Take a Flying Leap: Big Jumps and Baby Steps Towards Becoming an Independent Artist

by Chas Croslin

in Financial Adaptation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Financial Adaptation blog salon curated by Adam Thurman for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Recently, I left gainful employment in arts administration to become an independent theatre artist and musician.

I am certain that there are people who do this-earn a living by making theatre and music as their primary vocation. I want to be one of them.

So, I saved a little money and took a flying leap. I left my day job. I took a trip to Asia that I had wanted to take for years. Now, here I am, poised to become the independent artist I have also spent years dreaming about. I am ready to do the work and share the information with all of the dreamers and those who just know they will make it. I am my own case study in progress.

You see, I didn’t actually plan the whole transition. I did not (and do not yet) have gigs or projects lined up that would provide me with anywhere near the income I was generating in the primary job. How am I doing it? Well, I am not exactly sure yet.

Making a Leap-Taking Steps

My peers in theatre will perhaps indulge me in that the analogy of a leap is very dramatic: drastic, courageous, full of import and implied danger.

The basic component of the leap, however, is merely a step. The truth is, my own path to freelancer was more of a series of steps than a leap, initially anyway.

I am one of those artistically-inclined types who chose a parallel career path in the arts administration-partly because I felt I still needed to develop my skills as an artist, but partly because I was also uncertain how to make a go of being a creative type, to be a freelancer in a world that seemed over-crowded with talented people.  How would I find work to sustain myself?

I had developed administrative skills over the course of twenty years through experience in retail, business management, accounting, and production. Additionally, over the last decade I have amassed quite a bit of skill and experience “on the side” as a musician, performer, and theatre maker.

One day, I realized I was essentially putting in full-time hours in both areas. That configuration demonstrated to me that a shift was possible: I was already doing the work. All I had to do was figure out how to shift the income generation from one side to the other.

Sounds deceptively simple, right? That is where my step became a leap once again: a leap of faith. The belief was that I could figure it out as I went. I am presently doing just that, even though I still have more questions than answers.

I must give disclaimers. First, my risk factor for this transition was relatively low. I am in my mid-forties, in good health, single, and without children. I do not own a house, nor do I plan to. I drive a used economy car that is twenty years old. I am not suggesting that those with significant others or children or houses cannot make steps or a leap, merely that the risk factor may be higher. I also do not assume a blanket definition of a “living wage.” Lifestyles vary widely. In my case, I am focused on individual survival at a basic scale as a starting point. Succeeding beyond that point naturally requires additional strategy.

It is also important to note that I have enjoyed an artistic home at El Teatro Campesino for nearly seven years and the amount of experience and opportunity that has been afforded me as an artist there is nearly immeasurable. I would not have been able to embark on the transition to independent artist were it not for the support that I have received and continue to receive from the organization and the individuals who comprise it. This is huge and important to acknowledge.

My path became clearer when I identified that the idea of failure was, in my case, a myth. There was no failing, only change. I am confident in my “fall back” skills should I need them. My network and potential opportunities appear strong enough to sustain me, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, I am writing, networking, practicing, collaborating, and researching. I am lining up projects and planning on how to manifest them.

Remaining Airborne

For me, the analogy of the leap has less to with landing as it does continuing to fly. How does one stay aloft?

I recognize that my scenario may not be representative of most, even if parts of it are familiar. Not everyone is able to make a jump first and ask questions later. But I am finding those who have contemplated such a transition themselves share some of the same questions:

How do successful freelancers build and maintain the networks that keep them continually employed? Are grants a viable sustained income source or should they be considered supplemental to more regular contract work? How can crowd funding be most effectively employed? What other innovative strategies for sustaining ones’ self are out there? Where can one find competitively-priced health insurance, and/or how might the new Affordable Care Act be able to help? What other financial planning resources might be available to freelancers?

I am honored to be working with Kathy Janich of Synchronicity Theatre and session-leader Jim Hart, Director of Arts Entrepreneurship Program at Southern Methodist University, in shaping a break-out session entitled “Empowering the Artist Entrepreneur” coming up at the TCG conference in Dallas. We will be addressing questions such as these and I look forward to a lively session of answers, strategies, horror stories, and glittering examples of success.

Meanwhile, I will be seeking out case studies of working artists, freelancers, and independent contractors who are able to share approaches and strategies for sustaining themselves in project-based employment scenarios. The online description of the TCG Financial Adaptation arc notes: “It helps to study the maps of those who have navigated similar journeys, and this arc will connect those who have been there with those who are ready to go.”

I am ready to go. Indeed, I am already going. Time will tell whether I’m flying or free-falling. Anyone else care to take the leap? I can tell you that it is breezy and exciting and only a little scary.

Chas Croslin is a theatre artist and musician living and working in central California. He is an Artistic Associate of El Teatro Campesino where he has performed in over 25 productions, contributed original music and produced/co-produced several productions. He recently returned from a 10 week trip to Asia where he explored traditional performances of dance, theatre, music, and puppetry. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Art from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.