Theater Around The Bay: On Learning About Theatre By Getting Out of the Theatre

Our guest series continues with a piece by Christine Keating on what you can get out of getting out.

As I finished up my internship at a theatre, my first year out of college, I discovered that, aside from my brief stint as a camp counselour, I had never not worked in a theatre. House managing, performing, directing, tech work, costume shop—my career history was a tour of a theatre building. I was happy about this, but looking at a future of un-structured theatre work was a little scary. So, I started my quest for paying jobs elsewhere. What I ended up learning over the last few months, it turns out, was more valuable to me as an artist than as a non-theatrical employee.

Job 1: Taskrabbit, on Taskrabbit.com

Lesson 1: Freelancing is a job. Value your time.

I know, I know, I should have learned this lesson by this point. But, there is a different kind of immediacy to the generalised freelancing done on TaskRabbit. It becomes much more real than someone telling you “Oh, to be a writer, you have to treat it like a job by waking up at 9 every morning to write for an hour!”

To explain TaskRabbit: it’s a service where people post chores or short-term jobs. TaskRabbits then bid on how much they will do a task for. I’ve done things like hand write 50 thank you cards, clean an apartment occupied by five twenty-something boys, and serve drinks to drunk Irishmen at a party in a cottage perched over a golf course. It’s like a temp agency, but you search out and pick your own gigs instead of being assigned.

This means that I was a freelancer in doing everything and anything. I had to seek out my jobs day by day, make a point of checking the boards, keeping my info updated. I had to market myself in my messages to people, and most importantly, price my work. I have a hard time asking for money from employers, so having to pre-price all of my tasks was never easy for me. I was constantly undercutting my own abilities and worth. When I took into account the time I spent looking for jobs, travelling to jobs, and working, my time wasn’t being adequately compensated, and I was mostly breaking even. Breaking even, while not having time to do any theatre!

When I found myself on the posting side of the site, asking for help in an office, I saw that people and companies are more than willing to pay for help when it was required. I found a fascinating feature of the site this way—it gives posters an estimate of what they can expect to pay for a task, but it does not give Rabbits any sense of what their skill is worth. It’s up to the individual to figure that out, or flounder.

I’m no longer focusing on full-time Rabbiting, but I occasionally log into the site to see if I can pick up something extra. The lessons I took away from using it, however, are applicable to what I want to work towards in my career, and gave me some insight on all the aspects of freelancing in theatre that I had not taken into account.

Look at all these happy, successful freelancers.

Look at all these happy, successful freelancers.

Job 2: Office Manager at a Start Up

Lesson 2: Chain of command is important, and someone has to be responsible.

I worked at a start up in San Francisco for three months this winter. This was the first time I had found myself at a true “desk job,” something I have dreaded for most of my life. I feared my creativity being zapped from my fingers, my brain turning to mush under fluorescent lights. I felt more than a little embarrassed and elitist, then, when I saw just how creative the people I was working with were. Creative people were suddenly everywhere, not just in my little community of friends.

At some point, my brain clicked into my co-workers’ vocabulary, and I realised they were working on a production, they were telling a story. They discussed “user experience” and suddenly I understood they meant “what story are we telling our audience.” They were figuring out billing for customers and I recalled how many dozens of conversations I’ve been a part of that mentioned “dynamic ticket pricing.”

This was not a “Huh, we’re not so different!” adorable, human interest piece, realisation though. I saw how well this company functioned because of their management techniques. At the same time that I was in the office every day, I was being told a slew of horror stories of theatre companies alienating artists due to what boiled down to bad management. Actors who didn’t get callback notices and then were asked weeks later why they didn’t show up, production staff not being paid for weeks because people plain forgot, and shows floundering not due to lack of passion, but lack of responsibility. A chain of command.

At my job, a lot of management jargon was thrown around, but it all meant “someone has to be in charge.” What I’ve always loved about theatre is the sense of creating something collaboratively. Unfortunately, this can devolve into a lot of people saying really great ideas into the ether. There has to be people who give the deadlines, call late actors, make sure there’s money. In the piece I’m co-writing for the Olympians Festival (The Sisters Sirene, November 19!) I’ve taken the lessons learned from the start up world, and made myself that person in charge—I’m setting deadlines, setting the dates for read throughs, reaching out to actors, making my apartment accommodate 12 people (it’s a big play.) I knew that without someone taking responsibility for the dates-and-numbers side of things, none of the art would get done until November 18, when Amelia and I looked at one another in panic. We might not need managerial synergy, nor do I ask her to “sync up” with me on important items, but the corporate tree of responsibility I worked in has helped me to see my work as projects to be worked on in not only a creative, collaborative way, but also an organised and efficient way.

Not real words.

Not real words.

Job 3: Street Performer

Lesson 3: Not everyone is gonna like what you got to give.

When I was an intern, I began street performing at Fisherman’s Wharf, and briefly in New York City, as a way to use my only available skills (read: wearing awesome outfits and makeup while standing very still.) This could loosely be considered a theatrical job, I suppose, in that I was performing. But, it has always seemed like something distinctly separate from my theatre life. I continued to perform until my car (with the costume and makeup inside) was stolen last fall.

Every time I work on a show, I become so enmeshed in it and obsessed with detail, that when every audience member doesn’t come out of it feeling as though their lives have been changed, I feel like a failure. I will staunchly defend shows I’ve been a part of, even when I know it has faults. Street Performing, with its very straight-forward audience interaction, helped me to see my work from a different perspective.

When I perform, I stand very still, and when someone gives me money, I drop down suddenly, and then reset for them. When I do this, I generally get one of two reactions:

– People cheer, clap, gasp. The performance, for them, was in the standing still, which is what they paid for. The movement, showing that I am real, makes them appreciate my stillness.

– People look disappointed, grumble to their friends that the one down the street dances, think aloud about taking their dollar back. The performance they wanted was in my movement. They wanted entertainment after putting their money in.

Now, perhaps in standing still for six hours at a time, I have over-analysed my audience. But, that was what I observed. And this had so much meaning for me as an artist. Not everyone is going to like what you put out there. Even when you give the same performance over and over again, making predictable income (above minimum wage, on average!) the audience will always be split on their reactions. It’s not anything I did wrong, it was just not what everyone wanted. And that can’t ruin you.

Street Performing is very solitary, and is a constant barrage against my self-esteem. On the days when the negative audience feedback seems to outweigh the good ones, I have to make myself stop when my thoughts become all-consumingly negative. I recongised that feeling from being involved in shows that people told me they didn’t like. Once, it had seemed so important to change every single person’s mind. But, when your total interaction with audience members is under a minute, it is impossible to take every comment as your crowning achievement or a death sentence. Having a limited scope of audience feedback really helped me to be more realistic and not so narrow-minded about my own projects when discussing them with others.

Photo Credit: My poor, long-suffering, yet ever supportive father.

Photo Credit: My poor, long-suffering, yet ever supportive father.

Christine Keating is a Bay Area director and writer. To look at her face and read more things that came out of her brain, go to http://www.KeatingMarie.com or follow @keatingface on twitter.

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