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.”