Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Dr. John (Right Place, Wrong Time)

A former student of mine told me today that she has a job. Halfway through her first year in college and the department head has taken a shine to her. Luck of the draw...or being in the right place at the right time. For me, however, my career in theatre started by being in the right place at the wrong time.

Dream fingers....

I started out college as a Psychology major. The plan was to become a psychologist and help people. I'll just say that my family helped me make that decision. However, my first class I was placed in was a seminar class for freshmen that was an English/Theatre hybrid. I was the only "Techie" in the class. This was evident by the actor nature of the other students.

Actors are a different bunch. There's a great line from Mel Brooks' The Producers where Max is talking about actors with Leo. The accountant says, "Actors are not animals! They're human beings!" to which Max replies, "They are? You ever eaten with one?"
It's a great line...and it's true. Actors are a very different breed. They hold themselves differently, they talk differently, and they move differently. In all my years with actors, this has always been true. Seriously, just have a meal with a's an experience.

So here I am sitting in a room with a bunch of actor-wannabes (many with inflated egos) when the head of the tech department walks in.
"Sorry to interrupt," she says, "Does anyone here have any experience stage managing."
Now, had I been smart, I would have said nothing. However, my brain was not it is now.
Being that I was in the right place (but it must have been the wrong time) I raised my hand, and said, "I did stage management in high school."
This was not a lie. While I was in high school, I had run some shows, but not in the manner that they wanted. They wanted a guy who had run auditions, planned production meetings, and run tight shows. I had done mostly some of that, but not all, and my school did not have a strong theatre program. It was one guy who pretty much had lost his mind in the 70's.

Still, I raised my hand and said it was me. And I was whisked away faster than the President after someone yells," GUN!" She took me to the basement of building, which, look a good tech setup was dark, warm, and smelled like burning flesh and dust. The room I went to would be the tech head's office. It was a small cubicle at the back of the costume shop. You couldn't see the wall, because it was covered in drawings, and besides a too old computer, there was an old coffee pot that was green with mold. To this day, I shudder to think of how she could drink coffee out of it. I never saw her make any, and I never saw her drink any.

"So," she says, "We're doing The Importance of Being Earnest. We have a brand new director and no stage manager. Auditions are tomorrow. Can you make a meeting this afternoon."
The shock of the fact that I had my first college job was sinking in. I had only been in classes for ten minutes when I was working on my first show. To make matters worse, my brain would stop spinning for a minute for me to hear the tech director say:
"...And they may not listen to you. I mean...after all...we've NEVER had a freshman stage manager do the first show. That being said, you can't get overwhelmed or you'll be killed. Either by Shanna or Rick."
Shanna was the director. She had graduated from Wash U, but returned to direct as a favor. She was actually very calm about the situation. She had four weeks to get the show ready. Rick, however, would hate me from the moment I stepped into the first production meeting. He sat down, looked around the room, and zeroed in on me. "Are you a freshman? Is this guy a fucking freshman," he would ask, then he would laugh. "We're fucked," he finished. This was his supreme confidence in my ability after knowing me for twenty seconds.

He and I would have a contemptuous relationship for the next four years.

The show went well. We were fortunate to have a good cast, and an able crew. Because I could actually run the show, the department decided to consider letting freshmen take more important positions earlier. In fact, of the the eight shows put on that year, six had freshman stage managers.
And because I had taken a position so early, I was able to turn that into thirty-two productions (not including films) before I left college.

All because I was in the right place at the wrong time.

So the moral here is simple:
If opportunity is knocking, open the door. Even if you feel tremendous fear, open that door.
And do whatever you can to look good. If they need a person to work lighting, and you have put a light up on the pipe and plugged it them. Learn. Never stop learning.

Of course what do I know? I'm the guy who licked a live wire. I could be wrong.



boo said...

I have opened the door, I will let you know what is behind it once I can see it.

Laura said...

I did open the door (complete with paralyzing fear) my junior year, and realized that one thing you need is adequate teachers. A recurring theme on this blog I believe... I didn't do as well as I'd hoped, but not through lack of trying, but partial lack of proper instruction.

Ironic said...

Um...ouch...I think.