If someone asks me what I do I say I’m a theater director.
But is that what I actually, literally, do?
Well, I’m also a self producer. And I run a small company. Which means most days I’m not in rehearsal. Most days I spend a lot of time doing a lot of non-creative things. And the more success (read money) I seem to find for these works, the more it seems like that’s what I do.
An average day “working on my art” includes:
Answering 30 – 40 emails, reading trade blogs (generally 3 -5 a day), reading email listservs that might contain relevant into to follow up on, making lists of important people I should contact, making lists of places I could tour my work, working on an upcoming grant or updating my calendar of grants I could be working on, writing potential presenters to please consider my work, looking over budgets, asking people for money, writing press materials, and scheduling.
Maybe if I’m feeling really ambitious I make get to compiling some directing research, but that’s maybe, if I get around to it and I’m not feeling too brain-dead to think creatively.
This is essentially the job of an administrator.
That is what I actually do most days.
What it feels like I’m doing less and less is writing and dreaming about rehearsals. When I was balancing chemistry classes like I was in college or working a million day jobs like when I was 23 I still found time to let my brain wander on strange and new ideas. The rough thing for me these days is that I when set aside time to be creative I have a tough time turning off that administrator brain.
Some honest statistics:
In 2006, I presented my first major work in Philly. It was a show called The Ballad of Joe Hill a 6 actor play with music about a labor organizer and songwriter. We did it at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Some basic facts, it was:
– A loose (read ill defined) collective of artists: no contracts or formal definition of what one’s “job” would be if they participated
– No one got paid
– Largely self funded, though we did have a small amount of donations using local fiscal sponsor
– All cash based, or went through my personal bank account
– Totally illegal. I mean, you know. It’s what happens when you first do stuff. IRS, please don’t read this.
This is a pretty standard type of first self-producing effort. You make a lot of mistakes. You learn a lot. You beg, borrow and steal everything. It’s pretty exiting and overwhelming.
For me and my co-producer the whole thing cost about $2,500. And roughly estimating I’d say 10% of time was non-artistic work.
A few years later I made a show called SURVIVE! which was a choose-your-own-adventure installation about humanity in the universe. It’s looked like this:
This one, a big jump up in terms of scale of self-producing had a lot of differences from Joe Hill. It:
– Defined group for duration of project and worked hard to explain what everyone was responsible for. We wrote contracts for the first time and everything.
– Used fiscal sponsorship as a way to legitimize the finances of the project. This cost money. It also meant I had to keep financial records that I wasn’t embarrassed to show to someone else.
– Had a mix of self funding, small grants, and a first major foundation source
– Paid everyone (designer, actor, SM, and director alike) a stipend of $1,200 for time spread out over 9 months. I don’t want to calculate the hourly income. It would make me sad. But it was a start.
– Forced me to figure out how to deal with 1099s and required people to declare this income on taxes (not to mention get my own in real working order).
It was a big show. A massive show. Thousands of square feet of space with audiences in multiple places at once. Simultaneous sound and light that all had to sync up and time exactly. And we did it without a production manager (WHAT?!). I’m still a little amazed we made it.
And given all that, we still only spent a total of $23,000. And in that project, 50% of my working time was non-artistic.
In 2011 I worked on a feminist re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a lot of awesome ladies. It was presented at the 2011 Live Arts Festival after a year of work as a Live Arts LAB Fellow and starred the awesome Catherine Slusar.
I was coming up on the end of the 20’s decade with this piece. I felt like I needed to get serious. So I buckled down and:
– Offered a much larger and more realistic salary for myself and two of the major collaborators on the piece. I also upped designer fees.
– Made my first attempt at weekly pay for the ensemble
– Wrote grants like a machine. LIKE A BOSS.
– Because of stipulations of Live Arts support did my first show in “real” big ass theater with a high level tech capacity
– Opened a Swim Pony bank account, got an EIN, and hired a suite of management staff for the duration of the project
That show cost about $110,000. It was two years from start of planning to production. It was exhausting. Rewarding, but exhausting. I felt like a CEO. And when I estimate, about 90% of time was non-artistic
This pattern continues on in my work. I made a promise to pay a higher weekly artist salary for every project I do. For The Giant Squid, a recent co-collaboration with The Berserker Residents, we were able to do the equivalent of eight weeks of work at $450 a week. That felt insane to say when we started. I know plenty of small companies in town that don’t manage that pay grade. On almost every level, my co-producers and I have gotten much better at producing. It’s basic neuroscience right? The neural pathways you spend time on get stronger.
And just for reference, I did some calculations for comparison. Next year, I’ll be presenting a new version of Joe Hill at Live Arts. It’s a re-working with new tweaks to the plot and structure as well as updated historical research. It’s the same size cast, scope of design and will still be performed at Eastern State. We’ll spend about the same amount of time in rehearsal, maybe just a bit less. I just submitted a grant proposal with a budget of a little over $120,000.
Remember in 2006 when I spent $2,500?
The scale of professionalism is catching up to artistic process. This is what I should have been doing all along. And it takes 90% of my time to make that happen.
That’s what I am doing these days 90% of the time. I don’t want that to be the case forever.
What do I do to change that? Still figuring it out. A few things that help:
– If I decide to stop working on grants and start trying to write a rehearsal plan sometimes I’ll change clothes. I try and put on my “artsy-est” outfit.
– I also take a shower in the middle of the day if I need to get out of admin brain. Water is creative magic, for whatever reason it clicks in the right brain.
– I’ll give myself a fixed amount of time in morning to do whatever I want on any creative project I feel like (the morning is my best creative time) since I know the other stuff will expand to fit the time I allot to it.
– I’ve actually tried to tone down the production scope on projects, focus all the money on people, to keep the overhead low and the creative content high.
– I’m researching people I can hire to take some of this off my shoulders.
I’ll keep trying to come up with answers.
I’d love to hear some of yours.
PS – Photos thanks to JJ Tiziou (jjtiziou.net)