“A Decade In The Life of An Independent Artist” or “Task Work For Arts Supporters"
This might end up feeling to you like nothing more than a gigantic bitch fest. I hope not, as I think there’s some valid information in my experience that deserves to see the light of day. Or perhaps a gigantic bitch fest is alright once in a while - ‘maintain your rage’ and all that. So…
Most of you will be surprised to hear that I’ve been struggling lately. Not just financially, many of you are aware of that, but emotionally and psychologically as well. This isn’t going to be a poor me note, or a post about depression (though there’s nothing wrong with the latter of those) because I’m not depressed, I’m angry. And I live in an unsustainable working environment which causes anxiety, moments of depression and ongoing stress and discomfort. I can pinpoint the reasons why I’m feeling crappy and they’re primarily exterior.
As most of you would be well aware I’m a borderline workaholic, and so my work life impacts very heavily on my mental state, and here is why it’s not been so great lately:
Being An Independent Artist Sucks a Big Fat Bag of Sweaty, Smelly, Hairy, Unwashed, Yeast-Infected, Puss-Riddled Dicks.
Here’s why it sucks so much, and although I’m using personal experience in many examples let me say up front that I know thousands of other independent artists around this country are going through exactly the same thing, and although it’s slightly director centric the lessons can be applied to artists in any field. In fact, as I’ve written these thoughts down it’s occurred to me that many can be applied to what millennia's are going through regardless of their industry. I use my own experience only because it’s what I can speak to most informedly.
This post is also unwaveringly negative. I clocked that as I wrote it to, and have made little notes for myself for a follow up to include proposed solutions or aids to these problems.
And thus I present …
“A Decade In The Life of An Independent Artist”
“Task work for arts supporters”
“an educational and (hopefully) enlightening anecdote for those who have yet to make up their minds”
Training: No issues here… well… You got into a relatively prestigious school, maybe two, maybe you did two degrees. Maybe you have an Adv Dip or a BA or a BFA or a BCA or even anMa or MFA. Great!
These schools are legitimately great, pretty much all of them. Great training. I’ve worked with artists from all of the biggish ones and they know a buttload more than they would have else-wise and are much better artists for it. There are couple of problems though:
Problem one: There are too damn many schools for the industry. So Australia is pumping out 200-300 actors, about the same number of dancers, 80 directors, etc. etc. a year, and while probably half or less of those have the chops, even that many is unsustainable in the current climate.
Problem two: These schools prepare you beautifully for ‘show’ and really really crapily for ‘business’. And it is ‘show business’ we’re in. Most don't have comprehensive courses in resume writing, production & budget management, personal brand management or marketing. This is because they all want to think of themselves as producing graduates who will break into the mainstream, where these jobs are done by others, and so they’ll never have to worry about it.
Return to problem one.
Worst choose your own adventure ever.
So that’s our start in life. But we’re optimistic and have some training and we’re hard workers. So we set out into the industry and that’s where the real problems begin…..
First up: Funding.
This is the political big ticket item at the moment, so let’s get it out of the way quick and move on. There is no funding. What was coming to independents from AusCo and similar has been stripped back and back until it’s practically non existent, and what funding remains available is generally about professional development and thus asks young and emerging artists to contribute a substantial amount of the resources themselves. I’ve been lucky enough to be the beneficiary of a number of these grants, and they’ve taken me to the US and the UK, and allowed me to create a variety of projects, but I’ve never been paid anything like a living wage for any of these things. My trip to the US lasted three and a half months, one month of which I spent training, two months of which I spent in internships and one-half-of-one-month of which I spent having a well earned holiday (which my mum paid for most of). I paid almost solely for work and training related expenses and living expenses while away, and they cost around eighteen grand. We can probably write off three G on shows and discretionary items (I was after all in New York and wasn't going to miss seeing as many shows as possible - ask my mum, in the ten days she spent with me in NY we saw 11 shows). So 18 minus 3, that’s 15G of work/training related costs. I was lucky enough to be funded for ten of them. Five grand in the hole for CPD.
London was comparatively less well resourced. The work-related expenses were about 5G for a month away. I was funded 500 bucks and mum and dad chipped in again, to the tune of 500 bucks each. 3.5G in the hole for CPD.
And this kind of CPD is essential for artists to be broad minded, balanced, innovative, excellent artists and, by the way, it’s de-rigeur at “fully paid for & fully salaried” in many other industries.
I’d also point out that both of my trips included essentially unpaid internships (I received a small stipend for one of them). I’ll get to the horrors of internships later.
The shows I’ve produced with funding support included ‘Seven Jewish Children and Not ….Enough Oxygen’ in 2011, which was funded by The Helpmann Academy. A wildly successful double bill which sold out and won awards. We even ‘broke even’, technically, so were not ‘out of pocket’ per se, but every participant in that show worked for the equivalent of 6 weeks full time for about 300 bucks each. As producer/director I reckon I could safely add another 2 weeks full-time to that. I’m not going to rack up those number to equity rates and call it an out of pocket cost because it was my first year out so I’m happy to work for less than equity (and besides it would make me too depressed to think about it). And that’s not to mention the huge number of shows we have done without funding and thus made no money, very little money, or lost substantial amounts of money.
And at six years into a practice that has seen me win numerous awards and substantial acclaim I’m still being advised by the higher ups that “It’s just earning your stripes, keep doing stuff for free and once we see it we’ll know you’re good and hire you.”
In what other industry does this happen? In what other industry are you funded but not actually funded to do your job or the CPD you set out to do?
I know, I know, it’s not the funding bodies fault, they don't have enough money, they want to support as many young artists as they can. I get it. It’s true. It also still sucks the aforementioned bag of undesirable D.
Ok, so this brings me to point two: The risk averse culture of the Medium to Large sector.
I’m lumping everyone with operational funding in here, and it’s rare that Mediums get lumped with Majors, I know, but I’ll explain why.
These companies are great, but they’re gatekeepers as much as the funding bodies are. Most everyone with operational funding employs artists, and by virtue of this they decide which artists to employ. They are hence gatekeepers. All well and good, we need gatekeepers, but the problem is that for a variety of reasons all of these gatekeepers have very similar, very specific agendas which, either intentionally or not, have the effect of making ‘getting in’ very very difficult.
When not being told by these gatekeepers to ‘keep producing indie shows’ so they can see our work and trust us, we’re being told to apply for their seasons, and so we do. Knock-backs come in all shapes and sizes in the arts, but the most common one is ‘we didn't have the space/money’. Of course thats true, but you programmed someone didn't you? So I recently asked for details and feedback. I won’t name the company, but here’s what I was told (I’m paraphrasing) “Pick a show that’s tried and tested, not too ambitious, small cast, and that we can be more assured you’ll succeed with.”
Does anyone else see the problem here? I went to this company with a play by one of our most prolific and well respected playwrights, with the writer on board to do a cut and edit, and with a suite of leading actors from around the country, but even under these circumstances an emerging director can’t be trusted with a work of scale and complexity.
The problem with this is that if we never take a risk on artists who take risks and push beyond where they can be assured of success our artists will never grow and develop, and as a result our national arts scene will at best develop incredibly slowly and at worst stagnate and eventually die. We need to be able to take massive leaps into the unknown, because history has proven that the only real developments (in the arts or anywhere) happen when we do this. And yes, much of the time we fall flat on our faces and that’s the point too. Those experiences provide huge learning curves for people, and are as integral to development as successes both moderate and outrageous.
But the agenda of a gatekeeper company is this “Produce only work that you can be all but assured will be a success.” (If you’d like more information on the skewed rubrics of success in the arts, please see “Failure, Otherness, and Losing One’s Way in Inter-Cultural Artistic Practice”, my NIDA MFA thesis, available soon (i.e. probs like 2 years) in a Journal TBD, or upon personal request. Back to the point:).
This, again is not actually the companies’ fault, because like the rest of us they’re up against it. Two shows a year that tried something outrageous and failed, multiplied by the four years of your ever-tenuous-funding, eight flop shows from, say, 25-40 produced, out on your ear next funding round. They are placed in a bind where they can’t take risks.
And of course the nay-sayers will argue that this is quality control. But I believe it’s different. There is a difference between talented high-skilled artists risking and sometimes failing and shoddy artists getting gigs and failing because they have limited skills.
Ok, so we need to get more runs under our belt (mixed metaphor) before a big (or medium) company will hire us. Right. Back to independent production. Oh wait, no money (see above). Ok, look we want in eventually and we know we have something to offer, so we put on a show for free, sink 5-10G into it with only the slimmest hope of getting any of it back.
Problem three: The Horrors of Independent Theatre
I hate to say it, but no one does their best work when they’re living on mi goreng and brown rice and working 25 hours in a supermarket or cafe on top of their full time ‘job’ (unpaid) for which they have a fucking degree.
And because of this, the work comes in sub-par. Yep. Sorry again, you don't want to hear this, but most independent theatre is crap. This isn't the artists fault either. Many many of us could make work that’s a million times better, but it’s impossible under these circumstances.
No one is ever available for rehearsal at the same time, rehearsal happens in a lounge-room or at best a church hall, the performance venue stinks of booze because the poor venue owner who’s trying to support the arts has to host a nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays to make their ends meet, the budget for set and costumes is about seventeen cents and whatever-you-can-live-without-at-home (wasn’t that couch in a house I went to last week…?), and forget about selling-out and actually making some of that money back because who can afford a publicist?
Oh, speaking of which, that’s the other problem with indie theatre. Everyone else wants the cash you earned as a waiter or a checkout chick or a fucking stripper. And I don't mean rent and food and phone bills (and phone bills are huge if you’re an independent producer btw), no, I’m talking about work related costs. Venue: 2G, Printing and distribution of marketing: 1.5G, techies: 25 bucks and hours, publicist… hah! I recently had a quote from a publicist who was offering a 30% Emerging Artists discount and was still asking for 5G — broken down as “50 hours work @ $100/hr”. That’s the whole budget!! Do you know what I get paid, M. Publicist? Nothing bucks an hour. That’s what. And guess what nothing bucks an hour is for the 320+ hours work I did on the show, FUCKING NOTHING BUCKS.
You likely don't have a proper producer either, because they want a fee too, and the good ones (and this is a near-direct quote from one of them) “don’t hang around in the indie scene long, because they can make better money elsewhere”. So as likely as not you’re producing it yourself and that means valuable hours away from the rehearsal room sitting at a computer doing a job you’re not actually that great at, and compromising the job that you spent 30-some-G getting a fucking degree in.
Finally, to come full circle, once this beleaguered indie show is up and running… oh wait… it’s shit. Why? All of the above. Plus you couldn't get the actors you wanted because the best ones (rightly) don’t work for less than equity, or if they do they (rightly) take an add here and there to pay the bills and so they miss rehearsal, or (horror of horrors) they drop out two days before opening night to do a 1500 bucks a week Flagship gig (and who wouldn’t?).
So your show is substantially less good than your skills would otherwise suggest, but it’s all you’ve got, so you invite those gatekeepers I mentioned above, because this is how you show them they can trust you and next time you’ll have a producer and more money and resources …. and about a third of them show up and they think your show sucks anyway, because it does, and so you’re back to square one.
This is legitimately the WORST choose your own adventure EVER.
Incidentally, some of these projects do, of course, get funded, thus alleviating many of the above problems, but almost no one will fund you the whole cost of a professional production, and almost everyone wants everyone else to commit to the funding first - risk averse culture, again.
So the first step is playing a mindless game with the funding bodies to prove that you have enough ‘in kind’ support and good artists and mentors on board to be viable, and then playing them off against each other with dates and promises. AusCo have more rounds, so you get in early for themand hope, not for a successful applicaton, but for a peer endorsement letter (basically a letter which says “we would fund you if we had more money”) and then you send that letter to state government funding, who you hope for a success with, which will get you half way there, and then you go back to AusCo with a new proposal and more money in the bank, and hope for a success with round 2. Meanwhile you’ve probably spent the equivalent of 3-6 weeks full time on grant applications for…. oh. NOTHING BUCKS. (And again, may I just say, that in most other industries these kinds of grant-app hours are done at a desk in your office provided by your ‘permanent employer’ (a term which my brain can’t compute).
If you are lucky enough to get an indie work moderately well funded (i.e. you’re not working under what Equity call the ‘Showcase Contract’ (which everyone else calls ‘Co-op’) but actually paying fees to artists) you are FUCKED from all directions, because most funding bodies have a provision stating that actors, other performers, and technicians must be paid equity (as they should be). And this is great for performers and technicians but almost universally means that the producer, director, writer (if it’s a new work), choreographer etc. all take pay cuts to get the thing on stage and often end up working for well below minimum wage, let alone equity. And often, to save money, the actors etc. who are nominally getting equity are actually taking on dual roles to save costs.
I recently talked to the producer (actually an actor) of a production being produced by a major international festival — won’t name any names but one of the big five: Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney, and Perth —and funded by about twenty bodies including AusCo and the relevant state authority, and the principal creatives were still getting paid substantially less than the actors and below minimum wage. And let’s remember that they had probably been working on the show for about… I dunno, two years, where the actors has probably done about 6-8 weeks. (And that’s not to say that actors shouldn't get equity, they should, but ….. parity?)
OK. So our indie works are buzzing along nicely, not really making us any headway with the Mid-to-Majors and we’re subsisting on a diet of mould from the underside of the bathroom sink and brown water from the rusty drains in our rented home with a landlord who wont fix anything.
Next move? CPD. The vagaries of CPD funding are detailed above, but let’s talk about the internships themselves. (I’m pretty much going to leave out courses-that-you-pay-for, because they’re a part of any industry and CPD is important. I will very quickly say that in a lot of industries this kind of CPD is supported by your ‘permanent employer’(still does not compute)).
Issue four: Unpaid Internships
These are great! We get to do what we love, we’re doing to under the eyes of the gatekeepers so they can see our skills, we’re learning from the best in the biz. Hang on though. I can’t pay the rent this month, and besides, I’m fetching coffee and sitting quietly in the corner, and the company are actually contractually bound not to let me do anything.
That’s right. Because if I did something that would serve as proof that they should be employing someone for that job, and the union would be on their back, so despite the promise of building connections and learning from the best, this is essentially uni again but with no practical work. Didn’t we pay 30-some-G for three or four years of that? (A debt we haven't even started paying off, because we don't earn… well… anything.)
“But you weren't working with *insert big name here* at uni.”
“No, but I did work with *insert six big names here* and when I called them for a job guess what they said? “Want to come do an unpaid internship?””
And I do get it, these companies are in a bind from all directions too. They want to support emerging artists, but they can’t afford to take a risk (just like the ones who didn't program your show, above), so they bring you into the room in a role so low-stakes that they basically invented it just to give you an opportunity. This is great, you’re raring to go and happy to do what you can, but they are forced to make you sit on your hands because otherwise the union and the fucking-fair-work-ombudsmen-or-something-or-other will shut them down.
It’s also worth pointing out that almost all of the wonderful assistant director programs that used to exist at AMPAG level have been destroyed due to funding cuts (STC is the only theatre company with a paid AD on every show), and these were incredibly valuable both to the companies and to the artists - because they allowed the assistant directors to actually do some work.
So, Applying for funding. Tick. Applying for Mid-to-Majors’ seasons. Tick. Indie work. Tick. CPD. Tick. What else can we do to kick start this career?
Move to a state with a bigger industry?
Problem Five: No National Dialogue.
Australia is near unique in that we don't have a central hub for the arts. In the UK it’s London, in the US it’s New York, in Germany it’s Berlin, in France it’s Paris. But we have two contending for ‘the major centre’ and three to five others contending for honourable mentions, and we’re incredibly spread out geographically. So if an early mid career artist moves interstate they’re moving to a place where no-one knows their work, in fact they probably don't know the work of the gatekeepers who gave you the gigs, and so can’t ‘trust you’ any more than someone fresh out of Uni. (Ever-present risk averse culture again). Work in any other state, except at AMPAG level, basically doesn’t count in this country.
Now, the assertion at the top of this section is, admittedly, a lie. We do have a national dialogue about the arts, but unfortunately because of geography it’s based almost entirely on the artists and companies that are able to tour, or are big enough to be in one of the 5 big international festivals, or conduct substantial interstate marketing campaigns. I’ve spoken to artistic directors of AMPAG companies (again not naming names) that weren't even aware of the existence of a sell-out rave-review wold-premiere show from another AMPAG company, and that’s not their fault either. Our industry is grossly disconnected from itself because of the lack of funding and resources available for touring and made worse by the challenges of our geography.
So yes. A word of advice for recent grads: move to the city with the industry that’s the best compromise between ‘biggest’ and ‘best aligned to your aesthetic’, but do a national tour in your first six months out, and then move straight away, because you’ll have to start from scratch when you get there and if you wait 2 or 3 or god forbid 4 years (like I did) you’ll be too exhausted from the daily grind and, in your mid-to-late-twenties, too old to get in (I’ll talk about our cultural obsession with ‘wunderkinds’ another time).
Ok, so at this level of morose disgust you’re probably all thinking “You’ve had such little support, you hate your life, why don't you get a real job, because you’re clearly either not cut out for the lifestyle or you’re not talented enough to get a paid gig.” Three or four years ago I would probably have said the same thing.
One, I’ve had HEAPS of support and accolades, and mentors, and wonderful opportunities, and six years in I’m STILL doing it tough.
And two, I LOVE my life. And I never love it more than when I’m working, paid or unpaid. And I don’t want a luxury car, or a house that I own, or enough money to raise three children (although enough to consider one would be nice) I just want enough security to keep doing what I do: just that small promise that by 40 I can be guaranteed a living wage.
And I have had gigs at the mid and upper levels of the industry — on average one a year (or about 6-10 weeks) since graduating my first degreesix years ago — but the problem is that these gigs are so few and far between that the gaps can seem like a lifetime.
The problem is that six or nine months under the conditions I’ve described can wear a person down until they’re unable to actually perform the task when they get the gig. I have a major, high-paid, high-risk gig in a couple of months and when I took it I was sure I could do it, and now, I’m not so sure.
Partly the problem is also money. I have to keep a very close eye on my income and expenses for obvious reasons, so I can tell you for a fact that, with teaching, and hospo, and gigs and indie show profits , and baring a massive windfall between now and June 30, I have lived on just shy of 29G this financial year, and I’d estimate that 8 of that was work related costs (which I’ll claim on tax, meaning I dip to pretty much below the threshold and get back much of the 2G I paid in tax this year). Apart from work related costs I’ve basically lived on 21Grand this year. That’s ridiculous. And yes, I was studying for some of it, but I also racked up 10G of a student loan in those months. Anyway…
Of course some people do ‘get the breaks’ and the nay-sayers among you will say that that is because they worked hardest and had more skills and talent. You’re right, sort of: many of the current beneficiaries of ‘the breaks’ are hugely skilled and talented artists, but the problem is that they all had to go through a version of what I’ve just described, and this is what happens:
One leading artist’s career advice to me, very recently, was (slight paraphrase, I didn't think it appropriate to pull out a dictaphone) “watch what leading artists and artistic directors are doing, do your best imitation of that for the first fifteen years of your career, then you can start to show them who you are”. Which is FUCKED right? And which exemplifies to me something I’ve long suspected: that artists in this country have to spend so long doing menial work or curbing their creative vision just to get a look in that once they gain a position of respect and influence they’re often, while perhaps technically brilliant, the shell of the artist they once were creatively because they’ve had to cow-tow to a broken system and deny their own artistic impulses for so long.
This has been a very negative-nelly post, I know. I’m not trying to garner your pity thought. What I’m trying to do is exemplify some problem, some unique to directors, some to the arts broadly, and some to the millennial job environment broadly, which are fucking up our society and the capacity of young artists (/people) to do what they do best. There’s a whole other argument to be had about the value of creative work, but again, that’s for another time. If you’ve come this far go with me for three more paragraphs on the assumption that the work is intrinsically valuable…)
The problem beneath the problems is funding. We all know it. Let’s talk about the fucking pink elephant again. There is not enough money. And that’s because we live in a free market economy and the arts aren't self sustaining industries. Oh wait… we don't live in a free market economy, we live in a mixed economy, and almost nothing is self sustaining. Putting aside the things we consider human rights — like health and education and defence; which are heavily insulated from the market — industries such as mining, manufacturing, retail, housing and even personal investment — which are all ostensibly market driven consumer economies — all receive substantially more funding and tax breaks than the arts.
There’s a whole other elephant crouched under the pink one. Australia, as a nation, based on the way we fund and resource it, DOES NOT APPRECIATE THE ARTS.
We don’t appreciate it as an industry that drives economic or jobs growth, we don’t appreciate it as a contributor to society and we certainly don't appreciate it as a human right. I could go into the repercussions of this for the working class and minorities, or the repercussions for theatre goers, Triple J listeners, exhibition goers, architect-built home buyers, travellers and tourists, or viewers of Neighbours (not to be confused with “viewers of neighbours (small ’n’), which is just creepy). I could suggest systems for improving the lot of artists and audiences, and I will next time. But that will all be to no avail until we are able to convince the political elite and the populace that the work of artists and the role of the arts is as integral to our nation as the land we prize so dearly that we continue to deny it to its original owners (I’ve covered everything else why not get a word in for our first peoples finally, and too late as usual).
Our system needs radical overhaul of we are ever going to reach the heights of success (by any rubric) that we aspire to. And if you think we’re doing well in the current climate (and by some rubrics we are) just imagine what we could do if we actually invested in our arts and creative industries.
This is the task that confronts us and I don’t know if I have the strength for it. But I know that collectively we do.
Final plug: if you want to give me a hand with it get in touch with me, Terence Crawford or The Arts Party - all of whom together are attempting to fight the good fight on this.
Word out. I don't have the energy to pick the mic up in order to drop it.