In the same way I’m open about my boobs because they’re small I’m open about my bank balance because it’s smaller.
I’ve been wanting to write a post on money for a little while now. It tops the list of things most people don’t like talking about (except maybe dandruff?) and people are always so much happier when things are out in the open, right?
(By the way – I think I might be getting cystitis.)
More specifically I’ve wanted to write about the old money situ when you work in the arts – also known as “where bank balances go to die.” In the least boring way possible though because (just in case you thought it might be) this isn’t the Financial Times. This is for everyone else who imagines “earning a stable income” as finally being able to shop in All Saints without worrying that all the leather tassels are judging you.
When you tell someone that you’re embarking on a career in theatre you’re not usually short of warnings that it’s going to be really hard (or in the words of my grandparents – “oh no, what a shame, that’s the opposite of medicine.”) What I’ve learned in my four and a bit years out of university and knee-deep into the world of theatre is that if you can’t see the funny side of that time a pot noodle was out of your price range, it is just really sad.
The only people who get it are people doing the same thing. So hold onto them tight. Like little lobsters with big dreams.
There have been real ups and real downs for me and admittedly at the lowest points I’ve doubted whether chasing some far-off dream is even crazier than the time I tried to flirt with a man in German when I can’t speak German. It took stepping away from everything to realise it but ultimately theatre is a part of me and I can’t not do it. I cant be happy any other way. There’s no room for compromise. So how to make it work?
Since starting from scratch two years ago, to gain some much-needed perspective, I’ve changed my attitude towards everything. Goals, relationships, finances, avocado, you name it. I’m less stressed, angry, anxious and frustrated than I was at the worst of times and more optimistic and imaginative. Now I find paying my bills on time hilarious and thrilling as opposed to tragic.
Which is why I’m writing about this now, and not a year ago. I’m convinced a good sense of humour is the only way to make sense of everything but it’s taken some time to arrive here.
Everyone has different ways of dealing with money. What we all have in common is shared passion and immense dedication. So this is a high-five to everyone out there trying to make a living from doing what you love – wondering if it should really be as hard as this. And another high-five to everyone who took the sensible route and avoided a humanities degree and lives comfortably in a house with a dog and a high-tech potato masher. You wise owls.
So – what have I learned?
When you’re self-employed, every day is like a game of Monopoly. But the banker is biased and likes to give 90% of all opportunities to white middle-class men. The real life equivalent of ending up in jail is finding yourself trapped in Pret a Manger drawing up a list of the lengths you’d go to for a salmon sandwich.
But also every day is mufti day and you can wear converses to work – so swings and roundabouts?
The funny thing about theatre is this culture of privilege coming head to head with a very niche culture of being (or just feeling) really poor. You’re meeting people from all sorts of different backgrounds but the funny thing about artists, and to an extent Londoners, is that everyone’s making a living out of pretending so you never know what is real or not. We live in a city full of people complaining about having no money whilst drinking expensive gin at the top of skyscrapers. It’s very confusing and makes it harder to see the parameters, the sign posts of where you’re going and how you’re getting there.
You must be careful not to get too annoyed at the people who talk of being poor when you know for a fact that their parents bought them a flat in Covent Garden to be “closer to all the opportunities.” Let them do their thing, you do yours. See, poverty is fashionable in the arts – it’s cool to eat cereal for dinner or to dress like you found your clothes in a bin in Lewisham, because it gives you, and your art, integrity. And it will sound better in your autobiography than that time you struggled to park your jet outside the Royal Court.
Theatre ain’t the place for authenticity. We’re all living in a world of delusion. We might as well join the party.
The best part of working in the arts is that creativity binds you to other people more than anything else – we’re all in it together. Two summers ago I was working twelve hour days, seven days a week, and still struggled to pay my rent. But so was everyone else. Once we spent an entire week researching for a pub quiz because we needed to win to…well, buy things. We won. In this city, anything is impossible, you just have to think outside the box and have really good general knowledge.
There will always be a low point. If you’re me, there will be several. My time of real crisis – even worse than the time I had to choose whether it was more important to buy tampons or lunch – was when someone told me I’d never get hired as a secret agent because my overdraft shows great irresponsibility. It hurt – not only because my back-up plan if I fail as a writer is to be a spy – but also because I don’t see myself as irresponsible. I’ve never missed a month’s rent. I’ve always watered my cactus. When I was earning £150 a week I never bailed on my friends because of money ever. It’s just very hard to not go into your overdraft when you live in zone two and get paid under minimum wage. Surely a spy should know that?
More often than not I’ve worked for no money. I worked my way through university because my student loan didn’t cover my rent and interned at every other opportunity – I was hungry, excited, energised, driven. Until I wasn’t. It’s really difficult to find the balance between being determined enough to carry on but also taking time away to consider whether you’re doing things in the best way. But I’ve learned the hardest times are the most useful times because they might just point you in a different direction, a better direction.
It’s okay to learn how to survive on -£50 a week, to work every day and every night to make it, to live off peanut butter and raw carrots. Providing you are happy, healthy, and have a sense of self-worth. For a long time I convinced myself that working non-stop and earning no money meant that all that grind, dedication, full-blown awareness of what it takes, was the reason I was going to make it. It was self-punishment in a way, for not taking an easy route, and frolicking in the struggle in the hope of the best possible outcome.
Actually what happened though is in the end I fell into a big, messy, anxious, sleepless, hungry puddle and was no use to anyone. It wasn’t the lack of sleep that got me. It wasn’t (in theory) the lack of cash. It was a feeling that I wasn’t worth anything. That my journey wasn’t leading anywhere. That – actually – I should be getting paid enough to live comfortably – after all this time. But by this point I’d lost a fair bit of rationale, probably because you shouldn’t eat too much peanut butter – we all know that – and instead of thinking logically I just left everything and started over.
It’s taken two years to build myself back up – to have the confidence to work out what I actually want to do in this crazy world, to map out what makes me fulfilled creatively but also to learn that I need some sense of routine and stability to keep me sane. I’ve learned to set my own boundaries now. I know what I need, what I want, what I’m worth. Despite now having a full-time, salaried job in theatre, I’m not yet financially comfortable, because I’m still bailing myself out from my freelance days and also what even is comfortable, except, of course, not being afraid of All Saints?
I have no real savings. If I’ve resisted the urge to buy multiple croissants, one month every now and then there will be a little holiday fund happening. Sometimes people will make you feel guilty about not having a rainy day insurance policy – right now I’m focussing on more important things like just how great it feels to type the word ‘peppermint.’ Whilst I could be persuaded to see a marker of success as being able to afford coconut water – or a car – it’s not top of the list. First I want to stage my play. Nowadays most of my expendable income either goes on nicer toilet roll and shampoo that doesn’t bring me up in a rash. If I’m feeling particularly flush I’ll treat myself to some posh antihistamines.
There will never not be financial pressure when you’re choosing to make a living from something that only the lucky ones make any decent money from. Living with Ed has changed things – he earns a lot more than me, wants to travel the world with me, and he’s witnessed what it’s like when I fall apart. He’s my support system in the best possible way but our dreams don’t always line up. We want to do a trip to Indonesia next year and so right now I’m juggling in my head how to save for flights that ideally I need to buy tomorrow and how not to die of a tropical disease before I’m famous.
At some point – if I really want to write my own material full-time – I might have to go freelance again. And that’s a scary prospect. Even if it is tax-free. But I’m happy. These days – for the first time in a really long time I’m looking after myself. And it’s paying off. I’d also take sneaking cans of G&T into the stalls over posh cocktails in skyscrapers any day. I’ve learned that to be successful you have to give your all and that’s fine by me. So long as it gives you something back, enough to replenish you. The day it doesn’t – that’s when I’m becoming a spy. Just watch me.