I wonder how many of us in the nonprofit theater world woke up today and went to work to practice our craft — be it designer, director, dramaturg or actor — full time. And for pay.
Sadly, I didn’t. Although I self-identify as a theater artist, my tax returns pigeonhole me as “editor/writer” because that’s how I pay the bills. In Atlanta, where I live and work, day jobs for theater folk are more the rule than the exception. I’m profoundly grateful to be an artistic associate with Synchronicity Theatre (smart, gutsy and bold!) and to have affiliations with a handful of other companies. But most of the literary/dramaturgical work I do is for little pay or none at all.
This is a fact of life, and a frustration, but not exactly a complaint. The literary work I do rarely feels like work because it is so joyful. And Atlanta is a cool place to be, with an astute, versatile, friendly and generous theater community. As in other cities, bigger theaters do offer slightly more opportunity for a living wage. But this is likely one solitary company, maybe two, and probably only one or two jobs.
I imagine an ecology in which nonprofit theater companies don’t have to scratch out an existence, where artistic directors aren’t the sole artistic personnel on a small or medium-size staff, where dramaturgs and the like are employed and able to earn a full-time living even if they’re cobbling together projects. “Full time” is critical. Pay-the-bills jobs will never stoke the fire like making art does.
Pipe dream? I’m asking you.
As we look toward “Learn, Do, Teach,” TCG’s National Conference in June, I wonder — can individual artists find a sustainable business model? Does such a model already exist somewhere? Can we put our brilliantly creative minds together and devise one?
These questions dovetail nicely with the vision statement that emerged at last year’s national conference: “A better world for theater. A better world because of theater.… Participation in theater,” it says, “will be widely recognized as a right of every individual, a necessity for every community and a uniting force nationally and internationally.”
I want to participate! Every! Single! Day! I want to bring my enthusiasm, hard work, imagination and intelligence to daily literary work, production dramaturgy, new-play development, community engagement and whatever artistic endeavors I can. But consistent, life-sustaining employment is elusive. Theaters in Atlanta that do use dramaturgs do so mostly on a per-show basis. So, I ask again, how can someone like me contribute regularly, make a living and help elevate conversations in my artistic community?
Change is being made. Look at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., and its exceedingly successful Cohort Club, for example. The artistic engagement experiment made 20 widely diverse audience members feel like owners by giving them unprecedented access to one show beginning before rehearsals and continuing through to the end the run. Existing staffers piloted the program, so it led to no new hires. But it is an example of how to think differently about challenges we all face.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” So call me a dreamer, someone who dreams of full-time employment in the American theater. It’s that simple and that difficult, and I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels this way. Let’s not puzzle over our status, let’s change it. Let’s find a way to do the work we love and make it a full-time career.
You’re probably familiar with Adam Szymkowicz’s “I Interview Playwrights” column. Recently he asked California-based Medhuri Shekar to name her theatrical heroes. Her answer: “Anyone who makes a living doing theater is my hero.”
I’m with her. Let’s make it happen.
Kathy Janich is a freelance dramaturg in Atlanta and an artistic associate at Synchronicity Theatre, where she spent 3+ years on staff doing marketing and development. She’s also affiliated with Weird Sisters Theatre Project, Actor’s Express and Fabrefaction Theatre Company. She spent 25 years in daily newspapers before realizing that she wanted to make theater not write about others who did. She pays the bills as managing editor at Atlanta Metropolitan Publishing.