Dane Stauffer was finishing up an improv class when one of his students at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis had a question.
“I know you’re an actor,” the student said. “But what is your current job situation?”
Good question. Stauffer has been acting for more than 30 years, but to stitch together a living, he has expanded his definition of work — such as the gig at Henry, where he spent several class periods last fall teaching the techniques of commedia del arte.
Whatever it takes, he does it.
“If you are in this business, you are an entrepreneur — a hunter/gatherer,” Stauffer said of a discipline that keeps artists hustling constantly to match their skills to the needs of a market. “An artist is always finding a balance between what people want and what I want to do.”
For theater artists, the pursuit is neverending. Acting jobs can pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars a week to upward of $2,000 for elite roles, but once the show ends, the stars are out on the street. Long-term contracts, such as those at commercial venues, can keep an actor well-fed for months, although it’s not impossible that you’ll see the leading man waiting tables to supplement an income.
“You are the CEO of your own company,” said Ansa Akyea, who like Stauffer actively pursues teaching residencies in public schools, works with Circus Juventas (the youth circus school) and was on his way to rehearsals for a show he’s directing at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul when he spoke by phone. “I’m trying to build a diversified portfolio of things I can do — my own brand. I’m not just an actor — I want to be an artist in the truest sense.”
Entrepreneurship is not limited to theater, of course. Musicians and composers have found it increasingly important to foster their own businesses. Dancers teach and choreograph in addition to performing. Visual artists sell their work. Nonprofit organizations are finding ways to use artists in community projects.
According to a study by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), about 20,000 individual artists in the state generated $205 million in economic activity in 2005, the most recent year surveyed. The MCA’s executive director, Sheila Smith, says a new, more extensive report will be released at the end of February. She would not release details but agreed that Minnesota Legacy Amendment funding for the arts has boosted those numbers significantly.
“Working artists are some of the original entrepreneurs by the fact that they walk into the world as an individual with a product or skill to offer, taking on greater than normal risks in order to do so,” said Vickie Benson, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation. “They are bucking a more conventionally structured job in order to bring their work into communities, into the marketplace.”
Passion drives the business
Charles Lazarus, who plays trumpet with the Minnesota Orchestra, has taught hundreds of classes on entrepreneurship at universities and music conservatories nationwide. While many brilliant young musicians come out of these schools every year, the old model of a lifetime job with an orchestra is elusive.
“For modern musicians, it’s important to create our own demand,” he said. “You need to have not only skills but versatility to be employed.”
Lazarus knows firsthand the challenges facing the symphonic world. During the 15 months in 2012-14 that Minnesota Orchestra musicians were locked out in a labor dispute, he collaborated with Paul Grangaard (an orchestra board member) to produce “Merry and Bright,” a 13-song Christmas CD. Lazarus put together a holiday tour with a nine-piece brass band, other instrumentalists and singers.
That project stemmed from necessity, but in general Lazarus’ small business is built around two goals: exercising his passion for different styles of music and creating his own work. To that end he works in jazz groups, chamber ensembles and big bands.
“One of my missions is to combine my small-group work with the orchestra so that the symphony becomes a voice in popular music — not just a backup group, but its own personality that’s integral to the sound,” he said.
Pianist Peter Guertin also has plumbed the holiday season for business, touring with actors Shanan Custer and Jim Robinson, among others. Using a state grant, they put together a show of skits and songs, with improvisational workshops.
Guertin left his chair as the Brave New Workshop’s music director (for seemingly forever) and has found himself even busier, playing keyboards with bandleader Mick Sterling at tribute concerts, performing at private parties and in the past year posting his photography on Facebook.
“People have said I should get a website. I’m trying to figure that out,” said Guertin, who is mulling a summer exhibition of his photography at a small Minneapolis studio.
“I’m working for myself,” he said.
Making your own work
Actor Steve Hendrickson also used the tools of his trade to create his own business, Audio-Visceral. Hendrickson and a few other actors produce audiobooks. He had equipment left over from “my now mostly defunct voice-over career” and decided to leverage that for the inevitable gaps when an actor is waiting for a job.
“I wanted to find something that wasn’t dependent on my telephone ringing with an offer to do a play,” he said. “I also wanted to do work that afforded me more artistic autonomy than one normally has as a freelance actor.”
Hendrickson, who has played the legendary sleuth several times, is producing all of Larry Millett’s “Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota” books (including one due in February). He also collaborated with other actors on playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s two monologue triptychs, “Three Viewings” and “Murderers,” due this spring.
“I can imagine my emeritus years including a daily toddle to my recording studio in my slippers and telling someone a story,” he said.
Ann Michels had a great run at the Ordway with “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” Since the show closed on New Year’s Eve, she has cobbled together several small things — readings of new plays, concert stagings of new musicals.
“Sometimes, you can go two to three months without a job,” Michels said. She tries to alleviate that downtime with work for George Maurer’s jazz orchestra: “There are times when I’ll call George and say, ‘I’m free; let’s see if we can get some gigs.’ ”
During a recent phone conversation, Michels said she was looking forward to acting for medical students the following day. She is told to present certain symptoms to the students, who then have to diagnose the malady.
“My schedule is dotted with a lot of little one-off things,” she said.
You have to believe in the work
Stauffer was teaching at Henry High School through an Illusion Theater program. As he discussed “Dane Stauffer Incorporated” over lunch, he talked not only of putting food on his table but of a belief in what he is doing.
“It’s a combination of motives,” he said. “It’s financial but also us using our craft to teach team-building, confidence. Improvisation is a powerful tool to give them access to creativity and self-expression.”
In his class, a couple of students were gung-ho for creating a commedia scenario, while others clearly couldn’t shake their shyness. Stauffer used his skills as a performer to loosen them up, praising good work and making a fool of himself to help the shy kids realize it’s liberating to shed your inhibitions. He watched a rehearsal and gave notes on projecting the voice, speaking with confidence, exaggerating emotions.
The bell rang and Stauffer packed up his improv kit for more work the following day in Blue Earth, Minn.
“Your skills can fetch more money when they are put into the service of someone else’s vision,” he said of the school work.
Indeed, with teaching programs, commercial endeavors and well-established institutions such as the Playwrights’ Center and the Guthrie Theater’s education program — which has provided offstage work for actor Akyea — Minnesota artists have an extraordinary infrastructure to help them become entrepreneurs.
“I don’t want to live in an ivory tower,” Akyea said. “I want to be a member of my community in how I am participating in my career.”
Graydon Royce is a longtime Twin Cities arts writer.