Support The Next Generation of Theater Professionals.
By: Alix Cohen
January 23, 2024: During the Pandemic, a We See You manifesto was written by non-white theater artists and signed by prominent creatives. It struck a chord with set designer Beowulf Boritt. In the last few years, he tells me, twice as many men as women designed a Broadway show. Additionally, “I had long thought that people of color were not really trying or discouraged. I myself had a safety net coming up and assumed if one didn’t, it was less likely to be pursued, but that’s not necessarily true.”
Boritt was doing Come From Away at the time. It occurred to him that if he gave one week’s royalties and could convince other Broadway designers to do the same, a great deal of money could be raised. The artist spent a year making phone calls and sending out emails. 1/52 project was birthed. Its minority award winners – scenic, costume, sound, light, projection, make-up, wig and hair design – receive up to $15,000 with no strings attached. Most board members who work in their respective fields are, like the project’s founder, available for advice.
School rarely exposes aspirants to an actual load-in or the business of the business. Designers have their attention on the next project. Without connections, navigating the field is at worst a glass mountain, at best a slog. Here’s an organization that not only puts its money where its mouth is, but encourages access after the fact.
Sponsor Neil Mazella and Beowulf Boritt
Glancing at the donor list, though impressed by the rage of professionals, one can’t help wonder where the big guys are: Heads up Nederlander Organization, Shubert Organization, Jujamcyn Theaters, Broadway League…! Everyone talks about diversity. Facilitating it is a necessary next step.
Sixty-three people applied to 1/52 last year. Many heard about the project from graduate programs. There are also recipients who have bachelors, but not MFAs. An applicant has to have been working in the field three years, proving commitment and to be from an historically excluded group, including women. The organization has granted seven awards of up to $15,000 each of its two years in existence. Sometimes the amounts vary based on how much money is raised.
According to The Count, an ongoing study by The Lillys In partnership with The Dramatists Guild, this year there were 61 percent Plays by Men, 39 percent by Women; Produced Playwrights were 80 percent, White, 20 percent other.
Award Winner Stefania Bulberella is a video and projections designer from Buenos Aires, Argentina based in Brooklyn, New York. She started as an actor and serendipitously found Projection Design. This year Stefania made it to Broadway creating video for Jaja’s African Hair Braiding. The hair salon set has two televisions on throughout. It was challenging not to pull focus and to reflect dialogue references in text.
When Stefania first received her check, she tried to rent a studio only to realize most animation work was remote and give it up. A conscious choice was made to pursue productions where she’s the lead projection designer rather than maintain an “associate” profile, even though the latter earns more money. “I assisted only on three of my last thirteen shows,” she tells me. The multifaceted artist also earns money designing installations, gaffer art, aiding photographers, and making storyboards.
Despite four roommates, there’s no question of giving up. “I’m passionate about what I do and enjoy every single moment.” Stefania has reached out to several 1/52 members for advice. Boritt invited her to shadow him during tech. She’s as grateful for the open door as the funds.
Jessica Alexandra Cancino Gonzalez is a multidisciplinary Venezuelan artist, with a background in scenic design, scenic art, and art installation. She was impressively the Scenic Design Kenan Trust Fellow at Kennedy Center in 2016. The artist cold-called people to get started, an indispensible skill. Designing regionally and living in Washington, D.C., she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Outstanding Set Design Award in 2020.
A union newsletter alerted Jessica to the grant. She applied with personal letter and resume. Several months later, she was notified as a finalist, then interviewed by a panel. Within two weeks a decision was made. Funds helped pay for printer supplies and software as well as alleviating living expenses. “I didn’t have to take three jobs.” Boritt has mentored and given her associate designer work and assistant work. Sometimes, Jessica tells me, she acts as his onstage eyes while he’s elsewhere. “Beowulf connects me with everyone he knows…”
The most important things the designer is learning, she tells me, is skill to write cold emails and the courage to go after things. Jessica made her broadway assistant debut with Harmony this year, and her Off Broadway design debut on Amid Falling Walls.
Sound Designer/Composer Elton Bradman is additionally a magazine music journalist and musician. He’s usually in a band. One day, a director asked him to compose for a Shakespeare play. “As I writer, I loved Shakespeare, not only his depth and wordplay but his rhythms.” From the Bard, he took on other assignments learning on the job, gradually attending more theater to get the lay of the land.
Elton acquired knowledge of underscoring and sound effects which he avidly collects. As most of this is recorded, he tends to fly in, prep the show (often with in-house sound people), stay for tech rehearsals and the opening, then go on to the next job. Theater budgets being what they are, when hired as a sound designer, he’s often asked to compose and vice versa.
This winner saw 1/52 on social media. He used his funds for a MacBook, a new monitor, software, and online classes. Elton recommends The Sound System Production Primer and The Production Academy. Having taken film scoring in graduate school, he continues exploring that talent. Enthusiasm is palpable.
Some Commitee Members/Donors
Tony winning Sound Designer Kai Harada is currently working on multiple shows. When Boritt called, “honored and grateful,” he was quick to join 1/52. “The business is on triage after the pandemic, but we need to reach out to more people. I’m entirely committed.”
Kai learned his skill working at a rental company that provides tech for Broadway shows. “It’s changed a great deal over the years,” he tells me. “Designers now need to know a lot about computer programming.” Theater wasn’t prevalent in his youth. His first Broadway musical was Les Miserables – on a class trip. Kai took over tech at his high school following established methods, read books, and asked questions.
In the late 90s, he joined the union without too much fuss. Younger designers apparently have a tougher road. “The union wants to see resumes with breadth.” Attrition, he says, is high. There are apparently more sound effects practitioners than those who work on musicals. 1/52 has had only four to five sound design applicants in two years. I ask what he looks for: Examples of collaboration, breadth of work- immersive experiential; how someone carries him/herself, the ability to describe a project in technical terms, confidence, but not too much; letters of recommendation.
Costume Designer Alejo Vietti was always passionate about movies. “Something about being in a dark place and connecting…” He designed clothes for his mother growing up. Alejo arrived in New York from Argentina via Los Angeles with neither papers nor money. Through cold calls, the young man’s first work, “a pity job,” was at the atelier of Tony winner Ann Roth. She then referred him to someone else. The nascent designer additionally approached everyone he admired in the field. He was determined to ply his craft and to become legal. It took 22 years and $25,000.
Alejo has been involved with 1/52 from the start. “I’m in awe of what Beowulf has created. It sounded impossible,” he tells me. Paying it forward is paramount. The veteran makes himself available to award winners and also through the mentorship program at Equity Designs. Teaching at Fordham University, Alejo introduces students to other working professionals and takes them to shows when he’s not on the road. “It’s a nomad lifestyle.”
“The theater’s in tough financial shape these days. Even if you’re working a lot, it’s tricky to make a living. We’re extremely grateful to the designers and other theater professionals who donate their hard earned money to this cause.” Beowulf Boritt