Interview: Production Designer Bill Cole

Bill Cole - Last Night at Ballyhoo
Last Night at Ballyhoo. Design by Bill Cole


I am delighted to present this interview with my friend set designer Bill Cole. I met Bill about 18 or 19 years ago. He gave me the chance to work with him in his art department making props and scenic painting. We share a similar background in theater as well as film. He was the resident set designer at the Newport Arts Center Theatre for many years, where his sets for musicals and dramas made the small space look enormous. He often spent his summers teaching theater arts to kids at summer camps back East. He is a delight and a very creative guy. Please enjoy this information that he has graciously shared with us.

 1. What do you do?

I am a freelance scenic artist/set designer. My background and training is in theatre, but I transitioned into film & television. I have been working in theatre and production for over 25 years.

2. How did you get your first ever job in show business?

 My first professional theatre job was as a resident scenic artist with a regional Shakespeare company. I had worked with the resident designer at a community theater where I was volunteering and he was in need of a new assistant/scenic.

 My first professional film job was as a set painter on  “Nightmare on Elm Street 5”. I got that job from a contact I had made on a previous short film where I had been an intern.

3. Was it good experience?

Both were great experiences in different ways. The regional theatre was a great training ground for me and I learned a great deal while honing my skills as an artist. Working on the “Nightmare” film gave me a great opportunity to learn the differences between scenic painting for film vs. theatre. Also, the creative process  for film involves more of a collaborative environment, as there are usually much more people involved in the process.

4. What about your second job – How did you get that?

 After my first film gig, I went to work for a professional scene shop that had recently been formed by a group of my friends I knew from my theatre work. We designed and created sets for theatre and events.

5. When you hire new people, what qualities do you look for? How do you find people to work?

 In the hiring process I definitely look for someone with a theatre background. Theatre trained people generally get the idea of hard work and a focused discipline. A person’s personality is a key factor as well. Both theatre and production work involve long hour and hectic schedules. I like to know that I’m going to be able to get along with someoneand that they won’t be creating a toxic work environment.

I will usually call friends and coworkers to get references for crew hiring. It’s rare that I’ll hire someone completely unknown.

6. Do you approach film and theater job seeking activities differently?

I think I’ve already touched on the basic differences between theatre and film. My approach to looking for jobs in both differs as well.

Production work requires having a network of industry contacts and continually keeping up on what job opportunities are available. There are production job websites that someone could join (for a fee) to get updates on current production job listings. I have yet to try one of these, but do know people who use them. [Ed. Note: I like the Below the Line listings]

Social networking has become a great tool for production free-lancers to connect with jobs!

Theatre is a different process when looking for work. I generally will go see a production at a theatre that I may be interested in working and considering submitting my resume & portfolio. Theatres can be looking for designers for a single production or an entire season. I try to make sure my talents are needed and a good fit for the theatre.

7. What was the worst piece of career advice you were ever given?

I’ve had a tough time with this question. I really can’t recollect a distinct piece of  advice I’ve gotten over the years. I have had advice and opinions that weren’t  really useful, but nothing that ever sent me in the wrong direction with my career working in the arts.

The one thing I will say is that the most harm came not from someone else, but from my own words. So many times I didn’t trust my instinct or didn’t follow through properly on doing things that would have helped my career.

 Staying focused on your career as a freelance artist/designer takes huge amounts of time, energy and a positive attitude. Many people will give you bad advice, but it’s up to you to decide whether you’re going to listen to them or not!

Bill at Work
Bill at work

8. What is the best piece of career advice you were ever given?

   Have fun and don’t fuck it up.

9. Is there any secret you can share to longevity in a show business career?

LOVE! Love what you do. I have always said that I’d do what I do for free if I could. I don’t consider my paycheck for the work, but for all the asshole and idiots I have to deal with on a job (and there are plenty!).

If there is ANYTHING you think you could do as a career and be as happy, DO IT!

Freelance design and production work is a lifestyle, not just a job. I do what I do because I just can’t imagine myself doing another job and being as happy.




Thanks so much Bill. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that this is a lifestyle. It’s a calling!

I hope everyone notices how important personal references and networking are to their job search.

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