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Getting The Gig: Theatre And New Artist Development

By Pieter Huyer

Graduating theatre students often exit school excited to pursue a career in the performance arts, only to find out that there are minimal initial opportunities for success. There is a very limited capacity for inexperienced performers to artistically create in such a competitive industry.

New artists must know exactly how to be a professional theatre expert immediately upon graduating school in order to land that big gig, or else spend time working at a second job while simultaneously taking any theatre work that may appear.

Any opportunity is better than none, and theatre artists are creative beings; the need to create will occur regardless if it is professional or not.

While this account is part of the natural process of beginning a career in the arts, it also makes note of the failure of the industry to provide an environment where young professionals can actively develop as live entertainers. Arts producers may unknowingly establish a “sink or swim” conundrum in which only the artists who perform with the experience level of a learned veteran are hired, while new performers are never given the opportunity to develop the work experience that is so adamantly required. This cuts a large section of the emerging artistic population out of the performing game before it has even started.

A majority of the time, most artists become disengaged with this process as they have no way to express their artistic individuality; the very thing that ignited their passion for the stage becomes the source of strong denial and depression. The dropout rate of new theatre professionals before their career has even started makes logical sense if you include into this scenario the regular ups and downs of life, the tedium of a living wage job, and little to no economic security. Most theatre artists don’t even want to land the big gig right away; that is diving into the deep end too quickly.

Most performers have sober realizations of their strengths and weaknesses and merely want the most basic of opportunities in which to hone their craft in a live performance situation.

The big gig is a dream, but it is understood that extended time and skill will be required to build  that dream.

So what can be some solutions to this industry problem?

No. 1: Implement developmental models in theatre.

The first is to implement developmental models in theatre. This does not mean training, but hands-on artistic work in low-stress environments where the focus is on allowing the artist to create and to find their artistic self. Notice how well stage managers are at establishing this. No one expects a stage manager to jump into the booth and call a show on the first go. Instead, stage managers start as assistants before they take on increased responsibilities. This is usually followed by job shadowing and associate position opportunities with top professionals in programs akin to apprenticeships. Even when first calling a show, it is done with the close guidance of the head production manager or stage manager. Other mediums in theatre are starting to adopt this effective model, as it is occurring more often with sound techs and stagehands. This is a great way to remove the burnout involved with our current high expectation mentality put on artists.

No. 2: Theatre companies create learning academics.

Secondly, theatre companies can create learning academies. These are not training seminars or schools (which is still very important) but opportunities for young professionals to join a company for a period of time and work within a number of productions. This is a fantastic win-win, where the theatre can provide opportunities for young professionals to be within close proximity of top performers; the young professional can begin networking, can step into smaller roles in live situations, can understand big picture concepts of how theatre actually works on the ground level and can begin to build their resume. All the while the theatre gets work at a reduced rate and promotes the health of its own community.

No. 3: Theatre adjusts to a wide variety of show types.

Lastly, in the big picture, theatre could adjust to a wide variety of show types. Most theatre productions are either an intimate affair, often occurring in venues from the 100 – 200 seat range or they are vastly larger fully fledged operations in 2000+ seat capacity. The middle class of theatre between these two extremes is often nonexistent, and it is at middle-sized productions where lots of raw, visceral, creative, and highly professional performing occurs. It is almost as if we need to create differing levels of theatre, just as they do in any other industry so that all manner of skills and talents can find representation. A good sports team always has three to four levels of farm teams, all playing so that they can support the top team in a healthy developmental way.

Theatre is in a curious situation, and understanding the concept of artist development is important because it is the artist who does the visible labour that keeps the theatre alive. If theatres cannot adjust, it could be biting the hand that feeds, as theatre professionals will drop out, leave the city, or may never work creatively again.

Not only is this a travesty on a personal artistic level, but also on a wider industry level, for what if it is a theatre’s own organizational procedure that stops the next composer from playing their piano and writing that next hit, just because they were never given a chance?

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