BLOG: Living off the fat of someone else's land

by Alan M. Berks • Nov. 18

In depth |

I fell down the rabbit hole.

My intention, when I started this "in-depth column" on how to make art work, was to post short, blog-like entries more often than we had posted content in the past and more often than I have in the past two weeks.

What is the word for something that actually proves in the doing of it, the point you’re trying to make in the telling of it? There must be a word for that. Because I set out to write about how hard it is to devote your full attention to the performing arts while trying to survive and discovered how hard it is to devote my full attention to writing a good article about surviving in Minnesota’s performing arts.

You see (beyond the demands of the other work I do to make ends meet), as I started to ask questions about how people in the performing arts survive, I feel like I fell down a rabbit hole into a bizarre world that looks vaguely similar to the performing arts world but isn’t really.

In comments on my first post, Sid Solomon insisted, "Much of the top tier acting talent in the Twin Cities came here (or decided to stay here) because you CAN make a living and raise a family as a professional artist." We’ll give him a pass for the moment on the fact that he seems to only care about "acting talent in the Twin Cities" and acknowledge that he makes a fair point—there are numerous professional talents (actors but also writers, designers, directors, stagehands, and more) who cobble together livings in the Twin Cities.

And, on the plus side, more working talent attracts more work, and more work attracts more talent. "I definitely think more stuff does get done here because there’s a good acting community," said Tom Poole of Talent Poole Talent Agency. "And that is supported by the theater community. I think that’s a strong element," of the success Talent Poole has had finding commercial work for those they represent.

Unfortunately, almost none of their people cobble together a living in the performing arts. They are using skills they acquired and sharpened in the performing arts, but they aren’t making their living on stage at all.

Talent Poole represents over 400 people in the non-equity world of "on-camera work" and voiceovers. "What people do through us is largely part of what they manage to put together for their career," he said. "They may work at radio stations, they may be teachers, they may teach yoga and act in plays. There are various ways people piece together a living in town."

In a conversation with Mike Hallenbeck, local sound designer, I heard similar stories about light, sound, and costume designers in town. Many of them work with the skills they use in the performing arts, but few of them make their living using those skills for shows. Mike himself, for example, makes far more money doing video production work, among other things, than he ever gets from theater.

Did you too receive an email from local comedy hero Joseph Scrimshaw about his new theater company, Joking Envelope? Did you also notice that it isn’t just a theater company but a full service dramatic writing corporation? Through Joking Envelope, you can hire Joe to do a script for your next corporate event; he’s even "curated live variety" shows for "3000 visiting librarians." Basically, the website screams, I’ll come up with jokes about anything as long as you pay me for it.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been pursuing, as best I can, stories about these other jobs that designers and writers do to make ends meet, how precisely different artists cobble together paychecks in different ways, the financial implications of how union and non-union camera work conflicts. . . Of course, I’ve entirely stopped thinking about how we make art work and have been obsessed, basically, by how we make work, work.

Is no one here making a secure living through the 800+ million dollars that art contributes to Minnesota’s economy? 1000 new non-profits nationwide and working in the performing arts is only slightly more secure than migrant farm work?

Well.

Marketing experts have salaries at performing arts institutions. Fund raisers, development directors, box office workers also make a little money. Business managers and book-keepers do OK. Stagehands have a very powerful union.

Huh.

On the one hand, there are local artists who are able to cobble together a living using the skills they practice on stages or behind the scenes. They just generally aren’t able to cobble that living together through the stages they work at.

On the other hand, there are people making annual salaries and getting benefits from the performing arts industry—they just aren’t getting those salaries and benefits for actually being artists.

Don’t misunderstand my confusion: I know that arts administrators work longer hours than they should for less money than they could make in a corporate job and very little public thanks. Also, many of them are moonlighting performing artists themselves. I don’t think they don’t or shouldn’t earn their salaries.

However, if we can afford to pay people regular salaries and provide benefits to help make art, shouldn’t more of those people actually also be artists? Why not? Is a capable marketing associate really more in demand in a theater than a talented actor or playwright?

For my own sanity, I’m going to spend some time talking with the performing artists who actually do make their living exclusively through making art in Minnesota. If you’re out there, email me.

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