“I switched from chasing other people’s sounds, into learning to cultivate my own.” My interview with sound artist Margaret Noble

Today I am excited to share my interview with sound artist Margaret Noble. I am inspired by Margaret’s habits as a creative professional, especially the intentional choices she makes to improve her craft, grow as an artist, and ensure she makes time to create.

Margaret NobleSome of what we cover in our chat:

  • How she views marketing and communicating about her work as integral to improving her craft, not just as “marketing” to generate more business.
  • How she moved across disciplines from dance, to DJing, to art.
  • The personal situations that sparked pursuit of her own artistic craft.
  • How she chooses art over money.
  • Her experience in collaborating with others.
  • The value of teaching in improving her craft.
  • How she navigates through rejection and anxiety.
  • How she organizes her life to ensure she has time for art.

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

About Margaret

Margaret Noble is a sound artist whose work resides at the intersection of sound, sculpture, installation and performance. She holds a BA in philosophy from the University of California, San Diego and an MFA in sound art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Her projects have been featured on KPBS and PRI and reviewed in art ltd. magazine, Wired magazine, San Diego Union Tribune and the San Francisco Weekly. She has been awarded the International Governor’s Grant, the Hayward Prize and the Creative Catalyst Fellowship. Her artistic residencies include the MAK Museum in Vienna and the Salzburg Academy of Fine Art. She has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and at the Ohrenhoch der Geräuschladen Sound Gallery in Berlin. In 2014, she won first place in the Musicworks magazine electronic music composition competition.

Here are some excerpts from our chat:

How Her Sound Art Career Began With Dance

“We can take it back to the 1980s hip hop culture. I grew up in an urban environment where the greatest things on earth were sounds. Maybe you didn’t have a beautiful home or beautiful street or any money in your pocket, but you could always have a good time with music. Cars would be driving around bursting with sounds, human beat boxing, rapping, all these amazing sounds were around me when I was a little kid. My initial interest was dance, I did it for years.”

I asked about when she began dancing:
“As a skinny awkward child, probably eight, at the rec center. Just street dancing, or thinking you are doing street dancing. I probably wasn’t doing it very well. That was everything to our neighborhood. That’s all we did: kid shows, talent shows, and making dance routines all the time.”

“You definitely had to have a level of bravado, and I wasn’t the one spinning on my back, I was in the background wanting to do that. It was intimidating. Sometimes it was at the rec center, but sometimes it was in the middle of the park. They are doing dance-offs. It was amazing and exciting, you forgot where you were.”

I asked her about how she practiced the craft of dance:
“It was me and my friends alone for years. I didn’t have the moves at that age, but eventually you get the courage to submit a dance routine to the talent show. Maybe it was that moment that kept pushing me to submit performances and auditioning. It was 4th grade, we are on stage, dancing to ‘Fame’ with friends. It probably wasn’t that great, but it took courage.”

“In high school, I was on the dance team, then in college I got a dance scholarship and I took traditional dancing. My big high school thing was that I got to dance in the Super Bowl pre-game show, so I got to learn stage dancing too.”

“It was just after high school that I learned about underground raves. All of the sudden, you get a map to go to a secret location and dance all night long. I would chase DJs around. I danced at these free-form events. It’s not restricted to any code, because it’s rave dancing. It’s still beat-focused, but substantially faster. There is a performance there as well, but it’s different because it is a collective performance.”

I asked her how she found her place in this culture, which tends to take place in dark rooms with hundreds of other people. Her response:
“It’s really about finding the DJ who played the sounds you wanted to hear. There’s about 40 subdivisions of house music, so you found your place by finding the person who weaved the sounds that you wanted to hear. That was the chase, that was the unity.”

How the End of Her Marriage Sparked the Beginning of Her DJ Career

I asked about her decision to make the jump from consumer to creator:
“There’s two things pivotal in that decision. One is that I wasn’t finding what I wanted to hear; there were certain characters of sound that I wanted; drum patterns, shuffling beats, thick bass lines; continuous mixing. So I wasn’t getting that, and I needed it to dance.”

“The other thing was — and this is personal — but it was the same night that I knew my first marriage was over, that I knew I needed to buy turntables. I literally laid awake on my bed, saying, ‘I know my husband is not coming home tonight, I guess that means my marriage is over. I think I should buy turntables.’ It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I mean, divorce sucks of course, but I’m here now because of that decision.”

“I think the sound art is an extension of DJing. I’m grateful that that creative outlet came to me. It saved me.”

From Listener to Creator

“I realized that if you really want to control the grooves, that you should probably get behind the decks.”

Okay, so this point is huge to me. That moment when someone is enjoying being a part of an experience and community at a rave, and deciding that they want to take a leap to the next level: to controlling the music itself.

“I switched from chasing other people’s sounds, into learning to cultivate my own.”

“My particular interest was Chicago house music. So I bought two turntables, then I moved to Chicago.”

Developing Her Craft

I asked how she developed her craft of DJing:
“I was terrible at first. TERRIBLE. I don’t know if you know what a ‘train wreck’ is, but if you are on the dance floor, you do not want to hear the mixes, and the beats need to be continuous. This is house music specific: if you do a bad job of mixing and you don’t sync the beats up, you are messing with people’s dance, you are messing with people’s vibe. It took me a long time. I had to work really hard to nail that skill.”

“My first year or two, I remember that I was doing my bachelors at USD in philosophy and all I want to do is run home and practice. I finally learned that I would improve if I could record and listen. It’s very hard to know if you are doing well when you are actually playing. You are in that space of experiencing it, but you are not able to critically listen. Recording is what really transformed it.”

“At first I got gigs prematurely because I was the girl DJ. They were like ‘Oh cool! Girl DJ, we never had a Girl DJ!’ And I wanted to capitalize on that, but I wasn’t always ready. I can remember in San Diego, it was a really great gig. I got up on the decks, and I was definitely not feeling comfortable in the technical situation. Everyone was like, ‘Yes! House music! She’s gonna kill it!’ Then I got up and I sucked. I sucked. I cleared the floor. It was so heartbreaking. I knew I had to stop and practice more. I learned so much from that experience, and I’ll be damned if I ever screw up like that again.”

She then moved to Chicago specifically because of “Chicago house music,” which is where the DJs she loved were from.

I asked if she was able to DJ full-time, if this was paying the rent. Her response:

No, no. I’ve always carried myself by bartending or waiting tables. I learned at 18, that if you wanted to live and have time, that bartending or waiting tables is the way to go because you only have to do a couple shifts, and you can make enough money to really live. That was always the income source that supported my art habits. Until now, I do it by teaching.”

Transition to New Inspirations

“I submitted demos and submitted demos until I finally started getting gigs. I got a DJ agent, and just pushed pushed pushed. It was really exciting, but eventually, there was a creative stagnation, because you can really only do so much with two pre-pressed records. I don’t know if I was inspired anymore by just trying to make a dance floor move. I wanted to grow.”

She went back to school and got her MFA in sound art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in her early thirties.

On Collaborating with Others

“That’s how I broke into the art world: finding people with visual media who needed sound to support or augment the performance. I didn’t want to be sound designer for hire. I tried it and hated it. I wanted to have a voice.”

“Collaboration is exhausting. I’m a control freak too, so a lot of my friends who are extraordinarily talented are not as organized as me. That makes me crazy. The actual day-to-day management of projects is difficult. Then, when you make something beautiful, you forget how painful it was to get there, and you celebrate. You have to negotiate, give and take, and that is really challenging.”

Choosing Art and Voice, Over Money

“I think if I wanted money, my life would be very different. Experience is so much more rich and fulfilling than a pocket full of cash without being proud of my work.”

“I tested doing sound design for theater; hated it. I considered moving to LA to get an editing job, for dialogue editing; pulled out of that one. I was never in this to be a gun for hire. I’ve always been in this to have a voice. To keep the integrity of my work, if that means I will not be able to support myself from my art, then I would just keep it this way and be proud of putting out things I believe in. Rather than getting money, and cheapening my experience.”

Art and Teaching

“I’m in my eighth year of teaching; the more I experience this, the more I realize that these are necessary companion projects [art and teaching]. To articulate is to further your art practice. To deal with other artists and learn about their vision, is to further your art. The reality is that you have a responsibly to support the arts, and education is a great way to do it. I’m finding ways to make it one career, instead of two separate careers: teaching and the making of art.”

“Thinking of art not as a career, but a lifestyle.”

“I work at a charter school that serves the entire city of San Diego. It’s a project-based learning school, which means absorbing your content through doing, as opposed to more traditional textbook models. I’m the digital art instructor. I basically do whatever I like because there are no standards for digital art, no test I need to teach to. I work with twelfth graders doing an art and technology project.”

Her enthusiasm in describing this job was off the charts. She listed out what she does:

  • “I can push it as far as I want, I can curate it, I collaborate with them.”
  • “I push them to produce their best possible work.”
  • “I learn so much from the work they make.”
  • “I’m forced to learn new skills in order to teach them.”

“After I graduated art school, I said I’m not going to wait tables anymore, and I bought a van. I drove around the country, lived off a savings account, and just experienced things, and just applied for opportunities, hoping something would come through. I actually did get a fully-funded, two-month residency in Salzberg, Austria. I’m there, running out of money. I applied on Craigslist to anything remotely related to my interests. That is when I considered the dialogue editing job in LA. But then High Tech High had an ad saying they wanted a multimedia instructor, and I had an interview over the phone, and the rest is history.”

“I just had to quit waiting tables, it was like a nightmare. It was haunting me. I did it for 13 years. I was sick of smiling for money, of doing service for money. I was sick of that kind of transaction where my relationship with you is about pulling money from you. I stashed as much cash as I could, I outfitted a van.”

When I expressed how impressive it is that she did what many people dream to do — take a break from a career that no longer feels inspiring in order to find that next version of herself — she responded:
“I can’t believe I did it. I made my cat come with me, too.”

Steeped in Rejection

When we chatted via email prior to the interview, she mentioned this, “My career management is steeped deeply in rejection. I apply to hundreds of calls for work per year and 90% say no. That is rejection, that is painful and if I didn’t do this then my work would never move outside of the city I live in. But it hurts and I know many artists who won’t go through this because the rejection stings too much. But, I have learned a lot by these trials, including the fact that the rejection doesn’t always mean your work isn’t good.”

She continues in our chat:

“In the beginning I was really naive, and picked things that were obviously way out of my reach. I was like it’s a numbers game, I’ll just send it out there. So at first, it was really unsuccessful.”

“I mean, what is the alternative? Doing nothing? Sitting in your home not getting your work out there? What is the point then? So I think my skin just got thicker. But then I learned to be more strategic, vetting the opportunities before I apply. I try to get as many applications out there, because then I have a better chance of someone saying yes, right? If ten say no, and one says yes, that means I have another opportunity to show my work. Forget about those other ten.”

“I can’t live on the local opportunities, I need to see if my work reads beyond those who know me. To see if strangers will accept your work. Those who don’t have any emotional obligation to pick up your work.”

“I’m fine with the rejection now. People say yes every year, so there is enough people saying yes, to make the other ones not hurt as much.”

Organizing Her Life to Create

“I’m very regimented. I’m a planner. I refuse to think about school after I leave. I take a chunk of time before school starts, and plan the entire semester out so I don’t have to think about it at night. I walk in, I look at my plans, and I go with those kids as far as I can. Of course I adjust along the way, but I have a strong enough template that, even though it’s spring break, I’m not thinking about them at all, even though we have critical due dates coming up, because I have this plan that I trust in.”

“If you don’t plan, then every night is spent thinking, ‘well what do I have to do tomorrow?’ If I have to do that, then I’m not going to be making any [creative] work at all.”

“The struggle is when I first get home, that is when I want to take a nap, right? And I have to feed the cats, and my house is a mess. So I give myself an hour of transition mode, where I can just take care of my home. I actually think that is part of my practice. Just taking care of my life makes me a better artist.

“Then I brew some coffee and try to do a task. I usually have goals, and every night I think about what I achieved today.”

Then Margaret said something that I can’t understate the importance of:
“Embedded in all those structures, I have a solid 2-3 date nights with my husband per week.”

That she SCHEDULES aspects of what I would define as both ‘relationship management,’ and ‘mental health.’ She doesn’t wait for there to be a break in her schedule to take time with her husband, they schedule it.

It gets better — and this to was a huge insight to hear from her:

“That is what keeps me going, and I pretty much blow off all other [responsibilities]. I haven’t been to a work happy hour in five years. I have managed everyone’s expectations that I’m not coming to happy hour. I have other things that I have to do. My friends too, they are like, ‘Margaret, you are so lame.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m really sorry, but I really have these things that I can’t let go of.’ So I’m trying to manage their expectations too.”

The Risk (and Anxiety) of Working Experimentally

She went on to mention other risks that she takes: “The idea of working experimentally, in the classroom and in the home, is a risk to me, because I don’t know the outcomes of the projects, and I don’t know if they are going to succeed. But maybe the risk is what makes it interesting. That there is a lot more fun when there is a risk, than if it’s safe. There’s growth right? Art should never stagnate. Maybe the risk is why we are doing it.”

What fascinates me is establishing a process to be uncomfortable in the unknown. To push oneself from is known, and therefore feels safe, into what is unknown, and may not work out.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have anxiety. I will worry worry worry. I have to watch how much caffeine I drink, I quit sugar, I use a lot of strategies [to manage anxiety], because I take so many risks, I put myself out there so much. It’s a peaks and valleys experience.”

Training People to Understand Her Art

We are a physically-oriented culture, and yet, Margaret’s art is invisible. I asked her about her experience in getting people to even understand her work as art. Her response:

“Ultimately it’s like painting, except you can hear it instead of see it. It’s more focused on the experience of sound, and less focused on the musical composition. Just to think about sound purely in its own form. It is an impossible thing to explain, because there is a tension between what sound art is, and music. We are a visually-centric world. It’s not even within people’s grasp to envision art beyond a visual capacity. I have to do a lot of contextualizing to help them get close to it. It’s also confusing because it usually comes with a visual component too. Sometimes people need to focus on the visual component to even understand the sound.”

“There is fine line between experimental music and sound art. Some would say that sound art is musical. It’s an unconventional treatment of audio, and it’s mixed in with other media. It might be used at a dance recital, at a puppet show, used in support of a film. Recently, I have been using sound with objects, to animate them. So there will be a recording device hidden within them. It is like the hidden medium, but you need physical forms for it to travel.”

Thank you to Margaret for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!

“It’s not just what film you want to make, it’s what film can you make.” My interview with filmmaker Angela Tucker

Today I’m excited to share my conversation with writer, director and producer Angela Tucker. In this interview, talk about the realities of crossing that gap from one’s creative vision to making it a reality. What jumped out at me was two things:

  • How many disparate projects and goals she juggles at any one time.
  • How incremental everything is. From both the creative side to the funding side, her work moves forward one small commitment at a time.

Angela TuckerTopics we cover:

  • Her career path, and how she made decisions along the way.
  • How she balances multiple projects at once.
  • How she structures her work, and how one project tends to be a response to the previous. For some projects she has some control over; others, less so.
  • How large projects start with small conversations and experiments.
  • The depth of commitment that documentary filmmaking requires: how she can’t help but laugh when someone says that they will make a documentary within a year. Because it nearly always takes much longer.
  • Sources of funding available to filmmakers trying to make their dream a reality.
  • How incremental her funding is, it doesn’t come in one lump sum. She has to be seeking funding constantly throughout a project.
  • How she deals with negative feedback to her work.
  • How professional decisions effect her personal life, and vice versa.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

About Angela

Angela Tucker is a writer, director and producer.

She was the Director of Production at Big Mouth Films, a social issue documentary production company. There, she produced several award winning documentaries including Pushing the Elephant (PBS’ Independent Lens) about a Congolese mother and daughter separated over 12 years . She received her MFA in Film from Columbia University where she was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship.

She has a BA from Wesleyan in Theater and African American Studies and an MFA in Film Studies from Columbia.

Angela’s work has been featured in The Guardian, Time Magazine, Film Independent, The Root, Turnstyle,The Rumpus, Variety, About.com, and Salon, among many other media outlets.

Here are some excerpts from our chat:

On Intention and Commitment

I asked her if she feels that her daily life is filled with risk: creative, social, financial, career, or otherwise? Her response:
“I made a decision a long time ago to be a filmmaker. When I made that decision, I just stopped thinking about risk. I went to film school at Columbia, and it is very very very expensive. You have to borrow a lot of money.”

“When I got in, I remember thinking, “I don’t know, this is really crazy. I talked to my dad about it, and he said, ‘Well, I guess you are going to have to make it.’ There was something about him just saying it that way. That, if I am going to undergo this financial risk, then I am just going to have to do this thing that I say I want to do.”

“I think I have operated from that moment forward that, this is the thing that I say I am doing with my life, so I’m just going to operate in such a way to make that happen. I just proceed from that decision on a project by project basis.”

It was ironic to me how at the point in which one would be most uncertain as to the direction they want to go, considering film school, that the cost is so incredibly high right up front. That you have to go way into debt, just as you are learning what this industry is, how it operates, and if it is right for you. I asked her about navigating her decision to make such a big financial commitment:

“I just go with my gut. If I really thought about it, it’s a crazy thing. You are borrowing a lot of money to go into a profession that very few people make any money in. But I also didn’t really feel like there was another way for me to do it. Different people get into filmmaking in different ways, but I knew that I needed the time to learn the craft, and really be focused on that.”

Then Angela said something that really resonated with what I hear from so many others:
“I’m the kind of person who works really hard in whatever I do, so if I tried to work a full time job, and learn film on the side, it would have never happened. I would have made my full time job my career.”

She knew that a career whose goal was to pay the bills was a trap for her. That she would fall prey to its clutches. This is how many people’s career evolves: they take a job as a short-term fix, but then find they never take the risk to move on from it.

Angela embraced that risk up front — the cost of her film school education — because she knew herself well enough to know that a day job would become her main focus, taking her energy away from film. She continues…

“Once I decided I had to do it [film school], I just tried to be as smart as I can be about borrowing money, because some people went really nuts. They got as much as they could. I was smarter about that, and got some scholarship help, which helped me justify it. I could be borrowing a lot more money. It was a big risk, but I didn’t feel that I had another option.”

Overall, I love how both she and her father made such a strong commitment, even in the face of great risk.

Making the Transition from School to Career

“I was very fortunate. When I was done with classes, I got an internship at this production company called Big Mouth Productions, they make social issue documentaries. I got an internship doing audience engagement work around this documentary around transracial adoption. I helped setup screenings at colleges and universities, which was a good fit because I wasn’t that far from that college and university time.”

“From there, they were working on a new project, and it was easy to say, ‘Hey, consider me for this new project,’ and so I started out doing some research, and was eventually hired in a part-time way, then later in a full-time way as an associate producer on this documentary on the death penalty. It really started out from an internship that turned into a job. It wasn’t a very lucrative job, but it was a way to make a living doing what I really wanted to do.”

“It was very freelance-y. Like, ‘Okay, we have enough money to keep you on for these weeks, and then we would get to that point and some other job would come in. That went on for a long time, for a year or year and a half. Then we got enough funding so I could be there in a more long-term way. Once the film premiered at Sundance and was bought, I was put on staff.”

It struck me how tenuous it was, just for her to make her way into the lowest paying job in a low paying industry.

“You are just begging and begging and begging for this opportunity for them to pay you a little bit more money than you need to live. But I knew a lot of my classmates were not even able to work in the industry, so I really understood how fortunate I was, being able to develop skills. There was a lot I learned in film school, but a lot I didn’t learn. If I hadn’t had this job, I wouldn’t have learned a lot.”

“[In school] you are thinking about yourself as an artist, but you are not necessarily thinking about what you need to know in terms of fundraising, or how to pitch your project. I learned all of that in this job.”

“In film school, we focused on story and the basics of direction. The being in the field stuff, you learn by working on different projects.”

“I worked at this production company for 8 years. From intern AP to director of production. That taught me a lot about how to manage a lot of different projects and a lot of different people. The way were were able to make movies would be to have some funding from PBS or a foundation; other times we had films that had no funding, and we would have to figure out how to do a paid gig.”

“I was in charge of managing that with the executive director the company. When I left to work for myself, I had that skill set. It boils down to keeping a project that covers my basic expenses, so I’m not worry about my rent. Sometimes it’s a thing I love to do, and sometimes it’s not. Once I have that covered, then I feel like I can be more creative, because I’m not worried.”

“I like to find projects with like-minded people, who also have something to teach me. I try to work on things that will make me a better director. I’m on sets, I work with a lot of different crew, and then these are people who may be able to work on other projects with me. It’s juggling a lot of different things.”

“I probably have too many things going on at any one time, but I’m very good at delegating. When I feel that way, I try to bring on people who can help me. So I would think: these tasks together are tasks that someone else could do, and they are tasks that someone would find interesting to do at X rate. That really helps take something off my plate and give me room.”

I asked her about interpersonal issues that may crop up in managing so many collaborative projects at once:
“It’s a timing issue. There is always a moment when you think, ‘Okay, I’ve planned this really well, and Project A is slowing down, and Project B is ramping up. There is always the moment where it isn’t the case, and where A and B are both very intense, and one project feels that its getting slighted.”

“That has come up for me, especially when you are producing for a director, they want to feel like their project is the top priority. If you are working part time on their project, and part time on something else, it can’t always be. There has been friction around that, and I have understood it. I’ve gotten good at opening the lines of communication around it. It usually boils down to me working like a maniac for awhile to make both projects feel like I’m 100% on it, even though I’m working on two different projects.

“It’s also helpful that I have worked with the same people for a very long time.”

Getting Funding

“Every project is going to have the money problem. Making media that is dealing with complicated issues is not exactly the thing that a rich person is going to write you a really big check for right away. The documentary industry, there is funding, but in the beginning you have to do it on your own.”

“It’s really difficult to get development money, people want to see something. In the beginning [of a project], you use your own money or Kickstarter. Pretty much everyone does that. Even huge filmmakers, when they go into development, they will probably use money they earned from their last sale to develop the new project. Unless you are very fortunate to have unique access to a big event happening in the world, you are probably going to have to put together your own money to get something started so that someone can see what you are talking about.”

“Once you make that development piece [a trailer or video of a few scenes], sometimes that is enough to trigger more money. Sometimes you still need to shoot some more.”

So she has to make an investment before she can even approach someone else to invest in her project.

I asked her what scale of money we were talking about here. She said that she knows people that do documentaries for $50,000, which is incredibly difficult, and others who can do it for $100,000. But most are in the $300,000 – $400,000 range, of course with many others costing far more. She said you have to ask yourself, “You have this idea, but what are the financial realities of this idea. Is this an idea in another city and state? Do I have to follow around multiple people? If you are following the story of someone who lives across the street from you, you are going to be able to make that film a lot more quickly [and therefore: cheaply], because you have constant access to them, and you don’t have to travel. But… who does that?”

Then she said something huge, that perfectly encapsulated how one navigates that gap between one’s creative vision and the realities of making it happen:

“It’s not just what film you want to make, it’s what film can you make.”

Pursuing Creative Work, and Its Affect on Relationships”

“The place I feel like I’ve really risked, and I’m really grappling with, is my personal life. My ability to be in a relationship and have time for that. Have children. That is why I moved from New York City [to New Orleans]; being so career focused, I was starting to be someone who had no other quality of life. I don’t want to be someone who wakes up one day and is like, ‘Sure, I am very successful in my career, but I haven’t really had the kind of relationships that I want to have.’ That to me is the risk you take around picking a field that you really love, but I am really working on the work/life balance now. Prioritizing that has been the biggest risk I have taken in a really long time.”

She went on to describe the difference of living in New Orleans:

  • It’s cheaper to live in NO, so she doesn’t have to work as much to live.
  • There is a slower pace.
  • She is surrounded my more artists.
  • ‘Career’ means less to many people she knows down there. It isn’t talked about as much.
  • She had lived in New York her whole life, and wanted to live somewhere else as “a different kind of person.”

Thank you to Angela for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

Thank you!

“I was back to work two days after I gave birth.” On making documentary films, with Stephanie Wang-Breal

Today I am chatting with documentary filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal. In this interview, we discuss the risks she has taken as she navigated her career, and the many ways that she make hard decisions that lead to more meaningful work.

It was incredible to research her work, and two key things jumped out at me:

  1. The nature of how a documentary film is made. That she begins without knowing who the characters will be, where there story will go, and if it will lead anywhere. Also, that funding can only happen after she has committed a year or more to the project, and from there, it can take an additional three years for a grant to actually come through.
  2. The topics of her films focus on sometimes controversial social causes: the foster care system, the child welfare system, and human trafficking. She immerses herself into the families going through the most pivotal and emotional moments of their lives. How does she navigate that from an interpersonal perspective, and within her own emotions?

Stephanie’s recent films:

Besides independent documentaries, Stephanie also directs commercials and art videos for nonprofit organizations, and stories for various media outlets including CNN, UNICEF, MTV, Discovery, DeSantis Breindel, Radical Media and the Biography Channel.

Stephanie Wang-Breal and Dan BlankIn our discussion, we cover:

  • How she creates stories without a roadmap
  • Her process for collaboration
  • The ways she develops trust with collaborators
  • The emotional toll of telling important stories
  • The complicated process for funding her work
  • How she balances freelance work
  • Why she now develops three projects at once
  • The value of bringing a formal partner into her work
  • The importance of ‘good arguments’ with collaborators, which makes the work better
  • How she diverged from the professional path that her family set for her
  • How she achieved, but then rejected, a successful corporate advertising career that paid her well and kept promoting her. The reason: to do work that felt more meaningful.
  • How she managers professional and personal responsibilities

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

Here are some excerpts from our chat:


“I don’t start a film with a character in mind. Some filmmakers have a subject or person in mind – I never have that. I have to find my characters. I have a subject matter I am interested in exploring, then through the observation work that I do, which usually takes three months to a year without any filming, I learn and find the stories and the people who are going to tell that story. I don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who I am. Over time, we get to know each other.”

“I’m working on three new projects, one of them is related to child welfare in the sense that I’m looking to bring to life a story about human trafficking. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Brooklyn and Queens APA Court, which is a new human trafficking intervention system, and also spending time with a lot of service providers learning about the stories, the shame, the trap doors, the no sign on doors that exist in human trafficking.”

“Lack of confidence that you go through while you are making a project; whether or not you can see it to fruition due to funding. You don’t know where the stories are going to go. You don’t know if they are going to want to continue filming with you. With my last film, Tough Love, I had more that two parents that I was following. I also throughout my process give the characters a lot of leeway. They sign a release, but I always say to them, ‘in six months, if you are really not comfortable, we can stop.’ So some parents did. I’m filming one of the most traumatic periods of their lives. I’m filming them, trying to prove to the courts and the system, that they deserve a second chance to be a parent and have their child returned to them out of foster care. These are people who have substance abuse issues, domestic violence issues, who grew up in a world of poverty and don’t know how to parent, never learned how to parent. They are at a huge deficit.”


How do you find a great collaborator – someone with vision, is dependable, etc. At the outset, she is telling me that her collaborators have proven they are not the best collaborators. How does she prepare and select?

“When I look for families, I like for people who are honest, that is the most important thing. Their honesty comes across in the camera and the way they talk to you, and they way they talk to audiences. That true humbleness, the sincerity about where they are coming from and where they want to go. That is what makes a good film and reaches people’s hearts. I am rolling the dice in the sense that it doesn’t mean they will want to continue doing this. I am asking a lot of people to be in this film.”

“Being a journalist, being a filmmaker, being a storyteller, I think that when you are telling a sotry about someone else’s life, I think it is a different type of collaboration than a true creative collaboration. It is one-sided, it is more weighted in the storyteller’s perspective, than the characters. I know that, and I take that with great sensitivity when I do my work. They share their story, and we shape it. It is a different type of collaboration than I have with my editor, my producer, my sound designer. That is where there is more creative tension. With my characters, it being there for them, and document what is going on. So it’s different. They are involved, but it’s uneven.”

To gain access to the court system, she described it as “intimidating,”

“It’s not easy to get access. For the New York courts, I could not get access. That is why I have one parent in New York, and one parent in Seattle. The reason I went to Seattle is that I met a judge in Seattle who told me that she had nothing to hide; that I could come in and film there, and that she would help me get the necessary film permits. It took some time to get the film permits because she had to take it up the ladder. A lot of people in the system were very wary of me. Even today in the court room, some people look at me like, ‘Who do you think you are coming in here.'”

“What I do at the beginning of each project is observe all that so I can really get a bigger picture of the kind of story I want to tell.”


So she faces skepticism because they may not understand or agree with her intentions, and they may have concern of how they will be placed in the story she creates.

“Especially today with Michael Moore, with Andrew Jarecki and The Jinx, the documentary filmmaker role has been elevated in pop culture today. Operating as a documentary filmmaker today vs 10 years ago is a totally different environment. So yes, people are much more skeptical of your intentions, and who you are, what you are planning to do. And rightly so. For the New York courts, I could have been a Michael Moore, I could have tried to go into the New York courts to try to show all of their biases, and that would have been easily done. But I don’t work in the system, I’m just a documentary filmmaker. I’m just there to document.”

“I spend a lot of time with them before I start filming, develop a relationship with them. Having my presence around a lot, makes it feel like I’m just there. For this new project, where are just going into courts. We have great relationships through our last film to the judges, some of the lawyers, some of the service providers, social workers, so we spend our days right now observing, talking to them, learning from them all the parts and pieces that make up the system.”

“What sucks about it is that I think this time is so invaluable in terms of the art and craft of storytelling, but financially it’s hard to fund this period, because we have nothing to show. Almost all grants except for maybe one or two, want footage. They want to see what your story is, who your characters are, to get a development grant. Our development phase is largely unfunded. It’s just our time.

“It complicates everything, working with a child. Each film, I have decided to treat the way I work with children differently.”


The nature of her topic adding complexity – the emotional toll of such tough topics.

“I have a very amazing support system with my husband and my two kids, but it is very emotionally challenging. I was very depressed working on Tough Love, because I couldn’t believe the injustices this mother faced. It made me want to move out of New York City. And I still want to move out of New York City because of that. She got really bad treatment throughout her entire life. Some people just never have someone look at them and try to help them. That really pissed me off.”

“She looked up to us a lot — my team is all women usually. My DP [director of photography], my producer, and I were always with her. We were all women of color, and she was a woman of color, and she could see something that was so different that she has never seen before. I try to think of what I represent, and how I can help with the resources I have. I try to be, as much as possible, clinical about it. ‘What can I do? How can I help, in my limited ways?'”

Does she get backlash of her opinions — via reviews, criticism, etc?
“There is always the critic. What we do is art, so it’s so subjective. It does hurt emotionally in that it makes you question some of your artist choices. But at the end of the day, I am very proud of my work. I know that my films are changing how people think about these subject matters.”


“On thing that was really hard with the second film was the funding, I thought it would be easier with this film because of the success of my first film, but who wants to fund a film about parents who have neglected their kids? It’s a really hard topic for people to get around when they don’t know where the stories are going. And that made me mad.”

“[For the third film], what we will probably do is try to get something on paper in the next month, because we have enough observational notes so that we can put together a treatment of what we think this film might look like. It will be very rough, but it will give a sense of what we are trying to do, to potential funders.”

“With my past two films, they were entirely funded by grants and Kickstarter (you can see her first Kickstarter campaign here, and the second here.) I don’t want to do that this time.”

“What we would like to do with this treatment is find an executive producer because human trafficking is a much hotter topic than child welfare. I do think that we will be able to find more philanthropists who might be interested in getting involved in a project like this. We have more of a track record now, with two films that have done well. We are hoping to find an executive producer who can help do the fundraising. We will also do grants, but do it a little differently.”

“Usually what would happen is we would write up a treatment, send it around to people with a budget we think we can make this film for, and just start trying to raise money through grants and individuals this time. Sometimes the grants would come in in a year. Sometimes the grants would come in in two years. Sometimes the grants would come in in three years, when you are almost finished. That is very often the case, they come in at the end.”

She has clearly become an expert in a variety of funding methods.

“The main benefit of doing a Kickstarter campaign is that you reach people that you would not normally reach. We ended up meeting up with a bunch of social workers, and organizations that were really excited about the film. Outside the child welfare community, no one is talking about it in this way. They really helped spread the word. For that reason, as a marketing tool, it’s great. But it’s just a lot of work. it really is.”

“I had given birth to my second child two days after I launched my Kickstarter campaign. I was back to work two days after I gave birth, asking people for money. It’s just sort of soul-sucking, it really is. But it’s helped so many people raise money. I can’t say I won’t do one again, because my producer might make me. And she’s right, too. We just need to get the funds to finish the film. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the funds to finish the film.”


“Until recently, I didn’t really see myself as an artist. I still felt like I was proving myself to everyone, that I was an artist, because of my background. I didn’t study film, I studied economics and history. I come from a family of doctors. I got into a six-year pre-med program when I was 18, and I begged my parents not to make me go, and just try to pursue liberal arts. They said, ‘Okay, but you’ll have to study economics. If you are not going to become a doctor, then you would have to be doing something with economics. Get an MBA, be on that road.’ Or a lawyer, but they didn’t think my writing was strong enough to become a lawyer.”


“I graduated from college with my degrees, and I decided I wanted to make films. I spent all of my summers in Taipei with my grandparents, and those were vivid memories — visual memories. In college, I added history, because I loved the stories I read in history. Then I focused on east-Asian history in college. Then I started seeing through those stories that I was reading, the memories of my childhood. I thought, if there was a way I could bring these stories to life, because no one is telling these stories in a visual way in America. So, [I asked myself], how can I learn how to do that.”

Her first job was as a production assistant for CNN. How she describes it in terms of her family’s approval: “It was a brand my parent could recognize, and that they could talk about. Then it was also a great job. I got paid to run around, learn about production. It was really hard, it was horrible hours. A live newsroom is not exactly a cup of tea, but I learned a lot of good things there.”

As she takes me through her career path, we hit upon something that another person I interviewed, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, also mentioned: she moved into the corporate world, and did very well. She was promoted, well paid, and had to make a stark decision to leave that money, that validation, and that career in order to pursue work that felt meaningful to her. After CNN:

“From there I worked on independent films, then I met [my husband] and we moved to France. I worked in advertising in Paris, because I couldn’t get a job in production, because all the production companies I spoke with told me I didn’t study film. After doing well in the advertising world, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m so far from that idea that I had.’ I was climbing the ladder, getting paid a lot of money, I was successful, I was being promoted all the time. I found the work so boring. I applied to grad school for film.”

Thank you to Stephanie for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!

The “Terrifying Crisis” of Finding the Second Act to Her Writing Career. An Interview with Novelist Tammy Greenwood

How does a career novelist make ends meet and navigate her way through a mid-career slump? Today I can’t even tell you how excited I am to share this interview with Tammy Greenwood, author of nine novels. If you are a writer — especially if you are a novelist — I beg you to listen to this podcast. Tammy takes us behind the scenes of her writing career, and provides an unfiltered view of the reality of what it means to write every day, and publish nine books.

Dan Blank and Tammy Greenwood
In our discussion, we cover:

  • Behind the scenes of ‘living the dream’ as an author.
  • How she moved past a mid-career slump, when no publisher wanted two back-to-back novels that she wrote.
  • How she earns a living, and details of her revenue streams.
  • How she has developed close relationships with other writers, who have served as colleagues throughout her career.
  • How she balances being an extrovert and enjoying time alone.
  • How she manages her days, and how she fits in writing every day.
  • Balancing big goals with the everyday reality of hard work.
  • The phases of her creative process in writing a book.
  • The importance of viewing the writing profession as a lifestyle.

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

Here are some excerpts from our chat:

The Reality of “Living the Dream”

I read an interview with Tammy where the interviewer wrote that Tammy is ‘living the dream.’ I asked Tammy what she believes that dream is for many writers.

“I have been publishing for about 16 years, my first novel came out in 1999. I publish regularly, I have nine novels published. In a lot of people’s eyes, that is it. That is what you want; you want to be publishing your work. You want an audience, a readership. So in that regard, I am very much living the dream. I have exactly what I want and what I have dreamed of, in terms of my books being in bookstores, getting emails from readers, and having an audience.”

“I always joke about how glamorous my life is. I think a lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to be a working artist. They have a very glamorous idea of what my life must be like (she laughs).That is not actually the case.”

The Book That No One Wanted…

“The first book was the most exciting — you only get one of those. You feel like you break through something when that happens. I had been writing for a long, long time. I’d been to two different graduate programs, I had written two novels, and one of them had gotten me an agent, but wasn’t published. By the time I had a book accepted for publication, that felt pretty amazing. I thought that was going to be the beginning of fame and fortune as well (she laughs), but it wasn’t. It was the beginning of a career, which was pretty exciting. I published three novels pretty much back to back in my early thirties. Then I had my first and second daughters. I was writing the whole time, but there was a big gap between my third book and my fourth book, partly because I left my publisher, and I left my agent, and because I had little kids.”

“My fourth book’s publication for me was huge, that was a real big deal for me, because I kind of thought my career might be over at that point. It was seven years between my third and fourth books. Other than that, the highlights are usually small. It’s getting a kind email from someone who said the book meant a lot to them. Getting to be around other writers that you admire and respect. Just last week I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, and there is something energizing about being in the realm of Joyce Carol Oates, who was in the room. But of course, I was too afraid to talk to her. Little small things like that are actually what I love most about being in this position.”

When I asked about the process of getting from the third to fourth book, she explained:
“It was terrifying, it was a crisis. For me, this is all I had ever done or wanted. You get a little taste of something, and then it felt like it was no longer accessible. The good thing is that I did get an NEA grant around 2004, which validated me in terms of thinking ‘okay, I’m good enough to get this NEA grant,’ and it also bought me time.”

It’s worth noting that these are feelings Tammy experienced after successfully publishing three novels!

“My kids were really little, I was working, then we moved. My husband said, “Okay, this is the year you need to finish this book. But then I got a new agent, and I couldn’t get it published. So there was a year after getting a new agent, and having this complete book that I was really proud of, but [my agent] wasn’t able to sell it. The book was universally rejected. It felt like it was really over now, because this is what I feel was my best work to date, and we weren’t able to publish it.”

“I documented this horrible time in my blog. [go back to 2005/2006 on Tammy’s blog here.] It was serendipity that I found my editor — now my current editor – who was reading my blog, and he had just gotten a job at Kensington, and he said, ‘Why don’t you send it to me?’ He ended up making an offer, and I have been with Kensington since then. Amazingly, that book has ended up being the best-selling of all of my books, which is funny because nobody wanted it, nobody would touch it. I think it was primarily because sales for my first three books were so abysmal, [even though] hey were critically lauded.”

“My old agent said somewhere, ‘Having a bad sales record as an author is like having bad credit; it’s almost easier to have no credit than bad credit.’ That is why for debut novelists, someone will take a chance on them, but someone who has written three novels, may have even been reviewed well, but it’s a big risk for them. So I’m really grateful, I got lucky.”

“It also shows that putting yourself out there like that opens doors sometimes.”

“I look back at that time, and I think it was darker than I even knew. I was lucky that I had these two beautiful daughters, and my life was very busy and full — I was distracted. I was writing the whole time. I think I wrote a book before the fourth book that my previous agent [rejected]. This was a book that I wrote while pregnant with my second daughter that never got published. I have always been that person who has perseverance and is hopeful. I’ve never stopped writing, I always do the work. Since I was in college, I have been writing steadily.”

The Messiness of the Process

This moment is astounding to me. She had published three books that were well reviewed, but had poor sales. She wrote a fourth book that was rejected by her agent. She stopped working with her agent and her publisher. She wrote a FIFTH book that was rejected by every publisher. And this whole time, she blogged about that process – and there is no other way to say this – that sense of failure. Why would she share this so openly?

“I started blogging when we moved in 2005. It was kind of new then. My audience was so small, I didn’t even have a way to check. I was just throwing words out to the universe. I don’t even think people were commenting. It was an exercise in diary writing that I knew was public. I still don’t think I have that many followers on the blog. It was a way to process what was happening.”

“I’m always interested in that with writers and other artists – fascinating to know about their process. How you do it. Not just the writing process, but the emotional process. It was a lot about making parenting and writing work at the same time.”

“There is so much more than the physical act of writing. The conception of an idea, the evolution of the idea to make sure it is something you want to dedicate yourself to. Then there are the false starts and all of those things that people don’ necessarily think about. They think, ‘I have an idea, I’m going to sit down, I’m going to outline it, I’m going to write it, I’m going to sell it, and that’s going to be how it goes.’ But it’s just not like that. It’s much messier than that.”

Earning a Living as a Writer

I asked her about her revenue streams:
“It fluctuates. And that’s the crazy thing – it goes up and down. Right now, I have a contract. A 2-3 book contract, so it’s predictable in terms of dates I will get big checks. There have been royalties that I know when they will come. Early on, there was none of that. That is why I have always had a backup, something more predictable. I teach, which provides income. I teach for San Diego Writer’s Ink, I run three reading critique groups, and we meet weekly, and then I teach online for The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and then one community college class. I read unpublished work all day, every day.”

This is another point that I found astounding. Up until this moment in the interview, you see Tammy as a career author, working through the ups and downs of writing and publishing, all while raising two kids. But now, not only do we introduce a teaching career into the mix, but she has three different employers just for teaching. Two writing centers and a community college. Consider, just for a moment, how complicated that is to manage. Then of course, there is the fact that teaching is an inherently social job where she is managing lots of students, doing public speaking, and responsible for critiques, etc.

But there’s more… she does freelance editing as well:

“I do developmental editing for novelists. I don’t work any more hours than the average person, it’s just that I have like 10 jobs! I have to parcel my time out so that I can hit everything I am supposed to be doing.”

From a revenue standpoint, she has three different income streams.

“I have control over it, which is the beautiful thing. We go away for a month every summer. When we started doing that 13 years ago, I said this is important to me, and I’m going to make my work revolve around that. I somehow managed to do that.”

Managing fluctuation: “It’s nice that one of us [her husband] has a more manageable and stable job. There is predictability in at least half of our lives. It would be really hard if – two freelancing people – that’s SCARY.”

“I would love to have benefits, but the sacrifice I would have to make to have that… isn’t really worth it to me. I really love the life I have made for myself, and I wouldn’t trade that for more economic stability.”

On Writing Every Day

“I’ll write 100,000 words in November and December. I just compress things into smaller spaces. I am always practicing writing — every single day. If I don’t do it right away, it won’t get done. I think about what I am writing all the time. Just the actual physical typing time happens in the mornings. Having all of these jobs has taught me how to plan.”

The Profession of Writing as a Lifestyle

For writers considering this as a profession: “You have to be aware that this is not a lifestyle that comes easily. You have to look at it as a writing life, not just individual projects. Are you prepared for that? Is the payoff of doing something creative worth all of that risk? If it isn’t, maybe it is not what you should be trying to make a career of. It’s hard to make art what you do for a living. You have to look at the big picture and figure out if this is the type of life you want to live. When a student comes up to me a ta career fair and asks, ‘can I make a living at this,’ I answer, ‘Well, that depends on how you define what a living is.’”

Thank you to Tammy for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!

The Pressure of Creating the Spectacular, An Interview With Jeremy Chernick

Today I am thrilled to share my interview with Jeremy Chernick, a special effects designer for Broadway productions, Cirque du Soleil projects, museum installations, music videos, TV, and film. Basically, Jeremy makes it snow, rain, burn, bleed and explode on stage. He has worked with J&M Special Effects since 2006.

This interview is part of the research for a book I am writing called Dabblers vs. Doers, which is about working through RISK as you develop your craft and build a meaningful body of work. For Jeremy, his risk is not just personal, but highly collaborative; it’s his job to ask actors, an audience, and theater producers to be comfortable a few feet from small explosions.

In our discussion, we cover:

  • Breaking big creative risks down into manageable moments.
  • How lots of bad ideas are a part of the creative process.
  • The value of communication, and the agreement you make with your audience.
  • The pressure of creating the spectacular.
  • The part of the creative process that no one wants.
  • His creative career journey.
  • How his professional life affects his personal life, now that he is a father.

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

This was one of those interviews where me traveling to interview Jeremy in-person had a profound effect on my understanding of his work. I was able to meet his colleagues, see the workstations where they create effects, see their stock of gadgets and raw materials that they purchase from vendors. I was also able to overhear conversations between colleagues of his, like:

  • “What are we supposed to be doing with this machine gun over here?” Later on, while Jeremy and I were chatting, I could hear a machine gun being fired in the background — a prop gun shooting blanks, but the sound and feeling of a machine gun nonetheless. Not the usual thing you hear in a workplace.
  • Another discussion when someone hung up the phone after a discussion about a production that was asking for an incredible amount of water to be brought into a stage setting. The staff broke this request down into what was reasonable, and where challenges would come up with compliance with the building owner, etc. To these people, a request to deliver and manage thousands of gallons of water in an artistic production was perfectly normal.

Again and again in this interview, the topic of effective communication came up. I have to say, this jumped out at me from my very first experiences with Jeremy. He is clearly very busy, yet responded to my emails very quickly and efficiently. He also was accessible — we met the week after I initially reached out to him.

Here is a tour of my visit with Jeremy at J&M Special Effects, which is situated on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn:
Jeremy Chernick

When you first walk in the door, you’re greeted by a life-sized shark:
Jeremy Chernick

Jeremy and I:
Jeremy Chernick and Dan Blank

He took me into a special padlocked room full of prop guns for use as special effects in productions:
Jeremy Chernick

A workstation where they create special effects:
Jeremy Chernick

There was a lot of equipment throughout the facility. Need wind? They’ve got that covered:
Jeremy Chernick

Bathroom reading at a special effects shop: Welder’s Handbook:
Jeremy Chernick

Here are some excerpts from our chat:


“Nowadays, I get asked to do the hard things. I tend to do a lot of ‘tricks’ or moments in a show that are more complicated or take a lot of specific thought, as opposed to something that gets blocked quickly during rehearsal.”

He gave me an example from the Manhattan Class Company production of Punk Rock, directed by Trip Cullman. It’s a dark show about private school kids in London, where a massacre occurs at the end.

“It’s gunshots and… blood delivery gadgets, and how they’re incorporated into the actors, the actors’ movement, but also into the scenery, the props, where they were hidden.”

“[The director] will describe his dream scene to me, and then I will try to dissect it in a way that breaks it down into very precise and tiny moments. So a story that takes one second on stage, I may break out into three or four things that are happening simultaneously, and how those are blocked. In that case, there are multiple risks. So the risks to me are, firstly, safety for everyone involved, including the audience. Secondly, it not selling, and the story not being told. That’s a big risk: does what I think in my mind and what the director thinks in their mind, and the actors all come together to make a moment that really does tell the story, or is it lost? Lastly, getting everyone to do it, and it all to work.”


“I say a lot that some of the ideas that I have, the rough early stages of planning will be filled with terrible ideas. Hopefully we will find the good ones, and cast away the terrible ideas. That is part of my process. I come to a moment in a show, and I have to think about it and think about it, and I come up with ten ways to do it, then it slowly boils down to the ways that I feel more confident in.”

I asked him about moments of a creative impasse, where none of the ideas are working. He responded:

“Under the [best] case scenarios, I hope to learn that way before the actors are involved. I am lucky and have access to a big play space. We are sitting in it in Brooklyn on the Gowanus Canal, where I can mockup a lot of the ideas that I have, and quickly learn how they work. Just because on a piece of paper and in my mind — this leads to that, and it’s all a plumbing moment, will then spurt a giant disgusting blob of blood on the wall, that will seem as if it came out of the back of someone’s head, when they are unfortunately shot — I can set that up here in a very jerry-rigged way, and see whether it is believable, see the problems that it might have.”


“How I trick the audience, or in better terms, how I try and convince the audience to play along, to agree with me that we are telling a story and they are going to stay with the story. That is an agreement that we make as audience members with the people on stage.”

So much of what Jeremy told me was about communication. In a scene where he had to stage the convincing moment where someone on stage shoots themselves in the head, he mentioned that the prop was a rubber gun. I asked why, and he explained how a switch would take place: first the actor would show the audience a working prop gun that had action. This is part of convincing the audience that it is a real gun. Then a subtle switch would happen and the actor would be using a rubber gun for the scene where they actually shoot themselves. The rubber is a way to communicate to the actor that this gun is 100% safe. There are no mechanisms in this object that could possibly hurt you when you place it near your head. Again and again, Jeremy brought up safety concerns as the first answer when addressing a scenario. But this nonverbal communication via a rubber gun was striking to me.

In describing this single moment in a show, he described the complicated dance between the actor, the stage manager, and an effects person.

“Everyone knows that he didn’t just shoot himself in the head, everyone knows that it’s not his brains and blood on the wall. We all know these things, but we have to believe, or else the play doesn’t really work. A magician friend of mine, Matthew Holtzclaw, said magic is an agreement between the magician and the audience. The magician says, ‘I’m going to trick you,’ the audience says, ‘You are going to trick me,’ and then you go about the process of doing that. The goal of the magician is to trick you, and for you to say, ‘I was tricked, I have no idea how you did that.'”


When he told a story about the work he did on Aladdin the musical, we talked about the scale of the production, and the collaborators involved: “Designers of every kind — there is a magic consultant, a fight choreographer, a video designer, lighting, sound, costume, directors, choreographer and producers, and the fantastic Disney mechanism on top of all of that.” I loved this quote about a production of this scope, with these partners:

“They are willing to accommodate what is necessary to do the spectacular.”

He described it as both, “… a wonderful environment to play in, as well as full of unbelievable pressure.” A moment later after he described how he helped create the effect of the genie coming out of the lamp for Aladdin, he concluded that it was a collaborative process that is “a pure joy, but also terrifying.”

I saw this photo on Jeremy’s Instagram feed, which gave me indication of the emotional complexity of his work:

Jeremy Chernick


“Inevitably, the most nerve-racking and stress-inducing portions of my job are always communication-based.”

“I take a lot of responsibility, and I find that to be more stressful than delivering the effect. I am the great apologizer, and that is the number one portion of the job that is terrible and that no one else wants. Whatever the problem is, and even if I had nothing to do directly with the problem, I’m responsible and I tend to take that ownership. All of these things, especially in theaters, are all carried out by stagehands, by stage managers, by actors. If there is a problem, I tend to come in and take responsibility to protect those people because they are doing an amazing thing that I forced them to do. That portion of it is much more stressful – the 10 p.m. email from a stage manage that they had a problem; that an actor is nervous or a cue didn’t happen. Not safety related problems, but more that something isn’t happening the way they want it to.”

When I asked him about having undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication (Queens College, 1990-1994, bachelor’s degree in communications, and University of Illinois at Chicago, 1995-1997, masters in communications), he seemed to explain it away as an accident. But clearly it ties into every aspect of what he does. He is a great communicator, and that is critically necessary to such a collaborative process, one that involves convincing the audience of a special effect, and of course, of providing the utmost safety to all involved.


When I asked Jeremy how he got into this field, he didn’t describe some kind of obvious path. He wasn’t a pyromaniac as a kid, he wasn’t blowing stuff up in his garage. He actually described that part of his job – the explosive part — as “I don’t really enjoy it.” So this wasn’t some dream job of a kid who was obsessed with firecrackers.

He told me that he had a learning disability, and was taken out of his local high school to go to a high school with a program to help him work through that. His assessment of those years is, “My whole high school experience was about figuring out that I’m not dumb.”

He had no background in theater either. He only took an acting class in college because he thought it would be an easy A. As he continued taking courses, he described the process as “I thought I was an actor, I thought I was an electrician, I thought I was a carpenter — I was terrible at many of those things, if not all of them.”

He chose to take jobs backstage in theater instead of waiting tables for normal everyday reasons: it was more fun and gave him a social scene to be a part of. At the time, he was in Chicago for graduate school, and described what he learned from productions there. They were able to take bigger risks than what he felt New York productions could. “The craziest of theater” is how he described it. He tried acting, stage managing, hanging lights, and other jobs in theater.

He and two friends (one of whom later became his wife, Anna Catherine Rutledge) then took a road trip around the country to try and launch their own theater. When I asked about their plan, he described that they were 20, had no plan, and just went to these cities and hung out and see if any of them felt right.

But none of the towns on their planned itinerary felt right (Boulder, Los Angeles, Portland, among others). He said, “We traveled the whole country and pretty much gave up.” On their way back, they stopped in Austin, Texas, simply to visit a friend. They were going to stay a single night, but found that they had too much fun. Days later, they reflected on how much fun they had in Austin and that even though they hadn’t previously considered Austin, it was perfect for their theater idea.

They moved to Austin and created a theater company called The Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre. I wish I had more time with Jeremy to explore this phase of his life, and am thankful for the reporting from The Austin Chronicle which provides detailed background of this theater in this article, as well as reviews of productions in their archives.

I can imagine someone asking Jeremy, “How can I get into special effects for famous Broadway productions?” and him answering, “Go to Austin and start a theater with the acronym F.A.R.T.” (Yes, he and his friend were well aware of the acronym when they chose the name.)

Which is the point of why I love exploring Jeremy’s career path. His was not a manifest destiny of a theater-loving child. It was full of risks, setbacks, and a circuitous path around the country.

The latter part of our conversation goes into detail about his career path. You’ll hear how Jeremy took risks, and in doing so, lucked into moments that developed relationships and skills that eventually led him to his current career.

His big break in special effects came from a colleague who made a special request. Jeremy tackled the problem for his friend, and said, “I learned much later that there were a lot of big fancy professionals in the world who wanted that job, but I was the guy from next door who solved problems.”

We ended the conversation discussing how his personal life effects his professional life, and how he manages things differently now that he is a father.

Thank you to Jeremy for making the time to meet with me. You can find him online at:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!