Here's the interview:
Herrick: Do costume shop directors/managers hire individuals that are specialized in crafting? Do they prefer to hire persons who have sewing AND crafting skills?
labricoleuse: I think that depends on the size of the shop and the nature of the workroom. When I was just starting out, there were a lot more stitching jobs than crafts assistant jobs, and I found that shop managers were pleased that I was willing and able to go work in crafts if needed, but I also knew they were hiring me primarily for stitching work, that their staff craftspeople would be doing the majority of the craftwork.
Once I began getting work as a crafts assistant or a lead crafts artisan, no, I never stitched in the main workroom. I do see dual-responsibility positions come up on Artsearch for stitcher/crafts, but I myself have never held one or worked at a theatre/shop where that was expected.
Herrick: Where is the best place to look for shops/theatres looking for craft artisans?
labricoleuse: Do you mean where are the jobs listed, or geographically where are they concentrated?
The jobs get posted on industry boards like Artsearch and Offstagejobs.com, and sometimes on the USITT costumers-info Yahoo group. Geographically speaking, of course there are more craftwork jobs in the entertainment-industry hubs of NYC and LA, but there are also genre-specific concentrations, too.
Shakespeare companies tend to have larger crafts teams due to the high incidence of crafts demands in the Shakespearean canon. The same can be said for children's theatre, and for opera companies. Regional/LORT theaters do tend to have a craftsperson on staff, or at least the bigger ones, but those are generally very stable jobs and people land them and stick with them; [...] those jobs exist but they can be hard to land because they don't turn over very fast.
Herrick: How did you discover you were talented at crafting? How did you break into the biz?
labricoleuse: It was a process of progressive narrowing. I grew up with parents who were big theatre buffs, who took me to plays a lot as a child, and I felt very drawn to theatre, not just as an audience member like my parents, but as a participant. So I started acting, because that's I think the most obvious way to participate in theatre, but I quickly realized that I didn't enjoy acting.
In college, I took some intro theatre classes and that's where I really learned about all the backstage jobs that were possible and I found those more interesting and compelling than acting. So, I narrowed it down to costumes—sewing had been a hobby through my teen years and I liked fashion and making things and all that. Because our dramatic academia seems to focus on design as an "end goal career" for theatre practitioners in the technical arts, I pursued a degree in costume design. And in the course of it came to understand that I didn't care for many of the aspects of the designer's job either. But, that was okay, because once I entered the workforce most of the jobs I could actually get that would pay me, were not design jobs.
My first professional job outside of undergrad was as a stitcher at the Boston Ballet and I was able to observe on the job exactly what was required of all the different positions in a big professional costume shop—stitchers and first-hands and drapers and tailors and shop management and crafts. And as soon as I saw what a craftsperson did, I knew I wanted to do that some day. But I also knew that I couldn't land those jobs exclusively, so I began to work towards that as an eventual goal.
Because I lived in Boston at the time and they have several professional theatre companies and universities with large theatre programs, I was able to get a string of freelance jobs--stitching, running wardrobe, shopping fabrics, first-handing—and I always let the manager know that I would gladly do craftwork as needed. They began to hire me as a crafts assistant, millinery assistant, etc.
I couldn't pay the bills on just these jobs though, so I did take second jobs to help pay the bills, many of which were helpful in the long run—I worked as an interior effects painter for a home decorator, and as a product assembly worker at a leathercraft shop. Eventually, I happened to be assisting the crafts artisan at the American Repertory Theatre when he turned in his resignation, and I was in the right place at the right time, and they offered me the promotion. So, it was a combination of dedication and luck.
Herrick: What skills do you feel are absolutely necessary in order to be taken seriously as an artisan?
labricoleuse: I'm going to answer this assuming you mean specific to crafts, since I think there are a lot of skills that apply to costumers across the boards in terms of being taken seriously, like good time management, accurate and respectful communication, successful collaboration, and the ability to meet deadlines.
A commitment to the safety of the performer is paramount. Crafts items are often unusual pieces which directly impact an actor's performance and physicality—masks or weird footwear or armor pieces. If the actor cannot work with the item, the director will cut the costume piece, not recast the role, so a smart craftsperson makes sure the actor can do what s/he needs in the costume.
A commitment to the quality of the work I think is also something that makes colleagues take you and your work seriously. I cannot stand the old saw about "If it looks good from 20 feet away, it's fine," because often people use that as an excuse for making slapped-together crap. I feel that if you don't take your work seriously enough to make it look nice for the actor wearing it, how can you expect that actor or the wardrobe crew to treat the hat/mask/breastplate with respect and care? Yes, as long as a plastic-rhinestone necklace reads like diamonds from 20 feet away, it's fine, but if a hat is covered with smears of hot glue and stapled-on trim, that's unprofessional work fit for Halloween, not quality costume craftwork.
You absolutely have to be able to think about the work abstractly and flexibly—a craftsperson is working with a much more diverse set of skills than, say, a tailor, and often has to come up with solutions to design demands which require actual invention of method. A tailor can consult a reference book or seek advice from a more experienced colleague on how to do, say, an M-notch lapel on a jacket. But a craftsperson can't always consult a reference or colleague for how to create something like "a peg-leg appliance for a 300-lb. actor who needs to be able to dance a can-can in it." (Actual problem we had once.) So you have to be able to draw upon all the knowledge you have, to seek out knowledge you don't, and to think analytically about what is the best way to proceed, but you also have to be willing to completely abandon something if it is not working, and figure out something new.
A good crafts artisan has an unending desire to learn new skills and work with new equipment, and a dedication to safe work practice is essential—many of the tools and substances crafts artisans work with can be dangerous if not used properly, and because we are often teaching ourselves on the fly how to use them, a keen mind for our own safety is a must.
And I think a good crafts artisan is someone whose instinctive response to truly bizarre design challenges is "I'll figure something out" instead of "That's not possible."
Herrick: How would you recommend acquiring those skills?
labricoleuse: I think one can acquire a commitment to the quality of the work by seeking out good mentors. Assisting a really talented milliner for a show or a season will be an eye-opener in how a really good hat should be formed and finished, for example. And those ppl might not always be in the theatre. I consider myself a really exacting leatherworker in the quality of my output, and I lay that at the feet of the retail leatherworker that I did product assembly for one summer—I learned an enormous amount from him about working in that medium, tips and tricks and methods I never would have learned on my own and which I have never seen in any leatherworking book.
In terms of learning about safe work practices (so that one might be committed to that), the best book out there is Monona Rossol's Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theatre. It's an eye-opener and can give you a good ground for thinking analytically about safe work practices. How do you decide if you need to wear gloves when you work with a new paint or dye? Or a respirator? Or safety goggles? That book will help point you in the right direction. And of course, once you learn these things, you also have to put them into practice. Use the respirator, wear the gloves, turn on the ventilation, etc.
Abstract thinking, I don't know how someone acquires that skill, but I do think the more random things you learn, the more tools you have in your mental toolbox. To be honest, I have done things like audited a basic physics class and an intro to engineering workshop, and I have taken a Polymer Chemistry course to improve my ability as a fabric dyer. But doing those things hasn't made me able to solve some of the weird problems this job has laid at my doorstep. It has only made me trust myself that I will come up with something that works. And when that happens, an answer to a craft problem, it's often completely off the wall.
For example, a couple seasons ago we were doing a production of Henry IV and we'd rented some banded leather armor for Hotspur, but it was a bit too big in the waist and the designer wanted me to take it in 1". But, because it was rented and due to the way it was constructed, I couldn't move the closures or shorten the bands. I had no idea how I would make this happen but I took down the note and just thought, well, something will occur to me. And two nights later I dreamed about a fat armadillo that lost weight, and when I woke up it was clear to me that even if I couldn't alter the bands themselves, I could reshape the look of the armor for a thinner physique by taking in the canvas understructure that supported the bands. You can't learn that, the armadillo-dream revelation, but you can learn to trust your subconscious to supply some ideas. Which might sound flaky, but it's what I think. :)