Ready to Work?

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. But if he does, read the article he wrote last year!

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

The Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is an event which occurs yearly at a different city in the southeastern U.S., during which said city's convention center is briefly inundated by a number of incredibly anxious and overwhelmed theatre students who have spent their (relatively) young lives being told that a career in the arts isn't financially viable.

They spend the weekend lugging around awkwardly sized portfolios and having their self-esteem preyed upon by institutionalized narratives of “success,” and, when all is said and done, they leave with a summer stock job that pays too little and demands too much, and possibly a nice piece of paper telling them they had the prettiest poster board in the design competition, and thus are the best at art out of all the other people who brought poster boards.

NOT THAT I HAVE ANY STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT THE EVENT.

Sorry. That wasn't fair. Let's start again: The Southeastern Theatre Conference is an event where students studying theatre in post-secondary institutions gather to receive feedback on their work and encounter opportunities for career advancement, all the while accompanied by their faithful companion, Virgil, and riding atop the back of Geryon, a beast with the the wings of a dragon, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and the tail of a scorpion. No, wait, sorry, that’s Dante's Inferno. My bad. Honest mistake.

ONE MORE TRY.

The Southeastern Theatre Conference made me want to drink. A lot. There. I think that is as neutral as I'm going to be able to get.

But casting aside my grumpy/righteously angry persona (henceforth referred to as “The Curmudgeonly Crusader”), I can tell you that SETC is a conference that occurs yearly somewhere in the southeast U.S., where students and faculty studying theatre in academic institutions come to participate in classes, workshops, informational sessions, a job fair, and competitions of various sorts. This year it took place in Lexington, Kentucky, a beautiful little metropolis where anything you can think of has a picture of a horse on it. I attended as part of a contingent of students from Indiana University, which included graduate students from every one of the design/tech disciplines that IU offers a masters in.

Unlike the majority of IU’s delegation, I attended strictly as an observer. I did not participate in the design competition myself, though many of my friends did. Although I bummed around the job fair for a bit, I was already employed for the summer, and thus did not put too much effort into seeking out employment opportunities. I went to a few different classes—one was phenomenal, one was okay, and one was pretty useless, though the man who taught it was very nice. Mostly I wandered around, talked to people that I knew and people that I met, and just tried to understand what was going on.

I should be clear: Though I attended as an observer, it was definitely not as an impartial one. I had a vague idea of what SETC was like from stories told by last year’s attendees; from what I understood, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I didn't need it for access to employment opportunities. And the idea of a design competition made me extremely uncomfortable, both in terms of the high-minded, hoity-toity, artistic considerations (I do not think design is a zero-sum game) and in terms of the effect it would have on my own self-esteem. Also, I had never been good at making poster boards.

For all of these reasons, I initially refused to go when my professor asked me to. When I was basically told “No, you need to go,” I responded by essentially yelling “FINE BUT I'M NOT GOING TO PARTICIPATE IN YOUR STUPID DESIGN COMPETITION! I HATE YOU!” and storming off to my room, slamming the door, and refusing to come down for dinner. Or something like that.

After my initial knee-jerk reaction had died down, I began to come around to the idea of attending. I reminded myself that one of the main reasons I had come to grad school was to experience my chosen profession from an entirely new perspective. I admonished myself to remember what I have come to think of as my grad school mantra: Keep what works, screw the rest. With those things in mind, I resolved that I would find some morsel of truth that I could bring home from the experience. When the day of departure arrived, I loaded myself into a school-owned van along with four other lighting designers, one costume designer, two poster boards, and numerous bags filled with soon-to-be-wrinkled dress clothes. And off we went.

It would've been a nice touch if the ghost of Rod Serling had been there to greet us as we pulled up to the Lexington Convention Center, ready with some ominous, fourth-wall breaking narration. The world I was about to enter was in many ways similar to how I imagined The Twilight Zone when I was a kid. The substance was all the same as reality, but something felt warped and different.

Interacting with any large organization as a lowly individual is an alienating experience. We entered into the convention center and made our way through the crowds to find the check-in point, where we would receive the badges that identified who we were and what we were allowed to do, based on what we had paid for. After waiting in line with everyone else whose last name started with a letter between R and Z, I received my magic laminated badge, and was free to go and frolic as I pleased.

I wasn't really in the mood for frolicking, however, in large part due to the constant, low-level tension that hung over the convention center. It reminded me of the sort of tension at an airport security checkpoint that radiates off the one person in line who is constantly checking their watch or phone and trying to calculate if they are going to miss their flight. This feeling would be a constant presence throughout the entire time we were at the conference. Over three days, the entire Lexington Convention Center was transformed into pressure cooker filled with over-stressed graduate students and undergrads, wondering if they were good enough, if they would get the job, or if they would win the award.

By the end of the second day, with no end in sight to the the attritional anxiety that suffused the place,  I found myself wondering if I wasn't projecting. Perhaps my own discomfort with the setting was influencing my view of the conference. “Sure,” I said to myself, “I may feel uncomfortable here, but that doesn't mean everyone else is tense and on edge.” By the end of the third day, however, any doubt that I had had regarding the validity of my own perceptions was gone.

That was because the third day featured the award ceremony. After the winners were announced, the only thing that was left was to watch the effect the announcements had on the people around me. Standing outside the doors of the nondescript multipurpose room that had played host to the event, I watched as people who hadn't won emerged from the bathroom with splotchy faces and red eyes, insisting they were fine. A bit of a ways down the hall, in the midst of displays that were still set up, a third-place award winner stood alone in front of the display of first-place winner, intensely poring over all her materials, looking for what she had done that he hadn't. People stood in small groups talking quietly with intense looks on their faces or went off on their own, trying seeking desperately to avoid eye contact. It felt a lot like a funeral.

Later that night, I would learn that a friend of a friend had locked herself in her hotel room, and refused to come out. She was distraught over a comment that her reviewer had given her. He said that he wished she had “done more” with the production, which she assumed meant she was a bad designer and a failure.

Describing it now, it seems pretty baffling that things were being taken that seriously. The awards were definitely not undesirable; they were prestigious to win, looked good on a résumé and, in the case of the first-place winner, included a monetary reward. Furthermore, several graduate students in the design competitions would be selected to win the “Ready to Work” awards, which guaranteed the recipient a design with one of several regional theaters in the upcoming season. But the responses of some of the participants seemed wholly disproportionate to what was at stake.

Nor was I was immune to the anxieties that plagued my peers. I had come to the conference intending to observe as an outsider, but was unable to remain objective and unfeeling. As I left the building to head to a bar after the awards ceremony, I found myself retracing a well-worn mental path, one I had returned to often over the three days of the conference. If I had entered the design competition, would I have won anything? What would the reviewers have said about my work? If I had actually been in search of employment for the summer, would I have found it? I wanted to not care about the answers to those questions, but I couldn't.

As I approach the end of my second year of grad school and watch some of my closest friends in the program face down their third and final years, I am struck by the anxiety that hangs over this place at times. The unspoken question—“Will I be able to make it outside, in the real world?”—is never explicitly vocalized, but is almost constantly present in people's minds, especially among the third years who are preparing to graduate.

I occupy a relatively privileged position in relation to this question. I have been on the “outside” (this is starting to sound like a prison movie) and been able to survive there. I have a place to return to where I feel (relatively) confident I will be able to once again find work. For me, the idea of graduating represents a return to the familiar, a place and a system of structures that I had come to know and feel fairly comfortable with in the years before I went off to IU.

But I'm still not immune to that anxiety and doubt that my peers feel. I feel apprehension about the process of reintegrating that lies ahead of me. I can only imagine what my peers who are starting totally fresh feel. We spend three years being told we are “artists,” and as a result, no one talks about what it actually means to be someone that is going to make a living doing this. Instead, we just talk about art, as if by labeling ourselves “artists” we can escape the economic realities that the rest of the world has to deal with.

In my first year at grad school, I was required to take a class on collaboration, where the final project involved the class being split into groups which were each charged with… wait for it… redecorating the classroom. Short of possibly kickstarting my career in interior design, that class was utterly useless to me. And yet when I go to look for classes to register for next semester—the first semester of my final year—I still see no classes regarding the practical aspects of how to operate as an economic entity: how to market oneself, how to negotiate a contract, how the hell healthcare works when you’re a freelancer.

Considered from the perspective of people facing down their entrance into the “real world” but feeling unprepared for the economic realities of it, the reactions of the various students at the design competition no longer seem irrational. Products of an educational system which, by the nature of critiques and grading, places an emphasis on external validation, they were struggling for a sense of stability in the face of uncertainty; if they didn't receive it, and perhaps even if they did, they were left alone with their anxieties about the future. Ironically, those who had won the “Ready to Work” awards may have felt anything but.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the experience—the one morsel of truth I had been after—was the unsettling realization that despite all of my attempts to keep myself quarantined from some of the effects of this place, I am not always successful. The hope is simply to learn to recognize when and how I am being affected.

Post note: I want to give a special thanks to the people who reached out to me after the last article I wrote to offer support in any form. I was not able to respond to all of you, but please know that it was deeply appreciated.