Three people in the arts world discuss the difficulties of making a living while pursuing their craft

Pursuing a craft does cost. Richard Fitzpatrick talks to people from the arts world about how financial savvy can be as important as pursuing vision.
Three people in the arts world discuss the difficulties of making a living while pursuing their craft

In 2007, Paul Howard transferred the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly franchise to the stage after several best-selling novels. The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger was put on at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. He laughingly admits it lacked the discipline of his later plays.

“I didn’t know how to write something that structurally worked on the stage. The director Jimmy Fey did an amazing job pulling together what I’d written. There was a moment when I was walking into the theatre the day they were doing the tech, and when they talk about ‘the tech’, everybody involved in theatre tends to get this distant look in their eyes, like Vietnam vets, as if they’ve been through something awful.

“So I stuck my head in. They were unloading all the equipment for the play out the back of a van, and this wooden helicopter came out — I had written in a police helicopter, which was dipped into one scene and pulled out again; I have no idea what it must have cost, how much trouble it was to create — and I heard a member of the crew going: ‘Ah, what in the name of Jaysus is this?’”

Howard learned from the experience. For his second Ross play everything was set in the O’Carroll-Kelly drawing room. The general public has little idea what is involved in putting on a play, says Marketa Dowling, general manager, Fishamble: The New Play Company.

Paul Howard
Paul Howard

“We would be in development for some plays for two, three years. There’s re-writing. Then we spend €70,000 to €120,000 on a new production, depending on how big it is, and that’s being really frugal. I don’t think theatregoers realise how much work is involved and how many people are back stage.”

Fishamble has two full-time staff and one part-timer. Behind the scenes, it has a battalion of specialists, which might run to 20 people in a typical production.

These include director, stage director, costume designer, sound designers who conjure the soundscape and music, set designer for set and props, lighting designer, sometimes a video designer if there’s projections, graphic designer for posters and fliers, a marketing whiz, set builders, a scenic artist, whose task is to “age down” a freshly built set.

A playwright might be paid between €4,000 and €16,000 for a commissioned script, according to Dowling and 10 per cent of box-office takings. Rights are acquired for two years before reverting to the playwright. In Ireland, copyright remains with a playwright’s estate until 70 years after death.

For actors, a play usually lasts for a four-week rehearsal period and a two-week theatre run. A company like Fishamble hires actors on a freelance basis. It pays them about €750 a week, which is around 50% higher than Irish Equity rates but probably lower, says Dowling, than, say, the Abbey or Gate theatres. Most Irish actors work freelance.

“The only company I know in Ireland who have a permanent ensemble is the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company in Sligo,” says Dowling. “All other companies hire actors for the individual gig. It’s not ideal. In my opinion, ensembles work much better but the way theatre is funded, it’s just not feasible for any company to have actors on payroll the whole year round.”

An artist like Mick O’Dea, who has just finished a landmark eight-years-in-the-making series of paintings on Ireland’s revolutionary years (1916-1923) and is president of the Royal Hibernian Academy, will spend between €8,000 and €20,000 a year on materials. This outlay excludes studio costs of about €600 a month on rent and electricity.

Mick O’Dea
Mick O’Dea

“When it comes to materials, there is amateur and professional or student and artist,” he says. “Artists’ quality pigment [paint] is usually sourced from organic sources, though not exclusively. They have permanency and are fugitive – they won’t start to fade and run away like student ones. A 220ml tube of artist’s quality pigment might cost €300.

“They talk about harmonicas as being the most expensive instrument in the world, which is why harmonica players need to be sponsored by people like Hohner, because they blow out the harmonica’s reeds after each gig, and you can’t replace them. There’s a constant turnover. A blues harmonica player might go through 10-15 harmonicas a week. With brushes similarly, depending on how you use them, you can just rip them down. I’m working on large scale at the moment, 4m x 3m paintings. That is very tough on brushes. I’m going through quite a few.”

When O’Dea puts on an exhibition at a gallery, it will take 50% of the takings, but he says it’s an acceptable cut. “If the gallery is doing its job, it’s fine. You accept it. It has a client list, a loyal following depending on the quality of the gallery, a good location that critics respect, will come to and review. They’ll send out the invitations. They’ll organise the reception.”

The singer Camille O’Sullivan organises her own affairs, eschewing a manager. She reckons 30 percent of her time is performing; the rest is spent on management issues like booking flights, hotels, travel visas, minibus rental and driver. She designs her posters and fliers, updates her website, sends out mailers. Her CDs are under her bed.

Camille O’Sullivan
Camille O’Sullivan

“I’m the name. I’m not a band so I don’t share the risk,” she says. “I read a book years ago on music and it said, ‘If you want to make it in the business, keep your expenses down’ because there are people out there who get a record deal and they don’t realise the limousine they’re hiring is coming out of their sales. You might not be paid yourself for six months [for a gig] but you have to make sure you have enough money to pay everybody along the way.”

These include booking agents in the UK and Australia. On a big tour, her band could stretch to seven musicians, a lighting person, a sound person and a stage manager.

She might also buy a sound desk to ensure she gets the same sound in each venue.

“The gig doesn’t just start at 8 o’clock,” she says. “You might be on the road from 7am and get to the venue at 2pm. I’d be very hands-on with lighting and how the stage should be, so you’re working right up to the moment you hit the stage at 8pm. That is why it’s nice to be invited onto somebody else’s show because they take care of the thing. Just give me my money at the end of it!

“It’s a psychological thing, too, just keeping yourself sane on the road because when you go on stage you want to give the best show you can. It can be quite painful to go to a place where you see the audience, and the numbers aren’t adding up, and you know in your head because you’re running it, but you learn over the years to accept that sometimes happens. That’s the formula.”

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