I HAVE a confession to make. Last year I "signed on". That’s right, on the dole. Joined the ranks of the unemployed.
I wasn’t in a constant state of unemployment. In fact, I felt like I had been living a fairly typical artistic life of sporadic creative contracts. Or perhaps I had just watched ‘Withnail and I’ too many times.
I had never previously considered the dole as an option. For my first five years as an artiste I had practically tried every secondary career available.
Bar work, check; waitress, check; flyering, check; sampling, photocopying, reception, cold-calling ...… check, check, check, check.
Then one day, following the end of a theatre contract, I had an epiphany. I needed time; time to be creative; time to actually apply for jobs, prepare for auditions, learn monologues and songs, write occasionally. And I could do none of the pre-mentioned whilst serving burgers.
Similarly, given the nature of a jobbing actor, I would usually pick up a bar job which I would then have to quit the following week to go and film a commercial. It’s one of the biggest problems with what I do; work tends to be irregular and booked at the last minute.
Hence, I decided to make fortnightly visits to the job centre between acting jobs. The standard procedure is that you can remain "signed on" while working up to 16 hours per week.
Thus, if I needed to teach or take a short filming role, I could do so while still auditioning for longer contracts. Several acting friends advised that this is the route most creatives take, allowing time to prepare for auditions instead of accidentally becoming a full-time receptionist.
It seemed to make perfect sense. However, for anyone who is lucky enough to have avoided venturing into a job centre, I can tell you, it wasn’t exactly as easy as I had hoped.
I had several "funny" (note the speech marks) encounters. I soon realised never to call an audition an audition. In job centre speech, it’s an interview. Despite telling my adviser that they are essentially the same, he refused to write any progress on my form when I stated I had partaken in three auditions the previous week. "No interviews," he wrote, shaking his head.
I learned to faithfully look at the job-points (in-house computers that advertise positions) every week, fully knowing that they were unlikely to be the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first point of call for casting.
I battled their advances to phone employers to check I had actually interviewed (see, I’m learning) – genuinely, please don’t phone this rather famous director to see if I attended. Believe me, I want this job and your phone-call will have the adverse affect. I promise you.
Frustrating but livable, until someone in the chain decided to change the system.
Previously, signing on was a fortnightly activity, but they had decided to double the fun by creating weekly appointments. Thus, my helpful (I use this term loosely) adviser stated that he needed to see me the following Wednesday.
"No worries", I replied. "I’m teaching a drama class between 2-4pm, so a morning appointment would be great."
"Except we don’t have any." "You don’t have any .…?" "Appointments".
"In the morning?" I asked. "All day. We have no appointments, morning or afternoon."
Helpfully, or so I thought, I advised him I could always pop in on Tuesday or Thursday.
I was unemployed at the time, after all. He shook his head solemnly: "No. It must be Wednesday". "But you just said that you have no appointments?"
As you can see, the conversation was not progressing. He disappeared and returned 15 minutes later looking excited: he had found me an appointment. Everyone was happy.
"What time?" I asked, pulling out my diary. "3.15pm," he replied. "Oh, but I already mentioned that I’m working 2-4pm." Here comes the punch-line, no lies: "Cancel it."
Despite a brief discussion with both this adviser and the manager, I left with a complaints card but no answers. I’m at the job centre to find work. But you want me to cancel the work I have? So I can come in and tell you that I’m applying for ..… work? Right. That makes perfect sense.
Then came my second epiphany. I would take the burger shop any day. Give me a stack of envelopes to stamp, documents to photocopy, anything. Minimum wage and I’d be a good girl. I’ll practise my speeches in my lunch-break, I’d write in the evening; sleep? Coffee and pro-plus. It worked during my student days.
Lady Luck must have been listening. My agent called the next day. The burger house would have to wait until my next stint of unemployment. Maybe the RSC would be advertising on the job-points by then.
All of the above occurred in an unnamed London Job Centre. I’m sure (I will cover my own back here) that the centres in Moray provide a more pleasant experience. I certainly hope so because, knowing the nature of my job, I may have to pay them a visit in the near future.