‘The Theater’s Always Dying’: Life Lessons From NYC Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring
“The theater's always dying,” Masha Tsimring tells me, calling long-distance from NYC where she’s lived and worked for the past 10 years. Now a lighting designer for international live performances, the former high school theater kid has witnessed the medium’s prolonged death rattle firsthand over 20 long years of low pay, last-minute scheduling, and radically revised Shakespeare productions.
“The funny thing about being a designer in New York is that you spend most of your time working not in New York,” says the “coastally indecisive” Masha, who immigrated to San Diego from Russia as a child and often travels to California for work and recreation. “There's a lot of theater that happens [in New York], but it's sometimes hard to break in and be hired. And the pay in New York, weirdly, is often less than it is at theaters around the country, even though the cost of living is quite high.” Famously overpriced and cutthroat, NYC opened its arms once Masha entrenched herself in a loose network of like-minded theater people “doing strange things.”
“There's a community here,” she insists, explaining her plans to stay in the hardscrabble city. “There's a community that I feel like—even especially coming out of the pandemic—is kind of stronger, of designers and theater-makers. We travel all the time, and we're constantly working on different projects with different groups of people, maintaining those connections beyond the project, and just having friends and colleagues and collaborators in the greater industry has been useful,” she says before adding, “So much of the most cutting-edge weird stuff is happening in New York.”
As a self-described “weirdo,” Masha gravitates toward collaborative projects that “transcend the boundaries of any particular genre.” While she can’t always pick her projects, the designer is more discerning after being stripped of creative agency during the pandemic. “I have definitely gotten choosier about really trying to make sure the jobs I take are gratifying on this level of collaboration and aesthetics and subject matter so that I’m not just showing up to make it look nice or because it's a good theater,” she says. “I've gotten my ‘spidey sense’ more sharpened for red flags for reasons why I shouldn't do a project.”
A proud member of United Scenic Artists, USA Local 829, Masha is especially eagle-eyed when it comes to the industry’s exploitation of creative labor. She advocates for pay equity and ethical theater practices, a mindset that bleeds into her ability to compromise on large-scale creative projects. “Part of [working in the theater] is developing collaborations over time,” she says. “I’m very lucky there are directors that I work with that I think it’s a real collaboration. They're not just like, ‘Okay, I want this scene to be blue. Thank you.’”
A student of design technology with a background in literature, Masha feels right at home within the theater’s complex ecosystem of writers, directors, and set designers. Her favorite projects are ones where collaboration between colleagues is fluid, and she “doesn’t have to do a lot of compromising.” Absurdist plays like Liza Birkenmeier’s Grief Hotel let Masha explore her appreciation for the abstract, while Oscar Wilde’s Salome is classic Romanticism, a literature lover’s dream come true. “There’s a much deeper conversation, and there’s a level of trust from both sides,” she says, explaining the push-pull between director and designer during a production. “If there’s a director I come to, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to do this really weird experiment, and I can’t even explain to you why I think it’s right for this new opera, but I think we should try it. And if it doesn’t work, I don’t know what we’re going to do, and that’s going to be a problem. But I still think we should try it.”
Scroll down to see a selection of works from Masha’s lighting portfolio, then head to our September exhibition, Architecture, Interiors, and Urban Landscapes, which includes Masha’s digital collage “Buildings.”
“So much of the most cutting-edge weird stuff is happening in New York.” — Masha Tsimring
All photos published with permission of the artist(s); featured photo: Grief Hotel by Jacob Quinn.
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