A few months on from the furore, Emma Bentley reflects on Rishi Sunak’s comments about arts workers retraining and speaks to a few theatre makers who, like many others in the industry, have already been working second (non-theatre related) jobs.

Back in October, you might remember a media storm regarding an interview that Rishi Sunak gave to ITV, where the word “retrain” was bandied about as an idea for the future of people in the arts. Whether that’s the advice he gave or not, what interested me was what Sunak completely failed to acknowledge: most performers already have other jobs to keep them afloat.

However, many of us with an existing side hustle wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve “retrained” because, typically, we have learnt what is needed through an “on-the-job-baptism-of-fire.” I have not-so-fond memories of being shoved on a coffee machine as a fresh-faced drama school graduate without a single clue as to what I was doing.

But for those creatives who have taken time out of the day job to retrain traditionally through a course, how does it work? I spoke to two of my colleagues from KIT Theatre, Emma MacLennan and Richard Popple, who had both started to retrain before there was even a glimpse of an infuriating cyber poster in sight, as a yoga teacher and a carpenter respectively.

MacLennan started training as a yoga instructor in 2015: “I was sick of having in between jobs that I hated. As an actor, you spend more time not acting and I was like: why don’t I have a job that I like that’s in between?”

I know exactly what it’s like to get up every morning feeling a mixture of boredom, fear and loathing for oneself and the job that you are about to go and do. This feeling, of course, begins to permeate your whole life. Popple explains: “I think I’ve just become really uninterested in living that [part-time] lifestyle, to be honest. I don’t find it very fulfilling. And it’s basically there to allow me to do the acting stuff, and if the acting stuff isn’t flowing then you’re a bit like, well what the fuck is the point in this because I’m just making myself available for something that isn’t happening. And then COVID came along and it wasn’t happening even more.”

Deciding to jump to another career is by no means easy, MacLennan explains how by choosing yoga it meant that “both my favourite things to do, which are my hobbies are now also my job.” Popple agreed that moving into carpentry in some ways filled him with “reluctance”, however, in the end, the space that COVID allowed him to think meant that the need to satisfy “the itch” to learn more about carpentry “shouted just a little bit louder.”

I talked to both MacLennan and Popple about how I would have thought choosing another freelance career, alongside an already precarious one as a performer would make life even more complicated. In both cases, however, choosing to be completely self-employed was actually a draw. “Whether it’s acting or whether it’s carpentry,” Popple told me, “it’s the structure of being freelance that’s the thing that I want to get a bit more control over, and some more enjoyment out of. Because there are elements of freelance that are really good and I don’t do enough of that. So the idea of this is to give myself more autonomy.”

MacLennan added to this: “Whether it’s an acting gig or a yoga studio, I’m there as long as I want to be. If I don’t like working at a particular yoga studio there’s nothing to stop me just not teaching there anymore. I can teach in studios, I can teach privately, I can teach corporate…”

MacLennan remembered how she hit the jackpot after she completed her yoga training: “When I qualified I had some really good acting years, so I just got to teach the odd class here and there to build up my confidence and I didn’t need to earn money from it.” I asked her if she thought there was any link between retraining and that causing an influx of acting work: “Yeah, I think there’s a big relation because having another job that I enjoy means that I’m not like, ‘shit, I really need to get this.’ It means I’m like, ‘Ah, I’d quite like this job, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get it because there’s other things that I enjoy doing that let me earn a living.’”

Popple and I also discussed the positives of retraining for your acting career; “[It gives you] a bit of time away to do something invigorating. Not sitting at a computer or reading stuff about the industry, I find really good for my mental health. I feel I’m in a stronger place personally to say yes or no to [an opportunity].” 

Pushing, wishing and wanting have never helped get me anywhere with acting, and I could swear it’s always the jobs I don’t work my arse off for which are the ones I get. MacLennan put this hunch into context: “If you’re of a certain class and you don’t need to work to earn a living you can already go into auditions with that confidence, and that’s what another job gave me: the security to have that confidence.”

MacLennan found this freedom through retraining, but she also acknowledged the fact that you have to be in a privileged position in the first place to even think about starting a new career that requires training. “That’s what decided the training I did: because it was the quickest. It wasn’t necessarily the most thorough, but I knew I could fit it around a few jobs.” Popple received a bursary to do his carpentry course through Equity:“They have a charitable trust which helps to retrain people who have been in the industry for 10-15 years.” 

Retraining can give you confidence, it can give you autonomy, and potentially even improve your acting career simultaneously. But what Rishi Sunak failed to mention is how some people will simply not be able to raise the funds or take time off from the day job to do it.

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