Mind yourself, mind each other, change the world.

At the end of 2018, Theatre Forum carried out a survey on pay and working conditions in the performing arts. The results of the survey were accompanied by testimonials from artists who spoke candidly about their financial struggles. These were well-known theatre and dance artists, artists who make a new show every year, who have won awards for their work and toured internationally. They are so obviously successful in their chosen careers that it’s natural to assume that they would also be making a good living but despite appearances, their livelihoods still felt precarious. The results of the survey proved that this was more than just a feeling. According to the 144 artists and creative practitioners and 97 arts organisations who responded, average weekly earnings in the arts in 2018 were 30% lower that the average across all sectors (€494.98 compared to €740.32). As well as low wages, the precarious nature of the work means a lack of financial stability, as well as difficulty keeping up with PRSI contributions. There’s also the fact that most arts organisations do not make employer pension contributions or provide a top up to state maternity benefit.

ArtistPayPresentation

People don’t go into the arts for the money. Jobs in theatre in particular are not sought after for their earning potential. As a result, theatre artists tend to be resourceful and good at surviving on low wages. When they turn around and say that this is no longer sustainable, it’s a clear indication that we have reached a crisis point in the industry. Not only are wages falling while inflation rises, there is also a lack of opportunity for career advancement. The possibility of getting to a point where you can earn higher wages, or have the security of regular work is becoming more and more distant. Theatre and the arts are not the only careers where career progression is slow and sometimes seems impossible. The idea of spending your entire working life with one company is becoming more and more unlikely but now even permanent jobs are becoming harder to find. Temporary contracts are becoming the norm, as well as freelancers being hired for jobs that 5-10 years ago would have been full-time, in-house roles. A lot of jobs are precarious nowadays, and job insecurity, especially when it is combined with financially insecurity, can really mess with your head.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation is a Buzzfeed essay that went viral last January. In it, Anne Helen Peterson writes about how people now in their twenties and thirties, entered the job market during in a recession which meant they were competing with a larger number of applicants for a reduced number of jobs. She talks about how these workers learnt to be the most efficient worker bees possible, optimising their leisure time so they could do more work and spending their free time “curating” their social media feeds to make themselves standout and be more attractive to future employers. But all that optimisation didn’t have the expected result. Peterson writes;

“Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we are not striving hard enough.”

The essay goes on to describe how this always on, always striving way of life almost inevitably leads to burnout.

Burnout can be described as emotional depletion caused by too much responsibility with too little authority. Burnout feels like the constant fluttery panic that you’ve forgotten something. Burnout makes you forget things. It disturbs your sleep because your brain can’t switch off. It keeps you hopping from task to task because your attention-span is shot to hell. It has you on the verge of tears when someone asked “how are you?”; because you don’t have the words to describe how you are but you know you’re not ok. Burnout is insidious. It creeps in slowly, like the lobster in the pot of water slowly being boiled alive. It’s hard to feel the water heating up because the idea of working all the time has been normalised. It’s worse than normal – it’s held up as the best possible way to get what you want and be successful. After all, everybody else is doing it and they seems fine so if you’re struggling, then you must be the problem.

This is the other thing that makes it really hard to spot burnout – you’re too busy blaming yourself. You’re not working hard enough; if you just get through this week, or this project, or this year, then you’ll catch your breath, get organised and it will all be fine again. Or maybe you need to try harder to have a good work/life balance, maybe you should try meditation or exercise or a self-care bubble bath. But these are just more things to fit into your day and none of it makes you feel better. You’re chasing something that’s impossible to catch, like the hamster on a wheel, running all the time and getting nowhere. It’s not even any fun anymore – the running, the projects, the work. That should be a red flag – when you stop enjoying things. If you’re not getting any joy or job satisfaction when you complete a project, when good news doesn’t feel like something to celebrate because it’s just another thing to stress about; then something has to change. The work isn’t going to get easier, you can’t work hard enough to fix it; you’re not broken, the situation is.

Anne Helen Peterson describes burnout as the base temperature for millennials, that it helps to recognise it but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it because it’s the way that the world is set up. She’s right – burnout can’t be fixed with self-care rituals or a life-hack. We have to change how the world is set up. We need to stop worrying about self-care and start dismantling the system.

BurntLightBulb

Most improvements to labors laws happened as a result of trade union activism. Things that seemed radical at the time like weekends and paid overtime and holiday pay (things that arts workers still don’t always get) happened because of pressure from workers and their unions. Artists often aren’t considered workers in the same way as bus drivers or teachers. They’re told that they are “lucky to do something they love” and are always in danger of having their work treated as a hobby. But artists are workers – they are doing a job and trying to make a living – and they should be entitled to the same rights and conditions as other workers. Art workers also struggle with the same things that cause hardship for other workers, things like the high cost of rent and child-care. As well as working to improving conditions within a workplace, unions also work to improve the conditions of the society we live in.

The only time I was a member of a union was when I worked for a trade union. It wasn’t compulsory but it was encouraged. There were union reps on staff and every now and then an email would go round asking if anyone wanted to join. Joining was easy – you just filled out a form and the subscriptions would be deducted from your salary. There were also semi-regular meetings which you got time off to attend. This meant the union felt active, even though we didn’t have any big disputes while I was there. This also meant I got to see the “business as usual” work of a union. Unions bring people together – nothing bonds people quicker than a common enemy – but at union meetings the bitching about the bosses that happens in quiet corners around the office, start happening around the table with everybody. It’s taken seriously and instead of just venting, you get to decide what action you want to take. There was often discussions around pensions and wages; unions are really helpful to bring money issues into the open. Concerns and complaints can be raised by “the staff” so no one person has to worry about repercussions or drawing attention to themselves. A company responds different to the union. That collective bargaining is pretty radical stuff.

EquityNCFA   TheatreForum

At Theatre Forum’s annual conference in June 2019, there was a panel called Valuing Artists that looked at a lot of these issues. One of the speakers was Ann Russell from Irish Equity. They are a trade union that represents actors, theatre directors, stage and set designers in Ireland and are part of SIPTU. She put the membership at 600 members which I felt was surprisingly low compared to the number of people working in theatre in Ireland but at the same time, Equity doesn’t have a very visible presence here. The workers that Equity represent are often freelance artists so they are not in a workplace where everyone’s a member of the union and joining is just the done things to do. It is harder for freelance artists to get involved in a union but it is worth doing. Equity has had some recent wins on behalf of its members; they got the welfare system for actors extended (often referred to as the artist’s dole) last year and they are also working on getting a three year tax assessments for artists. The strength of a union is in numbers. Equity membership costs less than €2 a week. (That figure is from an Equity spokesperson at another Theatre Forum event in December, I can’t find a breakdown of subscriptions on their website.) Being part of a union gives you somewhere to go with complaints and grievances, whether they are about unfair work practices or bullying and harassment.

Having a strong, collective voice is a vital part of improving working conditions in any sector but it can be hard to find that voice in an industry that’s made up predominately of freelancers. Trade unions and member organisations like Theatre Forum help their members make their voices heard because they speak louder because they speak together. Another organisation that shares this aim is the NCFA.

NCFA (National Campaign for the Arts) is a volunteer-led, grassroots movement that makes the case for the Arts in Ireland. It was formed in 2009, during the last recession and seeks to ensure that the arts are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life. Often this means asking the government for more arts funding and suggesting better ways of distributing that money. In Budget 2020, the arts received just under €193 million. This is still a long way off the pre-recession, 2008 arts budget of €245 million. Of course there are many under-funded services across the state but the choice doesn’t have to be to fund a hospital or fund the arts. Trump’s visit last year cost the tax payer more than €10 million. The Papal visit in 2018 cost €18 million. These are two events only that took place over a couple of days. The Arts Council received €80 million in the most recent budget and that’s for the entire year.

Arts funding is not about giving artists money to make stuff, it’s about enabling artists to share their work with audiences and making the work accessible to as many people as possible. By funding the arts properly, a government not only demonstrates that it believes art is important, it also shows that it values its citizens and believes they deserve to have art in their lives. Supporting artists is important because art is a valuable, necessary part of life. We need stories and new ways of seeing things. Art is a way of keeping the darkness at bay. It can be a place of refuge when you are feeling burntout and empty. The value and importance of art is what the NCFA is trying to get across to the government. You can find out how to help on their website. You don’t have to work in the arts to support the NCFA, you just have to think that art is valuable. They are currently running a survey to find out what is most important to people when it comes to the arts. You can fill that out here and you can also sign up to help campaign in the upcoming General Election and make sure the arts is on the political agenda.

If you're up for helping out with the NCFA campaign in your local area, email us at info@ncfa.ie right now with your contact details and which constituency you live and vote in, and we'll get back to you very soon

Getting involved in organisations like NCFA is a good way to help bring about change but it can have more immediate benefits as well. On the same Valuing Artists panel at the Theatre Forum conference in Wexford, theatre director and NCFA steering committee member Eoghan Carrick said that getting involved with the NCFA was beneficial for his mental health because it meant he felt better informed about what was being done or not being done. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Generally, the more in control of your life you feel, the happier you are. Getting informed and involved helps you take some control. It’s the opposite of the feeling of too little authority that contributes to burnout.

The way the world of work is currently set up is not good for us. Work isn’t meant to feel like an endless slog that drains the joy from every other aspect of your life. Hoping that it will get easier or that you’ll get better at coping isn’t going to work. If you’re feeling burnt-out, recognise it, name it and try not to blame yourself. You’re not the one that’s broken. At the same time, try not to indulge in burnout behaviour or expect it from others. Take time away from work, don’t say yes to too many tasks, get a hobby. It can be an indulgence because being busy feels good, as Emilie Pine articulates beautifully in her article about the pleasure of overworking – When Burnout Becomes a Badge of Honour. This is another reason why it’s hard to make changes on your own and why we need to change the system that encourages and rewards this destructive behaviour. So mind yourself but also join a union, get involved politically and help create the world you want to live in.

"We close to return with more energy/Cerramos para volver con + energia"
A sign outside a restaurant in Spain. May we all take a break so we can return with more energy.

Five Favourite Newsletters

Newsletters, Tiny Letters, SubStacks, whatever you want to call them, I love getting these updates from people’s lives in my inbox. I’ve always loved email. I subscribed to so many mailing lists in the pre-social media days of the internet that email was how I first got to know people online. Email is still the first thing I open when I sit down at my computer.

A good newsletter can feel like a great secret and it feels a little bit odd to be talking about my favourites out in public like this. Maybe it’s because they are sent directly to me and that makes them seem private and personal, or maybe because they remind me of the early days of online journals when every newly discovered site felt like it belonged to me alone. But I like sharing the things I love, and I can console myself with the fact that very few people read this blog, so they will remain mostly secret!

These are five (plus one bonus one) of my favourite free newsletters.

1. Patelagrams
Vinay Patel is a screenwriter and playwright who sends out a weekly newsletter that’s mostly about his writing life and a little bit about his cats. I really enjoy reading about how writers write and he also writes well about the things he’s seen on stage and screen. He writes for theatre and tv and I like reading about the differences between the two processes, and about the next stage, after the thing is written and handed over to the directors, designers, actors, etc to become something more than words on the page. The newsletter provides a good insight into the day-to-day life of a busy, working writer who is juggling lots of things – bits of teaching and mentoring, seeing work performed, meetings, writing deadlines – and what that looks like, or more accurately, what it feels like from the inside.

2. The collected ahp
Anne Helen Peterson wrote one of my favourite essays this year – How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation and she also writes this regular newsletter. I really enjoy her writing so I’d probably read it no matter what she was writing about. As it happens, she is currently writing a book on burn-out and her newsletters are often about her own experience/recovery, which is interesting to me. She also includes a great selection of other things worth reading around the internet.

3. Jimsy Jampots
Amy Jones was a writer for The Pool until it folded last year and I subscribed to her Tiny Letter because of her writing there. She used to send out a regular newsletter that I looked forward to every Thursday. I don’t think she ever missed a week! The newsletters are less regular now but they haven’t stopped and I still enjoy them when they appear in my inbox. The style is a personal “what I think” section, some recommended reading from around the internet and also a curated list of things to buy, from dresses to notebooks, novels and necklaces. I have bought things receommended by Amy on more than one occasion but I also just really enjoy her writing.
She has also written a book called To Do Lists and Other Debacles.

4. That’s What She Said
Anne T Donahue’s is one of the first newsletters I subscribed to and still one of my favourites. She has a wonderful, chatty, informal style which reminds me of old-school blog posts. She tells you where she’s writing from and what’s she’s been up to, but also writes a lot about trying to figure out life and is very frank and open about how difficult that can be. She sometimes answers readers’ letters, Agony Aunt style, and every newsletter includes pet peeves and sources of joy provided by subscribers. I often feel like I have a better understanding of the world after I read her newsletters. This feeling is often fleeting, but I enjoy it while it lasts!
Anne also has a book out – Nobody Cares.

5. Can’t complain
Emily Gould is a writer living in New York with her husband and two small boys. I read her novel Friendship a few years ago and signed up for the newsletter because I like her writing. They are occasional treats that give me a glimpse into a life that is very different to my own and that’s why I like them. There was one a few months ago that just gave me such a rush of nostalgia for the descriptive, serious blogs I used to read a lot of in the late 90s/early 00s. She also often includes recipes.

Bonus – Criticism and Love
These were a series of critical essays written with love by Maddy Costa and Andy Field. They were dense, nerdy writing about (mostly) British theatre makers. There are no new essays coming, for now, but the archive is still online.They remind me of things I read in college when we were often taught about theatre practioneers we would never get to see and that we could only experience through someone else’s description. I like reading about theatre and I like seeing how other people write about it. Each essay is an indept look at the work of one company or indivdual. I think it’s a lovely thing to do for theatre makers, to collect their work in this way and share it with others. (The theatre makers might not agree.)

Tana French in conversation

In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.

Tana French is an award-winning, best-selling Irish crime writer. In 2007, her debut novel In The Woods was published to critical acclaim and became an award-winning best seller. I wasn’t aware of her books until 2012 when I was introduced to her writing by an American friend. French’s novels have spent many weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists and is maybe better known in the US than she is here.

The friend who told me about Tana French was a fellow drama student in Galway. At the end of the school year, when she was getting ready to head back to the States, she mentioned that one of her favourite authors had a new book out that she planned to buy for the flight home. She was saving this book and looking forward to enjoying it during the long trip. A few weeks later I moved home and was stuck in that mild post-graduation depression/identity-crisis when you’re not a student anymore but you haven’t figured out what the next stage of your life looks like yet. I remembered my friend’s enthusiasm for an Irish author I’d never heard of and went looking for Tana French in the library. I found her first novel In The Woods and promptly did nothing but read it for the next few days. I loved it. I kept going, working my way through her books and recommending them to anyone who asked.

Tana French’s crime fiction almost always involves a murder that is investigated by the Dublin Murder Squad. Her books are brilliant whodunits but what makes them so captivating are her characters. French was an actress before she was a writer and she has a wonderful skill of inhabiting characters and bringing them to life. Although her books are all based around the Murder Squad, the main character and narrator of each book is different.

In Smock Alley, she talked about her decision not to write a traditional series centred about a single detective because putting a different character at the centre of each book, allowed her to encounter that character at a major turning point in their lives or working on a case that had a special significance to the character. She felt that this would be hard to do if she always had the same protagonist. One person’s life can only sustain so many major turning points. It also makes for a much more interesting and revelatory reading experience. Her characters might not always be the self-reflective sort, but as a writer she skillfully reveals things about the way they see themselves over the course of the book.

TFrench

Listening to French talk about her work, it’s clear that the characters are always central to the story. She is very articulate and passionate in the way that she talks about her work. One of the most fascinating things I find about her writing process is that she doesn’t plan; she says she doesn’t do any major plotting, she just writes blind. I find this impressive because her books are tightly plotted, as any mystery or crime novel has to be. She says she achieves this by doing lots and lots of rewrites.

Tana French started writing when she got an idea for a story while working part-time at an archaeological dig. She was a jobbing-actor at the time and this was a day-job between acting roles. She realised that she was serious about the book when she started turning down acting work so she could focus on writing her own story instead. That book became In The Woods. Comparing writing to acting, she says that she loves writing because she doesn’t have to wait for someone to give her a job, she can just do it herself. She is very enthusiastic about writing for a living, while still acknowledging that there comes a difficult point in every book when she wants to quit and go back to being a broke actor.

She still has an affinity with actors and the difficulties that they face finding work. This came across when she talked about the upcoming tv adaptation of her first two novels. She seemed genuinely delighted that the show was providing work for Irish actors. The show, Dublin Murders, stars Killian Scott and Sarah Greene, and is written by Sarah Phelps who has a couple of very good Agatha Christie tv adaptations under her belt. (And There Was None and The Witness for the Prosecution.) French said that she decided not to have anything to do with the tv adaptation when it became clear that it was not going to be a straight translation of the books – the 8-part tv series will feature the investigations from In The Woods and The Likeness – and decided to let it be a thing on it’s own.

She also talked about her most recent novel The Wych Elm which is a departure from the previous books because it is not set within the Dublin Murder Squad. Instead it follows Toby, a privileged young man who has been lucky all his life, until one night when he is the victim of a violent crime. Toby is young, male and good looking. He’s charming and intelligent and comes from an upper middle-class background. He’s not a bad guy but he has trouble understanding that not everybody’s life is as charmed or easy as his. He’s a fascinating character. During the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked a question about a writer’s right to inhabit another gender and to say less than flattering things about that gender. I was very impressed with French’s response as she side-stepped the veiled attack and instead focused on the fact that Toby’s privileges, and by extension his character and short-comings, are only partly about gender, they are much more about class. She said that nobody really wants to talk about that though.

As well as being character-driven, French’s novels also have a very strong sense of place. She talked about her nomadic childhood, that moving around a lot made her feel a bit of an outsider, but was good training for a novelist. She came to Dublin for college in the 1990s and since then it has become her home. She spoke movingly about finding a home in Dublin after moving around so much. Her affection for Dublin and for that feeling of belonging came across strongly in the interview and is also in her fiction. Her characters are very much of the places they’re from. She also creates beautiful buildings in her fiction such as the shared house in The Likeness, the Ivy House in The Wych Elm or the school in The Secret Place. She seems grateful for having a place that feels like home, that she knows so well, and the beautifully created places are almost a thank you to Dublin for giving her that. The books are so rooted in Dublin and Ireland. Despite her international readership her characters tend to speak Hiberno-English. They always feel very Irish and that clear sense of place contributes to the enjoyment I get from her books.

Throughout the interview gives the impression of being a very dedicated, hard-working nerd. She is enthusiastic about her work and clearly enjoys it but it also feels like she knows how lucky she is to get to do it and doesn’t want to mess that up. She does lots of research and lots of rewrites. She wants each book to be different from the last, for her own sake as well as the readers. This dedication to her craft comes across in her writing – as a reader, you feel like you’re in safe hands within her pages.

She plans to continue to challenge herself and wants to write a short book next, something like Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, just to see if she can tell a story in that sort of condensed way. I wish her every success, and I look forward to reading her next book, no matter what size it is!

7 ways to start preparing for the next recession now

Based on nothing more than a hunch, I think there’s another recession coming. A hunch, and the fact that stock markets are plummeting, the US is becoming increasingly unstable and if the UK succeed in crashing out of the EU, they are going to take us down with them. At home, the soaring rents and house prices aren’t sustainable – can’t be sustainable – and in the boom and bust cycle which we seem cursed to repeat, that means a recession is on it’s way.

Nearly €2.5bn wiped off Irish stocks amid global slump
From the Irish Times on Dec 6th 2018

After seeing this terrifying headline early this month, I started thinking about what I could do to prepare for this inevitable recession. I always feel better when I have a plan.

My plan does make some big assumptions. It buys into the narrative that there’s more money sloshing around right now than there was 5-10 years ago. I know this isn’t true for everyone. There are over 10,000 homeless people in Ireland. There are children growing up in hotel rooms. Over 15% of the population is living under the poverty line and the income gap is growing all the time. People are working good jobs and still broke because their salary is being eaten up by rent.

This silly listicle will not be relevant to a lot of people and I’m sorry about that. A better way to prepare for a recession would be for the government to take the Apple tax (and the Google tax, and the Facebook tax) and invest it in social housing and other public services. I can’t make that happen so here are some things to do instead.

1. Get out of debt.
Obvious one first. Pay off your loans, clear your credit card, get out of your overdraft. If you find yourself penniless and out of work, you don’t want to owe the bank anything. You’ll miss repayments and the interest will just keep clocking up. Clearing debt is a very boring use of money but if you are lucky enough to have a bit of extra cash now, invest it in becoming debt-free as soon as possible.

This also means that if you have a future financial emergency, those lines of credit will be available to you and might help you ride out the recession.

2. Save.
Another boring, practical piece of advice – start saving. Preferably with a credit union because it’s easier to borrow from them. Set up a savings account and a weekly (or monthly) direct debit into it. Even if it’s only for a small amount, some savings are better than none and being a regular saver looks good when you go looking for a loan. I also like the credit union because it’s hard to get at the money. There’s no cards or electronic transfers, you have to physically go into the building. That helps my savings grow!

3. Learn to cook
The cheapest way to eat well is to cook for yourself. It doesn’t have to be fancy just learn how to make the thing you like. The BBC Good Food website has lots of easy recipes with clear instructions. (Personally I really like this two-step recipe for chicken, sweet potato and coconut curry.) Cooking well isn’t hard but it takes a bit of practice. Better to make your mistakes when you can afford to, so if the meal is completely inedible there’s a pizza in the freezer you can have instead.

Inviting friends over for dinner is also a good way to enhance your social life during a recession when nobody can afford to go out. Finally, as well as being able to feed yourself and others, being able to spend time preparing good grub is a great when you have too much time on your hands, because of unemployment or under-employment.

4. Invest in clothes that last, especially shoes/boots/coats.
If you can afford it, spend money on good quality shoes and coats that will see you through a few winters. This is good advice from a budgetary and environmental point of view but also because you find yourself walking more in a recession and it’s good to have things that keep you warm and dry.

5. Join the library! All those books!
Libraries are great. Not only are they full of books that you can take away for free, they are also warm places you can go and use the internet without spending any money. You’ll also be grateful for their weird collection of DVDs when you have to cancel your Netflix subscription and can’t afford to go to the cinema. You could argue that you don’t need to join a library now, but having lots of members help libraries stay open and (I imagine) help them argue for budget increases, so by joining today you can help make sure they’re still there when you need them. Also did I mention the free books?

Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times, part of Patrick Freyne's article on the Dublin Central Library in the Ilac Centre.
Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times, part of Patrick Freyne’s article on the Dublin Central Library in the Ilac Centre.

6. Vote for anti-capitalists.
I don’t know if the general election is going to happen before or after the recession hits but when it does, you should vote with the recession in mind. We need a government who doesn’t always take the side of the property developers or the landlords or the banks. We need more tenants and less landlords in the Dáil. We need more socialists who will increase investment in public services. We need people who will put an end to the boom and bust cycles.

Leo Varankar described himself as “the CEO of the organisation” on the Late Late Show recently. CEOs tend to be selfish, power-mad psychopaths and we shouldn’t let them be in charge anymore. We need a leader who is less like a CEO and more like a caretaker. Someone who looks after the country and has it’s best interests at heart, someone who identifies where cuts can be made and also where we need to invest. Someone who understands that they don’t own the country, they’re just looking after the place for bit. Please vote for someone like that, when the time comes!

7. Look on the bright side…
…a recession might be the only thing that will bring down our carbon emissions. The last recession really helped with that but they started climbing again as soon as the economy started to recover. Yes, this is clutching at straws and it is a fairly bleak bright side but we were identified as the worst offender in the EU for carbon emission last week, which is another super bleak and depressing headline, so I’ll take any bright side I can find. We need a few more politicians who give a shit about global warming in the next Dáil as well.