Freelancing fear

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

Stay positive.

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.

Budgeting.

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.

Negotiate.

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.

 

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A seven year old’s perspective

My son asked me this morning, ‘what does your tongue do?’

I described how it helps you form the rights sounds at the right time so you can speak, it helps you chew your food and when it’s the right time, it helps you swallow.

He face was astonished, ‘Wow! The tongue is the Stage Manager of your mouth!’

#MeToo

In addition to personal experience, I have witnessed sexual harassment happen at work, in the streets, on public transport and many more places. I’ve seen it happen to straight women and people from the LGBTQI community. I’ve also seen people’s careers decided on their willingness to go along with it.

Until now I have never felt brave enough to speak up, especially about what I’ve witnessed in the theatre industry, because I know that it can have dire consequences for people’s lives and careers. These are difficult conversations to have, but we’ll have to have them if anything is going to change.

Many young ASMs (myself included) have experienced actors who have joked to them something along the lines of, ‘I’d be able to prepare for my scene better if you took all your clothes off’. Even with the joking tone, it is too much.

I’ve once had an internationally famous singer tell me that all the women on side of stage needed to come onstage and dance naked in the rain. I’ve been told by my superior that my career could be boosted by going on a date with him. I’ve seen highly unqualified people given highly qualified technical work because of their not-so-secret relationship with the person hiring them. All of these scenarios are not okay. We joke and gossip about it, but what can we really do to stop it?

Many times I have felt too uncomfortable to come forward as the person at fault has more power than me. In an industry that relies on reputation as a way of getting the next gig, how can you tarnish your reputation by being a whistleblower? Every time I chose silence as a method of career self-preservation. I wasn’t willing to risk my livelihood over it. And, in a way, to risk my career over it felt like giving in to it.

The power in these relationships is the main element that is difficult to extract. If someone has your career in your hand, speaking up is near-impossible, as you have no power and they have it all.

In the past I’ve always dealt with these situations by laughing it off, making a joke, or standing up for myself and walking away. But maybe that isn’t enough.

How can we support people to speak out when they are so vulnerable? Or even better, how can we prevent it from happening to them in the first place?

Stage Management Resources

There are a lot of Stage Management books out there to teach us about our craft, but sometimes it is hard to find the best ones. I haven’t read every one of them (obviously), but of those I have read, I have some favourites.

Here is my list of top 5 Theatre and Stage Management books:

This book has been essential throughout my career. I was introduced to it by a teacher and her copy was so worn, I could tell I needed to get a copy; I am forever grateful for being introduced to it. It is full of diagrams and technical names for everything we use in the theatre from stage layouts to fixings, lashing flats to types of drapes. Nothing is really left out.

(Note: UK terminology is used, which doesn’t apply everywhere. Keep your eye out for some ‘dad-jokes’ in there too.)

An oldie but a goodie. This is a very good entry level book for Stage Management. If you have some experience in Stage Management, this will be too basic for you but if you are someone who is just starting out it gives a very accessible introduction into how to do general stage management tasks. Excellent for high-school drama departments to keep on the shelf.

This book is full of very useful information for anyone practicing stage management, either professional, student or amateur. Again very UK oriented, but can apply anywhere. It has a lot of practical information too as it includes useful templates and checklists.

From a US perspective this book has more modern references than the others. There is sometimes a resistance amongst some people to move with the times, but times change and I believe that Stage Management should evolve too. It is used as a text book in some training organisations and is evident that it is written from people with a lot of experience.

This one is a bit of an odd inclusion, but Stage Managers often feel like they are managing chaos. If you want to get an insight into what Stage Managers sometimes have to deal with, this is the book for you. I’ve had to deal with a number of similar occurrences, but never all on the one production! It’s a fun look at what wrangling creativity can look like.

 

I’d love to hear of some of your favourite Stage Management books. Leave a comment below with any reading suggestions.

The Sistine Chapel of Stage Management

I had a designer ask me once, ‘What is your Sistine Chapel?’ We had been talking about some of the shows we worked on, and why they were special to us, and he wanted to find out which show for me had been my pièce de résistance. I had never thought about it before, and it got me thinking. Some shows are just so special that whenever you think about them, you start to glow. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of these, but what is it about them that makes them hold a piece of your heart?

For a long time I’ve been trying to work it out, and for me, I think it comes down to these key ingredients:

Quality
Some of the hardest shows I have worked on have been the most magical because they have something important to say. They have taken every ounce of my (and everyone else’s) energy, but they are meaningful pieces of work that touch audience’s hearts. Often they are the premiere of a new script and there are a multitude of problems that need to be solved along the way, but they bring you together to create something exciting. They are the kind of show that people ring you about three weeks later saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about that play’. When the Rain Stops Falling was one of these for me. An intensely beautiful script, transcendent music, detailed direction, and an evocative set supported the powerful and profound performances by the cast. From the start we knew that there was something special in this brand new work, and being a part of it was like having a constant tingle in your fingertips. For me this is the biggest contributing factor to a Sistine Chapel show; knowing that you are involved in creating a work that makes people think or feel something new is one of the main reasons I love theatre.

Good people
Sometimes a group of people come together and they just click. It can be a company of two or a company of 20, or even a smaller group within a bigger cast and crew. Most people in theatre know that feeling when a show company becomes your family.  As with all families, there are confrontations and differences, however sometimes the most diverse groups are the most cohesive. But when you have a group of people who can manage those differences in a way that brings them closer together, it can feel incredible. They know you better than anyone else, and they understand when you want to chat and when you need time alone. They know how to make you laugh, they know your deepest fears. The ultimate is when you have a group like that on tour. You really feel like a travelling circus family. It’s difficult to describe, but it is a very deep connection that I’ve not found elsewhere.

There is, however, a shadow side to having such a tight-knit theatre family. When closing night arrives, saying goodbye can be tough. Over the years it has become easier, but there is a period of mourning afterwards. After spending every day with the same people, who feel like a part of you, all of a sudden you’re not seeing them every day. Everyone returns to their home cities and your theatre family disappears from your life. For some it can bring a real period of sadness and melancholy and learning to deal with this is important. I’ve found keeping in contact with people over the coming days with just a text message, or a funny email can help slow down the abrupt break in contact.

A busy show
The 39 Steps was so busy, but it was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever called from prompt corner. It is by no means a thought-provoking, meaningful production, but it is a fun romp that is even more fun backstage. It was an endless series of major scene changes with only a small crew. One in particular was so difficult that the crew only just managed to set the scenery and props before I needed to call out the cloth each night. At one point during early dress rehearsals, I looked into the upstage wing and found that the entire crew was standing doubled over, puffing and laughing. It was the first time they had made the scene change in time, and it gave us an enormous sense of achievement. The adrenaline ride that the show took us on each night was addictive, and I looked forward to going in to call it each night.

On the flip side, when cast and crew get bored, it can put a dampener on everything. You can tell people aren’t happy – they start mucking up, and then there’s discipline required from Stage Management. There are ways to prevent it though. Five years ago I worked on a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, where the entire crew had no cue for over an hour. By the end of the first week everyone was getting very bored, and started using the time to rate the nightly performances (bad idea – see A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette). So we decided to do something together to pass the time. We decided to knit. Those who didn’t know how to knit learned, and those who did know helped the others. Knitting was good because we could still pay attention to the show and it was easy to put down if something went wrong. It seems like a silly thing now, but that ended up being a great season in the end, and it’s all because we found our way through what was, from a backstage perspective, a very quiet show.

So, how to choose my Sistine Chapel? I don’t know if I can. Each show means something different to me. One show is where I made some of my most lasting friendships, one show is where I laughed the most, one show is the one that took hold of my heart and still hasn’t let go, one show had me addicted to the adrenaline, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second child, one show where we danced the hokey-pokey every night at the beginner’s call, one show where we toured for so long I forgot which venue we were in, one show where it was just four of us and we drank two fingers of top-shelf whiskey after every show in the dressing room talking about the world.

So my Sistine Chapel is not just one production. Instead, it is the accumulation of memories, intangible moments and feelings; layers of brushstrokes that together form the complete work.