Never give up

This one is for you. You with your play sitting in your documents file. The one you wrote 5 years ago and has never seen the light of day. You with your three-quarters completed novel. You with a whole pile of poems you’ve never been able to share.

It’s for you sitting there with your dream of playing Othello. Of being the new Jane Bond. Of opening a theatre. Of singing your own songs. Dreaming whatever is your dream.

And this is the message. Never give up. Never Give Up. Because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. At the moment I am dramaturg on a production of Boi Boi is Dead by Zodwa Nyoni. This is a play that started life in March 2011 – when Zodwa was a young writer on attachment at West Yorkshire Playhouse. She wrote a first draft and then nothing happened for nearly a year. I got back from maternity leave, we talked about it. Zodwa did some re-writes, and then continued to re-write as she did her MA is writing for Performance at Leeds Uni. And the likelihood is that is would remain an unproduced first play. But then at the end of 2013 I submitted the play and Zodwa for the Channel 4 Playwrights in Residence scheme. And the panel is their glorious, infinite wisdom loved the play. Indhu Rubasingham, Artistic Director of Tricycle Theatre in London, offered space if we wanted to do a reading. So in February 2014 that’s what happened, directed by the brilliant Lucian Msamati (then Artistic Director of Tiata Fahodzi), this was the first time these words had been spoken aloud by actors.

The play has changed a lot from then. It is at least a third longer for starters. From that reading Tiata Fahodzi and West Yorkshire Playhouse decided to produce. Watford Palace Theatre (new home of Tiata Fahodzi) came in as a co-producer. There were many, many long and complex discussions about budgets and schedules and co-production agreements. All the things you don’t think about when you’re alone with your computer and these words spinning through your head.

Now it is happening, opening at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 14 February. Four years almost to the day that it started in a cold ‘writers lock-in’ at The Hub in Holbeck, almost exactly one year from its first reading. And let me tell you this is fast. Really. I’ve known plays take eight, fourteen, twenty years to get to the stage. And sometimes the ink isn’t even dry from your printer and it’s on stage. But a longer journey is not necessarily a worse one. It gives you and it time to grow, to mature, to learn about the play you are making and what it has to do in the world.

And your play, your dream isn’t necessarily going to go on the same journey, or arrive in the same place. Sometimes you just don’t get the dream you thought you were going to have. So you think you’re going to be playing Othello at the RSC but it actually is a fringe theatre, or community centre. If the work is good, and true and what you want to make in this world that is what matters. Because the audience that sees you at that community centre wouldn’t ever go to the RSC. And the kid who is inspired to be an actor (or a general, who knows) wouldn’t have had that experience any other way. You have made the work for them. For you. I have seen this happen. But none of it happens if you give up, let the world stop your dream, rather than you reshaping your dream and the world.

Here’s a song by brilliant bunch of artists, musicians, writers, composers, activists. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few of them. They are making their work on TV, radio, in theatres, community centres, museums, working men’s clubs, public spaces. And they’re making it with the same passion, care and integrity that they have always have.

I crawled in the mud. But I never gave up. I never gave up.

I crawled in the mud. But I never gave up.

Because that’s what it can feel like sometimes. Some days, some months, some years you’re crawling through thick, sticky, heavy mud. Because no one else believes in you, because you didn’t get that job, that commission, because you’re ill, tired, poor, uninspired. But don’t give up. Where you get to may not be where you thought you were going. But keep believing in what you do, believe in what you want to make, make it for yourself and the audience that responds to your work – doesn’t matter if that’s one person or millions.

And if you hold on to your dream, let it guide you, change it, adapt it, but still believe in it, it will take you places, give you things you didn’t know were possible.

In the flushed aftermath of Syriza victory in Greece when we’re all feeling like we could be Greek (I am half Greek so I feel that all the time) here is a gift from Greece’s greatest modern poet. This is the best known poem in the Greek language – maybe why it is a nation of dreamers. Now altogether: As we set out for Ithaka…

Ithaka

BY C. P. CAVAFY

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Final seasonal thoughts (may contain mild expletives)

So yesterday I popped into my daughter’s school to see a Christmas show performed by Alive and Kicking Theatre Company. Three actors, three flats for scenery, some music, one puppet, a story and a happy ending. A roomful of delighted, transported little children (and grown ups too). I’ve been luck to work with John Mee – one of the core company of Alive and Kicking (though not in this show) – an inspirational drama teacher and practitioner who has been opening up potential in children and students for decades.

Two thoughts: first this is the kind of theatre happening all around the country, and all over the world. And that has happened since the first homo something-or-other told a story somewhere in Africa. It is the first theatre that many experience. I don’t think I’d be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for some formative children’s theatre experiences with Simpson Primary School, Milton Keynes (for the people who made the live action Punch and Judy show in about 1978, thanks I was traumatised for years…) It is the most important theatre we have, the simplest and sometimes the best. We should treasure it.

Second – my daughter’s school is quite mixed. They are doing a project at the moment looking at all the places around the world that the children are connected to – Katarina contributes Serbia and Greece. When one of the actors asked for ideas or volunteers the hands that shot up were of all different hues. In the light of recent kerfuffle about whether theatre is in some sub-set of humanity’s DNA, can I just say that all those children were equally entranced – there wasn’t anyone sitting around going ‘sorry not in my DNA’. Besides which that notion of racial determination by DNA is utter bollocks – and scary bollocks at that (Africa has the greatest genetic diversity on the planet it being the cradle of humanity and all that). However, looking around the theatre (and film and TV) world as it currently stands I know that some of those children have a greater chance of becoming actors or writers or artists than others. That some who would want to go into the arts may not see themselves on stage so never consider it, they may not see the stories that reflect their lives, they may be told it is not for them, they may not have the money. I really want by the time these children are making those decisions in 10-15 years time that this is NOT the case, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background or what you look like, anyone with the ability and commitment can make a career in the arts. But it is up to all of us now to make that happen.

Seasons greetings everyone.

Play Date 3 – How to survive in theatre (part 1)

Our third and, at least for the moment, final Play Date was at the beginning of the December. ‘How to survive in theatre’ is a topic that could take a lifetime and I’m sure it is one to which we will return again. But here is a first go in exploring some of the questions, and possible answers, around this. As part of a living demonstration I brought one of my children with me and set her the task of explaining herself and the world to some aliens who were going to come at the end of the session…(nb this did not end well – never make promises of aliens you can’t then produce).

First thing to say that this was a discussion shaped and lead by the 8 of us (9 including 5 year old Katarina) in the room. It felt very much like a session where we were all able to help each other. So if someone had a question about filling in an Arts Council form then there were one or two others with experience of that who could help. Even to one brilliant person (Thanks Carolyn) taking Katarina to the loo while I finished off some point or other.

If there is one thing that is worth taking way from this session and this blog, is that we are stronger and better together. Peer support, whether that is meeting up with fellow creative friend, getting together in small groups like this or larger groups like upcoming D&D, is vital for surviving in theatre. Of course, there are some people who do without it – but they’re probably miserable anyway. It is easier as well to do this outside ‘networking’ events which are often uncomfortable pressured environments when your inner voice is screaming ‘make contacts NOW’ while you juggle too warm wine or orange juice. So find people you like and who you find a connection with, get together to share problems and work out solutions. Finding supportive peers can be the tricky part which is why D&D, the wonderful Theatre in the Mill and, um, sessions like these are important.

Second, especially as nobody in this session had been in Play Date 1 we went over some of the same exercises. In particular, working out what it is that you want. This seems to me to be at the heart of surviving in theatre; not least because it is so easy to be seduced by what you are supposed to want – be that ‘a big show’, fame or fortune. These are the things that are impossible to control. The things you can define for yourself are who do u]you want to be, what do you want to make, for whom do you want to make it? Then look at the obstacles that are in your way – both internal and external. So an external obstacle might be funders and promoters not coming to see your work. An internal obstacle might be not feeling you’re good at selling yourself or your work. Identifying these as obstacles means that you can deal with them as obstacles – which will have solutions. It is easy to internalise them as failings, which is when it starts getting dispiriting and demotivating. The solution to the above obstacle might be investing a bit of money in a really good video trailer or promotional DVD of your show (you can get them done for as little as £50 ask me for contacts). Or applying for one of the showcase opportunities in your area. In the North our brilliant regional venues have come together to produce this invaluable guide to their programming policy and opportunities. Of course, you need to know about people who make trailers, and the programming guide to start with. Which is why being connected in person and through social media is so important.

Answering the question of what you want – what you make and for whom – is crucial because it defines what makes you, you. What is unique about your work that no one else can do. It is also about what audiences do you reach. Your audience is your most valuable asset. Everyone, funders, promoters, venues, are all after audiences. If you demonstrate how your work reaches those audiences then you become valuable. If they are not interested in your audience, or the way you engage with them, then find someone else who is. There ALWAYS will be somewhere else that is. Don’t fixate on the larger organisations; they’re great but not the solution to everything. Will your audience be more likely to come to local pub, cafe, park, community centre? Can you go to them? Posit your relationship with funders, venues, producers not as adversarial – you want their resources they want the best work – but collaborative: you are all working to make something, bring people together, create some kind of a difference. And you will meet people who have no interest in collaboration, who are just unpleasant and adversarial. They exist in every walk of life. Leave them to it and get on with what you want to do.

We also talked a bit about trying to find the time and the energy for making work, and finding all the things you need to make work, when you have other commitments. This might be family, it might be other dependents that you care for, it might be because you have illness or condition that takes your time, energy and money, it might be just that you have no money – and that takes all your time and energy. It might be many or all of those things. It is important to say that sometimes this does suck. And it is too hard to do by yourself. Which is why you might need the right kind of space, support, and yes, money to help you. If you can’t see it then ask for it – use the comments here, or email me. I’m gathering ideas and input in order to create an organisation precisely to support people. Sometimes it is also about being clear and then being disciplined, about what you need to do. So if you are expanding all your energy on setting up projects that cost you a lot of time but give you very little financial return, then you need to make yourself carve out time for work that pays better for time/resources put in (this is my note to self!)

Balancing family, work, self, commitments – these are hard things. You will never have enough time. You will probably never have enough money. Decide for yourself what it is that you want, what is driving you, what makes it worth it. Identify what your obstacles are. See if you can find the people and places who can overcome them. And if that doesn’t exist yet- let’s make it together.

Play Date 2 – diversity or how to get to the stories we want to tell

So couple of weeks ago or so I met up with 8 delightful writers and theatre makers for the second of our three Play Dates at Theatre in the Mill. The focus of this session was diversity – stemming from dual frustrations that I felt: that questions of diversity get left to an after thought rather than at the core of what and how we make, develop and programme; and that discussions of diversity became reductionist. Complex, multi-faceted artists reduced to their most obvious ‘protected characteristic’.

So for this session we were carrying on the journey of discovering who we are, what work we want to make and how to make it. We started with exercise of working in pairs to discuss:

1. 3 words that we’d use to describe ourselves

2. 3 words to describe how others see us

3. 3 ‘guilty pleasures’ or if you don’t believe pleasure should be guilty 3 favourite things

As well as a bit of an ice breaker, and fun exercise in working together, it was a great stimulus to conversations about identity, changing identity and how that impacts us and our work. Also generated an AMAZING recipe for a fish finger butty. Sorry you really had to be there.

We then moved on to working on stories – the story of us, the stories we want to tell, the stories about us. I invited everyone to pick a story, one about themselves, one they’re working on or one they make up now and break it into different events or parts of the story, sometimes also called story ‘beats’. We had quite a discussion on story beats – what they were and how many you need. They can be as big or as little as you like:

Girl gets mean stepmother and step sisters

Girl goes to ball

Girl runs away from ball, loses slipper

Girl fits slipper

Girl marries prince

Or

Girl wakes in morning

Girl opens window

Girl hears invitation arrive etc etc

They can be external events – what happens in the plot. Or they can be internal – what is happening within or between the characters. They can be scene by scene (most common), act by act, even line by line if you want to send yourself crazy. As ever, this doesn’t create the piece for you, but it does help you to understand and see what it is you are creating. Each beat of the story was written on a separate piece of paper and I asked everyone to lie them out on the floor. Brilliantly, not only was each story totally individual, each person laid out their story in their own way. This exercise created new stories, envisioned new pathways to the future, sorted out the structure for one piece and the back story for another.

My take away message from this session was first about how much easier it is and more fun working together than individually. And then, again, how completely individual we all are – and how our work comes from and reflects that individuality. More thoughts on that to come but don’t have time now to expand.

This Wednesday 3rd Dec is the last Play Date session at Theatre in the Mill where we’ll look at how the work actually goes on and how to survive while doing it. And just as an added illustration I’ve been attempting to write this perched on my bed while poorly son with ear infection plays amateur Transformers videos on youtube. Which is of course not at ALL distracting.

‘Reckless abandon in the room’- interview with Rash Dash

Here is the interview with Rash Dash that I did for Exeunt. With a few additions in italics! Keen Play Nerders will spot that know what work you want to do and how you want to do it is becoming a bit of a theme.

If you have seen Rash Dash in performance – say in their most recent piece Oh I Can’t Be Bothered – you will know Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan as big, bold, fierce and fantastical performers. Their work is characterised by physicality that is skilful but not slick. They press their bodies against each other, throw themselves into a frenzy of dance, hold, pull, push and tumble through their performances. They sprang into many people’s consciousness with ‘The Ugly Sisters’ – the ‘punk princesses of late night theatre’ according to Maddy Costa in The Guardian.  Somewhere on the continuum between Frantic’s elegant choreography and Kneehigh’s have a go anarchy, they have a physical language that is wholly their own, raucous, sexy, aggressive and strong.

When I meet them on a chilly early Thursday morning in West Yorkshire Playhouse foyer, along with Rash Dash producer Charlotte Bennett, they look nothing like the feral creatures of the stage, but smaller, colder, pale and tired. This is the result of an overnight trip up from London where they are in the middle of their Soho run, coming up to Leeds to honour long standing commitment to perform the show as part of Furnace Festival, run a workshop next day and back down. A bit of a nuts schedule but indicative of their lives at the moment when it seems just about everyone wants a piece of Rash Dash. However exhausting, they were determined to bring the show back to the Playhouse where they are Associate Company and to the city which, despite now living in London, they still call home.

Abbi: ‘We met at the University of Hull but when everyone graduated we knew we were going to start this company together but we didn’t want to stay in the city when all of our friends had left because all you feel is bereft! So we decided to move across to Leeds and this is where we began. Before we were based at the Playhouse we spent a lot of time at the Hub, we were really inspired by Slung Low and the really amazing community they’ve built around themselves.’

Leeds really needs another space and more support for development and production of new and small scale work. I’m planning to do something about this…

We share the common Leeds gripe about lack of spaces in the city for small scale work, with the noble exception of the Hub. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered is the first show that Rash Dash have made with just Abbi and Helen since leaving University, no director, no live music, just them in a room making stuff up.

Helen: ‘With this show we had no idea what it was going to be about until we started in a rehearsal room together, writing streams of consciousness and finding themes that were connecting.’

What it became about was two best friends, Bea and Dee, who are trying to work out what they want to do with their lives in terms of their relationships.

Helen again: ‘One of them has a boyfriend and thinks she’s going to get married and the other is single, and very happy being single, and she suggests that maybe they should be together, not in a sexual way, but as best friends living together. So it’s questioning monogamy and why we choose that as the only route.’

Abbi: ‘It’s been something we’ve been talking about on and off over a few years because we did live together for while and that was really lovely and now we don’t live together and that’s also fine… we are both 27 and everyone starts to pair off and talk about getting married and about when they’re going to have kids…and it kind of took me by surprise when all of these conversations started happening…I haven’t grown up thinking that [you get married and have kids] but I’ve started asking more questions about monogamy since.’

Really?! Is this a thing currently? I can’t remember me or my contemporaries really worrying about who we were going to settle down with at 27 – that didn’t kick in for a good 5 – 10 years later. Not sure whether that’s because the culture has moved on or we were particularly unthinking/irresponsible. Having said that there is a load of us now exhausted with small children in our early 40s so maybe current 27 year olds have the right idea?? 

‘All our shows are quite personal in that way. They start off with us wondering about something in our own lives and it feels like that’s the real kick starter for how we care enough to do all of the hard, difficult work it takes to make a show.’

Though in no way should Abbi and Helen be confused with their stage counterparts of Bea and Dee, yet in some way talking to them is a bit like talking to a long term couple. In our encounter Abbi does most of the talking but they constantly look to each other, nodding and laughing, as if the answers come shared between them. It would be simplistic to identify them with their work, yet their work is entwined with them. Up to this point, their shows such as the Fringe First winning ‘Another Someone’ and the aptly named ‘Scary Gorgeous’ centre on themselves, their passions, fears and confusions as 20-something women.  As they say, their work has to come from a very personal and deeply felt place.

Abbi: ‘Making work really costs you…it should be difficult and you should have to think a lot and very deeply about your own life. If you’re making something that is really going to affect the people in the audience then it is going to affect you too’

Helen: ‘It’s such a hard process to make a piece of theatre you have to be really invested in the ideas’

Abbi: ‘When you watch a Rash Dash show you are watching the people who are performing and the people who are making so there is a huge amount of responsibility and accountability for the things we are saying. The words are coming out of our mouths and we have made them and we mean them.’

Listening to them, it strikes me how clear they are about their practice; however visceral and immediate the work, it is based on thorough and reflective understanding of their process. With the larger projects they are embarking on, both co-authored with Alice Birch, they talk about the specific skills and attitudes they need from fellow performers and collaborators. They don’t choreograph but set up improvisations to find material that is then refined and refined. The material is made with and for the specific body and voice of that performer. For both of these larger scale works, one on women and war, the other on pornography, they will be working with directors, as yet unconfirmed. They talk about the need for someone to ‘hold the room’, the need to scale up the cast and images they work with in order to match the size of the ideas.

Their current popularity with audiences, critics and producers comes with its own pressures and pitfalls, temptations to compromise their work and their process in order to fit other agendas. Reflecting on their current position as ‘being on the edge of where it’s happening’ Abbi quotes Bill Drummond’s advice to artists: Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking out because that’s your job.

Abbi: [We want to] really make sure we are imagining everything we are capable of imagining and not just make a show on big stages…We don’t want to constrain our imaginations to what’s already possible, the models that already exist, but actually try to imagine new ways of making work and let them evolve out of the process.’

Helen: ‘Although Alice is writing the words, Rash Dash as much a part of the authorship as she is…that feels like an important thing that we keep pushing at that, not just settle into the traditional model of commissioning a playwright because that’s the way everyone else does it.’ (YES!)

Absolutely endorse this! I am very much NOT against writers, or writers’ rights. Quite the opposite. I think it is only to the advantage of writers and all artists if many different models of working are available. And those are properly reflected in commissioning agreements and development processes. 

Along with this admirable clarity about who they are and sticking to their metaphorical guns there is a palpable passion and hunger for the work, even at 10.30am on a wet Thursday morning when they’ve been up all night. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered came about because they saw that the two large projects they were working on were not going to happen this year, mired as large projects often are in tedious logistics of money, venues and scheduling. As Abbi pithily put it ‘I was desperate to make something and I’m going to go mad if I don’t’.

And this show seems to have come as a welcome relief from some of the constraints of being a sensible, grown up company; made fast in small pockets of time snatched between other work, with licence to be as spontaneous as they want. If it’s not working, they say, we just go off and write a song.

Abbi: ‘We did a lot of talking about what our process is. Once we found the groove for making this show, I had a really good time making it, going back it being like we were in Uni’

Helen: ‘I think the honesty has been really good. It’s not useful to be really honest when you’re in a room with lots of people because you’ve just got to get on with it.’

Abbi ‘I can’t think of things I am uncomfortable doing in front of you…it doesn’t feel like taking a risk any more… there is a kind of reckless abandon in the room with just the two of us…It’s felt really wild this process and I feel I can just throw myself at stuff and people might think that was weird but they wouldn’t judge me for it. It’s an unjudgmental beautiful process.

Reckless abandon feels like the right Rash Dash phrase. Reckless but not unthinking. Formidable in their conviction but still vulnerable in their openness and honesty. Having the power that comes from knowing the ideas they’re aiming for, their own way of saying them and the guts to stick at it.

In addition we had a great discussion about taking Oh I Can’t Be Bothered to a festival in Finland; how open and accepting the Finns were (by our British standards) and swapped stories about conducting meetings, Finnish style, in a sauna. Sadly not enough room for those stories here. 

Fun Palaces – the power of ‘Yes’

So on Wednesday this week I am opening a new play, Conscientious by Adam Z Robinson, at Workshop Theatre in Leeds, before it heads out on tour to Oxford, Hull, Exeter, Bracknell and Bradford. Which you should all see, because…well it’s great really, Rachel – the one woman of the one woman show – is phenomenal and it’s pleasantly spooky, a bit thriller, a bit horror. And a good night out.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. On Saturday this week, because I just don’t have enough to do, I’m involved in Fun Palaces at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Fun Palaces in one of those rare projects that crosses over the disparate parts of my life – the bits being mummy to three small children, standing in church halls with screaming toddlers, digging play doh out of their nostrils, and the bits in other draughty halls with (not so screaming) artists putting plays together. Not really that different from each other.

Fun Palaces is a national festival of arts and science happening 3rd – 5th October. There are over 130 Fun Palaces happening all around UK and the world, on line and in real life. I’ve found I’ve described it differently to people in different parts of my life, to mums on the school run or at toddler group it is a family fun day with lots of activities for all ages to get involved, to arty folk it is the celebration of the vision of Joan Littlewood and Cedic Price with opportunity to catch work with and by companies like Slung Low, Hackspace York and Manic Chord.

As I’m talking about it I realise I’m describing things that have and do happen – so what makes Fun Palaces different? Is it fun day activities for all in arts venues and spaces that don’t usually have them? Is it a range of artists, people, companies and communities coming together to share and show at the same time? Is it a chance for people to try to do something new (I’m doing a science workshop for first time in my life!)? For my daughter it is face painting, robots, tap dancing and cake.

It is ALL of these things and some others we won’t even know until we get there. Two things make me very happy about this Fun Palace at WYP. One: Slung Low will be bringing Emporium of Knowledge (their gorgeous Airstream caravan) and performing outside the Playhouse most of the day. This idea was first talked about when I was pregnant with my (twin) boys. They are now 3 and a half… It has taken Fun Palaces to show how easy it is to make it happen.

And the other…in 1995 when I was a mere 23 I managed a Forum for Theatre Directors where Joan Littlewood was the guest and given a lifetime achievement award. She turned up, got quite drunk and ended her speech throwing her hat off and shouting at the assembled (ego?) of directors to ‘Go out and do it’. There may have been a ‘fucking’ in there too.

Fun Palaces is what happens when you say Yes. Yes I can do this. Yes we will. Yes I don’t know how. Yes it’s insane. Yes it might not work. Yes let’s do it anyway.

See you on Saturday.