Rachel Cole got some tips on niche, risk and making good art – from the horse’s mouth itself.

I’m a certain type of musical theatre performer: an above average height, white, brunette, with a reasonably good vocal range, a sub-standard double turn, good teeth and gammy joints. There are thousands more where I came from: suburbia. Part of this works for me, because musical theatre is a conservative art form, where most casts are clean-cut-looking white people. It also means it’s very difficult for me to stand out from the pack because a) I have a common skill set, and b) there are hundreds more just like me. 

People often start as generalists, then specialise with experience. Doctors become Orthopedic Surgeons. Actors specialise in comedy. Ballerinas become podium dancers at gay clubs. Finding a niche heightens risk, because as one specialises, employment probably becomes less frequent. There is a fine balance between discerning what you are uniquely good at, where there is a gap in the market, and what the public will pay for.

Rachel Cole is in the cast of Matilda the Musical

Think of musical performers like Alan Cumming, Nathan Lane, Elaine Strich, Liza Minnelli, Audra McDonald, Billy Porter. Each is very different and none have stayed with the pack. Individually they have become very good at a relatively small subset of skills. That is why they are in demand. Idina Menzel should not sing opera at The Met, she should belt Frozen a semi-tone flat at New Years – that’s her niche.

Tim Minchin grew up in Perth and studied contemporary music at WAAPA. After moving to Melbourne and struggling to land a record deal or agency representation, he supported himself by playing in cover bands, accompanying singers and writing songs. After taking his show Darkside to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005, Tim moved to London and toured for five years. In 2009, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned him to write the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, the show I am a part of, and currently playing in Brisbane. Tim now lives in LA and is composing and directing a new feature film for DreamWorks. This, in his words, is what he told me:

All art is a gamble

To give the arts a good go, you have to be fairly comfortable with risk. I consider myself conservative – I wont paint myself naked and hang upside down from a crane claiming to be an allegory for something, but in reality I don’t mind being broke. I drive a Mitsubishi Colt (it gives me a chip on my shoulder). So, do what you’re good at and enjoy doing. Work hard and you might intercept with an audience that likes you. It’s like going to a casino and thinking, “Oh well, I had fun while I was there.”  Then you are free to make good work.

Tim Minchin

Art is a privilege

Having the option to even attempt a career in the arts is a privilege. Nobody ‘deserves’ to be an artist. The elephant in the room is: my family would never have let me sleep in a box under a bridge, so how much am I really risking at the end of the day? I don’t believe I have a ‘calling’ or a ‘right’ – I wasn’t put on this earth to say great things. My skill set is common – and now I get to tell stories.

Economics limits creativity

The economic rationalist view of niche art is this: if you bring a product that doesn’t yet exist, you don’t know if the market wants what you have to offer. It doesn’t serve your art to think in economic terms. A true artist will do what they feel compelled to do,
and then learn to be cool with the outcome.

Niche is simply a product of population size

If you do what everyone else is doing, you’re entering a crowded market. You can of course go too niche and risk entering that carny world where if you don’t staple your foreskin to a piece of wood you’re not hardcore. Talent wise, there is no space between Broadway and Australia. However, audience wise, Australia is smaller, so it is harder to find your market. I was only driven by circumstance to go overseas because I couldn’t get an agent or a record deal here.

Everything is luck

Everything is luck. Any talent that one has is a combination of genes and parenting. You may have worked hard to craft your natural ability, but there are plenty of talents who never make it, and plenty of mediocre talents who make it big. I was quirky, I looked funny, I wasn’t that good at piano, I wanted to comment on the middle Australian audience and I got lucky. Recognising that luck is everything leads to humility. 

Art is zeitgeist – you should enjoy it while it lasts

Because all success is luck, you cannot follow anyone else’s career path. At any moment the audience might stop being interested in me, and that will be hard, but perhaps inevitable. Art is zeitgeist – at first you’re an original voice, then you become the norm and the public lose interest. The ironic thing is, I’m not really a niche artist now, I’m the director and writer of a 120-million-dollar film for DreamWorks. I’m mainstream.

Learn from everything

You can learn something from every gig you do, so don’t be above doing the crappy ones. If you do a great job, someone might let you do it again, and next time pay you twice as much. I got paid $500 for the first 10 songs I wrote for theatre, then the next one $2000. Matilda wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written Penrith the Musical, or the 10 scores I wrote for free at uni. If the same opportunity presented itself earlier, I’d have been a less developed artist. Every experience is part of the palette you use to colour the art you make.

The Australian cast of Matilda the Musical

Success is not a finishing point

I’m driven by this frustrating need to be better than I currently am. I’m very proud of Matilda, but surely I can write better. There are no shortcuts to becoming great. Early on, I was so lost. I moved to Melbourne, played piano for various covers bands and was SO frustrated. Frustration drove my career. This frustration will either turn you into an asshole or a hard worker.

You may not have the chops

The scary thing is – you might not be any good (especially if you’re like me and have no context or training). My odds were SLIM. It’s important to be realistic, but how can you know if you never try? I knew that people liked my stuff, and I had good feedback, but nobody offered me money or a prize.

Be yourself

You may as well be yourself, because you’ll probably fail at being someone else. Being rejected by the mainstream worked out perfectly for me, as I wouldn’t be where I am now if they had accepted me. Even with Matilda, we weren’t like everyone else. We were story driven. It was different and people happened to like it. If you aren’t authentic, you’ll fail anyways. If you put yourself into everything you create, then even a boring, middle class, white suburban upbringing can be interesting.

Matilda the Musical is at the Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre before travelling to Perth in February and Adelaide in May