The Design Dilemma
With so many academic programs cranking out new designers, what exactly are we training them for—and how?
Moderated with an introduction by Richard Isackes
When I was in graduate school in the early ’70s, it was assumed that our class of designers would be heading to one of three professional destinations: Broadway, regional theatre, or college and university teaching. Although Broadway at the time was at a low ebb, some of us packed up our freshly honed design skills and headed off to New York. What most of us discovered was that the possibility of becoming one of a tiny handful of designers making a living on Broadway was remote.
| Related Links:
The Designer as Thinker, a roundtable with 6 designer-educators (American Theatre)
They’ve Got the Look, an interview with Thomas Lynch, Peter Kaczorowski and Martin Pakledinaz (American Theatre)
Design and the Bottom Line by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (American Theatre)
Luckily for my generation, the so-called regional-theatre movement was just coming into its own, thanks at least in part to the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the promise that every city in America would have its own professional theatre with a resident company—and presumably a set of resident designers. What was not so lucky was that these positions for the most part never materialized—and that the not-for-profit theatre would ultimately make it a practice to offer designers incomes near the poverty line and a life lived in motel rooms.
Many of us without personal fortunes migrated to other areas of the entertainment industry, like film and television, destinations for which we had received little or no training. Those of us who were committed to working in live theatre figured out sooner or later that jobs in colleges and universities not only offered decent salaries and benefits but in most cases encouraged us to continue parallel careers in the professional regional theatre—a sector that to an increasing degree was supported either directly or indirectly by colleges and universities. Luckily there was an exponential growth in these academic positions during the ’70s and ’80s, and these appointments have sustained a large number of professional designers and allowed them to work in the theatre. Of course our graduate training had never anticipated that we might become teachers as well as designers, so since we received no instruction on how to teach, our teaching tended to replicate the teaching of our teachers.
The reality for my current students is that Broadway remains for most an unrealistic destination. And the market for design jobs in nonprofit and educational theatre has become saturated as more and more master of fine arts degrees are awarded by an increasing number of colleges and universities. The good news is that (while some traditional job destinations are not on the rise, and some in fact are shrinking) many new destinations have emerged that were never anticipated when I was a student. Positions in film and television production, while still highly competitive, have increased. With the dramatic growth of independent production promoted by digital equipment and the decentralization of the industry, film in particular is in many ways easier to break into for young designers than it was in the ’70s. Additionally, whole areas of production have come online that were either nascent or not yet invented in those years: theme parks, music videos, the gaming industry, cruise ships and other related areas.
All this leads me to ask some fundamental questions about the current state of professional training for designers in the U.S.: Are the teachers of today teaching design in very much the same way that they were taught, or have new teaching methodologies been developed that are more responsive to the changing nature of the profession? Is there an increased interest in developing curricula that deal with the broader skills demanded by the larger entertainment industry, or do we still focus most of our teaching on the skills of traditional theatre? How do we as designers view the relationship between the academy and the profession and the dual role that many of us play in that relationship? How do we feel about the number of MFA and BFA students matriculating into the profession every year? Have we created too great a supply for too little demand? Finally, what kind of future do we envision for our students, and how are we responding to that future in our professional training?
I know that I have contested many of my own assumptions about both teaching and theatremaking over the past several years. My colleagues and I at the University of Texas have rigorously reorganized how and what we teach our students in an attempt to respond to the very different professional world that they will inherit. But, like many others around the country, we do much of this thinking in comparative isolation. There has not been a national forum in which these issues are regularly discussed. Outside of Ming’s Clambake, held in New York City every year, and the University/Resident Theatre Association auditions, we rarely see one another, and those forums have other agendas that do not afford formal discourse.
Consequently, I was delighted when American Theatre magazine called with the suggestion that we convene a panel of distinguished design educators to talk about some of these issues. What follows is the edited transcript of that conversation.
Our contributors include Neil Peter Jampolis of University of California–Los Angeles; Marjorie Bradley Kellogg of Colgate University; Thomas Lynch of the University of Washington; Susan Tsu of Carnegie Mellon University; and Michael Yeargan from Yale University. All are distinguished designers and teachers. Beyond the fact that their commentary was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, I was once again reminded of the fundamental generosity of my colleagues in their willingness to undertake an assignment such as this.
RICHARD ISACKES: Fewer and fewer of the students graduating from design training programs are choosing to go into live theatre. Many are opting for careers in film, television or computer games. How do your programs respond to this growing range of options?
MICHAEL YEARGAN: In terms of the way that it’s influenced us at Yale, I would say that we’re not really doing anything that differently. We still follow the Ming Cho Lee and Donald Oenslager techniques of teaching: We’ve always felt it’s best, before you can move on to other things, to learn how to get inside a play and how to produce an environment for that play.
We’ve found that as our students get out into the world, all of them are deeply involved on the computer. We still stress hand drafting, but most of them are finding their way into AutoCAD or VectorWorks, even though we don’t teach it. They can take an elective in the technical department. We’re talking now about starting to do some courses at the end of the year for people who are overwhelmed by what they have to do during the school year, and who have an interest in staying behind and concentrating on AutoCAD, figure drawing, watercolor or other specific kinds of courses. And we have now shifted an entire semester into film and television work. Every other summer we make a feature film with students, which has been a terrific opportunity.
MARJORIE BRADLEY KELLOGG: We have film and television workshops for our students with our alumni.
NEIL PETER JAMPOLIS: We have a program at UCLA in collaboration with Disney in which our students develop designs for clubs, restaurants, rides, interactive games and so forth. Disney occasionally buys them or hires the students after they’re done on the basis of their showing.
Do you think that the theatre-focused training that they get at Yale will prepare them for any kind of design work?
YEARGAN: I really do. I think that if you have that sense of designing for the theatre—that ability to think about how words are turned into visual imagery—it feeds you.
JAMPOLIS: Our program is entirely aimed at the theatre. There are classes in production design, but they’re only occasional. When my students leave with their theatre training, the best of them seem to wind up in film and television. But I know from personal experience, and from years of these students leaving me and going into really good jobs as designers in film, that theatre training for the film business is the gold standard.
THOMAS LYNCH: I know that we educators ask ourselves: What will our students be doing after three years of graduate study? Not only how will they be making a livelihood, but also what will be fulfilling to them after that time? How do you combine those two things: making a livelihood that is suitable to them, and also finding a way of using their native artistic expressiveness?
I would totally agree with both of you that the training should focus on taking a text and finding the visual imagery that is going to illuminate or express it. Any of the other media that students may be going into—film or television particularly—are about telling stories, too.
SUSAN TSU: I was a student at Carnegie Mellon, and now I’m teaching there. Right now we are both old-fashioned and striking out onto new ground at the same time. When I was a student, theatre was the only way. Anybody who even remotely thought they wanted to go to Los Angeles, we thought of as, you know, selling their souls. Our students are pretty much split half and half now between New York and Los Angeles; there’s a smattering of kids that go into regional theatres.
I am really old-fashioned where process is concerned: research and exploration, and learning who you are as a person and why this particular play is something that would be important to do in this day and age. But one of the things that I’m excited about—and I think it’s about time at Carnegie Mellon, with the kind of focus that we have in computer technology and robotics—is that we have just hired Marianne Weems, the artistic director of the Builders Association, to head up our directing program. We think she’s quite visionary in creating a kind of theatre where the designer is as empowered in the storytelling, even if it is multimedia storytelling, as is the playwright or the actor.
KELLOGG: I don’t worry about them learning the technical skills. These kids really know how to access the technology. They play it; they use it in other classes. I had a student just recently whose ground plan was destroyed when somebody else got glue all over it. What he did was teach himself the computer program SketchUp, literally overnight, and produce a three-dimensional view of his project, much to the admiration of the other kids in his class. If they need to learn a CAD [computer-aided design] program, they’ll learn it. But the process of thinking out text and translating it into images—interpretation, all of that—is not something they get anywhere else. It’s not part of the culture in the way technology is. I think we want to teach them how to think and how to look.
LYNCH: All of us are often presented with the question from a 22-year old: Should I go to school or should I just work? There is not an easy answer. But what you just said is in fact an advertisement for academic training: You’re in a situation with the luxury to investigate and grow that artistic part of yourself, learning how to make those visual connections.
JAMPOLIS: What we’re teaching requires an intellectual rigor; once that rigor is instilled, learning all of the adjunct skills necessary to move into television or film or whatever becomes very easy. Imagination can be given expression through the tools that we teach.
KELLOGG: My students are essentially passive in their cultural habits. Their habit is to receive rather than to interpret and give. The hardest thing for them is to actually have an opinion.
YEARGAN: When you receive a play as a first-year student and you go away and face that blank piece of paper, you’ve got a lot swimming around in your mind. What you put down, that first concept, is based on what your experiences have been up to that time.
TSU: I sometimes find the students have so many ideas that it is difficult for them to edit. More often than not, they’re asked to meet with a group of other people and collectively come up with a direction. The editing is never an easy thing either for them, or for me to help them with. I just end up asking them lots of questions.
LYNCH: Without a rounder education and without some rounder life experience, finding a way to edit is like trying to track down a tree in a forest. You can’t make a path. You can’t judge one thing against another. There’s not enough overall information. When students begin to make those editorial, intense, artistic choices, what level of preparedness are they coming with? We could cut to the chase and say that often the preparedness is not what we would hope it would be.
JAMPOLIS: I teach both graduate students and undergraduates. The undergraduates are in a rather rigorous B.A. program here at UCLA. I must say that their imaginations and their immediate responses to design problems are much more interesting and come much more fluently than those of the graduate students. I think it’s because the graduate students often want to bring some kind of practical application of what they’ve learned. Whereas the undergraduates are currently taking all kinds of classes that are fertilizing their minds and keeping them agile, so they can jump right in with better opinions, better critiques, without the bad habits.
TSU: I agree. I came to CMU from the University of Texas, where we had separate undergrad and graduate classes. I thought I would hate the combination that was in place at CMU. Actually, I learned that I loved it because the undergrads have not formed any preconceived notion of parameters: Everything is possible. Whereas the graduate students are coming with some hesitation and feelings of limitations, and it takes a good year and a half sometimes to break through that.
Some designers who are also teachers say they’d prefer if there were no BFAs in design—only graduate programs. What do you think: Should there be undergraduate programs for design?
KELLOGG: You can have programs, but maybe not such a deep concentration as a BFA.
JAMPOLIS: It should be a major or a component within a B.A. program rather than a BFA conservatory program.
LYNCH: Frankly, I get very weary of having a program for undergraduates where they’re so focused on theatre that they’re missing a rounder education. There’s not a time again in their lives when they will have a chance to get that rounded education.
Individuals becoming artists should be asked to think in terms of criticism of the past, criticism of literature, and critique of philosophies. Be exposed to what has happened in physics, in math. Without a sense of world history, the artist is hamstrung. I feel strongly that students who skip that step in an education aren’t as strong or creative as individuals as they might be.
KELLOGG: True. These are, after all, the building blocks of our work. All of that culture. All of those images. That’s what we draw on to create an idea for a play and without that, the ideas are doomed to be derivative.
TSU: I’m a heretic teaching at a conservatory program because in my heart of hearts, I honestly believe that the more well-rounded a human being you are, the more interesting you are. At Carnegie, we have the opportunity to make either a tighter or a looser program with the undergraduate students. I am vying for loosening it up even more.
YEARGAN: How do you loosen it?
TSU: We have riches in the university that are untapped. By tapping into them I have seen people begin to create theatre that is different than anything we’ve seen before. For instance, we have an entertainment technology center that Randy Pausch was instrumental in forming, which is not just about gaming. They partner with professional groups and bring together computer scientists and artists. At the same time, we have a really interesting robotics program and computer-science kids. There’s a bridge from the Gates Center for Computer Science into our building—literally, a bridge between technology and the arts. I’m really excited about what that can create. Because I do feel that after we provide what I consider the foundation of serious examination of text and so on, that students show us the forms they can come up with.
Curriculum aside, I want to invite everybody to think about how you teach differently than how you were taught.
JAMPOLIS: The way I teach is to try to identify a talent within my students and to nurture it rather than being prescriptive. My training was very much, "This is how it’s done and you won’t get the grade unless you do it somewhat like this"—but I found that stultifying. I try to act as a coach and get the best out of the student rather than forcing him or her into a mold.
KELLOGG: I feel that the time I have with my students is best spent on the things that are the hardest for them to learn. Perhaps they don’t end up as polished as a result, but their thinking has undergone a complete change.
TSU: I was trained in a way where we worked very quickly and we didn’t always do whole plays. I’m really not for that, because I think that the sound-bite quality of what can come out of that is not as useful as trying to build a strong sense of process. In my own work I have found that if I haven’t become a mini-expert and really absorbed things, the work that comes out isn’t deep. I want the students to examine things deeply.
LYNCH: The way that that I teach, I would say, certainly owes a great deal to the way that I was taught. Donald Oenslager, Ming Cho Lee and Michael Yeargan’s curriculum. In that first year the projects come at a rather fast pace to the students.
We go on to a much slower rhythm after that. At the University of Washington, our in-classroom training is integrated with productions, particularly in the second and third years. We have the lighting, costume and scenic students together for the major critique day, and all the lighting faculty. Everyone’s presenting all the time, different projects and at different levels of completion. What becomes possible in a class with mixed experience is very interesting peer critique which, added to the faculty-to-student critique, is a bit different from my own training.
When I was in graduate school with Susan, I remember being fearful of going to critique sessions. What I often did was try to please the teacher. That modality of critique was fairly widespread at that time. Is that still the case today?
JAMPOLIS: If someone has been designing to what they think I want, I call them on it. I want to turn out individuals.
YEARGAN: I know that when I started at Yale with Ming, his was such a recognizable style and everyone was trying to emulate that, and he was screaming at us not to. I feel that design today has become so much more eclectic.
JAMPOLIS: When I first came to UCLA about 17 years ago, I would look at a graduate student’s first project and say, "Did your teacher go to Yale?" Because they were Ming’s grandchildren. I don’t see that anymore.
There’s a tension here, of course: Clearly a natural part of any learning process is imitation. On the other hand, we want students to find an original voice, to find their own aesthetic. However, I sometimes wonder if, in the teaching process, we put too much emphasis on originality. Are there certain things that have slipped into your teaching, specifically, that may be different than the way that you were taught, that really attempt to deal with this issue of individual aesthetic?
TSU: There are two things that I do differently now. Both have to do with exposing students to the wide world. On the undergraduate level I have students researching artists, designers, installation artists, photographers and architects. They give reports, bringing in images to share. The other thing that I do is try to get them to study abroad.
Marjorie, you work primarily with undergraduates. I wonder if you see this issue in a different way.
KELLOGG: A very different way, since I work with non-conservatory graduates and I probably have the least trained and least aware students of any of us. I’m also probably the one person in this conversation who didn’t go to grad school.
JAMPOLIS: No, I didn’t either.
KELLOGG: The reason I bring that up is it means that when I talk about my training, I’m essentially talking about my undergraduate training and then my apprenticeship as an assistant. Of course the latter is very much a part of training, but it’s a much less formalized structure.
Do you include reading and or writing assignments as part of your teaching?
YEARGAN: We do. I don’t ask for a kind of extensive scholarly piece, but I require all students to keep a running chronicle of what they’re doing. It can be a visual or a written journal, but I find that when they actually begin to put words on paper as opposed to just pictures, the pictures get a lot more interesting. But we also feel that when we see notebooks full of writing and no drawing, it’s kind of an excuse because they’re afraid to draw.
TSU: I find it’s very useful for students to keep journals that have both writing and drawings. Our undergrads do more writing than the graduate students in that way.
JAMPOLIS: I ask the students to imagine a time before e-mail. I tell them the director they are working for is at his summer house and that they must write a long description in epistolary form of what they hope to do with the design and why. I also tell them it’s their chance to establish a rapport with the director. I get the most wonderful kinds of letters—though I get some dumb ones, too.
KELLOGG: One of the great helps writing can offer is at the front of the project where they’re starting to formulate ideas. When you start to sketch, your sketching is usually—or mine is, at any rate—pretty vague and stupid. If I’ve actually written something down first, the next step is clearer and more focused.
When I left graduate school in the ’70s, there was a clear division between those who went into teaching and those who worked in the profession. Now this distinction has eroded. Why?
JAMPOLIS: If I’m interviewing someone for graduate school and I ask, "Why do you want to go to graduate school?" and they say, "Because I want to be able to teach," they get crossed off my list instantly. I’m not interested in training teachers. I’m interested in training designers who may—after they have learned enough about life and design by working at it—want to offer what they’ve learned to other people.
TSU: I feel like we barely have enough time to teach them what we can as far as the art and craft of design is concerned. Designers are smart people. They know how to plan in advance, know how to organize other people—skills that transfer to what you need to be a good teacher.
LYNCH: We’re not going to have pedagogy classes. But on the other hand if the student is seeing an example of good teaching, then there is already a built-in class on teaching.
I would add that for many years I had great doubt about teaching, particularly within this field, because there are so many programs turning out so many students for whom there is not necessarily a professional spot when they’re out of graduate school.
TSU: We have a difficult problem tied up with the fear students entering the work force have about the loans they have to pay back. Lots of young people going into teaching may not actually have that as their first choice.
KELLOGG: In liberal arts colleges, you’re going to get people teaching who have not ever done any theatre outside of the academic world. I think it’s inevitable. I don’t know how you fix that. I don’t think that training designers to teach is going to bring that understanding into the academy.
LYNCH: If you follow that proposition along, then those teachers who might never have worked anywhere but within an academic setting are teaching students who might go directly into an academic setting, and so forth. The product of that work—whether it’s writing, designing, directing—is going to be so diluted that you almost want to say, "Stop, just don’t." It’s not something we want to look forward to culturally.
KELLOGG: If we push the notion that a few years of work in the profession are critical before a designer should even consider teaching, it might discourage our students from running right back to the academy.
Based on a survey Mike Lawler did for his book Careers in Technical Theater (Allworth Press, 2007), there are now nearly 130 institutions offering degrees (both BFA and MFA programs) in design and technical production in the U.S. Are there too many?
KELLOGG: When we started out there were a half a dozen.
JAMPOLIS: At the most. But at the risk of sounding like the political party that is on its way out, I think that the free market will decide this question. At a certain point, there’s going to be a tremendous oversupply, and these programs will shut themselves down because there’s nowhere for students to go afterward. That’s what I think will happen.
What I’m concerned about is the number of MFA students that this country produces who are not being trained for alternative employment. I don’t think there’s any other market for them except colleges and universities.
YEARGAN: I think that the same kind of technology that’s creating these other markets is going to appeal equally, sometimes more so, to these people who are graduating from these lesser-known programs, for want of a better phrase.
KELLOGG: We started this discussion talking about whether our programs should be directing our curricula more toward these industries, and we kind of decided not—but you don’t want to keep them unaware of the range of possibilities.
JAMPOLIS: No, but what I’m saying is you start an ancillary program. At UCLA we have film, theatre, television and digital media. There’s lots of cross-fertilization. We’re not keeping them apart. But we do say that we’re not going to soften the training of theatre design. We’re going to keep that as it was and let them add on to it.
YEARGAN: I think for anybody that goes through a design program and really loves design, there is going to be a fire to design, whether you’re designing for a community theatre, for Broadway, for opera.
KELLOGG: One of the things we can do as teachers is to avoid any kind of snobbery that limits people’s enthusiasms for what theatre might be available to them.
After our roundtable discussion was over, I was left with the echo of unresolved tensions surrounding some of the basic assumptions about graduate design training in America. While everyone agrees that live theatre is still the best medium for teaching all applications of performance design, there was a recognition that fewer and fewer students are actually going into live theatre. Top graduate programs look for students with broad liberal arts educations but also want students with highly developed skills. The major employment site for designers who want to work in live theatre is the academy, and yet there is a reluctance to train designers specifically for this destination. Although there has been a revolution in how teaching is implemented in many parts of the university, most educators in design still teach in the manners by which they were taught.
There are, of course, no simple resolutions to any of these issues. One thing seems clear to me, however: There is a hunger among this group of design teachers, at least, to reflect and share ideas on our teaching, our role in the academy, and how that relationship influences and is influenced by the profession at large. I suspect that this hunger is widespread.
Richard M. Isackes holds the Joanne Sharpe Crosby Chair in Design and Technology at the University of Texas, where he served as chair of the department from 1998 to 2006. He has designed extensively in both the nonprofit theatre and opera.
Neil Peter Jampolis has designed scenery, lighting and costumes for the theatre, dance and opera on every continent. His most recent major work includes lighting the Metropolitan Opera’s Iphigenie en Tauride and the San Francisco Ballet’s new Paganini. Since 1975 he has been the designer for Pilobolus Dance Theatre. He is distinguished professor of theatre at UCLA, where he has taught for the past 16 years.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s Broadway credits include Any Given Day, the George C. Scott revival of On Borrowed Time, Lucifer’s Child starring Julie Harris, American Buffalo with Al Pacino, Da, Requiem for a Heavyweight, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Steaming and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Kellogg has worked for a wide range of not-for-profit theatres and has taught at Princeton University and Columbia University, and has been associate professor of design at Colgate University since 1995.
Thomas Lynch is professor in scenic design at the University of Washington and previously taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His designs for Broadway, Off Broadway, international opera, national tours and London West End have most recently included the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda featuring Renee Fleming, the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Susan Stroman’s long-running Contact and the dance musical Swing!. He has produced more than 200 designs in major American resident theatres and received an Obie Award for sustained excellence in 1999.
Susan Tsu has worked in most of the major LORT theatres for more than 35 years. She has designed costumes for theatre, opera and television, including the award-winning musical Godspell and The Joy Luck Club. A former member of the board of directors for Theatre Communications Group, she co-curated the national and student exhibits for the 2007 Prague Quadrennial and is the artistic director for USITT-USA-PQ 2011. Tsu is a professor of costume design at Carnegie Mellon University.
Michael H. Yeargan is a professor of stage design at Yale School of Drama and is a resident designer for Yale Repertory Theatre. He has designed extensively in American resident theatres and on Broadway and for opera companies throughout the U.S. and Europe, with designs for the Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Covent Garden, Frankfurt Opera and Australian Opera. His scenic designs for Broadway, including South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza, have won Tony Awards.