I recently had the experience of turning down a job I had agreed to do because another opportunity presented itself. The first job, an opera, would have paid me $1800 for six weeks of my time, plus my travel and onsite housing expenses. They could provide a sewing machine and basic supplies, but they were currently in discussions as to which part of the lobby or rehearsal hall they could find space for an ironing board and a sewing machine. The job description included the design, alterations, maintenance, and then wardrobe run crew for a large opera, in addition to the oversight of the apprentice company production’s costume needs.
The second job offer, a teaching job, will pay me $5400 for nine weeks of my time, allows me to have my nights and weekends free, and lets me design my own curriculum for a roster of eager kids who want to learn how to make puppets and masks and props and costumes. It also allows me to take a smaller design job on the side, and gives me the chance to work with a friend whom I’ve been dying for an opportunity to collaborate with.
It was a no-brainer. I would have loved to go to an unfamiliar part of the country, work with some amazing new people, swim in the river, design my first opera. I would also like to eat more than just canned tuna every meal, and stop dodging collection calls from my student loan agency.
When I phoned the director, she understood completely, and urged me to contact the producer, who now has four months to find a replacement. When I contacted the producer, she questioned my “loyalty and integrity,” and asked the question “If everyone jumps ship for the next job, whether it be higher-paying or more prestigious, then how do you define ‘trust’?”
I’ve been swirling around Timon of Athens in my brain for months now. Sitting in a room listening to the actors try to unpack it, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the parallels to my own life, of the lives of the people in the room, of the lives of countless other people who have been impacted by the economic downturn.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the play: Timon of Athens is the nicest, richest dude in the city, surrounded by friends, giving lavish dinners and tossing off gifts and jewels to everyone he meets. In the very first scene, Timon meets a Poet and a Painter, two characters who are acutely aware that if the richest guy in town sees and likes their work, their own fortunes could take a drastic turn for the better.
At a wedding I attended recently, populated by many former theatre majors, I was struck by the number of times I had variants of the same conversation:
“So… remind me, what do you do again?”
“I’m a costume designer.”
“… No, but…. for money?”
I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t had a day job in years. I piece it together: Design jobs. Teaching jobs. Running-around-backstage jobs.
I have flexibility and options. I choose my own work hours. I accept or decline jobs as I see fit. I’m incredibly fortunate that my name and my work have permeated this community; I haven’t actively sought out design work in two years and offers still come my way. I work in my pajamas a lot. It’s glorious.
I am also, quite frankly, exhausted. Choosing my own hours is a synonym for choosing to work as many of them as my body and physics will allow. I accept as many jobs as I can, because I am terrified that there will not be another. I eat in my car more than I care to admit. At the end of this season, I will have designed 14 plays, two dance concerts, and one large-scale costumed gala, on top of marketing/web duties for the PAC, oddball stitching jobs, the occasional box office or wardrobe gig. I routinely work 70+ hour weeks. This year, I’ll make less money than I did as an apprentice.
You shall perceive/How you mistake my Fortunes: I am wealthie in my Friends.
In the second act, Timon’s lost everything. His personality shifts; he becomes an angry misanthrope, disavowing money entirely, railing against his former friends who would not bail him out when he needed it.
I was having coffee recently with an acquaintance, someone about my own age, another artist friend. I expressed that I had been feeling a little down about myself and my career lately. She looked shocked. “But… but you’re so successful. I mean, you work all the time. You’re booked so far in advance. That must be amazing.”
I was stunned. I feel like I’m constantly teetering on the brink of disaster, that all it will take is one more car repair or one more bounced check to put me into a tailspin. I’ve joked with friends in similar predicaments that we all have canned goods stocked up for just such times; the next time we all realize we have 87 cents to our name, at least we can pool our resources and cobble a stew together. I’ve been feeling nothing like a success. Yet in that moment, I saw myself the way that others might – young, constantly surrounded by art, challenged by my work, doing the exact thing that I had set out to achieve when I moved here nearly five years ago. That reality is wonderful. I’d like to exist there more often.
I must not break my back/to heale his finger.
The synopsis of Timon is pretty … well, basic, right? Guy gives his friends a bunch of money. He runs out of money and asks them to bail him out. They don’t. He loses his mind and runs off to the woods to curse the names of his false, flattering friends forever.
It doesn’t make the friends look so great.
At least, that’s what I thought until I sat in rehearsal, the harsh words from the opera producer still storming around my brain. I suddenly found myself sympathizing with the villains. The poet and the painter in this play can come across as kind of douchey. And yet I found myself understanding where they come from. Of course they’re hanging out near the rich folks, hoping they’ll see their work validated, hoping they’ll gain a scrap of recognition, a sale to a wealthy patron. It’s what artists have essentially done throughout history. It’s rooted in this gnarly power dynamic – the person who needs money is constantly and acutely aware of the person who can provide it. Art as a commodity. The artist as a product. It’s the perfect storm that leads to the kind of situation I described earlier – I jumped ship for a better opportunity, without thinking twice. I felt shitty about it. But I wanted to eat.
I’m no better than those fictional characters at all, actually.
There’s a nuance to this part of the process, and I have so much to learn. Everyone in this business has all kinds of advice, some useful, some confounding – Negotiate up for more money. Accept only jobs worth your time. You’re building a career, you have to say yes to every opportunity. Take fewer jobs and get something part-time and steady! Maybe you should just go back to school for awhile.
I don’t have the answers. But it’s reassuring to know that these aren’t new problems. If Shakespeare was writing about this 400 years ago – it means that artists have been asking these questions for literally hundreds of years. It means that there is a relevancy to producing this play, here and now. The language is different, but people have stayed pretty much the same. I don’t know if Shakespeare has the answers either, but if nothing else, it really helps to be in a room with other people focused on asking the same questions, muddling through it together, both onstage and off.
And hey, if anyone reading this has the answers to all these questions, give me a call sometime. I really would like to know if anyone else has figured this out. (Although … I can’t pay you for it right now. Will you take a check?)
Philadelphia Artists’ Collective