During the December COVID-19 surge in New York City, cast members for the Broadway production of “Wicked” were sick and unavailable. Needing the show to go on, producers called Carla Stickler, a software engineer living in Chicago, and asked her to fill a role she had not played on stage for seven years: the musical’s lead, Elphaba.
Stickler, who had been a full-time understudy for Elphaba and a fill-in for the show’s ensemble roles before making a career switch to coding, said yes and got on a plane. During her whirlwind stint as an emergency Elphaba, she got to revisit a chapter she had closed and perform on her own terms, without the stress of worrying about her career.
“I know this is the last time that I’m probably going to to this,” she remembered thinking. “I also know that I don’t want [the lead role] anymore, so I can just step into it and just enjoy every second of it for myself, instead of hoping that… the right person sees me in the audience, or hoping that director is like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so great, we’re going to make you [a lead] Elphaba.’”
After her weekend playing Elphaba, Stickler is back to software, and she has real-talk advice for anyone wondering if or how they, too, can move on from a job in which they’ve invested so much time and effort. Stickler is a member of Artists Who Code, an organization supporting creatives who want to make a career shift into tech.
She shared what led her to quit the Broadway career she worked so hard for, and how she successfully made a switch from one field to another.
What led you to leave your original career in show business?
It was a slow burn. I was full-time in the “Wicked” company. I had been doing the show nonstop for five and a half years and had no social life. I was spending more time at my physical therapist’s office and my head therapist’s office than I was with any of my friends. I was just deteriorating.
As an artist, I was having a hard time trying to figure out a reason to leave the show. There is this idea when people look in from the outside and they see you’re in a Broadway show, you’re understudying Elphaba, you’re living your dream. This is something so many theater people want, and you have it, and you are miserable. How do you justify leaving it in a way that people will understand and respect your decision instead of look down on you?
I ended up going to grad school to get a master’s in theater education at New York University. I was just like, “That’s respectable.” I love working with high school kids, I love teaching.
I started my first semester of grad school while I was still doing “Wicked,” and then I left full-time to finish the program. I booked this weird cruise-ship gig that fell into my lap [because] a friend of mine had gotten pregnant. It was half a week. Every week I would fly to the Bahamas and then I would go to grad school on Mondays and Tuesdays.
It was the first time I realized, “Maybe there’s a world where these two things can coexist, where it doesn’t have to be all one thing all the time.”
I went back and forth with teaching full-time. “Wicked” kept calling me back in. I was a vacation cover, so once or twice a year, I would come in for a week or two and fill in for the ensemble track.
Every time I would go back in, I’d be like, “Oh, maybe this time they’ll give me the thing I’ve always wanted,” which was to not be the understudy anymore. As much as I was trying to find a way to remove myself from performing full-time, I couldn’t seem to get that out of my head.
In the summer of 2018, I was just so tired of going back in and out of the show. I was feeling like the whole theater industry was very toxic. I still can’t get away from the feeling of “I’m never enough” that I think all actors feel at times in their career. Feeling all-around like crap all the time, and then trying to teach college students to go into this business, was really hard. How do I inspire kids into an industry where I see how brutal it can be even when you achieve success?
It’s the instability, the competition, the way artists aren’t treated as humans. If you want to feel like the worst person in the world, go audition for something. Half the time, people aren’t paying attention to you behind the table. Even when it goes well, you’re constantly being judged on what you look like, what you sound like, are you skinny enough, are you tall enough, is your hair the right color?
There is still a lot of toxicity in the way that the top-down structure works, the way that directors treat actors, the way that management treats actors. People get yelled at. I was joking with some friends the other day: Can you imagine if the theater had formal six-month [and] yearly reviews where you had to review your manager, review your co-workers and actively strive to be better at your jobs based on their feedback? That stuff doesn’t exist.
How did you make the big switch into tech?
Through 2018, I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” A friend of mine who was a songwriter showed up at a birthday party and was like, “I’m a software engineer now.” He started talking about it. It just grabbed me. It sounds interesting, it sounds creative, and it sounds so different than what I’m doing right now. It feels like it could be a possibility that can take me out of where I am in my life, out of this constant running on this hamster wheel of trying so hard and feeling like I’m kind of stuck.
Software engineering is one of those things that sounds too good to be true. I, a person who has never been technical in my life, can learn this thing and then get a job and have health insurance and weekends free and be with my loved ones and have a social life and go to weddings and birthdays? Sign me up. I did a [coding] boot camp in the summer of 2019.
I knew that I was doing the right thing because I went back into “Wicked” for two weeks while I was doing my coding boot camp. They were like, “We don’t have an Elphaba [cover] for two weeks. Can you just come and sit on the couch or be in the ensemble?” And I was like, “Sure.” I was there in the [theater] and it was the first time where I was like, “I don’t want anything from this, and that feels awesome. I’m not going to leave this feeling like I didn’t get the thing I wanted. I’m really happy with this other stuff I’m doing.” I’ve never felt that way performing.
“Having that little Elphaba living on your shoulder, it’s a little exhausting. She’s a big role, and that was part of the reason I got really burnt out.”
– Carla Stickler
The job that I’m in right now, I started last summer. I worked for the first year of the pandemic at a tech company in a customer success role because I started my job search right at the start of the pandemic, and I couldn’t get interviews for software engineering.
It wasn’t the right job for me, but it did allow me and my husband to buy a house in Chicago and move out of New York, and allowed me space to think about what I wanted to do. And then I applied for the job I’m at now last summer, and moved into my software engineering role.
How do you recommend people talk about their arts background in job interviews for a totally different field?
All the skills that you have are transferrable. A lot of people, they have trouble connecting the dots of “Well, what do I do with this 10-15 year career in the arts?”
It’s important. It’s what makes you a great candidate. Obviously, don’t spend the entire time talking about it in your interviews. Maybe you want to let them know you’re ready to commit to a full-time job. I think there’s something to really owning the skills you learned as an artist and recognizing they do translate. I’m really good at communicating; I’m really good at pairing with my fellow engineers about code. My attention to detail is really specific and strong. You can’t be an actor without getting in there and tearing apart a script and trying to figure out the ins and outs of a person. It’s the same thing with coding, but instead of a person, I’m tearing apart code, and trying to interpret it.
There are ways to justify the skills that you have in this new field and translate them. They’re all worthy skills. Just because they were in a different field doesn’t mean you didn’t learn anything, doesn’t mean you are starting from scratch.
What’s cool about software engineering is that it’s a skill anybody can lean. I have people being like, “Do I need to know math?” And I’m like, “No.” There are all sorts of different sides to being a software engineer, and some might be more technical. You don’t have to be an algorithm genius to be a good software engineer.
What doubts did you have about making a career switch that you realize now aren’t true?
We have this narrative around being in the arts where you have to commit 100% to being an artist. There is no space for anything else. “How committed can you possibly be to your art form and your craft if you aren’t giving your entire being to it?” We tend to then view people who didn’t commit as hard as failures: “It’s your fault if you didn’t make it, because you didn’t work hard enough.”
I felt that for a long time. I think a lot of artists feel that.
It makes me really sad, the narrative we tell children who want to go into the arts. We limit their choices so much. We are naturally interested in a lot of things, we’re curious people. When you tell people you can only go into the arts if you can’t imagine doing anything else ― why would we tell anyone that? I can imagine myself doing a million things, because I’m a creative person. We then limit their ability to imagine themselves in anything outside of this very strict path to being an artist.
Did you experience self-doubt when you got a job in an entirely new field?
Oh, absolutely. Talk about imposter syndrome to the max, especially as a woman in tech, just being surrounded by a lot of people who are not like me. I probably talk the most in any of the meetings that I’m in, because I’m a really social person.
I still don’t feel like I fit in, but I also feel like I should be where I am. I want people, and especially women who want to get into tech, to see that people like me do exist in those spaces. We need to get more of us in there.
I want women to see that they can be there, and they are justified to be there, no matter how they feel. I have days where I’m like, “Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing,” but that does not mean that I shouldn’t be there.
Are you still on call to play Elphaba?
I think unless it had been a crazy emergency like it was, [then no]. I’m not really part of their community at the moment, and I’m totally fine with that.
I was a full-time understudy, and I had been covering that role for five and a half years straight. Having that little Elphaba living on your shoulder, it’s a little exhausting. She’s a big role, and that was part of the reason I got really burnt out. Because I covered her full-time for five and a half years and I would never know when I had to go on.
The responsibility of that is exhausting. You can’t live your life. I was so terrified on nights where I didn’t get a full eight, nine hours of sleep, because I was like, “Oh God, this is the day they are going to call me.” Or whenever my friends would be in town and they’d want to go get a drink and I would have had a glass of wine, and I was like, “Oh God, what if I have to sing tomorrow?”
Living your life a little bit in fear that you’re going to have the play the hardest role on Broadway, you always have to be 100% present and focused when you’re on as an understudy, because it’s not a thing you do every night.
What would you want creatives who are weighing a big career switch to know? What do you wish you had known?
Your path doesn’t have to be linear. The only person who has created these rules is really yourself. There is space to explore other parts of yourself.
First and foremost, do what makes you feel good. A lot of times, artists forget that. They get so focused on the end goal, they’re willing to put aside their own happiness and feelings of life satisfaction for their craft, and then they end up being miserable people.
At the end of the day, nobody else is thinking about you as much as you are thinking about you. Nobody else is living your life. If that means taking a step away, do that.
Some of the most interesting performers and artists and actors, they do other things. They maybe got into it later in life. The reason they are good at it is because they bring in a very new and fresh perspective. Why pigeonhole yourself to just being one thing? The other things are going to make you more interesting and, in turn, make you a better artist.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.