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.

9 comments on “Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Work-Art Balance

  1. miltonpat says:

    I was delighted to work with an actor who appeared on Broadway in the 1990’s and now is working in regional theatre — and is a part-time nurse. She puts both of those things in her program bio. “I’m proud to be a nurse,” she said, “That work helps inform me as a human being and an actor.”

    It really made me think. (I’m a marketer/playwright and vice versa.) Worlds can collide, Chekhov was also a doctor: it’s okay.

    • sftheaterpub says:

      From Stuart Bousel: Personally, though having a “day job” and an art life can be tough and exhausting and frustrating sometimes (sort of like having any job and, say, a kid), I have always seen the upside is that I get to really make art and prioritize art in my life- and many of the people I know in the entertainment industry don’t feel like they are often blessed with the same luxury. Thanks for my day job, I don’t have to direct plays I don’t like, or take acting jobs in shows I don’t like or with companies I don’t care for, just to pay bills. I get to ask, “Will I enjoy this and do I believe in this?” as the first question before I take on a project, and not, “Will this advance my career? Will this pay enough?” And then when something does pay or advance my career, it’s icing on the cake!

      • chasbelov says:

        I’ve been blessed to have a day job that I love, even if the downside is that I don’t usually have something to escape from (I started playwriting as an escape, though, when my two co-workers were laid off over two consecutive years with three months notice each, and discovered that I enjoyed doing it.)

        But from Stuart’s perspective, that means I don’t have to write plays I don’t love. Not that anyone’s ever offered me a commission, but I guess that means I don’t need to take any commission I don’t love, either.

  2. Alina Trowbridge says:

    Read Ursula Leguin on this subject. (Can’t remember the title; I’m not even sure I’m spelling her name right.) Her take is that having another job (she’s talking about raising a family, but it’s the same difference) gives you something to write about. And makes writing a part of life, not some isolated activity that suffocates for lack of reality. All time best job for writers: grant writing for a non-profit. You get to support a cause you care about, assure yourself meaning in life even if your plays are not yet changing the world, and sharpen your writing skills by writing all day every day. And you usually get more vacation than two weeks a year.

  3. Marissa says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. Alina, I agree that having a “day job” not related to the arts can be valuable because it ensures that I do not get stuck in a bubble where I only interact with other writers or theater people. And Stuart, I’ve often thought that one of the nicest things about being a playwright is that you never have to work on a show that you think is horrible, unlike, say, an actor who may get cast in a show that they despise. Good point that having a day job will allow said actor to be more choosy about the shows he does and only do work that he really believes in. Limitations can be a good thing…

    • Stuart Bousel says:

      Oh believe me, writers can definitely sell out too… I’ve definitely written some stuff just for the money- screen doctoring gigs, etc. It’s not the worst feeling in the world, but it does take time and energy away from what I should really be doing. Back in my early twenties, when I lived off a part time job, it was no big deal but now I can’t imagine giving up all that time (cause I have so much less of it) to something of such little value to my artistic aspirations…

  4. Marissa, I think this is a very important conversation. Thanks for starting it.

    I’m not sure whether I’m a good role model or not. I was an emerging playwright at 21. I am still (or perhaps more accurately, again) an emerging playwright at 56. In between, I’ve written a handful of full-length plays and a dozen or so shorter plays. Some of them are very good. Some of them have found an audience. For 25 years, I also pursued a full-time career doing something else I loved: teaching college, which, in some ways is a great job for a writer because you are surrounded by people who actually care about the stuff you care about. And there are summers. On the other hand, teaching requires a lot of the same kind of creative energy as writing. When I started teaching I thought I could kind of teach with my left hand and write with my right hand. No way. Teaching is too difficult and too important. Still, there were summers … and then I had children and found that summers got shorter and shorter … Now I’ve quit the “day job” (which was often a night and weekend job too) and the kids are launched in the world. I am, finally, a full-time playwright. I don’t know how this path might look to someone in her twenties. But I will say I’m a happy camper. I have the freedom to write whatever I choose. And at least a little less need to prove myself than I did in my twenties. My husband and I have nearly paid off the mortgage on the house and we’ve raised two amazing daughters (yeah, I put in my hours volunteering in their schools and cheering them on from the sidelines of sports fields and I loved it). And I think my writing is the better for the other passions I’ve pursued alongside of it.

    I also recommend Ursula Le Guin on the subject of being a parent and a writer. If I can find the article on line and post a link here, I will. (Or, maybe, someone else will find it first.)

    • Marissa says:

      Thanks for your comments. The Le Guin piece sounds great — although I feel like I’m not at the point where I can even think about how marriage or children will fit into this delicate balance!

      I have the greatest admiration for my friends who are teachers (as well as some envy for their summers off) but I can see how during the school year it would be difficult to pursue a creative passion alongside of teaching.

  5. […] for bringing this post to my attention via Twitter.) Ms. Duffy’s post connects somewhat to what I wrote about here two weeks ago and what Helen Laroche wrote last week – the lifestyle of being an artist with a day job. […]

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