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, this article is a good introduction! And here's his most recent article, on Southeastern Theatre Conference.
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! —Wu Chen Khoo
I remember it being significant as a child, that annual moment when I realized anew the transient nature of summer, when I started seeing back-to-school sales advertised in the catalogs that my parents tossed into the recycling, or when the section of Target dedicated to inner tubes and pool noodles was replaced with one dedicated to notebooks and folders. It would often throw me into a deep, Nietzschean funk: a nine-year old child wandering the sun-dappled lawns of a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood, wondering what the point of playing with his friend Jimmy's stomp rocket was if all leisure time was inevitably doomed to be swallowed by the yawning maw of fourth grade. Summer bliss was a great Sisyphean lie, and the cyclical, almost ritualistic realization of that fact each July was a staple experience of my childhood.
I'm sure I was a blast to hang out with.
It’s not something I expected to still be facing in my mid twenties. I'm not sure why. It's not like the inherently ephemeral nature of all experience goes away once you can legally drink. But for some reason, that sense of nihilistic despair that marks the end of a summer of leisure seems like it should be an artifact of childhood. I'm an adult, dammit. I can legally rent a car. I go to bars and order the fancy, hard apple juice. Once, I drank a cup of black coffee—like, no sugar or anything. It was horrible, but I did it. And yet, despite the numerous milestones of adulthood I have passed, I feel a sense of dread rising as July draws to a close and my return to grad school draws closer. My stomach drops a little, and that old Nietzchean funk sneaks up on me again.
It's not exactly a secret, if you've read my other articles, that I've struggled with my grad school experience. I've found myself often questioning why I made the choice I did or whether I would do it all over again. But in spite of my dissatisfaction, I am also incredibly proud of the design work I have done there, and feel like I have grown greatly as a designer during my time at IU. So instead of dwelling on my impending return, I have decided to reflect on the work I have done this summer as a freelancer with the goal of ascertaining how grad school has changed how I work as a designer, for better or for worse.
The most surface-level difference between designing a show as a freelancer here and designing a show as a grad student at IU is the number of meetings I attend over the course of a production. At IU, we have meetings about everything. And then, after the official meetings, we have unofficial meetings in which we figure out what we are going to say in the next official meeting. It feels like whack-a-mole without the catharsis of hitting anything. But I try to keep quiet about that. In this area, at least, it's easier to get along in order to go along. So I sit and listen, waiting for my turn to tell everyone, for the third or fourth time, the linesets I want to use as electrics. And while I wait, I try my best to understand why we are doing this.
Staying patient can be hard. I once sat in on a meeting where we talked about tambourines for a solid fifteen or twenty minutes: How to play them, what they are made of, what sizes they come in. It was like someone opened the Wikipedia article on tambourines and excitedly yelled, “Hey, everyone! Get a load of this!!!!” before just reading the whole thing out loud in a monotone drone. At one point, someone suggested we look into getting an industrial tambourine and no one brought up the fact that THAT IS ABSURD WHAT EVEN IS THAT?!
Ostensibly, all these meetings exist to provide each member of the production team with as much information as possible about the other aspects of the production, so that the whole machine can work in concert towards a single goal. The first part of that usually happens. The second part—where we all work in concert—not so much. But the theory is sound, at least.
When I first got to grad school, the amount and depth of planning that went into each production was jarring. It’s not like I didn't conceive and execute plans as a freelancer, it's just that my actions were based on a much more limited pool of information. As a small freelance LD, there are often a lot of large questions still weighing on you when you walk into the theater to execute your design: Does the inventory you were given for the space match what actually exists in the space? Does it all work? Did you even receive an inventory? You try to build some of this into your planning or don't max out the inventory so you can offset broken fixtures, et cetera. But in many cases, you are forced to adapt on the fly. These adaptations are further influenced by your often limited labor budget. You may be able to create an awesome plot in that small space, but it’s worth nothing if you can't hang the damn thing by yourself and still have enough time and energy left to actually tech the show.
All of those niggling details are just some of the ones that arise as a lighting designer. Everything becomes exponentially more complex when discussing the role that planning plays in the collaborative process of small theater companies. The simple fact is that the economic realities of life as a theatrical artist or technician often necessitates juggling multiple projects or jobs simultaneously, making it extremely difficult to find the time required to get the whole production on the same page. And so, when it doesn't quite work out—when we can't have as many meetings as we want, when we find that we don't know everything about every element of the production (or everything we need to know about our own element, for that matter)—it is incredibly important that we are adaptable. We have to to be able to clear our heads of our plans and preconceived visions of what the thing is supposed to be and understand what it actually is.
That's a paradigm I'm pretty comfortable with. I learned how to tech a show as a terrified teenager in a Fringe booth, and there might be no better way of instilling the value of adaptability than having a confrontation-averse kid run a Fringe tech. So when I was finally liberated from grad school and returned to the Twin Cities for the summer, I quickly fell back into working in a style that I was comfortable with. I was excited. In spite of all the problems I had had at IU this year, I had also ended up doing some work there that I was very proud of. And I was looking forward to continuing that at home. I reveled in the fact that I was free from all the meetings, no longer held captive by interminable discussions about tambourines. I could mosey my way through a plot, and I didn't have to tell anyone what my trim heights were (mostly because it was a dead hung grid, but whatever). And come what may, I felt confident in my ability to adapt to whatever might arise.
In a sense, I was right. Nothing came up that I couldn't adapt to. But at the same time, I didn't feel quite as good about the work I was doing. Nothing was going catastrophically wrong. I didn't forget the fact that one scene takes place underwater or anything. But I did discover I was frustrated and angry with myself for having overlooked certain details: For not remembering that Act 1 ended downstage of the main drape. For not knowing that we had moved that actor's part down an octave, giving the song a different feeling. For not having done as much of my homework as I should have. Overall, I was satisfied with the work I was doing, but there were small, tiny moments that bothered me, that stuck in the back of my head and mocked me because they could have been much more than what they ended up as.
And I realized that what I was missing was the connection with the other elements of the production. Despite all my problems with the endless parade of meetings that seems to accompany every production at IU, they did have some usefulness. They provided a space where I could momentarily get into the heads of the other designers on the team. One of the parts of IU I actually enjoy is my fellow MFAs. I have been consistently blessed by being assigned as collaborators members of my cohort whose abilities I respect and whose creativity I enjoy. Working with those people, the endless, mind-numbing meetings slowly became a source of creative fuel. We were able to find wonderful moments where all the elements of a production clicked together and fell into perfect synchronicity, becoming just a little bit more than the sum of their parts. In many cases, it was these moments that became my favorite.
But it’s not as easy as just realizing, Oh, hey, maybe it’s a good idea to have meetings sometimes. As I said, the reality is that, in just under a year when I come back from grad school for good, I'll be back to working in a setting where there simply isn't time for all the meetings that IU has. And I will need to find some way to achieve the same effect, which will require me to change my process. It may require me to put more effort into engaging with the rest of the production team or perhaps to simply be more forthright in saying what I'm thinking. It may force me to use new tools to help communicate my thoughts more clearly or to be less passive in seeking out collaborators with whom I work well. But the point is, I will need to challenge the way I work when I'm outside of the structure of grad school. Because if I leave IU next May and return to the Twin Cities exactly the same as when I left, all the crap that I've put up with at grad school will be meaningless.
I know that, in the next few weeks, as I sit alone in my overly-air-conditioned booth running Fringe shows until my brain oozes out of my ears, I will inevitably feel that familiar Nietzchean-funk begin to overtake me again. And now, I have two important questions to turn to to distract myself:
1. How am I going to make sure I walk away from this whole grad school thing as a better designer, and avoid just slipping back into old habits?
2. Seriously, what the hell is an industrial tambourine?