The Artist Interviews: Charlie Corcoran, Scenic Designer
Charlie Corcoran has over a decade's experience in scenic design. He has worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in major opera houses nationwide, including Sante Fe Opera and Seattle Opera. Today Charlie joins Stay Out Of School to talk about his own artistic development and winding road to becoming a professional artist working in the field of Scenic Design.
Can we start with you giving us a description of the work that you do?
I work as a scenic designer, mostly in New York City, but also around the country from coast to coast. Basically what I do is create backdrops for dramas or musicals or operas, or dance even, the occasional film or TV show... creating the environment for action to happen. Generally my process starts with reading the script, getting to know the characters, getting to know the tone of the piece... then branch out into doing research and learning about the period if it is a period piece, the architectural styles, dishware or flatware of the period, getting a sense of where we are and what’s happening at that time.
Once I gather this information, I sit down and start the actual artistic process, which for me is different on every project. The words or the music or whatever speak to me differently on every project, but I have a set of tools that I draw from as I sort of "enter into" a piece. Most often I’ll start with scribbles, just sketches, just getting ideas out of my head onto the page. Sometimes I’ll develop those sketches if they seem like they are turning into something interesting. Occasionally, the end product will be a sketch that we'll then be drawing from for shops or doing elevations. More often than not, those sketches turn into sort of abstracty [sic] paintings which then turn into three-dimensional models which end up getting painted and then I draw from them technical drawings and paint elevations and start to give all the information to people that are actually creating the work for me. So my process is always different. When I was in grad school and before even, I started to attain the tools that I would need that were necessary for me to convey the ideas that I wanted to get across.
Going back, like really early, 13 and under: obviously you draw, so, what kind of art education happened at your house? What was it like growing up in your household? Was this something that was encourage or not? How much of it happened at school? Could you give us a sense of that across the board?
My mother was a teacher, is a teacher. She always had materials at home for us to play with: construction paper, glitter, pipe cleaners, and all that sort of stuff. We would, often after school, sit down and create collages, or drawings, or paintings, or things like that from the materials she had either brought home or got at a sale or people were throwing out or whatever. So a lot of where I started, and my brothers too, was with my mother: often if she had a project that was interesting in class she’d bring it home and we’d do it. I’m talking about when I was like six or seven, you know like making the turkeys out of your hand and stuff like that. She always encouraged me at from a young age to draw and paint and to collage and to put things together to create pictures.
So, that’s kinda where it started.
Then I did have great teachers starting all the way back to even kindergarten. Mrs. Napanie allowing us to explore with finger-paints on easels, just to let us go. She wouldn’t give us really any instruction. She would just give us some blank paper and red green and yellow paints and just say go and we’d go. We were never critiqued, and we were always sort of encouraged to do more, to be interested. I think the results of those experiments on paper were never really interesting but I think it sort of tuned me into what was important about art, which was process.
The most important teachers that I've ever had... some of them have given us the discipline we needed and the technical tools we need to create pictures: you know, a nice line, composition, shape, that sort of stuff. But the best teachers I've had have just been encouraging in the process of making art, just to do it, just to get something out and keep on going-- to find something interesting in what you've done and develop that theme or trash that theme and move on to something else. Of all the teachers I've had, the ones who were most helpful to me to were the ones who allowed me to explore the process.
I think one of the things that happens, that's somewhat common, is the experience of getting older and realizing that you're good at art and that it's something that you love to do. Everyone has varying levels of how much they're encouraged to pursue it, you know? Some people hear "Drop everything and go to music school right now!" and others "Ennnnh, maybe you should think about becoming a draftsman." You know what I mean? I was just wondering when you were in high school and college and making decisions about what you were going to do, why and how did that happen and were you working against anything? What were your concerns at the time and how did that ultimately pan out?
I guess I came into what I'm doing in a sort of round-about way. I was always sort of interested in fine arts in high school, but also in performing and singing and that was because of another teacher that I had who was my music teacher in high school, who encouraged me to do that sort of stuff. As deadlines for college applications started to loom, I didn't know what I was going to do and I was being discouraged from anything artistic; my dad in particular wanted me to get a more solid business background or something. That seemed not very interesting to me.
My mother encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to, but I had a music teacher who said "You know, you have options. You can go to school for music and get a fine arts degree, or just get a liberal arts degree or whatever you need and then decide from there, but it's a safe place to start."
So I went to school for music: I was a vocal performance major. When I got there I was kind of encouraged to pursue [set design]. Although I wasn't really gifted as a singer, I enjoyed it and probably could have had a very minor career in singing. But, I was involved in musicals when I was in college and in musical there are people who are designing the scenery or doing the painting and that seemed more interesting to me. There was another teacher who saw that I was interested in that and, even though I was in a different department, encouraged me to get involved in the building of the scenery and stuff while I was in college. I started to like that better and I was experiencing more encouragement from the theater people than I was from the music department and I think, probably because of the encouragement I was feeling from the theater department, it sort of lead me that way.
I felt like I could do this, this was interesting to me, that I could make a career out of it.
Outside influences were probably discouraging me at the time from trying to pursue a career in theater, and, as a matter of fact, I listened to those voices for long enough that at one point I was a welder. I built scenery in Santa Fe at the opera and I welded scenery together, but that's what I did because that's where I was making money. I wasn't making money as an artist, so I had to pay the bills somehow, and I thought, "Well, at least I'm around the arts doing this, and that's good. So, while I'm not doing what I want to be doing, at least I'm exposed to it."
Eventually that became not enough for me. There was a designer who came to the Santa Fe Opera when I was working there who encouraged me when he was there; we'd have conversations about design and scenery and I was assisting him with things, doing drawings and whatnot, and he encouraged me to go back to graduate school, get my degree, move to New York, and forget about making money and whatever and just do it and the rest would follow. And that’s what I did: I got my degree after going back to grad school and I've just being doing it ever since.
Funnily enough, you do it long enough and hard enough and you can make a living at it.
I think that idea brings us directly to the next idea I wanted to discuss. I think often that people who don't make work like this don't necessarily give a lot of thought to the process of getting from "I have an idea that's probably not even complete" to a final work. You were kind of talking about it how even in elementary school you were learning how to mine your own work for stuff that was good and recognizing stuff that you probably needed to depart from and, I think at the end of the day, that brings us to the concept of discipline within process. Could you talk about how rules, discipline—both as a young artist and especially now, based on what you said about your own process of work—how it influences your work now?
Charlie: There are rules and disciplines at the end of every process, because, in the end, for me anyway, I have to present something that can be built. So, I needed rules and discipline as tools to produce the materials required to get these things done. You have to have the skills to know how to draft, you have to know how to transpose conceptual ideas to practical ideas—they have to end up on stage in a way that you've conceived. How do you get, you know, let's say this amorphous purple net that you've thought about in your brain onto the stage in a way that the audience can understand also? So you need the tools to be able to say, "OK, I have to have a frame and it has to be backlit and it has to slide in from here... it has to be present in this part of the stage, people need to be able to see it so I have to put it in a place that all of the audience can see it."
So, in all of my processes, rules, discipline come into effect. And there are rules in terms of how I present information: I have to present it in a way that's standard, that people can understand, that shops can build, and, nowadays, that shops can literally take my drawings, put them into the machine, and out from the other side comes a cut, finished product. So, I need the discipline to know how to supply them with the information they need to do their jobs.
The other discipline issue is that I can spend… six weeks on a project: my process will typically be four weeks of just sketching and drawing and conceptualizing it, and painting, thinking and researching, and in the end I need the discipline to say "Ok, I've got a deadline now, I've gotta commit to something to get this on to paper, to mine the ideas that I felt were most interesting and get them... to turn into something." In my experience, it's probably 90% process and inspiration and 10% discipline and completion.
It seems, that particularly for you, there's so much process and so much information that has to be conveyed—like an architect would. It's pretty easy to see where you can't drop the ball in the work you do. However, on the other end of this, you really couldn't do this work if you didn't have discipline in the first place, and I think it's something that we shy away from encouraging in artistic types, because it feels so regimented and somehow we don't associate "regimen" with "art." I was just wondering if you think that, to you, if you think that it's "discipline" or "drive" or "desire?" What is it that, over the long haul here, fostered that sense of discipline? [You were talking about this earlier], when you were a little kid, when you were talking about finding what we did in this work at ten, thirteen years old and saying, "This is really great! This is meaningful! Take this and keep doing something with it!"
I think it's easy for creative people and artistic people across the board and see that sort of thing and let go of it, wrestle with fear, etc. There's so much that goes into actually Producing The Damn Work. Is that something that can be taught? Is there somebody that you knew.... do you have mentors or people that you know that work like this? You don't just wake up one day and just become someone that's super disciplined.... unless, maybe, you were and I'm making that assumption? Where does that come from? Is it something it something that we can foster? And if so, what do we do? What's your take on that?
Charlie: I think drive is a big part of it. I know a lot of people in my business that want to do this for a living and go through all the rigmarole of learning what they need to learn and the discipline at the beginning, but in the end if you don't have the drive to do it, you're going to stop. In this business, I think probably 90% + of people don't pursue it. So, you have to have the drive to continue.
Where do you get the drive? Good question. I get it, I think, from the end results and the enjoyment of the process. I get it from the satisfaction that I've gone through something and come out the other end with something I'm proud of, and I think you can probably foster that kind of drive if you're allowing students to do what they need to do to get through their process. I don't know that you necessarily need to commend them on the other side, but it certainly helps if you have something that's worth seeing on the other side. But, you know, the drive comes and goes. There are certainly many days when I think I don't have it anymore, I don't want to do it—that I just have to find something else that's easier, that pays better, whatever. My drive, I would say, fluctuates.
But in the end, it's always there.
I don't give up. I continue to do it. So there's something in me and in most artists that do it—and I don't know a single artist out there that doesn't question what they're doing. Even the successful ones, even the ones I work with who are on Broadway and everywhere else. I have these conversations constantly about "Why didn't I become a lawyer, why didn't I become a doctor, why didn't I become something else that's easier?" I think it's an innate thing or something that was fostered by a teacher or a parent or somebody else in your life-- I can't quite put my finger on it, but that's part of it.
But, the discipline of it: you know, you have this inspiration, you have this drive, then you need to be disciplined enough to handle it, to get through it... to handle the phone calls that come through and the bills that you need to pay and the software you need to update. The discipline comes through at the end of the process and in the end it's the drive that carries you through.
I think probably both can fostered: certainly the discipline can be learned, that can be taught. "You need to work three hours a day on figure drawing, you need to work on your drypoint rendering or your water colors. You need to apply yourself and you need to give yourself three hours a day to achieve this or achieve that." Certainly that [element of] discipline can be taught. Whether students can take what they learn and that discipline and apply it for their lives depends on their inclination and their drive and determination to do that. So, discipline can be taught. Drive can be fostered, but I think it probably comes from within... and I think creating that within yourself is a process that develops not from one particular person; I think you have to mine it out of yourself and apply the encouragement of other people to that, to help you continue to go.
So, let me think out loud here: It sounds to me like your process, your drive is something that is really innate. Like, you're into digging through the work of it. I guess that really makes sense, because you also have a career that requires a lot of digging, and when you talked about what you do for a living and the process involved in that: there's so much research and rendering and thinking and so much that goes into it. I was thinking that it's so interesting that there are so many ways that you do your job—you’re really never doing Just One Thing—and I thought that sounded particularly interesting to me.
But I'm thinking, is it possible (and maybe the answer's just "No." I don't know.).... have you ever had anybody tell you to just relax and not worry about it so much? We can be on either end of the spectrum, like "Ugh, I really don't want to get up and do the extra hour of work. I don't want to do another rendering of blah-blah-blah; I don’t want to redo it." And then there's the other end of "I love this work! I love the process!"
Do you have trouble, maybe, finishing it? ...or is it the finished product that's really exciting to you? Or, have you ever, in the process of this, because process is so important to you, have you ever had someone say "Relax, you don't have to be so concerned about it; you don't have to work so hard." Would that have been a damper for you? Has that ever happened?
I think it certainly happens because I do work a lot; I work pretty much every day. I don't take vacations and I don't take days off all that often. I work long hours and my family, my friends, whenever I say "Oh, I have a deadline," they say exactly that: "You need to relax! You need to take a break! You need to stop focusing on and worrying about this kind of thing."
And I could, probably. I could do my job more simply. If I'm doing a show that's a box set, I can turn out a box set in no time.
But that's not interesting to me. I don't want to just pump out work that's mediocre or that isn't interesting to me, that doesn't engage the creative side of my brain. To me, that’s work. I mean, I know what I do is work, but that's the part of what I do that I don't enjoy. It's the exploring and the pushing and the discovering new ways to do it differently or apply colors in an interesting way or incorporate movement into something that you wouldn't expect... that kind of thing keeps me going. So, certainly, yes, people tell me stop or slow down, to not work as often, take easier shows. And I hear that and I know that I could do that, probably, but that turns what I do into a job, and what's wonderful about what I do is that, although I do it all the time, it doesn't always feel like a job to me.
Most of the time it feels like a privilege.
And when I'm living in that place of "it is a privilege" then it doesn't matter that I don't take vacations or that I don't take time off. All the time I'm getting to do something that makes me happy. ... it's my job, but it's my hobby and it's my life and what I love to do. It's icing on the cake if, in the end, other people appreciate what I've done and I get good reviews in the paper or people say nice things. Then it's worth it. But it's also worth it if people question it: "I don't understand that choice," or "That was very unusual use of color," or whatever because then I'm getting people thinking. I'm engaging people: I'm making them question. They're not just being complacent.
To me, I want to enjoy the work. I don't want to slow down or take short cuts. There are parts of it that I would gladly give over to other people: the administrative side of my business or the constant meetings and phone calls with producers and all that sort of stuff. I'd gladly give that part of it up! But the creative side of it? Never.
Great. I'm glad we went in that direction. Now, I always tack this on the end: is there anything that's important to you that you want to add?
I think that young artists do need to be encouraged. I think that so often, at least when I was growing up, focus was always on mathematics and language and business and whatnot-- and that's all fine! But I think that the arts can provide you with a base, even if you go into any of those other disciplines: having an artistic mind that allows you to conceptualize, to expand on thoughts, to mull things over, to have a process is beneficial to *whatever* you go into. It just opens up parts of your brain that you don't normally get to use when you're just working on business or just doing math.
Whether or not people go into the arts might be a bigger question, but should they be encouraged to *do* art, to explore that? Absolutely.
I think it's one of the most important aspects of a young developing brain to have: to have the ability to make mistakes and to explore and conceptualize and theorize and color and paint. ... Regardless of what the output is from that person, whether it's considered "good art" or "bad art" or whatever. I mean, that's all just a matter of opinion anyway.
But, whatever the result of it is, anyway—just to be allowed to have that process and have that process encouraged is a positive thing. I think it would be the worst thing in the world to have this country to cut arts programming. I can't quite figure out, quite frankly, can't even understand why in the United States we're so completely under-funded in the arts, whereas other parts of the world, Europe in particular, are funded nationally for their art programs.
We're so under-funded in this country; it boggles my mind.