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Paula Varjack: Exactly when will I stop emerging?

Paula Varjack
Paula Varjack works across disciplines including performance, theatre, documentary and spoken word with her most recent performance, Show Me the Money, exploring how art is valued in the UK, based on interviews with 44 artists across the country.
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‘Emerging’ has positive connotations, such as butterflies coming out of chrysalises and sunrises, but when I think of emerging in the context of theatre and performance, my mood darkens. I am a 38-year-old theatremaker and feel like I have been emerging for years. Am I still emerging?

I’m exaggerating, slightly. Things have improved since a few years ago, but not drastically, with my experience adding greater expectation in what I produce, yet barely any greater support to make the work itself. Did I emerge, only to realise there was nothing to emerge for?

I began my creative practice at 30, completing my masters at 34 and, having never presented any theatre work professionally, could still not apply to most ‘emerging’ schemes. They were designed for people like me, yet linked with the main criteria of being young, not strictly emerging. Meanwhile younger friends of mine, long-embedded within the industry through youth initiatives and much more knowledgeable about applying for funding, had many schemes at their disposal.

The period following graduation from an artistic programme needs support, but I take issue with the idea that everyone starts this journey in their 20s. I know many other artists who began their practice late, so why don’t emerging schemes focus on how long someone has been making work, rather than age? I am not alone in questioning it.

Writer and theatremaker Tina Sederholm says: “I agree that there are far more funding opportunities for 'emerging artists' and if there was one that didn't discriminate on account of age, I would probably label myself 'emerging' and go for it.”

Likewise, speaking with playwright and theatremaker Anna Beecher, I discovered age-blocked opportunities even sooner than I thought. She said: “It was a shock to turn 25 and suddenly be too old for lots of call-outs. You can end up in a wilderness where you're too experienced for lots of opportunities, but not established either.”

The more artists I speak to, the more I realise that ‘emerging’ seems to be a term favoured more by venues and funders than artists, with some sinister motives being detected from those at their mercy. Playwright and theatremaker James Varney told me: “I've seen it used enough times as an excuse for exploiting/not properly paying (and have been subject to such things myself).”

How many artists reading this must have felt that way?

Part of the problem is the great chasm between ‘emerging’ and ‘established’. There’s little support to help work scale up, or to support work that is tour-ready. If this chasm exists, what are we preparing all these emerging artists for?

Without support for the difficult transition, from emerging to established, we risk a period of intensified vulnerability when many are at risk of simply giving up. The work they could have made will never be seen. Part of the solution is a recognition that an emerging artist does not mean young artist and that the process of emergence lasts into a difficult-to-define mid-career and, perhaps, beyond.

Paula Varjack contributes to the cultural conference No Boundaries 2017 on March 28

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