Life On The Fringes: It's Not Easy Being Scene For NPR's series on how artists earn a living, Neda Ulaby looks at a hardy, scrappy breed of survivors: performers who make a career out of careering across the country from one Fringe festival to another.
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Life On The Fringes: It's Not Easy Being Scene

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Life On The Fringes: It's Not Easy Being Scene

Life On The Fringes: It's Not Easy Being Scene

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If your dream is to make money as an actor, a Fringe festival is probably not the best place to do it. But a lot of actors perform their work at Fringe festivals across the country. In the off-season, some of them make money as baristas or dog walkers.

NPR's Neda Ulaby visited a workshop associated with Washington, D.C.'s Fringe festival. It's intended to help performers leave dog walking behind forever.

NEDA ULABY: What a total mess. A Fringe volunteer named Anu Yadov(ph) has just discovered the workshop's location was listed incorrectly in the program.

Ms. ANU YADOV (Volunteer, Fringe Festival): They gave the wrong title. It says Southwest Library, but we're in Southeast.

ULABY: Then, a librarian told her that no one reserved a room for the workshop.

Unidentified Woman: It wasn't booked at all.

ULABY: So, she grabs some folding chairs and schlepped them out to the lawn. Eventually, about 12 people showed up for the workshop. They sat in a circle next to the air conditioner.

Another volunteer, Sara Giffon(ph), tried to convince everyone to pay the workshop fee.

Ms. SARA GIFFON (Volunteer, Fringe Festival): Could I have $10 from each of you? Because you look like you don't want to give me any money.

ULABY: Not everyone paid, which stiffed the guy leading the workshop called How to Make More Money with Your Art. Slash Coleman's claim to fame is a one-man show he developed a few years ago called "The Neon Man and Me."

Mr. SLASH COLEMAN (Actor): (Singing) Neon man, neon man, I got to catch me some neon as fast as I can. Hello, neon man.

ULABY: "The Neon Man" eventually ran off Broadway, and it was shown on some public television stations. It combines music and monologue to pay tribute to Coleman's best friend, a neon artist who died while hanging an installation.

(Soundbite of show, "The Neon Man and Me")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLEMAN: (Singing) And I miss you, dear friend.

ULABY: These days, Coleman still performs, but he's also written a book that is yet unpublished about how to make a living as an artist.

Mr. COLEMAN: You're like, how do I pack my venue? Can you really find a sugar daddy? Should I quit my day job, all that kind of stuff.

ULABY: Coleman grew up in a family of artists, and he says he watched the mistakes they made. His grandfather, he says, was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, and his father is a sculptor with a prickly artistic temperament.

Mr. COLEMAN: So for him, it's like, I'm not giving a gallery owner 30 percent of my damn money. You know, so, well Dad, what's 30 percent of nothing?

ULABY: Coleman says artists like his dad worry about being sellouts when selling out is not even really an option. He says his workshop can help artists boost their income by as much as 25 percent.

The people here at this one are all part-time artists of various stripes. There's a couple of graphic designers and an actress who refuses to allow her voice to be recorded, another guy who paints pictures of dogs won't pass out his business card to people in the group. Yet another refers to himself in the third person.

Mr. Q. TERAH JACKSON (Artist): Q. Terah Jackson is a theater, film and performing artist, actor-director-producer of self-work.

ULABY: Jackson should boil his presentation down, says Coleman, to what he calls an aural business card, something snappy that will stick in people's heads. As an example, Coleman points to a Fringe sensation a few years back named Charlie Ross.

Mr. CHARLIE ROSS (Singer): (Singing) Star Wars, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: This is a one-man version of the movie "Star Wars."

Mr. COLEMAN: He was the one-man "Star Wars" guy. He wasn't the one-man "Star Wars" guy who also did, like, workshops and did a show about driving his car while he was drunk. One thing, one guy.

ULABY: Coleman says artists often need to scale expectations down from big, grandiose dreams to small, achievable goals, like setting up a Web site in the next three months or making sure 30 people attend an opening rather than hoping for hundreds.

Michael Currier is a young, aspiring artist who says Slash Coleman gave him some new ways to think about art as a viable career.

Mr. MICHAEL CURRIER: He made it seem like a possibility if I actually aim for it, which no one's ever really allowed that for me.

ULABY: These days, Coleman says part of being an artist is thinking of yourself as a healthy, small business. That's key if you ever want anyone else to be invested.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can find all the stories in our How Artists Make Money series at the Arts and Life section of the new

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