Don’t Stick the Landing

“You know, you’re the only one out of all of your classmates who’s landed so far.”

I was less than two months out of graduate school when a former professor of mine said that to me. And in some ways he was right—I was the first member of my graduating class to find and accept a full time job in the arts. I’d be doing the marketing for a theatre company whose work I both respected and admired. I had it made! A salary, health benefits, a desk (albeit the tiniest desk you’ve ever seen, but still) of my own. What could be better? Land-ho!

Except…why was there this uneasy feeling in my gut when they called to offer me the job? Why was I so disappointed that they had offered me the job that I applied, interviewed, and prepared for, and not the part-time, lower money, no-benefits job that I thought might be opening up?

I say goodbye (for now) to the life of full-time work and a salary and stability, and I couldn’t be happier. Our society puts so much stock in “landing,” and the artistic community isn’t much different, but I don’t think this mentality is helping anyone.

2014. A good year for both taking risks and landing gigs.

Since the early- to mid-1900s, society has laid out a clear plan of action for the average American. You go to school. You graduate and either go to college, the military, or directly into the workforce. You work and work hard at the same company for many years and then you get to retire and collect social security and get a pension. This methodology works well for many people. But it doesn’t always work so well for people entering the workforce today and it especially does not always work well for artists. We’ve adopted this quasi-corporate model in the not-for-profit theatre world, especially for midsize to large theatre companies. Many people find great joy working in these sorts of environments and are fine with setting aside their personal artistic endeavors aside for a year, or five years, or more. But what about the rest of us?

Sometimes as an artist, landing isn’t the best option. We ingrain this archaic idea of success in young people, but what does success mean? Does landing a well-paid, non-artistic job in the arts make you more successful than developing a new and wacky artistic piece that feeds your soul but not your belly and that only your mom and your best friends come see? Maybe. The larger society would almost assuredly say yes. But it is nearly impossible to measure success because success as an entity—as a tangible thing—doesn’t really exist.

I propose we start to measure and acknowledge other things. Let’s acknowledge the efforts of a development director who donated his or her time and effort to writing a big, competitive grant for an arts organization only to find out the money wasn’t going to go to them. Does the lack of a desired outcome diminish their hard work and determination? Let’s celebrate the actor who gets called up by the biggest theatre company in the city only to totally bomb his monologue. Does his unsuccessful audition diminish him as an artist? And let’s celebrate the administrative assistant at the midsized theatre company who piles on three to four outside projects that are near and dear to her heart only to make no money from any of them. Does her lack of fiscal success diminish her bravery of going after her dreams?

Courage is the ability to dream big in hard times. And isn’t it always hard to be an artist? But we do it because it fulfills us, because we can’t imagine a life without our art, because we know our art and work as artists make the world a better place. We do it because it’s worth it. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” 

I may have been the first to land, but now I’m setting my sights on a new voyage. After a season of staring at spreadsheets, writing copy, and desperately trying to get better at basic html, I’m looking at an upcoming season of doing some freelance grant writing, volunteer dramaturging, adjunct teaching at local colleges, assistant directing for people I respect and admire, and chasing my dream of creating more opportunities for women in theatre. I say goodbye (for now) to the life of full-time work and a salary and stability, and I couldn’t be happier. Our society puts so much stock in “landing,” and the artistic community isn’t much different, but I don’t think this mentality is helping anyone. So the questions I pose to you all are as follows: What do we do about it? How can we support the folks who refuse to land?

And most importantly: Why land when the other option is to fly?

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We spoke a lot about redesigning, redefining success at the recent mini-LMDA conference in Toronto. I agree in many ways that dreaming needs to be bigger and less restricted by perceptions from society. And that saying any of that does feel like a big risk. Another flying post-grad, Cheers!

Good for you, Polly. After more than 35 years in the performing arts, none of which I spent in a "real job" I can assure you that the rewards of flying independently are still enough to keep me going. Your points are very well taken, and I believe you will find joy in your new direction. I particularly appreciate your goal of finding more opportunities for women in theater. Now is our time! Rock on.

Hi Cheryl-

Thanks for the note of encouragement! It's definitely a scary choice but also very exciting. I hope folks read my article and read your comment and see that there are lots of paths to making a life in the arts and that the untraditional and traditional ones both have a ton of merit.