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Theater and the Freelancer in a Time of Crisis

Since we're all going to be spending a lot of time at home, I thought I'd try to be as productive as possible.  Many of my friends are freelancers and are experiencing major panic right now.

Yesterday, I sought out someone who has been doing freelance work for a long, long time and asked them how they're coping and what advice they might have.

No worries--we're not going to get into medical advice or attempt to play politician.  We're just going to talk and try to offset some nerves if possible.

Here's the interview:

ME:  First off, how are you doing?

THEM:  I've been better.

ME:  That's my favorite thing to say.

THEM:  I know, I follow you.  I know what you like.

ME:  (Laughs.)  So pugs, cheese, sarcasm--

THEM:  All good things.


THEM:  But really I've been better, but...I've been doing this a long time.

ME:  How long have you been a freelance artist?

THEM:  Twenty-four years.

ME:  Wow.

THEM:  Long time.

ME:  So you were a freelance artist when 9/11 happened?

THEM:  Yes.

ME:  And during the recession?

THEM:  Yes.  There were worse times that people aren't aware of where the--where believe it or not, things were even worse than those two times, but it was before social media took off and so I don't think people were aware of it.

ME:  What caused those times?

THEM:  You know, I don't know.  Sometimes you just see these drops in work happen, and in some ways, those are scarier--I don't mean to minimize what's going on right now--but we know why this is going on.  There were times where all of a sudden, I had no work and I didn't know why.

ME:  Is this the worst you've seen it?

THEM:  I think when you're in a crisis like we are now, it's hard to remember if it was worse or better, because there are so many factors and thankfully these crises tend to be few and far between.  I hope it stays that way.  You also have personal crises that--uh--strike your personal life.  That's hard because right now I can go online and find solidarity with my colleagues, but when it's a personal struggle--I'm a cancer survivor, you know that.

ME:  Yes.

THEM:  I was supported during that, but it still felt isolated.  I felt alone.  I don't feel alone right now.  I feel nervous, uh, anxious--but not alone.  I'm trying to find comfort in not feeling alone.

ME:  And you're anxious about money?

THEM:  A lot of us are, yes.

ME:  What did you do in the past when you were worried about money coming in?

THEM:  The first thing I tell people when they ask me about what I do when it comes to tougher times is--I'm not a finance expert.

ME:  And we're not medical experts.

THEM:  We're not.  I talk about what I do to mentally and emotionally get myself from day-to-day and I'm happy to talk about that, because when it comes to money, it is going to get scary and I can't remove the scariness for anybody.  I can tell you it gets bad and then it gets worse and then there are going to be times--not many times, I've found, but--where it's really good.  There are a lot of times where it's really good but the money's not good.  That's why I write every single day--every day--about why I'm grateful to be doing what I'm doing.  Because you are going to need those reminders.  You're going to need them written down and you're going to need to look at them every single day--even the days when you're feeling good--so you can keep yourself bolstered.

ME:  So a gratitude journal?

THEM:  Yes but very specific to your work.  You can have another one if you want.  But keep one that's just about the work you do and why it matters and why you're going to do it even when it blows.

ME:  I have friends right now who have recently become freelancers and they're--understandably--feeling like the timing for this is giving them pause.

THEM:  It should.  You'd be crazy if you didn't question yourself when something like this happens.  But every--this is what I believe--every big life decision you make--whether it be about who you marry--and I've been married longer than I've even been freelancing--or having kids or buying a house or what work you do--as soon as you make that decision, I've found that you're usually tested pretty severely soon after that.  I don't think that's accidental.  You gotta say to yourself--some occupations have big tests built into them and some jobs have tests that the rest of the world gives to you.  But we all gotta climb over that wall.  You know the wall they make you scale at the police academy?  We're all going to face that wall sooner or later.  When 9/11 happened--that was--I remember that being my first real test of--Do you really want to do this?  Wouldn't you rather go be a lawyer like your sister?  That's what my dad wanted me to do.  But he also told me that if I stuck it out, and I was still pursuing this and made it through to the other side, he'd never question me about it again.  So that's what I did, and he never did give me s____ about it after that, so that's what I say to people--that as much as I would love for everything to be good for you all the time, there is some value in being able to say 'I made it through this' or 'I made it through that' because if you've never had to make it through anything to do what it is you want to do, then people are always going to give you s____ for it and say you're not tough, and I come from a toughass family.  It was important to me that I be tough.

ME:  What does tough mean to you?

THEM:  It means I'm a big ole softie who cries at the drop of a hat, but I don't quit.  It means I can do whatever I want and act however I want and not worry about what people think of me, because the minute they try to say I'm weak I can look at them and say 'But when have I ever quit?'

ME:  Some people do quit though.

THEM:  That might be right for them.  I wish them well.  It wouldn't be right for me.  I only know how to do this.  Nothing else was an option.

ME:  I know you're not a financial expert, but do you have any tips that aren't obvious things like 'Save your money?'

THEM:  I never did figure out how to save.

ME:  (Laughs.)  So you won't be saying that.

THEM:  I recommend it if you can do it.  My car always s____ the bed as soon as I put any money away, so I just assumed it was going to be hand-to-mouth from now til death.

ME:  And you say that so casually.

THEM:  I'm doing what I love.  I'm not doing to get rich.  Rich would be nice, but I have--I say this with humility because I was given gifts the same way you were, the same way some of your friends who are struggling are, the same way my friends who are struggling are--so it's not 'I' it's 'We.'  We have changed lives for people.  For young people.  You got a show coming up that's going to save some lives I bet.

ME:  I Can Speak.

THEM:  You sent that to me when I asked.  That's going to save people's lives, Kevin.  I believe that with all my heart.  You don't need to be rich.  You are rich.  If somebody hands you a million dollar lottery ticket, cash it, but that's not going to change what your worth is.

ME:  But it will pay my bills.

THEM:  Yes, it will.  You have to adult right now.  Everybody--when it's times like these--you have to adult harder than you've ever adulted.  Even those of us who think of ourselves as being the most financially responsible people we know still have that reluctance to get real with our finances.  You have to push past that.  You need to sit down and write or type up your costs.  You have to budget.  You have to budget for worst case.  You have to ask yourself what kind of life you could live with having if you had to.  You might need to talk to partners--if you have them, I'm lucky enough to have one--and ask them for a little extra support if they can give it.

ME:  What if you're both artists?

THEM:  Then you're f___-ed.

ME:  I only asked because I know your partner is one.

THEM:  (Laughs.)  But they know how to save.

ME:  Lucky.

THEM:  Yes.  Upside--wrong word, but you know what I mean--about a collective crisis versus a personal one.  You can call up certain companies or bills that you owe--whoever that is--and they know what's going on.  You have to be comfortable saying 'I can't pay that bill this month.'  That's what I've done in the past, and they were more understanding when it was because of a collective crisis.  Not everybody was, but more companies than you'd expect.  They set up a plan with me and then I could prioritize better.

ME:  Didn't you say you found out about a forgiveness program with one of your bills that you didn't even know existed?

THEM:  You won't know unless you ask.  It can't hurt.  Do everything that falls under 'It can't hurt.'  Because it can't.

ME:  We also want to say--if you're someone who can help out the artists in your life, seek out those opportunities to do so.

THEM:  Yes.  Donate.  Buy their art if they sell physical art.  Offer to toss them twenty bucks to give you a ride somewhere.  But we all need to get over this shame about money and about needing money.  We have to get over it.  Nobody wants to think of themselves as needing help, but we do.  We all do.  When I was--I'm going to get a little emotional talking about this, but--I helped a friend through her divorce.  We talked every night for--for about two years.  She's my best friend.  I was happy to do it.  When I got sick, I needed some help--financial help, and she gave it to me.  I didn't ask; she gave.  That's who she is.  I didn't want to take it.  The money.  She said, 'Do you know what you being there for me all those years was worth?  Do you think I could ever put a price on that?  This is nothing.  What I'm giving to you?  This is nothing compared to that.  I'd be dead if it weren't for you.'  She's telling me this and I'm crying.  I'm crying now.  She wanted me to know that.  That we give of ourselves in all kinds of ways, and from then on, I made sure I recognized all kinds of ways people were giving to me and taking from me and vice versa.  I try to give when I have something to give, because you never know.

ME:  You said something to me about--it's kind of like that Jim Carrey quote about his father--

THEM:  Yes, I said I could have become a lawyer like my father wanted, but a couple of years ago, my sister's firm got bought out and she lost her job and at the time, I was making pretty good money.  Now, she had money saved.  She was okay, and she's at a new firm now.  But she was scared too.  It wasn't this casual thing that went down.  I thought, Woooooow none of us are safe.  There are no safe jobs really.  Not really.  You gotta do what you want.  She's passionate about being a lawyer so she was okay being scared.  I'm passionate about art so I'm okay being scared.  I'd rather be scared now than miserable my whole damn life like some people.

ME:  Thank you for talking with me.

THEM:  Thank you, Mr. Broccoli.  You keep your head up.

ME:  I think I'll have an easier time doing that now.

THEM:  Just start there.  Start with your head up and go from there.

Them has been a freelance artist for twenty-four years.


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