Thursday, October 29, 2009

Job #5 - Theater, Full of Drama!!!

I was working at a theater company. I was 17. I had had a long history with this company, because I had studied there from ages 3 through 9.

When I had graduated from high-school, and was on my way to college, I really missed the theater, and thought that the boot-camp environment of the place was just what I needed to prepare myself for the rigors of college... about which I knew nothing. The company had a, "Pay your dues." and ... "We think that we're on FAME." (the hit movie/TV show of the eighties) mentality. Some examples of the relative intensity of the environment follow:

1) When I'd studied there as a child they had a rule: If your parents drop you off even a minute late, you cannot attend class (no refunds/no prorating of tuition). This encouraged students to nag their parents to get them to class punctually.
2) Students were required to wear imperfection-free, single-colored body-suits and leotards to rehearsals; any variation would get them kicked out of class.
3) If students failed to follow instructions accurately after a reasonable amount of times (usually 3x), they were likely to get something thrown at them, or find an acting coach slamming another student's property (umbrella, whatever was in reach) down around their barely protected stockinged feet. (Huh?) (Yeah.)
4) 200 sit-ups, and jumping jacks were a required and regular part of our warm-up sessions, along with a battery of other exercises, and I was used to it... because I had been doing it for years. However, because of the eight-year hiatus, I perhaps was not as on top of my game as I should have been. So, one Saturday, about 1/2-way through our J&Js I found myself crawling on the floor of the dance hall, attempting to make my way to the door, which was about 20 feet away from the front-center of the room, where I had been. I realized that no one was coming to my rescue, and figured that they must have thought that I was just being lazy and feigning sickness. It didn't matter... I had to get out of there. The air felt thick, and I believed I'd find relief in the hallway. Once I got out there I discovered that I was right. However, I was still crawling, and I didn't know why. What was wrong with me? I kept crawling. No one was in the hall because classes had begun, and after several minutes I made my way up the corridor, around a corner and about 20 additional feet to the bathroom at the back of the building. I crawled into a stall (and this is significant for me... BECAUSE I AM A MAJOR GERMOPHOBE! I'm not a big crawl on the floor in general, or especially in a bathroom kind of person.) Anywho, I was drenched in sweat (I don't usually sweat), and tears, and for some reason, I could not stop breathing... excessively. I was drawing such deep, yet rapid breaths that I sounded as if I was wheezing. Finally, someone entered the bathroom, but it was not an instructor; she was a visitor to the theater. Despite my efforts to stifle the racket, she could hear me breathing, and said, "Are you ok?" I couldn't answer... and, I couldn't stop drawing in air, and it sounded horrible. So, she pushed the door in, looked at me, and rushed off saying, "You'll be all right." Moments later she came back with my movement instructor, who wasn't phased. She said, "All right. Get up. You'll be fine. Did you eat anything today?" I shook my head, "No". Then she said, "Yep." and shook her head, rolled her eyes, and smirked, muttering, "Just what I thought.... you're probably dehydrated, and you're having an anxiety attack. Slow down your breathing, and take deep breaths. 'Uuuhhhhh'.... 'Uuuuhhhh...'" she began breathing with me. Then she barked at one of the people attempting to crowd into the bathroom to see the spectacle to, "Go get her some juice, and anything you can find in there to eat." The onlooker complied. I recovered, and my instructor blamed me for the incident, because I had not eaten breakfast.

No. That was not Job #5; that was just the last of the four examples that I'm giving you to help you to better understand the environment in which Job #5 took place. This theater company was like a close-knit family of callous pragmatists. From the perspective of the instructor, I wasn't going to die, so there was no need to interrupt the session to cater to me. For the students' parts, they were completely controlled, and intimidated, which is why not one of them stopped exercising to figure out why I was crawling on the floor, or to help me. If the guest had not walked into the bathroom, I believe, I might have expired there.

Job #5 came about six months later. I had just finished a pretty successful season at the theater. Specifically, I had scored an external television voice-over after competing in auditions with my peers at the theater; I'd earned a lead monologue and a dance number, in the theater's end-of-year show (Although, I'm not a dancer.); and, I'd garnered the lead drama/dancing/singing role in one of three plays that the theater presented each year. However, I did not get cast AT ALL in the summer stock program, and some of my lesser-esteemed friends did. Instead, I was hired as an assistant drama and movement teacher for the theater's summer program for pre-teens (Job #5). Now, although I really wanted a part in the traveling show, (In N. and S. Carolina, and Georgia... I think.) I was thrilled to be selected as an instructor, and just stay local. Here's where it gets complex.

The summer theater productions, for which my friends had been cast, were paid employment (unlike the Fall/Spring theater shows of which I had been a part). About a third of the way through the summer, two of my friends were fired from the summer gig. However, they were given no reasons for their releases. Now, their parents threatened to sue the company because they and their children had signed binding contracts guaranteeing that the children would be present, and on time, for the duration of the summer, and would receive a designated amount of $$ for their participation. So, ultimately, each of the students was re-hired.

For my part, I had been working with very young people, mostly between the ages of three and nine. I taught several classes, and as you might have guessed, the classes with the older students were generally more rewarding, because students at that age typically understand more of what was being explained to them. Whereas, working with the younger children seemed at times to be more like baby-sitting. The girls in our classes were brighter. (No offense guys.) The guys were not bad; they were mostly shy and quiet but receptive to new information, when it was explained just the right way. However, there was one young man, "Malick", who was a terror. He had a shy way, and giant eyes that seemed to say, "I'm really very sweet, please help me." However, his daily routine consisted of doing the opposite of everything anyone asked him to do; he was constantly hitting all of the truly shy children as hard as humanly possible, especially with objects other than his hands; and, interacting extremely inappropriately with the girls in his class. Now, part of my job, as it had been explained to me, at the beginning of the stint, was to keep a journal, and record anything that was either remarkable or out of bounds that occurred over the summer, so that the theater could have accurate documentation to present to parents, and others in the event that any problems occurred. In other words, children report rather frequently of other children hitting or bullying them, and the theater is frequently held responsible for any failure to stem such abuse. Accordingly, I wrote-up the Malick incidents, but because I was really concerned about them, I went a step further; I brought them to the attention of my director. She didn't seem shocked, or moved, and about a week later, I was berated by the instructor, whom I assisted for not bringing the information directly to her first. Her disquiet gave me an uneasy feeling, because it suggested to me that the director had berated her, after our discussion... but why? The instructor later apologized to me, and explained that Malick's father was being monitored by police due to his neighbors' claims that he had been abusive to Malick, and his mother. She further explained, that this was creating a conflict for the theater, because while the administrators preferred for there to be no problem at all, Malick's father was after all a paying customer, and they did not want to alienate him. Specifically, they did not want to infer that the father had done anything that might have caused his child to act out, transferring his aggression to others. Also, they did not want to further endanger Malick, or his mother, by reporting his behavior to his father. Shortly thereafter, after I gave the director the journal, I was fired.

Now, the wrinkle: I called my best friend, another actor at the theater, and explained what had transpired, and he said, "That might be part of why they let you go... but that's not the whole story."

Me: "What?"
My Friend: "How much do you make?"
Me: "$350 a week."
My Friend: "Yup."
Me: "So."
My Friend: "Combined, the two kids who were fired make exactly what you're making."
Me: "How could they be making what I make, combined? I don't make anything, hardly."
My Friend: "They don't pay much for summer stock. It just sounds like a lot when you first here it. $700/month, for three month sounds like, $2100 for the summer, and $350/wk sounds like nothing, but their each getting 1/2 of what you make, and you're local. They have to pay for all of their own expenses out of that. Look, the point is... there's a budget issue. They had to re-hire them, so they had to fire someone, and that someone was you."

Hmm ... Now, all that I can tell you for sure is that the instructor whom I had assisted told me that the theater had asked her to sign a statement that she would not discuss the matter with anyone.

So, what was the reason that I was given for being let go? Voila: One day, out of the blue, my director (who I had known most of my life) called me into her office to say, "We think that you should perhaps focus on your education. You're a very serious person; and there is nothing wrong with that... but we think that perhaps this is not the direction you should go. "Why is that?" I asked. "Well, it's just... you're not big enough." If you have never acted in a theatrical production, you're probably scratching your head right now, saying, "What? What the *ell does that mean?"  What it means is that my theatrical performances were not dramatic enough, I was too subtle. After many tactful protestations on my part, she simply said, "Television acting might be more appropriate for you." After I retorted that my style of acting was realistic, she explained that, in live theater, audiences require broader physicality (i.e., larger, more dramatic body movements). So, apparently, I was not channeling enough Ben Vereen (nauseating over-actor, IMHO).

However, given my history of receiving consistent praise at the theater, while witnessing the years of brutally insensitive feedback doled to the majority of my peers, by the theater's drama instructors, I was certain that I would have learned years prior to that summer if my acting was sub-par. Further, Job #5 was not to perform in a play; I was teaching movement and drama. Was I not sufficiently demonstrative? Did I not gesticulate wildly enough? Probably. I admit that I am not a fan of the overly dramatic performance (Only Jim Carrey can pull that off!) It was probably wrong of me to assume that children understand instruction in the same way as adults; why did I think that they didn't want to be patronized, and treated like idiots?

Regardless, the suggestion that I was not cut out for the theater was devastating to me, because up until that point I was certain that I would be an actor. I was only going to college because everyone I knew was expected to do so, even though many of us would be the first in their families either to attend, or graduate.

Ultimately, I enrolled in the school of communications and theater, and took a major concentration of courses in radio, television, and film... in order to give myself a back-up way into the entertainment industry. (Pause for laughter : ) (All right, enough of that!) You need more connections to get into broadcasting and the television business than you do to get into theater, or most other industries. If I only knew then, what I know now.

So, what was the truth? Was the theater trying to avoid conflicts with students' parents, who might not appreciate hearing that their kids had been mistreated by an abused child there? Were the theater administrators avoiding getting mixed up in Malick's/Malick's dad's troubles? Was my friend right that there was a budget crisis? Or, was my director speaking the truth, that I, "was not big enough"? Who knows?

However, Job # 6: "The Voice-Over"; Job #8 "The Cruise Ship"; and, Job #9, "20's Paper Boy?" are all acting jobs; so, they may shed some light on truth about Job # 5.

So, I suppose we should all reserve judgment for now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Job #4, Telemarketing in the Boonies, Don't Miss This One

Ahhhhhhhhhh. Here we go.
It was my senior year in high school. I was 17. I dropped standard English, which was AWESOME, to take, "Business English", which was not.

Brief Digression here:
That was the first year that I actually had a pre-college class that was worth a darn. My high-school had this guy, "Mr. Glick" come in and show us how to run a business, from start to finish. We picked a product: cookies; decided how many kinds/flavors we would sell, just one; and what flavor they would be: chocolate chunk... mmm.... Then we decided what kind of packaging would optimize sales. We picked bags over boxes; paper over plastic; but, with a window, through which prospective buyers could see the irresistible morsels we were selling. Then it was time to decide, location, location, location. We picked the mall. Who and how many people would sell them? We decided to sell them ourselves, individually. Finally, we estimated our costs/expenses, time invested, earnings, and profits. Glick then set up a business bank account for us, broke out shares, and wrote the checks from the proceeds. Like I said, it was AWESOME. How in the heck could I have dropped that class? Oh well.

Back to Job #4
So, now I’m in Business English, which they'd aptly knick-named, "Bone-head English". I had been doing well in my original class, but had transitioned, because Business English was taught in the, "Business Annex", and from there, one could leave school in the middle of the day, to work at a job. I had just been hired to do telemarketing work, at this company on the, "Main Line" in Philadelphia, so I was really excited.
Now you need to know a bit about the geography. The Main Line is the Northern-most part of the city, where the suburbs begin. By car, it is about a 45 minute drive from my high-school. But I didn't have a car. So, I had to take a trolley, a bus, an elevated train, two suburban trains, and then walk along a highway for about 2.5 blocks to get to work.

The job paid $10/hr. (Ok., so I was making about what I was spending to get to and from work... but what did I know... I was 17!) Apparently, I should have stuck with Glick, & done a cost/benefit analysis, and not made this move.

Anywho, at the new job, I learn how to cold-call people from a telecommunications data center. I sell a variety of products... but the only one that I can remember today is the "accidental death and dismemberment insurance" policies that I sold. While there I felt pretty good, because I was making what seemed like good $$ at the time; I was in a professional setting, in the "nice part of town"; and, all of my co-workers are adults.
Unfortunately, there were some negatives: 
1) Clients always complained that despite what we were trained to tell them, "You can't cancel the policy" when you decide that you no longer want insurance;
2) I had no friends at work, because none of the people there were my age.
3) Some over-thirty dude kept striking up random, overly-smiley-faced conversation with me, and at the time... that crept me the Hell out!
4) The route home was different from the route to work, from school. It’s dark, and through a worse neighborhood.

So, after about three ½ months (almost a semester), I get off of the elevated train, to catch the bus home. The bus stop is directly under the “El”, and it’s located in one of the desperately poor parts of town. Two kids lean against the wall behind me, and they begin a conversation that goes something like this:

Kid #1: "Hey man, should we do it? Should we do it?"
Kid #2: "Aw, I don't know man, I just got out of jouve'."

At this point, I casually glance behind me to see what these people look like, to discern if they're talking about me; and, to determine if I think that they’re f.o.s. They looked like they couldn't have been more than 14. But, if I am being completely honest here, I think that they could have been as young as 8 & 9. I determined that they were not a threat, and so I continued to wait for my bus. After what seemed like 5 or 10 minutes, no bus came, and the chatter continued.

Kid #2?: "I don't know man?"
Kid #1?: "Come on, come on... what do think?."

I crossed the street, went into the video store, and picked out some movies.

Me: "Holy crap!" I’m thinking. “Did they just show up inside this video store? No way! What the heck are they up to? Maybe they just think it's a good idea, just get some videos and go home. But they’re too young to get a video card. Maybe they're just messing with me. Maybe they decided they should rob the video store instead of bugging me. Whatever the case, I’m out of here.”

I was carrying my uber-heavy back-pack, and a briefcase with my sales scripts, client contact cards, and work schedule and was wearing a skirt-suit, and high heels, which makes me wonder, “Why did I think, ‘Forget the bus, I’ll just walk home’”.

But it didn’t much matter, because, I got about 5 feet out of the store, when I felt like really cold liquid was running down the side of my head. I reached up, and felt nothing... but I was sure that my head was bleeding (I guess it was internal). Roughly, at the same time I could feel that the earring that had been dangling from the ear on that side of my face was gone. Also, a giant brick appeared on the ground in front of me, and so I quickly did the math; ... Those _ u _ _ e _ _ had hit me in the head with a brick and stolen one of my over-priced gold earrings!

Both of these kids were now running in the opposite direction, and all of the adults on the street (and there were many) just stood there watching. I gave chase... but only got about ½ block before my high heels relented. It was at that moment when I noticed the pay-phone (You don't see too many of those any more.) and called 911.

The police arrived in a heartbeat, and amazingly... just then some other kids showed up, saying, "I saw everything. I know who did it. They live on [xyz] street." The cops were psyched. We went to their block, which was located in the direction that the kids had run. However, when we got there, we realized that the witnesses had not given us an exact address, and there were no kids in sight. Interestingly, though, about mid-block as we cruised, an emaciated, obviously crack-addicted woman rushed out into the middle of the block. She raised her arm, to stop the cops to say, "My boys didn't do nothin'. They didn't do nothin'." Double negatives aside, she had no idea that she was practically giving them up. Then it was my turn to act outside of my interests. The boys strayed into the street, and the cops looked at me and said, "Can you positively identify these kids?" I just looked at the kids, then turned to the cops and said, "... but, I was hit from behind." One of the cops shook his head disapprovingly, and the other decided to give me a reprieve, and a fresh opportunity to revise my answer. Now he spoke to me in a tone befitting a person enrolled in Business English, “Y o u   h a v e  t o  s a y  t h a t  c a n  p o s i t i v e l y  i d e n t i f y  t h e m." I got it... when he first had asked. However, I couldn't imagine perjuring myself in court later... and it just didn't feel right. I mean... their mom was on crack; life was tough enough for them. Maybe my earring could buy them something, instead of just weighing down my ear. So, I said, "No; I didn’t really see them that well."

Returning to the point, I’m a big believer in signs/indicators, and I took this incident as a warning from the cosmos that that should be my last day working in the boondocks, making that trek, and coming home on a variety of modes of public transportation, in the dark. I never went back.

And”... as one of my professors used to say, “thar we sit.”