Why Be A Professional Artist?

Essay Talk/Lecture  
Red graffiti reads "I am nothing original, I am the Combined efforts of everyone I have ever knon"
Graffiti – Portland Oregon

Transcript of Paper given by James for TBA Festival, Portland, Oregon on 8th August 2006

First up I’m English, so I have to apologize. I’m sorry for having to apologize but I can’t help it, it’s in my blood and my upbringing, I have been gifted with the extraordinary ability to be impossibly arrogant AND spend all my time apologizing.

On this occasion I am apologizing because I suspect this lecture may have got lost mid-Atlantic. I wrote it in early 2001 for final year students at Brunel University in London. Mark Russell read a transcript on the company website and asked if I’d do something similar for you; I said “yes”. The plan was to dump everything from the original lecture except the opening gag and start again, rewrite the whole thing because we’re here and now, five years later, on the other side of another continent. I wasn’t worried; it would be fine, I’d sketch some notes on the plane, we’d do our get-in, open the show, do some partying, I’d write something up, ignore it and improvise as I usually do. Then the plane lands, I get handed this beautiful document and what do I find, there are only two lectures in the TBA Festival, they both have double page spread, one’s by Mark himself, the other’s by me, he’s free and they’re charging $15 dollars for me, $10 if you haggle hard. Finally, I read what you’re all here to hear and it sounds suspiciously like that lecture I presented five years ago in London to a gang of befuddled undergraduates. So much has changed since then. I have harnessed Jetlag hours to up-date and translated it, but maybe it’s lost, half way between here and there, then and now, them and you, me as I was and us as we are, if so, I apologize.

Let’s start.

Do you have people who stand in malls with clipboards asking if you have ever had an accident that you want to sue someone for – “No win, no fee”? We do and I hate them with a passion, but that’s another story. There’s a rumour in the UK that this is a litigious society, so before we start my lawyers have asked me to display this notice.

[ I Strongly Advise You Not To Become Professional Artists ]
This means in fifteen years time, when you are physically aging and emotionally broken, cast out by society and desperate for any source of income, you will not be able to sue Stan’s Cafe – the multinational corporation – for loss of earnings. Don’t say we suggested being a professional artist was a good idea but if you’re going to do it anyway, maybe some of this will help.

[ What gets you going? ]
Why do you want to be an artist? Why do you want to do it professionally? Why do you want to do it now? I never asked myself these questions this baldly; indeed I suspect that anyone who asks these questions of themselves at the start would never start at all.

Fifteen years ago I graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in Theatre and Independent Studies and a belief, curiously akin to the American Dream, inherited from my father, that if you were talented and worked hard, anything was possible. I believed I could form a theatre company, take it to international prominence and never have a proper job. I have subsequently married a socialist and a sociologist (I’m not a bigamist, she’s both things at once – she multi-tasks). I married a socialist sociologist who points out that not everyone can do anything but that, indeed, a middle class white boy in England can do many things.

Some time in 1988 my preconceptions of what theatre could or should be were blown out of the water. I connected with the immediacy, passion and playfulness of the form. I become consumed by the process of making theatre, not remaking someone else’s theatre but lashing together my own. I became caught in the rewarding cycle of discovering and resolving performance problems. Fired up by the joy of being good at something that inspired me, I was reveling in the release of discovering that I could communicate with people through art. I was about to graduate, I didn’t want to stop what I had begun, so I didn’t, I turned pro.

Whilst at Lancaster I’d met Graeme Rose, he was part of a performance company called Glory What Glory which was falling apart. Over mugs of tea in Stan’s Cafe, Brick Lane, we decided to team up, our skills complimented each other, our commitment was shared and total. It’s worth noting that in the UK a Cafe serves dainty cups of tea with pastries and a Cafe serves mugs of tea with sausages). We are Stan’s Cafe

[Why do you want to be an artist?]
It’s possible to have a rich and rewarding life without being an artist, it sounds strange but believe me I’ve seen it done. Check out your motives, maybe the aspects of being an artist that attract you also apply in more secure, structured, remunerative fields of endeavor; if they do, follow that path instead, there may already be enough artists in the world.

Why do you want to make art professionally?
Plenty of people pursue their artistic interests adequately as amateurs. Let’s face it, the vast majority of artists have to start as amateurs. I used to be a professional kitchen porter and amateur theatre maker. Some of you may currently be amateur artists and professional waiters; you know what I’m talking about. Why not settle for the amateur art bit and pursue a great job in another field that utilizes those same skills?

Why do you want to do it now?
Can’t it wait? I know of people who have retired to the arts in their thirties with a house and savings having burnt themselves out in the money markets. A host of successful artists have respectable employment histories. It is only recently that arts degrees have been considered vocational.

But of course I’m talking crap. Of course you want to be a professional artist, who wouldn’t? It’s what fills your head all the time. There’s not enough space in your brain to take any job, that requires you to think at all. And yes an advertising agency would use those skills of yours and stretch you and compel you to be creative but what would happen to your soul, your friends, your dress-sense? And you couldn’t afford it anyway, you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself, you’d have to buy two houses, one for you and one for yourself, you’d end up having a fistfight with yourself in the park. And you can’t turn professional later because you have to do it now and if you don’t do it now then you know you won’t do it at all. You wouldn’t be frustrated at first but this other life will start gaining momentum and other cares will start to build and that early yearning won’t have gone away but you will have started to earning money now, money that you can’t afford to lose and other people will be relying on you now and you won’t feel able to stop, not for their sakes, so you’ll keep at this other thing, this other job, until one day, if you’ve not been hit by a bus, you will retire and then, far too soon before your death, you will finally start doing the thing you knew you were born to.

Even so, professionalism is not a fait accompli. You should make a positive choice one way or the other and whatever you decide to go for, you should go for it full-on.

Graeme and I went for it full-on. As a sign of our commitment we moved to Birmingham, the least fashionable city in Britain. Once at the heart of the industrial revolution, for years the place had been in industrial decline, when we moved there it was looking forward, searching for a new post-industrial identity.

[Birmingham photos]
It was Graeme’s home city, it was cheap to live in and easy to tour from. Key to our thinking was that no one else there was doing what we wanted to do – we would have the run of the place.

Stan’s Cafe was to be an all terrain vehicle for our artistic ambitions. It would be a theatre company at its heart but we would have the flexibility to work in any field we fancied, with whatever collaborators we fancied – not that working with people you fancy is a great idea. We were determined we would run it – it was not to run us. Our simple mantra was to make work we would want to see ourselves but that no one else was making. It was to be a serious vocation and it had to be fun. It you’re not having fun as an artist there’s really no point in doing it at all.

And so it started. And I loved it. I loved it when it was really hard and I loved it more as it started to build. I loved the variety, working on an installation one day, a theatre show the next, a publication, pieces for the radio, shooting videos with kids. More than this, I loved the fact that talks like this were part of the job, as was balancing the books, plotting strategies, lifting heavy objects, driving transit vans, wiring plugs and talking earnestly with mates in the pub. I loved being consumed with a passion that was life, a life that was outside simple commerce, that fused work and leisure, socialising and dreaming, into a unified project. I loved working with other people as a real team, seeing our intangible ideas gain substance and reach out to be grasped by other people. When I thought about being a professional artist in these terms I feel privileged, indestructible and in some small way significant.

I’m sorry I’ve gone all dewy eyed. It’s time to return to my brief, give you some meaningful advice, to set some objectives, to talk about Stalin.

[ The First Five Year Plan ]
Sit down on your own with a pen and some paper, scribble a list of targets and ambitions, things you want to achieve in the next five years. Do this alone, be honest, ambitious and without shame. Your motives for becoming an artist will be intangible, the items on this list must be empirical, they will give you a sense of direction, perspective and ultimately, when things are ticked off, achievement. Good psychology is to turn it into a ‘totaliser’ with – to draw from my own list – ‘make some art’ at the bottom and ‘be the subject of a major chin stroking TV documentary at the top.

Give yourselves five years. It seems like a long time now but as you get older five years becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of your life. Now days it takes me five years to wake up in the mornings. Say you’re twenty one when you graduate twenty six isn’t irredeemable. In five years you’ll have given it a good shot, had a good laugh, done some interesting stuff, met some great people and have a good sense of whether your project is worth pursuing. In the worst case scenario you’ll have developed a host of transferable skills, learnt a lot about the world and made a load of great contacts. You’ll be too old to join a firm of management consultants but not too old to do a law conversion course or become a teacher. Come Stan’s fifth birthday most things below the South Bank Show Special were ticked off my list (more an indictment of my lack of vision than testimony to our triumphal success).

We had made Memoirs of An Amnesiac a show about identity, obsession and hero-worship in which Graeme plays a delusional sociopath Eric Smith, playing the eccentric French Composer Erik Satie, playing, in turn, the Greek Philosopher Socrates. The show was a collaboration with the composer Richard Chew and ended with Graeme painting his hair white with emulsion paint. The set was nicked from a skip outside the BBC, it had been on TV, technically it was more famous than we were.

We had staged Canute the King in our local Edwardian Swimming Pool for #6,000, an act of blind faith and insane optimism that drew a huge amount of local interest and for years remained the one thing people knew about the company “aren’t you those crazy people who did that thing in the swimming baths”. This show, which we remade for national touring in its own very sallow pool of water, was our first collaboration with the actor Amanda Hadingue who has been with us ever since and is in Portland now.

Bingo In the House of Babel, was our first show made with proper money and this presented a problem, we’d built our aesthetic around the restrictions of little or no money, we didn’t want to lose this, but we also felt it was important to put the money on stage, to show our backers that their money had made a difference somewhere other than our bellies. Our solution was to build a big set out of reclaimed timber, which we promptly set fire to. After it was thoroughly singed the flames were extinguished, the charred wood painted with flame retardant and we had our burnt out library, horrendous to perform on but looking fantastic. Memoirs of An Amnesiac and Canute the King had got to the ICA in London, for this show we wanted some national press reviews, something that is almost impossible for a small company to achieve in Britain, so we booked into the Battersea Arts Centre for a three week run at the end of a national tour. We got the reviews. My memory of them is that they destroyed us but in truth they did not kill us, and therefore only served to make us stronger.

We bounced back with Voodoo City a fairly crazy collision of scenes held together by a massive urban spell, all focused on theatre and magic and people trying anything they can think of to change the world around them. Before setting off on a national tour we crammed this show into Battersea Arts Centre and turned up the volume. This time the venue hated it and the critics eased off a bit.

Then in 1996 with the first five year stretch coming to an end, Ocean of Storms, a two hander devised with Amanda and Sarah Archdeacon about gravity and orbiting and touch and communication and home, won a Barclays New Stages award and was invited to perform at The Royal Court. We had our first office outside my bed-sit. We won the National Lottery (by filling in a form not by buying tickets) and through this took possession of some high-end video editing kit. Things were looking good. I signed myself up for another five-year tour of duty and tried writing another list, filling in gaps between where we were and world domination.

[ Collaborators ]
Are you going to work alone, if not who’s going to be in on it with you? Working alone is simple, demanding and not something I know much about. Even though I operate well alone I think eventually it would drive me nuts. In fact it did start to drive me nuts. Around the time of Voodoo City Graeme and I had a quite, very polite and English bust up. He left to form a third theatre company, one more suited to his needs as they stood at the time. In the years between Graeme leaving and Craig arriving I definitely started to go nuts, no social life, no girlfriend, all work, no play, dull boy.

Collaboration is tricky but immensely rewarding. Graeme and I had wanted the creative excitement, breadth of skills, ideas and interests that collaboration brings, without loosing the clarity of our vision, dissipating our energies in committees or having to shoulder the responsibility of providing for lots of people emotionally and financially. Our solution was to have a tiny core company and concentric circles of collaborators, each with differing levels of responsibility and commitment. These collaborators would have the flexibility to come and go, do other things, live in other places and answer the Batphone when and if it rang, should they choose to do so.

It’s swings-and-roundabouts, different models work for different people. You will find your own mates and your own models, the trick, as in so many things, is clear and honest communication. Make sure everyone knows what the deal is and agrees with it, many relationships have been broken where business, art and friendship intersect. Maybe early on you should compare your totalisers so you all know what you want to get out of your joint venture.

Although we didn’t really communicate for a year, Graeme and I had managed to stay friends through the bust up, he had joined the company’s board of directors and four years later he started acting with the company again, now he’s back half-time in hours but full-on in spirit.

So you know where you are and who you are, now what are you going to do and who are you going to do it to? I find it tricky discussing Stan’s Cafe with my father. He tries to empathise with my motivations but all too quickly the conversation turns to the logic of figures. He’s a businessman. I believe his proudest moment was when he learnt I had found a way of selling rice for one pound per grain. As I said, he’s a business man and if I had been born into the company as a family firm a> it wouldn’t be called Stan’s Cafe and b> this talk would be very different…

[ Pete’s Cafe purveyors of fine art(established 1965) ]
So you want to be professional artists. The key thing you must remember is that it is all about The Market. Ask yourselves these questions.

Who are my customers, are they the audience or the promoters?
What do they want now? What will they want next year?
How are people talking about work?
How can you make a big impact early on with little money?
What are the media picking up on?
What attracts people to art? What sticks in their minds?
What is my unique selling point?
What distinguishes me from my competitors?
What does the commercial sector want?
Where is the money? How do I tailor my work to that field?
Who are the true power-brokers? Where are they based?
How do I target them?
How can I make myself a brand?

I won’t bore you with my ‘everything is fashion’ theory. It’s not very novel and basically goes – ‘you can get quite a long way with not very much talent or very many original ideas so long as you have good interpersonal skills and hit the zeitgist’. I used to see it everywhere and it used to make me furious, frankly I was jealous. I clung to the romantic notions that one must stay true to oneself and that good will always win out over evil just before the credits roll.

Maybe you should write down all the projects you want to undertake, then sit down and answer all the questions posed by Pete’s Cafe and see how your desires match the cynical go-getter plan, be flexible in all but your principles and you may find some useful correspondences. We muddled our way through.

The second five year plan got off to a very rocky start. We wore the wrong trainers, we had bad hair cuts, not the bad hair cuts that are good hair cuts today, just bad hair cuts. We didn’t go to London and talk up our act, we stayed in Birmingham and let our act talk. The thing was we were fed up with most people quite liking us, we wanted people to love us and if that meant some people hating us – so be it. For this and other reasons we made Simple Maths, inspired by the phasing patterns of Steve Reich. It had no speach, no story, no mime, no dance, nothing of any substance happenes. Five people swapped places on six chairs, their emotions changing in relation to each other according to some unseen mathematical logic. It worked perfectly, some people thought it was the most powerful, moving, complicated, riveting thing they had seen in years, other people hated it. Unfortunately most of the people who hated it were the people who gave us our money, our funding stopped, our gigs stopped.

We were now in real trouble. We had five hundred quid to make one more show, a one-off for an art gallery and after that, nothing. Some work in schools, some video editing, it was looking really bleak. A lesson in how precarious it all can be.

This five hundred quid show was the last roll of the dice, our final few chips were stacked and pushed forward the resigned sucker’s farewell to the table – but as we turned to find our coats the dice came to rest, and we’d won, we’d fucking won! We’d scooped the fucking table!

We made It’s Your Film in four days with five hundred quid. It was back to the old days; making something out of stuff we found lying around. The show recreated cinematic aesthetics using Victorian Theatre trickery. It was designed to be watched from a viewing booth, like a peep show, one person at a time. The quasi-story was of a detective (me) and lover (Craig) searching for someone (the viewer) in the city at night. It was four minutes long and we performed it thirty seven times on its opening and, as we thought at the time, closing night. It was a magical night, the response was sensational, no one had experienced anything like it. They went crazy.

On the surface It’s Your Film sounds like commercial suicide. A team of four working six hours each day to give sixty people a four minute show shouldn’t work. We would never have made it if we had followed a Pete’s Cafe model. But then what’s better, to mildly divert people for an hour or blow their minds for four minutes and brand their memories for life? Promoters love a show that gets people raving about their venue or festival. It’s Your Film has now been performed over four thousand times right across Europe in Rio and Vancouver, it kept us alive and once it started to roll, commissions started to follow.

We’d always said we wanted to work in a range of settings but in the early years this was difficult to make happen. Now we were able to really get going.

We built The Black Maze in the back of a lorry, we made a rock musical in a farmer’s barn, we wired up the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham to remix its sounds, we build a new station on a tram line and filled it with astronauts, we recorded two CDs for the radio and had them played out on BBC Radio 3 and at the Big Chill Festival, we restaged an old Physical Theatre Classic, we organized a conference and published a book documenting it. We even got the money to make a new theatre show, the very funny, text heavy interrogation show, Good and True. We were back!

This was roughly the point at which I last gave this lecture and around here in that lecture came a paragraph about this success being relative, that we were still a tiny company, that lots of promoters were still resistant to us, that our funding was still shaky on a project by project basis, that none of us had pensions and crucially, that I still did much of the company’s administration.

[ Admin v Art ]
OK let’s start getting practical with some thoughts on administration. Basically you’re here to make art not admin. The lawyers advised against this bit as well but to hell with it. Don’t get carried away with the formal side of things too much early on. What’s the point in being a legalized company, registered for tax with a beautifully crafted Equal Opportunities policy, if you’ve got no money and no art? After one show you may decide growing organic vegetables is far more rewarding and jack it all in.

Priority One – get your work made and get in front of people (we did some freebie gigs with It’s Your Film to get it into festivals we knew big international promoters would visit). Don’t expect an easy ride, at this stage you’re scum of the earth. Rough it, work from home, keep your overheads close to zero. Make a virtue of your limitations work with found or reclaimed materials, other people’s sets, stuff from skips, redundant technology. Blag time with other people’s kit, make friends in local colleges, arts centres and social clubs; exchange rehearsal space for labour. Don’t TELL promoters, curators, sponsors, friends, funders what you can do, they won’t believe you – SHOW THEM. Inspire them with the work and make them feel part of the project, then they’ll feel good about doing all the favours you’re about to ask of them, they’ll share a sense of ownership so when you succeed, in a small way they succeed too. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, everyone tends to be very friendly and helpful even if they know that, couple of years down the line, you’re going to end up nicking their gigs, their money and their glory; hell I’m here now talking to you. Ask people, talk to people. My ‘Everything is Fashion’ theory doesn’t stop people being great artists AND fantastic schmoozers: these are the people who really do do very very well. So all the time talk to people. It’s about what you know AND who you know. Get to know people.

If no one will book you to do a gig in a venue do it outside a venue. Be prepared to work for box office splits, try not to hire venues if at all possible, you want to work WITH venues not have them as landlords. Don’t be depressed if hardly anyone turns out, maybe it will be good if only your mates and the hardcore New Art heads turn up see your early stuff, it will probably be shit. If you learn by ‘doing’ why not make one show a month for six months so you get as much learning done as quickly as possible before anyone notices.

Keep your admin coherent and streamlined. Make sure people know who they’re dealing with and what the deal is. Be honest and make sure the message you’re giving the world is a clear one. Don’t assume everyone shares your knowledge or obsessions. When someone finally agrees to promote you give them as much help as you can. It’s a highly competitive world and no one likes working with unhelpful arses. This sounds obvious but it’s amazing the number of companies whose ‘artistry’ prevents them providing marketing departments with a simple description of the work. Get bums on seats then hit them with the art. My best administration advice is to find a charming, ruthless, highly literate, numerate saint and persuade them they want to learn to be an arts administrator at the same time you’re learning to be an artist. We didn’t, it was only two years ago that we finally found Charlotte our General Manager Superhero and ticked off that admin ambition.

The Stan Team has expanded, there are five more or less full time post now. We’re still not paid a great deal, but it’s pretty good compared with others. Some of us have pensions. Three years ago Arts Council England agreed to give us money just for being Us, guaranteed for three years and now extended for another two or three. This safety net allowed us the freedom to speculate, we bought a ton of rice to try out an odd sounding idea I’d had for a show using statistics. Things were cranking up.

We made a show using slide projections and phrase books Be Proud Of Me and Home Of The Wriggler about the closure of a car plant with the cast powering the show live on stage using bikes. We even made our first piece for the web, HOHOHO an online guide to the best of Electronic Folk Art in the Birmingham area at Christmas 2004.

Things change. In some ways everything gets easier, in other ways the problems just change. I don’t do administration any more but we’re so busy meeting the demand for our old shows it’s difficult to plan time and make brain space to make the new ones. Sometimes I miss the hours spent washing up in restaurants thinking about art. Now we are on a tour that once would have been a dream Portland, LA, Melbourne, two months on the road, a massive adventure but there’s plotting to do in the office, a second team of performers to brief for Bocham in Germany and a third team to lead to Leipzig. I’m waving Craig, Amanda, Karen and the others off with regret but things change and fifteen years down the line this is probably as good as I’d hoped it would get. But it’s better than that, things change, and often for the better. Stan’s Cafe is no longer my life, other things have intervened, on Sunday I fly home to a daughter and a sociologist who I love and miss very much.

I wish you luck on your journeys wherever they take you. In many ways you are in a great position, everyone loves fresh blood and new ideas. You have time and energy and focus and the chance to change yourselves and others. You have ideas and people looking out for you. You have life, liberty and hopefully happiness, the chance to say what you think and the American Dream. Now, to add to all this, you all share the wisdom of Stan’s Cafe, what could possibly go wrong?

There you go, that impossible arrogance once again. I’m sorry.

James Yarker 7th September, 2006