4 Questions: Jeff Churchill
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
My name is Jeff Churchill and I am the owner / creator of Jitterbug Boy Original Footwear – a custom shoemaking company supplying specialized footwear for theatre, film, television and circus all over the world. I started at York in the production stream back in 1993, I think. I left York after my 4th year in 1997, though didn’t actually graduate at that time. I tried for a couple years to complete my degree with evening and Saturday classes while working full-time in theatre, but that didn’t really work out as planned. I believe I finally graduated in 2004 after doing my last couple credits online while on tour in the Wardrobe Department of a Cirque du Soleil touring production, though I’m not 100% sure I actually graduated – I didn’t ever receive my degree. Maybe I still owe library fines….who knows?
At York, I focused in on Set and Costume Design and had a very short-lived and not terribly successful career at it. I was however doing a lot of costume and prop work at the time and when the costume department was being set up for the Lion King in Toronto and when they were unable to find a shoe coordinator (or anyone with shoe experience), they asked if I’d be interested. I took the gig, mostly because I needed the work, not realizing it would actually lead me to my niche. I worked with a shoemaker at the time who showed me the basics of shoemaking. As time went on, I started doing more of the building of shoes, and that lead me on a shoe-related career path. I ended up working a couple seasons in Stratford and then spent a couple years on the road with Cirque, touring through North America and Japan. That eventually lead to a move to Belgium to head up the shoemaking department for Franco Dragone’s production called Le Rêve in Las Vegas, which was a bit of a shoemaking trial-by-fire learning experience. Once Le Rêve opened, I was a bit tired of living out of a suitcase and decided to make the move back to Toronto. That’s when I started up Jitterbug Boy.
I started the company in 2005. At the time it was just me, mostly making circus shoes and seeing if I could keep my head above water making shoes in Toronto. Thirteen years later, I have a staff of 18 and we supply custom, hand-made footwear to productions all over the world. The team that I’ve managed to assemble is amazing. For the past few years, our main focus has been on film (with some theatre and circus still thrown in for good measure). Our work can be seen in such films as Ant-man and the Wasp; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; The Shape of Water; the Mission: Impossible films; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Thor: Ragnarok; the last many Fast & Furious films; the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, and a tonne of other projects….and a bunch more yet to be released….. We get to work with many of the biggest Costume Designers in the world, which is pretty mind-blowing, really. None of it has been easy (at all….) but the grind of it seems to be paying off. I’m still not too thrilled about running a business, as business is not my strong point, but it allows me to do the type of work that I’m meant to be doing. And it brings a little bit of work here to Toronto that wouldn’t exist here otherwise, which is pretty cool. We’ve become fairly well known in the business – I don’t really have to look for work anymore, it just sort of finds us.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
York seems like a lifetime ago. I can’t think of a single moment that stands out, but there was something about the feeling about being able to take chances and push yourself – a chance to figure out where you fit in. While back in the day it felt like the end of the world if something wasn’t working out, it really was more about figuring out who you are and where you fit, if that makes sense. I wish I took advantage of that back then…..now it really does feel like the end of the world when I screw up…..
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
I think it was Shawn Kerwin (who taught me fourth year Set Design, as well as other things) who told me how important it was to not just focus on school but to be involved in the Toronto theatre scene as well. I was always working downtown as well as going to university – partially for the experience, partially to help pay for school. It’s important to not get stuck in the odd little bubble that is university life – otherwise it’s a huge shock when you’re suddenly in the real world. Really, that’s probably why it took me over a decade to finish school. But at the same time, I’ve never stopped working since walking out the doors of York.
Every once in a while I run in to people from my York days, which is always wild. I made some shoes for Dana Osborne’s design of Rocky Horror this year. So good to see York friends doing well for themselves.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
As much as everyone bitched about it at the time, History of Visual Sources really pushed me in a direction that I wasn’t expecting and looking back, really helped shape me. It made me appreciate the stories that are told with details and the beauty of the visual. It’s what really got me to focus in on design. Though my design career was short lived, I still do design (with a small ‘d’) every single day. Learning about the design process helps me now as I’m dealing with real Designers on a daily basis. I still look at our work with as much a designer’s eye as a craftsperson’s eye.