Erin Black (M.F.A., Theatre, 1998) studied costume design while at UT and worked as a costume designer shortly after graduation for the Jim Henson Company. She then moved to work for Sesame Street in 1999, where she continues to work on occasional projects. In 2009 when her daughter, Lyla, asked to make a monster as a Hanukkah gift for her dad, Black quickly agreed. Since then, the trio has created Lyla Tov Monsters, a company based on the handmade present. She has been awarded three daytime Emmy Awards for her work as costume designer for Sesame Street and is the recipient of the Zelma Weisfeld Award for Costume Design. Black is currently a professor in the theatre department at New York University and runs the Lyla Tov Monsters business alongside her family.
by Mariane Gutierrez, photos courtesy Erin Black
What was your initial reaction when your daughter told you that she wanted to create this toy?
Her original idea was just to make a fun toy monster for my husband's holiday gift. I thought, “Oh, that's cute. Daddy will love that and that's something fun to do together.” I did it all not thinking that it would become more than just a fun little afternoon project or something.
How did it escalate from a present to a big company?
So, we have to give credit to my husband for this amazing idea. He tells us we should sell these and I sort of laughed and thought, “Who on earth wants a monster made by a 5-year-old? Like, you're a little bit biased here and you just love it because you're her dad." He said, "No, no, I think they're really cute. I think there's a market for this." A year or so later, we had some time to kill. I was selling clothes that I had made at a local craft fair and my daughter was really interested in the idea. This is a really good time to teach her about money so we can make some of those monsters. And I said, “We'll start with $15 and for every monster you sell $5 you can put into a piggy bank and $5 we’ll put in a big savings account for when you go to college, and $5 we'll give to people that aren’t as lucky as we are and give back to our community. I thought this was the perfect lesson in just teaching her how to manage money, and that when you earn money, you have a social responsibility.
How did the name of the business come to be?
Laila tov in Hebrew means good night, and we just thought it was a funny play on words because my daughter's name is Lyla. So it’s a good night monster to keep those scary monsters out from under your bed, and we picked up a cute name.
Do you think in the future you have plans to expand the company in any way?
We would love to grow the business. But I think it's a second job for all of us. I work at New York University and my husband works for children's television and Lyla is in eighth grade. So, I think our ideal situation would maybe be to find a business partner who would license the product from us and take it to a bigger market, but in the meantime, it's a great brand.
How did you start your work with Jim Henson Company and Sesame Street? Was it directly out of college?
I was getting my M.F.A., and at the level I wanted to work I pretty much had to end up in New York or Los Angeles. So, in my final year of grad school I visited both places, and I just liked New York because it felt like a better fit for me. My professor at UT had done a little bit of work for The Muppets earlier in his life, and he said, “Erin, if you end up in New York, let me introduce you to my friend, Connie, who runs the costume shop at The Muppets. She's really, really great and I feel like you would really like working there. The people are excellent.” So, he actually set up that interview for me. It was the first job I had, working for Jim Henson studios.
How did you get into teaching?
There was a puppetry class offered in UT's theatre and dance department. The person who had been teaching it for a number of years has recently gotten a promotion and moved on to the Dean's office or some sort of higher position, but the class had already been advertised. Two people had registered for it so they spoke to me and said, “Hey, I know you took this class, you did really well in this. This is your last semester. Do you want to follow and teach the class, be the instructor of record?” I love being able to figure out what I know and how to get other people to understand what I know. I love the class planning part of it. I love the team building and camaraderie. The idea of my teaching was something I would do in my future. At some point in living in New York, I had done a lot of freelance work, and really enjoyed it, but was looking for something a little bit more stable and went back to thinking about how I really, really enjoyed teaching and I should try that. So I've been teaching different classes, and this year I'm on the faculty at New York University.
What was it like to make the switch from working for Sesame Street to producing your own company and teaching?
Yeah, I mean, it's a constant juggling act. But the good thing that prepared me for it was working as a costume designer, it's clearly not a 9-5 job. If you are freelance and design, you know, you would run one show while you're finishing up the research phase on a third show, so I was really good at managing. When the business started it just became one more of those jobs, but I was used to that.
What is one skill that stands out to you that you learned at UT that you apply to your career as a costume designer?
The biggest skill that I learned in studying theatre that I use, still in the business and whatnot, is creative problem solving. Knowing that there's not one single right way to get an end result and look at the problems from all angles. If it doesn't work, you know you can kind of take two steps back, evaluate and see the different path to solve the problem. Different kinds of flexible thinking and problem solving on your feet is really useful to me.
Is there one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who's pursuing an entrepreneurial career?
I mean, I got to tell them, the biggest advice is to be true to yourself and to be creative. Reach out to your community and ask for help when you need it, because you don't have to know everything. That's the beginning. You just have to want to know everything and be willing to find a way to get that information.
Mariane Gutierrez is the communications intern for the College of Fine Arts and a first year journalism student and Daily Texan reporter.