This is an unusually tough time to be entering the theatre industry, says Natasha Tripney, particularly for career switchers and people over 30. She asks, is theatre too focused on attracting young people?
In a recent column for The Stage, Lyn Gardner stressed that while snapping back to normal might feel appealing during this period of instability, it is something the industry should resist. She lists several schemes and companies already actively reshaping what a theatre can do. They were all examples of theatre companies having a positive impact on people’s lives, but they were also predominantly aimed at the young.
If ever there was a tough time to enter the industry, it’s now, and it’s right that we should throw all the support we can behind young people. But if we’re talking about resetting the industry – and we should be – we need to address the needs of everyone. We need to recognise that not everyone new to the industry is young and that persisting in framing it in this way has an impact on the work that ends up on our stages.
As you creep closer to 30, there are fewer opportunities geared towards you. There’s an underlying assumption that people will have achieved a degree of professional stability by this point in their lives, having already made their mark. That, for many, is simply not true. It fails to take into account all the reasons this may not have been possible, from raising children to coming into theatre after a period working in a different job, to simply trying to survive in a time of skyrocketing living costs.
One thing that is overlooked in these conversations is that if you’re not from a relatively comfortable background, if the arts were not part of your upbringing, it takes time just to figure out how things work. There’s a whole slew of rules no one teaches you. You can hone your craft as a playwright, but the acquisition of repellent-but-necessary networking skills is quite another thing.
Gaining confidence in your own abilities, and simply giving yourself permission to think of yourself as an artist and a writer, takes time, often quite a lot of time, by which point it can feel as if many doors are already closed. As a result, any conversation about the industry’s attitude to age has to overlap with discussions of class, race and socio-economic background. These issues are also far more likely to affect women.
Theatre is far from the only industry to fetishise youth, to praise bright young things and get sweaty-palmed about the precocious. But there can sometimes be a questionable, if not outright icky, edge to the way the work of young women writers is framed, their talent entangled with their perceived desirability. This is arguably as damaging as the narrative of the untouchable male genius. For an industry built on imagination, it buys into familiar stories all too often.
“It has always been frustrating to see the overwhelming tendency in theatre to assume that ‘new’ equals ‘young’,” says playwright Abi Zakarian, who came to theatre after working in another industry. “There is no attendant interest in older voices. And, by older, I mean anyone over the age of 30, which is ridiculous.”
Playwright Siân Rowland puts it well when she says: “I’d love to see more opportunities described as being for new or early career writers rather than young writers.” She’d also welcome the omission of age on competition and submission forms, as they’re often one of the first questions asked and this is disheartening.
“Theatres should be seeking out all new voices,” Zakarian adds. “Diversity is at the forefront of every theatre discussion at the moment, and rightfully so, because as we talk of rebuilding an industry suffering the worst fallout of the pandemic, it feels like we have the perfect opportunity to dismantle inherently racist, classist, sexist, ableist and ageist structures that serve only to present a narrow representation of the world.”
There are so many reasons why a writer might not get a foot in the door in their early 20s, says playwright Sarah Hehir, currently under commission for The Archers. “Because of the nature of the industry and the barriers to entry for those without money or connections, writers often work in other jobs to earn a living.” These other jobs, for some, often involve working front of house in theatres, as ushers or in the bar – many of the roles the National Theatre just cut – and they take up time and energy, as does bringing up a family.
Even once you get a foot in the door, sustaining a career and making a living is something else. When you’re younger, it’s easier – for some at least – to wing it, for a short while, to take risks, even if they entail significant financial and emotional costs. As you get older, this becomes a lot harder to justify and, with fewer opportunities for development available, if you don’t make a splash when you’re young, it’s easy to end up trapped in the emerging category – always emerging, never getting to emerge.
As a reader for the Bruntwood Prize last year, and the newly established Women’s Prize for Playwriting this year – both of which have no upper-age cap – on both occasions I have been struck by the variety of voices I’ve encountered. The way the plays range from those that capture the chaotic energy of adolescence and the tentative ecstasy of young queer love to plays about post-menopausal women who are emotionally whole and plays about the realities of ageing in a country with a failing care system.
’It has always been frustrating to see the overwhelming tendency in theatre to assume that ‘new’ equals ‘young’’ – playwright Abi Zakarian
The business of living only enriches the work of artists and writers. Those extra years bring with them a range of experiences and creative energy, but this too often goes unacknowledged and unreflected in programming. It tends not to be considered adventurous or boundary-pushing to programme work by ‘older’ (and, again, by older I mean north of 30), relatively untested writers.
There’s a real worry among many writers that one of the impacts of Covid-19 on the industry will be to deepen existing imbalances, that the work of female artists and artists of colour will be considered too much of a risk as producers concentrate their efforts on staying afloat.
One thing these past few months have robbed us of is time. It’s not just a question of cancelled projects and seeing what headway you’ve made in the industry evaporate, though these things are painful in and of themselves. It’s the awareness that you’re that little bit older, a little less valued and visible.
It is a bleak time to be starting out in life, in theatre, in the world. There’s no disputing that, and this is not about begrudging the young the support they’re going to need. But if we are in the process of thinking deeply about change and resisting the ‘return to normal’, then we should not be timid about it, and we should take care that no one is left out.