In the summer of 2010 I performed in my first ever Fringe Festival. I had known about the Fringe circuit for a long time. I had volunteered at the San Francisco Fringe as a technician ten years earlier where I saw some of the worst theatre in my life. It was at that point (at the ripe age of twenty-five) when I decided to stop pursuing theatre the way I had previously. By this point I had created three solo shows and directed a play I wrote, but when I moved to the Bay Area something changed. I had taken on jobs in arts admin and tech and got totally burned out by what I was witnessing, not to mention how jaded I felt about what I saw on my own.
So there I was in Boulder in 2010, where I had attended college at Naropa University. My friends from that time period had gone on to found this Fringe. My show was all about my dealings with the New Age movement and Boulder was the perfect place to test out the Fringe waters. My days were super long, around twelve to sixteen hours of running around to various venues as well as performing and networking. My schedule was highlighted with multiple notes of what shows I should stand outside of and postcard, where I could interact with audience members so that my show hopefully got stuck in their heads. Also, I had grown older and my indifference had transformed back towards curiosity. I was seeing quality theatre, shows that were inspiring me, making me laugh and cry. I was connecting with a batch of amazing people and being constantly reminded why I had fallen in love with the live arts in the first place. I was coming back home to theatre and my heart was open.
While I was in line with a bunch of other artists waiting to get into a show that was quickly filling up, I started a conversation with a new friend who was in the MFA program for Contemporary Performance at Naropa. I was going on and on about all the things I was noticing in the field that I had to stay on top of in order to do this full time. As I started listing the intertwined aspects of marketing, fundraising, visual branding, PR, creating a database of donors, and networking, I watched her brow crinkle in both confusion and curiosity.
I discovered that she didn’t really know what I was talking about.
“They still aren’t teaching this stuff?” I asked, blown away. She just shook her head.
“Would you be up for meeting with me and some of my class to talk about the business?” she asked.
The next thing I knew I was creating a syllabus of information to share. In my friend’s small living room I disseminated information to about six people. Another friend, Karen, (who was in charge of finances for the Fringe at the time) joined me. At one point she stopped me. “Hold on,” she said. “How many of you know how to write a press release?” Not one hand was raised. “Wow...,” she said. My jaw dropped. I mean, I didn’t learn how to write a press release in college either, but I graduated in ‘97 with a BA from this school. Now they had a master’s degree in how to be a very present weirdo on stage, and not one of these people who was going into their last year had this basic tool in their tool box.
When I got back home I wrote down everything one would need to know in order to self-produce their work. The list was long, because as I had already learned years back, this was a full-time job. When I was twenty-five I wasn’t ready for what it would take to put myself out in the world in this capacity. I just wanted to create new works and perform them. All the business stuff freaked me out. After flailing about for almost a decade I realized that I had built up the skill set through various other jobs and life circumstances to actually go forward in this way, and my skin had thickened due to consistent rejection and indifference. My interest in so many subjects, my ability to juggle various administrative duties, to change focus quickly and see how things overlapped, to realize when to drop an idea that wasn’t panning out... this way of being in the world wasn’t scattered, it was actually entrepreneurial.
I created a course outline and named the crash course The Nuts and Bolts of Being a Performing Artist. I asked people who were currently in school or who had just graduated whether they were learning anything about the business side of the performing arts. All I heard was a resounding no. I developed a pitch for the course and started contacting various service organizations that helped artists, as well as performing arts programs at colleges, and started to gain some traction. What stood out were the people who saw the inherent value in making this information available to current students and working artists, and those who didn’t.
“Why don’t universities make this a mandatory part of the curriculum?” asked one performing arts student during one of my workshops.
“Academic narcissism,” I said without a beat.
The blind spot of most college professors needs to be understood for what it is. A lot of college teachers who are tenure track have been in school their whole lives. Creating their own work has been in the context of academia and the relationship to both process and theory. Practitioners in the academy always have a place to rehearse and develop new work. They don’t have to worry whether people attend the performance and if it will break even or not. When showing a new work, they are part of an infrastructure that already subsidizes them. The business skill set doesn’t seem to fit into “What Would Artaud Do?” They are focused on students building a performance skill set. I’ve actually heard some of these well-meaning professors say “If they want that information, they can take a course with the business school.”
There are two fundamental problems with that attitude. One, it treats this critical information as “other.” Art doesn’t mix with business. Which is just not the case. That’s simply xenophobic arrogance. When you come to terms with the fact that most MFA programs are mills churning out the future waitstaff of America, you may feel pangs of guilt instead of writing off how inherently important it is to choose the photo that pops for a show poster. Two, most business people speak in a foreign language that right-brain artists can’t translate. They walk away from a workshop on how to choose a business entity feeling stupider than when they walked in. The double bind is that those artists (who need the information desperately) end up writing it off out of frustration or (even worse) shame. Some just end up thinking “What’s the point?” and choose another career entirely.
It took almost two years from an initial conversation with a friend of mine who was in a PhD program in theatre to host me at her college to teach “Nuts and Bolts.” The pitch had to go through several committees and departments in order to move forward. Having her advocate for me was what made the difference. If she hadn’t been in the trenches speaking on my behalf, it wouldn’t have happened. Plus, it gave me one of my better (and somewhat disturbing) pull quotes: “I can honestly express that I learned more about creating a sustainable artistic business during Seth’s seven-hour workshop than I did during six years of graduate study.”
In order to be a successful (a word that I grapple with constantly) performing artist, you need to understand business fundamentals, and disseminating this information is crucial. How do you run a crowdfunding campaign that doesn’t make your friends block you on Facebook? How do you identify and brand (ugh… brand) your work? How do you really figure out who your audience is? How do you have a good working relationship with the press? Knowing these key aspects gives artists a leg up, not to mention more validity and credibility in a world that still views artists as quaint and a little off.
I’m always the first to point out that it’s important to figure out what you hate doing, what aspects being covered during the course make you nauseous, because it’s imperative that you figure a work-around for that. Do you need to outsource that work to someone else? Do you need to create a cognitive shift so that you can accomplish it without feeling like you’re going to die? Do you need a group of other artists to meet with on a regular basis to discuss how your business is coming along to keep you on track?
Most importantly what top three things do you need to focus on for the next two years? Making Your Life as an Artist (which every single one of you reading this should download immediately and read next) from Artist U got me thinking about how important this is. They do work similar to what I do in terms of education but have an even better infrastructure, which I hope to become a part of. Like any amazing resource, I was able to walk away with a new focus from reading this straightforward, pull-no-punches-account how to build a sustainable life as an artist because, hey, I’m still figuring it out just like you.
I don’t mess around with this course or the process of being a working artist. It’s ridiculously difficult, complicated, and discouraging. It’s also liberating, boundless, and phenomenally rewarding. I want students to know what they are getting themselves into and what it’s going to take to deal with the almost psychotic ups and downs of choosing this life.
We need to not be afraid of this skill set. We need to embrace our entrepreneurial mindset and understand how transferable our skills can be in our chosen field and through other means of livelihood. Educational institutions need to get on board by offering semester and year-long courses on the business of being a professional working artist. Service organizations need to work on grants in tandem to cross-pollinate best practices, resource and data sharing that can benefit the live arts as a whole. I need to collaborate with other artist educators to make all of the above a reality.
What do you need next in terms of your career and how are you going to make it happen?