Chameleon artists making ends meet

Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. ” — Confucius

Nice sentiment but what Confucius didn’t mention is the financial reality of allowing your passions to dictate your career. And that’s why you’ll see the guy who blew you away with his performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III one day replacing your toilet the next. Or that singer who fronts a rock band? Well you might catch a glimpse of her preparing a delicious frittata at your local vegetarian diner.


“The struggle I’ve always found is needing more time and more money. So work more you’ve got less time but you’ve got more money. Work less you don’t have any money but you’ve got all the time to work on everything.”

— Miesha Louie of Miesha & the Spanks musician and prep cook

“When people leave school there’s this real lull with people so busy paying loans getting other jobs to pay down the loans they’ll take a long time before they get back into the studio. A lot of times when people graduate it’s the last time they’re in the studio.”

— Matthew Mark Bourree artist

“I don’t know if there’s bitterness to have to work other jobs. It is what it is. It’s just what you have to do.”

— Tammy Roberts actor and publicist

“It is a challenge to pursue other work. You are constantly attempting to juggle your schedule and keep it flexible for when your agent calls. Any and all of my part-time employers know I will screw them over for an acting gig at a moment’s notice. It makes it hard for them to want you back when you need them again.”

— Chantal Perron actor and stone mason apprentice

“This landscaping job is a little bit of normalcy before my world goes kind of crazy. I’m trying to enjoy it — the calm before the storm (before going on a North American tour next season with Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date ).”

— Julie Orton actor and landscaper

That is the reality for many Calgary artists regardless if their passion takes them onstage behind an easel or rocking a guitar.

Calgary actor Trevor Leigh received training at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse a popular acting school associated with the legendary actor Sanford Meisner known for his development of method acting. Leigh has performed on several major stages in Calgary and beyond as well as in numerous film and television gigs. This year he received a Betty nomination for his portrayal of the wicked hunchback in Richard III .

Despite his extensive experience and training Leigh has “a lot of things going on” to keep him financially stable. Not only does he rent out a couple of properties for extra income he rents himself out as a good ol’-fashioned handyman willing and able to do everything from plumbing and bathroom renovations to caulking windows and fence construction.

While laying tile is a far cry from acting Leigh surprisingly appreciates the vastly different natures of his day jobs and night work.

“I like doing theatre. It’s make-believe” Leigh says. “Handyman stuff is not make-believe. It’s about as opposite as you can get and it makes for a nice balance.”

Leigh’s not the only actor who believes that doing something other than acting to supplement one’s income can be beneficial.

Actress Julie Orton who won a 2010 Betty Award for her role in Shakespeare’s Dog with Alberta Theatre Projects spends her summers working for a landscaping company.

“Being outside exercises a completely different part of my brain” she says.

A part-time actor who owns and works at her landscaping company Orton says her business has become an “unofficial haven for unemployed actors during the summer months.”

Orton’s situation reflects the seasonal nature of an actor’s work in Calgary. Typically the theatre season runs from September to May or sometimes early June. As stage regular Christian Goutsis points out Calgary doesn’t have an active summer stock scene so there’s very little — if any — theatre work for actors (and designers stage managers and directors) from June to August. And the local film and television industry isn’t exactly booming.

Orton says she might consider travelling out of Calgary in the future to find summer theatre work as does her colleague Jamie Konchak.

Konchak is currently in Nova Scotia for an adaptation of Beowulf though in the past she’s worked at a lot of coffee shops was a nanny and even travelled the local festival circuit as a stilt-walker.

It’s not only actors who have to supplement their artistic careers with other kinds of work. The same holds true for many Calgary musicians.

“I think in order to be a full-time musician” says Calgary singer-songwriter Tim Buckley “you (removed extra space at the beginning of the quotation) have to really go for it and be on the road all the time and make your costs minimal. That can be pretty hard on a lot of other parts of life that are important to most people.”

Buckley balances his performance gigs with a job at Hull Child and Family Services where he provides troubled youth with counselling and mentorship.

“It can be very rewarding” Buckley says of his job.

He usually works about a dozen shifts a month along with two or three gigs to pay the bills.

This summer however his monthly shifts have dropped to just a couple because of the litany of festivals he is performing at.

“Summertime generally tends to be busier because it’s easier to tour and it’s festival season” he explains adding that this is in stark contrast of the situation for stage actors.

Miesha Louie of the garage-rock-influenced Miesha & The Spanks says like Buckley her three-day-a-week side-job as a prep cook for The Coup restaurant fluctuates according to her band schedule.

“It’s the best job I’ve found for being flexible and making enough money to support what I’m doing” she says adding she also finds cooking a “creative outlet.”

Louie tours with her band about three times a year usually travelling across Canada to perform on the East Coast. In the past she has tried to cover the majority of the band’s expenses while on tour — with she emphasizes help from parental loans — (spacing) as the money they pick up from gigs on the road isn’t enough to cover everything.

“If we take in $200 it goes right into the gas tank” Louie says.

Even though touring is a drain on the pocketbook it’s an important investment in terms of exposure Louie adds.

So it’s a good thing that Miesha & The Spanks won local radio station X92.9’s Xposure contest recently which has tremendously helped the band financially — $25000 to be exact.

“It’s this huge chunk of cash which means that my money at my day job is now my money not my band’s money which is really exciting” Louie says.

Despite the extra money Louie isn’t sure when she will be in a position to quit the cooking scene to pursue music full time.

Marisa Bruch the manager for Calgary band The Nix Dicksons thinks she has found a solution. Currently attending Vancouver’s Capilano College in an arts and entertainment management program Bruch says Calgary musicians have to move from the city if they want to support themselves solely through music.

“If you want to become something as a band you can’t stay in Calgary for more than two years” she says adding that the local music scene is “too comfortable.”

“As someone starting out in the music industry Calgary is awesome” Bruch explains. “Everybody is so supportive. It’s like a big family. You can have a second job and it’s great. You can expect 100 people at a show. It’s going to be fun whenever you play. But then you don’t want to step outside of the box.”

She says taking a more practical job in the arts industry as a band manager is the perfect gig for her one that should allow her to fulfill her passion for music and it also pays the bills.

Like local musicians most visual artists in Calgary also have to work regular jobs to make ends meet. Animator and illustrator Kiarra Albina for example says she’s had a “mile-long list of jobs” including teaching arts administration bookkeeping and working at cafés and vintage clothing stores. Currently she works full-time job at Community Natural Foods to keep her art practice going.

Fellow artist Matthew Mark Bourree has taken a slightly different approach to financially supplement his painting sculpture and installation projects.

“I decided when I left ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design) that art was going to be my life” he says. “I wasn’t interested in taking a regular nine-to-five job ever again.”

His last “regular” job was cutting grass for the school board while he was a student.

“I put 100-per-cent effort into my own practice as well as finding creative ways to subsidize those efforts.”

Those “creative ways” include making fine art furniture with fellow ACAD graduate Jeremy Pavka under the label MMJT.

Bourree also runs the Haight Gallery a small grassroots space where he helps broker deals for new aspiring artists.

Despite having what some might consider fractured lives while pursuing a (generally) non-lucrative artistic career many artists don’t seem to mind.

“I’m glad the chips have fallen the way they have” says Bouree “I do know how fortunate I am and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”