• Andrew G. Cooper

Do Quit Your Day Job: Maybe It's Time to Go All In on Your Art

It's a punchline at the expense of artists and you've probably heard it before. It usually goes something like this:


Stranger: "So what do you do for a living?"


Artist: "I'm an actor actually."


Stranger: "Oh, really? Well, don't quit your day job. Ha ha!"


Artist: "Ha...ha..."


Stranger: "Ha ha! Ha! Ha! HAAA!"


The words can sting, whether or not the art in question is something you are perusing as a career. Sometimes people like to paint just because they like to paint. Sometimes an actor enjoys being in community theatre productions because it's such a change of pace from their regular "adult" job. Sometimes people just like to sing!


But sometimes, just sometimes, art is something that you really do want to make a life of. Sometimes you want make a living full-time doing it. You want to live and breath your writing. You want to be in as many plays as you can be in! And who can blame you? Art is invigorating! Art is inspiring. Art can take us from simply being alive to truly living.


So you've probably heard that phrase, "Don't quit your day job." And maybe you're thinking but what if I WANT to quit my day job?? Maybe you've found your artistic voice! Maybe it's time to go all in on your art. If you're finding that you're serious about your art and you want to make a full-time job with it then read on.

My solo show I wrote, directed, and performed in.

Of course, it's not always practical—or even possible—for you to quit your job. You have bills to pay. You need to buy food! Right? BUT, there's another way if you're really serious about your art. But that is the key question. Are you ready to be serious about your art? If you're not in a place in your life to do that, it's okay. If you are, start thinking about how you're going to transition from the work you're doing now into the work you want to be doing.


It can be a really big step. A really big, really scary step. But eventually, every full-time artist needs to take the plunge. Personally, I've done it twice and both times it's worked out well for me. I feel very fortunate for that. So when do you know it's time? And how do you go about this anyway?


THE FIRST STEP

Personally, I think is the most important step. You need to shift in your mindset. If that sounds too "woo woo" to you, just stay with me. Here's an example, I know a many actors who bartend on the side between gigs. That's a great way to make money when you're not engaged on a contract! I also know actors who work regular jobs in hospitals, in customer service, in child care, and more. The important part is in defining what you do by your art. And even defining who you are by your art. Are you a bartender who's sometime in plays? Or are you an actor who bartends on the side? Are you a painter who works in a law office? Or are you an office worker who sometimes paints on their day off?


Change your mindset so that you put your art first, and the rest will begin to follow.


STEP TWO

If you want to pursue your art as a career, start treating it like one. Make your art a priority and dedicate time to it every week. If you're a writer then write every day. If you're a dancer then dance and stretch every day. If you're a painter then paint! Even if you have children, are busy at work, or have other commitments, you need to set boundaries—both with yourself and with others in your life—to make time to for your artistic practice. Make this time sacred. How many hours do you work in your current job? 40 hours a week? Maybe 30? 25? Your goal should be to transition to spending that much time every week on your art. Period.


I find it very interesting that we use the words "discipline" and "practice" when we talk about art. "What artistic discipline are you in?" "How are you developing your artistic practice?" If you're serious about your art, remember that it will take both discipline and practice to make into reality.


STEP THREE

Take the plunge, baby! Eventually, you're going to have to dive in. Some people are fortunate and may be in a place where they can literally quit their day job. That's great! I say go for it if you can! Others might not be in that place yet. You can always start small too, don't feel like you have to start by writing a whole novel right off the bat! This is the hardest step so I'm going to offer some advice and things that worked for me. I hope you find things that work for you in here as well.


A) One recommendation for folks who can't outright drop their employment is to find a low-pressure, low-priority job that can support you while you make art your priority. What do I mean by this? Well, if you have a job that you "take home with you" (emotionally or otherwise) you probably won't have the energy at the end of the day to get creative. Maybe you have a job that's very demanding and needs you to work at sporadic hours. If you're serious about making art full-time, but can't stop working fully, try quitting your current job for one that's easier, less stressful, and has a consistent schedule. That way you can really put your art first. It will take you from being a lawyer who happens to love singing, to a singer who happens to work at an easy desk job.


B) Find work that is full time but that's in the field you want to work in. If you can't reduce your hours of non-artistic work yet, try transitioning into a position that's at least adjacent to what you want to be doing! Are you an actor? Get a job at a theatre company in the box office or front of house. Maybe your goal is to be a film director? Get a job on a set as a production assistant. The key thing is, get as close to the action as you can! That way, you'll be able to learn more about your discipline, even if you're not making your own art yet. I worked for years as a theatre producer, both for companies I started like Chimera Theatre and Jupiter Theatre and for others like Ghost River Theatre. This allowed me to learn what it takes to put on a great theatre production.


C) Don't wait for others to give you a job, go out and make your own work. This is the most important lesson I learned after coming out of university. Finding work at large companies that pay artists well is great, but it can also be very challenging, especially for artists just breaking in (sometimes called "emerging artists" but that term is a longer discussion for another blog post). Something that worked very well for me is grant writing. Artistic grants, available from the municipal level all the way up to the federal, have funded my artistic practice for nearly a decade now. At first, I had no idea what I was doing when writing a grant. It was mostly trail and error, but I had finally answered the question "what do you do with a B.A. in English"! After years of grant writing, I'm now in a place that when I produce theatre or take on a new writing project or want to create a short film, I often have funds from at least two levels of government to make my projects happen. This is a great way to pay yourself and others when furthering your art! If you don't know where to start with grants, just go out and try it! Most major cities (at least in Canada) have municipal arts funding. Find someone who has experience and ask them to help you (and pay them for their time and expertise if you do) or look for local workshops or classes on grant writing.


D) What ever happens, if you're making major changes there's going to be some instability in your life for a bit. It's possible you're going to have to take a big cut in pay, at least in the short term. To help with this, save up money if you're able to. If you have a job that affords you extra income for things like vacations or savings, put some money aside to invest in the future of your artistic career. If you're lucky, maybe you can even save enough to stop working for a few months—this would be a great way to put some real time into honing and practicing your craft!


There's lots of ways to get started, the important thing is that you go out and try.


When I was in my early twenties, I was laid off of my job as a support worker because of big cuts the company was making. It was a really challenging time, but I decided to turn this unforeseen setback into an opportunity. I was already teaching dance part-time and running my own small theatre company on the side. (I was in my early twenties, I had a lot of energy at the time!) I thought, "Hey, maybe I can make a real go of this and try having all my income come from the arts industry." I told myself I would really try it out for one year and if it worked, keep going with it. I'm happy to say that the extra time helped me to grow that little theatre company into a six-figure company, and to this day I haven't worked outside the arts industry since. The take away?


There's never a good time to try dedicating yourself to your art, but there's never a truly bad time either.


If you're really scared about diving in, try giving yourself a timeline like I did. Give yourself one year, or two years, or even six months. Really give it a proper go, pull away that safety net, and who knows? Instead of falling, maybe you'll fly.


The second time I "quit my day job" was earlier this year, in my early thirties. I had been working at a wonderful devised theatre company as a producer for over two years, but I was finding that my administrative work was really starting to outweigh my artistic work. Yes, I was still working in the arts industry and I loved that, but I needed more time for my own art. I was, essentially working two full time jobs: one as an producer and one as an artist. I decided to cut the cords on my admin job and go freelance again full-time. It was scary. I had gotten used to having a fixed income (and regular days off—imagine that!), and I wasn't going to be able to reduce my expenses in the near future. I did it anyway.


Cirque Nuit at Shambhala 2022.

Soon afterwards, I was asked to collaborate on a theatre show with Calgary Young People's Theatre as a puppet designer and builder. I was able to say yes because I had a lot more time on my hands. Not long after that, I was offered a job at a major theatre company (Alberta Theatre Projects) as an associate director for their big holiday show! And the best part? I still have more time to dedicate to my writing. I've even had not one, but two short stories published recently! And I'm now working on my second pilot screenplay. I'm able to find time to write, even with the contracts I've been taking.


Am I still a little scared? Sure. I don't have any contracts lined up after the spring of next year. But you know what? That's a long time away and new opportunities will come around. In the meantime, I'll keep with my practice of writing every day and I'll see where the winds take me.


Others might disagree, but I think that maybe, just maybe, it's time that you do quit your day job. Trust yourself, take whatever steps you need to take, and go after your art. I haven't regretted it and I hope you won't either.

 

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