A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Mirena Rada ‘94
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
Freelance designing all over the world, raising a teenage son, living my best life in this crazy world, while always seeking inspiration.
You graduated in 1994 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
The overarching principles of my career are adaptability and operating outside the comfort zone. As a young aspiring designer, my goal straight out of graduate school was to become a renaissance woman in my field, proving to myself and others that I could design anything and everything. I did in fact design a wide gamut of contemporary to fantasy projects, avant-garde theatre, Off-Broadway and Broadway theatre, dance, circus, special events, film, television, uniforms, theme parks etc. However, due to creative as well as lifestyle components, it eventually became obvious which types of projects were the most rewarding, and for the past decade I have found my niche in large scale highly imaginative spectaculars which incorporate some of my favorite non-traditional costume elements such as large sculptural pieces, inflatables, electrification, special effects, challenging environments, etc. My favorite part of the process is the collaboration with other creative minds and talented hands around the globe, brilliant passionate people who always bring more to the table than I can ever dream of on my own, but whose special contributions I can channel into the final product. We do not work in a vacuum; my design is only as good as the people who build, shape, light, and perform in it, and my job is to spark the idea and then carefully and joyously connect the dots between all of us.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I keep in touch with alumni and advise current students or recent grads. My current domicile is in Los Angeles, so unfortunately I miss many of the New York centric alumni events and Design Shows, but lately I have been more proactive about attending the West Coast brunch and catching up with other alumni.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
The NYU connection was crucial early in my career. Anna Louizos ‘89 and Steve Olson ‘87 were amazing role models and mentors when I was first hired to paint models in Tony Walton’s studio right after graduation. Dan Kuchar ’93 and I collaborated on many seasons of the Big Apple Circus, an inspiring experience that was seminal to my career today. And, of course, Anna Louizos ‘89 and I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design Avenue Q, which has had an incredibly long life on and off-Broadway. Elizabeth Bourgeois ‘00, another uber-talented NYU alumna was my assistant on those projects as well.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
Avenue Q, the long-running irreverent puppet/human show, was undoubtedly a major highlight of my career, especially financially, which gave me credibility and access in the entertainment world. I am also very proud of my extensive Disney work, which includes numerous parades and shows, such as the water spectacular Fantasmic (which we opened in Tokyo during the Fukushima disaster) and recently the reinvented Lion King show we just opened in Paris, and then undoubtedly the most technologically challenging project of my career - Disney’s Paint the Night Electric Parade in Hong Kong and California. I’ve always been an out-of-the-box costume designer who thrives on non-traditional materials and techniques, but this project had to be the most difficult, rewarding and defining of my career. Now that I know what I know about electric costumes, I feel this is only the beginning.
When did you get interested in theater and how?
Like most kids, I became interested in theatre in high school. I immigrated to the US from Romania in the early eighties as a political refugee, in difficult circumstances which forced me to give up my beloved piano and childhood music career as a pianist. I was desperately searching for a new way to express myself in this new world, and the theatre department was the one place on campus where all the interesting misfits gathered. Theatre nurtured the students’ passions, alleviated teenage angst, and was a safe place to try on new personas. It was the first place I encountered intellectual counterculture, homosexuality and free speech, and it was eye-opening and therapeutic. It still is after all these years.
What or who were your influences?
My first spark into costume design was the epiphany I had around the age of fifteen when I walked into a San Francisco art gallery and saw the splendid work of ERTE, the famed Russian illustrator. His gorgeous elaborate designs were utterly transcending and that newly found fervor initiated a path to fashion and then costume design, which is how I ultimately ended up at NYU. I was also very fortunate to have had some amazing early mentors and later collaborators who showed me the beauty and the human bonding of the theatrical arts, and pushed me to go for the dream: the dreamy costume artist Sally Ann Parsons, the master set designer Tony Walton (without whom I wouldn’t be here today), the intellectual avant-garde costume designer Gabriel Berry, the artful and mischievous costume designer Miruna Boruzescoux, the visionary event producer Karin Bacon, and the whimsical genius of Disney spectaculars Steven Davison. They fed my soul and challenged me to go beyond what I thought would be possible.
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?
John Conklin taught me how to look at the outside world, whether artistic, political or scientific, with eager eyes, squeeze the essence out of the data, and organically synthesize the inspiration into the design. Campbell Baird’s aesthetic also always resonates with me, the way he talked about paint strokes, light and shadow and composition - his influence on my sketches was undeniable.
From outside of school:
Tony Walton’s creative voice and style of collaboration was seminal to my development, and I thank my lucky stars that I worked in his studio when I first started out. Had it been someone else, I’m not sure I would have learned or subsequently applied the same lessons as I developed into my own. Tony is a brilliant artist and legendary set and costume designer who assembled a very special family (because it was so much more than a design studio) of other incredibly talented designers and empowered them to contribute greatly to his vision as well as to develop their own careers. His generosity of spirit permeated every aspect of the design work and collaboration, resulting in not just as perfect as can be final theatrical product, but many lifelong friendships and a lasting vibrant legacy. Tony is my template of how to achieve meaningful artistic and personal success with grace, love and loyalty in this business.
Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel costume designers have that are different ones that other designers may have?
There are indeed ongoing challenges for costume designers in contrast to other designers. It is a fact that generally our time commitment is much higher, for a lower pay than the others on the creative team. The guilds are working on rectifying this issue, but we are still fighting the myth that costumes are women’s work, that everyone is an expert because they wear clothes, that we have a glamorous life of shopping all day with other people’s money, etc… I personally gravitated away from designing contemporary clothing shows and into the fantasy world where my imagination and expertise are taken more seriously, and thus I have managed to avoid some of the pitfalls, but not all. As a woman and costume designer I still had to fight to be taken seriously by the predominantly male world of lighting technicians and engineers when developing cutting edge electric parade costumes.
What are some of your other interests in life?
Living life to the fullest in every way - travel, friends, family, love, food, art, politics. I don’t want to only be defined by my work (though honestly this is a new development in my life) and am incredibly lucky that my projects take me to wonderful locations on other continents where the deep friendships and fruitful collaborations are my lifeblood. It feels like that I have several homes away from home, and nowadays I make it a priority to try to see and experience as much as possible when I am there. My motto is that I will sleep when I’m dead.
What was your favorite snack that your assistant brought to you during tech?
Hm, this may not be politically correct and I won’t name names, but marijuana edibles were a lifesaver during a particularly rough tech. But hey, we’ll do anything to make sure that the show will go on.
Do you have any final thoughts?
The best part of working in this creative field is that it never gets boring, there is always something new to learn, fascinating people to meet and create with, and eager people to inspire... couldn’t ask for a better way to make a living.