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“Networking” in the Age of COVID

photos by Olivia Lilley

Networking. It’s the most capitalistic way to describe the art of building a mutually beneficial relationship. “Networking” reduces something that’s complex, that takes actual work, to a one time or periodic transaction.  

When I think of a “Network” I think of information moving swiftly and coldly across cyberspace for convenience’s sake. This can be so misleading given that language influences how we think about things, saying something like ‘growing your community’ much better represents the dynamic. Instead of ‘competing’ to have the ‘most powerful network’, invest in envisioning the ecosystem you’ve always wanted to be a part of. There’s not only so much for some. There is enough for all. 

Now that we’ve established a shared vocabulary and potentially/hopefully shared values, I want to outline “Envisioning the ecosystem you’ve always wanted to be apart of in the time of COVID.” 

During the past 8 months, I have been able to get to know some of my community, local and across the country, fathoms deeper than I had known them before. That said, there have been so many moments where I don’t know what to say. I can’t relate to having to take care of children right now. I can’t even comprehend it. Sometimes building my community just means sitting in silence for a little bit while on Zoom drinking tea or trying to ration a bottle of wine. Sometimes nurturing my community just means holding space for somebody else to be really honest about whatever it is that’s torturing them currently. 

I would say half the time I’m pitching ideas or stories or collectively dreaming out loud with another producer or leader in my field. All of that has been really energizing, but I have my fair share of moments of despair because we don’t know the next time anything will be onstage. And it’s no one’s fault. I remember the last 8 months as a series of Zoom calls with folks of all ages and races in every American time zone trying to imagine the future. From one day to the next, America, the culture, the theatre, the Indie film scene, everything etc. shifts and rebrands and collapses and continues to do so. 

One of my favorite Quarantine rituals is listening to “The Business” by KCRW with Kim Masters as she chronicles how all of the major studios keep experimenting and fumbling to make streaming profitable. It has been surreal to witness as all of the sure fire Entertainment conglomerates in America lose their foothold. Chaos reigns, and that aspect of all of this is quite thrilling. 

To be honest, a majority of artists in America were not making much money from their art before COVID, which has little to do with them and a lot to do with the structures that were in place, hoarding the power and keeping the grant money tight. To watch the American Entertainment and Cultural damn break and all of this lack of cash flow just dry up, I am sad for some, but now we get to remake all of it. I’ve been waiting for this moment though I did not know what it would look like, and I am not alone. 

Relationships are the backbone of our lives. They are the most important thing that we create. Whether it’s in our home, our career, our social, our local areas, you rarely go anywhere without going to meet someone, just like you rarely sit by yourself in a Zoom room. 

In terms of relationships in my career life, I’ve met a lot of new folks this year. And I’m not going to lie, it’s been a struggle at times. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I can do for them. Sometimes it’s hard to get to know someone because they want to present as if they’ve got it covered, they’re rolling with the punches and keeping the ship afloat. Sometimes people think you’re only coming to them because you want something from them. 

When folks put up walls like that, it’s hard to break through, especially for a newly formed acquaintance. On the flipside, sometimes when I want to genuinely be someone’s friend, that’s too much for them. And that’s totally valid. Everybody has a different relationship with their career life and their social life. Building relationships takes a lot of trial and error and listening and adjustment. The distance during COVID only makes people harder to read. COVID times especially require extra effort towards communication and establishing/maintaining boundaries. 

When looking back on how I navigated career relationships before COVID verses during, I have to say I’m a new person. I’m so grateful to folks like Amy Mueller, India Nicole Burton, and Bill Simmons who have slowly helped me open up and really feel my feet on the ground and my multi-hyphenate role in our community. I also want to thank my first cohort of students at Chicago Dramatists this Fall. Ya’ll are the best.  

Now back to Relationships! In terms of how this article could benefit you…

Here are my top ten (okay eleven) tips on how to Build Stronger Relationships In Your Career Life in the Age of COVID.

  1. If you’re not feeling up to a meeting, ask to reschedule it. Do not try and push through and risk taking out whatever you are feeling on that other person. If you communicate clearly, they will understand and enjoy a spontaneous break in their day.
  2. Ask variations on “How Are You?” This can be a tough question these days. Suggestions: How are you feeling today? Where are you at today? What was something that made you laugh today?
  3. Set a clear time frame for every meeting so everybody knows how long to expect to be in this Zoom call.
  4. If somebody is taking time away from Electronic Communication, respect their boundaries. Wait to send your emails and texts.
  5. Do not get mad at anyone for not having read your play or screenplay or manuscript yet. Everybody can only spend so much time a day staring at a screen. It’ll be okay. We will read it eventually! <3 Also, it’s 100% not personal. 
  6. Wear a mask less. We are all humans in our own homes. Be respectful of other people’s boundaries, but don’t force yourself to come off as if you are a robot who is fine.
  7. Ask folks directly if there is anything that they need or need help with. If they ask for something you can’t give them, you can say no, but they will appreciate that you asked.
  8. Communicate digitally with people from time to time even if you haven’t talked to someone in awhile. I personally love to shoot off a little text to make someone laugh. Actually, reach out to the folks you haven’t interacted with in a long time. I bet they’d love to hear from you.
  9. If people email you about paid gigs that you are not qualified for, ask your friend who is qualified if they’d like you to recommend them. Consent is KEY! If they say yes, then make the connection.
  10. Try and think of 3 people you can introduce someone to, if you are meeting someone and they are pulling a huge favor for you and you want them to know how grateful you are for their support. 
  11. One more! Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself. You cannot be good to anyone else unless you are first good to yourself.

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