Working on “New Works”: a discussion with Jimmy Stubbs

Jimmy Stubbs, currently an MFA candidate in Scenic Design at Yale School of Drama. In 2013 he graduated from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School where I taught him his senior year of high school in IB Theatre. We both are alumni of The University of Maryland Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. We worked together most recently on And Then There Were None and The Music Man at Good Counsel.

Jimmy preparing before a performance of The 1940s Radio Hour.

KF: What are you working on now?

JS: Right now I’m working on The Carlotta Festival.  It’s the festival of the third year playwrighting student’s thesis plays where the 3 third years produce a major work that they’ve been developing during their studies.  I will be designing one of the plays which will be running in repertory and it’s called You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz who is a very good playwright.  This might be my very first time working on a new work.

KF: That’s exciting.

JS: That’s more in the wheelhouse of what you’re thinking about, but it’s not really anything I’ve gotten close to interacting with is working on a project with a playwright making edits.  

KF: It’s a cool process.  I’m excited for you to get to experience it as a designer.

JS: Yeah.  Usually, the faceless playwright is God, in Western text-based theatre practice, and the director is the artistic head.  But now, God doesn’t exist, there’s a person in the room and there’s someone who has more control than the director or producer.  He’s in the room for all rehearsals. The director will often defer to the playwright or they’ll get into arguments about what is right and it’s just a whole different arm of dialogue.

It’s tricky because this play is written in a very particular style that challenges realism and surrealism.  It’s sort of a very heightened stylized theatricality that’s in pursuit of the more real, but therefore it’s more fragmented.  It’s kind of complicated, so we had to define “what is reality.” It’s a whole, new different conversation about playmaking.

KF: Are you familiar with Tectonic Theatre Company’s Moment Work devised process?

JS: No.

KF: It’s a rehearsal/devising technique that democratizes the entire process and says, “we’re all equals here with different voices, talents, and opinions.  I’d be very interested to see you experience that process at some point in your trajectory as a designer because I think it allows for more organic theatrical moments to occur. Instead of departments being siloed, set can feed lights can feed costumes can feed performers, and vice versa.  

JS: That sounds very interesting.  This particular process is hardly democratic.  That is sort of the experience of a designer, especially with people you haven’t worked with.  At least from my approach, I have to wait and identify what form of government is defining space and behavior. And this one is very particular because not only is this playwright in the room, he has very particular opinions.

Kristina Friedgen: Let’s reverse back in time eight or so years now and tell me about what you were like when you were my student.

Jimmy Stubbs: I would say that when I was your student, I was an enthusiastic, passionate, over-achieving, narcissist.  Now there’s definitely been a shift in consciousness in how you perceive yourself. Being narcissist, unconsciously, how that relates to having a strong self-image and self-criticism practice.  In some ways now that I’m in graduate school and it’s very rigorous, this is going to sound a little depressing, but in some ways, I dislike my work more than ever before. Which is to say that I have a very critical eye for my own work.  I still have a lot of the enthusiasm and high opinion of myself as I did then, but there’s a shift in awareness as to where it’s coming out and where it’s coming from. 

Jimmy as Grantiere in Les Misérables in high school.

But I’ve talked to so many of my classmates from high school about what I was like then.  People have told me that I was enchantingly charismatic and an absolute asshole. So that’s sort of what I was like when I was one of your students.  I was often seeking attention and seeking media output for self-expression, but it was largely with the object of self-feeding my attention-hungry process.  It was a unique theatre-kid outlet to creating art, which in many ways I’ve evolved out of.  

What I specifically remember is that I loved being your class and I think I learned a lot, but I don’t think I did very well on most of the assignments.  That’s something that I’ve been trying to make sense of all day. I remember that I didn’t actually finish the classwork. I didn’t entirely grasp the goal of some of the assignments, but I think largely that was because your approach to educating and teaching theatre was much more towards positive, actual creation and self-expression in a way that I was not entirely ready for.  

KF: Remind me which class you were in:?

JS: IB Theatre.  I dug into my DropBox to see if I had any remnants of your class and I do.  I refreshed my memory – I developed a musical revue concept that was going to be a biographical depiction of the life of Carol Channing.  It was titled Raspberries and Razzmatazz. And if that doesn’t give you an essence of how I missed the fundamental points of IB Theatre, I don’t know what does. But at the same time, I look at that and I think, “Jimmy, you’re missing the fundamental point of the assignment.” But then I also specifically remember that I showed some of that stuff to a college theatre program and they offered me a full-ride scholarship, which was wild.

KF: As I remember you weren’t an IB candidate?

JS: No.

KF: And it was my first year teaching IB, so it wasn’t worth it to chastise you for missing the point of the assignment if you were able to hit criteria of the assignment that was more meaningful and personal to you.  I can’t think of anything more Jimmy than an ode to Carol Channing.

JS: IB has largely been hailed as a great training program for mastering the art of generating pedagogy to fill the air in support of an idea.  I took that class and I took IB Art and it was interesting being an artist, but not an IB student in the IB Arts classes, which were more geared toward non-artistic, IB thinkers.

Set Design for And Then There Were None by Jimmy Stubbs.

KF:  I want to push us on to another question. If you could pick any project for us to work together on now, what would it be?

JS: The last thing that we briefly discussed working on together was a production of Nine and that came to mind.  I stand by that answer, because first of all, I feel like as we both grow as theatre artists, though in different points of our journies, we are definitely expanding into very different sanctions of what theatre is.  To a certain extent, I’m not entirely sure what would be an ideal project for the two of us to work on, but that feels like something that would excite both of us.

KF: You’re totally right because my vision for that piece is to do Act One and Act Two in entirely different styles.  I want to do Act One super minimalistically, like this is the interior of Guido’s mind and every woman gets a perch and she only gets to come down from her perch when Guido needs to play with her.  And then Act Two, I would just be like “Jimmy, I want you to come up with the most Jimmy-est design for the Grand Canal. There should be flying Venetian craziness everywhere. Go nuts.”

JS: How does Act I end?

KF: It ends with him getting the idea for Cassanova as his next movie.

JS: Yeah.  I love that idea because in some ways the play is about an artistic plot, and a big dark void with ladies on perches is kind of what his brain not generating any ideas actually looks like.  Interesting. And there’s so much talk in that piece about how he’s like an impossible, misogynist, god-genius. So the idea that we are complete in the dark and then it all comes out all at once and there’s this explosion of stuff as he has this psychological breakthrough… that could be very cool.  I like that idea.

KF: Yeah.  What I like about that piece is that the women are still very strong and fleshed out, and he has to learn that they exist outside of the realm of his imagination by the end of the piece.  So as his whole life blows up by the end, I wonder do we come back to the original idea his mind and are some of the women missing from perches? Or does he actually learn to see them for who they are and not for who they are to him?  

JS: And additionally, can he relearn to exist inside of himself without depending upon or exploiting either actual women or these hallucinations of women.

KF: Yeah!  Ooh, now we’ve gotten into projections!  Anyway, I’m gonna push us on to my last question.  If you could only pick one lesson you learned from our work together to carry with you through life, what would it be?

JS: My initial impulse was not a specific lesson that you taught, but I feel the lesson is that I would just like to be more like Kristina Friedgen in all of my endeavors.  I tried to find exactly what that meant and how experiences studying under you informed that as an aspiration of mine. I think how it stands out most to me and relates to how I am and work now.  When I remember you as my teacher in high school, I think what I found most incredible about you was that you were such a jack of all trades. And when people use that expression the second half of that is “master of none”.  So it has a dirty reputation as a compliment, but relatively speaking, in the context of that school and that program, you were truly the expert on literally everything. You had so much to give in every area of the medium of theatre to everyone around you, be it the student designers or directors, or actors, playwrights, even the other faculty.  You were such a beacon of knowledge on all things theatre that even if you weren’t an expert lighting technician you still had enough knowledge to be more knowledgable than anybody in the room most of the time. And that’s an asset that you shared with such great grace and modesty. You gave everything that you had to those students. I feel like I could learn anything about everything from you.