Costume Design Alum Sean Smith is making a name for himself in NYC one SATURDAY NIGHT (LIVE) at a time, and tells us all about working for the legendary TV comedy's 41st season.
The stories have been part of pop culture for over four decades, (almost) always sharing how demanding and crazy and FUN it is for the creators and stars of Saturday Night Live to bring its signature outrageous comedy to the air every season. For Sean Smith, a 2014 MFA Costume Design alum, those stories are now personal, as he spent the show’s 41st season working inside its costume department. The job was just the latest in a series of career successes for the young designer that are proving that his talent will be seen on the theatre and film stages of New York City for a long time to come.
While a UofSC student, the Ohio-native honed his costume design skills on such main stage productions as Shakespeare’s King Lear, Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Tennessee Williams’ short play, The Pretty Trap. In his final semester, Sean found himself working in the studios of famed costume designer William Ivey Long, preparing for the March 2014 opening of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, which would go on to be nominated for six Tony Awards® (including Best Costume Design of a Musical) and win the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design. It was that internship that started Sean on his professional career.
Sean’s ability to seize great opportunities in a highly competitive market doesn’t take costume professor Lisa Martin-Stuart by surprise. “He’s an extremely bright and optimistic person,” she says. “He approaches everything with an eagerness, not just to please or succeed, but to really make the best.”
She adds, “Sean is just very talented and his work is very diverse. He can easily do work that has a period foundation, but also can do more eclectic work, and that’s probably his strength — bringing different feels and styles together to make that special world. And he does it all in a way that you really enjoy working with him.”
We reached out to Sean to get his take on working behind the scenes on such a legendary television show and making a lasting career in NYC. What he sent back, reproduced here with only slight editing, was a detailed and inspirational look at the life of an artist-on-the-rise.
“Live from New York…it’s Sean Smith!”
Rough work in the city
At many of the jobs I've taken recently, I have been categorized as a Non-Union Costume Assistant, also known as Costume PA. Depending on where you work and how small or large the team is, the responsibilities can vary. When I worked on the Showtime series Billions, my position was mostly driving a van around the city picking up costumes and doing returns. It's jobs like this that you work for your first few years in the city before being able to join the Design Union. Once you join, you can get jobs like Shopper or Assistant Designer. So the past few years have been rough in the city, working low key assistant positions (putting in your time just like actors do before becoming Equity). It's helped expose me to some amazing designers, and watch how differently they all work. I started in the city with William Ivey Long (Bullets Over Broadway, On the 20th Century) and then began assisting on Off-Broadway shows (Between Riverside and Crazy) while also designing my own shows at smaller non-Union theaters in the city (Stella Adler, Columbia University). I took the opportunity to switch over to television with the show Billions under an amazing costume designer, Eric Daman (Gossip Girl). I really wanted to see what the design world was like outside of theatre. In NYC Television/Film and Theatre are two very different career paths. The entire work atmosphere shifts depending which you are working on. So, I was very excited to explore something different. As stated before, my responsibilities were very limited (I became an amazing city driver, though) but the job introduced me to an amazing coworker (also an assistant at SNL) who suggested I send my resume to the costume department. Months after submitting my resume, I was able to have a phone interview with one of the Costume Designers. I was SO NERVOUS and SO EXCITED leading up to the phone interview. I built up in my head that this job opportunity would change everything in my life and I got so ahead of myself. Over the phone he said they weren't hiring for the current season. I was crushed, but over the next few days I went through a really great transformation and accepted my current job driving cars, and promised myself I would just keep positive and work very hard. By the end of the week, after accepting my given destiny, the designer called me back and offered me a position at SNL. I was beyond overjoyed. My theory about the turnaround is that SNL didn't want to poach me from a job that I wasn't finished with (I still had two months remaining at Billions). Since moving here I have always been very true to work commitments. I have heard many stories of costume people who are serial jumpers, leaving jobs anytime a better one comes along. That's never a good reputation to have, but it's difficult to resist in a world of freelance opportunities and jobs promising celebrity. So, as excited as I was, it was very difficult for me to leave Billions. I feel like I let my team down at a really intense part of the season. But I knew that this opportunity wouldn't ever come again and I needed to accept the position.
Stepping into history at SNL
When a show has been on the air for 40 years you know you're stepping into history. There are people who have worked there for decades. The costume department is a well oiled machine that is capable of producing high quality work under pressure. I was so nervous to step into that, not knowing where I would fit in, and, honestly, not having a lot of confidence in myself as a designer anymore. Years of assistant work can do that to you. It's easy to lose a little bit of your individual creativity every time you work with a powerful designer. Their way of working and thinking sinks into you. But SNL has completely changed that. Over the past season, the two designers, Eric Justian and Tom Broecker, have given me more and more responsibility. I was happy my first week just reading the scripts and organizing the actors racks; but, by the final episode, they trusted me to source fabrics, order costumes, and pull costumes. They made me feel like a very capable designer again and that's the greatest thing I've gotten from the season.
The "live show" design team is made up of the two designers, three shoppers, and two assistants (me and another non-Union). There is another group of assistants that work on the filmed sketches, usually two per episode. Together we all work Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to buy/rent/pull every costume in every sketch. Usually three get cut before final taping, so we're creating more sketches than you see. It's such a short time frame and I love it. I love the energy and immediacy of the production. It is the perfect balance of live theatre and television that I've always hoped existed.
There are about 22 episodes in a season spread over 8 months, so we have lots of time off. I've been lucky enough to fill my off days with exciting work, thanks to the trust the designers have in me. Designer Tom Broecker (30 Rock) has been such a positive professional influence on me. I was lucky to be his assistant designer on a new play, Steve, and he often let me work on the host photo shoots that happen the Tuesday before each show. Eric Justian has also been wonderful. He doubles as the costume designer for the Late Show with Seth Meyers and I often am able to work with him on that. This job has also given me time to design my own shows at smaller theatres. I've just finished Steel Magnolias at Stella Adler and a play at Columbia University (with a directing friend I met through [Associate Professor] Robert Richmond). It's been a very full year of design and opportunity.
Saturdays were my favorite days
Because I'm non-Union we are usually not allowed to work longer than a 12-hour shift each day. We were able to stay later on occasion, but the team is so amazing that I rarely felt overworked. I was tired, of course, doing a 40-hour work week in 3 days. But it all seemed worth it to me. Sometimes I stayed late just because I wanted to be in the environment and learn more and help the team. I've never really felt like that in the city before. Saturdays were my favorite days, starting really early in the morning and ending with a complete show by the end. We would have a dress rehearsal at 8pm, and between then and 11:30pm, sketches would get cut, changed, and costumes would get reworked. It was such a fast turnaround but I rarely saw a stressed team.
The Hosts: Just Like Us
I have always been so proud of how calm I am around celebrities. There is nothing worse (or more frowned upon) than an employee freaking out over a celebrity. I see each encounter as a wonderful opportunity to see my favorite people interact on a human level. Seeing them as real people is a huge gift. The musical guests are great because during the live show we’re able to sneak out and watch them on the floor of the stage. Adele was breathtaking, Sia was so powerful. It's moments like that when I felt very lucky.
The hosts have all been so kind. You need to remember that it is a very stressful week for them. They have an entire show on their shoulders and we want to make them feel welcome and calm. Also there are always SNL veterans dropping by, which sends me into an internal panic. My idols have always been Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Tina Fey, and having them turn the corner while you're researching chicken costumes online is surreal.
I don't like to talk about celebrities but we're in a safe space so I don't mind saying I'm fully obsessed with Julia Louis Dreyfus. Gwen Stefani is a goddess. Melissa McCarthy is beyond a genius. And I had to leave the room when Adam Driver entered.
But celebrities, they're just like us.
The infamous Trump episode
The Trump episode. So interesting.
He was booked before he really became the polarizing candidate that he is now. At the time I didn't mind him there — comedy is broad and inclusive — but there were lots of protesters outside during the week. He had just been given secret service protection so the building gets pretty secure. This happened when Clinton and Sanders visited as well. I actually had a ticket for the Trump episode. So I will be able to tell my kids that the only live SNL taping I went to was when Donald Trump hosted. And they'll say...who's that?
It’s all a giant puzzle
I’ve had my hand in most of the sketches this year. Buying a piece here, a piece there. It’s all a giant puzzle that we piece together, so it's great to watch a sketch and think, "Hey, there's that name tag I spent three hours on the phone purchasing.” It's also fun to spend the entire day tracking down costumes for a sketch that gets cut during dress rehearsal. These things happen, and you can only laugh to keep from crying. It's also been exciting replicating the presidential candidate’s outfits for each show. We really do watch debates the night before and immediately begin replicating it for a sketch. Many of Hillary Clinton’s outfits are handmade by our wardrobe department in just a few hours. It's amazing watching them work.
The budget is VERY good, but pretty on par with some Broadway shows I've worked on. It's always nice to be able to walk into Bloomingdales and buy whatever you want. Even if the sales people look and you and your tennis shoes with disgust. It's very Pretty Woman. That's a sharp contrast to the period shows I design on my own at small theatres with a $500 budget.
The Possibilities Ahead
My season at SNL has helped me grow in really unexpected ways. Everyone I worked with is so focused on having a balanced work/personal life which is hard to find in this business. They've all found time for themselves and family while also developing their skills at a very high level. It's something I've needed to find since moving here. I've been lucky to work on a lot of projects over the past few years but haven't really stopped since I've gotten here. I've met enough people that I feel safe enough to try new things. I'm looking into joining the Wardrobe Union which would open me up to working backstage at SNL in a different capacity. I'd be able to work more intimately with actors on set and feel more connected with the final product. I'm taking time to breathe after working non-stop since graduation. I'm very excited with the possibilities ahead.
Sean’s Advice: “Anyone from anywhere can end up anywhere they dream”
For my last-semester internship, I moved to a small bedroom in New York and it was never meant to be permanent. I had worked in, and fallen in love with, Chicago and had always planned on moving back there after graduation. The work here was so hard that it was a relief knowing that I wouldn't have to stay for too much longer.
But toward the end of my internship, right before graduation, I made a choice that I would have more opportunities here [in NYC]. I wasn't happy with the choice but sometimes I make myself do things I don't like because I know the reward will be greater than a brief period of unhappiness. I guess that's being an optimist. Even though I wasn't in love with the city and didn't have any job prospects after graduation, I knew that I should at least stay and try. Some people I've met in theatre have given up right when things get hard, or if they’re not happy with their exact situation. But you have to promise yourself that your hard work will pay off somewhere in the future and use that to get you through your less-happy time. I drove to USC for graduation and then flew right back to NYC that month unemployed and nervous. Within two weeks I had gotten a job and have been employed consistently ever since. The freelance life isn't for everyone, but if you learn to embrace the ups and downs and make a really great budget for yourself everything should turn out okay.
Once you get out of school and you detach yourself from those responsibilities your focus shifts to yourself and your career. What is best for you. What you learn at USC is so important, and if you use all the great tools and resources you're provided, you will leave with a steady foundation to start building yourself as an independent artist. When you're not worrying about deadlines and homework you finally have the chance to breathe, step back and think, "Where do I want to go next. What do I want?” It's scary and exciting and uncomfortably limitless.
I would absolutely not be here if it wasn't for USC. Spencer Henderson, Valerie Pruett, and Lisa Martin-Stuart gave me the confidence to take an internship in NYC and their encouragement helped me get from one opportunity to the next. I'm surprised with how things have been turning out. And so pleased. I miss Columbia so much. I wish I had appreciated my time there more when I was there. The space and freedom I had to be creative. Now I sew clothes on my floor and barely have room for a sewing machine. But if there's one thing I learned it's that anyone from anywhere can end up anywhere they dream. With hard work, actors and designers in the middle of South Carolina can end up on Broadway.