Yes, Some Alternative Theaters Offer Day Jobs

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Ezra LeBank and Diana Wyenn announcing ARTmageddon at Metro’s Carmageddon II press conference. Photo by Lynn Hasty.

Many people think of LA’s edgier theaters as concentrating on the art, not on how to promote it or pay for it. But someone has to worry about the less glamorous managerial tasks at arts institutions of any size or aesthetic. At institutions heavily subsidized by other nonprofits, sometimes there is enough money to turn this work into paying day jobs.  Here are the stories of two individuals, Diana Wyenn and  David Mack, who have day jobs in management at alternative theaters — and how they got there.

This is part II of a series about managerial jobs in nonprofit theater; part I — Can Nonprofit Theater Managers Get For-Profit Jobs? — posted on Tuesday.

Diana Wyenn

Education: NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, BFA with honors in Theater

Current job: REDCAT, marketing and media relations manager

Previous LA theater connection: Unknown Theater (now defunct)

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Diana Wyenn is on staff at downtown LA’s premiere venue for ground-breaking, experimental performances. But it wasn’t her original plan.

Diana Wyenn with colleagues Jennifer Mefford and Edgar Miramontes at REDCAT’s inaugural RADAR L.A. Festival. Photo courtesy of CalArts.

“I studied abroad while at NYU and that’s what I was on track to keep doing; I was going back to Europe to be an artist,” Wyenn says.  She had been studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and had an invitation to return after graduation as a director’s apprentice. “But then I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes right before graduation and my plans to move to London were”¦it was all completely thwarted.”

Still reeling from the diagnosis, Wyenn moved back to Los Angeles to be near family and develop a long-term plan to manage her diabetes. Her carefully mapped-out future was now a blank slate. But after four years of acting, directing and producing theater at NYU, it didn’t take long for Wyenn to become restless to create again.

“I got things under control. I got an office day-job for the health insurance,” she continues. “And then I thought “˜This is not my plan. I’m a theater artist’.”

Wyenn’s first impulse was to keep directing and producing, but she feared she wouldn’t be taken seriously””she was, after all, just 20 years old with no LA connections. So she started auditioning and meeting people. A friend pointed her in the direction of an energetic new company called Unknown Theater.

As at many other start-up theaters, the Unknown membership parsed out its administrative responsibilities: website, fundraising, production management, communications, marketing.

“At my very first meeting I found out the publicist had just left,” Wyenn recalls. “I told them I didn’t know the first thing about publicity, but I’d be willing to give it a go.”

Diana Wyenn gives Tatevik Simonian and Montana Graboyes a tour of artist Rigo 23’s installation at REDCAT

Wyenn started that same day as the volunteer publicist, with no contact list and no marketing materials. She went home and got online, researching every aspect of marketing she could find, with a particular eye toward successful theater companies she admired.

“I found a press release from the Steppenwolf Theatre that I really liked,” she recalls. “It was clear and really gave me the information in a straightforward way. So I began using that as a template and writing my own press releases.”

Then came the brainstorming.  Wyenn put in the hours researching press lists, media contacts, community calendars and other marketing resources — calling and finding the information to promote the Unknown’s shows. She built relationships with the major publications and scored a major coup by getting the LA Times to review shows presented by her lesser-known company, of which she would eventually become the associate artistic director.

With no advertising budget, Wyenn was forced to create grass-roots approaches, using social media and word-of-mouth at every opportunity. Even now she says it’s the inexpensive forms of marketing that often have the best advertising pay-off because “people are simply talking about it, you, the project, the company.”  In fact, she believes her understanding of low-cost solutions in marketing gave her an edge when interviewing for her current position in marketing at REDCAT.

“I talked about our word-of-mouth marketing for Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” Wyenn says. It was a production she also directed,  coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the 2003 bombing of Iraq. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist but there was a way to tie things together regarding government. I was going after activists, political groups…it was that kind of thinking that worked.”

Diana Wyenn with gallery patrons at the opening reception for “The Experimental Impulse” at REDCAT. Photo by Scott Groller.

It wasn’t until the REDCAT job interview that Wyenn realized she had honed valuable skills during her time at Unknown. She had also developed a set of questions when preparing to market a project. “Why are you doing it?” she asks. “That’s why people will see it”¦not because of the plot of the show. Why this project? What do I want them to think about from the moment they think of the show to the moment they leave the show?”

Unknown disbanded as a theater company, but Wyenn got the REDCAT job, which comes with full benefits.  She is an employee of CalArts, which operates REDCAT. As a prestigious educational institution, CalArts has much greater financial resources than most independent performing arts companies; it has a $52.7 million operating budget and a $105 million endowment. The typical salary range for a job at Wyenn’s level is between $40,000 and $70,000, she says.

Yet she continues to draw on her low-tech, creative approach to marketing, stretching her modest (for a midsize theater) marketing budget at REDCAT. She credits her 99-seat experience as influencing successful management of the marketing dollars at her disposal. She still works with some of the first people she met through her original marketing and press lists and looks forward to celebrating her four-year anniversary at REDCAT in March 2013.

“And I’m still a working artist, which is very important to me,” Wyenn adds, describing the balance she finds between sometimes long office hours and still producing original work. “I’m also living with diabetes and finding that balance. It’s incredible to think that what I started doing as a volunteer has led to a good job at a nationally recognized venue. And when I’m not creating my own art, I’m telling people to go see art. It’s an important job and it’s made me very happy.”

Ezra LeBank and Diana Wyenn announcing ARTmageddon at Metro’s Carmageddon II press conference. Photo by Lynn Hasty.

Recently, Wyenn led the charge with Ezra LeBank on the implementation of Los Angeles’ city-wide arts participation movement ARTmageddon. She has also recently accepted a position to sit on the board of directors of Los Angeles Downtown Arts District.

“I basically came from an underground arts center,” Wyenn sums it up. “Then moved to one that was above ground — and with a liquor license.”

Name:  David Mack

Education:  Cornell University, BA Theater; CalArts, MFA Acting

Current Job: Watts Village Theater Company, managing director

Previous LA theater connection: City Garage, company member; Eclectic Theatre

“I love producing. I love fundraising. I actually like asking people for money,” says David Mack, who came to arts management by way of acting and retail sales.

David Mack

Infectious and energetic, Mack started working for Watts Village Theater Company armed with an MFA in acting and no idea what a managing director did. He had been working a day job as a manager in a retail store that was keeping him afloat while he also acted in plays at Santa Monica’s City Garage Theatre — where he says he received no compensation.

“Then I went to see WVT’s production of Ochre & Onyx in 2009,” Mack says. “I learned they needed to find a new managing director quickly and I had no idea what it was — but then [former managing director] Damion Teeko Parran said to me, ‘Don’t worry, you’d be good and we can train you’.”

After submitting his resume and having three rounds of interviews with the board of directors, Mack landed the position and started the job with a modest stipend. He spent his first year with Watts learning the job and getting to know the company and board of directors. By the second year he was putting out fires, producing and stabilizing the company financially. Now, in his third year, he is steadily growing the company and just accepted a full-time employee salary at the beginning of this year. He says the normal range for jobs on this level is between $10,000 and $30,000, plus benefits.

“This is actually the first time ever for me that I’ve had one day job that was totally about theater,” Mack proudly states. Still performing from time to time as an actor, Mack hasn’t looked back from his decision to join the administrative side. He’s found a home with Watts.

“I love creating reports and reporting to a board what I’ve accomplished in the last two months,” he declares. “I also enjoy the politics of personalities and navigating through and compromising. Strategic planning and developing a vision. I love being part of a small company that is growing.”

“Meet Me @Metro III” at Union Station

In the company’s tax returns, which are published on the Watts Village website, the company reported $168,000 of revenue — including the many grants it received that year — and $138,000 of expenses in 2010. But Mack says the operating budget is now multiplying exponentially. He revels in the pressure to keep the funding coming and the outreach of programs strong. He works particularly hard organizing and promoting the Meet Me@Metro program, which pairs WVT with other LA-based theater companies who collaborate to create performance work at various Metro train stations and surrounding landmarks.

“I am glad,” Mack says, “that our team supports salary growth that is tied to performance in growing the budget, so the more our company grows in revenue the larger the salary we get.”

“First and foremost I consider myself an artist,” Mack emphasizes. “And there’s an art to being a managing director”¦it’s just a different kind of art. But I still approach it that way.”

Mack credits his management experience in retail with his skills in conflict resolution. It was also his first time to have staff reporting to him, and he learned how to hold people accountable while helping to improve their work performance. He’s currently working with about 10 ““ 12 administrative staff at Watts and more than 100 staff members/artists every year.

Performers from “Meet Me @Metro II”

Mack also was elected to the 99-Seat Producer Transition Committee that is currently in the process of recommending bylaws and best practices for a potential Greater Los Angeles Producers’ League.

“Everything I learned about being a managing director I learned from Leslie Tamaribuchi,” Mack defers to the former Cornerstone Theater managing director, Watts Village board member and current CalArts instructor. “You grow really fast and then you hit a wall before you can jump to the next level. Then you have to sustain that level”¦it’s scary but fun.”

Next year Watts Village’s Riot/Rebellion by Donald Jolly will use recorded interviews from witnesses of the 1965 Watts Riots to create a production performed at the actual intersection that served as a backdrop to the events. Mack anticipates potential challenges with the city on street closures but he continues to seek out creative solutions.

“I also know the people I have to keep happy,” Mack says. “It’s very much a relationship business. That’s so much of what we do in theater.”

Part I of this series — Can Nonprofit Theater Managers Get For-Profit Jobs? — appeared Tuesday.

Amy Tofte

Amy Tofte