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The Shifting Line in the Sand

by Jenni Page-White

The first-generation immigrant family at the center of Russian Transport is scraping together a living by any means necessary. Overworked and underappreciated, 18-year-old Alex forks over all the cash from his multiple unglamorous jobs to help support his family. He drives for the family car service, he hustles phones at Verizon, and the only money he manages to hold on to comes from the shady gigs he hides from his family. But hey—when your mother hoards every last penny you earn, sometimes you wind up in suspect circumstances trying to make a little pocket money on the down low.
In the spirit of the play, we thought it would be fun to check in with our ensemble about the questionable jobs they held on their upwardly mobile path to success. Many of our ensemble members come from humble beginnings and had a variety of odd jobs before they got their big break in the arts industry. We asked them to share the sketchiest jobs they held in order to make ends meet along the way.

Alan WilderRussian Transport, Al told me a story about a dubiously funded film that he was involved in. 
Somewhere in the 90s, I was cast in a straight-to-video martial arts action movie, shooting in The-Detroit-of-Italy: Turin. I was thrilled to be playing a British director of the movie-within-the-movie. The leading man/martial artist/screenwriter was also one of the producers. And his Danish leading lady was the other producer, who, because she claimed to have been one the babes on Baywatch, was the main funder of the project. Problems arose when we found that she was a bald-faced liar about both being on Baywatch and having the bucks for the second week of shooting. Needless to say, the plug got pulled on the project.
Al mentioned—almost in passing—that the actors weren’t the only ones who found themselves suddenly without a paycheck. He was accosted by the Italian-speaking hotel owner who was upset about overdue bills. Not being fluent in Italian, Al didn’t know how to explain that he wasn’t the person responsible for payment, and the thought crossed his mind that he might have to sneak out a window in the middle of the night.

Martha Lavey
Long before she sat at the helm of Steppenwolf as Artistic Director, Martha(ensemble member since 1993) found herself in a job in which her duties included a questionable daily task for a boss with a suspicious habit.
I was working as an office temp and got called into a law firm in the West Loop. Mid-morning of the first day, the boss (he, of the twitchy behavior and intense mien) gave me a brown paper bag and asked me to keep it for him until the end of the day. A couple of hours later, he asked for the bag. Then went into his office and when he came back, he gave it back. Then he left early. I stayed about three days—same deal every day. Then I decided not to go back.
I sometimes wonder if the design of our new open-concept administrative offices at Steppenwolf was in any way influenced by the secret behavior of Martha’s long-ago boss. Thankfully, our staff seems to have nothing to hide from each other!

Robert Brueler
Ensemble member since 1987 and most recently seen in The Wheel, Robert was hired as a professional actor to read a deposition in place of the testifying witness, who could not attend. He soon discovered that a court of law could be a problematic arena for flexing his muscles as an actor.
I was reading a deposition for a prosecuting attorney in a multi-million dollar law suit where 10 ophthalmologists were suing the America Association of Ophthalmologists because they wouldn’t recognize the validity of Radial Keratotomy. My lawyer told me to make the Doctor’s deposition as mean and ugly as I could. During the recess the opposing lawyer asked me how much I would charge to make him a charming, friendly ophthalmologist. I realized how these guys work. Turned down the second guy, finished, and never took another deposition gig.
And that, friends, is the story of quite possibly the only time Robert Brueler refused to take direction. Though the action being requested of him was not necessarily criminal per se, Robert knew he had to draw the line.

Even our own ensemble, respected and talented artists all, have stumbled into suspicious employment during their hardscrabble days. Luckily, they saw what was coming down the road and knew well enough to get the heck out of Dodge. We all know that the line in the sand is a shifting line. It can be drawn and redrawn, depending on the desperation of the moment. Has your own line ever moved?