2021 is the year of the designer (right?)

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2020 was the year media changed forever. If we’re coming back to theaters and stages in 2021, it needs to be with a greater sense of recognition for the absolute assload of work theatrical designers do for the rest of the industry.

If you ended up on a theatre’s email list, you know the “I’m doing my best” Zoom performance. The 720p MacBook Pro webcam, a $25 Amazon lapel microphone, a ring light, and a button-down. This revolution in people learning how to do something themselves is amazing; professors laud performers for the resiliency in a difficult era. Largely ignoring the fact that there have been people doing this for you the whole time.

They are backstage. Not ten feet from where a performer would stand.

They are rarely unionized and only making living wages. It takes an act of God for a designer to reach an eighth the wealth of an actor of equivalent merit.

They are often underemployed — more underemployed than actors, in most markets.

They often edit Logic files for hours to make the Zoom concert sound natural.

If there is ever a time to address treatment inequality between performers and other theatrical artists, it’s now. For every slap-dash digital performance in 2020, there was a team of a dozen designers whose work and plans were radically altered.

Now that we have a greater understanding of how shallow this art form is without the full effect of the collaborators behind it, I hope we can move forward treating stagehands like equals. Continuing to pour equal funding into programs to teach and employ designers and performers. Recognizing that there’s a ton of energy and hundreds of hours of work involved with getting the lights just right or achieving that feeling of “completeness” in a costume.

Performers are the embodiment of text and direction and emotion, but you might not feel it unless it is designed for you — and something more than the sum of its parts appears. Throw your next bouquet at the stage door, not the stage.

P.S. if you were one of the performers who set up your first camera equipment, I’m so proud of you 🥺 did you thank your designers after?

Undergrad Design @ Northwestern

Part 1 | Part 2

I want to start this with a disclaimer. This is just a recollection and a reflection of my experience being at Northwestern University and a member of the theatre department as a whole. This is not going to be reflective of every Northwestern experience — in fact, it’s literally only representative of mine. I only hope that I can provide some clarity for prospective students as well as students and members of the administration who seek to address these issues and change them.

Background

I came to Northwestern with the intention to pursue lighting design. I had a little bit more experience than the average college student does with the field. I drove to Northwestern in the Fall of 2017 having already worked in a professional theatre for a summer; I clocked over three hundred hours in high school managing lights, electrics, and creating my own shows’ worth of lighting design. I also had experience with professional dance companies, stage managers, and more. Out of all the options of institutions to attend, Northwestern was the only one that allowed its theatre makers to pursue a degree in theatre and something else (more on that culture later); I wasn’t going to lock myself into a BFA program that meant I couldn’t think of anything else but theatre for four years.

High school theatre — and all of its many, many issues — taught me that technical theatre fell significantly below performance. We can hypothesize why that is — talent as a construct, not something you work for, or the fact that technical theatre represents a collaborative effort when performance, on its surface, does not — but it was a notion I was hoping to lose in higher education. Theatre, in reality, exists not because of the performers but because of every single person dedicated to the craft before the performers. Theatre exists because of stage managers, artistic directors, lighting designers, drapers, run crew, front of house staff, marketing staff, sound designers, and so, so many more. The average production has between five and ten non-performance staff for every one performer.

Northwestern’s Bachelor of Arts/Science theatre program is within the School of Communication, one of six undergraduate schools of learning. Where other institutions have divisions between major tracks within theatre, Northwestern chose instead to create a “module” system within a singular theatre major. This system asks you to take additional courses within a concentration (Theatre for Young Audiences, Playwriting, and Design, for instance) but does not separate your degree significantly from other theatre majors. This means that, no matter where your skills lie in theatre, the capped 100 seats offered to applicants all graduate with the same Theatre major.

Wildcat (Un)Welcome

Northwestern is somewhat unique in its orientation structure. Wildcat Welcome is a week of programming when your only focus is on orienting yourself to campus. You don’t register for classes until the end of the week and you’re set up with a support structure in the PA group: an upperclassman peer adviser and between 8-15 peers who, in the case of the School of Communication (the school that theatre falls within), are in your major track. From the very first gathering of these students I knew that this was going to be an experience different from the one I had expected in theatre. The reality of the fact was that I, a student intent on pursuing design and/or management alone, was the only one of my cohort of 8 that felt that way. The rest of my peers were intending on pursuing performance in some way, shape, or form. The numbers were more bleak in other groups; all in all, of the class of 2021, less than ten out of the hundred were enrolled with the commitment to technical theatre and management.

This disparity was unparalleled, however, with that which resulted from the department’s programming itself. Every orientation discussion held focused on the acting sequence of classes for performers, the Musical Theatre Certificate for performers, the variety of dance1 classes you could take. The conversation of design was purely limited to the discussion of the design requirements for graduation: one design-based course in the first-year sequence and two design classes out of the forty one needs to graduate. In the full weeks’ worth of programming, I couldn’t recall a single moment where undergraduate designers and managers were explicitly addressed or even mentioned.

When the faculty was paraded in front of us, not a single undergraduate faculty member was dedicated to teaching management or technical theatre. As I would come to find out, the only classes taught for undergraduate designers were taught by graduate students. The only classes taught for undergraduate marketers or managers were taught primarily by staff members. Staff members in higher education are often treated as second-class in both pay grade and respect, but more on that later.

This lack of any real concrete acknowledgement of the people in the group of 100 students who were dedicated to what 95% of theatre really is? That hurt. It hurt so much that, one of the last days of Wildcat Welcome, I had to ask one of the advisors why not a single person had ever mentioned a commitment to designers and marketers. That advisor, John Haas, was quick to point out the design module. But one module does not an inclusive theatre program make. And Northwestern Theatre is sorely lacking in any sort of true commitment to its designers and managers. And that has led to real, dangerous situations.

Why One Theatre Major Doesn’t Work

The lack of undergraduate representation in design and management is an incredibly nuanced one, but it starts at the very beginning of the process. Because Northwestern’s Theatre major is not further subdivided, admissions to the program are not compared to their peers in an accurate way. The single theatre major means that every performer is compared to every singer, director, lighting designer, props designer, costumes designer, or stage manager who is seeking to come to Northwestern theatre. With a single major path, there is no way to fix the representation issue. If the major was divided into two paths with two different quotas – say, 75 performers and 25 designers/managers, if we’re sticking with the 100-seat cap – you can ensure that the population of undergraduate managers and designers is increasing every year, not decreasing. But 25 designers isn’t enough. I would argue that the ratio for designers to performers should be 2:1 or higher, considering every production that occurs on campus (more on those later) should theoretically need more than one person per design area.

Furthermore, splitting the major allows you to change requirements. This biggest gripe I’ve experienced in four years is that every performer in the theatre major spends an ungodly amount of time complaining about the design requirements.2 They should still be required to do this. But dividing the major allows you to institutionally acknowledge the fact that designers exist while allowing your curriculum to reflect the path that designers take. As of right now, the curriculum is clearly performance-structured and the existence of performance sequences – but not the same level of design sequences – further illustrates this.

We haven’t even begun to discuss the first year “dash” rotation, student theatre, the mistreatment of staff members, design classes, the ignoring of FGLI student realities, or the lack of any care by the advisors for what designers need. But don’t worry, we will.

Footnotes

1 This essay won’t go into the structural issues present in the Dance program and department. That’s a whole other collection of essays that I can’t write.

2 Performers need to respect the amount of work that goes into design and management. It is what allows them to exist on a stage or screen. Additionally, the Northwestern Theatre department specifically built the Design class requirement including easy-to-complete non-theatre classes (such as Intro to Painting or Sculpture) that are not representative of theatre design principles or the design process in theatre.

3 This essay was previously titled “Northwestern Theatre Does Not Care About Undergraduate Designers.”

Frequently Asked Questions on Residential Life at Northwestern

Recently we had a Snapchat Q&A on housing at Northwestern where prospective students submitted questions for me to answer. Below are some of the most popular questions and my answers to help provide a fuller picture of residential life at Northwestern.

What percentage of the rooms are singles/doubles/triples?

The large majority of rooms on-campus are doubles, but there are enough singles and triples that you’ll likley get whichever you prefer!

Are there areas in the residential halls to cook your own food?

Every hall has at least one community kitchen where fridge space is available – most have multiple!

Is the internet fast?

Absolutely! We usually average 200 Mbps up/down on wireless and 1gb up/down on wired!

Do you have any photos of a typical room?

Oh boy, do we! Here’s a link to photos of student rooms, common areas, and more sorted by each residential hall. I can tell you personally that yes, they really do look like that!

Are we allowed to dine in any dining hall?

Of course! Your meal plan grants you access to any of the on-campus dining options (as long as they are open). Many students who live in halls with dining options choose to eat there out of convenience.

For first-years, is it required that we live on campus?

There is a two-year on-campus living requirement at Northwestern. You’re not restricted to where you live however, and if you choose to “Go Greek,” the sorority and fraternity houses on campus count towards this requirement!

What are the bathrooms like?

The bathrooms depend on the style of residence hall you end up in. The majority are community-based, but they’re cleaned daily and will have space to store your stuff safely.

Is it hard to adjust to living on-campus?

When you move in for Wildcat Welcome, you’ll meet your RA (resident assistant) and they’ll be there to make sure you adjust well to living outside of your parent or guardian’s home! You’ll also be surprisied at how little time you’re going to be in your room – if you’re like me, you’ll want to get involved ASAP. Regardless, don’t forget that EVERYONE is adjusting to a new lifestyle and you’re not alone!

What is one thing you would recommend first years pack that a lot of people forget?

There are a ton of really comprehensive guides on what to bring to school with you, so definitely check them out. That being said, I ran out of basic medicine (like Advil) faster than I expected. Definitely pack a few extra deodorant sticks, and I personally recommend a pluggable scenter to keep your room fresh!

What factors should we consider when picking a residence hall?

I would say the most important factor in making your choice is proximity to your campus hubs. If you’re in STEM, you’ll likely be better off in residential halls on the north end of campus because they’re closer to Tech, for instance. The walk from one end of campus to the other is really only 10-15 minutes, however, so you’re totally free to find a place that has the community/size you’re looking for!

I’m from a small town. How does someone like me adjust to being in a moderately-sized city like Evanston and so close to Chicago?

Living on campus is a huge help in making the size adjustment to Evanston. Your home community will be fairly small and you can spend your entire first year never going into the city if you choose! Evanston really feels much more personal and safe than you would expect, and Chicago is always a short train ride away!

Note:
This blog post was originally written while I was employed by the Office of Undergraduate Admission at Northwestern University. As such, my voice and tone reflect Northwestern’s desired impact, not my own.