Posted by: stelladuffy | June 23, 2009

your expectations are probably unrealistic – and don’t give up.

Replying to John Harvey’s comment to my linking to the Jenny Diski piece, I came back to an idea I often bring up, usually when listening to yet another young (or not so young) friend tell me they’ve just spent 3 years learning a particular craft, at a prestigious (or otherwise) venue, and now can’t find work. The idea that there are Too Many Courses. Because for the majority of actors, directors, writers, there IS no work out there, other than the work we make for ourselves. And as the number of acting and writing and directing (and stage managing and art and design and journalism etc etc) courses rises every year, and as the number of keen/eager/gullible/desperate students rise alongside it, there are more and more turned out, and statistically – it just won’t work.
There have never been many acting jobs, and there have always been less acting jobs for women (always on stage, always in film, possibly a few more women’s roles – these days – in television). The classics have virtually no women’s roles, modern (men) playwrights and (men) film-makers have usually been more interested in writing men than women, we’ve only just come to a time when there are potentially as many women playwrights as men, and/or when writers are starting to find women interesting, so we might see a change in on-stage demographics, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
(What this actually means, is that in many cases, drama schools have, for ever, turned out far better young women actors for far fewer roles than young men actors for whom there are many more roles. Loads more young women apply, they get to pick the very best ones, fewer young men apply, there is more work for them anyway, medicore young men actors and brilliant young woman. Sad – and yes, a massive generalisation – but actually fairly true.)
So – too many actors.
Also – too many writing courses, turning out too many writers.
And now, too many directing courses, turning out too many directors.
(See also, stage managers, journalists, lighting designers, artists, designers, musicians, bands of EVERY sort.) This is partly the problem with celebrity culture where people are encouraged to be ‘famous’ as a career choice, partly to do with the pernicious idea that if you are a maker/an artist, somehow ‘creative’, you are better than other people who don’t make/create, hence so many people wanting to make without any idea of WHAT they want to make, and partly to do with all those places of learning having seen, and now thoroughly exploited, a gap in the market.

MERELY twenty-five years ago when I left university this wasn’t the case. The people I knew did not expect to earn their living immediately (or ever!) from what they made/created, they did it because they enjoyed it. They wrote when they could, hoping – of course – for publication or broadcast or production, but they didn’t make work with ONLY that aim in mind. They (we) formed our own theatre companies. They (we) made our own work and we then did our damnedest to show that work, to get it out to people wherever we could.

This is not to say we were better than the young/new ones now, but to say we simply didn’t have the unrealistic expectations I see so many of my young/new-to-making-work friends have. It just doesn’t work that way. There will always be mediocre people who rise to the top through nepotism or favouritism or (im)pure good luck, but really, and generally, the people I know who have ‘made it’ have done so from working hard for many many years, usually making their own work, usually not working for too many other people, usually not conforming to what too many other people demand of them, usually just getting on with their own work and accepting that if they want to make work they believe in, they may well not be famous/rich/’successful’ (by traditional standards) – or if they are, it may take a while. It may take forever.

So, what to do? Well, (with apologies to all those friends teaching on a regular basis!) how about a 5 year moratorium on creative writing courses, acting courses, directing courses, art schools … stop churning out unrealistic numbers of people every year who think they now have a ticket to make their living from their preferred work, stop churning out hundreds of thousands of people for an extremely limited number of places/positions/possibilities, encourage them to go off and learn other things instead. I never met a writer who believed they had read enough and what they really needed to do to learn to write was study more writing exercises instead of simply reading more. I never met a theatre practitioner who didn’t spend much of their youth actually GOING TO THEATRE (instead of studying it and writing about studying it).

Yes, all right, that’s probably excessive, and I’m not really saying DON’T do courses, just don’t do them unrealistically. (And don’t teach them unrealistically either!) Don’t do a course thinking it will help you get work, don’t do a course thinking it will find you an agent/sell your novel/write your play, don’t do a course because it is a stop-gap between actually getting on and making your own work, which is what most of us have to – and want to – do in the end anyway.

Some of the most successful people I know now (especially in theatre), are those who simply started making work. Making their own work. And kept on going, individually or in companies they formed themselves to give them somewhere to play, to experiment, until they got better at it. Until the world started to notice them. Or not. Until the world started to like their work and pay them for it – or not! But either way, they enjoyed what they were doing, they were working at the thing they loved (not always being paid for it, often doing other things for money so they could support the thing they loved), and most importantly, in doing so, they created communities.
And it is the communities we make ourselves that so often end up supporting us, when it doesn’t work out, when the funding doesn’t come through, when we don’t know what to do next or where to go next, when ‘they’ don’t understand us. (And, on occasion, it is members of that same community, people we have built up relationships with over many many years that maybe, sometimes, even end up buying our work. Sometimes!)
Make friends. make work. Support each other. Sorted.


Responses

  1. Well said. I’ve never thought I could make a living by writing (though of course one dreams of winning the Booker like everyone else!) Now I’m starting to think I wouldn’t want to make my living by writing because then I might have to compromise what I write about.

  2. Your article is very inspiring and yet I feel for those Millenials fed on a pure diet of the Fame Game. No one seems to tell them that they have to work for “success”.

    One of my friends who is a very successful TV producer bins CVs from people with Media Studies degrees. She says they come out and want to be the boss immediately because they think they “know it all”. Well they have a degree don’t they – in fact first class honours LOL. So when she asks them to make tea, they balk.

    When I teach people filmmaking I tell them like you, to make stuff they are passionate about because it will take them through the challenging drought periods. Some listen others do not. I fugure that is the Law of Natural Selection.

    I also tell them if they want to work in a meritocratic industry go do Accountancy, Law or Medicine, Social Work etc. By that I mean you can’t practice Medicine unless you have a medical degree. However you can work in TV with a degree in Ancient Greek (Oxbridge helps) or Archeaology. My friend employed someone who came from the factory floor with no degrees at all. An example of that (im)pure luck you describe.🙂

  3. Absolutely. We’ve somehow got into an industrial model of learning skills, where you do a course then believe you’re fully equipped to do the work, rather than gradually (and constantly) learning how to do it (better). I remember having a piano tuner who was the last apprentice (a film title possibly?), rather than going to college and being taught string theory or whatever they learn.

    Ironically, though, the learning institutions may make communities easier. One of the most noticeable benefits of going to school can be a peer group, though it could be argued this is now treated more as a network than a community.

    What I’m very interested in is: who does the ‘toilet cleaning’ in a community? Does community mean everyone doing what they want, or a willingness to do what they don’t want in the interests of the community? Or am I just picking away at the fine lines between community, collaboration and co-operative?

  4. On my writing course, you could tell who knew what lay out there beyond the womb like walls of University, those who had had a few rejections sent to them; knew the score – we are nobodies, unless we work our a***s off. Those who didn’t have a clue, expected to waltz out degree in hand, get an agent and Boom! Published novel.


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