Saturday, February 6, 2010

The other side of Theatre Royal, Barkerville

There are many aspects of running a theatre, from research for plays, construction work, hiring and firing, rehearsing ... and then there is the constant search for funds to keep a theatre running.  These are hard times for the arts in B.C. with massive cuts facing many groups.  While the Theatre Royal has never relied on grants, just ticket sales and a few wonderful Angels, the lack of arts support affects us all.  
This guest blog from Amy Newman tells another side of the story.

Recently, an artist in the Vancouver area took his own life. I read about it on a forum for artists called the "SEARCH-grads list". The list is the end result of taking part in SEARCH: a month-long program that used to be offered by the human resources/employment arm of the federal government; it was set up/organized by the Alliance for Arts and Culture ( in Vancouver. Its mandate was "to help artists and cultural workers learn how to create more sustainable incomes through employment and self-employment." The program funding was cut by the federal government a year or two ago.

The SEARCH program instructed/informed artists over a month-long period (five days a week, from 9:00 – 5:00) about how to structure their lives as artists. It was a fascinating course; I took it some years ago, when I was struggling to make sense of my life: what to do next? how to do what I want and make a living at it? Questions like that sent me to the SEARCH program. It was of great benefit to me and I hope, to all who participated in it, over the years. A few examples of what was covered in the course: It taught us all about self-reliance; how to network with other artists; to plan out our days as self-employed people; how to think about skills transference, when seeking regular employment. (By the way, "artist" in this sense is being used as a general term referring to anyone working in arts and culture of any kind: performance, visual art, writing, arts administration, etc.)

What remains of the program is the SEARCH-grads list, a database of all who ever took the course (I believe a few thousand?). People on the list send out notes or adds for their services to the whole group – anything that is of relevance to them at the time of writing. When I read about the death (suicide) of an artist in this city on this forum a few weeks ago, it filled me with a great sadness. I didn't know the man, but his death has sparked some heartfelt communiqués between many of us who live and work in the arts and culture sector. Today I was thinking about some of the words that had been expressed by other folks from this list and I have decided to wade in with my thoughts on the matter. Here is my letter, addressed to artists, living and working in BC...

I want to respond to you all in regards to the loss of an artist in this city. Like many of you, I didn't know Norm Tucker until I read about him here on the SEARCH-grads list forum. And like all of you, I know how hard it is to survive as an artist at this point in time here in BC.

People may compliment the fine singers who are caroling at their local mall; they may walk past a visual artist painting and think – hey, that's great. They may see someone creating jewelry at Granville Market and think the work is stunning; maybe they see a performance of dance which is really inspirational; or they may hear a jazz player at a café and think it's terrific. But the general public – and the government, too, for that matter – have no idea what it takes to get to the level of being thought terrific or fine or great or stunning or inspiring. They have no concept of the endless hours of study we all go through, the monies which are shelled out so we can learn to be the best we can be at our craft. The poor-starving-artist-in-the-garret – perhaps we have La Boheme to thank for this idea – is such a romantic notion to many who don't live that way. 

For people who go along their daily business and chores, working at jobs they hate just to get money to live so they can take two weeks holiday a year and finally have fun, I suppose the way we live is romantic and beautiful. We are trying to carve out a little place for ourselves in the world, doing what it is that we do best – and trying to survive in the doing of it. And yet, the government perhaps sees us as spoiled; to them we may all appear as on-the-fringe type personalities, who don't really contribute financially to the society and don't accept the modus operandi of the existing world; and all of that is possibly true, to some extent. We want to make our world better! We want to make our lives worth living. We are the idealists of our culture and that is often seen as dangerous. Governments these days don't trust artists, I suppose...
   What they don't get is the price we pay for trying to live out our dreams. They don't get how driven we are, that we must do this thing, or we will be stultified. But it doesn't mean we are spoiled! We, too, have bills to pay, mouths to feed, etc. And it is just so hard to make it all work and still stay full of passion to create as we must do, in order to survive. 

I know a fantastic little pub on one of the Gulf Islands. My dad used to play jazz there when he was alive. The pub owner was totally committed to providing good quality entertainment and hired the groups for a few hundred bucks a night. It wasn't much, but it was worth doing. Now, many years (and a couple of owners) later, the pub still offers jazz entertainment on Sunday nights, but the pay is only a fraction of what it used to be. I have seen excellent, highly experienced, skilled jazz players in there, playing basically to feed their hearts and souls – certainly not their pocketbooks. I do understand that the pub owner may not be able to afford to pay much, due to the economy these days. You must sell a lot of food and drinks to pay good wages to musicians. And the night I was there, the audience/patrons was/were a small group of people. 

I get the picture – from both sides. As a theatre producer/performer/writer (with a business/life partner), I have learned what it is to hire performers and pay them; then I wonder how I am going to be able to pay myself at the end of the month. To do this work that I am passionate about (without any grants or extra funding, by the way, only ticket sales) I have learned what it's like on both sides – as a performer and as a producer of art/entertainment. It's not easy.

I know a couple of people back east, who are – at this point in their lives – working regular jobs which are either utterly boring or physically taxing or both. One of them used to be an opera singer; the other was a pianist in bar bands. They both worked so very, very hard at their crafts, trying to be the best that they could be in a stiffly competitive world. They both made a living – of sorts – from their work as artists in the entertainment field. But now, they both are over the age of being sought after to keep doing what they used to do, so they are working at regular jobs instead. Neither of them own their own homes; neither of them are comfortable financially and they will need to keep working until they drop. Retirement? Ha. That is the price they have paid for trying to live the life of an artist. It maybe what is in store for me one day, too.

How are we as artists ever to get through to the powers that be, that what we do is of value? It is an on-going struggle. Perhaps the general public is gradually becoming more aware of the sacrifices which we make in order to "live the dream". Events like the "East End Culture Crawl" (where artists of all disciplines in the East End of Vancouver open up their homes and/or studios to the public, over a weekend) hopefully really shows people what our world is like. On the other hand, I know a woman who has a regular 9-5 type job (though she often puts in a lot of overtime, too) and she cannot believe how I do what I do in my life. She cannot conceive of the heart and soul that I give to my work (which is my life) and the financial instability which goes with it. I am making a living; it is not a great living, but I am doing what I love doing, so that is something. But it is so clear to all of us in the arts, that cultural work is what gives society its meaning. And as I always say (in regards to my work at Theatre Royal, specifically and Barkerville, generally): If we don't know where we came from, how will we know where we are going?

I hope that those with power will come to see that arts and culture is an area of our society that is worth supporting. If this sector was really sustained in a meaningful way, then the isolation, the distress and depression which all artists feel at times, would gradually disappear and the notion of taking one's own life would never again be seen as the only way out.

Amy Newman