Guest Author Tiffany Fier
Being a successful Scenic Charge Artist is not just being one of the best Scenics in the room; it is also about being an effective leader, planner and communicator. Tiffany Fier shares how she works with her team at American Players Theatre.
I’ve been the Scenic Charge Artist at American Players Theatre (APT) since 2009. My good friend and a founding member of the Guild of Scenic Artists, Tina Yager, chose to move on with her professional life and encouraged me to apply to take over her position. I’ll freely admit I was terrified and delighted when they chose to hire me for the position. I knew I was in a little over my head, but more than willing to accept the challenge.
APT takes pride in communication, and it is widely known as one of their core values. When open communication is a shared goal of a theatre company, it can easily create a healthy working relationship with your fellow department heads.
The following lists some key points in creating an effective plan for stepping into the role of Scenic Charge Artist.
Keep Calm And Paint On!
When you’re the new kid in town I highly recommend to keep calm and stay honest. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you are alone, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I was fortunate I could reach out to the previous Scenic Charge when I needed advice. One should never be afraid to ask for help. Developing a network of go-to people who can provide solid advice is a must and I continue to use my network as the need arises. The world of Scenic Art is a small one, and building bridges and networks with other Scenic Artists is an important value that can help as you progress.
Keep The Channels Open
I was thankful when I entered the position of Scenic Charge, Technical Director Bill Duwell already treated me with respect and was very considerate of my needs. Communication as a new department head can be difficult and is compounded when your workload gets heavy. It’s important to make time in your day, as busy as you may be, to keep the channels open so that everyone is up to date with the most recent information.
Meetings, Meetings And More Meetings
One of the most helpful things we do at APT is have a design conference in March before the summer build begins. The conference includes Pam Miles, the Assistant Scenic Charge, the Scenic Designers for each production, and myself to look over paint elevations, models, and source images. This is the time to get the sense of scope for our season. I make a list according to when each show is opening and assess where I see possible complications. Are the first three outdoor shows all large in paint scale? How do they compare with the sets for the indoor theatre? Are we looking at the possibility of requiring over-hire help? It is also our responsibility to paint any furniture that doesn’t have a simple paint treatment. We need to take that work load into consideration as well.
At the end of the conference weekend we touch base with other departments to make sure we are all on the same page. We meet with the TD and ATD, Doug Dion, to discuss materials being used to construct the scenery, potential work flow, and what projected issues we may face over the summer. This is my chance to find out what types of materials are being used for specific scenic pieces and if that works with my paint treatment. Or, if need be, it is the time to negotiate the use of other materials. Sometimes the burden of difficulty falls upon the scene shop, and sometimes it falls to paint. We are always willing to talk about specific issues and come to a mutual agreement. More often than not I end up asking my PM, Michael Broh, if we can start our contracts earlier than originally projected in order to successfully accomplish the work load.
I’m fortunate to be a department head and work more or less as equals with my Technical Director. He is not my supervisor and I am in charge of my own budget. I take care of my own financials and I am able to use the products I feel are the best for our production. There is a trust and respect between departments which allows for such freedom. I am also fortunate the budgets assigned to my department are reasonable for the size of the productions. I am able and encouraged to negotiate budget sizes if necessary before the build begins. This is yet another important reason we have the design conference prior to the beginning of the season.
Know What You Are Working With
Having so many pieces moving through my shop for so many shows requires constant communication between the TD, ATD, and me. Every set piece that comes into the shop needs an explanation. What show is it? What part of the set is it? What surfaces are seen versus unseen? The scenery at APT is meant to break down into parts and put onto carts. And, more often than not, we receive set pieces unassembled. Don’t be afraid to inquire about draftings from the TD as they can answer a lot of questions you may have about how units piece together.
Schedule the Heavy Lifting
The scenery we receive can be quite heavy. Providing a heads-up to the TD or ATD as to when we need assistance moving set pieces around is important. I try to give at least an hour warning as to when we require help from the carpenters to flip or shift scenery. Bill and the ATD have developed a great habit of checking in with me at the beginning and end of the workday to see if any scenery needs to be moved.
When scenery is being loaded into my shop or shifted around I always make sure to be there in case any help is required. Sometimes I’m clearing a path so the scenery can get through. When the heavy lifting and moving is all done, I make a point to thank the shop for their help. Voicing gratitude for all their assistance is important to me.
Calendars Are Your Friend
I follow a fairly extensive calendar with the help of the scene shop to keep track of when scenic pieces are due to arrive. These due dates also help me know when the shop is behind and we may need to adjust our schedule to compensate for lateness. Being flexible and calm when these hiccups occur is vital. We already work in a high-stress situation and staying calm when discussing concerns is necessary to ensure the relationship between the scene shop and paint shop remains amicable.
Use Your Body Wisely
If the scene shop has communicated they are behind and a gap in the schedule develops, we know extra hours will be required to complete the paint treatment. In order to compensate for the extra hours, we may take a day off and shift the paint shop schedule in an effort to keep us from getting overworked. Sitting around waiting for scenery to arrive is not useful. Taking the time to rest and then hitting it hard once the scenery is available is better for our shop morale. I feel strongly about cutting painters for the day once the work is done instead of finding them some random cleaning project. There is always time for cleaning eventually and a sore, tired body does not work as efficiently when it is crunch time. This effective communication helps us streamline our work schedule without getting exhausted.
Keep Talking – Especially During Tech
Once the scenery leaves my shop, it is taken up the hill to the outdoor theatre, or put in a storage container outside the indoor theatre. This is where communication between the scene shop and myself is even more important. Scenery is only available to us for notes on certain days at certain times once it leaves the shop. I do everything within my power to keep scenery from having to be transported back to my shop. It is exhausting for the scene shop to haul heavy scenery all over APT’s campus.
Weather is always a factor with outdoor theatre and something that is outside of our control. When it is raining on your only day to do notes, communication plays an imperative role in making sure you can find time to do notes; whether it is before or after rehearsal, working around the scene shop’s notes, or trying to get your notes finished before the deck crew plans to rep the stage to the next show. APT’s constant communication between departments allows for everyone to get the time they need on stage.
Postmortems Aren’t Just For Complaining
Tensions have built in the past due to miscommunication and misunderstandings. This was eased by engaging in a season postmortem between the TD, ATD, the Assistant Charge and myself with the addition of the Production Manager as our mediator. Mediators are important. Each shop is coming from their own perspective and a neutral party can see situations from both sides. We discuss our issues together, and through this I have come to understand things not taken into consideration before. One important realization was reducing the amount of times scenery went up and down the hill. In another meeting I requested the carpenters not leave scenery in my shop without explanation. If I don’t know what the item is, then I cannot paint it without asking more questions.
As a company we also have a mid-season feedback to see how clogs have occurred in the system. It was through one of these company postmortems I was able to make it known we could no longer have our third painter be an intern. We required a Scenic Artist with more experience who wouldn’t need to be taught how to execute paint treatments. The higher-ups agreed and the additional experience has greatly improved the speed with which scenery flows through our shop. It’s also helped my own mental state.
It takes years of working together, patience, kindness, and personal maturity to reach our current point of mostly successful communication. I have learned that asking more questions than may seem necessary often helps reach clarification. I am naturally an intense and reactionary person and I fight hard every day to be calm and adaptable to every situation that moves across my shop floor. I’ve learned to put into words everything I require to get what I need from the scene shop and they offer the same courtesy in return.
Having open dialogues and in-depth conversations before and during the season is of vital importance to APT and is the main engine that keeps this amazing company running as smoothly as it does.
Tiffany Fier has been the Scenic Charge Artist for American Players Theatre for nearly 10 years. She is also an Assistant Professor of Set Design at North Dakota State University and continues to freelance as a set designer and Scenic Artist. She has previously worked with the following theaters as a set designer and/or scenic artist: Children’s Theatre of Madison, First Stage, Forward Theatre, the former Madison Repertory Theatre, Stages Theatre Company and others. Find more of her work here.
Pam Miles, her assistant, displays her work here.
Are their any key tips and tricks you have found in balancing busy workloads in your shop? We would love to hear about them below in our comments section: