Whatever happened to class?

Blog, Monthly Blog

By Rena Bryson

I’m about to ask a big and complex question, which I have no intention of fully answering but I would really like to ignite a conversation on the topic. Are the arts classist? For the purposes of this short blog, I’m going to focus on the Irish theatre industry as it’s the area I’m most familiar with. I’ll also be discussing the issue through my own personal experiences within this blog but in the future will explore the industry from a birds-eye view. I would like to discuss other Industries in the future to gain a fuller picture (music, visual art, dance, film etc.). For both of these future pieces, I will need to do further research. 

I asked this question in FB in September and I received an influx of nuanced tajes on the subject. The main points that frequented my comment section and inbox were: 

  • Elite Drama schools can only be attended by those who can afford it and those who manage to attend from lower-class backgrounds feel ostracized. 
  • Funding and opportunities are given to the same names again and again.
  • People are pushed up the ladder because of their connections, it often comes down to who you know not what you know. 
  • Theatre itself can be viewed as an upper-class activity from the outside, even if theatre artists are not. 
  • The starving artist narrative has been dangerously romanticized. 

Many of the comments I received impacted me personally. My mind was spinning with memories of feeling on the outside due to my background. I’ve also often expressed my frustration that opportunities are often not advertised but given to artists the company/casting agent/ festival already knew. 

As an artist, my eyes were really opened to this issue when I studied for my Master’s at NUIG. I realized very quickly that my upbringing and background were very different from many of my peers. I had studied my undergrad in an I.T that did not even have a drama soc while many of my classmates had attended well-funded universities with fully funded drama societies. I had never previously been aware that universities in Dublin were producing shows with resources I could never dream of. I was even envious of many recalling their experiences at drama summer camps or musicals their schools organized. They cut music from my school, so the drama was definitely never on the cards. I did attend summer camps but the ones focused on drama were always too expensive or far away. 

The location in which a child is brought up will inevitably have an impact on the opportunities they’re exposed to. I just didn’t realize how much I may have been missing out on until I was older. I would like to add here that I still was very fortunate, I had parents who supported me, especially my late mother who really believed in me. Even though there were no opportunities at school my mum saved and borrowed money to send me to music and drama lessons in another county every weekend as a teenager. Meaning I could still take music in the leaving cert even if the school didn’t teach it. 

Many of my classmates were baffled by the idea of running a show without a full team (Production manager, SM, ASM etc.) While my training had focused on creating small-scale productions without the necessity for extra hands. I feel this was a result of the west having a do-it-yourself attitude due to a history of receiving less funding than Dublin. Our point of reference for professional work in Sligo was the Blue Raincoats, who operated with a small team but created high-quality work. This highlighted the difference in our approach to the theatre from different places in Ireland. Originally this made me feel insecure about my education and approach to my craft but I later realized I had been better prepared for working with small budgets. 

During the Master’s programme we had a weekly workshop or guest speaker. This was an amazing opportunity and I learned a great deal from each guest speaker about the craft. However when asked how to get to their position? Eg. “How did you get your start?” or “How did you get this job?” The answer was never there was an open call or Job Advertisement and it was usually “I knew so and so and they asked me to”. This always made the inspiration I had just received shrivel into hopelessness. Especially as I learned many successful theatre-makers did not have relevant degrees and I was putting myself into debt to complete my Masters. This is not in any way to state these people do not deserve their position or are not good at their job, they are. I just think it’s important the discuss the variants of luck, connections, and privilege in someone’s career path. 

Photo by Catriona Bonner photography

The reason we set up Eva’s Echo was that we felt there were no auditions in Galway even if there were shows. This is why we are dedicated to holding as many open casting as possible. After being in the industry for a few years now I understand the why behind this issue. As a small company paying artists a profit share, it is feasible to continuously hold open castings. However, if you hope to move up and pay your artists a wage you must apply for arts council funding. For most production awards you must list your full team and that includes the cast. This means you must have the show cast before applying for funding. So companies that work with the same actors over and over again are not closing their doors to emerging artists out of snobbery. They are making this choice strategically as an actor with a strong track record on an application is more likely to result in funding. It would also be time-consuming and possibly pointless to hold auditions and cast a show that may not get made. It’s easier to put a name that you know on the application. This applies to all arts organizations that are not strategically funded. I thought this was an important area to discuss when exploring classism within the arts. By looking deeper, we realize lack of castings is not always because arts organizations don’t want to work with new artists. Which I feel is a misconception that hurts both companies and emerging artists. 


In conclusion. This blog is impossible to wrap up, as the issue of classism in the arts is much larger than a short blog can cover. But I hope that this piece can open up a conversation around class within the arts industry.