At the end of March I was invited to take part in the University of Glasgow’s RSE funded workshop series “Shaping Scotland’s Talent: Change, Flexibility and New Pathways in the Screen Industries”. It was a fascinating event with a broad range of policy makers, broadcasters and academics giving position pieces on their experiences with fostering creative talent and open discussions about how, in particular, diversity of talent can be nurtured in the screen industries. As principle and co-investigators of the workshop series Lisa Kelly and Katherine Champion state “[d]eveloping ‘talent’ is a key aspect of the Scottish Government’s Strategy for the Creative Industries (2011), and as such, an initial discussion developed about what exactly we mean when we use the term “talent”. It’s one of these somewhat ephemeral terms that can shift its meaning and use depending on context, like “creativity”, a word whose slipperiness has been the focus of large sections of my PhD on creativity and comedy at Channel 4. But here “talent” seemed to be being discussed universally not only as a positive attribute but as a helpful term to use in the search for diversity in the broadcasting industry.
Creative diversity is a central component of British public service broadcasting and as part of my research I spoke to Stuart Cosgrove about the avenues through which Channel 4 encourages voices from a range of backgrounds and cultural experiences. Similarly the BBC has a diversity department, which states, with specific reference to issues of disability and accessibility “No barriers, just talent”. The implicit understanding of these departments and their responsibilities at British public service broadcasters, is that diversity is valuable, that there is a responsibility to reach a diverse talent pool, and that there are people that continue to be less likely to access work in the broadcasting industry through traditional platforms.
But perhaps by looking at the language we use to describe creative work in the screen industries, as people who are in the business of defining this kind for work, we might better shift the focus from our definitions of talent and creativity, and encourage a wider pool of potential creative workers to recognise themselves using more tangible language.
I was invited to attend this workshop primarily because of my research on Channel 4’s departmental and institutional definitions of what is and what is not comedy, and the potential impact these distinctions have on the ways in which creative labour in comedy is conceptualised, fostered and developed. This has become central to my thesis and is an area that I’m still developing, although you can read the embryonic musings on my CST blog “Comedy with a Capital ‘C’” here. I was invited also, as Lisa had kindly emailed “as a practitioner”. As my CST biography notes, comedy is something that I not only write about academically but is something I have had a go at doing myself – although the PhD has some what got in the way of being able to dedicate myself to it full or in fact part time anymore. I have however, with estranged writing partner Ryan T. Pugh, as part of duo-of-sorts Bad Jacket, written sitcom pilots, fleshed out series arcs, imagined characters, written and performed two series of a comedy podcast, complete with sketches, impersonations, improvisation, satire, musical comedy and surrealism, which all culminated in a ground-breaking, earth-shattering debut live performance in a tiny bar in Norwich, dubbed an instant hit and given a standing ovation from the rapturous audience of three, consisting of the open mic promoter, his girlfriend and a singer songwriter who was also playing to no one that evening. Everyone has to start (and finish) somewhere.
But when it came to presenting at the workshop, it dawned on me that in a workshop about talent, Iwas the talent – it seemed from the list of attendees that I was the only one who was also a practitioner. I was speaking on behalf of the people that we were all speaking about. My immediate reaction was to recoil in fear, as is my reaction to most things, but the idea in particular of being called ‘talented’ brought two quite conflicting responses: “what does that even mean anyway?” and “I’m not that. I’m definitely not that”.
I brought this up as an issue for accessing a more diverse creative work force when it was my turn to talk, trying to make the point that “talent” is such an aspirational word that it is only those who feel confident and entitled enough to aspirational qualities – and moreover those who are not afraid to be seen performing that confidence – that will actually come forward in broadcasters’ search for diversity. For me personally, I’ve written comedy and some of its even been funny, but “comedy talent? Eshk, not me, guv.
My recoiling might easily be put down to the fact that I’ve never been paid to do any writing or performing, which is a fairly standard way to describe success or skill in a particular creative endeavour. If you’re good enough at it, someone will pay you – it will be valuable. It is however an irksome definition, when the nature of the creative industries largely requires some experience in the skills involved in a particular creative role prior to being offered employment, through training or working for little or no payment. Here we can see a very tangible financial issue of access to creative work.
More complex and intriguing to me, was the issue of feeling entitled to call oneself creative or talented. It was suggested in a discussion of women being underrepresented in executive broadcasting roles that this process of identifying oneself as a valuable creative worker was something with which a lot of women struggled and it was a familiar way in which those who are most needed to represent diversity are taught to police themselves out of creative work. One female executive stated that her experience of young male job applicants she reviewed was that they were more likely to describe themselves as creative, talented and valuable and that they would like to “talk about their suitability for the job”. Female applicants however, described their skills in more literal terms and asked to be “considered” for the spot. Because I’m a woman, the suggestion was, I didn’t feel entitled to use a self-celebrating word like “talent” to describe something that otherwise I don’t think I’m horrible at. And to shamelessly paraphrase Tina Fey, if a white, middle class, educated, heteronormative, able bodied, highly educated person like me is struggling with a sense of entitlement, this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg.
“Talent” in broadcasting often refers to “on screen talent”, performers, actors or presenters. But as one contributor asked, does that mean we would not refer to off-screen workers in the same industry a talented, such as writers, directors, sound engineers, costume designers, floor managers, cinematographers, script editors? The question was then framed quite specifically in an evaluative context: if we were to give a “Best New Talent” award, to what kind of creative work in the screen industries would this refer?
It seemed that it was unfair not to refer to the more behind-the-scenes and particularly technically regarded jobs as “talent” – there was a disservice being done if, as policy makers, academics and broadcasters we failed to acknowledge the skills in these jobs as “talents”.
The problem here I think is with applying an ephemeral notion of being “talented” to very specific skillsets – including those of on screen actors and performers – and that problem is the mythology with which notions of talent and creativity are bound. With the myths around certain creative work being the result of exceptionality, perhaps we should be less inclined to group all creative work together under the banner of “talent” and more inclined to describe more types of creative work in a language that makes it accessible to everyone.
This is an issue for gatekeepers such as ourselves asking wider groups to identify themselves as potential new talent for an industry in which representing our society’s diversity is an ongoing issue. If there is insufficient representation of certain identities and experiences on screen, then perhaps it is unlikely that working in television is a career path to which we can all feel equally welcome and valuable. And if calling someone “talented” or saying they have “talent” is an evaluative term bestowed by gatekeepers with an understood level of experience and breadth of knowledge across a creative workforce, then we are implicitly using language inaccessible to those who are less likely to find work in the that workforce – those who do not have the existing power and knowledge to evaluate themselves as “talented”.
The notion that there is some innate “talent”, some un-learnable quality that inspires successful creative work is in direct conflict with the pursuit of generating interest from those who are less visible in the existing system. There is a concern that we’re suggesting that it doesn’t take processes of development for people to get good enough to get a job doing something and then to be good enough at that job to get another one, that people might start a creative job like so many us have started other kinds of jobs – not really knowing what we’re doing. Instead this discourse suggests that there are creative geniuses lurking in places where we’re just not looking or, even more dangerously, that those people just aren’t there and diversity is actually at odds with producing quality.
For comedy, this discourse pretends that a comedy writer who is now regarded as “talented” never wrote a shit joke, they never learned how to make shit joke betters and they never learned how to write more jokes that are good in the first place. It suggests they didn’t necessarily come from an environment when trying to be funny was something that was valued and that’s how they learned how to make people laugh: instead, writing comedy was just something they could do.
This isn’t to say that everyone wants to write and star in their own sitcom. But for those who might find themselves with a great deal to contribute to such an industry, we might do well to start a little smaller, asking not if someone will nominate themselves as “the next big thing” but if they can make someone laugh. And then if they can do it again. And then if they’d like to try doing it in front of people.
In this sense, gatekeepers using the word “talent”, as with “creativity”, without the clarification of what associated work specifically entails, is a word that potentially denies access to those that are already on the back foot in getting into broadcasting and in a search for an increase of diversity in a labour force those are exactly the people the broadcasting industry needs to find. A discussion of how to foster more diverse creative talent, then, is not only an issue of how we as academics, policy makers and broadcasters conceptualise what we’re looking for as “talent”, but how those who might potentially thrive in the creative industries conceptualise themselves.
Erica Horton began studying comedy during a year abroad at San Francisco State University, for her BA in Film and American Studies with the University of East Anglia. This interest was pursued in her Masters dissertation, ‘No Girls Allowed: Gender Politics in the Contemporary Film Comedy of Judd Apatow and the Frat Pack’. During time away from academia, Erica writes sketch comedy and produces a podcast as part of writing duo Bad Jacket. Returning to UEA, Erica is working towards an academic career, researching comedy performance, agency and creative processes in film and television studies.
 In her autobiography Bossypants Fey refers to being particularly excited to audition for Saturday Night Live because they were looking to increase diversity: “Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity” (Reagan Arthur, 2011: p119). I am not in any way comparing myself to Tina Fey beyond also being an obedient, white girl from the suburbs.