I feel ashamed, facing a roomful of artists on the first day of rehearsals for my new play Contest. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I tried my hardest but we didn’t get the Creative Victoria funding.’ Everyone in the room has already signed on for the project, based on modest fees, thanks to other funding we have secured. The Creative Victoria money would have ensured paying all actors at Equity (performance industry union) minimum rates.
This arrangement of either a set fee or share of box office is far from ideal, but very standard in independent theatre. A complicating factor is that Creative Victoria will only accept budgets that pay actors Equity rates. But of course many projects, even those with CV funding, go ahead on a fee or profit-share basis. Budgets are constantly revised as funding outcomes become known.
I call and get my feedback from the arts officer at Creative Victoria. I take notes:
A well-developed project that is timely and relevant.
Artists have the capacity to deliver the work.
A diverse team.
Good scope for audience development.
Well-defined marketing strategies.
Excellent letters of support.
There is a pause. She says she is scouring the notes for anything negative. The one query the panel had was whether the actors are netballers (the play uses netball as a thematic framework). I am confused. I literally do not know what the question means: that they should be or they shouldn’t be? Would the same question be asked of a play about serial killers, or robots, or Amelia Earhart?
In short, there was nothing wrong with my application. It was highly regarded but unsuccessful. I am far from alone in this feeling of frustration. In this round, 288 of us, with 62 relieved their project gained support. We are living in a time replete with ‘unfunded excellence’. My hurt is no different from any other unfunded artist. I don’t deserve it more. But I don’t deserve it less.
This time stings more than others. It feels personal and wounding. I have twenty years practice under my belt. I have assembled a team of 16 women to work on this project – including the whole creative team (design teams are notoriously male-heavy). It has support from a presenter, from other funders, keen anticipation among my peers. I am lucky it has all that. So what’s the hurt about? It’s partly ego. Partly the stress on my team, all now working for an average wage of not nearly enough per hour. Partly fatigue (How much longer can I do this? How many more times?). And it’s partly political anger.
The very things praised about the project – the diverse group, including a disabled actor, five mothers on the team, three in the cast, one of whom is breastfeeding – are the things that this lack of funding puts the most pressure on.
It’s about a real question of access. The funding bodies seek this mix of people, they want to broaden the range of artists who apply for and receive funding, but it is an incomplete picture. For instance, my application did not factor in childcare – as it should for the parents in our cast who have dependent children. It did not factor in support for our disabled actor should she need it.
In conversation with my co-producer on the project we speak at length about these issues. How freelance artists are always bearing the costs of childcare and other life supports necessary to enable them to work. The structures – whether funding bodies, mainstage companies, arts institutions – are vertical and hierarchical and based on an ‘everyman’ who looks suspiciously like he might host a football show or a talkback radio program. An ‘everyman’ whose primary concern is his job. Who can and does leave things such as child rearing and domestic work to others. Who moves with ease through the world. Who doesn’t require assistance of any kind. Who speaks the dominant language.
There is not a single one of these ‘everymen’ on my team. I feed back to the Creative Victoria arts officer that an under-funded project for a cast of middle-aged and older women has significant political, financial and logistical ramifications.
In our team we have a brilliant choreographer. She has been on the project since its inception three years ago. She is an award-winning artist, highly regarded within the industry. She is currently studying a degree in environmental science. A mid-life career change spurred by many things, a primary one being the issue I am currently facing. Fatigue with having to fund projects, argue for work, gather teams, work for not enough money and ask other artists to work for not enough money.
A recent survey conducted by Theatre Network Australia (TNA) reveals a picture of a sector that is artistically vibrant but cash-strapped. 75% of writers, directors, performers and performance makers listed ‘producer’ as their secondary practice. This, as the report notes: ‘aligns with comments indicating that many independent artists see self-producing as their only option and an integral part of their artistic careers.’
Under-funded work is an understood reality. Between 14 and 44% of respondents ‘indicated that they would not charge to work with unfunded artists / collectives’.
This survey went out to TNA members and networks. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of the figures around mid-career drop-off as it would mean somehow reaching a survey group that has moved away from the sector. I know of plenty anecdotally, peers who re-train as teachers, enter the academy or start entirely new careers. But where to find hard statistics? How to capture stories from those already gone not just those, like this respondent, on the brink:
I have lived under the poverty line all my life as an artist – as a former refugee and single child of a migrant parent – I have no support. The current state of lack of arts funding is the hardest period to date. I feel that my choice of being a full-time artist directly impacts negatively on my family as I am the sole income earner.
The situation is compounded for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) artists and disabled artists, with significant drop-off in participation evident: ‘34% of “Emerging” respondents identified as Culturally & Linguistically Diverse, more than twice the 15% of “Established” respondents. 8.51% identified as an “Emerging” Person with a Disability; while no “Established” respondents did, and only 3.3% of “Mid-Career” respondents.’
This is structural and cultural. It also comes down to a hard fact about resourcing. The sector needs more money. The arts need more public funding. I am sick to death of arguments around arts funding themselves. If that’s the case let’s demand that the defence industry ($36.4 billion budget for 2018) fund itself. The arts budget isn’t so easily revealed via a Google search. It doesn’t rate a single mention on the 2018–19 Budget Overview page. You’d almost think the Federal Government was disinterested. And while we’re at, let’s demand that politicians, whose salaries are paid for by the public purse, argue for their jobs every year, articulate what they are contributing to the community and why they deserve their salaries. Not to mention their pensions (which, according to this SMH article from 2016 was then a minimum of $118,000 per annum, well in excess of the budget for my show).
Theatre maker Mish Grigor wrote recently in The Guardian about how the arts shuts out the working class. As it does many individuals and groups whose lives don’t sit within the ‘everyman’ paradigm. This feels especially true in terms of accessibility between artists and those who hold power in arts organisations.
Contest was originally commissioned by Malthouse theatre. Once they decided not to program it, the Malthouse resident dramaturg sent the script, with glowing endorsement, to theatre companies all over Australia, followed up by a personal email from me. I didn’t hear back from a single one. In the absence of funded companies banging on my door, it’s safe to say I identify with the TNA survey respondents who see producing as my necessary second practice.
If a person like me, with a Masters in Writing for Performance and all the concomitant privileges of my white, middle-class identity, can feel shut out of theatre, then the problem for those with any compounding access issues is monumental.
Access and sustainability go hand in hand. The harder it gets to sustain a career in the arts, the more we will only see work made by the young and privileged, and a narrow band of established artists who slot easily into funded or commercial success.
In other professions, assuming one has stuck at them diligently, there is a sense by mid career of having some level of assured status. Whereas in the arts, as this TNA survey respondent points out, there is no comparable sense of career progression:
There is a need [within the industry] to recognise the difference in life costs as each artist ages and their life responsibilities grow. Another ignored gauge is in terms of years of practice. Very often I am offered the same fee on a project as a young emerging artist or early career artist – this is a primary reason why we have so few artists continuing in practice when there is no maturation in fees and regard for life changes.
It becomes exhausting, demoralising and the question as to whether the huge effort is worth the scant rewards harder to answer in the positive.
While the drop-off mid-career of a number of (mostly women) artists is not a social crisis of the scale of homelessness, our treatment of asylum seekers, the lack of treaties with our First Nations people, or many other dire issues, it is part of a broader set of social and structural problems. In that it speaks to who gets to participate in public life.
Public life in Australia is still dominated by the ‘everyman’. Any area of life in which there are more impediments than incentives for people other than This Guy to stay engaged and have influence is an area of our society that is not evolving and is not representative of who we are.
I nurse my wounded ego. At 2AM I am awake wondering if I should run a crowdfunding campaign for that urgent design element we just can’t afford. Or email friends and family. Or donate my (modest) fee. None of the options are appealing. I get up, go to the toilet, fret a bit more, go back to bed.
In the rehearsal room I am beside myself with gratitude at this group of people who have come together to make art, based on an idea I had, a script I wrote. There is something so potent about theatre for this reason. It’s about collaborating. We work with others and juggle multiple needs and priorities. We dig deep into cultural, social, political, linguistic, artistic and existential questions and share this with an audience, thereby feeding society’s life force.
On the flip side, it is resource heavy and very hard to make. I regularly consider opting out to focus on prose and poetry, where the only person let down by an unsuccessful application is myself. But something about the form sparks me.
Will I do this again? The irony is that each time it gets both easier (as my skills develop) and harder (as years of rejections and unfunded excellence accumulate). At this point I don’t have an alternative career I want to pursue so I guess I’ll hang in there. But my next show might be a one-person and a suitcase situation just to ensure a better chance of everyone getting properly paid.
Image: publicity still for Contest.