Confessions of a Failed Self-Advocate

Article by Tony Stoeri

Tony Stoeri returns for another excellent installment just in time, appropriately enough, for Fringe. He’s been back in town this summer, and I think you’ll be just as excited as I am by his continued thoughts on school through the eyes of a working professional. - Wu Chen

A few friends and I once went to a Tex-Mex fast food restaurant. In addition to our meals, I ordered a bag of tortilla chips for the table. When we got to the table and I took a bite of the first chip, what I experienced was not the satisfying and cathartic crunch of a fresh tortilla chip, but instead the gentle pliancy of a stale tortilla chip.

Heres the thing; I was totally ready to suck it up and eat that bag of stale tortilla chips, doing my damnedest to enjoy them. Sometimes, life just gives you stale tortilla chips and it’s your job to make the best of it. I didn't want to be the guy that went up to the person behind the counter and pointed out that my chips were stale and demanded new ones. I didn't want to cause a scene, to make that person behind the counter feel bad. Somewhere along the line I had decided in my head that in this scenario, asking for new tortilla chips would make me the selfish bad guy. Instead of losing the high regard in which I was undoubtedly held by the bored staff of this particular franchise, I was going to suffer in regal, martyred silence, and leave with the satisfying knowledge that I was indeed a morally good person for not having disrupted the silent vigil being held by the kid behind the counter over the various burrito ingredients.

It took one of my friends threatening to cause a huge scene to convince me to go up and politely ask for a different bag of chips. My request was promptly filled, and I returned to my seat with adrenaline coursing through my veins. You know you have a high tolerance for excitement when interactions with fast food employees get your blood pumping.

The point of this story is two-fold; first, for those of you who are still living in fear, most people won't start hating you because you asked for fresh tortilla chips. But the other, almost equally important reason I told this story was to illustrate one thing - I'm REALLY bad at advocating for my own self-interest.

This is something I've known for quite a while. When I was working as a freelancer, I struggled with it on a daily basis, and usually lost. I can't count the number of times I have walked out of a meeting about a new gig thinking, “Maybe I should've asked how much they were paying me before I agreed to this...,” or agreed to take on responsibilities outside of my contract in hopes of avoiding a confrontation. Did you know it’s the lighting designer's job to change the light bulbs in the bathrooms of the theater? As it was explained to me, it only makes sense because, after all, they do light up. On a recent visit home a friend of mine remarked that he had noticed a rise in design fees being offered by a number of small companies, which he attributed to my no longer being around to take gigs that paid $100. Sorry about that, designer friends. I promise I'm trying.

But I don't think I'm unique in this struggle (though perhaps I am in how much I struggle with this). Part of the difficulty in standing up for one’s interests is that exploitation itself can be incredibly difficult to pin down. We find it easy to recognize it in its most extreme forms - nobody walked out of Newsies thinking, “Jeez, those 11-year old paper boys sure were mean to those newspaper tycoons”- but

it is rare that such a clear cut case presents itself. In my experience, most exploitation isn't perpetrated by Snidely Whiplash knockoffs, twirling their waxed mustaches as they tie damsels to the train tracks. Instead, the road to exploitation is often paved with personal checks from incredibly earnest people with big expectations and small labor budgets who are just so excited to work with you. Exploitation, where I have encountered it, is often unintentional, and the result of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and absentmindedness. This makes it incredibly easy for me, personally, to avoid confronting any patterns that may emerge. I can justify sacrificing my own interests by telling myself, “This is just a one time thing, it will get cleared up next time.”

Advocating for one's own interests is made even more difficult because we are emotionally tied to this work. To paraphrase something Wu Chen once told me, we are, most of us, working in this business because we want to; we want the show to work, we want it to be good. I know this is certainly true for me; show me a small theatre company with a shoe string budget that has big dreams - or small dreams, or even just an idle interest in maybe putting a show together sometime if they remember to - and my heart melts. My first thought is that I want to help, I want to contribute to making this thing. But that desire can often work against one's own self-interest- no one wants to be the person that lets everyone else on the team down, and it becomes incredibly easy for that pressure to be leveraged into exploitation, intentionally or not. When you are put in a situation where it seems like part of the show depends on you, it becomes very hard to say no, even if it involves going against your own immediate self-interest.     

This effect is compounded for freelancers, who also must keep in mind how standing up for their own interests could come across as them being obstinate or difficult. Since each job you take is in effect an audition for a possible future gig, it is always in your interest to be cooperative and accommodating.  The incredibly difficult task, then, is to balance  the desire to be accommodating and cooperative - so you will be hired again- with the necessity of sticking up for yourself.

We find ourselves on a nearly daily basis navigating the nebulous gray area between seemingly contradictory forces- the desire to contribute and the desire to profit. You would think that in two years of freelancing I would have learned how to walk that tightrope a bit better, that I would be a few steps closer to the grizzled, cigar-smoking tough negotiator (played by Kurt Russell in the movie version of my life) that I always imagine when I think of what successful self-advocacy looks like. That doesn't seem to have happened though. I found instead that the nature of my work as a freelancer often allowed me to avoid directly confronting the issue of how to advocate for myself. The advantage of having a new job every couple of weeks was that if I ever found myself in an exploitative situation, I knew I had to only stick it out for a few months at most and then I would be free, and would have the option to not take jobs with that group again. The unstable nature of freelancing - the very thing that often makes free-lancers so vulnerable to exploitation - allowed me to avoid dealing with the question of where I drew the line between self-interest and being accommodating.

Grad school changed that. For the first time I was in a setting where I didn't have the option to move on to something else every few weeks; I could no longer run from situations where I felt exploited. Faced with a three-year commitment, and encouraged by the knowledge that even if I royally screwed this up I could go find work in the Twin Cities, it became increasingly easy for me to advocate for my own interests. I found myself more willing to be vocal about the aspects of my experience that I felt were unfair, to be more transparent about when I thought I was getting the short end of the deal; I began to move slightly closer to the Kurt Russell character in my head.

And I also began to realize that self-advocacy meant something different to me when I was at school. There, I was part of an institutionalized hierarchy. By necessity, the way the school is designed to work is that the students are replaceable- when they graduate, the program doesn't shut down, it just gets new students. Experiencing this caused an increasingly mercenary shift in my outlook. I began to understand that grad school would be what I made of it- I needed to actively seek out the things I wanted to learn and the ways I wanted to grow, to put my own interests ahead of those of the department, which had a bunch of money and a ton of faculty to look after it. The opportunity that has given me to begin to change my habits of self-advocacy is extremely valuable. I am freed to learn how to argue for my own interests because I am not a steward of that community.

But the same cannot be said when I come home to work. I am by no means irreplaceable in the Twin Cities theater community (as evidenced by the fact that I have been, you know, replaced). But when I work here, I feel in some small sense that I am a steward of this community. When I work at home as a freelancer, I feel a responsibility to support the wide array of work that exists here, and the plurality of design opportunities it creates. So sometimes I will still take those $100 gigs, because I want to do the work, and because I want to work in a place where the barrier for entry into the arts is as low as possible. I still need to work on ensuring that I look out for my own interests, but I've also come to peace with the fact that I'm never going to fully become that Kurt Russell character I have in my head, that I will always feel a sense of responsibility to enable and support the creative work the people in this community do.

But, all of that aside, the real moral of this story is that you shouldn't be afraid to ask for fresh chips.