Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Career Without a Job

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who has had the same job for the last few years.  I have yet to do that.  The longest I've held any single job has been two years, and it was a silly job that I didn't care about but slowed my burn rate through savings while I pursued dance.  The runner-up for longest time is the job I had the first season I spent in Lake Tahoe, which got me a season pass, a food discount, and just enough money to buy food and gas for my car until I went back to New York and zeroed out my credit cards and rebuilt my savings account.  She also shared her yearly income with me, and it's significantly higher than anything I've made in a year.

My emotional reaction wasn't envy, though.  There are a number of reasons I've never held a job for a very long time.  The biggest one is freedom - since graduating college, I've done a lot of things that I think are really cool and that have been very rewarding for me.  I've also had a few periods of really low employment that haven't been cool or rewarding, but on balance, I'd make most of the same choices again.

I've studied dance at a professional school.  I've designed the lighting for over a dozen shows, including three really large-scale ones with big lighting rigs and some little shows that I'm really proud of.  I've skied a 90-day season.  I've been paid to take a vacation in upstate New York.  I've worked New York Fashion Week a couple of times, and seen the excess that goes into it.  I can parallel park a box truck.

My brother sent me an interesting article the other day, "The Case for Working With Your Hands."  There were a couple things that I really liked about it.  One was that later in the article, the author contrasts the feeling of working in a cubicle, accomplishing little, with the freedom and sense of accomplishment he felt as an electrician.  Another was his defence of the intelligence, diagnostic ability and skill of people who fix motorcycles and, by extension,  anyone who troubleshoots something concrete and physical, that may be constructed in ways that are inconvenient or even senseless.

It's a little disengenuous for me to say that before moving to Seattle, I hadn't had a job in five years.  It would be more accurate to say that I hadn't had a boss in five years.  When I lost my job waiting tables, in October 2004, I'd just started picking up freelance gigs fixing things in offices and hadn't yet done much theatrical lighting work.  I figured out my budget and realized I could scrape by without getting another job, as long as I kept freelancing at the same rate.  So I started promoting myself more as a freelancer, and working for some really stupid companies, and began to do okay for myself.  Over time, I worked my rate up and started working for better companies and doing a fair amount of off-Broadway work.  In between my ski bum seasons, upstate summer, and design gigs, I was working.  But I worked for a few different companies and through my off-Broadway connection, as well as random things on Craigslist from time to time, like putting up people's flatscreens, so there was never a person who could fire me and make my life take a drastic turn.  There was also not someone whose permission I needed to take a vacation - I just didn't accept work or call to book work.

There's a country song that goes "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."  I've had moments of feeling that way, especially during the long, hot New York summer when everyone who can afford to throw a lavish party leaves town, shows don't open and rarely close, and I can't afford to do much more than play video games with all the time I suddenly have.  But I think I actually have a lot to show for the time I spent working as a stagehand.  First of all, I'm really good at my specialty, which is electrics.  I may have started as "You there, coil that," but I finished as "Andrew, can you figure out why this isn't working?" "Andrew, can you figure out how to do this bizarre task?" or "Andrew, take this drawing and two guys and hang this lighting position."

Starting over in Seattle has been hard.  In a business where reputation is everything, mine is 3000 miles away.  At the same time, it's forcing me to take a look at what I've been doing.  I'm proud of being a good stage lighting technician, but I've also been a classic underachiever.  When I thought I wanted lighting design to be my career, it was one thing, but the problems in lighting design are either insoluble, at least within the bounds of available equipment and budget, or pretty easy to solve.  Sometimes I'm shocked that other people haven't solved them in the past, like when I found out that I was putting the heaviest hang in company history on the two frontlighting positions for the summer stock show I did, but it's not that hard a problem.  It's been nice to know trig, but I usually use CAD to do it for me anyway.

So that leaves me with nothing but a bag of hand tools, a pretty sweet drill, and a wide-open future.  I feel like I should wear a cowboy hat when I say that, even though usually if I need a cordless drill, a cowboy hat won't fit where I'm working.  I think I'm starting to get some traction in the stagehand scene, here, which is good, but I have no problem seeing that job for what it is for me - a facilitator.  I want a job in which I solve problems.  I want them to be weird, challenging problems.  They should be harder than "How do I get frontlight on this stage from two really tiny lighting positions" or "How can I get a couple of even washes out of this bizarre lighting inventory."  The projects involved should have more of an effect on people's daily lives than letting them know that right now, the main character is having a dream or that the characters onstage are really angry or that the location is in a forest.  And if it's not too much to ask, I'd like to build things from time to time.

No comments: