by Fran Sillau
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted a full-time position in the performing arts arena. As a young person, I could see myself doing nothing else. In college I studied theater and education; my plan was to teach a few years and then find a full-time job at a theater company. However, I discovered that teaching was not my calling, so after a few low-paying internships, I began searching for that full-time theater job I had always wanted.
After a few months I realized that companies with full-time artists are few and far between. In order to work in the arts, I was going to have to put several part-time jobs together in order to make a full-time salary. This task was daunting at first but not impossible. Over time, I learned many valuable lessons which I can now share with others about how to create a career in the arts without necessarily having a full-time job in the arts. I have outlined these lessons in ten easy steps:
Step One: Reach out to all your contacts (both theater and non-theater) to let them know you are “fishing” for work. Communicate your skills, background, desire and most importantly how you can help their organization grow. For example, when I first began as a freelancer almost 13 years ago, I received several small gigs working after-school programs teaching literature through creative drama. This was a low paying job working only a few hours a week, but it gave me current classroom teaching experience and I got to use my art form.
Step Two: Research what other companies and arts organizations in your region are doing. Is there a connection to what you want to do and what others are already doing? Where are the holes? In other words, is there programming that you’re passionate about that other companies are not currently providing? If you find those holes, this can provide you with another potential work opportunity. In my city I discovered that there were several small communities who were not able to access the arts. So I began to explore opportunities to bring my skills to these towns. I realized that in order to do this I needed the support of the communities themselves, so I began to cold call people in these communities explaining what I desired to do and how my plans would strengthen their communities. After a need was established, I partnered with a non-profit; we produced youth theater productions and theater education classes. The local non-profit helped me raise funds through donations and grant dollars to fund the program. I stayed with this program for five years and was able to gain incredible experience.
Step Three: Do not be afraid to reach out to other potential employers to share what you are doing. Do not do this with the expectation that they will immediately say “wow that’s wonderful let’s hire this person.” Instead, think of this as “building a network.” Let other organizations know of your desire to work with them in the future and keep doors and options open. I’ve lost count of how many times I have gotten a job just because years before I walked into an office to introduce myself. Almost 5 years ago, I was working on a production about the Holocaust and I needed some dramaturgical help so I contracted with an organization that specialized in Holocaust education. After getting to know the executive director, I suggested that we collaborate on another project. She was skeptical at first, but after seeing my work she immediately agreed and we began to raise funds. Out of that suggestion came not one job but three BIG jobs; one has turned into a part-time job lasting three years. One job leads to another, and connections are important. I would have never gotten any of those subsequent opportunities had I not reached out and gotten to know the people around me. Don’t be a wallflower, connect with those around you.
Step Four: It is so important to be on the lookout for new and exciting ways to create theater in your community. A woman, who was looking to expand an organization, approached me several years ago, and she offered me opportunities to bring theater to those with special needs and disabilities. Something told me I should jump aboard and today this “job” Is 1/3 of my income.
Step Five: Be aware of the needs of others. Theater is a collaborative endeavor and in most cases cannot be created alone. As a freelancer it is important to know that most of the time you’re a guest in someone else’s castle. By being thoughtful, opportunities may come your way.
Step Six: Also, be aware that some of the audience you serve will not be able to afford your offerings outright. In order to be sustainable long-term, you must find ways to offer your services at reduced rates. You must reach out to foundations and individuals to help offset your cost and to make your services affordable for all participants.
Step Seven: Know your limits! It is easy to get caught up in creating work as a freelancer and if a person is not careful he or she can easily be working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Make sure you are always taking time to re-charge your batteries.
Step Eight: Find ways to collaborate with others as often as possible. This will help keep your skills sharp.
Step Nine: Attend professional development workshops to stay current in your practice.
Step Ten: Remember a freelancer must be able to see a project from all sides. You must be a good artist, director, administrator and grant writer. A successful freelancer is not afraid of hard work, can persevere and has confidence that he or she and will be able to establish a career in the arts.