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Why the list of Young Master winners at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards reads like a who's who of the industry
Where do you look to find the next big name in theatrical costume design? For the past quarter century, the winners of the Young Master Award at the annual TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards have been a great predictor. Named for legendary costume designer Irene Sharaff, the event celebrates its 25th edition on Friday, April 26 at the Edison Ballroom. While the two big honorees are industry veterans -- Tony-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty and two-time Tony-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty -- Young Master recipient Mio Guberinic is still an up-and-comer. Judging from his predecessors, he won't have to wait too long for his time to arrive.
Linda Cho received the 2014 Young Master two months before winning a Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Musical for her very first Broadway show: A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. "That year I was acknowledged for my work in regional theatre, as were the other Sharaff recipients," she recalls. "That's what my career has largely been, which I love. It never even dawned on me that I would be considered for the Young Master Award. To be recognized by your peers is an amazing thing."
Made up of working designers, the TDF/Irene Sharaff Voting Committee decides on the five honorees each year. Four of the accolades (the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, The Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design, the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards Memorial Tribute and the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards Artisan Award) go to well-established artists. Only the Young Master is bestowed upon an early career costume designer.
Gregg Barnes received the first Young Master Award back in 1994, three years before his Broadway debut. Now he has 15 Broadway credits on his résumé, along with two Tony Awards for Best Costume Design of a Musical for The Drowsy Chaperone and the most recent revival of Follies. "I was completely gobsmacked -- I had never won anything in my life, not even a bowling trophy!" recalls Barnes, who currently serves on the Voting Committee. "It's such an incredible lifeline for a young designer. So many of the Young Masters now have emerged onto the commercial New York scene."
Young Masters aren't chosen lightly. "We have a running list in all the Award categories," says Voting Committee member David Zinn, a Tony-winning scenic and costume designer who snagged the Young Master in 2005. "Every year we have passionate discussions about the people on those lists. We really talk about their work and what makes them good." The Voting Committee tracks the progress of emerging designers for years before deciding they're ready to join the ranks of the other Young Masters. "It's such a peer Award," Zinn explains. "It's particularly moving because it's people you respect and admire saying you've done something really worthy of recognition. When I won, I mark it as the moment that I was like, I'm being taken seriously in a particular nerdy field. It's your fellow nerds saying, 'Welcome! Welcome friend.'"
In 2017, Paloma Young became the first designer to win the Young Master after it had been rechristened the TDF/Kitty Leech Young Master Award in honor of the late designer and previous Voting Committee chair. "That was the thing that was most exciting for me, because she was such a humanist designer," Young says of Leech. "As soon as I was notified of getting the Award, I went and looked up all of the previous Young Masters. It wasn't just the honor of following in the footsteps of Irene Sharaff and Kitty Leech. It was very exciting and a little bit daunting to be following in the footsteps of my contemporary work heroes, and being so impressed with how everyone had followed through on their promise."
For 2011 Young Master Olivera Gajic, who primarily works regionally and internationally, the Award elevated her profile on the New York design scene. "It's a badge of honor for young designers, especially those of us working outside NYC," she says. "I felt accepted and a part of this community."
Community is a word that comes up frequently when talking to the Young Masters. Alejo Vietti, who won in 2010, always looks forward to attending the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards because he enjoys connecting with his fellow designers. "In an industry that oftentimes doesn't get any recognition, it's so important for us to not only celebrate each other, but to be reunited once a year," he says. "I don't think there's any other event that brings together as many designers and costume professionals in the same room. It's so humbling. You see people you have assisted before, and people who have assisted you and you see them grow."
1999 Young Master Suzy Benzinger has spent the last two decades watching her successors evolve. A Voting Committee member and the director of the short documentary films that honor designers in memoriam at every ceremony, she volunteers so much of her time to the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards because she believes they help enhance the community. "Winning the Young Master opened up a whole world to me of discovering these other designer," she says. "The fact that I can do a film every year on a designer I am interested in is wonderful and a great education. That's my gift to everyone -- and to myself."
Zinn says Awards night feels akin to a family reunion. "One of the things about the ceremony is that you realize there really is such a small generational line," he says. "It goes from the people at Motley to Jane Greenwood to you. There are not a lot of designers between me and the progenitors of our profession. You can have those people all in one room, which is really thrilling to be so close to your history."
For TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards tickets or more information, please call 212-989-5855 ext. 219 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Associate costume designer Matthew Pachtman and Young Master Award recipient Paloma Young at the 2017 TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards. Photo by Anita & Steve Shevett.
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