Still a Rarity
They do exist. Michael Brokaw’s eponymously named Los Angeles area agency represents several noted LDs, including Peter Morse, Steve Cohen, Butch Allen and Abigail Rosen. But he’s a rarity. Nor was it a strategic move; Brokaw has worked as an agent at Hollywood powerhouse ICM and in artist management for the formidable Ken Kragen, but he says the move to managing stagecraft artists was simply an outgrowth of meeting some of them in the course of being with his music artist clients on tour and realizing that they were as artistic in the approach to work as any musician. What some of them lacked, as do many music artists, was a game plan, and he organizes his client’s careers around five-year plans that establish chronologically-attainable goals to build towards.
“You never really reach the end of any one five-year plan, because as you move through one, goals change and opportunities arise, and you adjust for that and create the next five-year plan,” he says. “But the bottom line is, you’re always working off a plan. You need a plan to build a career.”
Good advice, as is Brokaw’s emphasis on picking projects carefully, and always with the intent of following through to the end. (“Sometimes the biggest challenge in a career plan is knowing when to say ‘no’ to a project,” he says.)
But, I pressed, why have so few management entrepreneurs targeted the stage crafts, particularly as those focusing on the music management side seem to be increasingly embracing more technical talents like mix engineers and remixers.
It puzzles Brokaw, too, though he’s not losing sleep over the lack of competition. He suggests that it might have to do with the fact that managerial types don’t spend enough time on the road with artists, seeing, as he has, the level of artistry that accompanies the craft side of lighting, staging, set development and video content creation.
“Most managers don’t have a clear understanding of what goes into production,” he asserts, adding that artist managers will routinely deal with — and often hire — tour managers and production managers. But in the process, their interaction with that kind of talent — and a good production manager is worth his or her weight in gold — might obviate any need to interact with the LD or the set designer.
Managers also tend to think strategically, and, let’s face it, regardless of the level of artistry involved, the stagecraft performers are most definitely tactical by comparison, so it’s understandable that they fly mostly under the managerial radars.
A Hub in Nashville
There are other ways that LDs and their stagecraft colleagues can build managerial infrastructures around themselves. Lighting designer Jeff Lavallee doesn’t manage anyone, but he has managed to put together an organization that is as much a collective as a company.
Based in Nashville, 44 Production Designs might have three or four other LDs, scenic designers, video producers or other staging professional occupying its 4,000-square-foot loft space at a time, individually working on designs, programming and other projects while collectively bouncing ideas off one another, but Lavallee says there have been nearly two dozen using it as a resource over the last four years.
Lavallee says it was never his intent that the place operate as an agency or as management, but it has served as a hub for serendipity and situational synergy. “I got a call the other day from someone looking for an LD for a project that had to start Monday,” he recalls. “I looked across the room and said, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ And just like that, they’re connected.”
I still didn’t have an answer as to why there is so little management infrastructure in place around lighting and staging, but Lavallee made a point: at least in Nashville, there was so much work to go around and relatively so few LDs and others to fill the jobs that management was more a matter of scheduling than career strategizing. It’s a good point — while the media academies are churning out Pro Tools pilots a mile a minute, well-trained lighting, video or staging specialists remain far fewer and further between.
It might well be that the lack of that management infrastructure is more of a reflection of the health of a market than a symptom of trouble. Nonetheless, the need for more strategic career planning is clear. Even as live event production continues to increase in complexity and sophistication, the financial engines beneath it are still looking at uncertain economic landscapes around it.
The corporate event market, for instance, is still way off its pre-recession highs. The spurt of new performing arts centers around the U.S. that preceded the financial meltdown is being followed by more than a few in apparent financial trouble — for instance, the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, where Standard & Poor’s recently lowered the center’s bond credit rating to BBB-minus.
In addition, a new focus on theater arts at colleges and for-profit media academies will eventually put more workers into the pool than ever before. And like most high schools, these programs don’t include instruction on how to balance a personal checkbook, much less how to make a lighting design look like a Mercedes on a Volkswagen budget. And perhaps one of these days, management types might see the potential for profit in taking on some of these kinds of clients. If they do, we’ll know something has really changed.