Art is Smart
“Creativity takes courage.”
Perhaps sometime before, during, or just after high school or college, your child boldly announces: “I can’t live without music/dance/theater,” and that she is pursuing a career in the arts— either as an actor, director, playwright, dancer, singer, or musician. And even if she had demonstrated sustained interest in the arts for several years, you’re still astonished by her declaration.
Take a deep breath. If you’re worried about your child’s decision, you’re not alone. Here are some things to think about, especially if you’ve always envisioned your child working at a non-arts-related job, in a pressed suit or office-appropriate dress, safe and secure behind a grey Formica desk.
First, unless you are supporting your young adult financially, you have very little leverage over what he does, although you can make him unhappy by criticizing his choice or demeaning his abilities. (Not a good decision!)
And second, consider what you think of when you think of “success.” Success can be more than owning a McMansion or a second home by the beach. Actress Phylicia Rashad points out, “A person is successful if they lead a productive life, are really engaged in what they’re doing… and when they’re bringing some light into the world.”
What’s distinctive about a career in the arts
It’s true that a life in the arts is very hard in many ways. It’s usually financially precarious; many parents worry if their child will be able to make a living or support a family. And a life in the arts entails repeated rejection—auditioning and being turned down for roles, writing plays or pieces of music that don’t get produced— let alone possible physical injuries from dance practice, all of which is wearing on a parent’s mind.
Another particularly risky aspect of the arts is that your child may have talent, but the world simply doesn’t recognize that talent at this time. (Think about poor Vincent van Gogh, who sold only one painting during his lifetime.) Circumstances are even trickier for live performers than for painters or writers because they need to be seen here and now. Their work is fleeting—once a production is over, it’s gone forever. (Yes, we realize that many performances are taped.) Further, as actor Bill Pullman says, “Fiona Apple songs might not work well in bars, but if bars are what you’ve got, what are you going to do about that?”
On the other hand, the rewards of art are uniquely fulfilling. In the words of Julie Boyd, Artistic Director of Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, “What’s special about the arts is that they show how specifics connect with the essence of living as a human being. In many jobs you’re just doing that job—you’re not affecting the universe or anything much larger than yourself. But sometimes when you’re creating a gorgeous piece of music, editing a film, doing a dance— you’re touching people’s souls, so it’s all worth it, it carries you through.”
Further consider: Art is one of very few professions people would do for free (like sports and science). Practitioners don’t consider this “work,” but rather, “pursuing a passion,” because it makes them feel alive and special. People who are in the arts love what they do; they’ll put up with a lot to keep doing it.
Some questions to ask yourself
Ask yourself: What do you want for your child? What does your child want? Be practical: It’s a good idea for you both to figure out whether his wanting to be in the arts is a passing fancy or a true passion.
If your child says she wants to be an artist, you might start by offering support: “That’s great, we want you to be happy. We’ll help you however we can.” And of course, financial support is almost always welcome, if you can afford it.
Some questions to ask your child
You might then ask some questions to help your child hone in more precisely on what he wants to do:
- Can you imagine yourself doing something else?
- Most artists make very little money; have you thought about how to support yourself? (According to JobBank USA, the average income that Screen Actors Guild members earn from acting is under $5,000 a year.)
- What are you willing to sacrifice to be in the arts? You probably won’t make enough money to do anything but eat and pay rent for at least several years. Are you okay with that?
- Do you need to be a performer or creative artist, or do you just need to have a life in the arts?
The necessity of commitment
Keep in mind that if your child will consider any alternative profession, then her lack of total commitment is telling.
Artists unanimously state they never ever thought of doing anything else. Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director of Manhattan Theatre Club for 40 years, says: “Any Plan B is the death of Plan A. An entrepreneur has to do Plan A, with everything you have; otherwise I’m not sure you can do it.”
Similarly, Pullman says he doesn’t want any well-meaning relatives asking his artist children about their “five-year plan,” because “that kind of thinking is all about fear and retreat—if you’re thinking like that, you’ve already lost.” A five-year plan means you’re already thinking about an exit, the possibility of not succeeding, and once you think that, you’ll not succeed.
Committed artists are willing to cobble together a life by doing temporary jobs and being mindful that their income isn’t disposable—they may need to forgo buying unnecessary clothes, technology, etc. to pay for the necessities. Rashad says, “I had a skill; I supported myself when I started out because I could type.” Rashad’s actress daughter Condola was a waitress and learned to tend bar. Choreographer and writer Randolyn Zinn says, “I had nothing. Thank God I could type. I didn’t have a proper winter coat until I was married and pregnant. I was always cold, didn’t have much to eat. But I was pursuing the dream. When I finally got an interview with choreographer Anna Sokolow, I walked from my apartment on the Upper West Side to see her on Christopher Street [over four miles] so I could spend the only money I had to bring her a peony.”
Waitressing, bartending, website design, graphic design, proofreading, acupuncture—these are some jobs with fairly flexible hours, or that can be done from home, that help enable young artists to support themselves.
And nowadays being a teaching artist is a growing field. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cultural organizations in cities small and large send practicing artists to schools, afterschool programs, prisons, and social service agencies to teach making and appreciating art, or to support learning through art. Many artists find this work very satisfying because it aligns well with their skills. And it helps pay the bills while they pursue their artistic life goals. (You can search “teaching artist” on the Internet for more information.)
Being backstage, not onstage
Many “off stage/off camera” arts careers might prove equally interesting to your child. Every art form depends on an enormous enabling infrastructure: from stagehands, box office workers, and fundraisers; to board members and administrators, lawyers, bankers, and publicists; to ushers, house managers, and website technicians, and many more. Or maybe being a casting director or program officer at a foundation, dramaturge, or recording engineer will suit your child’s creative needs.
And in the end…
Most parents hope their children become independent lifelong learners who keep growing as individuals, who contribute to society, and most of all, who love what they do to make a living.
Playwright David Auburn says, “My parents’ attitude was, ‘If this is something you want to do, you have to try it.’ I never had any doubt that it was at least something I would be able to try doing.”
If you’re still nervous about your child pursuing a career in the arts, consider Rashad’s advice: “Artistic expression is fundamental to human development. Look at children and how they grow: they sing, they dance. Parents should take up painting for a hobby, learn to play an instrument, sing in their choir, really go do that—see the joy it brings. And then tell your child what you think.”
And finally, assume that your child will figure things out. She might begin as a theater director and become a theater educator, or begin as a lawyer and become a dance administrator. Trust, Pullman says, “that your children’s lives will evolve, that they will find their own voice, and that they will become complete persons.”
Most of all, it’s your child’s life. Let him fly on his own.