Q&A w/ Designers & Bridge Award Readers Mike Inwood, Ásta Hostetter & Barbara Samuels

AITAF StaffBridge Award

The Winner of the Third Annual Arts in the Armed Forces' Bridge Award will be announced on May 1st!

The final winner will be determined by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, but a dedicated panel of theater industry professionals thoroughly examines and evaluates each submission to the Award. A group of writers, directors, and designers, each member of the judging panel brings different professional expertises and a unique viewpoint to the judging process.
In this unprecedented moment, the theater artists on our panel are not able to create and produce in the usual way -- through gatherings, in person, in-bodied collaboration -- but they are more able than ever to read, think, and reflect on the remarkable body of work that the military community has submitted to this prize.
Anna O'Donoghue, the Bridge Award Reading Committee Chair, spoke with three members of our panel, all theatrical designers, about their careers, relationships to new plays, the experience of reading for the Bridge Award, and their thoughts about artistry in the time of quarantine.   
And stay tuned for the announcement of the 2020 Bridge Award winner - in just two weeks!

How would you describe your job? What kind of design do you do?

Mike Inwood: I'm a lighting designer. I work primarily in live performance but also have done work in television, commercial installations, and museum exhibitions. I describe my job to people who aren't familiar with it as visual storytelling and creating atmosphere.
(Photo: Rizzo by Bruce Graham at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Lighting Design by Mike Inwood)
Asta Hostetter: I'm a costume designer who works on a range of material: plays, opera, experimental performance. Costume Design is a lot of talking, debating and dialoguing with actors and directors to create character within the world of the play. Shopping, crafting, a lot of my work has to do with clothes. But I would say an equal amount of time is spent researching before rehearsal and then in conversation. 
(Photo: 10 Blocks on the Camino Real by Tennessee Williams at The Ohio Theater, Costume Design by Ásta Hostetter)
Barbara Samuels: I am a lighting designer for live performance, mostly working on new plays. I take the text and interpret how the story translates to light. Lighting tells the audience where to look (or not look), time of day, and mood--it is my job to create the rhythm or heartbeat of the piece, how we get from scene to scene and how that gives meaning to the story from beginning to end.
(Photo: A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath at Long Wharf Theatre, Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels)
How did you become a designer? What was your path?  
MII became a designer after experimenting with a number of different roles in theatre: I've been an actor, a sound designer, a master electrician, a technical director. Lighting design was the field that resonated the most with me, and it's the discipline I've been focusing on for the last 10 years.
BS: I initially wanted to be a film director, to practice visual storytelling. I worked on some plays at my high school, and one of my jobs was running the light board and designing the lighting for the shows--but I had no idea that was even a job until a teacher told me. I went to a liberal arts college where I studied theater and sociology. I eventually went to NYU Tisch and received my MFA in Lighting Design.
AH: I wanted to be a writer-- I read constantly, and in early adulthood, I wanted to be Susan Sontag, the kind of brain who could engage the culture and put it in dialogue with big ideas. But I found that I didn't want to be at a desk all day. In college, I did theater and the debate, the exhaustion, and the social stimulation of it was so exciting. When I moved back home to New York after college, I started trying to work as an assistant director, an actor--and also as a costume designer. I had no idea what I was doing; I was just happy to be in the room. I continued to do all kinds of different things before committing to costume design. I then went to CalArts to get my MFA in design, which was really valuable.
What calls out to you when you read a script? What excites you, and makes you want to work on it?
MI: Scripts that jump out to me are ones that have bold imagery and interesting character relationships. I'm also excited by challenging works that have strong elements of atmosphere or emotion, and interesting design challenges.  
BS:am most excited when I read a script that asks the audience to reflect upon their place in society or a piece that questions the status quo. I like plays that are plays and not movies--this often means that something happens in the play that seems impossible, but with some craft and problem solving creates an experience that can only be fully realized in a live three dimensional setting where people commune together.
AH: My favorite plays are like my favorite people: odd, misunderstood, sometimes incoherent, truthful, angry. I love reading a script that opens up a totally new way of experiencing the world. Some of my favorite plays, I have had to reread several times before I really orient myself in them, and I love that challenge. I want a writer to stretch my imagination to fill a shape I've never thought of before. 
When you work on a new play -- a piece that has never before received a production -- how do you collaborate with the writer? What's that relationship like? How does the director fit into that?
AH: It's as individual as the artists.
BS: My most favorite times are when the playwright and I have a back and forth about the story, characters, and intention. In these contexts I have the opportunity to impact and illuminate the trajectory of the first production, and sometimes even rewrites. Talking with the playwright pushes me to expand and clarify my ability to help tell the story in the production. 
MI:  Most of the time a playwright has been in conversation with a director for a while before designers get involved; I like to think of myself as a fresh set of eyes and ideas in the process, and I value creative relationships where the designers can give open feedback about both the structure and content of the work. I'm frequently thinking about the overall arc and pace of the play.   
AH: I try to challenge writers to come forth, speak their heart, talk passionately about what they want. Good collaboration is challenging, truthful and.... intense. Writers and costume designers often clash because we both care passionately about the characters. I think it's important early to share research and also, hard questions.
MI: Sometimes writers don't realize that if scenes are moving between places or time periods, they're actually creating a whole second story in their plays when they are performed: that of the transitions. In our entertainment world that is increasingly dominated by platforms like Netflix, where scenes can jump cut to anywhere and any time, occasionally I find that writers maybe haven't thought about things like how that realistic living room is going to turn into a desert, and then a realistic bar. Designers can often help by offering potential ways to navigate these transitions, or to point out red flags. 
AH: The ideal is to create circumstances where people can freely and frequently share.
How is working on a new play different from working on a classical, or established, text? Is it?  
AH: It's super different. 
MI: I often feel that the first production of a new play, even one that has gone through extensive revisions or readings, is only scratching the surface of its creative evolution. Having the playwright in the room with us is often an opportunity to make bolder and more sweeping changes to the play than with a work that's been finished for a long time.  
AH: It takes a long time to develop a play, and the smartest best writers revise things constantly. Working on Shakespeare or Ibsen is easy because you aren't going to decide that Miss Julie actually works at the post office and have to find her a post office uniform halfway through tech--but in the world of new plays, a designer needs to get behind the best choices for the story, whether or not it's a huge pain to source a post office uniform.
BS: One of the biggest differences between working on a new play and a more established  one is that when you want clarity of intention you can turn to the writer and ask.
AH: The director and the writer have to continue working and re-drafting, and getting to be there with them is the joy of a new play. In my most exciting collaborations I've been an active part of a debate that informs how a writer will rewrite the scene. It's one of the rare but deep rewards of my work.
What do you wish new writers knew about working with designers? What do you see as the most challenging aspects of collaborating? The greatest joys?  
MI: I think writers sometimes mistakenly see designers more as technicians--but we've spent our entire careers reading and analyzing plays, and often have valuable feedback about the relationships we see between characters or scenes. I wish writers knew that it's possible for a design team to be a part of the development of a new work from the very beginning, and that it can create a very deep and fruitful creative relationship. 
BS: People always feel like they don’t know how to talk to a lighting designer – as though it requires some kind of technical language. I want people to know that they don’t have to tell me what the light is like in the play--my job is to translate conversation about story and production into design. So no pressure!
AH: Too many writers feel shy or deferential around designers. It's often super helpful for the director, writer, and designer to try to spend time together before the adrenaline rush of the rehearsal process: having a meal, taking a walk, getting a coffee. I try to do something like that early on with a writer to just get to know them more. Everyone in theater is a little bit of an introvert, a little bit sensitive, and often highly socially awkward. Even if your first move is awkward--reaching out is usually rewarded.   
What has it been like to read for the Bridge Award?   
BS: It was incredible to take in all the different perspectives and experiences people have had that have gone into the beautiful and often challenging stories.
AH: As a designer, I only read the work others have decided should be produced. The submissions for the Bridge Award are all over the place-- grounded realism and surreality and comedy and monologue. It's really comforting to be reminded that anyone can sit down and write a play for any inner motivation.
MI: It's been really interesting to see in which directions people go with their ideas for plays: some are stories that take place on a military base or in combat, but others are creating work that has nothing to do with life in the military, and that variety is very satisfying.
AH: Getting to read these plays was such a joy because so much of the content was unfamiliar or new information to me. As a costume designer I often think of how many specific individuals there are on this planet, and the fact that we tend to represent so few. I met so many people I have never met before through this work. It made me realize how hollywood and pop culture had really warped my image of soldiers as individualists, heroes, go-it-alone types. Or how they have caricatured group discipline as a force stifling to the individual, as opposed to a source of collective strength.
How are you coping during this time? Any advice for aspiring artists?
BS: I am taking it one day at a time, and trying to keep in mind what is in my control and what is not. It has taken me a couple of weeks to start checking in with a lot of the people and organizations I have personal and professional relationships with; I am accepting that everything is taking the time it takes, and that will be alright. We are all doing what we can when we can.
AH: I think everyone is reaching for their core values. I have been watercoloring my tree outside every day; I'm just trying to find meditative practices to get me out of my head.
When you work in literature or art, when you look at history or culture, suffering is always there. In western culture we painted skulls as a meditation on death as a means of understanding life. In some way I think artists have a responsibility in this moment to remind us that we are not, and never have been, alone.  
MI:  I graduated right as the 2009 financial crisis was happening, and I've found I'm feeling similar feelings now; I try to remember that at that time it looked really bleak, but after a year it led to some of the best work and artistic and professional growth I've ever had.  
BS:  I look forward to a time when we share spaces together and again,  plays are produced, and to see a production of a play that had its start through AITAF.
Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks

Mike Inwood

Ásta Hostetter

Barbara Samuels

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