When I was considering quitting my job to explore and pursue a more fulfilling career path, I already had a lot of inspiration from others who had embarked on similar quests.
And one of those people is my very own husband, Ryan Lee Short.
Ryan currently works as a scenic carpenter and set builder for Bay Area Children’s Theatre, but he started out in a very different field. I sat down and talked to him about his journey:
Laura: Let’s start from the beginning. Thinking about when you were growing up, did you have a sense of what you “wanted to be when you grew up” or what you wanted to do for work?
Ryan: After wanting to be a firefighter or the second baseman for the Oakland A’s as a kid, I kind of lost the focus in that regard. I never really had a … you know, this is what I’m going to be when I grow up. And then as I did grow up, it was never a desire based on something passionate — it was always just like I’m going to go to a fancy school and be an engineer to make some money. I never really had an end goal.
L: And I know you had an unconventional college journey. Take me through that.
R: I spent three years at Cornell University, trying to be an engineer. The major I tried to start was called engineering physics, which was more of a theoretical thing. The pitch for that major was — you are going to be generally specialized in all of the fields. Honestly, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do with that, I just knew I was going to make a lot of money doing it.
L: But outside of your studies, you had this major extracurricular which was working with the Concert Commission.
R: Yes, I started as a stage crew hand and the top of that stage crew was crew heads, and then eventually I ended up the Production Director, which was day of show operations — the head of the show. That was managing a crew of 200.
L: And these were major artists.
R: Yeah, I hugged BB King during that job. We did the Indigo Girls and Dave Matthews and Black Eyed Peas.
L: And you really liked doing that work.
R: I really did. It was my first foray into working in live entertainment, which I still do to this day. But I liked it a little too much. It kind of took away from the focus of my studies. So, after three years at Cornell, I was politely asked to leave.
So, I came back to the Bay Area and was basically attempting to do some GPA repair and get myself to transfer to — at the time is was SF State — to finish out a Bachelors in Business Administration or something generic that I could work at a bank or something, just doing boring office work.
And ultimately, you transferred to and graduated from Chico State. What was your degree?
R: I have a Bachelor of Arts in Music Industry and Technology. My option was in recording arts. So I am technically a degreed studio engineer.
And when you chose that major, did you have any inkling of careers you might want to do with it?
R: I chose it because I had already been doing a bunch of sound stuff, but it had been kind of unfocused and all over the place.
I knew I could get through that degree in a small amount of time — or at least a small amount of effort — and if I had not burned the bridges that I burned, I could have taken advantage of some of the placement opportunities that they had. That might have gotten me down a different path.
L: looking back, are there certain reasons why you didn’t take advantage of those connections and opportunities?
R: I burned out. I was so tired of being in school.
L: So, you were just trying to finish a degree because it’s what everyone expects people to do.
L: What did you do after you graduated?
R: I went back home and after a little while of not really trying to find a job, I went back to the daycare where I had started working at 16. It is a before- and after-school program at an elementary school. My mom runs it and has run it for close to 30 years now. It was familiar. It was something I think I was genuinely good at. But it was just easy and familiar to fall back into that.
It was good enough. I was happy enough just getting by without putting any effort in or challenging myself in any way or really striving for more because I just didn’t feel like it was worth it.
L: But while you were working at the daycare, you started doing side gigs.
R: Yes. So a podcast I listened to, the host had said he had written a play and they were producing it in Alameda and they need tech people. And I was like, I know how to do sound. I don’t know shit about theater, but I know how to run mics and I know how to run a soundboard. And so I reached out to this director and got involved — this was October of 2007, so this was pretty soon after I graduated. And I was signed on to be the assistant sound designer to kind of learn the ropes.
But the main sound designer quickly dropped out, and Bob, the director, asked me, “Do you feel comfortable taking this on yourself?” And I said to him, “Do you feel comfortable with me taking this on myself because I can make this happen, but you know I don’t know how to do it.” So I became the sound designer.
I had a lot of fun. They were theater people. It felt like I had been welcomed into a family. So, I did a few more shows with them. And through outside directors and technical directors, I ended up getting work elsewhere, and learning how to properly [sound] design a show — and really just learning how theater production works more in general. And eventually, I ended up as a resident artist at a few places.
L: And so at the height of that, when you still had a full-time job at the daycare while doing these side gigs in sound design and/or engineering, how many shows did you do a year?
R: I never properly counted, but I would say at the peak, I was doing at least 10 shows a year. Sometimes that was just designing, and sometimes that would be running musicals … or, for instance, running free Shakespear in the park for 13 weeks.
I would never have more than a month in between jobs.
L: So, you recognized that this arena was something you were passionate about.
R: Yes, so, when I started working at Sketchfest, for instance — a comedy festival — it was exciting again in a way that I hadn’t felt about my work since doing those concerts back in Cornell. Having a ton of responsibility and a lot of balls in the air but then being able to do it and coming out the other end having done a good job.
L: And then you quit your full time job at the daycare back in 2016.
R: Yea, I had worked there off and on for 20 years, but it had been about 9 years full-time at that place.
L: And talk a little bit about what it was like switching industries. What was that journey like?
R: It was tough. I was really bad about pursuing new opportunities because I think I had gotten used to taking whatever was thrown at me. So, it felt like I was busy, but it turns out I wasn’t always taking the smart things — you know, considering my own time to be worth a certain amount of money.
I was doing tech at a drag bar, which was really fun but it didn’t pay enough to pay the bills. I tried to pile on sound design gigs, but those stipends didn’t really cut it. And then, eventually — I would say this was early 2017 — I started working for Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT) as an overhire, just moving sets around.
I showed a pretty quick aptitude for that, which got me more work with them. They needed some production design for a new performance space. And then they sent me to the shop to put together little things for sets. I had no real experience in carpentry or using tools.
But eventually I learned and became a full time scenic carpenter and set building with them, almost two years ago.
L: But set-building and carpentry was already on your radar as a skill you wanted to learn.
R: That’s true. I had already assisted building a set for a theater that I had done a lot of sound design for.
L: And even before you quit your job at the daycare, you had this role of Technical Director as something you might want to pursue. For people who aren’t familiar, what is that position.
R: Every building, it’s different. But in general, the Technical Director oversees the technical aspects of a production. A lot of the times, they are overseeing building sets primarily, but it’s also going to bleed into electrics and sound. The behind the scenes stuff.
L: And you noticed that these job descriptions for Technical Director wanted certain background and skills.
R: Yes. So, the sound background was there. I had done a little bit of lighting stuff along the way. But I had never done scenic carpentry. So it was like, if I ever want to do this job, I need to get experience with that, which is what drew me to pursue that work at BACT.
L: And do you have a clear sense of what your goal is moving forward with your career?
R: I would like to be a Technical Director or a Theater Manager or some combination of the two. You know, having a larger scale theater that is mine to administrate and lead from a technical side. I would love to do that in an educational setting, if possible, to spread the love — I really enjoy teaching and working with students.
L: And just to wrap up — obviously you wouldn’t be where you are without everything you went through, but are there major things you would have done differently along your journey?
R: I would say don’t be afraid of the kinds of things that people may think of as, say, too artistic. You want to work in the arts? Just fucking work in the arts. Don’t try to pigeon-hole yourself into what’s going to make yourself the most money. Just pursue something that you actually want to do.