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Student Blog: What a Way to Make a Living

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5 Things Working Retail Taught Me About Theatre

Student Blog: What a Way to Make a Living

As summer 2020 show seasons were postponed, performance apprenticeships canceled, and auditions paused due to the pandemic, I realized I was about to face my greatest fear: sitting at home all summer with nothing to do.

I needed a job.

Since I was twelve years old, I have been working in roles like swim coach, camp counselor, and theatre teacher, but I had never had a job with specific and strict "shifts," an involved manager, or co-workers I didn't know. It was time for a "real" job. I applied to a few different places, including a local music equipment store (which asked if I could sight-read music on the job application. If my grade on my Ear Training II final was any indicator, I wasn't going to be qualified for the position) and a food retail store near my house. I was called in to interview with the food retail store manager the next day and was hired by the end of the week.

Going into my first retail job was a little frightening, but I knew I would be building skills that would serve me well post-graduation. I didn't know how closely these skills would relate to theatre.

Patience. Slow shifts can seem to drag on forever. On week mornings, when there are fewer orders to pack, and fewer people stop in to shop, it can be difficult to stay productive and attentive. After all, the shelves can only be reorganized, the floor swept and mopped, and counters wiped so many times. During downtime, I needed to find a way to stay busy and contribute to the store and the team, even when it felt like everything was done. This opened my eyes to details I had previously missed, like dusting light fixtures, sanitizing light switches, and more. There is always more work that can be done, so there should be no such thing as "boredom." This reminded me of sitting for director notes after a tech run of a show. Taking notes is an important and vital part of the performance process, but listening to notes for other actors and team members started to feel long and boring. However, with this new mindset, I can be more observant and listen closely to my castmates' notes, and take the chance to reflect on how that notes could improve my performance as well. In addition, my castmates are patient in sitting through my notes, so I can return the favor by being patient.

Making Quick Decisions. Every actor has heard the phrase "acting is reacting." While the textbook definition of performing could be 'following the script', the real work is done when actors authentically engage with their castmates through their characters. Since theatre isn't performed by robots, things may happen on stage that isn't in the script. Because of this, actors must excel at creative problem-solving. Improv games and exercises are examples of how actors can prepare for the unpredictability of the stage. An unexpected example of preparation for the stage was found at my retail job. If a customer comes in looking for a specific meal, but we happen to be sold out, they may ask for a suggested substitution. My job is to be knowledgeable enough about the meals we sell (memorize the "script") and comfortable quickly suggesting an alternative that still meets their nutrition needs.

Team Work. Working as a part of a small staff reminded me a lot of of performing in an ensemble in a show. Everyone is working together to achieve a common goal: put on a good performance, or meet sales targets. The only way these goals can be achieved is through teamwork. All members of the staff are expected to play their role, otherwise, the store wouldn't be able to stay open. On busy days, shuffling around customers, packing orders, and answering phones can start to feel like a choreographed dance. My co-workers and I adopt a silent communication system, help one another bag, point customers in the right direction, and deliver curbside orders. When everyone plays their part, we feel connected as a team, it makes the work smoother, and the time goes by faster.

Put on a Smile. I had some early mornings and long shifts at work. Some mornings I would clock in a 5:00 am to start unloading and taking inventory of a merchandise delivery that we had received overnight. I worked hours in the walk-in cooler shelving, organizing, and packing customer orders. By the time we opened, my feet would be sore, my arms were tired, and I was ready for a nap. But to ensure that every customer felt welcomed, I put on a smile (from behind my mask) and tried to stay positive and high energy. It's a challenge to continue to give 100% effort when you're tired. It's so easy to take a step back, become a passive employee, and just wait for the hours to tick by. In theatre, it could be the same way. Long day? Just phone in the performance. Tired from the matinee? Dial back the energy for the evening show. But this isn't fair to the audience, your castmates, or the art itself. Bringing passion, energy, and resilience to the work even when you're tired is a necessity. (This is not to say that a performer should power through in every instance. You know your body best.)

Take Responsibility. Making mistakes is an important part of life and learning. I talk more about this in my last post, which can be read HERE. In a fast-paced environment, mistakes happen. I have packed orders for customers, accidentally added the wrong packaged meal to their bag, or scheduled a delivery driver for the wrong address. The important part is taking responsibility for your mistakes. For me, this included calling the customer and giving my name, apologizing, and offering refunds or store credit as needed. Mistakes happen in theatre too. During rehearsals and even shows, I have missed my cue, stepped out of my light, and forgotten choreography. During the post-run notes, when the director noted my mistake, my first instinct is to make an excuse or deny it happening. The show can only get better if everyone takes responsibility for, and acknowledges their mistakes.

It was reassuring to realize how connected retail skills and theatre skills could be, especially after the disappointment of theatre seasons having to be canceled. I know now, that even though I'm not on the stage, I'm always improving. With each order packed, customer assisted, and inventory counted, I'm one moment closer to being back on stage.

(I do not speak for the company I am employed by, all opinions and experiences are entirely my own.)


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