Performers, Plan For The Future!
By Rob Winch
After working as a performer for nearly ten years in the entertainment industry, I was beginning to realize that apart from memories, I had nothing to show for my time financially. I had saved nothing and I may only have five more years left in the business of being a performer. I knew how to be one, I was the guy that didn’t miss shows, I was rarely injured, I would learn any act a director wanted, but other than my skills as a performer I knew relatively nothing else about the business of live entertainment. How did I get here?
A Professional Performer at 18
I retired from competitive artistic gymnastics when I was 18 years old and moved from Nottingham, England back to London. At the time, my options for the future were to go to college and continue to train in gymnastics in hopes of finding a place on a major competition team, or get a job. My father had competed for Great Britain in both the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games and was encouraging me to continue in the sport (he was after all my coach), but I wasn’t sure. I also wasn’t particularly motivated to attend school but I decided to go to college while continuing to train and go from there. That was, until I went to an audition for a show in London, when I changed my mind. The audition was held on my only day off but since it was conveniently located at my home gym, I thought, why not? Things went well and at the end of all the cuts, I was still standing and was offered a spot in the production to be held in London.
As the cast of the show started the training portion of the production’s creation, a group of us “retired” gymnasts began to realize just how easy it was to learn all of these new “circus” based skills. Since we had just finished full time gymnastics training, often over 40 hours a week, we found that the choreographer of the show was scheduling way too much time to teach us basic skills. For instance, they had planned an hour session teaching us how to do what they called an “up and over” on the trapeze. Most serious gymnasts know this skill to be called a “circle up”, which is performing a chin up and then lifting both legs over the top of the bar to support. A circle up is one of the first skills that kids are taught during their first days of gymnastics at ages as young as 4 or 5. Needless to say, some of my friends and I got bored pretty quickly and began to try different things such as a press up to handstand. This did not impress the “circus” trapeze coach much, that is, until our moves, created out of boredom were added into the choreography in the show. The choreographer received high praise for fusing circus and gymnastics, and all of a sudden we were the “golden” children of the cast. Let’s just say that there were many photos and hugs from our choreographer on the night at the premiere afterparty.
We opened OVO at 12:05 am on January 1, 2000. It was an incredible honor for me, to perform in front of Queen Elizabeth II, The Royal Family, and Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife.
OVO was scheduled to run seven days a week, five times a day, in the Millennium Dome, which is now known as the O2 Dome. The production was created with two casts of about 80 performers to sustain the show schedule, and each cast was only meant to work for two days and then have the next two days off.
I say with the greatest certainty that this was the best gig any 19-year-old or seasoned performer could dream of working on because it gave us plenty of time to spend our hard-earned money and recover physically.
I had moved away from home, was earning the same as everyone else in both casts (regardless of skill or experience), and I was living in London. Life was good and I was happy living pay check to pay check spending what I had earned on anyone that would want to join me at the pub.
The year went by fast and it wasn’t long until the time came for the show to close. I had saved very little money but had managed to find a job coaching some adult tumbling classes. I wasn’t that interested in this for a career, but it gave me the opportunity to audition during the day. Shortly after, I found a job on a cruise ship.
Now I was 20 years old, living and working on a massive floating island as a specialist act while also learning musical theatre. Again, I was the life of the party and had no intuitions about savings or preparing for what came after.
The cruise ship contract came to an end and instead of continuing on to the Caribbean, I had decided to go home in search of something else that was new and entertaining. This life was great, I had basically got the first 2 jobs that I had auditioned for and was very content to do this live entertainment performing thing for a bit. I even turned down a short contract doing Panto (British Pantomime theatre) because, at the time, I felt Panto would not be a good idea, as it might bring down the standard of show of which I was prepared to perform or be associated with in the industry.
Both choices, not to stay on the cruise ship or do the Panto, were the biggest reasons why for the next three years, I found myself seriously struggling to find work and taking any low-rate holiday park stunt job I could get. Ironically, I also ended up doing Panto theatre for three years in a row!
It’s Not So Easy To Get Gigs
Since I began my professional career at 18, I had not done any resume building, saved any video footage for making demos, and was going to any and all auditions that I could find. Fortunately, around this time, my parents opened a wine bar in Nottingham, England where I was able to work inbetween gigs. I was grateful for the work, but this was for minimum wage and did nothing to further my career in the entertainment industry. Now I’m 23, working for minimum wage and living back with my parents! This was not where I had planned to be, probably because I hadn’t planned at all.
During the latter part of 2004, my best friend from gymnastics and I had both ended up doing a Panto production together and on a day off, he took me to an audition for a show he had been doing at Disneyland Paris the year before. I landed the gig and spent the next two summers working in Paris with Tarzan La Rencontre. While I worked at the show, I trained really hard and in between the first and second seasons, I also auditioned for Cirque du Soleil. All of my training and work had finally paid off and I was offered a position in the new Cirque du Soleil creation of The Beatles’ LOVE.
I moved to Montreal in 2005 for a four-month creation and after surviving the brutal winter, the entire production team, technicians, and performers moved to Las Vegas.
We opened The Beatles’ LOVE by Cirque du Soleil in June 2006, and I spent the next two years seeing daylight only during my drive to work. I would usually arrive at The Mirage for work around 3 pm where I would stay inside the theatre until the 2nd show when it came down at 11:30 p.m. After work, many of us would go out for a few drinks and leave to go home around 3 a.m. (at the earliest), or once the sun started coming up. We would often feel like vampires as we walked out of a bar and if we saw the mere hint of sunlight in the wee hours of the dawn, we raced home to our beds.
Time To Get Serious
Now, it’s 2008, I’m 27 (nearly 10 years as a performer) finally earning decent money again, maybe this is the time to learn from my previous mistakes and not fall into that same trap? I’ve done and experienced a lot of cool things and have many stories to tell back home, but what a lot of money it’s cost me. I finally got serious about saving my money. The city of Las Vegas has a low cost of living so I was able to rent houses with friends very inexpensively. I saw that people were beginning to invest in Roth IRA savings accounts and purchasing property. I began to see the importance of saving for a rainy day or in my case, if injury should occur.
It was then I began not going out so much, and saving my money. When I was at work, I began taking any opportunity I could to hang out with different departments and learn different parts of their business.
Outside of work, I founded a 501 (c)(3) non-profit production company, The British National Theatre of America and began creating shows on very limited budgets. As the company grew and my desire to create more shows increased, I started another production company, Production Lab, in 2010.
I had also decided that I did not want to become the performer that felt over worked but stayed in a production well past their prime. I wanted to leave my mark and then move on and even though I had no official higher education, I knew that experience still counted for something, and hopefully if I continued in this direction, the next move wasn’t far away.
I love the entertainment industry and the opportunities to have a lot of fun. It’s important however, to not get mixed up in too much fun. It is a business and depending on the career choices you make, it can set you up for the future.
Learn as much as you can about as much as you can and don’t ever think for one minute that it is a stable business. The only constant in show business is change.
Save your money and get a hobby – even if that hobby is promoting yourself and constantly setting yourself up for the future.
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