Demon 2: Professional Jealousy

June 6, 2010

recommended listening: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

As I make the transition into adulthood, I’m taking the first baby steps in forging a career for myself. The career path I’ve chosen, while interesting and amazing and I’m so incredibly lucky to have found something like it, also seems bound and determined to drive me into an early grave. I’m what’s known as a scenic artist/set painter/paint monkey. It’s got a lot of different names, but the gist is the same. I put paint on a set to make it look pretty. I can be anything from a glorified house painter to creating 12-foot stenciled walls to painting elaborate representations of renaissance portraiture. I have, without a doubt, the coolest fucking job in the world.

And like most jobs in the arts, it’s littered with crazy people and assholes.

Being an artist comes with having a certain skill set, you have to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk. Your connections get you in the door, and once you’re in there, you have to deliver the goods. This is not a job where a lobotomized hamster could do the same thing, you have to be fast and you have to be good. And because you get jobs through luck and knowing the right people, it’s insanely competitive. The environment changes a lot, because once a job ends it’s scrambling to find something else to pay the bills, and often you have to constantly think three months ahead for everything. It’s intense, and it makes people fucking nuts.

Case in point, my third film job. It filmed about two years ago, and almost burned me out on being a scenic artist. Scenic art in theater is generally now a woman’s domain, but in the film industry it’s still very much a man’s world. But my lead on this project was a woman who’d fought her way up through the ranks for 20 years and was an established and experienced scenic painter. Which also meant she had her favorites and her enemies. She did not get along with the lead carpenter on this movie, who did not quite know what to make of women on a construction crew, so work was always entertaining. My lead hired me based on word of mouth from someone in the art department, and gave me a higher pay grade and a job as a scenic artist instead of a set painter. What’s the difference you may ask? Well, to me it was two dollars more an hour, but to someone else it was the entire world.

My lead generally had another scenic artist, who while talented, was also something of a flake and drama queen. This girl would become my nemesis, and for the three months that I was on this production seemed to go out of her way to make my life hell. I encountered her in the first day in the parking lot at 6 am adjusting her lip gloss in the rear view mirror. Now, even though we work in film, what we do is not glamorous. We are on a construction crew. We work with construction workers. Being with them long enough I had to start checking my language when speaking with my mother on the phone as I was using fuck as a noun, adjective and adverb. And here is this girl making sure her makeup is perfect before she starts a 12-hour day on a set working with primer and joint compound. She thrived on attention, and even though she trashed the grips and complained constantly about how they checked her out, she also invited it by wearing cleavage-bearing tops. I mean, it’s one thing to say how it’s an example of how a woman should be free to wear what she wants without fear of harassment, but it was fucking January, and we were in an unheated abandoned warehouse. Girlfriend knew exactly what she was doing. Or maybe she didn’t, as she freaked one day when I had gotten a Grip to give me a donut, because I was “flirting with them for food” and that was just “gross and demeaning.” Personally I think she was pissed because I got the last donut.

I could see why she was threatened by me, she was used to being the attractive twenty-something girl in an all male crew with a specialized skill. Then along comes me, who also was a young woman with a specialized skill, but I also had the distinction of being blonde. Apparently, from day 1, it was On. Working with her was difficult, to say the least. She was only on this job for the money, for she was a fine artist and being a set painter was beneath her. In fact, she hated it and many, many times she said she would quit so she could concentrate fully on her art. But from she told me about her life, all she seemed to do was find herself a rich boyfriend and mooch off of them until they dumped her and she needed to make a quick buck. But when she found out that I had usurped her role in the team, she threw an epic fit until I was bumped down the pay grade and she reclaimed her title. This should have been evidence to me that I should have walked and spared myself the next three months, but it was only my third film project and I didn’t want to develop a bad reputation. So I took it and took what they gave me.

However, this was not enough for her. For the rest of the show she would constantly overshadow me, often to the point of following behind me and re-touching all of my work. Often she would reach in front of my face to mop up a paint drip, or screech at me because I had aged some doorknobs, when that was HER JOB because she was a SCENIC ARTIST and why couldn’t I paint door-frames like the set painter I was? One of her favorite lunchtime games was to take the box of my microwave dinner and read the caloric contents to me and the ingredients and how unhealthy and bad for the environment everything was while she primly ate her mason jar of lentil soup. I soon developed a habit of eating a cheeseburger in front of her as often as I possibly could.

She was my first encounter with professional jealousy, and I was at a complete and total loss with what do with her. I’m the type of person who if I encounter someone who I find is better than a certain skill with me, I do get slightly jealous, but that just makes me step up and bring my A game. A little bit of competition is healthy, and if it means you do better work to keep up, then it’s worth it. In my mind, working with someone who is more competent than you at something just means you’ll get things done faster and better, right? Apparently not, as in the real world apparently meeting someone who is better than you or who may be able to compete with you just means you have to sabotage the shit out of them.

She eventually got me laid off, after she screeched at me one too many times, and I finally lost it while we were on location during a major crunch. Life lesson #235, never call the lead’s favorite a “cuntbag” where they can hear you.

I’ve run into many others like this girl since then, many of them even worse than her, and every time it still mystifies me. What is the purpose of acting this way? It just creates a bad working environment, and everyone around you becomes cranky and pissed off just because of all the crap floating around in the air. Common sense would state that these people who create these toxic atmospheres through raging insecurity should be the first to go, but in my experience they tend to be the ones who claw their way to the top. Which is why you don’t meet anyone normal in the “industry” over the age of 35, because all the ones with common sense have been driven away or have become completely batshit themselves.

I’ll probably burn out at some point, and it’s sad to think that it won’t be because of the work that I do or the fact that I don’t like what I’m doing, I just can’t deal with the Survivor bullshit. But for now I hang on and try to get the most out of things. The latest case of professional jealousy I’m experiencing this summer is small potatoes compared to some of the other ones I’ve dealt with. I’m learning to tune it out and pleasantly smile and nod while they work themselves into a tizzy, which as compared to actively baiting them into a screaming match, I feel that I’ve grown as a person. (And not because I don’t have the energy to just deal with them anymore).

The more I work at scenic painting, the more I’m sure it’s what I want to do with my life, and I’m very lucky as not too many people are able to find that. I can take someone’s bad attitude if it means I still get to go home happy at the end of the day. People will always try to knock you down, because you threaten them or they’re not happy with themselves. They may come around with time, and they may not, the important thing is to live your life as best as you can and not worry to much what others think of you. Kindness is more important than being the BEST, in my opinion.

I don’t know what happened to my nemesis on that show, I know she threw another fit and walked off set and didn’t come back. Maybe she’s still working in the industry, maybe she’s not. I’ll never work with her again, not if I can help it, and there’s something liberating in that. Another high point in working in theatre and film, is the jobs are usually temporary, and you’re not stuck with assholes for very long. Having the power to walk away is one of the best feelings in the world. Trust me on this one.

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