When I read Aaron Dora’s blogpost (Art Speak #7) about pathways for emerging artists, I felt the urge to express my support for his positive approach. Jo Thomas suggested I might like to expand this into an open letter, so here I am!
My original message:
Hi Aaron, I don’t usually connect with people I don’t know, but I have just read your piece on the Metro Arts website about pathways for moving into the industry, and I admire the way you are setting out to negotiate this tricky journey. One of my passions has long been to nurture the Brisbane industry by doing what I can to encourage opportunities for young and emerging theatre-makers. You clearly have the drive to initiate projects, and, importantly, to take others with you. It is people like you who are our future. I wish you all the best with the [Fresh Blood] festival, and with all your projects. I hope we get to meet some time.
It turns out that we had indeed met (sort of) when Aaron attended an open rehearsal of ‘2 Guys in a Box’, the show I co-wrote with Andrew Cory for Bris Fest last year. (Shameless plug – we’re following that up with ‘A Coupla Dogs’ this year.) That viewing came about because Sean Mee was directing and he invited his students to a run-through. A win-win situation. The students got to see a professional work in progress and as artists we were able to pick the bright lively minds of future theatre-makers.
It is just this kind of exchange that enables our industry to develop. Sam Strong recently wrote about artist pathways from his position as Artistic Director of a State Theatre company (’10 things theatre companies can provide to artists’, ArtsHub 14 August 2018), citing a comprehensive list from tickets and space through access to decision-making and makers, to cooperation and hospitality. It was an example of what can be achieved with a responsible outlook, an attitude of generosity and – let’s not be naive – an awareness of what the company itself needs if it is to develop and thrive. Win-win.
But there remains the challenge of getting started in the first place, or, as Aaron puts it ‘[finding] your way into an industry that seems so hard to crack.’ Aaron rightly says that pathways from university are not clear, and that ‘you have to go beyond your studies to actually get the skills you need’. In fact, this is in many ways the nature of the industry.
Let’s be frank: just as there are no clear pathways at the start, there are none throughout a theatre career. This can be daunting, but also liberating.
It is easy as an emerging artist to perceive the industry as fixed and established. But the wonderful thing about theatre is that it is not fixed. Companies come and go. Who now remembers the vibrant work of TN! or Kooemba Jdarra? Who remembers that La Boite was once on the point of collapse and clawed its way back from the brink? The industry shifts shape as different theatre-makers make their mark and move on. I’ve been an active member of the industry long enough to have seen several generations of artists emerge. Some quickly submerge and disappear without trace. Others re-emerge if they’re lucky. But some find their feet and stay afloat (to mix my metaphors). One way is to crack into the existing industry. Another is to do your own thing and let the industry expand to include you.
We are all shape-shifters. If the pathways are not clear, then it is up to us to create them. I remember an enthusiatic trio of young graduates harnessing support to do just that, and in October this year Bridget Boyle, Robert Kronk and Liz Skitch are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Debase Theatre! The Dead Puppet Society are another group who started small and have changed our industry. Circa emerged out of Rock’n’Roll Circus. Imaginary changed our way of making theatre for children and The Good Room continue to challenge our preconceptions of theatre-making with and for all ages. And so on.
Through a mix of passion, skills, drive and pragmatism, these shape-shifters have put in the work to turn their artistic vision into reality. No doubt they have compromised, had disappointments, probably had to work Muggle jobs along the way. But they have built their resilience, played to their strengths, taken risks and made a commitment. And the industry is healthier and more exciting as a result.
So, to all you emerging artists, I say play to your strengths, take a risk and commit. Create your own pathways and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. Resilience is key. Seize the opportunities presented by such organisations as Backbone, Metro Arts, Brisbane Powerhouse. Investigate the range of paid work you can take which is related to the performing arts, even if it’s not central to your interest (ushering, box office, admin, teaching, etc.). Seek out individuals as mentors – be cheeky, just ask! We all started out once, and we need you to succeed.