At Last, a Director’s Career Guide

1rNqYkVDQuq1BbChqkqUegThe reference materials in the SDC Foundation‘s Stage Directors Handbook (2nd edition: 2005) were certainly useful, and K Callan’s Directing Your Directing Career (last updated 19 years ago) was a well-meaning effort. But we have long needed a book with serious, well informed, step-by-step career advice for talented, educated, trained stage directors seeking professional opportunities.

That need has been met by Kent Thompson‘s worthy new book, Directing Professionally: A Practical Guide to Developing a Successful Career in Today’s Theatre (2019). The latest in Jim Volz’s “Introductions to Theatre” series from Methuen Drama, Thompson’s book devotes much of its length to a useful description of the directorial process as it unfolds specifically in professional (as opposed to amateur or educational) theatre. It is the substantial portion devoted specifically to the business of career development, however, that most captures my interest.

Thompson is highly qualified to illuminate the path of the freelance director, having come to know it well both as a freelancer himself and as an artistic director who hired scores if not hundreds of directors, first at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, then for a  long stint at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and finally for more than a decade at the Tony Award-winning Theatre Company of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He shares his insights intelligently, clearly, and compassionately, with admirable attention to the ethics of the journey.

Thompson begins with some valuable context, delineating the difference between nonprofit and commercial theatre, for example, listing cities with enough professional theatre activity to make them viable as possible home bases, introducing the unions and collective bargaining agreements, describing the role of the agent and dismissing the practicality of a personal manager for almost any stage director, and–crucially–bringing down to earth any unrealistic earnings expectations the reader may hold. Quoting Laura Penn, executive director of our labor union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), Thompson puts freelance directing in financial context:

“‘In 2016…. On average, [SDC members directing for professional nonprofit theatres] earned $14,695.04 (gross) through their work directing…. [Only] 9 percent made $40,000 or more. There are exactly three freelance directors working in the non-profits who earned $100,000 last year…. Obviously most, if not all, freelance directors are also teaching, temping, or running Airbnbs out of their homes.'”

Since Thompson advises that the reader “travel to other countries and visit other cultures,” attend as much theatre as possible, and do other important things that are not usually free, thank goodness he discusses the best “survival jobs” in some detail.

Annotated lists of tactics for “finding a pathway forward” toward professional directing opportunities (“Assist experienced directors,” “Become the entrepreneur of your own career,” “Direct workshops and readings…,” “Direct anywhere and everywhere,” etc.) and “finding a mentor” (“Don’t stalk!”) set the tone for the book’s most practical facets. An interesting chapter on interviewing and negotiating arrangements for an initial professional gig follows.

After a chunky middle section about directorial process (drawing some useful distinctions about how it goes in professional theatres in particular, which is sensible since many directors new to professional productions will have had most of their experience in academic settings where things may be done somewhat differently), Thompson gets into what is, for me, the juiciest part of his book. “Finding Your Next Directing Job(s)” (Chapter 8) has some of the most specific and practical guidance that I’ve ever seen on career development for freelance directors. Discussions of “Finding agents and advocates,” keeping in touch with mentors and potential producers, social media and networking, circumstances that can lead to subsequent employment, staying current in the field while making a living (usually in a “day job” of some sort), and living an itinerant artistic life are the very topics I’ve long wanted to share with students and early-career directors (and certainly could have used myself a decade or three ago). A sensible chapter on self-care and continuous artistic/professional learning follows. Most of the last part of the book is devoted to an insightful discussion of pursuing and starting a full-time staff position of artistic leadership at a professional theatre. For those who can expect to be seriously considered for the position of artistic director at a large regional theatre, it’s invaluable.

But, to be blunt, that’s a vanishingly small number of people, which brings me to one thing that worries me a little about the book. I feel it would be important to keep going back and re-reading that quote from Laura Penn while absorbing Thompson’s advice for developing a directing career. As sensible as his guidance is, it creates an atmosphere of normality about this career path which I just haven’t seen in the time I’ve spent around professional theatre. If an earnest and ambitious young director, no matter how talented and hard-working, were to follow Thompson’s suggestions by the numbers, they* might expect to find themselves getting a string of guest directing gigs and maybe even an opportunity to become an artistic director. And the truth is, that is unlikely to happen without the intervention of a lot of luck and maybe some privilege and even a dollop of who-you-know. In fairness I should remember that Thompson writes at some length about fallow periods, survival jobs, and strategies for staying creatively active and psychologically/socially/spiritually healthy, and these too are helpful passages.

It is not a complaint to say that the vast majority of Thompson’s career advice boils down to networking, and networking, and networking some more. It only makes sense: no one hires a director from a resumé. Potential mentors, agents, and advocates as well as producers have got to see your work to gain confidence in and pinpoint the style of your artistic product. They’ve got to get to know you as a person (and by reputation) to get a sense of how you will relate to actors, other collaborators, and staff members. They’ve got to get to know your approach, ideas, passions, ideals, and lived values. Beyond question, they’ve got to be sure of your work ethic and trustworthiness. If your show in Seattle got a great review you’ve got to get it in front of that artistic director in Atlanta or it won’t matter in their decision. Thompson vividly describes the balancing act needed to position an emerging director in the consciousness of producers and their influential advisors without being so aggressive as to alienate those decision makers and the people they trust. Thompson’s book stands out from others by providing straightforward, clear, common-sense, specific networking tactics in an encouraging, caring tone.

I honestly doubt that it’s realistic for anyone to expect to make a good living just by directing plays and musicals (the exceptions may be outnumbered by lottery winners). The most successful professional directors that I know are also some combination of teachers, playwrights, actors, arts administrators, dramaturgs, stage managers, casting directors, designers, theatre technicians, assistant/associate directors, musicians, choreographers, producers, coaches, professionals in related forms (opera, film, television, dance, etc.) and/or authors (like Kent Thompson, come to think of it).

When it comes to the part of such a career that’s comprised of stage directing, though, Thompson’s Directing Professionally is an indispensable guide. For every emerging director, this book is a must-read.

*I’m still trying to get used to using “they” as a singular pronoun. But I’m doing it, so here you go.