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Parsons The New School for Design, Week 1: Life, Like Light, a Study in Contrasts

September 4, 2010


So it begins! After a much-needed month-long break from Parsons’ Summer Studies in Constructed Environments (SSCE) five-week intensive program where I was given a crash-course in contemporary architecture (see previous posts), I have returned to the Union Square campus to begin pursuing my Master’s degree in Architectural Lighting Design!

Now, with the first week of classes behind me, I can safely say that architecture school is nothing like theatre school.  For those playing catch-up: I received my undergrad degree in theatrical lighting design from Emerson College in Boston, and I loved every minute of it.  Emerson, for me, was a fantastic place to get an education and mature as a young adult — it had a fun and supportive environment, a friendly and caring student body, offered plenty of opportunities to get involved (almost all of which I took advantage of), and was situated in the heart of one of the most beautiful, historic cities on the East Coast; it truly was my home away from home for four years.  I certainly appreciated everything Emerson offered while I was there — I knew was incredibly lucky to attend such an amazing school — but moving away from it in the past three months has definitely thrown my experiences in New York into even sharper perspective.

Some of the crew of the 2008 EVVY Awards at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College.

For one thing, attending architecture school has made me incredibly thankful for being blessed with an education in theatre.  Not to alienate others who may be reading this, but those theatre people out there know what I mean.  The teamwork, professionalism, and problem-solving skills I learned from working day-in and day-out with teams of people in logistically complex, technically sophisticated, and deeply artistic environments, I believe, are some of my most valuable professional assets.  Not only that, but the leadership, organization, and communication skills I learned from leading crews of people under strict deadlines and, often, stressful conditions have positively shaped me into the individual I am today.  To make a long story short, my first week in architecture school has made me realize how much more individualized the work in this field is, at least comparatively to theatre.  Yes, you may argue, the design and construction of a building takes hundreds of people on a scale of years to complete!  In an educational design studio environment, however, students are often directed to work individually on their own designs, putting them in direct competition with each other.  Yes, Parsons does offer some excellent opportunities for working together in large groups later down the road, and I am not disparaging the program at all (I’ve only been here a week, after all), I am simply stating a difference I see in the educational environments.

The second biggest difference I have experienced between Emerson and Parsons so far has been directly related to that difference of working environment.  Due to the fact that the work in an architecture studio environment is so individualized, and that are many fewer areas of specialization within the department as compared to theatre, the individual attention and feedback that I receive on every project here is exponentially more than that which I received on any theatrical project.  I have quickly become accustomed to the process of the desk crit, which is simply in-class time devoted to in-depth one-on-one conversations between a student and a professor (or multiple professors) about their design ideas and projects, which I have found extremely helpful.  While working on a theatrical team prepared me well for presenting my ideas to a large audience (for instance, at production meetings), I was often the only lighting designer in the room, and so could only bounce my ideas off of team members who specialized in other areas, which didn’t usually amount to much feedback or in-depth discussion.  For this I am glad that I have the studio environment at Parsons, so that I may become more comfortable sharing the ups and downs of my design process, instead of just the final product.

The final, and most obvious, difference between Emerson and Parsons is really the difference between Boston and New York.  The resources, in terms of professional connections, that a school like Parsons can offer are outstanding.  For instance, every single one of my seven lighting professors this semester are major players in the lighting and architecture professions, with most of them practicing in or around New York City.  There is little that can compete with a school that has positioned itself, both geographically and ideologically, in the center of one of the largest and most innovative cities in the world.  Of course, what this all comes down to is job placement.  I will forever respect and maintain the professional network and connections I gained by going to school in Boston.  Emerson is no small player in the theatre world (recently investing over $90 million to renovate a historic downtown Boston theatre into a multi-venue arts and entertainment complex), and I definitely benefited from it’s reputation and training while living locally in Boston.  I am very excited, however, about all of the new people I have met in the past week alone, with direct connections to the field and industry I want to work in, whose influence extends beyond the city of New York.  Lighting Design is fast becoming an international career, so the resources offered by a school like Parsons will absolutely prove invaluable in the future.

Despite my lofty goals and plans for the future, in the end I want to reassure everyone that I never want to stop doing theatre.  I have made too many good friends, and had too much fun, to stay away from it.  Since arriving in New York in June this has been the longest period of time I have spent outside of a theatre in a very long time, and that has been one of the most difficult challenges I have had to deal with thus far.  My hope is that I can somehow combine my theatrical background with the new set of skills that I am learning at Parsons, so that I can practice both together when I graduate.  I am very interested, for example, in working for a firm with a theatrical background that also does architectural work.  I am also interested in the prospect of potentially designing theatres as a theatre and lighting consultant.

Before I get too ahead of myself, though, I want to zoom back in to the here and now.  My first week of classes at Parsons have gone well, and from the looks of the class syllabuses I am in for a roller coaster ride of new experiences and information!  I hope to use this blog to track my experiences, thoughts, and projects during the year so that I may keep in touch with those that care about me as well as connect with those who may share my interests. Please, I encourage you, feel free to comment here or stay in touch with me via Twitter, Facebook, or Linked-In.  For those interested in receiving e-mail updates about posts I write here, please click the “Sign Me Up!” button at the bottom of this page.  We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time where we have the power to communicate to anyone, anywhere, at any time, and I plan to take advantage of that opportunity; I hope you do too.  Thanks for reading!


One Comment

  1. Kristin H #
    September 10, 2010

    Hey Ryan – thought I’d send a quick note to say I’ve been enjoying your blog – I get to see what I missed by not choosing Parsons and sticking with theatre for my MFA. Glad you seem to be enjoying the program thus far!

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