In For a Penny: I Die a little Inside

Charles Lewis III, waiting to be picked.

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“The problem is that those of us who are lucky enough to do work that we love are sometimes cursed with too damn much of it.”
― Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists

You ever get the feeling that you’re the one kid on the playground not picked to play kickball? Never mind the fact that they actually need you in order to have an even number of players on both teams; or that you’ve been practicing by kicking pinecones and have gotten pretty good at it; or that you’ve run around the yard just to prove you can run bases. No, all that matters is that the self-appointed captains have filled each of their teams with all of their friends. They don’t even pick you last, they just don’t pick you at all.

That’s what it feels like trying to find a good job these days. My skills are honed and demonstrable, colleagues (to my knowledge) all vouch for me, and I have at least twice as much experience as most of the folks who already work at the companies for which I apply. But clearly I’m not kissin’ the right asses because there’s no reason for me to have been without a full-time job for this long. The only thing more frustrating than not getting a response to my application is to get so far along in the interview process that they’re practically dangling the job in front of me, only for them to suddenly send an automated rejection letter. (I know they’re automated because every company sends the same damn one, word for word.)

I got several such letters this week. I know they shouldn’t get me down, but in addition to having been at this for quite a few years, they were altogether a helluva buzzkill for what was otherwise a week of good news. I stared at my laptop wondering if perhaps I were victim of a previous employer badmouthing me to other companies, maybe my lack of college degree being an immediate turn-off, or if maybe the fact that I have been out of work so many years (minus some part-time copywriting) means I’m somehow unworthy to work for this or that company. Whatever the answer is, I’m no closer to being hired than I was before applying.

“But, Charles,” you ask, “what has any of this to do with theatre, as suggested by this website being named ‘SF Theater Pub’?”

Well, imaginary-reader-with-whom-I’m-apparently-on-a-first-name-basis, that’s the good news I mentioned above. I’ve suddenly found myself with an overabundance of theatre projects to serve as a distraction from my lack of gainful employment. As I was awaiting the reactions from all of the “real world” jobs to which I’d applied, I’d gone through two incredibly brisk rehearsals of my Olympians play; I’d spent several weeks rewriting it for fear that it was too long, only for my actors to read it well enough that it clocked in at 25 minutes. I did some rehearsing at the SF Opera and got swept away in one of Verdi’s loveliest arias. I submitted to audition for the generals of a major company only to be told it wasn’t necessary because they know what I can do – for once, I took that as a compliment. On Monday, I auditioned at another major company only to get an e-mail the next day saying they’d love to have me understudy in their new show (I said “yes”).

In addition to that, I caught up with several acquaintances, tried processing Stupid Ghost more than a week later, and began checking my calendar for when I could get away to see fellow ‘Pub writer Anthony Miller’s show Terror-Rama II (co-written and directed by ‘Pub all-stars Claire Rice and Colin Johnson, respectively).

All of this has proven to be wonderfully fulfilling artistically, but such fulfillment does little to keep one financially stable. Would that I were as able to find myself in a cubicle (offices still have cubicles, right?) as I often as I find myself on stage, I’d feel as if I were appropriately balancing the “adult” side of my life with the “childish” part. Instead, it feels like I’m letting the kid take over as the adult refuses to speak to me. An oversimplification, I know, but I need the fulfillment (as well as the security) of a job as much as that of an artistic venture.

And yes, I’ve often thought about a line of work that does both – especially since my new understudy role will be the second to give me a significant number of EMC points. Right now, just getting a regular job is my goal; making a living as an artist is my dream.

During a few hours of downtime this week, I sat down to rewatch the documentary Listen to Me, Marlon, using personal recordings and home films from Marlon Brando. At several points he waxes on about the “value” of an actor, both in terms of contracted salary as well as how they function in society. In regard to the latter, he says that an actor’s ability to become anything makes them invaluable to people who believe they are only one thing, namely their job. The audience can live vicariously through the actor or curse their actions to the high heavens, but the ability to take an audience member away from their life and stir up such emotions is a skill to be valued.

Sometimes when I wonder what good I’m doing for the world as a writer, actor, and director of theatre, I think back to my first major role: I played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Actors weren’t exactly the most valued of citizens in Shakespeare’s time and Bottom is part of a troupe of terrible actors who put on shitty shows. But he still finds himself part of a whimsical scheme involving supernatural beings and ends the play bringing joy to newly-married royals with he and his troupe’s terrible performance. Even pawns are valuable in a game of chess.

I look forward to the day when I can fully support my artistic endeavors with an appropriate level of income. Until then, I’ll have fun occasionally playing rich guys since I can’t be one myself.

Charles Lewis III touches on the “work vs. art” theme in his Olympians script.
You can see it tonight 8pm at The EXIT Theatre. Tix are $12 online, $10 at the door.
Raffle prize tix are $5

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In For a Penny: Whose Job are You?

Charles Lewis III, finding his place.

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“No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in his choice of profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out ‘I am baffled!’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.”
– Charlotte Brontë, The Professor

I had a job interview last week. It was your usual fare: questions about past experience; asking what I’d bring to the position; explanation of where the company is headed – I’m sure you’ve all been through it. What was different for me was that it was the first interview in which my theatre work was brought into focus. Usually when I mention it, it’s in response to questions about what I do outside of work. Saying that I do theatre often results in blank stares, condescending raised eyebrows, and the occasional question of “Have you ever done any real acting?”

My theatre experience wasn’t just a random topic of last week’s interview, it was central. It was the subject on which we spoke for the entirety of my time in the building. It was the first time in my life in which I had the opportunity to possibly do the one thing that I’ve often thought wasn’t possible: turn my love of theatre into a full-time job.

There’d just be one catch: I wouldn’t be as active in theatre as I am now.

It wasn’t just a question of time consumption – although that would have played a role – but it was the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to see the Bay Area theatre scene from the inside-out anymore. I’d be in a position that would have fundamentally changed my role in the “ecosystem” of the local theatre community. I’ve seen that community from almost every possible angle – actor, writer, director, stage manager, tech, box office manager, company member, auditor, set construction – and that includes the past work I’ve done that directly related to the new position. The difference is that this would permanently place me into a role I’d probably enjoy, but make it nearly impossible to do the theatre work I’ve come to love.

I walked out of the interview the same way I walked in: knowing that there are certain opportunities that only present themselves once, if ever. What makes those opportunities so unique isn’t just what you hope to gain from them, but also what you’d have to give up in order to do so. “Nothing important is ever easy,” as they say. When I finally got home after the interview – and an evening rehearsal – I came to the decision that if this opportunity was mine for the taking, then I’d go after it head-on and have no regrets about doing so.

Of course, the point of someone interviewing for a job is that the decision isn’t in their hands to begin with.

On Monday I got an e-mail from my interviewer. I didn’t get the position. I replied telling him how grateful I was to have interviewed that I hoped he’d contact me immediately if anything changed. I was disappointed that I wasn’t hired for a great job, but I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to make such a major change in my theatre life. I’ve spent the majority of entries in this column pondering my position in the world of theatre, both in the Bay Area and beyond. I do this because each day I’m more certain of it than I was the day before.

The evening after I received that e-mail, I went to rehearsal for the full production for which I’m rehearsing. The day before, I’d rehearsed my role in a play for this week’s ShortLived (a play written by fellow ‘Pub columnist Anthony Miller and directed Colin Johnson, who’s writing and directing the ‘Pub show for May). The day before that, I saw the earlier round of ShortLived. I have a few auditions coming up and I’m making a schedule to finally start writing plays I’ve had on the back burner for quite some time now. That’s my place in our theatre “ecosystem,” and I kinda like it here.

I first named this column “In For a Penny” because I’m someone who will fully dedicate himself to something once he’s committed. Right now, that’s being an active theatre artist. Soon it might be taking a different role. Whatever it is, you can’t say I didn’t give it my all.

To observe Charles Lewis III in the aforementioned “ecosystem,” see him tonight and all this weekend in Round 4 of ShortLived at PianoFight. It also stars fellow ‘Pub members Sam Bertken & Andrew Chung and is biting commentary of contemporary SF. Give us the votes! All the votes!!!