To work in the arts, you may well need another job. That’s common knowledge. A recent national survey researching what this means was actually titled Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? You get to practice working for next to nothing from a very early point in your career.
The unpaid internship or work experience happens in many trades, but is a fixture of the life of most young artists – at times it’s valuable, at times it’s a problematic gamble, and at times it’s very exploitative. At a certain point a maxim must come in to play – if you’re not earning, what are you learning? I’ve done a fair bit of it over the years, but at a certain point decided that if I was going to work for free occasionally, it may as well be for me.
Early on, many students do a few free gigs, or maybe a placement, as part of their university degree. There’s usually some arrangement between the university and the organisation that frames the exchange of free labour, for some kind of learning experience.
I did a few gigs like this when I was a student, I think it was in 1988 that a call went out for four young guys to help with a one-off musical event in QPAC’s Concert Hall. Probably 6 hours work all up.
It was a Hoffnung concert. I had to look it up in the library to find out what it was. Gerard Hoffnung was a UK artist and musician, who worked as humorist across artforms, from cartooning to broadcasting to music itself. He was fascinated by music and created many cartoons related to orchestras and the musicians and instruments that constitute them. He was also a tuba player. Some of his works were animated in the mid 1960’s which will probably give you a sense of the ouvre.
Someone in Brisbane, probably a festival, had decided to re-visit, or put on an event that he created in the late 1950’s, a live concert that played somewhat irreverently with the idea of the orchestra, with some visual gags, but mostly jokey adaptations of the canon such as Haydn’s surprise symphony with added surprises.
I didn’t know any of this before I went into the gig with my fellow students Wesley, Nathan and Craig. We were decked out in wigs and costumes, and our job seemed mainly to involve moving chairs around for featured artists. There was a costume fitting and minimal rehearsal, probably in the afternoon before the gig.
Once we got the measure of the performance, we performed with poise and reserve. Most of our instruction came from a stage manager, I don’t remember a director, but we instinctively knew that if we played our small role for laughs we’d be off the mark. We needed to enter, do our job, then exit, page-boy style, with dignity and seriousness to support the comedy that others were being paid to execute.
I spent most of the gig in the wings with the other guys, focussed on our next cue. I’d never been that close to an orchestra before. It’s a powerful thing to be surrounded by music like that, and to see what a finely tuned miracle an orchestra is, not least because the musicians themselves seem to adopt such an attitude of disinterest in the amazing stuff they’re doing.
I’m suppose I’m expected to say how wonderful it was here, but I won’t. It was OK. There’s tacit pressure in the arts (especially theatre) not to critique stuff because it comes across as ‘negative’; that if you say something could be better, or even to question its artifice, or the social constructs that surround it, is to somehow negate ‘all the effort’ folks have put in. Or to put yourself above it, when none of these things may be true. This keeps the standard of discourse (especially around theatre) for the most part, pretty low.
People swing between happy-clappy sycophancy, jaded cynicism or disrespectful silence, sometimes in the space of a single (opening) night.
Sometimes I want to stand up in the church of the arts and testify to my agnosticism. I have my faiths, doubts and raptures, but I’m curious and ready to be convinced. I’m less convinced when a performance assumes that it’s important or interesting.
At 19 your critical faculties are in development. You’re easily swayed. Yet I thought I heard a false note. While the Hoffnung concert was light, fun and well-intentioned, most of its humour seemed pretty lame and old fashioned: dependent on prior knowledge of classical music forms. I had some sense of classical music and how it worked, but when you get up close to this kind of event (even as a supernumeraries like we were) it’s difficult not a marvel at the self-entitled way that privilege and class flexes its muscles in the arts.
The concert clearly thought it was playing irreverently with classical music, but it still seemed pretty reverent to me – especially since we were seeing jokes (now thirty years old) meant to make fun of the establishment, now become the establishment.
When every seat in the house was already significantly subsidised, what was this thing we were further subsidising with our free labour? I didn’t feel bolshy or exploited at the time, and I don’t now: it was my choice. It was an interesting experience, from a unique vantage point. Half in the event, half out of it. It aroused my curiosity.
I saw so much unrealized potential here to be truly playful with musicians and their music that I decided I’d do something more interesting in my own practice one day.
Nathan, Wesley, Craig and I took our bows to thunderous applause from the capacity audience of 1600: that kind of experience is pretty cool when you’re 19 and have done little to deserve it. We took some happy snaps in the stairwell and went home.