Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When the Art Chooses You

Contributed by Stephanie Cox-Williams

A lot of people ask if I always wanted to be a SFX artist or more commonly called, a gore designer. Well, no, not really. Or maybe?

Matt Hurley and Melody Bates in R & J & Z - Gore Design by Stephanie Cox-Williams. Photo by Hunter Canning

Going back to lil Stephanie days, each year I would choose 5 to 10 different possible careers. As I got older, I realized (after playing Sally Ride, my first role, in a 5th grade assembly) that if I couldn’t follow all 10 career paths, I could become an actor and just “play one on TV”. Or become a secret agent. I decided on actor.

Many moons later, I made it to New York. By then I had done just about every job in the theater from back and front of house and touched everything except lighting design (and gore design). Still with my dreams of being on Broadway -- or if LA came calling, a major motion picture star -- I needed all the training I could get, so I went to AMDA. I took acting classes, stage combat classes, dance classes, and eventually got my Masters in Educational Theater.

When I first moved to New York, I didn’t know about Off-Broadway, or Off-Off-Broadway. I didn’t know these were options for me to pursue in the arts. All I had done was Community Theater and I still had my eye set on Broadway. However my journey took me down a path that I didn’t even know I wanted to travel.

I remember my first experience with OOB or Independent Theater was through my friend Christopher Yustin who was doing a parody of Scooby Doo, Spooky Dog. After that, he was cast in a show, where he really connected with the company. He said, “these guys are really cool, I want to introduce you after the show.” The show was called Allston and the “guys” were Nosedive Productions.

Raw Feed in 2012. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum
Pulp in 2007. Photo by Aaron Epstien

I have “caught the artistic bug” a few times in my life. My first role on stage in high school; the first choreography gig I did; my first directing job; and meeting Nosedive (and subsequently working with them) each was a defining artistic moment for me. And then of course was the time I ended up doing gore design -- pretty much on the fly.

During the first show of The Blood Brothers Present… series, we had a “blood lab” and a lot of friends and designers gave us tips and helped us out. However, with the second show, it was up to each director to come up with their own effects. We were scheduled to try the effects for the first time during our tech night and incorporate them into the tech run. We were working with a lot of great ideas for effects, but they just weren’t working. It was taking a lot of time and everyone was getting frustrated. I walked over to our lighting designer and said, “I think I know how to do this, but I want to run it by you.” Together we came up with a great plan, tested it and it worked. For the rest of the night, anytime an effect was not working or taking a lot of set up (even one of mine), they called on me to solve the problem. I would instinctively MacGuyver it and we moved on. The two lessons I took from this experience was: 1) do not incorporate your effects tech into your regular tech on the same night – make sure to set aside “testing” time and then if time allows, an effects que-to-que with lights and costumes 2) keep it simple. Nowadays, I come in with, two strategies; something slightly complicated and the simple plan. Nine times out of ten, simple works best.

I still love to act, direct, choreograph, write, design props and sets, run sound, you name it. And while it wasn’t what I expected, I could not be more happy with the path my artistic life has taken. And I can’t wait to see where it leads me next. All thanks to independent theatre.


Stephanie Cox-Williams is a FX/Gore Designer, Actress, Director, Producer and Fight Choreographer for independent theater and film. Some SFX/Gore credits include: Theatre – R+J+Z (OHA/Hard Sparks), The Temple (Tin Drum Productions), Jesus Christ Superstar, Bat Boy (NJIT), Frankenstein Upstairs (Gideon Productions), The Tower, Motherboard and Death Valley (Antimatter Collective), The Blood Brother’s Present…Anthologies (Nosedive Productions); Film –They Will Out Live Us All (AGottaandTwoShearersFilms), Assistant Effects/Make-up - Zombies: A Living History (History Channel). Named "Queen of Gore" by The New York Press (2009) and the “Tom Savini of Off-Off-Broadway” by The New York Times (2011). She has received a BA in Theatre, a Musical Theatre Conservatory degree and a Masters of Art. Named A Person of the Year by nytheatre.com in 2011 and recipient of the Outstanding Innovative Design Award for R+J+Z in 2015 by the IT Awards.

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