Do new artists get more opportunities, or are they at risk of being exploited? Should the performing arts industry find more ways to nurture talent? As Incoming Festival kicks off, Eleanor Turney explores the scene for emerging artists in the UK
The pros and cons of being an emerging artist
Roxanne Carney performed at SPRINT 2017, Camden People's Theatre. Photograph: Tara Yarahmadi
The term 'emerging' can be a fraught one. Often synonymous with 'young', it can be a useful label for those just starting out in their careers, or a dismissive way of excluding certain artists – often those over 30. I co-direct Incoming Festival, which describes itself as a celebration of emerging theatre companies. If a company feels that 'emerging' is a useful way to describes its work, we will consider it.
So, what does the term mean to artists making work, and to the organisations that might support or programme them? "I love the term 'emerging'," says performer, writer and producer Stephanie Martin of Clamour Theatre Company. She points out that 'emerging' is a process rather than a binary distinction between one thing and another. "It gives a sense of movement; we're already doing it and it's a process that has begun and is slow but steady and strong." As a 31-year-old, she also finds the term 'early-career' helpful.
Several artists use the term to demonstrate they are still developing their practice. Playwright Charlotte Josephine thinks "it means 'new', and that brings with it an excitement that your work will be fresh and vibrant. It also can bring with it a level of allowance, like the audience will forgive you because this is your first show and you're, hopefully, all heart and no finesse."
Rebecca Low, a writer and director working with TwentySomething in Dundee, agrees: "It suggests experimentation, something a bit rough around the edges – maybe not quite fully formed. I think it's also a way for the artist themselves to hedge their bets a bit. It suggests a tentativeness."
"It suggests experimentation"
Though the term can help to access opportunities, many people spoke about its problems. Rowan Rutter, producer at Hull Truck Theatre, says: "I don't use it to describe myself, and try to avoid using it in describing others. An artist is an artist. A producer is a producer. Let the work speak for itself."
"The main issue is the extent to which people perceive emerging artists' work as less accomplished or valuable," says Sam George of Clown Funeral Theatre Company. "Certain theatres will not programme work that is seen as emerging." He thinks it might help if more venues were to show emerging and established work alongside each other without openly distinguishing between them.
Rutter is less equivocal: "Stop using the term. Just call people what they are. Let their work and their ideas and their integrity speak for itself. And never presume that anyone is the finished article or that it is a linear journey."
The term also carries with it a risk of exploitation. Young and emerging artists are likely to be less savvy and more desperate for exposure, which makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous 'opportunities' that end up costing them money.
Incoming Festival makes an absolute commitment that no-one will be poorer for being involved – we pay our assistant and all the companies receive a performance fee plus half of their box office. And the New Diorama, our host venue, invests heavily in artists through all its activity. Artistic Director David Byrne says: "Only offering 50% of the box office or a few hundred pound seed commission just isn't going to cut it. Often young artists are left in crippling debt just for staging shows in London."
Eden Harbud, who has been supported by Cambridge Junction. Photograph: Finn Walker
"Never presume that anyone is the finished article"
Age is another issue. Our festival deliberately doesn't put any age limits on our programming. That said, almost all of the companies that apply are made up of young theatremakers, perhaps because older artists feel less comfortable with the label.
Producer Tobi Kyeremateng says: "Emerging shouldn't be synonymous with youth. I think this can stop older people wanting to start new things, or can cut them off from opportunities as most learning opportunities are aimed at 'emerging' artists but are capped by age. It suggests you must have everything together by a certain age, and if you don't, there's no support for you. "It's a valid point: very few careers are solid by the time you are 25 or 26, which is the cut-off point for many schemes for 'young' artists.
"We've made it much harder to begin a creative life later, in terms of the support available," says producer and writer Lauren Mooney in The Stage. "It's part of a wider cultural problem, not just in theatre but in the arts more generally – there's a slight deification of youth that has to do with the attractive myth of just bashing your first novel out at 21 and realising you're a genius."
And the lack of support can be scary. Laura Kressly, writing for The Play's The Thing, states: "Housing, particularly in London, is a primary issue for working artists. Why should any working adult have to live with their parents in a perpetually infantilised state in order to pursue a career? It's now depressingly commonplace for young people to be living at home into their 30s if they work in low-paying fields."
"Emerging shouldn't be synonymous with youth"
This income trap especially applies to older emerging artists, who perhaps have more financial commitments, and to parents, often women, who are returning to work after a break. The costs of childcare are prohibitive, and much arts work demands long and inflexible hours. Encouraging young, early career and emerging artists to fight for higher wages and push for better splits is all very well, but venues and producers often hold all the power. A take-it-or-leave-it approach abounds, as those who try to negotiate better rates can easily be replaced by another group desperate for the 'opportunity'.
There are, of course, exceptions to this, and many venues actively champion and support artists at all stages of their careers. New Diorama doesn't limit any of its opportunities by age: "We're looking for groups who are hungry to share their work with new audiences, take their theatre on tour around the UK and even internationally," says Byrne.
Does that mean emerging artists should aspire to work internationally? "Yes, with a caveat," answers Steven Brett, Theatre and Dance Programme Manager at the British Council. "Bear in mind that developing your own voice is tricky enough without adding the impact of working in a different cultural context. If opportunities come up, consider them carefully. Are you going to be looked after and nurtured, or are you going into a bear pit?" He has two tips: find an experienced industry professional to advise you and start by looking for opportunities alongside international emerging artists.
"Are you going into a bear pit?"
"At the British Council, most of our support for emerging artists is about helping them prepare for international work in the long term," Brett continues. "We mentor artists, we offer bursaries to attend international networking events and we run initiatives like the Artist Development Programme, alongside the Edinburgh Showcase." And over the past few years, the Artists' International Development Fund, run in partnership with Arts Council England, has helped hundreds of early and mid-career artists gain international experiences.
Rhum and Clay will be part of the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase for the first time this year – and wants to use the opportunity to take its work abroad. "We have been a company for six years now," Artistic Director Matt Wells tells me. "It is at this stage that a lot of companies just fade into nothing. I think what has enabled us to continue is a mixture of sheer bloody mindedness, and the support of partners such as New Diorama. I should also mention HOME in Manchester and their T2 programme, which is specially aimed at mid-career artists."
If you can find the support, at what point do you 'emerge' as an artist? Director Dan Hutton thinks "to be established means two things: that people are aware of you and your work, and you have relationships and offers coming in, and on a practical level it's your primary source of income, or at least something you see as a job, not just something you do. There's a shift between 'this is what I want to be doing' and 'this is what I am doing.'"
Shutterland by Rhum and Clay. Photograph: Richard Davenport
"When we're no longer emerging, we might be left in unknown territory"
"I think as more companies use the term emerging for longer periods of time, we are getting further away from finding a good position for the middle range artists," says Rianna Dearden of Lost Watch Theatre Company. "We ride the emerging wave for as many years as we can because there are more opportunities and a nice cushy title, but I'm not sure how useful it is. When we're no longer emerging, we might be left in unknown territory, very suddenly, and on our own."
There are power structures at play, suggests Brian Logan, Artistic Director at Camden People's Theatre (CPT): "There's certainly a perception that there's more support available for emerging artists than for established artists, and some artists have expressed frustration that their careers are necessarily retarded in the 'emerging' stage because that's the only way to get support. There are also issues with the terminology of 'artist development', much of which implies that the artists are lucky to be receiving the generous support of paternalistic venues."
We can still do better, thinks Tamsin Drury, Director of HAB and WORD of Warning in Manchester. She says: "There's a problem with our scheme-based ecology. It's hard to generalise, but it's about working out what people need at different stages, basically more money, allowing them to be more ambitious, offering opportunities to get work seen more consistently... Unless a piece of work gets picked up and shown, people are unlikely to move beyond that 'emerging' tag and continue a trajectory. That's the way the world is."
"Artists starting out during the first ten years need more investment"
Working together may be one way forward. CPT is part of STAMP, a new network of theatres in London that seeks to improve support for artists. And Venues North is a group of venues across the north of England helping new and emerging artists to get their work seen more widely.
Byrne and his team at New Diorama are also trying to change the status quo. He explains: "Artists starting out during the first ten years need more investment, not less. They don't have a huge reputation and lots of funders, so their on-stage work really needs to pay. To combat the negative connotations around the word 'emerging', we're working to change the rules of how artists are championed at the start of their careers."
Perhaps it's time to reclaim the term. As Low says: "Surely as artists, if we're doing things right, we're always learning, always renewing, always having our eyes opened to new ideas, always emerging."
Eleanor Turney is a freelance journalist, editor and arts consultant, and Co-Director of Incoming Festival, which runs 2–11 June 2017 in London.
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> Look up the programme for this year's Incoming Festival
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> See Laura Kressly's blog about redefining emerging artists
> Get advice from experts on when to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe