Sometimes when I’m working myself into a jittery stupor with too much coffee and not enough naps I think to myself what am I going to have to show at the end of this? Someone once told me, while I was travelling through Sinai, that they thought the West is crazy with its cultural ways – we must grow up to become someone, be a success, but as Vanessa Redgrave once told a group of distressed looking drama students, who is to define what success is?
Performance Arts students have a unique thing that unites them together, although divided into actors, directors, writers, producers, choreographers, burlesque artists, trapeze artists (the list goes on), they are united by a need to discover and question why we are here doing theatre, of all things, and to question why it’s necessary. So, I look to Plato’s cave and I think that guy in Sinai had it right: there’s nothing more important than having food on the table, family and friends who you love. But… I still have this unyielding urge to make truthful, relevant theatre, and to entertain people, and when you put it like that, it’s not so clear why. The only answer I can give is that art is important, it makes people think, makes them happy, and it’s a way that people can express themselves, by creating and viewing. And without it, I’m afraid we run the risk of becoming rather empty in some way.
And what exactly is Equity for if we don’t use it?
“It’s a shame that your entire family decided to go into the arts, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.” Is what I told my father today, while having a discussion about where I was going to live when I graduated, and how the hell people survive at all in London when no one is paying anyone for anything.
Since starting drama school I’ve been involved in quite a few professional productions. Most recently a sell-out, week-long show at the Roundhouse. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful – one of the most wonderful experiences a young actor can have is to play any role, anywhere, before they graduate, let alone a chance to perform for Victoria Wood and Katherine Tate (blatantly not necessary content but hey, just let me have it). However, it has become the norm for people, especially graduates, to not expect payment. What I want to know is where do we draw the line? And what exactly is Equity for if we don’t use it?
…this is a very idealistic moan I’m having here…
As a young creative in theatre if you don’t accept unpaid work then there will be someone else equally as skilled who is more than happy to do it. There’s no money in the arts and unfortunately everyone at my end of the career ladder is losing out big time. But then big theatres are also recruiting unpaid actors for chorus and small roles left, right and centre.
Obviously when you’re still a student, which I am, it’s ok if you aren’t getting paid, opportunities to perform or work for free are good. And working your way up through internships is definitely a good thing. But we all know it doesn’t stop when you graduate.
So in regards to all these things that I ‘feel’ about theatre, given that another year of students will be graduating soon, I have a few points that I would like to make to graduates and employers alike:
1. Don’t start a theatre company (unless you’re completely sure it’s the right thing to do). Money is spread thinly enough as it is, just join one, it’s much less hassle.
2. Stop being so snooty. There are a multitude of performing arts degrees out there, not all of them accredited, and if we lose the less established ones then people lose jobs. Those who really want to work in the industry will stick at it so everyone should just take a chill pill.
3. Crowd funding. If you have a company and no money to pay your actors please look into it, there are people out there who want to support the arts. Even if it’s just travel and expenses it’s nice to get something at the end of a long hard days work.
4. Auditions – acting agencies in America sign people by them. I wont be the first to point out that some people leave accredited courses as rubbish as the day they started, and some people never get in and are still amazing actors who deserve a chance to be seen.
Up until the last hundred or so years, the theatre was more of an underworld than the world of the high flyers. Today’s industry, in which being a successful creative is something to be envied, is relatively new. But that’s no excuse for it to be as hierarchical as it can sometimes be. If there’s any industry that a tiny (dare I say it) dash of Marxism could work for it’s the arts. We are fully connected to the work we do, not all professionals can say that. So, and this is a very idealistic moan I’m having here, why does a tiny top percentage receive the majority of the money, while the rest are left to scrimp, save and take second jobs, if we want to work in the sector? Surely any well-paid actor would be happy to be paid a little less because they loved what they do? And guess where the other half of the money could go…
I know, it’s a crazy idea, full of complications and faults. But for now, as an overworked and underpaid but exceedingly happy and passionate individual who is yet to learn what it’s like on the other side… that’s how I see it.