The myth of the ‘Big Break’
This piece was first published onine by Exeunt on 24 November 2015.
Last week Katherine Soper won the Bruntwood Prize for playwrighting and her success was reported widely across industry media. Katherine is a graduate of Cambridge university with an MA in playwighting from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and the winning play, Wishlist was her dissertation submission for that course. Yet in the majority of reports, her education, training and efforts to hone her craft were overlooked in favour of a dramatic-sounding headline that fetishised her success as a rags-to-riches, underdog story. The BBC chose to focus on the money-job Katherine does to get by “Shop assistant wins top scriptwriting award”, while the Guardian was more specific but no less frustrating “Perfume seller wins Bruntwood prize for play about welfare cuts”. Even the Manchester Evening News was at pains to stress Katherine’s inexperience “First time writer scoops £16,000 Bruntwood Prize for her play about welfare cuts”.
To characterise Katherine in this way does her a massive disservice; it devalues and undermines her extensive education and training while glossing over the sheer hard graft necessary to become a really good playwright. It’s part of a wider cultural phenomenon that fetes overnight success over the long hard slog that is most people’s journey to the limelight. By perpetuating this myth of the ‘Big Break’, our media culture teaches those outside the arts world that to be a successful artist is easy, that there’s no need to aim for excellence, no need to push yourself harder, to educate yourself and develop key skills to be the very best you can be. It makes the arts look easy. And easy is cheap.
In turn that undermines the case for proper funding of the arts – if anyone can make excellent art, then there’s no need to pay artists competitively or fund its development. Presenting Katherine as (just) a shop assistant also conceals the stark reality that most theatre makers have to do ‘money jobs’ to survive while disguising the systemic flaws in how the arts are funded and theatre makers are employed. Katherine is not (just) a shop assistant. She’s a highly trained playwright who, like most people in this industry, has to do other jobs to mitigate against the risky, underpaid life of a theatre maker.
More importantly though, the headlines make a tacit judgement on the value of being a shop assistant by assuming that we will be surprised that someone who works in a shop could also write an award winning play. It’s symptomatic of the true extent of the ongoing demonization of the working classes that we should be surprised to hear that a young woman working in a low-level service industry might also be intelligent and talented with a voice worth including in our cultural narrative. The misrepresentation of Katherine and her background also exacerbates the very real problem of the lack of social mobility in the arts. By presenting her as a working class underdog catapulted to overnight success, these stories act as a placebo that gives the impression of class diversity in the arts without any meaningful progress. I haven’t met Katherine, and unfortunately didn’t manage to get hold of her for a chat before this piece went to press, but as her twitter feed shows, she isn’t entirely comfortable with this misrepresentation of her achievement:
@katherinesoper: “Put my day job in Bruntwood bio because I want all of us who are ushers/waiters/shopworkers AND writers to be proud of balancing that...”
@katherinesoper: “ ...but sad that it's meant other things got glossed over. I wouldn't have been able to write this play if I hadn't done the Central MA.”
The idea of the ‘Big Break’ is an attractive one; it lets us hope that one day our wildest dreams might come true. But more admirable is the daily graft and grind that goes into becoming brilliant at what you do; the hard work and heartache that mark every theatre maker’s career; the labours of love that earn a place in the cultural narrative. Let’s start celebrating hard work and endeavor and let the ‘Big Break’ pass into mythology.