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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A conference, a company and a reflection on business & survival

Really miffed: I am not going to Theatre Forum Ireland conference for the first time in years. It used to bring me the necessary inspiration and renewed breath of life that kept me going, despite all... The networking, the exchange of ideas -new ones discovered with amazement, old ones revisited with passion- the debates, the questioning, the self-evaluation, the parties, the contemplation, the trying out stuff with our bodies (!), the thousands of ideas jotted down on notebooks... 

Well, this year I cannot even afford a trip to a single play in Dublin or even locally.

Yup, things are not all roses and glitter in show-business and I want to be brutally honest about it. Although I have to be grateful for the projects that mean I’m still here: I still produce theatre, once a year, thanks to community groups who fund me. I still get to use my creativity, skills and experience in other ways, through video, film, youth workshops, arts & crafts, festivals... these are either funded by the local Arts Office or by clients from the Tourism & Hospitality Sectors. They mean I survive as a cultural entity. But for how much longer and at what cost?

It’s a bitter-sweet memory of a past conference, a few years ago, where we were told to start thinking/acting as businesses. Valid points were made, guidance was offered, conversations ensued. I left invigorated. 

I tried. Real hard. (I still do). I even did an evening Business course for 6 months; didn’t miss a class! Did all the homework, even though I had 4 projects on the go and not many more hours of sleep per night. I still have the heavy ledger of paperwork to prove it. But I am not a business person. That’s the sad conclusion. I’m a creative person, if not an artist. I should have known; after all, I had done 2 years of Business School after my Baccalauréat... it didn’t work then, (I dropped everything and ran away with the circus), so what made me think it would work now? Ambition? My believed sense of entrepreneurship? Maybe I thought I had become more mature to learn the necessary skills. Maybe I rode the wave of new businesses that rippled from the Crash... But, you see, the one important thing I learnt that year (apart from opening a separate tax account and how to file my returns) is that business sense isn’t a skill that you learn. Or at least that I can learn.  

I believe I have at least 1 brilliant idea a day. I used to have 5 of those back when I wasn’t worrying myself about running a business. Worry is the key: the stress of finding the funds to run that one project, about filling the forms for the insurance, the Health & Safety, the application to the arts council, to the arts office, to local businessmen, to funding bodies, filling risk assessments, permission slips for the local councils, drafting the Child protection policy, devising the marketing strategy, negotiating with the venue, with the bank, etc. (I won’t add the trips to and from the school, the meals, laundry and hundreds of other activities relating to your own children, household, etc). 

That stress, these hours slowly creep on you and choke your creativity until you are left with nothing but a big pile of paper and a niggling sense that, maybe, your idea wasn’t that brilliant after all. Even if other people tell you it is. It would look fabulous. It sounds fantastic. It’s so exciting. It would bring so many people to the area. The children would learn so much from it. Shit, the adults too. But all you feel is a really strong dislike for whatever you came up with, because deep down you know that it’s too expensive. Because you wanted to pay the people who work for you, this time. Because you cannot bring yourself to ask for favours anymore. For hand-downs. Because you are fed up having to justify everything you do. Or justify the simple fact that you work in the Arts. 

Yet, you keep going because you cannot do anything else. 

Well, I could but I won’t. For the 10 brilliant ideas that I don’t get to do, there’s still one relatively good one that gets done. Sometimes it doesn’t get done to the standards I wish to achieve and that kills me; because I know what I am capable of with other means, with more time, with other professionals working with me. I cringe every time I get the unavoidable pat on the back “Jaysis, that was brilliant, considering...

I have to admit that I feel terribly jealous when I see others succeeding with their own brilliant plays and films and writing... Not jealous because I’d think they don’t deserve it; they usually totally DO! Their art is vibrant, fun, moving, original and so on. I lap it up. Every time. They succeed for a good reason! No, I’m jealous because people believed in them. Because, often, there’s a business person at their side, willing to support, guide and provide. (As for the artists who are brilliant business people, well, these just piss me off.) I’m jealous because I have books full of ideas that will never see the light of day. Ideas that would have been great 2 years ago and that are not any more. Their time has come and gone. Sometimes, I feel like mine too. It’s a pity. I’m going to waste. The worst is to think that I’m not the only one who could benefit from these ideas, but others too. Wasted. Not only the ideas but the talent and the skills too. I'm not shining my own armour, here; but I'm getting too old and too tired to belittle my qualities and putting humility before self-awareness or self-worth. (That goes for my flaws too, btw).

Once again, I’m not ungrateful: I have plenty of people believing in me for all kinds of stuff. I’ll never thank them enough. But I’m talking about Theatre. About Film. About Writing. And I know I’m not alone and it depresses me even more... to see amazing companies and writers having to use Fundit!!! WTF? And I can’t even help them there! Is that the modern version of the troubadour begging from door to door, asking for a bit of bread and one night shelter in the barn in exchange for a poem or a song? 

This is how I see it: without support from the Arts Council, from family and friends online and on seats, from private sponsors, or generous philanthropists (where are they all?) we simply cannot be sustainable. The tickets won’t pay for the show. Never did. Stop telling me that I have to think like a business, because this is not a business. Not for me anyway and, it seems, not for many.

I wish I could go to the conference to be proven wrong...

All illustrations by the brilliant Patrick Sanders

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