Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reflections on Vendors, Designers, and Theatre

Heartbreak House
Seth Brogan published a blog entry today called Talent and Vendors.  It was an interesting ditty about the difference between how one treats a "vendor" and a "talent".  It reminded me of my experiences in my theatrical past.  This post is written in the hopes that others who might be working in a collaborative artistic position that is also hierarchical in nature (like being a designer for a company) might find it useful.

In my work as a costume designer, I often lamented work situations where I found myself providing a "product" for show producers that didn't really know what I did or how I did it.  Sure, they had a rudimentary understanding of my job, but little knowledge of how things specifically got done, nor the amount of time it took to accomplish things.

But part of what they paid me for was taking responsibility for those aspects of the theatrical production, so "making them aware" of what went into costuming was a moot point.  Consequently, I often found myself doing the job of several people which would have traditionally been distributed among different positions on a costuming team.  The scale of the theatrical endeavors that I worked on didn't usually allow for more paid hands, and simply put: I was it.  If I didn't do it, it wouldn't get done.

This was complicated by different directors and actors having a wide variety of working relationships with theatrical designers--some wanted a "gofer", some wanted a technician, some wanted a visualizer.  Most didn't know how to explain what they wanted in clothing or sewing terms, so it was up to me to actualize the ideas they had in their heads.  I inevitably found myself trying to read their minds, providing endless choices and options so I could prompt a better understanding of what they were trying to express through the characters and the production.  So much for designing.

I think a lot of creative people experience this with their bosses, regardless of their field:  Throw something at the wall and see if it sticks!

In time, I sometimes found myself feeling like a "costume vending machine", where a producer puts money in and a director pushes buttons to get what they desire from a field of choices at hand.  I felt the roots of my education slowly evaporate beneath me as my hard learned skills in color theory, history, the elements of art, principles of design, and textual analysis were shunted aside in favor of my professional connections to those who owned costume collections and my familiarity with malls, thrift stores, or website resources.  It became a race to provide options for others to make choices.  And I slowly let myself degenerate from a collaborator to a facilitator.  When I finally realized I had done that to myself, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  What was I doing?  Is this what I had set out to do?

Six Characters in Search of an Author
I finally realized that perhaps I simply don't have the temperament to be a costume designer.  Unfortunately, it took me a long, long time to figure that out.

So now I'm trying a different kind of expression that isn't as collaborative, where I am solely responsible for making the design decisions and the actualization (and consequently must deal with the ramifications on my own).  There is a great luxury in working with others in a group artistic expression--you are not alone if it turns out to be a piece of crap.  But for me, I felt like I wasn't doing my best work.  I wasn't contributing what I could.  I wasn't doing what I was educated to do.

So then comes Mr. Brogan and his blog post.  And I realized there is a huge difference between working with an artist and working with a vendor.  A vendor doesn't approach their work in the same way.  They aren't interested in the expression as much as they are interested in the logistics.  Mr. Brogan says a vendor, "is agnostic about what's being sold, and is focused on volume, or at least consistency."  It hit me that my directors may have sometimes seen me more as a vendor than an artist.  I'm not sure I presented myself in the way I wanted to be accepted.

Don't let yourself descend into an artistic quagmire like I did.  Make sure you know the situation that you're getting into...  So much of our work culture has commoditized artistic expression as a product in and of itself, where creativity on demand is the norm.  It's important that as an artist you know you're stepping into those circumstances.

Your boss may not know what you do, and may not care to.  Your creative output may be a product to them.  Therefore--

The Illusion
1) It's important to personally acknowledge your creative contributions as a means to an end, and not invest yourself entirely in particular artistic choices others may not love as much as you do.  Fall in love with the possibilities, and don't eliminate alternatives.

2) It's important that you develop the skills and language to articulate why you've made the choices you've made so you aren't just practicing deference and leaving it up to someone else to make the decisions.  You know what you're doing--believe in yourself enough to be able to explain yourself if necessary.

3) Develop people skills and learn how to interpret the verbal cues that are expressed by your clients or supervisors.  It's important that you not spend all your time struggling to understand what someone wants--you need to figure that out quickly so you can move on to the creative act of actually doing the art.  And if extended conversations are anticipated in order to reach a mutual vision, you may have to plan for that as part of the process.

Most of the directors I worked with were of two camps--they either wanted a lot of conversations to figure out what they wanted as they talked it out, or they wanted very few conversations and had very specific ideas about what would work appropriately and what wouldn't.  The former took a lot of time and planning, the latter required less contribution and more facilitating from the designers.

Bed and Sofa
The best directors expressed an interest in how the nature of collaboration worked by using methods and systems of conversation that provided structure to the design discussions--games and interactive tools (for example) that focused the dialogue toward constructive and concrete decisions that then allowed work to be accomplished.  The worst directors didn't know what they wanted until they didn't see it, or until it was way to late in the process to do anything about it.  Riddled with hesitancy, those experiences were ultimately nightmares to work on as the bulk of the work came very late in the process, and placed everyone in reactionary mode that was uncreative, uninteresting, and unprofessional.

Don't let yourself become a vendor if that's not what you were expecting and you don't want to be.  There are ways to prevent it before it's too late.

Because life is too short to do something you don't want to do.

Live Life with Relish.

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