Tilly Grimes '10

Wednesday, Apr 1, 2020


A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni

Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes.   This month:  Tilly Grimes ‘10

What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?

Currently, I am developing a few new musicals and the range and difference in scale of all those is really exciting and fun to do simultaneously. Right now, I am in tech for an elaborate video game musical that's all about spectacle: costumes with magic tricks, illumination shifting the scale of the human body, etc. Meanwhile, I’m also sketching a Jacobean period farce and workshopping a kinetic human rom-com coming-of-age folk/rock musical full of messy human clothes that exist on a much more human scale. 

Frankly, I feel lucky to not be pigeon-holed into one niche/area of design; to able to bounce between a spectrum of differing styles and scales. 

In my non-work life, I am very proud of the life and work I share with my partner in work, love, and silliness. And I’m excited that we get to make three new shows together this year, move homes, and take a month to live in London and lark about.

You graduated in 2010 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful? 

Gosh, I think that is incredibly flattering.  Not sure I ever feel particularly productive or successful, but I’ll try and take the compliment. Thank you.

You know, I would say I think “success” in this industry is often a combination of luck, timing, and a little bit who you meet. There are moments that are very fruitful and moments that are unrewarding.  I would say getting to know people and making friends is a very important part of the job. It's the hanging out - or maybe it's the patience to linger, and be about to make friends and be with people to create your community. 

I guess I often get my work from that community of people who for some reason like me and like to have me lurking about their rooms / creative process. I’m not always the right fit for every room - sometimes I'm a great fit for the team; other times it's a long, bad first date that's not a room to return to.  You only learn that through trial and error… unless there is something I’m missing?! Assistant-wise, I’ve been lucky to assemble a great team of people I've had for over five years now, and it's lovely to be able to trust them - and know their strengths/weaknesses and collaborate with them.

I will say something I am very committedly to is making sure I am advocating and managing the money and practical side of design. I like all the paperwork and money to be crystal clear. I like to make sure before anything has begun that what I am taking on board is manageable for me; and if not, I advocate and get the producer to prioritize -so that we as a team are never compromised from day one. 

How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?

I’m not currently involved in the department - Would be happy to be! NYU was difficult but formative and rewarding. I don't think I'd have a career in America without NYU. 

As an international student not from any affluence, it was often very hard to figure out how to even exist in America - how do you file your taxes? How do you get an apartment? How do you get an apartment without a credit history? How do you get a credit history if you can't get a credit card? How do you eat without a credit card? How do you get a social security number? What is a social security number? How the heck does healthcare work?  The amount of times I was treated to dinner by friends - man, do I owe a lot of dinners to some alumni. 

Essentially, I’d love to be able to support international students navigating those things -- it was certainly hard in my first year and no small amount of added stress to deal with. I’d love to find a way to help other students figure that out. A couple of years ago, fellow alumni Eric Southern and I did a workshop on financial planning/coping as a freelance designer and I would have loved that conversation to be more transparent when I was a student.

Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?

Lots! Some of my favorite collaborators are fellow NYU alums. The training and the people that the program attracts have some commonalities I really appreciate. They’re usually brilliant at discussing the text, asking questions, and getting into a conversation about the big picture - which are some of my favorite parts of the process. They have diverse and exciting insights from a range of perspectives, and are open-hearted to collaboration and not afraid of the bad idea or of being wrong. I love the non-prescriptive conversation that I have with many other NYU alumni designers - Mark Barton ‘97, Laura Jellinek ‘09, Eric Southern ‘10, Bradley King ’10 - they’re the ones coming immediately into my brain who I’ve worked with frequently, but there are many others. I’ve worked with more recent alumni and they’ve been wonderful and equally as open-hearted and fab to work with!

What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of any day off that I take. Any time I’m able to find balance. Any time I’m able have a walk or go to an art museum and feed my artistic soul - and not just jump through the hoops of work. New York is a city that really likes to go go go, and it’s always a pressure to answer a phone call or be in a meeting or be here or be there. And so, any time I can be relaxed or present and look at something in a different way, see a tree on a sunny morning and find some curiosity in how it’s doing, whatever it’s doing; or I look at a new piece of art, or I stumble upon an odd character on the street, or sit on a subway and watch two people have a conversation - and it be human and warm-hearted; any time I can look up from the inertia from the daily grind, I feel really proud. They feed my soul more than any award or any success can. I mean, those feed my soul sure, but it’s the quiet moments that I feel most proud of. 

Hilferty said in one of our intro days -- it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but I think it’s a long series of sprints. At least, it feels that way. So you need some solid pit stops to recharge for the next. You’re always rushing for something. So I’m constantly trying to slow down and be more of a slow and steady wins the race kind of human.

But what in my career specifically am I most proud of? There are shows that I’ve done that I feel we’ve made really good work on; there are collaborations where I’ve shown up where maybe even the work has been a “failure” - I don’t know what “failure” is really, that’s a whole other conversation - but I love the collaboration and there are moments in collaboration where I feel really proud. I love being a part of the development stage, sitting in on workshops and knocking around questions and dramaturgy. So those are the most exciting parts of the process to me. To be wrong, and to be messy, and to be in the room showing up bravely I think is when I feel most “proud.”

When did you get interested in theater and how?

I come from a theater family - I’m a third generation theater artist with the bank balance to prove it. I didn’t really know there was another option! I used to sit in the audience as my parents were actors and they would ask me, “What are you seeing? Is it working?” And so I’ve grown up looking at theater and giving feedback, or thinking about plays or thinking about narrative, and how to calibrate them and how to help. So it’s sort of natural to me. I never thought I’d be a designer. But I was given a job when I had a bunch of free time at Trinity College in Dublin and started working and it continued. I think I feel most comfortable in a theater. Having spent all my youth backstage in a dressing room or in the front of the house, I feel very at home there.

What or who were your influences?

I love old movies. I passionately, passionately love them. I love the economy of storytelling that they often use because they’re telling sometimes epic stories over ninety or a hundred-ten minutes and it’s so clear how they trim the fat back to the bone. How clean they are.

Also, all time spent in nature is good.

Aesthetically, my influences? Hard to tell. I love everything from a good old Busby Berkley musical to some 1980s Lower East Side punk rock. I’m somewhere between Tom Waits and Busby Berkley at most times -- with a little bit of Kesha or Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure. 

Somewhere in all of that is the desire to tell a story. I love a fable or parable. I love the device of telling stories and the bigger conversation of how we tell stories. In terms of the designers who have come before us, I love sitting in the room with Cochlin and hearing him ask questions. I found them always to remind me of the theater I was around growing up… and the ability to look at something sideways and see it in a new way. That’s something I think is really important. When we were at school, Martin Packlidinez was one of our teachers - and he had an amazing eye for detail. I was never as good naturally at detail, but I felt I learned how to see things close up from him in a way that was really refreshing.

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 remember in one of the alumni meetings we had in our final year of school, Mark Barton said “don’t be an asshole.” I often think of that. I often think of Hilferty, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Those are things that I think are little sound bites that I often remember from school. And someone once told me to trust the sketch - I think it was Maggie Raymond, but it's great advice especially on big shows. 

From outside of school:

I have a hundred from my family that one inherits over the years. I like the James Joyce quote, “I do not fear to make a mistake, not a great mistake, not a lifelong mistake… errors are volitional and are the portholes for discovery.” I always found that to be helpful. Also, but sadly overused, yet still good, the Hamlet quote, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Those are the quick sound bites, I would say.

Are there any challenges and/or rewards that you feel costume designers have that are different ones that other designers may have? 

Well, yes, we work through the process in a very different way. We have a lot of pre-prep that has to go through the design phase, and then a lot of physical prep before we even get to a fitting. Then we have to be very much present in the room for most of the rehearsal process, dealing with fittings, dealing with the restocking/returning and the practicalities of it, and dealing with the input from actors as the thing is being made, and then we have to be very present during tech. 

The duration that costume designers are physically on a project, while it may not be as long as a set designer from beginning to end, we are very full time from design to pre-pro, through rehearsal, and still through tech and previews. So I think that that time allotment can just physically be a drain sometimes. Without having a team of people you trust to help manage the work load, it can be especially difficult. It’s too much really for one person to take, and sadly, when you’re starting out in your career, it really is left to one person to do it all. But you’re not really being paid a full time salary so it’s an incredibly hard thing to juggle. You throw your body on the problem because you’re young and you’re keen and you want to take an opportunity, but it comes at a cost. It’s hard to deal with the needs of so many people. 

There’s a lot of things to calibrate and I don’t think there’s often a lot of credit given for that calibration or the balance that’s done.

What are some of your other interests in life?

I love trees. I love climbing trees, I love sitting under trees, I love a nature moment. There’s something incredibly peaceful and beautiful about being quiet in nature and I find that to be really important. I’m in a boat club which I love, so lots of canoeing too --  I don’t go as often as I’d like because schedule is endlessly difficult. Also, living a plastic-free, zero waste lifestyle, which is very hard to do at work, but I very much do in private. I love nothing more than bicycling to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning and dumping the compost. We’re about to start fostering dogs -- elderly dogs -- who are near end of life as they find their new homes, which I’m really excited about too. It’s always a goal to not leave the neighborhood -- if I can not get on the subway, I consider it a win for the day!

What was your favorite snack that your assistant brought to you during tech?

Tea. We travel with a kettle, a tea pot, tea leaves, and a cup, and... tea. If I don’t have tea in tech, I’m not helpful! I have a mint/black tea blend that I make myself and it’s my life force. Recently, my assistant has started baking - and so she sometimes brings in lovely homemade macaroons which are absolutely delicious! If not, I’ll take a chocolate hobnob or a mint milano cookie, although they are wildly unhealthy - or a gingersnap! - but those unhealthy snacks are my favorite snacks during tech.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I really enjoyed the time at NYU. It was lovely to work on a project in a vacuum, in a protected way, where you just have an idea and see it through in all levels of completion - and ask questions and pursue that. I would love a boot camp to go back and do it again! It’d be nice to have a refresher to spend time just working on something solely for oneself would be really fun. A collaborative art form is amazing and really fulfilling, and also totally exhausting to try and support all those people and try and speak to all the questions. So often the challenge for me is: how do you refill the tank and also show up as fully as you can for all the collaborations that one is on at one time. We’re always part of six to ten to twelve things. It’s a lot of voices. And the challenge is how to show up for all those voices. You can’t really show up unless you find a balance for yourself. I think. So I would encourage everyone to find their own balance. I think that’s all I have to say. Bye!