Making a career in theater, sans stage
April 14, 2008 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I think I'd like to make a career in the management side of (preferably non-profit) theater. How should I go about doing that?

I'm moving to Chicago in the fall, a town baptized in the birthing fluids of improv. It seems like every improviser who moves there is trying to grab some of the spotlight. But I'd rather be in the office making sure we can afford the spotlight, and maybe figuring out new ways people can use the spotlight. I see that Columbia College has 2 programs that highlight exactly what I'm interested in (Arts in Youth and Community Development or Performing Arts Management), but I'm dubious as to how useful those would be in pursuing a career. I've currently got a B.A. in English with plenty of debt, so I'm only interested in more school insofar as it will equal steady income to slowly (oh god how slowly) pay my loans back. I'm thinking maybe I should try instead to get an MBA and just make arts/ non-profit management my focus, or if that's putting too much faith in the "education = career felicity" equation.

My gut tells me to take a "start from the bottom" approach, but luck plays such an enormous role in that it makes me nervous.

So. Enough exposition. Is it better (read: faster and less costly) to try to get a bottom-rung job and rise up the ranks, or would it behoove me to go to school? If I need to go to school, any recommendations as to programs in Chicago? Heck, I'll even take recommendations outside of Chicago. I'm young-- toss me to the wind.
posted by ictow to Work & Money (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: it better (read: faster and less costly) to try to get a bottom-rung job and rise up the ranks


Only after you've spent a few years "in the trenches" will you know a) whether you even want to stay in this field, and b) what sort of degree will be the most helpful to you.

Work hard to get yourself an entry-level position in the kind of organization you want to work for. In interviews, be honest about your long-term career goals but be clear about your loyalty and enthusiasm in the short term, which is what employers need.

As soon as you're in the field and in the city you want to settle in for the time being, call around to similar organizations and identify people in the sorts of positions you think you want. Set up informational interviews to ask them how they worked their way into their present positions. Note what they say about which experiences were useful, and what they would do differently if they were just entering the field today. Ask what sorts of training and degrees they wish they had had or would recommend.

The nonprofit world, especially in arts and culture, is changing and professionalizing rapidly. It's rare to see someone in a directorship without an advanced degree; but today, that degree is a lot likelier to be in business, nonprofit management, or public administration, where formerly it was probably in a content field.

But either way, you need experience and more awareness of the field before you lay out the expense and make the decision. Plan on working 3-5 years for organizations like the ones you dream of leading, then revisit the graduate-program decision. In the meantime, get your employer(s) to give you as much training as possible - have them train you on finance software, ask to be sent to workshops and conferences, stuff like that. Find out where nonprofits like yours meet and connect - is there a nonprofit leadership group, a chamber of commerce monthly schmoozing night, etc? Get to know everyone you can. Work in one job and volunteer at another similar one. Soak up like a sponge, and then when you do have a newly minted graduate degree, you'll also have real-world experience, which is what's really going to get you those jobs.
posted by Miko at 11:57 AM on April 14, 2008

I work on the management side in a non-profit theater. Some slight differences: it's actually a renovated movie palace from the '20s, so the programming is largely film, concerts, and events. But still. It's non-profit theatrical arts management.

I work in the fundraising/development department. It's a very, very small organization overall, and everybody basically cooperates on everybody else's job, but technically that's what I do. I got my job here the bottom-rung way. I started with a part-time job, popping popcorn at the concessions stand and tearing tickets. They asked for some help with a database project, and I have never let go. I've only been less than a year, and haven't been working here full-time for very long at all, but after months of doing a lot of work for very little money, it's starting to pay off. I love it here. The work environment is fantastic, and I feel good about what I do.

That said: this job would have come a lot easier if I had a degree in arts management or non-profit management or theater management. And my advancement path is fairly flat until I pursue one of those degrees, or some other relevant one (at the time I was studying library and information science, which has helped in other ways). I lucked out, and your perception that most people who start bottom-rung and advance do so because they got lucky? It's right on the money. I'm not necessarily suggesting you go to school. I didn't have what it took to go that route right now. But expect a long, slogging time in the trenches otherwise, and hope that you get a little lucky.
posted by penduluum at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2008

Boston University's MBA program has a special track for non-profit management.

I don't think it's theater-specific, but it might be interesting to at least look at it.
posted by mccxxiii at 1:46 PM on April 14, 2008

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