Magic Beans & The Myth of Artistic Poverty

Art nourishes...who?Poverty paralyses art.

It doesn’t inspire.

It murders.

For twenty months, while my life was fat with “material” (running away from domestic abuse with a freshly-two year-old), it was thin on cash. As the months went by, the rent went up, the flexible hours vanished and the hope of ever getting a mortgage and stable home shrank into the distance.

I planted every creative seed I could think of (and that energy allowed): theatre and film competitions; TV pitches; feature treatments…all unpaid, but them’s the breaks. Alongside, I applied for jobs, jobs, jobs…

Some of it was hilarious. There was an Officially Exciting BIg Theatre Interview. On the application form, it said, “Tell Us Why You’d Benefit From This Opportunity…” – and they got a shame-faced / chin-up statement about being a single parent writer  hundreds of miles outside London: the lack of bar-led chances to gel, the niggles of childcare and travel… Then kalloo-kallay! I got an interview! At 9am on a Monday morning…

After that long period of fallow, and superb support from other artists (you know who you are; and it’s not gone to waste), I had so many seeds underground, I was eye-high-filthy and spent – both financially and creatively.

No single project could justify my focus – because no single one showed any more hope than any other. I ended up running up and down empty rows of soil, again and again, doing absolutely nothing of value and no-one any good. Surely ONE of them must grow? There must be a magic bean in there somewhere? Now? Now? Now?

= Eventual panic.

And then…

I was very lucky.

Someone put me forward for a job. The Other Job, the one that pays the bills. It allows me to work as a well-paid, qualified professional and even gives me the flexibility that single parenthood demands. I travel hundreds of miles a week to do it but it’s worth it – the considerations are not My Art (yup – bum firmly in air as I say it), but whether my just-four year-old is OK with it.

Being an artist is a luxury. It requires head space, an absence of survival-fear and the room to roam in your mind.

These things can be taken for granted by people who have others to fund them, care for & protect their offspring. …Is it any surprise that white men dominate the arts when they – perhaps more than any other group in this country – can most easily avoid the imaginative and creative paralysis of poverty?

I’m extraordinarily fortunate and I know it. If you’re looking for a lesson, then the only one is don’t panic. (And if you’re still in school / college, always make sure you have a Plan B….)

Art nourishes...who?

Art nourishes…who?

M-O-N-E-Y and the “emerging writer”

I’m a member of a professional writers’ group for the Bath / Bristol area. Great people, all quite different in style and temperament. Very supportive. I don’t get there often enough (childcare, blah de blah) but without fail, it’s inspiring.

So here’s last night. After a session on another writer’s work, we rolled up our sleeves and got talking about MONEY.  Some of us had already been to-and fro-ing this on Facebook, with much debate about how theatre buildings should spend their dosh (how far can it be stretched between writers, actors, techies, the building itself, marketing, and reaching new audiences – what’s a theatre’s duty?! – but that must be saved for another day).

Yes: How do we make money?

We were told that a recent “new writing” event paid the actors (dead right) but not writers. It was a funding / budgeting accident. And, of course, it was (yet another) Development Opportunity. And we are genuinely always grateful for Development Opportunities. I have had loads and could not be where I am without them. It’s just that – well, didn’t these opportunities used to be called Work?  Why are actors “developed” and getting pay, when writers of their lines aren’t? What line have they crossed that most of us haven’t? Where is it and what’s the password (and is it John Cleese on the bridge or a troll underneath?)

The thing is, we all sympathise with the financial struggles  faced by theatres and the like. And of course, with actors. This must not become divide and rule, with theatre-devotees ripping the ticket money from one anothers’ bleeding claws. If we do that, we may as well give up now.

BUT –

Scripts (or their devised equivalents) are the bedrock of theatre.  But just now, our best hope outside of large-scale commissions (but often with small ones) is to be paid £1,000 for several months’ work, or the same as an actor, but only once we hit the rehearsal room.

Is this a model that will sustain our theatres?  How can we grow as the writers of the future? Is our trade going to go the way of acting, with the independently wealthy being the only ones who can afford to train, to sit for sustained periods to write?

Off a great script, hangs a show, grows a company, which grows the talent, spreads the word, brings a tear, raises the roof, and perhaps, perhaps, wins a prize.

There are theatres that do very well with new writing and new writers. And there are writers who work bloody hard and refuse to take non-writing work. I thoroughly admire that gumption and determination (and skill).  Until now, I’ve always subsidised my own work. I now have a Peggy Ramsay grant to work on a new script and am seeking funding for my quantum mechanics show (blethered about on most posts this year). Obviously, if you want to help out, my door is open.  But I’m a freelancing single mum in a “post”-recession economy. Bread, butter, etc.

So what to do? This is wider than getting more funding from Government. But, as the Conservative Party knows all too well, the older generation – the voting, theatre-going generation – will not be holding things together forever. Adaptation to the new needs is vital.  If people aren’t coming to new writing, or even to theatres, we can’t force it down their throat – why would we want to?

I can’t stop that bloody nursery rhyme going round my head:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.