Editor's note: This is the third in a six-day series on ways local residents are reinventing themselves in hard times.
Acting is a precarious occupation, and for acting couples, the hazards double. Consider Sarah Jane Nelson of Ashland.
Nelson's husband, actor René Millán, was offered work in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2010 season when contracts went out in July. But Nelson, who had roles in OSF's 2009 productions of "The Music Man" and "Paradise Lost," was among some 20 actors who won't be seen on OSF stages next year.
That fact focused Nelson's attention on a little, online jewelry venture called Life Is Rosey she'd started a couple of years earlier but allowed to languish.
"The instant I knew 2010 wasn't happening with the festival, I said Life Is Rosey is about to take off, and I'm going to make a go of it," she says in a phone interview from Arkansas, where she's visiting family. "Once the holidays came, it started to pay off in a huge way."
Experts say the ways in which Nelson went about turning a setback into an opportunity are almost a case study in getting a new small business off the ground.
She got free advice on marketing and business at Southern Oregon University's Small Business Development Center in Medford, developed a product plan and a marketing plan and worked hard following through.
"The fact that she came in the first place is important," says Jack Vitacco, director of SOU's Medford business center.
"We've found that the success rate of startups is about 50 percent better when people seek help."
Nelson, a singer as well as an actor, left Louisiana at 17 to pursue a career in New York City. She made her Broadway debut in "The Green Bird" in 2000, performed in "SWING!" on Broadway and in the touring company, was in The Public Theatre's production of "Radiant Baby" and has performed opposite Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Michael J. Fox and Gregory Hines.
She has written and performed music in genres including country, rock, pop, blues and jazz. She's been heard on commercial voice-overs for Pantene and other products and has released two CDs, "a little bit of everything," a collection of cabaret classics, and "Saving Grace," an album of country originals and covers.
She and her husband, the parents of two young children, settled in Ashland to act at OSF a couple of years ago. Then came the 2010 contract disappointment.
But so far this winter, she's sold more than 100 pieces of the custom silver jewelry she makes, ringing up sales online, at craft shows and through innovative marketing strategies. She's even using the family trip to Arkansas to promote Life is Rosey, selling jewelry at craft fairs and other venues in Monroe and West Monroe, La., and Bentonville, Ark.
"Everywhere we visit I set up a little workshop," she says.
She had her first home sales party recently, and combined efforts with a real estate agent in a plan to sell jewelry at an open house in Rogers, Ark.
"I sold well over $1,000 worth in three hours," she says.
Nelson, who also studied art, had dabbled in sterling silver jewelry for several years but not made it a real business. One of her current pieces is a sterling silver firefighter hat on a key chain. On Sept. 11, 2001, she and her husband were jogging near the World Trade Center when the first plane hit the tower. A bit later they saw a young firefighter on a truck heading for the scene, and the vision stayed with her.
Other necklace designs run from turkey wishbones to Arkansas razorback hogs. Another popular line is quote cards with charms, which Nelson will custom design for weddings or whatever. Different quote cards come with different jewelry. One, in a nod at Shakespeare, reads, "IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE, PLAY ON." It comes with a sterling silver music note pendant hung from a delicate sterling silver cable chain.
Nelson's pieces are affordable, ranging from about $30 to around $100. They can be seen at www.lifeisrosey.com and at etsy.com by punching Nelson's name into the search field.
Her pieces are also for sale at The Crown Jewel in Ashland, where she says both the owners and customers have given feedback that's been a good learning tool.
She says a key element in the success she's enjoyed so far has been the coaching she received from Ruthie Painter at the Small Business Development Center. A friend told her about the center's free programs.
"I was amazed what a resource it was," Nelson says. "Ruthie helped me find focus."
Vitacco says expert volunteers at the center stand ready to provide free advice to budding entrepreneurs.
Nelson also attended a career event at Rogue Community College in September and took mini-classes in marketing and business accounting. She's taken free webinars about how to use Facebook and other tools.
"I'm making my own network," she says. "The days of being forced to pay thousands to advertise are passing."
And what about acting?
"If I was guided by money I would never have become an actor," she says, laughing. "I don't want to stop acting, it's like breathing.
"But the big draw to giving this a shot is that with performing, somebody has to give you a shot. It's empowering to know now I can get up in the morning and just create something."
Bill Varble is a retired arts and entertainment reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.