Tim Minchin on niche, risk and making good art
Stage Door Shrink returns to AussieTheatre this month with a very special guest. Rachel Cole chats with Tim Minchin about Matilda, art and taking risks.
A note from Rachi…
If you’re like me: an above average height, white, brunette with a reasonably good vocal range, a sub standard double turn, good teeth and gammy joints, you’ll know there are thousands more where we came from. (Suburbia.) Part of this works for us because musical theatre is a conservative art form where most casts are clean cut looking white people. It also means, it’s very difficult to stand out from the pack because
a) you have a common skill set, and
b) there are hundreds of you.
Ordinarily, people start as generalists in their field and then specialize as they gain experience. Doctors become Orthopedic Surgeons. Actors specialize in comedy. Ballerinas specialize in podium dancing at Arq.
If you have chosen to be in the performing arts industry, you have to be reasonably ok with risk. Finding your niche heightens risk again because it means that as you specialize, you will probably be employed less often, but better paid and more fulfilled when you are. Spend a moment to consider what you do really well. What can you do that others aren’t doing? Try to discern what unique value you can add. Are you that swing who can hold a whole show in their head? A hilarious character actor? Maybe your abs are your thing, (abs get people jobs). A singer who plays instruments? Actually- just work on your abs.
Think of famous musical theatre performers: Alan Cumming, Kelli O’Hara, Nathan Lane, Elaine Strich, Liza Minnelli, Audra McDonald, Billy Porter etc. They are all so different to each other, and have not chosen to stay with the pack. They have each become very, very good at a small subset of skills. That is why they are in demand. Idina Menzel should not sing soprano, she should belt Frozen a semitone flat at New Years – that’s her niche. What’s yours?
Tim Minchin grew up in Perth and studied contemporary music at WAAPA. After moving to Melbourne and struggling to land a record deal or agency representation, he supported himself by playing in cover bands, accompanying singers and writing songs. After taking his show The Dark Side to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005, Tim and wife Sarah moved their life to London. For the next 5 years he toured with his shows. Then in 2009, he was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical. He is now composing and directing the new feature film for DreamWorks in LA.
According to Tim Minchin…
All art is a gamble
To give the arts a good go, (let alone a niche) you have to be fairly comfortable with risk. I consider myself conservative –as in, I wont paint myself naked and hang upside down from a crane and claim to be an allegory for something – but in reality I don’t mind being broke. (I drive a Mitsubishi Colt – it gives me a chip on my shoulder.) So, do what you’re good at and like doing- work hard and you might intercept with an audience that likes you. As long as you’re cool with the outcome. It’s like going to the casino, and thinking ‘oh well, I had fun while I was there.’ Then you are free to make good work.
Art is privilege
Having the option to even attempt a career in the arts is a privilege. Nobody ‘deserves’ to be an artist. In my case, the privileged elephant in the room is that my family would never have let me sleep in a box under a bridge, so how much am I really risking at the end of the day? I don’t believe I have a ‘calling’ or right- I don’t think I was put on this earth to say great things. My skill set is common- and now I get to tell stories. What a privilege.
Thinking economically will limit your creativity
The economic rationalist view of niche art is: if you bring a product that doesn’t yet exist, you don’t know if the market wants what you have to offer. It doesn’t serve your art to think in economic terms. A true artist will do what they feel compelled to do, and then learn to be cool with the outcome.
Niche is a product of population size
If you do what everyone else is doing, you are creating art for an audience that already exists. Those markets are usually crowded. Or, you could create the art you want to, without the certainty of a new market. You can of course go too niche and risk entering that carnie word where if you don’t staple your foreskin to a piece of wood you’re not hardcore.
Talent wise, there is no space between Broadway and Australian. However, in terms of audience – Australia is smaller, so it may be harder to find your market. Some people won’t want to leave because of family, friends, the beach etc., but it is not a betrayal to move overseas. If you think your audience is overseas – go. I was driven by circumstance to go overseas because I couldn’t get an agent or a record deal here.
Use all your skills and show off
Once I had been rejected by the mainstream, I could do whatever I liked. I put a show together that had a bit of everything: piano, guitar, singing, poems and monologues. I just decided to show off- and the amazing thing was, people laughed!!
Everything is luck
Everything is luck. Any talent you have is luck- a combination of genes and parenting. You may have worked hard and crafted your natural ability- but there are plenty of talented people who never make it in this industry. Likewise, there are those with mediocre talent who make it big. For me- I was quirky, I looked funny, I wasn’t that good at piano, I wanted to comment on the middle Australian audience and I got lucky. Interesting people surrounded me like Eddie Perfect and Todd McKenny and we pushed each other to be more risky and outrageous. It could be that I’m an incredible artist; it could be that I’m lucky. Neither of those is replicable. Recognizing that luck is everything, leads to humility.
Enjoy it while it lasts- Art is zeitgeist
Because success is luck, you cannot follow anyone else’s career path. I put my skills out there and happened to intercept with an audience. At anytime the audience might stop being interested, and that will be hard, but perhaps inevitable. Art is zeitgeist- at first you’re an original voice, then you become the norm and the pubic lose interest. The ironic thing is- I’m not really a niche artist now- I’m the director and writer of a 120 million dollar film for DreamWorks.
Work passionately at short term goals
Set yourself short-term goals and don’t be above doing the crappy gigs: wedding bands, cover bands etc. You will learn something from every gig you do. All you can do is work hard at the things you think you’re good at and consume good art. If you do a great job, someone might let you do it again and pay you twice as much. I got paid $500 for the first 10 songs I wrote for theatre, then the next one $2000. Make that person think, “I can’t believe it’s so good”. Not only will you produce good work, you will increase your chance of getting more.
Success is not a finishing point
I’m driven by this frustrating need to be better than I already am. I’m very proud of Matilda, but I want to be so much better than that. Surely I can write better. There are no shortcuts to getting great. Early on, I was so lost. I moved to Melbourne, played piano for various covers bands and SO frustrated. Frustration drove my career. This frustration will either turn you into an asshole or a hard worker.
You may as well be yourself, because you’ll probably fail at being someone else. Being rejected by the mainstream worked out perfectly for me, as I wouldn’t be where I am now if they had accepted me. Even with Matilda, we didn’t try to be like everyone else, we were story driven. It was different and people happened to like it. If you aren’t authentic, you’ll fail anyways. If you take yourself into everything you create- even a boring middle class, white suburban upbringing can be interesting.
You may not have the chops
The scary thing is: you might not be any good. (Especially if you’re like me and have no context or training.) My odds were SLIM. It’s important to be realistic, but how can you know if you never try. I knew people liked my stuff, and I had good feedback, but nobody offered me money or a prize.
Learn from everything
Matilda wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written Penrith the musical, or the 10 scores I wrote for free while at Uni. If the same opportunity presented earlier, I’d have been a less developed artist. Life has infinite potential paths, and success is not a goal you should aim for. Who is to say I am more successful than anyone else? Everything you experience is the palette you use to colour the art you make.