‘It pays to have an actual job’: Artists share their side hustles

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Photo courtesy of Scott Andrew

Scott Andrew, a multimedia artist and part-time Pitt studio arts instructor, teaches as a means of supporting his art career.

By Charlie Taylor, Culture Editor

Pittsburghers might know actor and playwright Alec Silberblatt from his work with Pittsburgh Public Theater and PICT Classic Theater. His fellow New Yorkers also know him for his theatrical talents — and as the guy at their local coffee shop.

Silberblatt isn’t alone in his dual role as both actor and coffee shop employee — he’s just one of many artists across the country working a side hustle. When art alone fails to put food on the table, these performers, writers, photographers and painters teach classes and bus tables in order to make ends meet and support their passions.

Silberblatt, who is from Pittsburgh and currently lives in New York, has also worked stints as a busboy, a tour guide of Manhattan restaurants and a teaching artist at an after-school program. Although he’s received plenty of acting jobs over the years, Silberblatt said limited job security in theater often leaves artists looking for side gigs, since plays typically run for just six weeks.

“Probably the scariest part about being in the arts — and there’s nothing you can do about it — after six weeks, show’s over,” Silberblatt said. “The transient nature of the business is what makes it difficult, especially in terms of health care.”

And theater isn’t the only arts profession with low or inconsistent wages. According to Scott Andrew, a multimedia artist and part-time Pitt studio arts instructor, making a career out of visual arts can be a “crapshoot.”

“You either find the right way to impress the right people to get famous and that works for you, or it doesn’t,” Andrew said. “I wish I could say something more upbeat about that. I think that artists who really want to make work have to be committed to realizing that that’s probably not where their primary income is gonna come from.”

Still, Andrew has found a way to marry his side hustle with his artistic pursuits. Having taught art at both the high school and college level, Andrew uses his background to train the next generation of artists, although he said he still views teaching as a means of supporting his art career.

“I’ve always been oscillating back and forth between my art practice and teaching in some way,” Andrew said. “I view my art career to be my actual career, and then teaching is what allows that to happen. It’s a way to make money in order for that to happen. I also happen to really like teaching, so it works out really well.”

According to Andrew, teaching does more than just make ends meet — it allows him to develop skills and make connections that he might not have if he focused on an art career alone.

“There’s been times where I have to teach something that isn’t a core part of my practice, but I have to learn that in order to teach it. And that might end up becoming skills that I use more in my own work,” Andrew said.

Andrew said most of his work involves collaboration with other artists, from drag queens to musicians to dancers. One of these collaborators is Jesse Factor, a dance instructor at nearby Slippery Rock University whose accolades include work with the Martha Graham Dance Company and a North American tour of “Cats.”

Factor, who is originally from Mercer, lived in New York for 17 years before going to graduate school and later finding his job at Slippery Rock. He said even though most of his income at the time came from his dance career, he worked a number of odd jobs, including handing out fliers for a chiropractor, working at front desks and selling candles and soap.

According to him, working temporary or more flexible jobs allowed him to leave for dancing gigs in other cities, as well as gain a range of new experiences.

“I got all these different experiences that sometimes were more short-term or more long-term assignments. One of them was working for a magazine in the Conde Nast building,” Factor said. “It was kind of like ‘Devil Wears Prada’ for a couple weeks.”

Unlike Andrew, however, Factor said he considered teaching less of a side hustle and more of an arts career in and of itself.

“[Teaching] takes up the bulk of my professional life,” he said. “Part of teaching is the creative research, so those artistic challenges and that creative life is still very much a part of my job.”

Silberblatt has also applied his experiences at his side jobs to his artistic pursuits — even though few of them seem to relate to theater. While working at a bakery in 2014 and 2015, he wrote and filmed nine episodes of a web series, called “BAKERY: a web series.”

“We would close at 10, and then from 10 until 12 I would invite my friends over and we would shoot an episode of the web series at this bakery I worked at,” he said. “It’s not very good. I made it when I was in my early, mid-20s, so I don’t know that I’m very proud of it anymore.”

And even if actors don’t use their places of employment as free film sets, Silberblatt also said working a “real job,” especially in the service industry, can give actors inspiration and help them portray their characters more realistically.

“It pays to have an actual job,” he said. “It pays to do something you don’t want to do, and have to get up and go to work and drag yourself to the subway. To me, that has been a valuable insight into people in general and the American condition.”

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