Artists’ Issues #1: Survival Jobs


Paula Rhodes smallEvery one of us dreamers unlucky enough to not be born into very wealthy families, or unwilling to be sugar babies, have at some point come face to face with the need to find a job that can cover our bills as we pursue our creative careers.

Often this need is accompanied by overwhelming panic as the normal expenses are inflated by our requisite classes, promotional materials, equipment and such, and the possibility of finding a side job where we can earn enough to cover it all, yet remain super flexible to accommodate for our artistic endeavors, seems impossible.

Inevitably this awakens in many of us what I’ve affectionately dubbed “The Hunger,” where we begin considering signing up for our friends’ pyramid scheme (“Seriously this juice cleared up my skin, made me drop 5 lbs and now has checks pouring into my mailbox!”), scouring craiglist for any remote possibility (causing inner dialog like “$100/hr? How bad can being a foot fetish model really be, maybe I could… NO!”), and doing complex math equations to see if we could get by on 3 hours of sleep a night if we just sleep all of Sundays. For most artists, this is not a one-time trip to Stressville, but a cyclical event that rears it’s head whenever there’s a shift in our expenses, health, family headcount, artistic schedule, or previous employment. Also sometimes just on Thursdays, but maybe that’s just me.

So, in an effort to help some of you who may be approaching a Hunger Cycle, I set out on a quest to see what has worked, and not worked for others. I was especially interested in hearing some of the ridiculous jobs people had fallen into, those that helped their creative career while paying the bills, and those that were fantastic fits for some and could be deemed “Thrival Jobs” – a term I’m stealing from our founder Helenna Santos-Levy.

Thrival Job – The job that helps one “thrive” while being an artist.  In her vlog “Helenna’s Tinseltown Tuesdays,” (Episode 3.2, May 2010) Helenna Santos explains that actors/musicians/writers/artists etc… usually need a “survival” job to bring in money while they are working on their craft, but Helenna finds the world “survive” to be negative. Because her waitressing job is what allows her to keep pursuing acting, she says that it’s the job that helps her “thrive” as an artist. Hence, “thrival” job. –

Although the lists I got back from people ran the gamut from Substitute Teacher to Personal Assistant of an Internationally Renowned Ventriloquist (one of those might be from my res), it seemed to me that there were five categories most fell under. They are as follows:



These are the first types of jobs that many of us creative types gravitate toward, and some of these can be Thrival Jobs. The days are flexible-ish if you have a nice manager and friendly coworkers, the pay can be good, and so you often only need to work a few days a week to get by.

However, the hours can be long and very tiring as you’re on your feet. You also kinda have to like people. As Cassandra Vincent, an amazing actress friend of mine pointed out as her reason for avoiding this industry, “Not only would people be wearing their food if they were the slightest bit rude, but I didn’t see a way to build on that. Plus as a physical actor who also dances and does mocap, a second job that drained me physically was not a good choice.”

While I second Cassandra’s statement for myself nowadays, I did have a stint in NYC where I fell into the perfect Thrival Service Job for me at the time. It was waiting tables in a tiny upscale hotel bar (see the above pic as proof of my blonde days). The hours weren’t crazy, the team was supportive and flexible, I got great hourly wages plus benefits, holiday bonuses, and pretty great tips.

How do you know if the culture of a place is one that would work for you? Ask their current employees, bonus points if one of them is a friend of yours as this will always help in getting your foot in the door. Don’t know anyone? Patronize the joint and observe. How happy are the workers? How stringent are the standards they’re held to? What are the hours? How expensive is it? What is the clientele like? You’ll know if you’d be a good fit.

So, if you’re looking for lots of cash in as few nights as possible and you don’t mind late hours – hit the clubs – keep your ears open for new ones about to open as they’ll have Open Call days (irony is clubs will claim to not want actors working there, yet they hold auditions to find their new hires). If super late nights aren’t for you, inquire at boutique hotel bars.

But restaurant/catering service jobs aren’t the only options in this category of course. Others include: 

*Personal Trainer, Yoga or other Fitness Instructor, Swim Instructor, etc…

*Substitute Teacher 

*Children’s Birthday Performer (should like kids and probably not have a mustache)

*Census Worker, Exit Poll Worker (seasonal but can be nice little income boosts)

*Pet Sitter/Walker 

*Tutor (Via “schools”or freelance – but be smart and safe when going to homes, perhaps opting for libraries unless you know the family well.)

*Petition Pusher (Got only humorous and negative accounts involving long hours on your feet, dehumanizing in public, one case of kidnapping, and high turn over, BUT if you need something pronto, these jobs are usually hiring)

*Construction  (If you’re handy and physically able to do the work, this can pay well and I’ve had two friends who reported finding flexible bosses who would let them leave for auditions and pitch meetings. One friend even worked it into a gig on a home makeover reality show as first a laborer then a host. Special skills FTW! Early mornings are standard.)

*Personal Assistant (Found online via UTA jobs list, craigslist, or referral, the quality of these jobs will be based entirely on whom you’re assisting, so  interview them as they’re interviewing you. Hours may be flexible but random and duties can run quite a spectrum – make sure to have them  spelled out ahead of time so you are both on the same page expectation-wise.)

*Valet (One fun story came in from a friend who did this at a major film studio, and rather than be the guy who ran to get the car/tips, he opted to be the  one who stood and talked to the person waiting for their car. This resulted in him befriending many an exec and producer who later began to cast  him in things. Good driving is usually required.)

*Nanny/Babysitter (A favorite of mine, I have been sitting for the same few families for years now and consider them all friends. I take the nights I’m available when offered, and as I sit for people in my industry I’ve been lucky enough to have them help me in the acting realm. My hubby also started doing this on my recommendation, finding his family on and picking up the same little guy from school for 5 years now  when he’s not filming – many families want a male influence, gents! If you’re open about being an artist from the get go, parents are usually pretty  understanding, as long as you are if they happen to run late or need a last min date night covered. The age of the kiddos, temperament of the parents, and your kid-wrangling skills will determine if you can, say, bring the little one along to a same day audition in a pinch or if they’ll play quietly while you write a killer script, but mostly you can hash out the best schedule for all involved and naps/bedtime allow for some catch up.)



There are actually a lot of artistic types in LA who work a standard 9-to-5 office job that still allows them to pursue their true passion to various degrees. Admittedly I have little personal experience here beyond a brief stint temping around NYC years ago, so I picked the brains of some who do.

Most impressive to me, for those who have the energy needed to juggle a full time “joby job” while pursuing their dream full time (think 80 plus hours a week between the two), is that they usually have benefits and more stability than most of us, and often nicer houses/apartments/cars. They also tended to, as a group, be more generally at peace with the possibility that their dream may never pay all of their bills, and are often chasing art for their soul or making their own projects happen rather than just craving stardom. “Normal” family lives involving stable relationships, kids, pets, etc … were common with this group too.

I spoke to actors, artists and writers who worked for non-profits, law schools, film studios, major toy brands, ad agencies, PR firms, and other industry related organizations.  One of my favorite success stories here was from the super charismatic Ben Lamb who is the Senior Content Manager at the GRAMMYs. He had experience in development from working at Universal when he was “blessed to be in the right place at the right time.” He actually got a “Desk” job through a temp agency answering phones just as the GRAMMYs were getting into digital media, and was able to parlay his experience into getting him promoted to content production, which is much more in line with what he loves. “It allows me to be a part of amazing content highlighting artists who have devoted their lives to the craft of creating music, ” said Lamb. To see what’s kept him busy as the storyteller he came out here to be, check out:

Another fun report came back from the talented actress Shannon Nelson who also happens to be Vice President of Talent & HR for an Entertainment Advertising Agency, a job that accommodates her true passion. She even gets vacation time so she can take off for a crazy audition week or shoot. “I started on this survival job path on a fluke.  My first temp job was replacing the receptionist for 1/2 day at an entertainment PR agency.  At lunch when I was supposed to be done, their head of HR asked if I knew Excel to help him on a project.  I said “sure” even though I had no idea (actor training always present).  I figured it out and he kept asking me to come back and help him.  I found that the HR work was interesting to me,” said Nelson. She went on to advise those taking this path to, “Plan on taking a month or so to prove your worth at the new job before you start asking for a bunch of time off or long audition lunches.  Flaky actors get that moniker too easily.  If you take just a little time to show how dependable you are, that will go a very long way.”

This category requires some digging, but with luck and research you can find a place that will fit you, perhaps even bleeding into what you truly love to do. Some that were reported back to me beyond the Temp Agency loophole included:

*Telemarketer (True, probably isn’t the most rewarding job, but they claim to be flexible.)

*Receptionist (Most offices, be they animation studios, dentists offices, 3D camera rental houses, or ad agencies have them, and many a front desk is manned by an attractive personable artist. You have to give good phone, be able to juggle standard office needs, and usually can’t leave the station unmanned, but if your coworkers and boss are stellar, you could find a situation where you could run to an audition or at least make some good  contacts with those that come through the door.)

*Day Trader (The lovely Tara Platt played for a while in this arena years ago before Voiceover/ Acting/Producing commandeered her days, and though she started off manning the front desk was soon taught and recruited to trade.)


Although it could be argued that this category is a subset of “Desk,” as it requires specific skills, doesn’t necessarily require one to be in an office, and I received so many responses that fell under it specifically, I let it stand alone. With a crown. On a pedestal.

Seriously, we should all find a way to learn these skills as they make you invaluable and able to work anywhere AND can help you in your creative pursuits as you can become a one-person studio.

To find out more of how these jobs fit an artist’s lifestyle, I spoke to one of my favorite Creator/Actor/Writer/Directors, David Nett who also happens to hold a Director of User Experience title. He let me know that he had spent a long time working at jobs that were less warm to his leaving for auditions or filming, but enjoys the freedom now as he’s proven he’s invaluable to his company. “Software jobs tend to be project based. If you’re good at managing your time and can show that auditioning won’t delay or damage your project, I’ve found them to be highly tolerant of occasional absences. Communication is key, as is making yourself indispensable when you’re in the office.”

Not great at writing code yet wondering what other jobs might be available in this vein? How about:

*Editor (Cathy Baron mastered these skills, and although she’s a working actor now – check  her out on Justified! – she supported herself editing reels, videos, commercials, and such previously. You make your own schedule as long as you hit deadlines. Bonus – think of the money you’ll save not having to pay someone to edit your web series or reels!)

*Web Designer (ditto)

*Game Tester (One working actor who responded used to work the night shift testing video games. Sound like your dream situation? It did put a damper on his social life and sleep schedule, and the games aren’t finished – you’re helping find problems with them, but if you’d be playing games most nights anyway, it might be up your alley. To find similar employment, submit letters/res to gaming companies.)



Have a specific valuable skill set and tired of having a boss? Good at time management and okay waging a battle on two fronts –  hustling to build both your creative career and thrival job? Perhaps entrepreneurship is for you!

One friend who had been a series regular on a popular soap opera began making jewelry on the side. She found it so fulfilling she now focuses on jewelry full time and has moved away from acting. But as any business owner can tell you, it’s not easy, it’s not part time, and California isn’t the most small-business friendly state tax-wise You’re looking at a $800 minimum state franchise bill a few months after you start your LLC even if you make $0. However, it can be darn rewarding once you find your legs.

Among the small business owners I heard from there were:

*Wedding Flower Arrangers

*Social Media Gurus/Consultants

*Event Planners

*Vintage Clothing Store Owner (Check out Hot Mess Vintage – super cute store! Plus they rent out the store and patio for events. My 5’2″ & Under Club enjoyed a fun size-specific night there recently.)

*Hot Sauce Maker

*Coin Dealer/Appraiser (My hubby Charlie Bodin managed to turn his hobby and nerdy coin knowledge into a profitable side business – perhaps as his way to get me to stop teasing him. It worked. Contact him to find out what your  grandma’s coin collection is worth.)




Last, but certainly not least, I heard from a number of creatives that had found thrival jobs in the same industry that their dream jobs were in. Genius!

This category seemed dominated by multi-hyphenates who wanted to cut their teeth in multiple areas and truly understand all aspects of the business they strove to be a part of. Granted, it could be argued that many in the other categories could fit here too.

One such multi-hyphenate, Leah Cevoli shared that her, “Favorite Survival/Thrival Job is definitely in the tradeshow circuit, whether having to memorize a script for a presentation or learn all about a product to work as a product demonstrator.  Working at a tradeshow almost doesn’t feel like work (except the long hours on the feet), and is so closely related to hosting and performing, that I get a a lot of joy out of it.”

PaulaPhoto4I too have enjoyed my stints as a demonstrator. I’ve worked for Mattel for years now at their annual Toy Fairs. It’s long hours and you have to be great at memorizing tons of copy – hey, great practice! – and you can’t leave during the gig much like a set, but the pay rivals Union acting rates and you’re surrounded by some great fellow artists. Through the connections I’ve made there, I am now proud to voice Skipper & Stacie for their successful show Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse and another fellow past demonstrator translated his wits and contacts there into getting the rights to create an Uno Game Show. Way to go Tim Sheridan!

Wondering what other industrytastic jobs are out there? How about:

*Tour or Band Manager

*Extra (Long hours and not very gratifying financially/emotionally, but if you’re just starting out it’s a great way to see how a set works. Register with or submit yourself on

*Production (PA/AD/Producer, etc…) (One actress I know parlayed being a reliable PA on a hit show to being the A-list Star’s house sitter so she can now focus just on acting. Most of us try this route to learn how to wear multiple hats so we can create our own productions. I’ve loved Producing! )

*Photographer (Never pay for your own headshots again, make others pay you!)

*Record Label Asst (Stellar way to get your foot in the door of the Music Industry)

*Children’s Theater (A number of reputable theater companies have great children’s shows and any chance you get to perform you’re growing as an  artist, perhaps in front of people who can open that next door for you. Plus, becoming a theater member is a great way to plug yourself into an artistic community when you first move to a new city.)

*Casting/Camera Asst (This was actually a rather common and smart one for actors. If you’ve ever auditioned for a commercial and thought, “The person running camera here looks familiar,” it’s because they’re currently in like 25 commercials. Know how to run a camera and you’re interested?  Drop your info/res off at one of the big casting spaces around town. If they have an opening they’ll call, then you have to be super available or they’ll  never call again.)

*Acting Coach/Teacher (I spent a summer’s worth of weekends teaching acting classes to children at a great acting school for kids. There are the inevitable scummy ones, but there are also hidden gems that can be really fun to be a part of and are staffed by other actors who will help cover for  you should you need it.)

Realize, this list is in no way complete. When Hunger strikes, take a breath, you will find something that works for now while you work toward your goal.

Reading through this novel and discouraged that you don’t have experience in an area you think sounds interesting? Grow that skills list or get your foot in the door by interning or temping and make great connections while doing so.  Be upfront and honest about what it is you really want to do, by putting it out there you may be surprised at what stars align and you’ll only deter opportunities that wouldn’t have fit you well anyway.

I hope this can be of some help to you.

In general I discovered that A) we artists must have amazing diary entries, B) there’s a thrival job out there for everyone and being open about what you need/want is the quickest way to find it, and  C) the best jobs seem to come via a friendly connection, so use that network! Look at that – now I’m part of your network, so bring on the questions and comments.