Earlier this month, Hannah Khalil’s blog post for Mobius Industries generated a much-needed honest conversation about the financial struggle of working as a playwright and the necessity of having a day job. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across the industry as at last someone had admitted that this work-work-life balance is really, really hard.
Hannah, who balances writing and family life whilst working part-time for the BBC, said “What was nice about the blog was that the responses were ‘Oh yeah all these other writers do have day jobs, they just don’t talk about it!’.” There’s been a lot of discussion around the types of casual work artists undertake to support themselves: zero hours contracts and hospitality jobs which are flexible enough so that we can arrange quick cover for last minute auditions or swap shifts around rehearsal schedules. But there doesn’t seem to be much about creative people who are working in non-casual jobs.
I wonder if it’s because we stigmatise those with less flexible jobs as less committed to their craft?
Like my peers, I’ve spent my artistic career supporting myself with a mixture of full-time, part-time and casual work. Until recently I was working for a digital marketing agency whilst pursuing my writing and performing ambitions. There were days when I achieved a balance – I caught up on correspondence on my commute, I scheduled both the time off for auditions/rehearsals/performances and the time I’d make up so that I didn’t miss out on my wages.
But there were also days where I felt isolated, convinced that I was letting myself down because I wasn’t spending enough time on making my passion my livelihood. I felt like a fraud as I scheduled my tweets to promote my shows and keep up appearances, when in reality I was in the office scheduling the company’s tweets. I learned lines on my commute, my lunch break and sometimes even on my toilet breaks. I rose with the sun to meet script submission deadlines and I questioned my commitment to my craft when instead of going to the theatre I was staying late in the office formatting spreadsheets. I then felt guilty for complaining when I recognised that it was a privilege to be receiving some sort of paid income whilst creating theatre. Does any of this sound familiar?
It’s difficult to sustain a creative career whilst holding down a job, even more so when artists feel they can’t be honest about their commitments to either their employer or their peers. And it doesn’t help that the media perpetuates the idea of artistic struggle. Chat show anecdotes from established creatives about their worst jobs pre-fame can easily be seen as inspiring to the aspiring artist; but it’s quite a different story when you’re actually living it, catching the 7am train to the office to type up labels for medicine bottles in order to pay the bills (just one of my many previous supporting roles). Conversely, as a Salon article on why fiction writers never talk about where their money comes from explores, there’s a tendency for people who don’t need to work to support themselves to play down this privilege, which only fuels the romantic, false notion that hard work and hard living circumstances produces great art and success. If we’re going to be honest about the different ways artists sustain their creative careers, then this must include transparency about financial conditions and personal contacts.
If you’re looking to embark upon (and sustain) a creative career, then being financially secure seems to be an entry requirement. According to academic paper Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries “over a third (34.8%) of the creative workforce in London are from upper-middle class origins….Aside from Crafts, no creative occupation comes close to having a third of its workforce from working class origins, which is the average for the population as a whole.” If you are an individual with less financial security to begin with then this undoubtedly affects your need to balance a creative career with semi-permanent or even full-time work. This factor is compounded when you factor in industry gender disparities: “Across all creative industries women are estimated to earn £5,800 less per year than otherwise similarly employed men.”
These inequalities only exacerbate the challenges that being part of an underrepresented group brings in the first place. As Hannah explains “If you’re a woman, if you’re a creative, a person of mixed heritage or non-white you’re negotiating all these ideas of what people feel and think. Which is why this idea of deception is so key because it’s like you have different hats all the time.” Add to the mix the fact that we live in a society that dichotomizes success and failure. There’s a sense of shame if we don’t have an all-or-nothing commitment to our creative careers. If you’re an actor who’s only been in fringe theatre you aren’t successful. If you’re a writer who isn’t writing every single day then you aren’t dedicated. Apparently by even turning up for the day job it’s evident that things aren’t exactly going our way.
The reality is that there are many benefits to having a day job. As well as providing financial stability, a job creates structure. Being in the right environment with the right kind of people can be a welcome source of inspiration and indeed a welcome distraction from creative blocks. And if you’re lucky, you might even have access to facilities that you could use for rehearsals, or be able to use communal areas outside of work hours to catch up on your own admin.
“Your creative life doesn’t have to be a dirty secret” says Hannah. “Workplaces should be desperate to have creative people like actors because they’re able to communicate, which is something we take for granted it’s such a skill.”
I also spoke to Maaya, who combines her work with a full-time role as a Teaching Fellow at UCL School of Pharmacy, and also works as a pharmacist at Boots on Sundays. She says that “What’s been really nice is I’ve managed to involve things like scriptwriting in the university curriculum. We do filming and script writing in year four where students basically create their own new pharmacy service. I’m also developing a module stream which is all about communication skills in professional behaviours and part of that is a workshop I’m doing about active listening and hidden meanings and I’m planning to base that on subtext in writing. On the surface of it [they are] so utterly different – pharmacy and writing – and yet to me I’ve found ways to embrace creative ways of teaching. I’m a bit more like a superhero and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way! But I think like Bruce Wayne was head of his corporation. [which was] so much about public interest and doing the best for people and it makes sense both in his day job and his vigilante night job.”
But being a superhero doesn’t come without its sacrifices. Maaya was honest about the challenges her various work commitments present. ‘‘I love teaching but when I get home in the evenings I don’t have a lot of creative energy left to do a lot of the writing.” She’s made the conscious decision to structure her creative work around the academic year, and used her break last summer to create her short film Tea and Coffee. “It was difficult in the beginning but now I’ve made peace with the fact that that time is for teaching and this time is for my creative life. It took a while to get that feeling because I was like ‘Why can’t I do both?’ But I have a finite amount of energy and if I want to make a good job of it then this balance is probably where I need to be.’”
It might take some organisation, but a writer can write pretty much wherever. However for actors and directors, they need to be in the room where it happens. Rushing to meet a deadline at the office so that you can rush to an audition without making it look like you’ve rushed to the audition is an acting exercise in itself. You could be mistaken for thinking that solo artists perhaps have an easier way of achieving a creative work/day job work balance but actually the struggle still exists. Over the past few years I have primarily created solo work, including my theatre show Motherland and whilst I was the driving force behind it, it did mean that my spare time was taken up with producing and marketing, as well as learning the actual show. It’s definitely made me reassess what I’m looking for in potential collaborators, and the importance of sharing the workload where possible.
Theatre is by nature a sociable environment. We are expected to network, see work and build professional relationships whilst holding down jobs which are not as readily flexible as casual work. This is why it’s so vital that the industry recognises the living circumstances of its artists. Organisations like Actors Awareness strive for inclusivity, regardless of background or financial restraints. But we also need theatres to be willing to open their doors. Whether you are a producer, writer or actor, it’s part of our job to be physically in the theatre and therefore we need access at different times and in different ways. This could take shape in the form of open dress rehearsals or even parent-with-baby performances so that those with young families don’t feel pressured to choose between family time and keeping up-to-date within the industry.
It clearly makes a wealth of difference when it comes to how we value ourselves (both within the industry and within our place of work) when we have accommodating allies in the form of buildings, organisations and agents. Increasingly there are creative opportunities that are structured around evenings and weekends, like the Royal Court’s Writer’s Groups and Soho Theatre’s various labs including writing, comedy and drag performance. One potential agent asked me about my commitments and my preferences for work, explaining that some of his clients wouldn’t tour internationally because they had young families. But conversely I’ve had first hand experience of another agent who demanded I keep weekdays completely free, which begs the question how exactly I was supposed to survive.
Ultimately what lies at the heart of managing a career in the arts alongside a supporting, paying job is the individual. What sacrifices are you prepared to make? We need to stop fetishising struggle: both the artist struggling to work and the worker struggling to make art. We must recognise that the measures that individuals put in place to fulfil their creative endeavours whilst still turning up to the day job are highly personal. As Maaya emphasises, “It’s important to have a good idea of who you are as a person and what you can cope with.” For me it was a case of working four days a week and taking the financial hit. For someone else it’s working full-time and writing on weekends.
With this self-understanding comes the importance of being kinder to ourselves. As Hannah says, “If you can find a balance that doesn’t drive you crazy and allows you to make work that you want to make, and you can still eat food and still have a glass of wine for an evening/whatever is your thing that helps you to relax, then you’re doing brilliantly.”
If we only view success as being able to make a living from creating art then we have already failed. But if we come to recognise and accept our own needs, capabilities and limitations and place value in ourselves as workers and as artists – wouldn’t that be a success in itself?