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Freelancing In Theatre: Choosing Projects & Planning The Season

Freelancing in theatre
By Erika Morey

As a stage manager, Spring can be a stressful time as the offers for the upcoming season start to roll in. At least, it is for me now. I should qualify this statement by saying that in the not-so-distant past, finding work at all was a bit of a struggle. This made decision-making pretty simple- I’d gladly jump on literally any offer that came my way. With a few years of experience under my belt now though, I’m coming into a place where I have to make some strategic decisions when I have multiple offers on the table. When it rains, it pours, as the saying goes, so inevitably they will all conflict and overlap in the most inconvenient ways. How do you choose?

I’m often overwhelmed by the number of factors that one must consider. Will the project be financially lucrative? Artistically fulfilling? Will it help foster the growth of new and old relationships that I’d like to build or maintain? Will the show be technically challenging, or require learning some new skills? Finally, in the larger scheme of things, will accepting a particular project be a good career move or a bad one?

Assessing whether or not a project makes financial sense seems like it would be the most straightforward consideration, but even crunching the numbers can be a complicated process. The weekly fee may be on the higher end, for example, but if the gig is out of town and housing isn’t included, that number can shrink quite quickly. Conversely, on a tour, the fee may be relatively low, but there is a potential to save a lot of the per diem offered, if I budget wisely. Weighing the pros and cons of being contracted as an employee can factor in as well.  Deductions can be killer, but will I thank myself at tax time? There is also the question of how many weeks a contract will run and where those weeks fall in the course of a season. A three-week contract at CAD $1,500.00 a week might sound great, but if it falls in late November, it may mean I lose out on 8 weeks of work on a big Christmas show at a time when it’s especially useful to have some extra cash flowing.

Of course, as artists, the shows we decide to work on are not always tied to the potential cash-in-hand factor. As a rule, regardless of my enthusiasm for a project, I don’t tend to participate in profit-share agreements or any situation where there is not a guaranteed fee. I live in Toronto and it is already a struggle financially with the inflated rent prices in the city. However; if you are lucky enough to have the financial freedom to do so, it might not feel like work at all to collaborate on a brilliant new script produced by your best friends at your favourite summer festival.

Personally, as long as I’m making a living wage, I try to let the nature of the project influence my decision more than the money.

Which, to be frank, can be tricky as a stage manager. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been offered stage management positions on “Show 1 and Show 4” or “a two-hander in May 2017.” In these scenarios, I now politely reply to the potential engager, acknowledging that they have yet to announce their season and then ask them to reveal the names of the shows anyway. It’s hard enough making a decision when you have all the information, and I think all of the artists involved deserve to know what they will be collaborating on production wise.

Even if the play doesn’t particularly inspire me and the pay is on the lower end, I’ve often said yes to gigs because of the people working on the project. There are a handful of directors who I think are both visionaries and marvellous people, and I’ll say yes to them as often as I can. Same goes for a small company with a tenacious crew that goes above and beyond, or that has a really positive workplace culture, or that goes out of their way to make out-of-town artists feel welcome.

In all of these cases, the reasonable belief that the experience will be a positive one outweighs the other factors. In other scenarios, I might not know the other artists personally but might have a deep appreciation for their work. In such a relationship-based job economy, it just might make sense to stage manage a certain director’s passion project in a storefront, especially if I’m not getting hired by the more established companies that they tend to work with.

On top of all that, I also try to make sure that I’m accepting at least one gig per season that’s a little out of my comfort zone.

It can be easy to get into a rut, so I think it’s important to actively pursue new, challenging opportunities. If you don’t have experience in working in repertory, or have never done an opera, for example, it might be a good idea to try getting your feet wet if the offer’s on the table. Some of the most technically challenging productions I’ve worked on have also been the lowest paid, but as a result of saying yes, I’ve gained some serious confidence in my ability to call really tricky shows. The skills or experience you might gain on a show you’re not 100% comfortable with at the outset may stay with you for your whole career, and it might be worth it.

I’ll admit that keeping all of the aforementioned factors in mind is enough to make your head spin. Especially if, say, there are three pretty good looking offers on the table that all fall within the same relative time frame. In this scenario, I try to take a step back and look at what I’ve been doing lately. Has it been a while since I worked on a script that I loved? Am I feeling bored and looking for a challenge? Do I need the money? I firmly believe that variety is essential for staying inspired and trying to maintain balance in your career.

Most importantly, ask yourself how long it’s been since you’ve had a break. Some stage managers get so caught up in taking care of others that they forget to take care of themselves. You may thank yourself (and save yourself from burnout) by taking on a quiet two-hander after a string of busy shows or by taking some time to take on nothing at all.

Also by Erika Morey:
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