The drive to Frederick was long, but the destination was worth it. Not just because Frederick may be the most adorable town in driving distance of DC, but also because that town is home to Maryland Ensemble Theater and their go-to sound guy Steve Younkins.
You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his work, especially if you’ve hung around backstage at any size theater or if you have any friends in the tech side of theater. He’s the brains and the pen behind Q2Q Comics, a webcomic that riffs off of the ever-stressful and often hilarious misadventures of the hardworking people that wear all black and work to make theater magic happen. I’m talking designers, props masters, directors, and, of course, the godsent stage managers—pretty much everyone who doesn’t get applause when the show is over. But Q2Q opens up this backstage world, once mysterious to the average audience-goer, in a way that can be appreciated by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the theater and a sense of humor.
Steve invited me into his studio in his cute townhouse in downtown Frederick to talk about how Q2Q is made and how his life in theater has affected his art and how his cartoons have influenced his work in theater. He’s currently in technical rehearsals for The Elephant Man at MET, so he was very generous to take time out of his schedule to talk with me. He’s an unassuming, zero ego guy—all black Chucks, jeans, and warm smiles—and soft-spoken like many in the backstage professions, but he warmed to conversation quickly with bright grins every time he talked about his work.
Alan Katz: I see you’ve got a comic all taped up and ready on your desk, ready for tonight’s update. Are you intimidated by having to put out a comic every Monday, Wednesday and Friday?
Steve Younkins: I’m used to working under pressure. I don’t sit down and script them out very often, so I often won’t know what I’m going to draw until 5 hours or so until it has to be posted. I work better that way because it forces me to make choices on the fly and commit to what I’m doing. That huge time crunch prevents me from being overcritical of the stuff I’m doing. I’ve already done 172 of them, and I hope to do thousands more. They’re not all going to be perfect, but I have to have it done. So I’m not intimidated by the number. I’ve worked to create interesting characters. The old adage is, “You lock interesting characters in a room and you get a story.”
I do get stuck sometimes, pass out over an undone comic, and wake up with an idea. Sometimes I get material from what my stage management friends are saying online, sometimes its what’s happening to me in tech right now. I’ve just had 3 distinct moments in tech this morning that I know will be comics one day.
AK: Do you find you have to sit on those until an appropriate time comes around?
SY: Oh yeah. Everyone that I work with knows that I don’t do comics about shows that I’m currently working on. I don’t want that to get awkward, and have people think, “Oh no, is he going to make a comic about this?” The answer is probably yes, but they’ll have to wait a few months down the line, when the memory is a bit fuzzy and I won’t be quoting them exactly.
AK: So it’s like a release?
SY: Yeah, I was talking with my girlfriend [Side note: Sorry, ladies!] this morning when I was stressing about tech. I said that everybody else gets to read this comic as a release from the stress of the day, but I don’t get to do that. She said that I do get to read the comic, I just read it while its being made. I do it so that I don’t complain and I don’t get to be grumpy. Just highlight the absurdity of what we do, but its cathartic for the readers, too. They get to know that they’re not alone.
AK: What’s your relationship with theater been like?
SY: I got into theater through live sound. I didn’t do theater in high school, but I had a girlfriend who was directing Vampire Lesbians of Sodom in college and that was the first time I got involved in working with sound for the theater. I kept on coming back. Y’know, I used to be really mercenary about which sound design jobs I took. I thought, “Yes, I’m good at this. Sure this is something I like to do.” But somewhere in there I started doing sound design for fun. I told my friend Wuggles [a real life lighting designer who is a character in Q2Q], “If I spend too much time here, these people are going to find me out; they’re going to find out I’m not a theater person.” He told me, “No, if you spend enough time here, you’re going to find out that you are a theater person.” And he was right!
I’ve mostly worked at Hood [College in Frederick] and at the MET, but I’m still pretty early in my sound design career. Something around 7 years and 75ish shows, including the times I set up $6,000 worth of mics for 6 year olds in an elementary school show.
AK: So which would you consider yourself, a sound designer or a cartoonist?
SY: Probably a cartoonist. I used to work in a library as a cataloguer and I made a comic about that, about a librarian named Steve, because I’m a total narcissist apparently [laughs]. No matter what I’d be doing, I’d be making a comic about it.
AK: Lets talk process for making the comics.
SY: Say it’s Tuesday night, I’ve got a comic I have to post at midnight. It’s probably around 5 o’clock, and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh man I haven’t drawn the comic yet, what am I doing with my life?” Sometimes I’ll have a script at this point, but most often I’ll just know which characters I want to use. I’ll think, “I haven’t used Sharon the costume designer in a while, or I know I want to talk about lights, so I’ll be drawing Wuggles.” If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll do something set in the booth so that the backgrounds are all the same. I’ll make up some squares with prepared paper, tape it down, use all of my skills from 7th grade drafting class at Northern Middle School in Hagerstown with Mr. Kominsky. I don’t usually work left to right, even though that’s the way the comic is read. I’ll draw whatever I have the strongest mental picture of. Not necessarily the punchline though. Oftentimes, the last panel is the last thing I draw. I try not to tell jokes though, because jokes aren’t funny [laughs]. Its all about relationships between people, not “knock-knock” or whatever.
Realism is a big point for me. I want to talk about realistic scenarios, so people can say “I know that situation; I’ve been there!” Then I can add a bit of surrealism to them, like if it’s too cold in the booth, it’s okay for someone to be drawn as a snowman. But the situations should be true to life.
AK: If you’re looking to create that realism where people can slot their own experiences in for the characters, doesn’t that universality limit the amount of long-term growth and depth your characters can have?
SY: They still get to have their own voice. Morty is a Stage Manager, but she gets her own characteristics, too. She gets to play on the extremes of stage management. She gets to say and do things that real people don’t get the opportunity to say or do, or shouldn’t say or do in a lot of contexts. She also gets to continue working even though she’s not good at her job, all the time. But all of the characters get that.
AK: It’s not very funny to have a comic about a really great designer…
SY: Exactly! People like to complain that. People want to see their job reflected in a flattering way. But it wouldn’t be funny if everybody was perfect. That’d be boring!
AK: I have to ask every sound designer this question: with the Tony Award for Sound Design getting taken away among great controversy, how do you feel about the role of the sound designer in the American theater?
SY: Oh, man, I’m not a great mouthpiece for that. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never work on Broadway or get a Tony. That said, I think it’s insulting to say that sound design is a purely technical field. There’s a lot of artistry involved in it. I even did a comic about it.
There’s all this art that goes into picking the right piece, the exact right sound. I love foley work, making sounds live. A lot of my prerecorded sound I’ll make the sound live beforehand. Like flapping a book in just the right way to sound like birds flying away. That’s art, that’s a paint stroke. It’s just that people can’t often see the work that goes into it. Set, lights and costumes are easy to see onstage. Sound design you mostly notice if there’s something wrong. If its perfect, it’ll be seamless in the world. Excluding sound design from the Tony’s says more about the Tony’s than it says about sound design.
AK: So, back to the drawing board, do you know what the comic for tonight will be about?
SY: I just introduced 2 new characters: a props master and a scenic designer. I just did one on Friday about the props master, so this one will be about Garvis, the scenic designer. I know its going to be about an unfinished set model, but I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I want Jarvis to reveal the set model and have Leo, the director, be unimpressed with what’s under there. Maybe something half finished, like “You have to imagine it being there!”
You can see the two panels I’ve drawn [the two middle ones] with the reveal and the disappointment. I just have to figure out where it begins and ends.
AK: The comic has gotten pretty big. What’s that been like? Has the attention been weird?
SY: Let me tell you a story. I just went to USITT [the United States Institute for Theatre Technology conference]. They wanted to stock my t-shirts and prints, so I said that I could do a signing for them, too. It’ll be fun. I saw a couple of other people signing and it seemed pretty low key. It got to Friday when the signing was scheduled for. My girlfriend and I go down and we see this huge line. “GaffGun must be giving something away,” we thought, “Roscoe’s got a freebie.” I brought a book because I thought I’d have so much time. We get to the end of the line, and it ends at the signing table. Oh no. That’s for me. They estimated around a thousand people in line. I felt terrible because it ran so long, they moved the person after me to a different table. The author came up to me afterward and said, “Oh man, that line was incredible.” I said, “Yeah, I’m really sorry about that.” She said, “It’s okay; can you sign this print for me?”
I’m super awkward in groups of people, and I was looking at this line, so I was worried. One person at a time, and it was fine. The trick was, I realized eventually, that they were more awkward about it than I was; they were uncomfortable too!
We got to the end of the signing and everything went well. Then right after my palm started to swell up.
To me, my readership most days is a WordPress bar graph. I know that my readership is about 20,000 people about half a million views a month. But that isn’t people. Seeing people in an actual line. I didn’t have a great sense of it. But it meant so much to me. People coming up and saying, “I’m glad your technical director is a woman because I’m a female technical director.” I want inclusion to be the industry standard, and it’s great to see other people see that. The readers are wonderful and its great to see them in person. Its different when its people. People. Bodies. There.
AK: Isn’t that what theater’s all about? People? Bodies? There?
AK: So where are you going? What’s next for you?
SY: The immediate answer is draw this comic in front of me, then go to tech tomorrow. I’m hoping to eat sometime in there!
I’m putting together a book of the first 150 or so comics for a September release at SPX in Bethesda. There’s always the store to take care of. I’m shopping around for publishers. Not a lot of details right now, but there’ll be a Kickstarter in May. I’ll continue making the comics. I’m designing at least 2 mainstage shows at Maryland Ensemble Theatre next year. I love working at the MET, it’s a great professional theater that doesn’t do boring theater. People take their jobs seriously and do good work. I am shopping around for more design work. I want to experience other places and how other people work. I think it’d be awesome to design for Everyman in Baltimore.
– All studio photos by Alan Katz
– All Q2Q comic strips courtesy of Steve Younkins. Click each to see the original on Q2Q