A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Jordan Jacobs ‘96
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
I am just starting to Art Direct HBO’s version of the novel Plot Against America with designer Richard Hoover. It portrays an alternative history where Charles Lindberg defeats President Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Even though the novel was written 14 years ago, the parallels to our current day are frightening. I just recently finished production of the new Tales of the City with designer Lester Cohen. I am so proud to have worked on a show that was so influential to me as a young gay man coming completely out in the early 1990s. I’m particularly proud of the new production for its real-life exploration of transgender experiences.
You graduated in 1996 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
My success comes from the help I have received throughout my life from focused, thinking, energetic teachers, designers and managers I have had the privilege to meet. I have been working in the entertainment business since I was nine years old and no experience I have had in life is wasted.
I learned the value of training and preparation from the Children’s Chorus master at the Metropolitan Opera, and sharp focus from my ballet teachers at the School of American Ballet. I learned to research and present creative ideas from William Ivey Long as his student and later his personal assistant. I learned to speak to anyone openly and assuredly from my college job doing sales at the Pottery Barn. I learned how to diffuse explosive situations from my therapist. And I learned the politics of a Film/TV production from every designer on my resume. I am still learning every day. Success comes from hard work. Life satisfaction comes from personal investment and respect for those with whom you work.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I have recently reconnected with the Graduate Design program through the Alumni Association. I admire the designers I have known that made the time to work with me when I was a student and young professional. That they would stop and give their valuable time in a busy career is astounding. I try to give a little of that back every day at work with my younger assistants.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
In my role as an Art Director, I hire a lot of people. Early on, I realized that NYU graduates have the “well-roundedness” I need for our Art Department. The set designer’s contribution is an essential part of the end result. It’s anecdotal, but I find my NYU graduates have the vision to understand the process and the knowledge to enrich the details of the design. I’m not saying there is an NYU mafia, but I am very welcoming.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
Gosh, never underestimate the ability of a detail to be misunderstood. So many times have I walked in the shop or stage to find the carpenters or painters doing the exact opposite of what we asked. I have a zillion stories of ways things went wrong, but the lesson I try to instill with everyone I work with is there is no detail so obvious that it should not go undiscussed. Really. When you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach that this will go wrong, Say it.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
I have to thank Andre Durette ’96 for giving me his part-time job while he went off to design Summer Stock at the end of our first year. I worked that summer and then the next two years for Jim Fenhagen ‘82 and became an Art Director for his company when I graduated. Jim and his partner designed news, talk shows, corporate theater, and events. I went on to work for other designers in the same profession and then made the difficult transition to Film and TV. I gave up a lot of good steady income to do non-union ‘indie’ films to build my career. My greatest stroke of luck after that was being organized into United Scenic Artist Local 829 by Beverly Miller. That allowed me to jump into big-budget union Television and Film. From there I just built on one show after another.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
I’m an Art Director, so it’s Communication. It’s what it is all about. Organize it and communicate it. The challenge I see all of the time is the balance between too much organization and not enough communication. For every piece of paper and email, we put out it has to be followed by conversations with the folks that have to do the work. Obvious, but not followed often enough.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
I could talk about specific projects, but I’d prefer to tell you about what makes me proud on a daily basis. At NYU, Campbell Baird taught us that "it’s not show fun, it’s show business.” I adore Campbell, but I have made it my number one priority with every Art Department I set up that we have fun. Every interaction I have I try to remember before speaking; Is it true, Is it fair, is it kind. People react well to this.
Our work is so difficult and high pressure. There is every opportunity to pass ‘distress’ downhill. My job is to set up a productive and creative space where everyone enjoys coming to work. "Where everyone feels safe to talk to anyone else. I make sure whatever pressure or bad news I receive from the top the people drawing, painting, building, decorating never know it. I am super proud of this philosophy, as I can assure you this is not every person or show.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I began ballet class at seven and singing opera professionally at the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus in 1977 when I was nine. I grew up in NYC, and my parents took me to Broadway, Dance, Symphonic, and Opera performances regularly. My father is an Architect, and with the tools I needed at home, I started making set models of the shows I had seen from the cardboard from my father’s shirts and or an unfortunate record cover from his collection. I went on to study acting, The Neighborhood Playhouse as a teen, and then acting, directing, dramaturgy, and design at Playwrights Horizons through the NYU TSOA UG Acting program. I was raised to be a designer but yearned to be a performer. But the acting business was not for me and after the kindness shown to me one day by Robin Wagner when I was working for William Ivey I knew where I belonged. Set Design. NYU set me on my path, and it’s been one lucky break after another since.
What or who were your influences?
This is a hard one. I am a huge fan of so many styles and artists. I have always felt an affinity for 18th Century Britain, but also 1920s Soviet Constructivism, but the Bauhaus is so important but also is my book of Classical house details. Between my modern Architect father and my Egyptologist/Gallery owner mother (I grew up with real Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts in the house), how could I choose one? I am a Set Designer and not an Architect because I like to work in many styles. I don’t have a strict design philosophy.
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?
I mentioned Campbell Baird before. I’ll never get Lowell Detwiler out of my head. “Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.” He had a rubber stamp he would mark our watercolors with those words if there were some imperfection. I’ll never be good enough.
From Outside of school?
My therapist. “Don’t mirror back the bad behavior.”
What are some of your other interests in life?
I am currently developing Art Department software to help organize, communicate, and document Film and Television projects. After several years of development, I hope to be in Beta testing soon. More to come...
Any final thoughts?
I am grateful for my union. I have healthcare, a pension, and savings. I have workplace safety and a contract that protects me from the race to the bottom. These are assets that many Americans no longer enjoy. I believe that we are all responsible for protecting and promoting each other. I am grateful for my theatrical community.