Sunday, April 19, 2015


 Oh, we'll always support each other, we artists, no matter what.  BUT. 

The pattern of undervalued artists, devoted to their craft, started in my family way way back when.

 Me, in She Stoops to Conquer, with my father, actor Derek Holmes

How come it's so hard to make a living in the arts, I asked my friend Walter in our g chat conversation last week.  I had been watching finches build a nest in the vines outside my window - and Walter was thinking of going for a bike ride round Kensington Gardens. Walter lives in London and I’m in Falls Church, Virginia.  He is an actor; I am a fiction writer.     

uuuuughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” wrote Walter, when I asked him this question. “DON'T EVEN START!!!!!!”

But for the next half hour, we couldn't stop talking about how hard it was to get a creative project launched and how rare was the financial pay off when you did. We talked about near misses: mine in publication, his as an actor, and my brother Robert’s as a musician.  My son Elliot is an actor graduating from VCU School for the Arts, so these questions were in our minds mostly on account of him.  Elliot has all the raw material of great artistry and now he has the craftsmanship too, as well as a lot of business savvy. But so what?  As Robert puts it, he's about to “head off into the mire.” He’s about to join our tribe. 
Elliot congratulated after a performance by his grandmother Alice Duffy, a working actress.

There are so many hopeful and talented artists, fully trained and doing superb work, who often get close to giving up, or else end up working for no or little pay.  “Blimey,” said Walter. “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” 

Salaries in the London theater, Walt tells me, have, if anything, gone down in recent years.  Evidently it was recently noted that even the most successful theater directors in the West End make on average about £10,000 a year.  Can you believe it?    

 “That's a crime,” I said. “It’s so dispiriting.”

Last night, our friend Stephen was here for dinner. He lives in the UK and in reflecting on the woeful compensation for work in the arts, he commented that many top British actors these days come from moneyed families. He cited Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, both of whom come from money. Gone are the days of the Michael Caines and angry young men of the theater.  The angry young men may well still be angry, but they're no longer working in the arts. They’ve been priced out of the market. 

"I do think it's getting even tougher,” said Walter, "because literally everybody on the planet now is a star for 30 seconds via You Tube and Facebook. We use to think how naff it was when Sally Field vomited you LIKE me, you REALLY LIKE me. But I can sort of see where she was coming from now.”
It's not like we're asking too much. Is it greedy or presumptuous to expect a dribble of cash now and then, to keep you going at your craft?  I told Walter I’d be living on the streets if not for my husband Ben's salary and his pension. I don't even get paid a living wage to teach - because I'm an adjunct - and adjuncts are paid on contract, rather than salary.  

Even so, I’m grateful for the work. That's how pathetic it's become. I'm grateful that my publications give me cachet in teaching, in judging writing contests, running book clubs and other such literary endeavors. But oh, the HOURS I’ve spent writing! It’s impossible to calculate the net loss in financial terms - although that became painfully obvious whilst doing our taxes last week.  On the other hand, my gain as a human being, as a writer who is able to develop a craft I love? Somebody with readers, no less? That, as the credit card ads like to tell us - is absolutely priceless!

I know Mandy!” said Walter. “Thank God I have the photography now, in between acting jobs.” He’s been taking head shots – and he’s amazing at it.  Come to think of it, I said, there are probably well credentialed photographers out there who can't make the living that he now makes at photography.
Dinner with Walter in his Sussex garden

We decided that success meant different things, to different people.

"Hey,” I said – "I think I’m probably doing better financially than those top flight directors in the West End!”

“And when is your next play opening at the National, darling?” Walter asked.

“How is anyone to survive, my lord?” I retorted.

Well, the crazy thing is," said Walter, "the cost of living has doubled but salaries haven't. I don't know how young actors live in London."
"Everyone will just have to partner up with someone who DOES make money,” I said. 

“I feel like we are two characters in a restoration play discussing financial stability,” Walter said. 

“It’s enough to make you want to go for a cycle around Kensington Gardens, or go back to watching the finches build nests in a vine!” I said.

I know,” said Walt. “More tea, vicar?”

“Maybe the solution is to write a BLOG post about this troubling phenomenon,” I suggested.

Well, watching finches build nests from a cozy room, and cycling through Kensington Gardens emerging from a Notting Hill flat is a far cry from playing with turds in an open sewer in the slums of Mumbai,” said Walter.

Thus we decided to count our blessings.  “Off you go then,” I told him. “Cycle off. After all, what else is one to DO!”

We're cut from the same cloth, my dear,” said Walter.

“I suppose I must pull myself up by the boot straps, go downstairs and put on the kettle,” I reflected.

Don't strain yourself,” said Walter.

“Although,” I said, “this space heater is mighty cozy and it will mean venturing into a drafty corridor.”

How ghastly!” said Walter.My dear, do bundle up.”

"Yes," I said. “I’ve got my fingerless gloves on the ready."

“A veritable Florence Nightingale,” said Walt.

 “And now," I finished, "I simply must write up my blog post!”

Elliot with his other grandmother, Judy Holmes - an actress, director, and life long supporter of the arts

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