Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Aug 16, 2010

Am I My Resume?

20 questions for performing artists

East Coast and West Cost comedy come together in friendly harmony for our latest installment of “20 Questions.” Caroline Bender sat down with 3 talented women for a round of 20 Questions that explores the professional environment of the working actor/comedian, to expand our horizons in the world of work.  What us to spotlight the "workplace" of your profession?  Email the Finishing School at bwfinishingschool@gmail.com.

Deana Tolliver is Associate Managing Director of ImprovBoston, where she has been performing professionally for 6 years, in improvisation, sketch, and musical theatre. Her kids have joined the family business as the go-to cast for short films and live bits

From Los Angeles, meet Robyn Simms,  a 20 year veteran of the funny, from acting and writing to costume design and puppetry.   Her short film "Sisyphus" has played a number of prestigious film fests, including Palm Springs Shortsfest and the LA Comedy Shorts '09 and won a jury prize at the FilmOneFest. Robin is currently the assistant director of the Santa Barbara Minute Film Festival (the films are not small; they are 60 seconds long).
Sara Faith Alterman (also known by her nom de blog, “SFA”) is a bicoastal performer frequently subjected to bad in-flight comedy as she travels between San Francisco and Boston to practice her crafts – primarily, as co-producer of Mortified: Boston, and a member of San Francisco’s The Loose Interpretations. To the IRS, Sara Faith works full time as a freelance writer. She is working on her third book and contributes the occasional feature article.

Not all the comedians Miss Bender knows are Emerson College graduates. Just the best ones.

CB: I tend to start these interviews with a naïve question based completely on stereotype. Working in performing arts seems to me like a constant stream of job interviews. Or dating. How does it compare to, say, a business interview or a job application?

Robyn: It is totally a constant stream of job interviews. You know when they like you. I find it comforting when they at least like me, even if I don't book it. It's awful when you know they DON'T like you.

SFA: You have to constantly try to market yourself, then cross your fingers and hope for the best. I thought I did a really great job on that press release. Are they going to call me? Or are they going to choose some other starving idiot?

Deana: As artists we all kick into performance mode easily, and therefore we do incredibly well in job interviews. We can convince anyone to hire us. The problem is that we might not want that job. I had to learn to shift out of that mode long enough to ask the important questions so I could evaluate whether the job was right for the "real" me.

CB: Which describes the experience more accurately: Fame, High School Musical, American Idol, The Apprentice?
Deana: Is there a reality show where a stay at home mom takes a class and gets cast out of nowhere in a show? That was my experience. That should be a show... 

Robyn: Fame- the original movie. It captures the thrilling soaring feelings of creating, and the really sh***y times too. When they have the hot shot grad as their waiter, the dancer having an abortion and Coco having to take off her shirt at the end. I stand by Fame. A fairy tale, yes. But one with actual reality. 

SFA: I've only seen Fame, and the live theater version of High School Musical. Don't ask. So, I have no idea. But I DO get a lot of comparisons to the lovably annoying Rachel on Glee. Because I'm a diva. And Jewish. And I love knee socks. 

CB: But the rejection - the rejection! How do you bounce back from "we'll call you"? 
Robyn: You keep other irons in the fire at all times, and don't take it personally. It's a numbers game, and as long as a percentage of [it] is sticking to the wall, you know you got something. 

Deana: Since I am [also] on the business side of things … I cast just as often as I want to be cast. I learned that there really is something specific folks are looking for. More often than not the choice is not about who is the most talented - when you get to this level everyone is talented. It's about the right look, the right vibe with other actors, the opinion of one person that day. There are so many variables that, at least for me, there is no way to take it personally. It's not about me, it's about what they need for the role. 

CB: Yes, let's hear a pep talk. Tell us a story about nailing the audition. 

Robyn: I just went through 3 rounds of phone interviews and one on-camera, and then booked it. We shot it over this past weekend, a game show pilot which we then won. 

SFA: When I walked into my audition for the a cappella group I sing with, I was so nervous I thought I was going to boot all over my sheet music. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened my mouth...and f[lubb]ed up the opening lines of my song so badly that I had to start over. I just made a joke about it, slipped the director a fifty, and voila! Not only did I get in, but if you don't blink during the first 10 seconds of the latest promo for Hawaii 5-O, you'll catch me and the girls shoo-be-doo-bopping in front of the Golden Gate bridge.

Deana: The last commercial gig I got was amazing. I was the first person they saw for the role. The call was for a "Kelly Rippa" type. I got in, chatted them up, read the sides (part of the script) in a perky, Rippa-esque way - light news interview, morning show style. I finished and the director said, "I really wanted it to be more hard-hitting, like Barbara Walters". I wouldn't characterize Barbara Walters as hard-hitting, but what do I know. I asked if I could read again. I delivered a blend of Barbara Walters and Hank Phillippe Ryan - pensive, smart, then went for the jugular. He loved it. He was impressed with the reading, but he was more impressed that I could throw away the first reading so quickly and give him something completely different. He went out to the lobby and sent everyone else home. The shoot turned out to be a really fun day and has led to more work with that company. 

CB: What have we seen you in? 

Robyn: I have an episode of Tim and Eric Show this season-I'm in a Cinco commercial. 

Deana: I perform at ImprovBoston at least once a week in various improv and sketch shows. This month you can see me in the Mainstage shows each Saturday at 8 & 10. I just finished a run of the musical Lube - which I wrote and starred in. I will also be hosting the Boston Improv Festival here at ImprovBoston September 8-12, featuring improvisers from all over the world. 

SFA: The latest promo for Hawaii 5-O! Plus Mortified shows in Boston, LA, and San Francisco. And you can find my first two books on Amazon. 

CB: What's a role/show you've always wanted to do but haven't? 

Robyn: The wacky neighbor. 

CB: I find that an obvious misuse of resources.

SFA: Saturday Night Live. It's been my lifelong dream to be a writer and performer for that glorious Svengali Lorne Michaels.

Deana: As comedians, we all have the same dream - getting on SNL or winding up with a tolerable sit com. In mine I play Ellen Degeneres' sister, we have a large family, our other sisters are Bonnie Hunt, Katherine O'Hara and Amy Poehler. You know, because we're all funny and blonde. 

CB: These crazy kids today.... what are they doing wrong you would like to set them straight on? (is it ending sentences with prepositions, perhaps?) 

SFA: Stop thinking that life would be so much more glamorous if you could just land a reality TV show for you and your posse. 

Deana: If it isn't a joy for you there is no reason to do it. Each audition is an opportunity - even if you don't get the role it is not wasted time. A casting director might remember you for something else, that actress you met in the lobby might turn out to be a great contact or an even better friend. 

CB: That sounds like good advice in any profession 

Robyn: The crazy kids are doing everything right. I got no complaints about them. 

CB: Correct our naive notion that Life is a Cabaret. But without calling me "chum." 

Robyn: We have a saying at our house called "Circus Family." It is for when we have to do something (good or bad) that might seem really out of the ordinary to regular people. For instance- I have a coffin stored in the garage, for a short film [my husband] Steve wrote, but we have not gotten around to shooting yet. This weekend it's getting hauled out for a photoshoot that is being staged in our backyard. 

Tomorrow, Dexter is coming with mommy to pick up the rented costume jacket at the fancy dry cleaners that has a giant popcorn machine for customers, 24 hour service and limo parking. The coat had to be specially cleaned because the animation guys wrapped it around an actual fish during the shoot this week. It was rented from a costume house where Dex and I spent a hour finding it in a warehouse the size of a football field. It was my job for the week-costuming a live action segment for Cartoon Network's "Flapjack." 

Deana: Life is a Cabaret! Except without having to perform for the Germans' Weimar Republic. 

SFA: It is. It's full of song and dance and terrible wigs. 

CB: Describe one of the "special skills" on your resume and how you came by it. 

Robyn: my favorite special skill I have is a very loud whistle. I learned how to do it the summer before 8th grade. I practiced a lot, and it is an awesome skill and the envy of many. 

SFA: I can pick a lock with a credit card. I wish I could say I picked that one up in the pokey, but the truth is I was locked out of my dorm room in college and I was too lazy (or drunk?) to call security, so I figured it out. 

Deana: I actually have "Single mother of two" under special skills - because it IS a special skill to juggle all this. I will refrain from telling you how I cam by that special skill in this interview, but if you ever want to grab a drink... 

CB: It’s important that we acknowledge that in addition to practicing your crafts, you are all employed at full-time jobs, and Deana and Robyn, you are parents as well. It's so trendy to talk about work/life balance. How do you find work/work balance? 

Deana: Divorce! It's honestly been a godsend for my career. Now that the kids are with their dad every other weekend I can travel to festivals and book more gigs. I mean, my personal life is a disaster but I have a lot more time for the funny. (I'm joking, I'm fine) 

Robyn: I don't sleep. [T]he middle of the night seems to be the only time I can get the peace and solid time to create anything. This is a terrible cycle. I recently had two nights in a row of sleep- 10 hours and then an 8, and I felt amazing. But nothing got done-my house was a mess, no bills got paid, no emails answered and certainly no personal art was made. 

SFA: Work/work balance is a tricky little bitch that's been playing hide and seek with me for my entire career. I have a hard time focusing on my "real" job sometimes, because I'm so excited about upcoming [Mortified] shows that I'll spend hours flipping through my old diaries, or fiddling around with arrangements of Beyonce songs on Finale. Is there a pill for that? Can you get me some? Basically, I sit around in my pajamas and stress out about my cell phone bill. 

CB: What would it take for you to be a full-time performer ? How do you work to make that happen? 

Robyn: Money to pay my bills when I'm not working, money to pay for a babysitter to watch my child while I exercised myself daily into a size 6, money for new pictures, money for a better wardrobe, money for more and constant grooming. 

Deana: I have been very lucky to create a combo of administrative work/performing at ImprovBoston. It allows me to go on auditions, and then take time off to shoot things. I have a steady pay check and still get to work in the arts. Now, if someone wants to offer me a full-time performing gig that will be steady I'd love to chat with them! With two kids, the stability of having a "day job" is important - I just happen to have a really cool day job.
SFA: Honestly, it's all about the Benjamins, baby. If i could be confident that I'd be able to pay my rent, and that I wouldn't have to face too much rejection on a regular basis, I'd go for it. Wow, that makes me sound like a timid a****le. Maybe I should just go for it right now. 

CB: When you imagine yourself in a completely different professional field, what do you think is most likely? 

Deana: Teacher - which is sort of cheating because I teach here as part of my job. But I mean classroom teacher, like elementary school or something. A good teacher uses the same elements that we use in improvisation - tapping into what interests your audience and exploring that, setting up an environment that insists on supporting one another and thinking quickly on your feet. 

Robyn: My fantasy jobs all seem to involve wearing smart looking suits with statement jewelry and working in an office. They also pay a lot. I'm always well groomed and have many material possessions. I think it always boils down to money. Happiness doesn't play into these fantasies at all, they are pure and utter Stuff Porn. 

SFA: In my next life, I'd like to run an animal rescue organization. 

CB: When do these kind of thoughts occur to you? 

SFA: Every time I look at my dog, Noodle, who I rescued/kidnapped from Beijing, China in 2008. 

Robyn: When I realize there is too much month at the end of the money. 

Deana: But then I remember that teachers don't make any money either. 

CB: Do you now, or have you ever, worked in a traditional office/cube type environment? 

SFA: I was a reporter with The Boston Phoenix until 2009, but being a journalist, especially for an Alternative Weekly newspaper, isn't terribly traditional. I kept a bottle of whiskey in my desk, and would toss one back with my coworkers on a rough day. Don't think that would fly at a financial services company. 

Deana: I have certainly worked in lots of offices, though I would not call any of them "traditional". They have all been crazy in some way or other. Maybe the common thread there is me, and when I am not there they are very normal places to work. I have also worked in very corporate environments where I had to wear suits all day, it just wasn't the right fit for me, but they were all great opportunities and led me to where I am now. 

Robyn: For about 6 months at the beginning of my career in NYC, I was the receptionist at two different production houses. Both were terrible jobs. Had one of them been better, instead of making me think I would go postal, where would I be now?

CB: Anything you would (or do) borrow from that culture to benefit life backstage? 

SFA: Being a successful business person means constantly having to go with the flow and not let unexpected obstacles trip you up too badly. And to constantly envision the big picture. That sort of mentality is tremendously helpful when you're trying to produce a show, or when you f*** up onstage. 

Deana: [I]t is important whenever meeting directors, casting agents, and other actors to be very professional - some actors just don't get that. Be on time, be polite, follow up after the shoot to say thank you, simple things that the corporate world knows very well. 

Robyn: The [entertainment] world I work in…IS corporate. Still art, but there is a lot of money at stake. 

CB: What aspects of the arts/entertainment environment would benefit the corporate world?
Robyn: Craft Services would be a great morale booster. So would wacky costumes and better lighting. 

SFA: The principals of improv are the same as those of negotiation and general communication; accept another person's idea and build upon it, rather than shoot it down. That idea makes for much more productive communication and idea/product development. 

Deana: I am a corporate trainer as part of my day job. I teach businesses how to use the foundations of improv to benefit their bottom line. We teach people how to create corporate cultures that encourage support and creativity, that truly allow for ideas to grow, and that allow for better communication across all levels of the company. I truly believe that in order to have a successful business you need to embrace ideas, encourage humor and allow folks some fun in their day. 

One to grow on...

Audio-Visual Aids
Hawaii 5-0
Single Mother on Election Night

note: 20 questions round tables are conducted by email.  Participants are not in actual conversation.  But then, this isn't a real Finishing School.  ~~CB

Aug 11, 2010

Ask a Manager: Is Nepotism a Mitigating Factor?

 Due to an upswing in business my workload has become crushing. My supervising manager has advised me to team with another administrative assistant. I have done so, or at least have tried to, but now this person is "constantly too busy" doing things like Internet shopping and gossiping away from her desk. (We are talking a couple of hours in a day, not a few minutes) and some actual work.

Here is the biggest problem: the admin I can not rely on is the daughter of one of the owners and has been with the company a lot longer than I have. I am afraid to say anything against her.  How do I assert what's fair in a situation that is already one-sided?


Nepotism is an ugly fact of life in the workplace. I’ve seen it at all levels, and I’ve even had to deal with it in employees who have been assigned to work for me. As a conscientious manager, being put in that situation can put you on edge as you walk the line between playing the expected political game and trying to keep the respect of your other employees. Depending upon how in tune your manager is to that, it can impact the situation and how you should handle it. At a minimum, I recommend you consider where your manager might stand on the issue and how aware s/he is of the problem already.

The danger here is that presenting a scenario like this can put management on the defensive. If you make it seem like an attack on your manager’s judgment, he can shut down on you. Worse, if your manager interprets your concern about your coworker’s habits as an act of pettiness or unsportsmanlike conduct toward a teammate (especially this one), you end up making yourself look bad, and then it’s (still) no help for you!  But you know all of this already, which is why we’re here.

So here is my advice. Forget about the fact that the other administrative assistant is a waste of space. You and I aren’t going to eliminate nepotism, and we aren’t even going to fix this one case of it. If she’s been gumming up the works for this long, she’s not going to start working harder, and your management is not going to start pushing her harder. Sorry.

So let that go, and let’s focus on what’s most important: You. 

You have a big bucket of work and no one is helping you. It’s time to go back to the well and ask for help again. Now I don’t know exactly what kind of work we are talking about here, but generally when there is too much work, you have a choice of in how to handle it. You can either kill yourself to do it all (I think you’ve been trying to do that), get more resources to help you (your manager tried that), or prioritize it and let some of it go.

So with that in mind, I suggest you first set some boundaries for yourself. You are obviously a conscientious person with a strong desire to do a good job and succeed in your work. Remember that you won’t be able to do that if you burn yourself out. Think about what is reasonable to expect of yourself, and determine what work is most important from your perspective. Come up with a proposal of how you might prioritize it based on that.

This doesn’t have to be the end of it. In other words, I’m not suggesting that you will just tell your manager, “sorry, but I’m only doing half of the work you’ve given me,” and expect it to be well-received. However, it’s a starting point for the conversation that will not only illustrate the problem in practical terms to your manager, but also demonstrate that you are taking some leadership in finding a solution. Your manager might not accept that any of the work is less important, but if you can rationally demonstrate that it cannot all be done by just you, and his prior solution is not working, it will elevate the importance of the problem.

Now, armed with that, you can approach the issue of getting yourself some better help. I know: I told you to let the goldbricking ways of your coworker go. Still the case. You still need to remove the emotion, the opinion, and the judgment from the situation as you present it. However you must still focus on the result. Don’t let that go. That’s the key.
The important thing to remember is that your manager thinks that he solved your problem by pointing you in the direction of this well-positioned online shopper, but it didn’t work. He needs to know that he still owes you some support.

Now let’s put it all together. I see the conversation with your boss going something like this:
1.    State the problem:
“I’m still having trouble getting through all of the work”

2.    Illustrate the impact, taking ownership and showing you care:
“There are not enough hours in the day to get it all done so I’m concerned that the quality of my work will slip and I will not be able to deliver. I do not want to let the company down.”

3.    Address the past solution, being careful to state only facts and leave out your judgment and observations:
“I know you told me that I should share some of the work with Tiffany ( Ashley? Brittany? Am I close?), but that hasn’t been working out. She has told me that she doesn’t have time to help me because she is too busy.” 

4.    Propose a solution (within your own means):
“If we cannot get someone else to help, then I would like to restructure my work so I can focus on the top priorities. This will mean that X, Y, and Z will have to wait until we can get someone else to cover them.” 

5.    Ask if there is anything else that your manager can do within his means, but with a twist:
“If there are other resources available, I would still love to get help, but since these other people don’t work for me, it would be helpful if we could identify specific things they will be responsible for  and the message could come from you (management) to them.”

Notice that with this approach you aren’t making a judgment on how busy the other employee is or isn’t, but have only presented the fact that she told you that she is. Also, with the last point above, you are separating the owner’s daughter from the situation by talking about the help you get in terms of “other people”. Now your manager might read between the lines, depending upon how well known it is that this gal likes to loaf. That’s still ok because you have insulated yourself by approaching it tactfully and professionally.

The other important thing here is that you are making it a point to ask your boss to be more directive with the person who is helping you. I think that’s been a big part of the problem all along. If the person helping you is not beholden to you in any way, then you must rely entirely on his or her work ethic and desire to help you. Obviously if you get the wrong person, that’s not going to fly. So above all else, I recommend you push on that point. If your manager does not accept an option where all of the work doesn’t get done, you need to push to make sure he continues to help you get what you need without leaving it to you to sort out the additional resources.

Remember that in order for your manager to succeed, you need to succeed. You need his help in making you successful. If you can help him to focus on how he can best help you, you should both be in a better position to get through this stressful time.

I hope that helps.

~~ Don Draper

Don Draper is the Finishing School's resident manager, on-call for your sticky situations and management input on all topics.  Write Don in care of bwfinishingschool@gmail.com

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