Review: Aspenite sees the workplace as a playground
December 13, 2010
ASPEN – At the end of “Pulp Fiction,” Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, tells his partner Vincent (John Travolta) that he is retiring from the hit-man business. Upon hearing that Jules’ plan is to simply walk the earth, meet people and have adventures – no career plan, no job – Vincent says, “They’ve got a word for ’em – they’re called bums. Without a job … or legal tender, that’s what you’re gonna be – a f—ing bum!”
But the fact is, that’s not what everyone calls it. There’s a grand tradition of proudly dropping out of the pursuit of employment and a paycheck. After spending two years on Walden Pond, as frugally and work-free as possible, Thoreau reported on simplicity and his experience of feeling in harmony with the world. When the Dude, from “The Big Lebowski,” recounts his “career” – roadie for one Metallica tour, participating in several sketchy protest movements, “a little of this, a little of that”- and admits that his working life has “slowed down a bit,” he reveals no regrets over missing out on a desk, a 401(k) and Casual Fridays.
Like Jules, Thoreau and the Dude sought enlightenment and freedom in their absence from the career-minded world.
Add Barry Smith to those who don’t equate the lack of a steady job to being a bum. In a clever, coherent, expansive and oddly inspiring multimedia, one-man show titled “Every Job I’ve Ever Had,” the 44-year-old Aspenite (and Aspen Times columnist) travels through his decidedly unambitious work history. The show, which was workshopped at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale and debuted this past summer at fringe festivals in Ottawa and Vancouver, had its Aspen premiere Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.
Smith begins by telling of his fascination, as a kid in the first years of grade school, of learning to write: Through focus, ambition and attention to detail, he elevated his scribbling of the number ‘2’ to a veritable art form. His efforts are rewarded with a warm inner glow: “If school work is this satisfying, I’ll bet real work is going to be even better,” he muses, to knowing laughter.
Yes and no. The jobs Smith gets are not always satisfying in the moment. Clearly, the gig of cleaning out the horrifically clogged sewage system of a London hotel, using only a stick, caused no job envy among his contemporaries. But the point of the show – and of Smith’s existence, as he points out – was that jobs were not about climbing a ladder of increasing status and pay. Work wasn’t even primarily a way to get life’s bills paid. Work was something you did to gather anecdotes, photos and skewed wisdom, to be used later on in a life that was centered as much as possible on the art of storytelling, not the next job.
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There may have even been a subversive genius to the way Smith accepted employment: Many of his menial jobs, like videographer and juggler, equipped him with the skills he now uses in the job that truly matters to him – writing and performing one-man shows. Being an A/V guy may have been boring beyond words – he’s got the stunningly boring scenes to prove it – but the experience has come in handy. Smith’s shows – his previous works, like “Jesus in Montana” and “Me, My Stuff and I,” have been performed in New York, on college campuses, and on the Canadian fringe festival circuit – have a vital visual element, and in “Every Job I’ve Ever Had,” the videos, photos and graphics work like exclamation points on his story.
The job that Smith has excelled at since he was a kid is collecting and saving stuff – photos, report cards, video, posters. So “Every Job I’ve Ever Had” does a thorough job of documenting, to hilarious effect, each chapter in Smith’s journey: certified photocopier, security guard, engine block scraper.
While the show details Smith’s career path, it also illuminates greater truths about our relationship to work. Smith points out that an adult in an office isn’t much different than a kid at an Easter-egg hunt. You have to dress up, work hard, compete with others. The big difference, he says, is that the adult is not there by choice. In one of his keenest observations, Smith notes that designing one’s resume is the most important font-type decision we will make in our lives.
Personally, I take comfort in knowing Smith is out there, a reminder to our achievement-oriented culture that the workplace can also be seen as a playground for alternative-minded types. He has taken a Zen-like, Dude-esque approach to jobs, and it has paid off in one, a cool job; and two, an absorbing story.
Barry Smith abides.