Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Art of Survival

There’s an interesting discussion going on at The Guardian’s Noises off theatre blog surrounding the question of whether it’s possible for an artist to make a living in theatre. Well, all but a tiny fraction of us already know the answer to that, but it has generated some very interesting debates, including some intriguing arguments on subsidizing the arts. I’ve posted my humble contribution below:

Even putting the current economic situation aside, I don’t think we’ll ever arrive at a time when the government decides it’s a good idea to support all artists with a living wage if they’re unable to support themselves by their work alone. It just won’t happen. Therefore, anyone opting to pursue a career in theatre must surely acknowledge that in doing so they will have no guarantee of financial security and will almost always have to support themselves in other ways…unless they get very lucky. We can all look enviously at someone whose wealthy parents subsidize their endeavors, but the truth is most of us will always struggle to balance art with survival. Even well-known playwrights who have had much commercial and critical success still have to rely on teaching or other forms of income generation in order to maintain a relatively secure existence.

The arts will always be seen by the majority as a luxury rather than a necessity. Yes, the arts can be seen as the heart and soul of a people and without them that soul would wither and perish, but when all is said and done, if you’re on a fixed income a night at the theatre isn’t going to feed the kids or pay the heating bill. For most people, what we do can enhance their lives, make them laugh or cry in cathartic recognition, etc., but it will always be at their discretion using their discretionary income (if they have any) because we aren’t, in the hard cold truth of survival, necessary.

I have spent my life in the arts. It is all I know and all I ever will. And I have always had to walk that tightrope of pursuing what I love and staying alive. But I have never had any lofty sense of entitlement about what my life choices should mean to other people, nor have I considered the arts to be a sacred cow that all who exist outside of it should remain in thrall of.

Some big theatres in some big cities are afforded some big subsidies so that some people with big incomes can pay big ticket prices and congratulate themselves on being patrons of the arts. Hooray for them. But of course it’s not the arts…it’s artifice. For the rest of us, the real world beckons.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Aside from the ability to actually write a good play, one of the most critical assets a playwright must possess in this toughest of businesses is tenacity. This has been proven to me time and again, and I will illustrate my point with the following example:

A couple of years ago I had submitted a script of mine to a prestigious theatre festival in New York (not the Fringe, I should add). The play was rejected. The following year I submitted again to the very same festival…with the very same play. It was accepted. Not only that, but I was informed by one of the curators of the festival that it was the first play she’d read and the first play she’d accepted into the festival.

Interestingly enough, I have a very similar situation happening right now with another theatre…and with the very same play.

The lesson: No doesn’t mean yes, but it doesn’t always mean no, either. Yes or no?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thrill Me With Your Acumen

I came across an interesting article a couple of days ago on the subject of whether or not playwriting can be taught. This isn’t the first discussion on the topic, nor is the argument confined to playwriting – one could ask that of any of the arts – but it is a good article and includes of lot of opinions from some very interesting people.

I have always been of the opinion that, no, it cannot be taught. Or perhaps I should qualify that by saying I don’t believe it’s possible for someone else to teach you to write a play, but if you have a natural affinity for it, it’s entirely possible for you to teach yourself to write a play. That, to me, is at the crux of the argument – that you have to have that inherent ability within you. It can be coaxed out under the right circumstances, but if it's not there to begin with, it’s impossible to manufacture or “teach” that ability. Yes, you can give anyone a pen and paper and they could string together some dialogue for a few characters and attempt to tell a story from it. You could similarly give anyone a paint brush and they could paint you a picture. But you could also put me in an operating room, hand me a scalpel, and I could perform brain surgery. It wouldn’t make me a brain surgeon, and in all three instances I think it’s a fair bet that the results would be pretty mind-numbing.

I don’t question that writing programs at colleges and universities can “enhance” one’s talent and technique, but again, the natural ability has to be there in the first place. And even then, many courses, as some in this article point out, can be fraught with danger. A tutor with an agenda of exactly how a play should be written can stamp out the natural voice of an aspiring young writer before they’ve had a chance to grow into the one they were meant to be. As an art school graduate, I can tell you this was very true of my college years. If your work wasn’t influenced by German Expressionism it was likely to be mocked and belittled or simply ignored. My own work wasn’t influenced by German Expressionism, but it was taken seriously by my tutors…but that’s only because I was a pretentious twat who could spin a convincing yarn (hence my natural evolvement into a playwright).

Anyway, you can read it here in The Faster Times if you should be so inclined. Give it a shot…you never know, you might learn something.