Get (Half) a Job

02.24.11 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, conversation starter, ideas, playwrights, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

I don’t like to talk too much about the employment situation I’ve enjoyed for the last nine or so years, because I’m not inclined to brag… but the truth is, for a playwright—for any sort of artist, really—I’ve got it good: very good.

Of late, though, I’ve begun to think it’s time I talked more about it. Given how hard it is to support oneself as a playwright—there are too many sources to quote on that front, but the place to start is still Outrageous Fortune—and given the current culture for governmental support of the arts, we need to consider ways we might re-invent what an artist’s work life looks like. (I was particularly moved by the candid confessions this young playwright offered on HowlRound.com, as well as the spirited comments his blog post generated.)

So, here’s my situation (without going into too many details): I have a 25 hour/week job doing something for which I’m well trained that pays me enough of a salary to support myself and contribute to my family’s well-being, though not much more than that. The job comes with health insurance, which is spectacular, and plenty of vacation time, plus a generous helping of other benefits, too, including things like a 401K and paternity leave. And here’s the kicker: I like it, at least as much as anyone ever likes a job, if not a good bit more. I learn a great deal, and I feel creatively challenged, and I work with terrific people.

With only 25 hours of work during the week, however, I’ve still got plenty of time to write. I usually give my mornings to playwriting; I write in my study at home till about noon, head to my office for five or so hours, and then return home for dinner with the family. (I put in my share of overtime, of course, like any white collar worker, but that’s the gist of it.) My day has balance. My bank account has balance. My life, in general, has balance.

I realize how spectacularly lucky I am. I know there aren’t a lot of companies out there trying to hire people on similar terms… but why aren’t there?

Believe it or not, there’s no actual rule that says a stable career must demand 40 hours a week.  In fact, the idea that every single job in the world must be in performed in the same amount of time is ridiculous, isn’t it? If employers were thinking flexibly and creatively, you’d have to assume that more of them would realize this. Few of them, however, do.

So convince them! I didn’t just walk into an office and expect the deal I have. I developed a skill set over many years, alongside my work as a playwright; held a few traditional full-time jobs for a while, building up my resume; and eventually came to merit (if I may be so bold) the opportunity I now have. I don’t take it for granted, either; I work my tail off, and I continue to do whatever I can to earn the arrangement. I don’t walk around wishing I could be writing full-time; I’m not waiting for five o’clock so I can punch out and head home. As I’ve said, I like what I do.

Naturally, there are weeks during the year when one or the other of my careers gets so demanding I need to pull back from the other. I take vacation from my company, or I grant myself vacation from my work as a playwright. There are times while I’m home writing that I answer emails from the office, and times while I’m at the office that I’ll answer a query about a play. I find a way to give both careers the attention and respect they deserve.

The truth is, I’m not a half-time playwright or a half-time employee: I’m a full-time member of both worlds, in my heart and mind. And I find they echo and influence one another in ways I’d never predicted. Ideas I encounter in my day job become fodder for my storytelling; the creative application of narrative in playwriting helps me frame my thoughts with clients.

This is why I would prefer NOT to hold a full-time theater job… or even a half-time theater job similar to the one I now hold. I think it makes me a better writer to pass half of every day in the company of people who think about very different things. My mind and my heart are enriched a great deal. If I were offered a full-time “staff playwriting” position, similar to the positions recently created by Arena Stage—as some have argued should be standard operating procedure in the theater—I would probably have to think a great deal before accepting. Might it stunt my writing to live and work in a theater-only bubble? That’s my fear.

If I were a nationally-prominent arts leader—say, the head of the NEA, for example—I would be devoting my time to figuring out how to incent businesses to create more positions like mine, with the sole purpose of giving them to artists. (The NEA should directly fund the playwriting half of my day, too, but that’s a different story.) I would advocate for arts education programs of all varieties to begin training students to take on two careers, rather than one. Most importantly, in the spirit of the Heath brothers’ recent smash hit Switch—a book that has, curiously, been immensely influential in both of the spheres in which I work—I would look at the bright spot I’ve just outlined and try to clone it, too.

Because I shouldn’t be the only one who has it this good.

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  • Great post, Gwydion! I agree that you’re very lucky and would love to be in your situation. My job security is pretty good and and I live comfortably. I think one of the reasons I gave up my Equity card was because I finally accepted the idea that I can be successful as an association professional AND an artist, that my union status does not serve as a badge for my talent or contributions to my art, and that mama needs a retirement account and steady health insurance! I know my path isn’t for everyone, but again, the path of a professional actor isn’t necessarily mine. It’s took a while for me to determine that.

    I also like working with folks outside the “theatre bubble.” The industry I’m work for is almost at the other end of the spectrum from the arts in terms of perspective, culture, etc. I think it just increases my breadth of focus when I deal with folks who concentrate on productivity, technology, and really big trucks. While sometimes I feel like a fish out of water, most of the time I like what I do.

    So I’ve got it good too–you’ve just got it a little bit better than me 🙂

    • How great to see comments from TRB and TBR back to back!

      Also great to see that I’m not the only one trying to live a life that breaks some artistic/creative conventions.

  • Tonya Beckman Ross

    Thank you so much for talking about how having another life outside the theatre is good for you. Too many actors I know view having a day job as a sign of failure.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever give up having a part-time “civilian” gig. It keeps my feet on the ground, keeps the theatre-related drama from seeming important, and also makes me feel lucky for having a life as an artist.

    • You really did say it well, TBR. A day job is not a failure: it’s a perfectly reasonable choice to embrace stability, which is (after all) the real route to creativity. The starving artist myth does need to die, and living a grounded life, as you’ve described, will help that happen…

  • I’d also like to recommend “Ignore Everybody,” by Hugh MacLeod, who talks sensibly about pursuing passion & supporting yourself.

  • At the suggestion of Kate Foy (@DramaGirl), I wanted to share this link to a brilliant post on the same subject from a slightly different perspective: