The title is an obvious reference to Cabaret.
Recently, the Mellon Foundation has begun a big survey about artists and finances. Broadly, it asks artists how they make a living, whether they make money from their art itself, how they get healthcare, and more. Anyone who identifies as an artist, I highly suggest you fill it out. A question I think about a lot is how I’m making my life in the arts and whether it’s sustainable and how the finances shake out. Here are a few thoughts.
In 2014, when we were at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one moment that really stuck out to me was when I decided to attend a workshop on fundraising and finance. The woman running it, a Scottish native, began by saying, “If you live in the United States, I’m sorry. This probably won’t be very helpful for you. I don’t know what I would do there.”
It’s true, there’s not a lot of public funding for artists here. It’s true that the field in this country is ultra-competitive. And it’s true that some people in the field purposefully exploit and manipulate others, a la unpaid internships or worse.
I’m currently in my broke shared apartment, how-do-I-pay-the-bills, semi-wandering phase. Currently, I keep checking my online banking app holding my breath for when the checks come in this month (tomorrow is when the rent gets direct deposited…).
But I refuse to use the designation “starving artist” and the pretty pathetic connotations it implies.
I think that when you’re very young and feeling like you’re struggling, as we certainly are at Critical Point Theatre, it’s better to see the world with opportunities and abundance.
Even a year ago, I realize now, I was waiting tables. I now make a living solely working for two production companies whose missions I deeply believe in. Amongst my fellow ensemble members, at least three of us have had radical transformations in the last year to doing arts-based practice full time. As much as I think I can still lament and moan, change is happening to us all the time.
I personally see it as a major privilege just to be pursuing this kind of profession. I’ve recently been disappointed by what I saw as semi-Millenial rants by the former Yelp employee and Brie Larson after the Oscars.
With the former, while I am very sympathetic to the plight of raising the minimum wage and ensuring employees have livable wages, I think she also made a series of individual financial choices that seem unwise (like moving across the country on a credit card to take a low wage job). I actually empathize with those unwise choices. I have certainly made very unwise choices myself. But what seems missing in the piece is any amount of agency over her financial decisions. And it seems that throughout, the author has some kind of expectation that she deserves a creative life (e.g. working as a writer). The glass is constantly half-empty to her, and she clearly sees her life as outside of her control.
With the latter, I see someone who has confused struggle with divine inspiration. I have to say, it seemed pretty offensive for a 26-year-old with an Academy Award to announce that she had been “struggling” for this moment “for 20 years.” She has been a successful and steadily working artist since she was a small child. Sure, it might not have all been Oscar-worthy roles. While it is wonderful that Larson’s genuine efforts have culminated in a scene-stealing performance, it seems a little out of touch to call this real struggle.
But let’s say Larson hadn’t been a child star who has had more great chances than 99.9% of aspiring actors. Let’s say she was like most of my friends, working as a babysitter or at a restaurant trying to score an audition in New York, Chicago, LA, or DC. Nobody has noticed them, and they’re grinding it out trying to catch a break, and probably will be for years to come. Even given this difference, I still would not want to call this lifestyle struggle. How fantastic it is to live in a world where one’s basic food, shelter, and emotional needs are so taken care of that one can pursue a difficult dream. This is, to me, challenge in its best form, not struggle. Rise to the occasion when it presents itself.
Peter Dinklage on his success: “I didn’t know that would happen. At 29, walking away from data processing, I was terrified. Ten years in a place without heat, six years in a job I felt stuck in. Maybe I was afraid of change. Are you?” The rest of this speech is all about making the most out of what you’ve already got to work with.
Sometimes I feel like I’m being dogged by side jobs, sure, but I’ve had enough energy and born privileges to get an education, pursue my endless job searches, live in a cozy space with a ton of roommates, and push for more. Heating up my Ramen in the microwave and putting too much money on my credit card this month is exciting because I have the supreme combination of youth and free will to do anything, including mess up. Including trying to pursue a creative life as a career.
These are risky choices. I easily could have saved enough money to put a down payment on a condo if I hadn’t decided to invest in this path – instead, I barely have a positive net worth. I easily could have had less heartache with friends by not investing $ in them – in fact, I am 1000% sure of this. I easily could have started to move up a more typical career ladder if I had stayed at my first post-collegiate job – instead, I’ve had a zillion short term gigs.
But I’ve had the chance.