I talk to people all the time about job opportunities, training opportunities, and networking opportunities in the theater and performing arts business. I’m generally surprised at how many people think that the only way to get the big bucks working in production is to go to some expensive school or to intern their way through multiple high-profile companies. Nothing could be further than the truth.
An often overlooked portal through which you can access these opportunities is community theater. Yes, that same theater down the road you knock because they’re doing Hello Dolly this summer. While it’s true that many community theaters and smaller non-profit arts organizations do have to plan on the well-known musicals to pay the bills, these organizations are also recruiting and bringing in a ton of motivated, teachable, and skilled staff. If you’re in a position where you need to pick up some additional skill sets, you may need to look no further than 123 Main Street, Everytown, USA.
Networking at it’s most base level is nothing more than getting in front of other people. In production, we like to say that success is based on who you know and being at the right place and time.
My first stage management gig was with my hometown community theater organization’s production of Once On This Island. I was only paid $100 but I was also working with a Broadway lighting designer who happened to live in my area and was looking for something to do for a month. By the time I was done, I was exhausted but excited to have made some connections in the area. Following that experience, I ended up as technical director and stage manager for Gypsy. The set designer for that show was looking for a lighting person/assistant stage manager for a regional dance company tour he worked for. That in turn led me to rub elbows with some of the regional IATSE technicians who encouraged me to get on the over-hire list. I was working full-time for a landscaping company at the time but I dropped that like a hot rock just for the opportunity to work on a semi-regular basis in the industry and have never looked back.
I’ll never disrespect my own college degree in Theater. BUT you do NOT need to spend $100k in a fancy program (mine certainly was NOT fancy) to gain knowledge and be able to work in the industry professionally. If you’re teachable, motivated, and have a good attitude, there are few limits to where you can go in the production industry. Community theaters can be a great place to try your hand at the lighting console, running sound, gathering props or helping with costumes. Many designers, volunteer coordinators or tech directors would absolutely KILL to have someone come in and play. As a former production manager in such an organization, I can personally attest to this need.
Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in the industry, community theater can provide you with access to knowledge, networking and can even help pay some bills.
If you have questions or comments based on your own goals or experiences, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, do better every day and help bring art to the masses.