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)

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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.

Why care about ‘why do we care’?

This is a post about that old writing note ‘but why do we care?’ Sometimes also appears as ‘it was alright but I didn’t really care about her/it/them’. I’ve heard it and, god help me, probably said it enough times. There are many, many things we can get out of a performance – intellectual stimulation, information, challenge, amusement, shock, even (one performance by Forced Entertainment in particular comes to mind) the peculiar meditation brought about by beauty coinciding with boredom. Why does empathetic engagement (or ‘caring’) get privileged so much in criticism of plays?

To answer – a digression of sorts. I’ve just got back from holiday (it was very nice thanks). We were staying in a house my family have had since I was born forty something years ago. The books in it have accreted over that time period and are a mixture of classics, airport blockbuster types, children’s and sci-fi; four decades of family holiday reading.   

books

Casting around for something to read in the odd moments I wasn’t chasing after three small children, I came across ‘The Summer before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing. Now I love Doris Lessing – Golden Notebook is up there as one of my all time favourite books and I reckon I had to have read this as the edition dated from early 80s (written mid 70s) and it was falling out of its binding state of well read. But funny thing was when I started reading it I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Which was odd because it is bloody brilliant. The protagonist is 45 year old mother of 4 children and every sentence utterly nails the experience of being a mid 40s woman. 

Inter alia (us nerds like phrases like inter alia) the book contains this delicious passage: ‘everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action – palms striking repeatedly together in a fusillade of noise – which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage…but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it.’

So I’m reading and admiring the book and wondering how I didn’t read it before and then three-quarters of the way through a young woman character enters the story. And I can remember everything. In vivid detail. Not only can I remember it the image of this young woman – sitting in an evening dress, eating baby food from a jar, has been lurking in my mind for years without knowing where it came from. And the answer is that when I read it I was (probably) a teenager, closer in age to the young woman and the state of a mid 40s woman was a strange and distant country. 

Emotion points attention (there is a lot of good neuroscience research in this which at some time I am going to look into). Emotion makes memories. Emotions are easier to engage with people whose experience reflects our own. All things we generally ask for in plays – get the audience’s attention, engage them with what is happening, make them remember it. At some point in some way a good piece of theatre will engage with our emotions. There are a couple of things I take away from this.

First – there are a whole range of emotions that can be generated by a work – excitement, fear, surprise, suspense – caring for or about one or more of the characters is one option. A particularly useful option when it comes to protagonist dramas (on which much more to come) but still only one option. Rather than why do we care? maybe a better question is what does this play offer? or what will it feel like? Equally difficult/impossible to answer, especially if you are the one writing it, but at least not reductive to one mode of emotional connection.

Second – and this goes out especially to my fellow play nerd/literary friends who will tend to read rather than see the play – just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t good. I had a recent experience of this reading a play about three young men on a stag do. I couldn’t get any purchase on the play – probably the wrong age as much as wrong gender. That doesn’t make the play worth less because I can’t get a handle on it. It is always important to check what perspective, and assumptions, we bring when reading  a piece of work, and get another opinion if necessary. 

Which is not to say caring for or about a character in the play is a bad thing – a lot of the time it is a very important thing especially if you are writing a protagonist drama – but that’s a post for another day.