At no point in my early theater life did I dream of being a producer, but once I finally accepted in my 20s that that would be my professional identity (after MUCH grieving at the knowledge that this would mean my writing/acting/directing self would be put to sleep indefinitely), I set my sights at climbing the theatrical artistic leadership ladder. Like many, many others: I wanted to become an artistic director.
I wanted to be an artistic director so I could see the work I wanted to see. I would often say I wanted to redefine “mainstream” to reflect what this world really looks like, with stories that are terrifying and vital, hilarious and heartbreaking, poetic and vulgar. So with some skills, some more education, and some luck, I ended up at a large institutional theater as a cog in its artistic producing machine.
And then… I was worked to the bone. I didn’t go on vacation. I didn’t see my children, unless my partner brought them to work. I certainly didn’t create anything of my own. But I was successful at making other people’s dreams come true, and executing them, in this very strange, somewhat corporate, very… systemic…atmosphere. Adjusting myself, so that the old white man in charge would like me. Unfortunately, he ended up not liking me. And furthermore, bullying me. I left for another company to learn more skills I’d need to climb the leadership ladder. There, I was bullied by a different white man. I overcame it. But was still overworked. Demoralized. Disrespected. SEVERELY undervalued. But all the while, gaining more knowledge, more skills — I excelled at producing incredible work, being a leader in the staff, at advocating and pushing progressive practices forward.
As the pandemic waned enough for theaters to call everyone back, I knew I could not go back to business as usual (which was 100% my theater’s plan), because I realized that the value the theater was getting from my presence was far more than the value I was getting being there.
But to leave was terrifying, and steeped in internalized nonsense. I wondered…would I still matter as a theater professional if I had no PWI email address? Would I find work and support my family? Could I still feel successful?
I listened to my gut and jumped - with the support of mentors, friends, family. I actually planned to rest for a few months, but instead (very typically) I dove into a new life of contract work that presented itself almost immediately. This is where my questions were answered.
The answers: Yes. Yes. Yes.
To question one: It turns out, who I am and what I do stands on its own. Yes, people know me because I was at some big places for a while. But I am arguably more sought after now as a theater leader than I ever was at those big places. Larger institutions are often NOT the leaders in the field – there are plenty of things they’re not good at. They’re bad at swiftly making large important changes to their policies, at incubating and nurturing new artists in a meaningful and community-oriented way, they’re bad at bringing in diverse audiences, at providing safe work environments for their admins/artists of color, at supporting parents and caregivers, to name a few.
To question two: I found work, or rather work found me. In the smaller institutions I had previous relationships with, with long respected histories and artistic accomplishments. Identity-focused theaters who opened their arms enthusiastically to me, celebrated me as a leader, and joyfully got out of the way so I could do my thing. The staffs were amazing (in truth, I have never worked in a theater that didn’t have a wonderful staff), and every day I was easily trusted to steer the ship. It is refreshing. And the pay is really not much different than the bigger places (another thing big places aren’t good at – paying anyone but executives well).
To question three: I decided to define success for myself. Success, for me, diverted from that ladder to PWI glory. Success instead started to look like actually having agency in the art and in the field, tangibly, and not just to create someone else’s dreams. To not need to politic every working relationship. To produce the way that I want to, transparently, in collaboration, with my teams. To be challenged. To walk into a space where I am respected, and where I never compromise who I am or what I believe. Where I take up space, encourage others to take up space, and always protect the people over the institution.
I might quit theater. I might switch to a whole other career. I’m not sure yet. But since I might, I am now working where I will feel the most proud to have spent my last theater years – a small theater that serves my people the way no large institution could even dream of, in actual community.
Author's Bio: A writer, a director, a performer, but most known in the field as a producer and arts administrator. Dog and small human parent.