How Did You Get That F@#$%ing Awesome Job?
We all start somewhere, so we’re going to hear from the people who kept at it, and wound up somewhere unexpected, and awesome. In our first interview, we’re hearing some of that wisdom from Diane Fargo, transcribed and edited from an interview with Valerie Light on April 8, 2017, at her home in Red Hook Brooklyn. Photos at top were of Diane at the Goodspeed Musicals Scenic Art Intensive.
Valerie Light: We know you from your work at Goodspeed, Boston University, Cobalt studios. Did you start the Boston University scenic art program?
Diane Fargo: Yes, I started that program in 2008. I went to Brandeis [for graduate school], 1982-85 where I studied design and scene painting with Bob Moody. 10 years prior, Rachel Keebler was at Boston University studying with Don Beaman. He was a big deal in our world, in that generation. Everyone who came out of that program could paint really well. Why not follow in that tradition?
V: Did you approach them?
D: At the time I was only teaching one day a week, and they approached me and asked what I thought I’d want to do in 5 years with the program. I came up with a presentation of what it might be and what it might cost, and they bought it. BU increased my salary and I was there really only about one and a half days each week to start.
V: This was for the certificate program?
D: Yeah, The [Boston University Scenic Art Certificate] program is very much about being a pre-professional foundation because all of us know you’re not going to make a million dollars unless you’re super lucky. You have to have skills, you have to be smart, you have to be a hard worker. And most of the students say to me when they leave school and get a job, “oh, my gosh it’s so much easier to work!” We really drive them. And I think it pays off in the end, because they can do whatever’s asked of them. I don’t think the MFA programs are going to survive. I’m seeing them being eliminated, because they’re costly for the schools, and are we serving these people? They’re coming out of school with thousands of dollars in debt.
So far we have a pretty good track record for employment! Union and non-union.
V: What was your first scenic art job?
D: I went to SUNY Binghamton [for undergrad], it was a pretty robust theater department. They had a theater called Cidermill Playhouse, which was basically attached to the school. It was a summer theater with a small spring season, and mostly the students took care of the whole business.
V: How much did you make?
D: It wasn’t a lot, probably $125 per week. We all lived there, in our student houses off campus, and I was paying like $75 per month in rent. It sounds ridiculous, but it was Binghamton.
First biggish job I got was probably as a painter, at the Old Globe in San Diego.
V: If you could tell yourself something on that first job, what would it be?
D: Don’t get bogged down or saddle yourself at first with too many obligations and ties, and go where the people call you. Have a good time, and network, and go to different parts of the country, because everybody does something different, use different materials.
I was once doing a big job, and I hired 5 charge people, knowing we really had to bang this out. Another guy who I hired asked , “Why are you hiring all these people- some of them are really better than you!” I said, “Doesn’t that make me look good?”
I’d say to people make sure you surround yourself with people that are better than you, always.
That’s what I did. I was never hanging around with people who were not better than me. I somehow became associated with people who were always helpful, who were always friendly, who were always mentors.
V: Tell me about a mentor who was really influential to you.
D: When I was in college there was one teacher who was this very young guy teaching set design, Robert Little, and he was one of the first people I ran into, who was a real sort of theater painter. He painted theatrically. He, oddly enough, was a student of Bob Moody’s. When I started to see how he was painting his renderings I was like, Ok, I get what this is. . . I was just kind of making stuff up.
When I started painting with 2 other scenics at Cidermill, I could see there was a process. Start here, then do this or that. There was more depth, it wasn’t as naive of a way of coming to the conclusion. They pushed me to go to an MFA program, so I ended up at Brandeis, because Bob Moody was there, and I knew I was interested in painting. Sam Kirkpatrick, who was hired to replace Howard Bay was this crazy set designer person or so we thought. . . he was kind of there to shake the place up. Most of us did not like him very much, but eventually we became very close, he was a mentor. He introduced me to Desmond Heeley, who is amazing. Between the two of them, I was introduced to a completely different way of seeing design, art, and painting. Those two are always in my head.
At school what happens is the students think there’s only one way to do anything. Just because something applies over here doesn’t mean it applies over there. Everything needs to start from scratch. Zero. Let’s figure out how we start, let’s figure out where we’re going.
My style is to assess what it is I’ve been given, and then do it as close to the spirit of what it is as I possibly can. Even samples. I approach samples as if I’ve never done it before.
V: Can you tell me about a process that was once totally new to you, and is now completely the norm?
D: Yeah, Phlex Glue!
When I first went to the Globe, I worked on the Festival Stage which is outside- even though the weather is perfect in San Diego 340 days of the year, it has a temperature fluctuation where at night it gets kind of wet, and in the morning when it cools down there’s a lot of moisture to burn off.
We had to do a deck made of homasote- I was grinding steps, a deck, a back wall. The homasote deck wasn’t even screwed down because it expanded and contracted so much because of the weather.
What do we put on top to do this? I tinted Phlex Glue with some clay powder, not a lot of it but enough to give it some substance, and tinted it, and we did the entire deck with this glue. The glue just stretched with the expansion and contraction of the homosote. Big thing for me.
A guy in Santa Fe, was the guy who made Phlex Glue. You would call him up and say you need 40 gallons- he’d just mail it and say send me a check when you get it. Rosco tried to buy the formula- but he wouldn’t sell. If I hadn’t gone out to California, I would have known nothing about this glue.
After all that, as friends started working in places like Rosco and Rose Brand, asking ‘what do we need? What kinds of products do we need?’ “SOMETHING FLEXIBLE!”
V: When you go to a new job, what are some things that are always in your kit? Obviously, your respirator, a couple of brushes… what else for you?
D: Deli cups, rubber bands, plastic ziploc bags, my own personal staple puller, which was given to me many years ago that they don’t make anymore, it’s the best staple puller there ever was.
I’m a big fan of ziploc bags for everything. You can put brushes in them at the end of the day if you don’t wanna wash them, you can put deli cups in them. Snap off blades. Those are my other staple item. I’m not a big fan of fancy tools. A rocker is as fancy as I get.
V: If I was put in charge of hiring you an intern tomorrow, to work alongside you, and get along well, what are the qualities I should look for?
D: What I would say is that if you come and work for me, at the end of each day you need to ask yourself, did you do the best that you can do today?
So you’re a young kid, you’re going in there, you don’t know anything about anything really, and you show up in one of these places, the best thing you can do is at the end of every day ask yourself, “Did I do the best that I can do? Did I clean up after myself, did I shut up when I should have been shutting up? Did I ask the right questions? Did I even know what the questions were?” Even if you don’t know what that means, but you walk out the door and say “I tried my hardest to understand.”
To keep up, to be a good team member- that’s all you can do. You can’t be somebody that you’re not.
I want them to tell me who they are. That’s kind of the way I approach the world – some people may call it judgmental, but I see my job as kind of quickly assessing what’s happening, and then being able to accomplish the task based on the situation.
Most of the time I spent at the Goodspeed, I saw 60% of the job as being a mentor, a teacher. Because if you don’t consider that to be your job, and you just want people to show up who know what they’re doing… you will have a hard time as there aren’t that many people out there like that.
In order to be successful, in order to make other people successful, in order to keep this business alive you’ve got to nurture it, you’ve gotta keep it in the family more or less. I think it’s important for all of those people to have that family.
It used to be that it was kind of like a group that was not that- it didn’t let many people in, always the same people everywhere. I was never one for that. We’re not all gonna be here forever, so we need to keep it going. That is one very important thing- the networking thing is the most important thing you’ll ever, ever do.
V: Is there anything else you wish I had asked you?
D: I mean I think the one thing is the idea that valuing who you are, and what your contribution is, and what you can get out of each organization- most of the time it’s deciding what you want your life to look like.
If you want to be someone who goes to work from 9 to 5 and makes a reasonable pay, and doesn’t have to travel too much, there are ways to do that. But you can’t spend your life believing that somehow this business is going to define that for you. You have to define what that is for yourself and you have to take the jobs and get the experiences that you need to fit that mold. Sometimes you might change your mind and you can shift. But I find that there are a lot of people who are looking for something… they’re not really sure what it is, they think that somehow it’s going to magically appear for them or someone is going to find that for them, and then they just get kind of angry and resentful that it’s not happening. Well, no one is going to do that for you.
It’s the know thyself thing, it’s the value yourself… it’s really kind of understanding who you are, what your strong points are… what your limitations are and making your life look like how you want it to look, and how you want it to feel considering all of those things.
Sometimes jobs work out, sometimes they don’t – don’t be afraid to say yes to things that scare you a bit or no to something that sounds too good to be true….. and be courageous about trying stuff.
If you jump in, something is going to happen!
Diane Fargo presently teaches at Boston University and has since 2001. She mentors a Scene Painting Certificate Program at BU, now in it’s 9th year. Diane has an MFA in Theater Design from Brandeis University. She has worked since 1985 as a freelance scenic artist in many regional theaters, Broadway and Off Broadway as well as corporate venues. Diane has taught Set Design and Drafting at SUNY Albany, Scene Painting at Cobalt Studios, and special seminars at a variety of educational institutions. She has acted as a consultant for Paint Products for Rosco Labs since 1988 and was the Charge Artist at Goodspeed Musicals for 19 years. You can also follow her program’s success and other on going projects here!
Photo Credits at Top from Left: Goodspeed Musicals Scenic Art Intensive/Cartooning. Diane Fargo. Goodspeed Musicals Scenic Art Intensive/Making starch.