Category Archives: IntervYOU

Interviews with Creatives from all walks of life

intervYOU – Brian Shevelenko, Lighting Designer

It’s springtime, which means that students all across the country are graduating; leaving college full of excitement combined with trepidation, hope tempered by reality, and far more questions than answers. In the spirit of the season, I spoke with Brian Shevelenko, head of the lighting department at University of Hawaii, Manoa (on Oahu) about life, the universe, and everything.

We’re going to start off today with what you’re working on at the moment…

I’m just in the tech week for a production here at UH. It’s actually my first “official” design here;  one where I controlled the process from start to finish, not just mentoring or picking up slack.

And how’s everything going?

I’m in that awesome part of the process where the focus notes are minimal, the rewriting/large overhauls are (hopefully) behind me. Now I get to scrutinize. That light up 5% in this cue; that one down 10%; add 2 more seconds to the cross-fade. This might actually be my most favorite part of the process.

Aside from your paycheck, why do you show up at your gig every day?

The students. As much as I get frustrated working with them, I really feel that they help me push to be a good example. I’m more careful with my cue placement because the Stage Manager is a student. I’m more careful with my plot drafting because the Master Electrician is a student. I have to explain in detail why I do what I do, and I find that to be fun.

In your experience as an educator, have you found that there are some common approaches to bringing out creativity in students or is it something that’s based on each individual student?

I have yet to find one general solution. It’s an ongoing and often small-step by small-step process with some students. My favorite example was a quiz question I gave on the Synge play “Riders to the Sea.” I asked the question; “If you were designing the set for this show, how many chairs would be onstage? Explain why.” I got the answer I was sadly expecting from one student. “It doesn’t say how many chairs anywhere in the play. I double checked.” Of course that was correct, but my point was to think creatively about the play and justify a number of chairs based on the story. Just about any number from 1-12 could’ve been perfectly correct, depending on why you chose that number. Students today are more accustomed to spitting back information as it was given to them.

I speak a lot with high school students and see the same thing. It’s a little disheartening…

But slowly, with much repetition and reinforcement, I find that students will eventually break the mold and understand that it’s the quality of ideas I’m looking for, not the recital of facts. Once they realize they won’t be shot down for giving the “wrong” answer, they become more willing to try.

Another related problem, maybe a bit off topic, is getting students comfortable with giving and receiving criticism. I teach THEATRE, it’s a subjective art form. Part of my job, I believe, is to help train the aesthetic… it’s not always about right and wrong, but often about what works well, what works less well, and what doesn’t work at all. There’s a question of aesthetics and technology present in many course projects. For example, this particular color combination is going to make the actor look greenish and sickly. As long as that was the goal, you were very successful. So that’s one question: “Did your technology accomplish your artistic goal?” But on top of that question, you may need to ask if it was an appropriate goal in the first place. You wanted the character to look sick, you accomplished that successfully, but maybe it wasn’t very appropriate to have the character look sick at that part of the play… this too needs to be discussed and considered.  I find that many people around me are afraid at looking at that second question. We can and should learn to be critical of our work, and of everyone else’s. Sparing someone’s feelings with the blanket “it was great” comment doesn’t help them learn. It also doesn’t help all the students who saw the same play and hear that reaction learn anything. I believe it’s my responsibility to talk frankly about the quality of the work we see, as well as the content. I hope that in this way I’m helping them learn not only how to be creative, but how to express that creativity successfully.

That’s a great way of putting that, especially since we live in an era where students receive praise and adulation just for showing up. I believe artists must know how to articulate the “why” and the thinking behind their process; but at the same time, I totally understand how difficult that can be. I still struggle with it occasionally and I think it’s great that you emphasize that part of their process. What else do you hope your students take away from your instruction and guidance?

Going off my tirade, I hope they are learning to be critical; of their own work, of other works they see. Then, more importantly, apply that information toward making their own work better.

A second hope would be that they gain an excitement/enjoyment for the work. If we graduate a student who has learned to hate the theatre experience than what is the point? It is our job to make them learn, improve, and yes, do the work. But it’s also our job to make sure they can learn to love what they do, or at least learn why they should find what they love if it’s not theatre. I think you mentioned recently that working long hours shouldn’t be considered a bad thing if you love what you do for work. I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly.

"The Boy in the Bathroom" Chance Theater Photo by Doug Catillier
“The Boy in the Bathroom”
Chance Theater
Photo by Doug Catillier

Right – when work doesn’t feel like “work”, how many hours you spend doing it become inconsequential.

Lastly, I hope they learn a work ethic. It has not been the practice here, until recently, to hold our students to professional standards of behavior. I hope very much to change that mentality. I think it does our students a disservice to let them think they can behave like this in the “real world” and get away with it. Designs which are late and incomplete are not tolerated in professional theatre, they shouldn’t be here either.

I couldn’t agree more. Of your previous students, how many would you estimate have continued on in creative fields?

I know quite a few that have stayed in theatre, or the looser “entertainment” industry; off the top of my head, maybe a dozen. That’s a gratifying experience. But I also think that these skills are applicable in a variety of industries, and just because they left the theatre doesn’t mean the work was pointless or wasted.

There is a lot of recent research indicating exactly that. The act of creating; that process, is beneficial knowledge in a number of industries, not just entertainment. Okay, speaking about process, let’s talk a little bit about yours. What inspires you to create?

Necessity. It’s not ideal. I often wish I could just “feel artsy”, and honestly I sometimes do, but I’m really at my most creative when faced with the necessity to be so. I rarely read plays until I have to. I rarely draw anything that’s not needed for some presentation. I have only a few examples when I’ve painted purely for my own enjoyment of the process. This creative drive applies in other areas as well. My father has often pushed me to design an iphone app that can make money. The truth is I can often be quite creative with things like an excel spreadsheet; automating formulas for ease of data entry, color coding various information for quick retrieval. But all of that work is dependent on the necessity to enter that data, to present those figures. When I try to just sit and think of a program I could write just for the purpose of writing something, I’m bone dry. I could never be an author or a playwright. I just don’t have that internal drive to push work out the door. It takes a production deadline for me to sit down and really start thinking about how a show ought to look.

That’s a great personal observation. I recently read an online article recently about this very subject; and how artists split almost distinctly into two camps – those who just create and those who need some form of external motivation.

Most of my creativity seems to occur at a coffee house. Sure, I have to sit in the theatre at a board and write cues for tech day, but the truth is by then I already have an idea of how things should look. I have on more than one occasion written cues for a show that has not yet been hung. That idea, that vision of how the show should/could look was, more likely than not, developed in a coffee house somewhere. There’s something special about the nature of the public interaction in a coffee house; people around you, each with their own goals, their own stories, their own reasons for being there. Some are working, some are chatting, some just enjoying their coffee and listening to music. In this atmosphere, I find I can really touch that “left brain” side of me. 

Apart from a coffee house, where do you typically find inspiration?

Art. All of it. From every era, in nearly every genre, and every medium. If I have to narrow that down I think I have to pick the whole of the French romanticism movement. I frequently find inspiration in their color choices, emotional content, energetic brush strokes, etc. I actually use a great variety of art for this purpose, but if I had to narrow it down, I think my own style is most directly influenced by that era’s practitioners more than any other.

Alright, inspiration pop quiz time – name three people, living or dead, who influence your work and why.

Fun question. I think there are way more than three… but let’s see…

One obvious one would be Craig Wolf. Though it’s now been nearly 8 years since I was in grad school, I still hear his voice in my head at times and I can predict how he would respond to my design choices were he present. I no longer feel the need to design a thing in a manner he would like, but I still know what that is, and sometimes use it as a measuring stick.

A far less obvious one is Wagner. Yes, the opera composer. Wagner is credited with initiating the concept of “gesamtkunstwerk”; this radical (at the time) idea that the production should be a cohesive whole. The costumes, sets, lights, and acting style are harmonized in a unified whole; and all serve the story. On the surface, the modern theatre practitioner takes this idea as a given, but I’m frequently surprised when a production fails to live up to this basic concept. In general, I blame the director when this is lacking as it is their role to unify the concept. However, the designers ought to be actively engaged in the collaborative process, and if they are, this error is far less likely.

For my third choice I think I have to pick God. I’m not actually all that religious. I don’t really care how you may perceive the idea of God; my personal preference is something akin to the Wiccan “sacredness in all things.” The point is that one way or another we have this planet, and the lighting on it is quite extraordinary. One of the things I really love about being a lighting designer is that inspiration and example is around us at all times, every day. One can go outside (or not) and view the natural wonders of light that the earth and mother nature provide. Sometimes it’s the glitter of sunlight on a small stream, or the natural texture of that same sunlight filtering through the trees nearby. Sometimes it’s the hazy diffusion of a foggy afternoon. Sometimes it’s the majestic rainbows I am now in a favored position to witness frequently.   Whatever the case, God (or whoever) is an amazing lighting designer, and we can only hope to approach his (her/it/them) sense of style.

You are indeed in a great location for rainbows! Just the quality of light on O’ahu is inspiring; or any of the Hawai’ian islands for that matter. Alright, you mentioned earlier that you were in the middle of your favorite part of the process. What’s your not-so-favorite part?

I think my least favorite part might be the hang and focus. I’ve already gone through the process of deciding which light goes where, color, angle, quality…etc. The actual act of putting those things in place is just a necessary step so I can sit at the board and start writing cues. I’m also nervous during a focus… afraid that I’ll make errors and have to go back. I want to be efficient and I usually am, but the anxiety remains until I start to see the systems come together.

"Jerry Springer, The Opera" Chance Theater Photo by Doug Catillier
“Jerry Springer, The Opera”
Chance Theater
Photo by Doug Catillier

Yeah, focus can be a time of nervous anxiety. It’s one thing to deal with the math on the paper, but there’s inevitably a certain amount of finger-crossing until you see that everything is going to work out. I’m going to circle back to your youth. What were you like as a kid?

I was actually quite the pain in the butt for my teachers in elementary school. I rebelled, refused to do homework, I talked back. I spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office beginning in around 3rd grade and lasting through 5th. I had regular conferences where my parents were called in to discuss the situation. I never really thought about how that time might relate to what I do now but in a strange way I think it does. I was generally getting in trouble because I couldn’t abide “busy work,” nor adults who seemed less bright than I telling me what to do. In some small way I still have these traits. I don’t mind working hard, but I can’t stand working inefficiently. As long as there’s a purpose and a need to do the work, I don’t mind, but if it seems repetitive or pointless, I have a great deal of difficulty. This plays into my teaching as well. I try to make sure I’m NOT assigning pointless work to people. I try to make every assignment relevant and productive in some way – an interesting connection that I’ve never made before.

And when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The truth is that I never really thought about it. In high school, I never thought beyond high school, except that I knew my parents would insist on college. In college, I never really thought about a career, I just took classes that seemed interesting to me. My early career was really just a series of happenstance. I don’t regret a minute of it. I’m quite proud of the various experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and I don’t think that would have been possible if I had more of a “direction.”

Your parents insisted on college? Were they supportive of your career choices?

I’ve been lucky in my parents in that they’ve always been supportive, if vaguely. Neither was at all excited about my choice to go into lighting as a career. Though they frequently expressed their concerns, they never really tried to stand in my way, and eventually they’ve come around.

"Jerry Springer, The Opera" Chance Theater Photo by Doug Catillier
“Jerry Springer, The Opera”
Chance Theater
Photo by Doug Catillier

What about before that? How did you get into theatre?

In high school I took great joy in music. I played trombone and would seek any opportunity to perform that came available. I was in the concert band, brass choir, marching band, pep band, concert orchestra, jazz band, Dixie combo, and probably a few more. The most relevant to this point though, was the musical pit orchestra. I especially loved the musicals; the preparation, the process, and the performances were all a great thrill to me. My emergence from the pit (if you’ll excuse the obvious pun) was an interesting story.

It was my senior year in high school, hence destined to be my last musical. On the day of the auditions I woke with a 102 fever, dizzy, nauseous. Determined to push through anyway, I went to auditions that day and did not tell the music director. As you may guess, I played quite horribly. I was not chosen for the pit; my first time being “rejected” from a music opportunity. Word spread and my concert band conductor learned the cause, he wanted to go to the music director and get me a “retest”. I refused. It was partly embarrassment, partly a weird sense of honor. It didn’t seem fair to push out the freshman trombone player who otherwise would not likely have made the pit that year. In truth, though, I felt a bit devastated.

A week or so later, I was called to the office of the head of the drama department. This was something of a terrifying experience. I didn’t recall doing anything wrong recently. The head of the drama department was always the director of the school shows, and to me (and many of my peers) had a supernatural quality about him. I had no idea what to expect, but what actually happened could not have been predicted in my silliest fantasies. He asked me to sit and said (some apologies for the nature of memory, but this is as close to quote as I can recall…)

“I’m going to ask you a question. Your first response will be ‘why me?’ your second will be ‘shouldn’t someone else be doing this?’”

“Ok” I said.

“I’d like you to stage manage the musical this year. And more than that, I want you to be my assistant director as well.”  Somewhat stunned, I decided to use the script he offered…

“Why me? Shouldn’t someone else be doing this?”

He explained. It seems that he knew far more about me than I would have ever possibly guessed. He knew that I was quite diligent in my private rehearsal of the musical music. He went on to explain that he thought my “work ethic” was appropriate for stage management and he was lacking any options he considered trustworthy.

“But I’ve never even been on crew.”  We can teach you that part, he insisted.

“What about this directing thing?”

He explained that his “student director” appointment was political, and he didn’t really trust this person to do the job. So in addition to stage management, he would ask me to run rehearsals, give blocking notes and be in one place when he was in another (such as me attending a choreography session while he was in the music room with the singers). 

Well, to finally get to the point – until that moment I had never thought of myself as a leadership type. I had never stepped up to that role, preferring to remain in the anonymous background. This was a turning point in my love for theatre, but in truth for my life as a whole. Somehow this guy whom I had feared and respected saw a potential in me that I hadn’t sought nor expected. I honestly think that I may never have done so if not for this opportunity.  Interestingly, it was really the start of a long career of leadership, often in surprising or unexpected circumstances:  Officerships in college organizations, management of a waterpark, rapid advancement in the ranks of Red Cross instructors, becoming the youngest synagogue executive director in the country, and others… up to and including my previous position with Disney. But through all of that, I never lost the connection to the fact that theatre had provided my first, and perhaps most significant opportunity to change how I saw myself.

And how did things grow from there?

My theatre career developed over time slowly and piecemeal. For the most part I was learning “on the job” without any real formal education. I didn’t, in those years, think of myself as an artist, merely as a practitioner. When choosing a graduate school, I had the opportunity to meet my later Mentor, Craig Wolf. Sitting in his home-like comfortable office in San Diego, he mentioned that he’d been thinking about designing a whole show with no color whatsoever. We spent the next 2 or 3 hours theorizing on how that would work, using angles, intensity, and amber shifts to change tone, mood, etc. It was astonishing to me; not the idea, but the simple fact of being able to sit and talk about lighting in this way. I think that was the beginning of my thinking of myself as an artist. I was certainly the moment when I fell in love with lighting as a practice and an art. I got an MFA in Lighting Design from San Diego State. More than the institution, though, I really feel like I got my degree from Craig Wolf. His mentorship was chock full of ups and downs, but he demonstrated a passion for our craft that was contagious. Interpersonally, we had quite a few challenges. What I gained most from him is the ability to actively critique my own work, and fight to make it better. Certain habits I learned from him creep into my own teaching, and I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing.

It’s amazing to me how those moments of sadness or disappointment can turn on a dime and take life in a completely different direction. The best teachers can see the future of the student even if the student can’t. Did you enjoy school?

Yes and no. I appreciate that I went to grad school with a focus. Many students I think go into grad school sort of by momentum from undergrad. My path was different. I knew what I wanted out of an MFA program and I was able to actively seek it out. Mostly I appreciated the personalities and talents of my professors. Ralph Funicello, an active Broadway designer, gave me an excellent perspective on the industry as a whole. His artistry, also, is unquestionable. A compliment from him was rarely attained, and especially appreciated because of that. Our costume professor, Holly Poe-Durbin, helped me face and overcome my fear of rendering (sketching/drawing) in a way that I don’t think just any personality would have been able to accomplish. I find that to this day I can still draw on the strength she helped me acquire in that process. I’m not overstating things when I say I had a fear of rendering (I still do actually) but she really helped. I haven’t overcome the fear, but I’ve been able to put it aside and do the work. I now can take enjoyment from rendering, as long as no one else needs to ever see it. She helped largely just by her demeanor and her presence. There’s no “moment”, but rather an ongoing encouragement and support of my work, even when I thought I was a failure.

It sounds like you had some excellent mentors early on.

I have a very strong respect for the mentorship process. The original mentor was, and still is, my father. In every major career I’ve become involved in, I’ve sought (and generally attained) a mentor. Various mentors serve various purposes, so my relationship tends to be very different with each. Craig Wolf, as I mentioned, was not someone I could go to with personal concerns or discomfort. He was, and is, a very warm and caring person, that’s not the problem. It’s just that we don’t have that kind of relationship. However, when it comes to the practice and aesthetic of lighting design, it’s fair to say he somewhat created the mold that I used to shape my early career.

Mentors are, after all, only human. I suppose it’s not surprising that relationships with each of them are so contextual. And it’s incredibly helpful to have that sounding board; to provide guidance and insight in good times and challenging times. I mean, we all make mistakes, right? Would you mind sharing any mistakes from your professional career and how you might have learned from it?

Here’s an example that I still find somewhat painful to think on, but it’s representative, and has certainly taught me a certain kind of caution. I was hired to stage manage a production of Wizard of Oz. Very early on I began to lose respect for the director. He had a good reputation, so I can only assume that he was distracted and “phoning it in” on this particular work. He was inattentive frequently during rehearsals, arriving late, providing little or no constructive feedback. He tended to be condescending to the cast, treating the adult professionals in the cast similarly to the children (munchkins) who were mostly volunteers.  A good chunk of the cast began to look more to me for support than to him. I worked very hard to maintain a level of professionalism with him, but it was clear that he resented my connection with some of the cast. I say all of this not to excuse my actions, but to provide some context as to his reaction to the situation. On opening night, a good friend of mine was in the audience. She’s been in the theatre industry enough to have a quite educated opinion, but perhaps not enough to learn all of the politics. Her husband was my assistant stage manager, so she had a personal stake in this production. Following the show, we were standing in the lobby for the opening night reception. This friend started commenting on the production she had just seen. In hindsight, I should have squashed that quickly, it was not the time nor the place for such a conversation. Instead, I uncomfortably participated in the feedback, responding to some of her points. As you might guess, the director overheard this, and was quite rightfully angry. Though I fully accept blame for the nature of this conversation, and acknowledge his righteous anger, I do have to say that his reaction was perhaps a bit over the top. He started yelling at me, there in the lobby, in front of the cast, crew, audience, and all.  Our already uncomfortable relationship took a definitive nose-dive at that point. 

What was my lesson?  I have a tendency to be overly honest at times. It’s often hard for me to provide the socially correct responses that are expected. I do think I’ve gotten much better at holding my tongue at least (if you can’t say something nice…). For one thing, I’ve become hyperconscious of my assigned role in any given production. If I’m the designer, I work very hard to not comment on the directing. When I’m in a show, I keep my mouth shut about the design. If directing a show, I try to be careful not to tell the TD how to build the set, Etc…

That’s a powerful lesson; and one that many people never learn – That wonderful combination of knowing your place and holding your tongue! What other qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?

I think recent experiences have underscored the need to stay calm in crisis, and to be able to take a heap of work during “crunch time” and just keep pushing till you’re through it. Last semester I had 2 students have “nervous breakdowns” of sorts, one requiring hospitalization. That’s kind of nuts. As a lighting designer, we have to know that the bulk of our work and stress will come in the last two weeks before a show opens. If you’re not prepared for that onslaught you shouldn’t be in this game. Keeping calm and patient is crucial. Being able to work long hours is crucial. Being able to persist through to the end regardless of the unexpected stumbles along the way, just as crucial.

Amen, brother!

I’d say the other primary necessary quality is vision. It’s vital for a lighting designer to be able to see in their head what the final product could and should look like. Scenic and costume designers have much greater opportunity for sketches, scale models, fabric swatches, etc. A lighting designer will not see his work until the stage is built, the actors are on it in costume, and the play is about to open. Every bit of work done before that time is based on a vision only. Many directors are incapable of this kind of vision, they are dependent on the lighting designer to see in advance what things need to happen for the show to look right.

True enough. It sounds like you’ve had a wide variety of interesting experiences thus far; and have accomplished quite a bit. Out of your career achievements thus far, which ones stand out?

I think there are a number of shows that I can look back on with pride. Often it’s because the final look was a work of art that I can appreciate. I also have some shows which maybe weren’t the most glamorous results, but the work succeeded in meeting my vision; that’s something to appreciate regardless of the level of difficulty, or recognition involved. My thesis show of so many years ago is still one of those. The result was successful, and if I may say so, quite beautiful. The process was a bit nightmare-ish at times, but in the end result, I have more good things to say about that show than bad. And I still take pride in showing those production shots as part of my portfolio. I’m also quite happy with my recent work at the Chance Theater. My favorite was probably “Boy in the Bathroom”. An odd show, with some interesting lighting challenges, but I think the end result was lovely. Not big and flashy, not likely to impress anyone or get any recognition. But that show turned out the way I hoped it would, and I think there was a beauty to that effectiveness. “Boy” also provided me with what I think is the best comment I’ve ever received from a theatre critic. I don’t have the exact quote handy at the moment, but he basically said that the lighting provided a “mood-ring” for the main characters. I can’t think of a nicer recognition of my design intent, nor a more clear explanation of my goals on that piece.

"The Boy in the Bathroom" Chance Theater Photo by Doug Catillier
“The Boy in the Bathroom”
Chance Theater
Photo by Doug Catillier

Ah critics… I wish more of them knew how to critically review design elements as well as acting, singing, dancing, and directing. Speaking of recognition, how do you feel about awards in the arts?

I hate the awards, even the ones I have received. I feel like they’re given for the wrong reasons, by people who don’t really understand what I do anyway. I got several “named” awards for my production of “Bat Boy”. I am quite proud of my work on that show. It was long and exhausting and almost literally put me in the hospital (I did pass out on the sidewalk) but the end result was absolutely stunning. Not just my work, but the set, lights, costumes and acting all came together in a wonderful production that I think we can all be proud of. So you might think I’m proud of those awards… but kind of not. The show was big and splashy with lots of moving light effects and deep saturated color; these things all fit the story and were appropriate for the design but I can’t help feeling that the critics were choosing me for the wrong reasons.

I feel similarly. I mean, sure, it’s nice to be recognized but the concept of competition just feels weird in the arts; mostly because they are so subjective. They playing field is so uneven. How can one be acclaimed “best actor” unless all the nominees perform the same part under the same direction in the same circumstances, you know?

How about outside of work? What do you look forward to doing when you’re not inside a darkened theater?

One thing I love is hiking and other spending time outside. I try to swim at least 2-3 days a week. As I mentioned before, I frequently draw inspiration from the natural light in the world around us, so I guess these activities are somewhat relevant. I also very much enjoy museums, so again, somewhat related in that I draw inspiration from the artworks I find there. I read a lot, which is probably not really useful for my career at all except when I read plays, but it’s rare for me to pick a play that’s not directly work related.

And you live in such a great place for hiking! Pillbox Trail in Lanikai, Mariner’s Ridge; even the hike up to Manoa Falls is right in your area. So, how about your next project? Tell me a bit about it, if you can.

My next non-school project is a lighting design for a local semi-professional production of “Rent”. I’m pretty psyched because I love that show, a bit less psyched because it’s going to be in a fairly small space, with not much gear to work with. Sigh.

I’m right there with you. That show is on my bucket list. I hope to design it in the future. Speaking of the future, our field has undergone so many changes in the last decade and it seems that even more change is on the way. How do you see it changing how you create?

Truthfully, I think the changes coming are going to be huge, and they’re starting already. LEDs are going to dominate the industry. On one hand, that may not seem like much of a big deal, but right now, LED manufacturers are going out of their way to make the instruments “familiar” to traditional designers. There are LED PARs, LED Fresnels, LED Source4s etc. At some point, those things will become less necessary, and we’ll have to develop a whole new vocabulary to discuss lighting, and a whole new schema for teaching it. What is an ERS really if there are no reflectors? Or a PAR?  Instead of using ERS and PAR, will we just define instruments as “wash” vs. “spot”? Today they still make LED PARs with an oval dispersion, so it can be used like a traditional PAR; but at some point that’s going to just seem silly. The new generation of lighting designers aren’t going to understand lenses and reflectors in the same way we do. They won’t understand channeling and circuiting, and patching. The bank of dimmer racks will become obsolete and the new reality will be distributed networking. I think that over time this will also change our aesthetic. I don’t know how for sure, but I feel like it’s got to have an impact somehow. Maybe it will be something to do with color saturation, or maybe a dramatic shift in white-points that seem “natural.” Maybe “natural” will itself become less of an important factor in our lighting aesthetic. I don’t know, but I think big changes are on the horizon.

Thanks to Brian so much for taking the time to share his thoughts as a designer and educator!

intervYOU – Steve Hodowsky, Painter

Today, Steve Hodowosky joins me for a conversation about his work. Along with his wife, Sallie, Steve runs Signal Theory, a boutique advertising agency. He is also a successful painter, having shown in galleries and art shows throughout Southern California.

Steve and Sallie at Signal Theory
Steve and Sallie at Signal Theory

You know, one of the things that always fascinates me with people who work creatively is what influences them. Can you tell me a little about where your inspiration comes from?

I would characterize my creative influences by saying that I’m kind of like a sponge. I take bits and pieces from everywhere and everything – art, advertising, travels – then process and store them away for later use. Whether it’s graphic design or fine art, it’s all influenced by the world we live in. That being said, I’ll give credit to Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Phillipe Starck, Steve Jobs, Catherine Opie, Julian Opie (that’s a bit odd), Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Frank, Natalie Dee, Pokemon, Tibor Kalman, Richard Branson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Kelly Wearstler, Kit Kemp, Derek Jeter, Karl Lagerfeld, Jonathan Adler, and my beautiful cats and wife Sallie, without whom I doubt I would never have started painting again; so that’s BIG, yeah.

That’s a diverse and fascinating collection of people. I see the Hopper and Sherman in your work for sure. Tell me a little more about the why behind Richard Branson, Derek Jeter, and Steve Jobs. I think it’s important to be tuned into people outside your field, so to speak, and I’m curious as to what they offer.

I have to say I could list a lot more but let’s just say that Richard; sorry, Sir Richard Branson, is a trailblazer who is always having a good time and genuinely seems to be happy, much like Jonathan Adler. Every time I go in one of his stores his employees are all happy too. There must be something to this. As for Steve Jobs, I can’t imagine a day without an Apple device, can you? For creatives, he changed the way we do business (and live!). And I threw Derek Jeter in there because I’m a huge Yankee fan and he is the captain of so many championship teams – again there must be something to this. He has no bravado, tattoos, and is kinda quiet, yet he still seems to lead…interesting.

Yeah, I’d have to agree and I definitely see the thread that links all of them. Okay, circling back to the beginning, what was life for a young Steve as an artist?

When I was young I would escape my bickering parents by going in my room, closing the door, putting on headphones (Kraftwerk on 8-track – yeah!) and DRAW, sometimes for hours. I would draw anything – animals, sports scenes, design fantasy stadiums – whatever; and it was good. I was blessed with this talent. I got praised in school for it and that was really all it took for me. It’s so important to get that little nugget of praise from the outside world to propel you forward and give you hope. My family did not offer me any artistic vision whatsoever. They lived in a brown house with brown furniture. They were blue-collar and simply didn’t believe you could make a living at “art”. You can’t blame them. Even a career was something out of their realm of thinking. A good job was all one could hope for unless you had a ticket out.

Crenshaw - Steve Hodowsky
Crenshaw – Steve Hodowsky

And what was that ticket for you?

I went to “career day” at my high school in New Jersey with my dear departed mother. My art teacher, Mr. Michnowiz, told her that he wanted me to go to New York and apply for a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. I think she was really surprised by this revelation (and I think I was too!) and she agreed to help me take the necessary steps to get there. I worked some menial jobs to earn the money to go to New York. I bussed tables at IHOP. I put stickers on bottles of nail polish at Revlon. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could work in such a low-energy environment for their whole lives. I had to get out.

So you made the break and went to New York?

I went to take the test for the few scholarships at SVA that were offered every year. At the time, SVA was not the school it is now. It was really just getting off the ground and was still affordable. So I took my little portfolio and showed it round, took the written test, and low and behold…I missed out on a scholarship. But between my jobs doing paste-up (damn you wax machines!), my mother and I made it work anyway; and off to New York I went.

That had to be a heady experience; to be a young artist, in that time, in that environment…

I’ve always like to watch old movies late at night and my visions of New York were ones stolen from those black and whites, specifically “The Thin Man”. I thought everyone had a fabulous life, in an equally fabulous apartment, wore tuxes at night and wielded martinis. I just had no life skills or experiences to deal with the intensity of New York. I only share this as a cautionary tale of drinking and partying that can lead one off the path of creativity to one of despair. If I made any mistakes in my career, they were due to the excesses of the 80’s which I’ve always joke that I barely survived.

Steve Hodowsky
DJ – Steve Hodowsky

You look back on those sorts of times and shake your head, “What was I thinking?”. I guess those times are a necessary rite of passage for a lot of people. Alright, having survived that, what did the next chapter look like?

After the four years of fun at SVA, I was hired straight away to the Graphic Design department at Citicorp. I had a great office overlooking Central Park, more money than I ever knew, and a slew of new friends. I learned under the tutelage of Jack Odette who was very “Mad Men”. This was my first real job where I had to show up on a consistent basis, 5-days-a-week. I did that for a few years but eventually the nightlife of New York that I previously referred to got in the way, and I was fired.

Ouch. That’s a tough lesson to learn.

I eventually cleaned myself up and re-established my career at some pretty cool agencies like M & Co, Kirshenbaum & Bond, and eventually wound up as Design Director for Margeotes, Fertitta, and Weiss. Then, because I wanted a real change, we moved to LA, and things got even better!

How so?

Sallie (my wife) and I started Signal Theory, a small advertising and branding agency in Beverly Hills. We now have a diverse roster of clients including Pokemon, Nintendo, Shopzilla and others. We do a lot of animation as well as print, web, and corporate identity design. We plan on doing this for as long as we possibly can. We’d like to grow to be at least a dozen people full-time, if not more. I really enjoy working with our Pokemon client and they’ve been so loyal to us I have no reason to believe that relationship won’t just continue to grow as we move forward together. We’d also like to expand our client roster to other fields that we enjoy – fashion, travel, pets, etc… so that will be our main focus in the new year.

Orange - Steve Hodowsky
Orange – Steve Hodowsky

And when you’re not working, what occupies your time?

We travel a lot. Usually once a month we’re off somewhere to refresh and get a different perspective on things. We love New York, Paris, and London, as well as Hawaii, which is the ultimate recharging station. I also find peace by exercising at the beach. We’re so lucky here in SoCal to have amazing weather and we live just 15 minutes from the Pacific, so we try to take advantage of that beauty on a regular basis.

Indeed. Recharging is so important and it seems like a lot of artists just keep going constantly. You have to re-fuel now and again. Okay, now when you guys started Signal Theory what was that like? Stepping out on your own can be a very daunting thing given the considerable amount of risk.

I was kind of lucky because one of my previous clients handed me an account as I was leaving a previous agency. I had gone freelance with the Nintendo Power magazine Direct Mail account and after doing that for two years the client asked us to stop working on that and launch the Pokemon Trading Card Game. So here we are twelve years later and it’s still a phenomenon, if you’re a 6-12 (or 53!) year old nerdy boy, that is. I don’t know now that I could go back to working for another agency as, say, a Creative Director. It would be hard now after running Signal Theory.

I’m sure it would. I think that’s the case for a number of people who get to a certain stage of their careers. I see people struggle with the idea of “stepping back” quite a bit. Alright, so now, in addition to all of that, you’re also an accomplished painter…

I paint regularly. Every weekday morning I try to do a little bit on a piece. My art is all original oil paintings of urban landscapes and architecture. Lately, I’m also dabbling in some larger scale abstract pieces. It’s just another challenge to think differently. I’m always hopeful of making a connection that will further my exposure to the art loving public. I do show occasionally and have sold over 40 paintings now; but there’s always room for improvement in both technique and sales!

West LA - Steve Hodowsky
West LA – Steve Hodowsky

That’s quite a few sales – congratulations. That has to feel good, when your work resonates enough with someone that they take out their wallet and buy it. They are compelled strongly enough to incorporate your artwork into their lives – that’s a powerful thing. So, looking back on those earlier days compared to how things have worked out…

It’s way more creatively fulfilling than I ever imagined. All I wanted was to get out of New Jersey and be an “artist” of some kind. I mean, after all, that’s all I know how to do!

It’s difficult to get that message across sometimes to younger artists, who in some ways are our younger selves – so here’s your chance: Advice for the future?

I would tell younger creative to trust your gut. Don’t go for money right off the bat. Do your own work and good things will follow – I guarantee it. I’d also encourage them to develop a thick skin because they’re going to need it as they meet with rejection of something they’ve created on an almost daily basis. In the end, you have to be true to your inner voice and just forge ahead; no matter if it’s the cool thing to do or not.

 Not worrying about what’s cool – I think that’s excellent advice.

 

Thanks so much to Steve for sharing some insight into his work. To see more of Steve’s paintings, you can visit SteveArts. Click here for more information about Signal Theory.

 

intervYOU – Alex Goldberg, Playwright

Today we welcome Alex Goldberg, a playwright and recent transplant to southern California from New York. I worked with Alex in 2012 on the L.A. production of his play, “It Is Done”, which was recently named one of the best productions in L.A. for 2012 by the Huffington Post. Alex takes some time here to talk about his creative life.

Alex Goldberg (photo: Katherine Bryant)
Alex Goldberg
(photo: Katherine Bryant)

Alright, so let’s start by talking about what you’re up to these days.

My wife and I recently relocated to Los Angeles, so naturally I’m writing more film and TV scripts.  In addition to those projects I am also researching and outlining a new play, set in the near future in the Empire State Building.  Also, my play IT IS DONE, which had successful productions in New York in 2011 and Hollywood in 2012, is being developed into a motion picture and I am currently negotiating rights to the play in other cities across the country.

Sounds like a lot going on, which is great. Now, have you always been interested in writing?

I stopped acting to focus solely on writing.  Until that time I had been splitting my time between acting and writing.  Nearly a decade ago I had an extremely busy eight month period in New York, where I co-wrote a musical that opened, and acted in four off-off Broadway plays.  At the end of that period I was the lead in one of the plays.  We had a matinee show after a typical New York winter night of crappy weather, and there were only three people in the audience.  Instead of asking the cast to vote if we should perform, the producers asked the two leads if we wanted to go on.  We chose to cancel the show, and the rest of the cast was very disappointed.  Even though they all had small to supporting parts, all these people were seasoned actors in their 40s and 50s, and they couldn’t wait for the next time to be on stage.  I was half their age and had half their passion for performing; I just wanted to be home and writing.  From that point on I stopped going to auditions and focused completely on writing.  I still get onstage occasionally to perform comedy, but for the most part that aspect of my career is behind me, and I’ve never looked back.

Were you “bitten by the bug” at any early age?

In first grade I directed a play with my fellow classmates, and starred in it.  In third grade I wrote my first play, MOVIE MONSTERS COME ALIVE, and we performed it in class after a week of rehearsal (the script was 2 pages).  I was hooked.

"America's Brightest Star" 2012Megan Tusing, Catia Ojeda, Jeffrey Wolf
“America’s Brightest Star” 2012
Megan Tusing, Catia Ojeda, Jeffrey Wolf

It sounds like it! Did you actively pursue the field then?

I did not actively pursue it until after college.  I was active in my high school theater, but I did not choose my college based on theatrical desires.  However, I immediately fell into a great program at Skidmore, and spent all my available time at the theater.  Upon graduation, I actively pursued.

Tell me a little more about your early experience.

I studied theater at Skidmore College.  Split my focus between acting and directing, and started to explore writing again.  After college after a brief stint in NYC to perform in an off-off-Broadway production of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD I ran out of money and returned to my hometown (Washington D.C. area) and instantly started saving money to return to New York.  It took 18 months.  During that time I acted in a lot of theater, wrote plays and screenplays, and worked first as an intern and then as an associate producer in production houses.  I learned to direct on camera by making industrials, military videos, and corporate documentaries.  Then I moved back to New York and started working as an independent film P.A., writing and directing my own short films, and acting.

 Were you encouraged/supported by your parents/family in your career choice?

My family is very supportive my writing career and I couldn’t do it without them.  However, my mother jokes that when my brother and I were kids she took us to the movies and the theater, and now that we are both writers and directors she wishes she took us to the courthouse instead!

Was there a teacher that inspired or influenced you?

Right before I did this interview I was thinking fondly of Ralph Ciancio, a writing professor in college.  He was a former circus gymnast who became an English professor, a Nabokov scholar, cherubic, easy to laugh and destroyed me with my grades.  But I kept coming back; he was brilliant and made my writing immensely better.  I don’t think I ever got higher than a C+ the first two classes I took with him, but finally wound up with a B.  Three times the charm.  There were plenty of other good teachers and mentors, but he was on my mind.

Have you had the benefit of being mentored?

When I was an intern in the video department at a PR firm in Washington D.C. I was given a tremendous opportunity.  I was the only intern, and there were four directors.  Each had a specific skill that set them apart from the others: one was a great writer, one was a visual artist, one was an extremely talented leader with both crew members and talent, and one knew how to make clients and other producers feel like they were in charge of everything – all great skills to learn.

Indeed they are – so now walk me through a “typical” day when you’re in your creative zone.

On a productive day I’m up and writing by 8am.  By lunch time if I’ve managed to get in an equal balance of writing, networking, and exercise, then I’ve had a successful morning.

Alright, so it’s lunchtime and we’re looking in the fridge – what do we see?

Lots of kale.  Not because we are super healthy, but because we are avoiding eating kale.  Also, salsa.  Dark chocolate.  A few beers (for me) and a bottle of white wine (for my wife).  Zevia soda, because it’s “healthier” than regular soda, as I don’t drink coffee but still crave the caffeine.

Zevia, huh? I’ll have to try that – and then how does the rest of the day go?

The afternoon is more of the same, but usually as the day goes on my actual writing productivity decreases.  So I continue with busy work.

Given the numerous steps to creating and polishing a script, is there a part of that process that you dislike doing?

The least favorite part of writing is outlining.  I come from an improvisational background and like to let my characters create the world for me.  In the past I would just write, but that creates more problems in the rewrite process.  Now, the tighter and more complete the outline and research, the better the script.

Has current technology enabled you to do your job more creatively?

Absolutely.  Dramaturgy and research is instant.  If I need to fact check, find a street, come up with the most appropriate character name based on their age and where they are from, then the internet will give me the answer in seconds.  As long as I don’t stop to check my email or Facebook…

Facebook: Killer of Productivity… Alright, a couple final questions. Aside from your creative field, what else are you passionate about?

Baseball.  Music.  Inane trivia.  You want me to be your trivia lifeline.  My wife and my brother and I have a trivia team named “Two Bros and a Bra.”  We have won three straight trivia nights at a local bar.  Don’t mess with us.

"It Is Done" 2011Catia Ojeda, Ean Sheehy, and Matt Kalman(photo Jen Maufrais Kelly)
“It Is Done” 2011
Catia Ojeda, Ean Sheehy, and Matt Kalman
(photo Jen Maufrais Kelly)

And what qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?

Self discipline.  You have to be a self starter if you want to be a writer.  Writing must be treated like any other day job.  Most people have days when they don’t want to go to work, but they still have to go in.  Even if I don’t want to write today, I still have to go to work.

 

Very true. Alex, I appreciate you taking the time to share your creative life with us. Thanks so much!

To keep up with Alex, please visit his website here.

intervYOU – Anne Caruthers, Choreographer and Creative Director

We kick off the first of the intervYOU series with a special treat. Anne Caruthers is the President and Creative Director of “Dance From The Heart”, a Texas-based, non-profit, multi-cultural dance organization. Anne and I have known each other for a long while but fell out of touch when I moved to California. We reconnected several years ago on Facebook and it was fascinating to see how life has changed each of us; though the kernel of our initial connection has remained intact. I think her interview is a wonderful window into a creative soul powered by the desire to give.

Anne on stage in Hayati
Anne on stage in Hayati

So, we’re going to start off with some background – tell me how you became inspired to dance.

I wanted to dance since childhood, but never had the “build” for ballet.  I took the path of music and theatre instead, which I also love.  When I began dancing as an adult in a multi-cultural form, what I consider the “harsher rules of the ballet world” didn’t apply.  I was a stay at home mom that had an 11 month old toddler, and I desperately needed adult interaction.  I saw an advertisement for a belly dance class, and I went.  I fell in love with the form, and in six months I was performing with the studio’s dance company.  Looking back, it was WAY too soon for me to be performing, but my stage experience made up for my lack of crisp technique.

And with that, was there some sort of “a-ha” moment?

I think there was, yes.  I listened to so many dancers complain about not being taken seriously because they weren’t ballet/modern/contemporary dancers.  I listened to the people that saw “belly dance” shows and heard their reactions.  I was continually exposed to the misconceptions about this dance and understood how they came to be.  While in conversation with my (now ex) husband one day, it all came together – an a-ha moment of how to incorporate all of my passions (music, dance and theatre) in a way that would potentially make this form of dance more accessible and acceptable to the general public down here in the land of conservatives.

Once you realized you loved performing and creating, what happened?

I actively pursued it on every front.  There were certainly times that I STOPPED pursuing certain aspects when they just didn’t feel right, didn’t fit into my life, etc. but when I was engaged in something creative, it was absolutely with intent and purpose.

Were your parents on board with this?

My mother always encouraged me on every front.  She signed me up for piano lessons, voice lessons and acting lessons, but I had to beg for them.  She wanted to make sure I really wanted it first.  She attended every event, every recital, every play… she never missed a performance of mine unless she was out of the country or ill.  My father supports me now, but wasn’t so excited about my having a career in the arts – it was too risky and not stable enough in his mind.

Alright, so at that moment in time we have a young girl who is young and passionate with the beginnings of some training. How did you expand your training?

I attended theatre classes at the Alley Theatre, took voice lessons with Bettye Gardner here in Houston (also one of my instructors at the Alley), took piano/guitar/banjo lessons throughout my childhood/adolescence, played and sang with local bands and finally began belly dance lessons, followed by Latin Ballroom, Ballet and Flamenco lessons.  I have studied my chosen form of dance with instructors from the Middle East, N. America, Canada and Europe.  I have collaborated with other dancers in different dance forms and continue to interact with and learn from everyone with whom I work.

Is there any correlation between the things you did as a child that relate to your career as an adult?

I was always a ham… would jump at the opportunity to be the center of attention, and was spoiled rotten.  I was obviously ready to perform at a young age, and was drawn to comedy.

Through all of that, was there a teacher that inspired or influenced you?

There is – Ken Dyess (at John Foster Dulles High School in Stafford, Texas) influenced me heavily. He was one of those teachers that could get kids to work for him.  He inspired fierce loyalty and a desire to please, and was a tough love kind of teacher/Director.  My favorite memories of working with him were during “Charley’s Aunt”, for which I was the AD.  I learned a great deal going through the process with him, understanding how he staged, how he got what he wanted from his actors, etc.  Being the ear that heard his comments about what was happening onstage was instrumental to my own Directorial style.  Understanding what he saw and how he saw it … “getting into his head”, essentially, was better instruction than any class.

Well as far as influences go, it seems like you’ve had quite a few good ones. Could you name three people that have made a deep impact on you and describe how they did that?

My father instilled in me a strong work ethic.  When I was younger, it seemed I was in constant conflict with him.  As I have aged, I understand him better and appreciate the lessons he has taught me – even the hard ones I didn’t like very much.  Now, he is my hero.  He has exhibited selflessness I never thought he had and a depth of love I try to give and hope I inspire.  He’s not perfect… but I love him in spite of his serious character flaws (meaning that he doesn’t agree with every word that comes out of my mouth).

My mother passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s.  She is the primary reason I do what I do.  From my earliest childhood, she told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, could do anything I worked to accomplish.  I never doubted her, and because of that have attempted things that I probably wouldn’t have dared otherwise.  When I start my creative process for a new project (no matter how big or small), I never forget her words.  I always strive to do what would make her proud of what I’ve produced, and it is always in honor of her memory.

My Aunt (my father’s sister) passed away on my birthday in 2010, after an extended bout with Leukemia.  My Aunt was the picture of grace in this world.  Oh, she wasn’t inhumanly perfect or anything – she was stubborn, she had a temper, and she used some awfully colorful language on occasion.  She was the most giving (and FORgiving), generous, patient, loving soul I have ever known.  She was strong in her faith, and suffered more hardship than just about anyone I know except her daughter, who has had to deal with everything she did, but also had to live through her mother’s passing.  Her spirit, while sometimes battered, was never broken.  I think of her whenever I consider the people we are trying to help.  I think of her when I get frustrated with the process or an individual and start losing patience.  I put her foremost in my thoughts when creating a piece about love, faith, hope or loss as an example of how her grace made such a difference in her life, and in the lives of those around her.  If I need to approach the darker side of those topics, I think of her polar opposite.

It’s surprising and humbling the ways in which families make their mark on us. How about other artistic influences?

There is a wonderful dancer in Indiana – Leila Gamal.  She made the biggest impact on me of any dancer to date.  The moment I saw her move, I was completely captivated.  Even 20 years later, she has the presence to make the rest of the room disappear when she dances.  Earthy, fluid, beautiful, powerful, grounded, unstinting, undeniable… that is how I would describe her in dance… all that and more.

And what inspired you to found Dance From The Heart? How did that come about?

I’ve spent a lifetime organizing events.  I don’t think I ever realized it until I had to start thinking about what all I had done. Just after the tsunami in 2005, a group of dancers around the US wanted to do something to help the survivors. We decided to use our talents to raise money for the relief effort. When doing so, questions would come up about how to do different things… how to write press releases, how to get logos, how to set up a website, how to get sponsors, etc. I was answering the majority of the questions, and willing to do a lot of work to get things moving… and I just happened to have the skills to do it. It was familiar territory.  Everyone kept saying, we need to make this a non-profit. So, I did the research and figured out what needed to be done. Once the initial event was finished, I was ready to keep going… no one else was.  I found two partners that were willing to split the start-up costs with me, and we put the application together. It was a TON of paperwork, but we managed to get it done.  We put our first full scale production on stage two years after the tsunami benefit. The biggest challenge is finding people that are willing to put more time and effort in than they’ll ever get back, and still do the work required to get the job done.

What’s happening with the company currently?

We are currently working on what I call Domari Deux.  I am restaging our 2011 production, ‘Domari’, after many requests for repeat performances.  I’m adding scenes we were unable to finish the first go ‘round, and making changes to choreography that I felt didn’t work. We are currently scheduled for six shows over the first two weekends in November of this year.  And then the next show I have in planning (for 2014) is a complete fantasy, unlike Domari, which was historical fiction. The concept name for the show is Ethereality, and is the story of elemental spirits mucking about in the lives of humans, and the mess that comes from it. It will be the most ambitious project to date, but it is likely to be the dancers’ favorite.

Has there been a moment you would describe as your first “big break”?

Not yet. It seems so close, I can almost taste it.  We’re working SO hard, and the signs are there. It’s so maddening when people say things like, “What you are doing is different than anything I‘ve seen, and it’s wonderful.” I say that, because:  while those comments are so hugely appreciated and are the lifeblood that validates what we’re doing, we constantly wonder how to get that message to the people that have the ability to help us get to the next level.

It’s so tough for any arts organization to break through. There’s a lot of competition for patron attention and dollars these days.

For a non-profit, the bottom line is always funding the vision. Quality isn’t cheap. We want to succeed artistically, but we also have a philanthropic mission driven by our productions – we want to make an impact… to be a significant contributor to our beneficiaries. The non-profit is currently full of volunteers that work their asses off simply for the joy of creating, and to help those that we select as our beneficiaries. I work a full time job in technology (and most of us do work in the business sector full time on top of this). I do this because I believe in it, because I want to make a difference, and because I have more fun with these people than anywhere else outside of my relationship with my Favorite Man. All of the performers and technicians involved in this donate their time and talent to these performances and rehearsals.

Anne in rehearsal
Anne in rehearsal

Okay, so let’s talk about your process a little bit. What inspires you to create?

Music – it’s always about the music for me.  The music creates the story in my brain, and they both drive the movement that tells the story.

I agree completely. So much of what I do is driven by music as well, which I love. Once the music starts happening, what’s next? How does that unfold?

I often create alone. Choreography happens in odd places – the car, at home by the computer, in the studio… sometimes in the bloody grocery store.  What I’ve discovered in the last two years is how much I enjoy collaboration, when the mix of collaborators is just right.  I brought in an Artistic Director (Kim Piwetz) in 2011.  I create the vision, she helps implement it.

Kim and I, though she is about 17 years younger than me, seem to be on the same twisted wavelength.  We get together in a studio and first discuss the concept of the piece.  I’ll play the music for her and describe the story that I see evolving from the musical theme.  Next, we start documenting so that we don’t forget any of our brilliant ideas.  We listen to the music again and I go through moments of specific action/movement I have in my head while she notes those points on her snazzy Alienware laptop, over which I have geek envy.

Once we get through the song and I’ve given her the outline, we focus on the movement vocabulary I’ve already set.  I teach her what I have already worked out, let her know where I am not happy with my choices, or have ideas for something that I haven’t pinpointed yet.  That’s where the fun begins. We start breaking down the areas where I’m looking for improvement, and essentially play around with movement until something clicks.  Our dance backgrounds are similar, but have strong enough differences that we both know things the other doesn’t, making the creative process also a learning one.  We definitely feed off of each other. One of us will start a section, the other will do something that blends, and between the two we come up with the final landscape. Once we have the movements mapped and noted, we run it over (and over and over) and fix whatever still doesn’t work.

I really enjoy this process with Kim.  She’s amazingly talented, intelligent, outspoken and keeps me laughing during stressful times with her completely inappropriate and utterly delightful sense of humor.  And, she keeps me in check (and the dance company) when I decide to not follow my own choreography.  I couldn’t have purposefully planned for a better “Second in Command” for the production side of this endeavor.  She has become one of my closest friends, and I wouldn’t want to do this without her.  She can’t ever leave.  I’ll handcuff her if I have to.   She knows.  Her husband approves.

Is there some part of the process you dislike for any reason?

My least favorite part of the choreographic process is the notation.  It’s difficult to put three dimensional movements on paper in a way that makes sense to everyone that has to use it.

Knowing that creating can also bring stress, how do you typically deal with those moments when things are going smoothly?

It depends… sometimes we just take a break.  My stress is usually in rehearsal, when working with 10 – 20 people (dancers, musicians, actors).  I try not to yell, though on occasion that has occurred when someone is talking instead of listening (which will piss me off faster than just about anything, and they know it).  When I’m seriously stressed, I tend to get quiet.  If my voice gets low, and I speak in very measured tones, the dancers that have been with me the longest know that it is time to be very, very good.  Mostly, I try to talk to those closest to me… those on my board that are in it with me and have an equal stake in the outcome.  I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful group of people to work with – we complement each other in skill and personality, and we seem to know when to vent and when to support while someone else is dealing with stress.

I hear you on the “when my voice gets low part”. I’m not a yeller either – it’s when I get quiet that people start scurrying. Okay, speaking of stress, though, has there been a time that you believe you failed or made a significant mistake?

Oh, goodness… I have made a lot of mistakes – it’s the most important part of the learning process.   I think that I have been fortunate that none have been so significant that my career was jeopardized.  However, each mistake, while different, came back to the same realization.  Surviving the mistakes has made me calmer, even though it also raises awareness of not making the same mistakes again.

And what have you learned from those mistakes?

Stay true to the vision, even when you feel uncertain and insecure about something that’s “outside the box”.  NEVER compromise on delivering the highest level of achievable quality.  If people are investing time in you, they are doing it for a reason – trust in that, and in your instincts.  You may fall flat on your face occasionally, but you have to in order to grow.

You mentioned earlier that you work in the technology. What’s your “day job”?

Call me Ms. Disaster Recovery.  I work for a large chemical company as their Disaster Recovery Manager.  I deal with business continuity and recovery of data centers after critical incidents occur (loss of the data center due to natural or manmade disasters).

Is it challenging to balance the demands of your career(s) with the responsibilities of family?

Absolutely. I want to do too many things at once. I want to be with my honey, Paul, but I would also like to be at the studio taking a class or working on this next bit of choreography. And then there are rehearsals as we get closer to show time. When I do have actual time off, Paul and I love to try new restaurants, catch a movie, go out and spend time with his parents in the country, or just stay at home and read.  Our library is extensive, and it’s a hobby all on its own, I suppose. I’ve TRIED to get Paul to start dancing, but trust me; he isn’t having any of it.

Knowing Paul as well, I have to thank you for the mental visual on that… Going back to technology, I’m wondering what technologies you employ to be creative?

The Adobe suite helps a lot – I can edit music with Soundbooth, map out choreography movement in Photoshop, we can do our own video editing with Vegas Pro.  My Sony HD video camera allows me to record rehearsals and publish the footage privately on YouTube for dancers to use as a learning tool outside of our studio time.  It also gives me a way to understand where the weak spots are for everyone, which I can’t always see while I’m leading the rehearsal and teaching.  While these things speak to efficiency, they also speak to a new approach for our process, that we didn’t have the ability to utilize even 10 years ago because of the price point.  In addition, we can now use projected backdrops instead of going through the time and expense of having them painted.  For the next two years, I have an artist friend that will create digital images for projection.  It takes him less time to create on his digital drawing tablet and costs us all far less from a materials perspective.  We have technical concerns with regard to shadows, but we’re working through that in our new venue with more modern technology capabilities.

Very cool. Alright I have a few wrap-up questions for you. Out of your career achievements thus far, which are you the most proud of?

It would have to be the staging of ‘Domari’ in 2011.  It was such a huge risk, and it was the make it/break it point for Dance from the Heart.  I am so grateful that the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Anne on stage
Anne on stage

Aside from your creative field, what else are you passionate about?

Patient advocacy, caregivers and how to provide help to those that sacrifice time from their own lives to care for someone else.

What sort of activities/hobbies outside of your career interest you?

Cooking – it was a business for a while, and I still cater for some friends on occasion.  Though I don’t play much anymore, music is still a big interest – just in a different way.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Push your boundaries, don’t settle for less than you think is right, don’t make snap judgments without a conversation first, and don’t panic when your past catches up to you – it’s not always a bad thing!

Where do you see multi-cultural dance in ten years?

With the ever increasing Western influence on Middle Eastern Dance, I see the fusion continuing and the art form being more theatricized (I just made that word up, thank you).  There will always be cultural purists (with whom I have no argument – I started that way, and continue to be true to the cultural roots of the dance when the performance calls for it), but the need to express beyond one movement vocabulary is increasing, not decreasing.  The fusionists are still testing the boundaries, so we’re going to see some really interesting things come in the next ten years.

What qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?

Beyond skillset…for my job specifically, I would say a strong desire to help others… to make a difference; the ability to share what you are passionate about openly; to build relationships with a wide variety of people; and the desire to work very hard for an uncertain return, because you love what you do… not because you will become rich doing it.

What do you feel you have to offer those who will come after you in the way of advice?

I would say the same thing to them that my mother said to me.  You can be anything you want, and do anything you desire if you apply yourself.

Thanks to Anne for an in-depth look into her creative life. To learn more about Dance From The Heart, click on the image below.

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