About 10 years ago I did a method acting class with Jack Waltzer. Jack’s a lifetime member of The Actors Studio in New York – a place and a philosophy. He trained with America’s first acting teachers and directors of the Stanislavski System including Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Uta Hagen and Elia Kazan, among others. So he knows a thing or two.
The character he gave me to play was faced with an obstacle, as with all good drama. Once I realised what she was worried about, when I was realIy honest with myself, I thought, that’s odd, that’s how I feel…about playing her. And he said: “Yes of course. The character’s problem is usually yours. Art imitates life and life imitates art.” It was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I was dumbstruck as time and time again, as a young actress analysing scripts, there it was, how I was feeling.
Now, you might say, well you were projecting what you felt onto the character. And that’s maybe true. We all like to find common ground to connect with others. But as long as I could back it up with the clues the writer had given me, The Given Circumstances, as Stanislavski called them, that was a valid interpretation of the character and my way in. My way in to understanding her and finding her authenticity in me.
After further investigation I realised that this was not a new idea. I was just late to the party. Plato had originally said it or maybe someone before him who wasn’t documented. Oscar Wilde also wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Art is a reach, a higher frequency, with theatricality and meaning oh and structure and sometimes poetry and symbolism. We all want to be the girl in the amazing photo, painting, dance sequence in front of the mirror in A CHORUS LINE. Somehow we learnt that’s what we should want and what the marketing and advertising industry rely on us feeling. So here buy this crème, dress, car and you can feel like her. Although art has to be inspired by life on some level, whether it’s a reflection of or comment on or a story about someone’s life. The people who make art have only life as their stimulus – whatever they interpret life to be from their internal and external world. I love Steller Adler’s phrase, “Theatre is an X ray of our time” and comedy being “journalism with jokes”…as I call it. Yes I did just pop my hat in the ring with major philosophers…let’s gloss over that.
So if we were to give the world an X ray now…what are our Given Circumstances? A pandemic with options of how it started ranging from:
a) Our fault – cruelly trading exotic animals in wet farms, to…
b) Our fault – catching something when too far into a natural habitat where we don’t belong, to…
c) Our fault – a man-made virus to… destroy and gain power? They’re usually the first points on the agenda for that kind of “man.” Mass unemployment, an economy in tatters, a Government in monumental debt, dodgy Global leaders, startling weather evidence of looming Climate Disaster, the imminent future of automation, racial and gender discrimination, an education system that isn’t preparing us for the future, a workforce that is about to become extinct, mental health conditions on the rise and a huge proportion of society, the ones who entertain and distract us from all this – freelancers, who are unsupported.
I certainly feel like imitating a bit of Art right now…
“Katie aims for strong comic dynamics and funny character pastiches.” Is what was said about my new show in a script report. That was on material I wrote pre… you know what. It’s difficult to see the funny side of the last 16 months isn’t it.
I actually had a very positive writing experience at the beginning of Lockdown – Part One. I spoke about the luxury of focused time to spend on my next show: EDUCATION WE DIDN’T HAVE when Jim Schembri from The Herald Sun, Melbourne interviewed me. You can hear more here.
However since then I have written a few ideas in response to what’s around us rather than the show. A multiplatform documentary idea… of all things. That’s a curved ball. I also saw the need to create my own voiceover business from home to keep myself a float. That involved setting up a home studio, learning how to be a sound engineer and editor, pitching for worl and creating a website. The latter has been, gosh, almost a year’s work. An amazing experience for collating work from over the past 15 years of performing. Watching and editing old shows, sorting voice work, showcasing the new studio.
But actually the other thing I spoke to Jim about what the luxury of having time to put a show down and then picking it up with fresh eyes. A wise showrunner once said I was a vomiter! I’m not sure if you can tell….! There are two types of writer apparently – a vomiter who’s runs with ideas, characters, dialogue and the other who’s good at structure, form, edits. For me, it’s super important for my process of writing to re-read the script a few months later, as if I was a reader not the writer…and then edit the hell out of it! So, I’m looking forward to launching this website puppy and picking up the show again and seeing what I wrote! The show is about life and the education that would have been nice to have! Or certainly what I would have liked. I’m going to interview some really interesting people so I’m excited to get back to it.
We live in the most dystopian of times. It’s as if we’ve stepped straight out of a sci fi film. The Covid 19 pandemic has forced us all to reevaluate how we live our lives, what we’re doing with them and what’s next for us. There is so much incredible creativity happening, but regrettably so much is still behind closed curtains. As I write this, some theatres have now been closed for 16 months. There was a moment of glory, for one night only for some like The National in the Autumn, but we had no real idea when theatres could reopen again, stay open and now the biggie…attract their audiences back.
At the beginning of lockdown the media reported that a “cultural catastrophe” faced the UK with the loss of more than 400,000 jobs in the sector as a result of the pandemic. Industry leaders warned that the creative sector is “on the brink of devastation”, with research predicting a loss of £74 billion in revenue in 2020.
Some Theatres have closed forever, leading ladies are delivery drivers and leading men stack shelves in supermarkets. Private Industry Funds have done their best to provide emergency support for the entertainment workforce of freelancers. Casting directors and agents have given webinars, masterclasses with writers, producers, directors went on zoom and writing competitions have been a fantastic way of staying in the creative flow. Artists are streaming shows from home, web series are set in lockdown and the stage is now a digital platform near you. Brighton Fringe had a go at opening and now it’s Edinburgh Fringe’s turn. The Stage put on the first THE FUTURE OF THEATRE conference where theatremakers discussed what needed to be done. The West End is open but ticket sales are not in line with how audiences said they’d be back. They are nervous, despite theaters keeping Covid regulations. Executive director Kathy Bourne of Chichester Festival Theatre’s said:
“It’s clear the overwhelming majority of our audiences are comfortable, relaxed and excited to be back. We are noticing, however, that an increasing minority prefer not to wear face coverings, despite our strong recommendation that they should do so (something reiterated in pre-show emails and during their visit, and all our front-of-house staff wear masks); and this is alongside an increasing number of people who are discomforted that not everyone is wearing a mask. The threat of a Covid-related show interruption is ongoing, but: “We optimistic about the future as the vaccine roll-out continues.”
I hope if audiences want to keep the show on the road they’ll err on the side of caution with masks (if they’re medically able to wear them) to help theatre companies and their shows stay open. They really can’t afford to close because of you.
Many performers have fallen through the net of Government support due to the portfolio nature of our work. 4.8 million people are registered self-employed in the UK but if over 50% of our earnings have been in ‘employed / part time positions’ in between self-employed performing work, Universal Credit of £411 a month is the only option.
Front of house staff have left the industry as they can’t afford to stay, just like other casual staff in the hospitality world. Both the theatre and hospitality worlds work hand in hand to provide nourishment for the body and soul… but only if we actually go there.
There’s a palpable passion for the artform of theatre in the UK. We are so good at theatre and the arts – that makes the current situation so hard to bear. Theatre generated £1.28 billion in ticket revenue in 2018. Theatre is one of the best things that is made here, done here and exported to audiences around the world. When the Government want to talk about how great Britain is, they usually use The Arts to demonstrate our talent… which speaks for itself.
As the Duchess of Cornwall said at The Olivier Awards, “Whatever form a performance takes, it allows us to deepen our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us. Perhaps most importantly, those of us who believe in the theatre also believe in its resilience. It is a cornerstone of a fertile cultural life, a forum for debate, and a powerful means of building community. A play can be many things – funny, heart-breaking, cathartic, comforting. It can entertain us for an evening, or enrich the soul forever.”
But alas, the freelance, Arts and Entertainment world is suffering. The cultural home of our storytellers – actors, performers, dancers, comedians, singers…where we huddle around the campfire for their story, has either been shut for over 16 months, haemorrhaging money from opening and closing, bankrupt or trying to stay afloat.
I believe in the resilience of theatre. My logical brain knows what happens on stage is not real… yet I’m 100% in. I’m a believer.
The collective: Freelancers Make Theatre Work have been a source of inspiration and support for me. Art imitates the life of freelancers no better than in the newsletter by Sunita Hinduja. She asked Freelancers on Twitter how they felt. So a retweet for some beautiful writing from…I’ve lost count how many lockdowns:
“Dear Industry this is how we are feeling.
F is for Fear, the constant threat of having to stop and your pay being reduced or going unpaid if projects are cancelled or runs shortened.
R is for Resilience, this is a word often used when describing freelance theatre people, but after 15months, returning to an industry that is so precarious and being able to get through it and adapt isn’t about resilience it is about need, to pay rent, to stay in your chosen home, to create. Don’t mistake resilience in freelancers as an over tolerance of adversity. This is not sustainable.
E is for Equality, the desire and drive to get more Freelancers of all disciplines to have access to decision making spaces, board rooms, Senior Management meetings, planning meetings.
E is for Environment and as we return with a renewed realisation that the Industry will need to actively engage with Climate emergency on every production not just some. A welcome change, will freelancers have to carry the cost of personal and professional development around this?
L is for Leadership and the sense that this was lacking in March 2020 for Freelancers in the sector, it got a little better post CRF2 however now in 2021 as buildings and shows begin to reopen the priority is again bricks, mortar and bottom line – over people.
A is for Anti Racism and Solidarity training, work that buildings and their full time staff are able to access, concerms from the Freelance community not attached to buildings that there is very little free, funded or even subsidised professional and personal development that Freelancers can access particularly around this work.
N is for Nervous about the return to work filled with questions and uncertainty – can I still do the job, will I remember how to do it, do I have the stamina to launch back into 60hrs a week again. Will there be work for me? Very happy for my peers but – why haven’t I been asked yet?
C is for Confidence, after 15months of not working 13years of experience the confidence has gone and Freelancers feel like in some cases they are at the start of their journey again.
E is for Excluded from any support, despite working as a PAYE freelancer and paying taxes for over 15 years, just missing out on furlough as they weren’t on a show at the time. And now after continual show postponement just missing out on Maternity pay and leave.
R is for Responsibility, the pressure of opening a show in this moment knowing that you could be the reason your show has to stop or pause. Either because of contracting Covid or being pinged by Track and Trace. 100 people being out of work and unpaid because of one individual is a massive sense of responsibility.
S is for Scotland, who’s leadership is cautious and clear, rules are consistent and restrictions modestly removed Freelancers reported feeling “safe and well looked after” Performing Arts have clear and non negotiable guidelines for organisations and institutions to follow.
M is for Mental Health; the general feeling amongst many Freelancers is that “we are not OK”
A is for Anger at the governments obvious contempt for the Arts and the constant mis management and advice to the sector.
K is for Knackered – See tired.
E is for Exhaustion, working hard before Covid to be Economical and canny in design, but now this seems to be is an industry must. A feeling that creative energies go mostly into this and not storytelling. Especially when these shows and stories were designed and told to be delivered in 2020 but were continually postponed.
T is for Track and Trace. Enough said.
H is for Help. I have massive concerns about social distancing being removed as my health isn’t great.
E is for Excited to be getting back to the work we all love after 15months of something that isn’t your passion.
A is for Anger.
T is for Tired and scared to let the tired in.
R is for Rules, frustration that theatres have to and are sticking to the rules, but people in power can carelessly break them.
E is for Energy, not having enough to get through another difficult uncertain period of work and creativity.
W is for Waiting, to hear if jobs that have been postponed will ever be made.
O is for Ombudsman, a smart call from Amanda Parker at Inc Arts, an independent service or individual for the Sector to ensure transparency, accountability and resolution. Someone on the outside identifying and addressing the systemic issues, this would particularly benefit Freelancers who apart from the unions have no consistent HR support.
R is for Renegotiate, the current COVID variations on the union contracts are really not serving the workforce well. Who does it serve?
K is for Kindness, Freelancers holding each other through this uncertain time.
The life of a freelancer in 2021. And we’re meant to bring the distraction and fun! We of course, will. It’s what we do.