Thursday, January 31, 2013

Interns and Apprentices

"Theater is not for wimps."

That's how another designer explained his intern's quitting yesterday.

The subject of students - of one kind or another - kept coming up.   I had just met with my own most recent intern that morning, an actual enrolled college student who will get credit of some kind for hanging out with me.  But I've had others...

One was an intern architect looking for greener pastures, pastures that had more design and fewer toilet partitions to detail in them.  By devious paths, they'd found me as a designer to shadow.  We had fun: we co-designed a show for a small theater company which turned out well.  We shared the design (probably 60%, 40%) plus the work of painting and collaging it with pictures (50%, 50% like the tiny design fee).

Lawrence and Holloman for Second Thought Theatre - a small set, but more work than you'd think.

This intern was a real trouper - cheerful and pleasant while hauling her half of the load.  I think it was a good and typical experience in that the show was excellent and everyone involved nice, but the budget was tiny and the process not entirely smooth - it was our second design that was approved.  Fair enough.  Of course, it was hard work - though only half of it each.

This intern never did a second show!

My guess it that this was due too much "collaboration" (still a client to please), plus way too much work for far too little pay.  Obviously, they discovered they didn't love theater design enough to make it worthwhile for them.  Fair enough.

I do dimly remember another, earlier intern who did very little showing up.  Unmotivated.  But I treasure my only "apprentice." This was someone so motivated, so determined to learn, that, without lure of grades, credit, of even half a pathetic fee, just came to help with my work and ask questions.  We looked at drawings, theirs and mine, critiqued each others' designs, shared books and opinions, I'm sure I lectured a bit too long on architectural history, and - long after this apprentice graduated from any student-hood role - we continue to discuss theater design... now as colleagues.  We meet for coffee.

That's a perfect mentor relationship... morphing from student to colleague and friend.

I never had a formal mentor - I jumped straight from architecture into theater set design, re-inventing the wheel daily until I gained experience - but I did have a fantastic resource in a set designer friend, Wade Giampa.  Very experienced as a designer and scenic painter - he had worked as a painter on Broadway and been chief designer of a big scenic company - Wade knew millions of things I didn't... and graciously shared.  I'm grateful.  I enjoyed a lot of designer-talk coffee klatches with Wade.

Advice to anyone thinking about being mentored:
1)  You only get out as much as you put in.  Put time into this!  Put thought.  Show up, volunteer, work hard, prepare between times, do research, ask a million questions...  Throw yourself into it.
2)  Know what you want to learn.  Understand your own weaknesses and ask for help with them.  Don't be shy or fragile about it either.
3)  Make the experience worth your mentor's time.  They wouldn't agree to mentor if they didn't enjoy teaching or feel public-spirited, but make sure they enjoy mentoring you.

Advice to the potential mentor:
1) Give it thought.  Evaluate your student's needs and try to fill their gaps - this is education, not free labor!
2)  Be reasonable: the intern is juggling other things, balancing their life, trying to find the time for this relationship just as you are.
2)  Don't expect too much.  You can suggest, ask, insist even... but the student will only learn what they're able or willing to learn.  What they learn from you may only be "This isn't right for me."  That's a useful lesson too.

A further note to the mentor: if it sometimes seems like the ratio of talented/dedicated students to clueless/lazy ones is not in the mentor's, favor... Well, it's not really about you, it's about a duty to share the Knowledge, as it was once shared with you.

Besides, the good ones are an absolute joy.

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