Joel Ebarb is a professional theatre designer and the Chair of the Theatre Department at Purdue University. He recently took some time to answer our questions about graduate training for costume design, and pursuing a career in the professional theatre.
Your primary work has been in design, but you have also done a good amount of directing and playwrighting. Would you say that those creative areas feed on each other? In other words, does directing a play ever inspire the designer in you or vice versa?
Whatever we do in theatre, whatever our discipline – we are all storytellers. Even when I started my career as a costume technician, I was involved in helping to tell a story by my contribution as the stitcher or dresser. Playwrights make a world, directors discover the world a playwright has created, and designers help to make the world visible to others – so yes, definitely, they are all intrinsically connected.
How do you go about approaching a new design project? Where do you begin?
Script and research. I read the script until repeating themes and ideas start to emerge, and then I dive into research, looking for a visual “hook” to build my design upon – it can be a phrase that a character speaks that resonates with me, or a comment from the playwright, or a goal of the director. Research can be any type of research—evocative, emotional investigation or hard, concrete, period or regional style research—these “ingredients” start to form the look for the unique story we will be telling and transmitting to the audience.
You’ve worked in diverse places from Chicago, to rural east Texas, to Beijing. How much, if at all, do you consider the prospective audience when you’re approaching a project?
I think audiences are very smart – something many theatre-makers forget or ignore.
Good design should be able to communicate your ideas regardless of the venue or the audience. If you do your job well, the audience will “get it”, no matter who they are.
How would you describe your own time in graduate school?
My training at the University of Houston was exactly what I needed it to be. We were expected to be very independent, there was no hand-holding or coddling. I was given a myriad of opportunities and access to some really amazing teachers and experiences. Through my course work, my class projects, realized productions at school, all of the work I found in the city at various theatres, and my internship at Houston Ballet, I learned how to learn, and most importantly, I learned about the business of theatre. I was very lucky to find a program that suited my temperament and goals so perfectly.
In what ways has your own training prepared you for the work you do professionally?
By learning to be independent and a self-starter, to be a one person operation when necessary, or to push a show through a fully staffed costume shop, I have been able to successfully design in a wide variety of venues—shows where I basically operated out of the back of my car, or shows where I had the luxury of a professional shop to realize my designs. So many young designers can only do their work one way. I learned to roll with the punches, no matter the situation. I am proud to say I can do anything, anywhere, with any budget, with anyone, at any time.
What has been one of the most exciting productions you’ve been involved in?
People always ask this question! All of the shows I designed for director John Green at Indiana Repertory Theatre count as my favorites. John is a director who really trusts his designers, and listens to them, and encourages them to contribute to the process. He never shoots down any idea. He is the final word and makes the decisions, but you feel so free when you work with him to take risks and really have a voice. It is so refreshing, and changed my expectations for all future collaborative processes.
Do you have a “dream show” that you’d like to work on?
Well, I have already designed most of them! Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Macbeth and Love’s Labours Lost by Shakespeare, and The Learned Ladies by Moliere; I have been fortunate enough to design them all! I still want to design a production of The Glass Menagerie and Tartuffe…anyone need a costume designer?
What does Purdue’s program look for in candidates for graduate training?
The true desire to learn. Work experience outside of undergraduate school. A very clear understanding as to why they want to attend graduate school—a defined goal. The ability to communicate. Passion for theatre and the performing arts.
What should a design student be looking for in a graduate training program?
Here is my best advice: find a mentor that inspires you and go to the school where that mentor teaches. The relationship between student and mentor is paramount when choosing a program. There are few relationships in your adult life more important.
What advice would you give to someone who has just graduated and is about to embark on a career as a designer?
Be aggressive. Opportunity does not come knocking on your door. Make your destiny happen. Be prepared—always work to be the most prepared person in the room. Learn how to network and don’t be afraid to use your contacts. Keep your promises. Show up on time. Document your work. Listen to other people. Take your work seriously, but never yourself. Manage your persona and your reputation. Say “please” and “thank you”.
Joel Ebarb is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Costume design credits include a myriad of productions in a variety of venues, including Jean Cocteau Repertory (Off-Broadway), Eclipse Theatre Company (Chicago), Indiana Repertory Theatre (Indianapolis), and twenty-two seasons with the Texas Shakespeare Festival. Joel is an accomplished puppeteer, occasional director and playwright, and novice actor. He is a current member and former Commissioner of the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) Costume Commission and serves on the Advisory Board for Eclipse Theatre Company in Chicago. He is a frequent guest artist at Peking University in Beijing, China. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Joel received a B.A. in English from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and his M.F.A. in Theatre from the University of Houston, where he served as a production intern with Houston Ballet.