Art isn’t Easy

StageSource member and lighting designer Jen Rock sent us a great response to our Money post.  Check it out and feel free to drop me a line at jjohnson@stagesource.org with your story about how you make a living as a theatre artist:

I wanted to take a moment to respond to your column “Money Makes the World Go Around.”  I am a freelance Lighting Designer who has worked as a lighting professional for the past 10 years throughout the U.S., and I have not had any form of employment outside of event and entertainment lighting in all of that time.  I moved to Boston just over two years ago.

The strangest job that I have ever had was back in 2005, when I was living for a short time in Houston, TX.  I took an overhire gig with a company that specialized in theatre installation, and when I showed up in the morning they handed me a 200 lb. bucket of chain and some bolt cutters- I spent the entire morning cutting the chain in to 5′ lengths by hand.  It was awful: my hands were so sore by the lunch break that I couldn’t make a fist.  But I tell this story to illustrate a point, which is that at the end of the day I still had employment related to my field.  I made a few professional connections, and my efforts that day were a contribution to someone’s theatre space.

Since then, I have discovered event electrics work, which is my current top choice for supplementing my income during the slow periods when design work is hard to find.  It is physically exhausting work that typically leaves me feeling cognitively unfulfilled.  On the bright side, I still get to play with lights all day and I have picked up some tricks and ideas on these work calls that have strengthened my own creative work in the theatre.  Beyond that, I make a living by literally accepting every single design gig that I can cram in to my schedule.  This has resulted in a lifestyle that includes frequent daily commutes to Rhode Island and occasional overnight or weekly trips to any theatre in the country that is willing to pay me to show up.

Occasionally, someone will tell me how lucky I am not to have a day job.  That statement is ridiculous.  This is my job.  And just like any other job, I have bad days at work.  I get involved in productions that are frustrating, and that turns in to a bad week at work.  I know what it is to have to scrape by financially.  I know the depression that a workaholic faces when unemployed.  I know the exhaustion that accompanies the juggling act required to open a show per week.

But the fact of the matter is that I love doing theatre, I love collaborating with other artists, and I love using light as a medium in which to tell a story so much that I have chosen to make it a career.  Your column asks, “Does your job help or get in the way of progressing in your career?”  My question to you is why would I take employment that stands in the way of my career goals? That seems downright counterproductive.  And “What percentage of your theatre gigs pay?”  Every single one of them.  I won’t touch your show otherwise.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate that your theatre company is operating on a small budget.  Believe me, I get that.  But if you want your show to have to have the visual composition that a professional lighting designer can provide, you’re going to have to pay for it.  It would be disrespectful of me to approach you at your day job and ask you to perform a professional service for free because I am short on funds, and it is likewise disrespectful to expect me to provide a professional service to you for free because you are short on funds.

So how do I make art full-time without starving?  There is no easy answer to that.  I do know that in seeking an answer to that question, it is absolutely necessary to remember that my art is my business.  Producing companies are my clients, and it is my job to be prepared, knowledgeable, and artistic under pressure, so that I can provide a top-quality lighting design.  We must all keep in mind that when we walk in to that theatre, we are walking in to work.  We must respect our fellow collaborators as professionals, and part of that responsibility must fall on the producing company to provide a reasonable wage.  The rest of the responsibility falls to us as artists: only you can make your theatre career your top priority, and only you can demand that the companies you work with treat you as a professional.

Jen Rock is a freelance lighting designer who works throughout New England and the Northeast.  Recent credits include The Orfeo Group, The Gamm Theatre, Perishable Theatre and Trinity Repertory Company.  www.jenrockdesign.com

About jjstagesource

Jeremy Johnson is the Member Services Mananger at StageSource and has been since graduating Emerson College in 2000. He has also worked as a freelance director throughout New England at companies including Gloucester Stage, Foothills Theatre, Stoneham Theatre, The Theater Offensive, Mill 6 and Boston Directors' Lab. He's worked backstage at "Blue Man Group" and onstage at "Shear Madness". His production of "Speech & Debate" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston won the 2009 Elliot Norton Award for Best Production for a Mid-Size Company. He has also taught at The Cambridge School of Weston, Beaver Country Day School, Gann Academy, The Winsor School and Walnut Hill School for the Arts.
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