We had the good fortune of connecting with Grace Jeon and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Grace, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
Work life balance is something that, I believe, is easier said than done. I made a very selfish decision on my part on wanting to go to New York University because it was my dream school. My parents were fully supportive on their end, but I knew that financially it was asking a lot. So, I made the decision that I would waste no time while at school. There was one point where I was taking the full number of credits allowed, working two part time jobs, an internship, and doing extra studio shows both as an assistant and as the costume designer. I told myself that it was for the better and that it would help me build a resume to make things easier after I graduated, that I was making it financially easier for my parents by also working part time. I believe it was also a result of the naturally competitive nature in our studio, filled with talented and hardworking peers. I was constantly feeling like I was falling behind the others or that I wasn’t doing enough, so I had to do double of what they did to even start at the same point as them. It was constant pushing and pushing, and I was always looking for something next to do.
It wasn’t until the fall after I graduated that I realized I needed to take better of myself and acted on it. I was aware during school that it was exhausting and draining to constantly look for one more thing to add to my list, but I always justified it by telling myself it would help me post graduation. But once I was done with school and accepted at an apprenticeship program for the year, I realized I now just felt restless. It was essentially a full time job, 35-40 hours a week, where I was an assistant to different designers coming in to work with the costume shop. I was learning so much, but I was done when the clock struck 5:00. There was no homework, no extra projects. Just going home. For the first month or so I felt like maybe I should be doing something– maybe pick up another part time job or a design job on the side. But as I spent time at home in the evenings and weekends, I found that the guilt slowly eased as I picked up old hobbies or found new ones. Spending time away from work made me excited to go back in, and having time to bake or read helped relieve any stress from my work week.
I think now, looking back, I think I could have done better in college had I given myself chances to relax, step back, and refresh. Spreading myself so thin got a lot of things accomplished but at the cost of no sleep and constant stress. While being too severe on either end of the spectrum isn’t healthy, I’ve found that it’s important to take time for yourself– explore hobbies for the sake of hobbies, take naps or walks when you can, enjoy the company of friends. Proper rest is a vital step for proper work! This is the sentence I remind myself of now, and I have to admit I feel like it’s helped me make healthier boundaries for myself.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m still young and starting out as a professional in the industry; I have yet to truly find a style that is unique to me or something that helps me stand out. But I think if there’s something in my design process that I’m proud of, it would be that I place utmost importance on the director’s vision and the synergy with the performers. While respecting the director’s vision is self explanatory, I try and put extra care when working with actors and performers when meeting with them during fittings or rehearsals. They give everything they can of themselves on the stage, and ten million things are running through their minds. My goal as a costume designer or as a design assistant is to alleviate the worry that they don’t feel or look their best when on stage.
I have a strong memory from high school when I used to act in the musicals: the student in charge had chosen dresses and colors that made all the ensemble girls unhappy or feel unflattering, and the hair and makeup crew found wigs in horrible shape. I remember looking in the mirror as a teenager and thinking, “How can I show this to an audience? I look horrible!” It’s a very funny memory to look back at now, but at the time it was horrifying. So when I made the decision to start costume design, I made a little vow to myself that I would always work with the actor to find a compromise where they felt like they felt and looked their best in character while still landing within the realm of what the director desired.
As I did productions throughout college and as a freelancer, I’ve learned that this goal isn’t always feasible. Sometimes there isn’t much I can do to reach that middle ground, and I have to let go of the actor’s comfort for the vision the creative team has. Other times I need to completely redo a design because there is something the actor absolutely can’t do, so I know I need a new solution. Design and creating is entirely based on flexibility the instant you work in a collaborative setting. I’ve learned that the balance of staying humble and open to ideas and feedback along with knowing when to put your foot down and stick to your thoughts is something that is essential but only comes with practice. To be honest, it’s still something I’m learning, but it’s always fun to feel like I’m learning more from each production, I think.
If the world were to know something about me and my designs, I want them to know that I want theatre to be something that is enjoyed and shared with anyone and everyone. I want to create an experience that makes them feel emotion, feel like part of a community. It would be lovely if I could help create an atmosphere where it feels like anyone is welcome.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Food is an absolute must. I would show them around my favorite restaurants both in Manhattan and in my neighborhood in Queens. One place I always take friends who visit is Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum place in Chinatown that has been open since 1920. It always has a cozy, bustling atmosphere, and the food and tea is to die for… but admittedly we’ve always had a problem of ordering too much, so I advise pulling back despite the temptation. There’s also a cafe called Sweet Moment, nestled between Chinatown and Little Italy, where they serve delicious coffee and Korean style shaved ice (bingsoo). They have it in single serving cups or a bigger shareable portion, but if you want to try different flavors, my recommendation is to do single serving cups and share! In the winters I love going around to the various Christmas fairs set up around Manhattan. My personal favorite is the one near Bryant Park, complete with a massive tree, rows of stalls, and an ice skating rink. The rink is a little pricy, in my opinion, but the atmosphere and hot cider always make it a fun time for an evening of people watching and impromptu shopping.
I also love taking friends to St. Marks, a street in the East Village and a part of Little Tokyo. It’s filled with Japanese izakaya bars and all kinds of restaurants. The food was my comfort food during college, particularly a restaurant called Udon West (the combo meal was so good for the price) and an izakaya called Oh Taisho. It’s great for a cheaper option for a nice dinner out!
When it’s warmer, my friends and I enjoy having a picnic at Central Park. It’s nice to sit out in the sun/shade (I prefer the shade), and everyone brings a little something to share. People are walking by, having their own gatherings, and it’s overall a pleasant atmosphere. Not to mention buying an ice cream from the ice cream truck and having it on a slow walk around the park is always a good time!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I personally want to thank my parents for everything they’ve done for me. They supported my dream in going into theatre and costume design wholeheartedly, and believed in me when even I couldn’t believe in myself. They cheer me on whenever we call, and when I go home once every year or two I’m constantly reminded by them of how proud they are to have me as their daughter. I’m incredibly lucky to have such loving and supportive parents who guide me and lend me their time, love, and strength.
Emilio M.K. Visual Media Wendy Sugalski Sam Vartholomeos