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Never Properly Born: Do artists have to follow the industry model?

Posted on 17 May 2012 Written by

“Is this really what I want to be doing?” As an actor not six months out of drama school, that is the question I was asking myself at the start of this year, although perhaps not for the reasons you might be expecting. I was well prepared for the rigours of the industry. Drama school had force-fed me the image of a Withnail-esqe existence and I was ready for the challenge (lighter fluid and all). I wasn’t thinking about giving up. I was considering the path before me and asking “is this the only route an actor can take?”

Five months ago I was where the majority of young actors find themselves: the road of drama schools, agents, castings, the day job, doing some work and of course eventually superstardom and lots of Dom Perignon. I was tiptoeing along that course and building up the old CV in the hope of impressing some people who apparently could offer me something. I was on a quest for creative fulfilment, but quite frankly I found the industry wanting.

This was around the time that Simon Stephens and others were scrutinising the industry for being too “conservative” and “taking fewer risks” (an argument recently revived by Dan Rebellato). I looked at what I was doing and I couldn’t help but agree. It all seemed so pointless. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I was merely doing work for the sake of doing it and WHY? To appear ‘busy’ to those gatekeepers who supposedly hold all the opportunities.

Instead of squandering my youth trying to please people who need not be pleased I made the decision to go my own way and make things happen. In what feels like no time at all I started my own new writing company – Never Properly Born Theatre Ltd. I stopped going to auditions, dragged some trusted colleagues together and poured all my spare time/resources into the company. We then clarified our ideas and defined an aim:

To manifest the lives of our audience, and ask questions about the world we live in now and where we’re going in the future.

Before we could even walk I approached the Tristan Bates Theatre about staging a new (unwritten) play at their venue. To our collective wonder they said “yes.” As a company, we’re now creating a new piece of writing that explores themes of greed, belonging and security, as well as asking what it means to be young and part of our world in the twenty-first century.

In the future (as early as September) we want to accept unsolicited scripts from young people who have something truthful to say about our place in the world right now. We then intend to develop one script later this year and give it a full professional production.

Essentially this is my plea for young artists to consider the industry we’re in and not to unthinkingly accept the path that’s set out before them, because, let’s be honest, is it really the most artistically rewarding approach? Are we being made reliant on people we shouldn’t be? Do great things really await us if we just stick to the ‘yellow brick road’? Or, as Dorothy and her friends found in Wizard of Oz, is there an inconvenient truth waiting behind the curtain?

It seems relevant to end this blog with a recent quote from Dennis Kelly. In his opening speech at Stückemarkt he said:

“I believe young theatre makers need a very healthy dose of ‘go fuck yourself’. I think it’s useful for a young theatre maker to look at the things they’re being told, to think about them, assess them and then – if necessary – say ‘go fuck yourself.”

In many ways, I took a long look at what the industry model had to offer and after much consideration I decided to say ‘go fuck yourself.’

This is an open invite for you to do the same.

Written by artistic director Ash Rowbin. Shelter, the company’s first production, will be staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe from 6-11 August.

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Lenka Says:

    Great idea! Good luck!

  2. Jen Says:

    This is a genuine question, not an attempt to start an argument. I’m genuinely interested to know how you went about paying your rent and feeding yourself whilst starting the company? I’ve long been interested in going my own way instead of following an industry but I’d be living on the street so it’s quite a challenge.

  3. Ash Rowbin Says:

    Thank you Lenka, we’re probably going to need lots of that.

    To Jen, that is a completely reasonable question. I do understand that it’s quite easy to suggest these ideas and less easy to implement them. The answer to your question is that I run the company around a full time job (a more secure position than when I had to be flexible for auditions) and it’s this job that enables me to live and do what I love. It is a myth that STARTING a company requires a lot of money. If you want to professionally run a company, get it incorporated etc. then thanks to websites like http://www.companiesmadesimple.com you can do it for a very small fee and this usually includes a business account, free domain name and other essentials. The costly part for a theatre company is rehearsal space, but you can find places to meet at a reasonable price if you search hard enough – Contacts 2012 has an entire section dedicated to this. You’ll also find that people are very accommodating: the lovely people at Lost Theatre (www.losttheatre.co.uk) are allowing us to pay for their rehearsal space in instalments.

    In regard to what you’ve asked, it’s also worth bringing up how much money actors actually spend just to be a part of the industry anyway. The money we have to spend on drama school auditions, headshots, casting websites (Spotlight, Casting Call Pro), workshops, and business cards, not to mention the cut we then have to give our agents when we get work. If you consider this you’ll already find that you’re spending a lot of money, an amount that could easily get a small company off the ground. I never found that what I was spending before gave me what I wanted. Now that I’m putting money into a company it’s more creative and I’m free to go on that ‘quest for truth’ as Dennis Kelly puts it.

    If you can find the time then I say fuck waiting for your agent to call, fuck trawling through Spotlight, just get some people together and make it happen in whatever way your means allow. I know lots of people do this already and it has been optimised by others (http://www.beltuptheatre.com/), but I believe most actors start companies or make films as a means to a different end and with only 5% of equity members in work at any one time I feel more people should be exploring options outside the industry model, because with statistics like that, you have to ask who is it benefiting and what am I waiting for?

    If you have any further questions about the company or the production we’re mounting don’t hesitate to contact me personally at neverproperlyborn@hotmail.co.uk.

  4. Geraint Says:

    Good luck!

    I have a question too if you don’t mind?

    I don’t have any trusted colleagues who are up for doing this. How do I go about doing it on my own or enlisting help?

  5. Ash Rowbin Says:

    My apologies that I never answered your question, either it was not sent to my email or I managed to somehow not see it. I hadn’t realised your question was here until now.

    To answer your question (if you’re still interested/haven’t already struck out on your own), firstly you should consolidate your ideas, really define what it is that you’d like to do, what theatre interests you, consider why you personally go to the theatre, because it’s different for everyone, and create work with that in mind, create what you’d like to see in on stage. That’s the most important part. Once you’ve done this then you can sell it to people. There are plenty of arts websites (http://www.stagejobspro.com/, http://www.castingcallpro.com etc) so I would advertise your ideas on their boards or opportunities pages, find yourself some actors and see if anyone wants to collaborate with you and create some theatre.

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