With the rise of Uber, TaskRabbit and other on-demand services, more people are working in the “gig” economy – stringing freelance jobs to make ends meet. There’s a whole category of people who are way ahead of the game. Actors. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, less than a quarter of actors are employed full-time in their profession. Many have learned to make ends meet by taking freelance jobs that fit around audition schedules and shoots.
So freelance work becomes more common, Daniel Rostas asked a number of New York actors how they’ve learned to make ends meet.
(AMBI OF STREET)
ROSTAS 1: I’m at the corner of 105th and Columbus when Rick Busser picks me up.
ROSTAS (IN BUSSER 1): Hey how’s it going? (can’t hear him) Gooood, thanks! Thanks for driving all the way out here.
BUSSER: No problem.
ROSTAS 2: As I settle into the Silver Toyota Camry he drives for Uber, we talk about his real passion.
ROSTAS (IN BUSSER 2): You’re also an actor.
BUSSER: Yeah, you know… I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare recently, some small parts on TV – you know, Blacklist, Person of… couple line parts here and there. And whatever I can get basically.
ROSTAS 3: As we turn onto 96th Street, he tells me as an Uber driver, he’s an independent contractor – he owns his own car, sets his own hours. It’s as steady as he wants it to be. And that’s great in terms of keeping up his acting career.
BUSSER: So if I want to do a play or just to audition or something I don’t have to fret and get my shift covered or argue at a boss or anything like that.
ROSTAS 4: But it wasn’t always that easy – Busser spent years doing everything from riding a bike taxi to working as a doorman.
BUSSER: Which if you’re by yourself, that’s fine – you can live off fumes your entire life if you don’t have to support any people but when I had a son I really wanted to transition out of that and it was a dilemma of I want a more consistent job, and I’m trying to get rich, but I’m trying to at least have a certain amount of money every week that I can plan around.
ROSTAS: So what’s more competitive in New York – being an actor or being an Uber driver?
BUSSER: I think finding a parking space is more competitive than being an actor.
ROSTAS 5: A study by two Harvard professors found that all net job growth in the country since 2005 can be attributed to so-called “alternative work”. Freelancing rather than working as an employee – experts say up to half of all workers could be freelancers by 2020.
Dale Daley is a social worker with the Actors Fund – a national organization that helps actors find employment and housing. He says actors always had to hustle to make it here.
DALEY 1: You know, New York used to be famously a place where you could come and anybody could figure out a way to find a place to live in New York and you could live really cheaply while you pursued your dreams. That’s no longer possible.
ROSTAS 6: He’s heard about actors finding work with Uber, but worries it isn’t a long-term solution.
DALEY 2: The problem with some of those kinds of jobs like Taskrabbit or Uber is – those too can be ebb or flow. So that might continue to keep your income fluctuating.
ROSTAS 7: Jordan Elizabeth Gelber is a TV and film actor – she recently had a small part on House of Cards and a short stint on One Life to Live.
GELBER 1: While I was in school, I decided – if I want to act, I’ll go do it, and I’ll learn something else to help me so when I graduate, I’ll at least have a backup plan that is doing something that will give me the life that I want.
ROSTAS 8: So she started working – with a woman who organizes fashion shows.
GELBER 2: And I worked with her for a year – 6 to 7 days a week, 10 to 15 hour days that I wasn’t doing anything, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t able to audition, I was in a show at the time and she gave me hell for it – and that, after a year of working and training with her i said screw it, i’m not working with her anymore, I could do this on my own.
ROSTAS 9: She started running her own fashion shows and doing freelance graphic design work. Now she teaches a course called “Putting the Actor in Freelance ContrActor”.
Gelber tells her students to gain marketable freelance skills related to their acting gigs. They can support themselves but also stay close to where the art is being made.
GELBER: You want to be in the entertainment industry, and this industry is now hiring people who are actor ands – you cannot just be an actor anymore, you have to have some more substance behind you, so why not work in a field where you’re learning more skills about the industry that you want to be in?
ROSTAS 10: Gelber would approve of how Joseph Boover – a stage actor – supports himself.
ROSTAS 11: I’m buzzed into his apartment – where he lives with four other roommates who are also actors.
He’s done his work for the day so when I get upstairs – he’s playing a video game called League of Legends.
BOOVER 1: My gosh, this is the worst.
ROSTAS 12: He does a variety of work for Mount Sinai Hospital – but he had to audition to get his foot in the door.
BOOVER 2: I pretend to be a sick person so that medical students and doctors can learn what it’s like to be with a sick patient before actually dealing with real sick patients.
ROSTAS 13: His gig is as a Standardized Patient. So he was able to use his acting skills to get more stable work.
It lets him live much more comfortably than when he would work a different job every day. He gets to work with other actors who tip him off about upcoming auditions. And once in awhile, if he can’t get enough shifts, Boover will take his guitar and busk for that final hundred bucks.
BOOVER 3 (WITH MUSIC STARTING UNDER): If you need to make money really quick and you have a skill, sometimes it’s… go be a self starter – see if people will like have some interest in what you’re making.
ROSTAS 14: Which, as freelancing becomes more popular – is something we’re all probably going to have to learn to do over the next few years.
Daniel Rostas, Columbia Radio News