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To Be a Director

In 2015 Haven Theatre Company in Chicago, IL launched a program called the Director's Haven, giving three directors at the earliest stages of their careers space to showcase their vision for the Chicago community. Here, each of these artists to share their observations, experiences, and perspectives from their vantage points as directors at the very start of their professional journeys.—Josh Sobel

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a real estate agent.”

This response rolls so easily off my tongue since I got my license and became a real estate agent thirteen months ago. In those same thirteen months I’ve directed two professional productions: Guardians by Peter Morris at Mary Arrchie Theatre and Carrie and Francine by Ruby Rae Speigel for The Director’s Haven with Haven Theatre Company.

I feel less and less like a director on a daily basis. I go back to the constant tug of war of having two careers both with 80+ percent failure rates, but only one career that has a chance of paying the bills.

I got to see my name typed into programs next to the word director. I got to see my name written by close to a dozen Chicago theatre critics next to critique and praise of the directing of these plays. I saw my name on posters and postcards, my photo on websites. As far as I was concerned, I had arrived.

But the feeling fades. The curtain closes, the set is struck, and the actors, designers, and stage managers go on to their next gig. And I return to business as usual.

“Hi, my name is Arianna Soloway. I’m a real estate agent.”

two young actresses on stage
Rory Beckett and Tristin Hall in Carrie & Francine. Photo by Jeffrey Bivens.

Where do I go from here? I think back to the high hopes I had. Before each show, I painstakingly put together a list of people I wanted to invite. Peers and people who’ve inspired me; former professors and artistic directors. I got back more regrets than acceptances. I don’t blame anyone for that. There are always more shows happening than any one person can see. I’m guilty of it myself all the time. The responses were kind. I got endless well-wishes and “break a legs,” apologies for the constant business of their own lives or the restrictive natures of their current rehearsal schedules, and a chorus of requests that I please invite them to my next show. At the time they left me with such a feeling of hope. I was so certain that these first shows would start a momentum that would surely lead to another and then to another and then another. I was overwhelmed by the possibility of all those future shows that I would have to invite people to.

But the new offers don’t magically appear. I start to question whether I really believed they would or if I was just riding on some kind of rehearsal high. I feel less and less like a director on a daily basis. I go back to the constant tug of war of having two careers both with 80+ percent failure rates, but only one career that has a chance of paying the bills.  It's not hard to see which one usually wins.  Directing gets put on the back burner until some days, in the midst of all the clients and showings and bills and responsibilities I start to forget I'm a director altogether. 

two actors on a set
Adam Soule and Jaci Entwisle in Guardians. Photo by Jeffrey Bivens.

In Spanish, there are two forms of the verb “to be”: ser for permanent conditions (to be tall) and estar for temporary conditions (to be sad). Right now, when I say I am a director I say it like estar. I wonder where I’ll reach a point when I say it like ser.

How do I know I’m a director if I’m not directing? I know throughout my life there will be periods of time when I won’t be directing. Few directors ever reach a point where they’re in constant rehearsal. Few directors would even want or be able to keep up with that, but even in those quiet months, they know in their hearts that they’re still directors.

When a submission for an internship or fellowship calls for “early career directors,” they mean people who are sure that they are directors. I think that’s the key: the difference between what people think of as early career directors and me. I always joke when I see these types of submission guidelines that begin with the phrase “early career director” and end with a list of requirements that I can only dream of and a list of recent alumni whose careers I’d give my right arm for. If they’re “early career directors,” then what am I, chopped liver?

How do I know I’m a director if I’m not directing?

I ask it rhetorically, but I think the answer is yes. Because I’m not even sure I’m a director at all. I could get hired to direct another show tomorrow or I could never get an offer again. How, then, do I continue to believe? How do I hold my head up high and proclaim proudly to the world that I am a director? I don’t know. In a time of such uncertainty, I’m not sure how to feel certain about this, but I’m certainly going to try.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a director.”

Thoughts from the curator

Three emerging directors speak on their experience as part of the Director's Haven program in Chicago.

Directors Haven

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Thank you for writing this article! I often feel like I'm living a double life between my day job and my creative theater work. When the day job is all I have, when I'm between projects, I get that nagging feeling that I might not ever create again, that this is my life now, maybe I'm no longer an artist....until it becomes so strong I jump into creating or networking/hunting for the next project because I can't stand that feeling. I would love to have a website where directors can submit like actors, have us send a script analysis of sorts, a vision plan and come in for a brief interview. Why the hell not. Theaters are so concerned with ticket sales and successful productions because they have to be, it makes sense, and so they only work with directors they know or who have a reputation built already. But we need more opportunities to build our careers aside from self producing. Give new directors a chance! :)

I think its important to realize that a director's path is indeed very different from an actor's. Acting auditions are common and widely posted publicly. The same is not true for directing gigs. Opportunities are few and public postings are even rarer. Not to mention that making your own opportunity by self-producing and directing a show is financially impossible for most people.That's the whole reason The Director's Haven project the author was part of exists. But where does one go from there? It's true that networking is key, but we do need to ask ourselves who has access to the rooms where those connections happen.

During a coaching session once, I expressed to my instructor how much I hated auditioning (because seriously, who doesn't?). His response was that I had better get over it because auditions were my job. Getting cast was just a perk. Not what I wanted to hear, but not untrue. My experience directing is virtually non-existent but I can't imagine the process is so very different. If you wait around to get hired you could be waiting until the end of time. Our jobs as artists are to go out and get the gigs...however we can. (Note: That isn't meant as an accusation, just an observation. I'm sure the author works hard at her networking.)

I have a desk job that pays a majority of my rent, but I also spend easily another 30+ hours/week in rehearsal and about 90% of the time get paid to do so. When people ask me what I do I say that I'm an actor, or a theatre artist (since I split my time stage managing) because day jobs come and go, but making art is like...breathing. It is one thing to know what you love to do and another to discover what you can't do without.

I make my living writing code, not plays. It is becoming increasingly hard to find any kind of job that pays the bills. Fortunately computer programmers and web developers are still doing extremely well in this economy. In some respects, it is the ideal day job because you are valued for your intellect and there is plenty of room for creativity so your ego can remain strong. If you work freelance you will even have the time to take advantage of the rare opportunity that comes your way. The only downside is that the work is extremely time consuming and the technology sector can seem like your entire world. Creating a really cool application can replace the goal of creating great theater. My imagination is sufficiently irrational to leave me unsatisfied with purely logical pursuits. One of my favorite themes is the internal conflict between intellect and the irrational.