Some thoughts on failure and risk

I first started writing down thoughts about risk back when we were doing the workshops on Tajinder Singh Hayer’s North Country. It seems appropriate that I’m finally getting to finish them a week into rehearsal for the full production.

Back then we had committed, no I had committed, to showing a script in hand performance at Mancunicon (the largest SciFi Con in the country no less) and at Upstart’s DARE festival at Shoreditch Town Hall. We had three days to prepare and no time in the Con venue to rehearse; we were just going to have to go in there and do it. When I say we, I mean my amazing actors, Natalie Davies, Philip Duguid-McQuillan and Kamal Kaan. There was a very, very real possibility that it wasn’t going to work at all.

So why do it at all? Why put all of us through the stress? After all, we could have not committed to the showings and just had a couple of stress-free days on the script. Or opted for a much more laid back rehearsed reading instead of attempted to stage the entire play in three days.

The point was to try out my idea for the production, an idea of how the play worked, in front of two very different audiences. To learn from them, in advance of a production, whether the ideas were any good. And (breathing a huge sigh of relief) it did work, the audiences, of widely disparate experience, backgrounds and nationalities, understood and responded to the play. Of course, as a risk it was a calculated one; I had a great cast and a good script.

Still, it could have gone wrong. And even now, with a refined script and thankfully the same great cast, it could still go wrong. We are running the play in The Wild Woods (basement of the old Marks and Spencer on Darley Street, Bradford). It’s a longer run than Freedom Studios has done in Bradford for a while, trying to reach new audiences.

All of which has made me think again about what it means to try and to fail. A lot of times failure is talked about its through the perspective of eventual success (you’ll never succeed if you don’t try), or is somehow glossed over (fail again, fail better). Because failure can be horrible, stomach-churning, palm sweating, skin crawling awful. You put yourself out there, a part of your heart and soul exposed to the world and it wasn’t good enough.

Any creative work, in fact any kind of work in which you are doing something new, you risk failure. In fact, it is pretty certain it will happen at some time. In work, in love, in life. A lot of what I do, as a director, a dramaturg working with artists, is to take that fear off. Yes this could fail, yes that would feel awful, but it will be ok. You will be ok.

You can’t create out of the fear. Deep down you know what it is you want to do, want to try. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not, but it’s what feels right for you. And if you don’t know it yet, you have to listen to yourself until you do know. Sometimes that’s about knowing what is the right thing to do, sometimes it is about knowing when it is right to say no, walk away. That can feel as big a failure as anything. Will I ever get commissioned again, employed again, loved again? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are no guarantees in life. But if you make your decisions from fear not desire, then you have to live with what you know you don’t want. We have to have risk in our lives, have risk-takers in our world, or nothing will change. Just entropy slipping us back further and further.

But, here’s the thing. We can only take those risks, face those fears if we feel the safety net is there. That if we fall we will be helped up. So this is what I think we all need to do for each other, as friends, as artists, as communities, as a society. We need to say that failure is not a shame, it’s a necessity. The welfare state is not just for those who need it but the basis on which we can all rise up. We can be there for each other, hold out our hands, our belief, our love. Say it’s ok.

You will be ok.

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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.

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.

Blasted by Sarah Kane

Blasted by Sarah Kane

Director Richard Wilson

Designer James Cotterill

Cast

Martin Marquez

Jessica Barden

Mark Stanley

Part of the Sarah Kane Season

As you enter the Sheffield Crucible Studio you find a large, very expensive looking hotel room. ‘Blasted’ is set in Leeds, and the hotel is commonly thought to be the Queens Hotel – which I had just passed on my way here. Having been into the Queens, in fact to see a student production of ‘Blasted’ which was performed there, I can say that they have the look of the room just about perfect. The set is naturalistic in every detail, as the door opens you see the rest of the corridor disappearing off into back stage.

This is the first full professional production of ‘Blasted’ I’ve seen. As well as the Queens Hotel production (by Felix Mortimer who has gone on to be RIFT Productions) I saw a reading at a Sphinx conference in about 1996 or 97 – not long after the original production. Then I saw a reading in Amsterdam in 1998. It was after that reading that I felt like I really ‘got’ the play. The Sphinx reading was very much ‘in-yer-face’ (I didn’t unfortunately see the original production which may not have been so at all.) The Dutch one gave more space; there was a sense of a distance between the words, the performer and you. This distance allowed you to hear the words, and have them impact you, without a definitive meaning coming from the performance. Perhaps helped by fact they were acting in their second, or even third or fourth, language. Paul Slangen, an extremely brilliant Dutch dramaturg, once explained to me the difference between the British and the Dutch/German acting style. He hugely admired British actors’ ability to completely emotionally and psychologically commit to a role. In the Netherlands, he said, you always have both the performer and the character on stage, the performer can both present and comment upon the character; both be and do. We had this conversation in 1998 just after having seen Crave – and there is something in Sarah Kane’s plays that lends itself to this less naturalistic, more conscious style of performance;  something in their precise, metaphysical language and construction. They are very, very real worlds, real emotions and people, but not naturalistic ones. They both reach across and hold a distance from the reality we the audience sit within. It is precisely this tension that makes them so enthralling.

Ok I’m not really saying very much about this production. So to get back to it. On to this very realistic reproduction of the Queens Hotel comes Martin Marquez and Jessica Barden as Ian and Cate. The acting style here I would describe as restrained British. It is absolutely not overplayed in the small and intense space of the Studio; it felt very naturalistic performance, almost as if you could be watching it close up on television. The performances may have been more subdued than normal as, rather meanly, I was watching it the night after press night, which is usually the worst performance to judge once all the adrenaline has left. We were probably not the best audience either as about a third to a half of a full auditorium were rather giggly, whispery students.

It is not stipulated in the text that Cate has learning difficulties. She has a stutter and fits and Ian taunts her with never being able to get a job. It is a valid, and interesting, reading of the part that she has some form of unspecified mild learning difficulties. It seemed to me that Jessica Barden was doing a slight learning disabled voice and mannerisms, where she is very clearly not learning disabled herself. This for me got in the way of her performance. I am aware that this has to do with my own particular sensitivity to ‘cripping up’, the practice of non-disabled actor playing a disabled role. Just to be clear, pace the bit above about non-naturalism and the performer and role being visible, of course any actor can play any role. However, they always bring on stage who they are. So in Selma Dimitrijevic’s ‘The Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone’, mothers and daughters are played by two men, observed by a real mother and daughter. The choice to gender swap is clear, and you can like it or dislike as you choose. Here, I wasn’t clear if this was a choice we were supposed to be conscious of or simply that we were supposed to read Cate as a learning disabled character. This is absolutely not me having a pop at Sheffield Theatres, who I know have a very active commitment in diversity of this and other kinds. And in the previous production I saw here directed by Richard Wilson, ‘Love Your Soldiers’, there was a disabled performer playing a disabled role, something I know that he insisted on. So it may well be that the choice came from not finding a suitable actor with learning difficulties, or not thinking that appropriate for this production. However, all I can say for me, in this show on this evening, it got in the way. I kept seeing a non-disabled actor, I’m sure a very talented one, playing disabled rather than playing the role. I will also say I would go a long way to see a learning disabled actor play Cate. It would be dynamite to see that sexual, abusive, loving and co-dependent relationship played out between a learning disabled and a non-disabled actor.

On a similar note, Mark Stanley brought intensity and menace to the role of Soldier. His speech of the rape and murder of a whole family was the first moment when this production really hit me in the gut. But. He is white. In Ian, Kane gives us a protagonist who is a racist and abusive. There was a palpable gasp in the room as he dropped the N-word just before opening the door to the Soldier. ‘Blasted’ constantly plays with the notion of who is I, who is us, who is the Other. Who has power, and who doesn’t. For Ian, the Other is the foreigner, the blacks, the Lesbos. To bring the Soldier on who is Black and British, in and yet not of the same world as Ian, confronts and subverts that view in a way that is slippery and ambiguous. It confronts us with our own views of who constitutes us and who is Other in our society. Having an entirely white cast, however talented and good, somehow loses the danger of that. I guess I’m saying this would be a more interesting production with a more diverse cast, even if you changed nothing else. Again this is not a go at Sheffield (the home of Eclipse theatre and much else besides) but maybe a gentle challenge to us all, me included, to consider how diversity can make better art.

That’s a lot of words talking about the production it isn’t. What about the production it is. It is a good, faithful, well-acted, naturalistic (dare I say very British?) production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th or any other century. It is beautifully realised, with one of the most convincing prop babies I have ever seen on stage – well done whoever made that. It isn’t the production that is going to float my boat but that’s me. It is strong, clear production of just the most brilliant play. I still came away in awe of the complexity, the humanity and beauty of this writing. And very, very grateful to Sheffield Theatres for putting on the season so Sarah Kane’s work can be seen, be appreciated and inspire us again.

** The review is edited version from the Exeunt original in which I incorrectly stated that the original Soldier, Dermot Kerrigan, was black. He isn’t. I was muddling him up with another version I had seen. Apologies to all concerned.