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.

 

Braving the blank page – where does inspiration come from?

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

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

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

I so know that feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In each case I had no further information.”

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

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

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

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

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

Till tomorrow.

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.

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. 

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.