Guest Feature: Jen Caruso
Jen Caruso has been in the live event industry almost 10 years, working with all departments from Site Ops to sponsorship. Caruso’s love for her craft has taken her on the road for the last 5 years. She spent several years pursuing every facet of the industry: Site Ops, Festival Director, RFID consultant, Beverage Director, Visual Design Manager—you name it. Caruso’s real forte is a creative melding of productions, operations, and onsite activations. This self-proclaimed happen-maker lives by her conviction that we are all lost without being a part of something greater than ourselves. She sat down and talked to us about how her (and all of our) unique skill set will be what is needed in the reinvention of a new brand and the reemergence of ourselves in the industry.
Where we are and where we can go from here is as much about perspective as it is a transformation of skill set. Many people are still out of work and feeling stuck, this is not something people in our industry are used to. We are problem solvers, firefighters, and sometimes magicians. We carry a tool bag of ingenuity that is not commonly found in the workforce. We can use this strength for good, however, there is still a high level of reimagining involved. Basically, we know how to make something out of nothing and the best of the worst. That is exactly what we are being called to do now, dig deep and put our various skills together to see how we can parlay the highly sought after expertise we have gained in the field into the next chapter.
March 2020 hit us all with harrowing tales of lost contracts, months of work dissolved, uncertainty, fear, and grief. Hopes for a better year disintegrated week after week, sometimes slowly and painfully, as events tried to make sense of what we could still do. It was painful to watch and even more painful to hold on to hope that any of the events this year could be salvaged.
As perspectives shifted and dynamics changed, we have all taken a forced step back and reevaluated what it was we were chasing, where that was going and collectively mourn that loss, albeit separately. Letting go of the 2020 we thought we were going to have (and trust me, this was EVERYONE’S year) and embracing what we DO have. We are a resilient bunch, we have held positions that control utter chaos and make it look like an orchestrated symphony. Many times the results had me in awe of how exactly we pulled all of this off so very well.
Collectively, we are being called on to apply these very skills that made us jump to action as we were thrust into unpredictable situations. Memories of radio calls that had us reworking a stand-alone structure the fire marshall seemingly out of the blue decided did NOT in fact have enough exits to be up to code, a mere 4 hours before gates opened. OR the Code Red weather full evacuations that left entire stages, equipment, tents, and art structures in jeopardy, product unmanned and security MIA and patrons at risk. Not to mention the box offices scrambling to figure out how to get everyone back in, eventually. The path of the treacherous weather completely out of our hands is not unlike our situation now. We persevered, we made that extra exit in time, we put boots on and salvaged the event from the mud and 65 mph winds. We will do it again, it just looks different now.
We have all been in a position where we had to pivot on a dime and reevaluate what made the most sense at the moment to carry us through the show, event, or festival for our safety and the safety of everyone participating. These are not new notions for our industry and ourselves as professionals. Many of us have been full-time freelancers for years, the hustle, in and of itself is a dance. Being in the right place at the right time helped, but more so we are a group of do’ers that ‘make it happen’ and work incredibly long hours to create experiences that will live with us for life. These highly sought after skills are not to be slept on. This period of transition is not on our terms, we didn’t choose to opt-out of a gig, we no longer were afforded that opportunity to hustle and flow. It is “sink or swim” and no one is holding a raft for us. This time we have to build one with whatever materials we have around us. We have to become our own Rescue Squad.
Our biggest asset will be how confidently we can pivot with our very diverse skill set and apply it to fields of work that we never entertained before. There is great beauty in our tenacity and very few industries are called on to make something out of nothing. It takes gumption, and an inner drive to examine deeply and concoct what I like to call a ‘Skill Stew’. By reevaluating all of our strengths we have used onsite. Whether building a city out of a cow field or a VIP section on a pile of ant filled dirt, we need to apply those gifts to our next undertaking. Many of us are currently out of work, but naturally many of us also have a side hustle that has taken shape. “Working” for ourselves is part of the dance, there is room for real growth in this moment.
The first steps are the hardest, I get it, so start small if you must...but start. First, we have to let go. This is just as much an actionable item as the doing part of the work. I for one had a hard time with taking the first step and still do, mostly because it is not tangible and you likely will not always see the results immediately. Letting go of what we thought this would look like and embrace what it actually looks like. The sooner we walk away from the what if’s and look at the what now’s, the faster we can bounce back. There is grief in the mourning of what is gone, if you haven’t felt it yet, I implore you to let it happen. We are here now and we must keep going.
The next viable step is volunteering! It is a great way to give back, it is also a valuable way to measure and reevaluate your skills by applying them in another capacity. Your local food banks more than likely set up drive-thru food distribution areas weekly. It is a mini event! Many pop-up Covid centers are happening as well, several of which will pay you a day rate to help. The result feels very much like a box office, you have a pop-up tent, people’s info being collected, Wi-Fi needed. Set up and breakdown of tables, chairs and supplies, someone directing traffic to the appropriate spot. Usually, there is a box truck and at the least a pallet jack to make us feel at home again. Other great options to give back are homeless shelters, animal shelters, or local farms. The most important part is that you choose something you enjoy and do more of that. The more you give back the better you will feel, you will meet people in your community already serving a purpose AND get the creative juices flowing.
As event professionals, we wouldn’t walk away from a smoking generator or an unmanned security gate onsite. We would radio the issue to dispatch, contact site ops, or try and help remedy the situation to the best of our ability. The same fortitude applies to how we traverse our next career hurdles. Call in backup if you need, reach out to a former colleague or mentor, chances are they are as much in need of a good brainstorming session as you are. As we approach the next chapter we have the time to ask questions that we never stopped long enough or had the energy to reflect on. Where can I be the most useful with the skills I have? What did I want to finish or learn but never had the time to do? Those little callings that have been swirling around in the background are ready to take a spin in the real world. The more we focus on what we DO have, the more we will create what we need to feel satisfied moving forward. Never stop being curious.
Creativity is key. Everyone is creative in their own way, the work is in finding how your creativity shines through. Personally, I can’t draw anything legible but I can take apart a broken RV toilet and fix it (thanks YouTube!) Did I ever think I would be in a position that I had to? Definitely not. Do I want to be a plumber? No. The takeaway is the act of doing something hard fosters a level of creativity we as event professionals can appreciate and build momentum from. There are so many opportunities for our industry. New jobs are being created daily. There are companies that are still very busy, so much that they need people to help drive these projects to fruition. Project Managers are essentially producers, we manufacture results. Creating timelines, gathering assets, organizing information, reporting progress, and managing people. Every company no matter how well they are run can use someone to help them be more efficient. Research companies and industries then pitch yourself to someone at the top. LinkedIn can be an incredible resource to find people normally not in your line of sight.
Using our networks to our benefit is indispensable. We all have a long list of people we worked with on and offsite. Vendors, sponsors, rental companies across the country, artists, managers, and all the people in departments that worked closely with us on an event. Call them, check in on them and brainstorm with them. Shift the focus from what sucks to what we can do about it. This network of an amazingly incredible, kind, caring, and hardworking bunch will help throw light on some of the dark. I take solace in the thought that all the steps I am taking to get to the next expanse are the right way. I want to be able to have work for us all to do it together again in whatever capacity. Connecting the dots to stay relevant, relatable, and be reassured no one is doing this alone or well. We are just all doing our best.
Keep looking for the good, for every CODE RED weather evac there was always a rainbow and the storm always passed. I love this industry and the lifelong friendships forged from it. We are better together and we will create magic again. In the meantime keep going, keep learning and keep trying new things. This is not forever, but it is for now, do what you can to embrace the change. Better versions of ourselves are on the other side of this.