In a return to looking at economics in the arts, playwright Max Wilkinson examines how creatives can avoid being sucked into a toxic work system to support their craft, whilst leaving little room for anything else.
In a similar vein, have a read of this piece from Hannah Khalil, who wrote in 2018 that it's increasingly impossible to make a living in theatre.
As a writer from London I have often had to balance my creative life with working zero hours jobs with no security. During lockdown I started writing a play about a delivery rider and found I was bringing in a lot of personal first-hand experiences of this strange anonymous and invisible life. But are London’s next generation of creatives getting enough support to develop their voices and share their work without being sucked into a toxic labour system that leaves no room for anything else?
My play Rainer is about a delivery rider and passionate voyeur, a budding writer who works any kind of job as long as it pays the bills and allows her to spy on people and fuel her writing, as well as creating bonds with some of the characters she meets. Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood and the writings of Jean Rhys, it’s a celebration of the city and all its inhabitants, seen and unseen. But Rainer, the eponymous hero of the play, (although she claims to love her life and role as sort of ‘gig-economy, street-poet’) is quietly drowning in her own anonymity and eviction-notices, slipping semi-blissfully into the realm of the unwell and homelessness.
Although the play is full of joy, it also explores serious issues surrounding mental health and living and surviving in a city of soaring rents and dubious landlords.
As I wrote and developed the play with the Arcola I realised how much of myself I poured into the character and the play. Like Rainer, I spent most of my twenties working any kind of job to pay the bills as I was always financially independent.
I worked in catering, crewing, construction (a dismal disaster), corner shops when I was very young, a brief spell at Superdrug, posh cinemas and even tree surgeoning. I did it from necessity but it also meant I met all these different characters and workers, all operating within the new bulging, yet to be defined, ‘gig economy:’ sharing the giddy-high of apparent autonomy, sharing in the woes of zero-hour contracts, low-pay, anonymity and little protection.
I always wanted to write, and be an artist, but the reality of that succeeding without financial support was difficult. As my twenties plodded on, I often worked two jobs whilst trying to write and develop ‘the craft’ as much as was feasibly possible; struggling to pay rent, not saving a thing. Making this decision was a huge risk. Working service jobs with little security does not build much of a career and stability as the jobs are mostly transient. It would have been far wiser and sensible to work towards a career that has a stable future and a decent, growing wage.
Now, I am certainly not unique or looking for pity as the reality is, this is often the case for many creatives working in such an expensive city. Without the proverbial bank of ‘mum and dad’ a lot of creatives are forced to give up their art or are excluded from that world altogether, before they even started.
The theatre scene likes to present bold, progressive manifestos of inclusivity and the promotion of ‘new voices’ and paying all artists involved fairly. This is of course a fundamentally good thing. But woefully unrealistic.
The London Fringe, the network of theatres that create the counter-scene to the plush West End and tickets for £400 a pop (Cock, cough, cough) is in reality, always on its knees. Run by scores of passionate volunteers, plays are incredibly expensive to put on whilst terribly underfunded.
This is not a conspiracy: the industry, in the wake of Netflix and ephemeral, instant gratification culture, is increasingly niche. However, brilliant and bold new work is being made outside of the West End, in the fringe, the network of theatres that is the pulsing blood of the ‘real’ theatre scene: plays and venues assessing the modern moment, keeping the ever-fragile scene intact and alive.
But here's the catch-22: there’s barely any money. And after years of cuts, a Cost of Living Crisis on the horizon and murmurs of reducing the Arts Council’s funding (pretty much the only source of funding available to theatre-makers) even further, this problem will only get worse.
So, how are we ever going to hear from the ‘new voices’ the theatre scene is always apparently promoting? It’s a sort of paradox in itself.
Now, unlike Rainer I fortunately discovered teaching, working with schools and theatres and outreach programmes to help young writers develop their voices and scripts. I studied Fine Art at University but only because I was the last of my generation to pay the ‘the better fees’ and not £9k a year, which I am of course still paying back. In the programmes and writing labs I run the new, or the old fees and further education in general, are simply not an option for young writers.
That is why, as austerity and the cuts raged, as more and more youth centres and facilities closed, theatres became ever more vital as community hubs and schools: a place for young people from low-income backgrounds, to explore and develop, a vital alternative to the university system that is barred for them anyway. I have often run schemes and playwriting labs for a compromised fee because I love to teach and truly believe in the socially positive change that the theatre can bring about.
But it still does not answer the question: even if voices can develop, how can they ever be heard in such a financially barren landscape. I’m not sure. And, as stated in Rainer the play, I am not calling ‘to burn everything down’ or lobby your local MP. I am just pointing out, I hope, the reality of the situation facing most of us working within this field. And raise some difficult questions. And take a moment, as an industry, to reflect.
And perhaps the next time Lloyd-Webber puts on Cinderella he can throw some of the cash our way!
Max Wilkinson is a playwright from London, whose new play Rainer plays at the Arcola Theatre from 1st-18th June.