Following their passions

Former recipients of the Otago Daily Times Class Act awards are making names for themselves in the arts. We talk to six of the best.

Jenny Banks - Class of 2000

Ryan O'Kane - Class of 2000

Ria Vandervis - Class of 2001

Tom Simpson - Class of 2001

Andrew Baldwin - Class of 2003

Taarati Taiaroa - Class of 2004

They've juggled day jobs and said goodbye to job security but making a living in the arts is proving rewarding for some of Otago's former high school achievers.

While the Otago Daily Times annual Class Act awards always feature pupils who go on to become doctors, lawyers and accountants, smaller numbers have followed their passion for the arts and carved out careers as actors, musicians and painters.

A recent report showed New Zealand's creative industries (books, music, television and film), are worth big money, contributing $3.6 billion a year to the country's gross domestic product.

But those we spoke to told of waiting on tables or cleaning houses while waiting for, if not their big break, at least their next contract.

Freelance illustrator Tom Simpson worked as a barista and a labourer on a film set when building up his portfolio, while Andrew Baldwin did administration work at a medical centre when completing his master's degree in composition at London's Royal College of Music.

Shortland Street regular Ria Vandervis says New Zealand actors need something to fall back on because contracts are often short-term and in short supply.

A certified marriage celebrant who also helps run a clothing business, she considers herself fortunate to have had the work she has.

Some people she went through drama school with have not had any.

Disillusioned by how ''sustainable'' his future was, musician Dave Kempton recently applied for jobs unrelated to music and got full-time work as a recruitment consultant.

But the 30-year-old lasted only a month in the position and is now happily playing guitar and trumpet in the New South Wales police band.

''Being a conduit for people competing in the rat race really destroyed me,'' he says.

''It was at that point that I completely removed the idea of doing anything else for a living and I think that's a really important realisation to come to if playing music is what you want to do.

"If you have a plan B, then plan A won't get the attention you would give something that is essential for your survival ...''

The encouragement of family was also mentioned. Vandervis reports that when she switched from studying architecture to drama, her parents were shocked but supportive; fellow actor Ryan O'Kane can thank his mother, Kathleen, for urging him to follow his passion rather than continue with his plans to be a doctor.

''It's a tricky one because if you want financial security then [acting's] maybe not the best profession. But when you do get an ad or a long-running show, it can be ... financially amazing. So there are real ups and downs.''

Artist Taarati Taiaroa enjoys teaching part-time at university but wants to resist becoming ''institutionalised'' and says trying to fit her own practice around a full-time job would not be conducive to ''having friends or even being engaged in the art community''.

Like Vandervis, she still has a student loan of about $50,000 and reveals: ''Sometimes I just pretend it's not there''.

Despite the sacrifices, none of the artists we interviewed are complaining.

Day jobs and all-nighters are the reality when an artist is new to the industry, Simpson says, but the rewards are worth it.

''It's just great to be able to do something that you love every day and ... to be paid for it is fantastic.''

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