Levi Weinhagen has the ultimate hyphenated career: writer-producer-performer-podcaster-educator-editor-writer-nonprofit administrator.
Weinhagenâ€™s first loveâ€”and the foundation for all the restâ€”was improvisation. By the time he discovered improv, heâ€™d already tried and abandoned chef school and work as a certified personal trainer. â€œImprovisation is my grounding about how to do any kind of work with people,â€ he said. â€œWhat happens when people come together and try to do something bigger than themselves? Thatâ€™s the question Iâ€™ve been trying to answer for the past seventeen or eighteen years.â€
Weinhagen started taking classes at the Brave New Workshop when he was 19. â€œI did definitely think that would literally be my career. I was interning, taking classes, working in the box office at night, serving drinks and selling tickets. I think I locked into that for a couple of years. Inevitably, you have to find ways to make an income: Temp jobs, retail jobs, on-camera acting jobs, any other weird random things.â€
Among those â€œweird, random thingsâ€ was a gig wearing a sandwich board and pacing the sidewalk. Thanks to his background in improv, which teaches that the right answer to any situation is â€œYes, and,â€ Weinhagen said, â€œI totally told myself, â€˜what a creative exercise!â€™â€
Ultimately, though, the improv career â€œdidnâ€™t fill me up. Thereâ€™s no real control. In most of those jobs youâ€™re asking people for the opportunity to do what matters to you. I found people who realized we could make up our own stuff. The finances were differentâ€”we had to put up some money and risk not making money. I still perform pretty regularly but I donâ€™t think of myself as an actor and I donâ€™t think of myself as having failed as an actor. Itâ€™s just a new way of doing what I care about,â€ he said.
However, Weinhagen’s hyphenated career never strays far from the principles of improv. â€œYouâ€™re not just saying yes to an idea. You have to find ways to build on it. You grab onto it and run with itâ€”usually with other people. Itâ€™s a perfect way to do things: â€˜Oohâ€”that thing you just said. What could we do with it?â€™â€
In short, Weinhagen said, â€œI say â€˜yesâ€™ to a lot of stuff.â€
Heâ€™s a co-founder of the Comedy Suitcase, which produces scripted shows for audiences of all agesâ€”although the scripts are based on lots of improv and â€œIn the shows, weâ€™re fairly loose so it continues to have the feeling of improvisation.â€
In 2006, he started listening to podcasts, and in 2012 he began producing his own podcast, â€œThe Pratfalls of Parenting.â€ The podcast consists of interviews with artists who are also parents, talking about â€œwhere those things intersected.â€ It turned out to be a great way to build a network, Weinhagen said. â€œPeople started listening to it and reaching out to me. I made a little bit of money but I got a ton of new opportunities.â€
Those included producing content for American Public Media and the Walker Art Center. â€œIâ€™ve gotten chances to edit magazines and do other things. People said, â€˜Youâ€™re really good at getting stories out of people. Can we hire you to put together stories for us?â€™â€ His new podcast, Not About You, is about â€œidentity and social justice.â€
Weinhagen is also on the COMPAS teaching artist roster, teaching improv and joke-writing. â€œItâ€™s about education standards and confidence-building, but Iâ€™m also teaching the tools of comedy,â€ he said.
These days, Weinhagen has a clearer view of what he should say yes to. â€œWhen I â€˜m deciding to take on a project, I am trying not just to better understand people, but also to create ways for people to understand each other. Thatâ€™s an acceptable career path. I do that in communication work with foundations, making theater, podcasts, with students in classrooms. Mostly I want it to not be about paying attention to me but learning about each other.â€
What are the advantages of a hyphenated career?
Thereâ€™s no job stability anymore. Thatâ€™s throwing a lot of people off. Weâ€™re already used to that. People who do the hyphenated life think, â€œwhy would I want everything in one place?â€
What are the disadvantages of a hyphenated career?
Health insurance. Financial stability. What keeps a lot of other people from making their own things is safety around health. Thatâ€™s very real and itâ€™s never not stressful.
Also, youâ€™re never off the clock. It can be really challenging to have your own personal life. I do a lot of things that I want to do, and I donâ€™t want to be off the clock.
People find a lot of social relationships through the workplace. Thatâ€™s different if you arenâ€™t consistently working with one client. You have to make a more concerted efforts to have real friendships. Iâ€™m lucky that I do enough collaborative projects with the same group of people.
How would someone know whether a hyphenated career is right for them?
One thing that maybe speaks sideways to that question: We need to find ways to get from the question of â€œam I going to do this thing?â€ to â€œhow am I going to do this thing?â€ We spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether, and instead we can just make a plan for how itâ€™s all going to fit together. Itâ€™s like a capsule wardrobe, where you reduce the number of choices. If you can eliminate some questions, itâ€™s going to help a lot.
See if thereâ€™s a true line to what youâ€™re doing. Look back just a little way and see whatâ€™s the path Iâ€™ve been creating. That will help making decisionsâ€”â€œI tend to walk this kind of way,â€ or â€œI want to change the path.â€ Donâ€™t feel powerless to make those changes. We still have agency.