Article by Tony Stoeri
By now, Tony Stoeri is hopefully familiar to you, having written a brilliant piece about perceptions, standards, biases and “professionalism” here, and another about work ethics, culture, labour rights and the arts industry here.
He’s back again, and if you don’t know him, well, this is as good a place to start as any. And maybe this won’t be his last column, eh? - Wu Chen Khoo
This is an intimidating column to write, if only for the fact that I know some people from my program might end up reading this, and this isn't something we generally talk about. But, as I sit here about two weeks away from being exactly halfway through my graduate school career, I find myself in a position that is very different than where I thought I would be, and it seems increasingly necessary to me to talk about it.
The Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance produces more than many other graduate theatre programs. Over the course of two 4 month semesters, there are 8 main stage theatrical productions and 3 dance concerts produced at IU. The design for virtually all of these productions comes from graduate students, who also provide the majority of the labor. In addition to this aggressive schedule, graduate students have a full workload from their classes to handle, which is important since the monthly stipend we receive to live off of is contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA.
The lighting department at IU is hit particularly hard. The five MFA design and technology disciplines at IU are lighting design, costume design, scenic design, technical direction, and costume technology. Each discipline contains 4-5 graduate students. However, there is overlap between them. The costume shop has 8 graduate student workers - 4 designers, 4 technologists. The scene shop has 10 graduate students who share in its work- 5 scenic designers, and 5 technical directors. Each of these departments also has 2 full time staff members, and undergraduate student workers. The lighting department has 5 graduate students that work in it, and 1 full time staff member.
In-spite of this numerical disparity we have the widest range of responsibilities. Along with costumes, we bear the brunt of the work required in producing the three dance concerts each year (there being little call for scenery in most modern dances). We are the only department that supports the smaller, studio theater that is used for undergraduate productions. Recently, we have, like most lighting departments across the country, been job-drifted projections - another item on a list of tasks that is already too long to complete. In the interest of not boring you with all the details of how we are overworked, I will simply say that when students are subsisting on four hours of sleep a night (and often less than that) and struggling to find time to perform the basic tasks of adult life - like grocery shopping - for weeks at a time because of the workload they are being given, the situation has gotten out of control.
In part the problem being faced here is endemic to an academic institution. In any institutional environment speaking out against the status quo is a difficult and risky thing to do. This disincentive is strengthened in an educational environment where not only is there an institutional hierarchy at play, but also a student-professor hierarchy. The same forces that I find make it difficult for student designers to interact fully and honestly with faculty directors discourage students from speaking out when they find themselves in situations that are exploitative. The academic setting also provides an excuse to ignore any of complaints that are raised- “grad school is supposed to be difficult,” “you just need to work on time management,” or “I'm sure it’s not that bad” are all answers that are waiting in the wings as it were, ready to make their entrance when we raise our voices in complaint.
So the question now becomes why I just spent 600 words talking about how hard grad school is, and why that matters to anyone that doesn't go to grad school with me. It matters because of how dangerous it is to view this problem as something that is isolated. Its a problem I've encountered outside of grad school as well, and indeed is a problem our country is facing in the political realm right now. The prevalence of negative circumstances carries with it the risk of them becoming the accepted norm. I've seen theatre companies where nobody bats an eye when carpenters are asked to build huge sets with no time or labor, and worked with companies where no one sees anything wrong with the lighting designer being asked to run sound and projections without an increase in pay. These situations are built on the backs of situations that have come before, where unfair circumstances became the expectation and the norm rather than an aberration. Anytime we work in an environment that is in some way exploitative and fail to confront it, we help perpetuate it. I worry about the people in my program who have little in the way of non academic experience- for them, what they undergo in grad school can become a standard for what they expect in the real world. As it currently stands, my grad school is turning out designers who are burnt out and who have been taught to accept exploitation as the norm.
But beyond the fact that exploiting people is....you know....bad, there’s another reason that normalizing it is problematic- it compromises the work we do. Here at school I was recently put in charge of lighting a small dance concert that showcased the work of student choreographers. The day we had to tech the pieces came late in the semester. I was exhausted, and the midst of being sick. I had pulled an all nighter the night before to finish a project for class. I was bleary eyed and had a hacking cough, but I persevered and cued all the dances. The next day, arriving at the theatre early before the run, I sat down to look at some of the cues. I jumped through the cues for each piece, and when I got to the last one, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. It looked exactly like the second piece in the concert. And, come to think of it, pretty similar to the fourth one as well. Feeling burnt-out and tired, my brain had basically just built the same cues for multiple pieces, rather than expending the energy to come up with new ideas.
An environment that burns out its inhabitants does not make for good art. Creativity requires energy and passion to function, and its hard to muster either of those things on four hours of sleep. An exploitative environment is not only one in which an individual is unfairly compensated- it is also one where an individual is unfairly and unsustainably drained.
I guess since this is my last column I should say something deep and impactful about my experience at grad school thus far. But I definitely don't have anything like that. It’s been a weird and tough ride thus far, and I look forward to heading back to Minneapolis when it’s over.