In the basement of the Bryan Center sit two little-known learning workshops dedicated to educating technical theater students at Duke: the Scene and Costume Shops. For years, the shops have served as gateways for students looking to expand their skills and understanding of theater. Every year, the shops employ roughly ten work-study students each, ranging from first-semester students who have never touched a power tool or sewing machine, to graduating seniors about to embark on their own professional careers in the arts.
The shops are furnished with a wide assortment of hand and power tools, sewing machines, and dress forms. Students are trained on safe equipment use and participate in the scenic and costume build processes for the Department of Theater Studies’ Mainstage Productions. The shops also provide support to student organizations, such as Duke Players and Hoof ‘n’ Horn.
Beyond teaching practical carpentry and costume construction, the shops have provided a space for student technicians to learn and grow as artists and people. Much of that can be credited to the mentorship of David Berberian and Erin M. West, MFA, Scene and Costume Shop Supervisors, respectively. David has been the Scene Shop Supervisor since 2001 and has been part of every Theater Studies Mainstage Production since. Erin joined Duke as the Costume Shop Supervisor and lecturer in Costume Design in 2018 and brought with her a culture of creative exploration and of challenging artistic boundaries. Independently and together, they led student interactions with theater technology and cultivated an environment where students were encouraged to ask questions and develop community, all while building some of the most ambitious productions in Theater Studies' recent memory.
From square one
Students come to the shops with different levels of technical experience, the most common being little-to-none. David and Erin are well-versed in teaching beginners how to use equipment, work patiently and diligently, and keep trying if it doesn’t come out as planned. There’s a level of trial and error that must occur when learning hands-on skills like sewing and welding; they made it known that it was okay just to do the best you can sometimes.
Primarily an actor during his time at Duke, George Lucas ‘18 writes, “I loved being able to work with my hands and learn more about what goes into the production side of theater.” George worked in the scene shop in his final semester. “I always really appreciated how willing David was to answer all the questions and demonstrate while also giving us room to learn from mistakes and working together.”
“Working under Erin was fantastic because it was really important to her that we actually learned something,” writes Carly McGregor ‘20, a three-year member of the costume shop. “She's also just very patient and positive. Hardly anyone in the shop had any sort of formal prior
experience with sewing beyond following along with YouTube videos on our mothers' sewing machines in high school, so there was a lot we didn't know - and she was fine with that.”
Professionally, the impact of the shops has been significant: alumni credit the shops with preparing them for their careers, both technically and personally. Students learn to build platforms and petticoats from sketches and schematics; how to work on a team and think critically about the process; how to take constructive criticism and how to ask for help.
Sarah Larkin ‘22 writes, “Working in the shop built my confidence a lot as I had to stop questioning myself on every little thing and just get the task done. This has helped me in every professional setting I've been in and will continue to do so as I further my career.” Sarah worked in the scene shop from freshman year to graduation.
Milagros de Souza ‘21 writes, “Erin taught me a lot about costume design, but she also taught me a lot about life. Although we were working and working hard, the costume shop was a relief from my everyday life. College, but Duke especially, has such a toxic hustle culture that is hard not to fall into. We worked hard in the costume shop, but not in the same way. It taught me a lot about our relationship with work as humans.” Mila worked in the costume shop for two years under Erin.
Reilly Johnson ‘19 writes, “To say that my work in the shop was the single most important turning point in the direction of my career would be an understatement. I got my start in theater, but today I work in fashion/tech developing sustainable apparel products as well as workflow engineering to help streamline and automate parts of the production process. My passion for making things blossomed there in the Duke shop.”
“Erin was an exceptional mentor,” Reilly continues. “She is personable, talented, and really made the shop feel like a welcoming space for aspiring artists. I also admired her openness and commitment to equity in the industry - there has been a significant push in the last few years for more transparency regarding the treatment and wages of costume professionals. She really helped prepare me to enter the industry.”
Jamie Bell ‘15, a four-year member of the scene shop, went on to complete her Masters at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “I used nearly all of my shop knowledge in designing and constructing sets and set pieces for my work in London. I have since worked in many professional theatres in the UK, the States and Zimbabwe, and I am never at a loss to solve production problems using those four years of training in the shop.”
“Working with Dave was one of the best things about my experience at Duke,” Jamie continues. “He is patient, kind, and extremely knowledgeable. He laid an excellent foundation in the first few weeks of work, and as we progressed in skill and confidence, he let us take the lead on certain aspects of every build. He encouraged us to take risks - try new equipment, learn how to run complex machinery, figure out how welding works - while keeping everybody safe and focused in the shop.”
I had the opportunity to work for both David and Erin from 2017-20. In those years, we worked together on seven Mainstage Productions, five Hoof ‘n’ Horn shows, and one Duke Players show. And in those years, I trained from a shop carpenter to a student technical director to a
Mainstage scenic designer. David was the day-to-day, on-the-ground mentor I needed to be able to execute complicated scenic builds, and Erin was a reference point who taught me to be a conscious and collaborative theatermaker. Today, I am a production manager in Washington, DC, and I attribute much of my ability to do this work to them.
A home away from home
When I originally applied to be a scene shop carpenter, I was struggling; I had yet to find an academic path that excited me and, overwhelmingly, I wasn’t sure if Duke was the right school for me. I originally applied on a whim that re-engaging with one of my hobbies might light a fire under me. I was right. After a while of working in the shop, I didn’t feel lost anymore; instead, I was determined. Not only did I find my path; I found a community in the basement of the Bryan Center that encouraged, supported, and inspired me to be exactly who I was and wanted to be.
“Working in the shop shifted my worldview and challenged me to reflect on what I actually want out of life,” writes Sarah Larkin. “I started my time at Duke in Pratt, and I don't know that I would've made the decision to switch out and pursue something that I was passionate about if it weren't for the community I got from working in the scene shop. That's something I've clung to since I entered the ‘real world.’”
Mila de Souza writes, “I was also able to fully be myself in the costume shop due to Erin. She taught me to be unapologetically myself in every room that I am in and not to let anyone tear me down. She stood up for me several times and it helped me stand up for myself.”
“Dave fostered a wonderful sense of community in the shop, and we all benefited from his guidance and friendship,” Jamie Bell writes. “The shop functions as a living space - spray paint on the floor from one production, left-over gold leaf flakes on the wall from another - it's a very special part of the University that houses so much industry and creativity. It taught me so much about the creative process - the mess involved, the successes and the failures, the reworks and replans, and the ultimate satisfaction of hard work gone right.”
The Shops, David, and Erin were integral to my experience at Duke, for and beyond everything they taught me about theater. Even on my most challenging days, I knew I still had people in my corner that cared about me as a student, as an artist, and as a person. I will always be grateful for the lessons they have taught me and the support they have continued to give me.
Ash Jeffers graduated Trinity ‘21.
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