a Rose by Any Other Name(s)?
“So what do you do?”
For me, this is the most loaded and difficult question in the Holiday Cocktail Party Lexicon. Do I respond with my work as an actor? As a writer? Do I start with one and quickly undercut it with the other? Where did my glass of wine go, anyway?
Here’s why I get confused: I am a self-proclaimed theatrical Hyphenate.
What’s a Hyphenate? Great question. I’m not quite sure yet.
The Hyphenate is a call back to a time before hyper-specialization. And she also may be the next stage in the evolution of the theatre artist: with her many skill sets, she can adapt more readily in our rapidly changing artistic and entertainment landscape, and she has a better vantage point for fitting within a larger community.
I do know that in order to work in the theatre, we have to “wear many hats” because we need to create our own opportunities. Playwrights self-produce to see their works up on their feet. Actors write roles for themselves that they really want to play. Directors act as front of house staff so there’s a box office.
But the Hyphenate is different from this standard Jack of All Trades approach. The Hyphenate is multiple artistic identities, without any one of them being subservient to another. The Hyphenate doesn’t wear many hats because she has to in order to advance one particular artistic identity—she chooses to actively pursue multiple artistic skills for their own sakes. Hyphenates are the writers producing other people’s work, the actors who write plays that they don’t act in, and the directors of organizations that don’t employ them as artists.
I stumbled into Hyphenate-dom when I began writing plays while interning at a casting director’s office. Now six years later, I am equal parts actor and writer. I have been and will probably always be an actor, but I do not write roles for myself. I may act in one of my plays one day, but that is not my motivation for writing them—nor do I study acting to make myself a better writer.
As I’ve come to accept this in myself, I’ve found that a rising number of the artists around me are also leading multiple-identity artistic careers. So in the spirit of collaboration (read: desperation), I recently sat down with a few self-identified Hyphenates to find out how they answer that dreaded question: so, what do they do?
Interestingly, everyone I spoke to (including myself) started as and continues to identify as an actor. They hadn’t “started off acting” and moved on—they still study and work as actors.
But even with that link, the labels these Hyphenates give themselves change from artist to artist. For example, Daniel Talbott identifies as “a theatre artist.” Conversely, Allyson Morgan’s label might change depending on who she’s meeting. When with fellow artists, she’ll say, “I’m an actor, and I write and produce.” But in other contexts, she’ll identify as just an actor, because she’s found that’s much easier for people outside the theatre to understand. Karina Richardson’s label for herself is even more fluid—right now, she calls herself a “writer-performer.” With her current full-time day job, she’s able to do a lot more writing than performing at the moment, so the title “writer” comes first. But at other times in her artistic career, she may be a “performer-writer” or just a “performer”—it depends on what her career and personal life look like at that time.
It’s essential to note that being a Hyphenate does not mean embracing all artistic identities. For example, Karina, like me, is not a director. Erin Mallon has a real knack for prop design and has been encouraged to pursue it, but she is not a designer—“Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it,” she told me. In defining your hats, it’s just as important to know what you do not do as what you do do.
Labels get even more challenging when other people make the introductions. “It’s too much for people to say all the things,” says Allyson, and “it makes you sound like a dilettante.” This is a major concern among Hyphenates—that it’s not perceived as possible to be fully an actor or writer or producer if you’re engaging in more than one of those roles. When Erin first started writing she worried that, “If I allowed myself to write, people would think of me as less of an actor.” Daniel describes how the day after a successful opening of a play he had written and directed, he went in for an audition where a surprised casting director exclaimed, “I was afraid you weren’t acting anymore!”
It seems the general perception in our field is that an artist can only have one artistic identity, and if s/he does have other artistic skills, they must be in service to a primary pursuit. Otherwise, an artist may look to others like “you’re trying all of them out—like you haven’t made it,” says Allyson.
Even with these challenges, Hyphenates have several advantages. On the practical side, Hyphenates have multiple access points to furthering their careers: “I’ll ride the train of whatever comes in first,” says Allyson. Erin uses her Hyphenate self to stay excited and engaged in her work, and to adapt to changes in her life: “Lately, it’s been a lot easier to participate in the world as a writer, which may be because I’m a mom now.” Daniel echoes that need for flexibility as a parent, stating that “directing and playwriting give me more freedom—that’s part of the balance.”
Furthermore, artistically Hyphenates can carry skills from one hat to the next. Karina finds that being able to access both sides of a narrative gives her greater control of the story she’s telling through theatre. Similarly, Erin cites her training as an actor as hugely informative for her writing: “Actors know what it’s like when the play doesn’t move us,” she says. “I want the actors to all be jazzed.”
Though the Hyphenate is not a new concept—this one guy named Shakespeare comes to mind—the number of individual artists and theatre companies identifying themselves with multiple artistic practices is on the rise. Despite the differences between them, everyone I spoke with agreed that becoming a Hyphenate is at its core about finding a way to survive as a professional, as an artist, and as person. It’s especially worth noting that the Hyphenates I spoke with have leadership positions as executive directors, artistic directors, founders of companies, and more.
I hope this post can be a spring-board for a much longer conversation about Hyphenates, including administrators, dramaturgs, production managers, teaching artists, designers, and more. I’m curious to hear how Hyphenates integrate their different identities.
The ways we do our art are changing with new kinds of technology, content distribution, fundraising strategies, data collection, and the resulting transparency of institutions. The Hyphenate is a call back to a time before hyper-specialization. And she also may be the next stage in the evolution of the theatre artist: with her many skill sets, she can adapt more readily in our rapidly changing artistic and entertainment landscape, and she has a better vantage point for fitting within a larger community. As Daniel puts it, at the end of the day, “it’s about making a living in the theatre.”
So pass me my candy cane cocktail—I might just have an answer this year.