Work and Play: Life as an Artist in a Corporate World

I had always wondered how anyone could balance a professional life and still excel as an artist. Up until 2013, I had never enjoyed work, had no career to speak of, and had never accomplished anything as an artist. That all changed when I met some folks at the Baltimore Rock Opera Society who were already getting it done.

St Paul Street, Baltimore. Photo by Derek Vaughan Brown.

St Paul Street, Baltimore. Photo by Derek Vaughan Brown.

In the summer of 2008 I was sitting on Saint Paul Street in Baltimore, talking to an old college friend. We discussed our ambitions and projects, and I mentioned wanting to write a rock opera. I didn’t know where to start, since I had never even seen a rock opera, let alone written one.

“You know,” she explained with a tiny smile. “There is a rock opera society.”

I could scarcely believe it, and to be honest, I didn’t really want their help writing my first piece. A rock opera society? I mean, I guess they could help. I emailed them out of curiosity, and they got back to me immediately.

“You can swing by any time and help, we can use all the hands we can get. We’d love to have you.” I felt warmth and sincerity in their response, and I was eager to get started.

Four years later I finally showed up. I arrived at auditions for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s Murdercastle in January 2013. I knew that the show was about H.H. Holmes, the famous American serial killer, so I chose dark material to audition with. I sang “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a spoken piece from a twisted little play called “Tumor.” The monologue was about the protagonist comparing his pregnant girlfriend’s belly with a giant tumor that was driving her mad.

I met my first round of BROS in callback auditions, and was immediately enamored. Everyone was so talented. I had never known that there were other people out there like me. They loved to sing and dance, paint, drink, and were all so genuine. I found out a few days later that my first role on stage was going to be the lead, H. H. Holmes himself. I was overwhelmed, excited, and of course extremely nervous. I had never accomplished anything as an artist… and I had never acted on stage.

John de Campos, Barbara Geary, myself, and Jared Margulies outside of Murdercastle rehearsals. Philip Edward Laubner Photography.

Murdercastle marked two major moments in my life. Not only was Murdercastle a wild success as a show, but I had also just gotten my first big professional break. I was managing software subscriptions at Vocus, a 3 hour round trip commute from my North Baltimore home. I was thriving at work and heading directly to rehearsals. Vocus even paid for me to go to an Atlantic City retreat with the other elite salesmen. I was at the top of the world by late May when the show ended.

Moira Goldie Horowitz, Chris K, and myself during Murdercastle. Photo Courtesy of: Heather Keating

Murdercastle was tough. I had to catch up on years of acting classes that I had never taken. I had no education to fall back on, so it was all grit and humility. I was surrounded by the most talented actors, artists, and playwrights I had ever met. It was not an easy struggle, but I kept it together with a lot of help. I got up at 6:00a for work, drove an hour and a half in terrible traffic, went to the gym in our office building, worked until 5:00p, and drove straight to Murdercastle rehearsals. I was so slim on time that I got yelled at regularly for eating before/during rehearsals. More often than not, I didn’t get home until 2:00a, and was left with four hours of sleep to kick ass at my new job. It took a massive toll on my work performance, and ultimately put a strain on my relationship.

After the show ended, I crashed. I lost my elite standing at work, and within a few months, my entire department was laid off and had collapsed. I had gone from the top to the bottom rather swiftly. I refused to be discouraged, and I got a new job almost immediately. After my year at Vocus, I had finally gotten the qualification I required to advance. I was upgraded, and started as a technical resource manager at Groove Commerce. I learned a lot from my time at Groove, but it still wasn’t a good fit.

Dr. TJ House and I at the Groove holiday party

Dr. TJ House and I at the Groove holiday party

It took me three shows to find the balance between work and play. I was let go from Groove because they felt that my devotion to my art projects was interfering with my performance at work. My boss at Groove said that it was disconcerting for me to show up with glitter on my face in Monday morning meetings. I obviously had found the wrong profession. I was confused -- they said they wanted someone creative. Trust me, employers, if you want employees who think outside of the box, you are bound to see some glitter in the workplace.

The thing that stuck in my mind about Groove was my boss. He owned part of a five million dollar company. We had both graduated high school the same year, but you would never have guessed by our professional statuses. He was good enough at his job, but he was aggressive, unfriendly, and over stressed. I got the feeling that he had lost a lot of perspective on life. His job meant everything to him, but for the wrong reasons. Part of me was envious of his professional success and part of me pitied him for having such an empty life. I don’t remember seeing him genuinely smile more than a few times.

I considered the possibility that I was never going to be professionally successful if I continued to work with people who had no interest in the arts -- we would never see eye to eye. I also had no interest in climbing up the corporate ladder, but my skill set almost solely limited me to a job in executive business. I grew up in a house with parents who both ran their own small businesses. I had always wanted to start my own company. In fact, when I was 19, I started an audio production company called Evil Media Productions. I had one client (Towson University), but ultimately lost focus due to youthful chaos.

Song and dance during Murdercastle. Photo by Heather Keating.

When two of my good friends from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society asked me about joining their company as a partner, it was no coincidence. I had chosen a trajectory for my life, and this is where it had taken me. I had stopped planning everything all of the time, and just started doing. My professional experience allowed me the expertise I required to do my job well, but it was my love of life that caused me to exceed my own expectations. There is no life without happiness, and there is no success without passion.

Company photograph: Greg Bowen (Artistic Director of HBP) and myself during Grundlehammer. Photo courtesy of Faith Bocian.

We are still in our infancy as a company, but I have certainly found my niche. I am a structured businessman who specializes in the organization of massive projects or tasks. I am good with people, great with data, and obsessively organized. I began using my natural skills to enhance my daily work -- work that is so closely tied to my artistic life that sometimes there is no difference.

My artistic successes in Murdercastle were tangible, and filled me with inspiration. I had recorded an EP with the most epic band I’d ever been a part of. The best part? I hung out with these guys, and they were totally humble. It had also introduced me to all of the people who are now my business partners and allies. I organize art projects for a living, and my partners are both either aerial dancers, actors, musicians, or writers. They completely understand me, and vice versa.

I realized that striking a balance between my art projects and my professional projects wasn’t about finding a job that allowed me the freedom to pursue my art after work -- it was about making my life one enormous art project. I didn’t have to live a double life, going to a job from 9-5 and rejoining my life after 5:00p. I could wake up in my life and never have to leave.



Work & Play is Human Being Productionsmonthly column that documents career professionals who choose rewarding creative lives.