Finding a job in theatre production can be an exercise in frustration for many.

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Breaking into theatre production

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Looking for a job in theatre production? Be prepared to battle the business to make a name for yourself. This three-part series will explore what it’s like to find your way in Toronto’s cultural industry. By Leah Hansen

For recent grad Tia Teeft, the world outside school was a bit of a disappointment.

After spending four years in Ryerson’s theatre production program, Teeft works as a restaurant hostess making money to cover her OSAP payments.

“I worked at a few theatres doing some stage management jobs for about two months and then as those started to dwindle off, I had to start doing more restaurant work,” Teeft said.

For theatre production students and grads alike, the arts industry in Toronto is a tough one to survive in. According to the Toronto Arts Foundation, Toronto’s creative workforce has grown 34 per cent since 2001, which is more than twice the rate of growth in the general labour force.

In an age where graduating with a fine arts degree generates more scoffs than congratulations, some students are finding it hard to break into an industry that is so difficult to make a name in.

“We do tell our students in the very first year, the very first day they show up, that the business will not take you all,” said Peter Fleming, production coordinator at the Ryerson Theatre School. “It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of dedication, being an incredibly good people-person and keeping your reputation clean, that will actually get you work. The business will not take 70 graduates out of the technical program.”

According to Ryerson’s 2009 stats, 78 per cent of production students made it to fourth year. This is a big jump from the 2001 numbers, which indicate a 50 per cent dropout or transfer rate before fourth year.

In terms of where the jobs are, about 85 per cent of graduates are employed in their field in the first six months after graduation.

When it comes to finding work in the industry, there are two different routes you can go, said Fleming. The non-union route is very freelance-based, while joining a union gets you higher pay but may be more work in the long run.

It takes a different kind of person for each, he said.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is the union some production students opt to join. IATSE Local 58 is the chapter that represents the jurisdiction in downtown Toronto.

If students do opt to join the union, they submit their resumés and start out as permit holders.

After a few years of making an impression on the higher-ups, they can become an apprentice, which is another three years of taking stage calls. A vote is held after this in order for the apprentice to join the union as a full member. At first glance, the benefits of being with a union are obvious – the pay is better than striking out on your own and depending on your seniority, the calls to work production jobs could be coming pretty regularly.

But therein lies the catch – seniority.

The union works by maintaining contracts with venues. When those venues have production needs to be filled, they let IATSE know. The union then offers those production jobs to its members based on seniority. The most experienced and longstanding members are offered calls first – the permit workers, sometimes students or recent grads, are the last.

Aaron Dell, a second-year theatre production student, is already a permit worker with IATSE and has been for more than two years now.

“I take a lot of calls, I skip a lot of class to take calls,” he said. “I’m pretty serious about it.”

For permit workers, a call could be anything from loading props into a truck for a few hours to setting up lighting for a show. While it can be difficult to make a living wage as a permit worker with IATSE, Dell said the calls he gets pay for school. There are busy times and slow times, he said – he’s really busy taking calls now but come February, he might not work for a month.

“If you have a lot of different specialties and you’re available all the time, I’d say that you could live off it as a permit [worker],” he said.

The most recognizable venues in the city, such as the Air Canada Centre, Massey Hall, the Ed Mirvish Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall, all have contracts with IATSE, said Fleming.

It’s not unheard of for unionized workers to make $40 an hour, he said – even up to $100 an hour for overnight work. If you’re not with the union, it’s realistic to expect to start at $18 to $20 an hour. Regardless of your union status, the amount of work is rarely constant.

“You cannot work backstage at any theatre that’s bigger than the Tarragon and make a living wage if you’re not union,” Fleming said.

Despite this, only a few grads from each graduating class choose the union route, he said.

While large-scale venues are what makes Toronto’s theatre scene recognizable, the majority of the work is found in the smaller venues and production companies that make up the remainder of the industry.

“You can have a very great arts career never going near the union,” Fleming said.

Even though there’s less money to be had, many grads are comfortable with the trade-off between income and job satisfaction. “They’re prepared to live with less money if they get work that’s self-actualizing,” he said.

For those who decide not to join IATSE, finding work in the industry turns into a freelance game, where word of mouth and reputation are vital in getting jobs. Standing out from the hundreds of others competing for the same job can be daunting, said LJ Savage, director of production at Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Teeft said she’s never thought about joining IATSE because her interest within the industry lies specifically in stage management, not behind-the-scenes set building.

“Because I’ve only been out of school for six months or so, I’ve only worked on about two or three different jobs mostly through people that I knew,” she said. “For stage management jobs, there are so few jobs and so many people want them.”

Whether you’re going it alone or opting to join a union, the ratio of jobs to recent grads may be off simply because of the number of theatre programs in the Greater Toronto Area, said Savage – Ryerson is one of six major programs.

“I personally believe there are too many theatre production programs out there for the amount of work that’s available,” said Savage. “There are too many schools trying to fulfill this part of a relatively narrow profession.”

Even though there may not be enough work to go around, Savage said there seems to be a balance between what’s out there and those who go into other careers, tradework or choose to continue their education.

This is certainly the case for Teeft, who is considering applying to nursing programs across the GTA in January.

“I’m excited to be able to start working in the field that I went to school for but I definitely don’t think that it’s going to be my primary source of income any time soon,” she said. “I love theatre, but in the long run, I think I need to work on other things as well.”

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