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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2015

Theatre Designers and the MFA Question

Monday, August 17, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Sam Hurwitt

The question of whether or not to go to grad school is an intensely personal one in the arts, where it’s relatively rare for an advanced degree to be stated as a prerequisite for a gig. In past articles we’ve explored the pros and cons for actors of going into a master of fine arts program, but it’s no less of an open question for theatrical designers. I asked a handful of local designers on both sides of the MFA divide about the paths they took and their sense of how important graduate study is in their field.

  • Scenic design by Nina Ball for Shotgun Players' Antigonick (2015). Pictured: Kenny Toll as Guard, Rami Margron as Antigone. Photo: Pak Han 

Abra Berman, a costume designer who works regularly for Marin Shakespeare Company, San Francisco Playhouse and other companies, came to the profession through the grad school route, getting her MFA at UCLA.

“I was on a professional ballet track when I was younger, and I had always loved fashion as well,” Berman says. “I started teaching myself how to sew, so I could make myself costumes for the shows I was performing in. I ended up auditioning in Europe for ballet companies and then decided that wasn’t for me. I needed to make a choice as to what my next move was going to be, and fashion design school seemed to be the thing. I actually didn’t even realize that costume design was a profession. But as I was progressing through my undergrad, I had a costume designer as a professor, and he really encouraged me career-wise. He encouraged me to apply to grad school, and I did. I went through it, loved it—it was everything I’d ever wanted to do in a nutshell—and then immediately started designing right after school. I came back up here and got my little TBA account and started finding jobs through the website.”

Costume designer Abra Berman.

In addition to her design gigs, Berman teaches costume design at the Art Institute of California–San Francisco and City College of San Francisco and has also taught at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Berman definitely counts her graduate education as a major factor in her success. “I think just having the MFA from a really well regarded school was something that made companies look twice at me, and then of course all the connections of professors that already worked there,” she says. “At the same time, it would have taken me decades to learn the principles of good costume design on my own without having gone through a really rigorous program.”

For scenic designer Nina Ball, going into the MFA program at San Francisco State University wasn’t just about advancing her craft; it was her starting point in theatre.

Scenic designer Nina Ball. Photo: Jon Tracy

“I did some theatre back in high school and then put it aside for many years,” Ball explains. “I did my undergrad in marine bio and did that for a while, and then decided art school was the way to go. By the time I kind of rediscovered theatre, I hadn’t done any schooling in it and I felt a little self-conscious about it, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. So going back and doing an MFA for me felt absolutely like the right decision. And going to a school like SF State that was a bit of a scrappy program—you really had to do a lot yourself and figure things out along the way and be creative with less—in some ways it was great, because they let you take a lot of risks.”

Ball got a lot of set design work as soon as she got out of school and soon became a rising star in the field, from early shows at Shotgun Players to working regularly at Aurora, Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse and other theatres.

“One of the shows that I had done at SF State was with Mark Jackson, who worked at some of the smaller places that would give me a chance right out of school,” Ball says. “Having the opportunity to work with someone prolific right out of the gate brought me to Shotgun with Macbeth, which was my first show out of school. I was a company member shortly after that. And in the middle of all of that, saying yes to everything, doing every show that asked and overworking and doing all the work myself, painting all my own sets. At that point it was the do-whatever-it-takes part, where we overbook and try to scrape together whatever we can, because I never had a day job that was different. But I felt like I rose pretty quickly through the ranks, and then was doing shows at places with a little bit better budget and better support and found myself in situations where I could be a little more selective and kind of curate my season, instead of just saying yes to any old thing.”

Ball does think that having the MFA gives her some added credibility for potential employers, though she contrasts her experience with that of her husband, director Jon Tracy, who’s risen to the top of his profession through prolific work over the years, without going to grad school.

“I definitely think that both ways are advantageous and have their pluses and minuses,” Ball attests. “For me, I like school, I enjoy that process, so it was kind of a no-brainer: I like this, so I’m going to go for school for it. But Jon has a totally different experience. He didn’t have the same urge to learn it that way, and maybe didn’t need to. It’s different means to the same end. But the teaching stuff is a little bit more of a headache for him than it is for me, which doesn’t make any sense—he has so much more experience than the next person.”

Sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker also came out of SF State but didn’t take the grad school route. He learned the basics of his craft in Tamalpais High School’s theatre program, which has students learn all aspects of putting on a show. But he really got into it as an undergrad at SFSU—not intentionally, but to fill a need.

“I had originally applied to have a performance emphasis, but my freshman year, another local sound designer, Matt Stines, mentioned that they didn’t have any sound designers for the upcoming shows that they were doing at the school,” Hulsker recalls. “I had done it in high school, so I volunteered to do it, and that was when I made the switch. I saw it as a means to become involved in theatre, which was the most interesting thing, and not so much how I was involved. I just saw that there was a real need for sound designers. Not only at SF State, but, as I found, professionally there aren’t a whole lot of us. So there was a little niche I felt I could fill, and also I very much enjoy doing it.”

Hulsker started working professionally while in his junior year of college, starting with San Jose Stage in 2010 and soon getting regular work at companies such as Shotgun Players, Boxcar Theatre, New Conservatory and SF Playhouse. He’s managed to make a living as a designer, supplementing by teaching sound design at Tam High.

Having learned everything he knows just by doing it, even in a school setting that he likens more to a playground than a classroom, Hulsker think grad school would have made breaking into the business any easier for him. “I know designers with MFAs, and I work with them. I often feel that there are people with MFAs who are doing the same level of work that I’m already doing,” he says.

Costume designer Miyuki Bierlein.

Bierlein didn’t wind up pursuing an MFA, although initially she planned to do just that. “Originally when I graduated from UC Berkeley, my full intent was to go into grad school,” she says. “I was really convinced that that was the only way to pursue it in a capacity that would actually facilitate a career full time. At the time what really held me back from doing that was finances. I have a lot of debt from undergrad, and basically in order to go I needed a bunch of financial support and scholarships, and a lot of places I really wanted to go didn’t necessarily offer that. And I really felt that I was getting so much work in the Bay Area that I’d rather develop myself as a designer that way than let a school develop me.”

Having done theatre in high school, Miyuki Bierlein gravitated to costume design as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. “I felt like I had a lot of opportunity to both work and get skills because it’s such a small department,” she says. She started working at Impact Theatre as an actor while still a junior in college. “I became a company member pretty soon after that, and through the collaborative process realized once I graduated that I really wanted to try designing more in the general Bay Area, and Melissa [Impact artistic director Melissa Hillman] really helped me find a network with the right connections. I started with small things, like private high schools, a couple of afterschool programs, that helped me get my feet wet and start working. I started designing at Impact as well, and once my work started getting seen there I started getting more offers from similar level theatre companies. I got really lucky in that I just started being able to put some work out there, get it seen and make some connections at the right time.”

Becoming a company member at both Impact and Crowded Fire Theater, Bierlein was soon also designing around the Bay Area at theatres such as SF Playhouse and Custom Made. But for the last year, she says, she’s taken a step back from working in theatre to focus on her day job and paying off her student loans for a while.

“If you have the ability to pay for it and to take the time to do it, I think it must be nice to have that environment to really work on process and developing further skills within the bubble of an MFA program, instead of working yourself to the bone while trying to develop yourself as an emerging artist. That could have been a very helpful tool to avoid what I feel like a lot of young, talented, hardworking designers tend to run into, which is, we come out of school, we do a few shows, we get recognized for doing good work and having a good work ethic, then we take a lot of jobs back to back. And as we all know there’s not a lot of money in this level of theatre, so a supporting job is very necessary, and there’s just a point at which it becomes grueling when you’re also trying to pay the bills and pay your rent. I think the people who are really able to balance it and juggle it are real rock stars. I just hit a point last year where I felt my work was suffering from that a little bit, and my passion for the work I was doing suffered a lot. So I wanted to take a step back from that and remember why I do theatre.”

Besides the time that it gives a designer to develop her craft, Bierlein does get the impression that a graduate degree might have given her an advantage, had she taken that road. “I think an MFA can get open certain doors that are harder to open sooner without one,” she says. “I think it takes a lot of talent and persistence to get to bigger theatres without one. I never did, but I could easily have worked at the level I was working at forever. I got very fortunate and developed that network, and people are very loving, generous and supportive in the community.”

Like many, scenic designer Jennifer Varat got into theatre in high school, but for her it was always on the backstage side. “I joined stage crew and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I started focusing on that for all my electives, and I became the main scenic designer for all the performances.” She wasn’t thinking of actually pursuing theatre when she went to UC Davis, she says, but “halfway through my first year I just missed it too much and I transferred into the performing arts major, and my emphasis was scenic design.”

Scenic designer Jennifer Varat.

After graduating in 2012, Varat moved to San Francisco after a short period experimenting with film production design work in L.A., and started doing freelance scenic design for theatres around the Bay Area. “I met with the director Ken Sonkin, and he kind of got me started and told me about TBA and who to talk to, and it’s all been kind of word of mouth since then,” she says. She was nominated for a TBA Award for her scenic design of Take Me Out with Dragon Productions, and she’s worked with No Nude Men Productions on a couple of shows in San Francisco, most recently Desk Set. Meanwhile she’s been supporting herself with a day job in interior design.

Varat says theatrical design might have been far less of a part-time gig for her if she’d been through grad school. “I don’t think it really affects it that much if you’re doing freelance work, because I think your work starts to speak for itself,” she says. “But the people I’ve worked with that have some sort of certification or advanced degree, I think they’re prepared better for the lifestyle of theatre and making that work as their full-time occupation.”

There’s no real consensus among the designers I talked to about whether having an advanced degree on the resume gives a theatrical designer an advantage in getting freelance work. One thing that does seem clear is that an advanced degree is a big help for those who want to supplement their freelance income by teaching the craft.

All of the designers without MFAs that I spoke to said that they hadn’t necessarily decided not to go to grad school. “If somebody had given me a full scholarship and I could relocate and not worry about my living expenses and know that it’s a good program and I could really thrive in it, I would totally do it,” says Bierlein. “I’d still go into an MFA program for costume design if all the stars aligned, because I think there are some things that you can only really learn in an academic setting.”

Interestingly, the others said they aren’t necessarily considering going back to study their own field of design.

“I don’t feel like I’ve made a decision about whether or not to pursue an MFA,” Hulsker says. “I definitely go through periods where I’m all fired up about it, but I’ve never really felt the will or the wherewithal to follow through on a serious application. Part of that is I’m not quite sure what I would want to get an MFA in. I’ve thought about theatre education. I’ve thought about doing a design thing, but there’s something about the idea of going back into an institution to do art that doesn’t really call to me. I mean, I’m sure that these programs provide a lot of great insight, and you get to meet a lot of great people and be in that environment, but I just feel like I’m learning so much just working professionally, it’s hard for me to trade that in for going back to school, I guess.”

Varat says she’s actively looking at grad schools right now, in fact. “I’m actually looking into going back to grad school now and doing an MFA/MBA joint degree or a design MBA,” she says. “I think that with all of the experience that I’ve gotten, I’ve got pretty good hang of how to do my craft and how to work with directors, but the really hard thing for me is having a business plan about it. In my day job I’m doing more of a business-oriented thing, so it’s kind of changed my view on how I think about scenic design and trying to make it into more of a career and less of a hobby.”

Ball concedes that an MFA might not be for everybody, but if you can take the time to do it she thinks you definitely should. “I think it will do nothing but help you,” says Ball. “It will never hurt you, and not going to school sometimes will be detrimental. There are doors that might closed or harder to get through, but not impossible. It’s really what is best for you at that point in your life. I would say, young designers, do it, just do the school. There’s nothing to lose but gaining more experience and networking. But coming to it a little later in life, I could see people not wanting to go back to school yet again.”

Berman advocates graduate school as a means to hone not just your skills but also your methodology. “I really do believe than an MFA program is an important thing to pursue, because it teaches a lot of the psychological components of design that you wouldn’t have at your disposal if it were just a lot of experimenting for the first decade of your career,” she says. “But on the other hand, work experience is also tremendously important. I would say it’s about 50-50, the value of both. The hands-on experience is an absolute requirement, but the MFA allows you to function within that in a much more aware and efficient manner.”

A freelance theatre critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News, Sam Hurwitt blogs at The Idiolect and is currently writing a Medea play for the San Francisco Olympians Festival.