Scenic designer Kelly Hanson was the recipient of the inaugural USITT Rising Star Award in 2005. Sponsored by LDI/Live Design, this award honors excellence and artistic achievement in the areas of scenic, lighting, sound, and projection design, or the convergence of these design disciplines. Hanson received her MFA in scenic design from the University of California at San Diego in 2001, and a BA in drama from Trinity University in San Antonio in 1998. She has since worked as a production designer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an art director on multiple shows including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Colbert Christmas Special (which earned her an Emmy nomination) and Chopped (Food Network), and has been the resident set and costume Designer for NYC-based modern dance troupe Monica Bill Barnes & Company for nearly two decades. Live Design chats with her about her current work in television, and the advice she has for younger designers.
1. How did you get into scenic design?
When I was in high school, I started acting at the local community theatre in my hometown of Bryan, TX. They needed someone to paint the sets, and I thought that sounded like fun so I gave it a try. I ended up painting some murals and floors for the Shakespeare shows I was cast in, and I loved doing it. When I got to college at Trinity University in San Antonio, I met with the scenic design professor Steve Gilliam and showed him photos of my painted backdrops. He was kind enough not to laugh and spent the next four years educating me about what a set designer really does, as well as nurturing my love of visual art and metaphor. I felt like I finally understood how to bring together my passions for art, theatre, and literature, because for me, set design has always been first and foremost a way to tell a story.
2. How did you start working in television?
After I finished college, I went to graduate school at University of California, San Diego, and then moved to New York in hopes of becoming a Broadway designer. My first several years here were spent as a freelance designer and assistant working mostly in theatre and dance. I had a small dog, Matilda, who I rescued in college, and I feel like she had a huge impact on my career because I was never really able to travel much, so the regional theatre design circuit wasn't an option. I tried to make my living and my career working only in the city, which turns out to be a challenging way to become a successful theatre designer. I was fortunate to find a home in those early years with Tony Walton and his wife Gen, who not only gave me immeasurable training and experience but also made me feel like family. I also developed a sustaining collaboration and friendship with modern dance choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, which continues to this day. When I look back, every opportunity I've had in New York beyond that first year can be traced back directly or indirectly to either Tony or Monica.
After several years freelancing as a set and costume designer in the downtown theatre world, I decided I needed to make a change. To be honest, I was tired. I knew I wanted to be a designer; I still dreamed of working on Broadway someday, but at that point, I had been in New York for five or six years and most of the theatre design gigs I was being offered still had tiny budgets, paid me next to nothing, and were incredibly demanding in all kinds of ways: energy, time, money, emotionally. I remember in 2006 I tried to make my living entirely as a designer, and I took every gig I was offered. At the end of the year, I was broke, exhausted, and disheartened. I wrote down every project I had done that year, and I think there were 22 shows. Then I circled the ones that were rewarding—financially, artistically, or collaboratively. There were only two and a half that qualified. I knew it was time to try something else.
My skill as an AutoCAD draftsperson was the thing that allowed me to start getting work as an art director. Most of my initial work in television revolved around drafting sets for smaller non-union shows. After nine months or so of that, I did my first union TV gig as an assistant art director. I will never forget the conversation I had with the art director who hired me, Malchus Janocko (who is now a very successful production designer)—and this conversation truly changed my life. I received my first paycheck, and I was stunned. I had not looked up the union contract and had no idea what my rate was. Malchus told me, yes, he had been surprised, too, when he started doing work like this, when he realized that one could actually make a six-figure salary in our industry. He told me I had the skills and was good to work with, and that I could have a very financially rewarding career if I wanted to.
Soon after that I got married, and I decided to slow down my workload for a couple months and interview for jobs that would put me in a better position to build toward a financially rewarding career. During this time, I met a wonderful designer named Ellen Waggett whose career was really accelerating. She was getting a ton of work and needed help turning out renderings quickly, as well as drafting and managing load-ins, dressing the sets, etc, so I got a lot of experience working very fast. I discovered that I loved doing sketches in Adobe Photoshop, and I would work back and forth between 3D files in AutoCAD and Photoshop renderings, which allowed us to process changes with ease. When Ellen was offered an opportunity to design Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in late 2008/early 2009, she asked me to come on board as the art director for the show. I had never considered being anything but a freelancer, so I was really nervous, but she said to give it six weeks and see how I felt. Now, almost 10 years later, I am still here at 30 Rock, and I am so grateful life worked out this way.
3. What is the scope of your work for Jimmy Fallon?
The scope of my work has shifted and evolved through the years. Now, as a production designer on the Tonight Show, I am in charge of designing all the sets and specialty props for the comedy sketches and games that we do in our studio. I love it because I never lack for new design challenges, and the practical problems are every bit as important to my design choices as the artistic ones, sometimes more. Because I started my work here as an art director, I have continued to manage the execution of my designs through to the end, which works well in a situation where compromises must constantly be made in the interest of time and space. Maintaining a balance between the artistic choices and the functional ones is a very satisfying exercise for me.
4. What is the most challenging project you have done, and why?
This one feels so difficult to answer. In the last ten years, I have done over 1,500 shows between Late Night and The Tonight Show. It's impossible to choose one project from this time. Actually, that's not true. Having children in the midst of it all, and figuring out how to adjust my life to support them in all the ways they need me and I need them: This is by far the most challenging project. My daughter was born in July 2011, and I was the first woman working on Late Night to get pregnant. The process of figuring out how to make this work for myself and for the show was one of the great challenges of my life. Now, my kids are 7 and 4, and I'm proud of the work/life balance my family is working together to achieve every day.
5. What advice do you have for tomorrow's "Rising Stars" just getting into the design field today?
Develop a skill. Without the training I received on the job during my first year in New York while working at an industrial design firm, I never would have been able to support myself and advance in my career. (Thank you, John Moyik and Design Contact!)
Say yes. When you are first starting out, you need to take the work you are offered. You need to be generous with your time and your energy. Sometimes you may work for free. But the only way to get work is to take work—lots of it.
Be a person that people want to work with. I can think of times I succeeded at this in the early years, and times that I failed. I have a very clear perspective now that I am often doing the hiring: being good to work with is even more important than talent and skill. Communication, positive energy, willingness, friendliness, openness...these things will make people want to give you opportunities that allow you to gain experience.
Find your mentors. When I look at my early career, I see a long series of wonderful mentors. Besides giving me training and opportunities, they offered me support and perspective. This is not an easy road. Find your people and make them happy to have you around.
If you can be happy doing something else, do it. Forging a career as a designer, like so many careers in the entertainment industry, is a long, hard road. I think the people who end up sticking with it long enough to make a lasting career are so passionate about doing it, they don't have a choice. That said, it can be very rewarding if it's right for you.