Balance, Push and Promotion: Self-Producing After College

By Kathryn Cole


My college welcoming committee consisted of one overworked upperclassman. I was an over-eager freshman, still acclimating to a twin-sized bed and raucous hallmates, but ready to join the first student-led club that came my way. She, in a cool tone, told me that there were 3 “S’s” in college: Study, Sleep and Socialize. Unfortunately, she continued, you would survive your next four years completing only two of those three activities. I won’t tell you what I chose (though I’m sure by now you can guess), but the main thing I learned was that these next four years would involve a lot of choices.

Even as I was negotiating between three “S’s,” my dance studies had a great way of pre-determining my next step. 101 class was automatically followed by 201 the next semester. Technique classes neatly squeezed into an already-packed schedule (and the frantic run between classes could count as a warm-up). It was easy to find audition opportunities in my department. The fact was, I knew exactly where I was going to be this time the next year.

Photo by Matisse Michalski
Photo by Matisse Michalski

When I reached my senior year and knew that there was no next semester to plan my life out, I also realized that from this point on I wouldn’t just have to choose between sleeping, studying or socializing. After graduation, I’d have other concerns: how to afford a bed to sleep on, how to continue my performance practice, how to avoid feeling entirely alienated after college. Like the three “S’s,” I assumed that, upon graduating, your career and your art practice were also an either-or kind of deal.

I felt that I was entering a world entirely new, and that my options for managing financial stability, my artistic endeavors, and my sanity felt vague and contradictory at the same time. It was as if I were asking myself to spin around several times while blindfolded and then trying to leap northward and southward all at once.

Anticipating this jump between college and the professional world left me (and a few of my classmates) terrified. It felt like a vast chasm, in which some people make the jump while others fall not-so-gracefully. How will I weave my education in Performing Arts into a financially-stable career? What if I don’t “make it”? What other art-related jobs are there besides being a professional performer?

Luckily, like any good jéte, you can only go in one direction. For the most part, coming out of college, any leap in a direction can be a good one. No, there’s no pre-determined steps you can learn, no golden brick road to success, but the vagueness and friction of having many options can become a powerful platform for your own creative profession.

For my classmates and me, this platform included learning how to be both arts administrators and self-producing choreographers.

We found ways to financially support ourselves and learn how to sustain our art through working in the arts. This started with internships at arts organizations while we were still students, which led to further employment for some after graduation, and provided an immediate way to plug in to the arts scene. For me, this meant working full-time at a non-profit theater, through which I learned not only what it takes to run a mid-sized arts organization, but acquired core administrative skills that I adapted for my own dance company. For my classmate and collaborator Eric Garcia, that also meant picking up part-time jobs in the arts: box office administrator, managing a local dance company, being a technical assistant, working as a fundraising consultant and performing for various companies.

Eric and I kept our art practice alive by working with one another and eventually forming our dance company, detour dance. We met as undergraduates of the University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice program, which emphasizes contemporary and community-based performance models. We produced our first show while students (a professor had recommended we work together), and decided to continue our collaborations through a dance company upon graduating. Since then, we’ve performed in local festivals, apartments, backyards, self-produced our own shows, and we’re now on to our 3rd season.

From our experiences over the last few years, Eric and I have compiled a few tips on being a self-producing artist:

1. Love the one you’re with

We’ve all chosen dance to be our partner, and to work as an independent artist, you must really love what you do and remember why you’re doing this in the first place. It’s easy to lose focus by picking up projects or gigs that don’t really inspire you. With every opportunity, think about the ways that this will contribute to your artistic growth. Surround yourself with people that you want to work with and who inspire you–a great group of collaborators is much more valuable than ticket sales. This way, you’ll stay excited by the opportunities you do take on. Your inspiration is the driving force that makes all the nitty-gritty (renting a theater, writing a press release, scheduling rehearsals) worth it.

2. Have a well-balanced meal each day

By that I mean, feed your art practice daily. See the work that you know is good, and then go see what’s happening in the little theater tucked in the basement of that furniture store. It supports your colleagues, it informs your work and it establishes community.

Then, find other ways to continue your practice: seek out and schedule dance classes, rent studio space or choreograph in your living room, blog about the work you just saw. Continue the critical discussions and opportunities for exploration that you had in college. Form a cohort with your peers and create work together, share performance and audition opportunities, go see shows and talk about the works. Join local organizations for artists and arts administrators (in the Bay Area, that includes Emerging Arts Professionals and the Young Nonprofits Professional Network).

3. There are already great things under your nose

That studio you dance in during your classes? That’s an excellent resource. There are many, many ways you can make the most of what your college offers. Speak with your professors about their post-college track (yes, ask for the “when I was your age” story). If there’s an artist you admire in the community, meet them for coffee to pick their brain. Make connections with your classmates; they will be your colleagues and collaborators in the near future. If there is a chance to present choreography or perform, take it! Book your college’s dance studio when it’s available, and take advantage of this opportunity for free rehearsal space. Get an internship with a local arts organization for college credit. As with #2, see as much performance as you can (using your student discount, of course).

4. Less money? More solutions

Our professors weren’t kidding when they said getting funding for your art is difficult, and you can’t start too early. Apply for the grants for which you are eligible (and find these grants by asking the artists in your community for recommendations). Don’t be discouraged if you’re not awarded a grant, it’s a great exercise in learning how to communicate your work and its importance, and will be essential in any fundraising or promoting you’ll do from here on out. Find ways to fundraise beyond grants. Host a garage sale (a great way to also clean out your dorm closet), crowdsource through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, have free pop-up performances and ask the audience for donations.

At the same time, remember that great work doesn’t need to be expensive. Learn to be flexible with the resources you have (didn’t get that $10,000 grant? How can you make it work with the $1,000 you just raised from donors?). Not having “enough” money is a perfect time to envision different ways of performing: have a show at your local park or in your house (check out the International Home Theater Festival), perform in an art gallery or a shop that has a backyard space, or organize monthly salons at an arts organization. If you want to show your work in a theater, split the bill with another artist or showcase your work in a festival (which usually charges a reasonable participant fee).

5. Stop thinking of it as the “real world”

That phrase is about as fictitious as reality television. It’s an easy excuse to put off opportunities while you’re still a student (“I don’t have to take this artist tax workshop until I’m in the real world”), but it’s also an excellent fear monger (“I have to devoutly learn tax code before I am forced into the real world!”). Unless you plan to audition for an MTV series, don’t use it. Find solace in the fact that you’re already in the real world.

So make a leap. It may take you awhile to land on your feet, but when you do, you’ll just keep on moving forward.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of In Dance.