7 p.m. Union Pub on Capitol Hill
VanHoozer pulls up to the bar, but remembers another beer is on special tonight. He keeps driving.
VanHoozer began his involvement with PBR with a maneuver you probably won’t find in the beer’s playbook: He product-placed it.
In 2007, he directed the Pabst and Popcorn Hour’s adaptation of the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, a Capital Fringe staging of the Marlowe play involving, well, free beer. It was a hit. Pabst provided about 40 cases, and helped VanHoozer out with two subsequent theater pieces. In 2009, VanHoozer gave Pabst’s area sales representative a tour of the National Archives, where VanHoozer was working in grants and research. The sales rep asked VanHoozer for a list of other artists and groups to work with, which VanHoozer provided. Then he asked him: “How’d you like to get paid to do this?”
VanHoozer had moved to D.C. in 2003, two years after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, and worked in development for three years at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. He assistant-directed plays in D.C. theaters and made more theater at the scene’s margins. At one point, he applied to graduate programs in theater directing, but didn’t get in. He’s big, with a kind face and a scruffy, light-colored beard. When I tell him I drink PBR, he says “thank you.”
The work isn’t easy. Each week, he has to visit 10 to 15 bars. He puts on events and has to bring in “non buys”—venues that don’t already carry PBR. On the Friday night I spend with him, he’s been going since 8 a.m. Between 6 p.m. and midnight, he hits six venues, a light schedule for him. He’ll pull similar hours tomorrow, the date of the Artisphere party.
When VanHoozer is on, he’s on. He’s as comfortable with fratty Capital Hill denizens as he is with keyed-up DJs. He’s on intimate terms with most of the bartenders and managers and programming directors he visits. Some of them he hugs. He understands relationships, and they shape the contours of his evenings. Some bar proprietors expect him to drink with them, so he has to bring a designated driver and leave open a large window of time.
On duty, VanHoozer can’t drink any beer but PBR. Over the course of a long evening he knocks back four, nursing two of them. Conversation frequently returns to D.C.’s arts landscape, and not just the part he pumps with booze. He thinks D.C. theater is overinstitutionalized. He thinks individual artists have too tough a time. He says he sometimes finds the city’s alternative culture elusive and decentralized, even though he’s in many ways at the center of it. There are exceptions, but for the most part he hates working with DJs. “Never have I met a subset of artists so self-involved,” he says.
The work is rewarding (the warm greetings when he enters a bar, the sense of community, occasional perks like comped food) and draining: Sometimes after interacting with bar-hoppers and proprietors for an evening, he says, all he’ll want is a bourbon. On his off-hours, he avoids bars. “When someone wants to meet up, it’s either wine or coffee,” he says. Or if it’s beer, it’s beer on VanHoozer’s porch. “People will say it’s a dream job,” he says. “And I’ll ask: Can you imaging eating chocolate cake every day?”
Whether or not VanHoozer’s is a dream job, it’s certainly a high-calorie one. He says he’s put on 10-15 pounds since he started it a year and a half ago. For a while, he limited himself to four beers a week and still drinks very little on nights out. He only eats meat he cooks himself.
Over Pabsts and pizza at Comet Ping Pong in Chevy Chase, the conversation turns to books. Recently he’s been reading John Williams (Butcher’s Crossing, specifically, about a Harvard drop-out who in the 1870s goes soul-searching out west) and Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. He begins explaining the book’s central dichotomy, between knowledge workers and soul workers. “I guess I’m sort of in-between,” he says.
These days, he doesn’t have much time for his own art, but he’s working on a salon performance he’ll stage in his living room. It has three parts, and he asks me not to reveal the author because he’s not paying for the rights to the work. “I’m leaving PBR out of the equation for once,” he says. “It doesn’t fit.”