Advice on Summer Theatre Employment
By Kyle Van Sandt and Stephanie Van Sandt
By Kyle Van Sandt and Stephanie Van Sandt
Many young adults choose to spend their summers sleeping and cruising the Internet high way. Others slave away, returning shopping carts to the front of their local Walmart. And still others prefer to live their summer as a cliche, relaxing by their pool and working on their tan. But not you. You've got grander things in mind. You want to expand your career and life experience by working for a summer stock theatre. Awesome. Good for you. Ahead of you is a great opportunity to learn theatre in a professional environment away from your profesors and instructors. It will help you build your resume' and give you a leg up on the competition when you leave school.
But wait. How does one actually land said job? And for that matter, how does one go about seeking these jobs out and applying? This task can be rather daunting if you don't know how to go about it. (Or even when you do know how, for that matter.) I'll take you step-by-step through the process, as I know how, and dish out for you all the valuable (and invaluable) advice that I've learned along the way--very often, the hard way.
For starters, how do you even find these jobs? A good first step would be to check either ArtSearch.com or BackstageJobs.com. (Check with your local university's career center, as most will have an ArtSearch password.) Many theatres will post jobs on these sites, and if nothing else, this should give you an idea of where work could be. But wait. That theatre posted a job for a scenic charge but you're looking for work in sound. Google that theatre, along with any others you know of. Some theatres may post jobs on their own website that they don't bother to put up on job websites. Also, remember, you don't necessarily have to work at a theatre to gain valuable career experience; look at production houses, theme parks, and summer camps as well.
But by far, the most tired and true method for finding the work is to ask the people around you. It is very common for those in the education sector to fill their off months by working a summer job. Ask your teachers, your classmates (especially upperclassmen,) your coworkers, your professors. Find out where others have worked in the past, and where their favorite jobs were. In addition to getting a first-hand account of who's good to work for, you will see that many theatres tend to hire students from the same university year after year, and coming from one of these universities may give you a leg up on the rest of the competition.
Also keep your eye out for unified auditions. These can be very useful, as they allow you to apply to many theatres all over the country in one fell swoop. (Plus, it means you only have to break out your fancy shoes once!) Many of these auditions do charge a (usually manageable) fee, and watch out for those deadlines; they tend to be early and sneak up on the best of us!
A word of caution. One pitfall many people fall into during their first job hunt is to discover a theatre, set their hearts on working at it, and fail to apply to any other theatres. As with applying to college or getting a date to the prom, it is imperative that you have multiple options available to you. Apply to as many theatres as you can; it's better to have too many options available to you than to find yourself with one rejection and no job. I have found it incredibly helpful to start a document with all the particulars about each job, (such as start/end dates, pay, housing, travel allowance, job position, contact info, and other pertinent information,) so that I can keep track of all of my opportunities and options. (Besides, there's nothing more embarrassing than getting a call and not being able to remember which theatre this person is from!)
Okay, so you've got yourself a list of jobs that pique your interest. You can do one of two things with this list: you can throw it on your desk and eventually loose it under a pile of Wendy's napkins and Skittles, or you can begin applying for these jobs. But how to start?
Most theatres ask for a cover letter, resume, and three references. Simply put, a cover letter tells the reader which job you're interested and why you should get it. Run them through your most pertinent and impressive resume points, and explain to them why these experiences make you the best candidate. (Also make sure you include the date that you can begin work.) Your cover letter should be no more than one page, follow letter writing standards, and for the love of all things holy, check your spelling and grammar! A cover letter riddled with spelling and grammar errors sends one of two messages to your potential employer: either you don't care about this job or you still can't figure out how to work your zipper. Either way, your resume is headed for the trash.
The process of writing a theatre resume is a different than that of writing a business resume, so copying off your pre-law roommate isn't going to work this time. Though we haven't really the time (or attention span) to dive into this subject in depth, here are a few main points to keep in mind: keep it to one page, include all your contact information, list the productions you've participated in and what role you held, your degree from your university and what date you expect to receive it, your skill sets, and at the bottom, your references, their position, and contact information.
A reference is a professional contact you have in your industry. It is not your brother, mother, significant other, fellow student, or dog. It should be someone who knows your work and can talk about how great of a person you are. When choosing references be sure to choose people who will talk favorably about you. I know it is a crazy idea, but you would be amazed how often people will list references of past employers they did not get along with. Whomever you do choose, talk to them about being a reference before you put them on your resume'. Let them know to expect the hundreds of calls they will have pouring in about you (hopefully!).
And now, you come to the most difficult decision in the process: mail or e-mail? (Okay, maybe not the most difficult decision...) This is a point of controversy for some people. Tradition states that you should mail your resume on properly watermarked resume paper. (If you choose to do this, try to avoid the kind that's marbling shows up when run through a copier.) But in this age of facebook marriage proposals and senators who Twitter, more and more theatres are accepting (asking for, even,) resumes sent by e-mail. If you choose to send your resume via e-mail, make sure you send it as a PDF. Sending it as a Word document can result it your formatting being destroyed when opened on another machine. And no one wants that. (Or maybe you do. I don't know, I don't judge.)
Okay, so you have your list, you've polished your resume, and you've shot e-mails at anything that moves. What happens next? Well first, you'll be awoken by night tremors. Then a man in a black coat will knock on your door and...
Wait, where I am? Right.
Some theatres will send you a, "Hey, we got your resume! Thanks for applying!" e-mail when they receive your resume. Some won't. But don't freak out if you don't hear anything, it doesn't (necessarily) mean that they hate you. Some theatres like to sit on resumes for several months before making calls. Those that are interested will usually send you an e-mail requesting a phone interview. When you set up this interview, make sure you allow at least an hour of uninterrupted time, in a place with solid phone connection. (This is where one of those la-aaand la-iiines we've all heard so much about comes in handy.) A quiet place without the possibility of distraction is nice. (Because trying to do an interview on your phone with an employer calling over Skype from England while you're trying to buy tires, is good for no one.) And finally, it's extremely helpful to have a pen and paper handy to jot down notes and thoughts.
Someone gave me some very wise advice as pertaining to interviews: "Your resume tells them you can do the job; your interview tells them you're not a jackass." Whether or not this is true, it does bring up an important point: make sure that you're friendly and confident when interviewing. Remember, you're not only interviewing to do a job, you're interviewing to be their co-worker. The interviewer should give you a quick overview of how the theatre operates and the responsibilities that your position would entail. Then they will then ask you questions. (That is the point of an interview, right?) Be ready for anything. Seriously. Anything. Very often, then will ask you to elaborate on previous experience, or tell them about your favorite work experience. Remember, they're not only trying to get a feel for your skills and experiences, but for your personality and how you might be to work with.
The interview is also your chance to ask questions about the job. Some questions that are good to ask, (dude, write this down,) would be...
What's housing like? Is it provided? If so, do you get your own room/apartment, or are you sharing? Do you get any kind of travel allowance? What does the position pay? What's the work environment like? Indoor or outdoor? And, most importantly, when do you start and when does it end?
If the company is going to give you an offer, they will either call or email you. At that time they will spell out the pay you are being offered and answer any questions you have. You can sit on the offer if you need to think about it, however you will usually be given a deadline by which you have to have a decision to the company. This can be as little as one or two days. It is at this time that you can negotiate for more money, better housing, and travel reimbursement. If you have two offers, use that to your advantage. Be aware though, summer theatres budgets are tight, there might not be any wiggle room in pay.
So. You did the work. You charmed the pants off your interviewer. And that blessed, blessed phone/e-mail call came. You've got an offer! And you accepted! Good for you. When you accept the position, make sure you ask for a date when you will be receiving your contract. It should be at least a month before you're contracted to start, and the sooner the better. But on a serious note, guys, don't consider yourself hired until you have a contract physically in your hand. It's rare, but there have been occasions when theatres have been known to renege on job offers. Make sure you protect yourself. When you do get your contract, read it thoroughly, verify that all the information is correct, sign it, mail it back, and make sure that you have a signed copy for your own records. Keep that contract with you throughout the entirety of your employment with that company. Despite popular belief, even interns have a few rights, and you have the right to protect them.
After your contract is all squared away, you will be put in contact with the company manager. Get this person's phone number, and put them on speed dial. Their e-mail address should go straight into your contacts. Why? Because this person will help you navigate your way through the transition into summer stock. If you have any questions, concerns, or are prone to lie awake at night worrying about whether you need to pack your colander, this is the person to call. Anything related to housing, transportation, pay checks, contracts, contacts, or schedules falls under their jurisdiction. Remember, it's their job to make sure that you have everything you need to do your job, so feel free to talk to them about anything you need.
A random word of advice that I'm not sure how it fits in: when packing, keep in mind that summer stock housing tends to be notoriously...um, cozy. Even if you're not sharing a room or apartment, you will probably be living in a space lacking in square footage. Which is fine, because chances are, you won't be spending much time in it. But keep this in mind when you're packing, because some people (read: my wife) tend to over-pack. When trying to decide if you should take something, think to yourself, "Do I absolutely need this?" and, "Can everything I'm taking fit in my current bathroom?" If either one of these answers is "no," leave it at home. The important things to take are your clothes, toiletries, kitchen essentials (these may or may not be supplied by your housing, so make sure to ask,) laundry supplies (welcome to your days off,) your tools (clearly and thoroughly labeled, of course,) and whatever it is that you need to relax on your days off. Anything more is un-necessary.
Speaking of days off. You will quickly discover that these come few and far between, and they are to be treasured and protected. Make sure that you not only use them to catch up on your life, but to relax and rejuvenate your spirit. Suggested day-off activities include: sleeping, watching movies, laundry, reading, beating your previous high score on Mario Kart, cleaning, watching a week's worth of DVR-ed The Daily Shows, going to the gym, making plans to have drinks with that hot chick in props, and grocery shopping. Suggested activities to avoid on your day off: anything that invites extra stress or drama into your life. With the full schedules and long days, exhaustion and burnout tend to run rampant during summer stock theatre, and you need to be at full health and strength. So keep yourself rested, keep yourself healthy, keep yourself sane. Use those days off.
Which isn't to say that part of your relaxation regiment can't include some fun. Summer stock theatre is a unique opportunity to work (and relax) side-by-side with other people who do what you do from all over the country; if you think about it, it's kinda like summer camp. So take advantage of it! Join your co-workers for lunch, a bonfire, baseball games, parties, and at the bar after work! Now is not the time to be anti-social and spend your evenings watching the first four episodes of Firefly; it's the time to make memories, collect stories. It's the time for fun.
On a serious note, though. (Sorry, guys, but these are important. Pay attention, kay?) All theatre companies will have a strict policy on under-age drinking and illegal drug use. If you are going to partake in these activities, know that the consequences will usually include termination of employment. Equally, summer stock theatre tends to function very much like a small town; everyone knows everyone else's business. So if you think that you can call in sick the morning after tearing it up with the carps because you can't get the floor to stop spinning, you will be very wrong. And most likely, very fired. So have fun and enjoy friends, but don't have fun and and find yourself out of a job.
So, assuming you haven't fun and friends-ed yourself out of a job or dropped dead from exhaustion and lack of clean shorts, you will (surprisingly quickly) find yourself staring at the end of your contract. Congratulations, you survived! But before you scamper back to school or your other job or whatever it is you'll be scampering back to, why not start planning for future opportunities? Make sure you get contact information for everyone on the crew and in management. Think about possibly adding new references to your resume'. If it was a kick-ass summer, discuss the possibility of coming back next year; many summer theatres like having the same crew year after year and promoting from within. And even if it was a bad summer, don't leave with in blaze of bad feelings and middle fingers; remember, theatre is a smaaaaall freakin' world, and you do not want to wreck your reputation and chance at future jobs because of a bad experience at summer stock.
Education is extremely important; no one can dispute that. But some education just can't be taught in a classroom. Summer stock theatre offers an invaluable and unique learning experience that no high school or college program can teach you. In a few short months, you get a chance to hone your skills, apply what you've learned in school in real-life situations, work closely with other professionals, make invaluable contacts, and learn how to live as a working professional, balancing work, play, friends, and personal life. And you learn this all through total immersion. There is no other experience like it. But to experience it and to grow from it, is to walk away with wonderful memories and real-life experience under your belt. Experience, I promise you, that will not go unnoticed by future employers.