Community, or the twelve people in Theatre

Our business is a small one.  Everyone always says "There are in only twelve people in the theater business." It's true.  No matter where the theater is, you know everyone. It's all one big, happy, dysfunctional family. We spend too much time and emotion in small, cramped spaces to get along all the time, but that also creates a bond unlike any office job. And in just like any family there are certain roles that have to be fulfilled. You'll find one in in every community of theater. I find these to be the most common archetypes found in the theatre world:

The maternal/paternal figure: This is the person who will find you the ibuprofen or tissues if you mention the slightest headache or stuffy nose. He or she will go out of their way to know everyone's name, preference in baked good, and hometown.  This is the first person to start a conversation in the green room over coffee. Usually this role is filled by a stage manager, or company manager. This person could be on the admin side of the team, but willing to sit through a long day tech to make sure everyone has what they need to produce their work.

The loveable jerk:  Yes, every theater has one.  Kind of like that Uncle that would throw you in the pool as a kid, then laugh about it.  But would also make the best hot chocolate at Christmas. This person usually has the surliest comeback, the dirtiest joke, and the best laugh in the room. Sometimes getting them to laugh is a tough job, but it's always worthwhile.  I find that this role is typically filled by either a technical director, props master or master electrician.  They work long hours, complain about it, but do it everyday all while trying to I hide the fact that they love every minute of it.

The whiz kid: kind of like that cousin that can fix anything; maybe it's a car, a computer, your dishwasher or your phone. They'll be able to fix it without a second thought.  Typically the youngest in the the group, this person is full of enthusiasm, and energy, usually willing to lend a hand. If the theater world, this is usually the sound guy, sometimes an electrician.  They always have gadgets and doodads that can measure, analyze and fix whatever you need.  Need a battery? They have a bucket of them.  Need that tiny screw driver for your glasses? They have five varieties.  Networking problem? They can fix it.

The fashion forward one: You know that cousin that always makes you feel like the ugly duckling?  The one you wanted to go to the mall with, because just being seen with them made you seem cooler? Yeah, we have those too.  They're usually costumers and props people.  They are sassy, snarky, and will tell you when you look like shit.  But, they are also the first to demand a dance party on a break, and tell you that you look fierce.  

The anti social one: there is a shy one in every family.  Theater has plenty too.  We all got into theater because we were the weird kids, so we're all anti social to a degree, but there is another level of shy.  This is the one who wants to be at the party, but quietly sitting in the corner watching.  The wall flower, the delicate daisy, and probably the nicest person you'll rarely talk to.  Sound folk usually fall into this category, sometimes it's lighting, and occasionally the younger stage management members are here too.  Take the time to say hi to your loveable introvert, they'll appreciate it on some level.

I started this post because I feel like everywhere I go, I meet different variations of the these types.  And it may sound like a bad thing, but it's really not.  I like to travel, and I like to work outside of NYC.  I prefer regional theater because I get to see other cities, try new foods, but most importantly, I know that when I leave each theater I'll walk away having a new family to visit. I get to be the cousin that you get to see every few years and catch up.  They're a part of your family, even if you don't talk every week. I like knowing that I have theater cousins all over the country.

This past week or so, I was hosted by the lovely City Theater company in Pittsburgh, PA.  A new city to me, and a new theater.  I had such a wonderful time there, and I truly hope I get  to go back soon.  Thanks for being a lovely family to me.

On a somewhat different topic.....

One of the weird things that I love about my job is show often it interacts with my life. Life events often synchronize with the shows on which I'm working. Let me try to explain....

I mentioned in my last post about shows coinciding with each other, and that there is sometimes a thread that ties all of them together.  This happens with life too.  For example, this show I have been working on tells the story of a shoe shop owner and his impact on the community in which he lives.  It tells of his relationship with each character, and how his untimely death brings them together.  It's a beautiful piece of theater that not only challenges the audience to think about race, religion, and stereotypes, but also it defies the traditional structure of a "play".  It's a one person show that requires an immensity of emotion and thought from the actor.   The frame of the play is of a young girl, passionate about designing shoes, and her journey with Mr. Joy.  Mr. Joy takes her into his shop, teaches her his trade and watches over her.

This got me started thinking about the mentors in my life. Mentor relationships have been huge part of my upbringing in theatre. I have had a number of people that I gladly call my mentors.  Whether they were in my life for a few weeks, or continue to be a part of it, is irrelevant.  They are people who have inspired, educated or otherwise made an impact in my life.  It's something that I continually cultivate in my relationships with my superiors and peers.  

Something that I love about my job is that I with every new project, I instantly get new mentors.  This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's true.  Typically, if I am assisting on a show, I am the youngest person on the creative team.  This means that I often have it sit back, shut up, and know when to express my opinion.  Sometimes I'm not very good at that last part....  Watching directors, actors, and designers interact and collaborate is a wonderful thing.  I have to tell myself that if I want to keep doing this job, I need to observe these relationships and try to emulate them in my own relationships.  These directors and designers have been working in this business for many more years than I, and no matter what I say, it won't be news to them.  I have to stop and think more than just going with my gut reaction.  

The truly beautiful thing about this is that it doesn't matter what the relationship is, or what position the person holds.  There is something to be learned from that person.  Observing the way a question is asked of a director, and how the director answers varies is important.  The answer may be the same, but the manner in which it is conveyed can be completely different.  It's a wonderful thing to observe a conversation between a director and a designer, and then watch how the ideas sparked in that conversation are transformed into a completely different idea when communicated to another member of the team.

I realize that as I type this, it seems as if the director is acting as a gateway for the flow of conversation, like a dam in the river.  While this may be partially true, I don't think that it is a negative thing. In fact, I think it is a very positive idea.  There must be someone to oversee the whole idea, and make sure that the reservoir doesn't overflow. Terrible metaphor, but hopefully you get the idea….  

This past week I found out that one of my former teachers  passed away.  Her classes were some of my fondest memories of middle school.  She was an ornery, stubborn women who demanded excellence.  We rarely agreed on any topic (this being a social studies class, politics came up often), but she was a staunch defender of civil debate.  She saw the goodness and ability in every student, and drew it out (whether they liked it or not).  I hadn't thought a of her in a very long time, and that made me very sad.  I hadn't realized how much she brought out in me. I wouldn't be the assertive, sometimes loud mouth that I am without her support. And I know for a fact that my handwriting wouldn't be the half cursive that it is today, if she hadn't strictly enforced a cursive only policy that every student hated. Mrs. Wells was a great teacher.  I'll miss her more than I ever knew I would.

More recently, I've had several people that I consider mentors step and speak on my behalf.  I won't go into detail, but needless to say, it's been a humbling and rewarding experience.  In addition to my personal life, there has been a huge surge in the Sound Design community at large.  Last year, the announcement of the decision to eliminate the Tony award for sound designers spurred a frenzied rally of designers, directors, actors, and more to come together for a single cause.  This movement has brought together the most respected members of our field together in a way that I've never seen before. I've never known so many people in a usually solitary career bond so fervently and passionately in such a short time frame. It has been an incredibly joyful reward from a decidedly sad event.

This idea of community has been in my mind a lot recently, for the reasons stated above, but for many others as well. I love my nomad lifestyle, it brings me into many families.  I have many circles that I float in and out of, and I am glad to have such wide variety in my life. However, there are moments that I wonder if I need a closer community.  One that I can continually evolve and grow with.  A company of people that learn from each other, support each other and create together.

In which I ramble about Freelancing....

Hey there!  I revamped my website  In doing so realized I might actually have something intelligent to contribute to the internet every once in a while. So, here's my attempt at a blog.  It'll likely be work related, but some times not.  I won't always write in complete sentences, and I lack creativity in sentence structure (sorry to my sister, who is an editor).  I am not consistent in tense, semi-colon usage, or comma placement. This may be meandering and non-sensical, but here goes…

I was having a discussion with a friend this past weekend about the trials and tribulations of freelance work; How it is both a blessing and a curse.  He had mentioned that he was also starting a blog, and I totally stole the topic.  Freelancing in NYC is one of those things that I never intended to do.  It hadn't really occurred to me until I was going into grad school. I had always wanted to work in regional theater, and it seemed like working in NYC was the only way to work outside of NYC.  It's a love/hate relationship with the lifestyle.  The schedule and the relationships are the two things that I find the most frustrating and rewarding.

The schedule:
I get to set my own schedule, to a degree.  For example, I haven't gone home for Thanksgiving in a few years.  This year, I was able to schedule my projects around the idea that I'd be going home. So I get to spend an entire 5 days with family and friends at home.  Large holidays are great to be able to schedule in advance. The day to day stuff is where it gets tricky. I have to plan my week according to when I'm in meetings, how to get between meetings, when I have time to prepare for those meetings, so on and so forth.  It's a daunting task, and I rarely schedule time for myself in there. Whenever I can, I schedule a Saturday morning so that I can visit the farmers market down the street before heading into work. It's a simple ritual that makes me feel like a responsible, well rounded person.  I'm able to get out from behind a computer for just a few minutes, walk around the neighborhood and do a little bit of mental planning for the week ahead. Sometimes, I don't always get the chance to do so, but more often than not, I will likely schedule a meeting later in the day on Saturday, simply to have that morning and peace of mind.

The flip side of this of course, is that I don't set my own schedule.  My entire livelihood depends on schedule of any given project.  I live from show to show, gig to gig.  Some months that means that I am working on four in-depth projects at once, and some times that means that I am on a new project daily for a few weeks. There are some jobs that you prepare for thinking that you'll be exhausted and insanely busy for two weeks solid, then it turns out you're done after 8 days and no work for the rest of the week.  There days where the only time to meet someone is 9 am, then you have 3 hours to dilly dally before the next meeting or rehearsal. Usually I end up shoe shopping, thus negating what little money I may have made on that day…

Quick and fast friendships:
Professional relationships are a strange thing when you're freelancing.  Friendships and business relationships can be made or be broken very quickly.  And there isn't really a line drawn between the two. Often, the entire experience lasts no more than 6 weeks.  The speed of the production process has a profound affect on the relationships built during these times.  You, and your relationship to your colleagues is very quickly defined, put to the test. The process of mounting a production is much like a difficult hike up a mountain.  Either you're all in it together, and support each other along the way.  Or it's a solitary, uphill battle and you only discover that you're not alone once you reach the top. This process typically starts with many, many emails, and a handful of in person meetings, and culminating in a 1-2 week technical process that requires lengthy days in close quarters, in stressful and emotional circumstances. How you react and interact under pressure is one of the defining factors in how you and your colleagues move on from the process.

As a self-proclaimed, socially awkward person, I have a hard time getting to know people in such a short period of time.  It usually takes me several weeks of getting to know a person before I can truly interact with them and not feel like an ugly duckling.  I over think, over react, and then over analyze the hell out of every experience and interaction.  Usually by the time I feel comfortable around a group of people, the show is open and I likely won't see them until the next project years later. This can make it incredibly difficult to create last bonds in our business.  

Granted, this is not always the case.  There are some experiences that are the complete and total opposite, which turn out to be there best, however rare they are.  For example, the very first show I ever designed after moving to NYC was given me one of my most treasured friendships.  This director and I  met for coffee before a production meeting (I don't remember the meeting at all, just the coffee beforehand) and after a 15 minute conversation, he simply stated "I trust you, you're good people." The relationship that has come out of that tiny show is one that I look forward to having for many years to come.  

Our business is one that is fleeting and ephemeral (arguably, the best part).  It requires in intense amount of concentration on body of work for a relatively short period of time. A single project that be all consuming in terms of amount of time spent on it, but also in terms of mental horse power that is devoted to it.  More often than not, the projects that seem to be entirely different experiences have strange threads that relate to each other.  I've had shows were two entirely difference levels of production, one Shakespeare, one a modern play set in the 1970's, and both directors referenced the same Lou Reed song on the same day of rehearsals. It's a strange existence, because it means that everything is very present in your life, for a short amount of time, and then you move on entirely.

There are many other reasons to love and hate the freelancing life (taxes, travel, health care, or lack there of), but in the end.  I wouldn't really change it for anything.  I can't imagine sitting at a desk all day, every day.  I get to run around one of the greatest cities in the world, playing theater, and calling it a job.