A Love/Hate Letter to the Theatre Industry

Every now and again I think about what career I would’ve pursued if I hadn’t set down the long and arduous road of working in theatre. When I was sixteen, I wanted to pursue journalism: but a visit to an open day one morning put me off that. I realised I didn’t want to work in an industry that didn’t always uphold the truth, nor did I want to spend years writing about topics I wasn’t passionate about.

Following on from that, I wanted to pursue creative writing. It seemed like the logical choice: I loved writing, and I loved visual mediums such as film and theatre, so I’d major in scriptwriting. When the time came to submit my university preferences, I chose a creative writing degree at the University of Technology in Sydney.

But then came a conversation that changed everything for me. I remember poring over my general mathematics textbook (thank god that’s over) when my mum walked in. Much earlier in the year when I was scoping out university options, I’d gone to an open day for a drama school. I told my mum that that school had called me as they had a round of auditions coming up, and wanted to know if I’d like to book in for one. I wasn’t sure if I should do it – but my mum convinced me otherwise.

She said that she’d always seen my at my happiest when I was doing anything involved with Drama at school. She’d seen all my drama nights, she’d drive me to the local theatre when I’d booked myself in to see plays by playwrights like Tony Kushner and Toby Schmitz (thank you Parramatta Riverside Theatres), and she’d seen how engrossed I was whenever I was writing drama essays. “Why not go for an audition,” she said. “You’re already a writer – you can write any time. You have nothing to lose.”

That was 2009. Now, eight years later, I consider myself a director, a producer, a sound designer, an actor – and a writer, too. I’ve written a show from scratch, found a venue to put it on, made marketing material, fundraised, made rehearsal and production schedules, sourced costume and set, operated a sound and lighting board, made a profit from my own shows and been able to pay the artists I’ve worked with. And along the way, I’ve fit in a BA, an MA, packed up my life and moved to the opposite of the world, and managed to secure a visa to keep myself living and working in London permanently.

And yet, despite all these things I should be proud of, I’m incredibly insecure about my place in the theatre industry. I look at the artists I want to be like… Simon Stone, an Australian theatre director who set up his own theatre company straight after drama school and immediately produced a range of acclaimed productions before directing his first mainstage production at the age of 24… or the European artistic director (who will remain nameless here) who read a degree in a discipline outside of theatre and then went straight into working in the literary department of an internationally renowned theatre… And of course I think, why aren’t I there? Why am I so behind?

As a young independent theatre-maker, you follow all the rules. All the big theatre companies in London write on their websites, “We’re passionate about meeting and supporting new artists. The best way for us to do this is for you to invite us to your work.” So we do. Last year I made a show that I was particularly proud of – a long-standing mentor even came up to me after seeing it and said, “That show is ready-to-go, I could see it being the kind of thing that would play somewhere like the Royal Court.” My heart swelled with pride. And then it broke when I realised that none of the dozens of theatre companies I had invited had come along. Not a single one. None of them even replied to say they couldn’t make it.

You also start to question whether your thousands of pounds worth of training even matters. Recently, I was invited to interview for what genuinely felt like a dream job for me. It was a literary assistant position in an incredible theatre company. I was thrilled to get an interview, and after completing a short task and speaking to a panel, I was so certain that this was it – this was my big break. The one I deserved after my years of slog and study.

When I received the phone call to tell me the position had gone to someone ‘with a little more experience,’ it was all I could do to get through the call without bursting into tears. The negative thoughts that I’d managed to put off for a long time finally started to seep in. How is it possible that the artistic director I admire can get a literary job straight out of a non-theatre major, and yet I can’t even seem to break my foot in the door after a $50,000 BA, a £16,000 MA, and another five years on top of that making my own work in the industry?

I understand why so many people give up on this line of work. Every single one of us comes out of drama school fresh-faced and full of hope. I remember my first year after graduating, I didn’t stop – it was show after show, a mix of paid and unpaid jobs, meeting lots of artists and working with such fervour that people began to take notice.

But it’s not enough just to make good work – the real battle is getting people to actually SEE it. If your show isn’t picked up by a bigger company, or reviewed by that major publication that will get you attention, you start to wonder, what’s the point? As much as I love my family and friends, I’m not making the work for them. I’m making it for the world, for people I don’t know whose lives I could change. That might be idealistic – but you know what? If I can’t hope for the best in this world – especially in this weird Trumptopia we’re living in – then why make art at all?

Similarly, it’s an incredibly heavy thought to consider that the degree you worked so hard for doesn’t equate to what you thought it would in the real world. Someone with a degree in accounting becomes an accountant, a law degree gets you work in a law firm; but two theatre degrees which have equipped me to be both creative and entrepreneurial have gotten me a grand total of zero permanent jobs within theatre organisations. Like everyone else I’ve supported myself through front-of-house work and similar, but I’d be lying if I said doing those jobs didn’t break my heart a little: to see the performers, the designers, and the directors who are making a full-time living doing what they love.

So, where do I go from here? I guess acknowledging that this is a real thing that happens in the industry is a good first step. I’m sure there must be many other people out there like me – on paper, they have everything they need to be making quality theatre within great spaces and organisations. And yet, there seems to be a failure to launch. What do we do? How do we get people to take notice? How do I keep going? These are questions we need to address, on multiple levels. Individuals who are going through this should be reaching out to each other, rather than struggling alone. Companies who have the power to meet with artists, to see their work, please do! If resources are the issue – we all understand that there’s only so much time, so many staff members, and so many shows one can make time for – then please acknowledge the artist that has reached out to you with the utmost hope in their heart. Think of it like you would a friend inviting you to a party – you’d either happily accept or politely decline. We are an industry full of friends waiting to meet, and maybe we’ll get along and maybe we won’t, but both outcomes are part of the learning experience.

We need to be kinder to each other. We are surrounded by highly capable, creative individuals. Most people in the theatre industry are not ‘just’ one thing – just an actor, just a writer – but have developed multiple skills in order to be in work and support themselves. And many self-made theatre-makers, while on paper don’t appear to have studied a degree in producing or design or management, have carried out all the tasks that such jobs would require (and they’ve most likely done it to a very high standard, too.)

It’s hard to keep going. We deny ourselves many things – relationships, time with family and friends, financial security – because we feel like we have to give it the best possible shot. I’m in a difficult place right now – I constantly battle with the feeling that I should be further than where I am, and the fear that I will never get there because I’m just not good enough. But I don’t have the option of giving up – I’ve come too far and invested too much to throw in the towel now. And at the end of the day, I do love making work and sharing it with people: nothing satisfies me more than the potential of art to change people’s lives, to stay with them long after they have witnessed it.

If I could say one thing to other people in my position, or those who have just started down the road of this precarious industry, it would be this: never forget that this is a job that isn’t solo. Even a solo performer is held up by a team of people working behind the scenes. It’s important to acknowledge the people around you – both in AND out of the industry. Be kind to your co-workers, but also be kind to your family, friends, and lovers. Life doesn’t stop when you walk into the theatre; the theatre reflects life, and in order for it to do that, you need to keep on living. So live. Love. And then make some kick-ass theatre about it.

Photo credit: ‘Arrival.’ Brett Boardman (2011)