As a 51 year old theatre maker, actor, writer and teacher I have become curious about and disgruntled by the term ‘emerging’ artist. This call for the ‘emerging’ artist, what does it mean? 

Definitions of  emerging include: to become visible, break out from an egg , cocoon, pupal case, To come out of something or out from behind something, become apparent or prominent.
‘After a few weeks the caterpillar emerges from its cocoon’. ‘The doors opened and people began to emerge’.

This last example feels especially relevant with regard to theatre and the performing arts. Who are the door openers and what criteria do they set in order to qualify as an emerging artist? Who do they open the doors to?

It appears that the term is commonly used in conjunction with those starting out on their career, embarking on an initial piece of work or fresh from training. Primarily young.

This led me to ask the question ‘At what age do you stop qualifying as an emerging artist?’ Is being emergent contingent on being under 30? 25?

The session was very well attended and the discussion ran well over the allotted time. 
The group was made up of approx  85% women and bar one (if there were more I was unaware, apologies) all participants were practitioners.

It felt telling and familiar to be surrounded by a group of predominantly older women practitioners and an absence of those who employ the term ‘emerging’ in deciding on whose art is more or less welcome/viable. 

Given the demographic of the group, do older women particularly feel that the term ‘emerging’ excludes them? Does visibility, becoming apparent or prominent, breaking out of our cocoons, stop at 25, 30? If so why? 

If not why do so many of us feel unentitled to refer to ourselves as emerging artists? 

What about those of us that create our first show at 40, write our first play at 60, step on a stage, direct, produce, run a venue..etc

I am performing my first solo show at 51. I have had a career for 25 years but the voice with which I speak now has emerged through this show and do doubt new voices of mine have yet to be hatched. My voice is no less relevant, resonant or deserving than when I was 25, in fact I know I couldn’t have written this piece at 25, I hadn’t lived it.

Isn’t emerging a continual process? Different stages of our work and artistry emerge at different points of our career/life. At each stage aren’t those voices worth listening to?

We explored the extent to which we are confined by the stories we tell about ourselves - ‘I do not qualify as emerging because I believe myself to be too old’ ‘If I haven’t emerged by now, I will be considered a failure, I haven’t made it’ ‘It’s too late to apply’ ‘bad luck, you’ve missed your moment’ ‘I wrote a play 20 years ago, so I am no longer considered emerging’.

However it was also noted by many women in the group that in mid life they feel more confident, experienced and with a strong desire to share their work/stories and get their voices heard. Confidence, experience and conviction they lacked in their twenties. And yet…as this stage of their expression and artistry emerges, they experience doors closing and their voices silenced. There was a sense of congruence clashing - we are at an age to trust our voices, step into our power, knowing what we want to say - but at the same time the accumulation of knock-backs erodes that very confidence we're discovering.

How much therefore can we attribute to our own narratives about ourselves (false or otherwise) and how much to the gatekeepers and institutions that reinforce the notion that the experiences and stories of the young are more relevant, significant and interesting.

This led us to the question, why this focus on the young? ‘The cult of youth’.

Some thoughts within the group:

Younger and less experienced artists are cheaper and less demanding.
Older artists want paying. More opinionated and ‘difficult’.

Some older programmers like to surround themselves with youth in order not to face their own ageing.

Do we place value on the vitality and ‘attractiveness’ of youth and dismiss the value of our own and others’ ageing? We live through our own and then vicariously through the youth of others. A societal fixation with being and looking young.

Younger programmers/venues want work to reflect their own interests or perceived interests. Do the young favour their own experience and peer group as more creatively interesting, innovative, in touch with urgent social issues?

Is art made by older artists perceived as less current, societally engaged, less important in terms of sustaining and building audiences.

Work by young artists engages better with young and new generation audiences.

These thoughts led to questions re who wants to watch what in theatre.  

All of us want to see ourselves and our stories represented and this is important and necessary. Numerous stories have been excluded for too long and of course this includes the experience of many young people. 

However art is not discriminatory and creativity is not bound by any of the boxes we are asked to tick, the limitations imposed on us. Theatre should embrace all stories and invite all audiences to witness these stories. Whether made by young or old or watched by young or old art has the power to transform, not just reinforce what we already know or understand the world or ourselves to be. Art represents different ages and is simultaneously ageless.

Let’s stop labelling and just put a call out for great work from a diverse range of artists.  Or if you are going to use the term ‘emerging’ understand that art emerges when it needs to however much we might like it to be done and dusted by 30. 

In this spirit we  decided that we would not be put off any more by the label and would apply any way. A call to arms: We the older emergers have to make the changes and redefine the term.

We talked about ways to inspire and support each other, ideas such as: 

Founding a collective

Festival of new writing for older artists.

Writers’ groups.

‘Shop Window ‘ - a place where people know where to look to source work, artists.

A directory, website resource.

Data base with access of examples of people’s work.

Programme of support/coaching 
We spoke about Danny Lee Wynter's hashtag campaign #YesorNo and how it changed things significantly re actors getting news from casting directors - now Equity has built it into some contracts.  (We also spoke of how speaking out makes you look like 'the difficult one' - Danny worried he would never work again when he started his campaign.)  Can we do the same re this issue?
Women championing and nominating other women , to raise exposure, profile and share great work. We talked a little about Fuel's Phenomenal People project where women nominated women that inspire them. Theatre Bristol (where Alex Murdoch works at mo) are working on a season of support re this - some of which is inspired by Fran McDormand's Oscar speech post MeToo where she got people to take action on inviting women in for actual meetings.

We questioned whether ageism is treated seriously enough in terms of funding. Should funding be refused if older artists are discriminated against. One participant suggested that ACE believes it has ticked the ageism box by ensuring there are enough community projects for the elderly, but nit sufficiently addressing systemic ageism with the theatre community. In his words ‘is ageism the only respectable bigotry left’?

So in conclusion we agreed there needs to be support and practical advice/support for older practitioners in terms of accessing venues, producers, funding  etc and have access to opportunities.

We also agreed that in order to do that we need further conversations but with a group that includes not only practitioners but venues, gate keepers, fundraisers etc as well.

The opportunity to hear and understand experiences from both sides and to find ways forward together. 

Myself and Alex Murdoch are on the case and if you would like to be updated about future discussions and developments please contact me at [email protected]

Thank you to everyone who joined the session.

It felt inspiring and galvanising and I look forward to the next stage.