Paint, Sawdust, and BS: My Season as a Summer Stock Carpenter

Summer stock theatre is an interesting experience, a rite of passage for many young artists as they make the transition from student to professional.  It involves low pay and long hours in the often sweltering summer heat in exchange for a bed, a professional stage, and an unforgettable experience.  One summer in college while I was pursuing a BFA in Acting, I ended up contracted with our local beloved summer stock theatre.  But I wasn’t hired as an actor – I was a carpenter.

In May of my junior year, I found myself stranded with no summer plans.  Lately I had been facing one failure after another.  I attended unified auditions and local auditions, and booked no professional gigs to speak of.  I had applied for camp counselor work at various art camps – one of which I was an alumni, and for the other I had driven all the way up to Chicago (18 hours in the car round trip for a fifteen minute interview) and all my options had fallen through.  Eventually I got cast in an unpaid Shakespeare-in-the-park production, but still had no prospects for an income.

I had been working in my university’s scene shop for a little over a year, so when I heard they were still seeking a carpenter for the summer, I jumped on the opportunity.  However, I was anxious about the job – I was still somewhat of a novice as a theatre technician, and after an incredibly stressful year I felt rather frail: physically and emotionally.  I wasn’t sure what the season would bring, but I decided to rise to the challenge.

It was hard work, to say the very least.  8 and a half hours of physical labor a day, six days a week (though Sundays were, mercifully, half-days).  On top of that, our theatre was outdoors under the shade of a temporary tent, so all load-ins powered through the steamy humid heat of the Midwestern summer.

On our change-over days, when one set was torn down and a new show installed over a mere 48 hours, those were our marathon days.  We would work a full 8 hour shift, get dismissed at 5:00 pm to eat dinner, nap, and prepare, then would return at 10:00 pm for strike.  At strike, each technician was in charge of herding a team of non-union actors who were contractually obligated to help tear down their set.  (Degrees of competency varied from person to person – most were enthusiastically helpful, but some slinked away into the shadows at every possible opportunity to avoid doing any actual labor.)  We had to stay until the job was finished, usually around 3:00 am.  We would then go home and get what precious little sleep we could, then return at 9:00 am the next day to work another full 8 hour shift to install the next set.

When you add it all up – between 50 and 60 hours per week – and divide our earnings for the season, the pay evens out to be around a mere $4 per hour.  And the terrible thing is, the theatre I worked for isn’t even considered “low-paying.”  By summer stock standards, these wages are considered a little high.

Needless to say, the fatigue of our team was tangible.  Some days we could be found lying face-down on the stage, taking a minute to breathe because the fireplace still doesn’t fucking fit in the wall.  When deadlines were fast approaching, days were long and tempers were short.  At the end of the day we would roll in to the university dining hall as a group; sweaty, smelly, and dirty.

After one long day, a co-worker of mine was sitting across from me absolutely fuming – I could practically see the steam shooting out of his ears.  He ate his meal in a terse, angsty silence.  Suddenly he broke the silence with this declaration: “I’m covered in paint, sawdust, and bullshit.”

I immediately burst out laughing.  When he asked me what was so funny, I said that phrase perfectly sums up our job.  The rest of the table agreed, and the saying quickly became our mantra.

Over time, something incredible happened.  We all began to bond, and not in the usual co-worker way, but something that felt deeper.  They say that suffering brings people together, and in our case it was true.  We were able to commiserate, and through the daily bitching about all the bullshit collecting on our tattered t-shirts, we became friends.  We entertained ourselves with insulting each other, making as many sexual innuendos as possible, prolific swearing, talking in funny voices, and playing “Kill-Marry-Bang” with fictional characters.

Outside of work, the bonding continued.  When you’re working 60 hours a week and you only have one night to unwind, there’s a great deal of pressure that needs to be released in a short amount of time.  So we drank.  A lot.  Every Friday night would be a house party in some basement blasting classics like “Shots” and “Turn Down For What” where we’d rage our faces off, dancing like no one’s watching and drawing dicks on the steamy windows.  These nights laced with liquid courage were not only opportunities to let loose, but also the intimate hours of the night when we were honest with one another, saying what we meant, allowing a glimpse of who we really were.

The friendships I made that summer lasted longer than the job itself.  For a year afterward we still met semi-regularly on Wednesdays (Winesdays) to hang out and catch up on life.  For the rest of my college career they were my go-to party buddies, a group that continued to have my back.  When other acting students would observe that I had a lot of tech friends, I would shrug and say, “They’re my family.”

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Questions I Have for Los Angeles

Why don’t people here recycle?  If you’re going to pretend to care about the environment, you need to at least recycle.

Why do you put “the” before every freeway number?  And why do I feel the need to conform to that?

Why are there no mailboxes in the valley?

Why is LA obsessed with juice?  Why are there specialty bars that serve only juice?  And why are they $12 per glass?

Why are there so many vegans here?

Why do maps of LA cut off at Hollywood Hills?  You know Los Angeles city limits extend all the way up to Sylmar, right?

While I’m at it, why the hell are city limits like this?

map_los_angeles

Seriously, wtf even is that?

Why is there an afternoon rush hour but no morning rush hour on Saturdays?

Why is everyone obsessed with In-N-Out?  Why is it every time I drive past an In-N-Out, the line for the drive-thru is so long that it wraps around the entire building and extends halfway down the street and obstructs traffic?  Doesn’t waiting over an hour defeat the purpose of using the drive-thru anyway?  I mean it’s a good burger, but it’s just a burger.

Why are people so flaky when you’re trying to make plans?

california-plate-with-heart

Why is a heart symbol an actual character you can actually have on your license plate?  Are children allowed to drive here?  If so that would explain a lot.

Why don’t we have a decent public transit system?  This is the second largest city in the nation.  Get with the times.

Why is there a public park in Calabasas with ASTROTURF at the entrance?  Isn’t the whole point of going to a park to get in touch with nature?  Does anyone care about authenticity?

Why does everyone have multiple part-time jobs instead of one full-time job, even people who aren’t in the entertainment industry?

Why is the weather always beautiful?

When are we going to run out of water?

In spite of all these things, why do I love this city so much?  Why can’t I see myself anywhere else?

The Weirdest Thing that has Ever Happened to Me

This is a story about the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.  I usually save it for parties and second dates, but lucky you, I’m sharing it with everyone.  It involves fake vaginas, so buckle up.

In college I had a part-time job as a standardized patient.  Basically I was an actor for students in medical fields to practice their trade with an actual human.  I worked with nursing students, hearing instrument science students, EMTs, and firefighters.  Usually I just got my hearing tested.  But then things took a turn for the strange.

When I told my boss I was staying in town for the summer, she beamed and said, “Perfect! You’d make a great mother.”  I immediately had flashbacks to my orientation day, where we all sat in a conference room glossy-eyed and staring at a Power Point.  In said Power Point was a photo like this:

childbirth_simulator_2

Except there were straps where the legs should be.  My boss explained that you strapped this apparatus to your body for a birth simulation.  So it’s your body, your spread legs, but with a fake belly with a fake baby in it and a fake vagina.  So this is what I knew was in store for me: I’d have to act my way through childbirth while nursing students got friendly with my strap-on fake vagina.

Needless to say, I was scared shitless.  But I put my brave face on and figured if I could act my way through childbirth, I could act my way through anything.

I showed up to work that day prepared for the worst.  But I was relieved when I was informed that I would not be playing the mother after all, but rather a family member who is present at the birth.  I let out a breath of gratitude, knowing I had dodged a bullet.  I then I found out who – or rather, what – was playing the mother.

The mother was a high-fidelity manikin.  Which, in case you were wondering, looks like this:

simman

They breathe.  They blink.  They sweat.  They turn their head and look at you.  They even talk through a microphone in their throat, thanks to the voice of the operator in the next room.

They. Are. Freaky.

So I was the concerned sister of a female manikin with a big old rubber belly.  I was told by the instructor that I was there to add a sense of humanity and realism to the scenario.  And then she told me that while the manikin is designed to provide a realistic and detailed experience, it could not actually push the baby out.  So when the nursing students said “push,” I was to unbutton the side of the rubber belly, slip my hand inside, and push the baby out.  Ah, there it is, that’s why you’re paying me.

So we get to the scenario, with the instructor walking five fresh-faced nursing students through the details of “catching” a baby.  When it’s show time and the students say “push,” I do as I’m instructed.  I surreptitiously slip my hand under the thin hospital sheet, unbutton the side of the belly, and slip my hand in and grab the baby.

Now remember, this is a high-fidelity manikin, meaning it’s designed to simulate birth as medically accurate as possible.  So I touch this plastic baby and it’s… slippery.  They’ve LUBRICATED the damn thing.  Pretty soon I realized why – it’s a tight fit.  I’m pushing and pushing and this baby is hardly moving, it’s such a big object going through a small hole.

It’s right then when I had a moment of self-awareness, appreciating the fact that I’m getting paid to push a lubricated baby out of a fake vagina, and I just thought, “Man, my life is weird.”

After a minute of my not-so-surreptitious effort, the baby finally slips out, followed by a moderate amount of red colored fluid (high-fidelity, right?).  The instructor passes around the plastic baby from student to student, making sure they each get to appreciate how slippery it is.  She then casts it aside and leaves it in the sink, arms and legs askew at all the wrong angles, to be cleaned up and re-lubricated for the next scenario.

I walked away from that experience knowing way more about childbirth than any college student wants to know.  But I also walked away with the satisfaction that in this weird life of a young actor, I will continue to be surprised by opportunities that roll my way.