One of the biggest concerns I see Stage Managers grapple with is the uncertainty of freelancing. The worry and stress affects everyone, whether you have been freelancing for 13 years, or you have only just begun in the industry.
After graduating from university, I worked for 13 years as a freelancing Stage Manager. When offered a full-time gig with a theatre company, the security and the steady pay cheque (not to mention the annual leave – woohoo!) was something I had never even dreamt could be in my future.
Four years of full-time stage management nearly burned me out and my family was suffering from the continually disruptive hours. I decided it was time to prioritise my family and kids again, so after a sabbatical, I’m now heading back into the freelance labyrinth. And all of those fears and worries about freelancing are coming back. The very day I made the decision that the sabbatical was over, I started having those anxiety dreams where your teeth all fall out, or you try and make a phone call and the buttons on the phone fall off.
So what is it that I fear? For me it is basics. Can I earn enough to feed my family? Will anyone employ me? What if there’s not enough gigs around? Will I ever be able to take a holiday again?
After being a successful freelancer for years, these questions haunt me as much as they did when I first started out, even though I know there’s a shortage of experienced SMs in Australia. I’ve experienced the quiet times and I know how to stretch my money through the busy times so I have money in the breaks between gigs. Rationally I know the way to get by as a freelancer, but the fear doesn’t seem to disappear. I now realise I have to accept the fear as part of the deal, but continually remind myself that I know what to do, it will all be okay. Here are some things I have learned along the way, that won’t necessarily take away the fear, but reduce the hardships.
Tools and tips for Freelancing Stage Managers
Something will happen. No-one wants to employ a grumpy stage manager who always complains about not getting enough work. Staying positive will not only help you get gigs, will improve your outlook and will make it easier to be good at your gig when you get it.
You are only as good as your last gig.
Yes, this is a phrase that we all hear and use way too often, but it is true. You need to do the best at your job all the time. No excuses. People will offer you work if they see how great you are.
When the money is coming in, don’t spend all of it. In subsidised and non-commercial theatre our salaries are terrible, so work out the minimum you need to live on and live on that. Then put the rest into an account that isn’t linked to your ATM card. If it is difficult to spend, you won’t spend it. Having those savings to live off when there’s not work is the lifesaver. The bonus for Stage Managers is that when you are working you’ll be so busy that there’s no time to spend money.
Don’t take non-stage management gigs.
Okay, I’m saying this as a hirer, not as a freelancer, but if you take a regular casual gig in retail or the likes, you won’t be available to say ‘yes’ when the work comes up. If you can find an employer flexible enough to deal with you coming and going, well good on you. You need to be ready to ditch that casual job (and the income) as soon as the gig comes up. I’ve seen people make it work, but I’ve also seen people get stuck in retail, bar work or whatever and they are so attached to the regular pay that they turn down SM gigs. Don’t take your eye off the big picture here!
Block out holidays.
This seems a little crazy when there seems like there is no work on the horizon, but one job often leads to another. Then you find yourself without a break for a year or more and you are on your way to burning out. It’s not good for your physical or mental health. Try to block out some holiday time and stick to it. It will make you better at your next job (see point above about only being as good as your last gig).
Look after your friends.
Non-industry friends don’t get it. And that’s okay. They won’t understand when you disappear during tech weeks. Just be clear with them. Warn them when you will be busy and not contactable, then when you are available again, make sure you give them a call and organise a chance to catch up. Don’t leave it up to them, they don’t need to memorise your crazy calendar. Then you can use the breaks between work to hang out and enjoy them again. Friendships are invaluable and they will get you through the tough times, so look after them.
Something arts workers are notoriously bad at is negotiating good contracts. I’ve definitely become better at it over time. Don’t settle for the first thing the hirer offers. Ask for what you’re worth. You can always negotiate back down again if you think you are in danger of losing the gig, but it is always worth asking. An important note – don’t forget to check the overtime clauses. A few times I’ve signed away my overtime and realised that my hourly rate then becomes less than the minimum wage.
Say yes to everything. Then say no.
Take all the gigs – the more gigs you do, the more you will get. You’ll be busy. It will be wonderful. Then you need to start to say no. Realise that overlapping productions may not be the best idea, even though it’s exciting to be in demand. One of the reasons I’m returning to freelancing is to have better control over when I am working and when I’m not.
Stay true to your word.
If you say you are going to do a gig, do it. But what if a better offer comes up? Too bad, let someone else have it. I’ve only dropped out of one gig in my 17 years of stage managing and that was to take the full-time job I mentioned earlier. If you are not sure if you are going to be able to do the gig, don’t say yes, be honest, and explain your reasons. Companies are more flexible with dates than you may think – especially if they really want you. Years ago I had an ASM pull out of a gig one week before rehearsals started because they were offered a contract that was a few weeks longer. In my books that’s not okay and tarnishes your reputation. Stick to your word. Integrity is a quality that is scarce but valuable.
Maintain your qualifications & certificates.
Keep your first aid up to date and any other licences or qualifications you might have. They help your employability, and give you something to occupy yourself when there’s no work.
Connect with people.
Yes the old ‘networking’ thing. Sounds boring. It is. So don’t do it that way. Make yourself available by telling everyone you are looking for work. Get together for a drink with someone in the industry. Go and see some shows (if you can afford it – or make use of the cheap days or matinees). Just keeping your face around is enough sometimes to remind people that you’re available and interested.
There’s nothing wrong with a co-op or profit-share.
This is for those who are just starting out. If you have a gap in your schedule, or nothing on the horizon, get in touch with some performers that are making new and exciting work and offer your services for a cut of the profits. You can practice your craft and build contacts and friendships that last a lifetime. Some of my first paid gigs came from people I had worked with in co-ops. It’s as good as a secondment (or work placement), but you get more responsibility.
Freelancing isn’t easy, it takes work and effort. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I’ve seen the fear of freelancing overtake people to the point they drop-out of the industry altogether. Maybe that is good for them, maybe it’s a lifestyle that doesn’t suit them. But if stage managing is something you were born to do, then freelancing doesn’t have to be the trial that the fear makes us believe.