Before he created QLab, one of the most widespread and highly praised pieces of theatrical software out there, Christopher Ashworth was an actor who dreamed of a full-time career on stage. But as he explained to CAR, his creative roots run deep in both the technology and theatrical worlds, and his current career is simply the latest (but by no means the last) manifestation of his artistic interests.—CAR Theater Researcher Dan Granata
Actor to computer programmer is a fairly abrupt change in direction. What prompted you to make the switch? How has one career influenced the other?
I have a BA in Computer Science and Theatre Arts and have had both interests for a long time. If I was forced to draw a line in the sand separating my career into two parts, it wouldn't be between theater and computers. It would be the day I quit my day job to begin working for my own company full-time. I'd separate it into pre-ownership and post-ownership.
I say this because looking back at my goals in college, immediately after college, and then in graduate school, I don't remember the goals themselves being fundamentally different than they are now. The specifics have changed a bit. The earlier you are in life, the more you model your dreams on your heroes, because you have nothing else to go by. So early on I'd envision myself joining up with some amazing theater company, like Actors Theatre of Louisville, or the SITI company, or Theatre de la Jeune Lune, or something like that. But the underlying desire was to make something beautiful, and that never changed. The goal didn't change, but the tactics changed all the time. When I went from the ATL Apprentice company to graduate school in computers, that was about trying to find a handhold. At that stage everyone is flailing about, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it, and just logistically speaking, it wasn't going to happen by going to New York and hoping to get an agent and then hoping to be in a show. That felt like just about the least efficient way of doing anything and just about the most painful and scary.
The biggest change I see in myself is therefore not about "changing" from acting to computers. Because in my mind that has never happened. Those things coexist, and they're both part of me, and I spend time doing both. Plus, they're not even really the point either, they're just modes by which I happen to have some facility to make stuff.
The biggest change that was really a change was about ownership and freedom. It was a change in mindset. The day I stopped working for someone else—April 7, 2008—was the day that transformed my whole world. My friend Jesse Kriss (who is now my teammate at Figure 53) sent me an "I AM MY OWN THE MAN" T-shirt he had custom ordered for me. I wore it that day like it was my birthday crown.
Why did you found Figure 53? How does your artistic bent inform how you work, who you work with, and what you work towards?
I founded Figure 53 because I needed a separate bank account. Initially it was just something I needed to keep my taxes straight. Now I see it in broader terms—as a creative, even artistic, adventure. It has become base camp in the creative safari.
These days, the categories of "artistic" and "business" and "engineering" seem less and less distinct to me. Art can be held accountable, engineering can be beautiful, and creative efforts in all three are an exercise in risk, vision, taste, and skill.
About the only time I see a successful entrepreneur and think they're not an artist is if they seem to be motivated primarily by money. Money is useful as a metric, and it's important, but there's no point to it in itself. Some people act like it is the point. Sometimes they're very successful. But I wouldn't say they're artists. They've abstracted the humanity from their work, and there's no room left for artistic creativity when you pull out the humanity.
Looking down the road, in what directions do you hope to steer your company and your practice? Specific clients? Specific ways of working? A certain schedule?
I recently made an offer to a guy who will become the sixth full-time employee of Figure 53. Before I officially asked him to join us, we were having lunch, and he asked me something like "So what is the overall goal of Figure 53?" For a couple of seconds I didn't know how to respond. My one-sentence description of Figure 53 is usually that "we make tools for artists." That's true. And right now, it's mostly aimed at theater artists. I think we'll always be an artist-focused company. Those are the customers we feel most passionate about serving. But "tools for artists" isn't a perfectly complete description. Fundamentally, I think everyone at Figure 53 just wants to make beautiful things. We want to build stuff, to create things we love. Because of our personal interests and the community that knows us, it makes sense for us to build things for artists, but that doesn't mean we can't try making other things too. We have at least one product in development right now which is not specifically targeted at artists at all.
In terms of the way we work, and how we schedule our time, right now it's very loose. There are no set work hours, no set schedule, no concept of "building up vacation days" or counting up "sick days." We focus on "Is stuff getting done?" If so, awesome. If not, what do we need to adjust? We tend to work roughly normal hours, but some people get up early, some stay up late, and there's no harm in taking your family to the zoo on a weekday if that's what you want to do.
Christopher Ashworth founded Figure 53 in 2006. He grew up in Kentucky, went to school in Minnesota, went to more school in North Carolina, and now has great fun making software, theater, and a company in Baltimore.