Sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday that I was an eager college graduate with wide eyes ready to take on the big world of professional theatre. Posing at the football stadium with maroon cap and gown and a diploma for numerous photos, I was equal parts nervous, excited, and eager to jump into the numerous possibilities before me. Enthusiastic as I left Grand Junction, Colorado, I still hesitated and often thought, “Will I make it? Will I work?” I had a couple of summer internships under my belt, but it wasn’t guaranteed employment as I waited on acceptance or rejection from other fellowships and opportunities. Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I find there’s still plenty I’m learning but wish I had known before I left the football stadium with uncertainty. I’m no expert on theatre, but when I see a young, anxious, and eager intern at work, I wish I could provide them with the wisdom I now have about working in theatre.
Realize that work in theatre is “Feast or Famine.” You may have been busy running productions, starring in your school’s latest musical, and constructing costume or set pieces for the next show at your college, but this will not be the case starting out professionally. Work is always sporadic and you never know what will happen from year to year. Numerous times I’ve taken a job and then been offered three other opportunities from other companies over the next few days or weeks. Other times I’ve sent out resumes and cover letters to every theatre in town I can find and receive no reply. Even when I’ve had opportunities, it took time for employers to trust me with projects and skills I had learned in college. Building trust takes time, which is why I recommend staying focused and diligent and learning from mistakes. In the meantime, find ways to prepare yourself for a very unstable financial future. Which brings me to my next point . . .
Know how to file certain financial forms. Understand and learn how unemployment works so you can file for it in between jobs. Every state is different, so find out before your temporary theatre gig ends and you don’t know when the next one will be. Also know how forms like 1099s work and keep track of checks for independent contract work so you’re not stuck or lost when you file taxes at the end of the year. When it comes to retirement you may not always be offered it through work, so set up a ROTH IRA if you qualify. Deposit money in it throughout the year so that you can claim it on your taxes as a Retirement Savings Contribution Credit if you are an individual who makes less than around $28,000 a year (and believe me, you most likely will be). This is helpful so you can get some money back for independently putting money away when your employer doesn’t provide an IRA.
Speaking of retirement, understand that you may not make money until you retire. A few actors I’ve dressed admit that between Equity Pension and Social Security, they’re finally making a living wage. I’m sure this also depends on if/when you join Actor’s Equity Association and how long you work. I cannot speak for those in IATSE since I am not Union, but I would imagine there are some similarities. So, realize that you have to love and be passionate about this line of work, because making money will never be a guarantee.
You will have to work multiple jobs to “make it.” Working hard and working multiple jobs was no surprise to me. As a junior and senior at Colorado Mesa University (formerly Mesa State College), I worked two retail jobs in addition to my work backstage for the theatre department. My first couple of years in Denver, I worked at Banana Republic, Little Sisters of the Poor (as a seamstress for the nuns who ran the nursing home), and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company without benefits and for a very small living wage. I eventually left my retail and sewing job to work at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities during the day and continued my evening work at the Denver Center. My work colleagues take on multiple gigs, even if they are in the IATSE union in New York City, including work at bridal stores in alterations, fabric and craft stores, and random sewing jobs from Craigslist. Working for theatre can be a Love-Hate relationship: sometimes you get sick of it and want to leave, but you come back for the job offers because communicating what you do to other industries is incredibly difficult.
Before you graduate, take other classes that can help you apply your theatre training to other fields. By taking business and marketing classes and having an understanding of the backstage world, you might be appealing to a theatre company looking for someone in Marketing, Advertising, or Development who understand what it’s like to work as an actor or stagehand. You may also decide one day to start your own company, whether its theatre or a business designing and selling wedding gowns after you’ve left your job as a stitcher in the costume shop, so the more background you have in business the better off you are. Even classes like math, science, and history will help you see connections to how important collaboration is and how the actions you make affect others. Any additional information, research, or experience can always be useful, you never know when you’ll need it to develop the background of the character you’re performing or need the history of a prop or costume to help tell the story onstage. Learn lots of different art-related fields like graphic design, writing, and photography, you never know when they’ll come in handy for additional freelance work when you’re not working in theatre. It’s also another way to express your creativity when you feel your work is restricted to hand-washing undergarments or vacuuming stairs backstage.
Dating is hard. Making friends outside of theatre is hard. Sometimes you need a break from this business. Sometimes you need to talk about something other than character and story development or conversations centered on wondering if the Costume Designer of a movie picked the style of costume from a previous era for a specific character to show they are poorer than the rest of the society. However, meeting someone outside of theatre who understands why you work nights and weekend or why tech rehearsals are so long and during strange hours or why you only get Mondays off is hard to find. It doesn’t help when you see friends you worked with at a restaurant or a retail store who now have regular jobs posting photos on Facebook from a weekend trip. Is dating in the industry an easier option? Not necessarily. You could meet someone at summerstock, date long-distance for nine months, and then not see each other until you return to the theatre you originally met at. Seeing your significant other may rekindle a spark, or make you realize you’re not the best fit after being apart for so long. Theatre is also notorious for hookups, which is natural given that’s who you meet, but it also makes building trust in a long-distance committed relationship very difficult.
No theatre is perfect. When supervisors or employees of a smaller company I work for realize I’ve worked at larger companies, they have certain misconceptions about my expectations. Some people were eager to please or impress me or prove their worth, but as I’ve learned, every company works differently. What is important is if a company understands how to effectively use certain regulations and procedures to make the company the best it can be. Although I appreciate the work and skills I’ve developed with larger companies, I’ve had some of my best experiences with co-workers at smaller companies. This is where I’ve made some of the closest friends as we banded together to get a large amount of work completed and managed during difficult work conditions. Close friends like these are people I still send holiday cards to and pass along jobs I can’t take. A former co-worker of mine in Hair and Make-up also contacts friends from summerstock when she needs additional help on a larger workload.
The most important words I learned from an internship: Work them contacts. Don’t burn bridges and don’t be afraid to ask friends for suggestions on who to contact and when to contact that individual for work. Great talent, good grades, and a strong work ethic count, but it doesn’t matter when you don’t have the people to back-up your work. How do you make these contacts? First start by auditioning for and applying to local theatres when you’re at home for the summer or go to conferences like United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) and Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) to showcase your work for summerstock companies. Also keep track of job opportunities on OffstageJobs and Theatre Communication Group (TCG) publication ARTSEARCH. I found that by sending my resume and application to a local theatre company in my hometown, continually contacting the Costume Director, and being diligent about my work is what got my foot in the door. From there I developed trust and more contacts with people at the company to grow my career. With more confidence, I felt like I could ask people for advice and where to go next.
Don’t get starstruck. Like theatre companies, people aren’t perfect either. It’s very important to respect and recognize the work that important figures in the business have achieved, but they don’t want to be taken advantage of. They don’t want to recommend someone whose work they don’t know, someone they haven’t worked with, or someone who isn’t sure of their goals. A recommendation is not only your reputation on the line, it’s theirs as well. Rather than worrying about how you’ll get their attention or coming in with the attitude that you know everything already, just complete the work you’ve been given, ask questions if you don’t understand, and try not to screw up. If you do mess up, admit your mistakes and consult on how you can fix it. Showing that you care about your work and you aren’t afraid to ask questions shows that you want to learn. That’s what’s important. That will impress people and influence them to take you under their wing to teach you their techniques and skills. Don’t be afraid to branch out and work with other artists and companies. There are many ways to approach a script, a character, or a project, and by trying different approaches, you can find what works best for you.
Your skills count for more than you think. From theatre you know how important organization and communication is during a production. You understand how to coordinate costume or set changes and how to manage everyone in a group coming together to share their talents and tell a story. If you’re an actor you can use your skills to teach others about public speaking, if you’re a stage manager your organizing and decision-making skills will be invaluable to any organization or company, and even if you’re a dresser or a stagehand, your multi-tasking and ability to think quickly on your feet can be a great asset. Many people who start in one field don’t always stay in that career path, but they use the skills they have to do other meaningful things. Just ask Meagan Hooper of bSMART Guide, a website committed to providing women with advice about starting and developing their own businesses. Hooper started out as an actress for many notable theatres including Williamstown Theatre Festival and Circle in the Square. Even though she didn’t study math, she still managed to gain respect in a new field using the skills she had from theatre. You can read more about her journey by clicking HERE. Also check out Kollabora, an organization started by a former theatre artist that unites artists and crafters by connecting them with patterns and projects. Your skills are valuable for theatre and for career paths outside of theatre. Don’t believe me? Read my next post in the few days to see how important and valuable your skills in theatre can be.
If you’re a working or retired theatre artist or educator, other advice you would give? What do you wish you had known pursuing a career in theatre?
Cover Photo: Denver Center for the Performing Arts Complex in downtown Denver, Colorado.