What Do I Wish I Had Known Before Starting Out In The Arts?
I am going to look at this from two angles. From the perspective of setting up Theatre Bath and also from my own experience working freelance for the past eleven years.
I currently work freelance in the arts. It’s very difficult to define what my job role actually is so I usually just tell people that I’m a lighting designer. There is a reason for this which I’ll come on to.
So what did I wish I knew before starting out in a career in the arts.
Firstly – it’s really tough!
People always tell you this but it really is. Depending on what you want to do and which area you want to work in it can be incredibly hard to make a living out of working in the arts, especially in Bath. If you manage to get a job with one of the arts organisations in the city you may just about be able to survive, but only just. There are an increasing number of low paid jobs where the organisations expect you to work ridiculous hours for next to no pay. On the other side of that you do have some great companies such as the Natural Theatre Company who pay all of their performers above equity minimum rates. But sometimes you just have to take what you can get.
Have value in yourself.
There are a lot of people that want you to work for free. The common line is “we can’t afford to pay you but it will look great in your portfolio!” If you’re not careful you’ll end up with a lovely packed portfolio but no money to live off.
Be wary of profit-share. You probably will do it at some point. Just don’t expect to make any money out of it. It seems to have become the accepted term for doing work but not getting paid for it. And we’re artists – we want to create and are driven by our passion to do it so sometimes it’s very hard to say no. People will exploit your love of the arts as a means to get you to do work. When you’re first starting out it can offer a good opportunity for you to play with ideas and try things out. But make sure you have money coming in from somewhere else just incase it doesn’t work out.
It’s a bit of a Further Education term but I feel it is important. I mentioned early that I have trouble describing to people what it is I actually do. The reason for this is because I have a number of different hats and skill sets that I use for different things. I think this is important, especially in an area as small as Bath. One of my college lecturers told me “if someone offers you the chance to gain a new skill then take it” and that has stuck with me. You will find much more work in Bath if you can turn your hand to a number of different things. For example I currently work for Bath Spa University for 15 hours a week as Assistant Events Manager & Duty Manager of Burdall’s Yard. This role involves arts administration, marketing, poster editing as well as running events and managing staff. The more skills in different areas you can gain the more work you will be able to find. This does have disadvantages as well though – sometimes being so diverse can make it harder for people to understand what it is you actually do. You can also end up running between many different jobs in one day. But an appreciation of how all the different areas of the arts work and some level of skill in all of them is a huge benefit.
Learn to plan ahead and keep organised. If you do end up working in many different roles being able to use your time wisely is essential. When you’ve got multiple projects going on for different organisations you need to be able to divide your time up between them all and keep track of what you’re doing. I have many excel spreadsheets and pages and pages of to do lists that keep me on track most of the time.
Don’t be afraid to ask for work. There are companies out there, approach them and occasionally remind them that you are still there. It doesn’t hurt to make a quick phone call and see if anything is coming up.
Word of mouth. The arts can feel like a small clique at times. A lot of the time it is who you know and not what you know that gets you the next job. If you do a good job then people will pass on your details to others. But also if you don’t do a good job then expect everyone to hear about it. News travels very fast in this industry and people talk to each other a lot.
Don’t give up. It will be hard at times and there will be moments when you question why you put yourself through it. But keep plugging at it. You will probably never be rich but you will get to work with some great people and do a job that you love doing and sometimes that is worth much more.
Theatre Bath was founded in November 2011 and started life as a Twitter account. 3 and a half years on we now have over 5700 followers on Twitter, just under 2000 on Facebook and a website which is getting an average of 250 visits a day. We’re just coming to the end of a year of funding from B&NES Council & the Arts Council England which enabled us to run a series of workshops and a conference.
So how did we get to this point?
I have no problem in saying that it was a happy accident. I set up the Twitter account as an off-the-cuff idea. Having looked around Twitter I could see that there wasn’t a single place where you could find all of the information that you needed in one place. So I decided to set one up and see what happened.
I started by just retweeting show info about the main venues in Bath and following local theatre people and companies. Within the space of a couple of weeks we had over 200 followers and had already organised our first “tweetup“. Which was essentially just an informal opportunity for anyone with an interest in theatre to meet in a pub and chat about projects, discuss ideas and network and make more connections.
For whatever reason the idea took off and people began to engage with us and each other. Three years down the line it feels like we’ve made an impact and a difference.
So what had I wish I’d known before I started out or what advice would I give people who want to do something similar?
The first thing I would say is just do it. Get on with it. Get it going. If you have an idea – make it happen.
Too many people stall at the start of a project because they are scared of the unknown. Don’t be. Take a chance and see what happens. It will either work or it won’t. If it does, great you can then figure out how to move it forward. If it doesn’t then don’t lose faith. Look at why it didn’t work, learn from it and try again.
Believe in yourself. There are plenty of people who are quick to tell you that things will never work, you’ll never make that happen, that’s a crazy idea. Most of them just aren’t brave enough to take the risk themselves and probably a little jealous that you are. For example, I was constantly told we would never get all of the arts organisations together in one room. When the Bath Chronicle threatened to cut arts reviews we did just that with over 100 representatives from different arts and cultural organisations all at a public meeting. Afterwards I was again told that this was a one off and would never happen again – with our first conference we had over 140 attendees from a range of different organisations, again in one room at the same time. So by all means ask others opinions but believe in your own vision and don’t be afraid to go for it.
Visualise the end result that you want. Don’t worry about how you are going to get there just yet – figure out what it is you want to do and work backwards from that.
Know your audience and listen to them and what they want. Don’t become self-serving. Without your audience there is no point in you existing and unless they are engaged with what you do and feel a part of it there is no point carrying on.
Be prepared to work hard. It sounds obvious but you only get out what you put in. If you’re not committed to an idea how can you expect other people to be.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Theatre Bath grew bigger and bigger it became clear that I could no longer manage things on my own although I didn’t realise that at the time. I didn’t know what to do and was completely overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy it was taking to keep it running. It took me ages to ask for help but when I did an amazing thing happened. People leapt up from all over the place and gave up their time to help out, sometimes simple things such as advice others giving up their time to help run events and workshops. Don’t struggle on alone. People are willing to help if you just take the time to ask them.
Learn to let go. It’s very easy to become too close to a project or an idea and lose sight of the bigger picture. I still have trouble with this but I’m lucky that I have a great team around me that can put me back on track and help create the ideas and make them happen. Sure, have a clear vision, but don’t be afraid to chuck everything out and start again if something isn’t working. Don’t see this as a failure see it as something you have learned from.
It’s okay to fail. No seriously it is. How would you learn anything if you got it right all the time? Some of your ideas won’t work. But after a while you learn to understand why and can understand how to improve things next time.
My team, to me, is the most valuable asset I have. Theatre Bath wouldn’t run anywhere near as smoothly without the back up of the people I have around me. Collaborating and working together on ideas only adds to the creative output. Utilise the people you have around you and listen to them and their ideas.
Issue you this challenge:
As a creative community we need to start commissioning more work from Bath based artists, theatre makers, musicians. Wiltshire, Bristol and Somerset and further afield do produce great work but the priority for all arts organisations should be to support artists who are based in Bath. We are very proud at Theatre Bath to use local practitioners to run the workshops we provide and also local performers at our conference. That’s what we’re all about. Supporting and strengthening the cultural ecology of Bath.
We have some amazing talent here that isn’t being utilised to the fullest of its potential. Let’s harness the creative energy of the city by working together to create great art and therefore increasing employment for Bath based practitioners.
Let’s open our doors to each other and keep them open. By working together we can help the cultural scene in Bath go from being good to being great.
Let’s learn from each other and help each other out. It’s really not a hard thing to do.
As an example Andy of the Natural Theatre Company phoned me up the other day. He was putting in an Arts Council Application and knew we were to so he phone me to ask me if we’d submitted ours yet. We all know the Arts Council will only usually give funding to one application in an area at a time (and Bath isn’t one of their favourites at the moment). So by Andy asking this simple question we made sure that we both weren’t submitting an application at the same time therefore increasing both of our chances at gaining funding. A small thing – but important in the bigger scheme of things and all it took was a five minute phone call!
“Coming together is the beginning;
keeping together is progress;
Working together is success.” –
Speech Copyright © 2015 Luke John Emmett. All rights reserved.