Making It Work

I’ve been a devotee of “Project Runway” since day one; Austin Scarlett made a ball gown out of day-old corn husks and I was on board. Let’s be honest, it’s great TV – it’s got drama, snappy catchphrases, and more surprise twists than a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. But you know what else? Watching “Project Runway” has made me a better artist. Here are some lessons I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve taken from the runway to my writing:

Collections should be cohesive.


When a designer makes a collection on “Project Runway,” what’s the first thing anyone ever talks about? Is the collection cohesive? Do all these pieces feel like they belong in one person’s closet? In a successful collection, each look should riff vibrantly on a single visual motif; in a successful musical, each scene, song, and character should point dynamically toward the heart of your story. Don’t get me wrong, variety is important – no wardrobe should be all beige and no musical should be all ballads – but I find it useful to remember that all of the pieces should be working toward a bigger whole as I try to figure out what, exactly, those pieces are.

Teamwork is hard, but the rewards are great.


Oh man, the button bag. The button bag means a team challenge is coming and that is most certainly spelling disaster for many a “Project Runway” competitor. The train wreck collaborations are always those where the designers don’t respect each other, can’t compromise, and can’t unite around a single vision. The amazing collaborations are those where the designers embrace others’ perspectives, each contribute, and establish a common creative goal. Every musical is a collaboration – even if you write the thing by yourself, you will be working with actors, directors, musicians, and more – and every successful musical is one whose sum is greater than its parts. Learn to collaborate, and more important, learn to love to collaborate. Communicate well and be decent about it. Take ownership of your strengths and own up to your weaknesses. Want to create something that’s better than you could’ve done on your own.

Commercialism is part of being an artist.


My favorite (and sorely missed) “Project Runway” judge is Michael Kors, who made a guest appearance on a recent episode. He offered a trademark piece of Kors-ian wisdom when he commented on his favorite look of the evening: “There’s something familiar about it, which will make it commercial, but then there’s something special about it that will make someone want it.” The best designers are able to create something fresh and new without alienating potential buyers with unidentifiable forms and crazy crotches. Exciting and successful musicals also find a way to marry the new and the familiar, often using the familiar to rally an audience around a radical new idea. Commercialism is about the audience. It can be a dirty word to artists, but if you’re not writing with the audience in mind, you’re in the wrong business. What “Project Runway” has taught me is that art and commercialism are not mutually exclusive. I don’t need to compromise my vision—the stories I want to tell—but I do have a responsibility to figure out the best way to communicate that vision to an audience.

You do you.


Tim Gunn throws around a lot of flowery adjectives in the work room, but his highest compliment is always, “This is so you.” The biggest regret of any “Project Runway” contestant is always that they were sent home for a garment that didn’t represent them as a designer – that felt untrue to their voice. “Project Runway” winners are usually in the bottom at least once during a season, because they stick to their guns and take risks even if it means failure. They make what they believe in – more crucially, they know what they believe in. Embarking on a career as an artist necessarily involves going through a kind of second adolescence – reliving that experience of wanting to fit in, of wanting to be just like “the cool kids,” but of emerging, hopefully, with a sense of what your voice is and what sets you apart. In the face of inevitable rejection and struggle, the hardest thing can be to keep writing what you believe in. But you must, and have to trust that you’ll find your audience by being you. Perhaps more truthfully, it’s your audience that will find you.


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