Why Stories Matter

This is a slightly edited version of the presentation I gave at the Symposium on Arts, Academia and Asylum at Arcola Theatre January 2016 organised by Alice Mukaka, for the University of East London, in association with Leeds Studio.

In the end, it was a photograph that did it. I’ve been working with refugees and refugee organisations for three years and in that time a large part of the conversation has been about how to raise awareness, how to engage the empathy of a British public who, with very notable exceptions, seemed indifferent or openly hostile to people seeking sanctuary in our country or at our borders.

Then that photograph happened. The seemingly sleeping body of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of Turkey grabbed hold of the public imagination in a way that thousands of statistics never had. The outpouring of outrage, sympathy, support and love was extraordinary; in the next few weeks a quarter of people in the UK donated something, money or possessions, to refugees.

Stories matter. It is the story that we see through a single image. A child who could be our child. Who could be us. This moves us in the way that facts and figures don’t. Although I remain deeply conflicted about the use of that photo and vehemently disagree with anyone using it now, it undeniably had a huge effect at the time.

Stories matter. There are millions of refugee stories. The largest refugee crisis since WWII cannot be contained in a single image. Soon after that, we had the kickback: they can’t be ‘real’ refugees if they are not Syrian; look they are young, strong men, how could they be fleeing persecution. The Syrian crisis is a particularly present issue, driving millions away from their homes (95% of whom are in just 5 countries next to Syria – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Jordon). But there are many reasons why men, women and children are driven away from their countries to seek safety elsewhere. It is a universal right to seek asylum. Everyone deserves to have their story fairly heard.

Our play, Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni performed by Lladel Bryant, tells the story of Ishmael, an asylum seeker in Leeds. It tells the complex story of being moved through the asylum system, of being made powerless and anonymous, of being met with hostility, and with love, from the native population, of an already traumatised man being re-traumatised by a system designed to deal with you as a problem not as a person. It also tells the particular story of a gay asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. The story of LGBTQI asylum seekers is that of a minority within a minority. Until recently it was practice to ask asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality, or to tell them they can go home and ‘live quietly’. The enormously high burden of ‘proof’ means that the UK refuses 99% of all asylum claims based on sexuality on first application.

We started this production in 2014. I was then Associate Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and had applied, and among fierce competition, got Zodwa Nyoni on a Channel 4 Residence at the theatre. As part of the residency I commissioned her, along with Oran Mor in Glasgow to write a one-act play for A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Zodwa came up with the title and the idea. It was inspired by a friend of hers, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who was dispersed to Leeds and living in a shared flat in an Armley tower block. It came from her observation of him looking out over the city but unable to take part in the life he saw there. As she was researching the stories of young, male asylum seekers she came across a blog called Free Movement about the experience of a young bisexual asylum seeker and the kind of questioning he had received. That was the starting point for Ishmael’s story.

The play doesn’t tell you the statistics. It doesn’t tell you all the details of Ishmael’s case or even its outcome. It connects you to him as a human being. It reminds you that everyone going through this experience is a person, an individual with his or her own hopes, dreams, histories and stories. Not as some very unhelpful commentators and politicians would have it: ‘cockroaches’, ‘vermin’, ‘swarms’. To quote my favorite review from Tim Bano in Time Out: ‘Ishmael’s is only one story, but that’s the point: it’s his and his alone. He’s not a swarm anymore. He’s human.’

The course of this production has charted the course of the issue of refugees in the public consciousness: to begin with few outside of those actively involved really knew or cared about the issue. Then suddenly the issue broke into public awareness, a paradigm shift of such magnitude it can only be that the knowledge, the awareness was there all along, waiting for permission to become conscious. Some of the volunteer organisations we knew struggled to keep up with the volume of donations and vehemence of the ‘debate’. Such an almighty change in public opinion that it even had hitherto intransigent government promising to take 20,000 Syrian refugees. A still inadequate reaction to the situation but showing the change happens, mountains do move. Yet as if to prove for every action there is a reaction, immediately following the attacks on Paris we saw a sudden swing the other way in media and in politics. In just hours following, even we started picking up negative, worried or aggressive comments on social media, some of which we could engage with, some of which we couldn’t. Now in 2016, with 32,000 people having arrived in Greece in one month alone, what story, what stories are being told matters more than ever.

Through it all it has felt important to tell this story, of Ishmael and the other characters of the play. Because his story is of one of the most vulnerable, and often overlooked, the LGBT asylum story is often that of the ‘excluded by the excluded’ as the play says. As his individual story, it stands for all the individual stories, not just of all asylum seekers, but all of us. Nine Lives connects us to all of the characters, and all of the characters to each other. We each have our own, inalienable humanity, each worthy of respect and acknowledgment.

I was asked in a post-show discussion while on tour were we not only preaching to the converted. That the lovely theatre audience is likely to agree with us already. Well yes, and no. Over the life of the production so far we have played to great variety of people – those going through or who have gone through these experiences, those with a great deal of knowledge of asylum, those with very little. What the play does is bring Ishmael’s story to life, and those of the people he meets, who may accept or reject him, and why. What we then do is offer simple practical ways people can get involved whether that is reading more information, donating to a charity, joining in a local group. In many places we have been working with refugee artists and arts activities with refugees and asylum seekers. Just at this run at the Arcola we have been very privileged to display the work of Bern O’Donohugh; Platforma and Counterpoints Arts are presenting three gigs of refugee and migrant musicians and poets; and we’ve raised money for UKLGIG through a fundraising Gala. Through touring we can reach a few 1000s of people. Not big numbers but any way we can get these stories out matters. And in drama no one had to die to tell them.

Stories matter. Not just to the ones who didn’t know the story but to the ones to whom the story belongs. In Swansea one man approached our actor Lladel after the performance, ‘Thank you for your story’ he said. Lladel explained it wasn’t actually his story. ‘But it is mine’ he replied ‘Everyone should hear this story.’ Everyone wants to be seen, to be understood, to be a person. People seeking asylum have had everything taken from them, their dignity, safety, their own sense of self. Taking part in arts, singing, playing, drawing, dancing, telling stories gives back that sense of self, that sense of connection to other human beings. Seeing your story reflected on stage can do the same, you have been seen, understood, acknowledged. If the play was to have a message, it would be that hope lies in the human connection between people, whoever they may be.

Your stories matter. Both your own personal story – who you are and what you want to do, what has led you here and what you will take away with you. And the stories that you tell in your work and in your life. All of us tell stories, in your research, through narratives, through arguments, evidence, statistics, through arts or pictures or enabling others to tell their story themselves. By doing the best we can, by doing what we are best at, we can make these stories have an effect on others, and affect the world we live in. And we can have more of an effect by working together – not by trying to be something we are not but using what we do to best advantage. I’m best at directing and producing plays – by doing this play and collaborating with academics, artists and organisations we have raised money, debate, awareness and given a platform for refugees to perform. We may have only shifted the world a little bit, but shift it we have.

Stories have power, the stories we tell transform us. Stories can take flight, change the mind of a government, change the mood of a country. The stories that are told and the people who get to tell them matter because they shape our understanding of the world. Let’s tell all the stories that we can.

 

Success, failure and the Fraud Squad in your head

Hello folks,

apologies yet again for neglecting this blog. It has been, as they say, busy.

I left West Yorkshire Playhouse just over a year ago – this should be an anniversary blog but I am as ever late. I’m not sure what I imagined but I think having more time to contemplate dramaturgical type subjects and write up thoughtful pieces at my leisure was in there somewhere. How wrong can you be…

Looking back over this year what have I done? I directed a one woman show written by Adam Z Robinson and performed by Rachel Ashwanden called Conscientious about bullying. One audience member said it had touched her soul and another said it was more straight forward than the Germans. That was nice.

I was dramaturg on a production of Boi Boi is Dead by Zodwa Nyoni working with the phenomenal Lucian Msamati as director. That was hugely satisfying having started that play off on a young writer on attachment scheme I put Zodwa on in 2011.

I revived the production of Nine Lives also by Zodwa performed by Lladel Bryant about a gay asylum seeker in Leeds and we’re taking that out on a tour around the country.

I wrote a few things for Exeunt – a couple of them were not too bad (though I’ve learned I am definitely NOT cut out to be a critic. Not even Michael Billington’s imaginary friend)

I wrote a some successful funding applications for other people – including for Ramps on the Moon a project that I hope and believe will make much needed change in the employment and visibility of disabled people in the arts.

Ok so enough of that. Thing is even when I put that all together and look at it and can say well yes that has been quite successful, it hasn’t always FELT that way. A lot of the time it has felt more like struggle, more like failure. I think many of us can relate to this – when other people look at what we are doing and say you are doing really well – but inside it just feels very hard.

I read this recently

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking I STRONGLY recommend you read this book. Especially if you have anything to do with making, funding, performing art. It talks about many things but the point I want to pick up on today is: she talks about the Fraud Squad that lives in our head. The one that tells us we are not good enough, don’t deserve this, shouldn’t dare to call ourselves artists. I think if you are any kind of artist you need that voice in your head – questioning yourself is part of making the art. It gets to be a problem when those voices drown out all others.

Those of us whose job it is to support others in the process (*friendly wave to directors, dramaturgs, stage managers and lots of others*), we spend a lot of time, maybe most of the time, enabling others to work with the Fraud Squad in their head. Making the questions and doubts useful ones, moving them aside when they are not useful, eventually letting them go.

It is important that we also get support sometimes ourselves. For all the support that we give to others (and they in turn can pass on) has to come from somewhere. We all need our support structures, be that from friends, family, trusted colleagues or just our dog that never lets us down.

So this is a message to say asking for help and support is as important as giving it. That it is the give and take that forms strong, real relationships in art and in life.

Only don’t ask me to follow my own advice. Because I am utterly rubbish at it.

(And though I doubt she’ll read this very, very best wishes to Amanda about to give birth to her baby – there’s a lot of giving and taking right there)

Braving the blank page – where does inspiration come from?

Day 4 into my writing challenge and I am really wondering why I started this. Which is pretty much what everyone thinks at some point in a writing project. Why did I start this? What am I doing? Where is inspiration going to come from?

Aaron Sorkin put it best (thanks to the person who pointed me in his direction this morning):

“I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, Giftless. I’m not your agent and I’m not your mommy: I’m a white piece of paper. You wanna dance with me?’ and I really, really don’t. I’ll go peaceable-like.”

I so know that feeling.

Apparently one of his methods (sorry Aaron if this is nicking your ideas but as you also said “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.”) is to take the piece of paper and write Blah, blah, blah, blah blah kiss. Or Blah, blah, blah, blah bang. Or whatever. It is a similar technique to some visual artists who do a wash or pencil shade over a blank piece of paper just to get over the fear of making the first mark.

Here are a few more techniques – all stolen of course – for getting over that fear of the blank page. If you have any of your own do add them to comments below.

1. Automatic writing – based on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron the original method involved having paper and pen by your bed and first thing when you wake up write for a set period of time everything and anything that comes into your head. You are putting down on paper whatever words cross your mind, trying to make automatic the flow from your subconscious onto the paper without your self-critical, self-censoring self getting in the way. I’ve known people who have done this and part of their automatic writings to become part of a play. It might just be a useful exercise to unblock and get you writing. It doesn’t have to happen first thing in the morning (especially if like me you wake up to the sound of angry bird video played in your ear by your 4 year old). Anytime you can pick a word, or image and use that as starting point for a minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes automatic writing. It can be a bit like warming up before a run, getting the mental and physical writing muscles working.

2. The Pinter Method. This is taken from his Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth and Politics. It is worth reading or listening to the whole speech but here is a short extract:

“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case I had no further information.”

Apparently he would get the idea for the first line, or image, which he would ascribe to character A. He’d then see what character B would say, then what character A would say in return. Through writing the situation, the characters would emerge ‘through shadow into light.’ Again it is letting your subconscious take over from your conscious (self-critical) self.

3. The Chris Thorpe method – or at least a method I have heard Chris employ in a workshop. Type the title at the top of the page, then your name, make sure you are using ‘your’ font. Hit enter a few times, type your characters name, hit tab.

Then ask yourself questions, who are your characters what age are they, gender, how are they dressed, do they have a bag with them, what is in it, where did it come from, where are they, what are they doing there, how long have they been there etc etc. keep asking yourself questions and you’ll find that your subconscious will keep producing the answers. You’ll find you know a whole lot more than you thought you did. Ask yourself what is important for these characters, something momentous that has happened or might happen. Then write a scene between them that doesn’t mention it at all.

4. Similar exercise to the above. This can be particularly useful if you are stuck on writing a scene which is about important issue X. And you keep trying to get them to discuss X but it comes out flat and stilted. Just start writing them doing something very ordinary, making tea, cleaning, making the bed. Make sure they don’t refer to X at all. If X is important to them that it will keep surfacing in the dialogue. This is also a good exercise for subtext.

And before you know it, you’ve started, the page is full of words. And they’re your words, it doesn’t matter if they’re not quite the right ones yet, what matters is that they’re there.

Till tomorrow.

Being not just doing

How, HOW, did it get to be 9.30pm again? Massive props to all you writers who make yourself the time to write. Yes I know I have other jobs as well but then so do a lot of you. Huge respect to all working away at your computers and notebooks right now.

I’m re-reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro again. It’s a book I read at least every couple of years because every time it reminds me about what is important. In everything I do, whether that’s directing, talking to a writer, being in rehearsal, especially any form of teaching, I need to be there. Actually really there in the room, part of and responding to what is happening. I’m not there just to impart my knowledge, though some knowledge might come into it too. I’m not there to show people how clever I am. I am there to enable other people to create, to make the space where that creativity can happen, to let them make the space where our creativity can happen. It reminds me again that what I do is not about fixing things so they are ‘right’ or ‘correct’ but making things live, spontaneous and fun. When you are not just reproducing what you ‘know’ but part of genuine creation, and collaboration, in that moment.

That’s all I think I’ve got for the moment. But will return to this idea again at some point.

Till tomorrow.

Writing, parenting and reasons to be grateful

So it’s got to 9.20pm and I realise I haven’t fulfilled commitment to write something everyday on just the second day. Nearly fell at first hurdle but no, here we are. Writing.

And the reason I haven’t written anything all day, at all, is because Tuesdays is the day I have ‘off’ with my twin four year old boys.

Update: have just had a long, good and necessary phone conversation but it is now 10.45pm and I’m knackered. Plus I know I’ll be up at around 5.30am with the four year olds.

This is for artists with children – anyone who doesn’t like these kinds of blogs do feel free to stop reading now. Many years ago before I had mine, when I was still trying to get pregnant (TTC in online shorthand) I was addicted in horrible, compulsive way to parenting articles. Then I had three miscarriages and the fascination and compulsion grew. I wanted to shout at all the women (and they were mostly women – now there’s a lot more men) writing funny, lighthearted pieces about sleepless nights and teenage tantrums. I wanted them to know how lucky they were.

Then, just when I’d sort of reconciled myself to the fact that it might not happen for me, it did. I had my daughter, then not even 16 months later, twin boys. Three children in 18 months. Certainly wish fulfillment.

And given my history, it felt, feels, impossible to complain (publicly at least) about any of it. Especially knowing that many, many people were, are, will always be in the place I was meant I was very conscious of always being very grateful for the joy and privilege of being a parent and (trying to be) an artist.

So I am grateful. Truly, really grateful.

Grateful and exhausted by every 4am, 5am, 6am alarm call.

Grateful and hot-flushed cheeked ashamed of dragging two wailing screaming flailing 4 year olds out of the shops (again).

Grateful and heart hurting guilty as I peel small bodies off my legs as I go to work, sounds of ‘don’t leave me here, Mummy’ ringing in my ears.

Grateful and mind numbingly bored by the endless toilet training.

Grateful and wondering how you find anytime to do anything that isn’t ‘work’ or ‘childcare’.

And of course grateful for all the cuddles, kisses, jokes, stories, games, joys of loving, caring for, getting to know three brilliant, emerging characters who are my children.

So to other fellow artists with small children, yes this is hard. Sometimes it is ok to say it is hard. Hard to be an artist, hard to be a parent, hard to juggle both. To say you do BOTH things for love and one love does not exclude the other, it adds to it.

Right that’s all I’ve got for today. Hope it makes sense. Back again tomorrow…

The right writing habit

I’ve realised in amongst all the busy stuff I’ve been doing (bit of dramaturgy, bit of directing, a whole lot of fundraising) that I have failed to give this blog some love and attention. And in fact I’ve failed to give writing, and writing about writing, some love and attention.

One of the pieces of advice I give out when working with writers is to write: write often, write everyday, don’t worry about what it is you’re are writing but just get into the habit of doing it regularly. Like anything else you do, the more you do it the better you get.

So I am taking my own advice. For the next week I’m going to write something for here everyday. Even if it is very short. Even if it is not very good. Even if I write pages and delete everything except the words ‘I tried’.

So feel free to drop by to see how I get on. Words on encouragement welcome too. And join in with your own writing challenge and let me know how you get on.

Let’s go.

Crave by Sarah Kane

Cast: Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C)

Director Charlotte Gwinner

Designer Signe Beckmann

Associate designer Emma Bailey

Lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp

Sound designer Christopher Shutt

Part of the Sarah Kane Season, Sheffield Theatres

There are four people in a room.

There are four people standing in a room that is not really a room. A large square blue carpeted space, rising sharply at the back to form a blunt, square bench. It looks uncomfortable.

There are four people standing in the space and about one hundred or so people looking back at them. They look a bit like us; we look a bit like them. They are an older man in a badly fitting brownish suit, a buttoned up woman in skirt and proper shoes, a younger man in sports clothes and a young woman in baggy shirt, trousers and boots. They might be a bit 90s, they could be now. If I look in the programme I would find they are A, M, B and C.

There are four people standing in the space and they start to speak. Words pour out of them, words twist and bounce and reverberate off each other. They speak together, separately, occasionally over each other. Words whip past your ears, you try to latch on to them the way you really do when you’re listening to people talk. This is language as music, language as sound. Language as meaning not just in what the words say but in the spaces between them, their pace and pitch. This isn’t overt characterisation, with each person their own distinct voice. Sometimes they sounds exactly the same, sometimes they ARE exactly the same. I think they are four people, I think I can piece together two distinct ‘stories’ an abusive relationship of an older man and young woman, an unhappy encounter between an older woman and a younger man. But maybe that is just my brain making twisting together unconnected strands. In this spare, exact space the slightest gesture is character, is meaning. These people, not characters, people, one stares over our heads, the other off to space to her right, another resolutely to the blue carpeted ground. One of them looks directly at us, ‘you’ he says and I think he means me. The tight pinch of M’s fingers as she holds them together, the hopeless sag of A’s shoulders. I have time to look at them, to take in these details as it is only them, on the plain blue carpet, their bodies and their language.  Their bodies are taut with the tension that is holding them upright, their fatigue and focus. A few times they push themselves back to sit on the bench but are then propelled back into the space.

Language as quotation. The phrases whiz past, that’s from the Bible, that’s TS Eliot. Jebem radosznale, I am fucking the curious. The most plain, cynical, colloquial Serbian response to ‘How are you?’ And it doesn’t seem in the least strange that these phrases, or Spanish or German come from an English mouth. These are not carefully constructed, cohesive dramatic creations. They feel like real people, with pain and longing, memories, bits and lines that don’t fit and yet make perfect sense. They could all be one person, they could be any of us and dipping into literature, languages is part of the knowledge we collectively hold. The language, the form is precise, beautiful, but the meaning is slippery and multiple. This I think is what is meant by ‘poetic’.

There is laughter too, though looking back I can’t really remember any particularly funny jokes or situations. But there is humour in a turn of phrase or use of contradiction. The woman next to me is wiping her face and she could be crying or just tired.

And I’m thinking of the young woman who wrote this. I am thinking that I heard that this was the first piece she wrote, before Blasted even thought it was produced later. And if that is true or not this was still a work by someone in her early/mid 20s. Who took all the so called rules of writing, of character, narrative, dialogue, story, rolled them up in a ball and smashed them to pieces. Who created something that had all of those elements but none of them in the way we expect them. That this piece contains in its 40 tightly focused minutes all the major themes of her writing: the empathetic abuser, the tough fragile young woman, loneliness, longing, the extremes of human action from great evil to grace, in one person, in one moment. The unbearable pain of being alive.

The four, extraordinary, exhausted, people in the room are Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C). They make 40 minutes seem both like nothing and as though we have always known them, together with director Charlotte Gwinner, designer Signe Beckmann, associate designer Emma Bailey, lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp and, by no means least, sound designer Christopher Shutt, creator of an atmospheric, susurrating soundscape.

I am in awe all over again with the skill, the complexity, the humanity of Sarah Kane’s writing. It still hurts like a bastard, for all sorts of reasons, that these few are the only plays of hers that we have. But we do have them and thanks again to Sheffield Theatres for the season that enables us to see and appreciate them all.