“The MFA is the new MBA.” So wrote Daniel Pink in his 2005 book A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
Pink’s book spawned other commentaries suggesting that the proverbial bedside manner of the hard-hitting business barracuda might benefit from some lessons in creative collaboration and effective communication –Â fundamental training within many artistic fields.
Below are the stories of two creative professionals, David Tarlow and Ryan Maes, who developed management skills while working at small nonprofit LA theaters — and then translated those skills into more lucrative jobs outside nonprofit theater, even as they keep their theatrical interests alive. The third story explains how Stefanie Wong Lau,Â who had held day jobs at larger nonprofit theaters and now produces at the 99-seat level, is now considering whether to take day jobs outside the nonprofit world. Coming soon — a second article, in which we explore the stories of a couple artists who found administrative day jobs within alternative nonprofit theaters.
Education:Â Â Oberlin College, BA Theater;Â Loyola Marymount, MBA
Current job: Â Â Citibank, commercial sales manager
LA theater connection: Â Celebration Theatre, managing director (2005 ““ 2008) and president of the board (2008 ““ 2010)
Someone who went the route of an MBA via theater management is David Tarlow. Starting out as an actor in Chicago in his 20s, Tarlow moved back to his birth town of Los Angeles in 2004.
“The arts are what I’d prefer to be doing full-time,” admits Tarlow. “And I was an artist for most of my 20s in Chicago”¦but even then you always knew you needed something else to really make a living.”
In Chicago, Tarlow participated in a hard-core theater community that prided itself on hard work and deep commitment from company members. When he moved back to Los Angeles, he learned about another Chicago transplant newly arrived in LA, Michael Matthews, the new artistic director for Celebration Theatre. It wasn’t long before Tarlow joined Celebration and took on the role of managing director.
“And that taught me so much; it really was like a school for both of us,” Tarlow says, laughing as he recounts some of the missteps between them. “It was also my first real experience of leading within an organization.”
The managing director job didn’t pay at first, so Tarlow took a full-time job at a bank in Culver City where he had been temping. He recalls how his work at Celebration helped prepare him for more responsibility at the bank job. Then the bank job prepared him for business school.
However, the daily schedule, as he worked what were essentially two full-time jobs, took its toll.
“It was a lot of driving when it started,” Tarlow recalls. His commuting loop went from East LA toÂ Culver City to Hollywood, then back to East LA”¦every single work day.
“I was constantly playing one job off the other because then I started producing,” Tarlow says.Â “I really didn’t know any better. I just wanted the experience. I feel like working in the theater, you really learn what it means to commit to something and how to work with people.”
Tarlow’s work at the theater was completely unpaid for the first year and a half. When he started producing, he received $500 per show, but this didn’t necessarily compensate for expenses that came out of his own pocket. “I spent between $3,000 and $5,000 of my own money on the theater every year, in addition to all of the pro bono work that I did. However, I wasn’t upset about spending it. If I had the money for an item that was used to support a show I was producing or the theater as a whole, I would buy it.”
Finally, in his third year as managing director, he began receiving a stipend of $500 a month for the job — hardly a sum that would support anyone without another job.
“I knew I wanted to go back to school and get my MBA,” Tarlow says. “I also knew my limits”¦I was still very busy but I needed to step down from managing because I couldn’t be there every day. But I wanted to stay involved.” So he joined Celebration’s board of directors.
Now, after obtaining a MBA from Loyola Marymount, he works in the high-pressure world of sales within Citibank — a field in which annual salaries of $60,000 to $100,000 (plus benefits) aren’t unusual. But Tarlow observes how his managing director experiences at Celebration still feed into his current job. “Because it’s not only numbers now,” he says. “It’s about meeting with people and doing things more like I did at the theater. Building relationships”¦I have to work with people in the same way.”
Tarlow currently lives in Los Angeles and remains an avid patron of Celebration’s ongoing programming and an informal advisor, as needed, for its management staff. He also serves on the national board of directors for The Broadway Dreams Foundation, which provides top-tier musical theater training to students across the country, regardless of students’ ability to pay.
“[Celebration] was a lot of work, but the rewards I got from it were a great gift,” reflects Tarlow. “When you get to do that kind of theater, you really make what you want out of it. It was a gift for me.” And it’s possible that this “gift” could eventually return him to theater — but in a better-paying job. “I have thought about becoming the finance director of a large arts organization someday. The skills I’m learning at the bank are definitely preparing me for a role like this.”
Ryan L. Maes, CPA (Certified Public Accountant)
Education: UC Irvine, BA Drama with minor in business management; UCLA Extension certificate in accounting
Day job: Auditor for Haskell & White, LLP
LA theater connection: Rogue Artists Ensemble, co-founder and finance manager
“I had no goal of being an accountant in the beginning,” says Ryan Maes. “But I had a day job working at Opera Pacific and I enjoyed the spreadsheets and being able to dig into the financial side of transactions. I think it grew out of that.”
He began studying for his accounting degree and his CPA license. “I figured it would be a bit of a career bump, so I took more accounting and finance classes as career development offerings at myÂ job,” Maes says. “As I went through school [for my CPA], working directly with the Rogues on budgets and building financial models gave me the chance to apply what I was learning.”
Maes has been with Rogue Artists Ensemble since its beginning in 2002. He watched the
company grow from an on-campus theater company at UC Irvine with $100 in a bank account to a multiple award-winning theater company in Los Angeles, with an annual budget approaching $100,000. He has seen financial ups and downs along the way.
As the group’s finance manager, he used to be paid “somewhere around $100 to $150 per quarter,” he says, but for the past couple years he has volunteered his time. He also has made no-interest loans to the company, including writing off payments for company expenses that he placed on his personal credit card. “I have carried $5,000-$10,000 in expenses,Â and some other willing company members have been generous in helping cover costs until revenues come in. ButÂ I don’t highly recommend this without [the lenders] understanding the risks, particularly if this puts your own food and rent at risk.”
In his current day job as an auditor, Maes is working in a field that generally pays between $50,000 and $150,000 a year, with generous benefits. His position takes him to a wide range of companies, both non-profit and for-profit, in all parts of LA.Â “I’ve worked on audits for much larger arts organizations with “˜real’ budgets,” he says. “Then I look at the smaller Rogue budgets and see where we have opportunities for”¦growth,” he adds.
Seeing differences between for-profit and non-profit models on a regular basis puts Maes in a constant state of noting challenges for the Rogues, and most small theaters, particularly in terms of keeping theater staff and managers focused on fundraising.
“In a for-profit world everyone is always thinking about the numbers,” Maes explains. “In non-profit, everyone is focused on that core goal of what are you trying to accomplish andÂ pursuing your passion. But you still have to be able to pay for the things you need. It’s easy toÂ forget about the financial costs, particularly the recurring fixed costs of running the businessÂ side.”
With his added CPA training and work experience, Maes imposes a tougher financial regimen on the Rogues than he did in the beginning. He is particularly geared toward thinking in terms of risk management, a quality he recommends for all small theaters, where even the smallest mishap — such as a show’s underperforming box office or an unforeseen loss of assets — can wipe out a company’s already anemic bank account.
“It’s important to understand the risk involved with every show,” Maes says. “What if it doesn’tÂ perform well?…It sounds simple, but people become driven by their passion and the goodÂ decisions don’t always follow.”
Managing the beginning of a rental situation, keeping up cash flow during the run of the show,Â keeping overhead costs down, Maes has learned through experience the pitfalls that can sometimes trip up the best-laid plans. It proves to him that accounting with small budgets can be just as tricky as creating great work.
He doesn’t see himself ever getting too far away from helping the smaller non-profits stick around.
“If it wasn’t the Rogues, I think I’d still be interested in helping other small theaters or some other non-profit,” Maes says. “I think doing the non-profit thing is really important for ourselves and our communities, and it’s played a huge role in developing the career I’ve built, so it will always be important to me.”
Maes wants every theater company to remember that financial people engaging in a small non-profit are most likely not there because of the numbers. Personal meetings and being involved with creative people is what makes the arts rewarding for everyone, not just the artists. Maes enjoys everything from watching tech rehearsals to celebrating opening nights, as well as finishing the year in the black. One of the biggest challenges for small theaters, he notes, is to manage how much time and effort people are willing to give for the little money they get in return.
“It’s a challenging environment keeping a non-profit alive,” Maes says, relating his current work with the Rogues to his day job as an auditor. “When you see those challenges in other companies, you understand it really well. It’s also helpful being a good communicator and coming from a communication-driven art form. Being able to explain accounting to artists helps me even if I have to talk to someone with an accounting background.”
Stefanie Wong Lau
Education: Â UCLA, BA Asian American studies and political science
Current Job:Â stay-at-home mom, part-time bookkeeper and fundraiser
LA theater connection: Â Artists At Play, co-founder
Stefanie Wong Lau balances her busy schedule raising a four-year-old daughter while working part-time managing the books at her husband’s restaurant and doing short-term fundraising gigs at Center Theatre Group. But Lau’s true theater passion is fed through Artists At Play, which she founded with fellow artists/producers Julia Cho, Peter J. Kuo and Marie-Reine Velez.
She once had better-paying jobs in two theaters. In 2000, Lau was selected to serve in an LA County Arts Commission Internship program at East West Players. She stayed at East West the following summer as a volunteer, eventually becoming paid administrative staff in marketing and public relations with box office oversight. After six years with East West, Lau left to become a special events coordinator for Center Theater Group’s development department, where she stayed until 2008. Her salary at these theaters never surpassed $40,000, but she had full benefits.
Lau compares the mid-size shop at East West with the much larger CTG.
“I remember once being at East West and not having the right mailing labels,” Lau recalls. “So I found a way to make it work rather than spending the money to get what I needed. I’m not saying CTG is wasteful, not at all. But there are more resources to do your job, so you have a different mind-set.”
Lau appreciates that her CTG experience helped her learn how to properly cultivate donors. “When you’re in [smaller] theater, there’s so much more focus on getting a good product on stage,” Lau says. “That long-term sustainability with people who want to invest in you”¦you don’t have time to invest in them. It’s frustrating.”
Her fundraising role at CTG taught her to create special events — even an open rehearsal or cultural tie-in — to continue the relationship-building that targets and fully engages donors and audiences. It’s these lessons she wants to bring to Artists At Play, as she and the company founders continue to build the company.
But of course the compensation level at AAP isn’t comparable. Each producer of a show gets onlyÂ $500, plus reimbursement for the items purchased for the company. However, the producing experience might pay off some day.
Lau hopes her work with AAP will allow her to continue to refine her business acumen, particularly in marketing and development, but also by providing more experience on the producing side through hands-on management. AAP is currently presenting Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat, at Grove Theater Center in Burbank.
Lau has advice for new companies when it comes to marketing, branding and knowing who you are. In fact, it’s advice her own company is currently grappling with.
“There are good theater companies [in LA] that really know who they are. What they want artistically and who their audience is. When you see the companies that have been around for a while, that seems to be a constant strength. We are now asking ourselves if we’re truly going to be an Asian American theater company or something else. I’m not sure what the answer might be.”
After taking four years off from full-time work to raise her daughter, Lau is now looking at the marketplace and figuring out her next step. Her résumé has her poised for any number of possibilities and a professional crossroads.
“Not only are there a lot of larger performing arts organizations I could go to, it’s also what do I really want to do,” Lau says, pondering her next step in the job market. “Do I take the skill set that I now have — because I really have good skills — and go to a studio or for-profit marketing firm and make more money, or do I stick with non-profits?”
“I certainly know that I could make more money at a for-profit company. And in a lot of ways that is really attractive. Even at [the large nonprofit] CTG, with all its resources, it is still a struggle. There’s never enough people, money and time to do all that you want or need to do. And maybe I’m wrong to think that there isn’t a struggle at a for-profit company, but at least you would hope that the salary would compensate for the struggle.”
For someone who originally planned on going to law school or getting an MBA, Lau feels confident her experiences have given her a strong foundation to continue professionally in either the non-profit or for-profit sectors. But she also has another consideration stemming from her role as a stay-at-home mom.
“One of the biggest things I struggle with is that I really loved working. I liked having a place to go in the morning where I mattered, made a contribution and had great co-workers who were also my friends. Working and being successful at what I did at East West and CTG contributed a lot to my identity and sense of self.
“Then when I left work and became a mom, it was really difficult. Not that raising Amelia hasn’t been fulfilling in its own way. Even on the most challenging days, I know I made the right decision. But it’s hard to have a strong identity as a stay-at-home mom when women are constantly bombarded with the idea that we can do, have and be anything and everything. So my struggle career-wise is less about what my next job should be, but at what point do I shed that stay-at-home mom identity.”
Part II of this series — Yes, Some Alternative Theaters Offer Day Jobs — will appear on Thursday.