I Wish I Could Do That
When I was little, it would be a very unusual day if my mum, who was a primary school teacher, didn’t break out into show-tunes apropos of nothing at least once. Per hour. And I don’t mean she’d quietly hum the chorus under her breath, I mean she’d be in the kitchen, making us kids toast or something, and then suddenly start high kicking and doing jazz hands and belting out “Broadway Baby” as though it was 1926 and she was auditioning for Ziegfield Follies.
I knew it wasn’t common to have a mum who did this, but in our house it was normal.
Not that me and my siblings were ecstatic about these impromptu performances. We’d all be like “Mum stop it, I’m trying to watch Voltron”, but this would usually just make her grin harder and go longer.
Sometimes though, she would stop. And she’d sit down and explain, a little sadly, that when she was a little girl, all she wanted to do was dance. But her mum, my grandmother, wouldn’t let her. It was silly, frivolous, and a waste of time. You’d never make a living doing that, my grandmother would say to my mum. So that was that.
Even though I was a kid I remember being sad for my mum, and feeling this vague sense of injustice, that my grandma wouldn’t let my mum do something as harmless as dance. Especially considering that I lived in a household where that clearly wasn’t a problem. In fact, the first “thing” I did when I was a kid, was ballet. I started in kindergarten, and my first time on stage in my life was when I was five, dancing in an all-boy ensemble to “One” from “A Chorus Line”. I had a top hat, and a little cane, and tails, and I freaking loved it. I felt so special. I was very proud of myself.
But, this was 1983, in Orange, in regional Australia. And it wasn’t “normal” for boys to do ballet. I’m sure my parents discussed it a lot, but they were probably a tad too progressive for Orange society in the 80’s, and so one day in Year 2, ballet abruptly stopped. And was replaced with soccer. And cricket. “Normal” boy things. And I hated it. I can’t fault my parents. They were and are loving and kind and gave me everything I ever needed. I can imagine though they wanted me to have my best chance at life, and back then, in the country, that simply meant being normal, so no more ballet.
Luckily though, that wasn’t the end of my story, because one day, when I was 8, I came home from school and there was a piano in the house. That was probably one of the most important days of my life. I fell in love with that piano the moment I laid eyes on it. It just felt right to me. It felt normal. And here I am, thirty-something years later, a professional artist. I write music, I sing songs, I make theatre, and I teach kids to do those things too. (But if you want to see me dance you’re going to have to get me drunk. Tequila works best).
This is my life. It’s just a job. And like any job worth doing it’s about 70% awesome, 20% tedious, and 10% “why the hell did I ever decide to do this for a living”. And I know I’m probably banging on about this a little too strongly, but it’s just normal for me to do this. It’s just a job, but it’s a job I dearly love. I’m very proud that years of hard work have paid off and I make a living doing what I love and, importantly, what I’m naturally good at.
However one aspect of my job consistently bums me out: I can’t tell you the amount of times after a show, or at a dinner party or on a date or whatever, when a stranger has learned what I do for my job, and they say: “I wish I could do that”.
If I had a buck for every time I heard that, let’s just say I probably wouldn’t be quite so strung out about the paucity of arts funding in Australia.
“I wish I could do that.”
Then usually what’ll happen is they’ll tell me a story similar to the story my mum used to tell me, of wanting desperately to do something creative, but an important adult in their life told them it was a waste of time or refused point blank to even consider it, or (and I sometimes feel this is even worse) they did start learning an instrument or dancing or whatever but they hit high school and were told enough was enough, it’s time to get serious about life, and that was that. These kinds of stories, unfortunately, are far too normal.
But, as we all know, now there is no normal. 2020 right? What a year. In the past 12 months, I have heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented amount of times.
I’ve also heard the phrase “we want things to get back to normal” from our governments almost daily since March, by which of course they mean getting people back into steady employment, reopening industries devastated by the pandemic, including the arts, and getting families back together separated by closed borders. This unfortunately is our new normal, and it’s not very much fun.
But the aspect of this strange, new normal that I want to focus on is the prevalence of mental health issues, of anxiety, of depression, of crippling loneliness. “Prevalence” is probably the wrong word. These issues have always been there. They have, alas, been quite normal. But what is new is that we as a society have finally acknowledged that we need to do something about this.
Now our state and federal governments have admirably stepped up to the mark and pledged significant financial support to address this secondary pandemic of mental health issues. And that is fantastic. But that is the cure. A person who has yet to develop mental health issues doesn’t seek help. They seek help once the damage is done. There are two sides to this coin, and the other side is prevention. And I know from personal experience, from professional experience, from literal academic studies, that one of the best means to prevent the circumstances which can lead a person to develop mental health issues is engagement with the Arts.
I know from personal experience because, for me, being a musician has helped me through some of the darkest periods of my life, when my mental health issues overwhelmed me. Playing and writing music didn’t fix the problem, but it made it more tolerable. I can also say I know from personal experience because when the lockdown first hit, I was inundated by friends and strangers writing to me asking if I could teach them piano or how to write a song, because why not? They had to do to something with their time.
I know from my professional experience of twenty years of working with young people across the entire socio-economic spectrum within Australia, that no kid will ever be worse off, or more unhappy, or less interested in school, or less respectfully engaged in their community, having spent a semester hanging out with a bunch of kids their own age to make a piece of theatre.
And when I speak of academic studies, you can take your pick of the proven benefits that exercising one’s creativity offers a person, but the study that always sticks out for me is that a leading reason a person develops a drug addiction is not because they’re weak of character or degenerate, it’s because they’re lonely. Isolated. Who doesn’t know what that’s like, thanks to this new normal?1 2 3
The arts, by their very nature, both encourage community engagement whilst also giving a person something active, gentle and introspective to do while they are by themselves. They are one of the best tonics to addiction I’ve discovered.
Of all the things from the old normal that I believe we must divest ourselves of in this new normal, it’s the idea that an interest in the Arts is not normal. I don’t mind people thinking I’m weird for pursuing a career in the Arts. (In fact, I like it. It helps me sell tickets). But what I will not abide any more is that I’m a fool for pursuing a career in the Arts.
If there is anything to take away from stories like my mum’s and folks I meet, who lament being denied the chance to pursue their creative impulse, it’s that the old normal is destructive. It doesn’t enrich society having vast swathes of the population constantly feeling vaguely regretful they never learned to tap dance or to sing. It leaves us a little bit sad, a little bit empty, and sometimes simply at a loss to know what to do with ourselves.
If the old normal is the message that the only value you have to society is your ability to generate personal wealth, then I am very happy to leave that normal behind. I hope that the new normal from our government is the message: “we are so glad and grateful that you devote so much of your life working to support wealth-building in our state, that we will make it as easy as possible for you to pursue whatever creative activity your heart desires.
“We’ll reopen all the old Schools of Art that are dotted across the state, that have been underused for decades, and support professional artists to come to your town or village, no matter how remote, and teach you how to play the piano, or how to use a spinning wheel, or how to throw a pot. Or to help you put on an art show, or a concert.
“We will make sure that every kid in every school has the opportunity to learn an instrument or to sing, and we’ll make it so prevalent that it will be as normal to learn the guitar, as it is to learn your times tables.
“If you’re unemployed, we’ll make it perfectly normal for you to have access to workshops to nurture your creativity, if nothing else, to give you something to do, because as we all now know, when you’re unemployed, it’s very normal to get very sad very quickly, which makes getting a job even harder.
“And yes, on top of all these other things, we will make it as easy as possible for everyone to simply go and experience art and music and theatre and all the things in life that make life worth living, because now it’s normal to be allowed to enjoy yourself and the company of your neighbours”.
Honestly, it is my fondest wish for “normal” in our society to mean that, after a show, or when I’m at a dinner party, or on a date (yes I’m single by the way), I tell someone what I do for a job, and instead of them saying “I wish I could do that”, they say “Oh! I can do that too”.
That sounds like a pretty good normal to me.
Tim Hansen is a performer, composer, theatre-maker and teaching artist living in Carcoar in NSW’s Central West. Tim works in both theatre and music as a performer, creator, producer and teacher, in varied mediums from classical music composition through to dirty late-night cabaret. He is a strong advocate for the vital role the Arts has in Australian society, and its importance in maintaining community cohesion and good mental health.
In 2019 he ran in the NSW state election on a platform championing the Arts as deserving greater respect and recognition from governments of all levels, and he intends to run again. He currently is composer in residence at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield and an artist in residence with Musica Viva’s Musician in the Classroom at Ashcroft Primary School in Liverpool.