Scenic Artist Athena Parella '17 embarks on a gilded career
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Wednesday, June 10, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Athena Parella ‘17 is a newly-minted Journey Scenic Artist with Local USA 829 in New York, and she owes her job to one of her UMass Theater mentors, and gold leaf.
Here’s the story: Working in the scene shop at UMass Theater, Parella had to add gold leaf to a piece of scenery, a tricky, delicate task. Miguel Romero, then Professor of Scenic Design, spent hours with her, showing her how to use a special glue called Wunda Size and then to follow specific steps to successfully apply this expensive material.
Several years later, she applied for the union’s selective apprenticeship, which puts young scenic artists to work in prestigious scene shops for on-the-job training, supplemented with a rigorous schedule of classes to hone specialized skills.
“I remember thinking, I’m never going to gold-leaf anything ever again,” Parella tells the story, “and on the apprenticeship exam… one of the questions was, specifically, ‘What is the Size used for gold leaf?’ I got in by a point and a half, and that question was worth two points.”
“That’s scary to me, but that’s also magical, because that’s totally the teacher’s own will, to just put in the effort for me. I remember, with Miguel, he spent hours of overtime with me, and I didn’t realize that was overtime until I became a full-fledged adult,” Parella reflected.
The value of caring
Parella was not originally an enthusiastic proponent of UMass Theater. Her plan had been to attend art school, but her top choices waitlisted her, so she ended up at UMass. She stumbled upon Theater 110 (backstage practicum) and was intrigued by the prospect of working in the design area. She talked her way into working in the scene shop even though she hadn’t completed all the prerequisites yet, and in return Technical Director Michael Cottom talked her into adding a theater major.
She laughed, because her father advised her to have a second major to fall back on if art didn’t work out. “I chose theater, and he said ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all!’”
However, she said, her father’s skepticism was a motivator. “I wanted to work harder than anything in the whole world to make sure it’ll pay off.”
Theater proved to be a great fit. Parella valued the relationships she built with her instructors, including those in non-design areas, all of them generous with attention and mentorship.
“I remember so many teachers making me feel like I was so important, and that made me want to try even harder, because I felt like people cared,” she said.
She took to heart Cottom's advice: what you put into something is also what you’ll get out of it.
Romero retired in 2015, so for several years during Parella’s time, scenic design was taught by guest artists and instructors. Her work ethic, coupled with this situation, meant she was able to work directly with a number of leading scenic designers — a fact, she noted, that impressed the interview committee for her apprenticeship — as well as design for the mainstage design, an opportunity not often open to undergrads.
Looking toward graduation, Parella consulted Cottom — she jokingly calls him “my forever guidance counselor” — for career advice. He reached out to industry contacts in New York, and one of them mentioned the apprenticeship.
The program only accepts a cohort every three years, and the next group was starting shortly after Parella’s graduation. There were four rounds to the application process, including tests and interviews, and Parella was among those accepted in 2017.
The apprentices, who get their union card, work alongside other members of the union most of the week (they start at a 50% wage and get increases as the program progresses until graduation) painting, building, and repairing various scenic elements. Parella once spent a day painting bird poop on a roof; on another, she made dozens of hand turkeys for a TV set.
On Saturdays, the apprentices took classes with experts in various areas of scenic art. Classes met at studios and scene shops around New York, covering television, film, and theater work. Parella vividly recalled their time in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they had the chance to visit the Saturday Night Live scene shop, as well as time at the Plaster Society of America, a treasure trove of reproductions of some of the most famous sculptures in the world.
The classes covered everything from creating graffiti to painting muslin to look like Tiffany stained glass. The students spent a whole semester on creating the appearance of translucency with paint. Some skills also built on each other, Parella said; for example, they learned sculpture, then negative sculpture, then casting.
Along the way, students made connections with their expert teachers and fellow union members that they could call on to find employment opportunities; it was another instance where Parella’s work ethic stood her in good stead. “I was still running on a high from UMass, and because of that, I was brewing opportunities with these top-of-the-line teachers,” she said. The teacher of their classes on translucency, for example, has extended a standing invitation to her to be assistant designer for the annual Hasty Pudding show.
While many in her apprenticeship cohort were focused on television and film, Parella remained loyal to the art form that brought her to the job and found work at Scenic Arts Studios, which does scenery for the Metropolitan Opera, among other things.
Parella had finished all of her classes and was working on her portfolio of sketches and final project, a vintage-style painted travel poster, when quarantine hit. She learned she’d concluded the program from an email.
Her apprenticeship, Parella said, was incredible, and she’s beyond grateful the opportunity was available to her.
“I think when I got into the apprenticeship, that was when I truly realized how important UMass was to me,” she said. “That’s when you realize how beneficial the program is because you see the effects. I worked 200 percent all the time without knowing what the end product was, because there’s that blind hope that you have as a student, and if you take that for granted then you won’t know the answer to the gold leaf question.”