Our interview includes a game of Simon Says and an improv out of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Rating: NNNNN
Hopping on one leg, I look around the room at the 30-plus other individuals engaging in what I can only describe as the most bizarre job interview I have ever attended. I desperately resist the temptation to gather my belongings and walk out the door, convinced in my ignorance that things couldn't possibly get more humiliating. I'm wrong.
The Steam Whistle executives conducting this "interview" call themselves the "Good Beer Folks," but, like most industry taglines, the image has little to do with reality.
The chain of events that's brought me to Steam Whistle started, fittingly, in my favourite pub, the House on Parliament. Some friends and I were playing "best/worst jobs ever worked" while I emptied what little remained of my bank account. We agreed unanimously that a job at a brewery would be hard to beat. Later that week I learned from a friend that Steam Whistle Brewery was hiring, so on a lark I decided to give it a shot.
And that's how I find myself downtown playing Simon Says with a group of job seekers, all vying to fulfill similar dreams of making a living with alcohol.
I arrive shortly before 6 in the evening at the newly refurbished Roundhouse in downtown Toronto. The Good Beer Folks have done a wonderful job restoring this historic structure, for which they deserve nothing but the highest praise. Already, a small group of job seekers have assembled, some of whom are clamouring for free samples being dispensed from the chic stainless steel bar. I dutifully fill out my application form, attach a copy of my resumé and wait for something to happen.
We are soon herded into a large room and directed to sit in in one of the chairs in a large pre-arranged semicircle. The acoustics are terrible, but over the echoes I gather that this is to be more of an audition than an interview.
After the above-mentioned game of Simon Says, the execs pair us with the person to our right. We're to learn some interesting facts about this individual and present them to the rest of room. Fair enough, I think; I can see how memorizing facts would be useful in giving tours of the facilities or, for that matter, any retail situation.
I am paired with Jason, originally from Newfoundland, a music promoter and indie record-label owner looking for a steady income. Jason and I do reasonably well in terms of condensing our lives into easily digestible sound bites, though it's clear from the reactions of the executives that they're looking for the "funny" people rather than those who can actually enunciate what they are saying.
Next, we're divided into groups of five or six, each of which steps to the front in order to carry out a Drew Careyesque Whose Line Is It Anyway? routine. A subject is picked from the crowd at random, around whom the group must construct a narrative, each of us contributing a few words at a time. Needless to say, since we lack even a modicum of improv skills, these are feeble, painfully boring narratives. I stumble through the exercise without distinguishing myself, begging for sweet relief, for an end to this torment.
But no, there's more. For the final round we are commanded to make a commercial of approximately three minutes. In our group, a gifted comic instinctively takes the lead, much to the relief, it seems, of everyone else. He has keyed into Steam Whistle's image and suggests an approach that parodies 50s television advertising.
Quite cunningly, he gives himself the lead role, relegating the rest of us to mute parts. We're a smash success, clearly amusing the Steam Whistle execs. This man is in, I think to myself. I perform passably, but it's clear to the hovering employers who the ringleader is.
Mercifully, this is the last event. We all give ourselves a big hand and retire to drink free beer.
What I find so ironic about the whole "fiasco" (as it's now called in my household), is that Steam Whistle's entire image is based on a more honest, genuine age of 50s authenticity. The semiotics of the brand are that these are genuine folk: the thicker glass bottles, replicas of beer packaging of yore; the whistle that signals "the reward at the end of your day." Even their new Roundhouse location is a throwback to this time.
And, to be sure, I can identify with the product: Steam Whistle is truly the best Pilsner west of Plseò, Czech Republic, home of the Pilsner masters. That said, I cannot see the Czechs, a people practical and genuine to the point of rudeness, hiring anybody in this embarrassing manner. Thus, despite Steam Whistle's marketing hyperbole, it's hard to escape the feeling that the folks down at the Roundhouse are looking for plastic people -- everyone you hated in high school.
I wonder if I'm the only person here feeling like I've just been put on an episode of Candid Camera, perhaps the "what people these days will do for a job" episode. I don't want to bad-mouth the company openly, for fear of "plants" who've apparently been included in previous hiring escapades.
Evidently, I am enough of a hypocrite to take any job they might offer me. At the bar I start chatting with an older guy (in Steam Whistle-speak anybody over 35) who has worked for the UN, at the British Embassy and other impressive positions. He seems relatively at ease with the theatrical wringer through which he's just been put. Jason is a little more ambivalent, but he's more concerned about the possibility that his illegally parked car will be towed.
Determined to obtain some form of compensation for my ordeal, I stay until there are just four men left at the bar chatting up the attractive exec pouring beer. Silently, I down the last drops, grab my stuff and head out, feeling as if I've wasted three hours of my life. I walk to the subway, wondering why my reaction is so at odds with everyone else's and why I didn't abandon the whole debacle sooner.
On my way over the skyway, a man begs for money to get on the subway. I lie that I have no change, but he calls my bluff, accusing me point blank. "Come on, Ian, I can hear change in your pocket, man." In my discombobulated state, I hand him $2, baffled about how he knows my name, only to look down and find that my name tag is still stuck to my shirt.
I arrive home to the expectant stares of the compassionate couple currently sheltering me from the outside world. They gather from the look on my face that things did not go well, and kindly drink a couple of gin and tonics with me so I can vent. They're sympathetic, but I find that even so I cannot quite articulate why I feel so offended. Perhaps, I'm forced to admit, I take myself just a tad too seriously.
I want to like this brand. The Roundhouse regularly plays host to a variety of artistic and cultural events, a boon to the city of Toronto, and I am not suggesting you stop drinking this excellent beer. But I ask the people at Steam Whistle doing the hiring: Has it come to this? Is the packaging more important than the product? And even if this is the case with beer, it can hardly be true with people.