Find Your Chosen Family

by Suzi Steffen
Kristen Day
Kristen Day

For this edition of Illuminations, I spoke with Kristen Day, who spent the 2016 season as a lighting technician and programmer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Day -- who worked on the electric crew at Shakespeare Santa Cruz and who was an intern through the FAIR program at Oregon Shakes before getting the job -- uses the pronouns they, them and their. Day got into the theatre by following their sister into dance and moved into lighting after some friends recruited them. And it was in the followspot booth that Day truly discovered who they were. 

How did you get into this profession? 

I grew up with my older sister doing dance, so obviously I did dance. I would always see theatre and musicals. When I went to college, it was like, I’m not a good enough dancer to make this a profession, so I’ll take a theatre class - intro to design. People kept saying, "Don’t do theatre, there's no money in it!" But I kept taking classes. I stage managed a little. And one day when I was a sophomore, I had five of the lighting kids come up and surround me, like they were in a gang. They were like, "What are you doing this summer? Do you want to get paid?"

They wanted me to be on the electric crew for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. I was like, "You guys, I felt proud about myself when I plugged in the lamp in my bedroom!" They were like, "It's OK, we know you’ll show up, and we want you on our crew."

So you decided against stage managing? 

I’m not that great at responding to emails in a timely fashion! [laughs] Calling shows, great; making notes, great - but scheduling people, I’m not the best at. And I saw some of my peers, this was their calling - they're very good at it, very organized. I liked running around and fixing things and carrying things and learning how things work. Instead of work being like "I get home and I need a beer," I would be like, "I put in a lot of good work and did a lot of good things." It’s less dramatic; there’s less conflict in lighting.

Because this blog is about interviewing QUILTBAG folks, can you tell me how you identify and what pronouns you use?

I prefer they/them. I identify as genderqueer and lesbian. I've identified as a lesbian since 2009; the genderqueer thing is new, since July. Or I had been struggling with this for a while, and I had not had a lot of interaction with genderqueer people. I’d known trans individuals, and I'd had a vague familiary with gender fluid or agender people. In the past year or so, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with coworkers and peers about [genderqueer identity], and that totally makes sense; it’s totally me.

Coming out as lebsian, there was a lightbulb moment; the clouds parted; the sun came down! But for genderqueer, I had to be like no, I’m claiming it. But everyone has a different narrative. Everyone’s going to have a different story, have different things that resonated for them. I never felt right being referred to as female or being expected to do stereotypical female things. I go to work wearing larger cargo pants; I have more tools on me than anybody else. I'm comfortable not prescribing to either [binary] gender in how I speak and move and how I move through the world. Neither defines me, and neither do I claim. 

Kristen Day
Kristen Day

And now we come to Official Question 1, ha: How has being out affected - harmed and/or helped - your career?

Being out as a lesbian has helped a lot because of being female-bodied in a male-dominated field. I'm the stereotype of a person who’s going to walk your dog and call for backup, and men are less likely to assume I can’t do something. They’ll ask female-idenftifying individuals whether they can lift something, whether they can use that power tool, but they won’t ask me that. The other part of the stereotype is that they know I would kick their ass. I have fielded a lot of frustration from women in my field who are like, "Why did they ask me this? I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t pick up this speaker!"

So it does shut down some of the mansplaining, if you will. Also just in being out, that has let me be more confident in myself. I can focus my energies in doing my job instead of hiding my identity. It’s exhausting to figure out how to fix some dumbass problem if you’re also trying to pretend you’re super-straight. [As for being genderqueer,] I haven’t made a big announcement to the OSF, because I figured it out right as the last show was opening. I did a lot of introspection during Timon of Athens tech, because if you sit in the follow spot by yourself, 10 hours a day? I had a lot of time to think. I journaled a lot. 

When you come out to anybody, like, you decide you’re doing to do it, and you’re panicking, no matter how much you know they’re not going to care. I had the benefit of an intern [before me] who used they/them pronouns, so the whole department had had that as a learning experience. With my department, I skated by real easy. I was texting the individual, thanking them, and they were like, I’m glad I had that positive effect. I was out to half of the sound department because I lived with some of them. Once I started coming out, it was a weight off my shoulders; everything was easier. 

How has your sexual orientation or gender identity influenced your career journey, if it has?

It did help me a lot with being social and my interpersonal skills. As a super queer person of color in Ashland, I’m always aware of how I’m being read. Even coming out in college, being able to be confident in how I’m presenting myself and how people own that, I went from being super shy to being the person who gets volunteered for these things. It's the liberation to be my own person, to own my own person.

The queer community is everywhere in theatre, and is everywhere [in general]. I had the luck of coming out as a lesbian in Santa Cruz, and in Santa Cruz theatre. I’m from the LA area; I’ve lived in Eugene; I’ve lived in the Bay Area, doing theatre. Those are great queer places. There’s an expansive network. There’s a theatre network and a queer network that kind of overlaps. It’s a comforting welcome into a community that not everyone sees, and it can be very helpful even in things like getting freelance gigs.

What would you like LGBT/QUILTBAG people considering, or in the early stages, of a theatre career to know? Is there any advice you wish you'd been given?

However you identify, wherever your process of personal identity takes you, personal reflection and growth on and offstage are part of the community. That’s key. The stage is a reflection of our life. Of course there will be haters along the way, but this is theatre, so once you get through [coming out], it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Find your chosen family.

Don’t be afraid to own your identity within yourself and within the community. [When I was younger], I told this older technician that I might be bi but not to tell anybody, and she was like, "Why? Nobody’s going to care!" Not that nobody cares about the struggle or the journey or whatever, but we’re in the theatre in Santa Cruz. It’s one of the safest places to come out.

The biggest thing about theatre is don’t be a dick, or else no one else wants to work with you. Come through and put in the work. Don’t be a diva; don’t be an asshole, and you will find your chosen family, which is so key.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?

There were a lot of strong female-bodied technicians, like Becca, the older technician who said No one’s going to care. She would show up, go into beast mode, churn shit out and put in the work so there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that she deserved to be there. Her tenacity  was like, I’m here and I deserve it. And you’re here too, so by proxy you do too.

Also, seeing people I respected acknowledge that they didn’t know the answer to everything. You don’t have to be perfect to be a professional. It’s something I’ve struggled with. Here are these people who grew up in their dad’s workshop; how am I supposed to compete with them? Well, I will show up, not make drama, put in the work. I will enjoy the people I’m with, and they will enjoy me. Sometimes that ability to hang out is more productive than knowledge of a lot of weird shit.

At OSF, we’re performing in rep, so every single show, you have to put in the time, and it’s all the same people for 10 months, so if you’re going to be a diva, we’re going to get tired of you. But if you understand that you’re not perfect, you can get help to improve and be very successful. The willingness to struggle, to persevere and succeed, is more important than coming in and being perfect.

Who was it that helped you formulate who you are as a queer person, and/or as a person of color, in a straight- (and white-) dominated field?

I’ve spent all of my life as a minority, I’ve never lived in an Asian place; I just haven’t. I’ve always lived as a minority. I’m multiracial. So I  haven’t had a person formulate my identity in that way, but a mish-mash of experiences that have led me to own it.

As a new hire [at Oregon Shakes], I had to go to a couple of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDNI) info sessions. I was like, I should be on the poster for these things! I enjoy these things because in these situations, I have so much power; I can speak to so many things. I can open up the conversation or further the conversation. EDNI speaks to the company’s awareness of what’s happening in the country, and not in a cynical way.

I'll hope to say hi to you next season. I'll be, um, the middle-aged white lesbian journalist.

Oh, that will make you real easy to spot in an OSF audience, in Ashland.