By Niki Campbell, Content Manager @ Stagedoor.
The British Arts Council have had over £100m slashed from their budget. The BBC are spending £800m less per year and restricting budgets for new drama. An increase in online streaming has put pressure on the film and TV industries and people are struggling to afford theatre and cinema tickets. Meanwhile, drama schools are spitting out thousands of hopeful graduates, year after year, into a crowded industry, hoping for success in what has forever been described as ‘not a proper career.’
Well ‘Hey…hey…’ says Ethan Taylor, co-founder and artistic director of Who Said Theatre, recalling the words of Director Michael Toumey, whom he worked with during his time at Drama School.
Shifting slightly to begin his impression of Toumey, he says:
‘Who said acting was easy?’
Pointing accusingly around the room.
‘Was it you? Was it you? Who said acting was easy? Cos I sure as hell didn’t!’
These words would later become inspiration for Ethan and fellow graduate Rebecca Marklynn who founded Who Said Theatre in Autumn 2015.
It is undeniable that we are in difficult times. Opportunities are scarce and spirits are low but, as Taylor says, ‘No matter what state your finances are in you can still create’. Taylor’s attitude is a light in the dark. No doubt the company’s rapid success comes down to this unyielding positive outlook.
Billed as a new writing company who seek to offer a platform for new and emerging creative artists; actors, producers, writers and directors, they have already staged three full productions and have a fourth on the way. While new writing is their first love, they are also open to branching out. Taylor pauses and notes, with a guilty expression: ‘It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and I love Shakespeare…’ adding, ‘he’s a brilliant new writer, I can’t wait for his new material, it’s gonna be great. We’ve got to do Shakespeare!’ And quite rightly they are free to change, they are still finding their niche.
‘Who Said was set up because quite a few of us weren’t getting the work.’
This is so often the case for young people fresh out of drama school, struggling to find work. In response, there are a huge number of graduates setting up companies and making their own opportunities, heading up the likes of Edinburgh and Camden Fringe. As Taylor puts it:
‘There are those who wait for the phone to ring and then there are those who don’t.’
At drama school, much emphasis is put on securing that perfect agent: the gatekeeper to the land of dreams. Taylor admits that the majority of people were under the illusion that this was ‘the be-all and end-all, but it’s not…We all hit that wall pretty hard.’
Keeping one’s head above water both financially and emotionally is challenge enough for the young actor. It takes a certain kind of person to write, direct, produce and stage work at the same time. Taylor confesses ‘I like the business side of it, I’m gonna produce it and sell it’. While this attitude is crucial and seemingly the only way to get by these days, he acknowledges that:
‘it’s about marrying the romance of the craft with the practicality of the business.’
And marriage doesn’t come without it’s challenges. Discussing the hurdles they have faced, unsurprisingly we stop at finding funding, the artist’s nemesis.
“When bankers get together they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.” – Oscar Wilde.
Amazingly Who Said have self-funded their first three productions and have only now published their first Kickstarter campaign along with appeals to private investors, with a view to funding their fourth production The Calm, running at Waterloo East Theatre in August before heading to Edinburgh Festival Fringe. ‘There’s a fine line between charity and begging, it’s quite difficult.’
Until now, they have been running solely on people power, not making any losses but not making any gains either, though ‘sometimes we’ve taken away 30 or 40 quid’, Taylor boasts. He jokes but this is pretty good going for less than a year in the game.
The likes of Who Said are both championed and challenged by Equity, the UK’s trade union for professional performers and creative practitioners. A recent campaign titled, ‘Professionally Made, Professionally Paid’ hopes to crack down on companies taking advantage of actors and paying them little or nothing for their efforts. We agree that any initiative seeking to make sure actors are paid professionally for their work is absolutely key, but as Taylor puts it ‘when you have big corporations not paying their artists, this initiative kicks into action in all it’s glory, but for the lower levels, it is difficult.’ Having been turned down by venues, asking how they planned to pay their artists, he’s honest ‘it is restricting in that sense.’
‘We can do so much with just a little bit of input’
With the weight of competition, finding money, working part time jobs and convincing people to come to your show, it’s easy to imagine why so many fall by the wayside but Taylor quite rightly asserts, ‘We can do so much with just a little bit of input’. And that’s exactly what Who Said have done, earning glowing praise from a range of critics.
So what’s the trick to mastering this balancing act? Actor, director, writer, producer, and part-time gardener Ethan Taylor claims that ‘hope is key’. As the general public, especially those in the arts, tear their hair out over cuts, current affairs and politicians’ hair-dos, artist’s struggle on.
‘Don’t be afraid to admit you wanna give up sometimes.’
And then carry on!
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