What to Give the Starving Performing Artist O, for the Poor Player

by Robert Faires

To mangle poor old Will once more: "All the Yule's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." Most times of the year, we do indeed play many parts, but come the Christmas season, we seem to take on more than the usual number of roles: gift giver, host, frazzled shopper, plastered employee at the office party....

And it is during this time of year, more than any other, that we recognize the roles that others play. The gifts we give to Jack and Jill may not be so much for them as individuals as for the parts they play in our lives: brother, sister, uncle, aunt, significant other, cubicle mate, social rival.

Most of the roles we play get covered by one gift or another, but one that's often overlooked is that of the true player: the dance or theatre artist. Most performing artists I know rarely receive gifts related to their calling. It may be that many folks don't know what to give a dancer or an actor. After leg warmers, they're stumped. While this is hardly a definitive guide to gifts for such artists, it will at least get you past yarn leggings.

The guiding principle to remember when shopping for a performing artist -- or any artist -- is: money. Artists don't have any. Excepting the tiny percentage of trust fund babies and dogged or lucky individuals who have broken into the ranks of the hot hot hot, artists are a notoriously impecunious lot. It's almost as if they and money have opposing magnetic charges, making it physically impossible for them to remain in close proximity. You may not be sure whether your artist favors Beckett or Brecht, Balanchine or ballroom, but you can be sure of this: He or she is low on dough.

Which means, of course, that your shopping quandary could be settled one easy way: cold, hard cash. Granted, this isn't a gift with a lot of intimacy to it; however, it does say to the recipient, "I know you are struggling, and I support your quest for an artistic identity in a society that equates artists with anarchists and libertines." Plus, you're guaranteed that your present will be received with the broadest of smiles.

Now, if you don't relish the prospect of your gift being used to keep the Electric Department from severing the power, there are many other options, items that may be of great value to an artist but which the artist wouldn't purchase for him- or herself. (Remember the guiding principle; artists must reserve what little cash they have for true essentials, such as meals out, smokes, or double espressos.) Here are some items that performing artists might consider "nice" (I'm using a rough translation here, as that particular word hasn't been uttered by an artist since David Mamet left the Cub Scouts), but which they might not part with their few bucks to get.

One aspect of artistic life common to all performing artists is rehearsal. In theory, rehearsals are periods of creative exploration in preparation for a work's public performance. In reality, however, many rehearsals are just periods to be endured: hours of incessant repetition through which the artists all talk different languages. The participants do what they must to get through it, and much of the time, that means coffee. Coffee in big quantities. Tankards, basins, cauldrons, butts of coffee. Sadly, many artists rely on the coffee available in the rehearsal space -- usually vending machine coffee, which is akin to hot tap water stirred with a black crayon. Consider this for your caffeine-loving artist: a Thermos. It will enable him or her to forge through the most enervating rehearsal fortified by pints of the blend favored in his or her own home. You can find pint Thermoses for less than $10, and for the artist with a serious java jones, there's a $40 top-of-the-line stainless steel number that holds a quart. (Breed & Co., 718 W. 29th.) For a whiff of nostalgia, you might hunt up a kids' lunch box Thermos, covered with characters from your dear's fave TV cartoon/sitcom. What better to bolster one during a protracted run-through than to sip steamin' joe out of that beloved Dukes of Hazzard Thermos? (Hog Wild, 107-A E. North Loop.)

To further ease the strain of rehearsals, Chronicle Theatre Critic Adrienne Martini suggests creating a Survival Kit for your artist. It would contain such items as are necessary or desired during the rehearsal process: No. 2 pencils, pencil sharpener, highlighter, white-out, clipboard, datebook, aspirin, gift certificate to a 24-hour restaurant, bus pass, and -- oh yes! -- instant coffee. (Most of these sundries may be obtained at any grocery or department store, but for added pleasure, we suggest purchasing them in an old-fashioned drugstore, such as Nau Enfield Drug, 1115 Enfield, or Lamar Plaza Drug, 1132 S. Lamar.)

Come performance time, your artist will need to lug some materials to the theatre -- eyeliner, hair spray, deodorant, good luck charms, etc. -- and will need to lug them there in something. Why not provide your artist with a new make-up case? I don't mean a state-of-the-art Samsonite number, but a low-tech, Hint-from-Heloise substitute. For ages, cagey actors (and art students) have been co-opting tackle boxes for the transport of their supplies. Such boxes come with numerous nifty little compartments for the likes of eyebrow pencils and lipstick, as well as larger space for carrying those clunky jars of cold cream. Most important to the funds-impaired artist, they can be had for next to nada, especially at discount stores. (Academy, 4103 N I-35; 6601 Burnet; 11150 Research; 801 E. William Cannon.)

Most of the make-up boxes in my experience have been unornamented, that is to say, plain. But a personal touch for your holiday gift box might be to decorate it yourself. Or, in a move that offers benefits to more than one artist, have a designer decorate it. Imagine packing your sweetie off to the theatre with a Daliesque melting landscape or trompe l'oeil Greek temple holding her pancake and mascara. (For designer referrals, call the Austin Circle of Theatres [ACoT], 499-8388.) You could fill the box with theatrical make-up (performers are generally expected to provide their own) or use make-up as a stocking stuffer. (The Bazaar, 1605 W. Riverside Dr.; Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds, 1506 S. Congress.)

Question: Does your artist seek to be taken seriously? Is he or she known to gaze into the mirror and mutter the term "professional"? Then you might consider one of the following items which seek to further the career of your artist.

You can hook your artist into the national scene, at least vicariously, by giving him or her a periodical that covers activities and trends of performing arts companies and artists across the country. Two of the best known publications are American Theatre (one year subscription through membership to Theatre Communications Group [TCG], $35 individual, $20 student; TCG, Inc., 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017) and Dance Magazine (one year: $34.95; PO Box 50470, Cicero, IL, 60650-9902). Or if your artist is really looking to make the professional leap, try a subscription to ARTSEARCH, the employment service bulletin published by TCG. Every two weeks, your artist will receive some 15 pages of listings for jobs in artistic production, administration, career development, and education throughout the country. (One year: $54; TCG, Inc., 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY, 10017.)

And as your artist pursues those job opportunities, he or she will always be asked for two things: a résumé and a head shot. Enabling your artist to secure either or both of these career necessities could make a substantial difference in his or her standing as a performing arts pro. Plenty of local writers and photographers provide these services (for referrals, call ACoT, 499-8388), and, as with the designer make-up boxes, these are gifts that benefit two, two, two artists at once.

Then, of course, there is always a membership to one of Austin's arts umbrellas. ACoT and Dance Umbrella (DU) both provide support services for performing artists throughout the community, and membership includes regular newsletters which will keep your artist apprised of upcoming performing arts events, classes, workshops, and job opportunities. (One-year memberships: ACoT -- $25 individual/$15 student; DU -- $20 Individual/$15 student.)

One caveat: To some folks, these presents will be the theatrical equivalent of underwear, i.e., exceedingly useful but not terribly thrilling when the packages are torn open. If, however, you can stand that pause that follows the discovery of your gift, if you can endure the forced smile and unconvincing exclamation of gratitude after, you can take comfort in knowing that you've made one poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, a little less impecunious. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle