I have met more people in the past two weeks than the entirety of last year. As week three begins at my new job, I continue a round-robin marathon tour of the company's activities. From producers to directors to shaders to board ops to gaffers ... the names and faces keep on coming. Invariably just about all of them ask me The Question.
All of us know The Question. All of us answer The Question all the time, sometimes several times a day. Electricians ask it of each other on coffee. Directors ask it of potential LDs. The IATSE review board ask it of applicants. Interns ask it of those they shadow. My supervisor asked me on my first interview, as has every fellow employee since. It's an seemingly innocuous question. It looks so innocent. After all what could be simpler than wanting to know what you've done?
So go ahead. Try it. Right now. Whip out a recording device and answer (without any practice) The Question: What have you done? If you're on-site, just pretend you're booking work on the phone. It won't be weird. We'll wait.
I've been asked The Question approximately 463 times ... give or take ... and my answers have all been different. Sometimes I give a long and thoughtful response; other times I manage only three or four words. Some days I emphasize my extensive experience in project management; other times I omit any knowledge of production whatsoever. Sometimes I name drop; mostly I don't. I never gave much thought as to how I answered The Question. Suddenly, now, I'm thinking about it a lot.
Timing seems to matter greatly. Too long and you're trying too hard. Nobody likes people who try too hard. Too short and you're a labeled a newbie. Extremely short and you're a jerk. The length of the answer also depends on your audience. A person interviewing you for a job may want a lengthy, in-depth answer. A fellow electrician may just want the highlights so you two can quickly establish common ground, which comes in helpful while running a 1/2 mile of multi-cable through The Central Park Zoo at 2 A.M. without food, water, breaks, or adequate work lights.
To pile on the complexity, the immediate environment hugely affects the answer. If the board-op asks you The Question two minutes before taping starts, the response cannot include the time you zip-tied bundled 4/0 feeder to a sprinkler pipe in Studio B at Peter White Studios and that to this day you're surprised it didn't tear the pipe out of the ceiling flooding the party with moldy water. There's just not time to fully express the asininity of that experience. If a fellow employee asks you The Question over lunch, it's best not to describe the working conditions of the strike after "The Black Party," held at The Roseland Ballroom, and how you'll really miss that pair of pants and shoes which just had to be thrown away. So any good response to The Question must be timely and situationally appropriate.
An individual also cannot appear too excited. Too upbeat a response may grate against the cynical attitude a lot of industry veterans portray. After all this crowd really has seen it all. Under no circumstances should one volunteer to answer The Question without having been asked -- huge mistake. This includes inserting small pieces of the answer unsolicited into routine conversation. For example, if someone says, “Run up channel 12,” nothing should be said that resembles, “Back when I was running [insert closed show] on Broadway I got really good at working an Eos. So, I'll do it. Not a problem.” That awkward silence immediately after is the crew head mentally picking your replacement. Nobody likes anybody over-eager to talk about themselves. Only when asked The Question are you given permission to answer it.
Speaking of [flourish] Broadway, when is it appropriate to drop names? I find this variable the most difficult to gauge on-the-fly. For example, I designed the lighting for a one-off at Lincoln Center's Avery-Fisher Hall once. Is that impressive? That largely depends on who you are. If you're my mother, you're probably hugely impressed. If you're a fellow television LD in NYC, you probably couldn't care less.
I think the most appropriate method of name dropping consists of a limited amount of names dropped and only using names in the industry of the person asking the question. For example when a television board-op asked me, “What have you done?,” I named all the networks I've worked at in the past. That same answer to an Off-Off-Off-Broadway board-op -- who probably has a day job answering phones at a medical office -- would be incredibly obtuse. Theatre-folk love love love to drop names. I never know who they are talking about because it's not my world. It probably never will be. Conversely, if I started dropping names of really cool past events or interesting television shows my co-workers design, their eyes would glaze over too. I get name dropping is a vital part of general networking and also an important component of answering The Question. Who the audience is, though, matters tremendously.
After every answer I give to The Question, I mentally evaluate my response. Was it too long? Did I reference my prior work appropriately? Did I use too many or too few names? Should I have included this job or that experience? It's maddening. I hear myself and think, “Who is this boring person meekly speaking about their experience right now?” My neuroses aside, how does anyone compress a career of production into (at best) 45 seconds? How does anyone express a competence that comes from being neck-deep in the trenches -- installing, designing, and striking gear again and again in conditions most non-industry people don't even think still exist in this country?
I know I should stop fretting. I suspect nobody even remembers or cares about the responses I gave. Maybe, then, it's less about what you say and more about how you say it? Or, perhaps, it's the complete opposite? Or is it a common way to break the ice and really means nothing? Then again, in some circumstances, it could mean everything.
So I practice more. I rehearse my answer to The Question in the shower before work. One day it will be timely, situationally appropriate, and nonchalantly said (only after being asked) using just the right amount of names. It will be perfect in every way. Sadly, on that same day, I will be probably be old enough to retire.