In Defense of Being a Theatre Maker Outside of London

If you’re seriously considering a career in theatre, particularly as a performer, you will likely receive the advice or come to the conclusion yourself that London is the best place to live. Surely it must be where all the jobs are because that’s where most of the theatre industry seems to be. It’s true that the industry can feel very London centric sometimes.

“But why does it have to be all about London?”

I’m a theatre maker and facilitator who’s trying to make it all work in Nottingham because if I’m honest, London just wasn’t for me. Cut back to four years ago, when I was in the midst of UCAS and drama school auditions, I was lucky enough to receive an offer on Rose Bruford College’s European Theatre Arts course and was absolutely over the moon. It seemed to be the perfect course for me, allowing me to perform but also explore taking a more creative role through devising and directing, an opportunity to study in another country, and crucially spend most of my studies in London. I loved my time in London at drama school; I had all my friends nearby and a student loan covering me enough to allow many trips into central London to see as many shows as I liked. In fact, I loved London so much that even when I had the incredible experience of living and studying in Prague for 5 months, I felt homesick for London and on my return got a tattoo of the London skyline around my ankle!

By the time I graduated I thought I was so ready to FINALLY get out of suburban Sidcup and sink my teeth into living more centrally. Before my final year had even ended, I had already moved into a flat only a two minute walk from Bromley-By-Bow station in East London, minutes away from where everything exciting was happening, in anticipation for all of the exciting theatre career stuff I would inevitably be doing straight away.

“Never at any point did it occur to me to live anywhere else – I was going to work in theatre, so I was going to live in London.”

The flat was pretty small, with only 5 of us sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. I took the plunge and shared with complete strangers, knowing many of my friends were moving out of London back home or to try and make it in places like Bristol and Brighton. I was paying £600 a month for the pleasure of living with lots of messy people who didn’t communicate and quickly found that although I was living with so many people, I had never felt so lonely and isolated.

Job hunting was difficult but I was determined. After weeks of boring applications and never seeming to hear back I soon got a job working a minimum wage, zero hours contract flyering for a popular theatre festival. It was the easiest job in the world, standing out in the sun chatting to lovely theatre folk, and when the rain inevitably came I would hide out in the storage container where all the flyers were kept and sit on my phone. But it was only a small amount of income that just couldn’t keep up with the living costs. I also got a short freelance job contracting me for only 3 weeks to teach dance at a summer school. Although it was good money, being only 3 weeks, it inevitably didn’t last.

“And then… nothing.”

Money continued to pour out of my account at phenomenal speed, with my tiny, inconsistent flyering income doing little to act as a dam. My stress and anxiety were getting worse and worse as I watched my overdraft plummet, leading to a hospital visit due to stress induced stomach pains. I was miserable.

In one of my desperate phone calls to my parents pleading for reassurance and ‘just a little bit more money’ my dad, fed up with all of this, suggested I go and live with my mum for a bit. Horrified, I protested profusely: ‘Of course I can’t move out of London, you don’t understand I have to be here for my career!’ Dad had however planted a seed, and with my overdraft nearly maxed out and being unable to stand my flatmates any longer, I was finally persuaded to go to my mum’s in a small town in the East Midlands called Newark-on-Trent.

Living at my mum’s initially made me feel like a huge failure. However it forced me to take some time to rest, seek therapy and think about my next steps.

Being a very independent person, I didn’t want to stay living at my mum’s for too long. I knew going back to London any time soon was out of the question and started to consider where I would move to next. Newark was an option having so many family nearby and it being SO cheap to live in, but there just wasn’t any sort of theatre scene. So, I made a spreadsheet of UK cities that are considered quite creative and wrote down stats about the cost of living, how many theatres there are, and how many job opportunities there were on the ArtsJobs website. My head was all over the shop and making the decision, particularly when I felt so deflated, was impossible.

But then I visited Nottingham, the nearest city to mum’s, and loved it. It’s a small city with a great arts scene, a variety of theatres and lots of lovely people. Originating from Essex, it took me a while to get over the northern culture shock of strangers chatting to you and being polite! So, I got a job in Nottingham as a charity fundraiser and commuted from Newark every day.

Doing this job I realised I really enjoyed Nottingham and wanted to move there, but was exhausted at the end of every day and missed having the time to be creative. Fortunately, I saw Nottingham Playhouse’s Homegrown program – a program for emerging theatre makers who are interested in learning more about their craft through a series of workshops with an opportunity to put on a festival at the end of the (academic) year. Finally, for the first time after drama school I had the opportunity to be creative again!

Not content with the job I had, standing out in the blustery, damp October weather conditions everyday trying to convince the uninterested members of the public to donate (including one who spat on my shoe!), I applied to work at Nottingham Playhouse as an usher, got the job, and moved to a shared flat in Nottingham. I’ve been so much happier in this job being surrounded by other creatives and getting to watch theatre for free. Slowly I’ve eased into life here, picking up more and more jobs as a freelance facilitator and finding various opportunities. There was a bit of a rocky time with my finances whilst I was here as well, especially when I first moved into my new flat – this time a one bedroom flat to myself (£150pcm cheaper than my shared flat in London!), but things are getting better again and I’m feeling more and more confident in supporting myself.

I also applied to various festivals and venues with a show out of sheer determination to force myself to be creative.

“From this my solo show ‘Noot Patoot’ was born.”

It’s been stressful and difficult to perform, direct and produce myself, but it’s been worth it to get my work out. Last month I performed the work-in-progress at Nottingham Playhouse’s studio space, The Neville Studio, and at The Blue Elephant Theatre in London. Off the back of the show, I’ve since been cast in another solo show and had a couple of other local creatives approach me to discuss working together on future projects.

I’m enjoying living in Nottingham, but of course this isn’t my perfect happy ending. My finances are still quite rocky, I’m only just really starting to make friends here, and I do miss the vastness and variety of London theatre. I also still spend a lot of time worrying about where my career is going and how I can make it work. However, when I remind myself where I was when I first graduated and where I am now (only 6 months later), I’ve made incredible progress and actually think that moving to Nottingham has been the best decision for my career so far. I don’t need to have it all figured out just yet after all.

If you’re in any doubts about living in London as creative, and you’re thinking about whether or not to go regional, I’d definitely recommend it. Though it seems like there are fewer jobs, there’s also much less competition. Plus there’s a great community spirit in smaller cities and towns that London doesn’t have! I spend so much time at the Playhouse (with work, partaking in Homegrown, auditioning for people, meeting with people and taking any opportunities there I can) that more and more I’m starting to get to know members of staff there and finding more opportunities are opening up to me as a result. We also can’t ignore how much cheaper it is to live anywhere that isn’t London. If I was still in London, even in commuter belt, there’s no way at this point in my career I’d be able to afford a flat to myself (nor would I feel safe to do so).

I probably won’t be in Nottingham forever, in fact I don’t think I’ll be here for much longer at all, I’m thinking of doing a masters degree somewhere like Manchester. Either way, I know that now’s not the right time in my life to be living in London, and that other regional theatres will also have a lot to offer me. London’s great if you can afford it and you get a good job quickly, but if it’s not for you that’s ok, there’s still plenty of opportunities in regional theatre (and often less competition).

“You do you!”

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