There was an interesting discussion yesterday on twitter, on the concept of Ageist Arts (#AgeistArts).
I’m not sure if it was prompted by this announcement from ACE or if it was simply a spontaneous discussion, but I joined in when it was drawn to my attention, because it’s something I am very interested in.

First off, I need to say I care deeply about the needs of youth right now, I appreciate the economic state we’re in has made things very difficult for many young people, I have worked with the NYT on three large-scale projects over four summers, I have worked with many other youth theatres, and often do schools visits (usually as a writer, but not always) … you can tell there’s a ‘but’ coming, right?

But … I truly believe we need to replace the word YOUNG with NEW or EMERGING. It annoys me immensely every year when the Old Vic announce their New Voices season and what they really mean, as it’s for 18-30 year olds, is young. If the work is only open to youth, say so. Don’t call it new when you don’t mean new. Language matters.
I wholeheartedly applaud the Traverse for this initiative where they say new and mean new.

Here’s what I see as the main problem of the arts supporting young when they could be supporting new/emerging :
1. it ignores the wealth of potential and ability of older practitioners.
2. it fails to support older emerging artists.
3. it lauds youth at the expense of age (not useful for either).
4. it puts far too much pressure on mid/late 20’s ‘youth’ to succeed early (the heartbreaking discussions I’ve had with younger practitioner friends, terrified they haven’t ‘made it’ if their first play isn’t on before the age of 26, a fear brought on by the fact that the cut-off point is so stark – and so young!)
5. it assumes that everyone over 30 is financially/artistically secure (which is simply absurd and totally fails to take class/money into account – more on that later)
6. it ignores the fact that audiences tend to be older anyway. (When was the last time you saw an audience of elderly people watching THEMSELVES on stage? Our main stages tend to be full of 20/30/40-somethings. Yes we want young people in our audience, but we also want to keep older theatre-goers coming along, not least because we will ALL be them eventually, and the lack of money/mobility faced by youth is almost identical to that faced by our elders.)
7. it makes no provision for emerging artists transferring from other careers, who may bring in great new skills.

There’s a very simple solution :
Replace the word ‘young’ with ’emerging’ or ‘new’, replace age restrictions with those based on experience.
ALL emerging artists need support, and those emerging artists may be of any age.

This is not merely a semantic discussion, it goes to the very heart of making work, of being artists. Because what still matters, and what undercuts all of this is *class/money. On one NYT project I worked with a young man who was working early in the morning before coming to rehearsals, because he needed to earn money, because his family could not support him to be there otherwise. In the same group there were young people who had never had paid jobs, nor did they need them, because their families not only had the resources to support them, but knew and understood how the arts work and wanted to support them. Because at base, when we look at who we’re supporting, nothing is as important as class/money. The 22 year old who has never had to get a job, even a part-time job, just doesn’t need the same support as the 22 year old who has to work every school holiday, work part time during any courses they are doing, and/or who comes from a background that is not used to the arts (any arts).

There are many forms of disadvantage, there is being too young in a society that is predicated on a certain age (20s/early 30s and no older is what it feels like from the grand middle age of 49), there is being too old in that same society. There is being non-white in an arts world where we still see that most artists are white (and yes, I do see that saying non-white assumes white is the norm. That’s the point, most arts do assume white is the norm). There is being female in an arts world where the building directors and writers and directors still tend to be men. There is having a disability where most arts are all about the body beautiful-and-‘perfect’. There is being queer in an utterly heterosexualised world.
And all of those things get recognised. There are schemes, not enough I agree, not common enough or numerous enough, but there are schemes recognising all of the above. But when we take care of youth, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexuality and don’t recognise that every single one of these is affected by class/money, then we are failing.
Because it is the unfamiliarity with the arts, the feeling that they belong to the ‘posh’, the feeling that those imposing buildings don’t belong to us, that makes breaking into the arts, any arts, incredibly difficult for people (of any age) for whom the arts world is a new/daunting one. The truth is, it takes time to build up a portfolio of work, time to rehearse a fringe play for no money, time to write your first script or book or screenplay – time someone who has to work to support their family or studies hardly ever has.

I made the ‘class leap’ from working class girl from council estate in UK/small town in NZ to making my living in the arts. I look around at the people I know working in the arts and see the likes of me are still pretty rare, even among the younger people I work with, even now 30 years since I was the first in my family to go to university. And there wasn’t any help back then, and it was bloody hard, and I knew NOTHING about how theatre worked, or publishing, or anything that would be useful to what I now do. I went to university with kids whose parents could afford to not only pay for them to be at university (pay for their accomodation, books etc), but also gave them an allowance. Me and my friends (funny how those lacking money often gravitate to each other!) shared jobs – sandwich making in a cafe at 6am every day, washing dishes in a restaurant after 11pm at night, cleaning houses for rich people. (They may not have been rich, they seemed rich to me.) Yes, my family had books, but they were book club books and I remember the look of absolute horror on the face of a university tutor when he realised the copy of Vanity Fair I was reading was an abridged book club version. I didn’t realise. Books were expensive, the book club books were better than none. I learned to love second hand bookshops. I didn’t have a holiday the whole time I was studying or the first many years I was working, because there wasn’t time and there wasn’t money.
This is NOT a sob story, or an “I did it, why can’t they?”
I happen to think the fact that I had to push harder, to learn damn fast, to get my head around a whole new world (worlds – university, theatre, publishing) that no-one in my background had ever come across – was probably very good for me. I think it makes me more likely to produce work that can appeal across class demographics, and I want that. I don’t want to just write or just make theatre for the (relatively) middle class world I now live in.
BUT I really don’t wish that kind of hand-to-mouth fear on anyone, and I could so have done with some help. Not door-opening help, but help that recognised someone from my background simply didn’t know a whole lot of the things that people who regularly visited art galleries, bought hardback books, knew people who worked in the arts, knew people who’d been to university, etc etc, ALREADY KNEW. Many of the people I met when I first went to, and first left university, already knew those things. I had to learn them myself. While feeling like an outsider, while being an outsider. (And yes, while still, often, feeling like an outsider.)

The problem with schemes that simply support any one group, without making sure they are targeting the right people within that group, is that they often end up supporting those who don’t really need the help. Not everyone young does need help, but a scheme based purely on age only looks at age. Same for race, gender, sexuality, ability etc.

We are not looking at class/money. And we need to look at class/money. And it will be uncomfortable and difficult and upsetting, it always is. But if we don’t, we simply perpetuate the same old same old. And we know, from deep within us in the arts, we know we need to.

* I don’t think we can talk about class without also talking about money, lack of money means lack of entry to theatres/bookshops/galleries and the worlds and people those things create. It’s simple and yet odd to me how often the class discussion behaves as if money isn’t utterly part of it.

(nb, there’s a whole other discussion to be had about older artists. Some years ago Improbable held a D&D for theatre elders, and the pain expressed in that room – the pain of being ignored, discarded, of creativity being sidelined or simply not even expected – was palpable. The older practitioners matter too and have an enormous amount they can teach us, and share with us.)