Soapbox: Please Don't Call Me a Professional

Article by Tony Stoeri, Lighting Designer

I remember meeting Tony when he was an intern for the Fringe. Once Techs were underway, Tony shadowed Sean Tonko (then Tech Director of the Southern Theater, now Technical Media Specialist at St. Olaf College) in the Rarig Xperimental. His talent, intelligence and verve made a tremendous impression on all of us, and we were excited when entered the workforce and greatly saddened when he decided to leave for graduate school. For regular readers of my Recommends column, it will be no surprise that I’m thrilled to learn that he studied History. I’m very happy to be able to stay in touch with Tony and his sharp mind through this series - and I think you will be too. - Wu Chen Khoo

Photo Credit: Amy Osajima. Maferefún performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

Photo Credit: Amy Osajima. Maferefún performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

I've never been the snappiest dresser. Not that I have anything against people who do dress nice, but that’s never been me. I own exactly two button-down shirts, and my general concession to “getting dressed up” is to wear the pair of jeans that I own that doesn't have rips in the knees. So it's pretty understandable that the first piece of feedback I received on the first class presentation I ever gave in grad school was that I needed to “dress more professionally” (in my defense, I had been wearing my unripped jeans). Yet the feedback gave me pause. It’s not that I didn't understand what my professor meant when he said “dress professionally.” It was fairly clear he meant “dear God put on a collared shirt.” But on the other hand, what does it mean for a lighting designer to “dress professionally”? In several years of actually working as a professional, no one had ever commented upon the suitability of my wardrobe before. Why was this suddenly an important aspect of my identity as a designer? Are people who wear ties inherently better at drafting or something?    

Before we talk more about my wardrobe it’s probably useful to have some background information on who I am first. My first step on the path that would lead me to being a designer came in eighth grade, when the sophomore in charge of lighting at my high school abandoned me in front of an Express 48/96 with the sage advice “You'll figure it out” and went to go do important high schooler things. Though slightly traumatic, that first experience was enough to get me hooked, and I began working on lighting in our high school theater department whenever possible. Soon, I found a friend of a friend who ran a theatre company for teens and I signed on as their “lighting designer”- which I put in quotes because I had very little idea of what I was actually doing.  

The summer after graduating from high school, I wrote a letter to then technical director of the Minnesota Fringe Jeff Larson, begging him to let me work for free. I was given the title of “technical intern” and dropped into a group of experienced technicians and designers, all of whom were at least a decade older than me, and not really sure what to do with me. They magnanimously tolerated my presence and shared their knowledge with me, playing an instrumental role in developing my understanding of what being a designer and a technician meant. I kept working the Fringe during summers over the course of my undergraduate career (though no longer as an unpaid intern) and designed everything I could get my hands on at school and at home. After graduating in 2013, I took up freelancing, and happily lived that life for a few years before I up and went off to grad school.

Until I began attending grad school, I had never taken a formal class in lighting. My undergraduate degree is in history, focusing on early 19th century nationalism. So not really a lot of overlap with lighting design. I learned instead through experimenting on my own, watching other people work, making mistakes, and building relationships with several mentors to whom I owe more than I can express. Nothing in my experience ever came close to formal training or an educational atmosphere. Everything was on the job, practical, and focused on achieving the end goal- executing the design.  

When I became an MFA candidate at Indiana University, these qualities made me stick out like a sore thumb. There are twenty-four students that are masters candidates in the Design and Technology program at Indiana University, spread across five areas of study (lighting design, scenic design, costume design, technical direction, and costume technology.)  Of these students, over twenty came directly from undergraduate institutions, almost exclusively from theatre departments. There are only three of us (myself and two others) who have spent a significant amount of time (over a year) working in the field. Upon coming to the program, I found myself surrounded by people who understood the world we work in very differently than I do.    

Above all what struck me was the fact that my graduate school seems to cultivate the myth of Professionalism with a capital P: It is the holy grail; what everyone is striving to achieve. Yet no one really articulates what exactly constitutes Professionalism. For example, during my first semester all of the first year design and technology grad students were having a class discussion about artistic collaboration. One of the professors asked the class how they would handle another member of the production team who simply refused to collaborate. I raised my hand and said what I had done when I found myself in similar situations: “You work hard, keep your head down, get through it, and then never work with that person again.” This answer was tacitly frowned on, because it was not what Professionals do; Professionals Collaborate (with a capital C), regardless of the reality of the situation.

The identity of a “professional” is a difficult one to define in our industry. It seems that it must in some way be tied to skill, but beyond that I have trouble parsing the boundaries of who constitutes a professional. Both technicians and designers have unions, but their membership is far from all-encompassing and does not include many excellent practitioners. Nor can we look to earning power to define it for us - for many it is difficult or undesirable to make a living as a full time technician or designer, even if they are highly skilled.  I've been to small theaters in the middle of nowhere where the in-house “tech guy” is an incredibly astute technician - in addition to serving as the sound designer, plumber, cleaning staff, the IT department, and whatever else is needed. To refuse to recognize this person as a technician seems unfair, yet they may be unfamiliar with the equipment and protocols outside of their venue. The director that takes on the role of designer, the stage manager who picks up electrics calls to make money, the designer that works only for one company and has a day job, the union hand that only takes a call once a year and spends the rest of their time at another job - all of these people challenge our conception of what defines a professional technician or designer.

If we struggle to define who exactly is a “professional,” one would think it might be a bit easier to define what “professionalism” is - the step back to a more abstract concept allows us to ignore many of the practicalities that make defining the “professional” difficult. And to some extent, it is simpler to talk about “professionalism” as an abstract. After all, there are some pretty universal basics - don't be a jerk and respond to your email being the two biggest, in my opinion. Beyond that, there are even some things specific to our industry that I see as being fairly fundamental. I feel fairly safe saying that “professionalism” in a LD involves providing a plot, as opposed to scrawling your ideas on a bar napkin. For an electrician, “professionalism” might involve, at the very least, showing up to an electrics call with your own wrench. Yet beyond these fairly obvious examples the term once again becomes murky.

For example, one of the most alienating experiences of my graduate school career thus far occurred during a class that was all about drafting standards. The professor told me and the two other lighting students in the class to bring in examples of our drafting to look over. When my turn came and I pulled out my plot, there was a small moment of stunned silence, before they all proceeded to (metaphorically) rip my plot apart and tell me everything that was wrong with it. To be clear, they weren't talking about my actual design; what we were discussing was line weights, specific shades of black and gray, the size of the circle surrounding the channel number, fonts, etc. And its not that my plot was ridiculously sloppy; it was very clean, easily readable, and communicated the necessary information clearly. The difference lay in how we conceived of a light plot. For my professor and my two classmates, my light plot was a vehicle through which I signaled my professionalism to the world by meeting certain standards, however arbitrary they may seem. It had value on its own, separate from the design it represented - I would put it in my portfolio, show it to potential employers, and they would say “he seems professional, lets hire him.”

Coming from my background, I had not really thought of light plots that way before. I have never had a potential employer ask to see a plot. Only a handful of times have I been asked for a resume or photos of my work. Almost all of my employment as a freelancer came through references, word of mouth, and interviews. The people that interviewed me for jobs rarely knew much about lighting - they were looking at how easy I was to work with, trying to gauge whether I was secretly a crazy person that would foam at the mouth and throw yelling fits during tech. To me, my light plot was a means of streamlining the execution of the design. The only way it affected my identity as a designer lay in whether or not it served that purpose. I don't think my professor or classmates would call me unprofessional, and I certainly do not think they are. Yet our understanding of what that term entails could scarcely be more different.

In an industry as varied and unique as ours, I think the concept of professionalism as a single set of standards is useless. In order to make it truly representative, its definition must be broadened to the point that it becomes self-referential by necessity - we end up with the idea that a “Professional” is one who displays professionalism, while “Professionalism” is the behavior of a professional. And there is a danger in this that goes beyond semantic ambiguity (as terrifying as that is).    

I strongly believe that the best way to grow - as a designer, a technician, or anything - is to expose yourself to as many different thought processes as possible; to see something from as many angles as you can. To me, that is the function grad school serves. I am learning new ways of viewing things, and learning new skills that can only make me more versatile as a designer. I take what makes sense to me, adapt and expand on what resonates, and leave the rest by the side of the road.    

Every time we use the term “professional” in our industry, even if we use it with a very specific meaning in mind, we give strength to a social force that inhibits learning and closes us off to growth. Many of us are discouraged from experimenting and expanding, adapting and adopting, because of a fear, conscious or subconscious, that we will fall short of the vague standards of “professionalism.” This is not to say that we cannot recognize competence, good presentation, and respectful and useful behavior. It’s simply about using different language. It’s a matter of semantics.