First published June 2007

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. There is no “sitting on the fence”… you are either on one side or another. You are either working on a show, or you are not. Thinking about working on a show, wondering if there is a show you could work on etc, is in the category of “not.” But if you are in the process of approaching people, raising money and writing proposals: you are working. For me, it’s not just the luxurious 6 weeks (part time) with actors I enjoy and count as “working on a show”… It’s the deciding on the scripts, the selection of the team… the whole invisible process that starts months before.

Because everything is in a state of emergence, I am a little terrified of mentioning anything to old colleagues, theatre acquaintances and people I know in a theatre foyer in case somehow the mere mention of what I am about to do…or secretly working on breaks the spell and everything freezes for eternity in an eternal winter. I am not a procrastinator. It’s not as though I am lazy, putting things off, and not working on anything at the moment. In fact, its quite the opposite… but if I were to rattle off the projects on the boil right now… that familiar look drifts over the faces of the inquisitor… the look of excitement, then boredom, then envy, then disbelief, then haughty indifference. Yep, the list of things I am doing makes me look like I am lying or delusional or both. Then it then appears as if I was not in the midst of things at all, but desperately over compensating. So my thinking is… be polite and a little aloof and be more interested in them.

It’s a knee jerk response. “What are you doing at the moment?” And sometimes it feels as though you must recite your CV at people to defend or prove or to justify your label as (insert profession here)… And for some peers in the theatre/entertainment industry, the competition is what fuels them, their career is based on spite and envy.

Recently I was asked to meet a director, in order to be his assistant on a show. He had my phone number from an artistic director I know, and we arranged to meet, like a blind date on the steps of Sydney’s town hall. I bought him a coffee and talked about his project. And soon it became screamingly clear that I was not the right fit for this project. He wanted an assistant director who could read stage plots and tell actors where to stand. He sweated through interviewing me, complaining of stress and fatigue (2 months out of opening) and I thought, “No Gus. This is not the project for you” I rejected myself from his project, wished him the very best and we parted ways. I will be seeing his show (which other acquaintances I know are in) next week.

Of course it is hard to say “no”. Its hard to be the one to disappoint and to reject an opportunity… because “you can never know too many people” as a friends father used to say.. and you never know where you may be catapulted to due to a particular show…But I think of theatre in terms of canned tuna: “it’s the fish that John West rejects, that makes John West the best”. Sometimes by rejecting something you didn’t want/couldn’t do, you allow the person who DID want to do it and could do it, a wonderful opportunity to make something and experience something great. It’s the art of putting the right peg in the right hole. And not all pegs look the same.

Theatre is not a place to suffer or a place martyrs are created. No one has been sainted for repainting the set at 2am or for crying during bump-in. Theatre is a place for creativity, communication and community, and if you are not enjoying it… don’t do it. And you may not enjoy a role or process but someone else might.

I attended the Australian Writers Guild seminar on the role of the writer/producer. And the strongest thing I walked away from it understanding is to ask. It is a normal feeling to be a little on the back foot… a little shy when asking people to come on board a project for a co-op fee (a well known euphemism for “free” or “far less than an equity wage.”) Not having money for a project can make you feel powerless or insignificant.. or unworthy to ask. And I have felt like that on too many occasions. Its also easy to be afraid or someone saying “no.” I now ask out of courtesy. I ask people if they would like to be in a show I am directing, if they would like to have their script directed by me or if they would like to direct my latest play. I can’t assume that everyone is busy, or uninterested: that is the height of arrogance. There are actors I would love to work with and I hope to when the project is right. And the worst that can happen is that someone may say no.

When people say no, there are a million factors that it could be: an impending trip to Brisbane; they have freshly fallen in love and are wrapped in the fluffy arms of bliss; they are shooting a film; they don’t connect with the characters; they are in the middle of climbing a mountain in South America (all these are real reasons offered to me in the last 3 months). Also it’s important to let people know that when they have said “no” it does not mean they are forever cut from the “to ask list”. Something else might pop up later, that fits in better with their life. And despite popular belief, theatre people do have lives outside of and beyond the theatre.

There will be a time for all of us to be in a wonderful show, which had a lovely process, and magnificent people around, well received by all who see it and causes excitement. There will also be occasions when due to unforeseen circumstances, we are in a show we don’t like, or a part we don’t enjoy, a process that was difficult or that was dismissed by critics. But really, there will always be shows that you missed out on, said you say “no” to and there will always be people who miss out and who say “no” to you. But no matter what, just remember the immortal words of Mr Kenny Rogers:

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”