Where Have all the Techies Gone?
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
by Devon LaBelle
If you're searching for a designer or technician in the Bay Area, you've been there--a designer you love is leaving to pursue a career in New York, or a technician you have worked with for years has decided to go to graduate school. This has been the progression for a lot of folks: work here for a couple of years, try to make it, realize you can't make it here, leave. So why do our designer/technicians leave, and what can we do to keep them here?
Props master and artisan Devon LaBelle.
The ever-rising cost of living makes wages one of the highest concerns. Everyone wants to be paid more to make art. Lacking that, early career designer/technicians find themselves working day jobs. They know intrinsically that no one makes it overnight. They begin their careers ready to put in the energy, time and elbow grease working up the rungs of that ladder to success. Instead, many D/Ts are putting in the time, working a second or third job, and still not being noticed or progressing in their careers.
“I have come to understand that theatres can often be tight on money. It can be scary to take a chance on someone that the company doesn’t know, and it can be difficult for new people to break into an established group,” says props artisan Kate Fit.
But let’s say that the designer manages to break in, what then? “The issue I’ve run into a lot with myself and others is that [for a starting designer] there is no concrete set of expectations with regard to workload,” says sound designer Hannah Birch Carl. “Young or new artists are willing to work extra hard for measly paychecks and that sets an unrealistic standard of work for them as their career progresses and they begin to take on multiple shows at a time. I’ve gone from designing 20 shows a year to maybe three shows a year. It’s just not sustainable to work for so little money.” Hannah now has a job in social media marketing and chooses her theatre projects carefully.
Still, some early career folks have been extremely fortunate to create art full time and make it work, a feat that comes with it’s own challenges, as lighting and set designer Kevin Landesman knows all too well.
Lighting and set designer Kevin Landesman. Photo by Cindy Goldfield.
"In order to pay rent I have to take almost every job offered to me and then I get burnt out,” he says. “It is a constant struggle to find enough work and to get those jobs to line up, and then when it rains it pours. So I will have slow months and then work for months without a day off." This ebb and flow of work can continue for years, and without more stable or higher paying work, designers either continue to toil or they leave.
That’s what is lovingly call the “hustle” and in the Bay Area it never goes away. Give a veteran designer a beer and they will go on, at length, about the death defying feats of working coinciding techs, talking of burnout like it's a bruise that will be gone in a week's time.
"Most techies I know are malnourished, sleep deprived, vitamin D deficient, underpaid, overworked, socially awkward with ‘normal people’ and love what they do," says lighting designer and production manager Courtney Johnson, who takes on the grind as a matter of pride. But she is also a realist. "If the cost of living doesn't get more affordable, I'll get priced out."
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So, what can we do right now to help our designer/technicians stay? First, be welcoming and make our companies more accessible. Now one may be think: “Hey, we post our job openings on Facebook, we have a listing for that position on TBA and our website. We're being clear about our need for designers, they should be coming to us.” It’s not always that simple. Sometimes early career designers don’t know where to start looking, or when they do find what they are looking for they can be overwhelmed. A jobs posting often doesn’t disclose the culture of the workplace, the expectations of the designer, and sometimes even the stipend.
Set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke.
Set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke has an idea that might help with this. “A collective or forum of designers and technicians would be a good resource, across all disciplines and years of experience. Ideally something with a goal of offering mentorship, assistantship, and/or even shadowing for those who are emerging or early career.” In addition to helping early career D/Ts, a forum could be useful for established artists, to help them find assistants, track down a long-lost prop, trade cables and equipment, or schedule a truck-share.
Many Bay Area D/Ts are self-taught or learn on the job, which doesn’t leave much room for finessing skills or really diving deep into a technique unless it’s absolutely necessary to the success of a production. Most of the designers we contacted were unaware of programs that could help them learn new skills, grants that they could apply to for new equipment, or even people they could plausibly ask for mentorship. And as for an internship, some, like lighting and props designer Marie Cartier, can't swing it.
Props designer Marie Cartier.
"I'm past the point where I would be able to do an unpaid internship that would provide me with direct skills training. It would be wonderful if there could be time and effort set aside to really provide comprehensive training for early career artists and designers. But there never seems to be a good time or opportunity to say 'Hey, can you teach me to use that table saw until I'm comfortable using it on my own?'"
A series of workshops might solve this problem. Topics could range from the specific, say an introduction to Autocad, to something more general like how to do taxes as an independent contractor. At the end of this process we would get a larger pool of D/Ts with a baseline skill set. The organizers could secure a grant so that educators get paid to teach artists the skills they need to succeed.
Lastly, the thing that keeps people here is how well they feel like they belong. Once an artist is part of our community the bonds are vital and strong. Set designer Angrette McCloskey says she feels “A sense of community. Or rather, a sense that there is a community that I feel more or less a part of...there really are those moments that the community is so real! It’ll solidify over one night of load-in or a bummed cigarette shared in the wee hours.”
Those moments of community are something we have an abundance of here. If we use the long arms of our community to welcome, teach, listen to, and respect our designer/technicians we stand a much greater chance of getting them to stay. We need to invest in each other, and those of us with skills to share should boost our signal so those who need help can get it.