My Job and My Heart

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This has been a rather unbelievable week, and I promise I am trying to condense as much as possible. Theater is interesting business, especially since this job is the only experience I’ve ever had with theater. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist.

There is a lot of expectation that a director owns the creatives (“creatives” being the set, lighting, costume and makeup designers). A director has some tacit permission to be a complete asshole and demand, as my husband has characterized this week’s event, “the the stage go up in the air and spin around and also laser lights and the audience should go up and spin around too because that’s MY VISION.” Creatives are then supposed to kill themselves trying to make this dream come true, and if they do balk, traditionally there’s a lot of shouting and name-calling. Things are a bit difficult when it comes to academic theater, as we are not just doing theater, we’re also teaching, meeting with various committees, etc.

We have this tenure-track faculty member; wait, let’s just unpack that briefly–so in academic theater, a director who is an asshole can also eventually get a forever job, which translates to being a blessed and protected asshole.

Okay, so this director, whom we will refer to as The Retarded Child Emperor (a term Bill Mahr used to describe George Dubya Bush), is deeply insecure and very difficult to work with. He’s mean, he’s manipulative, he’s inappropriate, he’s dishonest. I have prided myself as being one who has worked with him several times and very successfully. I am one of the very few who has managed this. I was proud of this fact, but I also knew that it wouldn’t last forever, because someone who will say hateful things to you about other people will also eventually say hateful things about you to other people.

We have a new Department Chair, who is friends with The Emperor, and that was cause for concern. The Emperor is desperate to create the illusion that the Chair has his ear on all things, and that he is the Chair’s right hand man. So that’s the set up. Here’s how it played out.

The Emperor is directing our first show. Last semester he and I, in passing, had this conversation:

TRCE: Hey, I want to do this makeup thing with Gamma Rays (shortened play title) where a character goes from old to young to old again. Do you have any students who are really good at aging makeup.

Me: Are you kidding me? They are terrible at aging makeup, but that’s an interesting idea, I’ll keep my eye out.

Fast-forward to this semester:

I see a rehearsal report that shows that the actor will have 11 minutes to go from old to high school aged, and then 4 minutes to go back to old. Other factors I didn’t know: the actor is very dark complected (and black don’t crack because the epidermal layer is thicker the darker your skin, so wrinkling is far less prevalent in that population), the show will be performed without an intermission, and the audience will be seated on the stage. I email The Emperor and say, very nicely, that given the time frame, I think we won’t be able to re-make her up at the end and we’d need to rely on other visual clues like wig, glasses, cane, etc. The Emperor replies only that he wishes to meet about it.

We meet. He tells me that we’ll have 11 minutes, not 4, to re-age her. I point out reservations about this. He says, “I don’t want the usual college garbage we get here.” I wonder what he smokes to make him think that insulting your creative (who has done stellar work for you in the past) is a good way to proceed. I again assert my misgivings about this, and also ask for further clarification. He wants the 20 year old actor to look like she is 100 years old. He wants her to look like she’s 17, and an entirely different person, for the other character. Then he wants her back to 100 years old. In 11 minutes. He will not accept my concerns and wants it his way, period.

I leave the meeting feeling set up. At the same time this is happening, I am having increasing heart problems. My blood pressure, traditionally low, is too high. My pulse is insane irregular. I am waking up at 1:00 am, pounding heart, thinking I might die of a heart attack and worrying about this stupid makeup gimmick. Monday morning I send him a very polite, very clear email about why this is not possible. I don’t say, “I won’t do it, it’s stupid,” I say, “I can’t do this. Here are the reasons why” I copy the new Chair into that email. My blood pressure is higher than it’s ever been and my pulse is 118 and wild.

The world is consumed by a ball of fire. The Chair emails me that he is meeting with The Emperor. Then he emails that The Emperor will handle the makeup effect himself. The Emperor comes down to my office to ask if I am still doing the other makeup for the show. I say yes, of course, also, no hard feelings, I felt it was best to give him my honest assessment. He says everything is fine, of course, and then snidely slips in that “The Chair and I looked at your concerns but we don’t think it’s such a big deal, we’re talking to other people about it.” I am displeased to have my professional opinion treated dismissively.

The next day I get an email from The Chair suggesting that creatives should not “abandon projects” and should “respect directors” and “embrace an exciting challenge, not simply dismiss it.” My pulse rockets to 125 and I feel like I’m dying. I send The Chair a howler of epic proportions. My pulse never goes down all day as we exchange emails wherein he says he is shocked that I would send such an email to him and I respond that I am shocked that he would characterize my actions so negatively and he says no, that was a positive email and I say “abandonment” is not positive and he says maybe we should not do this via email and I say fine. We set up a meeting for Thursday because I am to be out of the office Wednesday. Right before I leave to go to the cardiologist, he sends me an email saying that he and The Emperor have met, and they feel I should be removed from the creative team altogether.

The cardiologist gets a splendid picture of what is happening to my heart. “Can you feel all the extra beats?” she asks me. She started me on a different beta blocker (Lopressor ER) and told me to come back in two months, or sooner if I felt I needed to. She is EDS-savvy, and I feel like finally, someone is going to take my heart seriously.

The next day I email the chair, detail how stressed-out I am, tell him I am starting heart medication and will take sick leave. Then I chose to worry that perhaps I am in early heart failure, which can be another post entirely.

When The Chair and I met yesterday, he was FURIOUS with me, and this is a guy who doesn’t really do negative emotions. I find myself in the position of being liberated from a yoke I’ve carried my whole life, as I realize that I don’t give a flying fuck that he’s angry. I am willing to be fired over this, and I am right. Through the course of our meeting I show him all the email evidence of my attempts to work with The Emperor. He acknowledges that he was only viewing this through The Emperor’s side, and did not have all the facts. I finally make him understand that The Emperor has triangulated this, and neatly manipulated The Chair into being his instrument to bully and retaliate against me. The Chairs mentions that now, well, he’s kind of pissed of at The Emperor.

I shake like a leaf during this meeting because my disobedient heart is not good with even minor stress right now. I point out that I am physically ill due in part to this situation. He asks if I would be willing to come back to the team, and I tell him I don’t know.

He later met with The Emperor, and I suspect that The Emperor realized that he’s made a serious mistake. The Chair then asked that we meet together (he, I, The Emperor). When we do, The Emperor opens with a groveling apology, and even gets teary (he’s an actor, though…). He begs me to return to the project. I say that I am unsure, is he willing to compromise? Suddenly he becomes the personification of Flexibility. The Chair even weighs in with further compromises he thinks The Emperor needs to make. The Emperor rolls on his back like an ashamed dog. At the end, where I would normally feel badly for the person apologizing and want them to feel better, I instead say, “You need to know that your behavior over this was really hurtful to me. I have never given you less than what was possible, and you went into this treating me like I had. I don’t understand why you took that approach with me, and I don’t want it to happen again.” There was further groveling. He made the excuse that an interaction with my co-worker fueled his perception and I stopped him. “I’m not my coworker. You know how much I try to make clear that while my co-worker likes to claim all opinions held by her are held by me, that’s not the case.”  He understands that now, it appears.

So now I have a puzzle to solve, but I also have four days off before I have to really tackle it. And I have to deal with the fact that the beta blocker makes me nauseated all day long and I’ve already lost five pounds since, uh, Wednesday.

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