The fine art of survival: Acting like a nanny when you're trying to get by
The 3rd and final part in a series about living and creating in Canada's most expensive city
By night, Emily Bilton graces the stages of Vancouver's comedy clubs with a mix of stand-up, opera and drag. By day, she graces children's playrooms with a mix of play, nursery rhymes and pep.
Bilton studied opera at McGill University in Montreal. Six months ago, she moved to Vancouver, via a short detour in Toronto, to pursue a career as an actor and stand-up comic. Most of her income comes from nannying.
"At the end of every month, I know [nannying] pays my rent," Bilton said, while caring for an eight-month old baby in a Strathcona park. "Everything on top of that is gravy."
Here's a snapshot of one of Bilton's stand-up acts:
It's not unusual for artists to supplement their incomes, especially in an expensive city like Vancouver where they only make a median salary of $22,000 per year.
But one group of performers has found a creative solution to find flexible work that members can drop at a moment's notice if a gig or an audition comes in.
Acting Like Nannies is a Facebook group created to connect performers looking for short-term work with parents from the arts community who need last-minute child care.
Performers and parents who work in the arts often have similarly chaotic schedules. Performers can be asked to audition the evening before, and actors can be called to long days on a film set at a moment's notice.
Stacie Steadman founded Acting Like Nannies five years ago as a way for part-time nannies to network and cover each other's shifts. Since then, the group has opened up to parents as well.
"When your nanny is in the arts, they have a really good understanding of your home life, your lifestyle, maybe where you're looking after the kids,' Steadman said, sitting on the sofa of her east side co-op while her baby takes a nap.
Stand-up comic Bilton nannies on and off for three different families, most of them stay-at-home parents she can cancel on at the last minute if she needs to.
Many times, her performance gigs don't pay or pay very little, so getting paid $20 per hour to nanny is a welcome stream of income. Bilton took up nannying while she was studying at McGill, but says she quickly learned on the job.
'The best kind of nannies'
Steadman says performers have a wide variety of skills that make them ideal child-care providers.
"Generally, they happen to be the best kind of nannies because they're energetic and they're full of fun, and kids really gravitate toward that," she said.
Actors are trained in improv and have games at the ready, Steadman says. Many also teach young children or work with young people in some capacity — especially at the beginning of their careers.
Bilton doesn't see herself working as a nanny forever. She believes the work she's putting into her performance career, seven days a week, will pay off eventually.
"The advice that I'd give to an artist trying to make it in Vancouver is be tired as much as you can or change careers," she said.
"It's ruthless, and you not only have to be performing every night of the week but you have to be writing your TV pilot and you have to be promoting yourself constantly."
Haters gonna hate
As for the cost of living in Vancouver, Bilton thinks it's not as bad as other cities in Canada.
In Montreal, she may have only paid $225 a month for an apartment — with no heat — but, as an anglophone, the wages were also lower. It's a subject she often addresses in her stand-up acts.
"I can't get my head wrapped around why people in Vancouver hate this city so much. I think when you have such a good thing, everything just slightly under perfection seems like a tragedy," she said.
As for Steadman, she may have founded Acting Like Nannies when she was the one providing child care but as the parent of two young children she's now the one who needs it.
Ironically, working in the arts means most of the time she and her partner can't afford it.
"It's really expensive to have a family. And it's really hard to be an artist. And so to try to make those both happen at the same time gets really tricky," she said.