Maggie L. Rogers: As someone who works in a more traditionally structured 9-5 job, what has been your biggest takeaway from working on a play that takes the ‘American Dream’ to task?
Steven Sterne: I love the way the playwright brings to life the love-laden relationships among the coworkers in the play. I have felt that acutely during the last two years, when the workforce at my company (the company I work for) has been reduced and we have clung to each other through some dark times.
It’s especially interesting in the midst of the Great Resignation, when some workers have reevaluated their working conditions and decided to stay away. It’s never been so hard to hire people. Luckily, we are doing a good job retaining our employees, but it’s nearly impossible to hire right now. Employees are the heart of a company. The shortage of employees is an existential crisis.
MLR: Is it fair to say that the “forced fun” atmosphere of work culture can wear on you?
SS: It would wear on me if I participated in it. My mom used to find it odd when people would say to her, “Have a nice day!” She would stare at them and say, “I’m sorry, I have other plans” in a complete deadpan. I have never accepted the idea that we have to be cheerful. There is fun to be had at work if you let it happen organically, and accept that some workdays are not fun. I wonder if some of the “fun” rituals that the characters in Tin Cat Shoes explore arose organically, or if the manager (Owner?) Rex imposed them.
MLR: Have you ever bonded with fellow workers because of a bad working environment? Tell us that story.
SS: I worked in a small, family run tobacco shop in Oregon in 1984 and 1985. The couple (let’s call them Blue and Letty) who owned and operated the shop were nice enough people most of the time, but they had an extremely volatile relationship with one another. Also, the store was full of guns. In addition to pipes and cigars and tobacco, Blue had a side business selling rifle mounts and he loved guns. There were guns everywhere. I would open a cabinet to get a bag of tobacco so I could make a blend, and come face-to-face with a semiautomatic weapon that had not been there the day before. It was unsettling. On the days that the two of them were screaming at each other, the rest of us (just two of us most days, three on the weekend) would silently strategize how we would get away if the guns came out. Lots of eye contact, shifting toward doors, that sort of thing.
Blue and Letty did not shoot each other, but about 6 years after I moved away, the store was robbed and the guns were stolen. Blue and Letty closed the shop. It’s not a great time to be a tobacconist, so that is just as well.
MLR: Has working in corporate America shaped the way you interact with society?
SS: Working in sales and customer service has shaped how I interact with other service providers. I try to treat waitstaff, salespeople, cashiers, delivery drivers, every front line service provider with respect, empathy and compassion. These jobs are exhausting.
MLR: Has this “work is your life” cutthroat workforce ideology ever surprisingly uplifted you?
SS: Winning feels good. It’s thrilling and exciting to win a bid, or to get an email talking about what a wonderful job one of my coworkers has done. Those events create genuine moments of joy and fun at work.
MLR: Any last thoughts?
SS: Small businesses like Tin Cat Shoes (and like every company that has ever employed me) have a unique place in Corporate America. We are living the David vs Goliath story, and people in family owned businesses use the motif of the little guy outmaneuvering the colossus over and over again to motivate ourselves and to add meaning to our workday. That’s why it is joyful and meaningful to win a bid; we have to beat our competitors, the ones with “major corporate backing,” through our own systems and cleverness and hard work.