At the Space, weāre fortunate to work with some incredible artists as they create some of the most pivotal work of their careers. Weāre also very lucky that some of them stay in touch ā and sometimes come back for more! In our new Guest Blog series we’ll be talking to some of the artists we’ve grown to know and love, asking them for some wise words about life on the Fringe.
First up, writer/director Sepy Baghaei (Wilde Tales, One Festival 2017) talks about the occasional love/hate relationship of being a theatremaker. How does hard work translate into big dreams? How do artists keep going? And why do we need to make theatre anyway?
Every now and again I think about what career I wouldāve pursued if I hadnāt set down the long and arduous road of working in theatre. When I was sixteen, I wanted to pursue journalism: but a visit to an open day one morning put me off that. I realised I didnāt want to work in an industry that didnāt always uphold the truth, nor did I want to spend years writing about topics I wasnāt passionate about.
Following on from that, I wanted to pursue creative writing. It seemed like the logical choice: I loved writing, and I loved visual mediums such as film and theatre, so Iād major in scriptwriting. When the time came to submit my university preferences, I chose a creative writing degree at the University of Technology in Sydney.
But then came a conversation that changed everything for me. I remember poring over my general mathematics textbook (thank god thatās over) when my mum walked in. Much earlier in the year when I was scoping out university options, Iād gone to an open day for a drama school. I told my mum that that school had called me as they had a round of auditions coming up, and wanted to know if Iād like to book in for one. I wasnāt sure if I should do it ā but my mum convinced me otherwise.
She said that sheād always seen my at my happiest when I was doing anything involved with Drama at school. Sheād seen all my drama nights, sheād drive me to the local theatre when Iād booked myself in to see plays by playwrights like Tony Kushner and Toby Schmitz (thank you Parramatta Riverside Theatres), and sheād seen how engrossed I was whenever I was writing drama essays. āWhy not go for an audition,ā she said. āYouāre already a writer ā you can write any time. You have nothing to lose.ā
That was 2009. Now, eight years later, I consider myself a director, a producer, a sound designer, an actor ā and a writer, too. Iāve written a show from scratch, found a venue to put it on, made marketing material, fundraised, made rehearsal and production schedules, sourced costume and set, operated a sound and lighting board, made a profit from my own shows and been able to pay the artists Iāve worked with. And along the way, Iāve fit in a BA, an MA, packed up my life and moved to the opposite of the world, and managed to secure a visa to keep myself living and working in London permanently.
And yet, despite all these things I should be proud of, Iām incredibly insecure about my place in the theatre industry. I look at the artists I want to be likeā¦ Simon Stone, an Australian theatre director who set up his own theatre company straight after drama school and immediately produced a range of acclaimed productions before directing his first mainstage production at the age of 24ā¦ or the European artistic director (who will remain nameless here) who read a degree in a discipline outside of theatre and then went straight into working in the literary department of an internationally renowned theatreā¦ And of course I think, why arenāt I there? Why am I so behind?
As a young independent theatre-maker, you follow all the rules. All the big theatre companies in London write on their websites, āWeāre passionate about meeting and supporting new artists. The best way for us to do this is for you to invite us to your work.ā So we do. Last year I made a show that I was particularly proud of ā a long-standing mentor even came up to me after seeing it and said, āThat show is ready-to-go, I could see it being the kind of thing that would play somewhere like the Royal Court.ā My heart swelled with pride. And then it broke when I realised that none of the dozens of theatre companies I had invited had come along. Not a single one. None of them even replied to say they couldnāt make it.
You also start to question whether your thousands of pounds worth of training even matters. Recently, I was invited to interview for what genuinely felt like a dream job for me. It was a literary assistant position in an incredible theatre company. I was thrilled to get an interview, and after completing a short task and speaking to a panel, I was so certain that this was it ā this was my big break. The one I deserved after my years of slog and study.
When I received the phone call to tell me the position had gone to someone āwith a little more experience,ā it was all I could do to get through the call without bursting into tears. The negative thoughts that Iād managed to put off for a long time finally started to seep in. How is it possible that the artistic director I admire can get a literary job straight out of a non-theatre major, and yet I canāt even seem to break my foot in the door after a $50,000 BA, a Ā£16,000 MA, and another five years on top of that making my own work in the industry?
I understand why so many people give up on this line of work. Every single one of us comes out of drama school fresh-faced and full of hope. I remember my first year after graduating, I didnāt stop ā it was show after show, a mix of paid and unpaid jobs, meeting lots of artists and working with such fervour that people began to take notice.
But itās not enough just to make good work ā the real battle is getting people to actually SEE it. If your show isnāt picked up by a bigger company, or reviewed by that major publication that will get you attention, you start to wonder, whatās the point? As much as I love my family and friends, Iām not making the work for them. Iām making it for the world, for people I donāt know whose lives I could change. That might be idealistic ā but you know what? If I canāt hope for the best in this world ā especially in this weird Trumptopia weāre living in ā then why make art at all?
Similarly, itās an incredibly heavy thought to consider that the degree you worked so hard for doesnāt equate to what you thought it would in the real world. Someone with a degree in accounting becomes an accountant, a law degree gets you work in a law firm; but two theatre degrees which have equipped me to be both creative and entrepreneurial have gotten me a grand total of zero permanent jobs within theatre organisations. Like everyone else Iāve supported myself through front-of-house work and similar, but Iād be lying if I said doing those jobs didnāt break my heart a little: to see the performers, the designers, and the directors who are making a full-time living doing what they love.
So, where do I go from here? I guess acknowledging that this is a real thing that happens in the industry is a good first step. Iām sure there must be many other people out there like me ā on paper, they have everything they need to be making quality theatre within great spaces and organisations. And yet, there seems to be a failure to launch. What do we do? How do we get people to take notice? How do I keep going? These are questions we need to address, on multiple levels. Individuals who are going through this should be reaching out to each other, rather than struggling alone. Companies who have the power to meet with artists, to see their work, please do! If resources are the issue ā we all understand that thereās only so much time, so many staff members, and so many shows one can make time for ā then please acknowledge the artist that has reached out to you with the utmost hope in their heart. Think of it like you would a friend inviting you to a party ā youād either happily accept or politely decline. We are an industry full of friends waiting to meet, and maybe weāll get along and maybe we wonāt, but both outcomes are part of the learning experience.
We need to be kinder to each other. We are surrounded by highly capable, creative individuals. Most people in the theatre industry are not ājustā one thing ā just an actor, just a writer ā but have developed multiple skills in order to be in work and support themselves. And many self-made theatre-makers, while on paper donāt appear to have studied a degree in producing or design or management, have carried out all the tasks that such jobs would require (and theyāve most likely done it to a very high standard, too.)
Itās hard to keep going. We deny ourselves many things ā relationships, time with family and friends, financial security ā because we feel like we have to give it the best possible shot. Iām in a difficult place right now ā I constantly battle with the feeling that I should be further than where I am, and the fear that I will never get there because Iām just not good enough. But I donāt have the option of giving up ā Iāve come too far and invested too much to throw in the towel now. And at the end of the day, I do love making work and sharing it with people: nothing satisfies me more than the potential of art to change peopleās lives, to stay with them long after they have witnessed it.
If I could say one thing to other people in my position, or those who have just started down the road of this precarious industry, it would be this: never forget that this is a job that isnāt solo. Even a solo performer is held up by a team of people working behind the scenes. Itās important to acknowledge the people around you ā both in AND out of the industry. Be kind to your co-workers, but also be kind to your family, friends, and lovers. Life doesnāt stop when you walk into the theatre; the theatre reflects life, and in order for it to do that, you need to keep on living. So live. Love. And then make some kick-ass theatre about it.
Sepy Baghaei is a freelance theatre director and sound designer currently based in London. She trained at the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is the founder of travelling theatre company Suitcase Civilians, with whom she regularly presents work around the world. She has also worked internationally with various companies including Sydney Festival, Tricycle Theatre, Circolombia, Sydney Chamber Opera and Stonecrabs Theatre Company.
Sepy has been involved with The Space on a couple of occasions. For the Spring season in 2016 she presented Wilde Tales, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short stories. More recently she wrote and directed Gypsy Queen for this year’s One Festival.