David Ralf: Do you feel part of the webcomic community?
Steven Younkins: I’ve actually thought about this a bit. I feel pretty disconnected from other webcomic creators and the comics community at large. I feel like people that enjoy comics in general probably aren’t going to latch on to Q2Q unless they’ve already got a tech theatre background. For as silly as they are, most of the strips require some level prior tech theatre knowledge.
DR: The territory is more defined in Q2Q than other webcomics. And so maybe the reader is also more defined? Tech theatre geeks as opposed to the more generic geek experience that most webcomics speak to? Is it perhaps less about technical knowledge than the specificity of the implied reader?
SY: When starting Q2Q, I set out to make a theatre comic and I veered off in a tech direction because that is my background. I’ve got readers that work in many different fields from live sound to cruise line entertainment, but most with that common thread of performance and production. With that, I’ve also reached readers of a variety of educational and experiential backgrounds. High school, college professional, union.
DR: There’s some sort of barrier to entry with strips like this – but comics like XKCD and SMBC have frankly impenetrable mathematics, programming and graph jokes. For the most part that hasn’t impaired my enjoyment of those strips – in fact it has made me seek out bits of knowledge to understand them. Google’s right there, in a way that is never quite so true of a syndicated newspaper strip.
SY: As the internet becomes a series of social networks, content like mine is better able to find its home. After discovery, Google is not as important as social networks. A person can read my comic and recognize those among their friends that will appreciate it, tag them or share it with them instantly. I can make a comic with such a clear niche and make it work because my readers are so active in sharing it with their friends and colleagues.
The first dozen or so comics were definitely written for that small group, and then the characters started to define themselves more clearly and I depended less and less on those people for the foundation of my comic.
I don’t think that every strip I’ve written is so backstage elitist that it’s inaccessible for everyone. You don’t have to be an expert in any field to get it. I’m hardly a sound design expert, I’ve stage managed once, and I’ve hardly even touched a light board. But I’ve been around it and I’ve got a sense of the culture that I’m trying to reflect. So much of what I’m poking fun at is situational. I’ve got friends that are not theatre people who have read my strips and tell me that it reads like a bunch of jokes you had to have been there for, which I suppose is why it works for my readers because most of them have been there. Sometimes the situations are funny on their own, and the barrier is very low, and other times the situation is exceedingly specific, so specific that Google isn’t going to help you.
One of my favourite parts of making this comic happens right after I update and the comments roll in with people saying they’ve been in those situations before or they’ve always wanted to say or do whatever I’ve written. It keeps the tech experience from being isolating. There’s only one stage manager in a show and it is sometimes difficult to find and develop a sense of community among others who have shared similar experiences. That Q2Q provides that for some people makes me supremely happy.
DR: You link through to David Lovelace’s 25-way Rock Paper Scissors in Q2Q #23 – have you corresponded with him at all?
SY: I’ve read through a lot of Lovelace’s work, but he and I have never spoken. I haven’t reached out to him or anything like that. I had known for a while about the RPS 25 game (and beyond. He goes up to 101 which is a fascinating logic puzzle in its own right). I felt it was more likely that’d Steve and Wuggles would intentionally use something more complicated for their decision making process.
DR: That to me seems like a perfect example of how a webcomic can be different to a syndicated strip – you link out to something like that – the experience of browsing those pages becomes almost part of your strip. Or those pages are contextualised by the idea that Steve and Wuggles would be the kind of people to invent/use the system.
SY: It’s straight out of the infinite canvas playbook. I can direct and influence how people understand and interact with my content by juxtaposing it with other content. Admittedly, I don’t do that often, but I love that options like that are available to creators of online content.
DR: What strips have influenced Q2Q?
SY: I was raised on Peanuts and Foxtrot, Sunday paper, syndicated kind of stuff. Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite strip, though. As for webcomics: I’m a huge fan of Danielle Corsetto’s Girls With Slingshots. I could give you a giant list of webcomics creators whose work I admire, but that’s a little off topic.
DR: Okay, not a giant list – but a couple more you really love?
SY: All right, here’s a short list: Girls With Slingshots, Buttercup Festival, Octopus Pie — I’ve got all kinds of style envy for Meredith Gran’s work – Questionable Content, XKCD, SMBC and The System
I’ve never been a fantastic visual artist or anything, so it’s a little difficult for me to catalog it. I firmly agree with Scott McCloud’s assertion that “good writing covers bad art better than good art covers bad writing.” So I’ve spent more time honing my writing craft, you know, figuring out how to pack content in to the space restrictions of the strip, than I have spent trying to be the best artist.
DR: La Ropasucia feels like a nod to Calvin and Hobbes somehow. The world and the imagined worlds of Calvin and Hobbes always seem so massive and excitable – like it couldn’t divide down into static panels, but of course that’s the only way we experience it. Tell me about those restrictions in a three- or four- panel strip, as you find it.
SY: I love the comic strip as a medium. I am a student of the form. I enjoy the way that the restriction of space forces me to be a more concise and efficient writer. It’s a struggle that I only sometimes win. I think that comics are very theatrical. In writing, I often equate the panel with the proscenium and I get to direct my own micro-productions where all that’s supposed to be offstage is onstage.
I usually script the comic first, sometimes it’s a sketch, others just dialogue and then find where the logical divisions are in it. With comics, you can’t always shoehorn in every single word you want to say into such a small space and you have to make cuts. Sometimes I find that I can show more in Morty’s facial expressions than I could ever effectively write, and other times there are panels that need to be crammed with dialogue. There are also times when I’m beating my head against the desk because I can’t make sense of any of the ideas in my head, so instead of trying to get a script first, so I’ll draw out three or four panels and just picture the characters moving about the space and something interesting usually comes out.
DR: With reference to my favourite take-home from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics – how do you find you use the gutter when you write and draw Q2Q?
I use the gutter mostly to separate moments, either to make them more easily digestible or to draw focus to this or that. I rarely allow anything that is not text to violate the gutter. I think Wuggles’ hair breaks the border once, and a sledgehammer. I definitely use them when I need starkness in contrast, particularly for the last panel of any comic that starts with “O.K. People,” when Morty switches from “you’ve all ruined everything forever” to “THANKS!” with a sickeningly sweet smile. I try not to define my panels in such a way as to chop up my moments too finely, either.
Tangent: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Improv, it’s that there’s a huge difference between writing something comedic and telling a joke. Though the strip is occasionally gag oriented (#26, #51, #63, anything with La Ropasucia, etc.), I do my best to steer clear of telling jokes and instead focus on the situations and connections to make it funny. When I do tell a joke, I try not to use it as the punchline of the strip (#8, #14,#55, #115, #120).
DR: Did you have other writing experience before you started on Circ Jockeys?
SY: I have been writing comics since I was in high school. In undergrad I wrote Circ Jockeys and editorial cartoons for the school newspaper. My degree is in English Literature with a minor in Writing. I took every creative writing class that was available to me. My senior thesis was on the irony of the monniker “graphic novel” and comics as literature. In my final year I also took an independent study on visual storytelling and writing for comics which was a great experience. Most of my non-comics related academic work has been on Narrative Theory and Narratology. My graduate work has been in Narrative in Modernism, with a focus on post-WWI British Literature, but I’ve taken a hiatus from my studies to see where this whole webcomics thing takes me.
DR: I know there are plenty of readers of the comic in the UK theatre tech world – and I know quite a few fans. How widely have you found these observations about theatre and performance tech are recognised and enjoyed?
SY: When I started the comic in March I had no idea that it would appeal to any sort of broader audience than the few techs, stage managers, and designers I knew. I thought that these were probably just a collection of in-jokes that no one else would think is funny. And I was wrong. It’s been shared internationally, everywhere you can imagine. I’ve sent t-shirts and prints to the UK, Canada, Australia, and to just about every state in the US. I was shocked when I started hearing from fans in non-English speaking countries, too: Greece, Switzerland, Singapore. It seems these backstage struggles transcend language. There’s not a lot of recognition out there for the people that work backstage, and I like that my comics help to let those people know that what they do is appreciated, and they are not alone.
I think that people are really connecting with the characters, as well. I hear on a daily basis things like “Morty is my spirit animal,” and “people tell me that I’m just like Wuggles.”
One benefit to doing a comic with such a narrow focus is that the audience is fairly well connected to one another. It was pretty cool the way that it came back around to me. Wuggles’ real life analogue was doing an LED demonstration at the theatre for a group of college students and one of them whispered to another that he looked just like the lighting guy from Q2Q, to which he replied that he was and they nearly fell out of the booth.
DR: If these backstage struggles are familiar all over the world, what would you love to see happening to get communication between onstage and backstage happening?
SY: Any successful production has to have a mutuality of respect between the actors and the crew. Many of the jokes in Q2Q are at the expense of actors and I take a lot of flack for that. I’m told on a weekly basis that Morty should be fired for being so disrespectful to the actors, and that Steve needs to learn how to take a note from the director without being a jerk about it. I’ve been told that I’m “reenforcing the worst possible stereotypes of the industry” and all sorts of other things. I think that some readers take it too seriously. I’m not writing a primer on interpersonal relationships of the theatre. In fact most of the comics say more about how you shouldn’t behave than how you should. It’s more a cathartic collection of things that people may want to say but shouldn’t or can’t in the moment, and so I let Steve or Morty or Wuggles say them.
Because human beings are involved, there will always be difficulty in communicating between onstage and offstage personnel. The objectives of each job is different. It’s tough even working with different members of the creative team.
I appreciate any theatre education program that requires its students work both on and off stage. I think that’s great for the development of any person that wants to work in theatre. You don’t have to be good at it, but it helps to know what it’s like. The actors that I work with who are also techs are my favorite to work with because they respect the process better. I’ve been an actor and I respect the work of actors, but that respect is not always mutual. And I’ve definitely slipped into some of the worse habits I’ve depicted in Q2Q in my theatrical life, but I think everyone has had those moments. I’ve argued with directors because we aren’t speaking in the same language, I’ve had to take laps because I’ve been so infuriated with a production that I can’t be in the space for a while. Those are my worst moments. And I think everyone who works in theatre, actors and techs alike, has had those moments. Most people just don’t make comics about them and put them on the Internet for public consumption.
DR: It feels like the fact that actors are ‘heard’ but not seen in the strip is something of a redress to a theatre community – and a world – that’s obsessed with actors.
SY: Actors get their applause on the stage. The techs don’t get the same kind of recognition (no matter how many actors on stage point to the booth during curtain call in some attempt to share it). Q2Q is my way of high-fiving everyone backstage at every performance and letting them know that their work matters and is appreciated. That’s part of why I named the comic after the most excruciating part of a production.
DR: What’s going on at Maryland Ensemble – what’s the company, where do you work and how does it relate to the world and characters of Q2Q?
SY: The MET, as we call it, is a small black box theatre space with two stages in Frederick, MD, about 50 minutes from both DC and Baltimore. There are about 30 members of the company, including stage managers, designers, directors, costumers, techs, actors, etc., with many doing several different jobs in a season. We do six main stage shows and five kids shows each season, as well as hosting improv comedy, music, and a weekly podcast comedy talkshow. The MET also offers arts education and community outreach programs. I personally work two days a week teaching improv at two different Boys and Girls Club sites through the MET. I work principally as a sound designer and board op.
The MET has been my theatre home since 2010, and it has certainly shaped the way that I think about theatre. A number of the characters are based, either in personality or physicality, on people I’ve worked with. Wuggles is based on a real person, Morty is a combination of several stage managers I’ve worked with, and Steve is (if it wasn’t transparent) mostly myself. The situations in the comic are embellished, of course, but most are rooted in experience. They’re a combination of actual events, things I’d wish I’d said or done, and some examples of what not to do in the theatre.
DR: The early ‘Anatomy’ strips are just brilliant. Q2Q is focused on the traditional ‘straight play’ team makeup – director, costume, actors, stage managers – are there other kinds of teams and interactions at MET that could find their way into the strip?
SY: I am asked constantly to include a scenic designer or painter or rigger or A/V designer (and some people ask for actors, but I don’t think they quite understand). I’d love to include a scenic designer and a prop master. I’ve thought about other occupations, too, like musical director, house/box office manager, etc. but I’m not quite to the point where I feel like I need to add in more voices. I’m having enough trouble including all the characters that I do have in the strips. We definitely see the least of Cass and Sharon (the strip’s technical director and costume designer). Sharon gets the short end mostly because I have the least experience with costumes and I don’t want to do a disservice to the profession. I get great suggestions from fans on situations to include her in though. She also serves as the voice of non-theatre people in the strip. Cass doesn’t show up as often as I’d like, but that’s mostly because I’ve only recently solidified her character design. So, we’ll probably see more of her as the strip rolls on.
DR: Referring specifically to Q2Q #4 – how should/could mainstream and online reviewing deal with sound/lighting design better? Is no news really good news?
SY: This is a great question. I know a lot of people, designers especially, that want to be recognized for all of the work that they have put into a production, and they feel like being left out of a review is an insult to the work they’ve done. I don’t agree with that mindset, and here’s why: my job is not always perceivable and should almost never be the focus of a scene. It is the acting is important and, as a designer, it is my job to highlight and compliment the onstage performance. Most of the technical aspects of theatre should be invisible to the audience. I have to have done my job very poorly for the audience to be taken out of the performance enough to even think about the sound design.
DR: I can concede that technical aspects are rarely as prominently considered as the human presence onstage, but I don’t think I understand invisibility as a goal – in that case any mention/notice of sound design would be a failing, wouldn’t it? Is it cohesion and seamlessness that you strive toward? Or is it about mediating the effects you create with the onstage performance? Obviously your work comes in consultation with the director, but if you were your idealised Sound Designer with a free reign, would underscoring be everything you’d hope for?
SY: Cohesion, integration, yes. I tend to get chosen to work on the productions that require the creation of a soundscape, or the immersion in a created world. There is more to it than underscoring, and my work is often not musical. I like to be experimental. I like working with foley and live sound effects. If it doesn’t add to the performance, then don’t do it. You can’t design with your ego.
When I say invisible, I mean that it shouldn’t stick out. It shouldn’t detract from the performance, and it also shouldn’t supersede the performance when that is not necessary. I think it is acceptable to leave an audience wondering how some technical aspect was done, but nothing should be done in a way that detracts from the on-stage content.
To have been mentioned in a review for something other than a glaring mistake is a high compliment. I don’t need to be mentioned in a review to feel good about the work that I do. I don’t do what I do for that recognition. However, I do want my work to be critiqued. Sound design is both an art and a skill (whether the Tony committee thinks so, or not) and it can be improved through criticism. There are those out there that like to claim that reviewers just don’t understand lights and sound, but that is silly. They may not understand all of the in depth technical aspects, sure, but I’m certain that a reviewer just like any member of the audience can tell when lights and sound are and are not working for them as part of the performance.
To not be mentioned in a review does not mean that you have done a good or bad job. It does probably mean that you didn’t do such a horrible job that it had to be mentioned, but it also probably means that you didn’t knock their socks off with your design. I don’t design with the reviewer in mind. I do the work necessary to make the production as strong as possible.
Side note: of all the shows I have designed, I have been mentioned by name in one review, for sound design in The Importance of Being Earnest.
DR: The Olivier Awards over here have a Best Sound Design Category (as well as Lighting and Set) – so come on over! To be fair, our other awards (like the Evening Standard Awards) are more likely to give a single Design award.
SY: It’s really disheartening, especially for young professionals, to see that even the industry’s own awards don’t recognize the achievements of the technical side. That the creative team gets lumped into one Design category is ridiculous. It’s unfair to evaluate costume design against lighting in the way that it would be unfair to put acting against directing.
My undergrad had technical awards to go with the acting awards. We often had contractors in to be on the creative team and TD, but the run crew, operators, stage managers, and carpenters for every show were all students and we recognized them for their work. I cherish the award I won my senior year for sound designing Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. We also had an award each year for the student that we felt worked the hardest without recognition. It could have been that they auditioned but weren’t cast and still volunteered to work on the show in another capacity, or they stepped in at the last minute, but whatever the case, they acted out of dedication to the production or the program, not for credit or recognition. I think my college theatre did it right and does it better than a lot of these loftier awards.
I’m thinking of creating a new set of awards for technical achievement. I can call them the “Morty’s”. What do you think?
Steven will be making an appearance at the USITT conference in Cincinnati, Ohio on March 20th 2015. He’ll be signing prints and doing sketches. If you’re around, say hello! Q2Q updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.