Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is There a Corporate Bias Against Theater Artists?

I once was an Advertising Manager for a local community newspaper group. I'll never forget one particular off-hand comment I got from a boss during one of my mostly positive reviews. I was sharing the fact that I had some frustrations over struggling with a particular client and one of his responses was "you may want to be less involved with that theater thing you do"! My head was spinning. Those words rang in my head - still do..."that theater thing". Like it was an activity as foreign as Maori tattoo rituals or as mysterious as pagan fertility ceremonies. No less shocking and equally as offensive was the fact that this man actually equated my involvement in the arts - on my own time - as a detriment as opposed to an asset. I never gave him the chance to explain what he meant because I pounced like a nervous cat and immediately explained how my involvement in COMMUNITY theater could actually help someone working at a COMMUNITY newspaper! I continued to explain that I would think a media outlet would appreciate having creative, organized people who were involved and connected to their communities and the arts. At the same time I was verbally explaining the value of the arts in our communities I was thinking "I can't believe I'm having to explain the value of the arts in our communities to this guy". But this illustrated a bigger question that I wish I could say I only asked myself this one time. Do some employers (outside of the arts world , of course) have biases AGAINST theater artists? And if so, what can the theater artist seeking a job in the corporate world do? I think there are negative stereotypes associated with "theater people" and truth be told, we, said people, probably could do more to help the situation.

I have always had a corporate job and still do as a Director of Sales and Marketing for a medical supply company. Somehow, other (more mainstream?) extracurricular activities never raise an eyebrow. Golf, for instance, is not only accepted, but expected in the corporate sector. And I know many people who spend just as much of their free time (and not so little work time) on a golf course as I might in a theater. Other community or civic groups like Kiwanis or Lions clubs are positive beacons on a resume (as they should be). Why then, is community theater - which offers so many positive things to a community - such a mysterious eccentricity that I, personally have felt I needed to keep under my hat on more than one occasion? In another interview situation, for instance, the interviewer told me (thankfully before I divulged my dark obsession with the evil art of theater) that the last person who held the job didn't work out for different reasons, not the least of which was that he was involved with theater and the boss felt that took up too much of his time. I've always felt that the only other people who get to have an opinion about what "too much"of my OWN time is are my wife and kids - but I digress.

First let's look at ourselves as theater artists and what we might be doing to contribute to this phenomenon. Then let's look at a couple things we can do to help improve our situation.

Let's face it,we theater people ARE eccentric. It's this beautiful, skewed perception of the world around us that so often is our strength in creating great art - a wonderful gift that sometimes doesn't fit in so well within the walls of a cubicle or a three-piece suit. The rules of the "real" world often don't seem to apply within the walls of a theatre. Indeed we often have to throw off inhibitions of everyday life to achieve bigger-than-life things on stage. But sometimes we don't know when to flip the switch and get back into that inhibition suit for our 9 to 5 job. Everyone is in costume and performing to some extent in public and co-workers and bosses are no different. We theater artists have to realize when it's time to put on our "work" costume and play the part of trustworthy employee. Yes, this means things as simple as appearance, but it also means professional attitude, promptness, reliability, and focus (not on the rehearsal agenda for tonight, but on the job at hand). A cast party or a late rehearsal may be a normal part of theater life, but as soon as the alarm clock is ignored the next morning, those negative stereotypes may be confirmed. For my theater colleagues who would say that theater people are some of the most dependable and professional workers anywhere I would say you're preaching to the choir. I can think of many stage managers, directors, choreographers, costumers and office staff who I would trust with an important project any day. But we also have to be honest and take a look in the mirror to really see what some employers think they see when we share our talent with them. While I'm on my high horse I freely admit there have been times when I have caught myself concentrating on lines or blocking instead of the work on my desk, but no more so than any other employee who might be thinking about organizing his church retreat or the PTA fundraiser. Do you have the ability to know when you're drifting and bring back the focus to your job? If not, you're part of the problem, not the solution because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Having the advantage of age I can remember some really hedonistic theater experiences in the 70's and 80's, and maybe potential employers remember tales of them too. Stereotypes linger. But things really are much different now and while the theater experience is still beautifully crazy, it also is much more down to earth and professional. People involved in community theatre come from all walks of life -including corporate managers - with families and obligations and they, too have get up in the morning.

So how can we improve the situation? I've always thought the best way to defeat stereotypes is to not be a stereotype. Obviously, the simple answer is to show up on time, look professional and get your job done. And for God's sake don't use company time or resources for ANY extracurricular activity. Of course, there are things that are out of our control and just as you can't force someone to like anchovies, there are just some people who don't appreciate or "get" the arts and probably never will. Hopefully you wouldn't end up working with those people anyway. But it's more than that. Again, anyone who knows the amount of work it takes to mount a theater production knows that theater artists are anything but slackers. On my resume I try to highlight the skills I use to not only direct a show, but market it as well. The same skills that are desirable in the corporate world. Organization, communication, the ability to effective manage a creative team, delegate responsibilities stick to timelines and budgets are all highly sought after skills and ones we use regularly to produce theater shows. The key is to effectively translate those skills from the stage back to the (resume) page. I don't know if I've achieved that or not, but I'm continually trying to with things like my online, interactive resume at Your theater experiences don't have to be just frivolous, fun activities. They certainly can be. But they can also be professional experiences to develop and demonstrate marketable skills and you need to think of ways to translate them on your resume to employers. Not just to potential employers, but also to your current bosses. Just as theater artists are not all alike, neither are employers. Some are very open-minded, arts loving supporters. Hopefully you have one of those! I think it's OK to share an opening with them - give them a pair of tickets or share with them an example of a set design sketch or a DVD of a curtain speech or an award or positive attendance figures. Ideally these positive, professional accomplishments will be positive additions to a resume and reinforce the fact that they have hired, or should hire a well-rounded, creative, professional who will be a true asset to their team. I'm not an H.R. expert, but I'm optimistic enough to hope that no one wants to hire a one-dimensional automaton in this day and age, even with a couple negative experiences under my belt. We should never have to hide who we really are and I don't think most employers want us to. We are artists and nothing and no one can ever change that. But with a little thought we can market ourselves in positive ways to be attractive to the corporate world as well as the artistic one.

Now get back to work!


Anonymous said...

Get back to work!? Oh wait... I am at work. I finally gave up my 'corporate' job to work in the theatre full time and I'll never regret it.

But on to topic... I have never found bias in the corporate world. Most of my co-workers and bosses thought it was wonderful that I had the talent to do that kind of work. They may not always understand what's involved, but they do not disapprove.

I've been blessed to be able to mostly juggle a 'corporate' and theatre life. Sometimes it's been a bit much. Theatre even cost me one job, because the show was more important that the work (which was boring).

I hope those people that look at theatre as a black art realize that TV and movies are even more so, because you're forced to watch what the director wants you to watch and they never make mistakes.

Think about it after you see a good play.

Keith in Indy

Geoff Short said...

Thanks so much for the feedback Keith and I'm really glad you not only had the opportunity to work with open-minded people who appreciated your talent in the past, but also had the guts to make the leap into working in theatre full time now. Thanks for checking out "Call-Back".