Life as a NOT-Starving Artist in San Francisco

by Hannah Gaff

Starving artist (n) - an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork.

There is nothing noble or romantic in sacrificing your well-being to make art. Living life as an artist is already a sacrifice; the creation of art demands nothing less than all of you. But that sacrifice should never be food or shelter or your own physical and emotional well-being. Making art demands a strong body, mind, and spirit – especially the highly physical and emotive work that UpLift makes. So we must take care. Living as starving artists prevents us from being actual artists.

And now is when I admit that I am seriously struggling to find balance in my own life as a theatre-creator and artist in San Francisco. I refuse to starve (so I'm working, working, working) and I refuse to believe that it's impossible to be an artist in SF (so, I'm creating, creating, creating) and all of this leaves me very little time for me. Am I sacrificing myself?

I've been feeling selfish a lot since moving back to San Francisco. Selfish, unreliable, overwhelmed, and as if I've become a person I don't recognize and maybe don't even like. I pride myself on being a reliable, hardworking person. The past few months, though, I've had to cancel on friends, work, and other obligations an embarrassing amount of times.

Sometimes it feels like I'm failing. But other times I’m reminded of just how necessary and vital UpLift’s work is. Just the other night after Juliana and I performed, an audience member came up to me effusive with joy and bubbling over with emotion. Although she had been sitting fairly far from the stage where we performed, she had been transported during our piece, and had shared the stage with us as we moved together. These moments sustain me and remind me of why we are doing this.

After graduating from Dell'Arte with my MFA this past June, I decided to return to San Francisco and only take work that left my schedule flexible. If a job might prevent me from following my artistic path, then I would say “no” to that job and find another way to make ends meet. In the past, I've never not had a full-time, 9-5 job, and I've had to pass on a lot of opportunities because of this. For the past eight years I've worked days and rehearsed evenings and weekends at the expense of my creative energy and personal life. I decided that now was the time I would risk my financial and psychological security and experience what my life as an artist could really be.

But the truth so far is that since I moved to SF committed to maintaining a flexible schedule, I have had very few opportunities (performance gigs, rehearsals, or workshops) that demanded my schedule be flexible. At the same time, my schedule has changed innumerable times as I've tried to rearrange and juggle my multiple jobs so that I am making enough money to survive. Some weeks I've had little to no work and others I've had to back out of work so I wasn't killing myself. It seems like I'm constantly wondering if my boss is upset because I just changed my mind for the third time about wanting more or less shifts, or wondering if my friend is upset because I canceled on her for the third time, or if I be able to make rent this month... 

This life is full of uncertainty and unknowns. For instance, I'm currently waiting to hear back about a festival, a grant, two volunteer gigs in other countries, a residency, a summer-long series of performance gigs, several workshops, and work hours at two of my jobs. Thus far, it seems that my fluid schedule hasn't made it easier to say “yes,” but rather made it more difficult to give a definitive “yes” or “no” to opportunities, because there are so many unknowns. Have I sacrificed my respect for myself or my reputation? Have I become unreliable? How do I know if I’m being smart and objective and making good decisions or if I’m just being a selfish ass?

I'm exhausted and I wonder what I could be doing better. Would my stress be reduced and everything easier if I just got a full time job? At least then I would know that I could make rent. I wouldn't have to go back and forth and be so wishy washy about commitments. I might respect myself more. But, my schedule would be tied up. I wouldn’t have the freedom to say “yes” when that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for UpLift comes along.

Despite all of the struggles (and perhaps, in part, because of them), I am incredibly proud of how much UpLift has accomplished since our retreat in December.

As Alyssa mentioned in her previous blog entry, our major goal for 2016 is developing and investing in a community and home base. With Juliana, Hannah and Nicholette located in San Francisco and Oakland, and Alyssa just north in Humboldt County, the Bay Area is an ideal location and the movement & performance communities here are vibrant and rich.

One way in which we are investing is by developing relationships with other movement-based nonprofits in our community. I'm proud to announce that UpLift is Artist in Residence at the Circus Center SF from January to March, 2016! One of the biggest expenses and most difficult aspects of creating our work is having rehearsal space, so we feel really lucky to be there. In addition to space, we have access to equipment such as spotting lines, mats, and training equipment. We are utilizing the time and resources that our residency at Circus Center affords us to create our three-woman adaptation of "Terra Incognita."

Another means of connecting with this place and our community is simply performing the work. Over the past few weeks we’ve performed at two other local circus and movement centers, Athletic Playground and AcroSports. At times, focusing on these performances has felt like a detour from the creation of our new show, but ultimately the rush to create for these performances and the audience response has already demonstrated how important it is for us to be doing this work here and now in this community.

I choose to believe that it's possible for us to live as not-starving artists in San Francisco. And I choose to believe that it's possible to do so without compromising our well-being and our vision as artists. We can do this. We want to do this. We refuse to give up. Especially today when artists in SF are facing extinction and surviving as an artist in this city is considered impossible. We choose to face the impossible.

Video of our Athletic Playground works-in-progress showing in January, featuring Juliana Frick and Hannah Gaff.