Fight or Flight

ARTICLE BY TONY STOERI

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I’m so glad to have met Tony all those years ago now as a Fringe Intern. A brilliant lighting designer and stagehand, Tony is also possessed of a rather incisive mind, a natural curiosity about the human condition and an excellent observational eye. Learning that he was also deeply interested in history came as no surprise to me. We are so glad to have him back in the Twin Cities, working again after a hiatus away getting his MFA (and writing incredible pieces for us; his first on Professionalism is still one of my favourite pieces we’ve ever run). We are all richer for it, in so many ways. -Wu Chen

I hate opening nights. I feeling weirdly naked, sitting in the audience without a lightboard in front of me. Once the house lights go down and the show begins, I stare at the stage, not actually watching. Instead, my mind is busy replaying the same nightmare over and over on a loop: it is just after the show has ended, and the audience floods out into the lobby. I stand awkwardly in the corner, and manage to pick out, from the general hubbub, the conversation between a very fancily dressed old woman wearing a fur stole and pearls and her equally regal-looking companion. The woman in pearls remarks that she thoroughly enjoyed the show, except light cue 55, where she thought the front light special needed to be parted out in a much slower time. I approach and stammeringly attempt to apologize and explain that that was definitely a note I just didn’t have time to get to it and timing in this show was a struggle because the venue uses two different types of dimmers and they have vastly different curves and I swear it was in my notes I just didn’t have time! But she resolutely refuses to listen to my sorry excuses, calls me a hack,  throws her glass of wine in my face, and storms out of the theater.

Shockingly, this nightmare scenario has never actually occurred. Nor is it rooted in some deep-seated fear of blue-blooded septuagenarians. Frankly, outside of opening nights, I spend very little time worrying about what artistic critiques old aristocratic dames might level at me. They’re stuffy has-beens and they can shove it. The real cause of my torturous daydream that recurs every opening night is very simple; my brain hasn’t had time to decompress and shift out of tech mode. Being in the theater, when I see a show I have worked on it’s a trigger for my brain. When I walk in on opening night, my body can’t tell that tonight is different, so it does the same thing it has done all of tech week, and floods my system with adrenaline (as a side note, its weird to think that, on a chemical level, my body responds to a tech in much the same way that it would respond to me being confronted with an angry lion). That adrenaline rush is incredibly useful in tech, and is also part of what I find so addictive about designing lighting. It’s also why I hate opening nights. All the adrenaline bouncing around in my body on opening night, deprived of its normal outlet- the ability to edit cues and make changes- ends up giving birth to bloodcurdling visions of distinguished old crones who don’t like the color choices I made in my backlight system.

What I’m slowly coming to realize is that this isn’t a problem restricted to opening night. I spent all fall jumping from tech week to tech week, one after another after another, the rush and the stress and the anxiety and the adrenaline all melding together into an uninterrupted continuum. I suffered through the tribulations of each opening night, then it was off to the next tech. I had essentially three months of rising action with no resolution, no release or catharsis or chance to come down from the rush that was pushing me forward. I was an orchestra that kept tuning up, but never actually started playing a song.

I crashed around Thanksgiving. Laid on the couch for a few days. My roommate helpfully threatened to sit on me if I tried to do more work without taking a break. It was around then that I realized I was stuck in a loop. The pattern I’d been following all fall- full steam ahead, gogogo, faster, faster, faster, then BOOM, crash- was the same pattern that had defined my grad school career. For so many reasons, each semester had been a brutal sprint to the finish. Indeed, that phrase could describe my entire grad school experience. And the thing that kept me going, I thought, was the knowledge that the experience was finite; that once I finished out my MFA, I could leave and be done with grad school.

But that might not have been the only thing that kept me pushing forward at a breakneck pace; because one of the things I don’t think enough people realize is that stress- in virtually ANY form- causes very tangible physiological responses. One of the more prominent psychologists of the 20th century, Walter Bradford Cannon, coined a term which most of us know: fight-or-flight response. But maybe Cannon’s biggest contribution was the idea that fight-or-flight responses could be triggered not only by physical emergencies, such as blood loss, but also by psychological emergencies, such as antagonistic encounters and exchanges. Our body reacts to receiving an angry email and seeing an angry bear in the same way: it floods our system with hormones that produce energy, dilates our pupils, suppresses our appetite, constricts our blood vessels, blocks the production of tears and saliva, and increases the rate at which our heart and lungs are operating. In cases of physical danger, all of these responses serve to push our body into a state that makes us (hopefully) more likely to survive. In cases where the stress and threat are not physical, it can occasionally lead to irrational anger at the woman sitting next to you in the coffee shop who won’t stop loudly talking about visiting her parents in Milwaukee while you are trying to finish drafting a plot hours before the deadline.

No matter what type of threat your body is responding to, the stress response essentially gives you a high. It won’t help you deal with the angry bear if you are thinking about any of the myriad aches and pains- mental and physical- that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. So your body pushes all those things to the side, and puts you in a state where everything is GREAT except for the one threat that needs to be addressed. And like anything you can get high off, you can get addicted to it.

Starting in my second year of grad school, I took to waking up virtually every morning between 5:30 and 6 so I could have 2-3 hours to work before going to class. Often, I would use this time to finish off projects that were due that morning, meaning I was usually working under a fair bit of stress. My body came to associate that time of day with the adrenaline rush that came from the stress I was under. And even though I graduated IU and left in early May, it wasn’t until September that I was able to reliably make myself sleep past 6 AM. For four months my brain would jolt me awake at six with a surge of adrenaline and energy. It didn’t matter if I had literally nothing scheduled that day; my body had become addicted to the adrenaline rush I had spent the past two years experiencing daily, so it pushed me into that state each morning. My mind would then start searching for whatever threat had triggered this response, and, finding no apex predators lurking in my room, would begin casting the net wider. As a result, I would lie in bed fidgeting, worrying about any tiny thing I could think of as I subconsciously sought to justify and explain my elevated state.

Though I’m now able to reliably sleep past 6 AM - thank god - that doesn’t mean the other aspects of adrenaline addiction have faded. One of the things that post-grad school life has made me more conscious of is the fact that I work in an industry that normalizes stress as a baseline, which makes it incredibly easy to fall into the rhythm of unceasing build up with no release. We do our job in settings defined by a steady, constant increase of stress as a date approaches, and then, once that date arrives, we’re done. We come in early that Friday morning to a theater that is empty and dark. We turn on the light board, we methodically fix each item we frantically scribbled on a legal pad during the previous nights run. We double check the cues, we run through the channels, we make sure we have contingencies for every mistake or disaster we can think of, then spend a few minutes trying to come up with some more that we might have missed. And then, when that is all done, we power down the console, turn off the house lights, and leave. Later that night, the theater is going to be filled with energy and tension and anticipation that will, over the course of the performance, be transmuted into the flowing, giddy relief that pervades the air when the opening night curtain call is done. And maybe the designer will be there in the audience watching. But fundamentally, our role in the production ended earlier that day, when we finished our notes, quietly shut off the board, and walked out of the theater. Our journey through that production didn’t end with the fanfare and release that accompany an opening night. It ended silently and unwitnessed.

And there's nothing wrong with the fact that our journey as designers so often ends unheralded. God knows I don’t want to be up on that stage for a curtain call. And there is a subdued joy and beauty present in those quiet moments the morning of opening, just you and your notes and the stage and the lights. But what we are often denied is the cleansing catharsis of a final finish. Our process so often ends with a quiet sigh instead of a bang, and rarely is that small exhalation enough to overcome and deactivate the driving stress machine our bodies tend to become during tech. So, I think, many of us flee from that weird ennui that accompanies the end of a project; that strange period when our body tries to figure out what to do with all the energy pumping through it now that it has nowhere to go. We find another outlet, because that is easier than confronting the energy; we throw ourselves heedlessly into the next show, and the next one, and the next one. And we never ramp down. We never shift our brain out of survival mode, where the only thing it has time for is threats and problems. That is why I have the recurring opening night vision of the angry old rich lady; she is the manifestation of the fact that when I sit there on opening night watching the thing I helped create, my brain doesn’t ever take the time to look at the good or beautiful things I made; it only looks for the things that are wrong and need to be fixed, because that's all there is time and energy for.

For many people, that’s fine. I don’t mean to suggest that we are all these tweaked out Rube-Goldberg stress machines hurtling towards our own inevitable and explosive end. Everyone is different, and there are some people who can live their whole lives in that elevated state. But I can’t help wondering if all that pushing and striving and desperate frantic tunnel visioning somehow doesn’t inevitably worm its way into our work.

Recently, right smack dab in the middle of my string of consecutive techs, I served as the ALD for a production of A Christmas Carol. One night after tech, the designer, the director, and I all went out to grab drinks. I had come into this production bearing the weight of a cynicism that only youth could support. A Christmas Carol was an old, dried up corpse of a show, so mired in tradition and spectacle that you could never do a production that was genuine, I told myself. Listening to the director talk about his production at the bar, I began to feel like an idiot. He was eloquent and excited and saw things in the play that I had never seen. He talked about it as a play with a message, a play that told us that people possess the ability to truly change, and how that was an incredibly important idea to bring up in this social moment. He also talked about how he knew that this show was a holiday tradition, how for some people and their families, this show at this theater represented the start of their holiday season; how some people had been seeing this show for decades, and how he was incredibly conscious of still letting them have the experience they wanted, of not letting the message he found in the play preclude their experience of it as a tradition. And as I sat there drinking a cocktail I couldn’t really afford and listening to him, I could feel myself holding the stress of the day in my shoulders, and I wondered if the sort of deft insight and sensitivity this director demonstrated was ever going to be possible for me to achieve if I kept up my current pace. One of the very real physical effects of the body’s stress response can be tunnel vision, and I think that stress can also force us into a psychological tunnel vision as well; it can limit our awareness of what’s happening around us, focusing our minds inwards and downwards towards our own immediate problems and struggles, perceived or actual. If we are storytellers, and if we are artists (though many of us are often reluctant to admit it), I think we do ourselves a disservice in not giving ourselves time to decompress, in not allowing ourselves to break out of the cyclical stress that often defines our jobs, and taking the opportunity to re-calibrate our awareness so we can more fully interact with what happening in the room, on the stage in front of us.

I don’t really have a ready, well thought out answer for how we do that. Work less isn’t a perfect option- many of us can’t afford to. Really, it seems to me, the best way to make sure that the constant stress of our job doesn’t bear down too hard on us is to work differently. Right after that production of A Christmas Carol, I went into tech for a big show. One of those shows that you are aware, ahead of time, could be very important to your career. One of those shows where that knowledge hangs over you the whole time, pushing you even deeper into a survival mindset. It was a hellish process. It was a slog. And on the night of the first dress, the director called everyone to the house- cast, crew, and design team-  and told us all: “Listen, we’re all professionals here, and we’re on a tight schedule. I don’t have time to point out every single thing you do right; I’m going to have to trust all of you to be adults, and not need a pat on the back for everything you do right. So know that if I don’t give you a note about it, it’s working.” He didn’t say it like a jerk, didn’t yell it or scream it or seize a newborn’s lollipop while he said it. He said it in a calm, reasoned tone. And it took me aback, and for a moment struck me as incredibly bizarre. Here we were, doing a show about joy, a show that was meant to make the audience feel happy, and there was no room for positive emotion in the creation process? But reflecting upon it, I realized it wasn’t that bizarre a sentiment; it was one I have actually encountered a lot, just never so plainly stated. It was the exact thing my stress-heightened brain tells me as I sit twisting my program on every opening night I have ever been to.

It has been almost six months since I left IU, and I’m realizing again, for the umpteenth time, that maybe finally finishing grad school wasn’t a silver bullet that would solve all my problems. We work in jobs that are incredibly stressful, and that also demand we manifest the vulnerability inherent in any artistic pursuit, that we be open to emotion and be brave enough to try new things. Fundamentally, these things are opposed- our stress response exists solely to limit vulnerability in every way possible. One of the hardest parts of our job, I’m coming to believe, is managing the interplay of these two sides. And for me, personally, I think the place I’m going to start is by trying to remind myself occasionally to celebrate the work that's occurring around me, whether its my work or someone else’s. Because I don’t know really know how you can keep going in this job if you can’t find the joy in it.