When I told my parents I wanted to act, they suggested I go for a good long walk for myself. In the country, a good walk was the cure for all ills, including bad ideas. “Why not teach? Your grandmother was a teacher.” Or “Why not look for a job in Brussels with that French of yours?”
The fear of god was in them. Dad had wanted to be an actor; he had taken some classes and done lots of am dram (which was “what Richard Harris did”, apparently). He’d planned to move to Dublin after school, even though one of the Abbey Players had replied to his letter, something like “Of course be an actor, if you fancy starving in a garret for the rest of your life.” He was undeterred. But then his mother died of cancer, far too young, and his father needed help supporting the family. Dad got a “real” job. He knew first hand how, in life, we can’t always do what we feel called to do. We definitely can’t do it and expect security.
But that doesn’t mean that the Arts aren’t real and serious work. You have to stay motivated knowing that you may never get that break; you may be poor for the rest of your life. Most artists juggle the art part in around bill-paying jobs, admin, kids.
When people dismiss the Arts as airy, flighty nonsense, it doesn’t fit with the hardworking people I know. I remember meeting someone who’d retrained as an actor in his thirties, because “he hated getting up early.” I laughed for hours. Hauling ass to a cold rehearsal room while it’s still dark, having to be mentally and physically alert, was a literal eye-opener for him. Filming (should you be so lucky) almost always manages to mean a dawn call – and you might not get used for hours. Artists have cold hands; who are those kings who can afford a heated workspace?
We are delighted to be working at all. We might bitch about deadlines, but they also thrill us; they mean there’s a job, maybe even some pay. But where the craft lies, what people forget to value, is the work no one sees. The binned drafts. The recycled clay, the choreography that doesn’t click. It’s heartbreaking and nobody knows or cares; why should they? Except that is where the work is. That’s where experience blossoms. The sheer doing it everyday is the “genius”, not the flash of inspiration that can lead to acclaim. Not the jammy gig, big commission, showy role.
I’ve written about remuneration for art (and the scam of paying with “exposure”) before so I won’t dwell on it here. Art tends to be a vocation or it simply wouldn’t be worth your while. You’d give up. But then sometimes, just sometimes, there’s something greater than financial reward or recognition: expression of something that desperately needs to come out. Purging of poison. Giving others the opportunity for urgent conversation.
At the excellent (and excellently run) Lingo Festival, I was lucky enough to be part of the Kick Up The Arts panel where we discussed art’s place in social change. I wrote a piece for it. You can read the full thing on their site, if you’d like. I’m going to leave you with a bit of it:
Art bursts out.
When no one will listen. When you can contain it no longer. Art bursts out, instead of sending up a flare. Instead of setting things on fire. So you don’t hurt someone else the way you’re hurting.
It’s a scream.
It’s an ideal to strive for.
It’s an expression we can wear on our bodies, paint on walls, sing at the top of our lungs.
Art makes things digestible, even if it causes indigestion first. It doesn’t have to be pastoral, it should not be pleasant and we’ve always known that in this country.
Art is the way in to the discussions governments won’t have. We know that (it’s) important when it draws the hatred out, shines light on dark corners where hate lives and hides and snipes. Some threaten us with harm – even shallow graves – for words we’ve written, filmed or sung. We do not realise our power til then. They do. They see our power. So we should use it. Hard.
We remember that Art bursts out best from attempts to silence us. The time for the podium has passed: Irish women are sending up flares. We hope someone will see them, from the air.
Our work can live and breathe and scream. Can help to ease our pain. One day, it might become a document. For now, it is the history, unfolding. They’ll see it, when they look back. They’ll say they got it, then.
They think Art is decoration, the bit around the edges. They do not know: it is our beating heart. We do not make the work as-well-as; the work bursts out because it can’t stay in.
That is a real service. That is of value.