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Paid work in the Performing Arts Industry – don’t make me laugh! Working in the performing arts industry, specifically in theatre, is a tumultuous journey for an emerging artist. One must battle through the sloughs of despondency, confronts massive hills of opposition (you’re too young/too inexperienced/ too ambitious etc etc.) wade through muddy waters of funding and grant applications and arrive (if you’re lucky) panting with exhaustion at your Olympus ready to sip sweet nectar that is your success – AND oh joy even getting a few coppers out of it…
But unfortunately reality is hardly that lyrical.
But to make your dreams come true here are some tried and tested means of bringing home something other than a hangover.
1. Study towards a qualification. That little piece of paper is becoming more and more important these days. You don’t necessarily need to become a full fledged academic but you do need to demonstrate that you have had some training in your field. Don’t choose to undertake just any course (as some can be very expensive) without doing the necessary research. There are recognized institutions across Australia for the performing arts and then there are numerous supplementary training academies and schools. For the latter ask to audit a class and beware that there are many charlatans who prey on the inexperienced artist!
2. Get involved. That is one of the easiest ways to make contacts. If you’re at the very early stages of your career (fresh out of drama school) then don’t worry about the $$. Money is great but experience is even better. No matter whether you’re under the lights or in the wings, serving the drinks or designing the poster the only way to prove the excellence of your work and worth is to keep doing what you love doing and get better at it. The more experience you gain the more aware you will become as to whom are the better organizations and people to work for. Very often, if you have previously volunteered your services cheerfully and happily, organizations will be inclined to offer you payment for future jobs.
3. Develop a portfolio. It’s easy to get involved in a production, get swept up in all the excitement and work tirelessly round the clock. But then post production and after the cast party you still have a checklist to complete. Get references. Make sure you have a copy of the performance if it was filmed. Likewise with photos. Any reviews, interviews that were done. These are vital for future grant or funding applications and are testimony to your hard work. They must be done as quickly as possible as often as soon as one show closes because most people are already preparing for the next.
4. Market yourself via the Internet. Yes this is shameless self-advertising but it is necessary and it works depending on how much and how well you use it. Many artists have websites (blogs using static webpages are a cheaper option and can look just as good) and display their show reels, photos, resumes, references and recommendations. It’s easy for those looking for talent to quickly and easily browse through your information and very often they will know instantly whether what you have is what they’re after. Facebook is also a very useful tool to expand your presence on the web. Join groups that are related to the industry in general or your role in particular, but don’t just click ‘join group’ or ‘like’ the page – advertise yourself. There are apparently 500 million people using facebook so you need to make your voice be heard. Do so without sounding egotistical but let me people know you exist.
5. Face to Face Promotion. Having developed a substantial web presence, a growing portfolio and with more than a few productions to give you credentials take yourself and you’re qualification (if you have one) and start knocking on a few doors of the bigger companies. Start with an email, a follow-up call and then hopefully if you’re lucky you’ll get an interview. Don’t be pushy. Explain who you are and why you would like to work with the organization whether as an intern/secondment or volunteer. Have a good knowledge of the company, their current program the main people involved and make it very clear why you would be ideal to employ even if they have no current vacancies. Ultimately you want them to keep your résumé on file so that should an opportunity arise they will think of you!
6. Making Contacts. Most people think that schmoozing (what an icky sounding word sounds like a schmuck on booze) is the best way to further your career and your prospective employment opportunities. But it doesn’t always work. Very often people will see right through you and its amazing to see the transformation when a schmooze hunter (my term) suddenly discovers someone whom may be useful for their purposes and whom they had been till then blatantly ignoring. The change is effervescent and shallow. But that’s my opinion. I do have contacts but I would like to think that many are my friends and among others those relationships are developing. Some of the best contacts are made not through your own doing but by being introduced. However, that is no reason not to take initiative and start a conversation. You never the know person standing awkwardly next to you might be the one for whom both of you could immensely benefit through a partnership, or a chat at the very least. Don’t worry about scanning the flower garden for the queen bees, there are plenty of hardworking drones who deserve as much attention.
7. Accessorize. Some people do and some people don’t but it’s handy to have an email with a professional name attached instead of something from when you were thirteen, example ninjaturtlefan2000 shouldn’t probably be your first choice. A website, as mentioned above, is also a useful start and you can have an email that includes the domain address as well. Business cards are also a useful accessory. A lot of them will end up in the bin so be careful whom you give them to as the chances are you paid good money so be discerning to whom you distribute your information. Sometimes if you have a good contact who is also promoting his/her profile business you could swap cards and promote each other. Remember recommendations and references always carry weight.
8. Be a Professional. The word is a controversial at times as it implies being paid for your work and many artists still work for free. Payment can range from a paltry profit share sum to being paid well into the six digit figures and obviously there many rungs in between the top and bottom end of the ladder. But nevertheless, the word itself elicits a standard code of behavior that includes the obvious qualities of respect and understanding to all those involved, irrespective of whether any money is actually earned or not. The easiest way to spot a true professional is one that doesn’t continue to harp on the subject and remind you incessantly of how many years experience they have had. If you can avoid these individuals do so, if you have been one to brag about being a professional be conscious of what you are saying and stop. You’re work and personality, if indeed of a professional quality, does not need the label. Finally, as far as professionalism is concerned always make sure should there be a conflict of opinion that it is resolved immediately and in a manner that is acceptable to all parties involved. There is certain etiquette involved in being part of a theatrical production and while some companies prefer hierarchical relationships others are more collaborative. Decide what works best for you and accordingly pursue your goals so as to avoid painful collisions of personality and methods.
9. Apply for Grants and Funding. It’s agonizing, often very time consuming and nerve wracking waiting for the results, but grant and funding applications are essential to developing your career as a professional. Often large sums of money, mentorships, creative assistance and development workshops are available for those who have clear and conceptual projects that they wish to materialize and help is often available from the organization prior to submitting your application. The Australian Govt. of the Arts, Multicultural Arts Victoria, City of Melbourne Arts Grants are only a few of the bigger names. Check out your local council, rotary clubs and organizations that may be specific to supporting your funding whether through financial assistance or otherwise.
10. Keep Learning and Diversify. It sounds ambitious especially if you have loans, debt, rent, family and other work commitments to keep afloat but it is important that you continue to keep developing your craft within your specific career choice as well as in the industry as a whole. There is no limit to gaining knowledge and very often there are many teachers
and mentors who will gladly support you should you be bold enough to seek their help. In addition, there is no reason why you cannot expand yourself creatively in the industry through other tributary forms. For example many theatre artists also function as critics and dramaturges, writers and reviewers and earn their way through various creative opportunities that could range from marketing to administration to Front of House.
Remember. Paid work is possible. And achievable – without compromising your values and dreams. Every person’s path is different and some of the things listed here may work for you while others won’t. Keep in mind this is the perspective of one individual but is based upon observing and learning from a great many others, all at different levels of their career and with different levels of experience.
Nevertheless, if there were ten ways to boost your chances of working in the theatre industry then these would be my pick, and they definitely have been working for me.