Notes on Becoming an Independent Theater Artist


Independent ArtistCan an actor call himself a professional if he rarely works?

That’s the question Dr. Scott Walters is asking. Walters, an Associate Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville is working to discover a different business model for the arts. He says it’s the next logical step in his work for the rural sector.

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“I thought, actually, what I’m trying to do with rural areas is create some different models so that artists have different options for living a creative life more fully. All right, we’re looking for a business model for rural areas. This could be applicable for someone anywhere who is trying to be independent,” he says.

“And by independent, I mean not having to ask permission in order to do your art. So if you’re an actor, you don’t have to audition and have someone pick you in order for you to do your stuff. And I think that’s important… We had the Malcolm Gladwell book that talked about the 10,000 hours that leads to doing extraordinary things in any activity. Well, if we’ve got a situation where you always have to get permission in order to practice, then you’ll die long before you get to 10,000 hours. ”

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While there are dozens of books in the marketplace on how artists can become better businesspeople, Walters thinks artists should take it a step further. After all, most actors believe auditioning is the best way of conducting business.

“But not really,” argues Walters. “It’s like temping. You know, you’re going out and working temp for people who hire you to do things. And they’re not even the things you want to do. You end up grabbing the things that will pay you some money.”

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But it leaves your fate in the hands of others who have no interest in furthering your career.

“The statistics that I always trot out come from Actors’ Equity Association. And if you go and look at their annual report, 58% of Actors’ Equity members made absolutely, not a single dime in theater last year. 58%. 75% made less than $5,000. And 87% made less than what you would make flipping burgers at McDonald’s 40 hours a week. So how can we have pre-professional theater programs when there’s not really a profession? There’s hobbies. We can have pre-hobbies,” he says.

To become independent, Walters believes artists need to expand their perspectives and social circles.

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“What’s happened in the theater blogosphere scene is an example. Back in the early part of that was that everybody was arguing about big ideas. Now it’s all about how you use Twitter more effectively… So it is inside of an echo chamber because we don’t get out of it. We isolate ourselves. We hang out with only people who are also in the theater. We come through training programs that teach us a certain attitude about what theater is and what theater ought to be. And then we echo that around for a while. We don’t have contact with just regular, normal people that we could actually learn from… When all we do is talk to ourselves, we can’t learn from other people. ”

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He speculates that this is one of the reasons why theater has become irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the live form, rather it’s because theatermakers consider themselves specialists.

“I would argue that the idea that you can do art 24/7 and make a complete living from it is historically rare. You look at someone like Shakespeare. He wasn’t just one thing. He acted. He wrote. He owned the theater. He ran the theater. He did all of those things. This idea that you can be a specialist and actually make a living is absurd. Frankly. I just don’t think it is viable and sustainable. But that said, I do think it is possible to be involved in the live arts in a variety of different ways and make, if not all of your income from it, most of it from that. But you have to think of it more broadly than I create these commodities that I sell tickets to. There are other things you can do.

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One thing Walters believes is that theatermakers must look to other forms of funding. They need to start thinking creatively and using their skills in new ways. Perhaps they can even take a cue from rural artists.

“Unfortunately, most of us are in the rut of our immediate knee-jerk answer to that is that we need more government funding. Well, it’s not going to happen. It never has happened. So we need to come up with a different version of that. And I think the Internet allows us some options. How do we do it in a rural area? Well, it’s gotta be a very different model. In my town of 450 people, I don’t care how popular my stuff is, I’m not going to be able to do 6 shows a year and be able to support myself. It’s not going to work. So there’s got to be other stuff. And I don’t know what those are, if it’s classes that are offered. If it is a combination of that and individual things… So let’s say I also run, I’m just talking off the top of my head, let’s say I also have a relationship with a bus company. And every month, I lead a bus of people from county to Atlanta or wherever it is that’s a city to go and see… to visit a museum, then go to dinner, and then go to the show after and then talk about it. And they do that here in Ashville for instance. They do that with baseball. Where you pay 50 bucks and you get on a bus and there’s some guy who knows about baseball and they take you down to the Atlanta Braves. And they plunk you down there and you have the game. And you ride back again. And you’re paying a premium to that guy to set everything up and lead you. You just gotta think in terms of just piecing things together. Which is what rural people do,” he says.

Walters has retired his popular blog, Theatre Ideas. He now explores how artists and theatermakers can become more independent on his new blog, Creative Insubordination. His latest online project, Strategies for Becoming an Independent Artist, helps artists set up manageable lifestyles and skills so they can become more independent.