Surviving and thriving as a freelancer

24 March 2016

by Alice Saville

What's your plan after graduating? University careers officers, parents and friends might all be doing their best to persuade you that if you don't have a solid gold graduate job offer then you'll end up hawking dented tins of catfood from a tartan wheelie shopper within a decade. You don't need to listen to them. 

Some of the most exciting, fulfilling, world-changing jobs out there don't have a solid career path: you've got to feel them out, make connections, have ideas and develop your talents without the benefit of a full time salary and regular performance reviews. But if your career plan is anything like mine was – i.e., trying to get really good at something creative until eventually someone somewhere pays you for it – then you're probably all too aware that you'll need a steadier source of income. Tuesday's discussion explored, among other things, the weird and wonderful array of jobs that theatre professionals take on to stay afloat.

Director Tinuke Craig was particularly full of ideas. She explained that “you need to find a golden money job” – something flexible, and not so soul-destroying that you lose all will to be creative. For her, the answer has been “looking after the babies of the very wealthy” – and she finds two year olds optimal, as they sleep for three nice long productive hours in the middle of the day. But she reeled off a long list of other options, including proofreading, busking, tutoring and bar work.

Other good ones to look at are copywriting, building websites, working as a receptionist (you might be able to write at quiet times) and box office or ushering work in theatres (you'll get to watch the shows for free, although the charm may wear off after the 40th time). Modupe Salu, who's performing I Can't Breathe at the festival, is a recent graduate who balances her work in theatre with a part-time retail job: “If I get into a full-time job I feel like I'll get lost.” She stressed that having a good attitude and building a relationship with your boss is vital for those times when you have to say “Um, I have to go and be in a show for three weeks.”

If you're going to build a so-called "portfolio career" – essentially, a mix of freelance and part-time work – you'll also need to be mega-organised (keep your receipts, and be careful with your tax returns) and pretty driven, too. Sarah Nicholson from Orange Tree Theatre joked that if she was freelance, “I'd be bleaching teaspoons, dusting the skirting boards, anything but working.” Anyone who's had an essay squatting over their weekend like a large malevolent toad (to steal a bit of a Larkin poem) knows how easy it is to find ridiculous ways to avoid work. Setting goals, working with other people, and making a nice, organised workspace are all ways to embrace the toad. And using every fibre of your being to enjoy the fact you're not trapped in an M&S suit in a concrete office block helps too.

But what we didn't cover, quite, was the thump it can be to your self-respect to be back doing minimum wage jobs after three-plus years of expensive uni education. Modupe Salu advised us to “find people that love to create, and join forces – when you've got all these amazing creative people using Twitter there's no excuse not to just get in touch”. Chris Thorpe also hinted at the answer when he encouraged us all to “advocate for the value of what we do”. Own what you're doing, and explain why you're doing it. Or failing that, just cultivate a stare so hard it would put Paddington to shame.