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.

 

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Braving the blank page – where does inspiration come from?

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

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

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

I so know that feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In each case I had no further information.”

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

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

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

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

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

Till tomorrow.

Being not just doing

How, HOW, did it get to be 9.30pm again? Massive props to all you writers who make yourself the time to write. Yes I know I have other jobs as well but then so do a lot of you. Huge respect to all working away at your computers and notebooks right now.

I’m re-reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro again. It’s a book I read at least every couple of years because every time it reminds me about what is important. In everything I do, whether that’s directing, talking to a writer, being in rehearsal, especially any form of teaching, I need to be there. Actually really there in the room, part of and responding to what is happening. I’m not there just to impart my knowledge, though some knowledge might come into it too. I’m not there to show people how clever I am. I am there to enable other people to create, to make the space where that creativity can happen, to let them make the space where our creativity can happen. It reminds me again that what I do is not about fixing things so they are ‘right’ or ‘correct’ but making things live, spontaneous and fun. When you are not just reproducing what you ‘know’ but part of genuine creation, and collaboration, in that moment.

That’s all I think I’ve got for the moment. But will return to this idea again at some point.

Till tomorrow.

Writing, parenting and reasons to be grateful

So it’s got to 9.20pm and I realise I haven’t fulfilled commitment to write something everyday on just the second day. Nearly fell at first hurdle but no, here we are. Writing.

And the reason I haven’t written anything all day, at all, is because Tuesdays is the day I have ‘off’ with my twin four year old boys.

Update: have just had a long, good and necessary phone conversation but it is now 10.45pm and I’m knackered. Plus I know I’ll be up at around 5.30am with the four year olds.

This is for artists with children – anyone who doesn’t like these kinds of blogs do feel free to stop reading now. Many years ago before I had mine, when I was still trying to get pregnant (TTC in online shorthand) I was addicted in horrible, compulsive way to parenting articles. Then I had three miscarriages and the fascination and compulsion grew. I wanted to shout at all the women (and they were mostly women – now there’s a lot more men) writing funny, lighthearted pieces about sleepless nights and teenage tantrums. I wanted them to know how lucky they were.

Then, just when I’d sort of reconciled myself to the fact that it might not happen for me, it did. I had my daughter, then not even 16 months later, twin boys. Three children in 18 months. Certainly wish fulfillment.

And given my history, it felt, feels, impossible to complain (publicly at least) about any of it. Especially knowing that many, many people were, are, will always be in the place I was meant I was very conscious of always being very grateful for the joy and privilege of being a parent and (trying to be) an artist.

So I am grateful. Truly, really grateful.

Grateful and exhausted by every 4am, 5am, 6am alarm call.

Grateful and hot-flushed cheeked ashamed of dragging two wailing screaming flailing 4 year olds out of the shops (again).

Grateful and heart hurting guilty as I peel small bodies off my legs as I go to work, sounds of ‘don’t leave me here, Mummy’ ringing in my ears.

Grateful and mind numbingly bored by the endless toilet training.

Grateful and wondering how you find anytime to do anything that isn’t ‘work’ or ‘childcare’.

And of course grateful for all the cuddles, kisses, jokes, stories, games, joys of loving, caring for, getting to know three brilliant, emerging characters who are my children.

So to other fellow artists with small children, yes this is hard. Sometimes it is ok to say it is hard. Hard to be an artist, hard to be a parent, hard to juggle both. To say you do BOTH things for love and one love does not exclude the other, it adds to it.

Right that’s all I’ve got for today. Hope it makes sense. Back again tomorrow…

The right writing habit

I’ve realised in amongst all the busy stuff I’ve been doing (bit of dramaturgy, bit of directing, a whole lot of fundraising) that I have failed to give this blog some love and attention. And in fact I’ve failed to give writing, and writing about writing, some love and attention.

One of the pieces of advice I give out when working with writers is to write: write often, write everyday, don’t worry about what it is you’re are writing but just get into the habit of doing it regularly. Like anything else you do, the more you do it the better you get.

So I am taking my own advice. For the next week I’m going to write something for here everyday. Even if it is very short. Even if it is not very good. Even if I write pages and delete everything except the words ‘I tried’.

So feel free to drop by to see how I get on. Words on encouragement welcome too. And join in with your own writing challenge and let me know how you get on.

Let’s go.

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.

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.