How These Tony-Nominated Designers Started Out

Tony Awards   What Was Your First Job in the Business? From designing their high school productions to painting flats for their mentors, the 2016 Tony-nominated designers for lighting, scenic and costume design reveal where they got their start.
Designers First HR

Breaking into the theatre industry is a tough task. For actors, the path to the stage happens through auditions (open calls, video submissions, an agent booking an appointment, etc.). What if you want to work behind the scenes? This year’s Tony-nominated designers for scenic, costume and lighting design recall the jobs that started their theatrical careers. Take note.

BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A PLAY
Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin
When I was a high school senior in Gettysburg, PA, I convinced my English teacher, Mrs. Purdy, that I ought to design the set for the school play, Barefoot in the Park. The next year, when I was a freshman at Vassar, she hired me to come home and design the set for Man of La Mancha. I built it, mostly out of cardboard, over my spring break with two friends, who I also suckered into giving up their spring breaks. The school paid me $100, but it was my first "professional" design. To this day, I have a soft spot for idealistic ’60s musicals and dreaming impossible dreams.

Christopher Oram, Hughie
My first real job was actually my college graduation project, a community production of the Bernstein mass in Worthing, a small town on the south coast of England. It featured a cast of professional singers as the soloists, and a large company of local people as the ensemble, I designed both the large unit set and the 100 or so costumes.

After graduation though, I moved to London, and worked for several years as an assistant to more established designers, where I learned about working on other (smaller!) scales, on many varying productions. During this time I met director Michael Grandage, and began a long standing creative partnership that perseveres to this day. He directed this production of Hughie.

I tend to design both set and costumes, as I feel they are two aspects of the same world and I like to consider them visually as a ‘whole.’ It is generally standard practice for designers in the U.K.

David Zinn, The Humans
Gosh, my first, like...paid job? As a designer? I had just graduated from NYU and my (still) dear friend Susan Fenichell—who I had met while interning at a theatre in Seattle while I was still in high school—hired me to design the costumes for the wonderful Timberlake Wertenbaker play The Graece of Mary Traverse. A couple of weeks before I was supposed to head out there, the set designer quit, and Susan asked if I could take over set-design duty as well, which I was happy to. It was a fortuitous set of circumstances that set in motion my life as a set and costume designer, my love of the clothes and architecture of the 18th century and the extraordinary kindness of my friends.

Jan Versweyveld, A View From the Bridge
[I started at the] beginning of the ’80s in Antwerp, Belgium. Abandoned warehouse. Ivo van Hove’s first self-written play called “Rumors.” It is about a guy in his early 20s turning psychotic and how his family and other people around him react to that. I was part of a group of students at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts and bored by the one-sided, classical education. We decided to do something more exciting. There was no money, but a strong urge to create a theatrical event. Everything I did to create an environment for the play I had to pay for myself, so I had to be very efficient. I figured that the best way to transform the space was by the use of light. I bought as many fluorescent tubes as I could afford and started to hang them in the space. My first light design.

This experience changed my life. As a scenographer-in-the-making, I came to the realization that light is space and space is light. But even more important, I learned that working together with a group of like-minded people results in much more than the sum of each individual effort. At that moment I understood that theatre is a beautiful art form consisting of a complex collaboration between artists of different disciplines.


BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Finn Ross, American Psycho (nominated with Es Devlin)
My first paying job I was a lighting technician at Riverside Studios in London, which is now part of the rubble unfortunately. But that was sort of theatre and television studios, and I kind of worked there because the woman who was the technical director of the studios had been working on a project I had been working on as a student. She asked me if I could come in to do some electrical testing on some equipment. Then I just sort of didn’t leave for a very long time. It was there that I learned much more of that lighting programming and control desks, which then moved [me] over to doing video programming and working for video designers at the time and making their work happen and eventually moved into doing my own work.

David Korins, Hamilton
When I moved to New York, I assisted on a lot of different shows. Fully Committed, interestingly enough, the original Fully Committed, I was the associate set designer and the painter of that show in its very first incarnation. It’s kind of, like, elegant and lovely that it’s here on Broadway again, so that’s kind of cool.

David Rockwell, She Loves Me
My very first job was when I was an architecture student in London. I came to New York for the summer, I called up Jules Fisher—who I knew from research—and said, “I’d like to work in the theatre.” He referred me to Roger Morgan, who had just lit Dracula with Frank Langella and I was a glorified assistant, coffee-getter, draftsman for Roger Morgan. I took off a year from architecture school and continued studying in architecture and in theatre. So that was my first invitation, and it couldn’t have been better.

Santo Loquasto, Shuffle Along…
My first season at The Williamstown Theatre was 1965, not a festival in those days. I had secured a position as an assistant to the resident designers. The season had been amazing and brutal in its demands, and the designers were burnt out, and there still remained Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be designed. How hard could that be? It fell to me, and I, of course, leapt at the opportunity, my first professional design assignment. (A few photos remain as a reminder of my humbling beginning.)


BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A PLAY
Jane Greenwood, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
When I was a costume design student at the Central School in London, I was sent to work part time for Frank Winter, a theatrical milliner. I was given pagoda hats to work on for the grand finale of the pantomime, Aladdin On Ice. I was put in a corner with a needle and thread. Each pagoda hat had three tiers with five points on each tier. I had to sew a bell on to each point. There were 44 pagoda hats. When the dancers skated out onto the ice, the noise was deafening. The director turned to the designer and said, "The bells have to go." In theatre, if something doesn't work, change it. But when it does work, it's wondrous.

Michael Krass, Noises Off
Very early on, I was assisting William Ivey Long. He taught with the legendary Robert Moss at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School of NYU, and during a faculty meeting Bob asked William who he should use to design his summer season at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. Generously, William suggested me, and every job I’ve ever had leads back to that single moment.

[I got into costume design because] in college, I’d seen the designer Carrie Robbins speak about costume design. I’d had no training in it, but when I graduated and moved to New York, I called her. She told me to learn the city by working at one of the costume shops (I said, “What’s that?”) and gave me names. I interviewed, was not hired, sold children’s clothing for a month, then one day, bored out of my mind, called one of the shops back. They’d lost my number, were desperately looking for me (or someone) to shop, and I started the next Monday.

Clint Ramos, Eclipsed
My first job in theatre was as a street performer/stagehand. My job was to alternately hold up a ratty protest flag and an effigy doing political street theatre in Manila when I was in high school. It was dangerous and fun, and we would have to disperse before the riot police came. When I moved to America, my first job was gluing on sequins and glitter onto the then in Broadway-bound Beauty and the Beast costumes.... Extremes. Complete extremes, but that kinda was prophetic of the kind of theatre I was going to be ultimately interested in—political, gritty, hopeful and sparkly.

Tom Scutt, King Charles III
My first big job in the industry was designing Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K. It was a great honour to have that opportunity open to me so early in my career—made possible by director Rupert Goold. The fact that he also directed the show I'm here for tonight is a wonderful tribute to our work together.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Gregg Barnes, Tuck Everlasting
This is going to sound insane but Casey Nicholaw can vouch for the story. The Old Globe Theater in San Diego produced a production of The Robber and I was in the cast as an ensemble member…as was Casey (except that he played the character Goat). I used to have a very loud singing voice, which was my only qualification. To be honest I was barely useful behind the scenes. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who also hails from San Diego, was the lead, Jamie Lockhart. What is most astonishing about this is that I was Brian’s understudy, which can only be considered a clerical error! I never went on, of course, which is why the Old Globe still flourishes, but I did meet a 15-year-old Casey who has been one of the major blessings of my life as a friend and collaborator. When I began seriously pursuing a career as a costume designer, Casey had me on his radar, hopefully not just because of my loud voice.

Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me
Well, my very, very first thing, it wasn’t really even like a real job: My dear friend is Julianna Margulies for a million years, and I’ll never forget—we were just talking about it the other day—she called me, she came into my design studio—because I’m a fashion designer—and she’s like, “I’m doing a play, can you help me with the clothes?” That’s how it started. It was Intrigues with Faye with Bejamin Bratt. I mean, I wasn’t the official costume designer for that piece. It was just like, I was a designer that she happened to wear…. Then I was doing a dress for Cynthia Nixon for the Emmys, and her manager had come in for the fitting, and she had seen that play, and she was the one who was like, “You know? I think you could be good with this.”

Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
The first job I had in the industry overall was as a costume crafts apprentice for the Santa Fe Opera, but my first costume design gig was designing My Fair Lady for the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA.

Also nominated in this category: Ann Roth, Shuffle Along…

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A PLAY
Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
The first job I had in the theatre was working for the lighting designer Roger Morgan. While at Oberlin College, I had gotten an internship to work with Roger, and it eventually turned into paid work! One thing leads to another! So many people on Broadway have been so supportive to me through the years.

Also nominated in this category: Justin Townsend, The Humans; Jan Versweyveld, The Crucible; Jan Versweyveld, A View From the Bridge

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A PLAY
Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening
The first paying job I had in the theatere was as a pit musician at a performing arts high school in Massachusetts. I was still in high school myself, but was starting to gig around Boston as a professional drummer and got this job through the drama teacher at my school. The musical was Sweet Charity. I remember because I had to buy a bunch of weird percussion instruments to play the number “Big Spender.”

Jules Fisher, Shuffle Along...
In my last year in high school, I applied for an apprenticeship at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Pennsylvania. I was accepted. Worked on ten musicals in 12 weeks. How did I get the job? Not a clue, except that I was paid nothing.

Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along…
At age 13 I was hanging around the Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack, NY, hoping to help out. The set designer had a holiday gig designing for a regional Nutcracker, and he fell behind. He hired me to paint some flats. I still have the check for $15.

Also nominated in this category: Howell Binkley, Hamilton; Justin Townsend, American Psycho

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

Recommended Reading: