Elizabeth Mak is a Singapore-born US-based interdisciplinary theatre artist. She's interested in making new work that blurs the line between movement, text, and design, work that actively impacts the communities we live in.
Her design credits include Cymbeline (Yale Repertory Theater); Nanyang: The Musical (Singapore International Festival of Arts); The Square Root of Three Sisters (International Festival of Arts and Ideas); False Stars (Corkscrew Festival); Danger Signals (New Ohio Theatre ICE Factory); They, Themself and Schmerm (Public Theater UTR Festival INCOMING!); And Then They Fell (New York Film Academy); Passion Play (Atlantic Acting School); Deer and the Lovers, Preston Montfort, The Seagull, Twelfth Night (Yale School of Drama); We Are All Here, I'm with You in Rockland, MoonSong, How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, Cloud Tectonics, 50:13 (Yale Cabaret); Beckett Shorts, The Flu Season (American Repertory Theater Institute); Counterpoint, 35 (Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company); House of Yes, Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club); B O X (NineSidedBox); Belinda McGuire Dance Projects; Christine Bonansea Dance Company. Independent productions: The Graveyard Book, Waiting. AB in Performance and Theatre Arts Harvard University. MFA in Design Yale School of Drama. elizabethmak.com.
Danger Signals, by Built for Collapse, August 9-12, New Ohio Theater, ICE Factory Festival. Set & Lighting Designer.
False Stars, by Nora Sorena Casey, August 18-27, Paradise Factory, Corkscrew Festival. Lighting Designer.
In the Blood, by Suzan-Lori Parks, August 29-October 8, Signature Theater. Associate Lighting Designer.
Office Hour, by Julia Cho, October 17-December 3. The Public Theater. Assistant Lighting Designer.
Marie & Rosetta, by George Brant, January 20-February 11. Cleveland Playhouse. Associate Lighting Designer.
Marie & Rosetta, by George Brant, March 3-31. Cincinnati Playhouse. Associate Lighting Designer.
Die Fledermaus, April 28-29. SUNY Stony Brook. Lighting & Projections Designer.
ARTISTS. This is how you find purpose. Make art that you love. Make art that terrifies the fuck out of you. Secretly love making the art that terrifies the fuck out of you. Not so secretly. Be paid for making that art. And never stop making art that the world needs.
Make art that is truthful to what you intended it to be. Make art that is beautiful, even if it is beautiful in its ugliness. Make art that isn’t afraid to stare down what the rest of the world is afraid to look at. Be desperately in love with the world, with everything that is right about it and everything that is wrong about it. Celebrate humanity. Dream, dream so big that you have to stop dreaming and start making art about your dreams.
Artists and their community
Artists should surround themselves with people who are interesting and different from them. Artists should definitely surround themselves with non-artists, because these are the people that we learn from, that we make stories about, that challenge us in our art making precisely because they are not involved in it.
Artists should create a safe space within their own artistic community in which to share work. That means that in a room where art is being shared, all criticism is constructive and in service of the art and of the artist. It means you, the person with whom the art is being shared with, put aside your own artistic ego, and truly listen to what is needed from you. Sometimes what’s needed is for you to shut up if you don’t have anything useful to say. Sharing should result in the artist being galvanised into wanting to jump right back into working. We should all be cheerleaders of each other’s art.
Creating a safe space also means creating a place where ideas and emotions can be freely expressed. Everyone should be given the permission to have full access to their emotions. This means anyone can cry without fear of judgment. Anyone can laugh without fear of judgment. Anyone can put forth their ideas, knowing that agreeing to disagree is a perfectly fine position to take.
Mostly, don’t surround yourself with assholes. Unless you want to.
Artists and taking care of themselves
Artists should set aside time for rest and rejuvenation. This means artists should take care of themselves, because no one else will. Physical health is necessary to keep up with the demanding and irregular lifestyle of an artist. Exercise. Meditate. You do not have to in the deepest, darkest pit of despair to make good art.
Artists do not have to be alone. Artists can have families, supportive partners, and as full of a life as they want. Artists should have as many friends as they want or as few friends as they want. If you’re making art about the world, what kind of art is it if you lose touch with the world?
Artists and fear
Artists are allowed to possess a fear of failure. But then they have to take that fear, spit in its face, and fail anyway. Try Again. Fail better.
Be open to criticism. You don’t always have to take it, but always be open to it. Always be in the present, observing, collecting, experimenting.
Be okay with not knowing, and with ambiguity. Nestle in the grey patches.
Do not wait for the perfect idea. Do not wait for the perfect time or the perfect location. Do not wait for validation from others. These are all excuses for being afraid, and you will be waiting for a long, long time. Work with what you have. Make.
Fear is primal. Often we don’t even know we are afraid. But artists, when they find out where that little dark corner of the room is hiding, should attack it, and beat it into submission. Because fear can control you and everything that you do. Fear is paralysis. And art should be the opposite of paralysis. Play.
Artists and being paid
Artists should be paid. Do not take a job for no pay unless you think you will richly benefit from the experience. Otherwise, you are telling people that your art is of no value. You will be telling them that your services as an artist are not valued. That somehow, just because you love what you do, you deserve to be barely making minimum wage and living from rent check to rent check in fear of never being able to save up enough to not worry for the immediate future. Be paid.
Artists and respecting other artists
Artists should respect every single person who works with them and for them, from the artistic director of the world’s most prestigious theatre to the night custodian who vacuums the theatre after tech. Regardless of how stressed you are or how important you think you are or how involved in your art you are. Everyone around you deserves respect, especially the people who are working to fulfill your dreams, your ideas, your visions. What does this mean? It means, directors, get your heads out of your ass. Most of you are not directing what is God’s next gift to mankind, so take the time to greet the intern taking notes for you and stop making irresponsible uninformed choices about the work you’re making on a whim. It means, playwrights, include other people in the conversation you are having with words. Turns out other people make have dramaturgical suggestions too. It means, actors, you are not David reincarnated, and your Stanislavski or Strasberg is not a good enough excuse to be so immersed in your character that you have the liberty to pretend everyone exists to serve you. It means, designers, submit your drawings on time so your carpenter/electrician/engineer/crew teams don’t have to pull overnight calls to make up for your inability to manage your time.
Very importantly, STOP using “I’M AN ARTIST” as an excuse for being late, for being lazy, for being irresponsible, for being careless, for being rude, and for being disorganised. There is no more disrespectful behaviour than that.
Artists and social awareness
Artists should be as aware as possible as they can of others. Be fascinated by history. Be interested in foreign political forum theatre. Teach a drama class to children. Observe gender bias in your workplace. Hell, pay everyone equally, regardless of gender. Read more about feminist theory. Notice the effects of religious persecution, income inequality, war, physical and mental disability, technological changes, and environmental devastation.
Artists and their responsibility to their audience
Artists have a responsibility to their audience. There is too much masturbatory, self-indulgent, I’ll- do-it-because-I-can art in the world. Before showing any piece of work, be critical of what you are showing. This does not mean you should self-censor. It means that you have to be aware of the choices that you have made, and understand why you made them. When dealing with sensitive subject matters, this is doubly true. You, the artist, have a social responsibility to rigorously research your subject, so that you understand as much as you can about the discussion that has come before you and where you lie in trying to further that discussion. On that note, theory and history is important to further this ability to make choices with integrity, but never let it be more important than your voice as an artist.
Do not insult your audience by feeling the need to dictate and control how they react or feel. There is much pleasure to be derived from watching people discover things for themselves.
Artists and process
Artists should not overproduce. There is a general trend in the world that we have to work till we drop, that the most prolific artist is the most successful artist. Do not be concerned about constant making if you have nothing to make anything about.
Stop letting people make your work into something whose sole value is in being bought or sold. Your job is not in giving your audience the sweet desserts that any toddler might crave. Your job is to discover what your audience might need, and not what they want. Serve the prunes, brussel sprouts, and beets too. Make art that not everyone wants to see, because the things that need to be said are often hard to hear.
Stop thinking of art in terms of product. You kill any process along the way by doing so. You will get so caught up in what you think it should be that you will completely miss what it could be. Work should never be frozen. Artists should think of what they make as a constant evolving process, so that every piece of feedback is valuable. Nothing is precious.
Artists and making relevant work
No more straight plays about the American middle class. No more classical opera in its original form. No more revivals of the same work over and over again. If you want to make Hamlet, make today’s Hamlet, which might not even be called that at all. No more making work that only appeals to the demographic of the old and white variety. Make work that is an invitation for anyone to come see. No more making work for the sake of making work. Make work that confronts today’s issues. Make work that challenges form. Make work that tackles what no one has tackled before. Make work that never ceases to question, to provoke, to confront.
Artists and ensembles
The time for hierarchical theatre is past. The time for purely script-dictated theatre is past. People are devising work together as an ensemble, and the creativity within that work is far superior to that of a single person’s. It is painfully obvious when designers and choreographers have been in the room during a writing process. Be aware of the power of words, and the power of wordlessness. Do not be afraid to relinquish power and ego if someone else’s idea is better than yours. Make work as equals and as collaborators.
Me, the artist
This is what I want to make:
Art that requires an active audience, engaged in mind, body, and spirit
Art that is immersive and experiential
Art that does not shy away from technology
Art that is unexpected at every turn, and captivating in its unpredictability
Art that illuminates the beauty in even the ugliest of things
Art that says what needs to be said
Art that isn’t afraid of addressing pain
Art that seeks redemption for the hurts of the world
Art that never fails to experiment and seeks the next frontier of human understanding
Art that binds a community together through the ritual of shared experience
Art that sets the world on fire.