Comedian Mike Delmont has been featured at the Halifax Comedy Festival, on CBC’s The Debaters, and at Montreal’s Just For Laughs. But likely you will recognize him as a regular at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and the star of the God Is A Scottish Drag Queen franchise.
Coming to know Mike through the Fringe myself, we would eventually connect through social media. A few weeks ago, he posted about how, despite continuing to make a living through as an actor and comedian, he had not had a successful audition in over ten years.
His post got me thinking about the advice I give my acting students not to put all of their faith in the gatekeepers because they can stop you. Instead, if you want to do it, do it. It is a philosophy that Mike has embraced.
In this Q&A, we find out more from the comedian about his career and his advice for others looking to make a living creating their work.
This interview has been edited.
You recently posted on social media that it was ten years since your last successful audition. Can you expand on that?
It turns out that it was 11 years ago.
In January of 2009, I was acting in shows in Victoria and couldn’t get any auditions with the big theatres because I wasn’t in Equity. Chemainus Theatre was doing auditions for Oklahoma! and I knew I would be perfect for a role. Asking a few artistic directors to vouch for me, I eventually landed the role. I spent four months as an apprentice Equity actor playing the role of Judd for just over 100 performances and a total fee of $6,400.00.
When the show wrapped, I thought that doing Equity musicals would be my life. I was excited and so very keen. I applied to audition for every major theatre in the country, but none would even let me in the door. The few auditions I did get I didn’t get anywhere close to getting a role. I tried out for commercials and movies and never got a callback. I started to realize very quickly that if I didn’t do my own shows, I wasn’t going to be acting very much at all.
My first solo show was in May of 2010. I had been playing a lot of characters with Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville at the time, and I wanted to see if I could do something on my own. I rented the Victoria Event Centre and took a chance on myself. The show sold out before we had any press, so we added a late show, and that sold out as well.
Was your first self-created show a hit, or did you have to develop your skills?
I created a few shows with friends for the Victoria Fringe starting in 2004 that were a lot of fun to do. The first show that I created on my own, that wasn’t meant to be a one-off performance, was a show called God Is A Scottish Drag Queen. It ended up becoming quite a hit and is now how I make the majority of my living.
Did you have any mentors who helped you as you headed out on the road?
I did not. It was a lonely, expensive and very steep learning curve for me. It is the main reason why I now coach for the BC Touring On The Road workshops and I am always happy to talk shop with other performers. I am always excited to be a sounding board for folks who are trying to do what I do and make a living as a performer.
Do you have any formal training as an actor?
I have no formal training as an actor. A lot of people credit the University of Victoria’s theatre program for my schooling, but I never actually went there. I don’t know where that rumour got started. I did study opera at the Conservatory of Music for a few years in my early twenties.
What was a setback that almost knocked you off course as a self-producing artist?
I don’t know if anything knocked me off course, but things certainly set me back. I have had a sea of “producers” who have offered their time and services and did nothing at all. I have had a few people rip me off. I had two shows, almost back to back, that lost $10,000 each and were a big hit on me. It’s tough when you do everything right on a project and one unforeseen event or two tips it into the ditch. It happens, though. You don’t see it coming, and it blindsides you and makes you nervous about getting back up, but you still do. You dust yourself off and keep going.
What was the moment when you realized you were on the right path as a self-producing artist?
I was living in Toronto, working three part-time jobs and maybe hitting $18k before taxes. In 2012 I did my first ever Fringe tour to Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Over the three cities, I sold about $20,000 worth of tickets, and after expenses, I think I made around $12,000. It was easier and so much more fun than three crappy part-time jobs. I thought, if I just did the Fringe, I could make an okay living. It would be another two or three years before I could stop working a day job, but that was the summer where I realized that life as an artist was possible.
Do you have a booking agent or manager?
I have had a booking agent in the US for the last two years, and they make up between 2% and 3% of my yearly work.
How do you finance your travel to do shows?
When I first started out doing Fringe shows, I borrowed money from two producers I knew. I let them know my plans for the first Fringe tour, and they were reasonable, and the costs were low, and I was able to pay them back within a few weeks of the tour, which was really great. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t asked for help.
My tours now are much bigger, and I spend more than two-thirds of the year on the road. The costs are about twenty times more than they were in that first year, but it took time to grow that. I went slow, took limited risks, and made sure I could afford those risks. It was tough not to try to grow too fast. It’s a big part of the advice I give now is to grow slow. It looks and feels better to sell out two shows in a 100 seater rather than have those same 200 people come to see you in a 500 seaters.
Do you make your living from your shows, or do you have some side gigs?
I only make a living as a performer. I have many different shows now, which leads to a good variety when I travel. It never gets dull. I haven’t had a day job for five or six years now.
Finally, what advice do you have for artists thinking of self-producing?
Tell the stories you want to tell in the way that you want to tell them. Don’t shy away from the truth of it. Audiences want something real. They want heart, and they can tell when it’s fake. Always ask for help. Cash in those favours and don’t pretend you know everything. It’s okay always to be learning. Start small and build. My show started with nine performances in a 60 seat cafe and an $11 ticket. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be able to play 1,500 seat theatres with a $50 ticket. And when I create a new show, I always start back at that same place. People want to help you build and to be successful. Lean on them and ask for help.
To find out more about Mike Delamont’s shows and upcoming appearances, visit his website at mikedelamont.com.