In The Trenches: Sarah Cameron Sunde

by Tara Bracco

in In the Trenches,Interviews,Watch & Listen

As September begins, college students across the country are returning to their classes. But for those who recently graduated with degrees in theatre, many are wondering, “How do I begin my career?” To help answer this daunting question, TCG talks with theatre director Sarah Cameron Sunde to learn how she got her start.

Ten years ago, Sunde moved to New York City with limited savings and no professional contacts. She was determined to become a director, and she vowed to never take a full-time job because she felt it would keep her from creating art. Today, Sunde works part-time as the associate director of the Obie-winning, downtown theatre company New Georges, and spends the rest of the week working on her own projects. She has developed and directed new plays that have premiered at New Georges,  Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 3LD Art & Technology Center, Guthrie Theater and 59E59 Theaters, among others. Her thirst for new work fueled Sunde’s interest in contemporary plays in translation. She is credited as being the first director to bring Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s work to the U.S. and she has directed and translated three of his plays for Oslo Elsewhere . Sunde’s productions led The New York Times to call Fosse’s work “fierce poetic simplicity,” and her translations have been published by the Performing Arts Journal. She was named a “Person of the Year” by in 2009, and she is the recipient of several awards and honors including the Princess Grace Directing Award. Sunde is currently working on Kim Schultz’s new play No Place Called Home, which will open in New York City in October.

Check out the video below to learn how Sarah Cameron Sunde jumpstarted her career!

If you’re a theatre professional working in the biz, tell us how you got started. Share your career advice with recent grads in the comments section below.

  • Bostin Christopher

    Great stuff!!

  • Justin Woo

    I don’t know if I qualify as “working in the biz” but I’m involved with several theatre companies, including The New Street Poets, The Spoken Word Almanac Project, and Poetic People Power.

    As the names of those groups attest, I am a spoken word theatre artist. I graduated Rutgers University in 2005 with a BA in Theatre Arts and English, moved to Jersey City and launched myself into the NY metro area art scene in 2006, couldn’t find a job, and promptly went broke. But through all that madness I never forgot my old college contacts. Through them, I continued to get booked to perform as a poet (for free of course – never look down on free gigs!) at Rutgers and the surrounding area.

    I remember the exact day my luck started to turn around. An old Rutgers friend (who was still a student) organized a Hurricane Katrina benefit, and booked several student artists, including me. We performed on the same stage as Miguel Algarin and Amiri Baraka (feel any way you want about the man, he’s important), where several hundred people saw us. At the open mic afterwards, I met LeDerick Horne, a poet and national disability advocate and public speaker, who wanted to create a play about the gentrification of New Brunswick, NJ.

    LeDerick and I met up, talked, and I realized that LeDerick was not a theatre artist and needed my help. Through our contacts at Rutgers, we grabbed two other poet / theatre artists, and collaboratively created a spoken word play that went up at the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre. We’ve since gone on to take this play to the Aetna Theatre, Brown University, the Clemente Soto Velez Community Center, the Riverside Church Theatre, and the FringeNYC 2007 festival.

    Since then, I’ve maintained my visibility in the spoken word community by going to every open mic I possibly could, jumping in on every possible project I could, and working my ass off. I have a day job, but it’s fairly easy going. It gives me a decent wage and health insurance. The knowledge that you can go to the hospital if you break a leg is an amazing peace of mind. You don’t realize how valuable it is til you lose it.

    Remember those open mics? As time went on, people started to know who I was, and that I was serious about being a spoken word artist. When I went to the first Spoken Word Almanac Project performance in 2008, I was absolutely blown away, and begged the founder, Darian Dachaun, to let me in. Due to his familiarity with my work, he let me in, and this brought me closer to great poets involved with the project who have become friends and contacts.

    Another thing to do – keep learning new skills. I’ve always had a passion for music, but I’m a lousy guitar player and a mediocre singer on my good days. In college, I often put together play lists on the fly in iTunes and Winamp for parties. It was very primitive DJing, but I definitely fell in love. After college, I ended up buying my own DJ set up and PA system. By constantly reading about DJing and sound technology, I learned how to set gains on a mic to avoid feedback and get the best sound out of a mixing board by tweaking EQs. I also learned about signal chains and mixing different instruments. These skills are surprisingly rare, and nothing can really replace someone who knows them. Once I was confident enough to get out in the field and give it a shot, I started doing sound tech for whatever event was going on in my local scene. You’d be amazed how happy people will be to see you when they can’t figure out why their mics aren’t working. Again, this brings you closer to more people, improves your standing in the community, and let’s face it – I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think it was fun.

    Also, don’t underestimate your local scene and community. I live in Jersey City, NJ just a short PATH train ride into Manhattan. The burgeoning art scene here has shorter lines to the top, a closer community than Manhattan, and a generally friendlier and more open vibe. Through this scene, I’ve started hosting my own open mic (to give back to the community), gotten involved with the local theatre companies, and started working on a performance series that blends modern dance, music, poetry, and live visual art.

    So if I were to boil this long comment down to a few tips, here they are:

    1. Remember your old college friends.
    2. Be willing to work for free a LOT. You’re doing this for the love anyway, aren’t you?
    3. NYC is not the be all and end all. Get involved in your local scene.
    4. Open mics can help you increase your visibility and improve your reputation.
    5. Never stop learning new skills. Make yourself indispensable, and people will never stop calling you.

  • Jay

    Thank you so much for this advice. I needed to hear this.