Lend to each man enough/that one neede not lend to another.
I recently had the experience of turning down a job I had agreed to do because another opportunity presented itself. The first job, an opera, would have paid me $1800 for six weeks of my time, plus my travel and onsite housing expenses. They could provide a sewing machine and basic supplies, but they were currently in discussions as to which part of the lobby or rehearsal hall they could find space for an ironing board and a sewing machine. The job description included the design, alterations, maintenance, and then wardrobe run crew for a large opera, in addition to the oversight of the apprentice company production’s costume needs.
The second job offer, a teaching job, will pay me $5400 for nine weeks of my time, allows me to have my nights and weekends free, and lets me design my own curriculum for a roster of eager kids who want to learn how to make puppets and masks and props and costumes. It also allows me to take a smaller design job on the side, and gives me the chance to work with a friend whom I’ve been dying for an opportunity to collaborate with.
It was a no-brainer. I would have loved to go to an unfamiliar part of the country, work with some amazing new people, swim in the river, design my first opera. I would also like to eat more than just canned tuna every meal, and stop dodging collection calls from my student loan agency.
When I phoned the director, she understood completely, and urged me to contact the producer, who now has four months to find a replacement. When I contacted the producer, she questioned my “loyalty and integrity,” and asked the question “If everyone jumps ship for the next job, whether it be higher-paying or more prestigious, then how do you define ‘trust’?”
I’ve been swirling around Timon of Athens in my brain for months now. Sitting in a room listening to the actors try to unpack it, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the parallels to my own life, of the lives of the people in the room, of the lives of countless other people who have been impacted by the economic downturn.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the play: Timon of Athens is the nicest, richest dude in the city, surrounded by friends, giving lavish dinners and tossing off gifts and jewels to everyone he meets. In the very first scene, Timon meets a Poet and a Painter, two characters who are acutely aware that if the richest guy in town sees and likes their work, their own fortunes could take a drastic turn for the better.
At a wedding I attended recently, populated by many former theatre majors, I was struck by the number of times I had variants of the same conversation:
“So… remind me, what do you do again?”
“I’m a costume designer.”
“… No, but…. for money?”
I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t had a day job in years. I piece it together: Design jobs. Teaching jobs. Running-around-backstage jobs.
I have flexibility and options. I choose my own work hours. I accept or decline jobs as I see fit. I’m incredibly fortunate that my name and my work have permeated this community; I haven’t actively sought out design work in two years and offers still come my way. I work in my pajamas a lot. It’s glorious.
I am also, quite frankly, exhausted. Choosing my own hours is a synonym for choosing to work as many of them as my body and physics will allow. I accept as many jobs as I can, because I am terrified that there will not be another. I eat in my car more than I care to admit. At the end of this season, I will have designed 14 plays, two dance concerts, and one large-scale costumed gala, on top of marketing/web duties for the PAC, oddball stitching jobs, the occasional box office or wardrobe gig. I routinely work 70+ hour weeks. This year, I’ll make less money than I did as an apprentice.
You shall perceive/How you mistake my Fortunes: I am wealthie in my Friends.
In the second act, Timon’s lost everything. His personality shifts; he becomes an angry misanthrope, disavowing money entirely, railing against his former friends who would not bail him out when he needed it.
I was having coffee recently with an acquaintance, someone about my own age, another artist friend. I expressed that I had been feeling a little down about myself and my career lately. She looked shocked. “But… but you’re so successful. I mean, you work all the time. You’re booked so far in advance. That must be amazing.”
I was stunned. I feel like I’m constantly teetering on the brink of disaster, that all it will take is one more car repair or one more bounced check to put me into a tailspin. I’ve joked with friends in similar predicaments that we all have canned goods stocked up for just such times; the next time we all realize we have 87 cents to our name, at least we can pool our resources and cobble a stew together. I’ve been feeling nothing like a success. Yet in that moment, I saw myself the way that others might – young, constantly surrounded by art, challenged by my work, doing the exact thing that I had set out to achieve when I moved here nearly five years ago. That reality is wonderful. I’d like to exist there more often.
I must not break my back/to heale his finger.
The synopsis of Timon is pretty … well, basic, right? Guy gives his friends a bunch of money. He runs out of money and asks them to bail him out. They don’t. He loses his mind and runs off to the woods to curse the names of his false, flattering friends forever.
It doesn’t make the friends look so great.
At least, that’s what I thought until I sat in rehearsal, the harsh words from the opera producer still storming around my brain. I suddenly found myself sympathizing with the villains. The poet and the painter in this play can come across as kind of douchey. And yet I found myself understanding where they come from. Of course they’re hanging out near the rich folks, hoping they’ll see their work validated, hoping they’ll gain a scrap of recognition, a sale to a wealthy patron. It’s what artists have essentially done throughout history. It’s rooted in this gnarly power dynamic – the person who needs money is constantly and acutely aware of the person who can provide it. Art as a commodity. The artist as a product. It’s the perfect storm that leads to the kind of situation I described earlier – I jumped ship for a better opportunity, without thinking twice. I felt shitty about it. But I wanted to eat.
I’m no better than those fictional characters at all, actually.
There’s a nuance to this part of the process, and I have so much to learn. Everyone in this business has all kinds of advice, some useful, some confounding – Negotiate up for more money. Accept only jobs worth your time. You’re building a career, you have to say yes to every opportunity. Take fewer jobs and get something part-time and steady! Maybe you should just go back to school for awhile.
I don’t have the answers. But it’s reassuring to know that these aren’t new problems. If Shakespeare was writing about this 400 years ago – it means that artists have been asking these questions for literally hundreds of years. It means that there is a relevancy to producing this play, here and now. The language is different, but people have stayed pretty much the same. I don’t know if Shakespeare has the answers either, but if nothing else, it really helps to be in a room with other people focused on asking the same questions, muddling through it together, both onstage and off.
And hey, if anyone reading this has the answers to all these questions, give me a call sometime. I really would like to know if anyone else has figured this out. (Although … I can’t pay you for it right now. Will you take a check?)
Philadelphia Artists’ Collective
Katherine Fritz: Designing Timon of Athens, or, How to Feel Like a Complete Failure and Work Through It Anyways
I wear a lot of hats at the PAC. In addition to serving as the resident costume (and sometimes set and props) designer, I'm the web guru, postcard and graphic designer, co-marketing director, and apprentice coordinator. I haul platforms around, once drove a truck filled with lumber through rush-hour city traffic, and give curtain speeches at opening night, even though that part makes me incredibly anxious. I'm the one who keeps an eye on the blog, who assigns writers and makes sure that we have new content coming at regular intervals.
So the marketing director side of me is really about to kill the designer side of me. I had every intention of writing a blog about the design process for Timon of Athens, how I was inspired by the stark black and white photography of David Comdico, how the stunning architecture of Broad Street Ministry needs such little embellishment, how I looked for weeks at high fashion runways and greek peasants and avant-garde art films and jewelry designers, pouring all of those things into my brain and waiting for the design to emerge. The marketing director side of me likes to post things about how everything is great, how we're making art that we think is important, how joyful we all are to be in a room filled with like-minded people who just want to create and explore together.
And, okay, all of that is true. There's just more to the story than that.
A lot of people are familiar with the phrase "writer's block." It's true for designers, too. I did spend weeks looking at fashion spreads and at hammered gold bowls, drapey Moroccan curtains, gold headdresses, braided updos, guyliner. I read the play. I read the play again. I looked at pictures of the production I saw of Timon while I was in London this fall, trying to capture the essence of what I liked and disliked about their concept and version. I read the play again. More research. More research. More research.
And then I stared at a blank page on a blank desk. And stared at a blank wall. And drew things I hated, and erased until there were holes in the paper and eraser dust in my lungs.
Sometimes it's just not there. Sometimes when you stare at a blank page, you see endless possibility. Sometimes, you just see your own shortcomings and failure.
The best part about working with the PAC is that I'm in the company of some of the smartest, funniest, most thoughtful and insightful people I know. The worst part is that when I feel as if I can't keep up, I'm disappointing the smartest, funniest, most thoughtful and insightful people I know.
Read the play. Stare at the wall. Take a nap. Take a walk. Look at fabrics, rows and rows of fabrics, rolled on cardboard tubes and stacked on industrial shelves in fluorescent-lit warehouses, trying to imagine them cut and draped and shaped onto human forms, seeing only stubborn rectangles instead. I started giving myself ultimatums. Before I would go to sleep, I would think, "tomorrow you will wake up and you will be brilliant. Tomorrow you will wake up and this will all come together." I would wake up and think, "maybe I just need some coffee before I can be brilliant. Maybe I just need to eat a sandwich and check my email and then -- THEN! - this will make sense." And then I would fall asleep and think, "okay, so today it didn't happen. Tomorrow, though. Tomorrow, for certain. It's just that this is a new type of project for you. It's just new, that's all." And immediately before falling asleep, these swarming, nagging thoughts would whisper in my ear, Since when have you been afraid of trying something new? They gave way to something more insidious. Maybe, I would think, maybe it's just that you're no good at this. You're a hack, not an artist. Maybe you're failing simply because you are, in fact, a failure.
The day it turned around for me wasn't much different in many ways except - that day, a few weeks ago, I woke up, and sat down, and drew, and I didn't hate it, and I kept drawing, and I kept drawing, and I kept listening to music and pulled out my watercolors and oh, thank god, here we go, thank you. I kept drawing, I kept painting, three cups of coffee, four, let's just drink coffee all day. Finished those sketches in the Apple-Hodge guest room, locked myself in with some watercolors as the cast of Timon drank tea and laughed in the kitchen downstairs during an early pre-rehearsal workshop, hiding my sketchpad from Dan, still not ready to show him, just in case I woke up in the morning and hated it all still.
When I was younger, I had somehow imagined that when I worked, I would work in an airy, spacious office - the kind with tall ceilings and exposed brick and vintage dressmakers' dummies and fancy paper and watercolors at a moment's notice. I'd be the kind of designer who wore scarves and whose earrings jangled in the breeze that would seep through the fifth-floor sunny windows. The reality is that I work in a pair of men's paint-splattered sweatpants I stole from costume storage of a play I designed years ago, in a small room in my South Philly rowhome; I haven't plucked my eyebrows in a week and I didn't shower this morning and my hand is smudged with graphite and I must have scratched an itch because there's a smudge of violent violet pigment just under my right earlobe. Here's the thing: the reality of what I do is probably vastly more productive, dare I say more interesting, than the fantasy. While we all want to create our work in a cabin overlooking a waterfall atop a beautiful mountain, the reality is that the work has to get done, be it from a coffee shop or from our basement or from a corner of a good friend's spare room. And - dare I say? - maybe that's because I work better like this. Maybe I need to see the good side of not having that cabin in the mountains or the spacious office. I'd be willing to bet even the people with those things have weeks like this too, where even the nicest environments and the best tools don't spare them from similarly frustrating experiences.
Because here's the craziest part of all - I finished the drawings, and I presented them to the cast, and I could feel my own excitement bubbling up as I narrated. All the stuff that had seemed really cool to me in the beginning that then I couldn't get inspired by? It now seems really, really cool again. My basement is filled with thrift-store sandals and drapey Greek tunics and bolts of muslin. I have all the ingredients assembled in front of me, in my cramped and decidedly unglamorous basement workspace.
And now? Now the real work begins. Time to actually turn into reality what I struggled to put on paper. It's possible I'll still fail, that I'll get to tech, see the clothes on real bodies in real space, put my head in my hands, let those voices creep back in, you failure, you hack. Or maybe - just maybe this time - I'll have one of those shows where I see my work and it honestly fills me with delight, that I created a world from nothing and put it in a room for people to see. I hope it's the latter. And I hope you come talk to me about it. I'd love to talk to you.
Artistic Associate, Philadelphia Artists' Collective
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