When Kendra Oberhauser graduated from Boston University, she knew she wanted to pursue a career as a professional actor. She moved to San Francisco "on a whim." She recalls the thought process that led her to the Lesher Center as an arts administrator: "I was like, 'I’ll get a job, because I need a job, so I’ll get a job at a theatre.' So I got a job at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek and just started slowly auditioning and working at other places."
Like Oberhauser, many theatre artists in the Bay Area cannot support themselves through their art and must find day jobs. The economic challenges that come with being an artist are not just limited to the Bay Area, of course. In his book "Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts," Hans Abbing argues that it is an inherent part of being an artist in the 21st century. However, the particularly high cost of living in San Francisco doesn’t help; the citywide minimum wage, which is set by a formula to counter inflation, rose to the highest in the nation, $10.24, as of January 1.
[Evren Odcikin. Photo: Kevin Berne]
To combat the high cost of living and meager compensation for their art, some theatre artists have turned to working in arts administration, sometimes in the offices of the very theatres where they hope to produce their art. Take Evren Odcikin, for instance. After college, he knew he wanted to direct, so he became a communications and graphics design intern at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island. "It became pretty clear it was a great way for me to make money, have a day job, while I [got] my artistic career going." When he moved to the Bay Area around the same time as Oberhauser, he became a marketing assistant at the Magic Theatre, where he worked for six years, eventually rising through the ranks to become their marketing director. He then left to become the director of public relations at ACT, acting and directing when he could. In December, Odcikin directed the West Coast premiere of "Language Rooms" for Golden Thread, where he is a company artist. Although he has excelled at marketing for the arts, the fact remains that if he could, he would do his art full-time. He sees himself perhaps becoming an artistic director one day, a melding of his two careers. This January, he announced his resignation from ACT to become a publicist at KQED. Of artists who work in arts administration, he says, "Anyone who’s doing marketing for a theatre could be making a whole lot more money doing marketing for something else."
He brings up a good point. Working for a nonprofit theatre—even a large, well-funded LORT house like ACT—does not pay particularly well. At smaller theatres, where funding is more scarce, administrators are often forced to take on more duties than those for which they were hired. So why would an artist choose arts administration as a day job? Says Odcikin, "People work in arts administration because they love the arts or they really believe in a nonprofit."
[Amy Clare Tasker. Photo: Lance Fuller]
Amy Clare Tasker, also a director, has worked at Cutting Ball Theater for the past three years as general manager. Of her choice to work as an arts admin, she says, "If I’m going to spend 40 hours a week somewhere sitting at a desk, it better be something I care about as much as I care about Cutting Ball."
According to Abbing, author of "Why Are Artists Poor?," artists tend to value things other than money, which contributes to their precarious financial situations. He writes, "It is likely that artists, more than other professionals, prefer personal satisfaction, recognition, and status to money." As such, they only work as much as is necessary to continue doing their art. He hints that arts administration is a favorable option for artists looking for day jobs because "These kinds of jobs offer more than mere monetary support for an artist's career."
Indeed, Tasker’s directing career has also benefitted from her job. While working as general manager, she has directed staged readings for Cutting Ball’s Hidden Classics reading series and served as assistant director to artistic director Rob Melrose on "Bone to Pick & Diadem" and Marissa Wolf on "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," adding to her resume. In 2009, she cofounded Inkblot Ensemble (formerly known as Antistrophe Ensemble), whose show "Satellites," which she also directed, debuted in June at the Fury Factory. "I think that being Cutting Ball’s general manager the last three years has really brought me to a jumping-off point for my directing career," she says, "and it has given me such a deep understanding of how a small theatre runs that, in my endeavors with Inkblot Ensemble, will really serve me well."
Like Odcikin, Tasker thinks she might like to be an artistic director some day. Part of the "jumping-off point" of which she speaks is her decision to leave Cutting Ball and possibly get an MFA in directing. When asked if she would work full-time as an artist if she could, she says, "If it were possible for me to direct shows 40 hours a week and be paid a salary, absolutely I would love to do that. But that’s not the model we have in the Bay Area." She points out that even Melrose, who she says is "a model of how to be awesome," "doesn’t direct shows 40 hours a week. He’s involved in fundraising, marketing, all aspects of the theatre. I don’t know anybody personally in the Bay Area who spends 40 hours a week in the rehearsal room."
But is that just true of the Bay Area? In "Outrageous Fortune," an exposé on the plight of contemporary playwrights, Todd London reveals that half of the average playwright’s income comes from activities unrelated to playwriting. Partly in reaction to London’s findings, there has been a move to create resident playwright programs so that playwrights are supported not just while a work is being produced. Such programs might eliminate the need for a day job.
For aspiring directors, there is the alternative of a freelance directing career, which Odcikin and Tasker have both also considered. But Tasker is afraid that a life of being constantly on the road, without a real permanent home, might be "exhausting." She enjoys having an artistic home at Cutting Ball, "even if it’s not a place where I’m primarily an artist. I feel like I have a place in the Bay Area theatre community—that I need to redefine now, I guess."
Another perk for artists working as arts administrators, besides getting an artistic home and possible opportunities to further their careers, is that their employers understand their schedules. Oberhauser, who eventually quit her full-time job at the Lesher Center because it didn’t allow her enough time to pursue acting, has since taken on various part-time administrative jobs at SF Playhouse, PlayGround and now Theatre Bay Area, where she is a membership and marketing associate. "Actually that’s a really strong point, as to why I work in theatre," she says. "I think theatre people are a lot more flexible because we understand what it’s like." She mentions hearing an actor talk about "how she had a 'job' job in the financial district, and she said whenever she would get auditions, she would have to call in sick all the time, [or] she would just pretend her kids were sick, because they wouldn’t understand." Oberhauser, who played Louka in Center Repertory Theater’s production of "Arms and the Man" at the Lesher Center in February, is grateful that when she has had to rehearse during the day for a show, her supervisor—director of field services Dale Albright, also an actor and director—"is really understanding, like, 'Yeah, of course.' That’s really, really helpful."
When asked if she would work full-time as an artist if she could, Oberhauser at first says, "Yeah," and then backtracks: "It is nice to have something else." She mentions other artists who enjoy doing something other than acting, like teaching. She worries that if she relied entirely on acting to support herself, it might "wear me down, just because then you might think about it in a different way. Some people do shows because they have to make money, but they don’t want to do them." As for Oberhauser, these days, "I won’t do shows if I don’t really want to do them." She also won’t do shows for free. "It didn’t used to be this way, but definitely for the past six or so years, I need to get paid for a show, because it is something that I do depend on. I also have a family. It’s like, if I’m going to be spending time outside, I want it to be something that I like doing, and that is worth my while."
Although this seems like a fair expectation, it is worth noting that doing art for money is a choice. Jim Kleinmann, a career arts administrator and artistic director of PlayGround, is an enthusiastic proponent of "amateur" art ("amateur in the noblest sense," he says, meaning "someone who does art simply for the love, for no financial benefit"). "I think that it’s important that art is not simply about professional art, produced by people who get paid for it," Kleinmann says. "I think art is something that opens up the world to all of us, whether you’re professional or not. I think we need to see art being made by people who make it just for the pure love of it." He mentions his clarinet playing as an example. "I worked for Berkeley Symphony where I had professional clarinetists, but that was not something that I aspired to, nor did I have the skills for it. But I do enjoy playing the clarinet because it’s something I’ve loved since I was young and I play it as an amateur. There’s a balance there."
Unlike Oberhauser, Odcikin or Tasker, Kleinmann’s interest in arts administration has grown up alongside his interest in art. "I got involved [in arts administration] at a fairly early age," he says. "When I was in high school, I was the president of my high school band, and so I was involved in helping to provide direction, administration and even fundraising." While an undergrad at Brown, he founded an improvisational theatre company (Improvidence) where he was "an artist, but also handled the administration," including raising ticket revenue and organizing touring for the group. After college, he worked in fundraising at the New York Philharmonic, where he decided arts administration was something he "wanted to pursue at a higher level." He graduated from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in theatre management in 1992. When he moved to the Bay Area, he became managing director of the Traveling Jewish Theater and helped to found PlayGround, where he has been artistic director for the past 18 years. He has since worked at Marin Theatre Company, Smuin Ballet and Berkeley Symphony. Just this year, for the first time, he has become fully employed by PlayGround. Although he has a board of directors to which he must answer, he is the organizational and artistic head of a theatre company that he helped create.
Kleinmann’s journey speaks to a larger trend among artists, which is their entrepreneurial nature. According to the NEA’s October 2011 report "Artists and Art Workers in the United States," artists are "3.5 times more likely than the total U.S. workforce to be self-employed." Although the report does not speculate as to why, it seems likely that the combination of the challenge of making a living in the arts and artists’ tendency to go against the grain leads to higher entrepreneurism. Artists must adapt by creating opportunities for themselves.
For those artists who are not able or inclined to create employment opportunities for themselves, getting residency gigs, becoming artistic directors or otherwise supporting themselves completely through their art, it seems like the best they can hope for is a good job that is fulfilling and allows them to pursue their art as much as possible. Oberhauser, who is finally acting on the stage of the arts organization where she once worked as an arts administrator, probably speaks for many artists when she says of her art, "I’m just grateful to be able to do it all."
To read Evren Odcikin's blog post on this topic, click here.
To read Amy Clare Tasker's interview with Caroline Anderson on this topic, click here.
Caroline Anderson is the listings editor at Theatre Bay Area.