Soapbox: GOOD. CHEAP. FAST. Pick Two.

Article by Andrea M. Gross, Costume Designer

A prolific costume designer with a massive repertoire, Andrea M. Gross is also a company member with Nimbus Theater. She has worked for virtually all manner and size of theatre company and is an inspirational and well-known figure around town. A sharp and committed thinker, Andrea’s experience and knowledge are something we’re excited and proud to be able to share with you.

Check out more at her website: www.agrossdesigns.com

Ragtime, Produced by Park Square Theatre. Directed by Gary Gisselman. Choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell. Costume Design by Andrea M Gross. Set Design by Rick Polenek. Lighting Design by Mike Kittel. Photo Credit: Petronella Ytsma

Ragtime, Produced by Park Square Theatre. Directed by Gary Gisselman. Choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell. Costume Design by Andrea M Gross. Set Design by Rick Polenek. Lighting Design by Mike Kittel. Photo Credit: Petronella Ytsma

I’m a freelance costume designer based in the Twin Cities. August 2015 marks my tenth anniversary here, and I’ve had opportunities to work in a wide (but by no means exhaustive) range of theater in that time.

My introduction to Minnesota was as costume shop manager at Theatre L’Homme Dieu, run at the time as a summer program of St Cloud State University. In the costume shop at SCSU hung a cross-stitched sampler with the words, “Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick Two” ….I’ve been living some version of it ever since.

GOOD.

We all want to do good work, right? What does that mean to you? What makes a project (or your finished product) “good”? How is that different from “good enough”?

On a technical level, good work is high quality. The best available materials for the job, expertly crafted with complete finishing techniques. More abstractly, good work might be a choice that’s a complete thought, the result of edited and revised ideas. In either case, these things take skilled people, and at least a reasonable amount of time OR a reasonable amount of money (better still if it’s both).

Good can be about more than just how it turns out. It might be personally satisfying. I might surpass my own expectations, or the expectations of the person who hired me. A project is really good, for me, when we’re telling the story in a nuanced, cohesive way. I love it when a production concept “feels right,” as if it’s the only way to tell the story (even though it’s not). Good work should be collaborative: fair, trusted and trustworthy, an equitable and even exchange of ideas resulting in the best possible solution.

If we consider this an equation about how to achieve “good” product, I would argue that the support around the work is tantamount. Resources come in a number of forms: separate (appropriate) labor and materials budgets recognize the needs of a design process and a build process; a decent (organized, clean) stock to pull from allows a wider net of ideas to be cast while staying in budget; and a well-stocked workspace supports the skilled labor that’s needed to produce quality pieces.

FAST.

We work fast in theater. A long rehearsal/build process might be six weeks: six weeks to create a customized (and flexible/adaptable) product is rare in other fields; we frequently do it in half that time.

Time spent on a project can come in several forms: the design/imagining phase might take a while, or might need to be hammered out immediately. The build phase might spread out over several months as other projects are worked on simultaneously, or may be compressed into days. We regularly get scheduled into a corner by not having enough time to develop and implement our ideas, and we must be nimble with our focus. When that realized idea (a costume, in my case) gets integrated in rehearsal, the needed time for reaction and response is woefully short.

Fast isn’t always a bad thing, though. There are projects that come together in very short order because a particular physical space is available and inspires great work, or a particular cultural flashpoint requires a response. Think of the late night conversations that tumble and crash into each other and yield brilliant ideas. Quick work inspired by necessity can be wildly creative and deeply rewarding.

Framing my work in terms of what time is given to various aspects of the process can be a really rich way to experience my work as a designer or as a technician, and a good way to quantitatively assess when or how a project becomes difficult. Where did I need more time? When did I spend too much time on something at the exclusion of something else?

CHEAP.

This one’s a little trickier (because, really, money always complicates things). Compensation and budget seem to be the greatest challenges facing most companies or producing agencies. They are certainly the greatest challenge facing the artists who work with them.

One of the designer’s jobs is to realize a story within the budget allowed for it. There can be no question that there are factors at odds here: the amount of money allocated; the scale of the project; and the expected outcome rarely line up perfectly.  The smaller a budget is, and the more a designer is expected to do with it, the more likely the final product will be compromised.

However, limited resources don’t have to be a debilitating problem: with enough time and attention, they can lead to unexpected answers through generative collaborative conversations and creative thinking. Limited budget may force us to explore beyond our first two (or six) ideas, and lead us to resourceful and delightful solutions. It’s my conclusion that with enough time and support resources, this kind of work can be extremely satisfying.

PICK TWO.

Here’s an example: if we believe we can only afford a $25 thrift store suit, then the time & effort spent driving to every thrift store in town to find the one that will fit (in a color we can live with, and hopefully it’s still there when you’re done checking all the other shops) has to be considered. If instead I spend 10% of that time buying a $250 suit at a discount store, with options for color, fit, size, and styling (& returns) available, then my personal resources are more available for the rest of the design. The thrift store suit is cheap, and good (or good enough), but it’s not fast. The discount store suit is better, and fast, but more expensive.

I find the expression “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two” to be a useful way to frame my decisions about projects. Regularly as designers, we consider the value of a project by trying to broaden the experience to be more than a monetary exchange of fee for work –will it bring us into contact with artists we admire; will it offer us the chance to have our work seen by a new constituency; will we get some personal satisfaction out of the project; is it a script or an idea we’ve always wanted to tackle. Usually, on some level, we’re doing this to justify or rationalize the surrounding circumstances. Deciding which two of these three a project lets me delve into is an interesting angle to add to the decision making process. Sometimes I find it interesting to apply it to myself as a designer: Is the producer thinking of me as good? As fast? As cheap? How do I want to be perceived? But most interestingly, the adage proves to be a useful tool in making choices with a director, as it allows us to frame our priorities in a new light and consider the things we want to spend our limited resources on differently.