Does the definition of “emerging artist” mean young? And should it?

 

Whenever I hear three separate people musing about the same subject, whether that’s a show, a song, or even a stock tip, I pay attention. Because it means something’s up.

And just this week, three folks in our industry were questioning what the Talent-Hiring Decision Makers in our biz meant by the term, “Emerging Artist,” . . . and if that was code for “Young Artist.”

The first to clue me into this topic was the uber-intelligent playwright and advocate, Julia Jordan, who chatted with me on my podcast about her fascination with the industry’s fascination with young writers… Since being a writer isn’t like being a Hollywood actor, you don’t need a face and a bod to write a killer play. And ironically, the more years a writer has under his, her, or their belt, the better that writer is going to be!

The second was a member of my PRO community who was told straight to his middle-aged face by someone at a certain awards-giving institution that he wouldn’t get one because he was too old. Gasp!

The third was another “average-aged” writer who said he couldn’t get a meeting with a certain agency because they said they were looking for “new” talent. When he said that he had just started writing five years ago, so he couldn’t imagine being any newer than that . . . he didn’t get a response.

So what’s the deal? Do we have some ageism going on when looking for “new” writers and directors?

Julia did hit the nail on the head when she talked about the world’s fascination with the youth. And in other industries it makes sense . . . pro athletes need to be at their peak physical shape, so there’s no surprise that we focus on youth there.

And look, “new” will always be a great driver of interest to anything (adding “new” to marketing copy always gets more interest from a consumer, by the way, so why should an Artistic Director, Agent, or Producer be any different?). But since most writers don’t produce their greatest work until later in life (until they’ve lived a few lives and, frankly, just practiced the craft more), shouldn’t we be more focused on finding more mature writers?

And if you think the above is a generalization, check out this stat:

The average age of all Nobel Prize Literature Laureates* between 1901 and 2017 is 65 years. The youngest was Rudyard Kipling at 41.

Fascinating, right?

The counter argument is a super valid one. Should the prizes, grants, awards, and industry be focused on younger writers because they may not be in the same financial position as someone who is further along, and therefore they need the assistance more? Should we give a boost to those who need it most so that they will go on to be the Laureate that they might not be if they don’t have the help?

What do you think?  Have you experienced agism either way? Do you think younger writers make better writers or that they need the support more than someone with a few more decades under their writing belt?

Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments
  • Rick Pelton says:

    I love this!!….The average age of all Nobel Prize Literature Laureates* between 1901 and 2017 is 65 years……who was told straight to his middle-aged face by someone at a certain awards-giving institution that he wouldn’t get one because he was too old. Gasp!

    Thanks Ken…I needed this post!!

  • Sarah says:

    My experience with this has been the exact opposite. Any theatre artist in their 20’s, 30’s, or even 40’s are called “emerging” unless they are a designer. On the opposite end of the “emerging” spectrum, I’ve been told flat out you’re too young to direct this play even though it’s aesthetic seems to be right up your alley (mind you, I’ve been creating theatre for about 15 years). In my experience, the term means inexperienced from age. Maybe Broadway and Off-Broadway producers are looking for someone younger, but that’s hardly the case anywhere else.

  • Vicki Vodrey says:

    I heard an agent say at a conference that everyone is looking for the next young, up and coming playwright. But, they said, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it even if you’re forty. Pretty disheartening for those forty and over.

  • Leo Schwartz says:

    I turn 61 this coming Sunday the 21st. I’m damn prolific in that I write a lot of musical theatre, concert work, and film and video scores. I’m pretty damn brilliant and good at what I do and I trust my process. Until we are “discovered”, and even after, we are ALL emerging. It never stops. First hits are easy. Try for a second or third. That’s when craft and experience whack the snot out of “emerging”.

  • loreen says:

    Ken,

    Thank you so much for your thoughts about age. I’m one of those people that is older and writing a musical.
    I feel wiser, more seasoned and a better tunesmith and writer then I was when I was younger.Age is just a number and I feel young in spirit and for me it’s not about a career but total passion for my musical.As long as one has passion for something one will always be young, no matter what age!
    m

  • Anna says:

    Funny you should write about this, I was just accepted as an emerging artist for the National puppetry conference. In that context, it means:

    The Emerging Artist Strand identifies participants during each conference who are at a critical juncture in their careers as puppet artists; a place in their lives where working intensely on a particular project or aspect of their work could lead to important breakthroughs. Those artists may apply to the program, describing in detail what their work during the conference is likely to be and how they will work with mentors in writing and directing, as well as other artists from the Conference staff as needed, to achieve their project goals. The Emerging Artists are given the option of showing the results of their work during the public performances that conclude the conference.

    I never considered the term Emerging artist to have anything to do with age…more like a caterpillar busting out of its cocoon into a butterfly.

    • I really like this definition. It’s the most accurate I’ve heard. How do we promote it. Push that as artists this is the definition that makes sense to us. We should be the ones defining our field right? I’m 41 and had a full career as a performer. While I continually directed work throughout my performance career now that I’m transitioning I’m not sure where I sit. I feel like I’m emerging. I hope I’m emerging, but I have a long way to go.

  • Bob Canning says:

    THANK YOU, KEN, FOR BRINGING THIS UP! I have always found the phrase EMERGING ARTISTS intimidating and confusing. I’ve written to theaters and competitions several times over the years asking what exactly does it mean — what is the cut-off age for being an Emerging Artist. 30? 40? Older? Theater, as well as Hollywood, have no age barrier for the writer — it’s the work that matters. (Which means we are all AGELESS!) That phrase should not be bandied about so thoughtlessly without explanation or clarification.

    • Mike V. says:

      Hollywood has no age barrier for writers? If only! About a decade ago, NBC was looking for sitcom writers in NYC, putting on a week of one act comedies in HERE Theater. I submitted three, and it wasn’t long until their SVP of Development called me, ecstatic. “These were the three funniest plays he’s read in years!,” he said. I asked which one he’d chosen and he replied “All three–these are great! Can’t wait to see them!

      I sat up in the booth and watched the performances. The audience laughed in the right spots–all was well. Afterwards, I searched for the NBC exec, and couldn’t find him. I waited a couple of days and called him. Within a half minute, he asked me “Were you the guy up in the booth?” I said yes–and that was it. He soon got off the phone, never to be heard from again.

      I spoke to someone with Hollywood connections afterward, who said they weren’t hiring anyone over the age of 30. There was a major lawsuit filed by mature, well-established writers who had to hide their Emmy-winning credentials on their resumes–it would give away their age. No barriers? We are all ageless? If only. In “liberal” Hollywood, ageism is alive and well.
      Stick to plays. I’ve had two produced, working on a third, and no one asks my age!

  • Sydney Blake says:

    How about those of us who have had previous careers? I was an actress, then a TV sitcom writer, and now am “emerging” as a playwright. What exactly does that make me?

  • I came BACK to theater in my late 40s after 25 years as a musician, arranger and vocalist in pop/rock/jazz. Now I am a thousand times better a writer and artist than I was in my 20s. I’m astounded when I’m not considered “emerging” in this specific genre because of my age. And the idea that younger writers need more financial support than older ones is absurd. In fact, today, some people are supported by their parents well into their 30s. And as people age, they often find they need a steadier income than writing provides… and when they need to take other jobs, this cuts into writing time.

  • Indeed. The issue is often that the people reading the plays at either an institutional or commercial producer level are themselves young (under say, 30). People in their 20’s often (though not always) think that they KNOW so much having just graduated from a drama/theatre program or just because people in this age group often think this as part of… their AGE. Further, those readers are far more likely to respond to subjects that reflect THEM and THEIR lives. Those works are often by emerging writers of their own age. The craft, the quality, the experience presented in those scripts is usually secondary to their YOUTH. Sad. Further, as a playwright who began writing after 30 years of directing, and brings so much wisdom and theatrical innovation into the form, when the younger reader discovers I am 62 it’s like “Whoa – that doesn’t make any sense. Only young people stretch the form. Only Millennials are ‘hip’ and ‘cool’.” Ageism is thriving and so much to the detriment of not only American Theater but also to the ticket buyer who, by the way, tend to be 2 1/2 times older than the person evaluating the script.

  • Catherine Castellani says:

    Emerging is the least definable word in the theater right now. To some it means “under 30.” Women tend to get patronized with the emerging label when they have as much or more experience as a male artist who is considered “arrived.” I recently saw that an award for emerging playwrights went to a woman I’ve been hearing about forever! She’s probably between 35-40 (closer to 40), has had some major regional productions, is published, and has won at least two nationally-recognized fellowships and two national prizes that come with real money. She has an Off-Bway production coming next season. That’s “emerging?” The term is meaningless and is just a nebulous way of gatekeeping.

  • Michael Greenspun says:

    If any art form should encompass the broadest scope of diversity, it is theatre. Plays produced a century ago or even further back profoundly touch diverse audiences worldwide today is proof. Unfortunately, ageism (and for that matter, bias again women and people of color) rears its ugly head in the theatre world today. A local theatre (which accepts governmental funding) actually advertises that it seeks young actors for a variety of roles (the theatre is not a children’s or youth theatre; the theatre presents plays containing adult themes). The defensive argument that younger writers often are in need of more financial support then older writers is specious: Firstly, being in need of financial support is not aged based; and second, programs exits to award / present works by younger writers. In closing, when I see a work of theatre, I’m in the world of the work: I’m not thinking about the writer and related writer’s bio including age. Frankly, I am unable to imagine any theatre-goer thinking of the bio of the writer, including writer’s age, while attending a work of theatre; if so, this audience member is missing out on the most important experience of seeing a work of theatre.

  • Rich Mc says:

    ‘Emerging Artist’ recognition, awards, etc., should be evaluated using one and only one criterion: TALENT. Just as laws exist prohibiting age, sex, racial discrimination in the workplace, so do writers need protection from analogous discriminatory treatment in the evaluation of our work.

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