Navigating a Career Around Age Bias


Angelina  running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

Angelina running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

I was out of the country when Angelina became known to the circles I move in. When I came back to town, I was told that I “had to meet her”. It would actually take quite a while for us to do more than pass in the hallway, and I’ve been kicking myself for the lost time. Thorough, methodical, observant, and smart, Angelina is a veritable font of knowledge and skill. When she told me she’d like to write something for the newsletter, I skipped all the usual discussion about what and how and simply asked, “when?”. Because I’ve learned this: if Angelina has something to say, then it’s worth listening to. -Wu Chen


One of the good things that happened in 2017 besides Fiona the Hippo (Look her up, she’s adorable) and Australian marriage equality is that a whole bunch of women spoke up and stood up about harassment. The conversations that have started about respect at the workplace have been wonderful. The following story has been on my mind for years, yet I haven’t been able to put it into words until now. It provides almost no answers, but I’m hoping its questions could carry the discussions into 2018.

I got very lucky (Is “lucky” the right word here? I’m not quite sure, lets get back to this sentiment later) early on in my career to work on some large shows at prominent venues in several cities. I plunged into theatrical design and backstage tech at the age of 15, taking on extra gigs whenever I could. By 21 I have worked with almost every major local company, lead union crews and designed at a few major theaters. At 25 I received an MFA in lighting design and technology. As my experience level increased over the years, I have found that one thing stayed constant and followed me from city to city – the undermining assumptions older colleagues make about me the moment I walk through the doors. Is that really such big of a deal? Is another guacamole-loving-millennial complaining about something? Let me give you some highlights so that we are all on the same page here.

How often do people ask you “How old are you?” and it has nothing to do with online dating or a getting a drink at the bar? For me it’s usually followed by a snide look and “I’ve done this for longer than you’ve been alive” regardless of what answer I do or do not give. Neat. Good for you. When I was in college I worked as a lighting assistant for a multi-million dollar company that ran huge shows in rep. One of my jobs was to create paperwork and lead the changeovers between three different shows, tracking focus and color swaps for over 700 light fixtures. Since it was a union house I had to follow this protocol of communications – to fly in an electric I had to get the Technical Director to ask the head flyman who would then ask the actual flyman to get the pipe in. My stumbling block right away was the TD. Lets call him Dan. Dan was well over 6 feet tall and “been doing this his whole life”. Working with Dan was hell on wheels as he had no desire to communicate or collaborate and he didn’t like to talk to little people like me (literally 5’4”). One day while I was attempting to ask him what his next load in steps were he looked down straight at me, grabbed me by both shoulders, shoved me aside out of his way and walked away. What do you even do after that? Did I offend him in some way? I was doing my job trying to figure out if I need to keep my crew on deck or send them up the box booms. That job taught me really quick that responsibility does not equal authority, and without authority nothing will get done and my reputation and career will be over. Too bad I wasn’t old enough to legally drown my sorrows at the bar.

Another time a good friend of mine and I were assistants to a man who insisted to refer to us as “children”. True, my friend and I were somewhere between 20 and 23, but what did we ever do that would make us seem childish? Was our work ethic bad? We would look forward to breaks so that we could re-group and plan ahead. We would skip lunch breaks and get more work done while it was quiet. Did we fail at our job? We spent hours double checking and perfecting paperwork. We met every deadline or finished tasks early. I taught myself how to call followspot cues because I was afraid to ask and look like a failure. There were a few mistakes here and there but the work notes got done and the show was on track to open. Somehow, nothing mattered as we heard across the stage loud and clear: “Children, come over here!” How does one confront their superior about this? Worse than the personal humiliation was that as the entire crew observed this happening our carefully built up trust and respect crumbling.

One day I got a job offer to be a lead electrician for a large show. It would be a good challenge for me, a great test of my skills and knowledge, and a fantastic line on my resume. I felt I was ready. The person offering the job was confident I could do it well. I wanted that job so badly but I was hesitant to accept because I knew the crew would never take me seriously. I accepted only when I learned that Steve would be the Master Electrician. Steve was a big guy who knew everyone, took crap from no one and I knew he’d have my back. I remember he came up next to me and gave the problematic stagehand a good glare and that magically fixed his attitude towards me. Thank you Steve! Bystander intervention, in my experience, is what works best.

I cut my hair short and dyed it several shades darker because I knew a particular electrician who liked to pretend he can’t see or hear me was on my next show. Blonde = stupid is still very much a thing. There isn’t much opportunity to build up respect during marathon days of dance concerts. I was just desperately trying to get the man to do his job. I’d change the gel on the booms myself if I was allowed to touch them! Was I asking too much? Was I asking too politely? Not politely enough? My mere presence was unwelcome and felt offensive. It seemed strangely wrong to be more worried about dealing with my crew than about the show looking great. Maybe I’m not really cut out for this job?

I hit the absolute rock bottom at 24. Some good soul warned me that one of the stagehands, lets name him Bob, likes to “make the interns cry”. Bob was extremely tall and he liked to talk down (literally and figuratively) to me and my co-intern. One day during focus call he grabbed me, flipped me over his shoulder, walked backstage and dumped me into a big trash can. What did I do wrong to deserve this disrespect? Does the crew think of me as trash? Would I be sitting on a pile of garbage if I was a 40 year old woman? How does one gracefully recover after such an incident observed and laughed at by everyone backstage? I climbed out, dusted myself off and continued to do my job like nothing happened. Cover girls don’t cry after the face is made, as they say. The people in charge already knew intern harassment was happening, so I didn’t bother to complain. My co-suffering intern got his share of abuse too, so I knew this wasn’t just a gender related issue. We were only called “interns” to justify the laughable stipend for a job of an assistant, but the title seemed to matter more to the crew than the responsibility load.

I have found myself at the crossroads of ageism and sexism time and time again, with not much help from others. From the first time when a crew chief shoved me into a wall for no apparent reason, I knew that to survive in this business I had to adapt. Dependability, experience, self-motivation, attention to detail, and can-do attitude were all great qualities to get hired. They don’t mean a thing when people make an assumption about you strictly based on how old you look. I felt like running a marathon, but first I had to jog a few miles just to find the starting line. I developed tricks to make it through the days. I used to wear a college sweatshirt with the name of my university big and bold on the front. “You go to college? What’s your major?” Many were shocked to hear that I am actually studying theater and intend to pursue it as a career. I would put on makeup even though I’d much rather sleep an extra 15 minutes. I used to wear a fake wedding ring, an instant respect boost and a deterrent of handsy stagehands. (It works!) I was learning how to not be a pushover by mimicking the speech patterns of crew chiefs – direct, precise, muted emotions. I was called bitchy, bossy, “slave driver” after repeating the same words I heard others say. They were called “leaders”. I decided that “being a bitch” was not ideal, but it got the job done when nice just wasn’t cutting it. I needed to be confident to command respect, but not too confident because people don’t like cocky young people, especially women. I learned that asking questions was a sign of weakness, something I could not afford, so I learned by observation, taking notes, doing my own research after work. I’d take chances to show that I had experience in some areas the older guys didn’t by taking apart and fixing moving lights or suggesting tricks for programming difficult cue sequences. Occasionally that backfired and I was forced to spend 30 minutes patching LEDs one by one even though the console can do the math and patch all 100 of them in one command line because “that’s how we always done it”. I spent so much of my energy and focus every day on my appearance, the way I walked, talked, observing and adapting to the mood changes of other people just to keep up the illusion of solid confidence and effortless perfection. It was completely exhausting.  The actual jobs of drafting, making purchases or keeping track of thousands of dollars of the budget were comparatively not hard. I would go home and think to myself, I’m getting paid roughly $1.20/h, why am I doing this? How many ambitious young people get pushed out of this business? Am I actually good at any of this, or am I so good at pretending I know what I’m doing that I convinced even myself that I do? I took the struggle as personal failure and character flaws, never really considering that the issue may be the workplace culture.

“Millenials” is such a vague term. It seems to cover anyone born between 1980 and today. It’s hard to find articles online not talking about millenials ruining something. “Millenials are killing the fabric softener business” claims the Business Insider. They are typically described as snotty, lazy, entitled, greedy and spoiled. I do see some young people being disillusioned with reality after being told their whole life that they are special and deserving of the best. I am also seeing strength and resilience when other millenials find life unfair. “How was working with so-and-so designer?” “Oh, you know, he’s young.” Young seems to be a synonym to bad. Actual issues one might have with a designer include: not being able to meet a deadline or not communicating well with the stage manager. There are 40-50 year old designers like that regardless of number of years of experience. When a young person makes a mistake they are penalized with assumptions about the rest of their knowledge and abilities. Alexander Bell invented the telephone at 18 years of age. Sabrina Pasterski built her own single engine plane at 13. To me age isn’t an issue, but things like ability to lead, communicate, work independently, organization, inventiveness and visualization just to name a few are. Those qualities also happen to be things one can actively try to improve on at any age. Workplace bias and sexism can have a negative effect on someone just starting out in the field. Normalizing bias makes one the “good team player” and at the same time destroys self-confidence. A previously ambitious person may be lowering their career goals after hitting the brick wall of bias too many times. I can’t even imagine what being a young person of color feels like.

It’s not all doom and gloom out there. For a number of years I did shows as an electrician and followspot operator for a company called Kids Who Care. The idea of the company is to not only let young people ranging from elementary school to college create theater on stage but to also learn to be leaders. The atmosphere was such that I never felt like a teenager among adults. I was a colleague in the truest form I’ve ever experienced. I could for once safely admit that I didn’t know how to do something, spending the rest of the day making sure I figured it out for next time of course. I remember feeling encouraged to pursue what I wanted to do. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received while assisting was being told that I never needed much explanation and I just did the work exactly the way someone wanted. Honestly, I never thought asking for explanation was an option. I met a woman named Peggy who is incredible and a great inspiration. I remember telling myself “See, its possible to be successful and still sane in this business”. Few designers who I worked with as assistant designer insisted that I carry their coffee cup wherever they go; most were embarrassed to ask me to refill their water bottle when they couldn’t get away from the tech table.

The industry is built to value seniority over skill and knowledge, assuming that knowledge comes with the years. Ageism is accepted as normal. We hear a lot about how prestigious it is to reach the A list after a decade of service. It is also not required to hold any trade certifications or keep up to date with new technology to get there. In my 10+ years I have seen lighting gear evolve from incandescent and arc sources to LED. The projection and video has taken off and the newest gear now is producing colors by splitting a laser beam with prisms. (It’s super cool!) It’s a reasonable generalization that young people are better with technology, but that is still a generalization. There are no age limits to take a class or a professional workshop in any entertainment area.

    The pushback young people may feel could be translating into the low numbers of them joining labor unions. I’ve worked with or around IATSE members of several Locals for 8 years before officially joining and not once did anyone encourage me to do it. I felt like I didn’t deserve to join. There’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon called impostor syndrome, or inability to acknowledge one’s accomplishments, with the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. People are convinced that their success is only due to luck and good timing, rather than their own competence. Signs and symptoms include fear of failure, perfectionism, and dismissiveness of any praise. Another exciting cognitive bias is called a Dunning- Kruger effect. In essence it is the inability of low-ability people to recognize their own incompetence based on ignorance of accepted standards. To know that one is incompetent they need that exact expertise to recognize it, which they wouldn’t have. Feedback from colleagues seems to be the surest way to gauge one’s ability level. The conclusions aren’t very clear when your head carpenter creepily greets you with “Hey baby girl” every day.

There’s a federal law against age discrimination over 40. I don’t doubt that the law is necessary. I’ll happily report back when I get there. Right now I’m still at the “You aren’t even 30, you wouldn’t know” stage, eagerly waiting for a magical fairy to show up and give me adult super powers. Is trial by fire necessary to push young people to step up their game? Does bullying and intimidation teach resilience? People like Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sonia Sotomayor emerged out of the flames as a beautiful phoenix ready to take on anything life throws at them. Others feel more like a scorched disheveled cockatoo with anxiety, emotional baggage, and irrational fear of tall people.