When director Anne Kauffman first learned of the idea behind dots, the new design collective quickly taking over New York theater, she had two words: “Fucking genius.”
“It made so much sense,” Kauffman said, because “no one is going to take care of artists in this industry.”
Indeed, dots (all lower case) was born in 2020 when three scenic artists decided to seek greater agency in their careers. To find it, they joined together to operate as one, a model with little precedent in the theatrical landscape.
Three years later, dots has made its Broadway debut with Kauffman’s staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and is ubiquitous across New York stages, with Public Obscenities at Soho Rep, Dark Disabled Stories at The Public Theater, Events at The Brick, and Kate Berlant’s KATE at The Connelly Theater among their recent projects. Next, dots will design all three productions in Clubbed Thumb’s beloved Summerworks new play series — a model that, again, no one involved has attempted before.
The idea of the collective arose in the early days of the lockdown. Co-founders Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa were friends from NYU Tisch’s Design for Stage & Film MFA program. All three are immigrants on O-1B visas for “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts” (Orjuela-Laverde from Colombia, Moerdyk from South Africa, and Nishikawa from Japan), a shared background which bonded them. Keeping up through frequent Zoom check-ins to stay sane, the three grew friendlier and realized they were all hitting up against the same challenges and frustrations in their theatrical work.
“So the question we asked was: ‘Why are we competing?’” said Nishikawa. “What is the benefit of going it alone?”
Pooling their talents opened up a broader array of work in theater, film, television, and commercials. They worked on a campaign for prescription aid SingleCare, on Clubbed Thumb’s three-part virtual production The Woman’s Party, and the anthology series The Green Veil. Each dots creation typically has one lead designer, but all three contribute creatively and can step in as needed. Clients get three sets of eyeballs for the price of one, while dots can take on more contracts and earn enough to actually live off their design work.
While the model was chiefly born of financial necessity, the three also viewed it as an artistic broadening.
“Working by yourself, you fall into the habit of imposing or replicating an aesthetic out of the need to produce work fast,” said Moerdyk.
“Working together,” echoed Orjuela-Laverde, “gives us more capacity to jump into unknown waters.”
dots’s work has no single unifying aesthetic. Big-name theatrical designers will often offer a house style—David Rockwell’s throwback Broadway glitz, Bunny Christie’s intense psychological environments—but dots tries to make new discoveries on each project.
For Dark Disabled Stories, they built a bright pink rectangular box that transforms, through just a couple basic props, into a city bus, gay bar, or subway car. KATE threw audiences into an environment from the moment they entered the theater, with a mock exhibit of Berlant’s costume and stage props filling the lobby. Public Obscenities and Sidney Brustein are realist and richly detailed, recreating a home in Kolkata, India, and a sixties Greenwich Village apartment, respectively.
Brustein is set in a period of constant turmoil and is also a text still considered under construction, as Hansberry died before completing work on it. Kauffman wished to extend that quality into the show’s design. dots conceived of what Kauffman called an “elegant, almost invisible construction site” that envelopes the central apartment, suggesting something mid-process and a city constantly in a state of flux.
Not every project has gone smoothly. dots conceived an ambitious concept for Noah Diaz’s You Will Get Sick, staged at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre off-Broadway: a meta-theatrical puzzle box that miraculously opens, in the play’s final coup de théâtre, to reveal a vast field of wheat. The design received acclaim and a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Scenic Design.
But pulling it off was a strain for everyone involved due to the combined effects of soaring costs, labor shortages, and fewer skilled production managers still working in the industry. Increased pressure fell upon dots’ team to work extra hours to ensure the set could be ready in time—precisely the kind of working dynamic they had created dots to avoid.
Nishikawa ties these problems to larger issues in the industry instead of to one single theater, noting that Roundabout’s design fee of 8,000 dollars for Sick was higher than most off-Broadway venues’. Signature Theatre, The Public Theater, MCC Theater, and others with higher operating budgets currently pay minimum design fees ranging from 5,100 dollars to 7,658 dollars, per the current United Scenic Artists and Off-Broadway League Agreement. Exact payment within that fee range depends on the size of the house and whether the show is a play or musical. Minimums, however, can be as low as 3,247 dollars for smaller companies, while venues under ninety-nine seats are typically not subject to any minimum guidelines.
The gulf between these fees and a show’s total budget can be vast. dots received a 3,500 dollar fee for the first staging of KATE, but the budget for the show’s lobby display alone was nearly twice that amount.
“There needs to be a redistribution of money from things to people,” said Nishikawa. “That’s unfortunately not happening off-Broadway.”
“So they rely on the labor to subsidize the production, to an extent,” added Moerdyk. “While paying the minimum rates.”
Clubbed Thumb encountered similar issues on its first Summerworks post-lockdown. Costs were up 50 percent, and there was “a lot of chaos,” recalled producing artistic director Maria Striar. “As things become really expensive, you have to consider: is this smart, is this practical, and is this ethical?”
dots is driven by the same conversations. By collaborating on all three Summerworks productions this summer, the two companies hope to figure out a more efficient and sustainable process, one where departments are not siloed but share one strategy and budget from the early stages—and perhaps even see that some of the materials find a future use, rather than ending up in a dumpster.
Whatever roadblocks come along, the structure of the collective allows Orjuela-Laverde, Moerdyk, and Nishikawa to absorb new challenges and setbacks collectively.
“We found a way to navigate the system that is more harm-reductive,” said Moerdyk.
And if they do sometimes take on too much, or say “yes” more than they should, they admit that can be instinctual for O-1B visa holders. More credits, more acclaim, more success is not merely an end in and of itself, but assures a continued working future.
“The people who are looking at the [visa] applications, they’re not theater people, they don’t care about if we’re good at our job—they care about credits, and who was part of it,” said Nishikawa.
Work at smaller theaters, then, may not ensure their collective future in the United States; dots takes on those projects chiefly for the love. But Kate Berlant, Bo Burnham, and Oscar Isaac? Those names might do the trick.