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Disney's Margaret Skoglund T'10 talks navigating the theater industry

Duke is nationally famous for many reasons, not the least of which is its uncanny ability to send graduating students to work at top financial institutions and medical schools. However, Duke’s campus is far more diverse than this reputation would make it seem. Walking around campus, one does not merely see students like artists to athletes talented in only one discipline, but rather a collection of students who are all talented in many ways and offer a range of skills to the job market.

Duke alumna Margaret Skoglund, Trinity ‘10, exemplifies this latter breed of Duke students and has found a niche for her many skills and experiences in the arts industry.

Skoglund is currently an associate company manager with The Walt Disney Company’s theater division. While at Duke, Skoglund was active on campus in addition to studying political science and film. Besides a more expected involvement with Hoof n’ Horn, Duke’s musical theater group, Skoglund was also a manager for the women’s basketball team for four years, a member of the Duke University Union and even an RA.

“Anything I could get my hands on I liked to throw myself into, and I very much credit Duke for creating fertile ground for that,” Skoglund said.

Like many Duke students, Skoglund came to Duke with dreams of law school or finance, and focused her attention on theater only after working with a theater production company to manage multiple performances while attending Duke in Los Angeles.

“When I got to Duke I was very much prepared to go into ‘Corporate America,’ but I always had this nagging desire to go into the business side of entertainment,” Skoglund explained. “Because of Duke in L.A., I made the commitment to go head first into it.”

Since the program, Skoglund has been able to work with many prominent people and companies, in addition to her current role with The Walt Disney Company. Skoglund’s former employers include producer Scott Rudin, who has won multiple Tony awards in addition to a Primetime Emmy, Grammy and an Academy Award, and Laura Ziskin, whose credits include Pretty Woman and the Spider-Man trilogy, and who was the first woman to be sole producer of the Academy Awards.

Skoglund explains that these various experiences taught her a great deal about the entertainment industry, about both success and the corresponding stress that usually accompanies a job with a highly successful employer.

“You’ll face a lot of big personalities,” Skoglund said. “Usually in the entertainment industry, you’re underestimated until you’ve proven otherwise.”

Scott Rudin is one such ‘big personality’ that Skoglund has encountered; the San Francisco Chronicle quoted screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne in describing Rudin as “the bully boy's bully boy, both impossibly demanding, even cruel, to subordinates… and impossibly funny, a jovial Mephistopheles.”

While Skoglund acknowledges that Rudin and similar characters in the industry can be demanding, she cheerily accepts this as part of the territory.

“He’s really good at his job. His tactics might not be the most politically correct, but when it comes down to the actual work, he was brilliant. So, that was really cool to experience firsthand,” Skoglund said.

Skoglund currently works as an associate company manager with The Walt Disney Company and has participated in multiple productions, including “The Lion King” and “Newsies.” Unsurprisingly, working with Disney has been a singular experience for Skoglund, which she considers largely positive.

“It’s so different,” Skoglund said of her transition into working with Disney. “When you sign up to work in Broadway theater, most businesses are run as true mom-and-pop small businesses… So, getting a job at a Fortune 500 company, where all of a sudden I have an HR department and shareholders was a huge shift for me.”

Skoglund’s position at Disney simultaneously increases her access to helpful resources and limits her autonomy to a certain degree.

“It informs a lot of my daily responsibilities,” she explained. “On my other shows, I’m used to being able to go to the bank and withdraw money. On a Disney show, they’re not going to give Margaret Skoglund the ability to go to a bank and withdraw cash.”

Despite these limitations, a job with Disney offers incredible advantages to Skoglund both personally and professionally.

“The synergy among the various departments is very powerful,” Skoglund said. “But it’s people first. It’s not just about getting every last dollar that the show can yield.”

Skoglund’s job as associate company manager lies at the intersection of the various aspects of play production. Her role requires her to interact with people at all levels of the business, from executive producers to actors and lighting teams.

“An associate company manager is at the intersection of operations, HR, investor relations and therapist,” Skoglund said with a laugh. “One bucket of my job is dealing with all the money… another is logistics… and the third is taking care of people.”

While logistically difficult, her role is also exacting due to the emotional support that she must give to the actors. On long tours, a show’s personnel can be away from home for months at a time, separated from friends and family and strained by highly demanding schedules.

“It’s not uncommon for colleagues to break down crying in front of me, and I’ve gone to more ERs with colleagues than most people probably ever have.”

Perhaps because of the mental and emotional fortitude that her position requires, Skoglund has not lost her energy or need for involvement since graduating. Rather, she has been prolifically involved with her own projects, which keep her grounded in an industry that can take over your life if you let it.

“I think it’s easy to let the job completely define you, and one great piece of advice my boss gave me is ‘the show will never love you back,’ so I’ve made sure that I’ve kept a lot of really meaningful side projects happening,” Skoglund said.

These projects include a theater production company that Skoglund leads with a friend, Prooffix, a translation and proofreading company of which Skoglund was the COO and pARTy, a theme party in New York City intended as a platform for artists to show their work.

“As cool as it is to walk through a stage door at all these different venues around the country, at a certain point it becomes just like any other job.”

Through all her exploits, Skoglund considers Duke crucial in helping her define her skills and prepare herself for her career.

“Instead of practices, I have rehearsals. Instead of games, I have performances. When I’m ‘on call’ I’m doing rounds at the theater,” Skoglund laughs. “ [S]o I feel like being an RA and a basketball manager could not have prepared me better for Broadway, which is hilarious because they’re such disparate fields.”

While many Duke students may feel that graduate school and business are the only viable routes to success, Skoglund shows us otherwise. Though Skoglund has certainly carved her own path—due in no small part to her unique set of skills that she refined at Duke—her story demonstrates that a career in the arts is not necessarily the pipe-dream that many people make it out to be.

Margaret Skoglund is a part of the DEMAN network that connects both students and alumni in the arts and media industries together through LinkedIN, social media and on-campus events. Look for DEMAN events and networking opportunities throughout the academic year.

An earlier version of this article had grammatical issues. The Chronicle has fixed these errors and regrets the error. 

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