27 Jun 2018

The freelance art world abuses the artist

I think working in the freelance art world is like being in an abusive relationship. There. I said it. Now to explain.

I think definition is really important when recognising abuse. Two years ago I became cognisant of the fact that I was a victim within an abusive person’s web of toxic relationships. It was a friendship mixed with a professional relationship- they were a kind of mentor to me, someone I looked up to from a young age. I had, by no means, experienced the worst of his behaviour, but it was nonetheless shit.

Knowing others had come off worse, I felt guilty, as if I was trying to jump on to the misery bandwagon. As if my suffering didn’t count. Being able to recognise what had happened to me -to really see it for what it was- took a long time. I could then start to move on, and grow.

I recognise this “I am not worthy of my suffering” attitude in arts professionals. If things are bad, people struggle to talk about it, maybe in fear that someone will see them as unprofessional. “The industry is tough. Do you not have what it takes?” Also, because what we are doing isn’t vital in the same way as doctors are vital, it is easy to feel our complaints have no grounds. “It’s only art, for God’s sake! Get a grip!”

“If you feel that way, why don’t you just leave the arts?” This is an almost exact copy of the question asked about long-term sufferers of abuse. I can only reflect on my own experiences to unpick that. Quite simply, when someone started as not abusive, then becomes that way, if they have been in some way integral to your sense of self, then cutting yourself free from them can feel like self-injury; chopping your own arm off. That is the power of the abuser. They retain some of their charm, and so make you feel as if you are the one being unreasonable.

That is why new initiatives such as theatrehelpline.org are so necessary.

Working as a playwright for seven years (and still “emerging”), I am more than used to being dismissed and disregarded. I didn’t, however, expect the same as a producer, trying to programme the tour for The War On Terry: my first experience of self-producing.

​I was shocked by the lack of care shown by many venues to me as a professional. I had zero sense of entitlement, other than for basic courtesies, such as programmers responding to emails and/or phone messages at some point in human history- especially when they promised as much. “I’m sorry, I’ve been really busy…” Yeah. Me too. Chasing you and a dozen others. I just wasn’t paid for it.

That’s why I find critic Mark Shenton’s commitment to not review shows “for which actors and other participants are not paid”, (The Stage, Feb 18. Full article HERE) extremely problematic. Even if productions are “collaborative, non-hierarchical venture(s)”, as he desires, there has ALWAYS (in my experience) been unpaid work done by someone at some point.

I know some people won’t like hearing a self-willing artist (read: priveleged) complain about their lot. But I will complain anyway. I have no answers. Sometimes talking about the problem is enough to lighten the load a bit: to feel not-so-alone. The first step of this is recognising your pain, and how you have been mistreated. Abuse has various degrees: just because worse things happen doesn’t mean your experience isn’t valid. For change to happen, everyone needs to be open about their experiences.

Small companies such as INFLUENCING MACHINE are at the beckon call of large arts spaces, with their own issues and agendas, meaning even if they treat us mean, we are still keen. We can’t afford to have principles. It is sad to say that, but a reality of the life of touring theatre and its artists. And believe me, I am fully aware of the irony of suffering from mental health issues as a result of trying to get my show about mental health issues programmed.

Hugh Dichmont, writer/producer of The War On Terry