Student Interview

We have often been asked for interviews as part of a student project, Here is a compilation of questions asked of Kevin Lee Allen.The project generally seems to ask students to select a career they are interested in, say set design, and to then find a practicing professional and ask specific assigned questions.

What does KLAD or a set designer do?

We are set designers with a diverse practise that includes the entertainment industries, museums, corporations and public spaces. We design television scenery, corporate meetings and theatre, museum exhibits, 2D graphics and exhibit booths.

What kind of training or education prepared you for Set Design?

I have a BA in Theatrical Design and Technical Production. I studied at Lester Polokov’s Studio and Forum of Stage Design in Manhattan after graduation. After completing formal studies, I apprenticed and assisted other established designers.

What a Set Designer’s main responsibilities?

We conceive ideas and solutions to client problems, illustrate these ideas and create budgets After approvals, we oversee the execution of the finished designs and their installation.

What qualities does a person need to have to be successful as a Set Designer?

Here is a quote by Robert Edmund Jones.

A Stage Designer is, in a very real sense, a jack-of-all-trades. He can make blueprints and murals and patterns and light-plots. He can design fireplaces and bodices and bridges and wigs. He understands architecture, but is not an architect: can paint a portrait, but is not a painter: creates costumes, but is not a courturier. Although he is able to call upon any or all of these varied gifts at will, he is not concerned with any one of them to the exclusion of the others, nor is he interested in any one of them for its own sake. These talents are only the tools of his trade. His real calling is something quite different. He is an artist of occasions.

from The Dramatic Imagination

That would be the appropriate answer to this question and highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this profession.

In addition to some general business savvy.

What kind of work habits and attitudes are expected of employees in your Set Design company?

Slavish devotion.

Set design, or any other creative profession, is not for the faint of heart or anyone with a fear of work. The hours are long, the rewards take time to come and you will work when others are not. The upshot to that is that you can buy shoes on Tuesday when the stores are less crowded.

What qualities does your company look for when hiring a new Set Designer?

Depends on the skills needed, we primarily work with free lance individuals or other small companies to take on specific aspects of specific projects. We do not look for the perfect, well rounded designer (we have not found that person to exist), we look for specific individuals to accomplish specific tasks, such as; illustration, drafting, model building, coding, etc.

What process does your company use to hire a new Set Designer?

We rely on simple, old fashioned techniques like word of mouth and recommendations by colleagues. We are a small company and we fire the under qualified and those without the drive instantly.

What are the main reasons that Set Designers are fired or let go from your business?

An unwillingness to put in the time and meet deadlines in a very unforgiving business. Deadlines are critical in our business. when a producer has sold tickets and the public has paid to see something, they cannot be disappointed or waiting for the set design. Similarly in film, which is a hurry up and wait work process, we do not want our colleagues to be waiting on the art department to finish our work to begin shooting.

What advice do you have for students that would help them be prepared to get a good Set Design job?

I would suggest finding something that you love and making that a career. The search for a good job is false and elusive and you may not like what you find. If your career is the pursuit of a passion, you will always be happy. That mental state of mind is priceless, and while there are no guarantees, it is highly possible that you might achieve financial success.

Be sure to understand that this is mostly a free-lance business and the concept of a job with benefits and security in limited.

What are your work hours?

We work typically from 8A to 6P, but that does not factor in the long days. There are times when we need to be in a studio or at a meetings two hours away by 7A, there are times when we conduct business by cell phone, from the beach.

What is your favorite part of being a Set Designer?

Hey, I draw pictures for a living, and then I get to use other peoples money to execute my own personal fantasies. What could be bad?

What is your least favorite part of being a Set Designer?

Really, there is little that I don’t like, but certainly the amount of time spent actually creating is much less that the time spent managing and marketing the creativity. Not something imagined when selecting this career.

How did you first get interested in being a Set Designer?

In my sophomore year of high school, I was very not interested in writing my term paper on Warren G. Harding. While slowly walking the halls toward the library, I ran into Mark Schoenweiss, who suggested that we “go watch play practice.”

The show was “Once Upon a Mattress.”

I decided to stay.

How hard was it to get your first Set Design job out of college?

My first Set Design jobs were while I was in college. The theatre and design business are project oriented, and unlike less entrepreneurial careers, involve a constant search for work.

While an undergraduate, I worked as a stagehand for the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey and as a set designer in summer stock. My first season of stock was at the Surflight Theatre on Long Beach Island, in New Jersey (as resident scenic designer for a season of 14 musical comedies in 14 weeks) and then I spent three summers in Akron Ohio, working for the Kenley Players. This was going from one of the smallest theatres in the country to one of the largest. At Kenley, I was a resident assistant designer and designed about three shows each summer. Kenley produced 10 musical comedies or straight comedies in 10 weeks. His shows toured to several other theatres in the Midwest and each theatre at about 3,000 people. The shows were quite grand and the audience was star driven.

I also assisted other designers on many off-off-broadway shows while still in college.

Were there any problems when you first started out as a Set Designer?

Of course! In my first season of summer stock, I was totally unqualified. I talked my way into the job on the phone. The producer had never seen my work, which was good, as I had very little and was completely unprepared for a grueling schedule, designing 14 musical comedies in 14 weeks. The stage was tiny and the shows (Call Me Madam, The Sound of Music, Pippin) were large. I was fired after just a couple of weeks, in the same conversation, I managed to talk my way back into the job.

Given this producer’s tremendous generosity, I learned quite a bit that summer. Stayed for the whole season. And the designs did not suck nearly as badly at the end of the summer as they did the first couple of weeks.

What has been your favorite production as a Set Designer so far and why?

I generally like what I do, I suppose the live performance of “The Petrified Forest” with Jack Klugman stands out. I was very exciting, produced by childhood hero Sonny Fox and I won an EMMY Award. I have also enjoyed much of the work for CNN as I am a news and information junkie.

The least favorite production as a Set Designer and why?

Probably that on that got me fired, the one I mentioned above. But I no longer remember which show was the one that did me in.

Are there any downsides to this being a Set Designer? – Anything you dislike?

Everything has downsides. I never expected to be running a business. There are times when the continually marketing can be a drag, but overall this is a great career. We get to work with new and interesting people, all the time. I draw pictures for a living. The commute is short. I get to build or buy my fantasies with other people’s money.

How bad can that be?

What kind of traveling have you done?

We have been involved with projects across America and on three continents.

Some trips as long as three weeks, some as short as 12 hours.

Does being a Set Designer pay well?

My definition of “pay well” might be considered excessive, and I will say that a set designer can be well paid.

In what states are the best Set Design opportunities?

My experience is in being based in the NYC metro area. In theatre, there are assistant jobs all over the country. For the television and film work, I would say New York City, Los Angeles and Orlando would probably be the best locations.

Can you recommend any schools or colleges to prepare for being a Set Designer?

My undergraduate work was at Montclair State University, which offers an excellent program and is only 12 miles from Manhattan. I have been teaching occasional classes at MSU, Some of the students would probably speak favorably of my teaching skills and that program. Others, not so much.

I am sure there are many other good programs around the country, but they change and evolve (for better and worse) over time. If it is theatre you are interested in, be close to New York City. If you don’t like New York City, pick another career. If it is film or TV, New York or Los Angeles.

UCLA, CalArts, Yale,Carnegie Mellon, NCSA, Purchase and NYU all have excellent graduate and/or undergraduate programs. I do not suggest getting a BA/BFA at a school with a graduate program. The better opportunities go to the graduate students.

I did my graduate study at The Studio and Forum of Stage Design in NYC. The program was taught by professionals, for professionals. The studio closed when director Lester Polakov retired.

How long have you been in the Set Design business? Do you plan to continue as a Set Designer?

I have been working professionally since the end of my freshman year of college. I was 18.

I suppose my idea of the ideal retirement would be to do nothing but design Shakespeare for a group of talented actors. And continue to paint nudes. So I guess the answer is yes, I plan to continue.

What do I need to study to become a Set Designer?

Learn to draw and learn to think. I knew a designer whose undergraduate study was in classics and philosophy. An excellent background for a designer. But you need to know architecture and clothes, drawing and painting, drafting and engineering. I think it is important to have a background in traditional methods, as well as computer based methods. Communication and early ideas often depend on pencil and paper. Some renderings are still best done by hand. Computer proficiency is a must.

How does the script relate to the set design?

The script is the key to everything. From the practical to the artistic.

“Hamlet” requires many entrances and exits, but it can be done (produced and performed) without doors. On the other hand, a set design would not serve the play, the actors, the director, or the audience if he or she created a set for “Boeing, Boeing” without doors. The dramatic structure of each piece, has different needs. Those requirements can be adjusted with each production or interpretation of the script. Shakespeare is a classic example. Although his plays were written for a specific stage and method of interpretation, different production, on film and on stage, have taken divergent paths over the centuries.

Here is a post from my blog about a conceptual approach to “Romeo & Juliet.”

http://klad.com/blog/?p=2558

There are other posts in the blog category “VWX Spotlight and Design” like this one

http://klad.com/blog/?p=2926

That relate to my book “Entertainment and Lighting Design with Vectorworks Spotlight” which focuses on creating scenery and lighting for a Broadway production of “Romeo & Juliet” using the same concept

Concept is key. A concept is a statement about the approach to the interpretation of the play. It is the controlling mechanism for determining what ‘works’ or what does not work in a design or a production. While we might all generally agree that pink is an inappropriate color for “Hamlet” and pink might be a good color for “Boeing, Boeing” it depends on what the production team (designers, director, possibly the author) want the audience to feel during and after the performance. The concept is generally expressed through a visual metaphor.

So, for example if one is designing a play where the emotions start cold and end warm, a good metaphor for lighting design might be a melting ice cube. That says that the early color choices should be cold and hard and that gradually the light should become warmer and softer.

Generally, sets cannot transform the way that lighting can. Unless there are multiple sets, of course. So, the scenic metaphor would need to be something that helped the lighting designer, and possibly a projections designer, convey the message of change. That might be a cave or a tunnel.