The only thing more precarious than our careers is our mental health
“Okay, the straw has broken this camel's back. I'm looking for work outside the comedy industry now. I can't keep living with this instability.”
“I literally get to sit here for the next week and wait to find out if I can do my shows, or go bankrupt. I cannot keep doing this.”
“I’ve lost everything.”
These are just three out of the dozens of posts in my Facebook feed from comedians this past fortnight.
The only thing more precarious than the careers of performers right now is our mental health.
I know I have found myself almost paralysed at times: incapable of responding to emails, phone calls and texts - even when they're good news - forgetting bloody meetings...it’s almost impossible to get excited about prospective plans because, well... they just might not happen.
You knowingly choose uncertainty when you choose to pursue a career in the arts. You do your best to embrace it as best you can, as just one of those things that comes with taking the road less travelled.
But then a pandemic hits. Overnight, you lose months of work, and write-off all the time and money spent preparing. And wait for it, so does your ENTIRE community of comedy and performer colleagues. It’s like suffering a major car accident, only every colleague you have is posting about their own horrible car accident at the same time. It’s a head-on empathy explosion. And oh, does it hurt to nurse your own wounds while feeling the pain of your whole community. It’s all too much.
But, your people recharge. We are creatives! We will persevere! We launch Patreons, we live-stream gigs, we pivot, we reformat, we do what we do best: we get creative, trusting that “the curtain will rise again!”
And... it does! It rises!
Until it doesn’t.
And then it does!
Until it doesn’t.
As I said, artists are very used to embracing instability, myself included. But with these new recent sets of lockdown announcements rippling across the country, I’ve witnessed all-new waves of panic from my creative colleagues; waves that are bigger and scarier and are crashing with more ferocity than ever before.
Now it’s not even a matter of being able to work IF you can get gigs and/or the bums on seats, now it’s WILL THE GIGS EVEN GO AHEAD?!
This anxiety and unpredictability and mood swinging is like nothing I’ve ever seen before... and I say this as someone who lives with bipolar.
And I say this as somebody who counts herself as one of the lucky ones.
During lockdown 2020, I had some amazing supporters and personal cheerleaders who jumped onboard my Patreon immediately, for which I was beyond immensely grateful. I truly could not have gotten through without it, but not in the way in which you might think.
The emotional support of people putting their money where their mouth was, in saying “please don’t stop what you’re doing, I VALUE you enough to chip in!” was immense. However the financial side, while helpful and SO appreciated, equated to just over $300 a month. And that’s a pretty successful patronage for an artist with my scale of fan base (small), and during a global crisis where there is so much need for support everywhere you turn.
My point is, while having Patreon supporters uplifted my creative soul hugely and alleviated at least some financial stress, it was not enough $ to replace much more than one gig a month.
Then, when the curtain finally did rise again, I had ridiculous luck: my Funny Mummies Comedy Gala was sent out on tour to rural Queensland, being the very first post lockdown performance tour to do so. I couldn’t believe it. Yet right up until the day we hit the road - and even during it - there was the constant looming threat that individual dates - or the entire tour - could be cancelled at any time. Even when things are going well, it’s enough to give you as many stomach ulcers as tour dates.
And that continues to be the case: I’ve got more tours planned - the bulk of my yearly income - and I’m realising how in denial I’ve become about the fact that yet again, they could be cancelled at any moment.
Here’s the thing about trying to plan any tour/performance/project in our current climate: you can work your arse off - having already done so for years and years to build a successful career as a performer and oh my God you were one of the ones who is actually after years and years of side-hustling and front-hustling and working second or third jobs now able to do it now as your full time job - you can STILL have it all pulled out from under you at any moment. All that money, time and momentum? Just gone.
There’s instability, and then there’s instability to the power of instability. Instability squared. I’m no maths whiz, but even I know that’s bad.
So what now?
Do we just keep trying to build up our Patreon supporters? Do we focus on building a following on Tik Tok? Do we launch another podcast?
So many well intentioned mates on Facebook will tell you to do just that. “There’s so many people online who would love what you do!”
And the thing is, they’re right. These online channels are all potential paths to sustaining yourself as a creative.
But these channels take a LONG time to build up, certainly if you want to build up an income from them that can come anywhere close to paying the bills. At the moment, a long-term game plan which involves starting from (near) scratch is almost as terrifying and exhausting as writing yet another long grant application which is essentially a major assignment where you have to not only argue the case for why your art is worth something, but are in turn exposing yourself to the very real possibility of a painful rejection, which at this point, who among us has the resilience for?
I’m slowly coming to the realisation that we as creatives really do need to re-design our careers in a way that does not rely on live performance as our bread and butter. It’s devastating to think of that as a creative who loves performing live, but business wise, revolving your career around it at this point seems akin to being a professional gambler.
Alternatively - or even better, concurrently - we need the government to step up and commit to supporting its artists. To say “you are a valued part of our society and we need you and want you to keep going!” is one thing.
But to put their money where their mouth is and support those of us who are THIS close to giving up altogether - now that would offer some security for our livelihoods, our creative work AND our mental health.