Theater - Film

The Little Apple

A multi-hyphenated artist in New York shares lessons learned while turning pro.

Margo Jones Part II - the work/life balance.

This is part II of a series - you can read the introduction to the series HERE

Though many people today don't recognize her name (more on that later), Margo Jones achieved fame in her lifetime as a professional theater director, and founder of the first US regional theater. She became famous at a young age - directing the Broadway premiere of Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie at age 34. 

Margo (with fabulous fur coat) changing the theater marquee. Based on a theater she visited in Prague, she changed the name to the current year every New Year's Eve - a pledge to the public to present works commenting on the present.

Margo (with fabulous fur coat) changing the theater marquee. Based on a theater she visited in Prague, she changed the name to the current year every New Year's Eve - a pledge to the public to present works commenting on the present.

Her path to Broadway was forged with superhuman self-will. She discovered theater during her studies at an all-girls college, then won an internship at Pasadena Playhouse (a famous 'community theater' that attracted film actors in California). With her bombastic, confident, 'Texas' personality that railroaded and awed everyone, she developed important networks and contacts. She then started her own successful community theater in Houston and convinced the city to pay her for it. After a few years was granted attendence at an international theater conference with the biggest names of the time, where she started a life-long friendship with the famous reviewer Brooks Atkinson, who introduced her to her agent. Next, after working her ass off on an application, she received a Rockefeller grant to tour the world studying the theater of other cultures in order to take what they did best for development of her own theater. While all this was going on, she stumbled upon the works of an unknown Tennessee Williams and William Inge, advancing their careers and hers.       

From age 34 to her death nine years later, Margo founded and ran a successful theater-in-the-round in Dallas, directing most of the plays. Concurrently she served on national theater councils, mentored other theater leaders interested in her techniques, wrote a book about her staging techniques and mission of bringing professional theater to small cities throughout the country, and directed three more Broadway productions (all flops by financial standards) - rounding out her life with a revolutionary premiere of Inherit the Wind at her theater, followed by her dramatic exclusion from the Broadway production. 


Money

These are achievements that would make any modern director envious. Yet there is a caveat, which you can't find in a quick online search on Margo. In Helen Sheehy's biography, she mentions that oil was found on the property of Margo's parents when Margo was in her 20's, so for the rest of her life she had a weekly stipend to supplement her theater lifestyle. It didn't make her rich, but it was the equivalent of around $500 a week. If a director has that money in New York today, it would be doable to have a part-time, low-paying job and pursue directing aggressively - or to live meagerly and have no job at all! Simply having an extra 20 hours a week to pursue directing opportunities would make all the difference for those who have no choice but to work a full-time job at the start of their careers - trapping them in a cycle of: work/do theater after work/limited time for rehearsal prep/no time for big-picture career development which would elevate to better paying theater work/paying high New York rent so unable to save money/no choice but to stay in day job. Much of Margo's success was due to her other-wordly tenacity, talent, marketing skills, and passion, but this extra income broke her free from the heavy financial trap many of us are stuck in.    


Burn out

Margo demonstrating an action in rehearsal for Inherit the Wind.

Margo demonstrating an action in rehearsal for Inherit the Wind.

There was a price to Margo's success. The career path in theater of a woman director and producer does not have ascending steps you can check off a list, and because none of the opportunities simply present themselves, they must be sought out with extreme discipline - which is time and energy consuming. A big reason why Margo became such a big success so quickly is that she eschewed the other parts of life that fill the off hours of a more ordinary life: friendships, committed relationships and marriage, outside hobbies, and physical/emotional/spiritual health. For awhile the excitement of her life and the fulfillment of her dream of creating assessable theater was enough to make her feel complete - but by her mid '30's this was wearing thin. Her theater was also fraught with challenges and anxieties like any other, and her last 3 shows on Broadway were commercial failures. She started to wonder if it all was worth it - she began to comprehend that deriving all her happiness from the effervescent theater was not quite enough. Though she almost single-handedly changed the structure of the American Theater, her hard-driving life caught up with her and directly led to her early death.    


What can we directors learn from Margo?

There are definitely working women directors today who have come from humble financial means, who have an impressive career and a full life. How do they do it? How can we use Margo's life as a lesson and inspiration?

Sacrifice IS needed, but decide how much.

I definitely don't aspire to changing the fabric of theater in this country (at least on the level Margo did). For such a giant vision, I think a giant sacrifice is required. I'll take that pressure off myself, and be ok with the smaller sacrifices, such as TV time, an extra hour of sleep a night, subway rides where I do nothing, that really stylin' outfit, a vacation, and the realistic chance of every being 'rich'.  I'll also continue to push through my Resistance, which includes tendencies to procrastinate, inefficiency, and acquiescence to bouts of intense fear. This is me, but others may be willing to sacrifice more. Think about what you are willing to sacrifice, and what sacrifices would take away your happiness.  

A specific goal does half the work for you. 

This was something Margo nailed, and something I'm still struggling with but making progress on. If you can articulate that you want to A. Be a freelance, full-time New York director, C. Teach directing and acting at a rural college, D. Be the Artistic Director at a regional theater, E. Run a community theater and direct and act there while holding a low commitment job during the day - if you have such specific dreams, then you'll know the next steps you need to take to get there. Margo wanted a regional theater company that proved to the world that high art could be found hundreds of miles from Broadway - and the path to do this appeared before her.

Find ways to be financially freer, and make this a priority from the start. 

It's an old story: New York City is the center of theater in the world, yet it is too expensive for theater artists to live there. There is no direct path for this achieve a degree of financial freedom, but some ideas include: saving up for a downpayment to purchase an apartment, live with a lot of roommates for a few years to save up, find a well-paying part time job like waiting tables, be rigorous with your budget and savings plan.    

Self-awareness: find a second well of happiness to drink from.

Margo was obsessed with theater and had little interest for current events or hobbies - until taking up painting toward the end of her life, when she finally realized something else was needed. I think now a lot of us flee to Netflix and Chill at the end of a workday, but it's important to find an activity that's more organic and engaging. Surprisingly for me this has become long distance running. I was never an athlete as a kid, and only took this up when my metabolism changed and I had to do more work to stay in shape. It has become my other thing to obsess about - and I think a big reason for this is because running is a metaphor for life in the theater. You can choose to be the hare, like Margo, or the turtle - and though Margo collected over 5,000 turtle figurines, she never mastered slow and steady. I guess the question we need to answer is, which one are we comfortable being? 


Stay tuned next week for Part III!

Resources and further reading: Helen Sheehy's biography Margo: The Life and Theater of Margo Jones, and sweettornado.org.