The journey from university into the workforce can often be a rocky one. This is particularly true for students who pursue careers in the arts, where a lack of jobs coupled with a glut of talented grads each year making for consistently fierce competition.
While there is no surefire formula for transforming your creative degree into a creative career, there are plenty of Australians who manage to do it.
One of these is actress, singer and recording artist, Claire Lyon. At only 28, Lyon has had the sort of career that thousands of performers twice her age could only dream of. Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Lyon has toured the world with The Phantom of the Opera, playing the lead role of Christine Daaé, sung alongside Josh Groban during an Australian promotional tour and recorded some of her favourite showtunes for her debut album ‘On Stage’.
If you recognise her face then it’s probably because you watched her sing the national anthem at this year’s Melbourne State of Origin, or you’ve borne witness to her breathtaking soprano range during her starring role in the Australian revival of Anything Goes, which is currently showing at the Sydney Opera House.
Sean Robertson: When did you know that musical theatre was what you wanted to do with your life?
Claire Lyon: It wasn’t exactly a light bulb moment that hit it off for me. I started classical ballet lessons at the age of three, and tap and jazz a couple years after that, and then singing lessons from the age of eleven. My mother was a music teacher, so I had quite a musical family background anyway.
But it was in Year Ten, at school, that I did a musical theatre workshop. The head of that workshop said I should audition for the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. I auditioned and got into that, and finished my training there, and from then I got into the Bachelor of Music [at the Victorian College of the Arts].
I was lucky enough that in my third year of university I did a masterclass with the Chorus Master of Opera Australia and from that got an audition with the Opera Company, and was hired from there.
SR: Do you think that your time at the Victorian College of the Arts, and specifically the sort of opportunities provided for you, was formative in building towards the career you have now?
CL: A hundred per cent. I was at an all-girls school in Canterbury where I grew up, very sheltered. I probably would’ve taken a normal path – visiting a school councilor and they recommend what job you get – but it was really that workshop and then going to VCAS that fuelled my desire to perform.
It was just being in the environment of other dancers, other musicians, other creative people that made me realise that’s where I belong.
SR: We often think of creative university degrees – and this is obviously a simplification, as useful for a) building contacts in the industry and b) nurturing and improving your skills as a performer. Was that your experience? Do you think university is good at fulfilling these aims for creative people?
CL: It just depends. A lot of people I work with do degrees in performing arts or acting, but there are also people I work with who finish school and get a job straight away. Now that is quite rare. But I think that studying your craft at university gives you the right contacts so that you can go get an agent, or learn how to audition, and things like that. My degree was primarily performance-based.
Had I done a degree that was all about the theory of music it would not have been as appropriate, and wouldn’t have prepared me as well as a performance-based degree. It’s really important to know what you’re signing up for, and do your research, and find the right institution for you.
SR: Both the music and theatre are often thought of as two of the hardest industries to crack into, and yet you work very successfully in both. What sort of advice would you give to anyone who is trying to crack into these industries?
CL: Find yourself a mentor or someone you know in the industry that you look up to and admire, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of them. People are so easily accessible through social media.
I get people asking me all the time advice on who they should learn singing from, or what dance institutions are the best to go to. Once you are studying, or going for auditions, you must be so prepared because there are hundreds and thousands of people like you going for that one job.
Good luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.
SR: Do you think it is important for people who want to get into creative industries to diversify where their next pay check is coming from and pursue various sorts of jobs and find various different streams to be creative in?
CL: Absolutely, because you never no where the next opportunity will come from, and you never no how the people you meet might help you along the way, and what contacts that might give you. Also having a good online presence, if you want to be a leading lady in a musical, for instance, don’t have an Instagram where you’re in your underwear the whole time. It’s inappropriate.
You’ve got to be really careful what you post online, but having a good online presence is really important nowadays. It’s also important to say yes to small gigs, even if they seem like a bit of a hassle. You never know who’s in the audience each night, and they might be the next person to cast you in your next role. And you can’t really afford to say no, especially in Australia.
The arts is not the most featured when it comes to jobs, especially compared to Europe or America. Anything you can do to earn money, if it’s in line with your goals, then great.
SR: Just in closing, when you look at the various parts of your career – being on stage, the recording studio, travelling the world – have you got a favourite? What’s the best thing about being a performer?
CL: I guess it’s the audience reaction every night after a gig. The largest crowd I have sung to was State of Origin, Game 2, at the MCG this year, and that was just insane. It was like being in the middle of the Coliseum, with crowds screaming at you.
It’s really that rush of adrenaline after you’ve finished performing that is the most gratifying.