Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everything I learned about Arts Administration, I learned Off-Off-Broadway

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Leigh Goldenberg.

I work in a regional theatre that's not in New York City. So why should I be writing for this New York Theatre blog? Because I credit the majority of my knowledge and experience in theatre management to my years producing Off-Off-Broadway in NYC. If you are looking for a career in the theatre, I cannot recommend more highly the value of producing your own work with no money and even less of a clue. Fundraising, marketing, budgeting, advocacy, contracts, season selection - you name it. Everything I learned about Arts Administration, I learned Off-Off-Broadway. (And how appropriate that I'm following Connie's post about restaurant school's lessons - inspiration is everywhere!)

"It's the people. It's people."

This overly simple line was in Stone Soup's first original show The Seventh Song about human rights in China. (We were so ambitious in our early 20s!) In the years to follow, this remained as our thesis not only in the types of shows we created and but the way in which we created them.

I'll be honest and say that no one was ever paid for their work with Stone Soup. (This is probably true for lots of Off Off companies, especially as we re-invested our money into expanding the company however we could.) Since we all worked long hours beyond our day jobs, for no money, we had to at least like each other! Many companies start as a group of friends with a common interest. At some point, if you want to grow, you have to find other people to join you on your noble mission. Backstage ads might work for finding actors, but if you want people to roll up their sleeves to also build your sets, work your box office, AND send a fundraising letter to their aunt in Michigan, it takes a lot of trial and error, and whole lot of clarity.

I've found that the companies that are most successful have a clear mission and values, simplifying that opt-in process for a newbie. Certainly people come and go (with more or less drama, depending on the situation), but you'll know you've been honest from the start. This is what we are, take it or leave it. This was never more important than in the volunteer world of Off Off exhaustion. But in Arts Admin, spending your full time job at a place that doesn't align with your own values can be even more soul sucking than working somewhere corporate where at least (maybe?) you have some financial benefits to outweigh long hours away from the rehearsal room. Call me an idealist, but I hope I'll always work somewhere that does plays I really like to watch.

The lesson of relationships extends beyond the people you are creating work with to the people you are creating work around. Learning from peers is essential, especially if you are starting from a common place of knowing nothing and having an empty bank account. Each year, hundreds of us graduate from college and want to put on a play. I'm sure 99% of our mistakes have already been made, so it's up to you to find the people to warn you or at least commiserate with you. The Community Dish was definitely that haven for me on many occasions. You need that support network to know you aren't alone in having crazy theatre landlords or issues with the Equity Showcase contract or an audience smaller than your cast size. I've found the same with Arts Admin jobs. Search for any professional development opportunity you can that will introduce you to people with similar positions at similar organizations. Use these people to safely vent, ask questions, learn from their successes. Celebrate and support them.

So, readers: What relationships have been valuable to you in your theatre projects and careers?


  1. I few weeks back, Tim Errickson posted a blog about "If you're an asshole, you have to go." For me that is absolutely true.

    Doing OOB theatre is tough. It puts stress on every other part of your life; work, personal relationships, financial commitments, family, health, etc. Who wants to go through the all of that for a situation where you're dealing with an asshole the entire time. One asshole can ruin the entire experience.

    No matter how talented someone is, there is no place for divas and assholes when doing this kind of work.

    I want to work with smart, talented, energetic people who come to the table ready to do the job and enjoy the experience and the relationships that are built.

  2. I think we can all agree with you and Tim on this one! I'm curious what kind of vetting process you go through when choosing collaborators for a project. Is this instinctual or something standardized? Do you give yourself the out to realize you may be wrong and cut ties? If so, how do you do that and still maintain professionalism and sanity?