BVB: Stepping Out of the Full-Time Performance Pressure Cooker
When I first sat down to write this piece, I planned to write an article about the challenges and issues regularly faced by an established performer. As I began to pull my thought-strands apart I found that a lot of the difficulties I regularly face are so nuanced that they each deserve an article in their own right. As a result, I found myself forced to focus this piece on one subject, so I’ve chosen an emotionally tumultuous, recent occurrence: Going from full-time performer to a performer with a part-time job.
I hasten to add that I still make most of my income from performing, so I still classify performing as my ‘day job’! Prior to actively looking for work, the contemplation of a change in lifestyle alone was enough to have me phoning my Mother for support every night. I’d spent the past three years working as a performer full-time and the prospect of having a weekly commitment to someone other than myself was surprisingly hard to get my head around.
There were several reasons why a change was in order for me. First, a couple of hopes for significant performing jobs were recently dashed. Excited work-meetings that sounded very promising suddenly transformed into short, dismissive emails. That was enough to make me question whether I’d grown complacent in my performance career and had come to expect things that were far from definite. I wondered whether I’d started to take the proliferation of burlesque in London as a sign that the art-form was equally as welcomed and sanitised in other places. Perhaps I had simply forgotten that burlesque can, even now, be deemed ‘too adult’ or lacking in classic artistic grounding (i.e. dance, circus, theatre…) for some stages.
With these loose plans in ruins, I started to search for ways to fill my calendar back up. Where previously I’d been fortunate enough to be choosy about the work I took on, I quickly found I had to accept anything and everything that was offered to me. This meant returning to getting changed in toilet cubicles and working at half-price rates.
Of course, this lead me to question my own ethics:
- Was it ‘right’ for me to work at a reduced rate? Was I devaluing the industry by providing a professional act at an amateur price, just to keep my head above water?
- If working at reduced rate, should I refrain from using my ‘best’ props/costumes and use the basic versions instead?
- Would I be damaging my reputation by taking on jobs that other performers knew to be at a low fee?
I asked a lot of performer-friends for advice and opinions. After taking hours over coffee to discuss all the ins and outs, the ultimate answer seemed to be to do what made me happy, fulfilled me and made me feel like I was moving forward as an artist.
I drew up a monthly budget for myself and it became clear that the only way I’d survive as a full-time artist was if I scrimped and saved in other parts of my life. I’d have to take on any and every job, just to make enough money to get by. To continue as a professional performer I’d be treading water financially – I’d not be making enough money to invest anything back in my acts. Any investment I did make would need to be made off the back of a lot of contemplation. I’d need to draw up a business plan, I’d need to make goals and put in effort, time and emotion to meet them. After the shock of being thrown out of my financial comfort zone, the prospect of re-focusing my performance work and of having 100% belief in what I was doing left me feeling weak and non-committal.
“I evaluated whether it’d be worth me coming up with a couple of mass-appeal acts and to push these forward to get more bookings. I fast concluded that this wasn’t worth doing. If I made an act purely to tick boxes, it would lack soul. I’d have to perform, with conviction, an act that I created through force rather than love.”
I’m rarely offered corporate work, despite being represented by several entertainment agencies. I’ve also found that as the modern understanding of burlesque takes hold and gains new followers, there are more bookings reserved for acts with ‘glamourous striptease’ aesthetics, or acts with high shock or ‘cool’ value. These are all elements that I tend not to focus on. I evaluated whether it would be worth coming up with a couple of mass-appeal acts and to push these forward to get more bookings. I fast concluded that this wasn’t worth doing. If I made an act purely to tick boxes, it would lack soul. I’d have to perform, with conviction, an act that I created through force rather than love. It struck me that taking a step back from the pressures of treating my performance work as a business as much as an artform would help me to recharge my creative batteries and give me enough space to create some new acts that I can use to relaunch myself upon the entertainment world with.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find a fairly flexible part-time job that draws on my pre-burlesque-career interests and education. It also fits around performance hours and leaves me with plenty of spare time to get on with burlesque-related pursuits. I feel very proud to have made this happen for myself and it’s been a long time since I’ve genuinely taken pride in my achievements.
As you’d expect, I question whether this is some kind of mark of failure as a performer. Did I make too many bad decisions as my stage career progressed? Immediately I can think of a couple of grey areas:
- I attended an audition for what could have been fairly regular work in central London. I made the mistake of second-guessing what the bookers were looking for and improvised an act based upon what I thought they were after. I naively thought my off-the-cuff dance skills and familiarity with how to create an atmosphere on stage would be enough to carry me. In hindsight, I should have stuck to an act that I’d invested time, money and thought in to, an act that had been honed and carefully crafted. I didn’t get a callback. But thinking about it now, even if I had been called back, what then? They’d expect me to supply more of the same and seeing as the audition act had been a one-off, that would’ve left me panicking about what else I could offer them. I will never improvise an act at an audition ever again – I will always stick to what I know, what I have developed and perfected.
- I’ve made acts as commissions in the past. I’ve always struggled with commissions as one has to make an act that meets a list of requirements and yet has some kind of personal resonance. Despite trying to get the balance right, I don’t think I’ve ever mastered it. I’d be very cautious if I ever agreed to commission an act in the future.
- Have I made errors when launching new acts? I think sometimes I’ve built up a PR-buzz around an act, only for the act to rarely ever see the light of day because of a complicated tech set-up. At other times I think I’ve been too quiet about what I’m working on, resulting in bookers losing interest in what I’m doing as there’s no excitement visible on my social media profiles.
Having climbed the career ladder to get where I am now, I appreciate that high-end performers can seem quite untouchable to those on the lower rungs. One imagines them working for hundreds of pounds, spending their time travelling in beautiful cars sent by production companies to pick them up from their homes, sleeping in hotels with swimming pools and spas, getting monthly manicures, pedicures, facials and massages…
But in my experience, this lifestyle is generally reserved for the performers that rest between amateur and professional level. Sure, there are a handful of performers at the very top who are fortunate enough to have lifestyles and business models that have earned them this way of living, but generally, professional performers are living on tight budgets and hard performance schedules.
Those that can afford luxuries tend to be able to do so because of a financial guarantee offered by a part-time job, be it working in an office, taking well-paid commercial modelling work or whatever else. I think I’d classify teaching regular burlesque classes as a kind-of part-time job too as the hours are regular and income fairly guaranteed. Such performers have a guaranteed income every month (or at least one nice big chunk of money every few months), so they have nothing to lose in quoting high performance fees. These performers don’t need burlesque work, so can pick and choose the jobs that they want to do. Of course, burlesque performers often don’t want to shatter the illusion of their glamourous lifestyle by admitting to work outside of the burlesque world, so you’ll rarely hear it spoken of in public forums.
Those working as full-time burlesque performers often have to compromise on their fee and working conditions as they’re in need of work, any work to pay the rent. Most of the full-time performers I know live in London (this is where I live, too), where rent can cost twice as much as in other British cities and the plethora of jobs available have got so many performers chomping at the bit to take them on that bookers can get away with offering minimal fees. Small fees and high rent makes for performers running ragged, taking on three to four gigs a week just to make rent and pay the bills. It’s not all glitz and glamour when you choose to become a full-time performer, unless you’re very talented, very prepared and very opportunistic.
In terms of commanding a high fee as a full-time burlesque performer, there’s an argument that valuing oneself highly leads to others valuing you to the same degree. However, I can only name a handful of performers who have made a strong enough business plan or who have taken a suitable path with their business-decisions to have this seemingly simple perspective pay off. I know I have reached a limit when it comes to the fee I can command – I don’t think I’ve increased my standard burlesque-club fee for three years. In fact, I was backstage with a performer who has many years more experience than me recently. Even she was suffering a shift in the fee she can now command. She recalled how a few years ago her best acts could command four times as much as she takes, on average, for them now.
As for my current situation, I want a few bones spare at the end of the month to treat myself to a blow-dry, a new pair of jeans or stylish gym clothes (I hate working out in gifted tshirts and holey leggings). I want to do dry cleaning, not hand-washing. I’m tired of home waxing, grown-out hair cuts and being unable to send my favourite shoes to the cobbler. This is why I’ve taken on a part-time job, and for the sake of uniting the burlesque community, I’m not afraid to admit to it.
I plan to take the next month to ease in to this new lifestyle and to dive back in to pushing my burlesque work forward in the Autumn. I’ve two new acts that I’ve been chipping away at creating since January, yet I’ve not found the focus to get them finished. I think once I settle back in to a comfortable, stable way of living off-stage, I can devote time and energy in to creating magic on-stage. I no longer have to stress about firing emails off to promoters to remind them I exist, nor screaming for attention on social networking sites. I can calm that down a bit now, freeing up more time for the creative aspect of my work.
I want to be inspired. I’m tired of feeling I have to make something to fit the perceived requirements of bookers. I want to go back to being innovative, not safe.
(Header image of Beatrix ©2008 Cherry Bomb Rock Photography)