Where Are They Now?
This series puts the spotlight on former staff and participants showing what some of our alumni (and beloved community members) have been up to in the world, and how they think Wayfinder helped them get there.
Finding a Home with Jenna Bergstraesser
Being structured around an adventure game Wayfinder naturally provides skills that lend themselves to a wide variety of creative pursuits. In the last Where Are They Now feature we looked at Marika McCoola who had taken her experience and become a writer, and spoke very eloquently about how her time at Wayfinder helped form her as an author. Our focus this week is Jenna Bergstraesser, another very successful creative type who we have been lucky enough to have as a participant, staff member, and community member. These days Jenna works for Disney at Disneyland as a Design Illustrator in their costume department. While some of the connections may seem immediately clear to anyone who has been around the Wayfinder Experience (it’s the costumes for anyone who hasn’t), Jenna highlighted some connections that were a little less so.
In addressing the obvious connection, just in describing her day to day job Jenna reached immediately for it. “I feel like Wayfinder all my life was preparing me for specifically the Disney job because every day we’re working on princesses and pirates and superheroes. It’s like Advanced Camp every day work. What other company has all those things? You switch into all these different creative worlds.” The work even seemed so reminiscent of working for Wayfinder that she went on to describe it as “the official corporate version.” We’re still a far cry from being able to field the types of productions that Disneyland is putting on, but we’re happy to know that we were able to help prepare Jenna for those aspects of her work. (Also anyone she ever costumed at camp can say they have the same costumer as Disney princesses so that’s definitely a perk).
In the realm of slightly less obvious connections she pointed to the process of getting the job itself, which involved first working an internship in their costuming department, and then pitching herself to a room of Disney Parks and Resorts executives. “It’s all theater. Communication skills are so easy because you can just drop into that persona of ‘I am in charge’ at any time.” The communication skills and persona she credits her advantages in that meeting and her fast-paced work environment to are things she points to her experience as staff as having taught her, “having to talk to large groups of people about yourself, or something that is important to you, or even conveying a message to people, that alone has really helped.” While those are definitely things that any staff member is going to have to do in the course of their daily job, they are also things that it is impossible for a participant to avoid. So much of our workshops revolve around participants as performers in front of the whole group or just for each other. Anyone who has spent time around camp would happily extol the virtues of improv as a method for public speaking and interviewing.
She also pointed to some more personal growth at camp throughout the years. Calling it one of her “two moral backbones” (the other being Harry Potter) and asking a question I’ve heard posed by any number of our community members throughout the years, myself included. “What would I even be without Wayfinder?” While she didn’t have an answer for that question she had some pretty good ideas on exactly how camp had helped her get to where she is as a person. “You have this internal knowledge that the community follows you wherever you are so that even if you’re not in it anymore, you know that you were able to be all those people, and I feel that you understand other people more.” Playing with characters in any kind of theater setting is a good way to discover things about yourself. Getting the chance to do it in that kind of special communal setting that we have at Wayfinder, where everyone else is going through those same transformative motions and is going to process it together, gives a chance for some very active reflection on what we’re doing and who we are. “I have always had this knowledge that I am who I am, and Wayfinder is definitely something that helped me manifest that.” There’s really no higher praise that we could ask for. We were lucky to have Jenna at camp for the years that we did so knowing that she still holds us in high regard and at least partially responsible for her becoming the person she has is something we are beyond thankful to hear.
Also having some distance from the community and camp itself Jenna offered some perspective on the ability to come and go as needed that’s been discussed so much at camp (and some on this blog). “Even if there were different people there or if it was a different location it felt like the same sacred space. So it was always really cool to come back because you always had that same sense of community. You knew you’d always be welcome back in.” That’s a theme echoed by our participants, staff, and community at large. Thanks for gracing us with your presence Jenna. We can’t wait to welcome you back in again next time you’re able to come by, even if it’s just for a visit.
“As much as camp is an emotional time, and I feel like a lot of people when they finish are like ‘oh no, what am I going to do without it?’ it does prepare you for real life. You kind of have this talisman, and throughout camp you’re kind of building the talisman can creating your emotional connection to it, and when you’re leaving you get a little protective and paranoid but then eventually you realize it is always going to be there, and whether you need to come back to camp to charge it, or just have it always be there with you, you realize it always is.”
Check out Jenna’s Art.
Written by Judson Easton Packard from an interview with Jenna.
Building Worlds with Marika McCoola
Wayfinder has always lived in the written words of its community members. Any world we create and explore starts with someone hunched over a computer, furiously typing histories into existence. It seems natural then that Wayfinder have so many community members with a literary streak to them. We had the chance to sit down with Marika McCoola, whose book Baba Yaga’s Assistant was a New York Times bestseller and Eisner award nominee, and talk about the experiences she had at Wayfinder and the ways those have helped to form her as a teacher, a writer, an illustrator, and most importantly a person.
Camp offers a diverse field of experiences, all of which have creative elements attached to them. To explore a fantastical world we have to do everything from write the background of that world to actually building the physical aspects of it, not to mention teaching everyone to create and live in full characters for the duration of the adventure game. Marika was one of our rare staff members who has the talents and the knowledge to work in any of our departments. “Working with people to create a story is what I do. It’s interesting I ended up going into graphic novels because you describe the scenery and what’s going on, which is the production part, and then the game systems part which is figuring out what your world looks like, because I write contemporary fantasy pretty much exclusively, and doing all that building. Then in terms of characters I use all of that improv. You’re writing in different character’s voices so how do you take on each character and write them?” Having grown up at Adventure Game Theater, the camp that eventually spawned the Wayfinder experience which Marika was also a very active member of, all of these skills were at that point second nature to her.
Being around for years and years of camp and adventure games it can be hard to pin point favorite moments or games out of all of them. One of the things that stood out most for Marika was a prop she designed and built. A stained glass window, which we still use in games today. “When everybody saw that for the first time all lit up at night, that totally made it. You can still kind of separate yourself as a creator and as the character you’re playing, and to see people react to that, and to make it magical for them was really exciting, which I suppose makes total sense because I’m a writer now, and I make worlds for other people to inhabit.” That magic she talked about, the look of wonder you see on players’ faces, is something she has truly been able to capture into her writing. The worlds which she builds are fantastical, and it is clear there is an understanding of what magic looks like in the real world behind the work that goes into to creating those written worlds. She clearly points to experiences at Wayfinder as putting up the scaffolding for a lot of that work, and we were lucky to have her building that kind of magic for us. Like I said that stained glass window is still in use, and never fails to produce a look of awe and wonder from players seeing it for the first time.
While she isn’t participating in any LARPs anymore she is very aware of the effect that it has had on her life. “It was an extremely important phase. That’s what Molly Ostertag and I talk about a lot, she’s also a cartoonist and writer. What we do is so much influenced by that so it’s a very special piece that we don’t want to write about because it’s this preserved lovely thing.” So while you might not see Wayfinder directly showing up in either Marika or Molly’s books, both of them published authors of graphic novels, it is very clear that having camp and the space to explore themselves and other worlds was hugely influential on their lives and their work. Camp is, underneath everything else, a creative space. You get a chance to be surrounded by people who, even if they don’t produce any other creative works in their lives, are engaged in the process of creating a world, creating a storyline. “We were able to create space and it helped us realize things about ourselves at this very difficult age when you are all over the place. It allows you to explore different facets of yourself and that’s really really important.” That work never stops, neither does the joy or graciousness it produces. Like with every community member you could ask about camp, Marika’s face lit up to talk about Wayfinder and the time she spent there. There is nothing better than knowing we are providing space, and have provided space, to people who go out and do good work in the world, and remember Wayfinder as a piece of what brought them to that work. We were blessed to have Marika at camp as long as we did, and still blessed to have her as a member of the community.
“How we lead up to the game is important in how camp does it versus other LARPs in that it’s really about the opportunity to explore a facet of yourself in a character that you don’t get to explore in regular life. So there’s the freedom to do that in a safe space in a way that you can then reflect upon and learn something from, and I think that’s really nice to be given that space to do that. There’s also something really nice about having a community and having a camp that’s truly about community, cooperative play, and creating together rather than having battles against each other (though we do that as well), but it’s all about creating an experience for everybody and I think that’s extremely important, and it results in long lasting friendships.”
Make sure to check out Marika’s website: http://www.marikamccoola.com/
–Written by Judson Easton Packard I from an interview with Marika McCoola.
*First Picture from Marika’s website. Self Portrait: digitally altered photograph of clay, wire, paint, embroidery thread, and ink on paper. ©2014 Marika McCoola