twentybydesign

the life and times of a twenty year old designer

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journeying through babel: a story of carpentry and redemptive community

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yesterday’s story:
this bookcase had been three days’ work for a team of five. planning, laying out, preparing pieces, squaring each corner, framing the stand, painting and molding. the finished dimensions were over 16 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and 15 inches deep.
at ten minutes after five, we rolled it into the theatre and decided to quickly pivot it from horizontal to vertical so that it’d be ready for the additional work happening this weekend. one final push after a week of working ourselves sick and tired. a weary crew of carpenters gathered around and began to lift.
the scenery began creaking in protestation, but we figured it would settle once it was righted, so we kept pushing.
and magnificently, almost poetically, at the point just before it would tip into place and right itself, the strain became too much. the plywood boxes collapsed into each other like a fragile rectangular card house, and the whole unit flattened itself straight down onto the ground.

everyone walked away uninjured, but you can bet our pride had been put in check. and my mind couldn’t help but wander to the story of the community gathered at Babel.

 

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”  And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.  And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Babel is our story. As I watched the towering scenery crumble, stood in the wreckage of the edifice of our competence, I saw how clearly Babel is our story.  But we were never called to end our stories at Babel, the place where we are confronted with the shame which seeps from seeing clearly our hubris, self-centeredness, and idolatry. We were called to journey through Babel. Babel is a place of “yes, and…” where the “yes” of our failed attempts at eternity meets the “and” of our gaze straight into the source of eternity Himself. Afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, the people of at Babel attempted to create their own fortress of power and security. The Lord’s response was to scatter them to the the winds, and remind them that they could not create their own name or hold themselves together. He alone is the provider of rest, strength, peace, and unity, and without Him, we are confused in language and scattered across the globe.

I know this story. Deep in my heart, I have been reenacting this story since childhood. I have built these walls in my life and around my heart. High and wide and deep. Testaments to my strength, accolades to my name, badges which honor collective accomplishments. I have built these walls. For years, every single thing I did with a group of people was only meant to raise my own profile. And I have been so afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, forgotten in the margins of history, unable to account for myself or measure up or matter. I know that I cannot find within myself the capacity to create a beauty that is pure and great and true, but something in me aches to be reunited with perfection, and so I replace attentiveness to the great Creator with working extra hours, taking extra projects, accepting additional leadership responsibilities, and caring for more people so that…at the end of the day, I can feel my time has not gone wasted.

When, in fact, attentiveness to the great Creator is the only worthwhile use of time. I don’t mean that every hour of every day should be spend in silent prayer. I do mean that we are called to be attentive to His breath in our lungs, and pour out our praise accordingly. When we rush and bustle and push the margins of our own strength, building towards the impossible goal of “reaching the sky” we are ignoring the power of the only One who can hold us together. Walking with Him through Babel itself  has re-centered my gaze on the only One who deserves my full attention and devotion. I am seeing my desire to recreate Babel in every facet of life, to center my focus on idols, foolish facsimiles meant to  supplant the Creator.

Growing up, Babel was always a bit of a sad story, but rather odd because it didn’t quite seem to impact me directly. What a tragedy, I thought, that these people spent all of this energy building something only to have to abandon it. I learned this week what I had never understood as a child. The tragedy of Babel is not the loss of the citadel. The tragedy of Babel is the loss of community. These people had a gift we can’t comprehend in modern culture (no matter how we strive for it) – complete unity of communication. No cultural barriers, nothing lost in translation, and a completely common vision. Trouble was, they turned their unity in praise of themselves, and their gifts towards creating a place of certitude and permanence on Earth, a promise Adam and Eve lost when they rejected the Creator in Eden. The utopia imagined at Babel was doomed from the start as it was founded on arrogance and lacking in gratitude and respect. In scattering the languages, God erected a barrier to natural understanding between people. He saw our desire to unite with each other in ways that denied our need for Him, and made certain we would no longer be able to confuse perfect unity with one another with the God our hearts were designed to seek and to serve.

But, the beauty of life after Jesus in the second chapter of Acts is the restoration of community. People from every walk of life had been brought to new life in Christ, and “all who believed were together and had everything in common….and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” The Spirit descended, and speaking in tongues was not a mark of hyper-charismatic spirituality, but a genuine blessing which allowed the disciples to communicate across cultures, creating new families where the generations of divergent cultures had only bred cynicism and distrust, and banishing established dynamics of power and fear. Among themselves, these first disciples saw unity which could only come from a shared understanding of what it meant to once again live at peace with one another.

And He himself is our peace. This incredible unity which once allowed all of humanity to come together on a project through which “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” is once again available. In ourselves, our speech is too confused. There are too many of us, speaking too many different languages. But in Christ, we are not only reconciled to the God we tried to depose in Eden, whose sovereignty we challenged at Babel, and to whose authority we have never submitted quietly. We are reconciled to our brothers and sisters who were standing right beside us as we did so. We who goaded each other on, stacking challenge on challenge, convincing ourselves we could live free of consequence, that we could create our own eternity and immortality. Our actions against God are doubly painful for their repercussions in our communities. When we seek healing in our own hearts, the inevitable consequence is the healing of our communities. And as we learn to center our community life around something outside of ourselves and our own abilities to create perfection, achieve greatness, and support each other completely, our hearts begin to come home. 

I am walking away from the tower I have been building, the places where others keep encouraging me to stack brick on top of brick on top of futile brick in an attempt to reach the sky. I wonder what would happen if we became less intent on reaching the heavens and spent more time marveling at them. If we yielded our desire to control and achieve and perform and stood awestruck at the mere mention of the name that has been whispered directly into our hearts. Hands raised in praise are incapable of doing any competent work. You cannot build a permanent structure with your arms outstretched and your palms empty. But it is precisely this posture of worship into which we must reorient ourselves if we are ever to be a part of the only Kingdom worth building. 

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Written by Taylor Webster

November 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Full Circle: A Tale of Two Conferences

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God’s timing is unpredictable, inconvenient, and absolutely impeccable.

A week ago I was off the grid almost entirely. Our theatre department was selected to host the regional conference of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. What this meant for us was that we were working the festival, attending workshops, and presenting our entries in the competition for an average of sixteen hours a day. It was a heady experience indeed, spending a full week sharing ideas, seeing work from visiting schools, and saturating ourselves in a full spectrum of theatrical offerings. It was inspirational and challenging to see so many different perspectives on our art form and to hear stories from professionals all over the field. I’ve been dreaming of attending such a conference for two years, and I went in with high hopes.

This whirlwind of duties and activities didn’t leave much time for maintaining anything resembling a healthy rhythm of life. In removing me from the life to which I had become accustomed, the festival also brought me to a personal breaking point that had been a long time coming. In spending so much time in the theatre culture where I had once found the seat of my identity, I felt strangely out of place. In an environment that prides itself on being open and accepting, I had a hard time meeting other folks who were like me in much of any way at all. I didn’t find the sense of connection and community I’d been hoping to find with the other scenic design students. I watched a series of plays in which faith was always in the wrong in theaters where the audiences were palpably rooting against religious characters. And maybe most challenging of all, I was not accepted back into a certain community within our department in which had held the seat of my heart and my identity for so long.

And so, my starved-for-validation self melted down entirely at the end of what felt like a fruitless week. Clinging to the remnants of misplaced hopes and burdened by an overworked heart, I felt utterly alone and steeped in failure. Which was a complete pack of lies. I made some remarkable unexpected connections during the week, and am thankful to have been supported by some wonderfully encouraging individuals. But my selfish heart still wanted to come out on top and be just like the cool kids. So I allowed self-pity to take over and descended into my own weakness. It was a terrible way to end what should have been one of the most exciting weeks of my life.

Here’s where I went wrong. In any community I’m in, I seek out peers and role models and folks from whom I can take behavioral cues. I figure if I can do what they do and be who they are, I’ll be accepted. I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to be like these people, and when I find I’m not, I feel I’ve fallen short. But the problem is not that I’m not enough Alice or Erin or Charlie. The problem is that I’m not willing to just be Taylor. I can’t accept who I am when I’m all alone, even less accept that who I am may be exactly who my community needs at the moment.

And who is Taylor? Where does my identity lie? I am a scenic designer and a theatre artisan. But I am not just a theatre person. I am a person who is educated and capable in theatrical crafts, but that is only a part of this radically transformed heart. A full sense of my identity is something I can’t quite express in writing or out loud yet, but I can tell you that when I am spoken of, “scenic designer” is only in the comfortable middle of how I’d like to be described.

The festival sparked a lot of ideas of future in my head. Aspirations and fears collided into a general sense that I’m simply not strong or well qualified enough to handle my future. But I’ll tell you a secret. Today, I didn’t have to deal with my future. I had to deal with today. I was given today in all of its glory, and today was a gift I could choose to accept with open hands and experience fully, or cautiously mull over  and return unopened. God knows where I’ll be six months from now. But if He told me I would probably run screaming in the other direction, trying to reason my way out of his will. And since He knows that about me. He gave me an entire weekend of beautifully wrapped individual days.

This weekend was like festival week turned upside down. If last week my overconfident expectations were disappointed, this weekend my humble expectations were overwhelmingly exceeded. Two years ago I attended winter retreat with InterVarsity. I was alright with God at the time, as long as I could follow him by myself, and our relationship could form entirely through books, and I didn’t have to deal with people at all. That retreat was a dive into the deep end of Christian culture, and at the time I had no idea how to swim. I didn’t understand the love behind the conversations and actions, so to me it all felt empty. I had no idea why people would raise their hands while singing songs, why they would share their deepest hearts and hug and cry all over each other, why it was acceptable to follow an intense session of teaching and worship with a tubing run and a broomball tournament, and most of all why they felt any compulsion to do this with people who weren’t their best friends or in their major or like them in the slightest. In short, I didn’t understand the kingdom.

Needless to say, that was before I had accepted the grace and dignity that God brought into my life through other people, people who accepted me exactly as I was in that shell-shocked moment, but who also spoke redemption and hope into my broken heart, and invited me to walk with them in following God together. God works through us. Those people answered his call to bless my life, and they will never know this side of heaven what an impact they made simply by committing to walk through hard times with a broken person.

Two years later, I no longer see God’s love in my life as running upstream. I’m not trying to stand as close to the source as possible and catch as much as I can for myself before it gets to anyone else. I realize that I’m just one of many pebbles in the stream, being washed and smoothed at a rate that its unique from any other pebble. I’m content to be downstream with everyone else, and rejoice in the fact that all of the pebbles are receiving the same gentle but firm, refining and merciful flood.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this weekend. From a sarcastic, pseudo-intellectual, well-read teenager standpoint, it was pretty lame. The broken parts in myself have always wanted to run from groups of people for fear of being hurt or let down. But this is no longer just a group of people I know and see a couple times a week. This is for real. This is my family. This was our time together. A time to unite under a sense of shared vision, take stock of where we have been, where we are now, and where God wants us to go. A time to rest in God’s presence, delight in the glories of his creation, and be at ease with old friends. A time to accept the challenges, embrace the changes, and celebrate the victories. And by grace far exceeding my will or inclination, I felt at home and loved, accepted and challenged, and free to live into an identity that no one can take from me.

So, how did this weekend speak into the identity that had felt so broken after the festival? This weekend I met someone almost exactly like me. (That hasn’t happened in a long time. It was delightful.) And I met several more people who could not appear to be more different from myself.  I was surprised to find that I took as much joy in celebrating the differences and disagreements and diverse perspectives as I did in finding someone with a similar affinity for sarcasm and singleness. Instead of being validated because at least one other person out there thinks like I do, I was validated by seeing that perspectives we bring to the table have to be different to mean much of anything at all.

I was validated by seeing that there is work that has been done through me in the last two years that no one else could have done, and that others have done work I could never have dreamed of stepping into. It had to be me. It had to be them. And it had to be us. All together, as individuals united under a common sense of purpose. In the body, we may not all be hands. But it sure is nice to have a spleen and a nervous system and some lungs every once in a while. And in order to keep this body alive, it’s going to take a willingness on each of our parts to embrace our gifts and submit them to the common good. That’s who I am. I may not be a designer in the very center of my being, but the center of my being is part of something greater. The light is overwhelming the darkness. And when I close my eyes and look to myself, that’s all that I see. Mercy raining like a flood. Love that is unending. And grace that is absolutely, completely amazing.

Don’t let the conversation end here. Even in all of my verbosity, this story would take at least a conversational hour to tell properly. I will buy coffee for anyone who allows me to share my story and shares a personal or spiritual story of their own in turn. We’re all in this together, and the only way we’ll ever get anywhere is by sharing our stories, lives, and experiences. Together. 

Written by Taylor Webster

February 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Synthesis

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I like taking stories seriously, often spending hours on careful, deliberate analysis to glean the fullest sense of meaning from a text. I like sharing these stories with the people I care about, but I like sharing them with strangers even more. I like that the most rewarding part of working so hard to understand and share these stories is hearing how they’ve deeply affected the lives of friends and strangers.

I believe that collaboration is essential to life, and that what is most wonderful is that which is created as part of a communal undertaking. I believe that life was not meant to be lived in solitude, and that the modern inclination to look out for yourself over your community at all costs has driven painful fractures into our society.

I like spending time with groups of people who are working together for a goal bigger than themselves. I like that these people often consider themselves part of a family, and will lay aside everything else in their lives to make sure that the grander vision is accomplished to its fullest extent.

I believe that those who have are taking the best approach to life are those who are able to see light in the midst of darkness, and foster a perpetual hope for the coming season.

I like making beautiful things out of light and dust, colored dirt and animal hair, right angles and swaths of color.

I believe that life is not a quest for efficiency and accumulation, but a re-ordering of the world to create new perspectives of the ultimate beauty. I believe that we were born into a garden of abundant life, and we are moving towards a city where that life will never end.

I like investing in people, taking time to get to know them, and being inspired by their stories. Everyone deserves to have someone care about them enough to listen for an hour or two and learn to see the world through their eyes.

I believe that stories can often teach us more about the world than a litany of memorized facts. Novels, short stories, poems, lyrics, plays, liturgy, and holy writ all cause us to pause, step out of ourselves, and accept perspectives we have never considered. At their best, they comfort and encourage us, provoke and challenge us, and never allow us to walk away unchanged.

I like engaging with the surprising and letting my life be driven by the unexpected. The plans I would have made for the past four years of my life are nowhere near as fulfilling as the unexpected events and changes that have transpired.

I believe that the desires of a heart greater than mine to see life and beauty reinforced in this world and my vocational connection to the performing arts are not as disparate as I once believed them to be, and that whatever the future holds, my hope lies in the synthesis of these strongest parts of my heart.

Written by Taylor Webster

November 17, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Goodbye Cachucha, Fandango, Bolero!

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It’s been a while. It’s been an opera. Here’s the conclusion to that particular story:

In my mind, the highest note in Gilbert and Sullivan’s entire opera The Gondoliers, comes with the happy and convenient conclusion. Marco and Guiseppe, the gallant Gondolieri, have discovered that they are absolved of their royal duties and free to return to their lives and wives in Venice.

Once more gondolieri, both skilful and wary,

Free from this quandary, contented are we. Ah!

From Royalty flying, our gondolas plying,

And merrily crying our “premé,” “stali!” Ah!

So good-bye, cachucha, fandango, bolero —

We’ll dance a farewell to that measure —

Old Xeres, adieu — Manzanilla — Montero —

We leave you with feelings of pleasure!

That is much how I feel upon completing this design. Having been thrust from my humble roots into a situation where my qualifications frequently did not match the demands of the task, I now return gladly to the life of a humble but cheerful student. I extend my most sincere thanks to the technical director, the charge artist, and their assorted crews and teams, as well as my design advisor and the opera director for all of their support , and even more so for their incredible patience on this journey.

Here she is! This is the set on the first night of tech rehearsals. I’ll upload the final pictures as soon as I have them

But LOOK at that backdrop…

I learned far more in the design process for this show than I have in any class or on any previous show. Somehow I feel as though I am continually learning by being pushed off of ledges, without having spent months learning how to craft a nifty hang glide or parachute device. The completed set is by no means perfect. But I’m satisfied with the work I’ve done.

Here are some (but by no means all) of the things I’ve learned about design in the process.

  • Backdrops are labor intensive for the designer and even more so for the paint team. Attention to detail is imperative.  They also look pretty snazzy in the concert hall.
  • The designer’s work isn’t over until the show opens. Scenic designers attend technical rehearsals with just as careful an eye as lighting designers and directors, carefully examining the set from all angles to ensure that nothing has been left out.
  • Scenic designers generate a lot of paperwork. A. Lot.  From the basic groundplans of the space to technical draftings of each scenic element to cartoons (line drawings) and renderings of backdrops, floor, and scenery for the paint crew, to research images for every imaginable detail, the information which a scenic designer is expected to supply is vast.
  • Attention to detail is the key to elevating a design beyond the ordinary. My advisor, much to my discomfort at the time, frequently pointed out inconsistencies or weaknesses in architectural motifs, color palette, weight and balance, spatial arrangement, and the general look and feel of Venice. And as I’ve listened to her, and watched the addition of detail shape the set beyond the block shapes I had imagined, I’ve realized just how absolutely right she is. Detail. Research. Detail.
  • Effective communication with the shops is vital. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the technical director and charge artist are great gifts to a beginning designer, but only if the designer has the sense to ask for help and clearly communicate their vision for the show.
  • And finally, design is incredibly rewarding. To see a finished set which looks oddly similar to the awkward computer model you pieced together two months before, to know that your ideas were the basis for creating a world in which magic can happen, and to know that the incredible people who put the show together is an unbelievable feeling.

At final dress, my advisor asked if I would like to try and design another set at CSU. My gut response? “Ask me in a couple months.” This show pushed me to the brink in a way no other academic experience has. It was hard. Difficult. Challenging. Frustrating. Tear-inducing. And ultimately? Amazing.

Never before have I been so acutely aware of just how much I do not know. It was an incredibly humbling experience. I won’t be able to coast through on what I already know. If I want to continue, I suppose I’m going to have to be willing to learn a bit. I think I’m alright with that.

So yeah. Maybe not starting tomorrow. But next year.

Let’s do it again.

Written by Taylor Webster

March 8, 2011 at 2:00 am

Posted in Design

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A Savoy Opera…(Weekly Design Update)

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Oh. Yeah. The design portion of the blog. Well. Here goes then.

One of the key challenges I’m facing right now is motivation. Or time mangement. Whatever it is that gets stuff done. I don’t have it. I’m only in class for three hours on Monday, two hours Tuesday thru Thursday, and not at all Friday thru Sunday. So I’m pretty much in charge of independently arranging my own time. I’m juggling two long-term design projects at the moment. One is an Importance of Being Earnest set for class, due two weekends from now. I’m not worried about it. But I’m also not working on it. So. There you have it.

The big banana is a realized design of The Gondoliers for CSU Opera. This show opens three weeks from today. Here’s a preview of the scenery for the first act.

This is the first Google-SketchUp Rendering I presented to the production team in January. Some stuff has changed since then, but it's an exciting little preview.

It’s a BIG FREAKING SHOW. Generally, the opera sets are cobbled together from bits and pieces of previous sets. This one is being built entirely from scratch. And we’re painting a 35′ x 20′ backdrop of Venice. And we’re laying a masonite floor in the concert hall and painting that too. Lots of detail. Lots of work for a first time designer who has absolutely no formal paint training.

To be quite frank, I’m terrified. That backdrop is going to be painted based off of one of my renderings. We’ve only done one backdrop in the two years I’ve been here, and it was a last minute thing painted over only one weekend. Working on these renderings and draftings has been hard to do because I’m so scared I’ll mess it up.

Some background as to my experience and qualifications. Two years ago I was drafting (if you could call it that) on graph paper in high school and applying to colleges. Pretty much ground zero for a designer. A year ago I had no idea what formal draftings or renderings looked like. I got a basic sense of both in a drawing, drafting and rendering course. I took Scene Design I last semester, where I refined my hand drafting skills but still didn’t get a firm handle on paint renderings. I’ve never been trained in scenic painting. I only have a basic understanding of theatrical construction, which limits my ability to conceive of scenic units. I’m not an expert in Venetian architecture. I have pretty much NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. But by Jove, I’m doing it.

The department also hasn’t had a student scenic designer in two years. So it’s been a challenge at times to find out exactly what’s expected of me, things that faculty and staff designers already know or have always known as far as deadlines and level of detail. They’ve trusted me with this design based almost entirely on the fact that I’m a competent student and have expressed a strong interest in scenic design. But man, does it feel like a lot of responsibility for someone not even two years out of high school.

They really have been wonderfully helpful. The technical director knows how to put things together, and has a lot of helpful suggestions to improve the construction of the arches and the bridge. My design advisor knows absolutely everything about Venetian architecture, scenic painting, and life in general. But it’s come down to something I have to do myself.

So.

Let’s get to it.

Hopefully in twenty four hours I will have produced a backdrop rendering that looks something like this.

Haha. That’s a photograph! But if it looks like that. We (using the royal we here) will be quite pleased.

Written by Taylor Webster

February 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm