The art of employing yourself

In Arts & CultureLeave a Comment

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Sarah Michaelis 

Shivering in the subzero temperatures, labeling Toronto as “cool” is an almost heretic understatement.

Nevertheless the December issue of the New York-based P.O.V. Magazine calls our city the coolest place to be if you want to work for yourself.

Many Ryerson graduates who decide to become entrepreneurs do so in Toronto because they recognize the city has a high standard of living, a great night life and their businesses have a good chance of succeeding.

Ryerson departments see the importance of giving students entrepreneurial skills and some take this philosophy a step further by forcing students to use these skills.

Radio and Television Arts (RTA) students in their final year must do a thesis of sorts called a practicum.  They split up into teams and work as a production company.

One group of six students used the practicum as a springboard to creating their own production company Keyhole Creative.

Although all six have their distinct roles in titles, they insist there isn’t a hierarchy.  “We have our titles, but at the same time, we’re building a chemistry by working so closely together on things,” says Tim Grimes, the assistant director.  “If you can develop a good group diversity, with great chemistry then it’s a huge advantage.”

Keyhole Creative, so far, does mainly public service announcements (PSAs).  It already has four clients, including the Toronto Humane Society.  It’s easier to get started by doing PSAs because the charities usually do not have the budget to hire a huge company.

“It’s a win, win, win situation,” says James Fraser, the company’s producer.  “Broadcasters will win because they fulfill a quota of playing public service announcements.  They charitable organization wins because tis’ getting a high-quality service announcement for extremely low cost.  And we win because we’re developing through that work.


Sitting in the heart of Toronto’s theatre district at 296 Richmond St. W. is Radiant Concepts, a company that provide lighting for theatre, television and dance productions.  Mike Sproat and Bradley Trenaman, alumni of Ryerson’s theatre program began the company four years ago after deciding their jobs were not allowing them the creative freedom they craved.  Sproat was working as an assistant technical director at the National Ballet School and Tenaman was a technician at the CBC television.

Sproat says starting a business was an easy decision.

“Technicians are thrown into freelancing from the beginning,” says Sproat.  “We go from show to show, so in essence we’re running on our business.  Taking that extra step and getting an office and staff, to me, just seemed like a logical step.”

Radiant Concepts designs lighting for productions and makes lighting accessories called gobos.  Gobos are stencils that project an image when they’re put in front of a light.  Their gobos were used at the National Post launch party and the MuchMusic Video Awards.

Both Sproat and Trenaman found they had to give up time and money to launch their business.  Trenaman says he works about twice the hours he did at CBC but he does not make nearly what he used to.

“When I add up exactly what I pay myself a week and I ad dup the number of hours, I’m not getting paid very well,” Sproat says.

There are some perks, however.  Last summer, Sproat was able to take a month off to tour North America on his motorcycle.  Trenaman says he also has the freedom to work on shows he wants to work on, something he was not able to do at the CBC.

Tammy Roberts, who created Durham Dance Studio Inc., also enjoys the freedom that comes with being your own boss.  Roberts graduated from Ryerson’s dance program in 1992 as a certified dance instructor and opened her dance studio shortly after.

During her last year at Ryerson, Roberts heard about a dance studio in Pickering that was for sale.  She jumped at the opportunity and, with the help of her parents, bought it.  Since then the business has grown and her studio has expanded from 700 to 4,500 square feet.  She has 61 full-time students and dozens of part-timers pirouetting and tapping their hearts out.

“I’ve often wondered if I should have [danced] for a little bit before doing this,” she says.  “But I love teaching the children a lot.  I’m still learning every day through teaching, and when I’m not teaching I take courses myself.”

Roberts exudes confidence.  The petite dancer walks through her studio with pride.  The walls are lined with pictures of her dancers and the awards they’ve won.

“Here are last year’s overall winners,” she says pointing to one wall.  “They competed against 40 schools and they came out winners.  This one was Miss Junior Dance of Canada last year.”


But unlike Roberts, not everybody is cut out to run their own business.  Entrepreneurs have to be motivated and hard working.

While running Keyhole Creative, the six entrepreneurs managed to hold other jobs and attend Ryerson as well.  Even though James Fraser and Allen Nizi, the creative director, live together, they have to schedule the times they meet.  None of them own a car so they borrow from their parents which makes getting to meetings difficult.  But it’s all worth it.

“At least when we look back we will see a group who managed to do all of this and stay in school,” says Sarah Marion, the production manager.  “It’s pretty impressive.”

Leave a Comment