Some thoughts on failure and risk

I first started writing down thoughts about risk back when we were doing the workshops on Tajinder Singh Hayer’s North Country. It seems appropriate that I’m finally getting to finish them a week into rehearsal for the full production.

Back then we had committed, no I had committed, to showing a script in hand performance at Mancunicon (the largest SciFi Con in the country no less) and at Upstart’s DARE festival at Shoreditch Town Hall. We had three days to prepare and no time in the Con venue to rehearse; we were just going to have to go in there and do it. When I say we, I mean my amazing actors, Natalie Davies, Philip Duguid-McQuillan and Kamal Kaan. There was a very, very real possibility that it wasn’t going to work at all.

So why do it at all? Why put all of us through the stress? After all, we could have not committed to the showings and just had a couple of stress-free days on the script. Or opted for a much more laid back rehearsed reading instead of attempted to stage the entire play in three days.

The point was to try out my idea for the production, an idea of how the play worked, in front of two very different audiences. To learn from them, in advance of a production, whether the ideas were any good. And (breathing a huge sigh of relief) it did work, the audiences, of widely disparate experience, backgrounds and nationalities, understood and responded to the play. Of course, as a risk it was a calculated one; I had a great cast and a good script.

Still, it could have gone wrong. And even now, with a refined script and thankfully the same great cast, it could still go wrong. We are running the play in The Wild Woods (basement of the old Marks and Spencer on Darley Street, Bradford). It’s a longer run than Freedom Studios has done in Bradford for a while, trying to reach new audiences.

All of which has made me think again about what it means to try and to fail. A lot of times failure is talked about its through the perspective of eventual success (you’ll never succeed if you don’t try), or is somehow glossed over (fail again, fail better). Because failure can be horrible, stomach-churning, palm sweating, skin crawling awful. You put yourself out there, a part of your heart and soul exposed to the world and it wasn’t good enough.

Any creative work, in fact any kind of work in which you are doing something new, you risk failure. In fact, it is pretty certain it will happen at some time. In work, in love, in life. A lot of what I do, as a director, a dramaturg working with artists, is to take that fear off. Yes this could fail, yes that would feel awful, but it will be ok. You will be ok.

You can’t create out of the fear. Deep down you know what it is you want to do, want to try. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not, but it’s what feels right for you. And if you don’t know it yet, you have to listen to yourself until you do know. Sometimes that’s about knowing what is the right thing to do, sometimes it is about knowing when it is right to say no, walk away. That can feel as big a failure as anything. Will I ever get commissioned again, employed again, loved again? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are no guarantees in life. But if you make your decisions from fear not desire, then you have to live with what you know you don’t want. We have to have risk in our lives, have risk-takers in our world, or nothing will change. Just entropy slipping us back further and further.

But, here’s the thing. We can only take those risks, face those fears if we feel the safety net is there. That if we fall we will be helped up. So this is what I think we all need to do for each other, as friends, as artists, as communities, as a society. We need to say that failure is not a shame, it’s a necessity. The welfare state is not just for those who need it but the basis on which we can all rise up. We can be there for each other, hold out our hands, our belief, our love. Say it’s ok.

You will be ok.

‘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.

Fun Palaces – the power of ‘Yes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on Saturday.

The Sense of Danger Must Not Disappear

Soon (well soon-ish) I will post some proper play writing things up. But before that I want to talk about risk.

I want to talk about it particularly from the position of being a mere 5 hours away from leaving a job, a great job, a job I have loved, after 12 and a half years in order to become a freelance director and dramaturg.

And I really don’t know what is going to happen next. I know a bit about it. I will be directing a new play Conscientious and I am hoping that those nice people at West Yorkshire Playhouse will be bringing me back to do some dramaturgy on a new play.

I know what I can do. I know what I want to do. And I know a bit about how I think I can get there. But there is huge amounts I don’t know about this future and as I take a big leap out of security it is a leap in to the dark.

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

And that is how it should be. Every time you write, every time you start to make something, begin a new project, start a new life it is a risk – some bigger, some smaller. But we can’t and shouldn’t know what it will be. Because that means we aren’t trying something new, something we or maybe anyone else in the world has ever tried before.

And there are hundreds of books on risk and how taking risk is the only way to success. Yeah – and it’s the way to failure too. That play might not work, that production fail in what it tried to achieve. This move to see what my own work is, my own career, may indeed end in failure – I won’t do what I want to do. But I will have tried.

And I know that the risk is greater because this isn’t just about me, it is about my family too. And that is why taking risk also means having a safety net somewhere. So that a theatre won’t go bust because a production doesn’t work. A playwright won’t be written off because that play was bad. And as a society nobody will hit rock bottom. We don’t achieve this of course – theatres fear a box office failure, writers bad reviews and our welfare state is tattered and torn. But those things should be there for ALL of us. Because without those safety nets there will be no risks taken – and art, life, business, society needs risk taking.

So here we go. Write the first line. Make the first move. Start the new life. Trust what we know and what we’ve done will get us where we want. Or maybe somewhere more interesting instead.

Take a deep breath.

And go.

Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few samrt wisecracke every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear. 

— W. H. Auden