The Quick Start Guide to Starting Projects in the Performing Arts / by Chris Foley

I’m always inspired by stories of people in the performing arts who create new initiatives that serve the needs of their communities. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone has an idea, builds it into a project, makes it viable, and serves the community, creating a sustainable initiative that also provides employment for its creator and others. These are the types of initiatives that build genuine growth in the arts.

At the same time, I’m concerned by the number of people I meet who have great ideas that never get off the ground. What follows is a way to get from idea to action in a minimum of time so you can take advantage of the larger pool of outcomes that arise from being able to launch new initiatives, whether it be a new concert series, your first play, learning to create in a new medium, or simply upgrading your skills.

  1. Visualize yourself immersed in the process of what you want to do. No, I didn’t say visualize yourself enjoying the trappings of success on a beach in Hawaii or driving a McLaren down the street. You have to visualize yourself in the trenches, with your hands doing the actual work. Because if you’re going to make a go of your project, you’re going to have to show up to do the work, day after day, year after year, making something that will be viable and sustainable. What you discover in this step will determine whether you decide to go onward or choose another course of action.

  2. Take advantage of downtime. Life in the performing arts (and the entire freelance job market) often takes the form of feast or famine. Utilizing the spaces in your schedule is a strong starting point for any future endeavours. Time can be an asset if you’re motivated to create new work.

  3. Brainstorm. Pen and paper are the best for this. The free flow of ideas can unlock the vast realm of possibility, complete with ideas and connections between them. Research on the brain’s default mode has shown that the mental processes unlocked by daydreaming or taking walks is in fact what unlocks the full range of seeing possible future outcomes.

  4. Write a list of actions from start to finish. Your list can consist of either parallel or sequential actions. Your most important resources are money and time. Budget for both. Revise as you move through #5, 6, and 7.

  5. Leverage pre-existing skills, networks, and infrastructure. When I created the Tapestry Songbook/New Opera 101 program at Tapestry Opera in 2010, I took advantage of 20 years of new opera commissions from the company to compile a list of Canadian repertory arias that could be utilized to teach young singers and pianists about the new opera process. You have stuff lying around that can be repurposed. You have many skills, some of which are left dormant for years. You have social media and real-life communities all around you. Use them to create something new.

  6. Learn new skills as needed. Everyone’s education has gaps. In order to succeed, we need to fill them in. Skill acquisition can be a path towards a larger goal, or even the goal itself.

  7. Ask for help (or hire) as needed. Those around us have the answers to many of the questions we pose. Often a conversation with someone that knows the ropes can help. At other times, it’s best to hire someone, whether for services, consulting, coaching/teaching, or employment. Budgeting will be required in step 4.

  8. Work swiftly and mercilessly through your action list. Once you’ve got the steps mapped out, start executing. Taking action quickly can create an energy and momentum that is highly motivating.

  9. Launch your preliminary work quickly, then refine. Here your advantage is to move fast, and this is an asset that individuals and small organizations will always have over slower, more systematic large organizations. When you’re small, the principles of Agile philosophy become apparent: delivery a satisfying product early, and iterate quickly as it develops. A successful bootstrapped one-off concert can develop into a viable series as it gains an audience and funding.

  10. Commit for the long haul. After I made a mid-career decision to move full-time into piano teaching, it was still 6-7 years before I had a full schedule. In the interim, I was learning about piano pedagogy, apprenticing as an RCM examiner, learning the ropes of advertising, and building a teaching repertoire. If you’ve been honest with yourself in step 1, you can make it all the way to creating something viable and sustainable. The process at its end is transformative.

What are your recent success stories? What success stories inspire you? What have I left out? Leave a comment below and let’s talk.

(Image courtesy of Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash)