Jo Randerson: Call to Action
What is the status of the artist in our society? No one in their right mind wants to even imagine a world without art. And yet the majority of artist find themselves in a frustratingly and often incapacitatingly vulnerable position. Comedian, James Nokise captured the starkness of the position so poignantly earlier this year when he boldly stated that “society frames being an artist as a luxury verging on a burden.” They are at once revered and condemned. Caught in a survival trap, often endlessly busy and increasingly poor. Why, when we would never question a lawyer or a dentist handing us a devastatingly crippling bill, do we continue to expect the artist to work for pittance, or for free?
Recently I sat down with Jo Randerson, artistic director at Barbarian Productions. With a staunch sense of social justice, Jo and the team at Barbarian Productions are famous in Wellington for making radical, inclusive and wildly fun theatre in unexpected places. Jo has been writing, creating, directing and teaching theatre for over 25 years. As I rummaged through her personal beliefs and experiences trying to find the cornerstones for carving out a career in the volatile world of the performing arts, I noticed a strong call to action, a message that said loud and clear that the time has come for artists to actively change their status in society.
“How can we stand up as artists and demand the conditions that we need to work?”
A shift in the way we educate
First off the mark, we need to educate students in the skills they need to build a creative career, and be realistic about what that career trajectory is likely to actually look like. “I see people come out of institutions up on their craft, up on their confidence, and expecting to walk into the industry and have this stellar career,” Jo explains. “A lot is hung on this trajectory of becoming a star. Which is true for 1% or less.”
Often arts institutions build young people up with an image of grandeur which by no means meets the reality of the world in which they enter. This approach can have incredibly detrimental impacts on the mental health of young artists, as well as limit their ability to make a legitimate go at pursuing what they are passionate about in life.
An arts education needs to include the skills and resources necessary for building a sustainable career in an unpredictable industry. This includes learning how to maintain a career when you don’t become a star. “The arts are really useful, they have so much application. I’m interested in people using those skills to graft a career of some sort. The question I want students to consider is, how do you keep using your creative skills?”
This year Jo began teaching a course focussing on arts, business and marketing skills as part of the VUW Master of Fine Arts. She has been teaching students about the creative freedom that comes with setting yourself up as a small business. “The best thing about being self employed artists is that self-determination. It’s a rare and hard won position.”
As was the catch cry of Indian Ink’s Jacob Rajan, Jo advocates that learning business skills doesn’t have to come at the expense of your creative output, but it is necessary to provide the freedom to be able to pursue your art. “I don’t see any danger in learning about business,” says Jo, “my artist is never going to die easily! I’m happy to understand these principles and then use them to work out my own way of how I want to be sustainable in the world.”
“There are a lot of really poor offers that are made by institutions and companies to artists, and we continue to say yes to those offers."
Push back! (“and politely feeding back to people that what they propose is not acceptable.”)
It is considered totally acceptable to ask artists to work for free. It plays into the ‘exposure myth’ - that if you can offer artists an audience then that work will pay off in the long run. The assumption there is that all an artist needs is an audience to guarantee future paid opportunities. There is no consideration of the fact that exposure alone does not pay the rent, or that not valuing artists for their work reinforces the idea that pursuing a career in the arts is some kind of a luxurious choice rather than a legitimate career option. There are very few other industries where experts in their field are consistently asked to work for free or offered insulting low rates for their work.
“There are a lot of really poor offers that are made by institutions and companies to artists, and we continue to say yes to those offers. How can we stand up as artists and demand the conditions that we need to work? I’m into artists being very proactive and asking and demanding for what we need because otherwise we keep this low level of income and we get taken for a ride.”
This, is the call to action. Change begins with saying no. It begins with the rejection of unreasonable offers, and it requires a conversation, an education you could say, around the reasons that the offer is considered unreasonable. “We need to challenge the structures and politely feeding back to people that what they propose is not acceptable,” advocates Jo.
It is legitimate to fear losing career-changing opportunities by saying no to people. But at the same time, it is important to remember that these invitations to work for free come from an ever-flowing river of offers to work for free. “I probably did lose some jobs and opportunities along the way, but after 12 years of seeing those opportunities come and go, you realise that there will always be endless opportunities to voluntarily entertain people at events.”
The risk that comes with always saying yes is that it is too easy to get caught in a trap of being extremely busy while remaining fundamentally poor. “It’s a loop,” explains Jo. “There's some basic time/cost analysis you need to do that surrounds the question ‘why am I doing this?’”
For Jo, saying no has lead to better opportunities rather than less. “The more I started to value myself and what I had to offer, the more I noticed that people started to treat me different and actually ask me more respectfully about engaging my work.”
This is not an easy task. Learning to say no can be much harder than saying yes, but it is essential both for the livelihood of the individual artist, and for any monumental shifts to happen in society at large. “It’s hard to hold onto a counter-cultural position, but it’s necessary. If you hold onto that position people do eventually shift around that. That’s our responsibility as artists. We can’t complain. We just need to renegotiate.”
"Chase the conversations that are most meaningful to you, and then you’ll get your own kind of success.”
Let your values guide your decisions
Barbarian Productions has a strong and visible set of values. They pride themselves on creating theatre that is “fierce, funny and counter-cultural”. Their projects are often participatory, based in community and amplify voices that go unheard. With an ethos of social justice at its core, Barbarian Productions have no fear of the political.
For example, Sing It To My Face is a music theatre project where volunteer local singers are arranged into four generational choirs and enter into a confrontational musical theatre piece, a cross-generational conversation highlighting how we view each other. Political Cutz, which has just finished up, is a pop-up hair salon in Wellington central that offered free professional haircuts in exchange for political conversations. Next week, Barbarian are hosting their annual Spring Uprising, a mini-festival that “celebrates arts as an agent for social change.” This year’s election special includes a kids polling booth and an election night party, as well as an interesting take on speed dating where artists speed date to create new collaborations around urgent issues.
Suffice to say, the crew behind Barbarian Productions know how to engage people in a way that is rare. They come off the stage, they include volunteers, community members and often the audience in the performance, they use different and interesting venues, and most importantly, they listen. For Jo, engaging in the world of theatre is the medium through which she can most exuberantly engage people in conversations around the issues that she sees impacting the world.
“I feel happiest and most free expressing myself in theatre because it allows me to be as brave and comic and unrestrained as I would like to be. When a new way of doing something is presented on stage it opens up a myriad of opportunities for people. I see it as imaginative problem solving to find new ways out of boring unjust situations that mostly we all realise suck.”
For these reasons, Barbarian Productions are often referred to as making radical theatre. Which Jo agrees with, but only in terms of its etymology. The word radical, she explained, comes from the latin word ‘radix’, meaning root. “The core of its origin is something that is deeply connected to the ground. Radical acts are often very simple, grounded and calling back to some sense of truth or knowledge. To me, it means holding onto something that is very truthful.”
Which is exactly what Jo has always done. This is the compass through which she has made decisions about which opportunities to politely but adamantly turn down, and which to chase. And this is her call to artists. “There are a lot of different companies and opportunities. The biggest, shiniest ones with the most money might not be the best fit. Be brave enough to follow the currencies that matter to you, the people who matter to you, the conversations that are started that don’t appear in anyway powerful or useful. Chase the conversations that are most meaningful to you, and then you’ll get your own kind of success.”
Spring Uprising: Election Year Special
Four days celebrating arts for social change
20-23 September, Vogelmorn Bowling Club
Kids Polling Booth (20-23 Sept)
Ever wondered what your kids would vote for? Or what they'd promise if they could run for election? Kids can not only vote for whatever they want, they can even put on a suit and tie and run for election themselves!
Speed Dating (Wed 20 Sept, 6.30pm)
Social organisations present on urgent issues. Artists then speed-date them to create new collaborations. Spectators welcome. Facilitated by Jo Randerson. Drinks/nibbles provided
How to Listen (Thurs 21 Sept, 7pm)
Dr. Emily Beausoliel shares discoveries about why listening is hard for those in positions of power and what that means for social change.
Film Screening (Fri 22 Sept, 7pm)
Ken Loach's 2016 UK social welfare drama 'I, Daniel Blake' followed by a casual kōrero.
Election Night Party (Sat 23 Sept, 7pm)
$7 dinner available until 8.30pm. Celebrate democracy in action with music, singing, live feeds, a media dungeon, political characters and alternative commentaries. Food/drinks available at cash bar.