The Condescension of “Emerging Artist”

If you’re on social media at all (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re on social media), you’ll have been made aware of the cool $25 000 RBC has scraped together (presumably they ran a bake sale) for “emerging artists,” and we were all invited to vote for which Canadian art organization we wanted to be given the money.

Something in that last sentence seems strange, and it’s not my syntax. We have 1) RBC’s Emerging Artist Project with 2) $25 000 to allocate to “emerging artists,” so we must vote for 3) a major (national/international) organization to receive the money so they in turn can 4) decide what constitutes an “emerging artist,” and 5) which of these are worthy of money, 6) exactly how much money they’re worthy of, and 7) which activities are acceptable for them to be spending money on.

There are some several steps too many in this scheme, and not, as far as I can tell, for any good reason. And the First Principles implicit in the logic belie much more sinister attitudes about artists, power, and hierarchy in Canada. Why on earth Canadian Stage, TIFF, the National Ballet, the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Walk of Fame, and the Canada Art Foundation are necessary middlemen for a Project supposedly not designed for them is rather intensely mysterious. Still more weird is RBC’s mandate for the Project – “Bridging the gap between emerging and established” (emphasis de mois). What is this gap, and between which two precipices does it supposedly exist?

At a relatively recent point in the arts community, we decided that not all artists were the same, and certainly shouldn’t be treated the same (actually, we decided this long, long ago, when we decided that people of colour, LGBT, and artists with disabilities should be given manifestly fewer opportunities than the rest of us, but I leave those arguments to be made by people more qualified than I). We decided that there were two kinds of artists. What distinguishes these two kinds of artists is a little unclear, but the border between them is utterly impermeable, at least in one direction. We decided that one of these kinds  of artists – the Emerging Artists  – wasn’t qualified to have their work produced on major stages, and certainly couldn’t be trusted with the helming of a production in a civic, national, or regional theatre. These artists needed years – even decades – of “workshopping,” “development,” “training,” and “mentorship” before they could reasonably be expected to execute their craft with competency. After all, the stakes are high in this profession; it is crucial to keep as much sub-par theatre off our stages as possible.

Fortunately for the theatre-going public, there was a standard being kept, a level of quality carefully maintained by the second group of artists, the Established Artists. These were artists whose names you’d actually heard before; they had positions in high places at major theatres, they had a large body of work, and some of them had even won awards. The Established Artists never made bad theatre – or they did, but these were outliers, the outcomes of risk-taking or personal trauma, unlike the bad theatre of the Emerging Artists, which was a product of their inexperience. The Established Artists knew what good theatre looked like, and every once in a while, they would carefully select an Emerging Artist who most nearly matched that standard to bring into their fold (providing that Emerging Artist had already won at least a Dora or two). And so it went, from then till now.

There, now that I’ve got that out of my system, we can all take a Kleenex and wipe away the sarcasm dripping down our computer screens. I assure you, this is not umbrage for umbrage’s sake, nor is it the fairly typical young-artist-thumbing-the-nose-at-the-establishment thing (not to say that our community couldn’t use a few more young artists who are willing to thumb their noses at the establishment). There are real problems that come with bifurcating the community into “established” and “emerging,” and they go way beyond just who gets what money, when. Some labels are useful, and some are not, but all labels serve to organize and define our thinking. As Wittgenstein put it: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Let’s start with definitions: what do the terms “emerging” and “established” signify? For one thing, we know they have nothing to do with age; an artist beginning her work in her fifties would still be considered “emerging.” The Canada Council for the Arts describes “emerging” artists as “companies or ad hoc groups where the principal members have up to 10 years of professional experience.” So for our largest granting organization, roughly a decade of “professional experience” (which begs all kinds of questions not only about what “professional” experience is, but why this is the only kind of experience that matters) is required before an artist can consider herself “emerged.” This may not mean that she is “established.”

In fact, the word “established” is much less easy to define. The CCA offers no help at all, and seems to imply that Established Artists are just those artists which are not “emerging.” Established in what sense, to whom? By 10 years of professional experience, must these be 10 consecutive years? What if an actor doesn’t work for a year, which frequently happens, through no fault of her own? Must she deduct this from her tally? Do the 10 years work like Equity or ACTRA credits – can we claim them only when we’ve been given some “professional experience” (i.e., been hired by an Established Artist?) Or is it enough to simply live through them?

(I could really go on in this vein – the 10 years thing so just so transparently arbitrary and stupid and meaningless and patronizing. How this isn’t obvious to the higher-ups at the CCA is quite beyond me.)

Of course, the bigger question is not how these labels relate to stages of one’s career (as if theatre careers had “stages” in any meaningful sense, but nevermind…), but how they serve as descriptions of an artists’ work. I would imagine few would claim that an Emerging Artist’s work is worse than an Established Artist’s work by definition; but institutionally that is exactly how it is treated.

As a case study, let’s take a look at playwright/director Jordan Tannahill, whose work I greatly admire. Mr. Tannahill is 26 years old, and the recent recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Drama, of which I believe he was well-deserving.  Mr. Tannahill is also literally the posterchild for RBC’s Emerging Artist Project. On the website, Mr. Tannahill is photographed and quoted:

“Being accepted into RBC’s BASH Emerging Director’s Program was like finding a Willy Wonka gold ticket. It was an all-access pass to some of Canada’s preeminent theatrical minds and performance experiences. It provided me with insight into the inner-workings of major Canadian theatres and the unique challenges facing mainstage directors. Most importantly, it provided me with a vision of how I see myself growing as an artist in the next five, ten years.”

I don’t doubt his sincerity – I’m sure it was a rich and rewarding experience, getting to work with some of the great minds at Canadian Stage. My point is only this: it would have been a rich and rewarding experience for anyone. Mr. Tannahill’s then-status as an “emerging artist” did not mean he required that experience; it does not mean that there was anything deficient about his work before he was accepted into the program that the program somehow corrected or improved. And now that he has won the Governor General’s Award – and therefore become, I think you’ll agree, “established” – it doesn’t mean that his plays will be any better, or that they were any worse before.

So why, then, did Canadian Stage feel the best use of its resources was to provide Mr. Tannahill with a “learning experience”? Why indeed does the Tarragon Theatre do the same thing, with its playwriting contests and the Urjo Kareda Residency? The show Mr. Tannahill developed was Concord Floral, which just received an acclaimed run at the Theatre Centre. If Canadian Stage had confidence in his abilities, why didn’t they just produce his show? Why the need to “develop” a “workshop production”? Was Concord Floral much worse than the other shows in the season? And if so, by what metric? What were its deficits in terms of resources? Is there any reason for us to expect that the show wouldn’t have been ready for a mainstage production if it were given the resources of one?

Of course, had Canadian Stage done this, and Concord Floral not been a success, it would have been chalked up to Mr. Tannahill’s “inexperience” and (ugh…) “youth.” “He wasn’t ready for a major production,” they would have said (as Richard Ouzounian once said about a certain other “emerging” artist).

But the double standard here is totally unfair. When a production by an “established” artist fails to sell, or receives poor reviews, nobody claims that the show should have instead received a “workshop” production, or been “developed” further, or that the director “wasn’t ready.” They simple say it didn’t work for them and move on with their lives, and will still probably see the next show that director puts on (which she will probably put on at the same theatre, next season).

(NB.: this is not intended as a criticism of individuals. I am a great fan of Canadian Stage, and Mr. Jocelyn has been extremely supportive and willing to engage with my work, particularly the Fringe production of my play The Hystericon. But how individuals think and feel and how institutions operate are, it must be said, very different things.)

So why does RBC think that the best way to support “emerging” artists is to give money to “established” companies? How does this make any sense at all, unless you assume it’s because “emerging” artists are a priori less talented and capable as art-makers. And if that’s the premise behind these attitudes and funding structures, then I call bullshit on that. There is zero reason a theatre-maker putting on her first play is less capable than a Stratford veteran. And the way I know that is that I’ve seen both.

To be clear, it’s not that I have any problem with education, training, or mentorship per se. It’s that when we assume that these things are necessary for quality theatre-making, we reinforce a power structure which requires that newer artists adhere to the standards set for them by their Elders. After all, what can one reasonably expect to learn from watching Richard Rose direct except how to direct like Richard Rose? There’s nothing wrong with how Richard Rose directs, but who’s to say there’s anything  wrong with how the person watching him direct directs?

And like so much else – there is no equivalent to this mentality in other art forms. Could you imagine if Bob Dylan had to spend ten fucking years shadowing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott before Columbia Records decided he was “ready” to put out an album? Or if a novelist had to ghostwrite for a Pulitzer-winner for ten years before Little, Brown decided to publish her book?

There are other things at stake in all of this. Recently, Good Old Neon participated in a pre-show tea at World Stage, before the opening of Jordan Tannahill’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid.  The other participant was Laura Levin, performance theorist and editor of the Canadian Theatre Review. Laura kept referring to an “alternative theatre,” which is not a term I’d ever heard before; clearly what she was referring to was what most of us call “indie theatre.” When I brought up this difference in terminology, she remarked, “Well isn’t that interesting?”

It is interesting. Not much of the indie theatre I’ve seen offers itself as an alternative to a mainstream aesthetic, but rather as an imitation or emulation of it. How could it be otherwise, when a requirement for your talent as a theatre artist is that you graduate from the right schools, receive the right kinds of mentorship from the right kinds of people, and put on the right kinds of plays? When the most successful indie productions are those which most successfully resemble mainstream productions, what possible incentive is there to experiment, take a risk, fail hard?

Again, again, this is not a criticism of those productions. I have no problem with mainstream aesthetics – sometimes I like mainstream aesthetic, sometimes I do mainstream aesthetic. But I don’t want that to be all there is, and I don’t want productions which aren’t that to be dismissed, and the artists which make them to be ignored.

Our theatrical culture is extremely actor-centred; by now, this is a cliché of the Canadian theatre. Few would deny that this isn’t, in some ways, very good. But in others, it becomes deeply problematic – for one thing, the overwhelming focus on “actor training” and “theatre school” puts significant limits on the range of performance styles and attitudes towards text, production, and direction which obtain in “professional” world. I know – I went to theatre school. And I was hugely grateful for it and learned a great deal. I wouldn’t deny that there are immense benefits to training; nobody would.

But I also don’t have the hubris to pretend that, like all systematized education, there aren’t flaws in the design of theatre schools. They teach, really, one kind of approach to performance, and only a dabbling of others; most theatre schools at least in Ontario (with, I hear, the possible exception of the Humber program) are predominantly focused on a traditional canon of Western, text-based performance styles. There’s wiggle room, of course, in particular classrooms and under particular teachers, and there is nothing at all wrong with learning this kind technique, but it does mean that one is by definition excluded from alternatives. After all, a welder welds the way he was taught to weld. By separating actors into “emerging” and “professional,” “trained” and “amateur,” we place implicit value judgements on certain performance styles over others, value judgements which are extremely hard to shake once they’ve been instilled in you. I know, because I’ve been struggling with them myself in my own work.

This culture of mentorship, training, development – of constantly relying on “established” artists to provide one with credibility, validation, respect – it is extremely harmful to artistic experimentation. Once we accept that there is such a thing as “good theatre” somewhere out there, beyond the crystalline spheres, we limit ourselves to repeating the same techniques in order to achieve the same aesthetic standards. But these standards are arbitrary. And what’s more, we all know that.

We must reject the labels “emerging” and “established.” They are arbitrary, condescending, and empty. They divide us when we should be united. They stunt us when we should be cultivated.

There is absolutely no reason that a major theatre company shouldn’t produce a playwright’s first script – without years of in-house dramaturgy. There is no reason to assume a director is “ready” or “worthy” to helm a major production simply because she’s only done Fringe shows. There is no reason to believe an actor who hasn’t won a bloody award and whose name you’ve never heard isn’t talented enough to play the lead in a regional theatre. These are arbitrary rules designed to maintain a status quo. And if you’re the sort who rolls your eyes at a Fringe show because of a missed lighting cue – well, let’s give a Stratford production only three hours for tech time, and let’s see how many cues get missed. We’re comparing productions which are not on even grounds and judging the one to be inferior. That is the very definition of privilege.

And for those of us who do get labelled “emerging artists,” we have to keep reminding ourselves – no one more so than I – that the goal of our work is not just to impress those with money and power in our industry. None of us got into this for fame or wealth (certainly not). The people we so casually refer to  as “gatekeepers” won’t treat us as equals until we treat them as equals.

…Oh god, what have I written. Will I ever work in this town again?

6 Comments The Condescension of “Emerging Artist”

  1. Daniel Karasik

    Hey Alexander. I like your arguments about the “graduated licensing” system of opportunities for new artists, with all the condescension implied in it. I’ve made them myself sometimes. The problem, I find, is that they’re pretty purely formal. They don’t really speak to the content of the work. As in: have you actually seen/read a lot of work by playwrights (say) in their early- to mid-20s that you feel deserves a mainstream platform? That has the artistic and intellectual merit, the insight and craft to hold its own in front of a broad, educated audience? I don’t see much work that fits that description *on large theatres’ seasons*, let alone at the Fringe. And sure, there are injustices in theatres’ programming, excellent but difficult plays that stay consigned to the margins of the indie festivals (not just plays by so-called emerging writers: I’m thinking of Anton Piatigorsky’s BREATH IN BETWEEN at SummerWorks 2012, e.g.), but I don’t think there’s even anecdotal evidence of a mass of overlooked great writing by young playwrights in this country. Sometimes, inevitably, it takes time for people to notice the work when it’s good. Sometimes — often, I think; has certainly been true in my own case — the work itself needs to catch up to its aspirations. You cite Jordan Tannahill, but he’s maybe the single most non-representative example in the country. He’s unprecedented in a lot of ways; you’d have to go back to Judith Thompson to find a theatre writer in Canada whose work was so celebrated when the artist was so young. Michael Healey, Jason Sherman, Hannah Moscovitch, Morris Panych, Daniel MacIvor, et al. were all older, at least a bit; so were Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill and Ibsen and Shakespeare. It goes without saying, but apprenticeship isn’t a Canadian cultural invention. (And JT’s CONCORD FLORAL wasn’t written at the time of his Canadian Stage residency, as far as I understand — he didn’t come to them with a script in hand but, from what I remember, created the piece *through* that residency. Canadian Stage still could’ve picked it up, but I don’t know if it was as strong then as it is now. His work too has grown in the time I’m known him.)

    I should add: unlike Canada, Britain *has* produced a lot of excellent very young writers in the past fifteen years — produced in both senses. But there’s a huge, no-longer-but-recently well funded, competitive meritocratic structure around playwriting in the UK (which includes many theatre-sponsored contests), and the young writers there are often far better educated than their Canadian counterparts (for icky class reasons, partly), and the work is just a whole lot stronger than what our young writers produce here, on balance. Edward Bond calls that generation (roughly our generation, but over there) the best crop of British theatre writers in 400 years. I’m thinking of people like Lucy Prebble.

    Also, my argument here is of course writer-centric and the situation is significantly different for young actors, who, as Holger Syme says a lot, should get hired for major, age-appropriate roles more often than they do. Though it’s also hard to find 20-year-old actors of serious depth and ability. (Sometimes because they’re beautiful and are doing film, not theatre.)

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  2. Jeannette Lambermont-Morey

    Hey Alexander, I think you have mixed up two things here… the strange multi-middleman arrangement of this particular award (which is ridiculous) and the concept of “emerging artist” in general. I believe the term was originally created in order to find a way to get much-needed money to people who otherwise couldn’t get it because their resumes were not long enough, their work not familiar enough, to compete with more established artists. Personally I think it was a very positive move. Awards were created specifically FOR those whose work was not yet known. This actually shows RESPECT for the younger artist, and is not condescending at all. Perhaps some have now abused the term, but in general I still believe that it is a healthy way to by-pass the flashy, more familiar layer of known work to get down to the lesser-known gold.
    xoxox Jeannette

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    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Jeannette,

      I don’t disagree that funds reserved exclusively for “emerging” artists are well-intentioned, and have many positive effects; my gripe here is not with the fact of their existence, but with the kind of culture that requires them to exist. In other words, we have allowed the producing models to require a degree of safety, predictability, and familiarity in the work – else, the show might not be a success! Which is perfectly fine logic in the field of medicine, but does not, it seems to me, contribute to a particularly healthy artistic community. With resources so constrained, a major theatre producing work by or including “green talent” is taking an immense risk. So in order to minimize that risk, they create countless internal “development” programs, to vet newer artists through a process which will determine which of them will create a work that most closely resembles the theatre’s standard – i.e., which of these “emerging” artists will produce work which resembles the work that theatre has done in the past. Again, this has little, I think, to do with how individual artists/prodcuers at major (or minor) theatres think or feel, and everything to do with how institutions have been made to function Canada’s artistic/economic climate.

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  3. Blue Bigwood-Mallin

    Fantastic article. You have articulated many of the opinions and difficulties I and a number of my colleagues feel. Most of all the impact this kind of climate has on the art itself and the amount of energy you have to put into breaking down habitual understandings of what is worthwhile. Thank you very much for your writing

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