So I Guess I Got An MFA?


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Tony is back with his final installment on his journey through grad school.  To view his previous articles, click here and here. -Chava Curland


The text below is what I presented to the design and technology faculty members of the IU theater department for the oral defense of my thesis production, City of Angels. I figured that since you all have been so kind as to listen to me complain about grad school over the past three years, you all deserved to hear the bookend to my grad school career as much as the professors in the department did. So here you are. Enjoy.

For the past two years there has been a quote from Martha Graham pinned to the wall of my cubicle in A300. It reads:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

It is, I think, the closest thing I have found to a statement summing up what I believe art should be. But I don’t think I ever realized just how arduous a task Martha Graham was charging the artist with when she set forth the necessity of “keeping the channel open.”

Reading back over the notebook I kept during City of Angels, it is amazing how quickly it descends into the technical minutiae, as if the huge scale of the production demanded that we address all material concerns in detail before we could move on to answering the more trivial questions such as what the production was about. By the time the second design conference rolled around, my notes are full of information about cable runs for practicals, thoughts about how we were going to access positions for focus, and quick sketches of the agenda / breakdown of labor for our two days of load-in. All of this before we had a full line-set schedule, or for that matter a finalized scenic design. It felt a bit like building a house by starting with what faucets you want in the bathroom.  I distinctly remember feeling lost in these early days of the production, like I was flying blind. I couldn’t see the design in my mind’s eye, but the schedule and material demands of the show necessitated that I make decisions that would have a very real impact on what the final design would be.

In some ways, this challenge was exactly what I had been searching out, and I relished it. I knew that in the mythical “Real World” your plot was often due before the production went into rehearsals. I wanted to push myself to create on a similar, if not identical, timeline. I had strategies ready to go, things I had learned from mentors or thought of on my own, that would allow me to meet this challenge. I was going to create a plot that took as its backbone the architecture of the set, and then added on what was necessary based upon a careful reading of the stage space available to the director. What were the strong positions, blocking wise, and what were the weak ones? How would people move through this space- as individuals, in small groups, as a whole ensemble? Which lighting angles were easily achieved, and which ones were more difficult? Which angles would I need in my vocabulary in order to create the iconic noir look?

Despite how much I looked forward to the challenge of the accelerated timeline, I still felt, in  many ways, lost. Rich [the director] and I had met a lot, and talked through any number of ideas. But I still had trouble seeing where I was going. In part, this was because we were in a bit of a holding pattern early on: Rich needed to get into the room, to begin working with his cast, before he could start answering some questions. In part, my feeling of being lost was also the result of my struggle with a script that was, in many ways, exactly what it appeared to be on the surface. Sometimes I have trouble letting a thing just be what it is. I tend to overcomplicate and overanalyze, rather than just letting the text do it’s job. Part of it, too, was the music. I was struggling to find my way through the weird jazz structures in Coleman’s score, struggling to see and feel the music in light. So in many ways, I didn’t have the conceptual underpinnings I was used to having at this stage in the design. It was a bit disquieting. I wasn’t super worried about it - I had done shows like that before - but I felt a bit more pressure than normal to do everything right, being that it was my thesis and all.

I don’t remember which one of the innumerable meetings this began in, but it soon became apparent to me that I was being systematically placed in an untenable position as the scenic design developed. My scenic designer, a fellow student, was totally responsive and receptive to my attempts to make sure I got the positions I needed overhead to light the show. Our technical director, a departmental staff member, was not. He had a very specific idea of what he thought the show needed to be, and he didn’t really care whether or not that idea left room for my design. He had decided that lighting had enough positions overhead, so, in his mind, that meant that there were enough positions. I remember going into a meeting with my scenic designer and TD to discuss the possibility of footlights. Somewhere, that meeting took a hard left turn, and we ended up talking about available line-sets; that was when I was informed that as far as my TD was concerned, the over-stage positions I would have would be the lighting bridge downstage, and the two diagonal trusses the scenic designer had specced out upstage. It wasn’t enough to light the show by a long shot; there was a roughly 17’ gap in which I would have no overhead positions; a gap that was right smack dab over center stage. Furthermore, given the length of truss specced,  I don’t think I had enough room to hang all the lights we would need, even if all of them were pointed straight down and not focused. My attempts to address this issue were met with insistence that that was the way it had to be, and suggestions that I had to look into simplifying things. I played for time, kept repeating that I needed a chance to look at the drawings, and got out of there.

Two things were running through my head as I left that meeting.

  1. Honestly, I felt stupid, outmaneuvered, and naive. I had operated under the assumption that at the end of the day, everyone would approach this production the same way as me, looking for chances and opportunities to support the other elements. After all, that was the job. Create a whole design. Not just a set, or just a plot, or just a bunch of costumes.

  2. I could feel myself getting backed into a corner. We had designed a unit set to free ourselves of the constraints of having to make a new set of scenic elements for every one of the myriad locations the piece called for. That was great, but it meant that now the problem of manifesting that myriad of locations fell mostly into my lap; simultaneously, the number of places I had to actually hang lights from was being greatly limited. With the current arrangement, I would not be able to evenly wash the whole stage from a consistent angle. I would be struggling to illuminate the production effectively, not to mention actually design anything. I felt trapped. The demands on my design were increasing while the room I had to maneuver and meet those demands was decreasing.

I had a lot of self doubt at this moment in the process. The TD’s  suggestion that I was over-designing had hit a weak spot. I worried that I was psyching myself out because this was my thesis, trying to do too much, feeling like I had to use every light we had simply because it was my final show.  I immediately spiraled into anxiety- my plot was going to be a bloated monstrosity, a small voice in my head assured me, and as a result the entire enterprise would be a failure and I’d never work again, dying penniless and ragged on the streets of 19th century Paris, laid low by consumption. Or something like that.

I told my mind to shut up.

But my confidence had been shaken, and I needed a way to ensure that I was not over-designing. So I implemented a simple test. I took one of my noir research images, and picked the most important angle of light in that photo- a diagonal back angle. I then looked at the proposed set up, and tried to see if I could create a system of diagonal back light that would evenly wash the whole stage- a workhorse, basic system that would be extremely important in creating the signature noir look of the show.

I couldn’t even come close.

So I felt more grounded in my belief that I needed more positions. But I didn’t know how to proceed. Another meeting with my scenic designer and TD would get nowhere; I would get railroaded and ignored. Our TD had given no indication of wanting to listen to me, and the power differential of student vs staff member, as well as the personalities at play, meant neither my scenic designer nor I had any way to compel him to listen. I had no control over the situation as long as the problem remained within that setting.

This was the first time during my thesis that I thought about Napoleon.

Lets zoom out a bit.

And back in time a bit.

To Brussels.  Approximately 1 am, on June 15th, 1815. Earlier, in March, Napoleon had returned from exile on the island of Elba, landing in the south of France with a small force of  1,000 men. Now, about ten weeks later, he stood at the border of Belgium with an army of 120,000. The forces arrayed against him were the two armies of what was called the 7th Coalition- a Prussian army to the east, and the British army, centered in and around Brussels. The commander of the coalition was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, and at this moment, he was attending a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond.

The duke had just sat down to his very late dinner when a messenger strode in and handed him a folded note. Wellington scanned the note, dismissed the messenger, and continued to dine and chat for twenty minutes, before politely retiring alongside several of his aides, where he remarked, with uncharacteristic verve, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.”

Napoleon had unexpectedly moved his men north from the border, seizing an important cross roads at Quatre Bras. He had placed himself directly between the British and Prussian armies,  employing what military theorists call “the strategy of central position.”

It was a strategy that had served Napoleon well over his career. Time and again, at Montenotte, at Arcole, at Vauchamps and at Jena, Napoleon had triumphed over numerically superior forces by employing the strategy of central position. By moving aggressively to seize a central position in the midst of the enemy forces, splitting them, as it were, Napoleon captured the initiative. His opponents now needed to address the presence of his forces, to react to him.  If they did not, he was in a position to outmaneuver them and wreck havoc in their rear echelons.

From a central position, Napoleon also commanded interior lines of operation - he could communicate and redeploy his troops more quickly than his opponents could coordinate, because his forces occupied a smaller, more compact area. Furthermore, the central position allowed Napoleon to take up a branching strategy. The Emperor was fond of telling his Marshals “Il est necessaire de faire son thème en deux façons”- “It is necessary to advance with two options.” As the famous military historian Liddell Hart explained, “A plan, like a tree, must have branches – if it is to bear fruit. A plan with a single aim is apt to prove a barren pole.” From a central position that afforded him superior mobility and lines of operation, Napoleon was able to wait until the exact right moment to apply his forces; any attempt to deny him an opening inevitably opened up a different one upon which he could capitalize.

But the most basic power of the strategy of central position lay in the fact that it was not a strategy at all. It was a geographic reality. It was a position that brought with it the advantages of superior mobility and flexibility, allowing Napoleon to implement any number of strategies or tactics. It was, in that sense, a structural advantage. What cracked the Duke’s normally controlled veneer that night in Brussels wasn’t the loss of the crossroads at Quatre Bras, it was the fact that in seizing them, Napoleon had fundamentally altered the strategic landscape. The rules had changed.

Meanwhile, back in the ostensibly more relevant part of this narrative, I was beginning to feel like the landscape of the production needed to be altered.  In the lead up to spring break, a number of factors combined to wear me down- a deteriorating and increasingly hostile relationship with my technical director, the necessity of overseeing and educating my crew (a dedicated bunch who were being thrown into the most complex show they had ever worked on in their time here), and the necessity of balancing all of this alongside working to develop resources for my post-grad school career. On top of all this, I was still struggling to really find my voice in the show, in large part because the majority of my resources were being relegated to non-design activities. I didn’t have the time or energy to be creative; in the lead up to spring break, I was sleeping four to five hours a night, going to bed at one am and waking up at 5 or 6 to go work in a Starbucks.

Spring break was a welcome interruption, though perhaps not an escape since I spent it at USITT and SETC. On the return flight from USITT I had a four hour layover in the Atlanta airport, during which I had a lot of time to think. The two conferences had been the last major barrier between me and my thesis; now that they were over, there was nothing behind which I could hide to avoid the growing pile of problems that was City of Angels. As I sat in the airport lounge with a drafting file open on my computer staring blankly at it and wondering how I was going to light this thing, a friend texted me asking me for that Martha Graham quote I was obsessed with. I pulled it up on the internet and sent her the link, then reread it myself for the umpteenth time. For whatever reason, this time, something clicked. I had always thought of Graham’s exhortation to the artist to “keep the channel open” as a reference to self-doubt, in part because I often used this quotation as a talisman against exactly that. But in reading it, I suddenly realized that the biggest thing getting in the way of me designing my thesis was all the stuff that actually made up the design- every tiny bit of drafting and every anxiety about color choice and ability to access this or that light for focus and maintenance. What I needed was space, the ability to think with agility and freedom, unencumbered by anxieties and practical concerns. At the same time, I knew that I couldn’t simply ignore the concrete realities of the production. We were too far along in the process for me to be all pie-in-the-sky and divorced from the very real limitations I was operating under. Furthermore, I knew that given the amount I was relied upon within the lighting department as an electrician and technician, I couldn’t completely stop thinking in that way. I had too many issues cluttering the channel, and I needed away to clear it.

So I thought about seizing the central position. About resolving your problems not by solving them, but by re-contextualizing them. About changing the landscape. And I set up what I thought of in my head simply as the System.

When I got back, I decided, the goal would no longer be to find the most correct, perfect solution to each problem. The goal would be to solve each problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, to buy time and space, to create a bubble in the midst of the chaos and the stress within which I could design. If that light couldn’t make the shot we wanted, we spared it out and kept moving. When we didn’t have enough of one color, I picked a new one from the stock we did have, trusting in my instincts rather than agonizing over the decision. Time and again I reoriented my focus towards solving the problem as efficiently as possible, focusing not necessarily on making the perfect choice, but instead on creating an environment that would give me the tools and the atmosphere I needed when I finally got behind the board to start building. I thought of it as building the central position, and it brought with it a sense of wild glee mixed with trepidation, a bit like the first time you ride your bike without holding on to the handlebars.

The show eventually opened. It wasn’t perfect. Not even close. I saw it two times, and both times were frustrating experiences- to see something up onstage that I felt was rough and unfinished. I think, going into this process, I had an idea in my head of how I would demonstrate some level of mastery in my craft. I would create a meticulously planned, elegantly executed, well thought out design. That’s not what I got. I got a process that was by turns a death march and a skydiving trip. I got a product that was rough and kinetic, hectic and haphazard, with surprising, asynchronous moments of gentleness, subtlety, and depth. But above all, I think I gained a new appreciation for what Graham was saying when she demanded that we “keep the channel open.” Mastery of the craft isn’t found in those moment where all the things go right. It's found when we’re faced with situations that aren’t ideal; when we find ourselves working on those productions that are less of an effortless, synchronized ballet of perfect execution, and more akin to a cabinet full of dishes getting shoved down the stairs. Mastery is staying connected to the most basic questions of why and what in the midst of the cacophonous whirlpool our jobs can often descend into. It lies in keeping the channel open, even as everything falls down around you.