Author’s Note: What follows is the first of three parts attempting to explain the devotion of my life for the past forever. Think of it as three fifths apology for abandoning this sacred space, two fifths cathartic vomit of emotions. To some of you, this will be news, and I hope that you find it vaguely interesting enough to keep coming back now that I’m allowed to have hobbies again. To others, this is something that you were aware of, but maybe only as far as the results, and I hope that you enjoy reading about what it took to achieve them. And to others, you’ve not only heard me talk about this experience incessantly, but I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this entire tale, in these exact words, multiple times. To those of you, I don’t expect you to read it again, so go find something else to do. Hop on over to The Oatmeal, his shit’s always funny. Have you read his bit about how to use a semicolon? Fucking hilarious. Anyway, to all of you who choose to venture forward with me, thank you for your eyeball movement. I hope I do you all justice.
Last January, I told you about a journey that I was on.
No, journey isn’t quite right. “Journey” sounds like a long walk, something with a simple beginning, a pleasant middle, a welcome end. Like the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, just a lot of walking. No, what I did was more than a journey. It was an epic battle, where I faced my own personal Balrog. At times, it seemed like I was never going to be done with this insane odyssey, that I was going to collapse from exhaustion, that my goals were going remain just beyond my desperate grasp. But I wanted it so badly — SO badly — that I fought on. And now, here I am, and it’s over.
Let me back up.
My goal was simple: I wanted to pass my ETCP test. What’s the ETCP test, you ask? Excellent question, you.
ETCP stands for Entertainment Technician Certification Program. It’s meant to be a certification program for all the guys in the industry who graduated from The School of Hard Knocks. The ones who never went to college, just started working, and after 20 or 30 years in the industry have a vast wealth of knowledge. The ones who know a hell of a lot more and have infinitely more skill sets than a little 22 year old shit fresh out of undergrad, but don’t have the piece of paper that says so. The ETCP is meant to be that piece of paper.
The test focuses primarily on all the parts of the job that can potentially kill a person: how to work with big electrical power, transformers, generators, safety procedure, and the like. All things with which I had very little experience. See, the beginnings of my career in the entertainment production industry isn’t so very different from the old dogs for whom the test was originally intended. I didn’t go to college to be an electrician. I majored in Theatre, sure, but with the intention of becoming a professional dancer. I just happened into the field when I realized that people were way more appreciative of my volunteer time hanging lights than they ever were for my work dancing under them. I never received any training or schooling for what I do, I learned as I went. (To be fair, even if I had majored in lighting in college, the large majority of the knowledge covered on the test wasn’t taught at my college either, so it’s not like my major set me all that far back.) I figured things out as I encountered them, I asked a lot of questions, and I failed a lot. And that route has gotten me to a pretty great place. But the problem with learning things as you experience them is that you can only learn about things that you experience, and there were a lot of skills that I was never going to acquire simply because I was never going to experience them in my current job. So the only way I was going to gain these skills was to teach myself, and the test was a perfect measure of my success.
And so, the ETCP came to represent two meanings to me. For one, it was proof that I’d learned what I needed to in order to fill the gap in my knowledge. But it was so much more than that. Even though a degree in technical theatre would have done little more to prepare me for my chosen career, I’ve always secretly been ashamed of my origin story. I always felt like I had to work harder because I felt like I had something to prove. I never felt like I was good enough. But the ETCP, I felt, would be the ultimate validation. It would finally prove, if only to myself, that not having a tech theatre degree doesn’t hold me back, and would be the perfect stepping stone for the next phase of my career.
Now all I had to do was teach myself what I didn’t know.
Which, as it turns out, was more than one would have guessed. Sure, I knew a ton about what to do to light a show, but I’d never learned the why. Face it, when you’ve got 4 hours to load in a rock show you don’t give two flying fucks why the electricity is flowing and how it results in controllable light, just that it does so without catching anything on fire. When I began my learning journey, I didn’t know the difference between a watt, a volt, and an amp. I knew that you talk in watts when you’re talking about the size of a lamp, volts when you’re talking about what comes out of the walls, and amps when you’re talking about breakers, but I didn’t know why. I knew that watts equals volts times amps, but I didn’t know why, or how those three things relate. These are the very building blocks of electrical theory, and the fact that I got my job without knowing any of them is kinda fucked up. (Though, as I have come to realize, not at all uncommon. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only one working in the industry with a serious gap in knowledge.)
I had a long way to go.