1st draft of Northern Big Board is done. Now: Sleep. Light Night. Food. Weekend off. Bath. Phoning my Mum. Seeing my girlfriend. Seeing my girlfriend. Interview for BCB (the best radio station in Bradford). No really, seeing my girlfriend. Beatles on the telly box. Trowel on make up & hope eyes look focused. Wood walk. Several pints, possible irresponsible consumption involved. Not necessarily in that order. Then next week. Notes with Slung Low and redrafting starts. And work at the pool with Hannah Nicklin begins. Very happy. Very tired. Very excited.
Friday, 5 October 2012
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
I’ve just returned from remaking Freakoid in to Freakoid2 and performing it at The Nightingale Theatre, Brighton on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st July. This was the final instalment of the Mauve New World / queer futures development process I’ve been involved in. As with the first part at Ovalhouse, London - this adventure in Brighton blew my mind…
To Polish or Play?
After getting home from our Ovalhouse explorations, I sat down with my director Sarah Applewhite and we discussed the feedback we had had. Generally the feedback had been good. People seemed to like the show and like the style and vibe, but there was disagreement from our audience about what exactly we should focus on in further development. There was no consensus for us to lean on, which put the ball firmly back in our own court. The one exception to this was about the 2 songs in the show. The one very consistent bit of feedback we got was that people liked the songs. Everyone suggested ‘more songs’. But Sarah was a bit concerned about that. She thought that while the songs were good of themselves, they weren’t really helping to create a consistent performance. They were working as stand-alone ‘here’s a song’ moments – but what they didn’t quite do was sit in the narrative and comment on it (which was my intention) or achieve a musical type vibe (where a song will work to drive the narrative)… Sarah thought the failure of the songs to achieve either of these goals meant that they were in danger of becoming a bit of a nice distraction. I had to agree, though I didn’t want admit she was right. Of all the things that I was doing in the performance of Freakoid, the singing was the one thing that I felt fairly confident about. I used to sing in a band. I know how to hold a tune and hold an audience when I’m singing. For this reason I wanted to keep the songs. Sarah challenged me to find ways to make them more integral or think about dropping them. She argued that it was a problem that the songs were the strongest part of the show. She feared they were a kind of ‘get out clause’… And I knew what she meant (though when we started discussing ways to go I was quite reluctant to give my safety blanket up)…
So the upshot of these conversations led us to start thinking along two lines of thought:
1 - What do we do with the narrative and the form? At this stage do we essentially polish the concept / story / way that we are telling it? Or do we really get playful and allow everything to be up for grabs?
2 – Do we focus the development around creating more songs or move away from the singing to see what would happen if I didn’t have that safety net?
Our gut instinct was to play not polish, but we weren’t sure if that was what we ‘should’ do… We had a phone chat feedback session with Rachel and Rebecca at Ovalhouse. We wanted to know what their advice would be?
They said unanimously, ‘play’. And so we thought ‘OK, we will’…
What happens if you decide to play instead of polish?
What that decision led to was a striping back to basics. Sarah and I now embarked on conversations along the lines of ‘If we are playing, what are we trying to find out?’ ‘What did we learn from the way of working last time?’ and ‘What new things do we want to learn this time?’ Out of these conversations a few significant things got decided:
1st – We decided that the focus should be process not the product, even though with the prospect of showing the work to an audience this decision felt very scary. Even so, we thought to do the opportunity justice we had to stop worrying about the ‘show’… As such, it was agreed that I would do the show entirely script in-hand (instead of worrying about learning chunks as I had down at Ovalhouse). Trying to learn the script had been one of the major things that almost killed me first time around.
2nd – We were going to focus on developing our collaboration as well as the piece. So we were going to work together to form decisions about the authorship of the piece. I was going to write and perform the script and Sarah was going to direct it, but we were going to work hard to form its meaning together. With Freakoid the 1st, I had written a script that Sarah gave notes for. In this process, we were going to start that conversation sooner (before the script got tied down) to see what would happen.
3rd – We were going to explore removing the safety net of me singing ‘as me’ in the show. Songs could happen, music could happen but we agreed for this show, if songs happened they would not be a comment upon the action, they would be sung in character and would be there to attempt to push the narrative forward. I have to say I was quite challenged by this decision, but I thought it was the right thing to do.
4th – We decided it was important to explore the potential of the narrative, to see if it had a proper story motor… So we gave ourselves the challenge– ‘Is it possible to take the themes of Freakoid 1 and the key parts of it’s narrative, but find a completely new way to tell the story?’
5th – We wanted to keep experimenting with old school analog equipment, to create a kind of consistency between the two pieces.
6th – Similarly, we wanted to continue our exploration of tone. Putting some very silly and very serious things together to see how that could create political meaning.
With these questions / goals in mind and with 2 weeks to go, I set about writing a vomit draft of ideas. Then Sarah gave notes and we discussed ways forward. Then I would rewrite… This ping-pong process continued over 4 drafts, which were written over about 7 days. The final draft was finished 2 days before the first night… It was a scary way to work – BUT it was really exciting / liberating too. It meant that when Rick my friend (who had been working hard fixing up an old tape machine I hoped might be good for the show, got in touch to say that he had managed to get it working, even though we were 5 days from the opening night we were able to incorporate the audio that we suddenly found we had access to (more on this in a moment). Getting to work this flexibly/intuitively was really exciting.
Anyway, what we ended up with was the idea of Freakoid 2… The best way I can describe the difference between Freakoid and Freakoid2 is the difference between ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’. The characters are different and time has moved forward but we are in the same story universe; everything that happened in the first story is ‘history’ in the second and so effects / resonates through the 2nd story.
Sarah and I wanted to create something with Freakoid2 that audiences could watch as a stand alone experience but which would also be consistent with the 1st Freakoid show, so that if they had seen that, they’d be able to go ‘oh yeah’ at certain bits…
That was the hope… That was the great big huge bar we set ourselves to leap…
Freakoid2 – the story…
In Freakoid2, I liked the idea of creating a middle aged, very well to do straight character who is queer in her world. For me that felt politically important. I'm interested in the way queer thinking can liberate people to be free to be who they are, not simply entrap them within yet another label to conform to. I think capitalism does this to us btw (but that's another blog post). Anyway, I thought if a queer audience can fall a bit in love with a silly, strange, middle aged straight lady, then in a way the whole point of the show is made... Ie. Love and understanding is better than fear... In the first story, the character is queer because she is a half machine-half human ‘meatbot’ in a frightened world. In this story, the character is queer because she is humane in a horribly inhumane world. The world has become horribly inhumane because its leaders failed to see the humanity in the 'half creatures' of the previous generation and so destroyed them and in doing so, something in themselves... But our new character doesn’t realise this, and thinks there is something wrong with her…
We meet her at the beginning of a talk she has been asked to give to ‘The 2nd fenced republic's institute of non-men’ all about her hobby, which is genealogy… Her presentation unravels; a general talk about family trees becomes much more personal and the taboo truth about her lineage is revealed. Because it turns out that her great grandmother was the meatbot from the original story.... As this truth is revealed along with a good deal more terrible/silly/heartbreaking secrets, she becomes ostracized by the audience. And so in the end, she makes a final stand and effectively ‘comes out’ as someone who dares to disagree with how things are. This, while brave is highly dangerous in her world, and things do not end to well… Freakoid2 is pretty dark. But it’s got funny bits and two songs and a good deal of silly fun with an overhead projector too.
In terms of performing, this show was a massive leap of a challenge because I had accepted that I was going to actually try acting a character (and not just pretend to be me). I was taking it on the chin that I was going to have to act. But even scarier, the character in this play needed to sing badly. There is a moment when she reprises a song from the first show, but this time it’s not ‘performed’ it is just sung. And it has to be very sad and part of that has to do with her singing when she can't... And that was really hard to do. The temptation to go all Bonny Langford and scream ‘bring on the dancing girls’ was large. I only really hit it once. And unfortunately that was in the tech. But I am so glad I went for this… The songs worked in this show in a way that they didn’t in the first one. That makes me really happy.
The Story of the Found Tape…
I have to mention this story… So I was at my friend Lea’s house a few weeks before work on the first version of Freakoid started. And Lea’s Dad had brought round this old skool, reel to reel tape player. And it was sitting in her garage and as soon as I saw it I was like ‘WOW! LEA! PLEASE CAN I BORROW THAT!’ and Lea was really lovely and said ‘yes you can’. So I took it. But when I got it home, I couldn’t even work out how to plug it in. Luckily my friend Rick is a genius of sound and electrical things. So I took it to his house and said ‘please?’ he said ‘I’ll see what I can do’… Which involved him doing a ton of research on eBay… but eventually (after sourcing new belt drives and a microphone and other bits and bobs) he got the machine up and working. This was some time later. By now Freakoid 1 had been and gone and I was well into the making of Freakoid2… But what we found was that the tape on the machine wasn’t blank. It was full of songs being sung by an unknown lady. And it was really moving to hear this incredible voice, singing all these quite cheesy songs but with so much passion and belief. I think she must have been a singing teacher; she’s got that kind of precise diction to her singing… Anyway, Rick played me one track which started ‘England is a very nice place’ and that was that! WOW I was like, ‘right this is going in!’ (even though as I’ve said above, the script was well on the way by this time). When Sarah heard the recording she agreed. So then we had to find a way to make it work. Also, it was complicated by the fact that I thought, ‘if we’re going to use this unknown woman’s voice in the show, then it’s got to be done with some love, otherwise it feels wrong’. And this was worrying me until I discovered a way to make her into a hero in the plot. I won’t say how, you might see the show sometime, but anyway, as soon as that happened I thought ‘we’re not letting you down now’ and that felt OK. Anyway, the way that this unknown voice wound her way into the show is one of my favorite bits of the whole experience. And I think for me this story really vindicates this way of working. Letting the stuff that is happening in your world come out in the story that you’re making… It’s exciting.
What happened once we got to Brighton…
We worked our pants off that’s what! The writing / discussion / planning continued and then we were into the rehearsal room trying lots of different ways to bring the work alive… Though we did get to eat some nice food and hang out with David Sheppeard from Pink Fringe and the other Mauve New World artists Nick and Brian too. We were all staying in the artists’ flat above the theatre… It made it feel all encompassing and exciting. I loved it, but I don’t think I could live so intensely ‘in’ my work like this all of the time… Oh, and I slipped away for an hour after we had run our tech to buy some huge great big green bother boots too. They are ace. I don’t care if they are beyond good taste. They are the kind of boots that it’s impossible to imagine your life without before you owned them. You know what I mean. I know you do.
I feel pretty excited about what happened as we developed this piece. I feel like we were brave. Really brave. I don’t think what we created was perfect by any means, but by focusing on the process we actually made a performance that got a very strong reaction from the audience. The people who came to talk to us afterwards were really moved by our character’s story and they wanted to know what happens next! For me that is huge. We’d set out to find out if we could find ways to expand the story world and people were saying ‘we want more’…
In terms of the fear of performing? I had a much better time this time, mainly because I had stopped worrying about trying to be perfect or something that I wasn’t. And I’d kind of assumed that this would be the last time I’d be doing it too. So I thought, well if the process works, Sarah and I will just expand it out to incorporate a performer… But we got a very strong positive response about me continuing to perform the piece. This was of course nice, but also a bit scary. In feedback after the show, audience members were saying ‘you doing it is important’. To which I was saying, ‘That’s lovely, but you won’t be saying that when I’m still clutching a script when you’ve paid a tenner to see the ‘finished’ work!’ To which David gently said ‘Not true, you’ve got this exploration of playing with analogue technology running through both of the shows. You’re overlooking how much you could do to explore performing through that, which would take the pressure off line learning… You should think about how you could use tape machines, super 8, slide shows etc etc…’ And as soon as he said that, me and Sarah looked at each other and went ‘OH YEAH… We hadn’t thought about that!’.
So what’s next with Freakoid?
Nothing is certain, but already in the wake of the performances in Brighton some really exciting discussions have started. It’s possible that Sarah and I may yet start work on Freakoid3 in 2013. We’ll see. There is much to discuss and think about. Logistics and blah – but I’m hopeful that the show and our collaboration will continue. Because I’d say that a part of my brain has been rewired by making Freakoid and Freakoid2. I have learnt so much. Things like how a script isn’t finished when the final draft is delivered. How it has to be understood all over again. And that is invaluable knowledge for a writer to have. If I never ever act again, I now know what it feels like to be on the otherside. I'll always take that into rehearsals with me... I’ve also begun to understand how I can engage as a writer in a theatre making process. I’ve experienced first hand how it really is possible to share authorship of a script as you are writing. I didn’t quite understand how that might be possible before. I’ve also learnt that I can perform. And most surprisingly, I've learnt that I might like to do it again... Basically, I’ve stuffed myself on learning. It’s almost unseemly. I feel like the process has made me into a huge great willing Foie gras goose. The amount of new ideas and ways of working that I’ve been gobbling up has made me feel fat with learning.
The summer will be a time to digest.
I feel very lucky.
Huge thanks to Rachel & Rebecca at Ovalhouse and David & Tarik at Pink Fringe.
Wednesday, 27 June 2012
For the last 3 weeks I’ve had my head largely in the process of writing and learning to perform the first version of Freakoid, a commission I’ve been making with Sarah Applewhite for Ovalhouse and Pink fringe.
What is Freakoid?
It’s a show I’m performing. I’m usually a playwright. And playwrights write plays. But I’ve been falling in love with the work of theatre makers for some years now. The work of such people / companies as: Chris Goode, Chris Thorpe, Third Angel, The Paper Birds… and so, when an opportunity came up to make some work I pounced.
Though the thing is, I didn’t really know what I was pouncing on.
Because, in my heart I don’t go along much with the split between literary-led / maker-led work. Or however you want to express the divide. I’m a buffet type of person when it comes to art. I like comics and I like Jane Austin and I like non linear physical theatre and I like Panto and I like musicals and I like romance and I like radical expletive ridden brain and emotion fuckery and I like children’s stories, and romps and films, and fragility and thought provoking silence and music and fireworks and and… So the thing is, I know the divisions mean a lot to some people, but I don’t care much myself. I just seek out work that speaks to me.
Or should I say, that’s what I do as an audience member. As a playwright I have a desire to do this. I have a desire to work across boundaries and aesthetics. Yes I want to write authored plays but I’m also excited about the idea of building collaborative texts… Even so, I tend to work within structures that are set up for playwrights to work within. And I have found that in the end, it is easier to work with people who want to work with you. If people don’t trust the idea of what a playwright does then it’s hard to make a case to be involved. This is what I’ve found. When I’ve made advances toward theatre makers to try and start a conversation around the idea of working with them, I’ve often been politely but firmly ignored. And that is OK. You go where the work and the energy is. But it also means that as a playwright I’ve tended to work in ways which playwrights always work. I write the script, the director and actors make the work… And to be clear, I love this way of working. But even so, I was curious about what it might be like on the other side of the process… To find out what would happen and what I would learn if I made a play instead of writing one…
As such, when the Ovalhouse / Pink Fringe said ‘we would like you to think about applying for a Mauve New World commission’ I felt I had to go for it because I wasn’t convinced I’d get an opportunity like this ever again. A chance to do what I do, but in a new way. I thought I would learn a lot…
I was not wrong.
Beginnings of Mauve New World and Freakoid
The idea of Mauve New World (a co commission between Ovalhouse and Pink fringe in Brighton) was / is to create a platform for 3 theatre makers to explore ideas of what a ‘queer future’ might be. And I was commissioned along with Nick Field and Brian Mullin who also showed work last week at Ovalhouse.
To find out about some of the thinking behind the idea –here’s is an interview I did with Nick and Brian with Polari Magazine and one I did with When Sally Met Sally…
But briefly here - I started to think about:
Synthetic biology and android tech coming together…
About the philosophical impact that this kind of tech progress could have…
About the possibility that a computer in the not so distant future might have the capacity to turn to its owner and say ‘I love you’ or ‘I want to leave’ or ‘I’m going to marry your daughter’…
Do you feel emotionally ready for an encounter like that?
How would you feel about owning a thing that can have feelings?
It made me think about this question:
Am I a person because you say I am, or because I say I am?
What is personhood and who is it for?
This seems to be the philosophical question that underlies all struggles for equality (LGBT, children, anti capitalist, women, black or disabled struggles). Do I have the right to exist as I am, or do I need your permission to do so? Do I wait to be given rights or do I have to demand them? We might naturally think that by ‘being’ we are immediately given the status of personhood, but I think in a real way, personhood is essentially endowed or fought for and won. It is not inherent. Think about how people love their pets yet happily eat other creatures. The pet has been given the status of a person in the owners mind. The cow has not.
Or put another way, human’s have a pretty bad track record when it comes to ensuring the rights of other people in their midst. So the idea of bestowing emotional intelligence, complexity, curiosity and a sense of self into machines really intrigues/ terrifies / excites me! What would happen when these machines start to demand rights, start relationships, exert a will to live not just exist? Surely this would lead to feelings of disgust in humans? And where there is disgust, there’s queerness and a story! I began to imagine these computer/creatures as the new queers of the future…
The Story that developed out of that thinking…
And so a story began to develop about an advanced android brought up human who discovers that she is in fact an illegal ‘meat-bot’, cosseted by her Uncle (a morally dubious inventor). However, when she falls in love with a Hoover-Droid that cleans her Uncle’s castle, he is so disgusted that he throws her out onto the street. A street where she discovers the underworld of unsanctioned computer/human relationships… However, when we meet her, she is running a ‘curing’ centre for humans and meat-bots who have been caught living antisocial queer lives in that underworld. Our meat-bot has found a way to cure herself and is now a paragon of abstinence and virtue… Well that’s how things are at the beginning of the show, but as she tells her story to the audience (who are cast in the role of the perverts she is trying to cure) she reevaluates her decisions to live legally but without love… If you want to know what happens in the end.
The Process of getting there…
So I had all these ideas and an idea of the people I wanted to work with. I knew I wanted the thing to be very serious but also very silly. I wanted to explore that aesthetic. I began a discussion with two performers who agreed to be attached to the proposal… I put the proposal in… Some time passed…
And then - Ovalhouse and Pink fringe said ‘Yes’.
I said ‘WOW’ and then ‘yes’ back…
THEN I rang up the performers to say ‘It’s happening!’
But in the time it had taken for the work to be given the green light, both of the performer’s situations had changed and they were both no longer available. I understand. This is the world of freelance and living on the edge of your rent bill. The contract comes? You take it. Still. It didn’t change the fact that I now found myself in the heady position of having won a commission to make a piece of work as a lead artist/ co creator, only to find that I had none of the performers I had imagined making the work with, available. And I should say that because of the aesthetic of the work, I knew that I needed to work with very specific people. I wanted Freakoid to be very serious and very silly. I wanted it to be political and uncomfortable but also like a child’s story. I wanted to be in a room with people I knew would be excellent at giving themselves over to such things. I didn’t know anyone else that I could imagine being right for the process. I’m sure I was wrong, but that’s how it felt at the time… So then I was faced with either giving the commission up or changing the focus and performing the work myself and finding a director…
To be honest, if I had known what I know now, about what I would have to go through to make a solo show, I would probably have backed away at this stage. However, I did not know what I know now. And I’m very glad I didn’t know. If I had known, none of this would have happened.
Freakoid goes Solo…
My plan at first was to just kind of head off into a room with a few songs, a draft of an idea and then play with it in someway and get some friends to pop in every so often to have a look… However, I was lucky to have some great and generous conversations with some great and generous people. They basically said, very gently. ‘There is no such thing as a solo show. Don’t do this alone. Find a key collaborator’. I decided to take them seriously. I am VERY GLAD I DID. I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to convince Sarah Applewhite to come into the process to direct. The process would not have happened without her. It was a true collaboration and one of the things I have learnt about this way of working is – the collaboration is the work.
The collaboration is the point. If I had collaborated with anyone else, Freakoid would be a totally different show. This is one of the key differences I found making a play rather than simply writing a play. The play itself changed and evolved to reflect the strengths and limitations of what Sarah and I could bring to it. It is an incredibly intense but personal way to find a story. It is not about ‘being true to the text’. It is about being true to the story that is happening in the room. The text becomes part of that. I found this very comforting later on in the process when I had to face the fear and perform the fucker. Trying to do justice to the process and the spirit in which we had discovered the story was the thing I focused on. Each night I tried to say this to myself: ‘Do not focus on your knocking heart or knees. Do not focus on the sweat in your pants. Do not focus on wanting to cry. Do not focus on wishing that the floor would swallow you up. Do not focus on the people in the audience that you know. Stop worrying about whether they will think the work is any good or not. Stop worrying if people like it. It doesn’t matter’. Instead think about this: ‘What’s the story?’ and ‘Can I make this moment about the work and not about all my ego shit?’
Did I mention that I have a strange relationship with performing?
For the full run, every day I was as nervous. From 4pm onwards. Just nerves. No eating. Just nerves. Once the show started I was fine. But until the second it started? Just nerves, nerves, nerves.
I think this has something to do with being dyslexic. I find remembering text very difficult. But mostly it’s because I have been confronting my fear of acting…
I have a fear of acting. I’m overcoming it. But even so, you may wonder why I decided that attempting a 20 minute solo show would be a good idea given the fact that I really don’t like acting?
Well, the thing is, when I took the decision to perform Freakoid, I didn’t realise I was going to have to act exactly. I thought I could kind of make doing the show a bit like doing a music gig (something I’ve done lots of and know I can do)…
Only it turned out that I was wrong.
20 years ago I did a Theatre Studies and Drama Degree…
I was good at the theatre studies part, but I was rubbish at the acting bit. Or rather, I felt rubbish at it. Or rather, I felt fraudulent. In rehearsals a director would ask ‘what is your character thinking right now?’ And I would just feel blank. The only thing that ever motivated me while I was on stage was the following question:
‘What is my next line?’
Or if I was not thinking that, I would be having an inner debate that went a bit like this:
Shh we’re acting
I know but the thing is, I’m worried.
Never mind that. What is the next line?
I don’t know. But I think the really talented lass has a monologue for half a page. So all we have to do for a while is stand here and look serious.
OK, so, what’s the problem?
Well, I’ve noticed that when I’m acting, I’m not really acting, I’m just being me saying lines.
I’ve noticed that too.
I’m me, pretending to be someone else. Instead of really becoming someone else.
Proper actors become other people.
Right now, I’m just Emma being a bit glum in a big cloak, pretending to be Death in Blood Wedding, instead of, well, really being the essence of Death.
Shh. The monologue is coming to an end. What is the next line?’
I don’t know. Do you?
So there you have it. I have no capacity to become someone else on stage. I have seen actors doing it. And I can write other characters and imagine them. In my head I can sit for hours and feel the thoughts of someone else. But I cannot portray that and become that... So, as you might imagine, I had bad memories of acting. Bad memories of trying to do this thing that I couldn’t do. So when I signed myself up to do Freakoid solo, I only did that because I thought that performing could be done without acting. I thought, ‘I can just be a slightly not real version of me on stage and it will be fine’.
However, all that was a delusion…
What I discovered (with a good deal of patient guidance from Sarah) was that there is quite a lot of acting involved in performing. Sarah introduced me to this reality as gently as she could. But in the end, I had to deal with the stark truth - performing (even a pretend version of yourself) still requires a kind of honest abandonment to the moment. Or put another way it requires vulnerability. Acting had always made me feel vulnerable. And now it turned out that performing while different still required giving into that feeling of being open, confident yet vulnerable on stage. It feels scary. It feels really scary to do that. And while Freakoid does not require Hamlet type emotional fandango. It does require that I am as honest in the moment as I can be. To explore that aesthetic of very silly and very serious at the same time? The only way to do that was to try and be honest… And I found that really awful. It made me cry in a rehearsal when I realized what I had to do. I think I had mistaken the idea of creating a fictionalized version of myself for a process where I could turn up but not fully and honestly be in the moment. And I had to face that. Or put another way. To do Sarah and the story and the audience justice, I realized I was going to have to stop being frightened and start doing some stuff that might feel a bit like acting, even though it wasn’t acting.
Because of all of this - making Freakoid was/ has been and no doubt will continue to be a daunting, awful yet an amazing process. I’m learning so much about what performance is, what collaboration can be and also about my writing full stop. When you have to speak your own lines, you get a clear and brutal idea of what is working and what is only fit for the bin. You can’t delude yourself that the line didn’t work because the fool didn’t know how to deliver it!
And I haven’t even mentioned the songs or the fact that the keyboard broke and my friend Stuart did a mercy dash to fix it or the fact that the people at Ovalhouse are brilliant and if you ever get the chance to work there you should… But I’ll stop there… Well almost there…
Did I mention Sarah and I are remaking Freakoid?
Yes we are! We’re taking a bit of time off to think; regroup and then we’re starting work again. The next shows will be on in Brighton on Friday 20th July and Saturday 21st of July at the Nightingale. If you can, come.
Friday, 18 May 2012
On the 28th of June I’m starting a weeklong residency at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Getting to do this residency feels like a turning point, a huge creative opportunity but also a real responsibility. Part of my role is to mentor another writer during the week. I want to make sure I do a good job all around.
So, as is my way, I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking as the start date gets nearer.
For me thinking is writing. The habit I tend towards is to spend ages working out my why, what and how before I begin to put anything on the page… This is partly because I’m dyslexic and need to order my plans carefully before they all collapse in on me. But, I think it’s also to do with the fact that I trust thought. I trust detail and logic, I’m not always convinced my first emotional response is the best one. And besides, as an audience member, I really dislike stories that wheedle like a tapeworm inside my gut until they find and chew on my ‘emotion button’. I can’t tell you how offended I am by work that unleashes these 'Emotion Worms' to make me ‘feel’ something without earning it.
OK so hold that thought / image… Because, before I go on I need to pop in a bit of context:
While I’m resident at WYP, I’ll be using the time to research and develop a new idea for a play, which has the working title of ‘The 360 Degrees of Hope’. I’ll be doing research in and around the theatre and out into the city of Leeds and every day I’ll be putting my thoughts down in a piece of writing. I’ll also be mentoring writer Lee Sutton. Plus, I’ll be doing a writing workshop with the ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ group, and then of course there is the prospect of seeing the new work season , meeting and picking the great brains of my fellow Writer in Residence Fin Kennedy and engaging with the hugely exciting debate Alex Chisholm has raised with the writing / theatre making community in her blog: The End of ‘New Writing’? … It's clear the week is going to be massively full on. It’s going to be a kind of fun-boot-camp for my brain…
Only, it's struck me, this residency week isn't just going to be about expanding my thinking...
Last week I began talking to Lee about our mentor / mentee time together and what he might want to focus on during the week? In a bid to aide our discussion I asked him to try and consider what he thinks he is really great at doing as a writer, and conversely what feels more like a struggle or a weakness… Having set him this task I began to feel very excited about the conversation that would follow, until it dawned on me, you cannot ask someone to do something scary like that if you are not prepared to do it yourself.
It turns out; it’s not so easy to look at these questions honestly… Writers don’t often articulate what they think they’re good at. It’s not done, we are meant to be demure and grateful when it comes to our own talent / craft… Equally, its not easy to really engage with our weaknesses / the areas we don’t feel confident about. Why highlight a weakness that you hope people won’t notice in the first place? You’re asking for trouble right? Only, for the reasons explained, I now feel obliged to pull my finger out:
So... I am good at finding laughter in some very dark unexpected places. I’m good at creating unlikely friendships between chalk and cheese characters and I’m good at permitting myself to write ' impossible' stage directions that create magic in performance… Those are all things I feel quite confident about. So here’s the difficult 'but'... when I’m writing, I’ve realised I’m quite frightened of unleashing my Emotion Worm on my audience. I’m nervous that if I let my emotions lead what I write, that somehow my work will be weakened. Sometimes I worry about this less. When the story I’m creating is for or about children I usually let my heart lead, but generally this is true. For me, thought must rule... Only I'm now questioning this because, it has finally struck me that the writers I consider to be truly great, by and large engage my heart just as much as my mind.
To dare to try and be as good as your heros... That's the bar... I'm not sure what ‘The 360 Degrees of Hope’ will be yet. I want to ask every question I can think of about the subject to find out... What is hope? What is it for? Where do we find it? What do we do with it? What happens when it is gone? Can we live without it? Or is it an opiate? Some recent Tweets from @HarryGiles, a really interesting political theatre maker I follow on twitter, suggest that he feels this is the case. On the 11th of May he wrote,
“I don't want my anger exorcised and replaced with hope; I think anger is a way more positive and useful emotion than hope.” Is he right? If not, why has our government brought in measures to report on our well being? It appears that hope and happiness in our troubled present are becoming bones of contention. So, what stories of hope do we need to be telling ourselves at a time like the one we are in? I’m going to be discussing, thinking and writing about all of this as I go through my residency. But I’ve also decided that I’m going to be playing and feeling around it too. I’m going to revisit the playful creative ideas of Lynda Barry , in an attempt to bypass the bit of my brain that fears letting the emotion worm out. I’m not sure where this will all lead, but what I am certain of is this; to be able to write about hope in a meaningful way, I’m going to have to dare to engage fully with my head and my heart.
Tuesday, 1 May 2012
Yesterday I went to Leeds Town Hall, to start thinking about a new 15 Minutes Live piece that I'm writing for Slung Low.
I love these Lions and their weather beaten faces. Big giant loves.
Yesterday I was mostly hanging around outside the Town Hall, watching people coming and going... Later in the week I'm going to go inside and get a tour to find out all the secrets of the place...
Anyway, another thing I love about the steps of the town hall are all the bits of tat left over from weddings. I love a wedding. Call me old fashioned, but when you see people setting out, in the face of all the statistics and all the gubbins of life, to be together forever that makes me very happy.
A final picture from the day at Leeds Town Hall: A cheeky pigeon. I like Pigeon's. I don't understand why people let their kids run at them and try and kick them. They are plucky, they never give up and sometimes they have a lovely multicoloured sheen in their feathers. For all those reasons I think the Pigeon should be our national animal emblem. Not that I'm into nationalism. But if we have to have a national animal emblem I'd prefer a Pigeon to a Bull Dog.
It's funny how hanging around a place starts to give you ideas. I can't say that I've come away from yesterday with a clear sense of the story I want to write for my piece, but I have got a sense of a vibe or tone. I think the story is going to be a bit sad but a bit romantic too. I came away feeling a bit warm but with a tinge of melancholy.
Tuesday, 24 April 2012
In February 2012 I contributed the following post to the State of The Arts Conference Live Blog...
My biggest question about art at the moment is: Why do we feel the need to apologize for the fact that we make it?
It’s beginning to stick in my throat.
I’m beginning to want to throw up hearing art talked about as if its something to put on the shopping list of life.
We live in a world of consumption and to aide us to consume easily we give things titles. It makes it easier to decide what to push in our mouth today.
I don’t much like this but I am part of it.
I push things into my mouth all the time.
Only the thing is.
We’ve let this concept bleed into almost everything we do.
And it’s making us forget that it’s not the only way of doing. We breathe in and out all the time without thinking.
We don’t agonise about breathing. Ever. We just get on with it. Until we stop and then its over. It’s that integral to who and what we are.
Art is the same. Isn’t it?
The desire to make and share and communicate and find joy and understand the act of being alive is innate. Surely? It’s on a par with breathing.
It is in us and of us and we need to do it.
If that is true, why have we all begun to feel like we have to act and talk about art as if it’s got the same worth as something we might shop for?
It’s a choice. We consume it. We must worry about its ethics. We must prove we can afford it because it is an added extra bonus. It’s a nice treat. It’s special… It’s other than us…
So I guess my concern is that philosophically we have allowed ourselves to become trapped by the linguistics of commerce to the extent that we seem to feel obliged to at least reference the consumability of art when we defend it.
And that way madness lies.
More and more and more I think we should stop ‘defending the arts’ and start attacking that mistaken premise instead.
Because it’s a false premise. Lets unburden our selves from engaging with it and instead create a new premise that is fit for purpose.
Look at it this way.
2 weeks ago. I bought a sofa with my girlfriend. We bought it together. I’ve never bought a sofa before.
It was a strange experience. It felt funny and very grown up.
No doubt, because I’m an artist it’s taken me a long time to grow up enough to get a girlfriend who wants to stay with me for long enough to make the act of buying a sofa seem tenable.
So for lots of reasons it was very exciting to buy a part share in a sofa with her.
It was not however as good as most plays or films or music or live art or site spec events or Ballet or Opera or literature or poetry or comics I’ve ever been to / read / seen or listened to.
OK to be really honest, it was as good as most of the Opera and Ballet I’ve seen in my life, but then I’m not a huge fan of Opera or Ballet. Generally. I’m glad if you are though. And if that’s the case, I bet you find Opera and Ballet better than your sofa too?
Not that I’m knocking finally having a sofa to sit on. It is fucking brilliant not to have back pain any more. And it’s useful for watching films on telly. I even find it ergonomically / aesthetically pleasing.
And I believe that someone somewhere put a ton of creativity into designing my new sofa. And promoting the sofa. And marshaling the underpaid workers to sweat to make the sofa / package the sofa / freight the sofa / display the sofa / entice me and my girlfriend to buy the sofa.
Ask any of these people if my new sofa is better than their favorite film, telly programme, dance, song, site spec event, comic, poetry reading, ballet performance or opera show?.. And with the certainty I have in my own need to breath I guarantee they will say ‘no’. The sofa is not as good as that.
‘Don’t be daft! As if!’
Because I/we/ they - do not - love/engage/desire/embrace/find joy/find hope/find escape/find understanding from the sofa.
I / we /they find that stuff in Art (and religion admittedly but that really is another story)
SO. NOW HAVE A THINK ABOUT THIS THING THAT WE DO!
ART - IT’S THAT BIG!
So lets start being a bit more confident.
How on earth did we get to a place where we are so apologetic about the value of what we do, for ourselves and for others?
I’m not sure.
But we need a plan.
Here are a few things we could do?
1) We need to stop focusing on ‘defending’ the arts. We need to start confidently expecting the whole of the moon. As Delia Smith is want to say ‘I can’t hear you! Where are you?! LETS BE HAVING YOU’. By asking for the moon we will have a chance of having at least a sprinkle of moon dust. We have nothing to lose. In the atmosphere we’re in politically? Really, it is time to collectively stop playing the part of Oliver Twist. ‘Please sir I would like some more’. NO More of that…
2) Stop feeling guilty about fucking baby incubators. It is not either or. We need art. We need baby monitors. We don’t have to choose. We’ve been lied to. They have told us we need to believe that it’s a choice. It isn’t. Arms traders do not spend a second worrying about the amount of baby incubators they don’t manufacture to be fired out of canons to be caught in special giant rubber gloves from where they are collected and taken to enemy baby hospitals to save the babies. Do you ever see them apologizing for that? So why do we? Next time someone says ‘but what you do isn’t as important as a baby monitor’ look them in the eye and say ‘yes it is’. Then invite them to ring BAE Systems and discuss their decision to make missiles instead of baby monitors. Try it. It will work.
3) Lets stop saying words like ‘the future is collaboration’ while secretly chatting amongst our friends about the healthy thing a good cull in the arts can be… No really! Lets stop thinking ‘the cuts are awful but there again they did get rid of that shit little dance/theatre/poetry/live-art thingy /company / individual (delete as appropriate) who did that dead wood fucking awful work I just hated. So no harm done really’. Stop it. Stop playing the ‘it’s a question of quality / the law of the jungle / its evolution in a difficult time, blah blah blah’ card. Because you know it’s collusion. You know deep down that really some of the best work you ever made was an accident and some of the worst you ever made on paper was going to be magical but wasn’t. Still, you learnt from it. And besides, every show you ever go to that you hate, you can’t help noticing that there is someone else in the audience getting something from it and loving it? Idiots eh? No! That’s the glory of art. So, don’t you dare smugly applaud as that chance to do and to share is that’s taken away from someone else. Art is about making / seeing / doing / living / thinking / dreaming / finding / changing/ working out what you want / working out what you don’t. Sometimes it is made with money. Sometimes it makes money. Sometimes it doesn’t. But in the discussion of ‘the why and how and who’ of art, money is irrelevant. You know this. So don’t give into the divide and rule game. I struggle with Opera. Never mind. I will march and write letters and scream and whisper and tickle and dance and coo coo ca choo to save the right of Opera folk to do their Opera thing. I expect nothing NOTHING less from them. Nothing less. I mean it. Adult Up. Don’t just step up, get on the fucking plate. Look at it. Because its not about ‘us in the art its about the art in all of us and in the audience’*. It’s about fucking breathing.
4) Lets stop whining. REALLY. When I was young I wanted to be a butcher or in the army. I’ve ended up working in the arts. Being as I am now an eco pinko lesbo namby pamby veggie-lite, aspiring pacifist - friends often find this surprising when I admit to it. But the more I think about it, the more I think not. It is not a surprise. All three are brutal industries. BRUTAL. They are all to do with death and scrabbling for the beauty that comes from avoiding it. They are all about surviving if you can. We talk about the arts as if they are rarified. They are gristle and sinew and desire and raw raw fucking love and hate and passion. So lets look that in the face and acknowledge it. Lets actually understand that. The arts are a mode through which we express our humanity. Our humanity is the thing that is up for grabs here. The slippery thing that is not pin-down-able but must be pursued even so. Every day we are in a fight to see how that might go. Will we master our desire to fuck and kill at random? How can we nurture others when we don’t love ourselves? Will we learn how to be better? Will we give into living with the worst of ourselves? How much fun can we have while we’re thinking about all of that? ALL OF THAT and more! This is what we’re working out when we do art. And more. And more and more and more. So lets get our sleeves rolled up. We are playing for keeps. The stakes are high. We are not a lovely optional add on. We are essential. We are here and we are doing this thing and we are supporting each other to do it. Or we are all dead in the water. Or sitting on our sofa’s wondering what to push into our mouths next.
*This is a paraphrase of something Stanislavski once said. I think.