Episode 7: INSIGHT
Anne: I certainly see some young performers coming into a show feeling that this is the answer to all their problems, or that this will fill some kind of emptiness they may be feeling in themselves, or this will give them a sense of validity. And I think that if we’re looking for self worth in the contract of a show, we’re barking up the wrong tree, and we’re going to be really disappointed. I think those kinds of things can only be found inside ourselves. We’re not going to find them in a musical. There are many other wonderful things to be found in a musical, but a sense of our own worth is not it.
This is House Lights Up – honest conversations with professional performing arts workers about how they make working in the arts work for them.
The Australian arts industry is a unique business – unlike any other in the opportunities and challenges it presents for its workers. Its difference is intrinsic to the work it produces – the point of which is connection, experience, to move and to change and to question. And of course to entertain.
So we know the particularity of the arts and entertainment industries isn’t going to change. Which means the myriad sources of stress to which arts industry workers are exposed are likely here to stay.
Monica: We’re all just making it up as we go along, we’re all fucking it up as we go along.
Susan: So the whole experience had actually crushed any sense I had that. I had a creative voice that was useful, and I left. I left music altogether.
Cristina: There can be such beautiful highs. And then there can be some great lows.
Chris: I sometimes talk about your arts career, it’s like a bad boyfriend: it doesn’t treat you well, but you stay in it because you love it.
Anne: It’s becoming more and more competitive…and I think it’s going to get harder, not easier.
Ian: We’ve thrown spanners at each other, we’ve done all sorts of things just out of stress.
Monica: …and if I was a better mother, then what I should do is put my own ambitions on hold and look after my children.
Rob: Yo, that stuff isn’t actually real at the end of the day, it’s beautiful and it’s brilliant and it’s meaningful for the people watching. But it’s not the core of who you are. And it can’t be, you have to be comfortable with who you are outside of that
Deone: There’s passion, and there’s pain. I think a lot of us in the industry think that we need the pain to be passionate. That is absolute bullshit.
So in this series we’re taking stock of the arts worker’s arsenal – we’re considering the cornerstone resources every person working in the arts can draw on as they navigate the particular challenges of this industry.
And just as a side note – this series was recorded under the conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown, so you’ll notice some variability in audio quality. And I’m sure you’ll appreciate why that is the case.
Something that struck me in almost all of my conversations for this series of House Lights Up is the incredible learning journey that unfolds in the early part of a creative career.
Off the top of the episode you heard from the remarkable stage performer Anne Wood. Over the course of her career, Anne has seen reality setting in for many early career performers.
Anne: I hear lots of stories. And I talked to lots of people who come into the performing arts and then find that it’s not what they expected that it was going to be. And it’s much harder than they expected and a lot less glamorous than they expected.
The sense that I get speaking to people from the industry is that the graduates who are coming up and not necessarily prepared for the reality of what it’s like. That they do have a glamorised romanticised idea of what the business is and what it’s like to be doing eight shows a week, or working in that capacity in the performing arts. I think that they don’t have a good idea of what it’s like, and it can be incredibly disillusioning very quickly.
Co-founder of the Australian Road Crew Association and long-time roadie Ian Peel sees people coming in to road crew work expecting that this line of work will get them hanging out with famous people and partying round the clock – an image of glamour he says is far from reality.
Ian: Well that’s not what the industry is about. The industry is so diversified you may end up working for anyone, anywhere at any time, no glamour. You don’t treat it as glamour because all the musicians want to be treated as normal people and that’s it.
An area of the live performance industry often associated with a sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, Ian tells me that road crew work is actually characterised by tenacity, work ethic, problem solving and bloody hard slog.
Ian: We were always working when everyone else was having a party. So people don’t sort of realise that, you’re working. You’re working flat out to get gigs up and down.
You would probably start at 10 in the morning, eight in the morning, seven in the morning, finish six in the afternoon… then you’ll do the show and then you will do three or four hours bump out straight after that. So you could be doing 16-hour days. During the show you can sit down and have a bit of a relax. Hope that nothing goes wrong, but you just keep going until you get the job done.
Imagine you have been training for years, since childhood, with dreams of becoming elite in your field. That might mean landing a coveted job in a full-time orchestra, or dance company, or your dream might be touring a mainstage musical, or performing your own original material in front of an audience. And then you get there, you get the gig you’ve been visualising throughout your training. But you don’t feel quite like you’ve arrived at your destination. Instead you have a lingering sense of anticlimax, that something’s missing. Is this all there is? Here’s stage performer Deone Zanotto.
Deone: You start doing the job and you realise, I’m not happy. Why aren’t I happy right now? I’m achieving. I’ve ticked that goal. I’ve ticked the box that said I had to get a gig on West End and now I’m here and I’m not happy. Or after four weeks, you’re like, “Really? Why aren’t I happy? I’m doing it, but I’m not happy.
Anne: I often find that after a couple of months, they’re thinking is this it.
Anne Wood has seen plenty of performers – often who are in their first job on a mainstage musical, in the same awkward and unsettling position.
Anne: They’re finding the repetition very gruelling. And they’re realising that it’s maybe not what they thought it was going to be. I see that all the time… And then of course people often are concerned about having those feelings because they have an overriding pressure on themselves thinking, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m so grateful to be here. And my partner, who I’m living with, isn’t doing a show and hasn’t gotten into a show yet. And I can’t complain to them about how hard this is and how I’m feeling and how I’m questioning everything. And so there’s always this pressure that everybody puts on themselves that, well I need to keep my mouth shut because I’m doing a show and this is what everybody wants to be doing. So let’s just get on with it.
Chris: But something really interesting happens as you become an adult, or as you actually become a professional musician, or you become a professional actor that you suddenly go, “Oh, okay. I am the thing, but I still don’t feel worthy,” or “I still don’t feel good enough.”
Chris Cheers is a psychologist with a performing arts background.
Chris: I think I’m one of the rare people to have a Bachelor in Neuroscience and Performance Studies as a minor.
Chris echoes something that all of the arts workers I spoke to for this series highlighted – the vital importance of knowing why you want a career as an artist. If you can arm yourself with the insight and self-knowledge that allows you to critically interrogate what is pulling in the direction of a creative career and what you’re aiming to get out of your work, you have a rudder to steer yourself through anything the industry can throw at you. An unexpected feeling of dissatisfaction with your work might indicate that you’ve yet to ask yourself these hard questions.
Chris: There’s a thing happens where the thing you were promised hasn’t really panned out that you still feel like you haven’t got the worth or you’re not valued. And that’s when you start to go, “Okay, well, what does bring my life value? What does bring my life worth?” And that’s a really interesting time where, I think some artists work that out and then change their practise to make it something that’s important to them. So you see actors move from doing shows that… They’re in shows that other people have written to making their own work, or you see musicians start to compose their own stuff or go on their own path.
For Anne, this self-interrogation is as much about resisting popular images of what being a performer is all about.
Anne: There are a lot of pictures and stories and romanticised beliefs around the performing arts that aren’t true. And I think to have longevity, it’s important that we really face up to those and really search ourselves to see if this is where we really want to be…
Chris: …maybe as artists get older, they get wiser, they make mistakes, they learn and they end up in a better place, so in many ways we’re talking about, “Well, if you could take out what you know at 50 and put it to yourself at 20, how much greater might your life be? And when you talk to people who’ve been through it, the one thing that they tend to have come to is a real understanding of what’s important to them and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Someone who takes a measured approach to the fulfilment they expect from their career is stage performer Deone Zanotto. Deone has hit the highs of performing coveted roles on Broadway and the West End. But she has a really conscious approach to finding fulfilment within and outside of her work.
Deone: And this has been a change for me and a big shift, and it’s been a conscious shift, not putting my happiness eggs in my work basket. My happiness eggs are definitely not in my work basket. That’s not to say that I don’t get happiness from work. Absolutely. I love it. I love kicking the leg on stage, for sure. But, my happiness eggs come from somewhere else. They come from family time, they come from all the stuff like going for bike rides, and hiking, and seeing Hudson, and playing, and mucking around and playing with Plato, which you never do when you’re an adult, and other things, spending quality time, having good conversations with friends, and that sort of stuff. Because putting happiness eggs in your work basket is, I think it’s detrimental….” So, your happiness has to come from in you. It can’t come from the things.
Chris: Being able to step away from everything and going, “What’s important to me? What are my values? What’s important to me? What do I want to do with my life? And then how do I knock that? How do I do that?” And parts of you, parts of those values will be enacted through the arts, through the job, and other parts of what’s important to you will be enacted through family, and through friends, and through other connections as well.
According to Chris, there’s often a point in a creative career at which the artist’s relationship with the arts changes.
Chris: I think that’s a really interesting, important point that I think artists always to get to is where they start to lose the sense of that they’re doing art in order to become a celebrity, or to become famous, whatever are the kind of beliefs that somehow inserted into their mind as they were growing up, they get left behind and what the arts become is a place to enact what is important to you. It’s not what is important to you, it’s a place where you enact what is important to you. And you have to work that out in order, I think for the arts to work for you, and also in order for you to be able to persevere in the arts, even when every piece of evidence is telling you that it’s a hopeless task. And if you can really hold… Some people call it passion, some people call it values, some people call it what’s meaningful, whatever you call that thing, you’ve got to know why you’re doing it, and that’s what helps you get through when it’s really, really difficult.
So when you have a clear view of your values and motivations, you can start to think about your goals – a surprisingly controversial topic! Chris Cheers points out that there are different types of goals – some are more helpful than others.
Chris: I am a huge fan of a short term, measurable, realistic, achievable goal.. Goals become an issue when they are long-term and they’re not really clear what they are, or they’re not really specific. And I guess the issue with a whole lot of energy towards longterm goals is there’s often a million things that are out of your control on the way to that long term goal. So you’ll start feeling guilty or you haven’t worked hard enough if you’re not getting to that goal without maybe recognising all the things that are out of your control between you and that goal.
Monica Davidson runs an organisation called Creative Plus Business which helps creative practitioners build their business savvy, including identifying and planning for goals that will move their career forward.
Key to this is a focus on what Monica calls intrinsic goals – those goals over which you can exert some degree of influence.
Monica: Measurements of success that you actually have some dominion over, so for example, if your goal was to get funding for a project, that would be an external goal. And we would actually either discount that, and say, well, we’re not going to talk about that because you don’t have any control over whether or not that happens, or how can we turn that into an intrinsic goal?
So the extrinsic goal would be get the money to do the thing. The intrinsic goal would be put together a kick-ass application, don’t sabotage it by leaving it to the last minute, make sure you get some really great letters of support, make sure your budget isn’t full of shit. You know, there’s all those things you can have some control over. Whether or not you get the money, that’s none of your concern. You don’t get to exert any influence over that at all. All you can do is pick out the bits that you can do and do that, you know?
So yeah, we spend an enormous amount of time helping people to figure out what their goals are. We’ve got this whole online learning programme called Deadlines, Dreams and Goals, which we put together just for that purpose, to help people to identify what it is that they want, because sometimes people don’t know how to even vocalise that. But I mean, I have had some pretty emotional moments with clients and students and participants who suddenly realise that they’re holding themselves back from even imagining what it is that they want.
According to Monica, setting external or extrinsic goals can be a dangerous form of self-sabotage.
Monica: If you have entirely extrinsic goals, which ultimately you can have no control over, then it actually doesn’t matter how hard you work or how talented you are or how pretty you are or how well you’ve prepared for that audition or whether or not you showed up to that audition with a hangover. It doesn’t matter, because the goal will ultimately not be decided by you anyway. So you’ve always got a scapegoat. It’s like, well, I didn’t get that part because that casting director is a dickhead.
Whereas if all of your goals are intrinsic, then the only person you can really hold to account is yourself. Now, all of a sudden, it’s like, well, I can’t blame that funding body or that casting director or that producer or that external person for not granting me my three wishes.. So when you have to hold yourself to account and be accountable to yourself and yourself only, then we start getting into really interesting self-sabotage land. And the problem with being a highly intelligent, well-educated creative person is that you probably developed some incredibly sophisticated methodologies for self sabotage. So sophisticated, in fact, that you may not actually even be aware of the fact that you’re doing it.
According to Chris Cheers, another trap of long-term, external or non-specific goals is that it can be difficult to know when you’ve achieved them.
Chris: So you never feel like you’ve achieved anything. And what I see all the time with artists, because I see people at the beginning of their career, I think teenagers who want to get into musical theatre all the way up to people who are in main stage musicals and they both feel like they haven’t achieved anything, they haven’t achieved what they wanted yet. They haven’t reached their goals.
And I sometimes refer to that as the Judy Garland syndrome, the sense that you never get to where you want to go, because there’s always another place you’re meant to be, or there’s always another goal.
So, yeah, goals can be problematic. Not having them can be even worse. Here’s Chris again with an alternative suggestion about how you can ensure you get fulfilment from your creative career.
Chris: I think what I would suggest is a focus on what I call values or what you might call what’s important to you. And knowing that no matter your circumstance, you can live by your values every day. And just look at each day about how do I live by values of connection and creativity and beauty and health, or whatever’s important to you? How do I do that today? And then the day ends, and then you wake up and you’re like, how do I do that today? And you keep living by what’s important to you and your values, it might be that you end up winning an Oscar. But the path to get there is going to be incredibly different than if you set a goal to win an Oscar and that’s all you put your energy towards. And if you don’t end up winning an Oscar, you won’t really care because you’ve spent every day living by what’s important to you. And you will feel like you’re living a life of meaning rather than feeling like you’re just not achieving goals.
According to Monica Davidson, goals and values are all for naught if you don’t know how to be accountable to yourself. And this is something Monica says so many early career artists and arts practitioners are really unprepared for.
Monica: This will always be a path that requires you to hold yourself to account. Otherwise you are not going to be able to keep up with everybody else. This is an industry that is entirely full of people who spend their every waking moment trying to be the best that they can be for no other reason than to hold themselves to account to that goal. Because none of us have been promised anything. We all just want to be as good as we can be so that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “I am as good as I can be.”
We are all the embodiment of what self accountability looks like. And that has to be learned. It doesn’t come naturally. Being accountable to yourself is not a part of how people are raised. It’s not a part of how people are trained. And the legacy of that will be in people respond extremely well to deadlines, but really poorly to establishing their own goals. And if you want to make it in whatever part of this industry you’ve picked, you are going to have to figure out how to kick yourself up the bum and how to get yourself out of bed and how to get yourself motivated towards pursuing that intrinsic goal. That is one of the hardest things that you’ll have to do, and it might take you the rest of your life to learn how to do it well. It’s an ongoing learning experience, but I think that is the measure of the people who make it and the people who don’t.
For some of our performers, the level of satisfaction they expect to get out of a job depends on how well that job aligns to particular priorities. Here’s stage performer Deone Zanotto.
Deone: There three main things that I think about when I get a job, and that it has to tick at least one of these boxes. It has to either be really challenging. Like, it has to be a role that I’ve wanted to do forever, and that’s incredibly challenging. Or it has to be financially viable. If it’s paying me a bazillion dollars, hell yes, let’s do it, whether it’s challenging or not. Great, we’ll particularly do it because of that box. Or it has to be something that I’m incredibly passionate about.
So, if it doesn’t tick the challenge box, or the financial box or the passion box, and they’re just random order, they’re not in any particular order, if it’s not ticking any of the boxes, then that’s not good. But, if it’s ticking one of them, then I have to make the decision, “Yeah, I could do this because it’s ticking my passion box.” Now, am I getting paid 50 bucks a week? Yeah, but it’s okay because it’s ticking my passion box. Great. Let’s do it. If it’s not, if it’s kind of in the middle, if it’s running at a five with all of those things, then, I don’t think you’re going to feel satisfied with it.
Susan: For me, music is all about participating in community, much less about the kind of classical music witnessing model.
For classical musician Susan Eldridge, there’s an interesting tension between her traditional classical musical training and the satisfaction she looks for in her creative practice.
Susan: And it surprises people a lot when I say to them, so I’m a professional French horn player, right? And every Thursday night I go play until recently I was going to play with a community band. And they are maybe not the highest class musical ensemble in the city, but they are the most glorious bunch of humans and they live for Thursday nights. If… for me creative satisfaction so that the three things I have to have is great people, great music. And the third thing is pay, right? But it’s got… anything I say, yes, has got to have two of those three things. So what makes me much happier than a $220 paycheck is taking my kids. So we have two teenage sons and my wife was the conductor of this ensemble. So every Thursday night, like The Brady Bunch, we’d get in the station wagon with the tuba and the baritone sax and the bassoon and the two French horns in the conductor’s podium. And we truck on out and we’d go to rehearsal and it was just awesome.
Susan runs a business called Notable Values in which she helps other classical musicians to develop viable careers, harnessing her own business acumen to provide advice and coaching to a segment of arts workers whose training has traditionally not incorporated these vital aspects of business knowledge. Susan’s work coaching other musicians often emphasises a search for joy.
Susan: So it’s really about helping them to understand what creative fulfilment looks like for them individually, and what is a sustainable economic model that’s going to allow them to do that. And so helping people also get to actually, where are you joyful in your music making?
Susan says these conversations can involve active resistance of traditional images of what a successful classical musician looks like.
Susan: And understanding you can play with the community band if you want to. Like there’s expectations we have about what success looks like or what good is. We can rewrite those for ourselves, right? And we can decide to say very proudly, I’m a professional French horn player and I play with a community band and I love every minute of it. And it’s one of the highlights of my week. Because the people are awesome. I know the music that’s chosen is high quality for that group. It’s musical vegetables, it’s not musical candy. And I have my kids with me and I love it when the tuba-playing-son gives the bassoon-playing-son a ribbing, because he missed his cue. Like it doesn’t get any better. So how do we have this? How do we get back to a place where our music making is about joyfulness and about connection to people? So that’s where I help them to start to unlock that.
A word that gets thrown about a lot in the arts is passion. This supposed driving force of creative endeavour gets mixed reviews from our arts workers. Here’s Anne Wood’s thoughts:
Anne: I guess now, after more than 30 years in the business, I have a different idea of what passion is. And I think it’s a kind of misunderstood term. We think that passion is what drives us. And often it is. But behind the passion, what is it really? What does drive us to do what we are doing and what we want to do in the performing arts? I feel like true passion is an understanding of what we can bring to the table and a desire to bring it to the table. I think as long as we know that we have something to bring and a desire to bring it, then we’ve got an opportunity to make a difference. And we’ve got an opportunity to learn and grow. And we can make any job interesting in that way.
Chris Cheers says that passion should be the compass, not the destination. So you may be a passionate actor, but you won’t necessarily be passionate about acting…
Chris: Your passion isn’t to act, your passion is to, you know, I don’t know inspire people. Or your passion is to connect with an audience or your passion is to use your words to inspire ideas of change in people. Your passion isn’t to be something it’s the things that are driving your actions. And I think that’s the kind of passions that are useful. When passion is kind of being used as almost a façade of kind of a goal, that’s when it, I guess becomes an issue where you feel like I’m not able to live my passion because I don’t have any funding is at one time an absolutely true statement, but in another way, not really a helpful statement because it negates the idea that you can live by your passion no matter the circumstance you’re in. It just might look a little different than you had imagined, but you can do it because you get to define your passions and how to enact them.
Following your passion can expose you to some pretty tough realities. Like when stage performer Deone Zanotto followed her passion to New York.
Deone: New York for me is, that was … it’s such an amazing place to live. It feeds you in terms of your art, but it also eats you alive if you are not ready for it. There were days where I got eaten alive, and there were days when I was fed and felt so full for love of the art and for what I was doing. There were other times where I wanted to literally crawl under buildings and hide. I felt my most connected and social and loved and happy in New York, and I felt the most depressed and lonely. I don’t think I felt loneliness like that. It’s a place that you feel like you want to be a part of as much as you want to escape it. It’s got this crazy yin and yang to it. It’s really, yeah, it’s palpable. I think you can really feel that when you’re there.
One of my first auditions was for A Chorus Line. I had dreamt about that audition, and I remember the feeling of that happening when I was auditioning for A Chorus Line. I was in Time Square, and I could see the billboard of A Chorus Line. It was like, this is happening. This is your eight-year-old self standing in this place that you’ve dreamed of for so many years, and you’re doing it. You’re absolutely doing your eight-year-old dream right now.
Then, on the flip side of that… it was a year later probably, telling my eight-year-old self that I’ve done it. I’m not holding onto that dream anymore and feeling the heartbreak of going to audition after audition after audition and not getting it and not getting the gigs…. I remember feeling so broken. I think I’d been told … Three of my real heart jobs I’d auditioned for and I’d missed out, and this was in a period of days, they told me, “No, no. Really sorry. No, no, no.” I had to step back and think, I need a break from this. I actually need a break from this and not a pretend break. Not just like, “I’m not doing this anymore,” and being flippant about it. I actually really needed to step back from it because I felt so … had been so beaten. I was broken. I didn’t know how to put my pieces back together to go on and jump into another audition. I was like, no, no. I need to actually step away from this for a minute, and I did for nearly three years.
So Deone was in LA, dealing in a different kind of theatrics as a personal trainer to movie stars – when she got a call from an agent back in Australia. The Gordon Frost Organisation production of Chicago was recasting Velma, and they wanted to know if Deone was interested.
Deone: … I really had to stop and go. Yeah. Oh God, first of all, can I still do this? Do I have it in me? Do I have it … Can I do this role justice because it’s such a role that I hold so close to my heart? Yeah, then I jumped in. I threw myself back in the pool. That’s how I threw myself back in the pool, and it was fantastic. The more I thought about it, the more I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve missed this. My heart has missed this.” So, I’m not sure if my body had missed it, but a few massages, and we were okay.
Passions change – they evolve and mature over time. Hip hop artist Rob Tremlett (Mantra) had very simple motivations when he first started his creative practice.
Rob: I think my goals early on obviously the driving force was just wanting to do music full time. Wanting to be an artist and wanting to be creative with as much of my time as possible… so earlier on that was like, I’ll work a dodgy job … job that was easy enough for me to do and easy enough for me to get and didn’t take too much of my brain space in my own creative energy so that I could devote enough of my time to music outside of that. Obviously that changed when I started doing the music education work.
For Rob, what started out as an income stream that was more fun than the part-time jobs he’d been working, and a better aligned to his pursuits in music, soon became something larger and more ambitious.
Rob: I realised that there were really, really deep outcomes that could be reached that weren’t music or art related. And they were probably more important than the music or art related outcomes. So that became something that I was more passionate about I think over time… When I first started doing that type of work, I was like, yo, we’re going to lay off these young peeps become rappers, and we’re going to show them how to rap. I don’t really care about that anymore. I don’t care if any of these young peeps start rapping or if they want to pursue rapping. But what I am interested in is maybe giving them a positive experience of a creative outlet that allows them to figure out what their pathway might be or what it might look like.
For Anne Wood, too, motivation has changed over time.
Anne: I love telling stories. I love the opportunity that that affords, I think that that’s probably has what attracted me in the past, but I certainly now feel part of what motivates me is trying to learn and understand about what this beast is, what it is, what happens with this group of people who get together to do a show? What are we bringing in terms of the beliefs and stories that aren’t serving us?
For roadie Ian Peel, it’s always been about the people.
Ian: I never cared who I worked for or who I toured with, it was going on the road and working with a great bunch of people. So you’ve got to be happy with where you go and hope that the people that you are going to deal with are going to have the same emotional background as well as worldly knowledge and be able to communicate the same as you. But it’s not about the industry or the glamour it’s the people you work with.
So whatever your creative practice involves, don’t be afraid to really interrogate your motivations – it could be make all the difference in your creative career. Be mindful of your goals – think intrinsic and measurable – not long-term, vague or external. And spread those happiness eggs across as many baskets as you can get your metaphorical hands on.
Here’s a last thought on the search for fulfilment from Deone Zanotto.
Deone: Your mind naturally looks for joy, bliss, happiness, love. It’s in the sunsets, it’s in the movies you watch, it’s in the conversations we have, it’s in the jobs that we get. But, all of those things have an end date. The sun sets, the movie ends, the job finishes our jobs finish all the time.
So, where are we going to get this happiness? We’re just constantly searching, searching, searching, searching. It’s in you. It’s got to come from in you. So, it’s the one thing that you have to find that balance, you have to find that within yourself.
Next time on House Lights Up – adaptability and making the money stuff work. How to make a living from a creative career.