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Bigger in America

Friday, 14 March, 2014

“Here [in the United States], you can always do more, push harder, be better. Dare I say it, but ‘tall poppy syndrome’ really prevents that back home.”

Is anybody out there? Julia Friend investigates renewed Australian interest in gaining American success.
Illustrations by Lynley Eavis

Living as an expatriate artist in the United States sounds irresistible. The success stories from time abroad are always so alluring. The Australian accent seems to lend itself to party invites, networking opportunities, and a lifestyle you could only imagine here in little old Australia. Our fascination with honing our craft in America is stronger than ever. No one wants to be a part of the little creative town of Australia that could – at least not initially.

Even though Melbourne is a UNESCO “City of Literature”, and home to some of the most renowned art galleries in the world, we remain uncertain of our validity as a cultural hub. Sam Twyford-Moore, a Melbourne-based writer, suggested in his 2011 piece ‘Letter from Australia’ that Australians still look towards the US for “cultural confirmation.” He cites writers such as Geraldine Brooks, Peter Carey and Nam Le as examples of the felt necessity “for writers to travel to other centres to pursue greater opportunities.”

“There is just such a dearth of opportunity in Australia. You can excel, to a point, and then there’s a cut off,” says Kat George, a freelance writer for Thought Catalog, VH1 and Vice“I would have been more afraid of putting myself out there in Melbourne, because there really isn’t the culture of hustle or self-promotion there that exists here.”

Kat moved to New York City in 2010, and now calls Brooklyn home. Currently working on a book proposal and writing a script, Kat is constantly pushed by people’s honest and earnest ambition that she believes is much more commonplace in the US. “Here [in the United States], you can always do more, push harder, be better. Dare I say it, but ‘tall poppy syndrome’ really prevents that back home,” she says. “If you fail at something, there’s so much else going on that you can just dust yourself off and try again.”

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When asked if the US offers more contacts and opportunities for the aspiring writer, Kat answers definitively. “Yes, one thousand billion million per cent. I think the sheer propelling force of New York gives you a motivation you don’t have elsewhere. Everyone here is doing something amazing, and everyone works so damn hard.”

We have world-class art schools on our doorstep, but despite the huge expense of studying a postgraduate degree internationally, many artists still value a Master of Fine Arts from an overseas institution more than one you could obtain here. And this is at great financial disadvantage: the MFA at Victorian College of the Arts is currently just over $26,000 per year, whereas the same course at Columbia University in New York is double that. This price doesn’t include the exorbitant living expenses demanded by cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, the payoff can be much more than just a piece of paper with a US college seal on it. Twyford-Moore suggests that when artists board their flight to America, they immediately gain more attention, as “we are looking not necessarily to fine an audience there, but to do work which impresses people here.”

“Los Angeles is a much bigger pond and you have to start from the beginning,” says Hannah Moore, a returned expatriate filmmaker who, lamenting the lack of sketch comedy opportunities in Australia, moved off to Los Angeles in early 2012.

Hannah had originally planned for a three-month trip to the US to have “one last crack at acting,” but ended up living in Los Angeles for nine months to attend The Groundlings School, a sketch comedy troupe boasting the likes of Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon as alumni. Though it is a much wider playing field, Hannah found “a willingness to help people within the industry in LA that just doesn’t exist in the same way in Australia.”

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“It’s incredibly competitive [in Australia], because it’s a small pond. People don’t want to share their contacts because that would increase someone else’s prospects and potentially decrease their own,” says Hannah. Where Australians will compete for what Twyford-Moore suggests is “very limited space, extremely limited resources, and minute audiences”, Kat believes “everything feels limitless” in the United States.

Despite our growing legitimacy as a centre of arts and culture, we still have an inability to get past the notion of “making it” in America. There is success, and then there is US success. We’re focused on starting what Twyford-Moore believes is “the little heat you burn in the US” which “burns hotter back home.” Even Lara Bingle spent her reality show discussing, plotting, and finally, failing to make it in America. We are less inclined to stick around the little town that could, and more inclined to pay the US dollar to get our clout.

Follow Julia Friend at @juliamfriend