The Trials and Opportunities of Being a Freelance Director

in Feature
Ladies in Retirement
Left to right: Mikel Sarah Lambert as Leonora, Hanna Hayes as Louisa, Carol Lambert as Emily and Camille Mazurekas Ellen in Pulse Ensemble Theatre’s production of Ladies in Retirement, directed by Amnon Katachnik

Working smarter so you can work more.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of being a theatre director is that, unlike an actor, you don’t have to audition to land a job: Your calling card is your body of work. However, like an actor, you’re constantly scrambling for your next job. The old maxim about who you know applies tenfold to the theatre community—artistic directors need to know your work, otherwise you won’t be employed.

This leads to two critical questions: If you’re a regional freelancer not based in one of the top markets, how do you get the attention of artistic directors who may be unfamiliar with your work? Moreover, how do you survive and thrive in a competitive world where jobs for directors are few and far between?

Amnon Kabatchik
Amnon Kabatchik

Run Your Own Agency
It’s a catch-22 scenario that freelance regional theatre director Christy Montour-Larson knows all too well. Having begun her career more than 20 years ago directing A Christmas Carol at the Duluth Playhouse in Duluth, Minn., Montour-Larson has become especially adept at scoring professional gigs consistently due to a combination of fortitude and persistence. And although the Denver-based Montour-Larson has been working with the local and highly acclaimed Curious Theater Company since 2001, she’s not guaranteed a directing slot with them each season. How then does she cope with the trials and travails of uncertain employment?

“You have to be your own agent,” says the Minneapolis native. “I had a teacher who said whenever you have something on the boards you’re proud of, you must get people to see it, even if you have to be a pest about it.” For Montour-Larson, this means that even if she’s visiting other cities for non-professional reasons, she will always make it a point to meet the local artistic directors. It’s not simply a matter of theatre politesse but of necessity.

“Most people won’t hire directors unless they know them and know their work,” explains Montour-Larson. “It’s a challenge for people to know your work, especially if you’re in one part of the country and you want to work in another part of the country.”

 

Pam MacKinnon
Pam MacKinnon

Pam MacKinnon, a New York-based freelance director whose resume includes a healthy mix of off-Broadway credits (Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages, New York Theatre Workshop) and regional theatre fare (South Coast Rep, Arena Stage), finds most of her work by cultivating relationships with writers, ranging from celebrated playwrights like Edward Albee to talented up and comers. Although MacKinnon does have an agent who she says will sometimes set up meetings between her and writer clients, she doesn’t rely on her ten-percenter to knock on doors: MacKinnon does it herself.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now,” says MacKinnon who first moved to New York City 15 years ago following an abortive stint as a PhD candidate in Political Science. “Sometimes writers approach me. Recently, two writers who I know socially sent me plays. People approach me based on the work that they’ve seen of mine. I’ve also approached designers based on work I’ve seen of theirs. Living in New York, we see each other’s work.”

Becky Shaw
Left to right: Angela Goethals, Graham Michael Hamilton and Brian Avers in SCR’s 2010 production of Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Mind Your Manners
Amnon Kabatchnik, an Israeli-born director who emigrated to the U.S. several decades ago to study at Boston University, views his experience as a freelancer through the multifaceted lens of a veteran. Having spent much of his prolific career working in the off-Broadway and regional circuit, Kabatchnik, who holds an MFA in directing from the Yale School of Drama, feels that one of the prime virtues of not being affiliated with a specific theatre, is that it immunizes one from a company’s internal machinations.

“When I was working at Israel’s Habimah Theater, there was a lot of backstabbing behind the scenes,” he recounts. “Because I was the guest director, I wasn’t involved in the politics.”

Christy Montour-Larson

Yet there is a set of protocols that a freelance director must observe when jobbing at a diversity of theatres. Montour-Larson likens it to being a guest at someone else’s home.

“You have to have an understanding of that theatre’s corporate culture,” she says. “Sometimes the power structure is clearly known; sometimes it’s not. You have to stay on your toes about that stuff and listen a lot.”

For instance, once when Montour-Larson was working as a guest director at a theatre, she invited local college students to sit in on a final rehearsal thinking the actors would benefit from this prior to previews. Unfortunately, the theatre brass quickly told her otherwise.

“The executive director told me I couldn’t have anybody at my rehearsal,” she recalls. “This was the first time in my career that anyone told me I couldn’t have anybody at my rehearsal.”

Aside from delicately treading each theatre’s company line, a freelance theatre director must constantly look ahead and possess the ability to multitask…brilliantly. Both Montour-Larson and MacKinnon are not only in rehearsals right now for shows but they are currently working on several other shows coming up in the pipeline. To preempt long periods of unemployment, such a packed schedule is mandatory.

Rabbit Hole
Christy Montour-Larson directed Rachel Fowler and Erik Sandvold in the 2008 Curious Theatre Company production of Rabbit Hole

Join the Club
Another component that helps Montour-Larson and Kabatchnik survive and thrive in their chosen fields (in addition to both holding college teaching positions) is membership in the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (formerly named the Society of Directors and Choreographers), a union established in 1959 that represents professional theatre directors and choreographers.

“With the SDC, you get paid a third when you sign the contract, a third when you start rehearsal and another third when you open,” says Montour-Larson, who has only been a member of the union for the last year. Before she joined SDC, Montour-Larson said she would traditionally get paid one lump sum the opening of a production.

For theatre directors wishing to take a stab at freelancing, both Montour-Larson and MacKinnon stress the importance of being flexible.

“You have to work on your skills on getting along with a variety of people,” adds Montour-Larson. “You have to play well with others better than directors who only work at their own company and that’s all they do.”

Kabatchnik advises aspiring freelancers to embrace all job offers that come their way—even if it’s from a small theatre in the hinterlands. “You never know,” he insists. “You will continue to rub shoulders with professionals. You don’t get dry; you keep doing things.”

He also strongly urges regional freelancers to constantly cultivate and forge a network of connections to help secure work.

Another tip: Live within your means. “Don’t get into debt,” says MacKinnon. “Once you’re in debt, you have to do things for the money. This will really narrow your options. Keep your expenses low so you can say yes to working with that writer at that downtown theatre where you’re getting $500.”

And most importantly, be persistent. “Be prepared for the long haul and have the gumption to continue and not give up,” counsels Kabatchnik. “You never know what happens tomorrow.”

Iris Dorbian is the former editor of Stage Directions. She’s the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater (Allworth Press/Random House).