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.


Dayne Gingrich said...

Loving this, and will definitely be following.

Thank you for stopping by Coach Your Mind.


AJAB said...

Thanks Dayne!!!

I really enjoyed my visit to your blog, and am following excitedly ; )


Just Playin' said...

Nice start for a book? Keep adding to it. Thanks for hunting me down and finding my new URL address! I'm trying to confuse everybody!

AJAB said...

Wow, thanks! That's what my husband said, and I thought that he was just being him: being nice:) I'm glad that many of us have found you again. Good luck on the new start!!!