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Instead of an office, a stage

Two performers retreat from corporate havens to stake their careers on music and theater

With today’s high unemployment and budget cuts, many creative people are forgoing their dreams of artistic careers for jobs that offer stability and steady pay.

When Stephen Laifer, fourth horn for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, found himself out of orchestral work for the second time in less than ten years, he started to wonder if it was time to pack up the horn for good.

“I had a horrific track record of getting into orchestras, and then they fold,” says Laifer, a former Syracuse resident who has witnessed the continuing dilemma of arts funding and support time and again. “It’s so hard to get a job in this field, and the majority of orchestras in this country do not pay a living wage.”

As a child in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, John Barthelmes spent his days playing make-believe and putting on impromptu performances for family and friends. 

“I always loved theater,” says Barthelmes, now owner of Spotlight Theatre Arts in Fairport. “At one point in my life, I told people I was going to become the most famous actor ever.”

While active in his high school and community drama programs, he chose a degree in aerospace engineering at Syracuse University because, “it was time to get serious.”

Despite the popularity of talent-based TV shows such as Fox’s American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, the US Census Bureau reports that full-time artists represent only 1.4 percent of the American workforce.

Though clearly talented and deserving of full-time creative work, both Laifer and Barthelmes spent time in the traditional workforce to make ends meet before finding a permanent niche in their chosen artistic fields. Such career transitions give hope to local performers that a brighter future might be just around the corner.

Passion to perform

Laifer was well into high school, dreaming of a future in graphic design, when he decided to join the high school band. “I was a late bloomer as far as musicians are concerned,” he says. “Most of the kids in my neighborhood were in the band, and I was bored with nothing to do over the summer.” 

At the request of the band director, Laifer chose to pick up the french horn. “I hate to use the word natural, but it just came to me really easily.”

While Barthelmes studied piano from a young age, he found his true passion for acting through an elementary school performance. “It was fun to create a story for an audience,” he says. By high school, Barthelmes was in several shows per year and starting to take an interest in theater education.

“All through high school and college, I kept paying attention to my teachers and thinking about how I would present the material,” he says. “I thought I was going to be an astronaut, but there was a part of me that always knew I would become a teacher.”

A journey around the Cape of Good Hope

After graduating from Ithaca College as a horn major, Laifer faced his first professional obstacle when he started looking for a job. “I went into this career wide-eyed and unknowing, and it’s practically impossible to get invited to audition for an orchestra without previous experience.”

At the advice of his mentors, Laifer joined the US Air Force military band, which led to a full-time opportunity to join the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra in South Africa. Laifer spent nearly eleven years as associate principal horn for an international orchestra with an eighty-year history before political circumstance and lack of support caused the organization to close for good in 2000. Despite a solid record of professional experience, Laifer failed to land an orchestral job back in the states.

“I didn’t know how to prepare for an American audition, and I just fell apart,” he admits. With nowhere to turn, Laifer made the decision to take a full-time job as a senior writer and editor for a marketing and communications firm in Syracuse that handles the publication of International Musician, the monthly trade journal of the musician’s union.  

Though he had some experience in copywriting from a freelance job in South Africa, Laifer says he would have never got the job were it not for his experience as a musician. “I understood how to write for the union audience,” he says of his four-year stint in the corporate world.
“I enjoyed the challenges of my career, but I was starting to miss performing.”

Sometimes you need to quit your day job

On the contrary, Barthelmes never had any conscious intention of building a career through his love of theater, which he first considered just a hobby. After graduating from college, Barthelmes settled in Rochester, where he worked as a computer programmer by day and an improv performer and theater teacher for community rec centers by night. “My full-time job was paying my theater habit,” he laughs.

When the chance came up to direct a weeklong drama camp in Gates, Barthelmes dropped his career as a programmer and never looked back.

“I wasn’t thinking too far in the future, but I finally knew what I wanted to do all along,” he says. Following the success of the camp, Barthelmes started teaching adjunct courses in computer science and theater for St. John Fisher College and found a space in Fairport for a performing arts studio. Despite initial success at Spotlight Theatre Arts, Barthelmes faced his first professional obstacle when the recession put the brakes on enrollment.

“I had to go out and create other opportunities when things weren’t working,” he says, noting his work directing for area schools, developing home school programs, and creating balloon sculptures for parties and events.

“It can be difficult to make a living as an artist if you focus on just one thing,” he says. “For me, diversification was the only way to make it work.”

All or nothing

While Barthelmes made an abrupt permanent transition into the arts through entrepreneurship, Laifer’s chosen field didn’t allow for that option. “I decided to give myself a year to get back into an orchestra,” he said. “If I didn’t find anything, I would go back to the corporate world and play the horn for fun.”

Laifer took out the horn once more and started preparing to win a major audition. Within a short time, he secured a position with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until they folded in 2011. A year later, he won the fourth horn position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the few small American orchestras that employs full-time performers. He is currently on a tenure track with the RPO.

“Having worked for this since high school, I can’t imagine doing anything else ever again,” says Laifer. “It’s an awful cliché, but I believe I am doing what I was meant to do.”

As for Barthelmes, business continues to grow at Spotlight Theatre Arts, which offers year-round classes and private lessons in drama, plus vocal and instrumental music and dance for youth and adults. To satisfy his itch to perform, he continues to perform improv shows through Great Lakes Productions, known for the interactive dinner show Joey and Maria’s Comedy Wedding.

“I absolutely love everything that I am doing,” he says. “So many schools are cutting music and drama, so I love filling that niche while being creative. It’s something I couldn’t do as a programmer.” 

Michelle Inclema Shippers is a Rochester-based freelance writer.

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