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Performing Artists as Protean Figures

By: , Posted on: February 28, 2017

The Greek God, Proteus, was a sea god and represented the constantly changing nature of the sea. Later, the Egyptian origins of Proteus included connections to the sea, and they added features of a god who was regarded as the “old man of the sea”; one who never lied and always spoke from the depths of his humanity. In the nineteenth century, Proteus became a symbol for the unconscious, as well as the shape-shifting perfection found in the arts. The adjective protean, derived from Proteus, describes the essential quality of water. Defining features of the adjective protean include the liquid ability to mold, change form, mutability, versatility, and adaptability.

Today, the term protean is applied to careers that require individuals to: (1) monitor and assess the job market, (2) anticipate future trends and shifts, and (3) gain skills, qualifications, and relationships to accommodate these changes The effectiveness of these required traits is contingent on adapting and acting quickly; it is a response to todays constantly changing workplace. Essentially, protean careers are driven by the individual and not by organizations. Psychological success is the central goal, marked by self-fulfillment garnered from either a value-driven orientation or self-directed management. Seeking and finding opportunities propels behavior; accepting and engaging in contracts must be balanced by the ability to anticipate and respond to future mutable opportunities. Consequently, successful protean careerists are those who focus on gaining mastery rather than relying on the external performance evaluations that take place in corporate settings.

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Maintaining a performing arts career requires adapting to constant change while continually striving for mastery. In general, performing artists know that they must meet the shifting expectations and demands inherent in freelance work. Typically, performers possess substantial technical knowledge and skills, adapt rapidly to changing conditions within a venue, adjust to new performance settings, manage varying levels of financial support, and concurrently prepare for future projects. Performers learn early in their training that the only element within their control is self-directed mastery; they assume responsibility for their own individual aesthetic values, authenticity, and expressive power. Unlike other professions, only a minority of performers experience employer loyalty. The majority of performers are well aware that they are easily replaced; their employers seldom demonstrate loyalty. Changes in organizational environments and technological advancements necessitate performer versatility.

According to Douglas Hall, successful protean individuals must be both self-aware and adaptable. Success is possible because of open responsiveness and resilience. The overt characteristic of a protean career is to change work and career behaviors. For protean performers, they are able to maintain their essential domain-specific skills, but the nature of their expressivity is malleable across settings. Early in development most performers have self-identified via their art form; consistent identification as a performing artist provides psychological security. This identification provides a deeper sense of self. For example, knowing they are violinists, actors, dancers, or singers informs career goals; identification with their art form guides, motivates, and challenges performers as they mature and as they sustain a performing arts career. By shaping self-identity around their performing arts domain, performers are not dependent on any one organization to give validity to their identity. They can carry a deep sense of self as they continually learn, transition, explore, and adapt to the changing landscape of their performance career. Their values and self-identity are sturdy, yet flexible. They recognize and acknowledge that they work as protean artists, a reality that facilitates ongoing reflection and self-reflection.

According to Philip Mirvis and Douglas Hall, a protean career is supported by one key ingredient, engaging continuously in learning cycles. The ability to learn promotes the attainment and advancement in multiple career opportunities. Ongoing learning is exactly what successful performers do throughout their career. Even the most eminent artists continue to practice and explore. They routinely work with teachers and coaches and constantly interact with a diverse range of artists. They accept and embrace these conditions.

It could be argued that performing artists have been protean artists since the beginning of recorded performing arts history. Today, the research field that investigates career patterns has recognized protean careers as a solidly accepted and yet relatively new model; however, more empirical research is still needed to fully understand this model. Future research investigation should include an examination of performing artists; they are ideal candidates simply because they have operated as protean figures for centuries.

The Portfolio career is another model that has recently received substantial attention; it is an approach that meets today’s market place changes. Once again, performing artists have engaged in portfolio careers as a means to subsist in their unstable world of the performing artist. A portfolio career is conceived as a series of part-time jobs or temporary work; it typifies the careers of freelance self-employed performers. Unlike protean careers, portfolio careers require diverse skills and talents that are focused in multiple directions. For example, the majority of performing artists learn to juggle “survival” jobs to offset poorly paid performance projects. The stereotypical image of the actor/waiter, musician/music teacher, dancer/Pilates instructor once suggested that these performers were not successful working performers. Today, this stereotype is changing. By accepting and appreciating the concept of portfolio careers the shame that many performers previously experienced can be diminished. Successful performers are savvy. They acquire entrepreneurial skills, including budgeting, marketing, social media, promotion, technical engineering, producing, etc. These diverse skills can be utilized in disparate job settings. Like the legendary bands of traveling minstrels and gypsies of the past, many performers continue to diversify their conditions. Cobbling together multiple part-time jobs ensures survival in an unstable profession.

Typically, portfolio careers facilitate the equivalent of earning a fulltime income. The breadth of skills necessary to support a portfolio career reflects the inherent need for greater organizational skills and efficient time management, along with intrinsic motivation to overcome diverse challenges. Today, diverse talents are highly valued by small arts organizations. It is common practice to engage performers who not only perform but can also help with the production and administrative demands of any arts organization. Skills such as multi-tasking, time management, ingenuity, and strategic planning are now regarded as virtues in performing arts careers.

Despite these assets, one of the challenges for performing artists is creating a professional resume that coherently encompasses multiple diverse jobs; they must demonstrate versatility while still maintaining an identity as a performer. For example, a musician may list domain-specific skills garnered from solid training and past professional performance work, as well as domain-related skills such as sound engineering, producing, and social media skills. This type of resumé presents a musician who manages a successful freelance career in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Most portfolio career individuals express greater career fulfillment and career autonomy. These careers are now far less stigmatized, especially given the challenges that operate in today’s economic climate. Given this career reality, preparing performing artists to enter today’s professional world requires more than just training in their domain-specific skills; they also need training in entrepreneurial skills. Few performers work their entire career as fulltime employees for an arts organization. At some point in a performer’s career, freelance and self-employed work will be necessary. Nurturing strong networking relationships can help increase job opportunities while offering encouragement and emotional support. Every performer must continue to cultivate adaptive approaches to sustain work.

Ultimately, performing artists endorse high job satisfaction. This is achieved when they have a sense of autonomy within their work. Fortunately, the hallmark of protean and portfolio careers includes a sense of autonomy. The stability of a performance identity can persist despite the constant changes that transpire in a performer’s career. Both protean and portfolio career models are ideally suited to the performing arts, in fact, they were operational long before these terms and models were formally conceived.

The author of this article is Paula Thomson, Professor, Co-Director of the Performance Psychophysiology Laboratory at California State University, Nortrhidge, Clinical Psychologist, and a freelance choreographer. Together with co-author and co-director S. Victoria Jaque, their book, Creativity and the Performing Artist: Behind the Mask, examines the performing artist as both the creative person and the creative product. The book focuses particularly on the nature of creativity and the psychological, physical, and social challenges that performers face.

creativity and the performing artist

We are pleased to offer you a look at the book by providing you with a chapter, “Chapter 18. Careers in the Performing Arts.” In this chapter, the complications of a performing arts career are examined. Topics include; (1) Protean careers and job satisfaction, (2) Resilience and career success, (3) Serendipity in a performing arts career, (4) Unions, guilds, and working conditions,  (5) Environmental challenges in the work place, (6) Performing arts entrepreneurship, (7) Careers and anxiety, (8) Diversity and stereotypes, (9) Challenges and abuse in a performing arts career, and (10) Aging, retirement and career endings.

Fill out this brief form to access your free chapter on: Careers in the Performing Arts

If you would like to view additional chapters, you can do so online via ScienceDirect. If you would like to purchase a print or e-copy of the book, visit the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% off the list price and free shipping!

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