labricoleuse: (Default)
I found the notes file for the session i attended at USITT hosted by USA 829, the costume designers' union, and realized i'd never posted it. Now that i'm off contract for the season at PlayMakers, i can catch up on a lot of posts i've had percolating. Yay!

So, first up, here's the transcript (now a bit out of date, since this was last month and the text refers to "yesterday") on the union session:

I did get into the USA 829 intro session yesterday--I gather from some colleagues in other programming tracks that some of the rooms have been filled past capacity, and have had to turn people away.

The union presentation was interesting and informative, though heavily slanted toward scenic design and scenic artists, both in the panelists and the information covered. It was clear that the presentation was aimed at undergraduates--panelists kept throwing in phrases about "when you're young like you all are," and "when you are first beginning your career like you," and so forth, which felt a bit odd, given that when i looked around the room, i saw several attendees like myself, people 20 years or more into their careers.

Much of the information presented and the questions asked from the audience were things you could find on the union website--info about dues and fees, contract specs, locations of offices, etc.

It was worth attending though, in that they did elaborate on several topics not covered on the website--such as what their primary foci are ("Film and TV are our bread and butter," which makes me wonder how much they prioritize serving their members who work primarily in, say, theatre or opera) and what the nature of their entrance exams are like.

They answered a lot of questions about the nature of their benefits program (insurance/pension) for members, which is a definate concern for most freelancers, and gave some interesting figures on membership and payscale. For example, they estimated that for any given round of entrance exams, they had around 110 prospective candidates vying for admission, that around 30 made it to the final round of interviewing/examinations, and that they offered membership to about 7 of those. So, joining isn't easy, and not something you can just choose to do and get right on it.

As a designer, should you prioritize trying to join? The reps advised yes (as you would expect), but not right out of school--they advocated working first and building up a good portfolio for the entrance exam. (Good advice, not just for the union but for grad school application processes as well.)

Myself, well, the majority of my work is production, not design; it's not something i plan to join unless my career were to take some kind of drastic turn. Career designers, though, perhaps it'd be a smart move. I'd be interested to see how the 829's benefits package compares with the group insurance you can get as a member of the Surface Design Association--i always advise my freelancing students and colleages to check out the SDA for access to health insurance options.

Food for thought.

Also, a quick announcement that i've set up a Facebook page for [ profile] labricoleuse, so if you aren't a LiveJournal user or if you'd rather follow posts over there on your FB feed, you can Like it and do so easily! (I admit, i was inspired by the new FB page for A Sketch A Day...)
labricoleuse: (silk painting)
First, the job posting--since i've been such the gloom-monger about theatres closing in the news, i'd feel remiss if i didn't help propogate this *excellent* job opportunity. No less than four former colleagues have forwarded it to me, and to be honest, if i weren't planning to operate with the Triangle as my "home base" for at minimum five more years, i'd apply in a heartbeat.

Essentially, budgetary restructuring has resulted in a change-up at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, MN. They used to have a separate painter/dyer and crafts artisan/milliner--two jobs, two employees. Now though, they're combining those two positions into a single one. The Guthrie is a heavy-hitter in regional theatre, with it's brand-new (as of 2006) facility featuring three stages, on which they produce a range of productions from musicals to Shakespeare to new works and world premieres. They do between 7 and 13 shows a year, including an annual Christmas Carol and usually at least one touring show. Working there would mean a wide range of different works, with world-class designers, directors, and performers.

You can read the full job posting here, if you're interested. The job's through their local IATSE so figure on union benefits and payscale.

* * * * *

Last month, Peace College in Raleigh hosted the North Carolina 2009 Quilt Symposium, and--being a huge fan of all areas of fiber art, particularly quilts--I headed down there to check it out.

I think i'm especially drawn to the medium of quilting for the same reasons i'm drawn to the profession of crafts artisanship. Quilting comes from a rich panoply of histories, its techniques and styles couched in such a diversity of cultures, from the solid geometry of the Amish tradition, to the graphic strip-piecing of Gee's Bend, to the intricate complexity of Hawaiian applique. It's both an art and a craft, a blend of skill, inspiration, and practicality, and is usually the province of women artists. It can be improvisational or mathematical or both, and--like theatre--engenders collaboration and community.

Isn't the cooperative nature of a quilting bee, a round-robin, or a block-swap similar, conceptually, to a theatre production? Groups of artists come together to coordinate the production of quilts, to gather in guilds for inspiration and collaboration. At the Symposium, rarely did i see a work produced by only one pair of hands--most all involved at least two artists (one who pieced the top and another who quilted the layers), often more. And like theatre artists, quilt artists seem particularly drawn to participating actively in their communities through their work, holding benefit raffles for local charities or creating works for specific causes (such as making comfort quilts for hospitalized children or valor quilts for returning soldiers).

The Symposium was so extensive, I'm going to split the coverage into two posts, the first of which will be images of wearables, accessory design (there was a handbag competition and silent auction), and what they categorized in their competition breakdown as "Studio Art"--free-form wallhanging-scale works often featuring 3D elements or specialized techniques like photo-transfer. The second post (probably coming tomorrow) will focus on larger-scale works which often utilize traditional patterns or specific recognized styles of execution. Admittedly, i didn't come close to photographing the entire thing--there were hundreds of pieces on display. I didn't stick to "ribbon winners" or anything either; i took pictures based on the criteria of whether i felt inspired to respond to an artwork or some element struck me as worth documenting.

Peace College itself was a striking setting for the symposium--it's a beautiful historical liberal-arts women's college, an intimate campus of striking old architecture and classical gardens of shade trees and foliage in bloom.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (milliner)
TheatreFace is a new networking site for professional, educational, and community theatre, sponsored by Stage Directions Magazine. It's got all the usual social networking features like a blog section, a profile page, a "friends list," etc., and the option to join and create communities and groups.

Stagecraft Exchange, launched by UNC graduate Kalen Larson, positions itself as a "craigslist for the theatre industry." It's brand-new so there's not much up there yet, but spread the word and add it to your list of venues to publicize things like job listings and equipment sales/rentals.

The Dye Dept. is an exciting website run by a collective of dyers and textile artists working in the Vancouver film industry. They have some great galleries to surf through as well as some excellent images of their studio setup. I always like to see what other workspaces look like.

The New York City Ballet has a great "online exhibit" of some highlights of their costume collection, entitled Bedecked, Bedazzled, and Bejeweled, with tons of great close-up shots of embellishments and construction details!

I also have an event announcement of possible interest to locals, hosted by our graduate department:

PORTFOLIO 101 for Costume Production Professionals! It's aimed toward UNC undergraduates, but others are welcome, from highschool costumers to area professionals and students at other universities, potential applicants both undergrad and grad, you name it.

This workshop connects you with professionals in the field who will share with you how to effectively prepare a technical or costume portfolio (both for designers and technicians), as well as some of their professional experiences. Please bring your portfolio or resume in whatever shape you have it so that you can get personalized information!

Thursday April 16 (4-6pm): Costume Production Resume Review/Portfolio Critique
**Room 105, Center for Dramatic Art, UNC Campus, Chapel Hill**

with Amanda Phillips and Randy Handley (PlayMakers/graduate students of Dramatic Art)
Jade Bettin and Judy Adamson (PlayMakers/Dept. of Dramatic Art)

Amanda Phillips is a third-year MFA candidate with experience working as a first hand at Ballet West and Tricorne NYC on Broadway productions such as Wicked, Young Frankenstein, and Shrek: The Musical.

Randy Handley is a second-year MFA candidate, former Assistant Manager at the Utah Shakespearean Festival and Wardrobe Supervisor for Cirque de Soleil's Corteo.

Jade Bettin is one of our Costume History faculty and a graduate of our MFA program, with past experience working with historical costume archives such as the collection at Kent State.

Judy Adamson is our Costume Director; she worked for Barbara Matera Ltd. in New York for 14 years. She has worked with such designers as Irene Sharaff, Miles White, Theoni Aldredge, Florence Klotz, Willa Kim, Pat Zipprodt, William Ivey Long and Bob Mackie. She has also worked extensively in dance with American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor and Elliot Feld.
labricoleuse: (Default)
Today i want to talk about professional guilds and organizations which are of interest to costumers and crafts artisans.

Too often i hear students and colleagues dismiss the usefulness of such organizations as being "too expensive" to join for "just a resume credit." I can only assume that this type of statement is couched in ignorance, because professional organizations worth their salt provide so much more than "something to list on a job application," and in this industry, we have some great ones if you only know where to look! So, peruse these, and if you spy one for which you feel a good fit, i encourage you to join!

First, a couple of media-specific guilds:

Surface Design Association

The SDA is aimed primarily at serving artists and designers worldwide working in the medium of textiles. They welcome artists, costume designers and production professionals, textile designers, and so forth. Membership begins at $60/year, though you can save some cash if you pay for multiple years at once. As a member, you receive their full-size glossy quarterly journal Surface Design Journal, as well as their quarterly print newsletter and email updates (and, as a member, you can submit work for publication). They host a biennial conference, offer grants and scholarships, maintain a swatch library and an image library (great for putting together powerpoints and class lectures), and perhaps most exciting for freelancers: they provide the opportunity to enroll in a group insurance plan which provides health care, long term, accident, critical care, and disability. Yes, you read that right: you can get health insurance as part of your membership in the SDA. That alone is a great reason for students on the cusp of graduation to join, especially those looking at a period of freelancing and job-hopping, or those intending to make a career out of self-employment as a working artist.

Handweavers Guild of America

The HGA is deceptively named, since it is in actuality an umbrella organization that also emcompasses spinners/knitters/crochet artisans and (perhaps most relevant for costumers) dyers, and its membership is not limited to American citizens alone. Membership in the HGA is inexpensive for a professional guild--$40 per year ($32 for students) or $70 in two-year increments--and comes with a range of great benefits, such as your subscription to their full-color glossy trade journal Shuttle Spindle Dyepot (to which you may also submit work). They maintain a couple of great library collections on textile topics, from which members can borrow books, periodicals, videos, and slide collections (the book/periodical library is a free service, but the video/slide library charges a small rental fee. They offer a huge range of learning services, from mentorship instruction to formal workshops to their highly challenging self-paced "Certificate of Excellence" programs. They host a biennial conference, sponsor a yearly juried exhibition of fiber artworks, and award a wide range of substantial grants and scholarships.

If you live in one of the regions where there is an active milliners' guild (NYC, Chicago, or the west coast), those can be a great organization with useful membership benefits as well. So far, for those of us who don't live in one of those hub areas though, i haven't found one that seems to have any overarching benefits for satellite members--mostly they seem to focus on working as a group to foster the millinery trade in their area in ways like organizing wholesale buying circles among solitary practitioners, buying group ads in fashion publications, and hosting locally-specific events like exhibits and fashion shows and hatwearing cocktail parties and such (hi, fun). What i really wish would happen, is that the many disparate milliners' guilds across the country would band together under an umbrella guild, and get together everything perkwise that goes along with that--publishing a journal, hosting a trade convention, and so forth. Then i think membership would benefit milliners outside of those hubs as well.

In addition to craft-specific organizations, there are also the theatre-specific organizations, whose existence most folks know about, but maybe the exact particulars of membership are hazy.

United States Institute for Theatre Technology

USITT is perhaps the best-known in North America because of its huge conference held in different US cities each year. In addition to the yearly stage expo, they also host a biennial tech expo (specifically for scenic, props, costume, lighting, and sound artisans), a yearly costume symposium, and offer grants, fellowships, scholarships, awards, and theatre-specific international travel tours. They publish the quarterly TD&T: Theatre Design and Technology, set industry safety and excellence standards, offer various technical certification programs, and send a delegation each fourth year to the Prague Quadrennial international theatre competiton. Membership is $105/year for an individual ($63 for students or $84 for seniors).

Under the umbrella of USITT, there's the Costume Design and Technology Commission, a special-interest group serving the needs of costumers in the for-profit, non-profit/regional professional, and academic fields. The CD&TC sponsors a number of projects in addition to their yearly symposium, maintains two listservs for costume topics as well as a number of related archives and databases, and offers a yearly award to upcoming young designers and technology professionals.

In addition to USITT, there are the regional theatre organizations, which are dedicated to serving a particular area of the US. The one applicable to my area (North Carolina) is the Southeast Theatre Conference. Regional organizations like SETC often have very similar structure to USITT, in the sense of publishing newsletters and journals on regionally-relevant theatre topics, offering grants and awards, and hosting conferences and the like. They usually also maintain a job board with postings in your part of the country. Sometimes these regional organizations are even splintered down to the state level: for example, here we have the North Carolina Theatre Conference, which addresses concerns in the industry at a state level, such as lobbying for arts funding opportunities and job creation.

Hopefully, this post makes a good case for why you might choose to join one or more of these organizations, besides just so you can list it on your resume. In terms of "full disclosure," I'm a member of the SDA, HGA, and USITT, myself. And, if you belong to an organization not listed here and want to mention it in the comments, i'd love to hear about it!
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
There's a buzz right now in the theatre blogosphere about "greening theatre," as evidenced by its gaining mention in the theatre pages of the Guardian. It's an interesting topic, vastly multifaceted, and one i often ponder myself.

Childrens Theatre of Madison's production manager Mike Lawler writes a blog dedicated to the topic called ecoTheater. (In order to more easily follow future posts, i set it up as an LJ syndication, [ profile] ecotheater, in fact.) He's got a pretty interesting debate started over the amount of air travel that design staff have to do in the current regional theatre paradigm, which crossed blogs into Scott Walters' TheatreIdeas and Praxis Theatre's blog posts as well.

The thing that came out of this that most got me thinking was the idea of a "generalist" theatre professional. (Incidentally, aren't we already generalists, in the tech side of things at least? How many TDs out there are able to step in as carps, welders, run crew, set designers, draftsmen, etc. as needed? How many costumers have built soft goods for props or run wardrobe or functioned as designers, managers, shoppers, dyers, etc.?)

That sort of suggested approach, the "multitalented theatre artisan," is workable for a certain kind of theatre company--it makes ultimate sense for smaller-budget or traveling companies. The problem i have with the concept of the theatre generalist is that it doesn't work for professional theatre companies in residence at a university, where company members have a responsibility not only to the resident theatre, but to the training program that exists alongside it.

To use myself as an example, my duty is first to create all the costume crafts for PlayMakers Repertory Company, but the singular condition of my employment is that i teach in the Costume Production graduate program--one of the best in the nation. In order to be qualified to teach my courses in the program, i need to be the best specialized artist and artisan i can be. What's more, after i've done all the craftwork for the company and taken care of my academic responsibilities, i have literally NO more time to devote to some other aspect of theatre. PRC is certainly not alone in its status as a LORT theatre in residence at a university with theatre staff doing "double-duty"--off the top of my head, it's in good company with the Huntington Theatre at Boston University, the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennesee-Knoxville, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, to name a few.

It has been my experience that, due to the collaborative nature of theatre, people are willing to work outside their area of primary responsibility as time and need and skill set allows (examples include a costumer dyeing fabric yardage for scene shop scrims, a propmaster casting ornaments for costume armor, a scenic carpenter creating decor for a fundraising event). I'm not so sure we need to write this into our hiring requirements though. As we've seen trying to fill our existing openings in staff this season, it's hard enough to find qualified applicants for positions as it stands--if we then demand that our actors also be drapers or carpenters, and our administrative staff be singers or painters or choreographers, i think the hiring pool only shrinks further til we're parched by professional drought.

Another issue to consider is that this "generalist" concept alienates those artists who are in production careers by discounting the degree of study and expertise they need to function at the top of their field. Certainly, actors pitching in to build flats or run wardrobe is necessary and valuable for theatres functioning in non-union paradigms, for example, and the theatre made can be transcendent and brilliant. Where though is the place in that for the scenic carp whose goal is to work for Cirque de Soleil building highly-engineered circus sets? What of the costumer who dreams of working on technically-challenging, huge-budget productions like new operas, Broadway, or Vegas shows? Because in many of the university programs, these are the students we are teaching in the tech departments.

I wonder if the generalist model isn't something that's emminently workable in the realm of the actor-director-administrator, but less workable when taking the technical fields into consideration. Within our company, many of our professional actors also direct, write, produce, carry full teaching loads, and/or work in other outreach and development capacities. If i were working as a dramaturg, i might welcome an actor as a research assistant. If i'm building a set piece, i don't think i want an actor who can swing a hammer over a career carpenter who can throw the whole thing together herself/himself without hand-holding. We already collaborate--i talk with the scenic production folks when i need something welded or some carpentry project done--but let's not stretch demands beyond the bounds of what's reasonable and safe.

In the course of browsing links in these blog discussions, i came across a couple other sites that spawned some mixed response on my behalf as well. Mo'olelo's Green Theatre Mission and Both of these sites advocate costume-related "greening" measures that strike me as limiting, short-sighted, or ignorant of costuming as a field. Specifically, here are some quotes, with my responses after:

From Mo'olelo:
  • Rent costumes from other theaters and actors, or purchase from thrift stores before purchasing new items
  • When possible, using thrift shops for costumes

  • Consider reusing costume pieces rather than building new ones.
  • In the laundry room, strive to do laundry as rarely as possible, perhaps giving actors the option to some items [sic] less frequently. Hang-dry, if possible, to reduce the huge amount of energy used by electric dryers.


Renting is certainly one means of costuming a show, but when a company invests its costume budget in the rental of a show, it receives exactly no return on that money--none of the costumes go into its own stock for potential reuse on future pulled shows, and all of the shop's labor goes into alterations, upkeep, alterations reversal (because anything you do to the rentals, you must undo), and cleaning of another company's property, as well as the expenditure of transportation costs--costumes are heavy, particularly period costumes, and incur high shipping and insurance charges, nevermind the fuel expenditure, whether shipping or driving to pick them up.

Often the companies renting them require them to be packed in particular ways for protection of their property, such that for some specialty items (like hats) it makes no sense to rent, since you could make the item on-site for much less time, money, and effort than the packing and shipping and dealing with red-tape of rental. (Or, i could, at least.) It seems to me that if an organization wants to avoid the transportation costs of flying in NYC or LA designers, they'd feel the same way about flying in their costumes.

In the long-term view, a company is better off investing in well-made costumes which they will retain in their stock after the performance, as the more costumes a company owns, the more they can pull from for future shows. It's been my experience that a well-made costume can typically be utilized in at least five productions at your typical regional LORT theatre before it needs major overhaul, or moves into a second life as a decon/reconstructed costume or distressed/beggar-class costume.

Here's a real-life example: we are not renting any of our costumes for Pericles, a huge show which has probably around 50 costumes in the version we're doing. We're making about 8 costumes, which will go into stock at the end of the run, and the rest are pulled from stock, altered, reconstructed, and/or dyed/painted or otherwise embellished. We could have rented the whole show and spent all our time and effort on doing reversible alterations on rental costumes; at the end, we'd have had to undo all the alterations and spend another few days after everything came back from the cleaners (since rental companies usually require confirmation of dry-cleaning of all items before returning them) packing them up and shipping them all. Instead, we make a few, alter the rest, and keep everything. I won't say NO labor is wasted--it's theatre, things will get cut--but far less labor goes toward something that has no longterm benefit to the company. After all, if you make it, even a costume that gets cut during tech still goes into stock.

Perhaps it's better to look at this rental issue from the other way around: might a company reap the benefit from establishing a means for conducting rentals of their own stock? Oregon Shakespeare Company is a great example of a company that's made this work very successfully--they are a primary rental source for theatre costumes and take in a certain amount of revenue from their rental department. Opera and ballet companies who build on-site also often operate with a rental component--they invest in making a whole opera or ballet, then reap the benefits of renting it as a batch to other companies staging the same show later on.

Thrifted costumes

Thrifted costumes can be the only option sometimes for student groups, church theatre, no-budget productions, and if you are making theatre on a shoestring, you make do with what you can. However, in terms of professional theatre, in my experience, 9 times out of 10 when a costume designer brings in some clothing s/he has purchased at a thrift store for costumes, the amount of labor that goes into alterations and making them stageworthy is comparable to that of having gone ahead and made the item from scratch.

Thrift store clothing is already secondhand--it's already been worn in someone's everyday life, laundered, sometimes damaged. Thrift store clothing is also most often mass-manufactured clothing and has not been constructed with alterations in mind--picking apart a seam sewn with a five-thread overlock machine is maddening, and there's nothing in its seam allowance to let out if the garment is too small. When thrifted costumes go into your stock after the run of a show (provided they survive it), you can count on them to hold up through perhaps 1-3 more shows, as opposed to the 5-8 shows you can expect with a new item. Depending on the state of the item when purchased, thrifted costume pieces make more long-term sense than rentals do, in that you do wind up with a certain number of costumes that go into your stock afterward, but often what you save in materials costs you spend and then some in labor.

Reusing costumes

Now here's one i can get a degree. I mean, actually, to a great degree, because pulled shows mean crafts-heavy labor, which means yay, work for me! But, that's something to figure into your evaluation when you decide to costume a show largely or entirely by pulling from stock.

Stock consists of all the costumes in still-wearable condition, from all the shows a company has ever done and then some (i.e., including donations). These things are every imaginable shape, size, and color...but the trouble is, sometimes the thing that fits or can be made to fit is not the right style or color so something has to be done to accommodate that. Whenever a show is designed from stock, a large part of what makes it a visually-cohesive show falls to the crafts artisan--costumes get dyed to conform to the show's palette, accessories are constructed to "pull together" the look of a chorus or collection of characters, distressing or toning or other paint effects are the "glue" the holds the show together design-wise. It's not just crafts--stitchers and first hands add trim and appliques, refurbish or decon/reconstruct things and deploy other tricks to make these disparate costumes from a dozen previous unrelated, unconnected shows hang together as a whole--but the point is, a pulled show still requires labor and expenditure of resources, often more than people think. There's a lot you need to do beyond pulling your reused costumes in order to mount a professional show with them.

Or, you don't do any of that and it looks like you rag-picked your show from a dumpster and a dress-up box. Which is maybe what you are going for, but 9 times out of 10, it doesn't stop with a pulled costume as-is. I'm just saying, with reuse comes a whole new set of costuming issues, and particularly if you are thinking about conservation, dyeing is a big one to weigh, in the scheme of things.

Laundry minimizing and hanging-dry

With all due respect to whomever wrote this, it's not even a valid suggestion. Actors Equity won't allow wardrobe to just "skip" laundering costumes--if you aren't operating an Equity house, okay, ask your actors if they are willing to wear sweaty, dirty, rank costumes for several shows running. Good luck with that. The rest of us are required to do laundry of launderable items after every performance. As for hanging dry, if you have a sunny day and a clothesline and the time to sit and watch over the costumes to make sure someone doesn't run off with the lead actor's pants, okay, give it a shot. As a general rule though, Equity houses have to do lots and lots of laundry, and that laundry is done in washing machines and dryers. Use responsible laundry soaps and softeners, buy energy efficient and low-water appliances, but don't tell me NOT to do laundry in my wardrobe department; it's naive at best and downright absurd.

I don't mean to suggest that i am against making the theatre industry more ecologically responsible--i'm saying that there are no simple solutions and that more consideration and weighing of impact is necessary than simply making a list of brainstormed ideas and implementing them without further investigation.

You can't pull shows if you don't also invest in adding valuable items to your stock.

You can't run a union house without laundry appliances.

You can't rent entire shows and feel proud of how ecologically-sound that decision was, nevermind what it does in terms of pissing away your budget.

You can invest in quality, well-made costumes that can be used again and again.

You can run a dyeshop with a mind to water and energy conservation.

You can impress upon your designers the impact of their decisions (for example, "Every time you purchase a fabric to be custom-dyed, that utilizes up to 200 gallons of water in the process," or "If you spend your entire budget on rentals, we will not be investing our costume budget back into our own stock.").

I think the most ecologically sound theatre is street Butoh in trash-picked attire. Theatre done in the actors' own clothes on grassy clearings in public parks is the next rung up, and then there's what we call "sweatsuits in a black-box by ghostlight". If we're going to do theatre with any kind of advanced production values though, we've got to compromise and make sensible, well-thought-out long-term choices, and we've got to include everyone in the conversation. It's clear to me that these costume-related suggestions listed by these organizations are either aimed at theatres who do not aspire to high technical production values, or were dreamed up by people who didn't run them by an actual costumer first.

And honestly, the first nail in the coffin of any regional theatre company is a lack of communication and mutual respect among departments. Which is weird, because talking's free, and so is demonstrating respect for one another's art and artisanship.
labricoleuse: (Default)
Again with the ongoing discussion in the last-lecture vein, today's topic is trade union membership in costuming careers.

One question that comes up over and over for costume professionals is, Should I join the union? As with everything, there is no across-the-board answer, but there's information to consider and weigh. It's been my experience that many, many people have little or no information about union options in general. Most people don't even know the name of their local union, how to contact them, or what it would entail to join.

Let's go over what union options there are for professional costumers. This post is going to apply to costumers in North America. I know there are equivalent unions in other nations, and if you are one of my readers overseas, i'd love to hear your take on unions in your own country in the comments!

What union applies to me?

The main union you should know about in terms of serving North American production specialists is IATSE. That acronym is short for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada... )
labricoleuse: (hats!)
This is another part of my ongoing series of posts in which i attempt to answer the Hard Questions: What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

All of these posts pertain to costume production work in a professional context--some of the info will apply to regional theatre work, some will apply to university production, some will apply to working in commercial for-profit shops, some will apply to film and television production, and some to union work (or non-union shops running on a union model). Everything i say won't be applicable to every job, of course, and some of it may contradict what some employers' expectations and requirements are. Consider this riffage to be taken with salt-grains.

Today i'm talking about the benefits of record-keeping to the costume production specialist. For the sake of continuity, i'll phrase it as a bold-faced distillation of a piece of advice:

Keep accurate written records of your work and processes... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
I said yesterday that the main subject i wanted to address next was apprenticeships versus sole-artisanships, so here we go with that. This is another part of my ongoing series of posts in which i attempt to answer the Hard Questions: What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

Everyone remembers from like, 3rd grade social studies class, the idea of the tradesman training model, back when you do that unit on Medieval Guilds and stuff, yes? How, used to be, young folks would learn a trade by first apprenticing to a master of the trade, where they'd do whatever was asked--grunt work, brute labor, cleaning the shop, inventory, finishing work, etc.--all the while learning the trade in a hands-on scenario. And of course, then after the apprenticeship, they'd become a journeyman, where they traveled around from town to town, picking up extra work with masters or on their own if there was no resident master of the trade. And, finally they'd settle down somewhere, join a guild, and be a master wheelwright or stonemason or vintner or whatever their trade was.

I believe that concept is a good lens through which to view a costuming career, in a sense, in that whenever you are working under another costume professional, your role is like an apprenticeship. Read more... )
labricoleuse: (opening night gala)
So earlier today i was blibbering about how our 3rd-years are graduating, how they're my first class of students who are going out into the job market having taken craftwork classes with me, and generally getting all overwrought with questions like, What do i wish my professors had told me when i got out of school? What advice would i go back and give myself, if i could, and what knowledge do i want to impart that i haven't already?

I've started writing a big manifesto-ey sort of thing with exactly that slant. I'm writing it with the understanding that I don't know everything about everything in my field, that i'm only 15 years into my career and that my career is an ever-evolving creature pertaining ultimately only to myself and my own job-satisfaction. In those 15 years though, i've worked for world-class opera and ballet, regional theatre at all levels from tiny to internationally-known, for film and television production, theme park costuming, touring shows, university productions, you name it. As such, I do think i'm allowed some meta-discussion indulgence, especially now as i send some grad students out into the rest of their lives.

Take what i've got to say in the context and spirit that it's meant: the best of intentions, and without hubris--my experience and opinions are not universal, and in some things i fully acknowledge that i might be, in the vernacular, completely full of BS. (I'll offset my professionalism with my wine-drinking Opening Night icon. Classy!) So, without further ado, the first of several such posts to come...

Advice for Aspiring Professional Costumers, Part One: Jobs and Compensation


Shakespeare got to get paid, son

Let me start with a bold declaration, but by no means a unique one. In fact, it's trotting out a warhorse, and that is that the First Rule of Professional Costuming is, Never Work for Free... )
labricoleuse: (silk painting)
It's that time of year when i talk about portfolios.

If you're planning to apply for a graduate program or an undergraduate or arts-focus high school program which requires a portfolio, you should be getting it together, refining it, considering how you're going to present it. If you're in a program already, you may be looking at an upcoming portfolio review. (We've already had our fall review, and a prospective student visited the program the other day which reminded me to make this post.) If you plan to work summer stock, you'll probably be applying for jobs in a couple of months--perhaps sending in a portfolio with your applications--and it might be a good idea to get a jump on it now. Even if you are a professional working in your field in a position you feel settled in, don't let your portfolio slide; sometimes life throws a curve!

I've discussed assembling a portfolio in a previous post, and if you are looking at putting one together for the first time or completely revamping yours, you may also want to check out a relatively new book, Assembling a Design-Tech Portfolio for Theatre, Film, and TV by Rafael Jaen. Jaen is the Costume Director at Emerson College and heads up the portfolio critiques and workshops at the USITT conference every year. He has seen portfolios by the truckloads and boatloads, both electronic and hard-copy formats, and has a wealth of information to impart in his book. It includes layout examples of pages from real portfolios, ideas on what to include and how best to present different elements (research, drafts, renderings, swatches, etc.), and information on various digitized options.

Once you've got your portfolio assembled, however, you're only halfway there. Unless you're an extremely confident, skilled, extemporaneous public speaker (and most of us aren't), you should then begin to consider and plan your presentation. This advice is purely my own opinion, based on my experiences both presenting my own portfolio and evaluating the portfolios of students, prospective students, and colleagues. Take it with whatever degree of import you choose.

In presenting my own portfolio, there are four main Do/Don'ts i like to keep in mind. When others present them, i notice how they handle these issues (or don't handle them).

1. Put your best foot forward! Don't apologize for the contents of your portfolio. If there's something in your portfolio that you need to make excuses for, take it out. As an evaluator of portfolios, i want to see your best work; showing me something that is not your best work is frankly a waste of my time and yours, too. Your portfolio is not a scrapbook. I don't know how many times i have seen portfolios where the presenter shows something of the sort with a qualifier like, "I know this isn't that great but i had to keep it in here, this show was just so much fun to work on!" Don't chuck the pictures in the trash if you like to reminisce, but perhaps begin a career-related scrapbook for the pictures of projects that will, over the course of your career, pass out of your up-to-date portfolio.

Sometimes you have a borderline photo--the pros depicted outweigh the cons and the project is particularly impressive, perhaps. A beautiful period gown with an off-kilter hem, for example. Go ahead and include it, but when you offer your explanation of the flaw, offer it confidently ("Photo call was the first time we saw it on the set, so the next day we evened that hem out for opening night," instead of something like, "Wow, it really looks horrible, doesn't it? Ha ha. Um. But i fixed it the very next day.")

2. Be positive and exercise professional discretion--don't throw shade. By this i mean, don't make critical comments about other elements of the creative team on a given show or project. If your director sucked, if the lighting was pathetic, don't offer up those opinions. The arts and entertainment industry is a very, very small world; that "sucky" director might have gone to undergrad with your interviewer, the "pathetic" lighting designer might be a frequent collaborant with the head of the department at the school to which you're applying. If the director or designer in question has a poor professional reputation, that's probably not a secret to your interviewers; dishing about it doesn't say a lot for your own professional behavior though.

You can allude to setbacks beyond your control without sacrificing your professionalism. "The director requested after the first night of tech that we put this motif on this dress so i had to paint it after the dress was already completely made." Or, "These gowns are the pastel colors you see in the swatches, it's the lighting that makes them look grey in the production photos." A portfolio presentation is not the place to make catty comments or share gossip. You would think this goes without saying, but in fact many people attempt to combat nervousness and anxiety with humor and unthinkingly resort to exactly this type of comment, hoping to draw a laugh or some sympathy/empathy. Instead, practice your presentation until you feel confident.

3. Demonstrate respect for your field. Don't refer to your work in juvenile terms. When you present your portfolio, choose language that illustrates your understanding of methods and media. Avoid comments along the lines of, "To make these wings, I got to play with thermoplastic and power tools." Professional costuming is a serious career that requires a vast array of skills, knowledge, and artistry. Many people in the field have secondary degrees and/or other specialized training. We are not piddling with fingerpaints on a playground, and for Pete's sake, i definitely don't want to share a workspace with someone who views power tools as toys.

It's bad enough when someone outside the field dismisses what costumers do with statements like, "Oh, but they're just picking out outfits," or "Who needs to study to be a costume designer? Everyone wears clothes." It's worse when someone in another area of theatrical production dismisses the difference between a custom-made costume draped to the actor's measurements and a dress made from a commercial pattern or bought off-the-rack. We don't need to undermine ourselves by contributing to that sort of flippancy. I'm not saying that one shouldn't have a great time with one's career--i love my work and think it's endlessly fun and fascinating--but in an interview and portfolio review, i prefer professionalism over pep-rallying. Your enthusiasm and zeal will come through ("For these masks, i had the opportunity to work with thermoplastic...") and your audience will hear in your voice that you thought it was a great time.

4. Relax! Don't rush. Most reviewers/interviewers will have questions about your work. Make sure they have time to get a word in edgewise! Don't bull through your portfolio in one big breathless run-on sentence like a costume flip-book ("And on this project I did this and on this show i did this and on this costume we had to do this and here i did that and and and and..."). Stop at the end of your description for each page or frame or layout, just a beat, enough to take a breath, and then move on. If your interviewer has a question, s/he'll ask it in that pause and if not, it's okay, it keeps the whole thing running at what seems like a more calm, confident pace.

If you aren't a natural speaker or if you get anxious or nervous in presentations, you will need to practice this. Present your portfolio to your friends, to your family, to your pets, to the couch cushions. Seriously, i'm not joking here. My betta fish knows my portfolio by heart now. (He's heard some class lectures, too.) If you have friends and acquaintances in portfolio-based fields--fine arts, architecture, fashion, graphic design, etc.--throw a portfolio party. Have everybody bring a snack or drink and their portfolio, then go around the room presenting to one another and nosh while you offer constructive criticism. You'd be surprised how valuable it can be to go through the presentation process in a no-pressure situation like this, and even if you aren't all in the same field, sometimes the most valuable input can come from someone who's not that familiar with what it is that you do.

None of these things are deal-breakers--if you have a portfolio full of outstanding work, it's highly unlikely you will lose a job or graduate assistantship just because you talked about "playing with Sculpy" in your presentation. They're just suggestions to keep in mind, to choose to employ or discard as the situation demands. Whatever your need for creating and presenting a portfolio, good luck! It gets easier the more you work on it, present it, refine it, streamline it, so make some time, buckle down, and don't sweat it.
labricoleuse: (me)
It's been a little while since i did an Ask LaBricoleuse entry, and since it is generally that time of year when those who are applying to bachelors and graduate programs and summer-stock theatres are getting together their portfolios, i thought this might be useful. It didn't actually come from a privately-emailed query, but was spawned by a more general post in the [ profile] theatre_techies community.

My current job includes teaching grad school coursework in costume technology, and i see a lot of portfolios from folks applying to our program. This is one of my favorite things about applicants' visits--the opportunity to see their portfolios. I'm writing this post from purely my own perspective, what *I* think about how a portfolio should be set up and arranged. I don't make acceptance decisions here, but i do offer feedback frequently both to prospective applicants and to our own students in twice-yearly portfolio presentations/evals. Bear in mind as you read it, this is only my opinion and is not to be considered any kind of stone-carved hard-rule on the subject.

Unfortunately there is no standard for portfolio formatting like say, the Chicago Manual of Style for writing or somthing. This post is primarily directed toward those readers first compiling a portfolio, or those who aren't terribly confident about their portfolios, those with an interest in improving or streamlining a portfolio, etc. Certainly too, if you are one of my readers with an extremely extensive portfolio, i would love to have your input in comments as to how you have set up yours, hard-copy vs electronic, link to your online site, etc!

Whenever you are applying for a program or a job where they request a portfolio, don't be afraid to contact the head of the program or the shop manager and ask what they would like to see in that portfolio. They should be glad to tell you--one place might want to see the full range of your work from stitching to crafts to patternmaking to draping, while another may only want to see, say, your original design work and nothing else. Never hurts to ask, and if the program director or HR person or shop manager is rude and dismissive, well, IMO that in and of itself tells you something about what it might be like to work or attend school there. More than likely they will be happy you asked--it shows that you value both their time and yours.

Here are three basic things i always tell folks who ask me for hard-copy portfolio set-up advice:

1.) Get an actual plain functional portfolio binder designed to, you know, like, contain a professional portfolio. Certainly the work speaks for itself, and certainly no one's going to be denied entry to a program or passed over for work if s/he shows a portfolio full of genius-quality work JUST because they are presented in, say, a scrapbook with kittens on the cover, but it does make an impression of unprofessionalism or ignorance or immaturity. Invest in a good portfolio book to keep your stuff in. It doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to be huge, it doesn't have to be genuine fine leather, but it should be clearly a portfolio book and not like, a bright purple notebook with a pirate flag on it or something. (This may seem like stating the obvious, but you would be surprised.) For my own portfolio, i keep it in a larger, ringbound version of this easel-based design. It is good to be able to choose whether to lay it flat on a table when interviewing with one person, or set it up like an easel when presenting to several people at once.

I recommend you get a portfolio with a ring binding that opens and closes, too, if you want a formally bound portfolio. In the long run, you will be glad you did. In the course of a costuming career, you will need to tailor the layout and order of your portfolio to whatever job for which you are applying. For example, if you are looking for a summer gig as a tailor's assistant, you may not even want to include craftwork or dyework pages since they don't apply to the job you seek...but if you are applying for admittance to a graduate program you may benefit from including the entire range of your work. If you are looking to stitch in a ballet costume shop, you will want to put your dancewear photos first, whereas if you are wanting to do craftwork at a Shakespeare festival, you may wish to feature some armor-making and period headwear. It will save you mucho time if you can just pop the rings and move/remove/add pages easily.

Or, you might want to mount your portfolio pages on loose separate illustration boards and transport them in a zipper case. This can be helpful for viewing, say, four pages at once, and it's very easy to reorder them, pass them around, etc. It also means that they may be more easily damaged or lost though, so that's something to consider.

2.) Regarding photos of stagecraft or costumes: be discerning. One decent photo is definitely better than no photos. No photos, though, are better than a blurry crappy photo that doesn't accurately depict the subject. You are wasting people's time if you show a portfolio of poorly-lit shoddy pictures, offering an excuse of, "These are the only photos i have of these costumes...but they were really great!" All that really tells the interviewer is that you neglected to take or obtain decent photographs documenting something you consider to be great work...which is NOT an impression you want to engender. If you don't have good photographs of something but you can still access the garment and take some, do it, soon! If you can't, take it as the hard-learned lesson that it is and make SURE you photograph things you work on, starting now. Multiple photos--different angles or detail shots or mid-process shots--are the best. Photos against a neutral backdrop are better than photos with a messy workroom in the background, but a good series of photos with a workshop background are better than no photos at all. I have a coworker hold up a sheet of muslin behind something or wheel a form in front of our fitting room curtain if i need a quick "backdrop" for a photo.

If you are interested in design and have no photos of a design you did but you have drafts or renderings, that's ok--it shows that you can and do draft or render. And, if you have anything else visual to attach to it (paint chips to show the color palette for a set, swatches of fabrics from a costume or scrims/drapes/soft props/upholstered furniture, etc) stick that in there too. An ideal portfolio shows the many facets of your skills and talent. A designer who has only stage shots of the final show is only displaying one facet of her or his talent--good designers also produce competent renderings, research, collages, make good fabric choices, etc., so any evidence of those skills is appropriate to include. This philosophy also applies to crafts artisans--you are selling yourself short if you only have finished photos of work for the stage. If you spend your summers, say, doing elaborate event decor or making intricately adorned bridal headpieces, it is certainly appropriate to include photos of that work.

3.) Label everything completely, consistently, and accurately. If it's a class project, note that ("Lion mask, Sculpture class project, Joe Blow High School, 2005"). If it's costumes for a show that was actually produced, put a label beside the picture(s) with the show title, your job, what organization did the show, and when ("Twelfth Night, stitcher/crafts assistant, Chicago's Shakespeare in the Park", Summer 2003). If it's a costume you made for a convention or Halloween or whatever, note that on a label, and especially if it is some type of cosplay thing, include an image of the character the costume is supposed to represent as well--assume people don't know the source material, and if your costume doesn't look all that great juxtaposed against the source material, then you shouldn't include it, period.

Once you have your portfolio basically set up--you have your binder, all your pictures and renderings and inserts and labels together and laid out onto pages and the like--the big question then is, how do you order it?

Consider, as i said above, the purpose: tailor what you include to what the employer or program wants to see. Ask them. I cannot stress that enough. Once you know what you are including, then turn an eye to what goes where. People will make a case for chronological or reverse-chronological order, grouping things by category (all designs together, all crafts together, etc), and those ordering-schemes certainly have their pros and cons. I am an advocate though of the "in with a bang, out with a bang" philosophy. Put something first that is really exciting and showcases something you are really proud of. You will be most confident talking about that first, and it will start you off with good momentum. Order the rest of it however makes sense to you, but make sure that the last thing in there is also something really cool.

Nothing is more anticlimactic than viewing an entire portfolio and the last thing you see is someone's oldest, least-skilled, earliest work. Just because you did something doesn't mean it needs to be in your portfolio, and going chronologically backward always leaves your interviewer with your oldest (often crummiest) work as their final impression. If you want to retain some photos of a project from the early days of your experience, structure a page in the portfolio as a juxtaposition to illustrate progress--something like, "Here is the first hat i ever made back in 1999, and here is a recent hat i made for My Fair Lady."

Also, i'm a proponent of "Don't bog it down with too much stuff." If you have done so much stuff that you have a hundred portfolio pages, that's nice, but no interviewer is going to give you the time to show the whole thing. Pick your best stuff. Ten amazing things, period, are a better portfolio than forty things of which ten are amazing.

One of the biggest questions in the field right now is whether to move entirely to digital/online portfolios. You are starting to see job postings that require submission of digital portfolios only. It is definitely going to be a big part of the future of the industry, whether it fully replaces hard-copy portfolios or not, and it would behoove you to generate some type of digital-format portfolio--mostly i've seen them either set up as PowerPoint presentations or an online site. My own site is linked in the sidebar--the last two jobs i've gotten didn't ask for a hard-copy portfolio at all; the site functioned as the sole source.

My own site is not as fully-developed as i'd like--i intend to add a downloadable/printable PDF of my resume and at some point a downloadable PowerPoint version of the portfolio. I don't maintain my own site--i barter with a friend who does web design--but many artisans do. If you want to set up an online portfolio and have no idea where to start, there are several services out there catering to the setup of an online portfolio. Qfolio,, and Carbonmade are a few to get you started. In researching prospective designers for various projects, i've found the most working professional costumers using Qfolio, but for those with no budget, Carbonmade has an option for a free basic account.

Hopefully this is useful as a starting point, some advice on how to approach creating a portfolio. And, for any of you job-searching or hoping to shoot for acceptance into various educational programs in 2007, best of luck to you!

ETA (August 2007): You may wish to check out the resource volume, Developing and Maintaining a Design-Tech Portfolio for Theatre, TV, and Film by Raphael Jaen. This book came out in fall of 2006 and focuses specifically on portfolios in technical production and design in the entertainment industries.

Re Carbonmade, one of my students has begun to set up his portfolio on there and is really pleased with their service.
labricoleuse: (Default)
This query comes from costumer and novelist Sara M. Harvey, who has been so wonderful as to grant me permission to share it and my response with all-y'all here on [ profile] labricoleuse:

As a costume crafter myself, I have some questions...first off I have a very difficult time explaining to people what it is that I do. Looking over your resume, I see that it is not all that differently worded than my own, so I must be inquiring with the wrong sorts of folks. Which leads into my second question...I can see by your resume that you have worked some very interesting and amazing places. How do you go about finding a good match in an employer? So far, my most rewarding costuming endeavor has been working at the Renaissance Faires since I am a costume historian as well and love working on reproductions and recreations. Unfortunately, in addition to being a strictly seasonal position, the Renaissance Faire does not offer much in the way of a living wage or benefits.

Currently, I am teaching fashion design in Nashville, TN, but I am dying to get back into a costume shop!,, and IATSE have all been sorely lacking in costume craft/costume historian opportunities and I am wondering if you'd have any insight on a better resource for craft work.

First off, in terms of a good employer, it's like dating—you have to put yourself out there, then you have to freelance in a few places, and it'll be clear which places might be a good fit for you and which you don't want to accept a contract at. Every shop has different facilities and managerial structures and the like. For myself, I've found that I prefer being the lead crafter running the shop—I'm a good assistant in that I have a wide skill set and can do or learn to do most anything asked of me, but I have a hard time not "going my own way" when I see what I think is a more efficient way to get something done, and that can be a problem when you aren't the one supposed to decide those things! In contrast, I had an assistant once who never wanted to be a lead crafts artisan—she preferred to have some direction and less responsibility, and she was a brilliantly skilled artisan. I think unfortunately as well, you have to have a nomadic bent—you will do best, starting out at least, if you are willing to pick up and move where the jobs are. There are tons of opportunities all over the place, but you have to be able to go to the work; the work rarely comes to you.

Obviously the "entertainment center" cities of NYC and LA are great for craftspeople, in terms of there being tons of work. Unfortunately, they also come with metropolitan issues like high rents, pollution, high costs of living, etc. If you love big-city life, excellent. I can give you a list of LA & NYC shops depending on your interest (Hats? Masks? Dyeing? A little of everything? West cost vs. east coast?) Luckily though, for those who don't fancy either place, great craftsperson jobs can be found in smaller cities around the country if you know where to look. Besides the obvious options of LORT theatre and university shops, one major employer of craftspeople that provides a range of fun projects is professional children's theatre: Children's Theatre of Minneapolis and Childsplay Theatre of Tempe AZ are two of the better-known ones. IMO the pinnacle of independent craft shops—you might even call it "America's WETA"—is that of Michael Curry Design in Scappoose, OR. They built really amazing macropuppets for shows like The Lion King and Cirque de Soleil and the like. A third option is bighead/walkaround shops—essentially, the folks who do character costumes for sports team mascots, amusement parks, ad campaigns, etc. They can be found all over the country.

If you don't want to go to NYC or LA but you want to build up a good stable of freelance work, I'd advise going to a metropolitan area with a good amount of universities in residence and a local film industry (Chicago and Boston are good options) and sending your resume around to theatre departments, any independent shops or theatres, the resident ballet and opera companies, and any related industries such as leathersmith shops, retail/rental costume establishments that build on-site, local milliners, the local IATSE or film e-list folk, etc., because often crafters will take overhire outside the costuming industry in those areas and you can make some good contacts. Really, unfortunately, it's a matter of some shop manager giving you a break or needing crafters so badly that they take a chance on you—once you get into the work pool of a costuming "community," managers will recommend you to one another and you'll start getting calls. Or at least, that's been my experience.

And where do these jobs get posted? On ARTSEARCH primarily:

That is the main place that "serious" employers post their jobs. Local libraries should have the print version available, and most university drama departments and professional theatres have memberships to the online version as well.

Let me know if this has jogged any further questions, I'd be glad to go into more detail. And good luck!

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