Money & Me: ‘This crisis is pushing us into a saving position’

Peter Barlow, executive director of Sharjah Performing Arts Academy, says he is being more cautious even as his job remains secure for now

Peter Barlow is saving by not spending on eating out and travelling, and the academy he works for is fully funded. Photo courtesy Peter Barlow
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Professor Peter Barlow, 62, is executive director of Sharjah Performing Arts Academy (SPAA), which opened last September. The Briton has been teaching and training actors, performers and theatre technicians for more than 30 years. He was previously chief executive of Guildford School of Acting in England, a consultant to various drama schools and courses, and chair of the Conference of Drama Schools, as well as an Olivier Awards judge.

Mr Barlow has been married for 30 years and is father to UK-based sons, aged 23 and 20. He moved to Sharjah in April 2018, while his wife Amanda continues in her UK drama school job.

I'm being a lot more cautious because we don't know how long this is going to last.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

My father was a helicopter pilot in the Royal Air Force, so we travelled extensively and I didn’t really settle anywhere for longer than two years. I have four brothers and one sister. We weren’t on the bread line, but it wasn’t a lavish lifestyle – we were a comfortable, middle class family.

Mum was a full-time nursing sister. We learnt how to look after ourselves quite early on. I had a younger brother and sister, so I was asked to look after them while mum was at work, cooking and cleaning.

When my dad came out of the RAF, he did a variety of jobs: worked in a bank, for an insurance broker, ran kennels. He got work in Dubai in the 1980s. He’d been running a pub so it probably was a financial decision. I visited and saw Dubai when the tallest building was the World Trade Centre. I was beginning to learn the value of money as I grew up.

How much were you paid in your first job?

I did a paper round, aged 11/12. It was horrendous; early starts, poorly paid – probably less than £2 (Dh9) a week.

I had a couple of part-time jobs as a teenager, working pretty much through the whole of my schooling. When I was 16, I worked in a home for autistic children, as a weekend carer for 50p an hour. It wasn’t just financially worthwhile, it was socially and mentally worthwhile.

What led you to enter the acting world?

At one time I wanted to be a vet, then a doctor. I realised I wasn’t going to make it academically, in terms of sciences, so I started going to an amateur dramatics group. I said to my father I wanted to be an actor and was told, ‘no, get a proper job’.

So I went to teacher training college, hated every minute, worked for an employment agency, an officers club, an interior designer hanging blinds and fixing tiles, worked for a builder, went to the US and taught horse riding – a complete mix of work experience before I went to drama school when I was 20.

I had to fund myself, pretty much. I had a small grant, fees paid for, and my dad would give me a little towards living expenses. I worked in a pub and also as a delivery driver on weekends. Saving was not an option, but it gave me fantastic life experience and I came out of drama school without student loan debt going into a profession where it’s quite difficult to make a living.

So you were resourceful topping up your finances?

For the first four or five years I didn’t really stop working because I was prepared to do anything: teaching kids, running a drama group, the next minute doing a commercial, then working as an actor in the West End. I’m not afraid of hard work and was good at finding lots of different jobs.

The first thing we did when I left drama school at 24 was set up a theatre and education company. Six of us toured London schools in a Volkswagen van, making money doing interactive shows.

Doing things that were business-based became part of where I am now at the academy; I’m not only a creative leader, but somebody that looks after business.

Is this something you pass on to students?

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, earning a living solely from being an actor is difficult. Students who graduate [from SPAA] are going to have to be entrepreneurs. They will have to know how to set up businesses, because there isn’t any arts business in the UAE, not anything like the West End or Broadway. They need to have entrepreneurial skills as well as performance skills, so we’re teaching them how to be business professionals as well. Drama schools and theatre companies need income in order to do creative work.

Mr Barlow at the Arab Theatre Festival in Jordan in January. He says he teaches his students to not just be actors, but entrepreneurs too to succeed in life. Photo courtesy Peter Barlow

What luxuries are important to you?

I like buying jewellery for my wife and have a particular like of fancy watches. I have a Longines that cost about £3,500. It’s an investment; they don’t lose value. We also enjoy eating out, trying different hotels, travelling, holidays.

Has the Covid-19 crisis made you economise?

Now we’re able to save because we’re not doing those things. This crisis is pushing us into a saving position. I’m being a lot more cautious because we don’t know how long this is going to last.

In terms of six months, we can cope. I have a little bit of savings. Luckily my boys are still getting paid and my wife is in a pretty secure job, able to teach remotely.

How about professionally?

The academy is fully funded. The students are on spring break until April 12. At the moment all universities and schools are closed until September. We will be teaching the summer term April through to end of June remotely, as best we can. We’ve planned that and can deliver the courses and programmes for that term.

Where do you save?

I have a savings account attached to my bank account, and a pension fund. I used a financial adviser for my pension, but mostly it’s common sense.

What is your best investment?

Our house [in the UK] because of location. The region is relatively bulletproof when the housing market goes up and down. We’ve been there 20 years and it’s more than doubled, value-wise.

We bought property late but one of the big things I’d tell my younger self is ‘overpay your mortgage as much as you can’, because the highest expense is paying for where we live and it’s the longest commitment.

Do you have a philosophy on money?

Money makes it easier to be happy, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

We all like money and I’m somebody who spends, but I’m not money motivated. I didn’t think, ‘I’ve got to make a million before I’m 40’. I wanted to enjoy the work I do. I never wanted nine-to-five or an office environment. Financial reward is important, but it’s not the only thing or the main motivator.

If you won Dh1m what would you spend it on?

In the early 2000s – when our boys were quite young – we did a short road trip in the US. The ambition is to get a Winnebago [motorhome] and do the tour again, the Californian coastline and perhaps beyond, spend a few months travelling that beautiful coastline.

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