Live Design

Student Counsel

by Susan Hilferty on October 1, 1999

I am sitting with a young women who is showing me what I hope are her dreams. Spread out on the table are some crude drawings. I am holding her CV in my hand when I ask her a question: “Do you go to the theatre?”

The question shouldn’t come to her as a surprise. I am the chair of the Department of Design for Stage and Film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and am in terviewing the young woman as a candidate for my graduate design program. It is an intense three-year MFA program whose goal is to train professional designers. “What theatre have you seen other than the shows you work on at school?” I repeat. I am shocked to see that my question has brought tears to her eyes. “I knew you would ask me that,” she says, then hurriedly offers her excuses: working on four to six shows a semester either as a designer or as a technician makes it impossible to see theatre, opera, even a museum.

I have just completed my first year as chair and have worked in the theatre for 20 years. It is a demanding lifestyle whose rewards are seldom monetary and, as in all of the arts, it demands a deep commitment from the artist. So now I am siting across from a woman who says she wants to take on the challenge of graduate school in a field in which, despite its availability, she has no real experience.

I try to be gentle when I ask her, “How can you think about going into a profession or grad school when you don’t even understand what it is?” She has worked like a dog for four years on production after production in her school. She has taken only theatre classes with a smattering of liberal arts. She has taken no art classes, not even a drawing class, “because you have to be a declared major.” She is so busy with production that she has neither the time nor the training to sketch out her designs. And after four years at this college, she is planning to rush back to her school and work on yet another production before she gets her degree.

Here she is in front of me with tears in her eyes, and I have to tell her she’s been robbed. Robbed by the school she trusted. Robbed by her advisors who allowed this schedule to happen. If only I could have told her earlier, I keep thinking, would she have listened?

She is not the only student whose background has left them woefully unprepared for life as a designer. I often get stunned expressions from candidates when I make suggestions about what they should be taking. They are shocked when I say that a student with a strong liberal arts background who has taken drawing classes in the art department and has had only a small amount of time in the theatre is better prepared to be a designer. “But I have worked on over 25 productions!” they wail. How do I tell them that they have been trained to be technicians, not built the foundations to be designers? Without taking history, political science, languages, English literature, all of the liberal arts; without taking even one pure art class, not even a figure drawing class; without having seen any of the current practitioners of this art form, how can they even know if they want to be designers?

At NYU, I have found a healthy, passionate class of set, costume, and lighting designers whom I am excited about being with as they grow over the three years. They have rich and varied backgrounds to draw on for their design ideas–and they all have at least held a pencil. But still nagging at me are the faces like the young woman with the tears in her eyes. Could I have reached her earlier? Should I have reached her earlier? What is she going to do now? Was my reaction common among my colleagues at the professional graduate programs? And if so, how could we get word to the potential designers?

How could we let them be in control of their destinies?
I spoke to several colleagues who teach at graduate design programs that I consider to be of the highest caliber. These colleagues not only teach first-year graduate classes, they also interview the incoming students. The discussions were driven by experience and passion. The need for professional graduate programs was reinforced, but how to make them as valuable as possible was the crux of these discussions. It was made clear that I was speaking equally about students interested in set, lighting, or costume designing, and not one of those interviewed felt that the basic ideas we were outlining would vary for the different disciplines. I spoke to these teachers not as a way to compare programs, but to see how the graduate-level educators felt about the background of their entering classes, and if it was possible that they could be better prepared.

First, I took a critical look at what I was looking for in a member of my incoming class. I am looking for a student who is passionate about the theatre; who understands that it is a living, breathing thing directly connected to contemporary life and at its best helps us wrestle with an understanding of our own lives. The student I am looking for does not have to be highly skilled in the theatre arts, but must have a broad-based liberal arts background on which he or she can depend as a resource for his or her designs. The student must understand that we are designers and must be able to speak the language of design, which means the student should come equipped with some drawing background. The most basic requirement is that the student can understand and communicate proportion. I want someone who is insatiably curious about everything and is willing to risk and embrace failure in his or her desire to explore.

I found that each of us was looking for a student who is remarkably similar. Robert Israel of UCLA says, “What I look for is someone who is excited about the possibilities of making theatre–the visual aspects of making theatre–who has a moderate foundation of understanding history and literature and hopefully is curious about things.”

Ming Cho Lee of Yale describes how he looks at candidates. “There are two areas of concern. One is the person’s ability to express himself or herself visually. Does that person have enough skill to engage in the process of formulating an idea? The next part is the ability to talk about the work. Does this person have enough of a broad-based liberal arts education to connect to the life, the history, the society, the human experience of the work, to enable them to read a play or listen to an opera?”
M.L Geiger of the University of Washington notes, “We are looking for students who are smart and sort of quick and have some background in something other than theatre. You want students who have range.” Karl Eigsti of Brandeis University looks for people “who are inspired by the play, who have a sense that there is an inner life to the play that they are trying to express. Whether they can do it with their skills in terms of sketching or whatever at this point in their lives is less material to me than this sense that there is something they are trying to reach that they can’t quite get at.”

“I am looking for somebody who has an engagement with life, a passion for exploration, and an understanding of the business insofar as they know what they are getting into and they are not starstruck,” says Susan Tsu of the University of Texas at Austin. Christopher Barreca of the California Institute of the Arts looks for intellectual rigor with critical facilities in his candidates: “Someone who has found an avenue to express a creative self and who understands the idea of performance.”
Ironically, everyone to whom I spoke felt that production work was overrated by the students they were interviewing. Instead of seeking out a lot of production, most graduate teachers were discouraged by the amount of time that had gone into this work at the expense of art and liberal arts classes.

Many believed that too much time spent on production, both as designer and technician, was actually damaging to the design potential. Barreca thinks that this is “where undergraduate programs fall flat, in that they can be little machines cranking out production after production after production.”

Tsu feels that “too many students get so bogged down with the realities of creating a show at their various schools–with not enough help, not enough money, and a still-growing learning process–that the actual shows end up much too often all looking the same.”

Next, I asked how, in their opinions, should students best prepare themselves for the demands of both grad school and a career in design. Some ended up describing a kind of curriculum, but all were trying to address the idea of how to develop a thinking designer. Phrases like “intellectual rigor” or “a developed eye” were used.

It is important to note that many of us look far outside the pool of theatre programs, at other majors, including art, architecture, design, and even history to find exciting candidates. While the teachers varied in the balance of liberal arts, art, and theatre classes that a potential student should be taking, all agreed that most candidates from theatre programs have badly balanced schedules with too many classes in the theatre department. There was general disappointment about the quality of the art classes. The fact that classes in the art department were often unavailable to non-art majors was a source of intense frustration. Drawing classes in the theatre departments were generally considered to be inadequate.

Based on the evidence of portfolio and transcript, work on realized production was consistently blamed for taking up too much of the students’ time. Lee insists that “the undergraduate theatre practicum” where the student “gets credit for working on a show should be limited to no more than one semester.”

Eigsti finds that the most interesting undergraduate programs are the ones “where the design is not treated as a super tech service to the acting program.” He feels that a student interested in theatre design has to expand his or her “understanding of the literary world, of the world of the fictional character. It’s not a manual skill. It’s a cognitive and an intellectual process which, in many respects, can’t be taught. But it can be developed and you can enlarge upon it, especially if you have people who are sensing that theatre design is much more oriented toward this kind of intellectual process than it is to the manual process of creating visual delights. Whatever undergraduate training you take, I think it should be liberally sprinkled with some art training, because if you’re going to express yourself visually, you have to find some medium of expressing yourself visually.”

The greatest discussion among the chairs was about drawing or art classes, because it seems to be the source of the biggest fears and frustrations of students. The goal of all of these interviewers was not to develop purely visual artists, but to have the student develop the equipment for being a designer.

For me, drawing is an essential tool, because it allows the designer to explore proportion, the keystone to any design idea. I feel that the student needs to speak the language of design to truly be a designer. I do not believe a student has to draw like Michelangelo, just to be able to put an idea down on paper in proportion to see the idea and then make a choice about the design. I believe that drawing is important as a way to explore a design rather than to present an idea.
Tsu feels the ability to draw allows students to “develop their own language, their own visual language. I think that drawing and painting are art tools, and if we don’t help students develop that part of themselves, we are not doing them a favor.”

Barreca asked for rigor in developing an “eye,” which he believes can and must be developed. “When I was a musician, I didn’t have perfect pitch, but I developed it as a musician because in music, the training is rigorous. And you either get it or you are out. If you can’t develop your ear that way, you are in real trouble.” Design students need to be rigorous in their training “since they are going into a visual medium, about training their eye. And so this idea that the person needs to come in knowing how to draw beautifully is not as much of an issue for me if they have done something that demonstrates that their eye is on.”

Lee is very specific about what he views as a basic syllabus. “While I have always felt that undergraduate study and graduate professional training are very much connected and dependent on each other, the nature of the education is very different. Undergraduate study is a time for students to explore themselves–and to explore the world, and their heritage. It’s also a time that allows them to make some choices. Undergraduate education should provide a reservoir for a theatre person, or anyone going into the arts. It has to be a truly broad-based liberal arts education. To impose, or even to allow a concentration on theatre design at the very beginning is usually a mistake. As the liberal arts study begins to yield time to this concentration, it becomes a balance that needs to be very seriously considered.”

Lee believes that “the student who is interested in theatre or the arts should take as many ‘Intro’ courses as possible: history, political science, economics, psychology, sociology, English literature, and also dramatic literature, history of architecture, history of art, history of music, or music appreciation. This, aside from the requirements of mathematics or natural sciences, should occupy a student fairly heavily for at least two and a half years. The adviser in the theatre department should not let theatre students get away with not taking any of this stuff.” Then “anyone who wants to engage in anything visual should, first of all, take basic drawing, just to know how to hold a pencil, followed by a figure drawing class (a must).”

We all talked about our desire that each candidate have a developed critical sense and enough knowledge and experience as an audience member so as to have an opinion about the professionals that they would be training with. We have all been discouraged by the number of students who have seen little or no professional theatre. Many have only seen the shows that they have worked on at school, or if they have spent time experiencing the theatre, a certain percentage have only seen the big Broadway tours.

Lee tries to convince the students to do all they can to have real theatre experiences. If he meets someone from “let’s say, University of Oklahoma, I’ll usually say, ‘Well, do you see a lot of shows?’ ‘No, not really, there aren’t that many shows in Oklahoma,’ or whatever city they are from. I’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not such a long drive to Dallas. And Dallas is not bad! There’s the Dallas Theatre Center, and then there is the opera, and then there is the symphony and then there is this and that, and the museums are not bad, and then you go to Fort Worth and the Kimball Museum is one of the great museums.’ I usually do that. If people are in the Midwest I say, ‘You don’t go to Chicago? Or Minneapolis?”‘

The last part of our discussion focused on the emotional readiness of the candidate to enter graduate school. Was he or she mature enough? Did the student understand the theatre well enough to be willing to commit a lifetime to the art form? Barreca feels, “You have to be really mature enough to guide your own education as a graduate student. On an undergraduate level, it is okay to follow a little bit, but on the graduate level, you must lead your education, not follow.” Most suggested that time off between undergraduate and graduate classes was advisable, though many were unwilling to suggest it to potential candidates for fear that it would be heard as a subtle hint that the candidate is unwanted.

For Tsu, that time off can be “very important, because it helps them to breathe for a moment and live their lives, do some work, get to know the business from first-hand experience, take time to recognize where they may focus more, and then I think they can choose their graduate programs more carefully.
“Designing is about the human experience,” Tsu continues, “living in the world and being a thinking person who delves into all of the complexities of what it is to be human.” Lee says, “Before they get into graduate school, they should really buckle down for one or two years, just to see whether they like it, or just to go to Europe or travel around the world. I would say we are now seeing a lot more people who have taken a year or two off.”

We ended our conversations with a discussion about the makeup of a good graduate program, and what a potential student should be looking for as he or she starts looking for a school. I felt that this was an important part of the dialogue because there are many universities that offer MFAs in design, but very few whose graduates enter the profession as designers. I thought it was important for these educators to outline what they thought were the critical ingredients of a successful design program. I realize that the lines get blurry between describing an excellent program and the realities of one’s own department, but there were many issues on which we agreed.

First of all, it was deemed critical that the faculty are practitioners of the art. “Really good practitioners,” Israel subtly amends.

Barreca describes a healthy faculty as “still passionate about the medium they are teaching in. Theatre design is a collaborative art form and it is important that the student is surrounded by colleagues who are passionate about the work.” For Eigsti, the first thing that they should look at is the people they’re going to interact with. “I think they should find a person who they respond to intellectually and who responds to them. Not everybody is suited to be with everybody else. I don’t think that it should be an adversarial relationship. I don’t think it should be, ‘Let’s see how good you are,’ and ‘We’re going to be really tough on you,’ and so forth. I think it should be very Socratic and extremely nurturing–a nurturing environment that is intellectually stimulating. And that is provided by people.”

In addition to meeting the faculty to see if there is a “match,” it was emphasized that the candidate should meet the other students. Eigsti suggests looking at “the student environment, how creative that is, and whether the students support each other.” Geiger believes that critiques by students’ classmates are as important as those of their faculty. Their classmates “will be the people they will be intimate with for the rest of their lives.”

Educating an artist is a delicate and complex task. At the graduate level, the teacher must balance design classes with skills, taking care that the most energy is on the act of designing, that mysterious place where all skills come together to allow a designer to wrestle with a visual idea in connection to a text. I say mysterious, because there is no obvious way to do this. There are no secrets to be had that will make someone into an artist.

It is not possible to show how it is done. Beware of people who say that they can. Becoming an artist demands that the individuals develop themselves. Skills connected with the techniques of design like drafting, painting, sewing, or knowing how to hang a light will not make a designer; these are only the tools. As Israel notes, “Most students come anticipating what they already know as being their education, which is a terrible way to go into an education! I would hope that in any discipline you come out more excited and humbled by your discipline rather than thinking, ‘Now I can get a job.’

“What you really want,” he concludes, “is a guide to something that seems interesting to you, that you only peripherally understand, and might have strong opinions about from a moral or ethical point of view, but really need to open yourself up to and need guidance. What a teacher is, is a guide.”
I was impressed by how passionate my colleagues were about the theatre and the quality of the education that they have attempted to create for their students. A good program is dependent on the caliber of its students, so it is essential that each program find the students who will create an exciting environment. A great student makes the teacher want to give more, and this can make a great teacher.

Anyone interested in a life in the theatre–be they actors, directors, playwrights, composers, or designers–must be more fearless, more curious, and much stronger than those around them. We go into uncharted territory unendingly satisfying, but full of pitfalls. I charge each young person who is interested in this life to equip him- or herself with the mental strength, the moral responsibility, the intellectual flexibility, and the craft to take a text and make it live for this moment in time. We, your teachers, have gone before you, but each time we begin a project, we start at the same place as you–in front of an empty canvas looking into the future. Be prepared.

No understanding of what theatre is. Have seen few or no professional productions. Have only gone to the theatre at their school. No art classes. Only “design” classes taught in a theatre department.
Not enough liberal arts classes. Not a deep or rich enough base to draw from in their work. Too much production or technical work. Misunderstanding the word “portfolio.” A portfolio is a representation of the artist. There are no requirements other than showing the creative potential and experience of that artist.

When you have an understanding and a passion for the theatre.
When the proper foundation has been built. Students should be conscious that if they go into a program without the correct foundation, they will never be able to take advantage of that education. It is not that the student can make up the studies later. Foundation implies what the education will be built on. If the foundation is unsound, then whatever goes on top will not be stable.

Many suggest taking time off. Go to a city where there is a lot of theatre happening. Go to museums. Take drawing classes. Find one that matches your personality. Make sure you visit. Professional faculty. Teachers should also be practitioners of the art. Is there professional theatre around for you to see? What do the alumni do? Current student body. You will be establishing relationships that will last for the rest of your life. Make sure that you are in the right community. Do not make your choice based on money. This may be a huge investment, but you will only make it once in your life. Going to a lesser school or to one for which you do not feel a match will only make you unhappy.