“The coolness of the job gives you permission to put yourself in second place.”

Issue Three: Events
Barbara Samuels (she/her)
December 16, 2022
Barbara Samuels (she/her)

Barbara Samuels (she/her) is a queer lighting designer, organizer and producer residing on unceded Wappinger and Munsee Lenape land. Barbara creates design-forward live events that prioritize generosity, equity, and representation. Working nationally and internationally, Barbara collaboratively constructs intimate and explosive lighting environments for new plays, opera and dance, aiming to unearth the human condition and consciousness of our surroundings. Barbara’s designs have been seen regionally at Bard Summerscape, Long Wharf , The Alley, A.C.T., Shakespeare Theater Company, Playmakers Rep, Trinity Rep, Pig Iron Theatre, and Kansas City Rep. New York credits include designs at Soho Rep, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, WP Theater, The Bushwick Starr, New Georges, and Clubbed Thumb. As a producer, Barbara is currently developing projects with Kedian Keohan and Becca Blackwell. She served as the General Manager of OBIE Award-winning 13P from 2008-2012, and as Producing Director of Morgan Gould and Friends from 2014-2018. Barbara holds a B.A. from Fordham University and an M.F.A in Lighting Design from NYU.  Proud member of USA Local 829. New Georges Affiliated Artist. WP Producers Lab 2022-24. www.barbarasamuels.com.

~ Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, member of the design collective dots and lead set designer for EVENTS

Events is the messy, comically grotesque play we need right now. Sitting in my seat waiting for EVENTS to begin I’m reminded of how a theater functions as a community space. I’m sitting amidst a mylar curtain-to-mylar curtain seafoam space (designed by dots), facing two rows of seats on the other side of a curvaceous conference table. What kind of meetings happen around this crisp table? Are we getting ready for a party? Old friends run into each other and embrace. The music is getting us pumped for a good time. Masha Tsimring’s lighting reinforces the idea that this room is where important decisions are made.

EVENTS featuring Dee Beasnael, Haley Wong, Derek Smith, and Julia Greer. Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett

As soon as the play begins, a stranger (Zuzanna Szadkowski) takes us through her experience of being harassed by boss Kristina. I am haunted by a visceral terror Szadkowski embodies. What horror are we in store for?

The absurdist satire, EVENTS, written by Bailey Williams and directed by Sarah Blush, magnifies the ways corporate culture prizes creative production by any means necessary. In Events, the workers at Todd David Designs are planning an egg-themed gala. Head of Account Services Christine expects excellence and constant production from her team. Brigid doesn’t seem to know when the work day ends, Monica commutes to their NYC offices from Chicago every day, and Dario may not have a life beyond the walls of this office. 

I (Barbara Samuels, a lighting designer and producer) spoke with Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, dots member and lead set designer on EVENTS, shortly after opening. 

As Santiago and I began to discuss toxicity of creative workplace culture he shared:

“I feel something that happens [in contemporary workplaces] is [working hours] are in the contract, you know. People get hired knowing that the day is like nine to five. The thing is, I guess, for liability, companies avoid asking you to stay, but you feel the pressure of your peers and coworkers and even your friends…. [you] need to build this career path, so [you] need to prove that [you’ll] work even harder than they are asking.
And I feel that's what is so problematic. It's easy to put the antagonism on the corporation. They are abusers. But at the same time, we all are abusing ourselves.”

When getting into ideas about how the scenic environment reinforces and mocks the setting of EVENTS, Santiago shared:

“I like to [know] the realistic capacity of a production to understand what the production can do….I like to find great things and build from that. So for example, the shelf. We wanted to have this shelf with all the props. We found the right shelf and then set dressing the entire shelf into this big shrine. It was a shrine of defining the work. It's glorifying their work, and maybe from personal experience working in environments where it is very corporate, but they kinda want to promote creativity. It feels somehow performative. They want to sell themselves as the best ones. I feel like this play really resembles that. I've been having a lot of conversations with friends who are architects or work in other kinds of creative offices and we all have the same questions, like, why I am putting myself here, why I'm sacrificing my weekends on this. It's like nobody really recognized a lot of individual work. And so it felt close. I connect with a lot of the characters in different moments.”

The serenity of the high-concept pinterest-worthy office in Events heightens the comedic reality (horror) that Todd David Designs isn’t taking care of its workers. Todd David Designs maintains control by providing a false sense of importance and luxurious perks – keeping workers’ self-worth tied to “cool factor” and producing content for the company’s success.

“What we do is important storytelling,” Brigid (a character in Events) emphatically exclaims. Dario concurs that “we help make memories,” and Monica jumps in that “we make the indelible delible”. Christine’s response? “No. You planned parties.”

Christine tells us “I don’t bring my self here. There is another Christine. She’s got a house and a family and a life. She’s probably in the bath right now, or having a drink with a friend, or doing her dishes. She doesn’t come here. Girl. You shouldn’t have brought your soul here. That’s your well-being. That’s your meaning-making. Christine would never come to this office. She sends her body instead.” Days later I am still sitting with that. This comedy about corporate culture serves up explanations for all the red flags I experience working in the theater industry.

How do we bring our full selves to our work, and still go home at night to live a life outside of work? Should we stop? In theater the pay is low, the hours are long with the expectation of high creative output and investment. We are making “important contributions to society,” and then are expected to be grateful to get to spend our time being artists.

Which brings us to dots and their business model!

“We have to learn how to sell things. At the end of the day, we are kinda like salespeople. Not only selling our ideas or convincing the director to do something that we believe is the right choice, but also making people excited about something, you know. And I guess that's something that we, in dots, we talk about quite a lot. For us, dots is this umbrella that takes care of us as individuals. And it's a brand, it's a company. It's a legit company, a small corporation.”

We are stronger together. Santiago speaks about dots (Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa) as an organization grounded in self-determination, which often leads me to reflect on the challenges of freelance work. In dots, Santiago, Andrew, and Kimie design projects and pool together resources for the greater good of the collective. With the goal not just to survive, but to thrive, Santiago shared that they decide whether or not to take on a project using the 3 Fs, “fun, fame, and fortune.” This gives them flexibility to work on different scales and in different modalities—from theater and opera to film, tv and commercial work. During a recent collaboration I shared with dots, all three members were leading and driving the design. At other times, one of them takes the lead, with the other two serving as associates. In the case of Events, Santiago is working solo and has the organizational support of dots. 

I wonder about a future where more of us learn from the success of dots. So many New York based theater workers are operating alone. As a lighting designer and producer, I’m a small business owner (and sole proprietor). I am grateful that I get to be creative at work, but it’s still work. At workplaces like the one in Events or with most theatrical employers, the culture of creativity functions to drive production while quieting the individual’s power to trade work for money. As one colleague recently reminded me, “don’t forget that your work is business for them (those who control the money), and emotional for us.”

EVENTS featuring Dee Beasneal, Haleey Wong, Julia Greer and Derek Smith. Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett

The day that I saw EVENTS (12/2/22), President Biden signed House Joint Resolution 100 into law - overriding union negotiations and forcing rail workers to continue to work. While this is a step back for labor, the U.S. labor movement is stronger and more organized and active than it’s been in decades. Workers are reclaiming their power everyday. Under 5 miles away from The Brick Theater, part time faculty of The New School (many of them theater artists, and at least one working on Events) are on strike. Full time faculty are joining and students are occupying campus in solidarity with the faculty. We are stronger together. Events exposes all the untapped potential for individual and collective joy, care and action.

I don’t mean to overestimate the importance of plays by falling into the same trap as Brigid and misconstruing what is happening as “important storytelling,” but EVENTS triumphantly carves out space for community, entertainment and relief for all of us who have ever been diminished in the workplace. In order to succeed at transforming workplace culture (or even to survive it), we need plays like EVENTS to sustain us.

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