Feature – Redefining “Emerging”

When I think of the word “emerging”, I picture the finite stage between pupae and butterfly: a damp, crumpled creature working it’s way out of a safe, confined shell, in a completely different form to what it was previously. Within that set time frame, the butterfly must climb upwards and into the sunlight so its wings can straighten and dry out. If it fails, it will not be able to fly and fulfill the potential of its adult form. The time in which the emerging must be accomplished is set; at the end it has either succeeded or failed and there is no going back.

“Emerging” is a commonly used theatre term used to categorise those that have finished their training and are in the process of finding their feet within the industry. It implies they haven’t found success yet, but it is a definitely achievable point in the not-so-distant future. “Emerging” indicates transition and must be completed within a determined time frame, after which “success” is reached. Many actors have a concrete idea of “success” at the onset of their careers and say they will give up if they haven’t “made it” within three years/five years/by the time they’re 30, and so forth. Of course, the reality is far different. This definition of “success” is often reconfigured as they navigate working in the arts. The problem with using the words “success” and “emerging” in such a fickle industry is that the elusive “success” “emerging” hinges on is unlikely to be achieved at all, let alone within a predetermined time. Also, an artist’s definition of success is likely to be reconfigured time and time again as they grow and change. They easily could, due to the realities of the business, be in a state of emerging forever.

In theatre, “emerging” also usually applies to those under twenty-six or more rarely, thirty. The general use of the term means an early-to-mid twenty something who completed training within the last few years. Until recently, the now-no-more IdeasTap briefs were almost exclusively available to artists in those age brackets. After enough feedback from members, they began to lift those age ceilings to allow their ageing membership to participate more widely. (Then they closed because the costs of running the organisation were no longer being met.) This is rare, though. I still widely see grants, internships, and participation programmes limiting ages. I even see jobs that are exclusively open to those under 26 and unemployed. What about the unemployed 28-year-olds? Or those even older?

I am most certainly not saying that young artists don’t need and deserve support, but that older artists do too. They may still be in the state of emergence, having never reached that elusive “success” even after many years in the industry working for free or low-paid. Or, they may have entered the profession at an older age. I have met numerous people (usually actors) that changed careers and began working in theatre and film in their 30s, 40s or even older. Last year I met Hugh Hemmings, who became an actor after he retired. There are also people in theatre who start working in one field, then moved to another. A common transition I have seen is from actor to director, or actor to producer. Other people straddle several roles within the industry. They were emerging too (and still may be), and deserve the support of any other emerging artist, even if their emergence does not fall into the general understanding of the word.

What that support looks like may be radically different from people in their early 20s. I recently wrote about the issue of childcare in the arts, which applies to artists at all stages of their careers, but particularly those that are not yet “successful.” Housing, particularly in London, is a primary issue for working artists. Why should any working adult have to live with their parents in a perpetually infantilised state in order to pursue a career? It’s now depressingly commonplace for young people to be living at home into their 30s if they work in low-paying fields. Over all of this is availability of funds, courses and programmes that are designed to support artists’ work, but as previously mentioned, these often come with an age limit.

So, let’s collectively re-examine our mindsets. Arts organisations and funding bodies must learn that “emerging” includes all ages and does not indicate how long someone has worked in the industry. It can include those who have taken career breaks, or changed their career path within the industry. In this precarious time of funding cuts, the last thing we need is to pigeonhole those that need support as “established” or “successful” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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