Though I’d taken an administration class as a part of my theatre major in college, it wasn’t until I was at my desk at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company as a newly minted artistic fellow that the day-to-day work of administration really hit home. Reconciling American Express statements, organizing headshot archives and audition notes, scheduling travel and hotel stays, nights at rehearsals checking sight lines—all important work, but not especially glamorous.
Then I’d have days where the dramaturg and I would read through a draft of a commissioned play, making notes about its structure, characters, voice, and pace. Or I’d sign in actors as they came to auditions, learning a little more about their lives. I saw run-throughs before many other people did, relishing small changes the actors and designers incorporated along the way to make the production the best it could be.
Administration is made up of tasks that are sometimes tedious and sometimes wonderful, but always necessary. Scanning pages and sealing envelopes aren’t the most exciting things in the world, but they have to be done. They ultimately serve the art.
Hallie Martenson, director of development and communications at Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia, reminds herself of this all the time. Her father, once the executive director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, would say: “We are theatre people first. Managers second.” She says it’s become her mantra.
Not every theatre administrator comes from a theatre family like she did. There are as many paths to working in theatre administration as there are administrative titles. You don’t need a degree (unless you want one). For the admins who contributed to this article, the common denominators were passion and meaning. They really want to believe in their work. For some, theatre is a lifelong passion. Others came to it later and found the meaning they didn’t even know they were seeking.
The theatre admins below share their careers paths, advice, and why they love the work they do.
Marketing Coordinator, Su Teatro Cultural and Peforming Arts Center in Denver
“The day I gave my notice at my super corporate job was the day Su Teatro posted the marketing coordinator position,” says Gurule. “It was time for me to start looking into jobs that I actually had an interest in. I knew I would be with a community that would support me and wanted me to be successful and understood that I also wanted to give back to my community.”
At the time of writing, Gurule had been in her position with Su Teatro for just about four months. But Gurule’s relationship with the theatre goes back much further: She’d been an actor and singer with them for about seven years. She said that Su Teatro’s mission—promoting, producing, developing, and preserving the cultural arts, heritage, and traditions of the Chicanx/Latinx community, and establishing respect and avenues for cultures to come together—is what really galvanized her to move out of the corporate world.
Though she hadn’t worked in theatre administration before, her education and experience suited her to tackle the position of marketing coordinator. Gurule had studied communications at the undergrad level and worked in digital marketing for 10 years. All of that work made her realize, she says, that it was “time for me to do something I was actually passionate about.” Now Gurule is working toward a Masters in Arts, Communication & Leadership at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and is even thinking about one day teaching communications at the college level.
To those who hope to work in theatre administration, Gurule says, “Not everyone understands your work, but hopefully they will appreciate it.”
Program Director, 52nd Street Project in New York City
“There are lots of different ways to make a life in theatre!” effuses Kim. “There are lots of different paths, and everybody’s is different.” Kim himself studied theatre at Fordham University, concentrating on playwriting and directing, but says he learned everything about his role as program director while on the job. Kim had interned with 52nd Street Project, among other places, before taking on his current position, a role that surprised him in some ways.
“I had always known that I wanted to work in theatre education to earn a living while I pursued my own artistic career,” he explains. “I imagined this would take the form of being a teaching artist, but it turns out I’m well-suited to the full-time work of being on staff at a nonprofit, community-based, educational theatre company like the Project.”
At the Project, which focuses on creating new plays for, and sometimes by, kids in Hell’s Kitchen between the ages of 9 and 18, Kim tackles a variety of tasks every day. One day he might be interviewing prospective teaching artists, attending tech rehearsals, and “responding to a bajillion emails.” On another day he might update contact information, create curricula, or support teaching artists in the Project’s workshops for young people. “The variety of the day-to-day keeps me on my toes, and it’s one of the reasons I really love my job,” he says.
Kim is also working on balancing his job with his own artistic ambitions, heeding advice he’s received about the importance of work-life balance. “Just one more email can turn into 45 more minutes at the office, or working through your lunch break,” he notes. “But I’ve noticed how much happier I am and how much better I’m able to do my job when I take the time and space I need to take care of myself.”
Finance and HR Manager,
Portland Playhouse in Portland, Ore.
Kolar came to Portland Playhouse with a robust administrative skill set learned and honed at previous jobs in arts nonprofits. Learning on the job was possible because they had “mentors who were available to me for questions and guidance,” Kolar says. “I started out doing admin and program support, and over time I professionally developed into also taking on facilities, IT, and bookkeeping/finance.”
Kolar’s passion for the arts stems from a “specific interest in music and performance with a commitment to creating a space for cultural work coming from marginalized communities (queer/trans, POC).” When they moved to Portland and were seeking a job, they felt the Playhouse’s mission of quality performance and of theatre as a space for all people to come together to celebrate the complexity of shared human experience was a great fit.
Once at the Playhouse, Kolar started doing bookkeeping—and extended the same service to other arts nonprofits around town. But they later moved into an “expanded finance role” after a few years of getting to know the people and daily operations.
Looking ahead, Kolar plans to stay close to nonprofits focused on social justice and to stay up to date on best practices in the nonprofit finance world. For hopeful admins out there, they recommend that folks “keep the bigger goal of helping to put great work into the world in the back of your mind while you’re doing the day-to-day work. Think about who you’re not reaching, and figure out how to reach them. Make sure to take the time to enjoy the art that you’re helping to support.”
Director of Publications, Dallas Theater Center
“Previously in my career I was a partner/art director in a small ad agency,” says Lacy. “Many of our clients were corporate or industrial. Good work, but sort of cog-in-the-machine. I knew I wanted to spend my talents, skills, and time in a way that was more meaningful to me, and in a way that could improve people’s lives mentally or spiritually. When an opportunity presented itself at Dallas Theater Center, I pursued it relentlessly until it was mine.”
That was 18 years ago. Since then Lacy has settled into her role as DTC’s director of publications, which she described as “a lovely hybrid of art and function.” That search for meaningful work has paid off. “Though through my own personal experience I could already speak to the importance of the arts, my time here has shown me so many incredible, potent ways that art can (and does) make an impact,” she says.
She’s seen productions about difficult and complex topics that inspire dialogue among audience members. She’s thrilled by Project Discovery, DTC’s program that gives high school students a chance to explore theatre, free of charge. “People from all parts of our community are galvanized to form partnerships that never would have existed had they not been so moved by a moment at our theatre,” Lacy said. “Powerful, good magic happens here.”
Lacy’s love for the arts goes back further than her time at DTC. “As long as I can remember I’ve had an intense love for the arts, a passion that is truly in my blood,” she says. Growing up, her father often played his guitar, and the family would sing along together. Lacy also spent a lot of time with her uncle, a visual artist.
Given the ephemeral nature of theatre work, Lacy continually pushes herself to grow and keep learning. “Working at that pace makes repeatable processes attractive but not necessarily beneficial,” she explains. “You have to remember that stasis is death, and keep pushing to learn new ways of doing things.”
Director of Development and Communications, Pig Iron Theatre
Company in Philadelphia
“We’re not saving babies,” Martenson concedes. Not the answer you might expect when you ask for the best piece of advice she’s ever received. “It sounds flippant, but it’s something that’s easy to forget,” she goes on. “It’s a stressful field to be in.” Martenson is sensitive to the issue of burnout, of committing yourself so completely to a production—treating it like a baby, she said—that you forget everything else. She knows because she’s been there.
After college Martenson joined AmeriCorps, and was then hired full-time at a youth development nonprofit. At the same time she and her friends were running a theatre company. “I loved every second of it, and also loved my day job, but it was killing me,” she recalls. “I was directing a production of Urinetown in a found warehouse space at night while working full-time with screaming fifth graders during the day. I was soaking my blistered feet, working on marketing copy at 1 a.m., and it hit me—something’s got to give. And the idea of giving up theatre didn’t even feel like an option.”
She decided to pursue an M.A. in theatre with a dual degree in nonprofit management at Villanova University.
“I was attracted to the Villanova program because it allowed me to keep doing it all,” she says. “I wanted to be a leader and learn the ins and outs of running a nonprofit theatre, but I also wanted to continue to act, direct, and pursue academic inquiries. That degree has been very useful in a city like Philadelphia that values a well-rounded theatre professional.” The program equipped her and sharpened her skills in dramaturgy, acting, budgeting, and fundraising strategies. “I think I have a clear, full picture of what theatremaking is and what it involves, and that’s been a big benefit to my career.”
After graduating, Martenson became communications director at FringeArts, which produces Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival. While she learned a ton and forged a lot of relationships, the pace and scope of the work was at times “kind of like being dropped into the ocean from a helicopter.” She was thrilled when the position opened at Pig Iron, as she loves contemporary, devised work.
Her time at Villanova prepared her to tackle everything on her plate at Pig Iron, where she manages the company’s brand and communications as well as institutional and individual fundraising. She writes grants and press releases, maintains the website, stewards donors, and produces the annual benefit. “M.A.s in theatre are rare in this country,” says Martenson. “But I’m so happy that I never pigeonholed myself into a single track. I feel like I have the tools I need to hold my own in just about any position in the theatre.”
Ultimately Martenson wants to be “a theatre enabler,” eliminating obstacles artists encounter so they can focus on their work. To that end she hopes to run a theatre sometime in the future, likely applying the same advice she offers to one-day theatre admins: “Know the work. Spend time in the rehearsal room. Go see plays. Talk to artists. Make art on your own. Do everything you can to dissolve the imaginary boundary between artist and administrator. Believe that you are an artist and visionary too, and keep believing it even if no one else does.”
Randy D. Pease
Director of Education, Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis
Randy Pease describes his journey to his current role as “a circuitous path.” He started out as an actor and producer in Louisville, but when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, he found a day job in an elementary school—something steady while he looked for acting work. “After about 18 months, I realized I had stopped looking for gigs and was completely fulfilled in the classroom,” Pease says. He threw himself into teaching full-time and joined Teach for America, eventually working in teacher leadership development.
But theatre wasn’t out of the picture. One summer, Pease worked at IRT’s Summer Conservatory for Youth. “I had an incredible experience, and made sure that Janet Allen, our artistic director, knew it,” he recalls. When his current position opened, Allen emailed Pease directly to invite him in for an interview.
“Once I had left performing behind, my career aspirations were focused completely toward teaching and educational leadership,” he explains. “It wasn’t until this specific role came onto my radar that I understood there was a fit for me in the world of administration.”
But Pease wasn’t coming in green. He had a B.A. in Theatre and Communications from Indiana University-Southeast, and an M.A. in teaching from Marian University under his belt. He had also racked up admin experience in his previous theatre and teaching jobs. Managing productions and teams of teachers prepared him to handle the nearly 40,000 students who come through IRT’s doors every year for the student matinee program. When it’s A Christmas Carol season, Pease manages 1,300 students a day throughout the run.
On tap for the season ahead is an increased commitment to increasing the accessibility of IRT’s work, both through reaching students in low-income communities and those with disabilities. After piloting a sensory-friendly performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens last year, IRT is offering three sensory-friendly performances this year.
“I consider what we do as administrators to be exciting, if a little unglamorous,” Pease says. “We sometimes forget that even we are part of ‘the magic of theatre’!”
Theresa J. Beckhusen, a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.