Analyzing the careers and livelihoods of theatre directors and choreographers
Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) is a labor union that works with and advocates on behalf of professional theatre stage directors and choreographers across the United States and abroad. As the sole labor union for American stage directors and choreographers, SDC plays a critical role in uniting industry workers, negotiating and enforcing labor agreements, offering career education and professional development opportunities, and promoting to the general public the essential role its members play in the American arts landscape. Founded in 1959, the New York City-based SDC covers eight jurisdictions (including Broadway and National tours, Off-Broadway, and the League of Resident Theatres) and has worked tirelessly to empower theatre workers. For the Next Stage Project, SDC partnered with the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) and received funding from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) and the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA).
The experiences of American stage directors and choreographers resembles those of other American arts: no clear path for career entry or advancement, the uncertainty of consistent employment, substantial barriers of access to health insurance for themselves or their families, intractable debt obligations, and an all-too-often trade-off between artistic development and financial gain. However, this experience of instability exists within a sector that is one of the most financially robust of all the arts, with a national yearly revenue in the billions of dollars. The difficulties of this career path have been magnified across lines of race/ethnicity, gender, and geographical location—creating a field with no one characteristic experience but rather myriad divergent experiences.
Exploring these experiences in greater detail required research that aimed to honestly and directly, and with scientific rigor, explore their impact, meaning, and significance.
In turn, the Next Stage Project was created by SDC and SDCF to investigate, articulate, and enhance the lives of directors and choreographers. For the Project’s first two phases, NCAP worked with SDC to survey the union’s full membership and learn how they sustain themselves both artistically and financially.
The project had two distinct phases that sought to address specific questions while creating two complementary data sets that could be compared:
-- Phase I sought to understand the backgrounds and experiences of SDC members, focusing specifically on education, personal finances, career experience, use of formal and informal professional supports, and general demographic data.
-- Phase II was developed in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent activism around racial injustice. This second phase sought to assess the extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health, finances, and livelihoods more generally of SDC’s membership as well as identify areas of challenge and opportunity regarding racial justice in the field.
Key findings and complete project documentation was published on October 14, 2020, in a final report titled On the Edge: The Lives and Livelihoods of Stage Directors and Choreographers…A Next Stage Report.
Preliminary discovery research involving an academic literature review, analysis of pre-existing relevant datasets, preliminary interviews with key stakeholders and a representative group of SDC members.
Development and Implementation of two different surveys, corresponding to each of the project’s two phases. These surveys were extensively tested and fine-tuned with regards to both user experience and comparability to other datasets.
Qualitative interviews to help provide a narrative to the quantitative findings of the surveys, address ambiguities in the quantitative findings, and provide specific quotes to be used by the client in future publications.
Analysis and processing of findings and recommendations into a clear and manageable set of deliverables to inform the client’s future efforts to work on behalf of the well-being of its membership, secure financial and resource assistance from private foundations and government organizations, and address the challenges and opportunities of their field.
Strategic communications and media relations plan to accompany the publication of the final report and to ensure the findings reach the intended target audiences.
This multi-phase research project resulted in valuable findings that will serve as an essential resource for SDC’s future decision-making. Though the project included several lines of inquiry, NCAP identified eight main takeaways:
While exacerbated by COVID-19, the careers of directors and choreographers have consistently been characterized by economic hardship, including significant debt, uncertainty with regards to healthcare access, and difficulty with career advancement.
There is no clear relation between higher education and earnings, with half of respondents that have earned a Master’s degree making less than $75,000.
Midcareer respondents (those with 15–30 years of experience) reported insufficient resources and inconsistent access to opportunities in their field, illustrating a commonly experienced midcareer “stumbling block.”
BIPOC respondents on average work more but earn less money from their directing and/or choreography work.
Female respondents on average earn less money from their directing and/or choreography work, yet work with the same frequency as male respondents.
Similar to other areas of the American arts landscape, most directors and choreographers reported a significant overall income decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and at a frequency of almost twice that of the general U.S. population. The hardships presented by the pandemic were not equally experienced, with women less likely to confirm plans for resuming work in the theatre.
Commissions and residencies represent the professional development resources most useful to directors and choreographers during and emerging from the pandemic.
These takeaways, however, only represent a portion of this project’s extensive findings and areas of investigation; we strongly encourage you to read the final report.
On the Edge: A Next Stage Podcast Series
Stage Directors and Choreographers Society Data Findings Convening (12/3/21)