As a young man Nelson Lee took a job at a monolithic computer company, one of the two most famous ones, and one that shall remain nameless for the purposes of this article. Lee spent his days in a warren of cubicles he referred to as veal-fattening pens. Thoughts of being an actor were far away.
“I started in customer support. You are all in these cubicles, with these headsets. It was awful. You come in to work and you have 20 people in a queue on your phone and you have to take a deep breath and start,” said Lee, one of the performers in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of The Consultant, running through February 9.
He spent a few years moving up the corporate ladder at the company. It wasn’t hard, he said. So many people did just the bare minimum to skate by that he did just a little bit more and began to stand out. “It was the small little things that make you happy, like your nameplate, your business cards. All these things that added legitimacy to this terrible thing that you were doing. It was funny, the pleasure you took in small victories even though it wasn’t the thing you loved or cared about at all,” he recalled.
All of this built up to a single incident that made Lee alter his life course towards a career as an actor. “I was doing business sales. I was out with these old businessmen and I was getting dollars to hand to them at a strip club. I was a kid and I thought, this cannot be my life. I got a glimpse of my future and it terrified me, so I quit,” Lee recalled.
A good amount of time was spent in The Consultant rehearsals talking about the world of work – the sustenance jobs actors take between acting gigs, the good ones, the bad ones, and everything in between. “I never thought I would be sitting here, acting in something that rekindled those memories,” he said. “It’s been thrilling and frightening at the same time. There is a lot of great comedy going on that’s very subdued and deadpan. It’s the weight of these characters and what is going on in their lives that allows you to have that kind of comedy then pay off in the end with some heavy drama. For that to work you have to care about the characters.”
He lived in New York City at the time of the financial crisis and remembers the feeling coursing through the city, one of palpable concern. “As artists we don’t have the same kind of impending doom that you feel in an office environment, but it does trickle down into what we do. It was palpable. You could feel it everywhere and it felt like people who never had to worry about anything now were really wondering what they paid into, and watching what they paid into disappear, overnight almost. It was real fear. It was a frightening time and we never really recovered. We just got more used to it,” Lee said.
A lot of the talk in rehearsal turned towards what responsibilities individuals have to one another. Oftentimes what we think a person needs help with isn’t what they need at all. “I hope audiences get the human story being told here. Even with all of the comedy, the play is about people trying to help each other. And it’s about being cognizant of people around you,” Lee said.
– Story by Steve Scarpa, Video by Peter Chenot