A Chat with Sarah Deutsch

Jan 19, 2008

dramafarm.jpgSarah Deutsch is a really inspiring and creative person. She’s the founder of the Drama Farm, a cool project which aims to bring a new look to education, specifically in the theater/drama sector. She also runs a personal assistant company, Pinkleberry Services, so if you need someone to help with errands, project management, etc, look her up.

Anyway, Sarah’s kindly agreed to share about her experience with building the Drama Farm, as well as a bit about being a personal assistant. She has some simple, but really good, advice on building something new, and a great perspective on freedom and education. So without further ado, the interview with Sarah Deutsch.

Firstly, could you introduce yourself – what you’re doing now, how you got there, etc?

My name is Sarah Deutsch, and I’m currently a part-time theatrical stage manager, as well as running my own personal assistant/errand service, Pinkleberry Services. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and started working backstage at local theatres there when I was 14. After graduating from high school, I went to Carnegie Mellon University, where I studied technical theatre (specifically stage management).

After finishing college, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I worked as a stage manager in the Masters of Fine Arts program at American Conservatory Theater for four years. I love working in the theatre, but after four years at ACT, I felt the need to step back a little bit, and find a way to continue doing theatre while allowing myself the time to live my life the way I wanted to (like seeing my family for more than 30 minutes a day!) I wanted to be self-employed, to allow myself the freedom to take on theatre work when I wanted to, while making a living without devoting my whole life to my theatre work. I also wanted the flexibility to devote some time to the Drama Farm, a project that I’d been thinking about for years but had never had the time to put into action. I was already running errands for friends in my free time, so it was a natural step to turn it into a real business and start taking on other clients. And Pinkleberry Services was born!

What’s it like being a personal assistant? What do you enjoy about it?

Hm. I think the thing I enjoy most about being a personal assistant is that the work is constantly changing. I get to meet a wide variety of people – from doctors to small business owners to artists – and the work I do for each of them is totally different. Almost all of it involves helping my clients get organized in some way, whether it’s setting up a filing and billing system for their office, or figuring out how to best use the storage space in an artist’s studio – but that’s where the similarities end. Every new job is a new challenge, which I love – it keeps me interested and excited about my work, far more than I’ve ever been in a full-time job.

How does being a personal assistant that coincide with the “freedom” of being self-employed that you mentioned? Most people would see that as working for someone else, wouldn’t they?

I am technically working for someone else every time I take on a job, but in the bigger scheme of things, I’m much more autonomous than I would be if I was working as a full-time employee within a larger company. SInce I’m self-employed, I’m really my own boss – I decide when and how much I want to work, and I only take on that many clients. Once I started getting a lot of business, it also gave me the freedom to pick and choose which jobs I wanted to do, which allows me to schedule my personal assistant work around my other projects.

How did you get the idea for the Drama Farm?

The summer after my junior year of college, I participated in a joint program between Carnegie Mellon and Queen Margaret’s University in Edinburgh, Scotland. A group of students from Carnegie Mellon spent six weeks in Edinburgh, and together with a group from Queen Margaret’s, we collaborated to produce a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We spent three weeks working together on creating this production, and it was the first time I’d ever gotten the chanceto commit myself fully to my work. There were no classes or homework to get in the way, so all I had to focus on was stage managing the show. It was the best of both worlds – all the benefits and safety of an educational environment, without the distractions of being in college.

In talking to friends and colleagues since then, I’ve come to realize that not many people have the chance to experience something like that. The typical journey of someone working in the theatre is to go from college, where the time spent working on productions is constrained by all of the other demands of academic life, straight into the working world, where deadlines are always imminent, and very little time is spent on education. You learn by doing, but there’s a lot of pressure to do it right, and do it right now. I felt that my experience in Edinburgh was like a stepping-stone between those two worlds – a place where I could work in a real-life environment, and learn from what I was doing, but at the same time I was aware that the focus was on learning, not on creating a perfect product. These ideas rolled around in my head for a long time, and slowly, the idea of building the Drama Farm started to emerge.

What’s the process of building the Drama Farm been like? Any lessons/experiences that stick out?

The process of building anything new definitely has its ups and downs – the biggest lesson that I learned is not to get discouraged when people aren’t as excited about your idea as you are. Of course they’re not – it’s your idea, not theirs. It’s been consuming all of your thoughts for months – maybe even years – but to others, it’s just a cool idea (or maybe a crazy idea) that they find sort of interesting (hopefully!). Just because other people aren’t as passionate about your idea as you are, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. Keep at it long enough, and chances are you’ll find someone who IS as passionate as you are, and then you’ve got it made. Having a co-schemer – someone who’s excited about the Drama Farm and wants to be by my side the whole way, helping make it happen – has been an absolute lifesaver for me. We bounce ideas off each other, and we feed of of each other’s enthusiasm. It’s great to know that someone shares your vision – it makes you feel a lot less crazy for pursuing your dreams, and it’s the best motivator there is…

The other big thing I’ve learned is that you should talk to everyone about your idea – but take all of their opinions with a grain of salt. The nature of the world is that almost everyone thinks that they know best – but in reality, you’ve probably been thinking about your plans for a lot longer than they have. Think about what they say, and decide which parts you agree with – you can incorporate those into your vision, and file the rest away for later (or just trash them completely). Don’t assume that because someone is an “expert”, they must know better than you!

You talked about your co-schemer, and I agree completely with the importance of it. Is your team only the two of you so far? And how did you go about finding a co-schemer? Any tips for the readers?

Right now, the two of us are really the core of the project, and we’ve got a few friends who have expressed an interest in helping get the Farm up and running, but won’t be as intimately involved in running the program as we are. As for finding your co-schemers, I think the most important thing is to find someone who you know you can work closely with, who shares your passion and excitement for what you’re doing, but at the same time is very different from you. My co-schemer (who must go un-named for now) is a good friend who I’ve known for several years. As soon as she heard about my ideas for the Drama Farm, she jumped right in and starting thinking about how she could fit in and what she could contribute to the project. She was passionate about the idea, but she looked at it from a totally different angle than I had been, which has led to some great improvements on our plans. There’s no way the Drama Farm would be where it is right now without her involvement.

My one big warning if you’re on the lookout for a co-schemer: Make sure it’s someone you wouldn’t mind having in your family, because chances are, they’re going to become family before you’re done with your scheming!

From talking to you, I know you to be quite well-versed in the social media scene (reading Chris Brogan, Chris Garrett’s blog, etc). How do you think that has helped you in what you’re doing now?

I’m actually not *that* well-versed in social media – I really started getting into a year or so ago, when I stumbled upon Chris Brogan’s blog. As I started to learn more about the world of social media, it seemed like it could be a really good way to reach out to current and recently-graduated college students, to get them involved in the creation of the Drama Farm. I wanted to get the word out about what we’re doing, but I also wanted to get their input and ideas on our plans. Ultimately, I’d like to start a conversation among students, educators and theatre professionals about the direction we’re taking the program and what we can do to improve on the ideas we have. It seemed like social media was a good way to make that happen. So far all we’ve got is the Drama Farm Blog and the beginnings of a Ning network, but as things get rolling we hope to find a wider audience and build a real conversation.

Where do you see the future of the Drama Farm (for example, do you see it becoming a full-fledged accredited school, etc) – and for that matter, yourself? What do you see for 2008/in future?

Ultimately, we’d like the Drama Farm to be a respected enough institution that university theatre programs would be willing to give their students course credit for spending a semester at the Farm – much like an internship or semester abroad program. Whether that means becoming accredited or not, we’re not sure yet – it may be as simple as working with some of the top universities to make sure the Drama Farm program meets the requirements of a professional internship. That’s a long way off, though – to start, we’re going to put together a summer pilot program, to see how the whole thing works and to get some feedback from real students on how to improve it.

Due to some logistical constraints (we’re moving our whole operation back to Pittsburgh in early 2009), we’re planning to use 2008 as a sort of “Research and Development” year. We’ve got a few big planning and organizational goals that we’d like to achieve before we really get the ball rolling on the pilot program, so we’ll be focusing on those this year – and on building the Drama Farm community, so we’ve got as many supporters behind us as possible when we’re ready to roll. I’ll be posting more details about all of this on our blog in the next few weeks, so if you want to get involved, stay tuned!

Obviously you’re more into the drama/theatre scene, but on a whole, how do you think that the principles and ideas behind the Drama Farm could/should be applied to other areas of education?

I didn’t realize it when I started thinking about the Drama Farm, but our program is largely based on the principles of informal learning – basically, working in your chosen field and learning the ins and outs through experience, rather than being trained in an academic setting first. The idea is to create a work environment that’s conducive to learning – make sure there are resources at the fingertips of your workers, so that when they discover something that they don’t know, it’s easy for them to go find that information and integrate it into their work. I think academic learning definitely has its place – it’s great for giving students a solid foundation – but I think the “learn as you go” approach could be put to much wider use than it currently is. Jay Cross wrote a great book on informal learning – he’s a lot more articulate than I am on the subject, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out. =)

If you could sum up what the Drama Farm stands for in one word/phrase, what would it be? And why?

One word or phrase, huh? It’s kinda funny that you should ask that, because it’s something I’ve been struggling with for close to a year now. The Drama Farm is such a complex idea, with so many parts, that I’ve been having trouble coming up with a clean, concise way to describe it. It’s about theatre education, but it’s also about real-world experience. It’s a new way of looking at learning, but it’s also a chance for students to throw off the weight of “education” and just have fun doing what they love.

Sounds like a cool idea? Go check it out, and see how you can help out.

Free-Range Drama Farm: A new way of learning

Nov 8, 2007

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times before, but now that it’s getting further down the road, and really gearing up for the pilot program, I think it deserves another mention.

I really like the idea of the Free-Range Drama Farm, and I hope it turns out well. As Chris Brogan wrote, “There’s something really cool about people finding new ways to help others learn, and Sarah Deutsch’s announcement for beta testers is even cooler!”

What’s my point in all of this? That I really think you should go and support what she’s doing. If you’re interested in drama or theater, go check it out and sign up to help with the pilot program. If you’re not, but you know people who are, inform them and get them to help, if possible. If you’ve got a blog or website, help to spread the word with these small banners. Even if you don’t fit in any of the above, go join the forum and share your ideas. Or if you just really don’t have the time to do any of those, just take a couple of minutes to donate (from the sidebar of the website) or visit their store and make a purchase.

No matter who you are or what you’re into, you can contribute to this. And I really believe that it will be very worth your while.

Check them out: Free-Range Drama Farm.