One college summer, I worked at a small theater on the Mississippi river. It was a drought year. I remember it raining once the whole time I was there. The river flowed way below its usual level and ran dirty. The corn crop was devastated.
The theater was within miles of a huge pet food rendering plant. When the humidity allowed a breeze everything smelled quite literally like death warmed over.
And then the shad flies hatched. Lumbering insects that flew just well enough for one night of frantic bashing into things and mating. The next morning, their bodies covered the ground like gravel. I crunched my way from my apartment to the theater.
All this proved an appropriate backdrop.
The theater was a paddle wheel tug cemented to the bank of the river. The repertoire had been selected by the parks department. It consisted of fifty year-old musicals which required large choruses and performers who could sing, dance and act. The theater didn’t pay well and had no reputation. So our company consisted of twelve teens and twenty-somethings. About fifty less people than the larger musicals required. As for triple threats, some of us could passably act and sing or sing and dance.
And so we shambled our way through the summer – performers versus shows. Each evening or matinee without fail the shows kicked our ass. The artistic injury alone should have knocked that tugboat loose to immediately and permanently submerge in the river mud.
And yet, matinee or evening, audiences were entertained. They laughed. They applauded. They even waited outside to thank the performers.
What does this mean? What should I take from this experience?
We must strive to be better at what we do, to do our jobs well as we see it, without concern for recognition.
Mastering craft towards a beneficial end is a noble human aspiration. It is a good in the world. Like all attempts at doing or being good we cannot expect others around us to acknowledge us for it or even to recognize the difference even if they benefit from the effort.
Thankfully, I’ve moved on in my life. I’m a manager, a software executive, and a father but like the hopelessly miscast kid that I was, I still struggle to improve.