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Rising Star Andrew Dunn: “Why it pays to admit ignorance”

“Admit ignorance.” Also mentioned above, it’s so important to be open about what you know and what you don’t know. After I graduated, a college professor told me a story about one of my ex-classmates — let’s call him John. John had moved to Chicago after graduating and landed a job in a theater shop. […]

“Admit ignorance.” Also mentioned above, it’s so important to be open about what you know and what you don’t know. After I graduated, a college professor told me a story about one of my ex-classmates — let’s call him John. John had moved to Chicago after graduating and landed a job in a theater shop. On his first day, John’s supervisor took him over to a machine and asked him if he knew how to use it. John said “Yeah”, so his supervisor said “Great! Meltdown those two metals and mix them into an alloy! I’m going to lunch.” The supervisor left, but when he came back John was still trying to figure out how to turn the machine on. And THEN it came out that he had not only never used that machine before, but he had never even worked with METAL before. And certain mixtures of metals can be incredibly unstable. He put himself and others in danger because he wanted to look smart. John was let go the next day.


As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Andrew Dunn.

Andrew Dunn (set designer) received his BA in Theater and Speech Communication from Siena Heights University in 2009 and his MFA in Acting from the Actors Studio Drama School in 2012. He has recently designed and built the sets for Displeyst at Under St. Marks, Beyond the Etchings at the DC and NYC Vietnam veterans memorials, and In Their Footsteps (Off-Broadway and international tour). Andrew also co-hosts The Media Lunch Break podcast and is an actor based in NYC. Visit http://www.Wildrence.com for tickets to his latest show: Nellie and the Women of Blackwell.


Thank you so much for joining us Andrew! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?

Asis usually the case, I fell into it head-first. The short version of the story is that I went to college to study acting, but my department was extremely adamant about releasing well-rounded theater folk into the world. Therefore, every theater major was required to study acting, directing, voice, speech, music, as well as set design, lighting design, sound design, stage management, and board operations. Rural Michigan (where I was at the time) had an overflow of actors, but not many tech people. I quickly got a job as a carpenter, was promoted to Head Carpenter, then to Technical Director, then I moved to NYC and started designing. I like building things. I equate it to playing with really big Legos.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?

Back when I was still a young carpenter I was working on a production of the musical The Full Monty, which includes a scene where one character is in a car. We could have put four chairs on the stage and had the actor pretend to hold an invisible steering wheel, but instead, the designer went to the junkyard and had the cheapest car he could find towed to the back door of the theater. You have not seen ineptitude until you have watched five techies try to fit a sedan onto a stage by flipping it on its side.

The lesson? Work smarter, not harder; troubleshoot differently than everyone else; and — this last one is a direct quote from the Technical Director on that show — “Look out for that f***er Murphy,” because if something can go wrong, it will.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Be honest. As honest as possible. If someone asks you to do something you don’t know how to do, tell them you don’t know how to do it. If you’re just starting out, there’s a good chance you’re working for someone who can teach you. Let them teach you. Ask a ton of questions. Ask questions you already know the answers to. Even if people get mad at you for asking the same questions over and over, they’ll be angrier if you put yourself or someone else in danger because you don’t know what you’re doing. If they don’t know how to do it, help them troubleshoot the problem. Be proactive. Be a people-pleaser. Do whatever you can to get the job done quickly, professionally, and safely. Even if that means admitting ignorance.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My mom was the strongest, kindest person I’ve ever met. I didn’t understand as a child, but we constantly had guests who would stay for days, weeks, or sometimes months. I thought it was just for fun (like a slumber party), but as an adult, I realized it was because they were people who needed help: Women who couldn’t take their kids back to an abusive husband; addicts who’d lost their jobs, homes, and families. One time she ran out of the house barefoot in the rain with an umbrella because she saw a woman crying out on the street. She gave the woman the umbrella and led her into our home, cooked her dinner, called the police, and got her to a shelter. Before I make any decision, I ask myself what my mom would do.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

I try my best to stick with organizations that work to maximize the accessibility of the same core values that I have. Diversity, equality, and economic justice are some of my strongest values. Over the summer I worked with a theater company that specializes in telling Shakespearean stories from a feminine perspective.

Currently going up in NYC, Nellie and the Women of Blackwell is an immersive telling of Nellie Bly — the real-life stunt reporter who had herself committed to an insane asylum in NYC in order to expose the terrible treatment of the patients. These were women who were not “insane”. Many of them were committed to simply not speaking English. It’s a terrifying, but necessary peek into America’s past of misogyny, racism, classism, and nationalism.

And it’s important to see the trajectory: This play only takes place about 100 years ago. Justice and equality move slow. And it’s important to keep moving forward and not stay stagnant. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

I assume it’s because of my upbringing. We moved around the US a lot, so I got to see many different kinds of inequality. And I got to see my mom constantly fight for justice.

I was also raised entirely by women. With my mom, my grandmother, my sister, my two aunts, three female cousins, and now a niece, I think I absorbed a lot of sensitivity in my developmental years.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

Infinite Variety Productions — the production company putting on Nellie and the Women of Blackwell — is doing SO MUCH to help spread the true stories of important (and usually overlooked) women from American history. They currently have two shows in preproduction at the same time with a lot of overlap in the cast and crew. No one in the production company has any free time. I’d say we constantly pull double-shifts, but we can’t because there are no shifts. We’re all on the clock, consistently. And it’s entirely so we can help tell these stories with the goal of expanding knowledge and acceptance about women from the past and present.

Two years ago we were fortunate enough to perform a show about women in the Vietnam war at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in DC. It was an incredible honor. And I’ll be surprised if I ever again feel as humbled as I was to be in that space, sharing those important stories.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Oh boy, are there EVER!

  1. Keep interested! We can’t be complacent. If everyone in America Googled “Important women in history”, the world would be a better place. The late comedian Greg Giraldo once said “I read recently that 50% of American adults don’t know who Madeleine Albright is. Can you believe that? She was so good on Murder, She Wrote.” This is only funny if you understand that Americans have a hard time giving credit to women in our history.
  2. Create representation! If you are in a position that allows you to put people where they can be seen, put as many types of people as you can! All genders, all races, all sexualities, all nationalities, differently-abled people. If we could completely stop basing whether we put people on stage and screen on how they look, we would naturally evolve into a more diverse and accepting society.
  3. Become best friends with your representatives and senators. If there’s an issue you care about — any issue — call them. Write them a letter. Explain the issue, explain why it’s important, and give an idea of how to solve it. Start a discussion with the people who represent you, because you’re paying them with your taxes — THEY work for YOU!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. “Establish boundaries between yourself and your work.”When you do your hobby for your job, it’s really, really hard to put it away. It’s like being paid to play your favorite video game or watch your favorite TV show. Why put it down? It’s fun AND productive! But the truth is that you have to find boundaries. As fun and important as your work is, your relationships are more important. Set an amount of time whenever you work — and it’s okay to set it for yourself: If the team is working until six, you can set your end-point for 7:00, if your supervisor is okay with it. But when the clock on your phone goes from 6:59:59 to 7:00:00, you put your coat on and you watch a movie with your roommates, or call your family, or get dinner with your partner.
  2. “Keep doing this.” I get bored with stuff pretty quickly and move on to other things. But now that I’ve settled into maturity (for the most part), I wish that building sets had remained a constant in my life and that I actively worked to keep pushing that career forward. I was recently rejected for a job because the employer felt my resume didn’t match my age. It’s not fair, but it’s the way the system works. So, if you like doing something, but you’re bored, keep doing it anyway. Bored is way better than being stuck at a dead-end job that you hate.
  3. “Ask more questions.” Mentioned earlier, it’s so important to learn as much as you can from people who are highly experienced. College is a great time for this. Come into class with questions prepared. Annoy your professors with questions. Nobody ever got expelled for asking too many questions. Find an interest in learning. Teach yourself as well: Go on YouTube, Google. Study everything. Not just tech, learn math, politics, economics, philosophy, history, anything you can find! If you can ignite a passion for knowledge within yourself, you’ll be better off than most of the world.
  4. “Admit ignorance.” Also mentioned above, it’s so important to be open about what you know and what you don’t know. After I graduated, a college professor told me a story about one of my ex-classmates — let’s call him John. John had moved to Chicago after graduating and landed a job in a theater shop. On his first day, John’s supervisor took him over to a machine and asked him if he knew how to use it. John said “Yeah”, so his supervisor said “Great! Meltdown those two metals and mix them into an alloy! I’m going to lunch.” The supervisor left, but when he came back John was still trying to figure out how to turn the machine on. And THEN it came out that he had not only never used that machine before, but he had never even worked with METAL before. And certain mixtures of metals can be incredibly unstable. He put himself and others in danger because he wanted to look smart. John was let go the next day.
  5. “There will be people who make your job hard, and people who make your job easy. You decide who you stick with.” I’ve learned recently that jobs aren’t good or bad. The people are. The good thing about tech theater is there are a lot of people who have been treated badly who are now in charge. They’re usually pretty chill. Sometimes you get a bad one. And there is still plenty of misogyny, racism, and general bigotry, as with any profession. So, kick those people to the curb and find your crew.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Hopefully, Greta Thunberg is already doing that. A young, non-American woman, spreading facts about Climate Change? Hopefully, this helps tackle some classism, nationalism, sexism, and ecological apathy.

If I can find any way to help that’s better than what I’m currently doing, I will.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“Every time you’re planning to say something, ask yourself three quick questions first:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?”

I believe Craig Ferguson first coined this list. I heard it as a young man, and it has helped me a lot. Any director worth their salt will tell you that the things you say aren’t as important as the things you DON’T say. If there’s a scene with ten people screaming and one person quietly sitting, you’ll be fixated on the person sitting. Silence can be loud. And it’s important to be able to read the room to see how you can be most helpful. If it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. That being said, a good laugh can help ease tension. So feel free to let some jokes fly. Just ask yourself if it’s needed first.

As a young man, I used to be wild, hyper, and vibrant. You’d never guess that by talking with me now. I made a huge shift when I realized it wasn’t getting the results I was hoping for. Now I think about every sentence before I voice it.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re just talking to sound impressive, there’s a good chance that someone with an actual solution to the problem is waiting for you to shut up. And the best idea in the room always wins, so do what you can to promote the best ideas from everyone.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’m a simple man, and honestly, there’s no one I’d rather have a conversation with than my fiancé Melinda. She’s the best. Super supportive, always carefree, and never selfish. I’ll get lunch with her any day.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

Thank you so much. It’s been a complete pleasure.

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