The Job Less Traveled: Freelance Scenic Designer

Name: Dahlia Al-Habieli College: Wellesley Year of Graduation: 2007 Major: Theatre Studies
Her Job From conceptualizing complete sets out of thin air to gluing plastic grapes into a basket, it’s Dahlia’s responsibility as a scenic designer to create the visual world of a show, whatever that may entail. Sometimes it means sketching an initial design concept and working with a team to flesh out the details, other times it means constructing a miniature 3-D model of the entire set, and still other times she does the nitty-gritty construction work. And since she’s a freelancer, meaning that a variety of theatre companies hire her for individual productions on an as needed basis, her job description is in even more flux; different theatres and directors have different expectations. “It can be anything from draw a picture of it and come back in six weeks to building the whole thing myself,” Dahlia explains. But unpredictability is no deterrent to Dahlia, who also paints sets for other scenic designers and holds a part-time job as a visitor services assistant at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts to help pay her bills. “I love the work,” she says. “I was the type of kid who liked to sit by myself and draw. As an actor, you have to be on all the time and embrace the extrovert. I get to be part of that kind of energy but can also retreat to my drafting table.” She’s gained some stability by working mostly with two theatre companies, Watertown Children’s Theatre and the Boston Public Theatre. Most recently, she finished the set for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, showing at the Boston Center of the Arts October 1 through October 24.
Her Inspirations Dahlia’s eyes were first opened to theatre when she saw her first play when she started college: Wellesley Shakespeare’s Society production of Henry IV Part I. “I grew up abroad and had never been to a play,” she says. “I had an idea what one was, but I had never seen one. It was silly and there were girls with beards and plastic swords, but it rocked my world.” Abandoning her original plan to major in economics (“how the mighty have fallen,” she jokes), she started studying theatre, was accepted to the Shakespeare Society, and got a job as a technical assistant to the theatre department. The sudden reversal of plan felt natural to Dahlia, but less so to her mother, whom she called immediately after seeing that first show. “I called my mother and said ‘I think I’ve figured it all out.’” Dahlia remembers. “She said ‘What are you talking about?’ It was really kind of crazy.” But ‘so crazy it just might work’ is a cliché for a reason. Initially hoping to act, she spent a semester at the National Theatre Institute, where an evaluation from her scenic design instructor helped Dahlia realize her true passion—and that her dream of working in theatre was, shockingly, within reach. “He said ‘yeah, you could do this’,” recalls Dahlia. “It was a much more natural way for me to be involved in theatre. I’m a way over-actor.”
Her Journey Finding work in theatre is never easy. Dahlia is able to do so in part because of the support she’s received from her professors at Wellesley. “I got my first design jobs through internet job postings and through mentors and instructors from my college days,” says Dahlia. “Many of my recent designs are for the Publick Theatre Boston, whose artistic director was actually my acting instructor when I was an undergrad. He was surprised when a few years later I showed up at a production meeting for his Romeo and Juliet as the assistant to his scenic designer. The next year he hired me as scenic designer for The Seagull.” Her mother is another huge support source. “She admits she doesn’t get it,” says Dahlia. “But gets that it’s important to me.” Working from her bedroom, where design blueprints hide the walls and drafting equipment, which she buys herself, is stored beneath her bed and desk, she has been able to make a name for herself within the Boston theatre scene. “What’s great about Boston is that because it’s small everyone knows everyone else,” she explains. “It’s a good and bad thing, but it’s been an asset to me. It means you do a couple of shows and everyone’s seen your work.”
Her Aspirations In some ways, Dahlia’s already got what she wants. “I never thought that I would get this far,” says Dahlia. “It’s a very pie in the sky kind of dream, to actually be working and pay my rent. It’s huge.” So what’s next for Dahlia? She’s hoping to use her portfolio to get into a scenic design master’s program, and wants to eventually have a home studio. Teaching may also be in her future. As a start, she has some wisdom to impart on future scenic designers: “As a designer you have to be constantly re-evaluating your own work, assessing your progress, assessing your process as an artist and as a collaborator,” she says. “There is this idea that the profession of theatre is full of divas. The reality is that too many people want your job for you to be anything but the most open, energetic, generous professional you can possibly be.” Sources: Dahlia Al-Habieli http://www.publicktheatre.com/