Fringe dwellers

I’d just completed a Melbourne Fringe Festival season when I read Alison Croggon’s article, ‘Why Art?’. I was lucky enough to receive an award (Best Emerging Writer) for my show The Good Girl and got to know a few other writer/performer/producers during the season who also won awards. Croggon’s article got me thinking (again) about why we make independent art. By independent in this context, I mean work that is not part of a fully or even partially funded company but is created and produced by artists.

The assumption of non-theatre family and friends is that winning an award leads to the work being produced again or theatre companies banging on the door to offer commissions. In reality this is rarely the case. So in the absence of phone calls from Marion Potts or Andrew Upton, what’s in it for us?

Is independent practice always a stepping stone to being fully funded and/or incorporated into the mainstream? Is it more of a conscious choice about how and why we want to make work? Or, as Croggon suggests in her article, is it also systemic, connected to the lack of public funds available to do it any other way?

If you want to work consistently and have a regular output as a theatre maker, it is up to you to continuously seek funds, self-fund and self-produce.

I interviewed three other people involved in successful Fringe shows to add their perspective to my own: Sarah Hamilton, writer/performer They Saw a Thylacine (winner Best Performance and New Zealand Tiki Tour Ready Award), Katy Warner, writer Dropped (highly commended Best Emerging Writer) and Zoe McDonald, writer/performer FOMO (winner Adelaide Fringe Tour Ready Award). All of us were also the producers of our own shows.

The financial side of creating independent work for performance is a huge issue. As a writer, I can sit at home and pen an article, poem, short story or even novel and there is no cost involved except my time. But once you start writing for live performance, the costs mount up: venue hire, rehearsal space, sets and costumes, artist fees (where possible) and associated costs such as festival registration and insurance.

The productions discussed in this article were a hundred per cent funded by the artists. Each of us works one or more part time or casual jobs. These jobs pay the bills but also, significantly, they fund our artistic practice. Warner used her tax refund, saying, ‘Some people use their tax returns to buy a new TV or travel or get some killer heels … I don’t have a TV, there is no travel on the horizon and I don’t do killer heels so I am more than happy that my money went towards a show.’

Hamilton used her credit card; McDonald and I used personal savings. I was fortunate to share my production expenses with my actors who co-produced the show.

The shows varied a little: either breaking even, losing a bit of money, or making a small profit. No financial disasters – but certainly not, in any way, huge money making ventures. In terms of independent theatre, especially during a festival, achieving these results is a huge success. Hamilton, who came out with a loss of $93.29 says, ‘To be honest, I’m pretty stoked with this outcome. The last shows I produced consistently lost a lot more than this. Thousands.’

The shows were made on a shoestring. Budgets for our four shows were all within the range of $500 to $5,800. By budget, I mean the actual expenditure, not the real cost of producing a show. On every show, the writer, performers and creative team all donated their time. When asked about the number of donated hours, Hamilton estimated 150, Warner, 82 and MacDonald over 300. But, as Warner pointed out, ‘There was 82 hours of rehearsal but we also worked outside of those in terms of producing and designing (set, lights, sound) …’ These estimates also don’t necessarily include time taken in writing the shows.

So what motivates theatre professional to work for nothing? Hamilton listed a range of reasons for producing and presenting a show at Fringe: ‘Launching a new work; sharing with a supportive and adventurous audience base; the support of the festival staff and fellow artists; networking; the opportunities, such as touring, which can open up.’

Among other reasons, McDonald wanted to challenge herself as a theatre maker and ‘meet other artists [in a way] that could lead to future collaboration.’

The practice is also about engaging in a socio-political way with the world around us. For Warner, writing Dropped was in part a response to the Lynndie England trials (one of the people convicted in the 2005 Abu Ghraib conspiracy and assault court-martials) and ‘how it seemed even more heinous for a female to commit a war crime than a man.’ But it was also ‘provoked by wanting to create strong roles for women. I really wanted to write a piece that would allow two women to take front and centre in roles that were challenging and multi-layered.’

For all of us, being part of Melbourne Fringe was overwhelmingly positive, which means that money was clearly not the driving factor. Hamilton observes: ‘It was definitely a worthwhile experience. The awards and reviews certainly were creamy, but not the motivating factor for making the show.  They bring a sweet satisfaction and buzz, but it’s the creative process and the sharing of the piece which is most rewarding for me.’

Like Hamilton, I would say that the award was ‘creamy’, a good way to promote this show and my work in the future. But a lot of wonderful shows don’t win awards and awards don’t always lead in a direct way to more opportunities or more money. For me, the creation of a piece of work that speaks to audiences and gets them laughing, responding and debating is the driving force behind what I do. Warner concurs: ‘I think that is what is more important – just being on the ‘radar’ so to speak, and I think the fringe experience allows for that. People are actually talking and engaged in conversation about the shows and the artists they see. It isn’t an isolated experience.’

I asked each of the artists about how they viewed their role as independent arts practitioners into the future – the stepping stone question. Hamilton comments: ‘At the moment I see my independent work as paving strong connections – it enables me to share work and opens new opportunities. I feel that as a performer I have gained more “respect” from industry people since I have started self creating shows. It has given me control and strength.’

Likewise, McDonald says, ‘I hope that the work we make can eventually be subsidised. To work in a company that pays me a salary to work as an artist. Artists work hard and long hours. There is constant training, evaluation, process and focus required. This is no different from a lawyer or any other career.’

Except most other careers offer a slightly more structured path towards those who dedicate years of training and practice of opportunity, promotion and some degree of financial security. One of the most significant factors in the independent theatre scene is artist burn out.  Hamilton and McDonald are around thirty, Warner approaching her mid-thirties and I just turned 40. None of us has children. The fact is we could all afford to make this work because we have the ability to earn an income and then use much of that income to fund our own practice.

This raises obvious issues about whose work we are seeing: how many people with families can afford to keep making independent theatre? What if you are on a very low income to start with? What if you have other kinds of barriers that mean you have trouble accessing the information, infrastructure or communities you need in order to make independent theatre? If you are an artist living with a disability or a recent immigrant or an artist for whom English is not your primary language, you end up at the fringes of fringe. There are companies and programs that support certain disenfranchised and marginalised artists to make work but that still necessitates finding about the opportunities and having the personal and social resources to access them.

In short, what happens to theatre as artists burn out, run out of money, can’t raise the funds, don’t have the means or simply can’t justify the activities at a certain point in life? It means we are exposed to a limited range of voices, stories and creative visions. Our culture richness is diminished.

Hamilton puts it like this: ‘Financial restrictions definitely impact my choices. Unless I can get funding for touring, I am now less inclined to hop from fringe festival to fringe festival with the hope of breaking even. I spent last year doing this, loved every minute of it, but now I’m in debt. To be sustainable, I need to secure financial support.’

For all of us, sustainability means learning how to write grant applications and develop small business skills like brand management and marketing, or outsourcing these where possible. Not every theatre maker has these skills, the times and means to learn them or the networks to outsource. Long term survival is afforded to individuals and groups who can get their heads around this side of the industry.

I asked the artists how they feel about having to support their practice with other work.

McDonald, who has three casual income streams, is philosophical: ‘I think I accept I have made this decision in life, even though external pressures are abundant, for example the pressure to own property, get married, have a family, a regular income.’ For Warner, the choice is existential as much as professional: ‘As much as I say I will stop, eventually, I don’t know how I could really. I do not want to end up in a nine to five job I hate, just living for the weekend.’

For women artists, the issue of children also enters the debate in a particular way. It is women who are predominantly primary carers, the ones who put careers and other personal pursuits on hold at least for the first years of parenting. It’s hard enough for professional women with regular paid work to manage that juggling act of parenting, earning and personal/career goals – but if you try to insert ‘making theatre for no money’ into that mix as well, you face an almost unmanageable set of conflicting demands. I know plenty of hard working, passionate artists who do manage but always with a combination of fatigue, guilt and impoverishment. Arts practice is often dispensed with completely or minimised in order to make way for the practical demands of life with dependants.

As Warner observes, ‘I would like to have children one day and I think that decision would make a huge impact on finding the time and money to keep working in this way. As an independent artist there is no government support for subsidies to childcare or assistance financially. I feel as if the government views it as a hobby.’

It’s this perception that grates the most – that just because we can’t show economic gain from our artistic pursuits, this makes them invalid. By association, the implication is that we are ‘not worthy’ of benefits that are accorded to people in other areas of the workforce.

There will always be a pool of new artists, happy to work for nothing so they can make the art they want to make and be part of the industry. The real question is how to ensure this pool gets richer and deeper over time. Most artists get more interesting as they mature and the work they create more engaging for an audience. But they are also, generally, less able to make the sacrifices of time and money necessary to support their art.

In They Saw a Thylacine one of the titular creatures dies in captivity from neglect, despite the best efforts of a determined young woman. Similarly, independent arts practitioners need more than just a will to survive. If funds and support are not available to keep independent arts and artists afloat, there will be whole generations that drift away at a certain point, awards or not, becoming – like the thylacine – extinct beasts.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Emilie Collyer writes plays, poetry and prose. Her newest play Contest – a sweaty play about the petty and the profound set on a suburban netball court – has its world premiere as part of Darebin Arts’ Speakeasy from 25 July–4 August at Northcote Town Hall: www.darebinarts.com.au/contest  The project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Besen Family Foundation.

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