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If it's a choice between the day job and the gig, the gig wins every time

Artist Sara Porkalob in her Queen Anne apartment
KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman
Artist Sara Porkalob in her Queen Anne apartment.

Jose Abaoag has an eclectic resume.

“I’ve been a deckhand on the Victoria Clipper,” Abaoag says, listing off his jobs. “I was a Census-taker for the U.S. government. I parked cars on the graveyard shift.”

But Abaoag isn’t a 40-year old ne’er do well; he’s been a professional actor for almost two decades. Like many performing artists, Abaoag cobbles together his living job by job.

An increasing number of Americans support themselves this way, according to government numbers, with a patchwork of temporary or contract jobs. It’s called "the gig economy," and public officials say we can expect it to become a larger, permanent fixture of the overall U.S. economy.

While the term “gig economy” has recently entered the American lexicon, it’s nothing new for America’s artists. For many years, performers have used the word “gig” to refer to an acting role or a one-time musical job. But a study released this fall by the National Endowment for the Arts finds growing numbers of artists are supporting themselves this way.

Artists like Abaoag.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Theater artist Jose Abaoag relaxes in his southwest Seattle townhouse", "fid": "131707", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201611/IMG_1066_0.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo by Marcie Sillman"}]]He’s found steady work in Seattle-area theaters, but he now relies on his job as a paraeducator in local public schools to help support his family. It allows him the flexibility to go out for an audition during the day, or to take time away from the classroom if he lands an acting gig.

“We get the gig, and we seek the gig,” he says. “There are times when we have to choose between the gig and the so-called real job, and we choose the gig every time.”

Sara Porkalob has been a full-time theater artist for the past three years, but she still considers herself part of the gig economy.

“I’m always working,” Porkalob says. “That is the reality of a gig to gig life. If I were able to log how many hours I worked, and got paid an hourly wage, I’d be really wealthy.”

Porkalob has taught acting and directing, auditioned for jobs with regional theater companies, and created a one-woman show about her Filipina grandmother, “Dragon Lady,” that she performs regularly.

[asset-audio[{"description": "Sara Porkalob performs a short excerpt from her one-woman show, \"Dragon Lady.\"", "fid": "131667", "uri": "npraudio://201611/dragonlady1.mp3"}]]But Porkalob says she can afford to live in Seattle’s pricey lower Queen Anne neighborhood because she splits the rent and utilities with her partner.

“My rent is minimal, compared to a lot of my peers,” she says. “I don’t have a car, we cook at home, so the rising costs haven’t really affected me directly.”

That’s not the case with many other artists in the Seattle area, including Abaoag. Until three years ago, he and his wife lived on Capitol Hill. Before their son was born, the couple moved to a townhouse in southwest Seattle. Abaoag says it was a shock at first.

“It was a little alienating for me. But I found that, within a year or two, everybody was moving here,” he says. Rents were lower there than Capitol Hill, Queen Anne or other gentrifying neighborhoods in central Seattle.

“Often, artists are the people who are living on the edge, who are living paycheck to paycheck,” says Shannon Halberstadt, director of the advocacy group Artist Trust.

“This is a more difficult environment for artists to thrive in,” she says. “Rents are skyrocketing, and it’s hard for artists to find spaces to produce their work, to exhibit or perform, because space is very expensive.”

Halberstadt doesn’t have hard data, but she knows some artists are leaving the area because they can no longer subsist here on their gig to gig paychecks.

Abaoag and his wife have made a conscious decision to stay in Seattle. They have a second child on the way, and Abaoag’s flexible schedule gives him time to spend with his kids. Beyond that, Abaoag is convinced that Seattle offers him the artistic opportunities he seeks. He’s left the city twice, but always returned.

“There’s just plenty to do here,” Abaoag says. “If you want to go after it, this city will give you what you put into it.”