Last weekend, LMDA (Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas) held their 30th annual conference in NYC at Columbia University. To my great disappointment I was unable to attend the conference but luckily a number of the discussions were streamed online and are now archived on HowlRound.com. I want to respond to one particular discussion that I found especially relevant to my current career-level as a dramaturg and theatre-maker. It was called “Freelancers Unite.” Dramaturg and director Jayne Wenger moderated the panelists: DD Kugler, Amy Handelsman, Nakissa Etemad and Shawn Rene Graham.
As resident dramaturgs and full-time literary management positions are becoming quickly extinct, I have noticed that many people graduating from theatre programs (including myself) have been embarking on freelance careers – maybe not even by choice but more by necessity. This means we have to be more creative with how we market ourselves and be flexible (but clear) with the services that we are trained to offer. One point that came up is the need to “treat yourself as a business and develop a hybrid of skills.” Dramaturgy can take many forms from: securing funding, planning events, script-reading, note-taking, editing scripts, adapting plays, coaching actors, writing press releases, marketing, and preparing grant proposals and collateral for the audience; not to mention directing.
The key is to narrow down the skills that you already have in your back pocket and capitalize on those. Next, would be to name your price for the services you can offer: stand by it, but be willing to negotiate. This is the part where I am stuck. When do you know that you’re ready to make the necessary leap from unpaid intern to freelance dramaturg or creative consultant? Someone at the conference asked the panelists this very question to which they replied a myriad of answers; my personal favorite being “when you’re starting to build a resentment.” DING DING! That’s me folks! I didn’t go into debt for a Master’s in Performance Studies for nothing ya feel me? Another panelist more innocently responded “you’re ready to make the jump when you’ve learned a lot of stuff and are now ready to do stuff.” I fall into both of those categories so let’s get this ball rolling.
How do you bridge the gap and take the leap? As I was mentioning before: narrow down the skills that you already have and commodify them into services that people will pay for. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Although dramaturgs fulfill an infinite number of roles, the essence of what we do is help artists make their work happen. We have to stop and think: what does an artist or an organization need badly enough that they will pay me to do it? I have to say that thinking of theatre-making in this way isn’t the most romantic depiction of how I view my career, but I’m learning that it’s the gritty reality of freelancing. Of course I will always hold onto my passion projects, but all the panelists were quick to emphasize the plain fact that you have got to find a way to pay the rent! No one should feel guilty about that. They urged the audience to always ask for something; the worst that can happen is the potential employer will say no. This is advice that I know I need to hear more often. I may even write it on my mirror so I can see it every morning. I am equipped and good at what I do – thus I should be paid to do it. It’s so easy to feel undeserving of compensation especially if you have never been paid before. However, it has to start somewhere. When you’re just starting to ask for compensation be prepared to be a bit of a bargain. Once your network of “employers” begins to grow then you can start to slowly raise your price as word gets around about how wonderful you are at what you do!
Dramaturgs are good at problem-solving, research, and planning. They are able to focus on the fine details and the larger picture simultaneously. One panelist recommended that you think about what you enjoy doing in your personal life or even what your family and close friends think you’re good at. This could help reveal the inherent dramaturgical skills that you naturally possess. People have said that I’m great at writing sentimental cards, planning events, scrap-booking, and making travel plans. These personal skills could translate to freelance jobs like: grant-writing, artist services, special event planning, and magazine editing or press release layouts. What we call ourselves is also important – some choose story consultant or creative consultant versus dramaturg because it’s more legible across industries. Plus, calling yourself a creative consultant allows space for your services to grow and transform depending on who you are pitching to.
I found the talk to be filled with practical tools for building a freelance career in dramaturgy and I will definitely be putting them into action and creating a list of services and skills that I’m qualified to perform (no pun intended!). Check out the full video below if you want to learn more, its PACKED with info. Hope it helps!