Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Nickel and Dimed

Right now I'm in "hell week" for Nickel and Dimed. For those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of theatrical production, "hell week" is the week before a show opens -- the week in which lights, SFX, costumes, and props are all introduced at once. And Nickel and Dimed has 300 props. (For heaven's sake, the first act takes place in a restaurant... with a working kitchen!)

To compensate for this barrage of new information, the actors, designers, crew, and director all pretty much lock themselves into the theatre for a week so that they can sort everything out. ("Hector, you need to grill the steak before you start stirring the mashed potatoes, because Barbara has to serve the steak before Joan comes in with her line about the tour bus..." etc.)

I haven't written anything yet about Nickel and Dimed, but, since people have requested a post, I'll start by offering my director's notes. I wrote them last week when we were preparing the show's playbill.

This, of course, has the added advantage of allowing me to post quickly, so I have time to grab a gyro from Dev before the 5 p.m.-11 p.m. rehearsal tonight. ^__^

Here's what I wrote, and what the audience will read before the show begins:

When I graduated from college in 2004, I had no concept of what it was to work a low-wage job. Sure, I had worked a few jobs in the summers, but never with the intention of supporting myself and certainly never with the idea that this would be a long-term situation.

However, after graduation, I found myself living in an apartment in Minneapolis, learning about the theatre scene and, more importantly, working a series of dead-end jobs: retail, temping, even telemarketing. It was my first time really interacting with people who weren't young, successful students. I met and worked alongside people who were struggling to survive, people who had several kids and no health care, people who had been recently released from prison and who were trying to carve their way back into society. I also worked alongside a large number of young people a few years older than myself, also college-educated, who had found themselves in these jobs because there was little else available in the tight labor market.

What I learned -- what I never learned in college -- was that this world is real. It is not reserved for the "unskilled" or for people who have "screwed up" in life. When life transitions unexpectedly (and it does), any one of us can end up working one of these jobs. Barbara goes into her experiment thinking she can do a better job at low-wage work than the long-term workers because she assumes she's smarter and stronger than them. So did I. We were both wrong.

I hope you enjoy this play. I hope you take something away from it as well. Work in America is a large and complicated topic, and there are few easy solutions, but there is opportunity for thought and discussion and understanding. Thank you for choosing to attend this performance of
Nickel and Dimed.


Shripriya said...

Nice write up. I'd love the see the play. Switching industries (from technology to film), I am amazed to see the jobs that people do out of passion/love - jobs that just suck. They pay nothing, the people are treated like crap and it takes them years to move onto something else. Film. Think about a Production Assistant. What a thankless job and often a college graduate will do this job for years before being allowed to move on. I've met cinematographers who have families to support auditioning for student films, agreeing to paltry salaries.

Your post stuck a chord.

Good luck with the play!

Vi said...

Barbara Ehrenreich expresses this quite well in her novel, Nickel and this what you are basing the play off of?

Blue said...

Vi -- yes, it's based on the Ehrenreich novel. The playwright is a woman named Joan Holden who began working for the San Francisco Mime Troupe and is now doing the residency tour at regional theatres.

Shripriya -- I suppose I can understand why people pursue crap jobs out of passion; that is, there are thankless jobs where you can scan items over a register, and then there are thankless jobs where you can get coffee for someone... but at least, I suppose, you're on the set. Or at least that's what we tell ourselves.

The real question is whether the cinematographers would be able to make any more money in the "real world," or with their degree or specialized (which translates to "lack of") experience they would find themselves in a box store somewhere again working for a paltry salary.

Ehrenreich, after all, followed up Nickel and Dimed with Bait and Switch, which revealed just how hard it was to find a middle-class job of any kind in the contemporary American economy.

Shripriya said...

Fair point - if their skills would only enable them to get other sucky jobs, might as well do something you are passionate about for sure.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for following your dreams. I am just amazed what some people are willing to do to follow their dreams.

As someone who is currently unemployed in order to follow my dream, I'm kinda' in the same boat. BUT, and this is a big but, I am doing it after a career in another field, so it is not quite the same economic pressures!

Blue said...

Thanks, Shripriya. I hope you don't take my "how do we do what we do" post to be a misunderstanding of your idea. There are low-paying passionate jobs and there are crap "passionate" jobs (I've turned down a few -- one in particular to stand backstage and hold a rope for 40 hrs/week... ironic thing was that the performance went on to win a Tony award, so... um, yeah, hindsight).

I agree with you about how it's easier to start passionate work with a nest egg -- I started grad school with $5000 in the bank. (Where did it all go?????)

But having a dream and following it is very important (to me, at least, and it seems to you as well). Without one, what would life be?

Shripirya said...

I am so with you.

Shripirya said...

I am so with you.