I. I think it’s just something that people have said to us.
Meg Perks and Joe Kent-Walters started their company, The Devil Wears Dada, in the first summer of the pandemic. Meg can’t remember if their show, Meg and Joe are Trying to Connect, suffered two or three failed Arts Council bids in that time, but Joe won’t forget in a hurry: Two arts council, one local council, he cuts in.
I’m here to ask them what it means to be emerging, and Meg, like me, isn’t sure. I think it’s just something that people have said to us. Maybe we’re not fully established as a company yet, still finding our footing a bit.
It’s uncanny to hear an almost identical answer from Ali Pidsley the next day. A founder of Barrel Organ, he now mentors new companies through NSDF and remembers the word being used about himself nearly ten years ago. It’s someone else telling you that you’re at the beginning of a journey.
Emerging, then, isn’t just about being in a process of growth and development. It’s a word which is nearly always used by others to describe early career artists, and rarely used by artists to describe themselves on their own terms.
I’m going around in circles, wondering whether the word is just the inevitable product of our industry’s hierarchies, or whether it plays a more active role in creating them.
II. Battling gatekeepers.
That’s what emerging means to Joe. Ironically, even the word itself is tangled up in this gatekeeping process: opening some doors while moving other opportunities out of reach.
Meg tells me about Open Source Arts, whose free programme for emerging grassroots artists enabled them to livestream their performance after the paralysis of funding rejections. Being described as emerging can provide access to resources, and with it a sense of legitimisation.
But this legitimisation comes at a cost, Joe explains, when certain theatres or organisations will be like, ‘we won’t programme you for our actual theatre because we’ve got all these things for emerging artists.’ The word becomes shorthand for a desire to support early career artists without taking the perceived risk of actually programming them.
I’m still going around in circles, but I’m beginning to think that this is the point. The language of emerging has something of the chicken and the egg in its relationship to the power dynamics of the cultural industries, coming both first and second, a product of hierarchies which goes on to sustain them.
Payment is always the final gate to be kept. While Meg and Joe have benefitted from free rehearsal space, they have relied on donations from audiences, family and friends to attempt to cover their running costs. To be ‘emerging’ reads as needing help, but not payment for work.
III. This idea that out of nowhere you can just like… ‘Boom! Yeah I’m a genius!’
Joe draws on his comedy work, telling me about the nominations for the Best Newcomer category for the Chortle awards. I’ve seen people on that list, and they’ve been going for ten years. What does it mean for emerging to be an identity occupied by both a theatre company making their first show and a seasoned comedian?
The industry wants to feel like they’ve tapped into some undiscovered talent, he suggests. And artists can play into this: It can feel quite good to be like ‘oh yeah I’ve only been at it for X many years,’ and then people are like ‘Oh woah! Cool!’
It’s frustrating that this irritatingly persistent faith in the concept of ‘raw talent’ obscures the work which goes into winning a comedy award or getting a show selected for NSDF. It’s not really genius, it’s just hard work, says Meg.
IV. Will I always be emerging?
It’s impossible to escape the idea that my emerging – both the stage of my career and the label that comes with it – will be over soon. I’m swayed by Ali’s suggestion, that because of the way that our minds work or because of capitalism, when you think of a journey you think of the end result, you think of where it’s a journey to.
Out of this comes a pressure to get the emerging over with, where both success and failure come at a cost. What happens if you are still emerging when you turn 26? Or if you feel you have progressed to a new stage and can’t shed the label? I ask Meg and Joe what’s next, and Joe can only answer my question with more of his own: It fills me with a lot of anxiety, like how long are you emerging for?
Although I’ve had an aversion to ‘emerging’ for a while now, writing this article has shown me that the real problem is how the word is used: the way it perpetuates existing hierarchies, reinforces the myth of the child prodigy and plays an active role in gatekeeping access to opportunities and payment.
Replacing it with another word won’t solve these problems, but acknowledging artists on their own terms might be a step in a good direction. This is what Meg wants: Maybe instead of just saying the word emerging, you could just give a bit more background about the company, what we’ve done, who we are.