Saturday, April 6, 2019

Changing Careers Mid-Life: From Actor to Accountant to Teaching Artist

Changing Careers Mid-Life: From Actor to Accountant to Teaching Artist
Steven Gillenwater
     move away
Theatre has always been an intrinsic part of my life.  It began with high school drama which led to      undergraduate and graduate degrees in theatre before culminating in ten years working in New York as an actor and theatre director.  Then, over the course of three years, my artistic life waned as another life took its place.  In 2011 my husband was accepted into a philosophy program at the University of Oxford, providing us the opportunity to move to England.  In the three years we spent there I grew, I explored, and I worked with amazing people after securing a job with a research study at the University.  I will always be grateful for those years and what they did for me.  But in those years a strange thing happened I didn’t anticipate – the theatre went away. 

Not literally. There was plenty of theatre happening around me.  I was in the land of Shakespeare after all.  I just stopped pursuing it as a career.  At the time I blamed this on many things – lack of access, culture shock, other personal and familial priorities.  I had many places to assign blame.  The blame made me feel more secure in myself.  I still felt like I was an artist.  I told myself, if I am no longer pursuing artistic goals, there really isn’t a problem if it can be blamed on other factors.  

When we moved back to New York in 2014 I assumed all would be as it was, and the theatre would again be my life.
Oh, how I was wrong.
Collaborators had moved on to other careers, the landscape was new, the city felt different, I felt different.  Most importantly, I had nothing to blame it on now.  New York City still had art, plenty of theatre to explore, but my drive to be out there on the audition trail, or searching out directing opportunities, just wasn’t there anymore.

A new career
I took a job - an office job, an accounting job.  I always liked numbers and, more importantly, I needed something to do. It was ‘something to do’ for two more years.  Soon, with no regular artistic outlet in my life, I began to feel like I was drifting. Was this it? Was I going to be an accountant for the rest of my life?  The thought filled me with a balance sheet full of dread.

I sat myself down. What do I really want to be doing with my life?  Where am I now?  What does my artistry look like now?  Am I still an artist?  Aren’t I too young for a mid-life crisis?  
I thought about my life. I thought about the work I used to do.  I thought about the work I did in Oxford.  I thought about education.  
I remembered sitting on the porch of my college house dreaming of my life 20 years in the future, teaching theatre.
I remembered the rewarding experiences I had while teaching when I was a graduate student.
I remembered the joy I had in Oxford, working with researchers dedicated to youth advocacy.
And so, I began reassessing my self-perceptions.  My husband had just received his own degree in Philosophy.  I thought it only appropriate for me to start examining my own philosophy, to attempt to answer all these questions I now had.  I spoke with friends and colleagues. I consulted all the various smart people I knew.  I did research that would make my old co-workers in Oxford proud.  I was going to make a change in my life.  The previous joy I had felt when I would be online looking for auditions was back.  Then I found what I was looking for.  Educational Theatre.  Graduate school.  City College of New York.

I never crafted an application with more care.  All elements of the application process filled me with joy.  I was even giddy studying for the math GRE (though maybe that was just my inner accountant coming out).  This wasn’t about a single program.  I wanted to get in, no doubt.  But if I didn’t, I knew I would be fine.  I had found what I was going to be doing with my professional life going forwa
A new philosophy
I applied.  I got an interview.  Two weeks after that I was notified that I was accepted to the program.  I was going back to school, 17 years after my last stint as a student, with a renewed energy and focus I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
Beginning classes I immediately realized this was not going to be solely about learning how to write a lesson plan, or what the best drama exercise was for instilling empathy in students.  The most important thing I found myself doing was the formulation of a new philosophy. At first, I thought of this solely as a pedagogical philosophy – who am I as an educator?  That was important, but then it became about so much more. This was a process of reassessing who I am as an artist, of digging down inside myself and coming to terms with what theatre means to me now.  This was a process of looking into my own personal philosophies on life and happiness – of asking the question “What is really important here, in my life and in the world around me?”
A continuous path
I have another year of graduate school and certainly more to learn.  I am just starting out in this new world, a fledgling Teaching Artist learning his way. I am fortunate to be getting exciting opportunities where I can take my ever-evolving philosophies and put them into practice.

Taking a moment to reassess how I viewed the world and my place in it three years ago altered the course of my future, putting me on a path that feels more right professionally than anything I have felt since I was pounding the pavement as a professional actor ten years ago.  Now, with a rediscovered sense of self and newly explored personal philosophy, I can appreciate the journey I went on to get here.  Every step was a step that influenced the work I am doing now:
I honed my artistry during my career as an actor and director.
I explored the world of education and youth advocacy through my work in Oxford.
I have used my time as an accountant to broaden my knowledge of business and, most importantly, to finance my life while working on my graduate degree.
Every move along my path has been integral to who I am and what I am doing now.  I’ve come to realize that In this career change I’m not starting out on a new path.  It’s always the same path, a long winding path, and I can’t wait to see what I encounter on it next.

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