• Crossline Theatre

Ageing in the Arts: What I've Learned So Far

Written by Natalia Knowlton

Natalia's first school play where she played a sassy butterfly.

I’m turning 30 in less than a week. Given the state of the world at the moment, transitioning into my 30’s doesn’t feel that scary anymore (never thought I’d say that!).

Like many people, I’ve done a lot of reflecting while self-isolating. I’ve always taken pride in my work ethic and passion for my theatre career. This mentality has caused burn out, sacrificing relationships and moving far away from the people I love. Theatre has always come first and I’m starting to question if that's the right thing to do anymore.

My 20’s were all about chasing a dream that was almost impossible to achieve, so I fell down many times and learnt the hard way. For most of my 20’s, turning 30 felt like a cruel finish line, a deadline for a list of things I wanted to get done in my theatre career. As dramatic as this sounds, I hit my rock bottom when I turned 27. I couldn’t cope with moving to the “late 20’s” bracket and I thought “if I’m reacting like this at 27, what’s going to happen when I turn 30?”I knew something had to change.

So for the last 3 years, I’ve been on a journey to unlearn and overcome my fear of ageing. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

You don’t have to “make it” in your 20’s

I don’t know where this sick idea comes from, but for some reason every young artist I know thinks they have to become an overnight sensation in their 20’s to be successful (whatever that means to you). By 30, I wanted playwriting to pay my bills and for my scripts to be commissioned, published and produced by professional theatres. And I wanted to do all this while traveling the world and being a cat mom. This is all sounds so stupid, it makes me want to slap my 21-year-old self.

I’ve learned that “overnight” success stories usually involve many years of hard work that no one talks about. A writer’s “first play” is never technically their first play. Even when you’ve “made it”, you have the pressure to continue creating high quality work, which can be more debilitating in your 20’s because you’re less experienced. Point is, you have your whole life to work on your craft, life does go on after your 20’s. In fact, your best art will come with time. I’ve come such a long way as a person from 20 to 30 and that has undoubtedly made me a better writer and artist. I can’t wait to see what I’ll be creating in the next decades.

It’s about the process, not the outcome

The other problem with wanting to “make it” in your 20’s is that you’re thinking about the outcome, not the process. You’re thinking of the fame, the status and the praise you’ll get from your art. You’re essentially wanting the romanticised idea of being an artist, but you’re not thinking of the work you have to put in. Going to school makes you think of your craft but after that it’s up to you to put in the time to work on your art in your schedule along with your day jobs and everything else. By doing so, you’re actively working on your skills which is the only thing you can control. Think of outcome as nice bonus but not your ultimate goal. You can’t dictate when you’ll get famous but you can control the quality of your art.

This mentality has also helped me with dealing with rejection. No matter how many times I get rejected, I still show up to write the next day and keep going.

Speaking of crappy things like rejection…

Accept the shit sandwich

I came across the term “shit sandwich” in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic where she explains that artists usually think of the good things that come with creating (again, think of the romanticised idea in our heads). But we rarely think of the shit sandwich that comes with it which might include rejections, unstable and low pay, sacrificing relationships etc. The shit sandwich is inevitable and to be an artist is to be willing to eat the shit sandwich. We all know those people we might have gone to school with that were top of the class, the people we were certain were going to make it because they were more talented than us. Then it turns out they quit as soon as they graduated and now work in real state and live in the suburbs. They might have been talented but they didn’t want it bad enough to eat the shit sandwich. PS no judgement on people not wanting to eat the shit sandwich, because it is shit, especially during a pandemic.

Make a plan/don’t make a plan

I love contradictions.

If COVID-19 is going to teach us anything it's that we can plan all we want but if shit hits the fan, you have to go with it and create a new plan. At the end of my Masters, I had to write a five-year career plan and it’s wild to see how much it changed in a matter of months. This is a good thing. Many great things have happened to me that I didn’t plan for but have made me grow. Shows I worked on for a long time all got cancelled this year because of COVID-19. Is it heart-breaking? Of course it is and you should grieve that loss. But it’s also made me think of what else I can do during this time. I hope you’re creating, if that’s what you want to do. But I also hope the industry is taking a break to reflect and relax. We’re all burned out, we all need a breather.

And last but not least…

Ageing is a gift

The alternative is death, don’t ever forget it or take it for granted. As scary as it is to age (a loaded term, especially for women), it is a gift to spend more time on this earth to be with our loved ones and grow, no matter what you accomplish or not. Life is not a race, it’s an experience so make the most of it.