Keeping the lights on?

Just how much are artists supposed to do to keep going? 

Over on Twitter last week, the director Emma Bramley (from All Things Considered Theatre) posted this brilliantly written – and to be honest, depressing – thread. It’s worth clicking through and giving it a read (even if you loath X and everything it stands for):

I’ve been doing this theatre thing for a while, and I guess I’ve kind of internalised the idea that basically, you do whatever has to be done to get the show on and keep the company afloat. And to be honest, I’m pretty much okay with it, for myself. I’ve learned a ridiculous number of skills that I didn’t expect to learn when I was training, most of which have got nothing to do with directing theatre. Emma’s thread includes some of the things I’ve picked up along the way, including:

  • Writing budgets (I secretly love this)
  • Preparing accounts (I hate this. But now I know a surprising amount about the SORP. If you don’t know what that is, be thankful)
  • Building a board of trustees (we have three wonderful trustees at Upstart and I can’t even begin to tell you how much they – and everyone who’s ever been on our board – have supported me and the company over the years)
  • Knowing enough charity law to be able run a charity legally (with the support of Upstart’s brilliant board)
  • Social media marketing (I’m rubbish at this, but still, I’ve been doing it a while…)
  • Writing tour packs
  • Writing tech specs

And then all the stuff to make money on the side! I’ve been lucky with this, I’ve had a ton of teaching work over the years. More recently I’ve been moving into event management, and of course after that hilarious Fatima’s Next Job Could Be In Cyber ad during the pandemic* I’ve learned to code, which has been invaluable for Upstart Theatre’s projects and now is central to what we do as Upstart Interactive.

I’m proud to have picked up all these skills but I’ll be honest you guys, it’s a lot. And at times, I’ve come very close to asking whether it’s worth doing all this extra work in order to keep things afloat. I’ve always come to the conclusion that it’s worth it, but it’s been a close call on several occasions.

As Emma says in the thread, emerging artist schemes are awesome. But I don’t think the problem with theatre is that there aren’t enough schemes for mid-career artists like me or Emma. The problem is much worse than a lack of schemes. The problem is, there’s not enough money to go around.

The theatre system** relies on public money. When I was training, we used to talk about the idea that a large regional theatre like Leeds Playhouse would take 1/3 of its income from ticket sales, 1/3 in grants from the Arts Council, and 1/3 from its local council. This model is gone – since 2010 local councils have slashed their arts budgets; the Arts Council has also had to reduce its budgets massively. And for smaller companies like Upstart, we’re applying for cash from an ever-shrinking pot.

We’re doing what we can to survive and thrive in this environment – and I’ll talk more about that in future posts. How about you? How are you keeping the lights on?

* Just to be clear I didn’t learn to code because of the ad. I learned to code because I needed to do it for a theatre project. OK, a game. For the Andover Space Programme in fact.

** I’m not implying that theatre’s worse off than other art forms; it’s just that this is the field I know about.

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