Episode 1: THE AUDITION
Gabriel: Performing artists are 10 times more likely to suffer anxiety then the general population, five times more likely to suffer depression. And one of the reasons for this is the difficult, unnatural situations, personal, emotional vulnerability that performing artists have to go through. And the audition is the pinnacle. The audition’s actually worse than the performance. It’s the hard bit. The performance is getting on with the job. So let’s just stop and acknowledge that what a bloody awful thing to put someone through!
This is House Light Up – honest conversations with professional performing arts workers about the challenges of forging a career in the arts, and strategies for overcoming them.
In this first episode we’ll be looking at the road to the stage. For plenty of performers – particularly those who aspire to work in mainstage theatre – that road starts with the audition.
You’ve just heard from Gabriel Edwards, a counsellor who specialises in helping people navigate the challenges of working in the performing arts. She says the audition exemplifies the particular vulnerability of the professional performer.
Here’s Music Director Luke Hunter’s take on the audition process.
Luke: Auditions are awful because they’re foreign, they’re not a performance. They’re in an annoying room somewhere, usually there’s tap dancing going on down the corridor and a stereo that’s too loud, and you’re trying to create a space where people can come in and do their work. But that’s the daunting thing too is the performers are on display in a team of sometimes maybe 20 people in the room, and that’s hard, right? You’re outnumbered, you’re outgunned. You’ve just got to hold your head up high and do the work and hope for the best I guess.
I don’t think there’s a better way to do it, but I wish there was.
And it seems that for the performer based in Australia, the stakes of the audition are particularly high.
Luke: I’ve sat in on auditions on Broadway, and, you know, you turn up to Pearl Studios or New 42nd Street or Ripley Grier or wherever and there are floors, like literally floors full of multiple rooms that have auditions running every day of the week.
So the people that come in to audition for whatever show, they’ve got another audition down the corridor or across the road that day, and another three tomorrow, and they would do multiple auditions a week. And I think the difference for us is that our performers might do five or six major musical auditions a year if they’re lucky. So they’re hungry for the work. It’s a precious thing, it’s a precious commodity to have a job.
Matt: I think the very nature of them is knowing and acknowledging that you are putting yourself up to be judged.
Matt Heyward is a musical theatre performer whose stage credits include titles like Mamma Mia, Les Miserables, The Producers and My Fair Lady. But he notes that a performer’s CV conceals a multitude of unsuccessful auditions.
Matt: I’ve been fortunate enough to have a very wonderful career. And it looks good on paper, but there’s more rejections that have gone a long with that CV than successes cos that’s the very nature of our business.
So how does one make peace with this fact of life as a mainstage performer? Matt Heyward and Luke Hunter both agree that it starts with the performer’s own approach to the entire process of auditioning.
Matt: I try very hard to not give the audition more weight than it deserves as far as the universe and the ether. If I didn’t have the job yesterday and I don’t have the job tomorrow, nothing has changed.
Luke: David Atkins was my first director on Fame, and he said to us – and he’s right – he said, just remember that every audition starts with the perfect premise, and the perfect premise is that every actor that walks in the door wants a job, and the creative team wants to book the best people that there are. So whenever you walk in as a performer into an audition room, just remember that the creative team wants you to be amazing.
Matt: They want you to be good. They want you to be good because it solves a problem for them. If you walk in and you’re exactly what they’re looking for, there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s slotted into place for them.
It’s such a simple idea – that an audition is a transaction and nothing more. Just an impersonal matter of finding the right solution to a given problem. So if the power of the audition setting is purely a matter of perception on the part of the performer, can it really be that simple to strip that power away? It’s happened for Matt Heyward, once or twice.
Matt: There was a show that I really wanted to be a part of, and I wasn’t able to be seen for the part I wanted to be seen for, but they eventually allowed me to come in for one of the ensemble tracks in a dance capacity. And I’m a singer first.
I went into this dance call, and absolutely embarrassed myself. It was mortifying. I was just not of the right standard with the guys I was auditioning with, and I left that audition for some reason I just decided to find that hilarious rather than heartbreaking. And I saw a friend afterwards, she’s like “How did you go?” and I was like, “Oh I got cut straight away” and I was laughing about it. And she’s like, “Are you ok?” And I was like, “Yeah, I really am. I just wasn’t right. It wasn’t me. I can’t do anything about that. So, oh well!”
I met with counsellor Gabrielle Edwards at her work space in Melbourne. Here above busy Little Collins Street, Gabriel helps performing artists work through a range of challenges that sadly seem to come with their territory. This includes managing anxiety and minimising the impact of personal issues on one’s professional work. She also helps performers navigate career choices and develop work-life balance. She lays out for me the approach she would encourage performers to take to the audition process.
Gabrielle: I would help someone to come into that process knowing that this is hard for everyone and don’t look at anyone and think they’ve got it sussed, that you are all shit scared, you’re all feeling those physical reactions, you’re all worried about rejection, you’re putting yourself on the line. Wow.
She says there are three things a performer needs from the very beginning of their career – perspective, a support network, and a deep enough understanding of themselves to anticipate and brace for the inevitable bumps in the road.
Gabrielle: So what I would suggest for anyone going into this career really is to be mindful of … Part of your training is to get a really good understanding of your life journey to date, and really feed and nurture and build the other parts of your life besides your craft. Often people achieve that through counseling, through journaling, through lots of reading, but I think at some point if you’re going to have a career in performing arts it’s really important to understand, appreciate, honor, and learn about your life’s journey so far. And also for the life that you have, make sure there’s other parts in it other than your performance, so grow and nurture, enjoy and maintain the other parts of your life as well.
Let’s draw a picture of you now in your life. What is in your life at the moment? What’s happening in those areas, what are your goals? Just to get a broader perspective of where the audition sits. And to actually have a look at beforehand what happens if you get it? What does that mean? Great. What does not getting this particular gig mean? It means this, not that. What would be your next step? This.
So in some ways it’s really good to have a very pragmatic look at the whole situation before you go into it to gain perspective.
The last thing I would say on that, I mean there’s lots to say about it, but be great to have a good support network. Your friends and family, whatever form it takes. It’s really essential to have a good support network, it is for all of us, but when you’re in this really lonely, vulnerable space, if possible it’s great to have at least one person waiting to hear how do you feel or to hug you at the end.
But yeah, there’s no way around it, it’s an excruciating process and it’s a real power dynamic and you’re giving your all and the stakes are high. So all of those things that help you gain perspective are worth looking at and undertaking.
So who are the people on the panel judging you at an audition? Music Director Luke Hunter may well be one of them. Here’s his perspective on the audition process, from the other side of the fence.
Luke: I always remember that I was a performer once. I’ll never forget what that experience is like, so I think I sit on a panel with that as my underlying thought every time someone walks in the room. And also I always try to be respectful of the work that everyone’s put in before they’ve walked in the room in the first place. But then you’ve got to make a decision about what’s right and what you know is going to be needed, and where people fit. Or if they don’t fit.
The inescapable truth according to Luke is that there is always going to be more outside of the performer’s control than within it.
Luke: There’s so much about the show, no matter how much you research it, there’s so much that you’re not know to know. You’re not going to know the real intricacies of the ins and outs of who they’ve cast in various productions, what they’ve found has worked, what they’ve found hasn’t worked, and why. So you, as an actor, you can walk in and think, I am right for this show. I am right. But you might be three centimetres too short, or they’ve found that it’s better to have a true tenor in that role rather than a high baritone. And that might not even be on the casting brief, but suddenly you don’t fit the bill, and you don’t know why. And you might not ever get told, that’s the curse of being a performer as well too. So I think there are some things that we do make very quick judgements on.
So you may just not be the right height, look, pitch, or whatever. But then what does the audition process look like for someone who sits a little closer to the edge of the bell curve?
Rachel Dunham knows.
I asked Rachel what the transition into professional performance was like for her.
A natural performer with a powerful voice and a striking look, it took Rachel some time to become comfortable with herself in the audition room, knowing she was never going to be your typical mainstage musical performer. As a result, Rachel didn’t start auditioning until she was well into her singing career.
Rachel: But I’ve always said that for me in regards to being on stage with big main stage shows, I had to grow into myself because I’m fairly niche. I’m a big girl. I’ve got large features. I’ve got an interesting look, but I’ve got a leading lady voice and that’s fabulous how that screws with directors when you’re in an audition room. It starts like, you’d see them sitting there going, “Really want her. I haven’t gotten anything for her, but I really wanted her. Could we make something?” You can see the brain ticking. And then the musical director and the director will have an argument because the musical director… and it’s like, “Guys look the end of the day, I’m probably not right for anything. Should I say help me sort this out?”
But I did start auditioning and not the funnest thing in the world. I’m sure in most other industries it would probably go against all the anti-discrimination laws, everything that happens in an audition room.
But you grow up knowing that you’ve either got the look or you don’t. And I don’t, but I had to grow into it. And finally in my 40s, I had grown into myself. And people were starting to write roles that were a bit different.
So Rachel landed herself her first big mainstage musical role in her 40s. It was a principle lead she was perfect for – Justice Charlier in Rock of Ages.
But she is someone who has seen first-hand how not looking like your typical mainstage performer can stifle your opportunities in an already overcrowded audition scene.
Rachel: Some performers are the right style of performer that eventually they will go on to do back to back to back once they get their name in the right place, that sort of thing. I was never going to be that performer. So once I realized after a couple of big auditions that, “This isn’t going to happen that easily again.” Because Rock of Ages was incredibly easy for me to get. It was stupid.
So what’s a performer to do when the industry isn’t offering up audition opportunities? For Rachel, the answer was to create her own original work. A few years ago, she wrote and starred in Oprahfication – a one-woman cabaret show about Oprah Winfrey. And when she took the production to New York, she was struck by a marked difference in approach to performers of diverse backgrounds.
Rachel: Musical theatre in Australia have decided that I’m black. And when I performed in New York and I played, an Australian chick playing the most famous Black woman in the world, let alone America. And I was told before I went over, “Don’t worry, no one will question it. They have had such a history of vail racism in their country that they don’t … someone wants to get up there and do a thing if you’re good enough, they won’t even question it.”
And they didn’t. And in fact I got told by people, if I was based in New York, there would be at least four roles that I could go and audition for tomorrow. And they were a mixture of every colored skin tone you could think of- because they just don’t see it. Over here, that’s what I get sent for, the older, mature black woman or similar ethnicity. I get it’s a bit to do with my voice as well. I get that. But yeah, there just aren’t the roles to go and audition for.
But that’s kind of why I just went out and wrote Oprah was because I needed to do something. I’ve always been the outsider. I’ve always not been right. Not been quite right. Been really wrong. Any version of that. But I think that’s why I’ve had a very different journey to most performers as well. I do it for different reasons.
There’s so much more to Rachel’s story – and you’ll hear plenty more from her and other artists in future episodes.
Back to the audition. In the awful but precious few minutes a performer gets in an audition room – what can they do to regain a bit of the power? What can the performer control?
Musical Director Luke Hunter shares his thoughts.
Luke: You can control how prepared you are, so that is how well you’ve looked over the material and are familiar with it. Doesn’t necessarily mean you have to know it by heart, but you’re really familiar with it. And you have some understanding of the show and the way that the show plays, you know what energy is required, what style of performance it is, the way that the material that you’ve been given is incorporated into that bigger picture. That’s something that you can control. And then if you’re prepared to work in the room.
if you can walk out of an audition room and say, I was listening to what they said, I made the adjustment to the best of my ability that they ask me to do, I was prepared to be flexible and prepared to throw all of the work that I’d done out the window and go on a different track that they were asking me to go on, and attempted to do that – I think that’s what makes a good audition.
And if, as a performer, if you can leave the space and say, I was prepared, I knew the material, I’d done my research, when I walked in the room I was ready to work, and I tried to do what they asked me to do to the best of my ability, then big green tick. That’s a successful audition, whether you get a call-back or not. Because the thing that might not have got you a call back is not that you weren’t talented and not that you weren’t making adjustments the way that they wanted you to. It might just be that they pre-cast the role without telling you, or you’re too short or too tall, or something that you may or may not ever find out about in the future. So I think as long as you can walk out of that room and say that I did those things, then you walk away with your head held high, regardless of the outcome.
So although rejection has no place on the performer’s CV, an unsuccessful audition is not necessarily a failed audition. Creative teams want you to do well in the audition room, and having foundations in place for mental health and wellbeing – like a support network, a good understanding of yourself, and the all-important intangible of perspective – will help you survive the realities of the audition process.
One last thought from counsellor Gabriel Edwards on approaching the audition with a balanced perspective:
Gabriel: Look for stories. Track down authentic stories from other artists. What a great way to demystify and crack myths. But when I say look for stories, be really discerning. There’s a lot of PR out there. Don’t look for the PR story of someone rising through the ranks and the heights that they’re … No. Look for the authentic stories. Look for the artists who are prepared to tell their story.
Authentic stories. That’s what we’ll be uncovering and sharing in the coming episodes.
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.
Anne: I never really think about not performing because I’m very good at being unemployed. And I think that’s the key.
This is House Lights Up – honest conversations with professional performing arts workers about how they make working in the arts work for them.
Today we’re getting down to brass tacks – we’re talking about money, finding out how our arts workers deal with the lean times, and what they think are the most important contributors to financial survival in this famously volatile and unpredictable industry.
And we’re starting off by asking our interviewees how they make the money stuff work.
Off the top of the episode you heard Anne Wood say that she’s very good at being unemployed. What she means by this is that she’s very good at planning for the inevitable lean periods that come with working in the arts industry.
Anne: I think when we’re working in the performing arts, no matter how big the contract that we have, we always have in the back of our minds that there will be a period of unemployment. There will be a period of no money. And we’re always… making sure that we’re remembering that we’re going to have to support ourselves through the leaner times.
This is something pretty much all of the arts workers I spoke to for this series of House Lights Up have in common – an awareness that rainy days are always on the horizon.
Cristina: I have been a pretty religious saver for as long as I can remember.
For Christina D’Agostino and her husband and fellow theatre performer Jordan Pollard, saving is as much about maintaining mental wellbeing as it is about financial planning.
Cristina: I would always save for the rainy days when I’m in work, because I’d never want to feel like… Like work comes and goes and it’s just so hard to plan, and especially with both of us being performers, neither of us have a regular job. So because of that, too, and just not to feel super anxious in those downtimes, Jordan and I have established a system that when we are in work, we put aside money, we live within our means.. And that really works for us and especially for me. I know that I wouldn’t manage as well if I didn’t save..
Freelance orchestral musician Susan Eldridge and her wife Ingrid are likewise both engaged full time in the performing arts – a financial and logistical juggling act supported by complimentary approaches to the industry and their work.
Susan: We’ve been really lucky, we both have a very similar mindset that we are ultimately responsible and in control of our lives. And we both are very able to understand what the system offers and what the system doesn’t offer. So, and I think that comes for both of us from having both had a life outside of music. So I had a business career. And my wife before she was a full time conductor was a doctor in specialising in emergency medicine. If you went to go get some stitches at the hospital on a Sunday night, it probably would have been her stitching you. So we’re in the system but not of the system, if that makes sense. Because we’ve both had a life that sits outside it.
I asked Anne Wood how she has dealt in the past with the time between jobs, when maybe there was some uncertainty about where the next gig would come from. And she said part of being good at dealing with down-time was simply not panicking.
Anne: I’m not a panicker, I’m not somebody who … I have a very strong sense that if I’m going for a role and I don’t get it, there’s a reason that, that happened. And there was somebody who was better for that role.
I auditioned for something a year or so ago, which was a very long, drawn out audition process and required a lot of work. It was a big learn and there was a lot involved. I think I was in there four times. And I remember, I think this probably the third time I went in, I thought, “Yeah, I’m not going to get this.”
But in the meantime, I still turned up every time and gave the best that I could. There has to be a degree of realism to it and understanding. Because if you have anything else bubbling away in you, any kind of fear or tension or expectation or you’re terrified if I don’t get this job, then how the hell am I going to pay the bills? That’s going to inform your audition. You’re walking in with all of that. And it’s going to stop you from bringing everything that you can bring on the day. It’s so important to be able to identify all of that and leave it at the door, so you can walk in free of it and just be able to show what the panel will get if they employ you. Rather than the bag of nerves because of your bank account.
Like many performing arts workers, Cristina D’Agostino likes to be a few steps ahead on finding the next job before the current gig finishes up.
Cristina: So if I know that this show’s only going for this period of time, I will start to put feelers out there and do what I can to establish something in between and especially now with a family who are dependent on me, like little one, and whatnot. I have to keep my mind and body moving.
When it comes to finding work as a roadie, Australian Road Crew Association co-founder Ian Peel says that if you work hard and work well, you’ll always find a gig.
Ian: …a lot of people just think that it will fall at your feet. Well you’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to be a good person and communicate and have a good work ethic and that’s the bottom line. You’ll get work as long as you’re good at it you’ll get work hopefully.
Anne: I didn’t really ever think that working in the performing arts was actually something you would aspire to or would be a proper job, I guess.
Anne Wood’s first job in musical theatre was in the original Melbourne production of Cats – a gig that came when she was studying science at Melbourne State College. And because Anne didn’t think a career in the performing arts was actually a viable option, she equipped herself with others.
Anne: And I think I always had another plan A. And I think that that’s the key really to have a couple of plan As. And to be aware that working in the performing arts in Australia and in most countries, you’re going to have a lot of time when you’re unemployed and you need to be good at being unemployed, or you need to have another plan A. And that’s really, I think the key to not going down the rabbit hole when you are unemployed financially and also mentally.
So another Plan A. Something not to fall back on, necessarily, but to which you can turn your considerable skills and experience to maintain income, productivity and – really – your sense of worth when things aren’t going so smoothly with your creative practice. Sounds simple, but where do you start?
Something that may surprise some arts workers, but really shouldn’t, is the highly adaptable mindset they’re already bringing to their work.
Anne: I think working in the performing arts, every job we do is different to the last one. So whether we know it or not were accruing all of these different skills and this really wonderful level of responsivity to anything that’s thrown our way. And I think that makes us incredibly employable in lots and lots of walks of life.
People who work in the performing arts, you have to be open to learning. Because every single job is different from the last. We’re constantly learning new skills. We’re constantly developing our ability to respond to new things, which makes us infinitely employable.
The remarkable adaptability of the road crew isn’t lost on old-school roadie Ian Peel.
Ian: At the end of the day if you want something fixed and done and organised get a roadie to do it. Roadies should run the planet because at the end of the day, I never did a show where the show didn’t go on. We always managed to resolve all issues.
Of course when it comes to the physically gruelling work that goes into setting up live shows, age does become a factor – as Ian Peel explains, the roadie’s adaptability is put to the test sooner or later.
Ian: Working in the industry for a 60-year-old is not that easy to get hold of. People can struggle, you’ve got to be able to work out what you want to do, where you fit in, what you are going to do. So you’ve got to be able to adapt and work out, don’t fall in a heap in the middle.
Hopefully you would hope that someone would come and pick you up, dust you off and go right, come on let’s go, we’re going to find something to do.
Roadies are good at a lot of things. So they’ve got to utilise what they’re good at to then go onto the next step and hopefully that the people that they work with when they take that next step are going to have the same camaraderie as you’ve had when you are touring the world with a bunch of people.
Ian and his co-founder Adrian Anderson started the Australian Road Crew Association specifically to harness that comradery, and the power of social connection to combat the isolation from which many former roadies can suffer when they leave full-time crewing. We’ll have more about that coming up in a later episode.
When it came time for Ian himself to leave full-time road crew work, he found that same comradery and fulfilment in a tuna fishing enterprise – ichiban tuna.
Ian: It was like rock and roll you’re going out on a boat with the guys, three guys, you’re out with the team and we’re killing it. We’re having a ball, it’s fantastic, sending stuff to Japan and you go, Jesus Christ, you buy it for a Dollar a kilo in Sydney for that we just got $10.00 a kilo in Japan. So stuff Sydney, we’ll send it all to Japan. So yeah we did really well with fishing, caught some massive fish.
In episode one we heard about the importance of gaining insight into why we want to do this work, and the double-edged sword of passion. Anne Wood tells me that interrogating why we’re drawn to working in the arts may help us identify our other Plan As. The idea that our work must be driven by some divine source of passion, meanwhile, can really work against you.
Anne: I think passion’s just a bit of bullshit that we sell ourselves, and in actual fact, it is about we have the feeling inside ourselves that we have something to bring to the table… as I said earlier, we have to be so adaptable as people working in the performing arts that we actually have a whole raft of things that we can bring to any table. We just have to recognise them and harness them.
Cristina D’Agostino is a stage performer who earlier this year had her first creative team job as resident choreographer for Shrek the Musical. This has led her to identify her other Plan A.
Cristina: I’m going to start my Master’s in counselling next month. Yeah, because I feel like even coming from being a resident choreographer, how beautifully like counselling and what we do as an art form, have a really nice relationship and I think they really compliment each other. So for me, it’s really interesting to gain just a little bit more knowledge, and I guess some tools that will help me in my career but also gives me another avenue now moving forward in life. Counselling and helping people through things has always been something I’ve really enjoyed the idea of.
Rob: Colleagues of mine within the hip hop world were putting me forward for these mentor programmes they were involved in or education programmes and hip hop song writing workshops.
When hip hop artist Rob Tremlett (Mantra) got involved in delivering hip hop programs to school-aged children, he found not only that it could replace the part time jobs he was doing to support his music making, but also that it would enhance his creative practice.
Rob: And so I started doing those and that was like, “Oh, wow. This pays so much better than the other work that I was doing, and it’s actually utilising my real skill base.” But also it’s work that I would happily do for free. It was like it was rewarding and enjoyable work.
That essentially just became part of my music practise. You know what I’m saying? I considered it one and the same. Working with young people and helping them to create their own music and their own pathways into the industry, that became just kind of as important to me as my own music was. And it meant that I always had that to fall back on, even if we weren’t on the road or if we were having quiet time or if I needed to go into the studio for six months or whatever.
Musician and business owner Susan Eldridge coaches other musicians on creating viable careers for themselves. And when it comes to adaptability, Susan points out that it’s not just about transferring existing skills to diverse work sources – but it can also be about finding alternative funding opportunities for one’s creative practice. And Susan says the key to this is often identifying the problem your creative practice is helping to solve.
Susan: So imagine there’s loads of organisations doing this around the world, where they’re partnering with aged care homes, they’re partnering with community organisations, and they’re looking at where there’s a need. So, and then also the funding, if we need additional funding it’s not necessarily coming from the participants of the music as well. That’s the other challenge we’ve got is where all the industry is kind of stuck in asking the Australia council for money that, you know, 900 applicants for a hundred grants. It’s not going to happen, but instead, if you build a programme that is solving a problem for somebody else through your art, then there’s loads of other ways of getting funding for that.
It’s something Susan teaches a Masters subject on called music outreach and social entrepreneurship. To hear more about that, keep an eye on the House Lights Up feed where we’ll be releasing some bonus episodes on this and other meaty topics.
Susan’s own adaptability is pretty remarkable. When she failed her first attempt at her music degree, Susan pulled off a pretty remarkable career change. Not so much a career pivot, more of a full pirouette. I asked her how she’d managed it.
Susan: Don’t get me wrong. I did cry for a month and goodness knows I must’ve eaten, the 55 kilos that I weigh. I must’ve eaten in Tim Tams, then plus some. So, it was quite a bit of grieving went on, but I was lucky.
Lucky is probably the wrong word. Susan was tenacious and hard working, and very observant. At university with no government or parental assistance, she’d worked in the box office and in stage management to fund her life while she studied. And throughout her community music upbringing, she’d watched her mother – the non-musician of the family – manage all aspects of the band as treasurer, secretary, president, music librarian, photocopy mistress – the list goes on.
Susan: So I, even though I failed my music degree, I knew that the organising of things was something that I could do and had done in a part time capacity. And I’d seen my mum do it, you know? So I knew it was possible.
It was a skillset that led her to event production. Susan became east coast managing producer for the Rock Eisteddfod Challenge in Sydney. Eventually the UK came calling –Susan found the prospect of a change in hemispheres really appealing.
Susan: So I went to the UK to run that event and to be GM of that event and introduce it into Northern Ireland.
After a couple of years on the road, Susan needed a bit more stability. So she teamed up with fellow running a fledgling tech consultancy company.
Susan: And they had six staff, and he was just running it out of his back bedroom. And he said, look, I know you can organise things. Do you want to come on? And I know, you know about touring and logistics. And when you work with a company of consultants, it’s the same thing. They need a bed to sleep in. They need a flight to get to the gig, contracts need to be sorted out. So it was exactly the same stuff as I’ve been doing event production. Just with people doing, their services were there tech consulting, not the performance part of it.
So I just basically replaced the word, get performing arts with business. It was, it’s the same, it’s really the same job.
So the fact that arts workers and creatives tend to be flexible, adaptable problem solvers, highly intelligent and enterprising individuals, in theory means they can turn their hand to any number of jobs.
But when it comes to making a living from creative practice, there’s a lot working against the arts worker too. Not least the deep chasm that has developed between arts education and business training.
Monica: We learn about how to do the creative part of it, but we never learn about how to do the other part of it.
Monica Davidson is a writer and filmmaker who realised – when she began her own production company in the early 1990s – that there weren’t many resources available to creative practitioners wanting to develop their business skills
Monica: And one of the unfortunate legacies of the way most of us have been taught is that we’re frequently being taught by people who don’t know how to do that either. They don’t know how to freelance or how to set up or run their own businesses, or they have been freelancing, but they feel like they’ve just been making it up as they go along because they never got taught. So everybody’s just making it up as they go along. Everybody’s making lots of mistakes.
Monica says there’s a divide between arts subjects and business subjects which starts in high school.
Monica: Because of the way that those elective subjects are streamed, it’s almost impossible to choose an arts subject and a business subject. So we’ve been forced, from the beginning to go, “Oh, I have to do this or this.” Not, “I’m going to do this and this.”
Fed up with the little information available on the practicalities of running a freelance creative business, Monica engaged a couple of speakers and started running her own workshops. An informal networking and advisory practice soon developed and evolved into Creative Plus Business – a social enterprise dedicated to empowering self-employed creative practitioners to take control of their freelance businesses.
Monica: A lot of people will sort of report to us that business has always felt like this special club that they’re not allowed to be a part of. Or that maths is too hard, and you should just go over there and be an artist. Or that’s something my manager will deal with, or my agent will deal with, or my gallery will deal with. It’s not for me to worry about. My job is art, not this. And there’s so many, it’s just layered within professional practise at every level that this is somehow not something that we should be bothering ourselves with.
And so I think this world, this really unsexy world of business that I live in, has been showcased as a world that creatives are not welcome in. And so once you open the door and say, well, you’re welcome in. I mean, it’s boring in here, but welcome. And people get in and go, oh, it’s… It’s boring, and some of it’s hard, and it’s quite yucky, but it’s not unmanageable. It’s not like this super secret club that only people wearing suits are allowed to have. It’s actually pretty straightforward stuff.
And again, when you’re talking about creative professionals, you’re talking about an incredibly intelligent, extremely well-educated group of people with a love of learning who kind of go, oh, that wasn’t so hard. That’s all right.
So while not having the knowledge can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for arts workers, these people tend to already have the basics in place to quickly build the business knowledge they need in order to close that gap – intelligence, adaptability, and a certain sponginess.
Monica: It’s really quite extraordinary how nervous people are about making mistakes or looking stupid, and so we do quite a lot of work around that with individual clients, but also in workshops to just try and make people feel a bit safer. Because some practises are different to others, but if you are going to be using your creative process to forward yourself professionally, you do have to be vulnerable, and you have to be spongy as well. You have to absorb what’s happening around you…
So one of the things we’re always talking about, again, in workshops or advice sessions or across the board, is trying to find that balance between the spongy, vulnerable, subjective, emotional place that you need to be in order to access your inspiration and your creativity and get yourself into that zone, and all that kind of magical aspect of what it is that we do, with the objective, logical, rational kind of business mind that we need to have in order to think about ourselves in that businesslike way, manage our financial situation, think strategically about marketing. I mean, really most of the stuff that needs to be done in a business needs to be done with that kind of head on, but it’s really hard to move back and forward between those two states of being.
And we’re always talking about trying to find a balance there, because that’s another reason why people feel stress, is that I always describe it as saying that you’re kind of using the wrong tool for the job. If you’re approaching, say, the financial or the legal or the business or the marketing aspects of your practise with this spongy, subjective, vulnerable creative mindset, you’re actually using the wrong tool for the job. There’s nothing wrong with that tool. It’s a great tool, but it’s like trying to build a house with a feather duster. Feather dusters are very useful things, they’re just not designed for that job.
Nowhere is the chasm between the arts and business more pronounced than in classical music education. Susan Eldridge is agitating for change in the traditional classical music education model for this very reason. Susan says that the training and assessment processes that characterise the classical music training model value only a very narrow range of skills, and as a result, graduates aren’t gaining the skills and experience necessary to make a viable career outside of the orchestra setting.
Susan: So the current student journey is really all about being a boring cover band. … Look, if we were covering, ’80s disco one-hit wonders, that’s awesome. But what we’re covering is a very small slice of a very particular type of music genre from years ago. Okay? And if that’s all we’re doing, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the problem is that if that’s all we’re doing, there’s a small Canon of music, a small range of voices, who are acceptable to be heard in our art form. So what happens is, and especially in the training alley, in the training model of musicians, it’s a one-to-one model, it’s the master-apprentice model, right?
Usually, what happens in most education is, most music education lessons, is the teacher tells the student what was wrong. It’s actually error detection. Music education is mostly error detection.
And as a result, says Susan, classical music graduates leave their formal training with a very limited field of skills.
Susan: What happens is, the students are not being supported to be self-learning. You pick, for instance, if you play the violin, it might be four or five years, or three or four years into your violin lessons, before you’re allowed to tune, to learn how to tune your own instrument.
And so, when you go to beginner string orchestras, the teacher is often walking around individually, tuning every student’s instrument. How is that helping them to learn? And my understanding of that situation is, it’s to avoid string breakage.
Well, break a damn string. Then they’re going to have the opportunity to learn how to replace the string. So the problem is the model of instruction being one to one, that the teacher is the expert, and knows everything. And they error detect everything I do. And also, because classical music, particularly, is a game of replication, perfection and replication. You’re either, it’s either perfect, or it’s wrong. There’s little space for recreation of the Canon of music.
What this leads to with our graduates coming out of music schools is, they live in a world of ones and zeros. “I’m either perfect,” or, “Yeah, it’s perfection or death.” “It’s job in an opera company, or job in orchestra, or failure.” And they have really, really low resilience to uncertainty. And they have really very low ability to come up with creative solutions to things for themselves.
So, and I’m not saying this, I’m saying this from having worked with, in the last couple of years, I’ve individually coached over 1,000 young musicians. Through the job I had at the school of music, I individually coached over 650. And I’m working with musicians right from high school grade, nine, 10, right through to performing professionals working in orchestras. So this is not coming from a place of an echo chamber of my experience. This is what I’ve observed and learned from working with 1,000 people, that their ability to come up to be generators of ideas, to be creative and confident in their own voice, is really low, because of the way the model’s working, of the master-apprentice error detection.
So what needs to change so that classical music graduates leave their training and begin their careers in an empowered position?
Susan: The most important thing we’d need to do is equip musicians with the mindset that they are in control, that they are responsible, and they are in control their lives,
One way of doing this, says Susan, is through a hybrid model that embeds ideas like economic sustainability into the existing curriculum.
Susan: For instance, if you were doing a music history subject, instead of just studying the compositional output of Beethoven, what if we did a business model canvas? What if we understand, how did his economic engine work? What were his annual report, what was his gross and net earnings?
So if we actually understood the mechanics of the career of Beethoven, then that might also help them to understand, “Oh, it’s not just the playing that matters.” So we can do that. Yeah, so we can start to embed some of these ideas about audience engagement, relevance to your community, taking responsibility for yourself. We can start to thread those into the existing curriculum. We don’t need to, we don’t necessarily need to undertake massive change in the structure of the typical music degree.
While future generations of classical musicians could benefit greatly from these kinds of changes to the training syllabus, Susan helps currently practicing musicians tackle the challenges they face through her business, Notable Values.
Susan: So when I work with musicians, one-to-one, I tend to think of myself. I’m a bit of a… I’m a bit of a trauma specialist. They often come because their model is not working for them. And it’s, I mean, that’s typical change management. When any of us, whatever it is, like, I’m going to go on a diet or I’m going to do some exercise. You know, we only ever change when the pain of staying where we are is too great. So I tend to work with people in periods of transition, which is a real gift. And I feel so, so grateful for being able to help people, to unlock them to what might be possible. So the work I tend to do tends to be about changing the model for the individual, and then drilling down on that might be about, “I want more work”, or “I want a different kind of work”. I need to build an audience for my work and around the economics and the impact of what that change is going to look like.
And when it comes to running a freelance creative business, as a performer, or a producer, or any number of other roles in the arts and entertainment industries, there’s the added complication of instability – a greater number of unknowns than in most other areas of business. Meaning business planning processes as they’re traditionally taught aren’t all that helpful for a freelance creative worker, as Monica Davidson explains.
Monica: So for example, the traditional methodology for business planning is to encourage people to have like a five-year plan. We encourage people to have a 12-week plan, because after 12 weeks, who the fuck knows what’s going to happen? Like, there’s no one in the arts who knows what’s going to happen three months from now. The idea that you could be able to have a five-year plan, I think that’s hilarious. What a funny idea. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’ve never had a five-year plan. If I’ve got a five-month plan, I feel like I’m really nailing it, oh my god, you know?
What Monica hopes people will gain through her work at with Creative Plus Business is greater mastery over the aspects of their business that they can control, and as a result, less stress and anxiety about the things they can’t control.
Monica: So it’s even little things like that, of saying, all right, well, you can really only exert a degree of influence over some things. And really, you can only do that for about 12 weeks, in our experience. So let’s pick out the things that are important for you. What are your priorities in terms of where you feel that your lack of knowledge is actually negatively impacting on you? Because you can have a lack of knowledge about stuff and it doesn’t matter.
So you work out the bits where your lack of knowledge is negatively impacting on you, and that’s what we’ll talk about. And we’ll work out, out of that, what do you have some control over? What can you actually exert some influence over?
Forget about the outside world for a second, what can you do? And if people walk away from that with a clear idea of what they can actually have some power over, and a little bit of a timeline and some activities that they can do during that timeline that will help them to move forward, that’s a good day. Then I’m happy. I’m a happy camper.
So creative practitioners working on a freelance basis often suffer from a significant knowledge gap. This can cause a large amount of stress as mistake are inevitable. But working in the arts and entertainment industries demands adaptability, so arts workers tend to come equipped with the basic tools which – with a little guidance – can allow them to overcome this problem and move their freelance businesses forward with confidence. Under normal circumstances. But as the conversations for this series of House Lights Up take place, the world’s circumstances are far from normal.
So what happens when the live performance industry just stops? That’s next time on House Lights Up.