Self/Employed

I recently attended D&D North, an event dedicated to discussing the future of theatre with those either devoted to or disgruntled by it. One of the proposed starting points for a discussion was ‘How are people financially supporting themselves (outside the arts)’. I considered the word ‘outside’ an interesting choice, I would have been equally compelled to join a conversation about financially supporting ourselves inside the arts. I joined the group it had attracted and we talked about managing day jobs with creative practice and how we financially support ourselves which was for most, ‘outside the arts’. Written documentation of that conversation can be found here.
It inspired me to write something about the jobs I have had and the choices I have made in order to build and sustain my career so far in performance because we don’t talk much about those other jobs, we just curl up a lip and roll our eyes at them sometimes as if we’re admitting that having to do them means we haven’t quite ‘made it’. Here is a list of some of the jobs I have had ‘outside the arts’ over the last few years and a brief summary of how they fit around performing:

6th Form Cafe Supervisor (Dinner Lady)

(Sorry, ‘person’. Dinner PERSON)

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The income barely covered my rent but the school hours suited me well, and either side of 20 minute break times and hour long lunchtimes spent simultaneously frisbeeing out toast, offloading jacket potatoes and mentally calculating how much pocket money to take from each pupil, I could bring my shutter down, spin back the peak of my baseball cap 180 degrees (I never did that) and learn lines as I scrubbed stainless steel gastronorm containers over a tiny sink. I didn’t mind this job, though only a very small portion of customers were willing to see beneath my tabard, so to speak. Most assumed, while they were making important decisions about whether to go to university, that I probably didn’t go to one which is why I was responsible for replenishing their vending machine with pickled onion Monster Munch. After an academic year of serving 6th formers snacks,  my boss sat me down and said that if I was to return in September I’d probably have to be a bit more committed as I’d taken more holiday than all of the other dinner persons and they lose money when I do that. Fair enough.
I couldn’t commit, so I threw in the (tea) towel.

Sales Assistant

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This one only fit around performing because I wasn’t really performing in anything over the 3 month Christmas period that I worked there for, however this was not flexible, I worked long hours and I got paid minimum wage. The work mainly involved standing up (of which I boasted almost 25 years of experience), finger spacing every hanging item of clothing in order to look busy when the department wasn’t, and link-selling overpriced accessories to rich impressionable parents of spoilt children. (My inner dinner lady was always very keen to acknowledge the girl who worked in the staff canteen as a human being, and coincidentally a couple of years later, we were reunited when she served me a sandwich in the BBC canteen in Salford. I felt a mutual sense of pride that we had both moved on). Selfridges let me go with the rest of the Christmas staff who showed no interest in continuing a career in retail.

Activity Coordinator

This was a great job in a care home that fit in well with performing at the time because I could adapt my timetable of activities around touring schedules. Conveniently, this provided residents with even more variety than my weekly activity schedule already did. If I had a show somewhere far away on a Wednesday night I’d take a couple of days off in the week and spend a weekend with my old friends because Dementia works 24/7. This was the closest I ever came to a full time ‘other’ job, even though it was only 30 hours a week. I was there for a couple of years, which saw me through a few shows at different stages of process. Obviously the odd tour date is relatively easy to fit around a job if you are in a show that is touring and you have a reasonably flexible job. As is the occasional R&D period if you have holiday. The only problem with using all your holiday from your outside-the-arts job to do your arts job is that you never have a break. During my time at the care home I made a show with Drunken Chorus which involved a trip to Lancaster every weekend. I’d do my half day on a Friday, get on a train, rehearse all day Saturday and Sunday and then (very) early on a Monday morning get the train from Lancaster back to work. I liked being busy and the old dears enjoyed hearing about my ‘plays’ but eventually, for a few reasons, I handed in my notice and went FULL TIME (self employed) for a bit.

Sandwich Lady/Butty Woman

Again, not much income at all because of minimum pay and not many hours, but if I could have paid my rent in food I would have been bread rolling in it. I also saved money I could have spent keeping fit because this unconditional daily work out was the perfect way to trick myself into regular exercise and I always had an enormous edible reward at the end of it. The more sandwiches I sold the more money I’d get at the end of the week, but the less I sold the more choice I had for lunch. Breadwinner or bread winner, I was happy either way.
I cycled sandwiches and fresh soup to the same four office blocks every day. There was never any pressure to buy anything so I didn’t feel too annoying. I popped into offices, announced the soups and let people come up and browse my basket if just for a break from their computer screens. I got more respect as a delivering dinner lady for grown ups. Once I found a cup of tea and a Jaffa cake waiting for me on a desk. Once my basket broke and a stationary cupboard had to be raided for it’s repair. Once someone bought me a present back from a business trip in New York. Once as some bloke in marketing paid for his lunch a tiny bag of white powder fell from his wallet to the floor and his face went as Thai red as the soup. Once I got stuck in a lift. A couple of times, I had minor collisions with careless drivers. There was never a dull moment in this job. I finished early afternoon which left plenty of time for e-mails and meetings. After I’d been there for a while I could have as much time off as I needed really as long as I could get someone to cover my route. It was perfectly acceptable to rope in a friend if I had one willing to shadow me and then cover me for a few days in exchange for money, sandwiches, stronger thighs and my eternal gratitude. As I got involved with more shows and needed more and more time off, I shared this job with another cyclist who eventually took over my route completely because I wasn’t around to ever do it.

Childminder

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I really lucked out with this one. I think it has afforded me a few more years in the arts. I’ve been wondering how much longer I am prepared to put up with the peaks and troughs of being self employed. I feel so fortunate to be in a career that I only dislike when I’m not doing it for a significant enough time period to have to find another way to earn some money, but the longer I do it for (and dare I say, the older I get) the more repetitive that process is and the less motivated I am to contact employers that might pay me to cycle sandwiches around in gale force winds and the pissing down rain.
Looking after the two children of two parents who both work in the arts and therefore understand my uncertain schedule is perfect, for now. When I am at home I am available to do the school run, and my work-in-progress bedtime story readings, followed by a post-show discussion with the only two audience members who turn up (and then nod off during my performance) really keep my head in the game.
I like to work when I’m home because otherwise I feel really disconnected to the city I live in. It is hard to find a balance when being in shows starts to take up more time. If a day job can do without you for that amount of time, it can probably do without you. Which only leaves occasional, probably self employed, one-off, more difficult to find jobs that offer even less stability than the thing you’re doing them for in the first place. I realise I’m not saying anything profound here, but thinking back to when I first considered a career in performing I had absolutely no idea what a future in that would look like for me. So I wondered if it might be useful to show what that does look like to anyone in a similar position.
Obviously it’s different for everyone. It’s just worth considering what will best suit you if you’re planning to do something more creative with your life that might not earn you much money, especially in the early stages of it. Transferable skills are worth taking advantage of. My day jobs, particularly the earlier than those listed here, have always seemed completely separate to my work as a performer. I’ve had lots of catering jobs because each one provided experience for the next and I’ve never really had a bar job which makes me an unlikely candidate for one. The jobs that have seemed more related to what I do are those where I’ve felt a bit more like I’m being paid to be myself. I like working with people inside and outside the arts because I like people, and I care about them. So the jobs that have involved caring about and liking people have been the ones that I have found more enjoyable and less like soul destroying torture methods. I really like performing in other people’s work. Being so open to collaboration and happy to work for other people became another way for me to get jobs, in the arts, that doesn’t just rely on me having a good idea and a successful funding application.
There’s an interesting line between the two types of work I suppose that conversation at D&D North was suggesting. If I’m working somewhere just to pay rent and not enjoying it or earning enough to justify my dedication to it it means I can walk away from it at any time, which I need to be able to do to feel completely committed to performing. It is a way of ensuring I am always available. I would never turn a potential collaboration down because I don’t have enough holiday left or because the industrial dishwasher won’t clean itself with a toothbrush (low point in my catering career, circa 2005). You have to take risks.
If I’m working somewhere that perhaps needs me a bit more, or vice versa, it can get complicated, more serious, more long term. We start relying on each other and thinking about the future, and I’m made to feel guilty every time I have a one night stand with an old show or start researching and developing a new, younger, more attractive one that I haven’t met yet. Call me a commitment phobe, but I can’t imagine not wanting to run off with performance work, no matter how reliable/generous/comfortable any other job promises to be.
I am fortunate enough to have times when my only job is performing, when I have enough work and a convenient enough schedule to go from one project to another sometimes immediately, sometimes with a luxurious break in between. Luxurious when they are long enough to wash the clothes in my suitcase and catch up with admin(/Netflix) but not long enough to have to worry about where next month’s rent (/subscription to Netflix) will come from. (Fortunately my sister lets me use hers so I don’t pay for it). (Laura if you’re reading this I’ve been using your Netflix).
I suppose it’s about finding what works for you. If you want a career performing in pieces of contemporary theatre INSIDE THE ARTS, I would advise that even though it sometimes pays really well (sometimes being the operative word) you do it for the love, not for a reliable income. But I suppose the same applies to sandwich delivery.
Either do what you love, and accept that you might have to occasionally find jobs to support it or GET OUT NOW AND DO SOMETHING WITH MATHS.
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(For summaries and photos of my jobs INSIDE the arts, see the rest of this website)

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