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Artists on lockdown: Conrad Murray

A conversation with actor, writer, director, rapper, beatboxer, singer and theatre-maker Conrad Murray

Lockdown obviously has huge consequences for live events and performance. We’re having to drastically change the way we’re doing things – and we really want to listen to artists in that process. We want to make sure that the changes we bring in are guided by what will help artists to keep creating great work.

We had conversations with a couple of theatre-makers (and paid for their time), to get their input. Here’s what Conrad Murray – an actor, writer, director, rapper, beatboxer, singer and theatre-maker, who has led the BAC Beatbox Academy since 2008 and made a host of five-star shows, including Frankenstein – had to say.

How has lockdown been for you, and for your work, so far?

It’s hard, honestly. All the projects I’ve been working on – all those deadlines have gone, overnight. And being an artist but with no projects and in a national emergency – it makes me feel like ‘what do you even do now?’ Like, what is my purpose?

I’ve been trying to create for its own sake, just trying to find stuff to do that is meaningful. And that’s why it’s nice to get invited to take part in some new, online events – it gives you something to work towards. But it’s also tough, because there’s all these things you’ve been working on for a long time, and you get deep into a certain practice with those, and then that’s suddenly all taken away.

It’s quite depressing, y’know? Like, “What am I doing? FUUUUCK!”

A couple of venues have checked in, just asked how I’m doing – that’s been good. And I’ve had some students – some of them from years back – just call out of the blue, tell me what’s happening for them or asking for advice. And I love that! It’s nice to feel needed…

That’s why one thing I think is really important is for artists to get money to do things. Obviously, people really need monetary support at the moment, and that is massive. But purpose is important, too – like, I wanna be getting paid, to make artistic work. I’ve worked so hard, for years and years – I’m always working – and now that I don’t have an immediate thing to work on, you can get into this kind of crisis of “Who am I?”

Is that part of why you’ve been looking at ways to do things online? How has that felt, is it different?

Yeah, really different. Not so much cos it’s online, but just because you’re having to start something totally new. In some ways, it gives you ‘total freedom’ – but actually that’s weird. Normally, you have all these different ways to get input – but now there’s no interaction with other people, or the inspiration that can come from that.

And theatre is very ‘of the time’, but at the moment everyone’s in the same ‘time’: how much ‘corona content’ can there be?!

Ha, yeah – what do you think about that general ‘lockdown rush’ to take work online?

Like I say, it’s good to see people doing things like scratch nights and stuff; it’s nice to try and have things to work towards. But overall, I think it’s really hard for artists. Like, who’s your competition now? Suddenly, I’m supposed to compete with Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber!

So actually, even though anyone can put something out there, it’s worse for most artists, because everyone is in the same space. How can you get an audience when you’re up against these global superstars who are starting out with 10 million followers?

Plus, the fees being offered for digital work and shows online are, like, 25% of normal, if that. It’s hard to take that on. And it can all feel like you’re just devaluing yourself.

Yep, that’s really not great. And actually that’s something we want to do with this time: to see if we can use the disruption to bring some bigger, lasting improvements in the arts industry – to things like artist pay. So, on that: what would be high up your list of changes you’d like to see?

Pay is definitely a big one. There’s gotta be a better way to pay artists. Less short-term, less unstable. More like a salary, I guess. I don’t know exactly how it should work but there needs to be more security for artists, so that you can build the thing you’re working on.

Just overall, there’s this fixation on novelty – a flash-in-the-pan mindset, producers obsessed with crowbarring in the latest gimmick, even if it doesn’t make any sense in the work… That’s not how you build things, not how you invest in them.

Theatres have become like a factory for neoliberal capitalism. Crank out the next thing, make the money off it, chuck it away… When you make a show, you give over the entire IP to the venue! And then, when the run’s ended, that’s it – the whole thing’s gone, like it never existed.

These places all say they want ‘more diverse voices and audiences’ – but it takes time to put down roots in communities. You’ve gotta build those connections. And you can’t do that if it’s always just ‘make a one-off show to get a one-off grant’.

I know of artists – really talented, amazing artists – who have gone from ‘upcoming star’ to Job Seeker’s Allowance. Literally, to JSA. That’s messed up.

You’re right – and, sadly, it’s the sort of thing we hear a lot. On that, just quickly, lastly, is there anything else you’d want to say to organisations like us? I mean, we’re only small, but we can still make choices about how we commissioned, book and pay artists…

Just, ‘help me to be great at what I do’. Like, I know I don’t know how to do the admin, the funding, the logistics, whatever – so I want help from people who are experts at that stuff. But I am expert at what I do – so leave me to do my thing; allow me to use that expertise! I wouldn’t tell the admin person how to do admin – in fact, I want them to show me how it’s done! So give us the same courtesy: let artists be artists, and support us to build work.

Massive thanks to Conrad for his time, and his insight 🙏

As we’ve mentioned, at Strike A Light we want to use this time of disruption to make some bigger changes to the way the arts industry works. If you’d like to join us in that quest, you can read a whole lot more (soon, real soon!) about the little revolution we’re trying to get started.