ARTICLE BY TONY STOERI
Professional lighting designer, current graduate student, Tech Tools Newsletter regular, and all-round smart and great person, Tony Stoeri is back! Hopefully, by now the electrician, designer and Fringe regular who splits his time between here and Bloomington, Indiana, should need no introduction. If he does, click here!
Tony continues his column as he muses on the tensions, politics and realities of our industry as reflected in his experiences in the professional and academic sectors of that industry. Always insightful and challenging, we’re so glad Tony is back with us again this year! -Wu Chen
When I was a kid, I loved Where's Waldo. I was entranced by the vast, labyrinthine splendor that comprised each page- hundreds of tiny stories overlapping and intersecting, each one frozen in time at a crucial moment. I loved extrapolating outwards from these crystallized points of time, imagining the adjacent moments that the drawings conjured so vividly. And above all, I think I loved the contrast between the sweeping vista of a Where's Waldo spread, and the cramped intimacy of those tiny visual stories. I loved that I could unfocus my eyes, take in the visual cacophony that soared across two large pages, and then dive-in, leaving behind the overwhelming tangle of tiny people to find myself caught up in the story of that one guy who just poked that other guy in the butt with a spear. In that moment, for those two guys, life was simple. Neither of them seemed to care at all that they were about to be run over by that rogue chariot, or that in the background there were clearly at least TWO different volcanoes in the midst of catastrophic eruptions. They experienced only what was occurring right in front of them, living totally in the moment, their tiny faces showing only untempered joy and overwhelming, immediate discomfort. As a seven-year old child, carrying all the pressures of second grade on my stooped back, I envied them.
But what I hated about Where's Waldo is that some people seemed to think it was a game. I would be standing at a table in the middle of the Scholastic book fair, enraptured by my own personal viewing of what I believed to be art on the level of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when some snot-nosed punk classmate would come up behind me and say something to the effect of: “I have this book at home, it's easy, he's right there.” They would stab their chubby, grimy finger at the page, and then scamper off to go buy an I Spy, or do whatever it is that second-grade philistines do. “I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT STUPID TOURIST IN HIS DORKY SHIRT” I wanted to yell after them, but they would already be gone, and with them my own blissful myopia. Turning back to the book before me, I would experience a sense of vertigo, suddenly realizing that what I had just seen moments earlier as a rich tapestry of stories was, in fact, a simple, chore-like puzzle, centered on finding a very confused man with a pathological fondness for stripes.
Coming up on the halfway point of my final year of grad school and reflecting back on my experiences thus far, I found myself thinking a lot about those two guys with spears from that half-remembered Where's Waldo book. During my first two years at this place, I found myself operating under a set of rules and assumptions that appeared, from the outside looking in, inscrutable and illogical. You spend so much of your time in school, at school, working on school related projects, hanging out with friends you know from school, that any minor shift in the environment has a major ripple effect. That passive-aggressive email exchange about whether the money for the practicals the scenic designer specced is coming from props or electrics isn't a thing you can leave at work. It's not something you can get any meaningful separation from because everything in your day-to-day experience connects back to that place. The result is a feedback loop; no one can step back and gain separation and perspective, so everyone becomes more and more stressed and anxious about whatever is the crisis du jour. Events that are relatively minor and insignificant loom large and prominent, while other concerns recede into the background, regardless of how important they might be. We all become that guy from the Where's Waldo page, so utterly and totally intent on poking the other guy in front of us with our spear that we are completely oblivious to the onrushing chariot or the multiple erupting volcanoes.
But then, in your third year, the rug is yanked out from under you, the camera does a big old dolly zoom, and suddenly your professor calls you into his office and asks what you're doing after you graduate. And just as in that moment where that jerk points out where Waldo is without even being asked, everything shifts. The immediate concerns of your day-to-day stresses fall off, and those big, vague thoughts that have spent the past two years looming in the back of your mind come rushing to the fore with an urgency that takes your breath away. What comes after?
And you're not sure. Which is logical. I mean, changes this big always come with uncertainties and anxieties. But you're caught in the feedback loop, and there's no room for something to be an unknown. So you listen to your professor talk about your social media presence as a designer, and you listen to him talk about your portfolio, and you soak it all in. Deep down you're pretty sure that the fetishistic way that professors here treat portfolios is just an attempt to make up for the lack of practical career development material. No one is gonna tell you how to negotiate a contract, but they will be able to tell you that the gray background for this page is perhaps a bit too charcoal, and in the absence of any more meaningful input, it becomes easy to settle for the illusion of an answer in place of a real one. And so as you listen to a one-sided discussion about how maybe you should change where on your resume you list your references, you suddenly realize that this place has taught you to look at your career as a problem to be solved. Something with a definitive answer, and - by extension - a definitive right and wrong path.
A few weeks ago, some friends from the Twin Cities were visiting Dayton, Ohio. It's about a three hour drive from Bloomington, so I drove up to meet them. Dayton feels empty as a city; a downtown filled with old industrial buildings that stand derelict and boarded up, surrounded by a tangled fringe of old houses from the sixties and seventies. Beautiful, but not particularly well kept. There not being much in the way of sights to see in Dayton, we spent the day hanging out just like we would if we were back home. We got pizza, watched T.V., talked shop. It was one of the precious islands of normalcy that comes along every so often to interrupt the sustained insanity of grad school.
I left to drive home at about nine pm. Driving back, with little to distract me, my mind turned to worrying. Just a day or two before, Intermedia had announced it was laying off its staff, and my friends had expressed anxieties over the state of the Twin Cities theater scene. This brought to mind my own anxieties about leaving grad school, about all the things that could go wrong or poorly, all the things I needed to solve. But somehow, in that small car on a darkening highway, basking in the aftermath of a day spent with friends, I was able to shrug off that voice in my head. I felt in that moment thankful that I was able to follow this career path, that I had a chance of getting to do what I wanted. And I found myself looking forward to the ride. I'm trying to hold on to that feeling.
Half a year left.