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Design on a Deadline – Lessons in Project Management from First Stage Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham

By Zach Hyman

Students in Professor Dan Heck’s Project Management class heard this past Tuesday from Brandon Kirkham, the Design Supervisor and Costume Crafts Artisan for nationally-acclaimed children’s theater First Stage.

“Every single thing I do is a mix of the creative and problem solving,” Kirkham said, describing the balance between managing a team of ten designers and and staying focused as an artist. Kirkham talked for an hour about his time at First Stage building innovative puppets for shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and James and the Giant Peach – but things weren’t always peachy behind the scenes. Kirkham took us through his entire design process, starting from the initial concept. “Ideas are often taken from a germ” as one-page drafts or short picture books can evolve into full sixty-five minute productions. “Complexity is a part of the early planning stages,” he said. “We look through scripts to see how much complexity is there and adapt.”

Every individual show carries its own set of challenges. Time, cost, resources, and even the performance venue itself are constraints that Kirkham grapples with daily. The design process requires budgeting time efficiently and being able to handle unexpected challenges when they arise. “Problems always come up in live theater but you’ve got to get it done no matter what,” Kirkham said, reflecting on the hard deadline of opening night.

Kirkham also described his personal challenges with leadership. While he enjoys collaborating with his team to handle problems and innovate, he admitted finding the administrative aspects difficult. “The thing that’s going to fall of first is the thing you’re worst at,” he said. However, he also stressed finding ways to relax when a project becomes overwhelming. “Whatever your personal coping mechanism is, let yourself do that. It’ll keep you happy.”

*** First Stage, located in Milwaukee, WI, is a recognized leader in theater programming for young people through its productions, academy, education, and new play development. For more information on Kirkham’s design and puppetry, check out their website at www.firststage.org.