‘Theatre needs to be reoccupied by the theatremakers’: Russell Lucas on breaking through industry barriers

Russell LucasRussell Lucas doesn’t exist. At least, not according to conventional theatre categories. He’s a writer, deviser, producer, actor and director – often all at once. He’s a lecturer too. And why not? In his new book, 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers, he offers inspiration and encouragement for theatremakers everywhere, and argues that the maverick, hybrid, jack-of-all-trades theatremaker is what’s needed now, more than ever.

With a background like mine, you’re really not supposed to work in the arts  – never mind be successful and then write a book about it. Of course, I’m being glib, as we’re all allowed to work in the theatre, but that message doesn’t always get through to society – let alone to the lost artists who’ve been encouraged to ‘Go get a real job’.

I come from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, where it’s all about economic survival – and back in the seventies and eighties it was even more so. When you reached your sixteenth birthday you were expected to work in a chip shop or on the pier and that was you done. You’d peaked. Any deeper discussions about utilising your existing skill set or having a career… Well, there were no debates on either of those, as no one knew what they were and we probably couldn’t afford them anyway. Dreams were for the rich. So, one week after my sixteenth birthday, I began real-jobbing in my local chippy, The Plaice To Be, and one week and one hour after my sixteenth birthday, I silently whispered: ‘This isn’t the place for me’. Admittedly, I didn’t know where I wanted to go next or how to get there but, as it turns out, it’s enough to keep pulling at a thread, because I’m here now, working in the arts, despite society telling me that I couldn’t, and my parents saying that I probably shouldn’t.

From a very early age, every time I went into a theatre I felt completely at home. Its magic, its possibilities and its warmth were palpable to me. I wanted to live and work in there forever, and thanks to my teenage whisper finally finding a voice, I got there. Here.

So, how did I do it? And how can you make a successful and long career in the arts? Well, what type of career do you want?

One piece of immediate advice I can offer you is that you should resolve right now that, no matter what, you’re going to stick around. You should also acknowledge you really do wish to live your life in the theatre. It’s only then – after you’ve given voice to your ambition – that the flimsy, self-imposed barriers that have stopped you from seeing the theatre as a real job will melt away.

Evening without Kate Bush

Sarah-Louise Young in An Evening Without Kate Bush, made by Sarah-Louise Young and Russell Lucas (Photograph by James Millar)

Next, you need to redefine two words: ‘industry’ and ‘success’. These two nouns are responsible for so many artists falling by the wayside because they seemingly couldn’t get into the industry nor achieve success. So let’s redefine them.

‘Success’, from this point forward, will be when you have begun to take steps towards achieving an income from your artistic work; and the ‘industry’ will now be called your ‘trade’.

Now, I acknowledge that your path won’t be an easy one – but that’s one reason why we all feel so at home in the theatre, isn’t it? We’re not regular people, nor do we seek the ‘normal’ life. We desire creativity, freedom, stories, illusion, applause, a team, agency, travel – in fact: a life filled with imagination. Every day.

So, suit up; for you are allowed to work in the theatre.

Who Are the Theatremakers?

A theatremaker is anyone involved in the making of theatre. Whether you are a director, actor, writer, designer or another creative, this – of course – makes you a maker of theatre. The person who uses the term ‘theatremaker’ is a hybrid artist, a creative soul that can turn their hand to anything to get their show on.

I consider myself to be a theatremaker as I make theatre using my own resources. I come up with an idea, rehearse it, find a suitable platform, and then sell tickets however I can. I have no regular team, I’ve never used a set, sound or costume designer (yet), and I generally operate the lights myself. I write, produce, improvise, teach and choreograph. I’m also quite deft at finding cheap props online and can make trailers, posters and GIFs for publicity. Plus I know how to remove red wine from a costume (use white). I’m not rich and don’t come from money (can you tell?), and I don’t possess the urge to climb a career ladder either, nor become a prolific artist; and curiously I’ve never applied for public funding. I just make theatre. In a room. Any room. I theatricalise my idea and put it in front of an audience. For the most part, my ideas manifest on a live platform, sometimes online or like now, in my new book, 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers.

I’ve staged work in New York, Toronto, London and Tipton, and in 2018 I made an online interview series with Digital Theatre+ that’s streamed into schools around the world. I’ve directed art gallery films, commissioned an American playwright with an independent venue in London, and devised a new play with the same team over three years. Oh, and everyone’s always been paid.

Sounds professional, doesn’t it? Well, it is. So who am I? Well, I’m definitely not ‘Fringe’, as that’s a reductive term used by the misinformed to describe and supposedly locate artists who, at some point, must surely be aiming for the ‘Centre’ (be honest). Nor am I commercial. No. I am an independent theatremaker, and you won’t have heard of me because I don’t exist – at least not under the regular terminology of ‘director’, ‘producer’, ‘actor’ or ‘writer’, terms that don’t really represent my skill set any more, and so I rarely use them.

Bobby Kennedy Experience

Russell Lucas in his one-man show The Bobby Kennedy Experience (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Theatremakers are like the ‘Where’s Wally?’ of the arts – we’re here, but you have to look really hard to find us. We’ll pop up at festivals (a lot), but you’ll rarely see us on the popular stages, as our transient nature could be performing cabaret or dance one week, then borrowing from the conventions of mime or puppetry the next; and that’s hard to categorise using the regular ways of classification. Maybe we’re indefinable?

So how did we manifest? By the continued slashing of budgets, changes of policies within funded theatres, and the ever-persistent commercial sector sucking up the air through the vacuum of nostalgia and film? It’s a theory.

How about our extended periods of unemployment as we wait for ‘heavy-pencilled’ jobs to turn into half a day’s work? (#actorslife) What about that devious myth that there are too many artists and not enough places for them to perform? Couple that with the cold hard truth of not enough affordable rehearsal spaces, outlandish financial demands on our already delicate reality – and how long was it going to be before we grabbed hold of the reins? Again.

In the same way that the actor-managers of the nineteenth century morphed into the director, the theatremaker is the next aggregation of the desires of the actor. And this seismic evolution/revolution was born from our exclusion from too many parties – for all those times we should have been the hosts, we were miscast as the caterers. And now that the theatremaker roams freely, they have discovered that the theatre itself needed them, before it too became a muted servant.

Theatremakers no longer spend days waiting for permission to cross the Rubicon to that utopian centre. No. We have walked off down the road and created our own trade, and us Jills and us Jacks of all the trades are fast becoming the majority.

Maybe one day, the birth of theatremakers – and their dirty ways – will be studied in schools, paving the way for more like us? Imagine the possibilities.

So, let it be known: the theatre is being reoccupied by its original tenant: The Maker of Theatre. And if you’re salivating right now, come join us off the radar. You can plough up the stalls, erase the interval and even tie some knots in the curtains if you wish, because it’s your trade too. But be warned: you’ll need to tear the tickets, serve the drinks, bring up the lights, and then go break everyone’s heart with your self-penned aria. Yes, it’s back to the old ways: make a show, sell your tickets, make some money, then make a new show.

Spread the word: the theatremaker is now the centre.

300 Thoughts for blog

This is an edited extract from 300 Thoughts for Theatremakers by Russell Lucas, out now. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Russell Lucas is a UK-based artist specialising in writing, devising, producing, acting and directing. His work has been seen in London, Edinburgh, the West End, on tour and Off-Broadway.

He is also a qualified lecturer and has written and delivered workshops at leading venues and educational institutions across the UK and internationally. See more on his website.

Author photo: Steve Ullathorne

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