From Acting to Scenic Carpentry: An Interview with Max Gilbert

I met Max last summer, when he was one of our scholarship students (along with Terri Ristow) for our welding classes at Rarig. Max works at Bedlam. Soon I started running into him all over the place. I knew he wanted to work full-time in technical theatre and remembering my own struggles when I was starting out, I wondered how things were going.

This Interview took place between Wu Chen Khoo and Max Gilbert on December 15, 2014.

Wu Chen: So, Max, You’ve been around town for a while, but you haven’t necessarily been working in theatre, is that correct? You’ve been working for Bedlam the last couple of years?

Max Gilbert: Yeah, just kind of more informally, on a volunteer-basis, just doing some work whenever it needed to be done and I really enjoyed it and just kind of decided I could maybe turn it into something that I could get paid for. They offered the Tech Tools option and there are some skills that I would love to learn and so I decided to go for it.

WC: What did you do before this?

MG: I’ve done a little bit of everything here and there. I went to school for acting, for performance. I’ve been in theatre for quite a while. Growing up I thought I was a carpenter and contractor, so I kind learned all that stuff, basically as I went. When I got back from school, I landscaped for several years, just more building, a lot of cool stuff. I learned some masonry there. But then I kind of became more disillusioned with acting, as I think a lot of people do, as they get out of school and into the world a little bit and realize what’s really going on with it. But I loved being in theater and I loved being around the theatre environment and I thought building was just kind of a natural thing to fall into.

WC: What about acting disillusioned you?

MG: I think the constant search and struggle of looking for jobs.  I’ve got an agent here who’s maybe called me twice in six months, and that’s specifically for film work, which is maybe a little bit of a different beast. And Bedlam, I like doing acting with them. It’s great, but it can be a little bit disorganized. It can be hard to want to keep doing over and over again. I’m trying to think of an example here. Tempest was how I really got my foot in the door with acting with Bedlam, and that was really great. The first couple of years were really awesome. I think with the direction things are going, more the short-shorts things, it feels a little more like a flying by the seat of your pants sort of thing and it can kind of get a little more frustrating. I realized fairly quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to support myself in acting, which I think is true with most actors in town. I just kind of hit a point where I was ready to be done with pursuing it as a profession. I still love to do it and when Bedlam has something available that’s easy and simple that I can just go in and have fun with, then I’m totally game for that. That’s always a good time. But mostly I now decided that acting will definitely take a backseat to building and scenic carpentry.

I think I’ve been fairly lucky so far with Tech Tools, and they’ve hooked me up with the job at the Guthrie and that kind of came to a couple larger builds for bedlam and that’s still going on and they have a contract with Yellow Tree Theatre out in Osseo, MN to do all their building for them this season. So at this point, I’m the go-to guy for the carpenter for those builds which is great, and I’ve somehow fallen into getting more work through Grant (at Science Museum of MN) and the Guthrie and it just kind of keeps rolling. I went to Portland last month and I was sitting around for about a month and I was sitting around like, “Oh shit, what am I gonna do?” And all of a sudden, Grant called me back and then I heard from the Guthrie. Then all of a sudden this build from Bedlam was going on. So I feel pretty fortunate so far that the work has been pretty consistent and there haven’t been a lot of gaps so far and I cross my fingers that that’s kind of keeps up. I know it’s kind of heading into a slower point. I don’t know that, but it’s what I’ve mostly heard.

Max learns new welding skills from Guthrie Lead Carpenter and Tech Tools instructor Nate Saul.

Max learns new welding skills from Guthrie Lead Carpenter and Tech Tools instructor Nate Saul.

WC: What do you think has contributed to you being able to just jump into working? You said you had been doing a couple of volunteer builds at Bedlam before that?

MG: I hadn’t realized that that was something that I wanted to do. That was more, “You’ve got time. You can come in and help out with this build,” and it was just a really good time, especially at Bedlam, because it was working with my best friends.

I think, in general I’m a fairly quick learner when it comes to these things. I’ve been doing it since I was a child, because my dad was always working. Having that kind of basis in building just kind of knowing how things work and knowing how to put things together is an asset. It works to my advantage when people can see that I can do the job and they don’t need to walk me through everything step by step. I think that’s really been a benefit and it’s worked out that people recommend me to their friends and that’s really been great.

I would actually say I wouldn’t be where I am now without Tech Tools. That really set me up in a great spot. I got to meet you, meet Nate (Saul). Meet some people who worked in the field for a number of years and have a great amount of experience and it’s really been great getting to learn from Nate and you guys and everyone and it’s been great to keep the ball rolling. But networking has really been kind of a big thing there, moved it into a career, as opposed to just doing something for fun.

I think that’s true of just about anything, being able to move from one place to another fairly fluidly is, especially in the freelance world, one of the most solid ways to do it, in terms of getting consistent work.

WC: Have you been doing any other production work besides scenic carpentry?

MG: I’ve done a little bit of painting work with Sam Johns, whenever Sam finds herself in a little bit of a bind, I’m one of the handful of people she gives a call to. Carpentry is what I’m really interested in right now and what I’m interested in honing as a skill. In terms of a career and contacts, I’m not opposed to getting into lights and sound, it’s just not been my focus.

WC: Where did you go to school?

MG: I went to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They had a pretty good theatre program out there. It also worked to my advantage for acting because they do a lot of film work out there.  I had the good fortune to work on a lot of sets, exclusively film work, exclusively acting, which is terribly boring.

WC: So in your schoolwork, you didn’t do any production work at all?

MG: They didn’t require us to crossover, which I think is a little short-sighted I think on their part. I wish that I had a little more experience in a school scene shop, but I don’t know, I enjoyed it while I was there and while I was there I was exclusively performance. I didn’t anticipate at all.

WC: How did you get into theatre in the first place?

MG: Back in high school. I wasn’t involved at all until my senior year of high school. Tom Lloyd, who also works at Bedlam, he and I come from the same graduating class. He was directing a play, he said, “Why don’t you audition,” and I realized I wasn’t going to be the next big sports star. I kind of had a way that I transitioned out of sports, I swam and did track. I decided what the hell, I’d audition for the play and then I had a lot of fun so I decided to do the big school musical which was also a lot of fun. I got one of the big roles, which was a surprise. It really clicked with me so I decided that what I wanted to do in college and I kept on doing it in college. It was just more and more fun and I really loved it. I came back here when I wasn’t just in the school mode anymore and acting is a little different.

WC: What makes it different? I hear that a lot, “Now that I’m not in school, it’s really different.”

MG: When you’re in school, you’re always kind of involved, there’s always something coming up that you can be involved with and that your classmates are involved with and that you by proxy can be involved with. So I think that being in school and being in theatre is just really easy. You’re living it and it’s your day-to-day. Once you’re out of school you realize you’re not going to make a living at it, so you’ve got another job and you go from job to job. So you’ve got that other job that’s taking a huge chunk of your time away, which makes then going out and pursing acting outside of school pretty much working for free all over again. It can be really taxing, a big strain on your energy. Personally, that’s how I found it. I t just becomes a whole different burden when it’s not just something you’re doing in school for fun. It’s something that you’re trying to make somewhat of a living off of and usually that’s not going to happen or the first several years.

WC: That other job was landscaping?

MG: When I came back from Vancouver, it’s kind of what I fell into. My dad’s best friend owns a landscape design company in Southern Minneapolis and he took me on as an employee. About a year later, I was running his job sites, working into management.  Which was great, but hauling stone from one place to another kind of gets old. In a matter of a couple years, I knew that was not what I wanted to do long term so I started looking for other options. I worked in an office for a year and a half, almost 2 years, which drained the life out of me and I don’t know if I ever want to go back to a corporate office environment. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun. It broadened my horizons a little bit. I think it made me really realize that I missed working with my hands. That’s what I really like, building stuff, not sitting one place in front of a computer screen. It’s just terrible.

WC:  So, just coming out of school, you said you were working for free?

MG: When I came back my exposure to Minneapolis theatre was just through Tom. He was one of my few friends still living in town and I was just hanging around Bedlam with him and there wasn’t really much opportunity to make any money off it. I think that it was kind of because I didn’t go to school here. I didn’t go through four years while honing my skills and also meeting people within the larger Minneapolis theatre community. So I came back here and had training but I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have ins at any of the theatre departments here, it was exclusively around Bedlam. But it wasn’t like my phone was ringing off the hook or anything. So I just kind of realized that there was going to have to be another job that was involved. As the years went on, acting took kind of a backseat to paying my student loans and paying my rent and stuff like that. It became harder and harder to keep that dream, that I’m going to be the next big actor or whatever. So I started looking elsewhere for careers and I realized that working building theatre is what I love to do, it’s what I’ve been loving to do so far.

WC: It’s not uncommon for people to get out of school and try to make a living out of it and find that it’s not possible for them.  So the other job is necessitated because the acting pays next to nothing. The acting provides virtually no income, in that even a part time job wouldn’t cover it. How much do you think this influences the public perception of the performing arts as an unsustainable career?

MG: I think that is definitely sways public opinion about what it means to work in the arts or be an artist. There are three options: you’re a successful artist, you’re a starving artist or you’re a trust fund kid who has some sort of means to support yourself through that. I think that definitely has an effect on how people view careers in the arts.” You’re pursuing that, that’s great. How are you going to survive?” My family, when I wanted to be an actor was like, “That’s great, follow your dreams, but how are you going to live?” There is a lot of skepticism when you say you’re in the arts and that’s what you do, people assume that either you’ve got a trust fund or you’re okay with not having any money in your life. I don’t know. I’m still not totally certain that that isn’t true, but I think that in terms of acting it does take a certain kind of stability and security to pursue it if you’re going to go at it full time. I think that if that’s what you’re going to really pursue as a career, you need to have something to survive without bringing in any money for a while. For 99% of the people that’s really hard to do.

WC:  Does that tend to divide us along class lines?

MG: I think so. I think that within the community, as far as I’ve experienced, people are pretty accepting. People aren’t like, “Oh, that guy’s got a trust fund, I won’t work with him, screw that guy.” In terms of, I don’t want to say success, but people who are getting all this work at the Guthrie right out of school, a lot of them, and I’m thinking of someone in particular in my head, they did have a safety net and that does kind of define how far you can go. The access. I think that does kind of create a little bit of bitterness because there’s all these kids right out of school struggling and they’re trying to get jobs and a lot of this seems unattainable. They have this other job and because they have this other job they can’t commit to 12 hours of rehearsal a day for next to nothing because the only people who can take those are people who have that safety net. And that’s such a small percentage of the people who are pursuing it.

WC: Have you been making a living wage?

MG: Yeah, I don’t have another job. I’m pretty much surviving entirely off of scenic work. It’s been really great. I found that it’s a lot easier to feed yourself and pay rent doing scenic work than it is acting. I think I’ve been very fortunate getting consistent work since I’ve decided to switch over to scenic work and that’s really been to my advantage. It really hasn’t been too difficult yet trying to earn a living wage and do this work.

WC: May I ask what your average wage is?

MG: It varies. At Bedlam I usually get a stipend, but outside of that it’s usually been about $18-20 an hour, which is great. That’s a livable wage. My expenses are fairly low. I just have a minimal rent, utilities and student loan payments. That’s about it. It’s very workable at my age. It’s been really good to me and I’ve been enjoying it so far.

WC: It’s often been said that, for a lot of people, awareness of careers in performing arts outside of being a performer or director, is fairly low. Do you find that that is true in your case?

MG: Yeah, I’d say so. It goes all the way back to being in high school. Everyone who was in involved in theatre wants to be an actor because they want to perform and be the star. It seemed like anyone else who joined theatre and was on the tech side of things was there because they weren’t cool enough or popular enough to be in an acting spot, which, looking back, is bullshit. In terms of actually working in the arts and supporting yourself in arts, one side is clearly the winner, and it’s not acting. But there’s this stupid stigma, at least in the early stages, at least when you’re in high school and pre-college. That’s a pretty formative time for steering people in an arts direction. It is definitely too bad that tech is seen as, “well if you can’t act, then I guess you’re going to do tech.”

WC: In terms of building public support for the arts, would educating the public about the other career options show them that there is a viable economic option?

MG: Yeah, there’s a good amount of benefit of showing people that you can work in the arts and you’re not going to be a big performance star, but there are multitude of other options that you can do that are equally if not more interesting. For example, we’re about to build a spaceship at Bedlam. Who else gets to do that? Yeah, it’s not onstage and being the star, but it’s just as cool. Definitely, I think it’s more accessible for a lot of people, but they don’t know it’s a career option.  I would never have considered it until I got a little more involved in theatre and thought, “Hey I could do that, that sounds like a lot of fun.”

WC: In high school, if someone came up to you and said, “Hey, you could build a spaceship,” is that something you would have jumped on?

MG: I think that if it were a spaceship, I would have said yes. But if someone had said, “Hey, you can work in theatre tech for the rest of your life,” I would have stuck with performance. I think that if there was more of an outreach to kids in high school or kids in college that you can be involved in theatre your whole life, you can work and you can be on the production side of things and you can build or design or do whatever you want to do.  I think that would make it look a little more attractive, especially for younger people because anyone getting out of college now is having a tough time finding a job. And anyone in performance is probably having an even harder time finding a job. But I definitely think that building and constructing of theatre is totally a viable career. It really just doesn’t have much prominence, it’s not something that people would think of in terms of a career to pursue. Most people think it’s another career in the arts, but it’s not. I mean, it is, but it’s not the same as being a starving artist. There’s definitely more monetary options if you’re building than if you’re performing.

WC: Why do you think that is?

MG: Hmm. I think that with building here, at least in terms of my experience, and again I’ve been fortunate in that it’s been fairly consistent, I’ve found that I’ve had much more consistent employment because there’s a much larger demand for builders than there are for actors. For every production there might be 5 or 10 actors, but there are 15 builders, more if it’s an even larger scale production. It’s been great for me because they need the people. There doesn’t seem to be enough people to fill the demand which has been great for me. Maybe we shouldn’t encourage this career path? [Laughs]

WC: When first starting out, offering an actor next to nothing in exchange for something else, say experience, that’s common practice. But if you offer a job to a carpenter for next to nothing, that doesn’t tend to happen. Even a new carpenter coming in will get something, even if it’s less than the experienced carpenter. Why do you think we find it okay to offer actors nothing when we don’t find it okay to offer carpenters nothing?

MG: I think that it kind of comes down to the fundamental difference that one seems more like an art and one seems more like a trade and trades get paid for their work, as they should.  For actors, the public still has this mentality that he’s an artist, he’s committed to this mentality, we can pay him nothing and he’s going to be happy to have it. I think that definitely exists more in acting and it’s kind of the same thing with writers or painters, not so much scenic painters, more portrait painters. It’s just a lot easier to take advantage of those people, especially early on their careers.

WC: Why do you think that is?

MG: I think that there’s just been such a public attitude towards the starving artist because these people do all this for their passion and it’s what they really want to do. Which is kind of funny, because there are people in all kinds of careers who are passionate about what they do, but they’re all getting paid far more than actors.

WC: Do you think that we as a community contribute to that attitude?

MG: I think by their willingness to do that, but I think that’s what makes it harder across the class lines. There are a bunch of actors that are willing to do that and still be supported by that safety net. That kind of propagates that whole attitude that we can pay them next to nothing because this is their lifestyle, they’ll do that. I would love to see it be steered in a different direction. I don’t know that that’s going to happen anytime soon, but I think it’s really unfair to basically take advantage of these young people just coming into this and it skews the public opinion that that’s how it’s going to happen. It’s a little bit of vicious cycle. The next generation comes in and says, “Ok, I’ve got to be a starving artist, I can work for next to nothing, that’s just how it is.” I’m really happy that that’s not exactly how it works on the building side of things. I think generally people are paid very fairly, especially compared to acting. And I really like that attitude, I’m happier about it. They’re not working for free, they’re not working for next to nothing, they’re able to support themselves while at the same time staying in the arts. There’s something really satisfying about working in the arts. It’s great, having that creative potential. To really execute creatively, something that people normally wouldn’t if you’re just sitting on a computer working on spreadsheets all day. So I personally find that really appealing because it changes all the time, it’s not the same thing day after day. A lot of it is creative problem-solving which I find to be a lot of fun. I feel very fortunate right now to be where I am. Starting out, having work, it’s a lot of fun.

WC: You’re going to be the lead for Bedlam’s build for Yellow Tree Productions. How do you like that?

MG: I like it. I like the freedom of being able to dictate my own schedule a little more. In the day or two before deadline I feel little bit more pressure. I was the lead for the last Yellow Tree build and they were conflicting with rehearsal at Bedlam so timing was getting a little tight, because they were gearing up for Beaver Dance and we had a solid load in date for this last one. When we were building at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, I was feeling a little nervous about it. But I think in general it’s something I enjoy. I like being able to make those choices. When there is something that’s a little vague, being able to make the call is something I find to be a lot of fun. A little exhilarating. I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I haven’t done a lot of Technical Director roles. Billing out shows is still a little daunting to me, but it’s something I’m looking forward to learning. I haven’t had a huge chance to do it so far. For future Bedlam builds I’m hoping to maybe step up a little more in that kind of a role. But at this point this is great. It’s building, which is very familiar to me, so it doesn’t stress me out as much. I’m really enjoying it.

WC: How much has your background, with your father as a contractor, influenced you in what you’re doing now?

MG: He was a finish carpenter. It’s a lot of what you do in theatre. A lot of trim, a lot of finish surfaces. I think that that definitely helped in deciding and also getting more work because I had that foundation set up from when I was much younger. It helped because I didn’t have to play catch up, it was pretty much all right there. I found being able to take what I had learned as a younger child, being around tools and such, and applying it to theatre was very easy. A lot of it is just power tools, and I’m very familiar with power tools.

WC: Especially at the Science Museum, people are just inches away, as opposed to the Guthrie where people are 40 feet away. It changes what’s important, because things look different.

MG: I think that’s something that I would actually have a little trouble with set building at the Guthrie is that I am maybe a little more perfectionist then they want. But at [the Science Museum], it’s meant to be seen at 6 inches away. With Yellow Tree, it’s a really small intimate theatre, there has to be more detail to it. The farthest audience member is 40 feet away, the nearest s probably 5-10 feet. So yeah, I think that it’s been nice to have that finished quality kind of ingrained. Maybe not for the Guthrie, but for the smaller theatres, which is where I’ve been working lately. It’s nice to finish something to a certain degree.

WC: You seem to be happy with where you are and what you’ve done. If you were to have a conversation with someone who wanted to get into this, what would you say to them?

MG: I would definitely recommend a program like Tech Tools. I would not have had the opportunities that I have without it. I would say something similar to it, but I can’t think of anything similar to Tech Tools.  It was a really accessible and easy to go in and learn a couple skills, but also a way to meet people in the community. Specifically, it was nice to get some face time with someone who is able to get you work and to show that you can do the work. In terms of the classes, the carpentry class, not the welding class, a lot of it was a little more remedial. What they taught was great for someone who knows nothing about it. It gave me an opportunity to show that I could do this, what else do you have for me to do? Show them that this was something that I could do, that I’m fairly good at it. It turned into an offer, let’s get you in touch with our technical director, let’s get you some work. It just went from there. I think that Tech Tools was completely invaluable; I wouldn’t have been able to do it without it.

WC: When you go places, do you make it a point to be social with the people there?

MG: Yeah, absolutely! I think that I just naturally tend to be more social while working, whiling away the time. It’s nice to keep a conversation going and get to know someone new while in the field, That’s definitely been a benefit to me, to be more social. The more people you meet, you know? Yeah, I’ve worked with five guys at the Guthrie and Nate is really the only one throwing work my way, but I get the chance to work with Mark Bauer and get the chance to shoot the shit with him. You know, hopefully maybe down the line, he’ll say, “A friend needs help with this, are you available?” It’s really important to have those kind of connections.  Developing relationships with people in the community and that’s what I’m hoping to base most of my career off of at this point. Knock on wood!

Click here to listen to the full audio of the interview.