Waking Up Optimistic: A Freelancer’s Life
In the performing arts, successful freelancers juggle multiple roles, assignments and gigs. Some work side jobs to make ends meet. This week we’re spotlighting a freelancer who is forging a rewarding career, not only as a musical interpreter and professional performer, but also an arts advocate passionate about the industry’s future.
Benjamin D. Wagner of Minneapolis admits his work life is challenging. He’s a theater professional, saxophonist and multi-woodwind pit and jazz musician, director/choreographer, music instructor (saxophone and voice) and ballroom dance instructor. He’s also getting married in August!
Wagner considers balancing his different responsibilities easier on some days than others. “Only certain people can do it and not lose their mind,” he remarks. “It helps that I’m extraordinarily Type A.”
To feel challenged, Wagner says his brain needs to be working on four or five different things at once. He’s still striving to achieve his life goals and credits his own willingness to make sacrifices for his career.
“I must be willing to fail, but then to get up and always keep moving forward,” comments Wagner. “I must be willing to go to bed frustrated sometimes – but also wake up optimistic.”
This summer he’s directing and choreographing “The Addams Family” musical at a community theater west of Minneapolis. He’s also a musician for the History Theatre’s summer reprise of the “Glensheen” musical that won rave reviews last fall: this time Wagner’s adding the accordion to his woodwind and piano playing.
In September Wagner will visit NYC’s Greenwich Village for performances on two Saturday nights at The Duplex, a legendary cabaret club. He wrote the show based on his working life; it’s titled “Anything’s Possible: The Musical Autobiography of a Very Resilient Son-of-a-B*$#H.”
“It’s about my development as a professional performer,” Wagner explains. “Impactful moments in my career are told through songs and stories.” (For links to these and his other performances, visit Wagner’s website.)
He currently self-manages his work, but occasionally contemplates bringing someone else on-board. For the past year Wagner’s been represented by a local talent agency, Agency Model & Talent. “They’re growing very fast and do really good work,” remarks Wagner.
He describes himself as a “musical interpreter” and cites his talent at bringing any piece of music off the page. “I’ll find the medium I feel best expresses it, whether I’m playing saxophone or other woodwinds, singing or dancing,” Wagner notes.
For guidance and inspiration, Wagner cites two local influences with national reputations: composer, orchestrator and arranger Robert Elhai and liturgical musician Dan Oie.
Elhai has orchestrated more than 150 film scores, including the first “Pirates of the Carribean.” He was nominated for a Tony award for the original Broadway production of “The Lion King.” Two years ago, he met Wagner when arranging the music for “Glensheen.”
Oie is music director at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Wayzata, Minn. Wagner has known him for 17 years, playing in various worship ensembles. “He’s a phenomenal church musician and just a musical genius,” comments Wagner.
“Both men are blisteringly talented and really good, caring guys,” notes Wagner. “They bring such humility and grace to their craft.” He feels artists should be at the top of their game, yet humble about their talent and accomplishments.
While furthering their own careers, Wagner believes professional performers must also advocate for arts education and the industry’s future.
“If we’re not fighting for our craft for the next generation, we run the risk of it dying out,” he cautions. Whether he’s teaching, serving as a guest artist or just talking with younger performers, Wagner always shares his passion.
He adds that technological advancements like Auto-Tune can undermine authentic skill development today, enabling a performer’s image to excessively overshadow their technique and talent.
“Auto-Tune is counterintuitive to a singer developing good fundamental technique,” he declares. “But unfortunately pop music is going that direction and I think it will become even more detrimental down the road.”
He sees live theater struggling to compete with at-home entertainment options streamed via Netflix, Amazon Prime or other media. “In the future, we have to figure out how to develop stage work that gets people as excited as watching a movie or reality television,” Wagner comments. “That’s going to be really hard, especially for the generation after mine.
“We need to continue fostering growth in the performing arts,” he concludes. “And not just to create the next generation of performers, but also to build the next generation of theater patrons.”