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How to Start Your Own Theater Company
By Reginald Nelson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Reginald Nelson
All rights reserved.
Employment, Benefits, and Supporting Yourself
If you are a young aspiring actor and you would like to form your own ensemble, the smartest thing you can do in order to achieve your goal is to find a flexible job that allows you to pay for the basics of living while you pursue your dream. A nine-to-five job is the last thing a young artist fresh out of training from a reputable school or conservatory would like to discuss, but it's best to approach your career not only with enthusiasm but also with strategy. You will have enough stress dealing with marketing, finding a rehearsal space, raising money, etc. without having to worry about whether you can afford food and shelter. Unless you're fortunate enough to have a trust fund waiting for you upon graduation, welcome to the real world, kiddo!
Most actors, writers, artists, and musicians pay the bills while pursuing their art by getting jobs in some sector of the service industry. Gigs such as waiting tables, bartending, walking dogs, and the like are relatively plentiful, and they tend to offer flexibility in terms of work schedules. Some offer excellent opportunities to encounter a wide variety of people who have the potential of becoming patrons of your new company; others, such as substitute teaching, can be fulfilling in ways that have nothing to do with money. Each "day job" has its own perks and drawbacks, and finding the one that suits you best can only be accomplished through trial and error as you figure out which one fits your personality and schedule while providing enough money for you to cover your rent, car payments, student loans, and other financial obligations.
Don't Forget About Health Insurance
Health care is expensive in this country, and it's not something to be taken lightly. When you're just starting out in your theater career, you won't qualify for the health care benefits offered by Actors' Equity or the Screen Actors Guild. Your physical and psychological well-being is imperative to your success as an actor and as the cofounder of a theater company. Much like the bodies of dancers and professional athletes, our bodies are our instruments, and they must be well conditioned in order for us to earn a living and to create art. Instead of grabbing the day job that pays the most money, many young artists are willing to cut living expenses to the bone and share cramped apartments with two or more roommates in order to survive on low-paying jobs that offer good health benefits.
Serving or waiting tables is something that 90 percent of all struggling actors do at some point to pay the bills as they pursue their dreams. A job as a server offers a steady source of cash, mainly in the form of tips, and great flexibility: if you need a night off to strike a set, catch a preview, or audition for a role, you can simply request it off or trade a shift with a coworker. In addition, some restaurants — especially corporate "theme" restaurants and fine-dining establishments — offer health insurance benefits to full-time employees. Now, I know what you're thinking: "If I'm a professional actor, how can I work full time at another job?" Don't be alarmed. In the restaurant world, full time generally means about 30 hours a week. A nice server shift at a well-managed enterprise shouldn't last more than six hours, leaving you plenty of time in your day to focus on your company.
Whether you find work as a server at a theme restaurant, a fine-dining place, or a greasy spoon depends in large part on your experience in the industry and on your knowledge of food (and, in some cases, wine). The classier the joint, the better the tips. If you're still in school, consider getting a summer entry-level job in an upscale dining establishment where you can learn the ropes without having to worry about paying off that student loan just yet. Even if you're out of school, it's worth considering taking a "lesser" job, such as busboy, at a better restaurant and working your way up to server. My first restaurant job was as a busboy at Planet Hollywood in Chicago. It wasn't the most glamorous or best-paying day gig, but it got my foot in the door at a good place — and after only a month of busing tables, I was promoted to server and started making the "big bucks." After working at Plant Hollywood I took a job as a server at ESPN Zone (another corporate theme restaurant), where I eventually got several other Congo Square cofounders jobs as well. Theme restaurants can be fun, fast-paced places to work. Full-time employees often receive health insurance, and a server can make between $100 and $150 in tips each night.
Ultimately, though, the goal of any aspiring actor working in the food service industry should be to land a job in a finedining restaurant, where it's not uncommon to bring home $250 to $400 in tips a night! In the last two decades, the concept of the celebrity chef has soared in this country (in France, chefs have been treated like royalty since the end of World War II), and the result is many more high-end restaurants in theater towns such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco — all cities in which people take their dining experiences almost as seriously as they take their drama. Competition for serving jobs in high-end restaurants is fierce, and the jobs themselves can be stressful — often, the server is sandwiched between an incredibly demanding chef and equally demanding guests — but the pay and benefits are considerable, and you don't need to take the job home with you at the end of your shift. Remember, you want to make the most amount of money in the least amount of time so you can devote yourself to your art.
Event and Catering Jobs
Some people just don't want to be tied down to a routine; they would much rather land a day gig that offers only sporadic employment. If you prefer this lifestyle and can handle the uneven cash flow it provides, I recommend you look into catering jobs. Catering is a great way for you to make quick and easy money on an occasional basis. Classified ad Web sites such as craigslist are usually full of notices from companies looking for servers, bartenders, and others to work special events. Such jobs can involve setting up tables or chairs, stocking alcohol, or passing out appetizers or drinks. The downsides are that the work isn't steady — you could be called in to work from the same company five days in a row and then not hear from them for a whole month — and health insurance is almost never offered.
Many advertising and marketing firms hire young, hip people to give away their product to the public. Many of my actor friends have done promotional work, from handing out cigarettes in nightclubs to giving away bottled water or free gum to passersby on street corners. Like catering jobs, promotional gigs can be sporadic, and some of the uniforms or costumes the advertisers have their workers wear can be downright humiliating, but the hourly wage is usually pretty good.
Pet Caretaking and House Sitting Jobs
In Los Angeles, where I currently reside, it seems as though almost everyone has a pet and no one has the time to take care of it. The result is a steady stream of people who are hiring others to walk their dogs, look after their cats, feed their birds and their fish, etc. It's a total dream gig for a struggling actor who also happens to like animals. There are actors in New York who will ask doormen in Manhattan high-rises if any residents need a dog walker. Most people will pay handsomely for the peace of mind that comes with knowing their pets are being well taken care of.
Unlike pet caretaking, house sitting does not tend to offer much in the way of income — but it can offer a great opportunity to save money on rent. House sitting gigs usually involve living in someone's home and taking care of the property, plants, and pets while that person is away for an extended period of time. Such work often comes about as a result of personal referrals, so if house sitting sounds appealing to you, spread the word to your friends and colleagues that you're interested in doing the job.
Personal Training Jobs
Do you like working out and practicing a healthy lifestyle? Would you enjoy helping others achieve their health-related goals? If so, personal training may be a great day gig for you. This is a growing industry, and many organizations offer certification in personal training online. For as little as $300, you can complete a two-to six-week online course and receive certification in one of several disciplines of personal training, including aerobics, self-defense, sports nutrition, and others. Once you receive your certification, you can begin your "career" as a personal trainer by either freelancing or working as an employee at a gym or health club. Steady employment at a company offers a reliable source of income (and, sometimes, health insurance benefits), but personal trainers who work on a freelance basis can charge $50 an hour or more for their services — more than enough to pay for their own health insurance if they develop a solid clientele. When we were getting Congo Square off the ground, one of our ensemble members, Monifa Days, was also working as a certified personal trainer. While most of us were scraping by at our restaurant jobs, she was making good money — and staying in great shape.
Bartending can be a fast-paced and complicated job, depending on the clientele and the types of drinks that are requested. To do the job well, a bartender must have a solid knowledge of the art of mixing cocktails. Those with no experience may find it necessary to take a course in bartending; many such courses offer certification that verifies the graduate knows how to make at least the standard drinks. And most people begin their bartending "careers" by working as a bar back for a couple of months before being promoted to bartender. A bar back makes sure that the bartender has everything required to do his or her job at the moment, and it involves everything from preparing fruit garnishes for cocktails and washing glasses to maintaining the storage room.
Depending on the establishment, bartenders usually make more money than servers, because not only do they receive tips from their bar clients, but they also get a small percentage of each server's tips for making the drinks that have been served in the restaurant that shift. In general, customers treat bartenders with a bit more respect than they do servers, and good bartenders develop their own "clientele" of regulars. The more people who return to the bar because of your skills or personality, the more money you'll make in the form of tips — and the more opportunity you'll have to tell your guests about your theater company. Now, I'm not advocating that you solicit people while you're on someone else's clock — but once guests take a genuine interest in you and your life, why not explain to them what you're trying to accomplish outside work? They may be interested in helping you, possibly in ways you never thought of. Back in my old restaurant days at ESPN Zone, I once met a prominent businessman who ended up helping me recruit board members for Congo Square. Talk about a profitable night's work!
Like bartenders, baristas create drinks that can range from the simple to the ridiculously complicated — but instead of pouring booze, baristas deal in coffee. Thanks to the explosion of Starbucks and other such establishments, there is ample opportunity to pick up a job as a barista. The work is often even faster-paced than bartending — especially in the mornings, when people are rushing in to grab a beverage before heading to work.
Although baristas do make some tips, their total income is less — a lot less — than that of a server or a bartender. The one thing employment at a major coffee chain, such as Starbucks, usually has going for it is health insurance. Some coffeehouses even provide full coverage for employees who work as little as 20 hours a week. Like bartending, working as a barista also allows you ample opportunity to establish a rapport with customers who may, in some shape or form, be able to help you with your company — from sitting on the board of directors to attending your first performance.
Some actors have no interest in working in the service industry; instead, they prefer to work in an office environment. Many such actors sign up with temp agencies. These organizations place workers, on a temporary basis, with employers who need help with various office projects. Most agencies require job seekers to take a typing or computer literacy test. The faster and more accurately you can type or the more skilled you are at using Excel, PowerPoint, QuickBooks, and other commonly used computer programs, the higher your pay rate will be. Unfortunately, few temp workers receive health benefits from either the agencies they're signed with or the businesses that use their services.
Substitute Teaching Jobs
This is probably the hardest and most rewarding job an actor can perform while building his or her own company. If you enjoy working with kids and you don't need steady employment in order to survive, substitute teaching might be perfect for you. In most cases, substitute teachers are required to have at least one college degree, and they must pass a state competency test. While you may be able to choose which grade levels you are willing to take on, it's likely that you will find yourself traveling quite a bit to reach a school in need of your services on any given day. As a substitute teacher, you may fill in for a teacher for a day, a week, or more — or you may sit by the phone for days without getting a single call to work. Keep in mind, too, that public schools do not offer health benefits to substitute teachers.
For many people, these drawbacks rule out substitute teaching as a source of financial support. Still, many young actors find that working with children is its own reward. If you're one of these fine people, contact your local school system to find out how to become a substitute teacher in your area.
Don't let your enthusiasm for the theater blind you to the need for a day gig. Seek out one of the many jobs in the service industry and elsewhere that allow you to pay your basic living expenses while giving you the time and flexibility you need to establish your theater company.
If you're still in school, get some service experience under your belt before you head out into the unforgiving world. Try to secure an entry-level position at a fine-dining establishment, and learn everything about the business that you can while you're there. Your experience will help you land a better-quality gig once you're out on your own.
Remember: as an actor, your body is your instrument — so it would behoove you to make sure you can afford to keep it in good shape by getting a job that provides health insurance (or that pays enough for you to get insurance on your own).CHAPTER 2
Passion, Community, and Location
Now that you have settled into a secure and flexible job — one that pays well and that enables you to have some form of health insurance — let's talk about the reason you want to open a theater company. The core motivation for most artists, regardless of the medium in which they work, is expression. Human beings have an almost primal need to express themselves — in relationships, in sports, and, of course, in artistic endeavors. I mentioned in the introduction that actors form theater companies simply so they can work. That is indeed true, but there must also be passion, a burning desire to tell stories that must be told. You must possess in your heart the absolute will to execute productions that no other troupe can perform, and the plays you produce should always be relevant, in some shape or form, to current, 21st-century society. The last thing the world needs is another "museum theater" company. The modern stage is currently engaged in an epic battle for audiences and awareness. In order to attract new patrons, today's theaters must compete not only with films and television programs but also with video games, the Internet, and other technology-driven diversions. Theater is also highly susceptible to the economy — more so, even, than many other businesses — because the modern public generally views the performing arts as a luxury, not as a necessity.
Your new theater company must, in many ways, speak to the essence of why people attend theater in the first place. What is it about the art form that separates it from other mediums? Why, despite what seems like a lack of support from the general public, is the theater still here? Why hasn't it gone the way of the dodo bird? The answer may lie in our need for community. Human beings have always felt a yearning to express themselves — to communicate new ideas as well as challenge old ones. The theater is the ultimate medium through which an audience can receive an artist's pure intention, free from government — or, worse, corporate — censorship.
Excerpted from How to Start Your Own Theater Company by Reginald Nelson. Copyright © 2010 Reginald Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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