they were a group of artists who sought out like-minded hard-working individuals who shared a common vision for their art form. Along the way, they no doubt experienced their fair share of bad fits. The difference between the artistic family and the dysfunctional organization was a willingness to accept that bad fit for what it was and move forward to find the right fit. Not only choosing your company wisely, but choosing your company mindfully.

In the end, I’m not saying anything new – be a good person. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Surround yourself with people who play well with others.

Women in Design & Technology

Historically speaking, the entertainment industry has been a dominantly male workforce.  Workers in the design and technology sector have followed this trend, minus a few notable exceptions in areas like costuming, wigs, and make-up. That is not to say that there aren’t capable designers and technicians lacking the Y-chromosome in every area of design and technology. In fact, as a university professor I have noticed a trend to the opposite; over the last decade at separate universities of varying size, demographics, and missions; my observation is that women tend to outrank the men. My area of expertise lies in theatrical design, but in speaking to a number of my colleagues in art, interior design, music, and graphic design this trend seems to be consistent with their experiences, as well (the exception being in Simulation and Video Game design, which still featured more men).

I attended a conference this weekend for high school students auditioning for university theatre scholarships. Of all of the designers and technicians I met, 88% of them were young women! This is obviously not a designed test group for scientific study, but my personal experience and those of many of my colleagues tells me that we have more women than men studying to be designers and technicians these days.

The fact is interesting, given the comparison of women in training programs vs. those in the upper echelon of their respective fields. The difference becomes quite disheartening. The Bureau of Labor Statistics throws a somewhat wide net over the entertainment industry, listing one generic marker of “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” for those in the industry. In a November 2013 survey from the BLS,  55% of the individuals who categorized themselves as working in the Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation sector were men. While, at first glance this doesn’t appear to be a great disparity,  let’s extend our look out to those regarded as the most successful in their field. Will the numbers remain consistent? The Antoinette Perry, of “Tony” Awards symbolize the highest honor a theatrical artist can  achieve on the American stage. Last year 6/40 Tony nominations for theatrical design were for females (7, if you count a co-nomination for a man and woman) with 3 of those coming from costume design. Best case scenario, women only accounted for 17.5% percent of those recognized as the best in their field. From a strictly numeric approach, that seems to indicate that even though there may be more women entering into the entertainment design & technology industry, they are less represented at the highest levels of the industry.

What does it all mean? Well, it’s hard to say. For one thing, these are two different study groups. Those Tony award nominees have typically been working in the field for decades. The young women training to be designers and technicians over the last ten years are highly unlikely to have reached that professional level at this point in their careers. The real question is will the trend of an increase in females studying to be designers and technicians find its way into the industry? It remains to be seen, but I, for one, certainly hope so. If the young ladies I met over this weekend and those in my classes are any indication, though, the old guard had better get ready. The industry is about to be shaken up by some great designers and technicians!