Thursday, December 10, 2009

On regional theatre- Part 1 The things I miss

Right out of college I worked at a mid-sized non-equity regional theatre, and now after a year of working freelance I'd like to talk about the differences, benefits and challenges.

First off. I loved most of my time at the theatre. We had a resident costume shop manager, Tech director, sound designer, stage manager and two addition scene shop staff (1st season carp and props, 2nd season two carps and I doubled as props and TD), a resident ME the first season, a managing director the second season and 4 tech interns. There were lighting, set and costume designers who came back for multiple shows and almost all of the shows were directed by the artistic director or one of the resident acting company.

Since leaving to work freelance the thing I miss most is being part of a team. With the heavy work load (we opened one show per month March-December and ran an intense murder mystery on top of that October-April) we became a team immediately and the longer we worked together the more we learned about each other, refined the system and developed a support system. The resident technicians were able to meet every morning to start the day with a run down of where we were in the process, what our plans were for the day, and what help we needed.

Working freelance that luxury of communication and understanding is missing. Most of the theatres where I work, the designers have worked together maybe two or three times and they are only ever all in the same place at production meetings (if you're lucky) and during tech. Much of the work takes place off site and I may not see any of another department's process between preliminary design drawings and final product; between then a lot can change. Everyone does their best to communicate, but the person they communicate with is the production manager. The production manager shares information when they think it might help or be relevant, but in the end it is impossible for them to share everything and it is impossible for them to know everything that might help another designer.

In a regional theatre, with all the shops on the same property it was easy to stop into the other shops. This simple question of location meant that we always had a panel of experts at our fingertips. If I had a question about a prop involving sewing I could walk to the costume shop and sit down with the costume shop manager to discuss how to tackle the problem. I could also use her sewing machines, thread and notions if I needed. On the flip side she could come to me when she was working on a bigger costume crafts item. We worked together to create the plan for a giant spider costumes for our children's show out of extra PVC and hinges I had in stock. We were then able to talk to the sound guy (who knew quite a bit about lights) to find some supplies in stock to make wireless glowing eyes.

Working freelance that network doesn't exist. As a props master I need to have my own sewing machine, do most of the work for any electrical needs (within practial props) myself, build the furniture myself, and take care of any costume crafts that fall into the props world on my own. This is not to say that the people I am working with are not collaborative, kind people, who are willing to help when I ask; I have met some of the best theatre artists in the world here in Chicago, but I am saying that as much as I love workng with them, I don't work with them enough. I feel much more like we are working on concurrent projects, than a part of a team .

Another thing I miss is the coordination of projects. One of the biggest challenges of working freelance is working for multiple theatres at the same time. It can be very difficult to keep all the balls in the air as you are working through the process, and no one you are working with is in the same boat. Everyone is busy with multiple projects (or possibly a single project and a day job), and has different priorities. I miss the regional theatre where when things got hectic there was a built in support system. When October and November rolled around we would have to open two mainstage shows and our murder mystery within a 6 week span. Most people would go over a month without a single day off work, but we were in it together. As stressful as the work was, there was a support system of people who were going through the exact same thing that you were and so understood when you got stressed/ tired/ overwhelmed. As a freelance worker I feel I have far less outlet for the stress and frusteration. I try more often to keep those emotions from my coworkers and in turn I probably place alot more stress and pressure on myself.

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