By Idit Knaan
When 37-year-old Raquis Petree walks into the Columbia Heights Education Center on a recent Monday, he is the man of the hour.
Fellow teachers and staff holler “Great job” and offer warm handshakes. Everyone he runs into seem to be in agreement: Friday’s show, the first he produced since starting his job at the Washington, D.C., school in January, was the school’s best show yet.
But when Petree told his mother he wanted to be a performer, she half-jokingly told him that he would be “tap dancing and passing a hat outside of a shelter.” His mother’s concerns were not unfounded.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census shows the performing arts have one of the highest rates of unemployment and one of the lowest median income rates. Making a living in the performing arts has long been considered unstable, and the recession hasn’t made things easier.
For Petree, it was never a conscious career choice. From the moment he stepped into a de facto all-girl dance class in middle school — he was the curtain guy — he knew that he wanted to be on stage.
Listen to Petree describe that moment:
The life of an artist
Petree says he has grown comfortable with the unknowns of where, when and how his next gig will find him. It isn’t about the money, he says, “It’s about experiencing, being experienced and that’s being rich in a different way.”
Since graduating from The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, Petree worked in theater and dance productions, taught and performed on cruise ships.
“It’s the life of an artist,” he says.
“It’s a profession that you should go for if you feel like it’s your passion and you must do it,” says Lorraine Treanor, publisher and editor of D.C. Theatre Scene, a website that covers the performing arts in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York.
Even some of the top actors in town can’t live on performing alone, Treanor says, since most theaters offer low pay and no health benefits.
“Most of the time, the actors you’re going to see can’t afford the meal you just had from the salary they make in performing to you,” she says.
During a slow recovery, creatives get creative
The 2012 National Arts Index, a project of Americans for the Arts, shows that the U.S. arts scene is seeing a slow recovery following the recession. According to the index, 32 percent of the adult population in the U.S. attended a performing arts event in 2010, up from 28 percent in 2009.
While the National Arts Index has data up to 2010 only, Treanor says the upward trend is evident. These days, she says, many shows are sold out, something that rarely happened in recent years.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria Ellington, a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., prepares for showtime at the school’s dressing room. Ellington, a senior at the Washington, D.C., public high school, hopes to earn a double degree in vocal performance and music education and come back to teach at the school. (American Observer/Idit Knaan)
Yet it doesn’t mean there is more work for the artists themselves. Actors often teach, work in the service industry, record audio books and even walk dogs to supplement their income, Treanor says.
“Performers and others in the arts are creative,” she says, “Likewise, they come up with creative solutions.”
For the thrill of being on stage
Anthony Spadafore, a career counselor based in Alexandria, Va., says more often than not artists make a living from a profession related to their talent; like visual artists who work as graphic designers or musicians that teach.
“There’s a romantic notion of what it means to be successful in the arts — that is, attaining that high-end success,” Spadafore says.
But for the artistically gifted, it’s not about the fame or money.
“It’s about expressing their talent,” he says.
Victoria Ellington, 17, a senior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., is working hard to express her gift. She and fellow performing arts students regularly stay as late as 8 and 9 p.m. for music classes and rehearsals, which they take on top of the typical high school curriculum.
It takes dedication, passion and hard work, Ellington says, but it’s all worth it for the “thrill of being on stage and singing your heart out.”
Ellington hopes to earn a double degree in vocal performance and music education. One day, she says, she wants to come back and teach at her alma mater.
Looking for the passion
When Tia Harris, director of artistic affairs at the Duke Ellington school, auditions prospective students, talent is not enough to make the cut.
“Many kids come into audition interviews and say ‘I feel whole when I am dancing,’” she wrote in an email. “That’s the level of passion we look for.”
While parents can be an influential factor, Spadafore says, that sort of early-life passion comes from an innate proclivity. These kids are “wired up differently,” he says of passionate young artists like Ellington and her classmates.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria Ellington and fellow Duke Ellington School of the Arts students rehearse for an upcoming show. Performance arts students at the school regularly stay as late as 8 and 9 p.m. for music classes and rehearsals, which they take on top of the typical high school academic curriculum.(American Observer/Idit Knaan)
Chances are, he says, their talent has shown itself as early as 6 or 7.
For Ellington, it was even earlier. The first song she performed, according to her mother, was Barney’s “I Love You” when she was 3.
Despite the economy and the profession’s unstable reputation, Harris says that the school has seen an increase in applications in recent years.
Part of the reason may be that some parents now opt for Ellington, a public school, as an alternative to pricier private schools. But another reason may be that even in an uncertain economic climate, passion is still a driving force.
Denying a gift
About 70 percent of Spadafore’s clients are creative types who didn’t pursue their talents because they were taught it is too financially risky. They seek his counsel after being trained in accounting, IT and engineering.
Working in the wrong field, they grind their teeth, develop ulcers and go on antidepressants, Spadafore says.
And that’s when they come to see him.
Treanor says that performing arts have never been a lucrative occupation. She’s fine with that.
“You have to think: what if you are gifted and what if you deny your gift?” she says.