Following my last column, I had an email exchange with the playwright Joanna Laurens, an extract of which is published on my blog. Laurens talks about her early success and the impact of a round of negative reviews on her career a couple of years later; she discusses the challenges of what she calls the “business side” of writing and its incompatibility with her creative process. I asked why she did not try other avenues to getting her work produced once the new writing theatres were no longer an option:
“I think perhaps because I hadn’t struggled starting out, I just had no idea how to do all that. I had no idea who to approach for funding, why anyone would want to give me money for free, who would want to be involved in producing anything I wrote (or why), how it all worked and so on. Everything had fallen into my lap with The Three Birds and I didn’t even know the difference between a director and a producer at the time, so understanding the vagaries of funding was far beyond me.”
My conversation with Laurens has made me wonder whether having to fight right from the beginning might be the best thing that can happen to someone who wants to stay in this industry right until the end.
Theatremakers are only interested in buildings, organisations, funders – the “business side” – because we need to be in order to survive and make our own work. Obviously it’s the work that’s the point: writing, being in a space with performers, having ideas, collaborating, making something that didn’t exist before these people got together, performing it to an audience, watching it with an audience. Making something meaningful; realising what it means.
Making and watching live performance goes beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced. When I watched dance as a child I discovered that the magic of theatre is not what happens on stage, but what happens in my imagination as I watch. Theatre has the potential to trigger questions and provoke realisations that are deeply personal and connected to what it is to be human.
Which is why I find spending 90% of my time writing funding applications, applying to opportunities, sending emails, networking, blogging, managing budgets, writing copy, knocking on doors – knocking and knocking – worthwhile.
I have been doing all the above for some time, and now my work as a playwright/librettist/director/poet/performer/workshop leader is actually paying the bills. And that’s without ever having had my work produced by a theatre.
The poet Deborah Stevenson recently told me about a recurring theme in her discussions with other artists. The biggest step, the breakthrough moment of an artist’s career, is when they find that it is possible to make a living from what they do. Deborah reached that moment at twenty-one, not through sudden rave reviews, hype and commissions, but by building a portfolio of work, learning from others, setting herself up in places where she is needed and working fourteen hour days from the age of fifteen.
It has always frustrated me to hear people say that they got where they are through luck, or some kind of “big break”. I prefer the idea that it’s not luck, but hard work. If it’s hard work, determination and passion that is required, I can do it. “Luck” I have no control over.
But perhaps I have been lucky that my plays were never accepted by a new writing theatre. Lucky that I’ve never been “spotted” or had a “big break” or been taken on by a well-known producer or agent. I’m relishing my year ahead, and planning the years after that. Knocking on doors gets easier; doors start opening. When they do finally open, it may be that what’s behind them is no longer needed.
There was a time when doing many things might have been viewed negatively, but today having a multi-faceted career is a necessity. Social media has given theatremakers voices; we can talk back, we can debate, we can contextualise. We’re much less likely to be persecuted by a critic if that critic has realised we actually exist outside of our work and we think about what we do. We’re much less likely to find our careers crashing down around us when we’re producing our own work and have more than one job description.
More and more of us are finding ways to build our own careers and construct a portfolio of work that enables us to do this full time. Perhaps the only way to make the work we want to make, to build a sustainable career that doesn’t collapse once we’re not “in” anymore, is to do it this way, the hard way.
Funding is being cut. Theatres are risk adverse. This is the time to make our most ambitious, risk-taking ideas. Apply for funding. Apply for opportunities. Keep knocking on doors while climbing over walls.
Make it yourself. The only theatre that will survive in this climate is the theatre that has to be made.
Hannah Silva is a writer, performer and theatremaker who is currently touring with her production Opposition. She also regularly blogs on her website.
Photo: Eileen Long