Be good at taking rejections – In this industry, you will get more rejections than acceptance. It’s crucial to take those rejections as learning experiences and move forward without being discouraged. I would rather get a rejection and know that I tried than wonder “what if”s.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Julia Kim.
Julia Kim is a Set, Costume, and Projection designer based in Canada.
She graduated from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) with a BFA (Hons.) in Performance Production in 2015. She’s been working mostly in Southern Ontario, designing for independent theatre and dance productions, and working as an assistant designer at Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival.
In 2020, she has been nominated for Pauline McGibbon Award.
Currently, she is working as a Resident Designer at Motyer-Fancy Theatre at Mount Allison University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Of course! I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and my family immigrated to Canada when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Vancouver since then. Growing up, I did most of the typical things Asian parents make you do. I took piano lessons, violin lessons, and art lessons. My parents signed me up for those activities to help with brain development, not because they wanted me to pursue art in any way. This made me a very ambitious child. I remember watching an educational TV program saying that listening to classical music while sleeping makes you smarter. So, I asked my mom to buy a whole CD collection of classical music and listened to it every single night. I always love doing artsy stuff when I was young. In 8th grade, I told my mom that I want to become a fashion designer, and my mom completely shut it down by saying that I’m too ordinary and should not be a designer. And in 12th grade, my dad persuaded me to go into medicine by asking me “Do you want to be called Dr. Kim? or Miss Kim?” I thought Dr. Kim sounded way cooler, so I got into a kinesiology program at Simon Fraser University.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
During my first year at university, I could not find my purpose in kinesiology and medicine. I could not picture myself in that field at all. Feeling very lost, I took a year off trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I went back to taking art lessons again. I really enjoyed diving back into arts and prepared a portfolio to apply for the architecture program at Pratt Institute. But, my family couldn’t afford to send me to an art school in the States. So, I questioned myself why I want to be an architect. In fact, I was more interested in movie sets rather than buildings or urban planning. Simon Fraser University has a theatre program, so I decided to take a theatre class to give it a try. I still remember that first day of class, walking into the theatre and looking up at the lighting grid. I just knew that this is where I belong. I felt like I was home. Since then, I never stopped pursuing my career in the theatre industry and hustled to build my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It would be Caroline O’Brien, the chair of the School of Performance at Toronto Metropolitan University, and William Schmuck, set and costume designer, and former Head of Design at Shaw Festival. In my last year at Toronto Metropolitan University, I wanted to get an internship at a big theatre company so Caroline connected me with Bill at Shaw Festival. I did a short 4-month internship under Bill and also in the wardrobe department. I learned so much in such a short amount of time and it opened so many doors for me. They hired me as a Design Assistant the following season.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
As a Korean-Canadian theatre designer, the one production I always wanted to design was Kim’s Convenience. When I got the email from Brett Christopher at Thousand Island Playhouse about designing for Kim’s Convenience, I literally could not believe what I was reading. Not only do I have the same last name as this family, but I also grew up in the first generation of Korean immigrants running a convenience store. The struggles that Janet goes through are the same as what I still go through with my parents. This story is so close to my own story and I never felt this close to a show like this before. Also, it felt empowering to work with an entire Asian creative team. Our cast and crew were very tight and I will always cherish what we created together. Ever since our family immigrated to Canada, I felt ashamed of my culture and did my best to hide it at all costs. It took me a very long time to be proud of where I come from. It really was the most special experience designing for Kim’s Convenience, showing the beauty of our culture and our struggles as Korean immigrants in this country.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A year after I graduated from university, I designed costumes and props for Titus Andronicus produced by a small indie theatre company. It is probably the bloodiest show I’ve ever worked on! Obviously, the costume budget was tiny so I used my connections at Shaw Festival and rented some costume pieces. I thought, any characters who don’t die would not have blood on them and thus won’t get blood on their costumes. That was the worst mistake. When there’s blood spattering across the stage, it’s impossible to avoid getting blood on everyone’s costume. I spent a lot of time after each show, inspecting every inch of the rented costumes and spot-cleaning to get rid of any blood. If you have any blood in the show, do not rent costumes just to be safe.
My other mistake is continually forgetting that time is also a form of currency! When it’s cheaper to make something rather than buy something pre-made, I can easily say that I will make it, forgetting to think about how much time is going to take to construct. Before deciding to make anything myself, I now add my labour fee to the material costs to see if I’m really saving money by making something from scratch. My time is money too.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, I’m working as a mentorship coordinator at Associated Designers of Canada. The government is funding mentorships for emerging designers. I help find mentors and connect them with mentees. It is very exciting to be part of this program because we didn’t have anything like this when I was starting out. As I found my internship at Shaw Festival extremely helpful in building my career, I believe in the mentorship opportunities and I’m very glad that the government is funding these opportunities.
My other job is working as a resident designer at Mount Allison University. I design all the productions we produce at the school and teach a theatre design class. It is good to come back to an educational institution. As an instructor, I try my best to become the best example for the students, and it makes me develop my skills further.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
Building a career in the theatre industry is not easy. Without a doubt, you will get a lot of rejections. You will say yes to everything and work until you burn yourself out. You will work on productions where you will not have the proper budget and timeline to achieve your goals, but you still pull through somehow because you are passionate about theatre. I know that fear is the number one reason why people won’t achieve something. We still need to try and do our best, despite the high chance of failure. Even if we fail, there are so many valuable lessons that we can take away from that experience. We need those failures to learn and improve. We cannot let our fear stop us from achieving our goals!
And, how I deal with rejections is by believing in fate and that everything happens for reason. I truly believe that there are productions that are meant to be designed by me. If I don’t get the gig, I simply say, “That’s too bad. That wasn’t meant for me” and then move on. If I’m doing my best at every project that I work on and keep building my career, I believe that the right project will come to me at the right time. It will be the same for you too.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say we need to remember to take care of ourselves first before anything. We cannot serve others when our cup is empty. As freelancers, we work on multiple projects at a time. We work around the clock every day without really taking care of our needs. Sometimes, we simply cannot afford a minute away from work because of the tight deadlines. Even right now, I have a lump on my neck and I have attempted twice to get it checked out. I waited about 2 hours each day at the hospital and left because my show is opening in a week and I have so much to get done. It’s sad that I can’t even afford to take a day off to go to the hospital. After experiencing three serious burnouts, I started to understand how much it’s important to do at least one activity every day that’s just for yourself. I write down one thing I could do every day for myself and try my best to do it. I’m not successful in following through with this goal but I still try when I can.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Be good at taking rejections
– In this industry, you will get more rejections than acceptance. It’s crucial to take those rejections as learning experiences and move forward without being discouraged. I would rather get a rejection and know that I tried than wonder “what if”s.
2. Don’t compare your path with anyone else’s
– It’s very easy to compare yourself to others in the industry. I’ve been on the web looking at other designers who started around the same time getting better or bigger contracts. And I would feel bad about myself. But instead of keep feeling sorry for myself, I pushed myself to try harder and keep getting better at my job.
3. Be resilient
– As an emerging artist in the theatre industry, it’s extremely hard to create income to cover all the basic needs. I often have to have 2–3 jobs to cover monthly expenses and often work 60–80 hours a week. Despite the difficulties to sustain a normal life, I do my best to stay focused on my career goals and keep going. I was never taught that giving up is an option.
4. Be good at taking criticism
– It can be hard not to take criticism personally, because we are passionate about our work and get emotionally invested in the work that we create for the theatre. And we get criticized publicly by theatre critics as part of the industry. Whenever we get criticism, we need to remember that it’s about the work, not directly about us as an individual. Therefore, we should not let it get to us personally. We should be grateful for the criticism because it gives us the opportunity to improve.
5. Be a great team player
– Theatre cannot happen with one person. This is a group effort, and everyone has to collaborate with each other to create the best production. Everyone brings their set of expertise to the table, and we have to be open and willing to let people do what they do best. I enjoy collaborating with the directors, designers, and actors to enhance the storytelling. Working with so many brilliant artists is the best part of the job.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
In my opinion, I don’t think there is much difference in skill sets you need for theatre and for TV and film. I know a lot of theatre artists in Canada have moved into the film industry during the pandemic. They were able to join film IATSE right away and work their way up quickly in the union. In some cases, they got fast-tracked in the union and got more calls. I believe the only difference between the two is in the medium. Depending on the theatre size, usually, the small fine details would get lost, because the audience would be sitting 20–30 feet away. But in film, whatever is in the foreground and in focus, you can see a great amount of detail in the costumes, props, and set. So, it is about determining what is important and how much time and money you are going to spend designing each element for production.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In my opinion, this world is very cruel and there is too much hatred. And I think the reason why is that there are way too many unhappy people. Sometimes we know exactly what to do to make ourselves happy. However, we start to list all the “logistical” reasons why we can’t do those things right now. I think that’s just our fear kicking in, trying to make us stay within our comfort zone. Think about what you would do if you only had a year to live. I would like to create a movement that encourages people to put themselves first before anyone else and inspire people to be brave following their true dreams. I want to hear a million stories where they made their dreams come true and be happy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If your dream doesn’t scare you, it isn’t big enough.”
This is the quote I live by and what my dad emphasizes the most. He always taught me to dream big. It creates a great drive for me to set up challenging goals and really go for them. Having a successful career in the performing arts and becoming an internationally renowned designer is a big dream that consists of constant rejections and uncertainties.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
It would be Es Devlin. She is my biggest role model. Not only she designs for theatre, but she also designs the stage for fashion shows like Louis Vuitton and pop artists like Kanye West. I want to design for various live events like hers. It would be my dream to work at her studio and learn by working closely with her. If I could ever sit down for lunch, or even coffee with her, I want to ask about how she overcomes adversity and stays focused during those hard times.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
You can follow me on my website: www.yeon.studio and my Instagram Account @yeon._.studio
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you for this opportunity!