Industry or Community: What Are We Going Back To?

By Masha Tsimring

View full article on Howlround: howlround.com/industry-or-community

Prior to the pandemic, designers, like many theatremakers, existed in a fiscally precarious environment. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption among artistic leadership that we had other sources of income. There must have been, because if theatre institutions actually calculated how much designers are paid, and then how many projects designers would need to take on in a year to survive without outside funding, then the current pay scale would appear to be unconscionable.  

However it’s very likely that institutions aren’t making these calculations at all. There is a certain willful ignorance, or blinkering, when it comes to contracted artists versus institutional staff. If a company is only responsible for a small portion of a person’s yearly income and schedule, they perhaps don’t need to extrapolate what a year, or a lifetime, of those same conditions might mean, what impact the pay and hours have on a designer’s health, relationships, financial stability, and creative resilience. 

I decided to poke my nose in some colleagues’ business. I communicated with designers in different disciplines, most of whom reside in New York City and work for nonprofit companies. These are folks who work regularly in their field but don’t have a solid monetary cushion from a commercial success. These conversations unspooled ideas about making—both art and money—potential changes in relations between designers and institutions, and, of course, how much we all miss obsessing over ephemeral moments together, in the dark. 

REZA BEHJAT

ID: Lighting Designer, Originally from Iran, I live in New York, he him his. 

 www.rezabehjat.com 

 Tell Me About the Shutdown 
 

“Speaking of income, at the beginning of the pandemic I freaked out. So I ended up working at a shop, which was not absolutely related to my field but I needed the money in the summer. 
Because of my visa, I didn’t want to continue working there. 
I shouldn’t have done it. 
It’s not a lot of money first of all, it was $15 an hour, but what did you want me to do? 
I lost everything and I had to eat. 
I did it for a few months but then I didn’t continue.”
 
 
Any companies inspiring hope in you? 


“Eugene O’Neill Theatre, Wendy Goldberg I think is one of the best and most supportive people for a lot of artists at this time. She found a way that the designers and playwrights could talk to each other virtually, it was just a way to keep people connected to each other. I really want to meet her in person one day. She seems very lovely.”
 

 What about the Future? 


If I was a producer, I don’t know what my approach would be, should I support the young designers or should I go back to people who I trust more because i’ve worked with them and are established.

 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“I’ve been on unemployment for awhile, which is most of what I’ve been living on. My partner is in the restaurant business so he lost all his work too. Because i’m also going through immigration, green card stuff, I am currently unable to get unemployment. That’s been problematic. But it’s just been that and small gigs - video editing stuff and zoom theatre. None of those pay anywhere close to a regular fee. So it hasn’t been a great year financially. But I haven’t been in the situation where I can’t pay my rent or buy groceries, yet but I guess I don’t know how long this will go on for.”
 

 Any Pandemic Epiphanies? 


“It was a pretty big silent summer.”
 

 What about the Future? 


“I love theatre, I still do. I can definitely say I only love it in its original form, I have very little interest in doing virtual theatre. Every time I see a Zoom play it just encourages my sense of isolation and depression. It makes me extremely aware that I’m sitting alone in front of a computer in a room. But yeah if theatre comes back I would love to do it again. But financially, probably for awhile I don’t expect to be paid well enough to live on that.”

YANA BIRŸKOVA

YanaBiryukova.jpg

ID: Russian immigrant, here for 11 years, family still in Russia, she/her, projection designer/video maker, I dream of not being forced to go back to Russia.

 yanabiryukova.com 

OONA CURLEY

ID: she/her, white lady, lighting and set designer, and sometimes teacher. Lives in Brooklyn with wife, was supporting herself from design. Fancy grad school.

 www.oonacurley.com 

 Any Pandemic Epiphanies? 


“I haven’t spent any fucking money. The amount of money i was spending on eating out, drinking out, taking cabs home, just on traveling in general. It’s wild.”
 

 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“Less than a month in, I would just e-mail people. I genuinely wanted to make sure everyone was ok, but of course there was a level of “hey I’m still here, don’t forget about me!” But then I completely cut myself off from the scene mostly, a month or two after that time. I ran out of time and energy and it was too sad to be creative, keep in touch with the community, make efforts in any kind of professional way. You just knew that those hopes were going to be dashed.”
 

 What about the Future? 


“I definitely want to do theatre. I have not in any shape or form given up on my career. But I am very grateful to have been forced out of the routine I was in. I don’t think it was a healthy one. But I recognize it is a huge privilege, a financial privilege that I can take this time to reflect. I can afford that. And I do want my life to look different on the other side of this in some pretty crucial ways.”

 What about the Future? 


“I want it to be something that does not have a template. And can exist and it doesn’t have to be about what’s going on right now but it can access that emotion it can create catharsis or whatever sentimentality that it needs. But just something different, I don’t want to take the season we were gonna do and make it digital.”
 

 Any companies inspiring hope in you? 


“I got an offer from the Huntington, everything I asked for they said yes to. They weren’t able to provide a lot financially, but luckily I had done the play before but they were always checking in, they gave me a timeframe that was good, I haven’t don’t this before so I can only guess.”
 

 Tell Me About the Shutdown 


“It didn’t ever feel like a community reached out and said hey this is really scary and we’re thinking of you and that’s it. We did that amongst ourselves with individuals that we work with. But no institution. So then I was able to realize the type of lifestyle they had fostered in me that made me miserable. When I was alone.”

PALMER HEFFERAN

Palmer.jpg

ID: Sound Designer, Composer, making a living solely off of design

 www.palmerhefferan.com 

KATE MCGEE

KateMcgee.jpeg

ID: Lighting Designer, White, fancy schools, parents who could support in an emergency, trans

 www.kateisalightingdesigner.com 

 Any companies inspiring hope in you? 


“Philly fringe were self produced, both ended up paying out my fee, Soho Rep - they just sent out a group email about talking to the artists they commissioned - Julia & Peter had a lot of control over the money, the show I was focusing at Cherry Lane - they paid out the last bit of our fees and they’ve been really good about having regular zoom check ins. The shows I was in production for were fine. Target Margin has generally been good about communicating, they’ve had several conversations and zoom check ins with their artists. I had designed three shows with them in the past few years. They are so community focused, they were the company along with JACK that turned their space into a food bank. Just truly fantastic, truly engaged in what it means to be in a rapidly gentrifying community”. 
 
 
 What about the Future? 


“I mean I’m definitely going back to live performance at some point. I can’t quit it.. I also don’t know what else I would do. It’s a weird function of being not-quite early career. It feels too late. I need the pressure of a deadline and accountability to other people”
 
 Any Pandemic Epiphanies? 


“I think it speaks to how i had to structure my life in order to make design the thing that brought me my income. Is to live this very compact life that in terms of financial obligation and material stuff - having to live this very compact life. I just had to assume a lot of risk. Can you tell me next year if you’re going to make 30k or 80k?”

 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“There’s been no direct communication, and in some ways I don’t mind, 
I’ve been able to be me. 
And divest myself of the idea that my entire self-worth is based off of my work. 
Which I think is something we all struggle with. 

So that’s been healthy.”
 

 Any Pandemic Epiphanies? 


“The toll on your body and your mental state - the thing I’m most grateful for in the pandemic, is the breath. The ability to pause, and look at the work, and look at what I did for the past several years, and is it worth it? Is that how I want to spend my time?”
 

 What about the Future? 


“A desk job made me want to claw my eyes out in a way that I did not expect.”

LAWRENCE E. MOTEN III

HEADSHOT 10_2 - Lawrence E. Moten III.JP

ID: 30 yr, scenic + costumes, bi-racial - African American father, Vietnamese Mother, move through world as a black man, he/him/his

 motendesigns.com 

KIMIE NISHIKAWA

ID: Japanese set designer/moved to US 8 years ago for grad school. Living as a set designer for theatre w/a little teaching. Since Feb 2017 solely living off of theatre set design. 
 

 www.kimienishikawa-design.com 

 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“I think Williamstown was the most, trying to do it for the longest. I think I just stopped working. I knew we were supposed to have a meeting, then we cancelled it, I still presented the rough model and I was supposed to present the final model in a few weeks. I had it all laid out. Even when I got the email that we’re still going to try and do it, I just did not work at all. I think just emotionally I couldn’t. I didn’t want to do anything at that point.”
 

 What about the Future? 


“It’s been great to really discover, design is everywhere. And everybody needs design. And as theatre makers I think we’re very adaptable. It’s been nice to be asked.”
 

 Any companies inspiring hope in you? 


“Ars Nova, personally has been a great help, and I was also following them when they paid everyone even if the shows didn’t happen. Soho rep, they reached out to all the folks that were supposed to do a show, if we wanted to talk. It was a very quick survey but it was nice that they reached out like that. I’ve also heard that they’re really changing how their budget is structured to pay people more and cutting the scenery budget...and I think that’s great. We’re very creative and the more you pay the people, not even just pay - making the folks who are actually making the thing feel like they are being valued. It helps with everything. Clubbed Thumb also has been great. I just feel like Maria & Michael have always kept in touch with me in various ways, which while I always want to feel special, but I assume they’re doing that with everyone. And recently they asked me to do something, a video, there’s some money involved. There’s no deadline really, there’s not really a prompt. Which is nice, we don’t really get that as designers. And that’s a great way to help people, creatively.”

 Any companies inspiring hope in you? 


“I know that theatres are all struggling too. It’s been a huge time for theatres big and small trying to figure out how they can best help their artists. This one theatre made a big effort when they took their work online, they gave the artists that had lost work from the shows that they had to cancel in their season, they gave them first priority into working on new stuff. So they were taking care of what they could, which was admirable from the outside.” 
 
 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“I found out that that show got moved/postponed/cancelled through an email sent to the subscribers of the theatre. I got a very generic email “well the season changed and the show will go up in 2022”. When were you gonna let me know?” To find out through an email was pretty damn cold.”
 

 What about the Future? 


“Now everybody wants designers of color, and I’m like that’s lovely, however where were you before and two, we’re tired. I’ve gotten so many phone calls during this pandemic, which is amazing, however I’m tired and I don’t want to put myself at risk and I don’t want to be your token and I don’t want to be on a team of people of color when none of us have anything in common with the subject matter but we’re all here to design your show.”

DEB SIVIGNY

DebSivigny.jpg

ID: scenic /costume designer in DC, 20 years in the same community. Teach scenic/costume at George Mason. Korean American/Adoptee. Bougie school in new england, masters at U of Maryland. 

 debsivigny.com 

ALICE TAVENER

ID: she/her, brooklyn, white lady, from new york area, costume designer (I honestly forgot all about theatre for a second) making my living by designing & associating, paid the bills but not much beyond that. Fancy grad school.

www.alicetavener.com

 Tell Me About the Shutdown: 


“I had design meetings still happening at the beginning of quarantine, which was weird. There was this huge denial. Suicide Forest closed mid-run, there was a lot of texting and Jeanette Yew would send out a ‘moment of Zen’ picture every day. But a lot of that stuff isn’t happening any more. Understandably, it’s hard to sustain that kind of optimism.”
 

 Any Pandemic Epiphanies? 


You’re friends with everyone you work with. 
Every show is a family. 
It feels great! 
It’s also really fucked up. 
By treating this like a job
- a little part of me dies inside because we’re artists - 
but we deserve to have lives and have boundaries. 
And there’s people I miss. 
But also people I haven’t talked to in nine months. 
And maybe we’re just co-workers 
and that’s ok.
 

 What about the Future? 


It makes me wonder, what am I? Yes, I love theatre and I love storytelling and I love costume design, but if I can’t appreciate my life? What am I going back to? We’re not going back to making a living off of theatre for a couple of years.”