Wisdom from the first five years

On Thursday I received a letter from the Operations Manager at my university’s theatre department inviting me to attend the Homecoming 2013 panel of recent graduates talking about their first five years after college. Initially, I was flummoxed. Has it really been five years? I remember when it was only one, and now… oh, I get it. The panel is for the students who will be graduating five years after I did. Makes sense. (It also works well because I don’t know any of these kids. None of them were freshmen even when I was senior, so they really have no idea who I am, which works in my favor.)

Inside the card, there was a request for some words of wisdom from afar, since there was no way I’d make it there in time. I paused for a moment, and remembered who came back after they graduated to talk to us. I think I remember them saying something about networking, but I know I’m confusing a lot of it with the alums who came back to Central High School and talked about life after the IB program. But I knew that I now had something to say.

I’m happy with my life and “career” right now. Yes, I have a lot I still need to work on and that I want to do, even to make my “career” an actual living as opposed to just volunteer work, but it’s good for now. It’s effective right now, and I feel good about it. I feel proud.

So I took two hours out of my evening to write a long letter about my experiences to share with the faculty and graduating class of IWU, 2013. And here it is for you to read.

The first five years after graduating from IWU’s SoTA certainly did not go as I expected. I continue to do theatre, but have found that I do theatre purely for the love of it, and not to earn a living. I moved to Seattle knowing very little of the theatre scene, but joined up with the first small theatre that would take me and pay me (turns out they didn’t have much money to give), and learned a lot from that experience.
Since coming to Seattle, I’ve worked with five very different theatre companies, two of which I devote my time and energies to now. I’ve worked as a research dramaturg  stage manager  marketing/publicity intern, band member (guitar!), sound designer, literary manager (currently), production manager (currently), playwright (trying my damnedest!), assistant director, and director (currently). (I also worked as the theater intern for The Stranger newspaper, but it kinda sucked.) Every show I’ve done for the past two years has been a new production. That’s what I love the most about Seattle: we are passionate about producing new work.
Most theatres in NYC, Chicago, and others are focused on doing new work, but I believe it’s what creates the majority of our scene here in Seattle. The large theatres produce at least one new work a season among their tried-and-true shows that have been seen everywhere else. There is not a lot of ensemble/derived work either–though there are theatre companies created by groups of friends and highly focused groups–so most companies are producing original works by up-and-coming and/or established playwrights who are writing dramas, musicals, bizarrely surreal plays, and more (see “new play” category).
The two companies I work with now are Annex Theatre and Macha Monkey Productions. Annex is my “clubhouse” and Macha Monkey is passionate about strong female characters. When I was doing my research in 2009, I emailed both of these companies but did not pursue any sort of relationship with them when I arrived in Seattle because I knew they wouldn’t pay me and they weren’t that responsive via email. Little did I know that what matters here in Seattle is showing up. These companies don’t care about someone asking them what they need. They care about people who will show up, see what is needed, and do it. I get work (meaning I know what my next project will be) by being present and active in these theatre companies. Every single day I am answering emails, or brainstorming about the next production, or on social media doing promotion, or physically in the theatre taking out the trash or tending bar. I have made myself integral to both of these companies by taking initiative.
I believe they called it “networking” when I was at IWU. Still calling it that? Well, they were right. Networking is what makes us us. It’s what makes a theatre community. And it’s based on developing strong connections with the people you want to work with, talking about your fellows and pulling them up with you, and being available whenever an opportunity presents itself.
I had to pay my dues to get here, emotionally and in my volunteer career. I knew I didn’t want to stage manage anymore at the end of my freshman year at IWU. But I knew I was decent at it (read: organized) so when an acquaintance from a theatre company I’d been badly burned by (cliquey, not producing the type of work I was interested in, and stuck in old ways of doing things “because that’s how we’ve always done it”) asked me to stage manage his directorial debut at Annex in the winter of 2011, I reluctantly agreed. I looked at the factors: it was a late night production on Friday and Saturday nights at 11 pm for 4 weeks. I would have to run the sound and light board entirely on my own. We would have to rehearse off-site. But I hadn’t done a project since May 2011, so I said yes. And I am SO glad I did.
I stepped into Annex and discovered the anarcho-communist-collective that it is. Annex is what everyone puts into it and takes “risks on bold new work”. Annex is truly fringe theatre, choosing big, cheap shows through an open request for proposals (we interview EVERYONE who wants to do a show with us) and taking chances on new playwrights and unknown directors for 27 years. We produce at least 8 full mainstage and off night or late night plays, 12 monthly cabarets, and 20-something rentals each season (January to November). Every month I receive a stipend check of $15 as a thank you for being a production manager on staff and if I work on a show in a design capacity, I get $50 for 2-3 months of work (sometimes more). Our design budget for a mainstage show (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays) is $750. An off night or late night (Tuesdays and Wednesdays or Fridays and Saturdays at 11 pm) gets $200 for design and less designers. Our shows run for 5 weeks, and every quarter we are producing something in our space nearly 7 nights a week (and sometimes so with our monthly Sunday show and Industry nights). And it’s run entirely by volunteers.
That’s what I didn’t understand before I left IWU. I thought I would EARN a living doing theatre, and I’m not. I currently work as a barista (très Seattle) and ride my bike everywhere to live as cheaply as possible, but theatre is my life. I barely have time for anything else, and I like it that way. I am as busy as I was in college, constantly thinking about my next project and how I can continue to create art. This year, I directed 3 ten-minute pieces (one of them here) and a longer one-act for Seattle Fringe Festival. (For that show, both the playwright and I had to step in and play one of the roles for two of the four performances because an actor had a family emergency in another state. We learned the lines the day before and did not get a tech/dress rehearsal. But that’s fringe!)
Yes, I think about trying to work for larger theatres, but they can hardly pay anybody either. And I mostly feel like I’ve just gotten my foot in the door this year. It’s like I’m in the room, working my way around the party, meeting and working with people who have been in the community for decades, people I admire and learn from. And I see those same people who work with my fringe companies and others producing work for the big theatres as playwrights, designers, and directors, and I realize it’s all small and connected. We’re all doing what we love wherever we can do it, as long as it’s with like-minded souls.
The next five years will probably not be what you expect, especially if you don’t know what you’re getting into (which is what makes it exciting!). But if you remain self-aware, present, and available in whatever community you choose, you’ll be golden. Give of yourself where you want to, where it matters. Find your scene, and establish yourself. Say, “I love what you have to offer me, and this is what I have to offer YOU.”
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