A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni, as seen in our monthly department newsletter.
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Andromache Chalfant ‘02
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
Right now I have so many wonderful projects both big and small that fill every day with new challenges and possibility. Each day feels so wildly important. I am proud of the way past accomplishments (and disappointments!) have built a hard earned level of experience that has prepared me to take on larger and longer term projects. At 46 I feel like I am embarking on part 2 of my life and it feels exciting.
You graduated in 2002 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I attribute a large part of my success to the people around me. The support from my family over the years provided the stability I needed to take some risks. I have a tendency to throw myself into new things with abandon, with mixed results. But in general I believe you’ve got to put yourself out there.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I’m a Visiting Arts Professor and I’m also the Area Head of Scenery this year. After teaching single classes in the program for some time as an adjunct, I now have the wonderful opportunity of seeing the whole program in action. It’s humbling to be around so many amazing people with such a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Right now I feel pretty deeply involved and ready to work, and I will enjoy it while it lasts.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
Yes! I love to work with NYU alumni mostly because we tend to speak the same language in terms of work ethic and collaboration. There is a sense that we’ve been through something that has formed who we are, and it feels a lot like family.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
A couple of years out of graduate school I designed scenery for a new play based on Buchner’s Wozzeck, set in New York City post 9/11 at The Public Theater. I was deeply tied to the meaning of raw plywood, for reasons I now can’t recall, but it made up a large part of the the set. One night after tech, the artistic director, George C Wolfe, approached me and said I had to paint the wood because ‘there IS no raw plywood in New York City’. He was wrong! I argued so hard it literally brought me to tears. But then he said something like ‘I don’t know where I am when I look at your set.’ Somehow that got through and I did end up painting it which instantly located us and made the story clearer. I look back on this and see my younger self trying to stand her ground in a deeply hierarchical world that was intimidating and at times seemed unfair. But I also see a formidable force of the theater, Mr. Wolfe himself, taking the time to guide me toward something better.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
In my experience the career began in graduate school. I was lucky to work with a director in my school production who I ended up working with for years after school. Design Show is also where I met a handful of collaborators I still work with today. In those early years when you have the energy and may not be too deeply involved in relationships and family, is a good time to take a bunch of work on both as an assistant and a designer. I think it just gets more complicated later.
Talk about your career as a set designer. For example, what do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
Everything takes much longer than you think it will. This is something I continue to struggle with because it’s partly related to being an optimist, which you don’t want to lose. But if you have an unrealistic sense of time it affects your budget, the work, and your personal relationships, and that’s when things get tricky. Another thing we often forget is that we work in an experimental discipline where things don’t always come out as planned. It has taken me many years to learn the importance of communication in the face of disaster. The urge is to climb into the nearest hole or try desperately to fix it alone, but the more you engage the more people want to help you.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
Often it comes when I enter a shop or enter the theater and I see the set for the first time. I am still wowed by the scale of this medium. I am proud when the design as a whole works and the team is energized by being involved in something unquestioningly good or beautiful. And then of course there is pride when an audience loves the show.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I’m not sure but my mother is an actress, so it probably runs deep. I spent a lot of time in my childhood bedroom alone or with my brother or my friends making stories up, performing, creating costumes, rearranging furniture. I think this is pretty common for many kids. But some of us never grow up.
What or who were your influences?
Having been raised in an artistic family I was exposed to a lot of art from a young age. This was enhanced by my liberal arts college experience. In my senior year a visiting artist named Judy Pfaff came to install a massive steel and wood sculpture in the gallery. I was struck by the scale of the work in comparison to her tiny size. I knew right then that I wanted to work on a big scale. It seemed powerful. So much of what influences you is connected to some aspirational thread inside of you. I think we know it when we see it.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices? From School?
TIME MANAGEMENT. DISCIPLINE. FOCUS. RELATIONSHIPS.
From Outside of school?
IT’S A SMALL WORLD. DON’T BURN BRIDGES. WORK IT OUT.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I’ve started to write. I’m not sure where it will take me but I have begun to write a play loosely based on the Phedre myth and my childhood home. It takes place on the Upper West Side in 1979.
Any final thoughts?
Career and loving what you do is what makes life rewarding and fun. But nothing is worth your good health, friends, or family. Listen to your intuition. Explore darkness when it comes but choose lightness when you can. Hit the ground running after grad school but plan to take some deep pauses along the way.