worker artist

No one in the Berlin underground calls themselves part of the free scene, but don’t take it from me. Despite having 16 solid years performing and over 1500 live show appearances, I seem to still have so much to learn except how to put on my face in 3 minutes flat.

As far as I know, you might call yourself a freelance performance artist, but “Free Scene” is a word made up by people who circulate within or around the theater to speak of people who aren’t members of ensemble but still work from theater to theater. Or people that used to work in the ensemble and have now left. I never knew the word free scene until two years ago when I first really got to know people in the theater, who worked in an ensemble, and I make this known for you to understand that I have been living and working in Berlin since 2004 as a freelancer.

Incidentally I would like to say that the ancient and aristocratic “myth of the artist as unique” is built into the system of migration, and privileges people like myself who can be convincing enough of the importance of their work as an artist to be granted a freelance visa in order to dance or make music or sing. Built in because it is one of the few jobs you can claim on the grounds that as “uniquely you” only you are able to do this job. Only YOU can be the artist that YOU are.

I also want to say that it’s nearly impossible to migrate without money or a job and when you do so you generally have to bend rules. Everyone I knew had to bend rules. That’s why when people say immigrants are criminals they are right in so far as it’s nearly impossible not to be a criminal and immigrate while poor, and they criminalize the act of immigrating while poor, but I get away from my point.

When I first moved to Germany I had 3000 dollars that I had saved from waitressing, which I figured might last me 6 months if I were really careful, but I had no savings beyond that, so I started looking for a job within days of hitting ground. I got a job as a waitress, which I had been doing for 9 years already and thought I could kind of just transfer. Amazingly, I did so, but lost my job overnight when immigration raided the restaurant I worked at and all the workers who were working without work permits, like myself, where fired.

I then entered a phased where I had no work and I realized that having no work and no right to work just as hard as it is in the United States. What would I do? I started babysitting. I worked as a stripper and topless dancer at a club. I convinced Germany to grant me the right to work by telling them that I was an artist (truthful but bold). Artist is one of the few things a migrant can do without already having a job planned out (perhaps, also, cook, of “your country’s dish”)—because a migrant artist is the only person who can be the best them—the unique job of ARTIST. what I didn’t know is that I had to specifically state that I was a dancer because I had gotten accepted as a go-go dancer at a few clubs as freelance, though you can’t report that you’ve already worked—you have to claim the possibility of working.

So the Ausländerbehörde accepted me that I was a “DANCER” and they put on my passport “A DANCER” as my occupation. What I didn’t know is that this would lock me into work as “A DANCER” for the next ten years. What this effectively meant is that every time I did a job that was not a “DANCER”, I was breaking the law and every invoice I wrote that was not for dancing but said “for dancing” was technically breaking the law. But how someone would survive only dancing—since as we know dancing only happens on Thursday Friday and Saturday nights—and maybe on a Wednesday. Oh okay and at most you might get paid 80 euros one night and that’s if you are working at one of the busier clubs like Tresor or Kit-Kat, but I haven’t seen them hire dancers at those clubs in years. Lets say you are actually working all three of those nights, on all four weekends of the month, which, face it, of course you never are because there are other dancers—well then maybe you could live on that in Berlin if you didn’t need to save money. But you don’t. You never do, you never earn more than about 150 a week.

Since 2004 I have been earning between 6000 and 12000 per year and living on it and yes, there is a huge difference between 6000 and 12,000. I know the difference between the underground and the theater world because when I first experienced the theater world it was through working as a performance artist for someone else’s project. What I noticed was clean mirrors, clean and large backstages, sometimes with my very own mirror. Set soundcheck times. Great equipment. Asking questions about lighting. Air conditioning. When I first preformed in a theater in my own right, as one of just four performers in a theater piece, the production manager offered me a yoga mat. I was stunned. Outside of the theater, I did makeup in bathrooms where clients would walk through while I was doing makeup and my makeup would fall in the sink and then they’d ask me to move quickly out of there. I did soundchecks while the audience was coming in because no one got set up before that. I got my costume on in kitchens when kitchen staff were moving through, rightfully angry that I was occupying their space. I stretched outside the venue on random pieces of asphalt, no yoga mat. I got paid—and I still get paid—per show—consistently–somewhere between 0 to 350. the most I have ever been paid, theater or outside of theater, is 400. Period. This is to say, when I started sending letters to theaters asking them to put on my show—I was interested in their facilities.

I was also interested in what I thought they would offer but actually learned they couldn’t. I thought they could offer long sound checks and technical setup times. They can’t always. I thought they would offer bigger fees. I was surprised in my first theater show to earn 100 for rehearsals and 250 for the shows. But I was grateful—250 was nothing to scoff at and being paid at all for rehearsals felt like a dream come true.

I thought naively that the way you put something in a theater is develop an idea and then write to the theater. No one had told me that you have to apply for money and get a “Spielstättenbestätigung,” a word I only learned four years ago. I didn’t know any of that because I didn’t go to art school and I never thought about performing in a theater and simply, I wasn’t orientated that way, I was too busy surviving as A DANCER, which I was doing decently at, having picked up all sorts of dancing and performing jobs. I learned about the Spielstättenbestätigung when I first applied correctly for funding in 2018 or 2019 with a small group of friends who were determined to learn the right way. I’m grateful to them.

Up until then my experience with theater were unanswered emails, once I got up the nerve to ask and had a small project that was interested in even doing the applying. I had sent great ideas to a few wonderful curators I’d happened to meet, likely casually in a bar, rather than through professional avenues. My few opportunities to get into theater were through other people’s projects, projects that I helped to form, that I was an instrumental part of, but was not my project, not my authorship. I don’t know why, in retrospect, that I never once asked—and they never told me—the process of how they had gotten into the theater in the first place.

What did I want from the theater? Well, not it’s audiences—despite knowing how to shut up and listen, I think I’d trade a few drunken hecklers for stone cold academics. But I get off topic. In Tbilisi, I once performed in the city’s few gay bars – a bar that was attacked looted and robbed the very next night—a bar that stood as a threat to the “tradition” of that city. At that bar, on the night of the show, I had sat outside talking to a young transwoman from Azerbaijan, who told me that she had gotten political asylum in Georgia and that although she often feared violence on the streets of Tbilisi, it was nothing next to the terror she would face in her hometown in Azerbaijan. The show that night was electric—people wanted us to be there and people danced with us. They made noise with us. They sweated with us, they were swept up in the energy with us. We created something together because our work was not being consumed, it was being inhaled and exhaled together, circulated. Out of us, into them, out of them, into us.

This is what working in the underground means to me. Creating work that is needed, that is urgent, that is desired, and that inspires passion and movement, regardless of what is being earned and what the budget for the production is. A night when people say, I needed you now. I needed them.

When I have performed this same show in a theater I have directors tell me ahead of time – I doubt anyone will be brave enough to work with you, to stand up, to make contact with you. The theater seems to already doubt their own audiences. When I have performed this same show in a theater, I already have to fight to get to seats—first let me point out SEATS. Why all seated? Why all polite and reserved? And second may I point out the long barrier that is between the stage and the seats. Sometimes, at arts festivals they even go so far as to place a physical barrier—astounding as it is meant to protect ME.

It is rare that I have been to a theater production in which I thought. They needed me. And I needed them. I do remember that it happened once or twice, early in my life, when I first saw a woman doing a one woman show. And I thought. This is a thing! There is a woman speaking on a stage her very own text, singing her very own song, representing her very own body. THIS IS POSSIBLE. And I was so frightened of this possibility that I knew somewhere in my soul that I needed to do that someday. Yet I had absolutely no sense of the trajectory of that and knew equally that it was a very selfish and egocentric idea to desire such a thing at all, so I instantly cut it out of my mind.

But I get off track.

I want to say in short that it’s not the audiences that I need from the theater. Yes I know the theater needs the audiences to pay the tickets, although not even and not always do they. They are subsidized somehow but don’t ask me how it all happens, I’m American so any idea of “subsidy” is astounding. I don’t want the theater for the particular type of people that go to theater. Because let me define this if it weren’t already clear—the only kind of theater I have ever been to is the type where someone says—here is a free ticket come to my show. Because although theater may only be 15 euros a show, or maybe 20—one has to understand that living on 10,000 a year does not leave any room for theater, nor yoga classes, nor expensive coffees, nor drinks, nor drugs, nor taxi cab fares. The idea that it does is ridiculous and yet somehow it still doesn’t seem to land for people when they think about what is affordable. When you earn the wages as low as you do in the underground nothing but FREE is affordable.

What I need from the theater is the resources. It’s not the wages, this is better but not great, considering that if you are freelance and can’t have guaranteed income you might get a few shows in a month maybe and get paid for them maybe. I got paid as a sound designer maybe 1500 euros for an entire show in which I was at rehearsals nearly two full months.

What I need is dramaturgical assistance, I need space to rehearse. I need the professionalism of someone caring about my show enough to desire that I show up and show my work and someone else who wants to watch it. I need someone to help me schedule my time and pay for me to rehearse so that I can schedule rehearsal time instead of trying to figure out more and more small side hustles and other performance jobs that I can do to make it happen.

I need research time to be paid, I need thinking time to be paid to conceive of ideas. And meanwhile I watch theaters and ensembles churning out show at such a rate that I have to go – and WHY? Why this amount of human labour expended on this show, so quickly, under so much pressure, and with so many other shows simultaneously? Why such big beautiful ideas being so quickly rehearsed, the script being written with the performer, subtly extracted from the performer bodies to save time and money? And why? Why so much content?

And funding bodies—what is the attraction of “the new idea” never begun before, as though a better show is one in which no one ever spent two minutes conceiving of it before the funding arrives in her bank account. Its like the myth of the virgin. But let me tell you a good piece of art is thought about and conceived of and mulled over for 10, 20 years. Is this just another branch of the cult of youth? Why are funding bodies giving money away and then suddenly asking that the piece be done within 1 moth?

I was recently asked to produce a new work—an entirely new audio work and an entirely new visual work—with my performance partner—within the period of 30 days. I was offered by a prestigious funding body 1000 euros total, 500 for each of us. If we paid ourselves a living wage, conceivably 25 euros an hour at this moment in Berlin, that would imply 40 hours of work. That would be one week of working a descent work week, just 8 hours a day. I never work just 8 hours a day. Moreover, in Covid Time with a child, my child is only in school 2 hours a day. But we wont speak of how families dealt with that without the option of childcare.

I dealt with that. How can I be asked to produce good quality work of music composition—from absolute beginning to absolute end—in 40 hours? And more importantly, WHY? Why is quickly put together content somehow an asset? I could do in Instagram stories, but then why not let them just do it? In addition I am asked to create social media “assets” which are small trailers of the work and other various formats and sizes and media outputs so that they can promote it—and oh, can I also do the same? Extra hours outside the 40 hours that no one talks about but is assumed can just be slid in.

How many hours did I actually work on this project? Let me tell you, not 40 hours, and we didn’t start from scratch. We used the skeleton of a track we had begun composing, had already spent weeks working on. The field recordings and video footage which were used to make the composition and film work—this took many many years of traveling to gather—all of which were self funded research trips, since every single time I had ever applied to a funding body in the past I was turned down for our research – every single time! After these years of preparatory work we finally received this fee of 500 euros each for five years collective work. And yet—I am grateful. So grateful, and all up, so lucky compared to so many other working artists.

What do I need? I need a living wage. I need less work, and better paid work. I need everyone to work less so that everyone has more time. This is not just about me and what I need, this is about the whole system so that the people I work with are not burnt out. We know what we mean. We need not one caste of people who are steadily employed by overworked and burnt out and another who are hustling their asses off, also underpaid, and no time to make really excellent work. We need fuller audiences full of passion and full of desire and need to see theater. Who received free—not cheap tickets—and bring a wide variety of ideas and perspectives as viewers, we need venues that will be attractive and accessible to them. We need fluidity between night club and theater, we need a reallocation of resources. We need the empty rooms of theaters that are locked up at night to be spaces for community rehearsal, if they aren’t being used already, please, let them be used. We need a flow of information from the underground to the theater about how to work with small budgets and with less resources and meetings in parks with tap water in old bottles, not air conditioned event rooms with personal plastic bottles.

As I write all this I find myself thinking, if you’ve been living on more than 17,500 for your adult life you can’t possibly know what I’m talking about. You might think that I’m exaggerating, or that I’m meanwhile taking public funds; as a freelancer and as a migrant I don’t have access to those things nor could I have even asked the German government for help. I don’t have a free public transportation pass or reduced price tickets because I’m just a freelancer with a very low income. But this doesn’t even matter—I am not even in a position to complain, even in this precarity, there is always someone else in much more precarity. The difference between the 99% and the 50% and the 20%–in Germany—is huge. And yet when I bring up topics around money, I still hear or, at least I think I hear, the faint cry of, oh she is all about the money. This is her ax to grind. But then when I hear that a starting salary in almost any field is at least €20,000 a year I really have to wonder if it is I who is crazy. Or am I just a very bad artist—or both?

How can I not be all about the money when i have to look in my account to see if there is twenty there in order to even afford the taxi to even be paid back by the theater and why I am I so often finding myself explaining this idea to someone who has little to no experience of this kind of precarity?

I know—it’s my fault. It’s my choices. I could have chosen differently and I did choose this. I consented, somehow, to this. Work is so interrelated to what I love. I always wanted it that way, I did not want it separate. Work was and is an ethical means to Leidenschaft (passion). Ethical, I say, because they are so many ethical and extractive ways to simply follow one’s passion or hedonistic desires with no thought to how it impacts others. Earn enough—by any means—and pay for anything you want—by any means, without any repercussions. I didn’t want that.

In a manner of speaking, I will not refuse myself a tattoo to work this job—that said, I’ve never afforded a tattoo. Let me say it better like this: I will not remain closeted in order to work this job. Any job that requires me to remain closeted as a prostitute, as a queer, I will not take it. This has also dictated my work and this must be essentially understood about me. Work was and is a means to travel, to be in the world, not as a tourist, but as a worker. Work was a means to be an artist, not an Artist with an arts degree but a creative person moved by passion, urgency, politics, the need to create work with others.

What do I want? I want somehow, simply to continue.