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Meet Michaela Bulkley of LA Stage Alliance in Downtown Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michaela Bulkley.

Michaela, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I always felt really weird about where I fit in to a theatre community, I’ve always loved theatre but I wasn’t particularly passionate about one singular aspect of it. When I was applying for college theatre departments, I was really overwhelmed because I didn’t want to be an actor, but I didn’t have a strong enough design portfolio to get into tech programs. I eventually found the University of La Verne, where I didn’t have to pick an artistic identity, I could just be a theatre maker, and I really credit that program, and the artistic risks I was allowed to take, to where I am now.

What was great about this program was the flexibility to start working in the field, by the end of my freshman year I was an assistant stage manager at Sacred Fools and working on shows like “Absolutely Filthy” and “The Poe Show.”

I was also a PR minor, so when word got out about that I started getting jobs doing marketing, and then it moved to contracting and larger management projects. Then my sophomore year I started working at a mid-sized theatre and volunteered at the Ovation Awards. That’s when I discovered that there was actually this underground secret society of theatre people who liked doing paperwork and having a 9 to 5 desk job, they were called Arts Administrators.

My senior year of college when I was applying for grad schools and trying to figure out what to do with my life, my professors kept rejecting my senior project proposals, because they wanted be to take a real risk with my art. I struggled with that because I was a producer and administrator at heart, what art did I have to put into the world? What problem could I solve in my little corner of the world?

Most seniors produce a play that they’ve always wanted to be in, like Baal or The Picture of Dorian Gray, but they were never very good because those students didn’t know how to produce. I created a theatre company where students could practice producing their work outside of a graded environment, and without the pressure of a capstone project. My goal was to produce 3 shows, for 3 other seniors that needed help with their capstone projects, but we ended up producing 16 shows in 12 weeks. The 2016 election had just happened and all of a sudden, a lot of student artists had a lot to say, and to be able to give them a platform to express that was a worthwhile experience. The students finally had a platform to experiment and do whatever they wanted, and learn how to produce their own work.

We had built a sustainable system that taught student artists how to produce their own work, and I wouldn’t have been able to do a project like that at any other university. When I looked at how I could replicate that feeling in the LA Theatre world post-graduation, I realized I should get my Masters in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, since theatre companies were mostly nonprofits.

Then a job opened up at LA STAGE Alliance and it gave me the flexibility to go to grad school and work in LA theatre, so it felt like the perfect fit.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My personal journey with LA STAGE Alliance feels a little bit like a love story, with ups and downs, heartbreak and reconciliation, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, doing anything else.

When I was a sophomore in college I was Murry Hepner’s assistant, which was my first experience with theatre administration. She was producing the Ovation Awards that year and was the co-chair of the Ovation Rules Committee. She asked me if I wanted to come help and even though I had no idea was LA STAGE Alliance was, or the Ovation Awards, I ended up skipping class to come and see what it was all about. I immediately fell in love.

It was a dream come true to be backstage at the Ahmanson, surrounded by theatre people all dressed up, giving passionate speeches about the power of Los Angeles theatre, and seeing the amazing production team that was bringing this ceremony to life. My role was extremely small, I was just making sure winners knew how to get back to their seats, but it was my first time seeing how expansive and wonderful LA theatre was.

When I applied for an internship at Center Theatre Group and happened to be paired with the other co-chair of the ORC, Eric Sims, it pushed the door to LA STAGE Alliance open a little more. He let me come with him to ORC meetings, I got to meet the rest of the LASA staff, and I got to learn even more about what this organization does for the community and how much it impacts the community.

When I graduated from college, a position at LA STAGE Alliance opened up and it felt too good to be true, the job was marketing the Ovation Awards. So I was getting paid to tell people about a program I loved. My third year at the Ovation Awards I now officially got to wear the “Staff” badge instead of the “Volunteer” one and it felt like such a huge accomplishment.

In 2018, LA STAGE Alliance started going through difficult changes and financial trouble. This is completely normal for a nonprofit in any industry, but that doesn’t make it any less painful for those involved. The tensions built as the organization was being restructured, and I ended up getting fired.

It was a heartbreaking experience and I felt lost, I was so proud of myself that I had gotten a job in my field, at my dream organization, right out of college, and that pride was replaced with a lot of shame and embarrassment. I started freelancing and helping theatre companies with marketing, fundraising, event planning, and overall management needs. I was still a theatre admin at heart and was making that work in any way possible. It was a really rocky time, balancing a dozen projects and finishing graduate school, but of course, now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. At the time I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to settle down, but I tried to lean into the challenge and take the time to figure out my own identity as a theatre artist.

This time as a freelancer helped me understand the needs of various sized theatre companies throughout Los Angeles and introduced me to artists in new ways. As hard as I was working, there was still a lot of shame and the closer it got to January, the more I thought about how much I missed LASA and the Ovation Awards, and I was embarrassed that I wasn’t going to be there that year.

In November 2018, 9 weeks before the 2018 Ovation Awards, I got a call from Marco Gomez, the interim Executive Director, asking if I wanted to re-join the team and help with the Ovation Awards. It was like a weight had lifted off my chest, and I immediately got back to work. I slowly said goodbye to my freelancing clients, finished grad school, and now work at LA STAGE Alliance full time as the Programs Manager, specifically running the Ovation Awards program.

The five-year journey from being a volunteer to managing and producing the awards is something I feel really lucky to have and excited to share, even with the turbulence. Every year at the Ovation Awards I take a moment to check in with myself and recognize how much I’ve grown in the past year. My first Ovation Awards, I didn’t know a single person beside Murry, and I don’t think anyone remembers I was there. Now, I feel part of something so much bigger than myself and know these companies and these artists like dear friends.

While my journey with LA STAGE Alliance has been heavily focused on the Ovation Awards, I’m excited to see how my responsibilities and our organization grows. We are so much more than the Ovation Awards, we are a team of people that come to work every day and think about how we can build new resources and tools to make LA theatre thrive. We are always looking at ways to engage audiences and empower artists, and we have some great initiatives and new programs on the horizon that I can’t wait to announce.

Please tell us about LA STAGE Alliance.
LA STAGE Alliance is an arts service organization dedicated to empowering artists and engaging audiences for the performing arts in Greater Los Angeles. Since 1975 we have worked to serve and strengthen the sector through resources, programs, events, advocacy efforts, and professional development.

We recently launched a one-stop online destination to find out anything theatre related in Los Angeles, onStage.LA. This site has event listings, discount tickets, news, reviews, and you can follow your favorite theatre companies and artists. You can even search for theatre based on which part of Los Angeles you live in, this site was really made for LA in mind, which I don’t think other platforms do.

Our other programs, like @ This Stage, LA STAGE Day, and the Ovation Awards focus on community, collaboration, and professional development to build a strong theatre sector.

LA STAGE is seen by its community as the go-to source for information, resources, and opportunities for artists and arts admins. We strive to engender a robust and diverse network of artists who engage, inspire, educate, and entertain their communities.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I don’t really think luck has affected us, we work hard, we make decisions, we make mistakes, we move forward. Of course, there are stressful moments and unexpected circumstances, but we are all theatre professionals, and that just happens sometimes, because well, it’s live theatre. These small moments, stressful or blissful, add up to something spectacular, which I guess can count as luck.

The best example I can think of for my life is that after I got my B.A. in Theatre, I applied for grad programs and jobs in New York, it just felt like the logical next step for me. When I got rejected from all those programs and passed up for several jobs, I felt really defeated, but then two months later a job opened up at LA STAGE Alliance and now I am beyond grateful I didn’t go to New York. So that rejection felt more of like a push in the right direction.

As for LA STAGE Alliance, I think we are lucky to have great leadership with Marco, a wonderful board who really care about the community, and an outstanding alliance of theatre companies all working to make Los Angeles a better place.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Ryan Miller – Capture Imaging

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