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Lyn Gardner: Don’t be ashamed of your day job, you can be a waiter and an artist

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“Please don’t feel ashamed of having a day job to support your dream of working in the arts. A lot of people feel that if you aren’t a full-time artist then you aren’t a real artist,” wrote Yolanda Mercy on Twitter last week.

She’s right, some people are snooty about the idea that artists are only real artists when they spend 24 hours a day making art. But, even if you were in the fortunate position to be a well-resourced, salaried artist who makes art 24 hours a day?

I’m still a writer on the days I don’t write anything, whether it’s because I am busy teaching, making a living doing other things, doing my washing or being a grandmother. Nobody says Philip Larkin wasn’t a real poet because he was also a librarian, so why do we take the view that you are not a real artist if you have a day – or a night – job to enable you to support yourself and to make art?

I wonder whether it’s because there is still such snobbishness in theatre around the split between professional and amateur artists. Almost 10 million people in this country are regularly involved in participatory arts activity of various kinds, and when they are making art they are artists, whether they are being paid or not.

In any case, the suggestion that only ‘round-the-clock’ artists are real artists is an outmoded idea, particularly at a time when many people have portfolio careers. It’s particularly silly for several reasons, not least because it entrenches the idea that to contemplate a career in the arts you have to come from a place of economic advantage and privilege.

For many it is as hard, if not harder, at the mid-career point than it is in the early days

That’s an off-putting message to send out, particularly when the reality is that unless you have family support or live with someone in a properly paid job, very few can afford to be a full-time artist. For many it is just as hard, if not harder, at the mid-career point than it is in the early days when you have fewer financial commitments, and think nothing of walking around with a hole in your shoe, and £500 of seed funding feels like winning the Lottery – harder when you have a family to support.

You may view your day job as a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit your practice. Many people working in all sorts of administrative areas in theatre are also artists outside of the day job. You can find out an awful lot about how theatre is made and received while working as an usher or production assistant. Deborah Warner, for example, deliberately trained as a stage manager (a job for which there is endless demand) to facilitate her transition into directing.

You don’t even have to work in theatre. That job in a coffee shop or pub can supply loads of material, as long as you are not so exhausted by the shifts that you no longer have the time and energy to make your art.

Survival jobs that won’t kill your acting career

Sheer exhaustion is why younger artists are increasingly looking to move out of London, where impossible rents make it hard to develop a career as a theatremaker. There are often also benefits in terms of grant applications if you move somewhere where the competition for funding is less fierce.

Many a talent, determined to make it in London, has floundered simply because the job that was originally intended to pay the rent has become so exhausting that they can’t look beyond it.

But working in the real world can be important for artists at any stage. I love teaching because it gives me a chance to meet and converse with future practitioners starting out on their careers who have a very different perspective to me. I learn as much from them as they do from me.

In fact, often one of the trickiest moments for any artist, particularly playwrights, is the moment when they make the leap to full-time. It may be a longed-for moment, but until that happens they have been living real lives in the real world and meeting with real people every day. It’s a potentially rich vein of material that you don’t get if you are staring at a screen on your own in a room. Or going to meetings with other people working in theatre.

“Suddenly you are managing your own time and you don’t have office banter. It was weird for me, I found the transition really strange,” recalled Dennis Kelly when I talked to him earlier this year. Kelly was in his 30s and had already had success with his breakthrough play Debris when, thanks to a Paines Plough commission and residency, he was able to give up his job as a waiter.

But he didn’t have any less claim to call himself a playwright when he was still waiting tables full-time. Needing another job is never anything to be ashamed of, and naming yourself as an artist is one of the stepping stones to becoming one.

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