For the Aspiring Performer

My oldest son has a plan for his future. Which is good because he’s sixteen and finishing his sophomore year of high school. Two more years stand between now and graduation. Adulthood is creeping up on him quicker than the ghosts lurking over the shoulders of unsuspecting characters in one of the Conjuring movies. A plan is a great thing for a kid his age to possess.

Christian will be taking some construction arts classes next year and intends to focus on electrical engineering after completing high school. He knows electricians make good money and the career is fairly recession proof so he plans on doing his apprenticeship, working as a journeyman, then becoming a master electrician. If reality was a D&D game, electricians are wizards and he aims to max out his character’s stats.
image courtesy of vforvegard

However, if he was a D&D character in real life, there’s a bit of a bard deep inside his spirit, waiting for its time to shine. Last fall, Christian participated in competitive drama. He and his partner won second place in their district and fourth place in the state of Idaho. Much like I did when I was his age, he’s found freedom in the theatrical world. He feels he can most be himself by pretending to be someone else. In addition to his dreams of working as a master electrician, he also want to continue acting after he graduates high school. He added a new item on his bucket list - he wants a role in a major studio movie, even if it is as an extra.

Electrical work to make money. Theatrical work to bring him joy. If you ask me, it sounds like a good plan.

On a recent trip to Seattle, Christian and I had a couple hours to break away from the rest of the family and spend some time together, just the two of us. Our schedule wouldn’t allow us to drive up to Marysville for a tour of my hometown so I thought the next best thing would be an introduction to a former classmate of mine. As an added bonus, this old friend has been active in the Seattle theater scene for most of the past quarter century. I messaged Dan and asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee and let my son pick his brain. He enthusiastically agreed.

Dan is a great guy. I knew my son could learn a lot for him and I hoped to share a few laughs reminiscing about the times we shared in the MPHS drama club. What I got (and didn’t expect) was to hear him dispense advice for me as well as my son. We had a great conversation that lasted longer than I thought it would. While my 42 year old brain can’t remember everything we discussed, there are a few key bits of guidance Dan contributed which I found helpful, if not inspiring.

Much of what he shared came from the perspective of an experienced actor. However, his counsel is applicable in any artistic or performance industry. From musicians to photographers to writers, he provided personal anecdotes and recommendations worth consideration.

If you or your kids are performers - either as an amateur or a professional, take some time to absorb these highlights from the time Christian and I spent with Dan.

1. Don’t stop learning. Christian mentioned interest in studying karate and asked if it would be helpful. Dan said absolutely. He participated in competitive fencing and his experience there led to roles he might not have gotten without learning how to fence. He also talked about how being bilingual opens up opportunities nonexistent for English only speakers. Dan informed Christian any specialty skills gained make you more valuable to people who want to hire you.

2. Fail in a safe place. Everyone makes mistakes - especially when starting out as a performer. Find ways to hone your craft in a small space before going big. Join student or small community productions, film videos for YouTube or TikTok, livestream on Twitch, attend open mike nights, book shows at dive bars where the dozen in attendance are probably drunk and don’t care if you are terrible. Those places offer low stakes with minimal consequence for failure and give you the freedom to screw up and keep going. Successes in these small spaces build confidence you need to be great when greatness matters.

3. Get involved. As a student, Christian has plenty of chances to be involved with theater and arts programs through his school. Yet for those of us older than a teenager, there are still ways we can participate in our chosen crafts. For those wanting to act, Dan suggested community theaters are a great place to start. Writers have blogs, singers have YouTube. Involvement in civic organizations help you learn how things function behind the scenes, the etiquette, the traditions, all the things unseen by the audience. You don’t even need to be performing to be involved. Dan told Christian he should volunteer as a way to get his foot in the door.

4. Find a mentor. Mentors could be a teacher; Dan and I both had a phenomenal mentor in Mr K when we were at MPHS. Outside of school, there are coaches and trainers available to hire. If you’re involved in community organizations, it’s possible to find someone there who is older and wiser willing to usher you to bigger and better things.

5. Do the scary stuff. “As an actor,” Dan said, “if there’s something that scares me, it’s a good sign I should probably do it.” He wasn’t talking about the dangerous or potentially harmful king of scary - rather he was speaking of the roles and challenges that seem intimidating. He gave us the example of taking on comical parts after spending years considering himself as nothing more than dramatic actor. Doing things that seem daunting helps you grow and creates greater opportunities in the future.

6. Watch for red flags. Dan has learned to watch for troubling signs about producers and directors to avoid taking roles or participating in shows potentially problematic. For example, if they’re disorganized during an audition, the rehearsals and production will probably be disorganized too. If multiple friends and colleagues are warning you to not work with a particular person, there’s probably a valid reason for their words of caution. If people make too-good-to-be-true promises, it probably is too good to be true.

7. Learn when to say no. This was Dan’s answer when I asked him if there’s anything he would do differently. He talked about how not every opportunity is a good one. As a young or beginning creative worker, it’s easy to say yes to everything. You’re hungry for a gig and eager to prove yourself. Inevitably, everyone ends up working on projects they shouldn’t have accepted. Learning to say no helps reduce the number of times you look back in hindsight and regret doing this job or that gig.

8. Remember your power. In creative industries, there are people who think they possess all of the power as if they’re little demigods in the world of arts and entertainment. Agents, publishers, directors, producers. They act big and tough, presenting an image of unquestionable authority giving artists the only option to shut up and take whatever is offered. While it is true they have power, they don’t have it all. You have power too. They will research you before they offer you anything, you have the power to research them too. Study them, ask around for others who have worked with them to see what their experience was like. Look into the quality or other work they’ve done. Everyone has power and no one is more powerful than anyone else. If a director or a publisher uses their power in a way that is abusive or manipulative, you have the ultimate power to say no and decline working for or with them.

If you know Dan and have the chance to spend some time with him, I’d encourage you to do so. He’s filled with wit and wisdom. You will probably walk away from the conversation encouraged or motivated. Possibly both.

If you’re in the Seattle area, Dan will be a part of the cast for GreenStage’s return to live in-person performances with Shakespeare in the Park this summer. Please go see one of their shows and enjoy some of the culture the city has to offer.

Finally, regardless of where you live, please support your local arts community. Starving artists everywhere do what we do for people like you. After a year like 2020, your patronage is more important than ever.


What It’s Like to Be Me: Begin Again Pt 2, Contemplation

If divorce was the lowest point in my life, everything that followed would be an uphill climb. The emphasis here is with the word climb. While my health and happiness improved, it wasn’t an instant or easy transition. It involved a lot of contemplation and introspection. For a while, the only prayer I could manage to pray was “help this all make sense.” So I prayed it over and over until things started making sense.

Before I could become who I am now, I had to rediscover who I was. There was deconstruction and reconstruction. I argued with myself. I argued with God. If I were to build a better me, I had to uproot my flaws and admit my failures. These songs helped me find ways to express my weakest parts.

Wideawake: “Greener
Scott Leger opens this song with a common adage: “They say the grass is greener on the other side.” We all fight against comparison to some extent, and Scott described his battle in the second verse. “I struggle to make progress, it's a never ending fight.” He also says he has “doubts to fill the sky” and “an ocean full of failure.” I can relate.

Showbread: “Age of Insects
Walking back into church as a recent divorcee and newly minted single dad forced me to confront the weight of my mistakes. I often felt small, like a bug walking around “on insect legs beneath an unforgiving sun.” Thankfully, I was surrounded by a community filled with grace. They gave me the freedom to rediscover God and overcome my insecurities. This song brought me full circle, beginning with my circumstance at the time. “Thought you wouldn't recognize me in the black of soot and ash, Don't turn deaf unto my voice, there's one thing I want you to know: I have always loved you, though my life has never said so.” Then it returned me to my first love. It closes with a chorus we sang at church when I was a kid, “I love you Lord and I lift my voice to worship you, oh my soul rejoice, Take joy my King in what you hear, may it be a sweet sweet song in your ear.”

Heath McNease: “'Til We Have Faces
Disclaimer. I don’t like Heath McNease. Because of things I know about him, I don’t want to promote him or his work. I’ve unfollowed all of his social media outlets and deleted any music I’d previously purchased of his. All except this one song. I can’t escape it. Even though I struggle to separate who his is with the art he creates, there’s something about these words that haunted me. “Dead and buried, no respects, and no one cares, none there accept me. I haven't done enough for love, How could love accept me?” Before I could rebuild myself, I had to recognize the self loathing I allowed to take over my identity and embrace the loneliness of divorce as a gift that brought me closer to God. “It's cold and snowy nights that slowly fade from lonely days, but it's worth these frozen veins to see a perfect face. So dig the words right out of us 'til this cage of fragile ribs protecting us is shattered, gladly ground it back to dust.”

Listener: “Wooden Heart (Sea of Mist Called Skaidan)
The person who introduced me to this song described it as a song about grace – something I was in desperate need of at the time. This raw need for grace is laid bare in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever heard, “I am the barely-living son of a woman and man who barely made it, but we’re making it taped together on borrowed crutches and new starts, we all have the same holes in our hearts.” This is a song I keep coming back to every time I feel like I’m not good enough. It has made such a huge impact on my life especially the line, “This war-ship is sinking, and I still believe in anchors. Pulling fist fulls of rotten wood from my heart, I still believe in saviors.” Those words will be my next tattoo, with an anchor on one side and a cross on the other.

Demon Hunter: “I Will Fail You
My affinity for this song can be traced back to my brother who was the first to share it with me. As I sought to rebuild a new and better me, this song was my rock bottom looking up. It was on my mind as I forged new friendships. It echoed in my mind every time I made a mistake at work or didn’t live up to my kids’ expectations. I was even humming it to myself as I drove to my first date with Annie. “I will fail you of that I’m sure.” Perhaps I realized the knowledge of eminent failure would push me to do better. Knowing I would fail could have made successes sweeter. Or maybe my mindset took away the burden of trying to be perfect so I wouldn’t beat myself up for failing to attain perfection.


How to Insult a DJ in Three Easy Steps

Do you want to insult a DJ so badly they laugh at you? Do three things:

1. Offer them a job 
2. Burden them with a majority of the overhead cost 
3. Keep most of their earnings for yourself

Yay capitalism.

I am speaking from the perspective of a former professional DJ and an audiophile who has friends currently working as DJs. Over the last few years, I’ve also had the opportunity to return to the profession supporting one of my best friends as he’s launching his own entertainment company.

Music has always been therapeutic for me. Being able to share it is like a drug - simultaneously calms me and makes me feel high. The DJ environment is a safe place for me. If there is a way I could make a little extra money on the side, I would welcome the opportunity to return to the world of wedding receptions, school dances, and house parties. Secretly speaking (after writing) my dream job would be working as an in house DJ for a stadium or arena playing the music during baseball or hockey games.

With these ambitions in mind, I created a job alert for “disc jockey” on Indeed. If I could find a way to maintain my current employment and supplement my income through music entertainment, how could I ever turn it down?

This last week, I discovered how I could turn it down. For the first time since I created the job alert, I got a notification of an available disc jockey job. Let’s call this a hard pass.
Image courtesy of Indeed

On the surface, this sounds like a great opportunity. Yet it falls apart under closer examination. Let’s dig deeper.

When I DJ’d for a similar company in 2002/2003, my starting wage was $70 a night with a raise to $80 after my introductory period. They also paid an extra $50 bonus if a client requested me when booking their event. In comparison, $150-$500 per gig appears to be better than what I was paid nearly two decades ago. For people who hire their entertainment through branded companies, this pay rate might be surprising. Parents of the bride routinely handed me $750 dollar checks incorrectly assuming most of that money would go to me. Johnny B’s is probably the same - whatever they pay their DJ’s is probably a small fraction of the total bill.

The job posting’s description of benefits and schedules are contradictory ideas. When you’re a DJ, you work weekends. This is a fact of the industry. No one gets married on a Tuesday at noon. School dances are not held on school nights. Company gatherings and holiday events are strategically scheduled to allow employees to get drunk at the party and spend the rest of weekend sleeping off the hangover before returning to work the following Monday morning. I’m curious how they can promise a flexible schedule when you're guaranteed to work Friday and Saturday nights and only those nights. Furthermore, there is no flexibility in your start and stop times. Your gig starts when your client demands. There’s no wiggle room or space for bargaining. You don’t get to tell a bride or CEO, “that time doesn’t work well for me.” If any flexibility exists, it’s either you work or you don’t.

These are not conditions I object to as it’s the nature of the beast. I understand companies who contract DJs have to pay for advertising and office space, so it makes sense to me how a majority of what clients pay goes to the company and not the DJ. I realize events hiring a DJ are only booked on weekends. Such scheduling would make it easy to maintain my regular job while making a little extra money entertaining strangers. I also posses the skills they require. I have DJ’d for corporate events, weddings, and private parties. When in front of an audience, I have the attitude and personality to keep a party bouncing.

Within this want ad, there is one line transforming it from an interesting possibility to a laughably insulting proposition. Five words: “Must have your own equipment.”

This single phrase disqualifies me from applying. I satisfy all of the other qualifications. A driver’s license, reliable transportation, over a year of actual disc jockey experience. However, I don’t own my own equipment. Therefore, I’m not a viable candidate.

Here’s the true insult: if I did own my own equipment, I wouldn’t want to apply for this job. Why would I want to work for another company and only get a small portion of the money paid for my services if I could do the same work and keep 100% of the profits for myself? Why would I bear the brunt of the overhead costs so someone else can make money off my labor?

Annie and I have discussed saving up money to buy equipment for myself and starting my own company. I did the research and math. It would take roughly $3000 dollars to build a basic yet functional set up to do my own gigs. If I charged $700 per night, I’d need to book five clients before I’d recover the start up cost. If I made the same investment and went to work for another company making $150 per gig, I’d have to work twenty events to pay it off. The choice is logical.

There is one small benefit to working as a contracted DJ for companies like these. They promote you for you. You don’t have to engage in any shameless self promotion. People hire the company, they assign the gig to you, client gets to know you by luck of the schedule, then hopefully they tell their friends about you. You become known by sheer force of contract. Unfortunately, companies like these ask their DJ to sign non-compete disclosures legally prohibiting them from working for another company or for themselves should their employment ever be terminated.

Establishing yourself as a disc jockey is a lot of hard work. Building your brand is time consuming and exhausting. Regardless of your talent or personality, customers can’t hire you if they don’t know you exist. Working for a company to help you build name recognition is an easy shortcut, but personally I’d rather put in the effort to do it myself.

So it looks like I won’t be working as a DJ on my own any time soon. However, if you need a DJ in the Spokane/Cd’A area, I know a guy. He’s a phenomenal DJ.