​This story is about the importance of following your passion and taking advantage of your talents despite what other people may expect of you. Such is the case of alumnus Bill Schaffell who, after changing majors at California State Polytechnic University Pomona and specializing in theatre design, traveled a unique path that has led him to successful entrepreneurship. For the past 30 years, he has owned and operated WJS Studios in Anaheim, building customized scenery, décor and special effects for shows, events and live entertainment.

We recently talked to Schaffell, a native of West Los Angeles, to find out how his experience relates to todays students and what advice he may have for them as they venture out to life after CSU.

What motivated you to pursue a career in theatre design?

As a young child I loved magic and performed all over Southern California at parties and events. Being able to trick the audience gave me great enjoyment. Once in high school (University High) I acted in school plays and realized that I was a pretty bad actor. After I graduated high school, acting and magic went by the wayside so I could focus on a “real career”.

I entered Cal Poly as a landscape architect major. I was pretty miserable my first quarter and my grades showed it too. I set up a meeting with the drama department chair to discuss transferring departments and changing majors. After a “discussion” with my parents, I switched majors to theatre. Every day since, I looked forward to being on campus. I was learning what I wanted to know about and was enjoying it. Choosing a major in a field that interested me -- versus one that is expected of me -- made all the difference.

Why did you decide to pursue theatre design?

I knew that I did not want to be an actor, but I still loved the camaraderie of theatre. What I enjoyed most was the teamwork and creating magic for the audience. To do that without being in front of an audience was what I needed. I rationalized that designing the visuals for shows was illusion and magic. For me, this seemed to be the best of both worlds.

What were your goals after graduation?

While I learned so much about designing and building sets and props, I was not getting much career guidance. To round out my education, I decided to take classes in multiple disciplines and departments. I was able to find mentors in the Cal Poly theatre manager, Dennis Logan, and the shop carpenter, Joyce Ehrenberg, who both worked part-time as stagehands at Disneyland. I assumed I would start my post Cal Poly career there.

While still a student, however, I would occasionally help the interim design professor, Richard Odle, with some events that he designed for corporate clients. When he left town on vacation during my senior year he asked me to design a fashion show set for Robinson’s department store where buyers and management preview the upcoming fashion trends. It became my first professional assignment. The show was a great success and I was paid more than I had ever held in my hands. Soon afterward I was offered a job to design and build all of Robinson’s shows. I then rented a small industrial space, bought some basic tools and started a business.

Did you feel sufficiently prepared to be a business owner?

Because I did not plan to own a business, I never took any business classes. When I look back, I wish I had. Although business ownership is very rewarding, it also is very stressful. Unlike being an employee, you never really stop being at the office – the work comes home with you.

If I realized then all the things that are involved in starting and operating a business, I probably would not have done it. With my love of theatrical design, I have been able to fulfill my passion and watch my business grow over the years and through two difficult recessions.

How is your business different from other types of enterprises?

Even though my training was all theatre, from day one my business has not been traditional theatre centric. Because of its genesis, it has been more about live shows and events, which now are commonly referred to as “corporate theatre.” There doesn’t tend to be much deep thought or art in what I do, but it is creative and challenging. I love that every week presents a new project and set of problems to solve. I don’t think I could be happy doing a repetitive job week after week.

How do you promote and expand your business?

My company was created backwards -- I was fortunate that I had a client asking me to start a business. For the first two and a half years, we had steady work designing and building high-end fashion shows for our first customer. During this period I met many other people in the special events industry that recommended me to new clients. This all happened pre-Internet, so face-to-face networking was – and still is to this day – how my business has grown.

Magazine and Yellow Pages advertising, for the most part, were ineffective. The type of clients we serve are not going to hire us from an ad. They want a person or company they already know to recommend a set design company.

Our firm also has grown by taking chances and offering new products and services, like creating custom Christmas décor for shopping centers, high-end centerpieces and developing a structural support system for the professional balloon decorating industry. I just completed my 24th year as technical coordinator of confetti and airborne effects for New Years Eve in New York’s Times Square. Customers will return and recommend you if you meet or beat their expectations and are able to offer multiple services.

What do you tell students pursuing a theatre arts career or thinking about becoming entrepreneurs like you?

Beyond the obvious of immersing yourself in art and art history, I tell them to get your hands dirty by building and creating what you are designing on paper or on a computer. The more you understand what’s involved in physically building something, the better designer you can become. Theatre design is a very collaborative process, both with the directors and other project designers. I also tell them that their verbal, written and visual communication skills are all equally important.

And finally, it is called “show business”. You need to take business courses. Whether you are a freelance designer or part of a larger firm, you need to know how to create budgets, schedule time and manage people. There is nothing like real world experience. So, while you are still in school, pick up any work you can with organizations that do what you are studying. The process and pace of working outside the campus theatre will be different. Get a taste of how other businesses operate. Research your potential competition. Offer something different or cutting edge if you believe the market needs it.

Starting and running a business means you may be wearing a lot of hats in the beginning. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and hire support services that will make your job easier.