One of the things I’ve enjoyed about my return to the world of Broadway this year has been learning about the great variety in career paths among those I admire, particularly in the arts.
Darren Criss wrote A Very Potter Musical because he was geeking around with his friends at drama school. They put it on Twitter for their moms. At that point, he was a “straight” theater student. Now he’s a musical theater guy who’s done two Broadway shows and oh yeah, that TV thing. All because he was goofing around with his friend and made a thing.
Wil Wheaton (not a musical theater guy, I realize, but another famous actor I know a lot about) was frustrated that his acting career was stalling and decided to give blogging a try. The Big Bang Theory guys saw his internet presence and asked him to be on the show. That led to a bunch of other things. He’s once again frustrated about his acting career, but he’s got two YouTube shows about gaming that certainly weren’t his childhood dream because internet shows weren’t a thing when he was a kid. And he has enough income now that he can have a foundation and take the summer off to write a book, so he’s created a space for himself that mostly works for him. All because he decided to write about his life and put his writing out there.
Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing because he didn’t see many Latino characters he wanted to play, so he thought he’d try writing a musical about the kind of people he saw in his neighborhood. His friends told him to meet up with another guy who graduated from his college named Tommy Kail. Now he’s got a shelf full of Tonies, a Pulitzer, and a Genius Grant. All because…nah. His was because he’s a genius who worked his ass off.
In the arts, there’s this narrative that it’s really hard to make a living, and only the really, really talented or lucky or passionate get to work. And that’s not true. Sure there are the Chris Colfers of the world who get their first showbiz job at 19 and it turns out to be Glee. (Though even he had been auditioning for four years before he got that part. Seems like an overnight success to us, not so much to him.) And it’s also true that most jobs in the arts are temporary. Almost all artists are independent contractors who have to manage their own businesses. And that’s hard, no matter what industry you’re in. There’s the constant risk of being unemployed, the hazards of paying for your own insurance, no retirement plan. This is the main reason I didn’t become an actress. I can’t handle that kind of instability.
But it’s not particularly more difficult for actors than for, say, architects. And like any business, theater has niches, and people find them and flourish. That, I’m sure, is the real reason Darren Criss is developing Elsie Fest. Because if he can get this ball rolling fast enough, he will become an influencer of Broadway, and that will keep opportunities flowing his way for the rest of his life. Even if it doesn’t get that far, he’s using his celebrity to create a place where he’s constantly nurturing relationships with people he wants to work with, and developing an audience for the kind of work he wants to do at the same time. I’m not trying to suggest there’s a sinister motive behind Elsie Fest. I think Darren Criss has represented himself pretty fairly, and he really does want to make a place where nerds like him can nerd out about the stuff he loves. And he has, and we do. But he’s also making a place where he can work, and showing off his skill set to potential employers, and nurturing his fan base at the same time.
Lin-Manuel Miranda did rap improv with his friends (Freestyle Love Supreme) because it was fun, and they were making something he was proud of and had fun making. That helped him build relationships with Daveed Diggs and Chris Jackson, and Hamilton was better because of those relationships. And according to a few interviews I’ve heard with Ron Chernow, the “rewind” concept used in “Satisfied” comes from a game FLS plays. None of that could have been predicted. But the guys in FLS got together and did something they loved, and it led to other, even better things.
But I think my point is that we make our own opportunities. Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda was open when he started reading a biography and it inspired him. But he already had a Tony-winning musical under his belt by that point. He already had Tommy Kail and the rest of his team assembled. And no, Darren Criss doesn’t know what opportunities will open to him as a result of Elsie Fest, but by bringing together creative people who are doing work he loves, he’s creating a situation where something is likely to come. He’s creating relationships with other people who do what he loves, who are also independent contractors who will need people for things. And so he’s increasing the likelihood that one of them will think of him when the opportunity arises. He’s guiding his life in the direction he wants it to go.
So there are two aspects to this. One is, I really want to find a way to convey this to the Kid. That the way life works is that we make our own opportunities, and we have to be open to them when they come. I’ve done that in the past. It’s how I got married, how we found our house, how I got a bunch of jobs, how we found the Kid, even. And it’s an important skill that pretty much everyone I admire has learned. Because we don’t know where we’re going, or what will come, but if you’re decent to people, and you pursue what you love, and keep making choices that move you closer to what you want, then opportunities do come, and it’s just a matter of being open to exploring each one and seeing if it’s what you really want.
The other is that I don’t really know what I want next. With the Kid starting a new school year, I’m keenly aware of how little time I have left in this phase of my life. In ten years, my current job probably won’t exist, and the Kid will be done with college. And even in the next six years before she goes to college, the Kid’s needs will be different, and she’ll be less and less involved with me in a lot of ways. How I work on my relationship with her so that it grows into a mature relationship we can sustain for the rest of my life is another post. But it’s time for me to start figuring out where I want to go next so that I can make the choices that will bring me there. Not that I’m rushing out the door–I love my job right now. But how does that go from job to career? As I have more time for myself over the next few years, I can go to school, or take up new hobbies, or nurture different relationships that might get me to the next place in my life. What will those steps be? I’m not sure.
Who knew Elsie Fest would lead to so many questions?