I have been a professional actor, musician, and writer for over 20 years, and a workshop facilitator and company director (of Forget-Me-Not-Productions) for 18. I came across a social media post yesterday that asked ‘”is the end goal of people entering the Performing Arts industry ‘making it’, i.e. being famous?”
It got me thinking…Isn’t working in the same field for over two decades and building a career out of it, synonymous with ‘making it’? Particularly considering the career in question has a higher drop out rate – usually within the first 5 years, than any other industry?
I trained at HTS, a theatre school in North Herts that is now closed. My final year showcase was at London’s Fortune Theatre in 2002. The showcase went well and although I did not get an agent out of it, I have still managed to work consistently in the arts since graduating. But is that ‘making it’?
While it’s true that I trained at a relatively unknown theatre school, the quality of the training was very high. HTS was not in the business of trying to make ‘stars’ out of their students though (if you don’t count Bob Golding, aka the purple Tweeny that is). The end goal was to show us how to make a comfortable living doing what we love. It was also to show us how to stay in continual employment.
I was never destined for the West End or No.1 tours, it was too cut throat for my liking. I saw myself working on the Fringe, or doing more niche work. Three of my early performance roles were just that. My first paid job was a small part in a play about mental health called ‘M.I.N.D’ (written by a fellow HTS student Emma Stroud). It was showcased at the Exeter Fringe Festival in August 2002, just a month after graduation.
I also devised a revue show called ‘The 60s in 60 Minutes’ with Mullet Productions (who were HTS graduates from my year group). We performed this sketch style show at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden during the summer of 2003.
That same year I was featured in the line up for Gingerbeer’s ‘Lesbian Lyrical Lounge’ on the Battersea Barge. During my first two years in ‘the biz’ it felt like I had arrived – this was what it had all been for. I.e, ‘making it’.
That niche work was mostly profit share though, and the profits were slim. Perhaps I would have gotten lucky had I stayed in Hertfordshire (or moved to London). If I had kept auditioning. But I moved back to Wales in my mid 20s and my fate was sealed. I might not have set the bar high in terms of the scale of the tours I was doing. I did go from one small tour, straight into another though. Granted it was mostly Theatre in Education work. I tell a lie, I also did a lot of Reminisence Theatre tours too. So what? I’m not a snob. It was regular income and I did genuinely feel like I was making a difference – particularly with the reminiscence shows.
Making Nostalgia Exactly what it Used to be
I will always remember performing in a one woman show called ‘Memories‘. An audience member approached me as I was packing up. It took her ages to make her way over to me with her Zimmer frame. She was determined to tell me “I am sound of mind but my body is failing me. I do remember all the many shows I’ve seen here though. So many people attempt to sing the songs of Vera Lynn. Let me tell you something, you are by far the best. Vera is a very good friend of mine and I shall write to her. I’ll tell her all about you and how you’ve brightened my day today”.
Tied up in T.i.E Tours
Being a songwriter and musician increased my opportunities. In the early noughties there weren’t many female actor/musician/singer/songwriters around. I was fortunate enough in one of my early jobs (for a 9 month, UK wide tour of ‘Peter and the Wolf’) to get commissioned to write the opening/closing songs for the project. Off the back of that, I got commissioned to write and record 6 tracks for a Theatre in Education tour of ‘Robin Hood’. It was for the same company (Theatre for Youth). My main complaint is that a lot of the small scale work I took in my early career was very poorly paid. Two of the companies I worked for went bust and I didn’t get my final pay packet for those tours.
Theatre in Education and reminiscence theatre companies weren’t the only culprits. I had opportunities to act on cruise ships, at Alton Towers’ ‘Towers of Terror’, in the London Dungeon, and at a summer camps in Italy and Spain. But turned all of these roles down as I would not have earned enough per month to keep my flat. I also needed to cover my student loan debt. So I carried on doing quite samey work. I also took the odd singing gig (I hosted a few open mic nights) and I tutored as a sideline.
It was a great opportunity to learn the ropes. HTS definitely helped pave the way for all of the self-generated work that was to follow. I formed a Theatre in Education company with two fellow HTS graduates in 2006. It was called Building Blocks Theatre Company. We did a tour of Jack and the Beanstalk in Wales. While it was a good experience, it was difficult to manage rehearsals and bookings long distance. They were both in Hertfordshire and I was living in Wales.
I formed my own theatre company, Forget-Me-Not-Productions just two years after graduating and it is still running today (albeit in a somewhat different capacity now).
I run the business – an inclusive arts and assistive technology company, with my wife Mel Saddler, and it is our main source of income.
Forget-Me-Not-Productions started life as a reminiscence theatre company. This is what I had the most experience of at that point in my career. We mainly toured throughout Wales and the West. I wrote, directed, produced, managed, and performed all of the shows.
It may not have been where I had originally envisaged myself when starting out, but I got to write and perform my own material. I also played parodies of some true legends – Elvis, Buddy Holly, Vera Lynn, Marlene Dietrich.
I sang some amazing songs and got paid for it. Then, I saved up enough money to travel the world with my best friend for 13 months. I managed to get paid work as a gigging (and giggling) musician while travelling and formed a duo called Ishee Bad? We are still together (and our now called Cwtch).
Fatima can F**k off!
When Rishi Sunak launched his ‘reskill, retrain’ campaign to get people through the economic hardship of the pandemic the message was clear. Remember Fatima (she might have a career in cyber you know)? The campaign showed the government’s blatant and utter disregard for the arts. I have always felt that society, by and large has frowned upon the arts. It was if it is not seen as a ‘proper’ career pathway, or it is just a hobby. This attitude inspired my immersive theatre piece ‘Uprising‘ in 2015, a project that aimed to make young voters more politically active. Uprising remains one of my career highlights.
This world view certainly factored into my decision to get a PGCE in secondary education drama when I was in my early 30s. I had wanted to settle down, start a family, stop the relentless touring, and have a steady income with benefits. I felt the only way to achieve this was by getting a proper ‘grown up’ job. Ironically, because the place I wanted to settle down and do all of the above (Wales) had no permanent drama teaching posts, the income and job security was more unstable than acting ever was.
In the 4 years that I managed to stick it out as a teacher, I had two maternity cover jobs. I also had one temporary contract (acting head of drama for one term) and one long term sick cover (head of drama on a supply teacher contract for one year). Because two of these were temporary roles, i.e. supply rates of pay, I didn’t get paid for school holidays or sick pay. This resulted in me signing on to Job Seeker’s Allowance over the school holidays. That was something I had never had to do as an actor.
Forget-Me-Not-Productions was still running and actually subsidised me when I was out of work. I still did two productions a year, sometimes more. Additionally, I also tutored individuals in acting and singing.
During this time, I started getting more freelance creative practitioner opportunities too. Teaching was actually getting in the way of this better paid work. The straw that broke the camels back happened when I had to take a teaching job in Tenby. It was a 5 hour commute (round trip).
It was the only drama teaching post available (maternity cover again). Annoyingly, only half of my contracted weekly hours actually involved me teaching drama. The bulk of my lessons were travel and tourism, child development, and health and social care. These were subjects I knew nothing about. It was soul destroying. So I bit the bullet and decided to combine all my areas of expertise. I put all my efforts back into Forget-Me-Not-Productions, which became an inclusive arts organisation rather than just a touring theatre company. I left the teaching profession, and incorporated as a limited company in 2013. The rest as they say is history.
Up Sh*t Creek without a Paddle
Navigating a career in the arts industry is a bit like being plonked in the middle of an ocean filled with excrement, in a dingy, without a paddle. You just go where the wind blows and try to avoid the stench. I still get feelings of imposter syndrome. I often worry I’m the Jack of all trades, master of none. Sometimes I wonder if I would have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. It’s daft to think like that though. You can only work with the tools you have at the time and give it your all. When I really search inside myself I know I’m happy with the way things have turned out. I still love my job and I don’t ever intend to retire. As far as I’m concerned that really is the definition of ‘making it’.
Making the Arts Accessible
It is difficult for me to list all of my proudest professional achievements, as it is so intrinsically linked with the individuals whose lives we affect on a daily basis.
Seeing individuals with the most complex physical and cognitive disabilities taking part in our MUSIC-CAN sessions independently is so rewarding. It is immeasurable.