#1: How's the retraining going? [11/10/20]

Michael Saliba

In the first edition of our new regular blog, Artistic Director Michael Saliba reflects on the frustrations of "retraining" in light of Rishi Sunak's recent comments.

Rishi did pretty well amongst artists for a while. Sure, there was a significant delay before help arrived for venues, but it did come and with a lot of money behind it too. And yet, as time has gone on, the veneer of wanting to help has slowly started to fade. The furlough scheme is over and the cold hearted ‘pragmatism’ has returned once more, culminating in Sunak asking those working in arts to retrain in new fields. It’s an unwelcome return to the policies which have consistently reduced funding for arts and actively worked to drive theatre and music away from schools. Trying to save art right now feels like going into battle with a water pistol.

It’s hard to even begin to respond to Sunak’s suggestion, but I feel a good point to start would be that almost everyone involved in the arts (particularly those starting off) are already trained in other fields. Speaking from personal experience, I know artists with jobs as teachers, chefs, bartenders, marketers and even one working for the government’s track and trace scheme. Furthermore, there are countless now-familiar stories of West End actors picking up shifts in supermarkets or restaurants just to make ends meet. Artists aren’t asking for fully funded careers to return to, because they never existed in the first place. All we’re asking for is hope that art, and support for it, might one day return - a prospect that looks increasingly under threat.

Working while creating art is astonishingly difficult, but artists still do it every day. In late 2018, I was employed full time in a bar whilst directing OLD’s second show ‘Mack Ribbe is Going to Die’. Over two months of rehearsals, I worked tirelessly to try and balance working predominantly night shifts at the pub and managing rehearsals whenever possible. A sleep pattern became a thing of the past, my mental health deteriorated rapidly and I was drained by the time Christmas arrived. I ended up taking a prolonged break from theatre afterwards, and it culminated with me realising I needed other career options.

My point is that artists aren’t slouches. They’re not wistful stoners who waste their days in their own heads, painting plants and living in a fantasy. Every artist I know works unbelievably hard, sacrificing their social life and often their health to pursue their passions and provide colour and entertainment for the world. Artists don’t believe in doing things half measure. You want your art to be the best it can be and this requires an enormous amount of work. Without a doubt, juggling directing with full-time work was one of the toughest tasks I’ve undertaken in my lifetime, and I’m sure many others feel the same. And yet we still do it.

So please, Mr Sunak, don’t just tell artists to train for other work, or reduce their fears about the future to laziness or naivety. Perhaps instead look into how you can actually help incredible dynamic industries that provide so much good for this country. Art is not asking for a handout, it is asking for a lifeline.