Careers in the Arts | Artist Spotlight: Jen McGinnis (Austin, TX)

Published September 8th, 2017

When it comes to careers in the arts, success comes in many forms. Sure, we’ve all heard of jobs like “sculptor,” “movie star,” “punk rocker,” and whatever “being a Kardashian” is. But when it comes down to it, there are almost infinite ways for creative-types to shine in today’s world.

To get some deeper insight on what it’s like to be a full-time artist, we chatted with Jen McGinnis, Assistant Producer at Circus Picnic. Based in Austin, Texas, Jen works as both a performer and assistant curator of events for the creative video and entertainment studio whose motto is, "Let's Make Something Great."

Acceptd: Thanks for your time today Jen! What are you up to?
Oh you know, just getting back into the swing of things here in Austin after coming back from the production tour.

Acceptd: Cool! What does that mean exactly?
Well, with Circus Picnic, the video production side is the video team for Wanderlust, the yoga series. So we follow the festivals around. When the festival moved up to Canada, some of us went on further north, and some of us came home to Austin.

Acceptd: That sounds incredible! To try to explain to our readers what exactly it is that you do, can you describe what you do in your role: Assistant Producer for Events at Circus Picnic.
Jen: I do a lot of client interface, booking performers, booking artists together to collaborate and perform. I'm a go-between between performers and clients, essentially. I take the vision of what the client wants for the events, and figure out how to bring together the pool of artists that will make the event magical and successful. Whether it's a corporate event, a festival, or a birthday party, it's all very detailed and important to meet the client's expectations. I also perform at the events we booked, which is how I first got involved.

A lot of people think of circus artists as wild and crazy, and likely not good at business (laughing). So, I try to represent the middle ground to clients and performers alike. We are professional and take it seriously, to make sure they can have fun. I'm lucky that my boss has been involved with the Austin circus scene for ten years, so we're tapped into the network of performers. If we see someone at an event that seems like they're having fun and love what they're doing, we'll even try to find a way to incorporate them into events we have going on. It's all about great performers. No gig is too small, we've pulled people from the street before! It's important for performers to remember they're always on for this reason.

Acceptd: Sounds like a great gig! So, did you study video production or performance in school?

Jen: Well, I went to school for Theatre Performance and Production, but I didn't actually finish my degree. I ended up having to drop out my Junior year because I didn't have enough money to finish the last year-and-a-half of school. So, yes, I started out studying Theatre, but I didn't actually get a degree. I was going to Dominican University in River Forest, IL.

Acceptd: When you realized this about school, did you try to apply for scholarships, or try to find ways to get more money?
Jen: I did. I actually had a lot of my tuition paid for by scholarships, but my issue was that I didn't have a cosigner for my loans. No one in my family was in a position to help. So by the time I reached my third year, I was just an individual person with a lot of debt to my name, and I didn't qualify for loans without a full-time job. So, that didn't work out. But I didn't give up, and I still found ways to use my skills and my craft.

I don't want to scare anyone reading this. We all know school is expensive! I just want to be clear that I worked all through high school, all through college, and worked really hard to make it happen. Unfortunately it still wasn't enough. I know a lot of people are fortunate to have family who, even if they can't provide financial support, are in a position to be able to cosign their loans for them. I think that's something potential students should start looking into with their guardians much earlier than I did. If someone can at least cosign their loans, and make sure they're definitely in a position to do so when it's time, that will make all the difference.

Sidenote: In case this is confusing, a cosigner is someone who signs your loans with you, promising to pay them if you can't. This is allowed if the guardian, or cosigning adult over the age of 18, has qualifying credit and a positive credit history.

Jen: For me, this was my path. But, I don't think it put me any further behind in the long-run! At the time, it was a big deal. Almost devastating. I had to keep moving forward and look at my goals, and figure out another way to get there.

Acceptd: Absolutely. Not everyone follows a traditional path. I think that's important for our readers to remember. That there are a lot of ways to get there. You seem like you're in a role now that you're very happy in and suits you. And that's the goal, right?
Jen: Yes, absolutely. And something I want to make sure students or young artists know about working in the arts, is that a lot of us do supplementary jobs that we... tolerate. It's not like you can immediately live off your art, which I know can be frustrating. But everyone I know waits tables or takes tickets somewhere, or works in the service industry, while trying to get our art out there. And those are actually really valuable skills to learn!

Using your people skills and sales skills doesn't stop just because you're a performer. Professional artists who sell their art for a living are constantly selling, hustling, meeting people, and networking, just like any job. I think maybe even more so than a "normal job." So, just because we're artists, doesn't mean we're exempt from this stuff.

My point is not to get complacent. Don't think of these supplementary jobs as just supplementary jobs. Like- don't say, "this is my side job, and this is what I actually do, and they are separate." The trick is to try to merge them. Think of them all as a way to get to where you want to be. Use them as avenues to hone your passions.

Acceptd: Absolutely. Great advice. Something we admire about you at Acceptd is your incredible resiliency. Your ability to stick with it, and bounce back from what you didn't expect to happen. You recently were injured as well, do you feel comfortable talking about that?
Jen: Oh, absolutely. So, I've always tried to keep my finger on the pulse of the performance community. I've always been involved in stilt-walking in Austin and performing at circus-style events, so in between my serving shifts, I was always up on stilts.

I got injured last August in a trapeze accident, which stemmed from overworking my body; doing tricks I don't think I was quite ready for. I pushed through a lot of pain that I didn't realize would cause me more problems in the long run. By the time I went to get it looked at, I had torn my labrum cartilage, which wraps around the hip, and it got stuck between my ball and socket joint. It therefore was fraying the bone of my ball and socket joint. By the time I swallowed my pride and went to the doctor, I had to have surgery.

One of the biggest lessons I've learned through this as a performer is: listen to your body. Our health and longevity as a physical performer is way more valuable than just "landing the trick."

After my surgery, I wasn't able to walk for about three months. I spent three months re-learning how to walk, and slowly beginning to put weight back on that hip. Not having the avenue to perform made me feel like I was missing something, but at the same time, I was grateful my body was able to heal. I know a lot of people aren't as fortunate when it comes to intense injuries, and I feel so lucky my body bounced back and has that resilience too.

Acceptd: Wow, that's incredible. Three months is a long time to be off your feet, when you depend on them for your means of income as a server and a stilt-performer. How did you get through this time? 
Jen: Yes, it was a very long time. I couldn't wait tables at all, I didn't know what I was going to do. But- I didn't panic. I started to think, "What do I do instead? How can I help, or get more involved with my other passions?"

And that's when I started doing more work to help out my friend's production company, Circus Picnic. Because of my training in Theatre Production, and all my hands-on experience performing at events, I truly, really understand event production. So, this quickly became a full-time job. It translated really easy for me.

And as far as my injury, I just took it day by day. I worked physical therapy really hard, and took it really seriously, but, I also wanted to make it fun. My stilts came with me to therapy! Everybody there would get so excited and it made me happy too. It felt like I was getting back to performing.

I had an opportunity to stilt-walk for Cirque Du Soleil in the beginning of April, so that was my goal. Get back up on my stilts for that amazing opportunity. And I did it! I started walking again (on the ground) in March, and I had crutches, you know, the whole thing. But by the very beginning of April, I was back up on stilts. I was able to perform in Cirque Du Soleil!

The whole experience feels very much like life throwing me down on the ground and saying, "Jen. Slow down. Don't move. Something's about to happen here!"

Acceptd: So let's talk about that. You said it was a smooth transition to Circus Picnic for you. Did you ever expect that this would be your job?
Jen: Oh my gosh, no! I didn't even know this was a job. Circus artists at live events; I didn't even know that was an option. But, I learned about it by getting out in the community and finding the people who loved what they do. Aligning yourself with people who also view their art as a career was also really important.

They were the people that were the most professional, the most reliable, and had the most passion. They wanted to make their art a career instead of a hobby. Finding them, then collaborating with them, ended up being exactly what saved me when I needed to figure out a new path.

Because of this, I was able to reach out to my friends that run Circus Picnic, a couple named Kelly and Jefe Greenheart. They got me involved with their programming on a bigger level. And I think that's really important for people to remember: When you're making these connections, find the people who take it seriously. It's easy to get wrapped in with people who are amazingly talented, but don't have the drive to make a living out of it. Maybe they have a different job they focus on as a means to make a living. But if you want to make this your career, you gotta get with the people who also do too, if  you want to be successful financially.

Acceptd: I think that's a valid point. So many people use art as an escape or decompression from "real life." Is there a divide between people who do it full-time for money, and people who do it, say, once a month for fun?
Jen: Well, especially in the circus world, it's hard to find performers who are reliable and professional. Who treat it as a job. Who show up on time, prepared, and it's fun, but it's not just for fun.

Acceptd: So, you've had a challenging path, but you're doing what you love. What advice do you have for young artists who want to be successful?
Jen: Don't be afraid to take a risk. Nothing is below you, everyone has to start somewhere. Take a grunt-work job. I'm carrying video equipment around for Circus Picnic, on the side, for much less money than I'd accept as a rate performing. But, I'm learning so much, and I'm meeting so many people at these events, that I'm already feeling like I'm getting new skills. Who knows, maybe that will be something I get into!

The main thing is, all these doors open, if you're willing to put your head down, and work.

Acceptd: Great advice. It sounds like it's a lot about proving to people you're willing to put the work in. Then, just doing the work. If you can do that with a smile on your face seems like a deadly weapon.

Jen: Absolutely. Having patience, and having the ability to push through when things seem tough to get to the great things, the Cirque Du Soleil's, is worlds more important than having talent. Definitely remind young artists about that. Don't forget the power of hard work- it applies to artists, too.

Inspired to check out more Careers in the Arts? Download our Career Guide today!

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