Yesterday I had to tell someone my rates for a performing gig. The person was relatively new to the performing sphere so I wasn't sure if he was familiar with the cost of live entertainment. My cheeks turned a little red and said the following:
“I am going to tell you my rates, then explain why I charge this amount. You are going to go back to your client and tell them this number, to which they will think you are crazy and come back with some ridiculously low number that is their budget. Now, before you discount me as being self inflated and over priced, please let me explain...”
It turns out the man was well versed enough in circus to know that it is often the case, between those hiring performers and those who are performing, that there is a misconception in how much to budget for live entertainment. He said he would get back to me with their offer and I thanked him for that courtesy.
The market is weird right now. Many performers haven’t worked consistently in over 18 months and the casual employment we have to take to live between contracts makes consistent training difficult. That is because performers do not get paid for training (except for a very lucky select few). This always comes as a shock to people who dream of a life where they quit their day job and make a living as a performer.
“How do you make money then?” I am asked by the shocked faces of those who are used to being paid for every minute of their time when they work. The answer to this brings us back to a time when it was much more common to be paid for a product or service, and not the production.
I remember as a little girl sitting next to my mom at her sewing machine watching the thread spin, listening to the loud whirring, and watching folds of fabric being fed and pulled, arced and maneuvered by the rough hands of my overworked mother of four. She sewed my leotards, our matching outfits, and altered friends dresses, mostly for free. I asked her many times why she didn’t charge people for her time or sew clothes for a living.
“I would lose money” she would say. This didn’t seem quite right to me, as I knew people bought clothes all the time and the craftsmanship and creativity of my mother’s work left everyone oohing and awing over all our clothes as kids.
It wasn’t until later, as a new mother who inherited a love of sewing, that I understood what she meant. By the time I bought fabric, thread, notions, and spent the three days it took to sew a single little dress and bloomers, I was far into the red. If I continued at that rate, my child would have the most minimalist, expensive, and labor intensive wardrobe on the planet. So why was it that I could walk into any baby store and buy an entire wardrobe for the cost of a few hand sewn outfits?
This question leads into one of the defining discussions of my generation and largely shapes the way I choose to lead my life.
Driven by a culture curated and spoon fed by corporations, governments, and the wealthy, we are led to believe we are unhappy, and the way to happiness is to work more, to want more, and to buy more.
If the only way we can afford more is to drive the cost of the things we need to make us happy so low that the production must occur unsustainably, inhumanly, and largely through slavery, then we must ask ourselves if our happiness is worth the suffering of another. If the moral qualms are not hindrance enough and in light of the growing plague of depression and mental illness that is sweeping the Western world, the question that is nearer to the point may be: Will all this working and buying and having actually make us happier?
I have a suitcase that is packed with reusable containers, coffee making supplies, and a wardrobe purchased from second hand or ethical stores that reflects Bird and my “Tread Lightly” family motto. I would love to write more on each of these topics separately so I won’t go on too many tangents here. My simple answer to that complex question is: No. More does not make us happier. However, some things and experiences, with quality, character, and soul do create a sense of home and connection with our fellow human beings.
There was once a time when global trade, government subsidies, and getting paid in the promise of Instagram followers weren’t things. The purchase of an item was a face to face interaction with the craftsman and the price accounted for their time, expertise, the quality, and the agreed value of the item provided. The transaction was not a faceless and removed tap of plastic that lasted mere seconds, but rather it was sought out and sussed out. It took time and relationships developed and trust was established.
Artists still work in this economy. We buy our paint, pay for our training, shake every hand we can, and spend our own time refining our skills all for the hope of standing on a stage, for selling a song or a book or a painting which doesn’t even come close to putting a dent in the amount of time and money invested. Eventually, a very few, the most talented, well connected, and lucky, make it to the point that they are a profitable, or at least sustainable, enterprise.
To put this in perspective…
At the height of my ten years of acrobatics training, I was in the gym roughly 40 hours/week. My parents paid for this training.
Before leaving on a contract where we were asked to create a new act, Axel and I spent roughly 30 hours of our own time in creative research. This does not include the time we spent in weekly training to maintain our acrobatic skills.
With nearly every circus company I’ve worked for, most artists I know choose to pay for an outside gym membership or classes to stay fit and strong. We pay for our many physio appointments, and when we show up to rehearsals or creation, we are expected to have the skills we were hired with. Meaning all of the training I do on handstands and most of the partner work Axel and I train, is fully unpaid.
When you see a five minute act, or breeze past a pretty mural, or glance over a bit of writing, know that your interaction with this piece represents only the final moments of it’s life. The conclusion of a conception years in the making. What a joy to see a cute top at the store, pick it up and check the price only to return it in a heap on the bench, ignorant of the stitching, the weaving, the cutting and the little pokes your fingers get when you sew buttons on.
I am an artist and I ask people to pay me a wage that is worthy of my training, the wear on my body, the detail I put into creating a piece that allows an audience to smile, to escape, to reflect, to see a little further than they did when they walked into that theater. My work has value beyond the time that I am physically on a stage. I gladly invest my time and money into this craft because there is no greater happiness for me than seeing that look from on stage, when your eyes meet with another, and it's clear that something you made has inspired thought and joy. It's more than enough.
It is also why I choose to pay more to get something that is crafted, beautiful, loved, made ethically, and that provides a livable wage. I encourage everyone to do the same. We live in some of the richest countries in the world and we choose to pay our hard earned income to large corporations that in turn pay low wages and provide horrendous working conditions to their employees. I don’t own many things, but there are things I touch every day and I want them to be beautiful, to be crafted by someone who has the same passion for their art as I do mine. I think it is my duty as an artist to support other artists, and I actually think anyone who can afford it should do the same.
On this note, I would like to introduce another female artist whose love of handstands produces a fully different work of art to performance. Nicole Comito is a Brooklyn based artist and acrobat who creates some of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever put my sweaty hands on for hours. I am so happy she will be using acromegan.com to sell her one of a kind props.
After I shattered my foot I had a lot of time to develop my own handstand practice. Up until then I never really trained handstands, I played with them as a side hobby alongside hand to hand. On a trip to New York to see my amazing PT Emily Lesinski (who deserves a novel herself for her knowledge, support, and foot fixing wizardry) I came across Nicole’s handstand boards and blocks.
I have always used blocks in my training and had secretly always wanted a board, but I repeatedly talked myself out of it for fear of collecting more objects. I had been denying myself regardless of the fact that I spend hours each week staring at the ground, that I have weird issues with my hands being dirty, that my elbow and wrists really hurt after training on concrete, and that more often than not I find myself training on uneven grass.
This all changed the moment I saw Nicole’s boards.
I think it was because for the first time I saw the board not as training paraphernalia, but as art in its own right. The boards are even better than my circus act though because they are actually functional! I get a rugged, stunning piece of wood and resin combined masterfully so I can throw it in my suitcase to whatever country I am in next, pull it out on hot cement, wet grass, or even the beach (don’t tell Nicole), to practice my form of expression anywhere.
There is value in art. There is humanity in supporting another’s need to create. There is happiness in staring at my hands atop a swirling, shimmering cloud of white resin poured over natural burl wood made for me by a dear friend. Thank you Nicole.