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)

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. 

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.

How to survive in theatre part 2

An important addition to the last blog (see How to survive in theatre part 1): when considering what obstacles you have it is important to remember that YOU are never the obstacle. The other commitments you have – be they children, or work, or illness – these are not the things that are the obstacles, they are the things that make you, you. The obstacle is what isn’t currently enabling you to create with those other commitments. So your obstacle isn’t having children, it’s lack of flexible, affordable childcare. However these things can be difficult, painful or even tedious they all become part of us and therefore part of our creative life. Look at how Alex Andreou has written about caring for his mother or how Hillary Frank turned recovery from traumatic birth and many, many sleepless nights into a successful podcast. It is difficult to see now how the HOURS I have spent toilet training my children will come in useful, but it is all useful, somehow.

These things that make us are things to be proud of. As the very brilliant and very much missed Stella Young reminds us disabled bodies are to be proud of. It is not the disability that is the obstacle, it is the way society is set up. So imagine that every funded organisation in the country was given a significant sum of money, £50,000 or something, to be spent on access needs of disabled artists and ONLY on the access needs of disabled artists. If not spent it would have to be given back. Suddenly we would get a lot more disabled actors, writers, directors in our organisations – and a boost to the ones who do it already. Drama schools would look for students to meet the demand, there would be more disabled artists filtering through to TV and film. Hmmmm this actually sounds like a very good idea. How about it ACE National?

How we conceive of our problems, our obstacles, is the first vital, important step in how we learn to work with them or go past them. The inestimable, incomparable Stella Duffy has written about the language of cancer, about for many living with the disease, talking about ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ (particularly ‘losing the fight’) is inaccurate and unhelpful. For some people this might be helpful. For others it is better for the obstacle to be located not in the disease but in the incomprehension of the medical professional, the lack of appropriate drugs, or financial support for sick freelancers. Even if this doesn’t solve the problem at least it doesn’t feel like the problem is you.

Which is not to say there aren’t things that we don’t need to work on in ourselves – whether that is more confidence in selling our work, the art of form filling or making ourselves take some calm creative time. But there are things about ourselves we can change, and there are things we can’t or don’t want to, and all of it, all of it goes into what we make and do.

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.

Play Date 1: getting to what you want

Welcome (back) to Play Nerd. Apologies it has been a bit quiet here for a bit – it has been busy over in the non-digital work, what with plays to get on and children to get through half term and Halloween (and accompanying sugar highs!)

A few weeks ago I met up with 10 talented, interesting and enthusiastic people over at Theatre in the Mill for the first of what I am calling Play Dates. These are opportunities to get together and explore what work you want to make and how you are going to make it. That can be skills and craft based questions such as how story structure works, how to go about devising a new piece, to more business type questions of where the money comes from, and how to survive as a freelance. I share what knowledge and experience I have from working both at West Yorkshire Playhouse on new plays and new work, but also now as a freelance myself. It is also a chance to meet others who may be interested in same things as you. The next date is coming up on 19th November at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford. Do join us (it is FREE). The focus is on diversity in theatre – what is that, how to get it, and the session is suitable for everyone. If you’re interested in reading a bit about what happened last time see below.

We looked at some writing and some starting to devise exercises – and the fastest introduction to structure you’ve ever seen (more on that in next week’s Play Date). But we started off by working through some questions looking at what we want, both from the session but also from our (working) lives.

These questions come from analysing characters in plays. They are useful for understanding a character you are working on as an actor, devisor, director or writer. They can also be useful for understanding and articulating something about ourselves. Use however you wish.

Question 1: What do you want?

A character’s want is a known objective – what are they/you aiming for? This is not the dreaded ‘where do you want to be in 5 years time?’ interview question. I defy ANYONE to know what they will be doing in 5 years time. We don’t know who we will be in 5 years time. But I can say what I want right now. This is about what we want to do or be. Not what we want others to give us for that. So ‘I want to be making new work as an actor’ is a want. ‘I want to be a rich and famous Hollywood actor’ isn’t (that’s a fantasy albeit one that comes true for a few). This is about asking yourself what it is you want to be doing now. It can be quite short term – I want to finish this play; about your way of working – I want to be devising work with other artists; bigger and ambitious – I want to found a new theatre. Your answer has to be honest – this is what is going to be driving you and your work and there’s no point putting all this effort into something that quite frankly isn’t you. If your answer is ‘I want to be left alone to work on my poetry’ then that is right for you. And your answer has to be as precise and accurate as possible. The more you can define what you are aiming for, the more clarity you bring to starting to achieve it. So ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music’, ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music, with young people’, ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music, with young people on a large scale.’ The more you know about what you want, the more you know about what you don’t want as well. So if your heart is in site specific, outdoor, devised work you’re not wasting quality time trying to get on in small scale, studio, domestic dramas.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to know what it is you want – so the process is about finding that out – trying a few ideas out, refining the possible wants until you find the one/s that are right for you.

And of course these wants change. On a micro level they probably change pretty often (right now I really want a cup of tea). On a macro level they probably don’t change so often but still evolve as you do. This evolution doesn’t mean that what you started with was wrong. It was right for that moment.

I’m increasingly convinced that the most powerful tool that we have as artists, as people, is knowing what we want and being able to clearly articulate that to ourselves and others.

Question 2. What do you need?

Not from others (we’ll get on to that). A character’s need is related to a problem or lack that they have at the beginning of the story. Also sometimes known as the ‘fatal flaw’. Think MacBeth’s ambition or Hamlet’s deathwish. Not that we are being that negative! If a wish is something you want to do in the external world, a need is something that has to happen to you – whether that is overcoming a fear, or realising your strengths. Looking at your need can be about looking at something you have to work on in yourself – raising your self confidence, or improving your ability to ask for what you want. It is also thinking about what is absolutely important to you – love, security, job satisfaction, family.

Again this is dynamic – it will change as we change and life happens. The things I would have answered at 22 are very different from 42 and will be different at 62.

In plays the plot is driven by the interplay between the protagonist’s wants and needs. In the drama that is the way we perceive our own lives, the wants and needs of our protagonist-egos drive the decisions we make. These questions allow us to understand, evaluate and consider these choices a little more. The question about need asks how we want to be changing ourselves – what is it that we value most at this moment.

Question 3. What is stopping us (external)? What is stopping us (internal)?

Also known in play terminology as what are our obstacles? What is getting in the way of achieving what you want and need? In some self help theories – the only obstacles are internal. I.e. if only you believe in yourself enough anything is possible. This is COMPLETE and UTTER NONSENSE. External obstacles are very real – people who make the decisions don’t get my work, I didn’t get the funding, I don’t have the right contacts, commissioners only want one kind of work from me. Naming and understanding these obstacles is the first step to dealing with them. Sometimes it is about getting around that obstacle – I didn’t get this funding but I have found the money from elsewhere. Sometimes it is an obstacle that won’t be moved – this venue won’t programme me. In which case it changes what you are doing, not necessarily for the worse, not necessarily for the better – so I will make a new space to show my work. What obstacles can’t do is completely stop you. Only you can give up – though you may have to change direction a few times.

The reality of external obstacles doesn’t mean that internal obstacles don’t exist. This question asks what we need to do differently ourselves – do we need to get better at asking for help, stop procrastinating and commit to a project (that’s a favorite of mine). Again in this life-drama of ours, the path we take is determined by what the internal and external obstacles we meet and how we deal with them. Of course, this will all depend on who you are and what your wants, needs, strengths and weaknesses are. It may be that your want is to never fill in another funding application in your life. Which leads us neatly on to…

Question 4. What have I got to offer? And what do others have to offer me?

We all have talents, experiences, skills and knowledge to offer others. My nearly 5 year old can offer energy, entertainment and pearls of wisdom I don’t have. But I am better than her on an ACE strategic touring bid (but probably not for long…) This is a great question to finish up with – go through all the things that you have to offer. So for me – I know I’m good with structure and with words. I’m very good and interested in organisation. I can’t act for toffee. So I know someone else can offer me their acting skills. This is looking at practically what you have, and defining what you would like to get from others, in order to achieve what you want to do.

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.