There’s a calm and an aura of happiness surrounding Shane Ballard. As we gab away at a corner table inside Joe coffee’s West Village shop (seemingly my new favorite interview spot), there isn’t one hint of negative energy even when the conversation delves into past career pursuits where Ballard was unfulfilled. Similar to the frenetic energy of my chat with vogue legend Jamel Prodigy, Ballard’s calmness and peace are states of being that one can only achieve once a true calling has been identified.
2015 was a banner year for Ballard. After leaving behind a corporate-based creative career just the year prior, he became the primary costume sketch artist for NBC’s The Wiz Live! and the record-breaking special has opened doors that have simultaneously accomplished his childhood dreams and opened doors to new opportunities that were once seemingly impossible. The opportunity to work on the broadcast came about through a mix of determination and positive energy in the universe.
“I had been emailing Paul [Tazewell, costume designer for The Wiz Live! and Hamilton] for almost a month every day. I’ve loved The Wiz ever since I was a kid. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta work on this show’. I was emailing Kenny Leon, the director. I stalked Harvey Fierstein. In retrospect, I was a little crazy,” Ballard comically reflected. But persistence mixed with a little hope paid off. “I did some illustrations on my own and posted them on my Facebook. I still don’t know if that prompted Val to contact Paul.”
Val is his mentor and established costume designer Valerie Marcus Ramshur, whom Ballard refers to as his costuming fairy godmother. Shortly after posting his Wiz illustrations on Facebook, Ramshur reached out to pass Ballard’s contact info along to Tazewell.
“That was kind of a magical period. I had just gotten an internship with Sleep No More [a surreal New York-based theater experience] in the costume department. I had been there for a week when I got the call from Paul in May.”
Ballard worked with Tazewell on the conceptual illustration for all costumes for the production. And his technical approach is one aspect that made him an asset to the project.
“The traditional technique of illustrating costumes is by hand, usually in pen and ink with paint washes or marker. I work digitally which allows me to render costumes that look closer to real life.” Combining hand illustration and digital photo collage, this is a design method used more in film than theater and gives him a strong competitive edge on Broadway. He can scan actual fabric in and use it in an illustration or use a photo of a performer's face in the costume illustration.
Once the sketching was complete, he stayed onboard as a production assistant and gained access to many intricate behind-the-scenes parts of both the Broadway and entertainment industries.
“I was able to meet a lot of the amazing craftspeople who create costumes for Broadway,” he recalls of his experiences in several costume shops across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. He also highlights the NBC network approval process as another eye-opening portion of the experience. “Queen Latifah is looking at an illustration of her costume and she has notes, and the head of NBC has notes, and you have to make changes yesterday.” Ballard’s involvement with the production lasted almost until it’s air date with some costume revisions taking place between the cast’s performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the final Dec. 3 airdate.
The night the production aired, Ballard hosted a party with family and friends to celebrate his achievement, but he admits it was a lot to process in that moment. “I went back and watched it on demand the next day to really absorb it.” And there’s even more to absorb as the production, which is reportedly headed to Broadway in 2017, was just nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award.
But before The Wiz Live!, the opened doors, and the abundance of design work, Ballard, like many of us, went through a trial and error process to find the right fit. He studied fashion design at FIT and went on to work in various roles as a toy/product designer for Marvel Comics, kids’ consumer product designer, and accessories marketer. Just before making his official foray into the world of costume design, he was the senior graphic designer for women’s sportswear at Buffalo Jeans.
“I decided to be a grown up and do the job security thing,” he said. But despite the security, happiness wasn’t included in the package. “I was resolved to deal with the unhappiness because the paychecks were good and there was security.” Fate would soon intervene.
When he was unexpectedly laid off from Buffalo Jeans, he finally had the freedom to fully pursue his dreams. His boss, Leila Shams-who Ballard credits as a great resource in learning to take creative risks, was supportive in spite of the unfortunate circumstance. "She said, ‘Shane you’re a superstar.’ This was the push to do what I needed to do. Sometimes you know when it’s time to change. Somehow intuitively, you know that the universe is conspiring to set you on a different course.” He’d contemplated entering the costume design profession before but wasn’t sure how to make a living doing it. During his layoff from Buffalo Jeans, he realized that his childhood ambitions had come full circle.
“In retrospect, I realize that although I’ve worked in all of these creative industries, from the time I was a kid, I’ve always in my free time designed characters, designed worlds. It’s really kind of like theater and costumes is what interested me in living in New York to begin with.” He recalls a trip to New York when he was 9 years old during which his mother took him to a production of the Broadway play, Cats. He remembers being drawn to the city and having a very early understanding of the “transformative power of costumes”.
Now, Ballard found himself on a new career path as a costume designer-a transition he says has happened more organically than any other career transition in his life. Despite already taking on costume design roles while still working full-time at Buffalo Jeans, he recalls two moments that helped him truly believe that he was now, in fact, a costume designer.
He was designing 17th century period piece costumes for a production called Madame Infamy by director and playwright Joseph Vigliotti. Ballard and Vigliotti had collaborated several times before on projects in both New York and Los Angeles. The production was part of the New York Musical Theater Festival and its 14-person cast included professional Broadway performers who had credits from the likes of Rent, Les Miserables, and The Lion King. He remembers “feeling like an imposter” until receiving some unprompted words of encouragement from Broadway actress and singer Rachel Stern Collins.
“She took me aside one day and said ‘You are so ready for Broadway. Broadway needs you. This is what you should be doing.’ That was the first moment where I started to think-maybe I could really do this.”
Shortly after Madame Infamy, Ballard was called to work on One Day, an off-Broadway production involving producers from Rock of Ages and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. During the first production meeting, producer Carl Levin referred to the group as the “A-list of theater talent.” This was inclusive of Ballard who was sitting at the table along with everyone else. Sometimes those affirmations have to come from those around us in order to fully understand that we’re on the right path.
Fast forwarding to present day, Ballard feels proud to have been part of The Wiz Live! and recognizes its power has moved far beyond just entertainment value.
“Seeing how much having a production with a cast that was primarily people of color with so many people of color on the creative team-how powerful that was for people of color in the country. The pride that it created for my family and friends. It was sort of a critical moment for race relations-it gave us something to celebrate. The show was really a celebration of all the beauty and love and art that is black people. It was a highlight of my career.”
And as far as what’s next? Ballard has already collaborated with Tazewell as his first assistant on the production Skeleton Crew, which runs through Feb. 14. And he’s resuming his illustration duties on another forthcoming new project with the renowned costume designer. Looking ahead into the future, Ballard hopes to make the transition into film costume design and balance both worlds.
“I’m really pleased with the trajectory of my career so far.” And it seems this is just the beginning of much more success to come.