So, I finished my first year of grad school. It’s hard to believe it’s over. It’s been quite a year, for a number of reasons, exciting at times, challenging at others, enlightening at others. I’ve met some incredible people, seen some fantastic work and learned a lot about myself and my process. Grad school hasn’t been at all what I expected, but in many ways, looking back, it’s been providing me what I was hoping for. Some highlights from this year (in no particular order):

  • Taking The Builders Association’s Sontag:Reborn to Korea.
  • Designing Things That Go Bump in the Night with Katy Alexander
  • Driving across the country in my little Subaru
  • Designing my first dance piece, Influential Body, with Andrea Gise
  • Learning Open Frameworks, Cinema 4D, soldering and getting into After Effects expressions.
  • Going to Boston twice with The Builders, for House/Divided and Sontag
  • VJing CalArts’ Spring Event
  • Classwork that included: a locker filled with CRTs, a game that forced players to question their morals, an interview-based audio installation that engaged with my fellow students, a model for The Magic Flute filled with iPad-controlled LEDs, a multi-media interpretation of Hamlet Machine, an adaptation of text from Tron that became so much more, and a site-specific performance exploring organized spirituality.

Turns out, it’s been a big year. In addition to the work and the tangible skills I’ve picked up, I’ve been trying to think more broadly about what I’ve learned this year. Here’s some of what I’ve come up with:

  • Grad school is not what you expect: it isn’t an extension of undergrad. You can get more out of it by thinking of it as a residency. Learning happens only if you make it happen and assignments are only meaningful if you make them. You can’t trust the institution to take care of your education. You have to learn what you need from the experience and find it. It’s an environment, not a solution. Along similar lines,
  • Art school is not like a liberal arts school: the values here are essentially unacademic. CalArts values strong concepts, exploration, taking ideas to their logical (or illogical) extremes and pushing yourself to be your best. They do not care about readings, grades, critical thinking and discussion or technical skills. It’s hard to wrap your head around how an academic institution can exist without those, but CalArts does, and perhaps one doesn’t need them to make good art. It’s a place to push yourself to explore the things that matter to you with a community of people ready to engage in artistic critique.
  • Design is specific and complete: you have to approach design as a director. One “big idea” isn’t enough. You need a complete understanding of the script, and a thought-out design that encompasses the entirety of the action, not just a theme or themes.
  • Process isn’t linear: the artistic process is not one of conceptualization and execution. Even though I had experienced this in New York with the devised theater I’d done, I hadn’t applied it to the design process. Design is a process of constant iteration, prototyping and reconceptualization. It takes time, and a lot of work gets thrown away, but each step you take, even if it isn’t in the final direction, informs the work.
  • There are many methods of critical response: I found Liz Lehrman’s critical response technique particularly useful, as well as Elinor Fuch’s “Visit to a Small Planet” and Barthes’s semiotic codes, but also simply thinking of elements functionally (asking “to what end?”). Different people will respond in very different ways, and even if it’s be a way you wouldn’t, it is no less valuable, perhaps even more.
  • It’s important to reflect on yourself as an artist: it’s easy to lose track of yourself, especially if your work is often in the service of others, or if you’re hustling trying to make ends meet. By asking yourself what you’re interested in, what excites you, why you think art is important and where you see yourself in the world, you can grow both artistically and professionally.

Just some thoughts I had, take them or leave them, I just needed to get them out and I figured I’d share. Now, I face the vast emptiness of two weeks out of school before I take off for Helsinki. I bet I can find something to do.