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Training: Speaking with Studio School of Design Co-Founders Mark Stanley and Clifton Taylor

Stage Directions • June 2021Training • May 25, 2021


This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below or in our June 2021 digitial edition

The Studio School of Design was recently announced and began taking registrations. Led by co-founders Mark Stanley and Clifton Taylor, both of whom are lighting designers and educators, along with a diverse pool of fellow designers, the Studio School of Design (SSD) is planning to transform the way design is taught as well as work to make it more equitable and diverse. This training aims to further the goal of lifelong learning for designers from those looking to enter the industry, those who are early to mid-career, and even those who are later on in their careers yet want to get current on some new technology or business practice. With SSD, they are looking to reshape the way design is taught.

Forming the Idea
The idea for this training program came from Stanley’s investigations during a sabbatical he took recently from his position teaching lighting design at Boston University. “I’m not a trained teacher, I was a professional designer who had an interest in educating young people in the profession,” explains Stanley. “After 15 years of doing that, I needed to step back and evaluate for myself, was I doing the right thing? Was I teaching students what they needed to know for today’s career? Because it is very different from when I was a student, and I wanted to take a long, hard look at that.” 

He held several roundtable conversations with three groups—professional designers who teach, early career designers who had been out of school three to five years, and professional designers who hire early career designers for their studios or as assistants. “One of the things that kept coming up—across the board—theater education is fantastic training in universities,” states Stanley. “What it’s not great training for is the professional world. It provides you great foundations in terms of collaborative work, creative thinking, problem solving, and critical analysis, but—and this is no fault of the schools—they just don’t have the bandwidth to address all the career needs that are out there for lighting designers today.”

Stanley noticed that many of those he interviewed referenced Lester Polakov’s Studio and Forum of Stage Design. “I thought, it was an interesting model, but It needs to be reinvented for today. It was perfect for its own day. Broadway designers teaching young people who wanted to move on to Broadway, but that wasn’t the model I was interested in, but it was a kernel of an idea. Then the pandemic hit, and all my freelance work was gone for a year, so it was now or never!”

A More Equitable Model
In Stanley’s discussions with Taylor on teaching design, they both wanted this new model for training to address issues that are very prevalent in theater design. Taylor notes, “We wanted to talk about systemic problems that we have—the white-centering, the male-centering, all these issues. What came out of these talks was a desire to partner together in crafting a new kind of school. Some of it came from what we see are problems in the industry and the difficulties of the existing institutions; to be able to solve those problems. We’re all trying to solve the problems in our own ways. But we felt that a New York-based experiential school that targeted both mid-career professionals and people entering the business could more quickly address these systemic problems.”

Stanley agrees, “The challenge that we are setting for ourselves to solve is how to provide the best possible professional education in design and assure that this pathway leads toward breaking down systemic barriers to equity and inclusion that have been in place for too long.” In addressing the question what the need is, Stanley points to the founding principles for the school. “One is that we need to create diversity in our field. The cost of university education is problematic for a lot of people, and maybe not even the best path for them individually. We wanted to create a more diverse, more equitable way into the lighting design field, and at the same time promote the fact that we are a much larger community than just White men who have been successful in the careers.”

Studio School of Design’s core principles include: Developing a new interdependent community of practice where experiential learning is embedded into a curriculum of design storytelling; Providing professional training, taught by professional designers; Celebrating the full range of human cultural expression and identity; and Supporting those who are or have previously been marginalized or excluded from the design professions.

Alternative Career Paths in Design
What became clear to both Stanley and Taylor was “there’s a lot we don’t know about the rest of the design field in other areas,” says Stanley. “Many of us are trained as theater designers, but you might want to think about architectural lighting, you might want to think about consulting, cruise ships, or concerts, or TV lighting. There’s no pathway for that other than, maybe by luck, getting a job that leads you in that direction. We wanted to create a center whereby the community of existing designers had an opportunity to broaden their own career paths.”

The last part of the plan—and the one that’s most dear to Stanley’s heart—is creating a curriculum program “that teaches design in a way that is for the students now; takes advantage of not only technology, but artistic training that, maybe they can’t find anywhere else. I find a lot of programs now are pivoting toward entertainment design, or more technology-driven choices in their design teaching. For me, design has to be grounded in design, first and foremost, and then it’s applied to the technologies in a secondary way.” So, those were the three needs that they saw: the diversity, the skills, and the curriculum that was designed-focused. 

Brush Up Your Skills
Planning for the curriculum of SSD, they are really targeting the full range of a career. “We believe that given the speed at which the technology changes, business rules and tax law changes, and the other adjustments that happen in the industry, that all of us should be moving towards a lifelong learning model,” says Taylor. “Figuring out the optimal way to design with the latest LED fixture, navigating the tax code as a freelancer, reworking your lighting design for a Zoom production, negotiating the fee for your next gig are all practical skills that we working professionals need now. We’ll continue to fill out the curriculum as we offer more and more classes, as well as thinking about all these distinct demographic groups.” That is why SSD offers flexible registration options. Students can register for the entire course or you can register for individual classes if there is a specific topic that you are interested within the course. 

For the 2021 summer, courses will be online and begin the first week of June 2021. Registration is open now. In the future classes and courses will be offered both online and in-person. “Right now, we really felt we needed to start with giving online classes. As soon as this is up and running, we’re going to expand this curriculum of online classes, we’re also going to be looking for a space or spaces to do in-person classes,” explains Taylor. “We also want to expand into other design areas as well, which is why we didn’t call it the School of Lighting Design.”

Diverse and Accessible Training
As to addressing diversity, Taylor comments, “it’s all about proactively recruiting in underserved, under-represented communities. I’m doing what I do today because of the local high school programs and other opportunities that existed when I was growing up. We’re trying to open up the industry to the full range of communities, cultures, genders that exists in this country; and that exist around the world. Because we’re online, we can accept students from all over the world. We’re trying to decenter the industry so that more peoples’ voices, more stories come into our world. By setting up classes that are low cost and accessible online, we’re hoping to increase the pool of talent that’s coming into the industry.” 

The SSD team is actively raising money to make the courses both as low cost as possible, but also offer scholarships for people who need them. There’s a scholarship application on the website for those in financial need. “We’re forming a scholarship committee to look at those applications and decide how to award those scholarships,” explains Taylor. “Built into the current budget with our current fundraising, we’re offering scholarships for all the classes, and as we raise more money, we hope to make more scholarships available. We don’t want cost to be a barrier to engaging with our classes.”

The Studio School of Design Team
The Studio School of Design is led by a group of individuals bringing decades of experience in education, design, not-for-profit management, media, equity, diversity, inclusion, law, and the lighting industry. In addition to co-founders Stanley and Taylor, the Board includes Ken Tabachnick, George. B Walker, Jr., Linda Shelton, Pat MacKay, and Peter Vincent. The SSD faculty and advisors includes Abigail Rosen-Holmes, Adam Honoré, Al Crawford, Alejo Vietti, Amith Chandrashaker, Anne Militello, Avi Yona Bueno, Bob Barnhart, Christina Watanabe, Craig Stelzenmuller, Heather McAvoy, Irene Byrne Ohl, Jane Cox, Jennifer Tipton, Jesper Kongshaug, Kenneth Posner, Natasha Katz, Nick Gonsman, Richard Pilbrow, Roma Flowers, Tyler Micoleau, and Xavier Pierce. 

Stanley notes that the advisory group has contributed a lot of great ideas for the future. “We’re going to be offering seminars in addition to regular courses,” he says. “There will be one-off seminars. We hope to do regionally based intensives. So, there’s a lot more to come. A lot of ideas on the table that our wonderful advisory group keeps rolling at us. The future is bright in terms of ideas right now.” “We’re very proud of this group of people,” agrees Taylor. “They’ve all worked—and continue to work—so hard to make this happen. This is not a project of Mark and Clifton’s; it’s really a community project where we have all seen a real need for this school and are coming together to create it. 

Learn more about registration and find course information and schedules at www.studioschoolofdesign.com 

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