Lydia Merkel works as a freelance stage and costume designer for theaters such as Schauspiel Frankfurt, Schauspielhaus Bochum or Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach. After her bachelor’s degree in architecture, she studied at the master’s program Stage Design_Scenic Space from 2008 to 2010.
You previously studied architecture – did you already have your current profession in mind when you began your studies at the TU? With what expectations did you start your studies and did your goals change during your studies?
No, I didn’t have my current profession – the way I’m currently doing it – in mind. Somehow everything happened very quickly for me. I had just come from school and found it exciting to start in the field of architecture. Or rather, I was initially happy to have found a direction between all the courses of study in which I could supposedly live out my creativity without having to go through a big admission procedure – because I had a lot of respect for all the portfolio submissions and job interviews. It was only during the mandatory internships that I began to sense the complexity of the field of architecture. I found the program incredibly exciting and engaging, and fortunately I approached it relatively fresh and unprepared. So my expectations were not disappointed, but of course inclinations and skills only crystallize when “doing”. I quickly realized what I was good at and what I had no perspective on in architecture: for example, drawing door handles with a love of detail…
It was therefore fortunate that my then design professor and stage designer Kerstin Laube virtually “snatched” me away from architecture and opened my eyes to new things. So after my bachelor’s degree in architecture, I was able to continue my studies in the master’s program in stage design and scenic space without any complications.
What did you focus on in your master’s program? Was your interest more in stage design or scenic space? How did your interest develop, deepen?
I actually dove right into the theater world. I was infected by the plays, texts and characters in space. Above all, I was also carried away by the passion of my professor Frank Hänig. He did a lot to make me fall in love with theater. I owe a lot to him. For my way of working it was very good that there was always a choice and that we were not tied into structural corsets. For example, the bachelor’s and master’s system is not as scholastic as many think. There is always room for maneuver and choice to develop. The other offers just didn’t entice me and weren’t really within my grasp.
What was special about studying at the TU Berlin? What did it mean to live in a cultural metropolis like Berlin while studying?
What was special for me was actually the change from architecture to stage design: the fact that this was possible and combinable at all within the university. And what was also special for me was the structural difference between the master’s program in stage design and scenic space. In architecture, we started with 180 students, 90 students in each design project. It was enormously difficult to get noticed at all. In the master’s program, it was a completely different feeling, also because of the rooms and the studios in Ackerstrasse – so sheltered, so encouraged and challenged. Compared to the bachelor’s degree, it was almost 1-to-1 supervision. I think we were only 17 master’s students in the 2008 academic year.
I honestly didn’t find the “cultural metropolis” aspect as exciting as often claimed. I’m from Brandenburg, I lived in Berlin’s suburbs, and I often didn’t understand the hype. I have often experienced how students who have moved here have simply “lost” themselves in the city. You can do everything here, but also nothing, is hardly noticed as an individual in the city. Those who love the aspect of anonymity are certainly in good hands here. Or you can find your own neighborhood to move around in. Of course, there are plenty of offers, but who always needs “plenty”? With such an overabundance in every respect, it’s easy to lose track and lose sight of your goal. But in terms of theater – yes, of course, supply and demand are great.
What memories do you have of the TU BBSR course? What particularly influenced you during your studies for your later professional life/activity?
A lot of coziness and humanity. I thought it was great that we complemented and helped each other out so well and very rarely saw each other as competition. This togetherness was wonderful. We were a small “master family” and the panic about graduation faded into the background.
The strengthened “we” helps in the theater, of course. As a set and costume designer, you never act as an individual, but are always part of a whole team. I really took this “team building” with me from my studies. Also the multicultural discussions! I’ve worked with Tunisian, Mexican, Lebanese, Brazilian, Syrian… teams, the textbook or the play text doesn’t always help. (laughs)
Were you already able to establish contacts in practice during your quite practice-oriented studies at the TU?
No, no… What helped me the most was working with my professor Frank Hänig, as I mentioned at the beginning. He is insanely inspiring, unconventional and lives for theater. I also have him to thank for my direct connection to the field after graduation. In 2010/11, he became head of set design at the Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach and took me with him as a set design assistant for 2 years. That was a great transition and entry into professional life.
What happened after your studies, what was your start in practice like?
First I assisted at the Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach for two seasons until 2012. 2012-2014 I was at the Schauspielhaus Bochum as a stage assistant and since 2014 I have been freelancing.
What do your fields of work look like? With which partners, in which places do you work? Is your professional life compatible with your private life and your family?
Through the permanent assistantships I am very connected with the two houses mentioned above. There are always follow-up assignments with teams that are known or unknown to me. With my current “headquarters” in Düsseldorf, the current work locations Krefeld, Bochum or Frankfurt as a stage and costume designer are very compatible with family.
What do you particularly like about your job?
I am creative and free. Every day is a surprise. I get to know great people and am part of a whole, a world all my own. I am my own organizer and can reinvent myself every day. I’m lucky to be able to work like this and hope for many more wonderful seasons.
Looking back once: What does studying at the TU mean to you today? How formative was the TU time for your work today?
It is my foundation. I am grateful that I had the opportunity (also the financial one, thanks to my family!) to study here. Who builds tent, hut or house on its foundation now, the future will show.
Is there anything you would do differently today?
What tips would you give to someone who wants to go to the theater?
Be happy, free and curious and don’t be afraid to start with job shadowing or assisting! This is a great way to get started in most houses and often guarantees “advancement.” Theaters are always changing with the constant change of directors and teams and are always looking.