A Career In The Arts – Is There Such A Thing? Education and employment.

How many times do you find yourself keep on saying that you can’t do this anymore? That enough is enough?

If I’m honest I go through periods of it. The majority of the time I’m quite content with just pottering along and getting by, and it is just that… getting by!

I’ve worked professionally in the arts for just over 10 years now doing a whole range of jobs, the majority of them paid, some of them not. I always realised that to survive in this industry you have to have a range of what schools and colleges would call “employability skills”, skills that are transferable and can be used in a multitude of different ways. So with that in mind I set out to learn as much as I could about all the different roles and art forms.

Now for me, personally, my journey has perhaps been different to many of those getting into the arts.

I hated secondary school with a passion. I didn’t fit in and the normal education structure did not work for me at all. I rebelled and fought against it in every way I could. Part of the problem was going from a tiny Primary School to a massive Secondary school – I couldn’t cope with it at all. On top of other problems I had whilst being there I was classed as School Phobic (yes it’s a real condition I haven’t made it up), it’s a horrible thing to suffer with and I had it so bad I couldn’t even face being on the school grounds without having panic attacks and physically shaking. After being dragged through the courts by a system that didn’t understand the problems I was facing and having an education supervision order slapped on me I finally managed to get back to school.

Anyway I finally got back to school and did really well in the year 9 SATS getting good marks in Maths & Science, the top mark on the Shakespeare paper in the school (wahoo get in!), and 2 marks off a level 8 in English (2 bloody marks!!!). Things were back on track for a while but then I couldn’t cope again and I think everyone had just lost patience with me. So after rubbish attendance I ended up leaving school with one GCSE at E grade in Music.

The only thing that kept me going at school and the only thing that I felt confident doing was helping out with lighting on productions. I fell into this role accidentally. I took GCSE drama and as part of this we were allowed to audition for the lead roles in the main school production which happened to be Little Shop Of Horrors. I was cast as the part of the plant. However due to my poor attendance I was cut (I only missed one rehearsal – lesson learnt the hard way). So that was upsetting but at the time I happened to be in the hall when they were setting up and playing with lights. I took an interest, and the rest is history. I found a place that I felt I finally fitted in and that I could be me.

It’s a really horrible experience to feel like a square peg in a round hole for most of your life but when something finally clicks and you find a way of studying/working that suits you and your abilities – finally the world doesn’t seem like such a scary place anymore.

So that’s where my passion has come from and why it makes me so enraged and feel the need to speak out when I see things in the industry and the education system falling apart.

The latest reports about changes to Dance and Drama in schools are quite frankly stupid. The sooner Michael Gove is forced to leave office the better. I’m fed up of Governments writing policies and creating blanket education programs that remove all creativity and individuality from the subjects. All students are unique. They all learn in different ways. Forcing them to act like sheep and parrot learn pages of ridiculous drivel is not going to help shape them as people or prepare them for the future.

The Government needs to start investing in children as individuals. They are not a collective mass. They are making teachers jobs harder and they are losing the one-on-one time which is invaluable for each students individual needs. Teachers are already over-worked and over-stressed and having to jump through more hoops, and wade through more political bullshit is going to have a detrimental effect on students in the long term. It’s time for a change. It’s time for the Government to realise that actually they don’t have a clue what works best and perhaps if they took the time to actually speak to teachers and allow them a chance to shape policy and curriculum then we may begin to get somewhere. The reason I hated school was because it couldn’t handle me as an individual. It was in no-way prepared for this. The system simply did not allow for any deviation to the archaic boundaries laid down for it. This has to change. I strongly believe that vocational training is the way forwards. Encourage creativity and encourage students to learn for themselves through actually doing things and not being told them or having to write pages and pages on some pointless exam paper about them. Prepare them for the real world through actual experience of the real world. Break some boundaries.

On to my next rant… (Apologies bear with me it almost ties together coherently… almost!)

Like I have already said I’ve worked in the arts industry professionally for ten years. I use the term “worked” fairly loosely.

I have in that time been lucky enough to work on some amazing productions and get some great experience. I have a lovely portfolio of work, a full CV, numerous certificates for different skills and a shiny degree…

But what does that actually mean in real life?

Perhaps not as much as it should.

There is currently an over-saturation of people working in the arts and fewer and fewer roles for them to take on with more and more arts organisations folding due to funding cuts or loss of revenue etc. Each year more and more people emerge from drama schools who have exactly the same qualifications as us, albeit slightly less experience. It’s common knowledge that it’s more who you know in this industry than what you know – don’t get me wrong you still have to be able to do the job but having a foot (or sometimes feet) in doors is invaluable in getting your next job. The trouble with the arts at the moment is that there are more and more highly skilled and experienced people out there looking for work, people who have lost jobs from some of the bigger arts organisations that have closed. Some of these people who were on huge salaries are being forced to take jobs with much less pay. Jobs which they are perhaps over-qualified for but because of their experience they are able to pick up with ease. That’s great for them. But what about everyone else? With more and more roles disappearing where do the rest of us stand?

Top this with the very unhealthy culture of unpaid or low paid internships, the dreaded profit-share and “work that you won’t get paid for but will look great on your CV”, and that leaves all of us who are stuck in the middle of our careers fighting hard to try and secure what little work is out there. When the work does come along you cannot afford to turn it down, no matter how stressful or impossible that may be.

There is also a scary trend of people working for free. Often they are unqualified but because they can offer their services to some small company or other they are snapped up. This is not only wrong it is potentially dangerous. The theatre is a highly dangerous place to work in and it risks not only the lives of the cast but also audience members. Anyone who “works” in a theatre should have training of some description. Even something as simple as working with someone who is qualified for a bit would be an advantage. Low pay or no pay should not mean that we are willing to take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately it is becoming more and more frequent (as are the inevitable accidents associated with this).

One person trying to do every job seems to be another trend with small scale companies recently. More so over the last few years. Whereas before you would have a team of two or maybe three crew more often than not I’ve seen companies with just one technician who is expected to do everything from build the set to light the show and make the tea all whilst precariously balanced on a ladder fiddling with a projector (ok that’s not true but I hope you giggled as much as I did at the image…).

Directors on tight budgets are more frequently using cast members to change scenery, set props, create music… there is nothing wrong with this.  I think all actors should have experience of technical work and vice-versa all technicians should have experience on stage at some point. The danger lies in the fact it’s actually taking a job away from someone else. With smaller budgets this seems like an inevitable cut – but it’s not healthy for the industry.

Another common occurrence is companies wanting more technical support but trying to pay less for it. I  know lots of people and hire companies that have been under-cut by people willing to do the work at a cheaper rate. With less and less work available this is inevitable. But these companies and individuals have to realise that at the end of the day, like with anything else in life, you get what you pay for and there are only so many cuts you can make. I had one director asking me to take a pay cut because they couldn’t afford to pay for the set… I told them no. You pay me what we’ve agreed or I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone else. Luckily in this instance they saw sense – but it could have gone either way. It’s not a nice feeling when people try and take money away from you especially when you have worked your arse off for the show to make it as good as it can be.

Personally in the last few months I have regularly been forced to work more than one job a day, more times than I can remember working seven days a week – often rushing between different venues, sometimes even venues in different cities, just to try and make ends meet. Last Saturday I worked on 3 different productions starting the first at 8:30am and then rushing to the next venue, setting up and operating that show before heading on to another venue and working through until 4:30am on Sunday morning. There was no real time to stop and eat, just grabbing something quickly on route from one place to another. It is tiring and stressful. Of course you could always say no… of course you could. But then you lose the money and as we’ve already established that might not be an option.

When you are self-employed there is nothing to protect you from exploitation except for yourself. But when you cannot afford to turn work down because of a combination of the things mentioned above what do you do? What is the answer?

I’m at a turning point at the moment. I know I cannot sustain this lifestyle for much longer. You keep on holding on and hoping that some kind of break will come along – it’s a hope all of us freelancers hold on to. It’s what keeps us going. I’m not sure what to do about it… I am not one to give up on anything easily but at the moment one single, comfy, 9 to 5 job where you can go home and forget about everything at the end of the day is looking more and more appealing.

I love the arts and I love what I do and I’m really proud of everything I’ve achieved. But is that enough reason to keep on going and plugging away at it? I’m honestly not sure… Chances are I’m just having one of those moments we all get when we question everything… I know I’m not the only one that feels this way though… I think we all do at some point. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. Chances are I’ll wake up tomorrow and be back to my positive self… but now I’ve finally set this blog up I’ll keep you posted…


9 thoughts on “A Career In The Arts – Is There Such A Thing? Education and employment.

  1. A great blog. Well said. I am in exactly that place…the hole between doing things for free because i love the work and the desperate need to be paid for doing what i love. But with no jobs available, I am teetering on the edge of the creative killer- the 9-5 job. I hope and pray things will change soon. Look forward to your further posts.

    • Thank you for your kind comments. It’s a really difficult balance isn’t it and so easily upset. It’s weird though – I don’t think you’d see this attitude in any other industry. You wouldn’t pay a surgeon less money to do a small op than a big one – they are valued equally whatever they do. It’s a society thing that has to change (do a search on A Girl In The Dark and have a read of her latest blog about working in America – it’s brilliant). I hope things work out for you as well 🙂

  2. Thanks for following – I agree with everything you said about the education system. I’m afraid that I am one of the multi-tasking theatre people you refer to but I think that is very common in the puppet/street theatre world. More so than the conventional building based theatre. I do try to turn down unpaid and low-paid work but it is a difficult area as you say. I think being in Equity helps, are you a member? If you attend meetings it can help you to get a sense of solidarity and even achieve practical stuff 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m not a member of Equity but I do have close connections with the Bristol group and have spoken at one of their meetings. I haven’t ever joined because I mainly do technical jobs and not Stage Management as much anymore (although there are elements of all of it in what we do I guess). I am a member of BECTU but they seem to focus primarily on film and TV and theatre seems to be a side-line. Don’t get me wrong I can do all of the jobs and have operated Lighting, Sound, Av and other things on shows it just is a huge ask and we shouldn’t have to do it. Fingers crossed things will change but who knows – it’s a strange old business 🙂

  3. Really interesting read Luke, a know a little more about you now than I did and fully agree with everything you’ve written, especially the points about blanket educational needs for all.
    Well written, nice one 🙂

  4. Pingback: Luke John Emmett: 'Knowing you've helped create something gives you a sense of pride'

  5. Pingback: Luke is interviewed by Greg Henley of Pie Magazine – Luke John Emmett

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