The List: Three Cheap (or Free) Field Trips for Student Designers

Teaching in New York City, you'd expect that my theater class would take a lot of field trips to Broadway shows.

You'd be wrong.

First of all, Broadway tickets are ridiculously expensive -- even when you're buying at the discounted group rate, even when you're picking them up through TDF's online service. If you're a solid networker, you might get connected with the "right people" who will notify you whenever there are extra seats available that they'd like to distribute to students (way more likely if you're teaching in a Title 1 school). But that takes a lot of hustle on your part and a lot of happenstance that your students will be available at last-minute notice. So we generally stay away from Second Stage and Roundabout and stick to hole-in-the-wall theatres (with actual cigarette holes in the upholstery of their fifty seats) instead.

Luckily, you don't need theater tickets to have a great performing arts field trip. In fact, you don't have to splurge for anything more than the Metrocards (and some pizza slices if your students are getting peckish). If you don't live in New York City, no need to worry! You can make these field trip ideas work for you too. Without further ado, three cheap (or free) field trips for student designers.

The Garment District
Some of my students took a field trip to the Garment District on Saturday, and it was a huge success. It made me wonder what it would be like to stop educating in a classroom and start teaching out in the real world. (Looking at you, School Without Walls.) We met at school where students were grilled on the first drafts of their renderings. "Why did you choose this color?" "Tell me about the silhouette of the outfit." "Does anything in your design foreshadow what will happen to the character at the end of the play?" "Tell me how you used the elements of design to visually connect these two characters." After students had been interrogated in the Gulag Archipelago of Room 507, we headed to Times Square -- the one location that no one in New York City ever wants to travel to with students. It's seriously crowded, seriously noisy, and seriously distracting.

The majority of our time was spent at New York Elegant Fabrics, one of the largest fabric houses in the Garment District. The main reason why I recommend New York Elegant Fabrics over every other shop is because they swatch. You can just rip a sample off of the bolt (they come attached on plastic tag fasteners) and stick it into your pocket. They limit students to taking twenty swatches per day, which seems completely reasonable to me -- but I still found my students' pockets bursting with rayon, seersucker, and cotton squares. It's like they just couldn't help themselves, even AFTER I'd explained the rules.


We continued on to Daytona Trimmings Company where an associate was kind enough to swatch some trims for us. Then my students insisted on stopping into Mood Fabrics because they've all watched way too many episodes of Project Runway. Definitely not the best shop for students. (Sales associates are frigid at best. Fabric bolts aren't "swatch-friendly." And store layout can be a challenge.) We wrapped up at Chipotle where everyone got to enjoy their classy Manhattan kids' meals.

DIY: I highly recommend taking a field trip to a fabric store in your neighborhood. My students learned more about costuming from one afternoon of looking at swatches than they had all year in my classroom. We talked about how different types of fabric are more suitable for men's and women's costumes (like how you wouldn't normally make a suit out of jersey knit). We talked about how different fabrics "move" onstage and how that can contribute to characterization. We even talked about budget constraints and how that might impact your fabric selection if you were working in a professional theatre. I recommend taking a small group of students, pairing them off in buddy-system style, and letting them wander around the shop independently.

Museum Mile
I've been dragged along on so many museum field trips. They're not my jam, to say the least. My students start lagging about halfway through, and then all I hear are refrains of "IS IT LUNCHTIME YET?" while they're sprawled out on the floor on top of a pile of backpacks. Of course, only my students feel this way. Not me. Not at all. Really.

(The struggle is so real, you guys.)

But on our most recent seventh grade field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I started thinking about how museums could be used to enhance a theatrical design curriculum. While we were wandering through the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, we started talking about how a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest could easily be set in Samoa or New Guinea or Bali. I asked students to read the artifact descriptions and explain how any specific artifact could be tied into Shakespeare's narrative. One student pointed out a photograph of an indigenous man in a loincloth waiting at a train station, a neon-lit bodega standing behind him. She compared this visual to when the Royal Guests (Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, etc.) find themselves stranded on Prospero's island -- except in reverse. Only now am I thinking about the discussion that could have happened: How could we reflect Prospero's enduring ties to his own culture through his costume, while still acknowledging that he's the self-proclaimed ruler of this island? What kind of displacement of indigenous populations is happening in the Pacific? How can we connect that to Caliban's plight when he's forced into servitude by a foreigner (and how can that be reflected in his costume)? The possibilities are endless, especially when you have an entire museum at your disposal.

DIY: A field trip to any kind of museum could generate background knowledge and lead to insightful theatrical designs. Say you're starting a unit on Shakespeare. Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Have students explore art forms from different locations/time periods and choose their own design concept for Macbeth. Going to the Museum of the City of New York or the New York Historical Society? Have students research different locations in their own community where they could launch a site-specific production of Love's Labour's Lost. Going to the National Museum of Mathematics? (Yay MoMath!) Have students explore different physics properties before designing their own piece of technical theater equipment that can simulate a tempest. (All of these ideas are super-cool, and I will be trying them all out next year.)

Fashion Design Colleges
Our school took a field trip to a fashion institute, and I didn't even get to attend. (Curse you, inconvenient teaching schedule!) One of my co-advisors had the brilliant idea to book a field trip to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Students were able to observe classes in action, learn about summer opportunities, and even watch a fashion show of student work. It would have been perfect -- except for the fact that the fashion show was Lady Gaga-inspired and ended with the models throwing free condoms out onto the audience. Not exactly the field trip story that you want students recounting to their families over dinner.

DIY: If your city doesn't have a fashion design college (like FIT or Parsons: The New School for Design), I recommend looking for design departments at larger universities. For instance, my major hometown university (University of Buffalo) has a theatrical design department, a music composition department, and an emerging practices art department that focuses on "interactive multi-media, electronic installation, networked telematic communication, robotic art, three-dimensional simulation, biotechnology, and algorithmic image synthesis." Sign me up because that would make the COOLEST PRODUCTION EVER.

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