Culture Writer Tamzin Meyer interviews author Ross Smith on his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz in which he reveals the often financially challenging reality of creatives in the Showbiz industry
BBC radio star Ross Smith sat down with Redbrick to discuss his new book See You At The Premiere. The book aims to highlight the unseen, not so glamorous aspects of showbiz, in which Smith has had lots of experience with himself. It is no wonder that the book is already doing so well, with its focus on the struggles of the entertainment industry being a topic that is most relevant now more than ever.
Your book focuses on mentioning the artistic, financial and economic struggles faced by artists. How has this been heightened during the pandemic?
What a good question, Tamzin, not been asked that before. The simple answer is it depends what your discipline is. For me, professionally speaking, the pandemic was a Godsend. Being furloughed from a ‘proper’ job meant, for the first time in 20 years, I was able to focus entirely on my writing. I could finally finish the book after 7 years. I suspect that opportunity also helped a lot of other creative people similarly devote time to their projects, even if they won’t admit it did. However, for those creative people who rely on interaction with others – directors, actors etc – the pandemic must have been devastating creatively if not financially (thank you, Rishi).
I’ll give you an example of how the pandemic could badly affect creative people. I saw a wonderfully daft comedy duo in Edinburgh in 2019 called The Delightful Sausage. They were one of a dozen or so acts which break through every year at the Fringe. However, those acts need momentum after the initial attention – agent, TV exposure, arts centre tours etc – and, of course, that hasn’t happened in the way it would normally for The Delightful Sausage. Worse, by the time the comedy scene gets back on its feet there will be gazillions of new acts arriving and competing with The Delightful Sausage for attention. In short, and I hope I’m wrong, we might have seen a new act with potential cut down just as they were getting into their stride. That’s just one way the pandemic has affected creative people negatively.
There’s a general perception that those in show business are quite well off. How important is it to reveal the potentially negative aspects to show business and break this perception?
Well, let’s look at it from two perspectives. First, the public. I have set out, partially, to shed a light for the public on the financial hardships endured by the vast majority of creative people. However, I’ll probably fail. Why? Because the public doesn’t want to hear that people in the arts suffer as much, and usually far, far worse, financial hardship as they do. The public want to believe we’re all millionaires. I understand why that is: surely there must be more to life than working down the council tax office, right? So the media fuels that delusion with news stories concerned solely with successful creative people; you won’t see a jobbing artist of any discipline being interviewed in the media. It’s a steady diet of success, success, success and that, of course, creates a ridiculously skewed, superficial view of working in the arts for the public. Unfortunately, I doubt I can change that with this book so instead I’ll leave the general public to their disposable, celebrity biographies and, instead, appeal to anyone with more than one brain cell who wants to learn about establishing and maintaining a career in the arts. That’s all of Redbrick’s creative readers because…
…the second perspective is from that of the aspiring or emerging artist. They are the people I wrote the book for. Basically, I want them to get their heads out of cloud cuckooland. Before you even consider embarking on a career in the arts, you need to realise that if you can earn from your craft the national average wage each week over 50 or so years you have succeeded where – and I’m sure unions and guilds have stats on this, but I’m guessing – 90% of freelance creatives fail. This is something very few arts course directors and tutors are prepared to highlight, probably because it led so many of them into education in the first place and they don’t want to admit it.
See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz confronts this issue head-on. It fills the gap between learning how to hold a paintbrush and pretending you’re a mushroom with the, frankly, brutal world of working in the arts. The book prepares you, financially, creatively, emotionally, politically, for life after graduation. One editor said, ‘Some books spark debate. This will set off a much needed nuclear explosion across the arts.’ I do hope so!
Premiere isn’t just another ‘How to’ book about being creative. Shelves are drowning in those. We don’t need another one because, contrary to common belief, there’s little new left to learn. I mean, Jesus, we’re only talking about writing a play or whatever, something artists have done for centuries, not finding a cure for cancer or putting humans on Mars. However, what we do need is a book which looks at how to monetise your talent, how to avoid pitfalls, how to conduct yourself, how to cope with disappointments, how to handle all the stuff creative people don’t want to hear about but which every creative person must know about if they are to have any chance of having a healthy career in the arts. You know, the kind of stuff which should be, but isn’t, taught to creative students once a week for three years.
There is a pyramid structure at work in the arts: an infinitesimally small amount of people at the summit and an unimaginably enormous mass seeking their break at each and every level below. Referenced in the book is a meeting I had at Disney in LA. At the time, I only had a single credit on a no-budget, midnight movie. I loved the movie but, of course, I didn’t feel it was going to impress someone who worked at Disney. I was wrong. She said, ‘This single credit puts you above 95% of people who call themselves screenwriters in this town’ As I subsequently discovered she was right, but only to a degree: it put me above 99% of people who call themselves screenwriters. Same kind of figures, I’m sorry to report, I’ve discovered in theatre and, I have little doubt, across all of the arts.
Given the unpredictability of a career in show business, would you ever consider changing career paths to something more stable?
Are you kidding, Tamzin? Every damn week I question why I’m doing this, but there’s a big difference between that common thought and quitting. Quitting is something I never considered for a moment during the first half of my career. Why? Because as with every artist I was blinded by ambition. Not for a heartbeat did I think I’d fail to have lunch with Spielberg, millions in the bank, and all that. Quitting when you start out is not an option. However, in more recent years, I’ve not quit because, frankly, there’s little else I can do. Having spent all my working life being a writer, what else am I qualified to do? Surgery? I can’t even drive a car. I’m now too old, and too disinterested, to re-train in a new skill. I guess I’m caught in a trap: I have to persevere with writing because it’s now too late to change.
Here’s a couple of tests for all you young, creative people to consider using. Throughout the first few years of your career, ask yourself, ‘Am I still enjoying this?’ If the answer is no the struggle and the meagre rewards aren’t worth the effort and maybe you should quit. Similarly, regardless of whether you’re in the arts or not, ask yourself, ‘When I’m old and looking back on my life, will I appreciate what I have achieved?’ If the answer is no, change things.
What advice would you give to those wanting a career in show business?
Right, get your notepads out. This is important! Without deliberately setting out to address that question, during the writing of the book I realised two things were often rising to the surface. Here we go:
One, you need to deliver projects. No-one with the clout to further your ambitions will have confidence in your abilities if you don’t deliver, if you don’t show them what you can do. You must deliver. That’s the best advice a creative person can ever receive. It sounds trite, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not, it’s crucial. So, shut up and deliver. Stop talking about things you’re going to do – no-one cares so long as all you do is talk – and deliver. Deliver something onto that page, that screen, that stage, that music file. Deliver, because accept this: every hour you make excuses for not delivering, is another hour when someone else is delivering. Deliver, deliver, deliver, because everything you say you’re going to deliver is bullshit. It really is. It’s bullshit. Everyone across the arts knows you’re talking bullshit, even though they don’t tell you to your face, until you deliver. So, again, shut up and…deliver!
Two, you need to mix with people who know more about your discipline than you do. If you don’t, it’s the blind leading the blind. Reach out for a helping hand to pull you up to the next level. That means collaborating with people more experienced than you. You’ll learn from them and, crucially, there is also more chance of further opportunities coming your way. When you’re on people’s radar, doors open for you. In no other professional field is that more true than in the arts where barely a single job is advertised. Instead, employment is gained via – you’ve probably heard this but it’s crucial, so now I’ll say it – contacts, contacts, contacts. Things happen if you’re on people’s radar. One of those people you mix with should be an agent if your discipline demands such. In the eyes of the moneypeople, agents are part of the filtering process so get yourself a good one not Mrs Miggins working off her kitchen table. Get one with a strong client list, industry contacts and who commands respect from those contacts. Agents hustle every day. They know how to do it while most artists haven’t a clue. Anyone with money to invest in a project will be reassured you have a recognised agent. Indeed, it will probably be a pre-requisite.
Despite the negative aspects mentioned in your book, what would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Well, you say ‘negative.’ I wouldn’t use that word, I’d use ‘realistic.’ See You at the Premiere isn’t, it’s important to point out, about failure. I have way too many credits to be considered a failure. It’s actually about the world between failure and success, the middle ground almost every freelance creative person inhabits.
Generally, I guess the most rewarding aspect of my career is the fact I’ve fulfilled my ambition to work in the arts all my life, whether as a writer or doing any old shit that comes along to earn a crust in day jobs. Almost all of my income has been generated from working in the arts (I reveal every single pound from every single project at the end of the book). That’s surely an achievement of some sort and although the public and, perhaps, some arts students and recent graduates may think otherwise, everyone who works in the creative industries as a freelance artist knows just how next-to-impossible that is. I can confidently say that everyone, after a few years in this game, would agree that managing to keep your head above water is, financially speaking, as good as you can expect from your lot in the arts. Sorry, but it’s true.
You’ve done some amazing things in your career! Do you feel like your hard work gets the recognition it deserves?
Well, let’s be clear, anyone can make their career sound, as you say, ‘amazing’ if they cut out all the shit from their CV. I decided from the off not to do that with Premiere because a career in the arts isn’t just, for most us, moving from one project that happens to another that happens. It’s also about the half dozen (or more) projects in between that didn’t happen for whatever reason. By looking at those projects as much as the ones that did happen, I hope I provide a unique and instructive insight into working in the arts. As for recognition, oh please! No-one knows who the hell I am. I’m a nobody! I’m cool with that. I’m not after acclaim, indeed, I did my first interview 25 years back in November and that was only because I wrote this book and no one else could promote it. I’m very happy to crawl back into anonymity as soon as possible. However, let’s take a look at recognition from peers as opposed to the media or public:
The two industries I’ve worked in most are film and theatre, as a screenwriter and playwright. It’s worth taking a moment to compare and contrast playwriting with screenwriting because the gulf is astonishing. The Writers Guild and the Independent Theatre Council have an agreement which includes a Bill of Rights clause giving playwrights final say on whatever elements they wish: choice of director and cast, which rehearsals to attend (and be paid to attend), text alterations, marketing and publicity, you name it. Screenwriting never affords anywhere near such indulgences. A screenwriter is usually little more than someone hired solely to deliver a screenplay prior to the director, under the delusion he or she can write, being permitted to [mess] about with it before passing it around an army of creative people – actors, designers, technicians – for their own, individual interpretations without, crucially, any consultation with the writer. Ask yourself, how many screenwriters can you name (and directors who also write such as Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino don’t count)? Probably only two or three, and one of them will be Richard Curtis. Now, how many playwrights can you name? A dozen or two, I’ll bet. As I got older and mounted up the screenwriting credits, I simply couldn’t be bothered dealing with the obligatory crap every screenwriter has to put up with, so I’m very glad I moved on to theatre.
A final word on recognition, success, respect, whatever you want to call it. I think this might save a lot of arts students crying into their midnight alcohol in the decades after they graduate. Success isn’t necessarily external. Success isn’t great wealth or the acclaim of others. Success is internal. Success is what you feel; success is what you know you’ve achieved. I’ve been involved with a couple of projects, a film and a play which I examine at great length in the book, and neither were a success: none of us who made the film earned a penny and it went straight-to-video, while the play pulled in about 15 people a night and didn’t recoup a pound in profit. However, at the risk of sounding like I’m living in denial or bigging myself up, I consider those projects to be just as successful as a multi-million dollar movie and the world’s most-toured British play of 2010, both of which I also wrote (all under pen names if you’re Googling). Again, success is what you feel. Don’t ever lose sight of that on your journey.
See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz is available to order here.
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