For my masters degree I majored in Costume Design in The Lir. Over the past year I’ve worked more on costume only – that has constituted some of my higher tier work.
Edge of quitting >>Watch video>>
The pandemic brought to a head a lot of things I had already been struggling with. A year or two before the pandemic there was a voice in my head saying, “Oh, just quit this career, just go and get a real job”.
I love my work but sometimes the job isn’t ideal. I love the physical creative process of what I do but there are a lot of things that still need to be worked out. Not that everything ever will be worked out, but in the instrustry there are a lot of bad habits and bad mindsets like overworking and underpaying, who’s right and who’s wrong etc. That had me on the edge of quitting and getting a real job for a few years and then when the pandemic hit, when the work stopped, I said, “Goddamit, I’m going to go work in a shop or something”. I do work in shops on and off, there’s nothing wrong with it, especially during Christmas time when theatre work stops (unless you’re doing pantos which I refuse to do – no offence to people who work in panto). The pandemic was a dark shadowy time which brought a lot of these things to light. I also think it in some ways was necessary for a lot of people – obviously not the pandemic being necessary, but the introspection that happened. That was quite necessary for a lot of people.
If I could turn back time and make the pandemic not happen altogether, yes 100% I would but it actually revealed a lot of interesting stuff about myself and how I work and how I want to work. I’m definitely still figuring it out and I don’t know if there’s ever an end to the figuring out of it. What it came down to was: how do I like to work? How do I like to see myself?
A business and a human >>Watch video>>
Pre pandemic I saw myself as a designer but always as a worker in this industry who has to do things how other people want me to do them – to be good and to keep getting work. What I’m realising now is, the more I work, the more people like my work and like me and like what I do and how I do it. I need to balance that worker mentality with the idea of being an individual, a human being.
The industry often sees people as machines for productivity, most industries do – that’s what industry is, but it became important to me to balance the version of me who wants to be super productive and is a bit of a workaholic and has goals and achievements, with the version of me who’s a person with limitations, with boundaries, with ways I like to work, ways I want to work and who is just not OK with things that some people are OK with. As an artist, I am a business and I am a human and I have agency.
No >>Watch video>>
One of the biggest things I learned was saying, “no”. It’s a magic word – just transformational. You don’t need to say “yes” to every single opportunity; it’s awful to say “yes” to every single opportunity. You need to know your value. You need to go through the horrible but really useful work of figuring out a pay scale and then also figuring out how you like to work with other people, especially in theatre.
Theatre is very, very collaborative but on different scales. Different directors will be a lot more… I don’t want to say the word “dictatorial” but they’ll have a lot more say and they’ll have a vision and that’s OK. I don’t really like working with those people which is something I’ve realised.
I see myself as an artist with a voice, with a view, and with something great to give. I’m trying to find the balance of how to talk to people and work with people while setting my boundaries. I’m thinking hard about what I want and what kind of career I want to build for myself but also considering what kind of artist/business person I want to be? What kind of work do I want to do?
When things are flowing – they ebb and flow – but when things are flowing I’m now looking at the actual productions themselves – the type of work involved and considering, is that something that I actually want to do?
Sometimes you do a job because the team is lovely even if it’s a meh project and sometimes it’s the other way round. Sometimes you might not know the team or get on with them but the project is amazing so it’s about balancing. Therapy was a big part of this thought process for me.
Fears >>Watch video>>
I started seeing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. A lot of it for me was to do with fears and fear of how I’m perceived. I don’t want to be seen as a troublesome person but I also don’t want to be seen as someone who can’t do their job or somebody who isn’t good at their job.
Last September to December were super busy months for me working with some of the most prestigious companies I’d ever worked for. I mean, “worked with”. (Sorry, that’s my lingo that I’m trying to change.) I think that was the tipping point because the pandemic was ending and things were happening again and I got too busy because I didn’t say “no” to things because I was afraid. These were prestigious productions.
My biggest fear is not only saying “no” to a project but also within a project – to a director saying, “It should be like this”. Having the confidence to say, “Well I’m the costume designer, I think your ideas are great. Maybe you could explain your reasoning behind that because I feel differently.” It sounds like it’s so simple to say but it’s so hard to say it sometimes, especially as a young artist.
Sometimes I’m working with people who are maybe 10 – 20 years ahead of me in the industry but at the same time they’ve asked to work with me and they’ve hired me. It’s my name that’s going to be attached to the set and costume design. It’s about trying to build the confidence – not necessarily getting over those fears, but recognising those fears and recognising what fuels them and the thought process that fuels them and understanding that all is not what it seems especially when it comes to those negative emotions. There’s a lot of unpacking of that and it’s something that you do have to continually, consciously, address and address and address.
I do think therapy has been so amazing for me and my career and my work and how I think about it – and therefore how I feel about it and therefore how I act.
Collaboration >>Watch video>>
Some directors will come in with everything almost designed and figured out in their heads from the get go and some directors will come in and say I have this script and this idea, here’s the vibe I’m going for, here are a few visual references that I like. This is the kind of director that I love. They might say give it a read and come back to me with some ideas. The ideas I come back with may not be the final thing but it’s a constant back and forth – here are my ideas, what do you like about this? They might say, “I’m not so sure about that but I like this square and that colour” and I’ll say, “Great I like that too”. I think what’s super helpful in that collaboration is saying the “why” for both parties, eg. I like the square because it’s like a cell and this show is about things being caged in etc. Strange example but I think that is a skill.
Sometimes you can tell a show has a really strong voice in the director and sometimes you can tell that the designers were allowed to do what they needed and sometimes both of those things worked and sometimes both of those things were to the show’s detriment. It’s a scale and success is just dependent on the individual circumstances of each production. I’m not in any way saying that any of that is the right way or the wrong way but I think what’s super important is to figure out how you like to work.
In the day to day of it, I definitely try to not force answers but I now say, “This is what I need at this point” to both directors and producers. Instead of sitting waiting for answers, I’m being on top of it because I know how I like to work. Asking for what I need, saying, “I need measurements by this date or I can’t costume this person – I should have them by now”. There’s a lot of that.
Finance >>Watch video>>
If financial things are tough, you might have to grin and bear working in a way that you don’t like. It’s a personal choice about priorities. That’s another big thing that the pandemic brought up: What are people’s actual priorities? Do we really want this career? Comparing: I want to work this way and this is how I want to be seen vs I actually want to pay my bills this month, things are going to be tough. You do have to at times put those things against each other. I’m not saying either is right or either is wrong but it does happen and sometimes you do have to choose.
The start of the year is always a bit slower, I’ve only worked on three productions this year so far but on each of them I’ve done a little bit of testing the waters with all these new learnings. The best example is that I’ve been offered a lot more work than those three shows and I’ve said “no” to a lot of things. Over Christmas I spent some time figuring out what I should be paid for this size show or that size show.
I’ve actually done a lot of boundary setting and learned how to say “no” in really nice ways. I‘ve been offered pittance for things and tried to find that language – and I have found that language – in responding to somebody. I might say, “What you’re offering for what you’re asking is a tenth of the price it should be, even for a designer with less experience than me, just so you know”. Also I’d just say, “No, I’m not available”.
On the ground in the actual jobs that I have said “yes” to, I’m now better at contract negotiation, fee negotiation, putting the foot down and saying, “This is what I’m worth for that show. That’s it, don’t lowball me because I won’t do it”.
There’s no way that I can practically plan more than 6 months in advance but the best I can do is look at last year and hope it’s the same financially. Usually I receive a little bit more each year but you should never account for that, at least account for each year being the same and then the rest is a surprise.
The finances have been a journey and it’s still a journey that I’m on. It’s constantly budgeting every month, at least every month. Looking at how much I have, how much I expect to have, how much I expect to spend, spreadsheets upon spreadsheets, and then calculating those six months in advance making sure that I’m not in the negative. By doing that you know how much you need to say “yes” to – it’s a balancing act: defining what I need per month to actually get by, as well as what I’d like per month.
I’m trying my best not to do more than one show per month but preferably I’d like to do one show every two months – a good show, a big show because it’s to the show’s detriment if I’m trying to cram in too much at once. I like having the time to actually creatively work on things, and allow them to breathe. It’s tough though.
It’s never not busy but the summer is always busier, especially for theatre work. July and August are festival season and festival work for us starts around now. I just opened a production called Faoi Chelt with Fíbín sa Taibhdhearc.
I have one project as part of Clonmel Junction Festival – a one-man show called Pucked https://www.junctionfestival.com/events/pucked which was written by a friend of mine called Cathal Ryan. I’m also working on a new music festival – also in Clonmel – called When Next We Meet. https://www.junctionfestival.com/when-next-we-meet I’m doing the stage for that. It’s a small folk and electronic festival in a beautiful country setting. As well as that I’m doing a music video/life performance for a piece of contemporary/classical music. I’m designing the set for it later in the year so I’ve a few plates spinning alright. I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s nothing worse than being bored and thinking you’re going to do exactly the same thing every day. It suits some people but not me.
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