How I Became a Freelance Theatre Director and Playwright

How I Became a Freelance Theatre Director and Playwright

Biography

Oystein Ulsberg Brager is a freelance theatre director and playwright. He is the joint artistic director of Imploding Fictions and co-creator of the award-winning Audio Fiction Podcast The Amelia Project. Freelance directing credits include The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen (Sogn og Fjordane Teater), Frankenstein by Nick Dear (Nordland Teater), Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Teater Grimsborken/Teater Innlandet), Sense (Nose) by Anja Hilling for Company of Angels (Southwark Playhouse, London) and New Norwegian Play Readings for ATC (Arcola Theatre, London). Øystein is currently employed as a dramaturg at Unge Viken Teater, a regional theatre outside Oslo, Norway.

Introduction

Audio Drama Podcast Creator, Theatre Director, Dramaturg… I wear many hats! I will talk a little bit about each of them and what my journey has looked like so far, trying to carve out a career for myself in the arts. First of all, I have to say that this story is unique to me. Coming from Norway and having lived most of my life here, I have benefited from circumstances and opportunities very particular to the Nordic countries. My road can’t necessarily be replicated, and my experience won’t necessarily compare to yours. But then I think it’s like that for anyone trying to make it in the arts: The journeys are as unique as the individuals who are on them. You have to find your own path. My path can be an inspiration, but it’s certainly not going to work as a blueprint.

How was your University time?

Jeff Bezos Career Advice
Jeff Bezos Career Advice

Although I was born and grew up in Oslo, the capital of Norway, I decided to study abroad. I attended Rose Bruford College in London, where I took a BA (Hons) in Theatre Directing. Looking back, I think I went through three distinctly different learning curves at the same time whilst Uni:

  • Professional Education. I learned the craft and art of theatre directing from esteemed theatre-makers and educators. A world of knowledge opened up to me, and the most extensive practical course I was on let me hone my skills.
  • Personal Development. Uni was where I did my last bit of growing up, becoming… well, me. I started Uni when I was 20 years old. Living in a different country allowed me to shed my old skin, as it were, my childhood identity and reinvent myself. It allowed me to take charge of myself, wake up to who I could be and wanted to be. Studying theatre was also part of that. We had teachers who cared about our personal development, about ‘unlocking’ us as people, to ‘unlock’ us as artists. My confidence grew a lot whilst in college.
  • Understanding the World. Living in another culture to the one I grew up in, living in a metropolitan city like London, studying with and getting to know people from all over the world, opened my eyes to many things I had never thought about. I realized that so much of what I considered ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ was Norwegian and specific to my culture and how I was raised. I became much more aware than I was before.

Based on my experience, I recommend anyone who has the opportunity to study far away from their own home, abroad if they can. It opens your eyes and fuels your personal development alongside the path of professional development you’re on. 

Why did you choose a career in this field?

I have to work creatively. That is such an integral part of who I am, of my personality, and I know that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t get to apply myself, my skills, and my creativity in some way in my work. Right after Uni, I worked brief stints in other jobs, in a warehouse, at a restaurant kitchen, and as a temp at a primary school. That work is right for some people – and it’s good that we need all kinds – but it’s not for me.

I have always been good with words and stories. I’ve always liked working with people, and I’ve ever had an unstoppable urge to create. That’s been apparent from very early childhood, and although I didn’t always know that I would end up as a dramaturg or study directing (I thought for a while I wanted to be a writer), I’ve known for a very long time that I would work in the arts.

As a child and young teenager, I took amateur theatre classes at Minken Fossheims Barneteater. When I went to the Norwegian equivalent of high school / A-levels, I specialized in theatre at Hartvig Nissen Videregående Skole.

In the Nordic countries, we have something called “folk-high-schools,” one-year diploma schools where you live on campus. They are half like school and half like a gap-year, you study a subject mostly for fun whilst figuring out what you actually want to study at Uni. Subjects can range from anything like “Outdoor sports” to “Writing.” I went to Romerike Folkehogskole where I did theatre and acting – of course. (Many such schools do accept international students, so that you could apply!) 

Whilst at Romerike, I started applying for Uni. I actually used it for both writing degrees and theatre directing degrees. It was mostly a coincidence that I got into theatre directing, which has positively shaped my life. Studying theatre running and working as a theatre director has given me a practical understanding of how theatre works, which is incredibly useful in my current job as a dramaturg. (I’ll talk more about that later.)

What was your first job or nuggets from jobs you had that helped you get to where you are today?

Studying theatre directing gave me a clear focus for many years. After Uni, I worked mainly as a theatre director for several years. I started the theatre company Imploding Fictions together with my best friend Philip Thorne studied theatre directing together at Rose Bruford. For several years we produced shows, performing in Britain and across Europe. We specialized in new and contemporary writing.

One of the smartest things we did, I think, was to label our showcase production the last year of Uni as the first Imploding Fictions production. After Uni was over, we kept taking that show across Europe on and off for nearly three years. It gave us a piece of finished content we could immediately sell, rather than trying the much more challenging task of promoting ourselves as theatre directors angling for work.

After a few years, I moved back to Oslo, and Philip moved to Paris. That made working together harder. I started focusing more on my career outside of Imploding Fictions, establishing myself as a theatre director in Norway. I did many independent productions, and after a while, I started landing directing gigs for funded regional theatres. Just keeping at it and making my own stuff was probably the primary key to eventually getting better-paid gigs at the big theatres. Still, my focus was new writing.

Then in 2016, I started a young writers program at a regional theatre. This program grew and got funding, leading up to today, where I work full time at Unge Viken Teater as a dramaturg. My job is partly as an artistic consultant to the Artistic Director and partly as head of the young writer’s program, working closely with the young writers and overseeing a small team of other dramaturgs and mentors.

In 2017, Philip and I decided we wanted to work together again, despite living in different countries. That spawned the idea of making an Audio Drama Podcast together. Theatre projects required us to be in the same room, but working in an audio medium, we could do that remotely. We created The Amelia Project, a dark comedy podcast about an underground organization helping people fake their death and come back with a new identity. It has won several awards, and just the other day, we reached 2 million downloads, which is amazing. We are really grateful that so many people appreciate what we are making!

So right now, I have my full-time job at Unge Viken Teater, and I’m running The Amelia Project on the side. Yes, it is a lot like having two jobs… Most people I know who work in the arts are very hard working. Some people who have never worked in the arts seem to think that a career as an artist, and perhaps especially as an actor, a director, or a writer, is just having fun all the time. And whilst, yes, it is very gratifying to create and reach an audience, it is also incredibly hard work. It would be best if you were prepared to work twice or three times as hard as anyone with a regular income. It would be best if you also were designed to go in and out of your chosen profession, having to find other temporary work when there is a ‘dry spell.’ You should have complete control of your finances and be good at saving up because you never know when you’ve suddenly got two months until your next gig or when the big project you thought you were doing suddenly falls through. If you don’t like the thought of that kind of insecurity, if you don’t feel like the applause at the end of the day will make up for that, if you don’t feel like being an artist is something you HAVE to do, then perhaps life as an artist isn’t for you.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. Find an amateur theatre group, write fiction, and put it up on your webpage – but if you want to live as a professional artist, be prepared to be the hardest working person you know.

Are you prepared for all the rejection?

Life as a freelance artist is a life full of rejection. Whereas in other jobs, people might go to a job interview at one or two stages of their career, landing a job they have for years on end. An actor attends auditions regularly, and a freelance director jumping from gig to gig is always looking for work. Every conversation you have seems to be a potential job interview… you are always networking. This can be very tiring, it’s not for everyone, and I don’t do it as much anymore. These days, I’m lucky to have a full-time job, and as a creative artist, I focus on the projects I want to produce with Imploding Fictions over trying to get directing gigs for others. If I have the time (which I rarely do these days), I’ll happily take on a gig if someone asks, and it’s an interesting thing, but I’m glad not to have to scramble for work all the time.

Advice for someone looking for a job?

How have I got the jobs that I have landed? Is it through smooching and sucking up to people? I don’t think so. A lot of people hate the idea of networking because it seems so disingenuous. I agree. I think it’s not about that, though. Here is my tip on how to do it:

  • Be Present. Be where it happens. Meet people. Talk to people. Get to know people. Go to festivals, conferences, opening nights, and so on. But not to talk to the people who can “give you a job.” Talk to the people you want to work with. Gain a network of peers. Meet like-minded people. Find your people.
  • Make your own things. Keep at it. Don’t give up. If you are creating something of interest to someone with money and resources, they will find you. They are looking for you. It’s their job to see you. They are dependent on discovering you. But if what you make isn’t for them, isn’t for the big market, well – then make it for your own sake and your own little audience. Please do it for the art, and not for the money. That is more satisfying in the long run anyway.

I think this is how I have been offered the jobs that I’ve been offered: Someone discovered something I had made and liked it. In addition to that, they had probably met me because I was present somewhere, and they thought I was a pretty decent guy. And the combination of those two things made them offer me a gig.

Can you provide some book recommendations?

If you want to work in the storytelling arts, I swear to STORY by Robert McKee. The book isn’t just useful to Hollywood writers, I use his insight as a director, as a dramaturg, and I have used it teaching acting. The book is the most comprehensive description of how stories work that I have found, and I love how Robert McKee looks beyond the surface of the story and gets down to the bare bones of what a story IS and how it WORKS. He doesn’t teach you a formula; he teaches you a craft.

Any advice about CVs?

Yes! I have advice about CV writing. But the advice comes from my experience reading other people’s CVs, not primarily from writing my own. As a director and as someone who has produced many theatres, and as someone who has sat on funding committees, et cetera, I have read and read CVs regularly. Mostly actor’s CVs, but also other artists. Here are my top tips:

  • Don’t lie on your CV!

The people who read your CV probably also read hundreds of other CVs. They have learned the art of reading a CV, and they can see through your BS. Don’t pretend that the amateur show you were in during high school was a professional production. It doesn’t make you look good. You look like a liar (not a good look), you look like you think the person reading your CV is stupid (not clever), or you look like you don’t know the difference between a professional and an amateur production (not a good look).

  • If you are young, don’t worry about your CV being “thin”.

If you are an actor fresh out of Uni, no one expects you to have already been in lots of professional productions. If they are considering someone your age, it’s because they want someone your age. Being young comes with the disadvantage of less experience. Everyone knows that, and it’s okay. It’s your youth they want. And at the end of the day, it’s your talent as an actor that matters.

In other artistic professions, like directing, being young can be more of a disadvantage. There’s a need for young actors, but less need for young directors. People often want to hire experienced directors. The only way to get that experience if no one will hire you is to do it yourself. It will be hard to be a director if you don’t have a little bit of a knack when it comes to producing. I have produced a lot, but I have never called myself a producer. That’s because I didn’t want to be known as a producer. Producing is just a means to an end to get to the director to make sure what I’ve written actually reaches an audience. Keep making stuff, and as you do, you’ll keep getting stuff to put on your CV.

  • Make your CV easy to read.

Different professions and countries have different standards for CVs. Look up what applies where you are. If the reader expects to find info on your education top left, don’t place it bottom right. When I read CVs looking for the right candidate, I skim through tens, maybe hundreds. Make it easy for me. If I can’t find the information I’m looking for, I won’t end up hiring you. Don’t get too creative. Your CV isn’t a work of art; it’s a tool to give your information to the one reading it in the quickest, simplest, most easily understandable way possible.

  • In the arts, you don’t have one CV, you have many CVs.

I keep one CV that has everything on it, and I mean EVERYTHING. Every little job I do is on there. I never send this CV to anyone. In addition to that, I keep a writing CV and a directing CV that I regularly update. In my opinion, you need to tailor each CV you send off to the job you are applying for. Someone looking for a director probably isn’t interested in knowing about all the different retail jobs you’ve had. (Unless the play you are applying to direct is set in a retail store…)

It’s normal for the CV you send out to be only one page long in Norwegian theatre. I don’t know what it’s like where you are. But to me, that makes a lot of sense. When I read a CV, for an actor, for example, I want the main info. I don’t care much about the little details. Where did they study? What are a few examples of projects they’ve done? If I’m casting a touring production, have they been on tour before? If it’s a kid’s show, have they performed for kids back? I expect their one page CV to be tailored to the job they’re applying for. And keep it one page only. I never read page 2 of any CV. If the info isn’t on page one, I didn’t see it. Is that cruel of me? Well, if I’m reading 150 CVs, trying to decide which 10 actors to call in for an audition, why would you try to force me to read page 2 or 3 or 4 of your CV to try to find what I’m looking for? Sending your CV to me, you need to be respectful of my time. I always say to the actors I meet: Write on your CV: “This is a shortened CV, my full CV can be sent on request.” If anyone ever asks you for your full CV, I’ll buy you a drink. I have run CV writing courses for Norwegian actors for over half a decade now. So far, no one has asked me to buy them that drink…

Again, remember that expecations of your CV may be different where you live.

Why do you think you were selected among other candidates?

Why did I get a job as a dramaturg when I’m trained as a director and not a dramaturg? Probably because I’ve worked extensively and almost exclusively with new writing since I left college. I have been writing my own things, developed new writing and other writers, directed new writing, and translated contemporary plays into Norwegian and into English. Directors and dramaturgs share a lot of the same knowledge, even if they are distinct professions. Furthermore, my way of approaching directing always involved me working in some ways as a dramaturg, even if that wasn’t what I was billed as. The combination of my experience and my interests were a unique selling point. I appreciate that it is easier to be unique in a small country than in a big one (one of the main reasons I moved back to Norway was because I wanted to be a relatively seen bigger fish in a smaller pond than the small fry I was in London). But if you are doing your own projects, in your own way, following your own artistic instincts, I believe you will come out the other end, having carved out both a professional path and an artistic voice for yourself.

Lessons from jobs that you couldn’t get.

I’ve stopped chasing the big theatres. I’ve stopped chasing ‘the dream,’ like directing at the National Theatre in Oslo, for example, because I’ve realized the reality of that job is nothing like what I’ve imagined. That’s not a space in which I would thrive. For some people, it is, sure. But I’m much happier doing what I’m doing now: Working with young writers helping them hone their craft, and creating my own projects, in my own way, working with my best friend and closest collaborator Philip on The Amelia Project, for example. I want to be an artist in a way that makes me happy and where I have freedom. I have found my path, and I’ve learned to shed the cliched ’dreams’ to focus on what I actually and really want to do. You might discover that where you thrive isn’t following the standard dream or the expected dream, be it Hollywood or Broadway, but making your own thing in your own way. Check-in with yourself now and then and look at what makes you happy, what you’re good at, what you want to learn, and follow that path. Don’t wear yourself out following what you think is your dream, if it turns out it isn’t. Discover you.

If you want to check out my projects, you can look at my website oysteinbrager.com or ameliapodcast.com. Good luck on getting a job – or creating one for yourself!

Also read Expect the Unexpected: Career Interview with Kamia Vasconcelos

How I Became a Freelance Theatre Director and Playwright

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