Friday, February 21, 2014

Lights! Camera! "Tell Me About Yourself ..."

I mentioned yesterday that I was scheduled for a job interview, and indeed I did.

It got off to a very rough start, though. I didn’t realize traffic would be as bad as it was in the Embarcadero. I realize the government of the city of San Francisco is dedicated to hating cars and removing them from its streets, but you’d think they’d realize that, as long as the cars are out there, they might try to make things a little easier for them. For example, if they were to time the lights so that the traffic at the front of a line could go first, they could move, which would make room for the cars in the second rank, which would make room for the cars in the third rank, and so on and so on. Instead, they start the cycle at the back, so that that traffic has nowhere to go, which means that no one can move except with great difficulty. (I thought about taking BART – the company is close to the Embarcadero station, but I couldn’t be sure I’d get a parking space.)

Anyway, even though I’d allocated an extra 40 minutes over the estimated travel time, I was still late – and, even once I got to the building, couldn’t find the office – which turned out to be immediately to the right of the front door.

Once inside, though, the interview proceeded apace, and (in thinking about it tonight), I started to wonder how anyone without theatre training or experience manages to do job interviews at all.

When I taught acting in grad school, one thing I tried to get across to my students was that, whether they knew it or not, they were already acting every day. They were assuming different roles with different people all the time, “playing” one person at work, another at school, another with their friends, another with their parents, ad infinitum. And so it is at a job interview. The applicant (in this case, me) assumes the roles of a salesman, an expert in the particular fields – themselves as a product and the industry in which they want to work (albeit one without some level of specific training), a serious and sober person, a good teammate, someone friendly and with a good sense of humor, and an egotist with a sense of perspective (this last because of the need to prove that he’s the best – and only – person for the job, but not in a way that seems big-headed, because who wants to work with that guy?).

And, on top of all that, it’s a complete improv situation. You probably have a general idea of what questions they’re going to ask (“What are your strengths?” “What are your weaknesses?” “Have you ever faced a situation where you were put into a no-win situation, and how did you get out of it?” “How do you deal with difficult people?”), but you have no idea how many of them you’re going to get, in which order they’re going to come, or even what wild cards they may throw at you (“If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?” [Anton Chekhov, because he’s my favorite writer and I I’d love to pick his brain in person – and find out what his last play was going to be about]; “If you were a type of food, what type of food would you be? [My mother’s fried chicken, because then I would never be without it.] “If you won $20 million in the lottery, what would you do with the money?” [Donate it to local theatres and charities, buy an apartment in New York, start my own theatre company, and help friends and relatives who could use a few thousand bucks every so often] “If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you be? [Gorgonzola; seemingly a little bland, but with a hidden kick.]) You don’t even know if they’re going to ask questions at all.

So, then, consider my case. I’ve done my homework by studying the company’s website to figure out what they do and how they do it. I know what I’ve done in my past – both in my real and working lives – and have a reasonably good idea of how to spin it for the purposes of this company. I have my set stories about what I’ve done, but I have to strive to find a way to keep them fresh and sounding newly-minted (even though both sides know these are set pieces I’m delivering). I’ve got to do improv – something I generally hate to do – by listening to the cues I’m being given (“Always say ‘yes!’”) – and wondering how I’ll spin them this time to best suit what this particular interviewer for this company wants. I’m wearing a costume; my choice of duds chosen to reflect not what the company vibe is (in most instances that I’m put into, the way the staff dresses is very casual), but what’s going to best sell me. (Do I wear a suit? A sports coat? No coat? A dress shirt? A short-sleeve shirt? A t-shirt? [No.]. Dress pants? A nice pair of jeans? My usual pair? [No.]) And that’s just for me. I can only imagine the choices a woman is faced with. (Heels? Flats? A skirt? Pants? Hose? Who needs that headache?)

So, I arrive at the “stage door” of the company’s entrance, am met by either the “stage manager” or another “actor” (or maybe even the “director”) who will conduct me to the stage/theatre of the interview room, and, after getting a places call (“Do you need anything? [X] will be in in a moment”), I have to perform, doing an acting job to sell a persona that may or may not exist. And being improv, neither of us – interviewer or interviewee – knows what the final scene will be. I could get good notices and get the job or lousy ones and they’ll take a pass. (This is the one time I pay attention to reviews.)

So as I said, I have no idea how people without theatre training do these things. Is there an inate acting gene that we all carry, I wonder? Certainly we all love to tell stories and jokes (well, most of us anyway), and those require an element of acting, whether or not we’ve gotten training. Even kids playact all the time, and no one directs them; it just happens. And people interview successfully for jobs hundreds of times a day, even though if you were to put those same people on a stage in front of people, they’d be terrified. (I’ve always loved the statistics that more people fear being on stage than death.)

I’ve said on these pages before that, after all these years, I think I’m a pretty good judge of whether I’m any good on stage or not. (Speaking of which, I was only okay in “The Speakeasy” tonight; I had some good moments, some meh ones, and some that would have been good had the audience members inches from my scene just shut up; they wouldn’t even had had to listen. But I digress …) But those are situations for which I’ve had training, experience, and guidelines. I don’t know that you can “train” for them. (You can prepare, but there are all those wild cards.) I don’t have a lot of experience with them; I’ve done maybe a dozen – certainly no more than twenty – of them. And there seem to be no real guidelines other than keep alert for anything and hope for the best while being friendly and upbeat. (Are funeral director candidates upbeat and cheerful during their job interviews, or understanding and somber?*)

Anyway, the run of this particular show is over after only one performance, and for once I’m waiting to get the reviews, which I’m hoping are a rave.

(*I am again reminded of a story. When my mother was dying, my sister and I went to the cemetery to make arrangements for where her ashes would be interred. [This was the first time I had heard the words “columbarium” and “cremains,” by the way.] As we sat waiting in the funeral director’s office, we were looking at the impressive display of headstones and urns behind his desk. In a central position was a sort of Greek temple thing you could store the loved one’s cremains in, and displayed proudly on the center front of the “temple” was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It gave us one of the first good laughs we’d had in weeks.)

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