The Dark Side of the Communicator: A Conversation with Kate Bussert

(Photo by Kate Bussert)

For Kate Bussert, Literary Agent at Bret Adams LTD Artists’ Agency, it’s the little things.

Whether it’s negotiating a contract or finding creative solutions for her clients, Kate sees herself as the conduit of communication between producers and artists, finding satisfaction in the small ways she can make one’s life better through problem solving and empathy. 

Her current position came at just the right time, as she had recently graduated from Wellesley College. She had held jobs at theater companies, a foundation, a feminist non-profit, and was even the personal assistant to the founder of the Big Apple Circus. But, four years ago, she felt burnt out. She still had not found her purpose. 

Originally wary of working at an agency due to their harsh reputation (take character Ari Gold from the television series Entourage, for example), Kate decided to apply to her current job after hearing about the quirky and comfortable work environment from colleagues and friends. What she thought would be a job to get her feet back under her turned into one she’s immensely passionate about, where she finds reward in supporting her clients. A job in which, at its heart, is all about communication.

“It’s those little things that make it possible for that artist to take the job. For them to feel fulfilled,” she says.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Kate and hear about her experience during this time. In our conversation, she discussed her life pre-pandemic, the milestones she was planning on achieving in her career, the influx of cancellations that came in March, how she’s given back during this time, and her thoughts on the future of the entertainment industry. 

Below is her story.

Midtown & Milestones

What did your professional life look like before COVID-19?

“I would wake up in the morning, get on the subway, get to work. My office is in midtown Manhattan in the theater district. My three colleagues and I would show up and sit together and start the day. We’d have a meeting where we’d check in about what projects we’re working on, ask each other questions, and share good news. There wasn’t really a typical day because it’s all about responding to what comes at you. If I saw a show the night before, talking about the show. If I was scouting a new playwright, maybe writing to the writer what I thought. It’s getting those contracts done on the schedule they need to go on and making sure that everybody gets paid. Most days I would go to a show or a reading. It’s a privilege to be able to do that for work, but it was kind of exhausting because it means I’m working from 9am until 10:30pm. 

There were a lot of things that I was really proud of. I was going to see openings, out traveling, flying to Seattle, flying to Los Angeles. There were milestones in my career that I was hitting that I was really proud of. I was supposed to be at my first Broadway opening, the first one for whom I had done a key Broadway contract on my own without an older associate or a colleague. Looking back on that time, it felt like you could do anything.”

The Big Wall of Bad Feelings

How has your professional life been affected by COVID-19?

“In terms of work, my four colleagues, we all have a Zoom every morning to stay in touch. We text each other, call each other. It’s a little harder now when you can’t just lean over the desk. We are definitely still doing a lot. There’s less, obviously. Everyone is making less money. The writers are making less money, the projects are not as vast. It’s harder, but we’re still present. We’re still with each other. 

I have fewer boundaries. There were those demarcated lines. You leave at 6pm, you get your sandwich, you get on the subway. You have to get to the theater by 7pm, then you’re done at 10:30pm. Now, without all that, you kind of work forever. This is the kind of job where there’s always more to do. It’s all become much more freeform.

I am lucky enough to still have a job. I actually don’t think that my personal problems are that important in comparison to the grand scheme of things. I think the hardest thing for me has been being the person on the other end of the line as all those cancellations rolled in in March. I was often the person having to call the designer, the director, the writer, and say it’s not going to happen. I’ve always had that deep emotional relationship with lots of people, and all of those people having sad things happen to them unilaterally was like a big wall of bad feelings coming into the office every day. Those kinds of things are very wearing on the spirit for me. That’s the dark side of being the communicator. It’s never happened to me before, to have this many sad phone calls over the course of a month. I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t know how to keep myself detached enough to stay okay. I was very sad. It’s very sad doing that. But, always aware at the same time that I was lucky.”

Giving Back

Has anything positive come out of this time for you?

“A very cool person who I respect a lot in the theater started a weekly phone banking group for artists. The artists would all come on to the same Zoom room and an activist from some corner of the community would come and talk to us. Then, we would make an hour of calls following that person’s instructions. I kind of got into it right after the murder of George Floyd. It’s like 250 artists; people who get on the phone every week on Friday afternoons, call their representatives, try and hold them accountable, have those conversations. It’s been really, really wonderful to watch folks who are all out of work, who have a lot of tough stuff going on in their lives turn around and give back. I think 10 months ago everybody was hustling too hard to do that. They wouldn’t have made that time. Now we’re all at home, we have the time to pick up the phone and make those calls. I think that’s one of the best things that’s come out of this.”

Better Than Before

What do you think lies ahead for the future of the entertainment industry?

“I think there’s a window of opportunity in New York. There’s going to be a lot of trust that needs to be regained before people from outside New York come here again. There’s going to be a period of time where it’s just New Yorkers in New York. I think we have a responsibility to the people who are from our community to really listen to them. What do you love? What stories do you want to tell? Who do you want to be celebrating? What are you going to want to leave your house for, wear a mask for, and get temperature checked at the door for? You have to make it worth that for them. I think that will lead us to better and more fulfilling art.

I hope that people become more comfortable going to see things that they don’t like going to see, things that they don’t agree with. I would really like that to become a broader part of our national conversation. Not just, did I like it? Was I amused by it? Was I pleased by it? But, was it new for me? Did it make me feel uncomfortable? And see that as a positive thing. I think there’s a lot of room for nuance there and a lot of room for celebrating being pushed out of our comfort zones. 

My big hope for when we come back is that we come back bravely and we come back doing things that really make us happy. I hope that we come back as a more just and equitable community. I hope we focus on telling stories that are not currently out there. I hope we focus on letting people lead who have been silenced and trying to see other modes of leadership, other modes rather than asking people to sort of conform to how we’ve always done things. I think that can only make us better.”

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