The Art of Being Self-Employed

January is a time for many less than pleasant things – cold weather, holiday credit card bills, detoxing, resolutions made and broken, and of course, the self-employed tax return. As the ads urge us to find peace of mind and file before the deadline, and we scramble to find those all-important scraps that hold the key to the past tax year, it can sometimes feel that being a self-employed performer is more effort than it’s worth. Putting our paperwork together can be discouraging, especially when the overall picture of the year is compiled and we see how much – or how little – we were actually employed. We often go through long periods between jobs, and when we grab the golden ring, it may be all over in an hour or two. When we compare ourselves to those employed fulltime, it’s easy to feel like a fraud – if we aren’t actually performing, are we really still a performer?

The answer is, yes – but we have to start thinking about it differently. Being a performer – an actor, singer, dancer, voiceover artist, role play actor, motion capture artist, stuntie – isn’t just about the time we spend on stage or in front of the camera. It’s also about what any other business is about: finding work, marketing our skills, taking courses, doing the admin, liaising with our agents, prepping scripts, and so on. That is work too, even if we aren’t directly paid for it.

I recently came across a ruling in a case regarding someone seeking residency rights in the UK, which beautifully sums this up:

“I do not accept that a claimant who is for the moment doing no work is necessarily no longer self-employed. There will commonly be periods in a person’s self-employment when no work is done. Weekends and holiday periods are obvious examples. There may also be periods when there is no work to do. The concept of self-employment encompasses periods of both feast and famine. During the latter, the person may be engaged in a variety of tasks that are properly seen as part of continuing self-employment: administrative work, such as maintaining the accounts; in marketing to generate more work; or developing the business in new directions. Self- employment is not confined to periods of actual work. It includes natural periods of rest and the vicissitudes of business life.”

(from the Decision Makers Guide, case of SSWP v JS [2010] UKUT 240 (AAC))

At a time of year when it is common to take stock, it might be a good New Year’s resolution to start thinking about our working lives slightly differently. As North Americans, we are especially good at taking initiative, creating opportunities, and driving ourselves forward – and all of that is part of the natural weaving of a career. You may not have been working at the National this month, but you did your taxes, shot a self-tape, reworked your Spotlight page, signed up for a workshop at the Actors Centre, and sketched a few ideas for that play you’d like to write. In other words, you were working. As a performer. Ask anyone who works in a tech start-up; just because their app hasn’t made money yet, doesn’t mean the designers and programmers aren’t working, and working hard. Why should we as actors think any differently?

Remember, too –  those classes, equipment for the self-tape, your Spotlight and Equity memberships, the supplies for your home office, and so on – all of that is tax-deductible. If the revenue office recognizes these things as elements of our working lives, then it’s about time we do too. So, as you tackle that form for HMRC, you need to hold your head high. Even if your income is supplemented by a supply teaching job or catering company, you are a working actor.

Good luck with your taxes. And here’s to a wonderful year for your career, whatever shape it takes.