As an English major, my dream career is currently some unholy combination of young adult science fiction novelist, public radio personality, and author of sandwich-related cookbooks. Which obviously leads me to wonder, how am I ever going to make money?
Fortunately, for two days this winter break, I’m about to find out. I’m headed to New York with a group of 20 other UChicago students to visit artists’ lofts, publishing houses, and TV studios on a trek sponsored by Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS). At the helm is Lloyd Brodnax King, director of Chicago Careers in Arts (CCIA) and a working musician, radio producer, and educator.
I was lucky to jump on the CCIA train a year ago when King put on a documentary production event. With his guidance, I scored two great radio internships in Chicago last summer. I’m excited to see how much ground we’ll cover over the next two days.
Alyssa Reit, LAB'69
Mingling in the hotel lobby with fellow trekkers. We’ve got student filmmakers, math majors, a fundamentals concentrator studying ethics and aesthetics, and many an English major.
Lunch date with harpist and composer Alyssa Reit, LAB’69, who’s currently creating mini-operas based on fairy tales. There’s something strangely familiar about her; I suddenly realize she coached me in a chamber group in high school.
A very sage lady, she offers wisdom for the critical question of an artist’s life: balancing the things you do for money and for art. Her emphasis in particular is on raising a family—having to detach yourself from the realm of concentrated creative passion to pack school lunches. I reintroduce myself briefly and Reit remembers me, though hopefully not how bad I was at reading sheet music at 15.
We head up the narrow steps of a three-story walk-up on 21st Street to the studio of painter Wolf Kahn, AB’50. He unwinds a life story for us that seems at once familiar and unimaginable: coming to Hyde Park as young veteran on the GI bill, graduating in six months under the Hutchins program, then working as a lumberman in Oregon, and living in New York in the early fifties, where he knew Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Back downtown to the New Museum to talk with associate director and director of institutional advancement Regan Grusy. She’s an old friend of Lloyd’s who earned a degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As she emphasizes the importance of informational interviews, I’m reminded of the many moments when I have foregone networking opportunities, mostly out of lack of moxie. I’ll do it later, I think. Or worse, they don’t really want to talk to me, do they? But Grusy brings up the crucial point: people like to talk about themselves. Fortunately, the next stop on our trek is about to facilitate just that.
We’re finishing off day one at a reception with arts alumni hosted by Hamish Norton, PhD’85, a physics doctorate turned investment banker who’s also got an artistic side—the monumental nature photography that flanks the bank’s reception area is his work, pieced together from thousands of individual pictures. I chat with Miao Wang, AB’99, a documentary filmmaker whose most recent work explored the lives of taxi drivers during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. Theater director Deborah Wolfson, AB’04, wins for pithy quote of the evening: “The University of Chicago made me a better and smarter person, and it really refined my snarkiness, which I see as a bonus.”
Lloyd leads a group of Trekkers back downtown for a singer-songwriter night at the Bitter End, once host to Bob Dylan.
Anna DeVries, AB'01
At the Maysles Institute, an independent theater and educational space celebrating the art of the documentary film, we meet with Jessica Green, cinema director, and managing director Anthony Riddle, X’73. He was a philosophy major, Riddle tells us, but he’s worked for the past 30-plus years as a tireless advocate for community media. As someone hoping to work in media production someday—and in the midst of coordinating a community media initiative myself, the University of Chicago Folk Festival—I’m invigorated by their energy and focus.
Next we meet Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Auburn, AB’91, best known for his 2000 play Proof and its 2005 film version, both set on campus. (Film production shut down the Quad several years ago, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Gwyneth Paltrow shooting scenes in Eckhart, Classics, and Rockefeller Chapel.)
The Theater and Performance Studies major wasn’t yet established when Auburn was at the College, but he was active in the improv group Off-Off Campus, and he says that the lack of structure granted him a kind of creative freedom. “There was never a point at which I felt like there was an obvious road ahead,” he says, “but I’m really glad that I erred on the side of trying to take a chance at making a living in the arts.”
At Scribner Books we talk with Anna DeVries, AB’01, associate editor. It’s tough to get into publishing, and Anna has hustled her way to success, starting as a fourth-year when she commuted to the North Side to work for an editor in the evenings. She started her career in New York by working for free while couch-surfing and cat-sitting for friends. Make a mental note that this is a good housing strategy for next year.
We’re at the Colbert Report studios, where we’re meeting staff writers Scott Sherman, AB’04, and Peter Gwinn and getting a tour of Colbert Nation. Apparently, everyone else on the tour sees Stephen Colbert behind a door. He enthusiastically gestures at us to move along.
Sherman and Gwinn, who cut their teeth in the improv world of Chicago, tell us about the long days writing jokes: seven for every one-liner Colbert makes in the show. We also discover the source of Sherman’s wisdom. As a Fundamentals major, his final project—in Fundies parlance, his “question”—was about finding “a universal key to comedy” through Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Did he find the answer? “Like most good Fundies people,” he says, “I didn’t come anywhere close.”
Luckily for me and four other trekkers, we’re headed to a taping of the Daily Show at 4:30, courtesy of co-executive producer Kahane Cooperman, AB’84. In the midst of pre-show chaos, Cooperman very graciously brings us on set to take some pictures. We snap a couple of shots of ourselves pretending to be awesome correspondents. Later, we enjoy our front-row seats.
So what did I learn on this epic trek?
I think my biggest takeaway is this: you can’t be apologetic about your career aspirations, especially not to yourself. In the current job market, it’s pretty hard to say that you want to paint for a living, or play the harp, or draw comics, or design steampunk corsets. But you can still do all of these things, wherever you end up in life—you have to, if you want to keep doing them at all.
Posted on: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 7:15pm