LD On The DL: Ten Years Ago ...

I will never understand why we humans give significance to anniversaries divisible by ten. For some reason they seem to carry more weight. We pause and reflect upon the past decade in a way we didn't after nine years or four years. It lives in our minds differently, and we are compelled to do more -- whatever that means -- in observance. Strangely the older I get, the less ten years even seems to matter. I work with guys who talk about decades like I talk about lunch -- something that happened just a bit ago and is barely worth remembering. Despite my rationalizations or my changing perception of time, as I approach a ten year anniversary of my own I cannot help but pause and reflect. Ten years ago this month, I graduated from college.

A lot's happened since then. I got married. I moved into Manhattan, a little island that I love dearly. I worked my way up through the ranks and learned to program, design, and head crews. I applied and was turned down by IATSE ... twice. I designed the lighting for some great shows I had no business working on given my young age. I learned all about the production and marketing industries. And my co-workers ... with rare exception they have all been interesting, salt-of-the-Earth types -- old, gruff union guys, eager recent grads, tough directors, zen-like stage managers, and hard-working fellow electricians. A motley but great group of people. As I sit in this dark control room, surrounded by the hum of fans, and think back there have been a lot of milestones. There have also been regrets; specifically two that I think are worth discussing.

A lot of regret revolves around money; I could have managed it better. In retrospect I cannot fathom why I acted so heedlessly. I can only assume I expected to live forever in a booming economy, which can be the only possible explanation for my lack of monetary foresight. Many of my peers have 401Ks and IRAs worth real money by this point, and I feel woefully behind schedule because I don't.

Someone once said compound interest is one of the miracles of the modern world. I'm reminded of that mind game where you get a choice between a million dollars now or a penny doubled every day for 30 days. By day 10 you'd have $5.12. By day 20 ... $5,242.88. By day 30, however, you earn an easy $5,368,709.12 -- quite a miracle indeed. The secret to compound interest is time. The last 10 days make a big difference. Because of my procrastination I started late, and I sometimes worry there won't be time for the miracle of compound interest to fully occur. I realize that a daily, 100% return on your investments is unlikely. Realistically speaking we talk about 3% to 7% annual interest rates over a period of decades. The key is decades, and I've squandered one already.

I mismanaged money in other ways, too. I came into the industry during its recovery from the 2001 recession. I stayed very busy through the fall of 2002. Despite a slow, cold winter in 2003, work exploded and my income soared from that spring through the Lehman crash in October of 2008. Until that very moment -- watching the Dow Jones plummet over 500 points on Bloomberg TV -- my perspective of this industry had been woefully one-sided: always more tomorrow. I possessed no concept of what a down-turn meant, never truly believed in the possibility of one occurring, and never adequately prepared for it. The rainy day fund I intended to create and now needed did not exist.

In retrospect, I should have managed my money better. Funding my retirement and creating a safety net should have been a priority, especially when the funds were available to do it. I wish I could tell you I didn't know better or wax poetically about the carelessness of youth. It really isn't true, though. I knew better, which help explains my ire.

I am and have been fully aware that my generation will probably not have access to the retirement vehicles previous generations did. Will Social Security be around in forty years? Hard to predict, especially when considering our country's political climate and fiscal reality. What about pensions? Can the children of the baby boomers -- people like me -- depend on pensions to provide for us in retirement? Here, again, the current evidence is grim. Most small employers can't afford pensions and larger employers are abandoning them, domestically outsourcing to avoid the entire issue. My wife's company just canned their pension, choosing instead to contribute more to the 401K plan. It's ironic ... she works for an asset management firm.

A deus ex machina could occur. I could win the lottery. My family's homestead could sell for a gazillion dollars. Democrats and Republicans could come together and save the eroding middle class and agree on why it's eroding. The Department of Labor could get a clue. We could invent something between a pension and 401K, which provides for labor's retirement but is sustainable, not cost prohibitive for employers, and difficult to cash out of during a period of need thereby guaranteeing funds late in life. Hope and prayer, however, are not retirement plans or good policy.

The NYC television industry is currently undergoing seismic changes. Employers seem to be revolting against rising labor costs, which make funding things like healthcare, pensions, and cost-of-living raises very difficult. The non-union event and theatre worlds are a catastrophe. Stagnant wages, no access to affordable health care, zero retirement options, a high supply (lots of workers), and low demand (ailing economy, smaller budgets, more advanced technology) have created a middle class death spiral.

Which is to say that my retirement is my problem. I am the one force I can count on for the duration of my own life. I learned about compound interest in high school. I knew then retirement planning hinged on starting early. I heard from co-workers, “These good times won't last forever,” starting in 2004. Instead of acting, I hoped and I prayed. Now, ten years later, I have nothing to show for it -- not a pension, 401K, or IRA. I furiously play catch-up and hope and pray something quite different -- that the miracle of compound interest doesn't pass me by.

The second regret I have revolves around a phrase: You do theatre because you love it. In college I took the phrase to heart. I planned to work hard. I would suffer. I prepared mentally to handle the rigors of a life in the New York theatre. Health care? Who needs it! I would rent a 400 square foot apartment that I shared with idiot roommates forever. Bring it! I had been unwittingly indoctrinated into the Religion of Theatre. Now my blood boils when I hear that phrase.

It's usually said by those in a position of power whose primary source of income is not theatre, i.e. teachers, to others who want or are planning to make theatre their primary source of income. What's wrong with expecting money from a career anyway? Whatever else college may be, we pay tuition as an investment today for more opportunities and salary tomorrow. Furthermore, I can love my job and expect to be paid a living wage at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive, and we shouldn't be teaching otherwise. Lastly, am I a failure as a diligent theatrical practitioner if I begin to expect things my peers earn through their hard work? Suppose, for example, I want children. Or, perhaps, I want an apartment without idiot roommates? Maybe I would like to have a decent credit score so I can get a loan on a car?

Internalizing that stupid phrase caused a lot of cognitive dissonance, especially as I began to realize love alone isn't enough to make a life. I questioned my choice of major and my goals. It took a long time for me to realize that I am not the problem in this equation, but rather the Religion of Theatre is a deeply flawed belief system that benefits neither theatre or practitioner.

We don't ask hard questions of things we love, especially when we're young and full of noble ideals. We don't evaluate them rationally because love doesn't exist in the mind. We give things and people we love a pass ... for a time. While love may be enough for community theater folks the world over, I regret that my love faded into bitterness. I find cold comfort that many my age feel the same way. Most have left the NYC theater market, or like me have trouble taking it seriously as a viable career choice. We reminisce over beers about how silly we once were, and drink to a now absent passion many of us will never fully recapture.

At this ten year anniversary, I'm struck by how many contrasts there are. I will forever regret how I handled money, and how long it took to let go of childish notions of what a career is. However, I will be forever grateful for the myriad of opportunities others gave me. I will miss the idealism of youth, where changing the world actually felt possible. However, I eagerly await the next phase of my life and career. I am surprised how quickly a decade can pass. However, remembering everything I did makes it feel like an eternity. I am no longer a kid, but I am certainly not an old-hand. I feel as if I have mastered so much. However, compared to many around me I have only scratched the surface.

Maybe that's why this ten year anniversary stands out for me. Because for a moment ... just a brief, brief moment ... what I was and what I will be co-exist side by side -- all my regrets, hopes, dreams, successes, heartaches, and joys. I wistfully look back, and eagerly look forward.

 

Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography with The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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