There's an oft-repeated remark from famous people that they achieved overnight success after years of work... look back through your theatre programmes and see who you saw on the way up. You may have worked with them as a stage manager or colleague actor. You may have seen them on the stage and cheered them. Stars do not achieve celestial glory overnight (usually) and for many it is too easy for the bright glimmer of stardom to be quashed by not being nurtured or cared for.
I was asked to do a quick talk about the Theatre Royal for the Stowmarket Chamber of Commerce last week. A labour of love since the meeting started at 6.45am (an unusual time for a bouncy talk about profit, loss and thespians). They did serve breakfast (even if I had to pay for my own).
Sitting next to me was a very successful PR freelance who said she had come to the meeting especially to hear me. I was flattered, even moreso when I learned why. As a student she had contacted me when I ran Buxton Opera House to see whether I could give her any good advice about getting a job in marketing and PR in the arts. I met her, explored ideas, and suggested she contacted my successor at the Edinburgh International Festival to see if she could get a summer job.
She did. He liked her. She joined the Festival. She stayed 2 years before moving on to the wider PR community. And now, over 20 years later she is in Suffolk, running her own highly successful business, Affinity PR, and sitting opposite me enjoying a plate of baked beans and a fried egg too early in the morning.
I suppose, over 30 years, I've met hundreds of students like Helen. In the last five years I've also set aside one day a month to meet emerging creative artists with my CGO Surgeries at the National Theatre. The questions don't vary that much, and my advice most definitely stays much the same. I don't say anything that you can't read in a book, or download, or even realise in the privacy of your own study.
But what I do, that makes a difference, is I listen. I give each person time. We seek to explore their life, their career, as if it were a first encounter with the particular problems for both of us. I'm not saying what I do is unique, or difficult. But I am saddened when I see that so many emerging creatives and professionals talk to me as though I was the first person in the business who had ever taken them seriously.
And, by the way, you don't stop needing support and encouragement just because you've been in the biz for 30 years. I got turned down for a part-time project with one of the major national theatre companies last month, having spent many hours honing my pitch and then visiting and meeting them. I emailed to ask whether someone could spare a moment to call me and give me feedback. I've never done that before but I was encouraged to do it by talking to a young artist who had just been turned down, she'd rung for feedback, and had a brilliant 45 minute really helpful call from the organisation. She went away enriched, even if she didn't have the job.
Sadly I wasn't so fortunate - I got a bland email from HR saying they had appointed someone who matched the criteria better. I, of course, wish that person god speed with a great project in a great organisation - but I'd have loved a bit of TLC and interest in "me". So as you see it doesn't get easier.
Next time someone asks for your advice, or a fraction of your time to share a dream, or some feedback - please think hard about what it could mean to them. Hey, you might help a star to shine brighter or just encourage someone to keep believing.
I'm old enough and tough enough to bounce back - maybe the next student might not be. Next time someone asks your advice.
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