It’s a familiar story: the young actor leaves his small town for the big smoke, with hopes of making it big. But instead of Hollywood, Declan Burgess moved to Sydney. The small town he left behind was Perth.
Now 21 years old, the recent graduate is a self-confessed shy guy – but underlying his quiet demeanour is an undeniable passion that emerges whenever our conversation moves towards the arts. He seems rather idealistic, but perhaps that’s a quality that every artist needs. “I think it’s so important to do what you love,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the world who are depressed. They work in these stuffy offices that have no windows, and it’s such a clinical environment. Humans weren’t conditioned to be numb and manufactured like in factories.”
Declan also comes off as incredibly driven: he has no ‘drama teacher’ backup plan, and says that being financially unstable is a risk that will only motivate him further. At the same time, he doesn’t hide away from recognising the competitiveness of his industry, and he is not without fears. “The concern is getting to 40 not having done anything in your career or not being at a place where you can make your living off your profession,” he says.
After completing his acting degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in October last year, Declan confronted the looming question faced by all university graduates: “What do I do?” Many of his peers had resolved to ditch performance and study something else, or to stay in Perth for another year to save up money. But armed with a little bit of saved-up cash, Declan decided to “hit the ground running” and move to Sydney.
“OK I’m here – what do I do now?” he said to himself upon arrival. Armed with few contacts, Declan could only really rely on himself. “I’ve just got to make it happen and get myself out there,” he reflects. “It’s a scary feeling knowing that my support network is much greater back in Western Australia than it is here.”
Employment opportunities were the main reason behind Declan’s move. “The work prospects in WA for an actor and a singer were completely miniscule,” he says. Now in Sydney, Declan’s week consists of working at a Dan Murphy’s call centre to pay the bills, attending auditions and recording his music in a studio. Back in Perth, he would sometimes struggle to get four auditions a year; since moving almost two months ago, he’s already had seven or eight auditions with two callbacks.
At a recent audition, the judges were optimistic about his future career – but they wanted him to have more practical experience. Declan has both unpaid and paid theatre and film experience from school, university and other projects in Perth. But in an industry that demands practical work there’s always more to be done.
Of course, when starting out with mostly unpaid or low-paid work experience, it can be tough to find time to make money for life’s basic necessities. Living out of home, Declan is forced to juggle paying for rent and food with work and auditions. But he’s set on avoiding government payments like Youth Allowance and Newstart. “Personally, I would hate to have to depend on the government to give me money,” he says. “I think everyone deep down always wants to be able to earn their own.”
Life for performing arts students may soon become more difficult. Following government plans to deregulate university fees and decrease funding by 2016, expert analysis shows the minimum annual cost of a visual and performing arts degree is likely to rise from $6000 to $9000. Declan is concerned about the impact on an arts industry that already lacks funding. This is especially important, he says, because art – whether it be through music or film – impacts so many people.
Declan is aware that the entertainment industry is a tough nut to crack. “Because there are so many people vying for that one spot, it’s quite hard,” he admits. Yet rejection only motivates him to push harder: “With my mindset and how I have my life planned out, failure is not an option.”