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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