Published January 2021
Theater people are masters of the side hustle. For the most part, we started our professional careers as freelance labor, jumping from one gig to the next. Some folks opt for house jobs with a steady paycheck and an unsteady workload. Others opt to stay freelance and get better at managing the balance between hustling for more work and actually doing the work. No matter what, we pretty universally have our fingers in a medley of projects.
At the beginning of the shutdown, we found ways to survive. Stitchers and costumers made couture masks or mass-produced protective equipment. Sound and lighting techs took a deep dive into the world of online video conferencing – or the world of distance learning. Carpenters started refinishing furniture, building countertops, or remodeling homes. Production managers and stage managers slid naturally towards project management.
But as this Great Intermission drags on, many of us are moving away from our specialties and looking for new careers. Or at least looking for longer-term gigs. We are finding ways to pivot, re-tool, change, and adapt what used to be a side hustle or a pipe dream into a new reality. Like theater, we are conjuring a new world out of thin air.
The search for solutions to living under capitalism and working in a collapsing industry seems to have fallen into three camps: redirect current skills to non-theater related work, bump a hobby or a side hustle up to a full-time gig, or upskill and educate into a new profession.
MJ and Laura Loeffler took their romantic partnership and added in a business partnership. What started out as something to keep busy and make a bit of money during their layoff has expanded to fill the indefinite layoff with indefinite work. Now, their company, The Handy Dyke, is hiring stagehands like an overhire crew – and keeping many of us paid and our skills sharp in the process.
The Handy Dyke hires about seven people regularly and has so far hired just under 25 people to work on various projects. Coordinating all the people to do the labor and doing the labor looks and feels a lot like running crew calls to MJ, who is on indefinite layoff from being Run Crew Supervisor at the Guthrie Theatre. They joke that they need a tech director, because someone needs to handle the technical side while they run from job site to job site. The backend of the business is Laura’s purview. She has had to learn QuickBooks and business taxes, but already understood what it means to produce a project – Laura has produced and directed shows all over the Twin Cities including at the Umbrella Collective and Park Square Theatre.
Jenna Papke has been the executive director of Phoenix Theater since it opened. In the last few years, she’s started providing bookkeeping services as a freelancer. Since she dropped down to 10 hours a month at Phoenix, she’s expanding her bookkeeping side hustle to become a tax preparer. She thinks it is work that she can keep doing, even when theater returns. She is taking this as an opportunity to build something that will support her continued life in the arts, no matter what the future holds.
Amy Rummenie and John Heimbuch form two-thirds of Walking Shadow Theater Company. Together, their household has made ends meet, though they both believe that individually it wouldn’t have been possible. Over the summer, John joined the many out-of-work theater folks in working for the census. In the evenings, he took his one-person telling of Beowulf on a tour of backyards and driveways where he passed the hat. When the weather turned cold and the census ended, Amy’s nascent love of quilting – and the copious amount of sewing she’d done – bloomed into a full-time artisan business. She is creating quilts on commission ranging from classic patterns to t-shirt memory quilts. If she doesn’t have a commission, she creates from her own ideas and sells the results. Though she doesn’t have a website yet, she says this is the most lucrative hobby she’s had and she plans to continue to make and sell quilts, even when she can get back to directing and producing shows. While she has enough financial success to keep the household running, John is working with Walking Shadow Theater Company to follow the trend of 2020 and create new work for a digital platform. Together, they are looking at a more diverse income stream that they hope will make it that much easier to continue to make and produce theater in the future.
And still other people are upskilling or re-skilling or just plain going back to school to step into a new career all together. Stephanie Richards is still hoping to return to her old job in the lighting department at the Guthrie, but she’s also building a backup plan by pursuing a diploma in Data Analytics. She wants to see where an artist can go with Big Data. Right now, she says, data driven solutions are focused on how to make capitalism more efficient. She wants to use data to solve human problems and enrich the world around her. That might include enriching the world of theater, if we can get back to that world.
Learned in the Theater
Theater people are uniquely suited to adapting. We do it all the time. A cue line gets cut during tech or a designer asks for a new form of impossible, and in response we spend some time and learn how to make bird wings flap or how to tie sirens to flashing lights in QLab. We learn a new skill and incorporate it into our repertoire.
But sometimes, we learned the wrong lessons.
For MJ and Laura, The Handy Dyke is proving to be challenging and fulfilling. They are using the skills they acquired through theater to build a new business. But the old, bad habits learned in theater creep in too. The habit of pushing to the edge and filling every gap in the day with work have seeped in around the edges of this new endeavor. MJ often works weekends, and Laura picks up the administrative tasks after putting their daughter to bed for the night.
MJ is reading Harry Potter to their daughter. Every night, they spend half an hour together reading. This is a new tradition since the beginning of the shutdown and one that MJ treasures. They are home to put their daughter to bed – a far cry from toothbrushing via facetime during tech weeks.
MJ and Laura aren’t sure what this means for their long-term theater careers. Neither is Stephanie. For all of them, this pause has allowed them to find a better balance of work and home. There is now time for dinners together and family game time and hikes through the parks. Those didn’t used to be an option.
All of this raises the question of what will our industry look like when we come back?
Can we find a balance between our love of theater and our other loves?
Can we take this time to create sustainable change in how we treat ourselves and each other?
If we don’t, many people who have turned a side-hustle into a full-time job or taken this pause to go back to school may not return to our industry. They may find that the new business is a better fit for their families or their lives.