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The Video Designer who just wants to take a break

25-year-old Davonte Johnson has had a career many would envy for someone so young. But he’s made a change that reflects a realism about the possibility of actual success in Chicago for artists, the sacrifices involved in doing what you love, and what it means to step away.

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Davonte Johnson in his Uptown apartment.

Davonte Johnson in his Uptown apartment.

WBEZ/Kate Dries

Davonte Johnson in his Uptown apartment. (WBEZ/Kate Dries)

I met with Davonte Johnson twice within a span of five months. If you had asked me in the course of working on this project if he would be deviating much from his path of video design domination in the Chicago theater scene, I would have most assuredly said no, especially given the increasing criticial praise he’s received for his work. But 25-year-old Johnson’s change in career path within less than half a year, in a field that most people don’t even know exists, reflects a realism about the possibility of actual success in Chicago for artists, the sacrifices involved in doing what you love, and what it means to step away.

What do you do, really?

I am in the field of video design for theater, which is a very kind of new thing that’s coming about. I got involved with it because of filmmaking in college. And the only reason I got involved in filmmaking in college was because I was still involved in and enjoyed theater.

… Throughout college I also worked at a broadcast station, I was a student assistant there for PBS. And so I have a huge background in how to do multiple-camera setups and live video shooting.

I came under the idea that I was just going to get a job in broadcasting … I had some leads on some jobs and stuff. I pursued those for about two months straight, and basically the first month here, which was about two years ago this month, that’s all I did: I went out there and I went to every broadcast station and every production company I could, just trying to see if I could get a job there. And it didn’t happen. And not only that, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. I guess that just wasn’t what was supposed to happen.

For me, to be involved in the film industry, you either: A) Are a part of this kind-of band where you make your own short films and then you just kind of show them off but you don’t really have a) an audience and b) a means of distribution. Or B) You attach yourself to some studio and you work as a PA until maybe you go up that ladder. The thing is, in either of those cases, you’re not really telling the full story of who you are and what you’re trying to do, which is what I did a lot in college. But it wasn’t commercially viable …. Being here allows me the opportunity to tell those kinds of stories in a larger way that is connected to me.

Why Chicago?
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio…so technically this is like my first big move ever.

There was just a bigger opportunity – in my mind – to come to Chicago rather than New York because I think New York … even though there’s a lot more money there, it’s very structured … I think here it’s a little more relaxed and you just have a lot more opportunity to engage with other artists … Out of my class I was one of the few people who came to Chicago.

I know a lot of artists who take these part-time jobs in lieu of the fact that they would get money from the artistic stuff that they do. For me … I work at the Museum of Science and Industry. And I work for a company called Photogenic, and they have very flexible hours and stuff like that … Sometimes I’ll work really heavy there one week and then the next week not so many tourists will come in so they won’t schedule so many people. And in that period of time I have to find something else that will kind of make up all of that stuff …

My day-to-day life is kind of like a lens into how I know for a fact that I can’t support myself either way right now. I can’t just take on a full-time job, mainly because I can’t really find a full-time job right now.

[When I first moved here] I had applied to a couple different theater jobs …. And there was one, it was a video assistant job and I applied to that … And then I also applied to intern at this theater company called Collaboraction … and was just like ‘Peace out, Chicago, thanks a lot for not doing anything for me.’ And I lost all this money and it was just like, well this is not working out. (Then) it turned out I got the video assistant job and I got the internship at Collaboraction. Those two things basically allowed me to work in Chicago as an artist. Because if I hadn’t done either of those things, I probably wouldn’t be here and I probably wouldn’t have the connections that I do now.

Those jobs didn’t pay. But they got me jobs that did pay.

Five months after I first met with Johnson, we reconnected and he told me he was leaving Chicago.

What will be coming up for me which is leaving the city and going to Ohio. I don’t know … whether I’ll enjoy it or not. It’s with Ohio State, and it’s a contracted job with the Department of Defense, and it’s not long term, which is great. It’s actually a videography position, that I came up in college doing, which was working for broadcast stations.

It’s between one and two years. It’s in Columbus. It’s definitely cheaper because it’s Columbus; you have a two bedroom that’s like $500 that’s close to downtown. The biggest thing is student loans.

Why can’t I just take a step back and do a job that requires a lot from me but will pay me correctly?

I kind of looked at it and I was like, you know I’m 25 years old and if I were to take a break, I could always come back. That’s a very scary thing and I know … that a lot of people, when they say that, don’t necessarily get back into it.

I’m sure somehow I will be just as busy as I am right now. The point is that I’ll have a job which will sustain me. I think the biggest thing is that I wish I could have had an opportunity to do that here. But I do know that finding that kind of job where it’s kind of peaceful outside of the job, where it’s 9-to-5 but still video, is extremely hard to find here. And from the people that I know, it takes your whole life. And if that’s what you want, that’s fantastic. But if it’s not, it kind of eats away at you.

When it came down to me having to be at the theater at 12 o’clock, and then leaving at like 2 a.m., only to be back there at 12 o’clock and then leaving at 2 a.m. Like that over and over and over thing again, it’s like you don’t even have time for yourself … It’s fine if I didn’t have to worry about the next thing coming up after this is over. … I can’t go from that to another thing the next week, to another thing the next week, and at the same time, say to myself that I’m being an artist anymore.

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