Building a New Web

Article by Rebecca Bernstein

I met Rebecca when we were working on the Minnesota Opera Project Opera production together. She did a tremendous job on a daunting show - and it looked terrific, with a clear and spot-on aesthetic. I knew right away not only did I want to work with her again, I also wanted to get to know her better and learn from her. Then I found out that she was a recent transplant from New York City and I knew I had to hear what she had to say about these two major hubs of theatre. Keep an eye out for Rebecca. The Liar at Park Square Theater, opening September 16th is a good place to start. Visit her website to learn more -Wu Chen

Hoodoo Love   presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre, Lucie Toberghein (Director). Rebecca Berstein (Costume Designer). 

Hoodoo Love presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre, Lucie Toberghein (Director). Rebecca Berstein (Costume Designer). 

Theatre artists are storytellers by nature and profession; we like a narrative and look for the threads that connect people, ideas, and places. We come together to create, a small tight-knit group of souls working to share a story. “Who are you working with?” is every bit as important a question as “What are you working on?” when we talk amongst ourselves. Not surprising then, is the monumental task it has been has been to build a brand-new story in a new city.

Nineteen months ago we packed our small Manhattan apartment into a large truck and hoped that the nice gentleman driving it could find Minnesota in late December...without getting stuck in the snow. Two freelance theater parents, two kids, and a rent-stabilized one bedroom had become too much. Our lives there were unsustainable, and we needed a new path.

After seventeen years in New York City, my whole adult life, I was starting over. In that time I had built a web that stretched from post-undergrad internships, to grad school, to designing Off-Broadway plays, to motherhood. My career ranged from commercial Broadway costume shops where I worked as a first hand to large regional Opera companies where I worked as a draper, from designing so-far-off-Broadway-it’s-not-even-in-the-description shows in basements to investor backed Off-Broadway shows (still in basements, but bigger ones), into classrooms where I taught costume design and costume construction. Like most theater professionals I had dipped my toe into dozens of genres, organizations, and temperaments. Everywhere I worked and everyone I spoke to became – at least in a small way – part of my orbit. The people adjacent to my path became my close friends and confidantes, but everyone touched me in some way.

I had confidence that my skills would translate to a new environment. I had training and experience at the largest (and smallest) levels of theatrical production. But that web of people cannot be translated or transplanted.

Where to begin? At first the Twin Cities seemed impossible, the well-established theater community was buzzing with activity but felt too well established to need anyone new. My two small children made it difficult to just get out there and see shows and meet people. Needing to drive most places felt like an unbearable burden. And it was the middle of winter.

Slowly I was able to make a few connections. As always, it’s ultimately about the people. I was able to reconnect with a director I’d loved working with once, in NY, a decade ago, before she moved to Minneapolis. An actor friend from high school introduced me to a wonderful director and Shakespeare company that have provided much of the work I’ve done since moving. My husband, who had taken a job at the Children’s Theatre Company, has given my name to people there. And each job means meeting new people, who have been generous in their willingness to share my name within the community. It is the start of a new series of intertwined relationships that carry us, and the theatrical endeavor, forward. I am starting to see the smile and welcome that I always knew was at the center of an artistic community. There is no amount of resume sending, cold calling, or job posting that can compare to this personal and public, hidden yet completely exposed social network.

But where do you buy fabric?!?!?!?!? Not only did I leave 17 years worth of friends and colleagues, I left 17 years worth of knowledge of resources. On my first sizable show here I seriously considered taking a flight back to New York to go fabric shopping. While New York isn’t the mecca it once was for fabric (stores are being priced out by luxury condos and snooty bars) you can still usually find all the fabrics, trims, and notions you might need in few block radius. Again, it comes back to people.  People I’ve met here, even if just for a minute, have been so willing to take time to answer my questions and share sources in town. Is there fabric beyond Joann’s? Where can I get shoes rubbered with a reasonable turnaround? Who stocks theatrical make-up outside Halloween season? Armed with their answers and my GPS I’m learning what I can expect to find locally and what I need to source from the internet.

Every time I’m able to answer one of these questions or make a new connection I feel more at home and more comfortable existing with confidence in my new theatrical world.

So now, nearly two years into this adventure, I can say that shopping Goodwill here is an organized, air-conditioned delight (unlike the dank, smelly, jumble of most second-hand stores I frequented in NY...and thanks to a tip from someone who knew that Salvation Army was far more common in NY than Goodwill, and that I’d probably head there first, I was able to quickly experience the fabulousness), being able to throw costumes in the trunk is much nicer than schlepping suitcases full of them on the subway (though I still hate driving), and please, please, please SR Harris, don’t ever close.

I still feel like I have a long way to go, but give me another 15 years and I’ll be there.