Let’s talk about this
25th Jul 2013
A truly terrible thing happened last week and it has made me think, it has made me think a lot. A great, much loved and, by anyone’s standards, successful British actor, Paul Bhattacharjee, who was doing outstanding work at the Royal Court Theatre, disappeared one day after rehearsals. It was later confirmed that his body had been found at the bottom of cliffs in East Sussex. The police were not treating his death as suspicious. It also emerged that he had been declared bankrupt a week before he had apparently taken his own life. His death has sent shockwaves of grief through the theatrical and creative community in London and beyond. His friends and colleagues are devastated and how his loved ones must feel is beyond imagining. My heart goes out to them.
I’m not in the business of using such a tragedy to promote my own opinions, or carelessly make assumptions about the motives or actions of someone I didn’t know (and I offer my most sincere apologies if this post is taken thus), but neither do I feel able to turn away from the questions raised. As it has been with the precious musician friends I have lost to depression and suicide in the past ten years since I graduated, I can't shake off the feeling that somehow this didn't need to happen and I know I'm not alone in feeling that. It is the case that now radiating outwards from the shock of this terrible loss is a discussion about the welfare and mental health of actors and performers. This is a discussion that Paul Bhattacharjee's fellow cast members at the Royal Court Theatre and its artistic director Vicky Featherstone have been keen to encourage. I believe it is an important conversation to have.
Of course I understand that the financial pressures and mental health issues effecting artists are very far from individual to creative professionals. The terrible struggles people face with mental health, unemployment, underemployment and underpayment up and down the UK are only too clear to see, but I believe there are aspects of being a professional artist that make coping with such difficulties particularly problematic. I also believe that by looking closer at these aspects that implications emerge for society at large.
Work in the arts here in the UK has been both scarce and underpaid recently to a degree that is unprecedented for many of us. And it seems to me that the artists and performers I know, myself included, have only just become willing to talk about it to each other. We tend to keep quiet because as freelancers we expect ups and downs, we have weathered them before and, most of all, nobody wants to be a moaner - that person who thinks the world owes them a living. We do our best to keep a positive attitude, and maintain a good impression, a good “shopfront” for our one-person-business, by only posting the good stuff on Facebook (a site my friend calls “living in the third person”) and giving upbeat answers to our colleagues when faced with the inevitable “what have you been up to?” questions. Pop psychology has taught us that our success is all down to our own mental attitude, so we try above all not to sucumb to negative thinking, often not even admitting our suffering to ourselves. We show up fighting the good fight like the knight in Monty Python,“Tis but a mere flesh wound...”
But the truth for many of us is that we have been extraordinarily anxious and often not earning enough to make ends meet. Certainly in London the usual circulation of music work has slowed dramatically in the past year with even the most established session players reporting a barren start to 2013. Those of us who make our own work have frequently found ourselves seriously questioning the wisdom of such a venture. It is only too easy to find that despite the fact that you may be making work, maybe lots of it, you are not, in the manner the world usually understands it, ‘making it work”. And this burden we tend to take entirely upon ourselves.
I think one of the reasons that being an artist of any kind is so bleeding hard sometimes is because of the assumption that you do it because you are still in some sense a spoilt child, unwilling to grow up and join the "real world" and get a "real job". Because of this damaging idea, particularly pervasive towards actors within the theatre industry itself (as evidenced by the story told at the end of this article), that you do it because you are so delusionally in love with this fantasy world of showbusiness that you would rather shovel shit for it than do the reasonable thing and get out. I for one have had enough of this nonsense and ridicule. It needs to be shouted out loudly and often that artists do what they do because they have a deep seated conviction that by practicing their art they are putting the very best of themselves and their talents into the world, yes, that same real world that we all inhabit together. That to do so is a life well spent. That, despite all the constant messages that pile on from birth to the contrary, somewhere in their soul they know that a person’s true value lies in what they give rather than what they get. And maybe these tragic deaths, these senseless sacrifices, these depressions and constant anxieties artists suffer do not in the end point to something fundamentally wrong with art, music, acting, showbusiness or the artistic life itself but to a massive fault in the value system our lives and society are customarily structured on.
Maybe it is up to artists as a community to start to redefine value, to redefine how we value both ourselves and each other. Maybe the “its all down to your attitude” message is off the mark - maybe it’s down to our attitude. Maybe the systems and organisations we are trying to operate within have their priorities completely screwed up. Maybe it’s down to all of us to call that out where we see it, be honest with each other, help each other, remind each other of who we are and why what we do is of worth. Maybe we could support each other in establishing - not through the pedestal building and hype of the media, but for ourselves - a genuine sense of self esteem, security and conviction in what we do, a perspective that could help us see the hits to our material wealth in proportion to what we have to give in the world overall. Maybe it’s time to stop the abusive message constantly directed at us by others and by ourselves that we must deserve poverty, insecurity and mental anguish because our choice of career is somehow irresponsible. And maybe slowly, little by little, we could start to imagine a wider world where Einstein’s words are taken to heart: “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
We are the world’s professional communicators and between us have infinite language and imagination at our disposal. Please, let’s talk about this.