The Hyphenate

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.

two women in a rehearsal
Emily Daly and director Jenna Worsham discuss changes to Emily’s script.

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.

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It is very helpful to read about your thoughts on this term you’ve created—hyphenate. You asked others how they labeled theirmultiple artistic identities and it was interesting to see how their thoughtscollided with yours. Working in more than one area of theatre is more common than has, perhaps, been acknowledged. Coming at this article form an academic perspective, I understand the importance of creating terms to theorize around. Though it may at times seem reductive, creating terminology for a lived reality helps us make sense of it. In this case, theatre artists struggle to keep up with all the demands of the various art forms they work within. You make a strong point—my art is equally important to me, I don’t do one for the sake of the other, but rather, for the sake of each. Taking equal pride in the various forms of work you do is powerful. I definitely believe dappling in one form of art helps enlighten another, but being aware of the ways in which these categories blend and yet continuing to give time and effort to each is perhaps necessary to keep the creativity flowing. I for one at times feel like I’m not qualified to be working in any of these fields; the Imposter’s Syndrome kicks in terribly. There is a definite fear that working in more than one form of art puts you at risk for spreading yourself too thin. But if we start to view this as a strength, then we can see the ways in which all art is related and start to create a bigger picture of what work we wish to create. And the practicality of this approach is also apparent; you get more work when you expand your boundaries.

Emily, I'm loving this article. Quite frankly, the term you have selected applies to me and most of the working artists I know. That said, I am curious as to how you and your friends alter your social media use to account for multiple artistic identities. Are you on LinkedIn? Do you tweet? If so, do you have specialized accounts for specific purposes? Or are you concentrating personal thoughts and media from many fields into a single all-encompassing stream? Would love to hear your thoughts and any examples you can provide.

Jake, that's a fantastic question, and one which I have no good answer too. It comes back to my age-old cocktail party dilemma - how does one package oneself in person, online, to one's self, etc, in an age and business that calls for a neatly packaged brand.

The question you raise leads me to wonder about a topic that I wasn't able to really explore in the article - using the analogies of hats: does the hyphenate keep several hats handy that s/he keeps in steady rotation? Or does s/he have one giant hat that is a (decidedly fashionable) amalgamation of all the hats sewn into one? To try to put this in non-hat language: is s/he many identities, or one identity with many parts?

So in short - I have no good answer! But as to whether I tweet - there will be a twitter chat at 2 pm EST today at #HowlRound that I'm moderating - I bet you someone smarter than me will show up and have may have more to say on this.

I've always thought of myself as a "slash," but a hyphenate is a much better word. Thank you for sharing this. The pressure to "choose a path" can be disheartening - it's one thing to hear it from people who are not in the industry, but is especially disheartening when it comes from colleagues in the field. It is also, I find, a tricky place to live if you're a hyphenate considering graduate school. You're certainly right about it being a larger conversation... I think MFA programs and really everyone should sit up and take notice of this section of the artistic population!

Reminds me of William Deresiewicz's essay from the Atlantic earlier this year:

"But one of the most conspicuous things about today’s young creators is their tendency to construct a multiplicity of artistic identities. You’re a musician and a photographer and a poet; a storyteller and a dancer and a designer—a multiplatform artist, in the term one sometimes sees. Which means that you haven’t got time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media. But technique or expertise is not the point. The point is versatility. Like any good business, you try to diversify." http://www.theatlantic.com/...

I'm curious what kind of critical headway we can make from all this. There's precedents here, the actor-playwright who is told by their agent that they'd be easier to market if they picked one. The actor who gigs at universities as a director. The actor who teaches. I'm not convinced that there's a meaningful difference between the director who company manages for another company and the director who serves coffee during the day. We might want to look there for our heritage, rather than romanticize it as a return to the old days of the actor-manager, even as that offers us an entrepreneurial model of an artist led institution - we'd be keen to remember acting was not a respectable profession back then. To what extent is specialization a product of professionalization, and the middle class stability that came with it?

"...the actor-playwright who is told by their agent that they'd be easier to market if they picked one..."

It's intriguing how fast the push comes to specialise: and even when you "pick one", you're probably just halfway there, from some perspectives. I'm a prose writer who became a dramaturg who's also a producer and venue manager. (Hyphenate that.) I spoke to a literary agent once who emphasised the importance of establishing what kind of writer you are - i.e. no one would publish a literary political thriller and then a magical realist pirate novel by the same author. Readers need to know what to expect (apparently). I love reading authors' different prose personas; I'd be more impressed than bemused to find extreme versatility. It's a different note from the professional perception of multiple skill-sets/creative identities, but I reckon people have multifarious imaginations; and if a career in the creative industries can't support that, what's the point?

I consider myself a Hyphenate, I am into the production side of acting and the on stage performance of music. I guess you can say a different type. Aspiring to direct and play an instrument or sing. At the same time I am willing to learn more. There are things I've tried expending on but did not show interest. But others I felt comfortable with and I ended up adding that to my resume of art. I picked up a DJ shift and got into broadcasting music to the public. I am glad that I have a word to call myself now after reading this article.