Writers: why don’t you get a job?

‘You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.’

That’s a quote from Birdman, last year’s favourite film about how theatre can still be cool these days. One of its failings (alongside just getting a bit pleased with itself, and having highly-capable women running around after charismatically damaged men) is that it never really comes back to this point.

In a world where Janet Suzman can be a breathtaking plank in public, and then get indulged so much that (ably supported by Patricia Hodge and ‘thinking-man’s-impenetrable-intellectual-heat-haze’ Tom Stoppard) she gets to do it again, theatre has an uphill battle not looking like… well, theatre.

There’s loads of individual ways of addressing this on many levels. I wrote about one of them, and people have written far more insightfully on the subject as a whole than I could ever hope to.

But there’s still an aspect of inclusion that (understandably) doesn’t really get that much coverage – what if you want to do theatre alongside a ‘proper’ job?

Firstly let’s get some privilege out of the way: I’m fucking lucky to have a job at all, let alone angle for two. I’m even more fucking lucky to have a job that I enjoy in its own right. I’m also fortunate that I’ve got a writing style that can be adequately accommodated during evenings and weekends – not everyone has that, either.

And yet…

It bothers me increasingly that devoting yourself 100% to your craft as an artist is synonymous with legitimacy. I mean, yes, up to a point the amount of time you spend doing a thing will make you better at it. Then again, I could have devoted myself to football training since the age of 12, and I reckon I’d still be essentially far too shit at it to have a career. And art is even trickier than that, since it’s proportionately less a question of technique and more so one of imagination and empathy, which are much harder to measurably teach.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do arts degrees. If that’s what you want to do, it should be open and attainable for you. What I’m saying is that if you don’t, you’re still allowed to be an artist and nobody is allowed to make you feel otherwise, because…

1) You’ll get experience of ‘normal’ life. You know, the one that non-arts people have and the one that you want to engage your work with? Without this you end up being one of those horrific writers who focus on such vital human themes as ‘being independently well-off’ and, even worse, ‘writing plays’.

2) Your poor brain. If you spend all day running you’ll get a) really physically exhausted and b) sick of fucking running, before you become Mo Farah. Different bits of your brain work differently and it’s important to both work and rest ALL of them if you want to be in a condition to make good art. If a combination of spreadsheets, art and FIFA keeps you mentally sound, then all of them will benefit.

3) Your integrity. If you’re happy writing solely and straightforwardly in response to current events in order to satisfy theatre programmers with no functional imagination, then I’m not in a position to tell you not to. I am in a position, however, to tell you that you’re boring the shit out of everybody. Go away, think about how you write best, think about what you enjoy writing about, and stop worrying about being relevant.

4) Your back-up plan. Life’s chaotic. Just is. You might suddenly wake up one day needing long-term stability for either yourself or others – I know lots of people who manage to make this work, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure if you don’t think it will work for you. You might fall out of love with the industry – I wouldn’t blame you, it can treat people very badly, and there’s loads of other cool stuff in the world to do. You might forget how to write altogether – in which case you probably need to focus on fixing that.

5) Your industry. A huge number of working artists had some sort of non-arts career before becoming successful. If you insist on looking upon them as being ‘rescued from normality’ then you’re missing the point in a big way. What they demonstrate is that ‘great artists’ and ‘normal people’ can be THE SAME THING. An industry full of people who can support themselves full-time whilst making art is not an interesting one. It might be held up as brave, and in many cases this is true, but using this as a stick to beat people with? Not cool.

Now, this is my take. It’s stuff I’ve found to work for me. No one’s saying this is better than the route anyone else takes. But what I’m saying is, if it’s your route, it’s your route. And that is okay.

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