Photo courtesy of UNCSA

Joe Tilford is an award-winning freelance set and lighting designer and instructor of Scene Design at UNCSA. He also has professional experience as a freelance and contract technical director, production manager and technician. We sat down with Joe to discuss the importance of mentors, how to maintain a work-life balance, and the value of a strong work ethic.

Tell me about your path and how it has led you to where you are today.

I kind of stumbled in to this business. Gosh, this is a convoluted story. I started building scenery at a very young age in college in order to pay for school. I had to pay my way through as I went. Through a few quirks of fate, a guy that I’d done some building for was leaving his position as resident designer at a local professional theater to take a position as a designer at a different professional theater, and he left my name as somebody that they could call to come in and build.

They called me and I went in for an interview. It only took me about five minutes in the interview to figure out that they were confused and had called me in for the job of being their new resident set designer and lighting designer. The money was good, so I faked my way through the interview and got the job and designed sets and lights for everything they did for the next five years. There were times where I was only a single day ahead of everybody.

That’s incredible.

It was a necessity. I needed the money. I needed the job, and I had always been artistic as a kid, so being able to do things that were artistic, like design, was something that I loved. I wasn’t loaded with technique, but I was capable of getting ideas produced and on stage. By the time I finished my five year stint with them, I had already taken the United Scenic Artists exam and passed, and was a full-fledged young, but professional designer.

who were some mentors that you attribute success to?

The mentors that I’ve really had have been wonderful directors that I’ve worked with. Just people that I’ve run into and thought, “This is somebody who really is so gifted as an artist, that working with them is a privilege.” People like Robert Hetherington, Sam Blackwell, Ed Stern, Ina Marlowe; people who I’ve had the good fortune to work with and been really blessed by that. D. Lynn Meyers who’s artist director of the Ensemble Theater Company in Cincinnati is just a wonderful human being and a great director, and someone whose work I admire immensely.

There haven’t been design mentors in the same way because I sort of started out by designing, so it wasn’t like I was trying to work my way up in designing. I fell into it and was instantly a designer.

It was the great directors that I worked with that were really influential because when I came up with a crazy idea that was only crazy because it was different, but not crazy because it wouldn’t work for the show, they’d say, “Well, it’s a little daring, but let’s go ahead and do it.” And that’s the kind of thing that really made it possible for me to build a career.

What’s some advice that you would give now to someone who’s trying to break into the live entertainment industry?

Work ethic is 99% of it. Be there, be early, get the work done with good cheer, and the reason we do it with good cheer is we’re really fortunate. We get to do one of the coolest things in the world in this business. It’s so darn interesting. We’re working with remarkably artistic, brilliant people all the time. Sometimes the hours are long. Sometimes you try something and you have to do it over, but in the long run, we’re pretty fortunate to be able to do something so interesting.

How do you find that work/life balance?

Well, that’s a good question. I think the ability to turn it off when you have an opportunity to turn it off is really important because when the work is there, you just have to say yes.

Also, making the work joyful. Finding a way to make it constantly new is really important. When you have the opportunity to have a day off, or a week off, or a month off, go do something with it. Yeah, sure, get a little extra sleep, but have some fun, and also do things that are interesting. One of the things that I think is part of the whole work/life issue of being a designer, and it’s probably the same as any job in this business is constant output while trying to get the intellectual or artistic nourishment back in so that it’s balanced. I don’t see it so much as work/life balance as output/input balance. I need to be inspired so that my work can be inspiring. So I have to find ways of getting inspired.

For example, I might have a Sunday morning where nothing’s going on. I’ll make a pot of coffee and get 10 or 15 beautiful picture books out of my own library, because I have a design library like every other designer, and I will just sit down and feed my visual self while I’m drinking that coffee, and that can set me up with a whole week of visual excitement and energy.

It’s inspirational and it’s nourishment. It’s like having protein for the mind.

what value do you find in coming to usitt’s conferences?

Peggy Eisenhower as a lighting designer, Jane Stein as a costume designer, and me as a set designer did a workshop on how we collaborate together and that was such a pleasure to sit as a panel, showing examples in front of a roomful of people with three really great professionals, and to talk about how we feel responsible to each other, and feel that we know that the others art depends on us, and we depend on them and that sensibility is one of the reasons we do this instead of locking ourselves up in garrote somewhere and doing paintings and sending them out to be sold at a gallery. One of the reasons we do this is because we love the inspiration of the artistic interactions with other great artists.

It was inspiring to be there on stage with the two of them and listen to the things they had to say, and contribute and know that we really are all on the same page.

what is the current state of employment in your field? Is it growing?

It’s growing like crazy. When I started in the business it was live theatre, and live theatre was Broadway, Broadway tours, and maybe a dozen regional theatres. Now there are like 80 regional theatres that are really top-notch, and I don’t think you could even number the number of small professional theatres that aren’t part of the regional theatre network, but are still all over the country. There’s video, there’s film, there’s television. There’s an exponential growth in the industry including things like Cirque du Soleil and Disney and theme parks, and all those things. There are more opportunities for somebody in entertainment design and technology now than there have been at any point in my lifetime.

If somebody really wants to get into it and if they’re curious enough to get themselves educated to the point where any opportunity that drops in their lap is an opportunity that they can say yes to, the sky’s the limit.