What Fresh Hell is This?

by Elizabeth Flauto
Munchkins of The Wiz Live! wearing Flauto’s hats: Designer Paul Tazewell (Blue hat: Lynne Mackey studio)
Munchkins of The Wiz Live! wearing Flauto’s hats: Designer Paul Tazewell (Blue hat: Lynne Mackey studio)

Surviving a Home-Based Costume Craft Studio

If we didn’t love to be constantly challenged to create, invent, develop, and engineer new projects, techniques, and relationships, we would not do theater at all. This eternal exploration is at the heart of our business, art, and craft. Theater artists, as a tribe, are curious, clever, and fearless, as we tell new stories, invent new characters and creatures, and delve into worlds foreign to our own. None of us would trade this for anything. Which is not to say that it does not sometimes get us down.

In order to keep pursuing our business/art/craft with vigor and passion, we all need to find our place in it, to chisel out a niche for ourselves that suits our individual characters and needs. For me, this took a long time – 20 years or my whole life depending on when you start counting. I grew up in the theater, and have only quit 2 or 3 times. I did theater as a young person, professional and amateur, followed by a BS in theater at the University of Evansville and an MFA in theater design at the University of Texas. I have worked in every aspect of costumes and at every level over my career. I have worked in regional, community, educational, and summer stock theater, on tours, both On- and Off-Broadway, in opera and dance. I have freelanced for 25 years and have been a designer, assistant, researcher, shopper, wardrobe, draper, stitcher, painter/dyer, distresser, wig stylist (not my finest work), shop manager, shoe painter, rhinestoner, milliner, graphic and web designer, photographer, leatherworker, maskmaker, teacher, and Microsoft Excel paperwork queen, many of these concurrently. I took every job that sounded interesting, exciting, lucrative, and challenging, and many that didn’t and weren’t. I have been incredibly happy and fulfilled and massively disappointed and exhausted. I wouldn’t trade any of them. OK, most of them.

As my 40s approached and I started thinking about crazy things like kids, sleep, stability, gardening, and sanity, I considered my options. Leave the business? Seek a steady/permanent job like shop management, teaching, or permanent regional shop staff? Or try to spin my experience and skills into a more feasible freelance life without leaving everything and everyone I know behind? I opted for the third, determined to narrow my scope to costume crafts, and develop a business that would complement the other parts of my life rather than consume them. This experiment has been pretty successful over the last 5 years, and now Stage Directions has asked me to share some of the wisdom, challenges, and questions it has presented.

(Also see a gallery of Flauto's work at the end of this article.)

Financial/Business Considerations
As freelancers in the arts, we are constantly walking a line. This could be the topic of a whole, or even series of articles, but briefly consider the things you handle alone as a freelancer:

Marketing: your resume, portfolio, website, business cards, contact base, social media presence, personal brand, face-to-face contacts, phone interviews, mailers. These elements require their own skills separate from the ones you build for your craft. Computer, graphic design, Internet, and interpersonal skills are crucial to any freelancer. Social media is, on the one hand, an incredible and powerful resource for self-promotion and contact-building, but is also full of pitfalls. Anyone you know, and many people you don’t, including potential employers and colleagues, can see what you put online and what people put online about you. Curating a brand is not something most individuals used to have to do, but it is now!

Facilities and equipment: space, including rent/bills (even if it is in your own home), equipment acquisition and maintenance, materials stock. Sometimes you have to turn down a job because you don’t have the stuff. Sometimes you purchase a pricey piece of equipment for a particular project and it gets cancelled. Sometimes your sewing machine breaks at midnight on a Sunday and you have to go to the 24-hr Walmart across town to get a new one to meet your deadline. Staying on top of it all can be expensive and time consuming.

Accounting: bids and invoices, accounts receivable and payable, collections, materials expenses and reimbursement, taxes (including your own W-2s, 1099s, deductions, quarterly estimated payments, plus 1099s for your potential subcontractors,) personal and business budgeting, insurance and liability, and incorporating vs. being an independent contractor. These are not things that come easily to many of us (me included). They are, however, crucial to the survival of your business.

Staffing: This can be a real challenge for the small business, as finding and keeping skilled staff is difficult. I don’t keep any permanent or full-time staff in my studio. I hire independent sub-contractors for short-term work when I have a big project coming up or for day work when I need an extra hand. I tend to employ young, excited theater artists, often recent graduates, as subcontractors. This is a plus for me and for them. I get to have people around me who continue to work at other places, so I get fresh and up-to-date perspectives on the world outside my studio. I get to watch people build on skills they have learned in school or at other jobs but maybe haven’t applied to millinery or crafts. For them, I try to be the kind of employer I believe in. I pay a competitive wage and don’t make them clock out for lunch. I work around their other commitments. I don’t demand unrealistic hours or loyalties. I share any experiences I have had that I think might be helpful to them in their careers in the larger world of the costume business. They get to build their resumes and portfolios by working on high profile and unusual projects across the spectrum of the business. When they move on, I am proud of them and I hope they think of me as the crazy aunt/mentor who told the truth and exposed them to surprising parts of the costume world from my extremely disordered basement lair.

Personal/Emotional Considerations
As your own business and your own boss, it’s very easy to get subsumed in the dramatic ups and downs that are intrinsic to both freelancing and theater. When you don’t work for another entity, there is no one to tell you what to do, but there is also no one to protect you. You need to do it yourself.

Get your ego out of it. Sometimes things are cut before, during, or after you make them. Sometimes you do exactly what the designer wants and everyone is happy, and the actor, or the choreographer, or the producer’s niece, or Steven Sondheim, requests a cut or a change. Sometimes you have no idea what is happening or why. This can be hard, but is not (necessarily) a judgment on your product. Often I deliver a project and it goes into tech and the run without me ever hearing anything about it – how it was received, if it fit, if it held up under long use. This is particularly tricky in a case like mine, in which my business is often remote from the base of production, and I sometimes never meet the people involved or see the finished product on stage. I try to follow up and ask, but sometimes not much info comes back. For your own sanity, you have to assume, if you did what was asked, and you feel good about what you made, and no one tells you otherwise, you go on to the next thing. If it does come back for changes or repair, or you find that it was not well received or did not satisfy, the best and only thing you can do is offer to fix it or build it again, without charge if it’s your fault, and not if it isn’t. And remember we make art, and the only constant is risk. We do our best. Sometimes we fail. We hate it, but we get on. 

Take care of yourself, because no one else will. It took me until I was 38 to realize how much sleep I really need. Also food. As a designer or technician out and about on different work sites, it was easy for me to run all day on the adrenaline of tech, the energy of the workplace, coffee, fast food, and the collective passion/insanity that we develop making theater. Working at home, often alone, I don’t get that buzz very often, and I need to behave like a normal person. I regulate my schedule. I work 10-6 with a lunch break. I cook dinner, do my dishes, and read to my kids. I go to bed. In a crunch I work at night when it’s quiet and I am still unbelievable productive during my favorite hours of 10 pm to 2 am, but I have a life beyond my work that cannot be ignored. 

Considerations of Scale
The work of costume crafts is by nature full of surprises, encompassing a huge variety of skills, including established techniques and improvisation. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you can do and want to do vs. what it is reasonable to do.

Narrowing your focus. Targeting your business can make you more successful and less crazy. I still do a variety of types of projects, and it never gets boring, but I try to focus on hats, thermoplastic masks, and accessories like leather pieces. I don’t make shoes or (usually) armor or walkaround characters. I don’t knit, crochet, bead, embroider, or macramé. I don’t make clothes at all. I turn down dyeing and distressing, partly because it’s not my favorite and partly because it’s messy, toxic, and takes a lot of space and equipment. I am not afraid to refer another crafter or craft business if I think I’m wrong for the project. I am able to play on and improve my strongest skills and feel confident in the work I put out. Feeling secure in my skills and knowing approximately how long it will take BEFORE I start working on a project helps me keep calm in the face of what is sometimes (if I’m lucky) a huge pile of work.

Be proud and realistic about your work. Know where and how it fits in. Delusions of grandeur can be a real pitfall of the small business. I don’t work for the Rockettes. I never say I can make 200 identical pieces of anything, or that I can do the work of a factory or a large shop. What’s valuable about my business and brand is that I make each thing individually and I touch all of it. I pursue and succeed at large scale projects – 40 different hats for a Broadway show, custom animal masks for the Metropolitan Opera, managing a millinery studio for a large ballet or opera production – but keeping the business light allows me the flexibility to choose to work for smaller theaters with lower budgets, to work for friends in a tight spot, to make something totally unusual in a new and completely unconventional way.

I want to add, as a final caveat, that this is not an instruction manual. Every freelancer will have a different approach as to how to manage themselves and their business, and many of them would disagree with me. Maybe this is actually no way at all to run a business, but it is a way I have found to maintain my life as an artist, to stay in the world of theater, to have kids and friends outside the business, and to not burn myself down to the ground. I will never get rich, but I stay fresh and passionate in my work, and I am never ONLY a manager or a teacher or a craftsperson or a mom but all of those, every day. That works for me.  

Scroll through the gallery below to see images of Flauto’s work:

25,15,0,50,2
1,600,60,0,5000,1000,25,2000
100,100,0,50,12,25,50,2,70,12,2,50,2,0,0,5000
0,0,0,0,0,16,0,0,4,0,1,0,0,1
Rat mask for Rusalka at The Metropolitan Opera
Rat mask for Rusalka at The Metropolitan Opera
Rat mask for Rusalka at The Metropolitan Opera
Munchkin hats for NBC’s The Wiz Live! Designer Paul Tazewell
Munchkin hats for NBC’s The Wiz Live! Designer Paul Tazewell
Munchkin hats for NBC’s The Wiz Live! Designer Paul Tazewell
Hat from Mary Poppins, Designer Leon Dobkowski
Hat from Mary Poppins, Designer Leon Dobkowski
Hat from Mary Poppins, Designer Leon Dobkowski
Triton Headdress, The Little Mermaid, Designer Robin McGee
Triton Headdress, The Little Mermaid, Designer Robin McGee
Triton Headdress, The Little Mermaid, Designer Robin McGee

You can learn more about Flauto’s work at www.elizabethflauto.com