Pictured: The cast of Black Angels Over Tuskeegee takes a bow, as seen from backstage at The Actors Temple in New York. (Source: TripAdvisor)
This pandemic means a lot of theater professionals are out of work. I know most corporate people think “flaky actors” and “workplace drama” when thinking about theater people, but the truth is exactly the opposite, and now is the time to jump on actors, playwrights, directors, casting directors, designers, technicians and more who have found themselves newly out of work.
Working in professional theatre requires intense discipline, the ability to leave all your issues at the door, and a level of multitasking and focus that most employers only dream of finding in an employee. Allow me to give you nine solid reasons to see years of theater experience as a major plus in a new employee.
1. Discipline, Focus, and Grace Under Pressure. I don’t care what’s happening, that curtain is going up at 8PM, and you must be ready for it. There’s no “Can I get it to you Thursday?” That schedule is utterly unforgiving, and every aspect of your work will be scrutinized in real time by hundreds of people, some of whom are journalists specifically there to evaluate the quality of your work and publish their evaluation on the internet for all to see, forever. Focused, disciplined work is the only way we function. If you can’t work efficiently with a team to deliver excellence on an unforgiving deadline, you won’t get far in theater. We are focused, disciplined, hardworking people, because there’s no other way to function in our world.
2. There’s No Drama in Drama. Theater workers are human beings and have messy lives like everyone else. But our work is deeply collaborative, and we work long hours in close quarters. The type of people who thrive in the disciplined, deadline-focused collaborative work we do are usually the kind of people who leave their drama on the stage. I’ve experienced far more drama working outside theater than I have within it. Everything you’ve seen in the movies about theater professionals being “dramatic” and “flaky” is as realistic a portrayal of our professional work as The Witcher is of medieval Europe.
Actually, very few people with disabilities were purchased by the headmistress of Abusive Hogwarts and trained as professional court witches. (Source: Netflix)
Oh, and don’t believe anything Jared Leto says about “method acting.” Actual professional actors don’t “become” their characters all day long off set. It’s embarrassing that this is such a prevalent myth that even actor-adjacent people like Jared Leto believe it.
3. Making Magic Out of Nothing. Theater is woefully underfunded. I tell my students that most of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems, and the most common technical problem is lack of budget. If you want something done beautifully, quickly, and exceeding expectations given the budget constraints, you want someone with professional theater experience. If you want a creative thinker who can craft an elegant solution to an intractable problem after everyone else has come up dry, you want a theatermaker. That props person built a 10-foot long sea monster puppet that squirts “ink,” is fully washable, AND lights up, all for $200 in one weekend. They’ll have a soltuion for you before lunch, and it’ll be under budget.
4. Project Management. If you’ve never run a theater company, you might not know how organized and efficient your project management skills need to be just to be minimally effective, let alone to succeed in professional theater. Let’s take casting as an example. To cast a single season, a casting director needs to know the types, abilities, union status, and availability of hundreds of actors and successfully interface that with the script and with the director’s concept for each role, then manage the audition process, often a combination of video and live auditions. She must constantly manage an enormous amount of interlocking qualitative and quantitative data that all needs to be analyzed, processed, and applied in a rapidly changing environment that also requires deep personnel management and, in most cases, developing and maintaining a network of connections all over the nation. The casting director is doing most of this work solo, on a tight deadline with little budget. That’s just casting, and I have barely scratched the surface of it. It’s the same level of complexity to produce, direct, manage a set build, or stage manage. The best project manager you will ever have will be that theatermaker you picked up in 2020.
5. Program Management. Producing theater is all about creating programming and ensuring its success. Most larger companies have an education arm as well that requires in-depth management to offer value, service, and– importantly– community. Competition is so fierce for after-school and adult education programs that a sense of community and belonging are critical for both initial buy-in and later upgrading. Look for “Artistic Director” and “Education Director” if you want to go right to the top, but people at all levels will have deep, relevant experience, and there are many companies that have other types of programs, such as a script development program or a teen outreach program. Creating programming for a specific group of end-users that succeeds only when it exceeds expectatons is our bread and butter.
A picture of me in my theater taken for the East Bay Express by Stephen Loewinsohn.
6. Personnel Management, Sales, and Customer Service. Anything with “Director” or “Manager” in its title will be an expert in personnel management in the theater. Everyone is working very hard on a very tight deadline, and keeping staff spirits high and minds focused is a basic requirement of the job. Additionally, staffing is a perennial challenge. We don’t have high salaries or stock options to lure top shelf talent; we have to rely on our skills as personnel managers. We are nothing without our ability to attract and retain talent.
While many people already see the benefit in acting training for sales people who must be able to give engaging presentations (hence the many acting seminars designed for business people), what you may not know is how much of our administrative work relies on marketing, sales, and customer service. As a service-oriented field, customer service is a critical aspect of what we do, and every theater employs marketing people with expertise in storytelling– remember, we’re selling an experience rather than a product. But also look for people in development. These are the people whose job it is to convince donors, foundations, and corporations to give them money. Asking someone to just give you money is some next-level sales work that involves storytelling, customer service, and the kind of relationship-building that creates brand loyalty in families for generations.
7. Multitasking. Because our deadlines are so intense and our resources are generally minimal, almost all of us have numerous balls in the air at all times. Even when it looks from the outside like it’s one task, such as acting, the multitasking involved is intense. While onstage, the actor must remember the lines, the blocking (the pattern of movement), and the latest notes they’ve received from the director and/or stage manager, in addition to staying emotionally in the moment, listening and responding to scene partners, manipulating props, and timing out how long to hold for a laugh or a reaction, all with lights blaring in your face and 100+ people judging your every move. Just “staying emotionally in the moment” has several moving parts. In a fight scene, being a foot out of position can land you in the hospital. In producing, there are always fourteen things happening at once, and the need to hold them all in your mind, prioritize, and manage your time well in order to gte them all sorted within the timeframe you have available are critical skills. In professional theater, one dropped ball can mean getting to 30 minutes before the show and realizing an actor has no pants.
KENT: “Is not this your son, my Lord?”
8. Improvising and Creative Thinking. With so much in flux and so many unpredictable possibilities before us, now is definitely the time to snap up some quick-thinking, creative, solution-minded people for your team. In a live performance, anything can happen, and you can’t lose focus, bail, or start over. Theater people do not lose their cool when there’s a job to be done, and we can quickly improvise a creative, workable solution on the fly and make it look like that’s what was meant all along. Ask any actor whose scene partner missed an entrance or went up on a line about improvising dialogue to cover– even in a Shakespeare play. Ask any designer or tech who has had seven and a half minutes to frantically duct-tape, rewire, staple, or drill a solution in silence backstage during a show. Ask any producer who was told a week after announcing a season that the rights to a script were pulled because Sony optioned the film rights. If there’s a problem to be solved and you need a creative solution, you need a theatermaker.
9. But they’ll leave, right? They’ll go back to theater when this is all over? Any of your employees can leave at any time. But the truth is, most of us have some kind of day job, and even those of us without one spent years working a day job while doing theater. There’s no reason your new hire can’t continue working for you when the theatres re-open, and for decades beyond.
The next time your see theater experience on a resume, ask for an interview! You will not be disappointed.
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