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December 15, 2011 8:13 AM   Subscribe

[College/Career Filter] How do I guide my HS daughter in her ambitions towards Theater production?

Hi all, after a few years of school plays working primarily behind the scenes, my daughter is leaning heavily towards pursuing a career in theater production. Listening to her talk about it, you can tell she’s really jazzed about the madness and mayhem of live production. She doesn't necessarily want to be on the stage or in front of the camera. It’s managing/coordinating the behind-the-scenes stuff that really gets her going.

I imagine career-wise this would also be in the same neighborhood as TV, radio, movie, documentary production which is also of great interest. Her second love is photography which also could benefit her ambitions.

The thing is, I have no clue what direction to guide her in. I'm in manufacturing/engineering, mom's a nurse. Her guidance counselor is also of limited use. She just turned 17 and is a HS Junior, so time’s a’ticking.

So the question is this: What would you call this kind of career path? What kind of a college education are we looking at here? What colleges are know for this type of career? What kind of education do the people that work in this field generally have? (daddy question: Is there any money in this?)

We are near NYC and routinely make trips there since the kids were babies (hence her interests in the arts - woohoo!). She is very comfortable with Manhattan.

Any guidance and/or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
posted by jamesalbert to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
"Stagecraft" might be the term to look for -- it's usually part of a theater department within a school of fine arts -- at least within a university. This involves all the "support" work for productions for the stage/video/film (set design, costume design, stage management, etc.).

It's not what I studied, but I had friends in this program at the big state U. I attended in the midwest. There were some great lighting/sound/costume people among them and they all have been gainfully employed. Not always lucratively, but they always seems to find work.

I'm sure there are tons of wonderful programs in the NYC area. If she's excited about it -- good for her!

Good luck!
posted by pantarei70 at 8:26 AM on December 15, 2011

For more career options later, maybe consider something like majoring in non-profit management and minoring in theater arts.
posted by glibhamdreck at 8:26 AM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

A very good friend of mine went through UCLA's theater design program and is now an award-winning stage designer. This involved everything from designing sets to hammering them together, to standing backstage and handling props and costumes. I think this is exactly the kind of thing you're looking for.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:43 AM on December 15, 2011

daddy question: Is there any money in this?

Depending on how flexible she is, yes. Not in theater itself, necessarily but the skills you learn in theater production are incredibly transferable. There are always jobs available for people who have the technical chops to put on a show. Good lighting and sound technicians are hard to come buy, people who know how to get a project involving a lot of people delivered on time and on budget, people who know how to market and sell tickets, people who know how to book and manage 'talent', people who understand design, etc.

She might end up building convention displays and presentations for a fortune 500 company, or she might end up being a talent agent, or she might end up doing lighting design for nightclubs instead of working on broadway, but I would not worry about there not being a job market for the skills she develops. Working backstage is a much safer career path with a lot more fall-back options available than being an actor.

It's also not work that can be easily outsourced or automated.
posted by empath at 8:43 AM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is my advice for High School students that know (or think they know) what career they want while they are in High School:

Do The Thing.

Find some way, any way, to get real, resume-worthy experience in the field. Internship (if you can afford to work for free), part-time job if not. My wife knew in high school that she wanted to be a Veterinary Technician, so she got a job in a pet shop cleaning cages. Once she started her vet tech program in college, she got a job as a tech assistant in a nearby vet clinic. In college she did several internships (required by her program, but still). Since then, she has never been turned down for a single job and has often had employers create new jobs for her when they learned she was interested, because she had tons of experience.

In this case, I'd look into volunteering at the local community theater and the local cable access channel, and start aiming for a summer internship at a local network affiliate or a nearby professional theater.

If you have actual hands-on experience Doing The Thing, that is much more appealing to employers than any kind of educational experience.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:44 AM on December 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

*pulls up chair and sits down*

I get the sense that she doesn't quite know what she wants to do backstage -- which is fine, because most high schools don't scratch the surface. Even if you never step on stage there is a HUGE array of different kinds of work for theater.

She could join the administration/production end-- and could end up handling business development and fundraising for the company (that role is called "Development director", and BOY HOWDY is it important), handling the individual contracts and paperwork for each production (depending on who you talk to, this is either "general manager" or "production manager"), being the overall producer for each production -- tackling the hiring/personell decisions and plotting out the budget and such ("producer"), or doing the managerial stuff for the company at large, by securing the staff for each show and overseeing the general business ("company manager").

If she's of a more literary bent, there's also what I do, which is "literary manager" -- you're the one who reads all the scripts you get sent by playwrights and reporting back to people saying "Okay, THESE are good, and THESE suck"; you also work with the artistic head of the company to figure out each season's offerings ("okay, you wanted this season to be about 'stereotypes' -- here's some shows I recommend; you've got a mix of classics here, plus these two new scripts from that guy who's been sending us stuff since 2009. These are actually good and we can give him a chance, I think.") There's also an in-house-researcher-for-each-production role called "Dramaturg" -- I also used to do that, and did everything from present some basic info for the cast at the first rehearsal about the topic at hand ("hi -- so you're all playing congressmen from 1911. Here's how the political scene looked then..."), make up some lobby displays on the same topic for the audience, and made myself available for questions from the cast and crew (everything from "did guys in 1911 wear their beards like this" to "I need a list of corrupt politicians to make a sort of fake 'monument' for the set").

The "stagecraft" pantarei mentions above can get you anywhere from stage manager (I also did that -- the hours are long and the involvement is all-consuming, but the power is AWESOME), stagehand, designers, dressers, electricians, construction, and any one of a number of roles, depending on whether you want a more design role, build things, set up and maintain lights, maintain all the costumes and help casts with quick changes, sew things, or (as stage manager) oversee all that and then some.

Since you say she's more into managing and coordinating, I'd suggest either stage management (if she wants to manage and coordinate the actual physical/human elements of a production) or the administrative end (if she wants to manage the business end of things). There's a small degree of administrative work in stage management as well.

As a general theater-school recommendation -- NYU's drama program is really good at the undergrad level. Their emphasis is not just on acting, but on introducing the students to "so, here's all the OTHER things you can do in theater...." and quite often students who weren't doing as well in the acting end of things started finding their way to "Huh. Dramaturgy. I hadn't thought of that." You can also sign up to be in NYU's drama program on the "tech track," which gives you the same "general exposure to the industry" but teaches you about the technical side of things rather than the onstage/performance side. You may learn something about performance, as a "so you understand what your casts are going through" kind of thing, but the emphasis on the "tech track" is on backstage and technical stagecraft. After that, there are programs aplenty in theater/arts administration, if she decides she wants to go that route, there are a lot of technical programs elsewhere as well (my business partner in theater went to Yale for his grad work, but as a designer), or you can just cross your fingers and jump in (there are internships via NYU, and you're at ground zero for "we just graduated and we want to start our own company").

If you have any questions about NYU, New York non-profit theater, or stage management in particular, memail me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on December 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oh, I just noticed the NYC proximity. Well, that is perfect. You've got a huge range of theaters and other entertainment venues to help your daughter apply to for jobs and internships. Make sure she is leaning on her Drama teacher(s) for networking possibilities when it comes to finding out where there are opportunities. Do The Thing.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:51 AM on December 15, 2011

Entertainment Engineering is very lucrative in major cities. Most people don't even know it exists.

I'd recommend that she double major, as most behind-the-scenes theater work (at least here in Vegas and in L.A.) is performed by people who a) have no education; and b) are willing to work for little money (the hours are great, though).
posted by coolguymichael at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2011

Oh -- and as for the money: it REALLY depends on what she does, and how lucky she is. I can only offer anecdotal evidence about people I know.

* A lot of us have "day jobs". But, since about 60% of all office temps and clerical workers are actually doing that work to support theater, every major corporation in New York sort of knows this. So "barista" is not her only day job option. In fact, administrative/coordinating experience in theater could be an "in" to an office job -- a director I know has an office job coordinating special events for the Susan Komen foundation, and my roommate turned her own development experience to a job writing grants for NYU's law school. And my Yale-graduate lighting designer friend earns his bread and butter by designing lighting for corporate events and doing occasional TV work.

* Actors and stage managers are in the same union. And if you get 20 weeks' worth of union work in a calendar year, that's enough to get you a years' worth of health insurance through the union, as well as get a payment into a pension plan. The weekly salary FOR those union contracts may not be a HUGE amount of money, but it is dealable if you're young and starting out and can continue to build on that. She won't be rich, but she can get by without TOTALLY starving. (And the union gives occasional bonuses to stage managers automatically because they are assuming -- often correctly -- that we are working like crazy.)

* If you're willing to leave New York, the regional theater scene can be a bit easier to break into in terms of finding work.

As ever, memail me for more questions.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:04 AM on December 15, 2011

It sounds like she's interested in stage management, which is basically being in charge of all the performances, being organized, and making sure everything both on and backstage is running smoothly. It's hectic and mad but amazing if you love that kind of thing. There are a lot of great internships in stage management all over the place, especially during college vacations and immediately after graduation (I know Portland Stage, in Maine, is a great one.) I went to SUNY New Paltz, which has a very good technical theatre/design/management program. The vast majority of the graduates who I knew are either in grad school in their fields or are getting work (and not just in NYC, all over the country.) Feel free to contact me if you want to know more.
posted by Emms at 10:04 AM on December 15, 2011

I don't know if they have a student program, but I might contact AACT, the American Assocation of Community Theater. Most theater jobs aren't in NYC, after all.

If she's more interested in the technical (rather than the performer management) aspects your daughter might look at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (link goes to my friend's local). He works all sorts of events, from stage shows to corporate events to professional sports, doing all sorts of jobs from rigging to electrical, to running the lights or sound. It can be hard work, but my friend enjoys it.
posted by postel's law at 11:04 AM on December 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, thank you, thank you! Just a quick note... I'm heading out the door to pick her up from school and take her back this evening for a crew meeting tonight. It's spring play season now ya'know! This is great stuff!
posted by jamesalbert at 11:36 AM on December 15, 2011

This is only vaguely related, but it does relate to your question about career paths. I went to a private school in NYC with a very high proportion of professional children, mostly actors. A lot of these kids went into theatre in college and a couple of them went down interesting, non-acting career paths after college. One designs and builds kind of amazing sets and stands for exhibitions, from car launches to the awesome stands you see for major gaming companies at trade shows and cons. The other one stages things like major band tours and, weirdly, the Republican National Convention. Oh, and someone else works for Disney, doing whatever you call set design for rides. None of those careers are in theatre but all of them require a background in theatre to do well.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:30 PM on December 15, 2011

Theatre career paths are WEIRD. I mean, not the careers in theatre, but the sort of experience you build up just gets parlayed into all sorts of skills. I'm a former scenic designer and tech director that called it all "project management" and ended up a project manager/paralegal. And there are plenty of creative industries where that experience would have done well too.

I agree with all the advice to just do it. Crew school plays, work for community theatres. If she decides to major in theatre in college, intern EVERY summer, if possible! And work all the time! I lucked out and went to a small private liberal arts school that provided work study opportunities in the scene shop and in the performing arts center(that also hosted outside shows).
posted by sawdustbear at 5:45 PM on December 15, 2011

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