Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Work-Art Balance

Marissa Skudlarek provides service with a smile.

One afternoon when I was about eleven years old, I overheard my mom talking on the phone to a friend.

“Oh yes, Marissa still wants to be an actress,” my mom said. “But I don’t think she’s nice enough to be a waitress.”

These words stung at the time, and have stuck with me ever since. I was incensed at my mother’s assumption that being an actress really means working a low-wage, service-industry job while going on occasional auditions. (I, of course, was confident that I’d be an Oscar-winning movie star before the age of thirty.) And on top of that, Mom thought I wasn’t even nice enough to succeed as a waitress? Could her opinion of me be any lower?

I now understand that waitressing is a tough job and I probably don’t have the patience for it. Furthermore, Mom’s comment was in line with other things my parents said about my artistic ambitions. They tended to blend encouragement with practical advice. It was fine if I wanted to pursue the arts, they said, as long as I had some means of supporting myself. They wanted me to be happy and stable, not eating ramen in bohemian squalor.

My parents understood that actors often take waitstaff jobs because they need flexibility to attend auditions and rehearsals – but they feared that these kinds of jobs would only bore and frustrate me, sapping the energy I needed to pursue my art. To that end, they were practically ecstatic when I announced that I still wanted to pursue theater, but as a playwright, not as an actor. I was careful to point out that playwrights don’t need to run off to auditions midday, so I could have a respectable, bourgeois office job! My parents were overjoyed at the thought that their daughter might actually have insurance, benefits, and a 401K.

During college, I perhaps could have thought more about my career path, but on graduation day, my plan was basically “Move to a cool city. Work in an office. Write plays.” And even though I graduated straight into the 2008 financial crisis – I’m probably one of the only Americans to gain a job, not lose one, in October 2008 – I have had the great good fortune to make that plan work.

So, this week, I celebrate my fourth anniversary of joining the working world. Four solid years of forty-hour-a-week, two-weeks-of-vacation-a-year, sit-in-a-cubicle-all-day work.

Sometimes I feel like an anomaly in both of the worlds I inhabit. At work, I’m the weird artsy person; among theater people, I’m the corporate yuppie. It isn’t always easy to balance a full-time office job with my desire to make and experience all the great art that I possibly can. Nor is my job always stimulating, though it probably burns me out less than a life of waitressing or freelancing would. Indeed, I think I need the discipline of a day job: keeping to a regular schedule rather than giving into my messy and insomniac urges.

My day jobs have even taught me some practical lessons for use in my personal life and theater career. For instance, my current job emphasizes customer service and responsiveness — we must respond to client emails within 24 hours. Since taking this job, I’ve become far more responsible and proactive when it comes to answering my personal emails – and I get even more annoyed when other people, or, particularly, organizations, are slow to respond. We theater people may pride ourselves on our bohemianism and our relaxed, non-corporate way of life, but in a city where everyone is increasingly tied to his or her smartphone and expects a prompt response, flakiness is a recipe for failure.

I’ve also been fortunate to work for employers who think it’s pretty cool that I’m pursuing an artistic passion in my spare time. They see no contradiction between having a full-time job and being a playwright. Actually, in my experience, it’s other theater artists who can have trouble understanding the decisions I’ve made. I’m not saying that everybody does this; lots of other artists in this town work in offices to support themselves, and many people show understanding and approval of my choices. Still, there are people who express surprise that I don’t want to go to graduate school. Friends who wonder why am I doing administrative work in a cubicle rather than using my writing skills to become a freelance journalist or blogger. People who can’t understand why I don’t use one of my ten precious vacation days per year to attend Theater Bay Area’s annual conference (which is always on a Monday).

Most annoyingly, this spring when I copy-edited the Bay One-Acts anthology, I was initially told “You can get the proof copies on Monday night, make your edits, and give them back to the layout artist on Wednesday night.” When I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t enough time to adequately proofread a 200-page book,” they acted surprised that “forty-eight hours” was not enough time to get the job done.

“I work nine to five,” I said, irritated at the assumption that I didn’t have a full-time professional job and could just drop everything on short notice to do the copy-editing.

Much has been written recently about “work-life balance,” whether women can “have it all” in terms of career and family. Maybe, in a similar way, we need to talk more about whether, and how, it is possible to have “work-art balance.” I generally consider it uncouth to talk about money, so even when I’m curious how a fellow artist earns his or her living, I often refrain from asking about it. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in an office, it is that a successful business allows its employees to share their “best practices” and help one another improve. To that end, people like me should be more willing to talk about how we balance our day jobs with our artistic passions. How we make both the money we need to survive, and the art that we need to thrive.

Marissa Skudlarek is a paralegal by day and playwright by night. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.