An Unpopular Opinion
Centuries ago, in March of 2020, I was fully immersed in the NYC arts scene. I was working full time at The Met, freelancing as a theater producer, curating a bimonthly cabaret-style event, and queuing up three film projects. It took seven years of hustle (I moved to NYC in 2013) to arrive at a point where every moment of my day was consumed by some kind of creative project, and it felt like I was “doing the thing.” I had connections with up and coming playwrights who were regularly asking me to help bring their work to life, was working at one of the most famous museums in the world, had a months-long performer waitlist for my cabaret event, and was about to fulfill a childhood dream of making a movie. Add to this that my partner was wrapping up his apprenticeship at The Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he was slated to start performing in the Humana Festival of New American plays, secure an agent, and return to NYC triumphant. In my mind we were just months away from those glamorous after parties, step and repeats, and “wow we’ve never seen anything like this” sentiments. I was one half of an emerging artist dream team!
I was also exhausted to my bones, burning out fast, and deeply suspicious of the path I’d drawn for myself.
Art in all its forms was a constant in my childhood. I grew up with a single mom who was a teacher of literature, film and drama. She read us poetry at bedtime and stocked the shelves of our house with Samuel Beckett and Caryl Churchill. In adolescence I would read her Shakespeare anthology as a casual Saturday afternoon activity, and sometimes popped our Memento VHS tape into the TV when I got bored. The most “kid”-ish book I have memories of is Falling Up by Shel Silverstein (which is, arguably, more of a full blown existential crisis than a children’s story -- but that’s another blog).
I’m painting this picture so that you’ll see the depth of my understanding of and love for art. Consuming and evaluating it has been the throughline of my entire life, but working in the industry ran me into the ground. In theater we are taught to romanticize “the hustle.” Take every project, talk to every connection, remain emotionally available and gogogogogo or else you’ll never make it. This is a tough industry, kid, and it has to be THE ONLY THING that you want or why are you even wasting our time? Oh and also, real artists work for free (or at least far, far below what they’re worth) because they understand that sacrifices must be made to succeed.
Maybe I have a specific bone to pick, but maybe it’s a systemic problem too.
In the months before COVID I had begun describing my work in theater to friends as an abusive relationship. I was giving so much of myself, but felt little reciprocation. While it’s true I was producing work regularly, none of it paid, and if it did, it was grocery money for a week and little more. Most of the work was funded by me or the playwright. Yes we make art for reasons that aren’t money, but money is also a means of communicating someone’s perceived value by an institution. It is impossible not to internalize this. There are so many examples of being paid well below my worth, from my first coordinator role at a major arts institution where I was on salary but had two additional jobs to make rent, to the time I worked a full time internship at one of NYC’s most highly regarded downtown theaters for $25/day. We have all been there, and we have all justified it in one way or another.
While it’s true I made my living at The Met, I was working in the legal department. My hope was to, one day, move into their live events department down the hall. The live events department, I was told, was very different from where I worked -- “long hours, little work/life balance.” I loved learning from lawyers, loved the people I worked with, and loved the way work never followed me home at night. The first time I saw a live events role listed, I kept scrolling.
I started to question how an industry that is based in the subjective, propelled forward by the creative whims of a few, had the audacity to demand so, so much of the people who support it. Once COVID hit and we were fully in quarantine, I stopped making anything. To be fair, for the first few months I was deeply depressed and unable to do much at all. But as “the new normal” has set in and my partner and I have fallen into a routine, this disinterest has remained. It’s simply not where I find joy, and the thought of returning to life as it was gives me a stomachache. Being forced to sit still during this time, after plowing ahead so aggressively for so long, has made me acutely aware of what I do and don’t want out of life. I want ease, I want more time with my partner and our dog, I want a decent salary, I want a bright apartment, I want to eat well and be in my body, I want to binge television and read books. What I don’t want is probably clear at this point in the essay.
There was no way to learn any of this without sitting still for a long, long time.
The pandemic has taken so much from us that we will never get back. Our lives are permanently altered, the massive communal loss overshadowing petty grievances with our careers. Obviously I wish this had never happened, and that I could have figured out what I’m learning now through something -- anything -- more loving. But here we are.
If this resonates with you, you’re not alone. Lean in to whatever fills you up, whether or not you’ve spent the past x number of years working toward it. If it doesn’t, I hope you get where you’re going because you want to, not because someone else insisted you should.
Time is a construct, worth is a construct, your resume is a construct. Only you decide what gives your life meaning.
Jordan Bean is a professional organizer of things. She has worked at arts institutions all over NYC as a producer and administrator, and recently made a career shift into the education world, where she is learning and working as Special Assistant to the CEO at Ascend Public Charter Schools. You can learn more about her past work at Jordan-Bean.com.