We all are familiar with the ‘starving artist’ stereotype. A passionate and talented abstract thinker who charms people with their natural charisma and penchant for soulful thoughts over material wealth. Someone perpetually
destitute, surviving on the generosity of others while living for their art.This stereotype, like most, is a severe exaggeration at best, and a flat out fabrication at worst. In Omaha’s creative class, the latter is more often, the case. While many people may consider the theater arts a hobby more than a tangible career choice, many Omahans and local institutions are proving them wrong. Artists in Omaha are shattering the starving artist trope with
careers in creative fields, education, regional entertainment, non-profits, entrepreneurship and beyond. Performing Arts careers highlight a very different trajectory than those of “traditional” fields, often piecing smallers jobs and gigs together to create a bigger picture that makes up a body of work. Theater careers come in all shapes and sizes. Arts administration usually adheres to the 9-5 work day, while on stage and behind the scenes work generally is arranged around that schedule, allowing for company members to hold traditional jobs on top of their theater work. A recent poll showed that non-union actors can spend upwards of 20 hours a week rehearsing for a play. That’s before a four week run, generally from Thursday thru Sundays. On Average, performing artists in Omaha hold anywhere from 3-5 jobs at a time, in the field. That’s a lot of work for a hobby. I was able to sit down and talk to some of Omaha’s performing arts vets about all of the hats they wear and why they do it and they’re pros and cons on living a creative life in Omaha.
“Something I find super exciting about Omaha is that because the theater/ arts scene is small, it’s easier to meet ‘your people’, and make projects happen! Money isn’t as big of an obstacle the way it is in NYC, and I feel much more of a community vibe here than I ever did in larger cities,” Ashley Laverty has been living in Omaha since 2016, when she moved here for a teaching artist position with the Rose.
Wisconsin transplant Katie Otten, who also works with the Rose, agrees, “Omaha has such great opportunities and it’s a place where you can really get things done.”In fact many artists who live here now have come from
away, finding Omaha a great balance of tangible income, creative license,
and professional development. We have working theater artists residing in Omaha who come from both coasts, everywhere in between and internationally. As much as we have talent coming in, we can’t ignore the loss of significant talent over the past ten years either. Losing stage favorites as far away as London and as nearby as Des Moines, with a large portion of Omaha talent relocating to regional Chicago, where they can easily pursue not only the stage, but television jobs as well.
“I just think that if we leave, then we can’t build Omaha into what it could be,” Otten muses. “If we stay here and work at it, we can make it the best place for artists to make a living.”
“There are a LOT of people and organizations who are advocating for creative people,” Laverty adds. “I just finished Omaha Creative Institute’s 8-week Artist INC program, which intends to empower artists (of all mediums) to merge their business and artist practices, aka to make a living through their art. OCI has a bunch of artist grants and other exciting opportunities, with intentions of making Omaha a place FOR creative people, not just a place WITH creative people.”
Haley Haas, an actress and arts administrator has made Omaha her home since the early 2000’s. A Creighton alum, Haas has worked in multiple roles throughout the years, and building her career both here and regionally, believing that Omaha has the ability to sustain talent and pay livable wages.
“We have a strong enough arts community and wealth in Omaha, that we can ask for it. It’s possible. We need a visionary to say if you can dream it, we can do it. Culture has shifted and artists deserve to be paid for their work.” Paying
artists for work has been a contentious subject as the arts are often underfunded and there is an expectation that artists, will work for passion over pennies.
“Professional actors need to be paid,” Haley iterates. “It is work. At times you’re memorizing multiple roles, juggling multiple schedules, traveling to different sites, balancing books…it’s really about knowing your value and upholding it.” That’s a concept everyone across the board wants the public to understand, theater and creative careers in general aren’t beautiful strolls in the park and roses thrown at your feet. Josh Mullady, a well-respected technical designer, educator and actor explains what a usual week is like, to make his life work.
“There are times where I work everyday for 2- weeks in a row because of managing so many schedules. I may start at 9 am and then two jobs and
then into a rehearsal. It is a totally different lifestyle than a 9-5. Sometimes it’s tough but that’s what I want to do.”
“You have to treat your skillset as a business,” Katie Otten states, having found success as a voiceover talent and book cover model. “I have business cards and rates and I go into it as a small business.”
“I think that when I first started working as an artist, people who weren’t artists did not understand what I was doing. They thought my husband was doing the work and I was sitting at home type-type- typin’ for the fun of it. It wasn’t until about a year in when I started paying some bills and things started to happen that people realized how much work art takes.,” Jen Castello, another multi-disciplinary artist, writer and Omaha native shares her thoughts on outside perceptions of freelance creative. “Art takes a lot of work. It is a HUSTLE. In order to be a working artist, your work ethic has to be as solid as steel, but I feel like some look in on this world and see the opposite. I guess we make it look easy? I mean … it’s fun, so there’s that?”
There are a growing number of theaters and institutions ready and able to pay actors and teaching artists for their time and talent. Omaha Performing Arts has employed artists both in their administrative sector as well as in the field, across public schools and for private events, and are looking to add even more programming to engage artists to stay local. Omaha Creative Institute, recently announced a series of grants offered to artists to use to advance their projects, or at their own discretion. RESPECT is a well known, long-running organization placing actors in schools across the midwest, teaching core values and respect through role play and short-form plays, employing hundreds of local actors over the years. The Rose and Blue Barn theaters have both made commitments to financially compensating their talent as they have become Omaha’s stand out regional theaters. And many smaller venues are fighting to do the same for their talent, even on a smaller scale. A gesture to show that their time and commitment is appreciated. This is a sampling of the opportunities that theater professionals and artists are offered when they choose to stay in Omaha’s thriving creative scene.
“As a writer and a teaching artist, I have way more opportunities in Omaha than I would somewhere else. It’s the reason why we’ve stayed here. There are so many educational programs here for the age bracket I work with, and it also gives me the solitude and peace I need in order to get work done.” Castello says. “The other thing that helps with being a working artist is the ability to create your own opportunities, and finally the low cost of living makes it financially feasible.”
Omaha, can and has established a home for working creatives, it’s next quest will be retaining future artists to help propel it into the ranks of a larger market. Below, a breakdown of what some theater professionals do for work.
- Teaching Artist (Freelance) at: Nebraska Arts Council, The Rose, Omaha
- Community Playhouse, Nebraska Writers Collective, Omaha Performing Arts, Circle Theater
- Full time Teaching Artist, Actor, Playwright, Director at The Rose Theater
- Founding Artistic Director of Kerfuffle, a theatre for the very young company
- Adjudicator for Nebraska High School Musicals
- Occasional babysitter/Lyft driver
- Teaching Artist for the Union for Contemporary Art
- Story Circle Facilitator for Minnesota Humanities Center
- Teaching Artist for OCP
- Recently cast in Various roles at the Rose
- Graduate theatre assistant at UNO (studying acting), helping as Publicity Manager
- Contract teaching artist at The Rose
- Actor for Magical Moments LLC (as various Disney princesses)
- Freelance Voice Actor
- Adjunct professor in stage craft and tech at IWCC
- After school programming with Y Arts working with people with disabilities
- Substitute teacher at the Playhouse
- Rose box office
- Wedding and Karaoke DJ
- Freelance Tech Designer