This blast from the past comes from 2006 – May – 08. At the time of me writing this italicized bit, it has been more than five years since Ritchie’s passing. I got the news as I was waiting to enter a theatre to see a student’s work — a student that I was going to have to sit and offer criticism to. Ritchie was the master of criticism. Every time I grade or evaluate a student’s work, I hear Ritchie’s voice in my head. I still aspire to have the kind of impact on my students as he had on me.
To any of you have had any associations with the USC School of Theatre (or division of Drama) since 1980 or so, I have bad news. I received a phone call this evening that Ritchie M. Spencer, head of production, costume designer, teacher, colleague and friend passed away due to complications related to cancer.
Ritchie was a mentor to me. He also terrorized me through my senior year of undergrad. I used to leave costume design, head back to my apartment, thank God that my room mate was never around, and cry. I couldn’t draw a blob that looked like a person, much less a person wearing exquisite costumes that someone would want to build. He glared, he belittled, he insulted, and then he taught me. I never understood until I went back to grad school how much I had learned. And it wasn’t until I became a teacher I truly understood. I cannot be the superior professor who looks down his nose at everyone’s work — but he could, and did, and believe me I learned. I learned to research. I learned to master my craft. I learned how to communicate ideas in simple, effective lines. I learned that every line drawn, every stroke of the brush must be considered, and if it is unimportant should be, no, must be eliminated. I learned that drawing and designing is not about merely communicating construction concepts to talented artisans, it is telling a story. The better you tell the story of the design, the better the artisans can build it. Today, am I a costume designer? … no. But I am a designer. And so much of that design skill came from those tearful afternoons.
When i returned to Grad School, it was because I was an employee of U.S.C., and at that time employees could get grad degrees cheaply. I saw another side of Ritchie Spencer. He was a supportive colleague. He did not look down on my position or on me. He made me feel like a professional (many of the faculty did not adjust quickly — or in some cases at all– to me being a professional at the school and not a student). In grad school, he was no easier on my work (and it didn’t help that there were only 2 of us in his class — and my class mate was already a working costume designer), but by then I could take the comments and learn from them. I had grown as a person, and my skin was tougher. One of the hardest things about being in the arts is that we put so much of ourselves into the work, and everyone has an opinion. Those opinions hurt designers until they develop a means of dealing with it. He also used to make us criticize our own work and our classmates — he would make us “be vicious” (his words). Learning to be your own harshest critic helps designers develop better designs. I would do renderings for him over and over and over again. When I would finally hand them in, I would get them back with notes, telling me to do them over, and get them in soon — so that night, I would be on the floor in the middle of the apartment rendering all the costumes for an opera over again.
The worst thing is I never got to say thank you. I don’t know if he knew what effect he had on my work. I don’t know that he ever saw my work outside of U.S.C. I designed one show that he thought my work was “excellent” on, and told me so. That compliment meant more to me that any of the other compliments I got on that show (and in fact is one of my proudest moments as a designer– the Times may like my work, but once — just once — I got Ritchie Spencer’s approval)
So Ritchie, if you are logged on, and reading this. Thank you. I hope that one day, I succeed in imparting as many important lessons to my students as you did to me. And this is the only time you’ve made me cry, that I’m not ashamed of it.