The First-Person Project

Joshua Midgett ’07

Shepherdstown, WV

General Manager, Contemporary American Theater Festival

Majors: Theatre & Dance, Economics

I grew up in a military family, so we moved around every handful of years – enough that, whatever avenue garnered me the highest level of social acceptance in school was what I ended up doing. When I lived in Alaska as a kid, I was a sports and outdoor person. In middle school in New Jersey, I was so into band. Then I went to high school on Cape Cod, and theatre was the part of the school that welcomed me the most. I started acting and assistant directing, and got involved in community theatre. One of those community theatre members off-handedly mentioned having gone to see Keene State, and I applied just because of that one recommendation.

I had a myriad of interests as a high school student. I enjoyed history, math, biology, and even took stabs at creative writing. Outside of classes, I would play tennis and rec basketball, but I was also doing theatre show after theatre show and volunteering at arts organizations. When I looked into Keene State, advisors let me know I could get not one, but two degrees in just in four years. That excited me, not having to let go of something just yet.

I got lucky in that I connected early on with a professor in each of my majors. David Ornstil in the Economics Department carried me through that degree, and he realized I had a unique merging of interests. He had fun with it, too: he would get some economics kids to go to the shows, and he was very interested in theatre. The theatre program assigned me a dance advisor, because he was available. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn’t know that I could dance; I didn’t know that my creative vocabulary was mostly in choreography and in stage pictures, and not necessarily in acting or directing or design, until I met William Seigh. William has long since been sort of my sage – one of those people that you meet and don’t realize how important that person is going to be to you. He’s still at Keene State – he’s the provost now. He is a wonderful, wonderful human, and took so much time with me and helped me go places I never would’ve gone.

In college, I learned about the field of arts administration. By my second or third year, talking with both of my mentors, I started to look at business models of arts organizations and to think about what I wanted to do when I left Keene. I realized that these two worlds, theatre and economics, had a place where they could come together.

Immediately upon graduation, I got a year-long theatre management internship with the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence – I landed it because of my economics degree. That was really where I was given the keys to the back door of an arts organization, and luckily a very big and successful one. I learned there’s so much that has to happen before you’re even given the privilege of making the art. It was eye opening. I began to tap into all those things that I learned in economics classes, and got to see that the creative industries and the arts industries and the theatre profession is part of that bigger picture that we talked about.

After my year at Trinity Rep, I was company manager for a summer at Peterborough Players, a highly respected summer theatre in New Hampshire. Company manager is one of the hardest jobs in theatre. The company manager is responsible for orchestrating the travel to and from the organization and coordinating actors’ and crew members’ lives outside of rehearsal and performance. The job pulled me further behind the curtain, showing me all of the things that go into making what is a fun summer stock experience for the theatre-goer, the reviewer, and, I hope, the artist.

Then I got hired as the touring company manager at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, doing shows for colleges and high schools. There were 10 of us touring through five states for four months, and I was performing a small role in the show as well as managing the company. I was handling human resources, I was processing payroll, I was the liaison between all of the locations that we would tour to and the main office, and I was doing personality management. I did that for a year, and then they kept me on in the summer as their retail supervisor. As part of the festival experience, people come and buy all these gifts, tchotchkes, and they’re all linked to the show. They handed me a budget – that was the first time I had been given an income expectation and expense line, to live up to and to utilize. I did that for a summer, then realized I was too removed from the art. It felt like too much economics, too much of that side of the brain and not enough of the other.

So when that finished I spent three years double-booking myself on a number of tours. I worked on tours for elementary schools that were based out of Massachusetts, doing a juggling healthy eating show (I would note that I learned to juggle at Keene). Again, they needed a company manager who could manage the tour and also possibly perform. It’s a unique skillset to have all of that managerial and financial background, but also have a performing background and the ability to empathize with actors. I also went back to Utah to manage the Shakespeare Festival tour another couple times. On top of that I had a weekend touring job setting up commercial pop-up shows in shopping malls across the country. That was a crazy couple of years, but I got to go all over the country and work with the most wonderful of people.

At some point, while listening to our actors answer questions about their lives from high school students, I started thinking about graduate school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to American University in DC, which has one of the oldest and most respected arts administration programs in the country. They had wonderful professors who shared my interests, helping me move from a microeconomics view of managing an organization to larger ideas about creating marketplaces for creative industries in cities. Through the program, I studied tourism and management for a semester at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Many of the courses that I took there required a bachelor’s in economics. It’s funny how that keeps popping up.

After grad school I landed here in Shepherdstown, an hour or so outside of Washington, DC. I was hired by the Contemporary American Theater Festival, one of the preeminent new play festivals in the world, as a management associate, but was immediately asked to step in as general manager. I put together the annual budget, I coordinate contracts, negotiating with agents of actors, I work with the board, I help facilitate casting calls in New York and DC, and I still have a creative outlet – I direct shows at Shepherd University. The Festival is located on Shepherd’s campus, and part of the theatre’s responsibility is to leverage its creative resources to help the university.

Five of us work here year round. Come May, we hire a company manager, and by the end of May we get our pre-season staff in, so we’ll go from six to 70 workers. In early June we get the second wave, the performers and artists, and we’ll go up to about 150.

Our season is short. We run five plays simultaneously during the four weeks of July. We’re a destination theatre, so people plan an experience. They will book two nights in a hotel, come to Shepherdstown, and then see all five shows – and go out to the restaurants in town and the arts and crafts fairs that happen all summer, and maybe visit Gettysburg or Antietam, which are both an easy drive from here. We have three theatres, where the sets and performers change over in less than an hour and a half.

We also offer overnight camps for high-schoolers, where we train them to be theatre audience members, so they understand and appreciate that arts are important in their lives. Combined with internship programs for undergrad and grad students, it can sometimes feel like I’m working with and teaching echoes of my former self.

At the Festival, we give the best storytellers in America the venue to tell their stories on the highest level. We are compelled to produce stories that are bold and contemporary and relate to current societal issues. Our producing director talks about how it’s not a mistake or a coincidence that people walk into a dark room at the same time and experience a similar event or story on the stage. And because our audiences are here for more than one day or one show, you can walk down the street and hear people talking about these stories and how they felt engaged by them and the questions they’ve raised. There’s something different about discussing a mutual experience – watching the story – versus discussing differing opinions. If I can talk about my opinion through the lens of a mutual experience with somebody next to me, there’s a middle ground where we can learn more about ourselves and our opinions. We can talk about the experience as a third party.

This place is a great fit for me. It straddles that line of exercising my business brain and letting me have a creative outlet. I get to direct, which is phenomenal, and during the summer season I’m a part of curating some of the events that happen. And so I feel that weight and engagement and excitement that I wouldn’t get anyplace else. I’m enjoying what I’m doing here because it’s generative and challenging and I feel a part of everything from play selection to budget creation.

The work-life balance is tricky in theatre. When I do have time off, I like to travel. I recently went on a trip to Scandinavia for a couple weeks. And I try to get down to DC or up to New York as much as I can – to see some shows, of course. I’m also on the board of the County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and I just got accepted into a West Virginia Leadership class, which pulls in people from all fields. It’s funny –as I find myself working, traveling, and volunteering in worlds outside of the theatre I’ve come to know as home, I start to appreciate just how unique these disparate learned skills are – how different it is to be a theatre kid and an economics kid. I’m grateful to Keene for affording me the chance to not let go of these opposing interests, and I’m confident and hopeful I’ll continue to learn and work in both.