Hello

Hello and Welcome!

Welcome to my website. On my homepage I will post blog entries about arts projects that I am working on. I imagine that I might also write about interesting things that I’ve been reading and shows or exhibitions that link to my work in some way. I do however promise not to write about what I’ve eaten for breakfast (invariably peanut butter on toast).

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I’ve written previously about process vs performance, specifically in relation to creating work with ‘community’ groups and in non-professional settings. That was a few years ago now, and as I wander into the world of the ‘professionals’, I can tell you this: I still love a process. (I’m using inverted commas as a lazy way of signalling that I have issues around these definitions, but I’m not ready to write a blog post about it yet. I’ll let that brew a little longer). I love finding the right game to spark a scene. I love dancing around rooms with actors, to music that’s louder than medically advised. I love starting with an idea or a concept and then working collaboratively to create the physical world and language of a play. I love using research to find accuracy and clarity in a production, to find specificity and detail. There’s a lot of love in there. No doubt. But the main thrust of creating something (in theatre anyway), is to share it. With an audience. So I’ve been doing some thinking about the nature of performance and audience, and what I’ve learnt from the last few shows that I’ve directed.

 

It’s a fascinating and faintly terrifying time, that liminal space in which a show you’ve spent so many weeks pouring over, tearing into, tweaking, snipping and colouring is relinquished to an audience for the first time. I’m interested to hear what other directors think, but, I’ve found that, when an audience file in for the first performance of a show,  it’s in that moment that I realise I’ve really got no idea what we’ve got on our hands. I know some things: I know that we’ve put in the work, that we’ve gone through a creative process that has substance and direction, that we’ve created something of worth. If I’ve done my job, I know that the world of the play is cohesive, that it’s detailed and has corners, pace, and heart, but what I do not know is the exact way in which it will hit an audience until they’re there, in front of it. At the start of a creation process, I consider the gesture of the play and how I want it to effect an audience, but I don’t ever feel in control of the outcome. Probably, because I’m not.

 

I crafted the below thoughts on audience and performance as part of a notes session I was giving to a truly wonderful cast of second year acting students at Arts Ed. Working with an ensemble of fourteen, and an assistant from Birkbeck’s MA course, I directed ‘The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning’, which we shared with audiences last week. I thought I’d share those notes with my wider readership (my mother) now. P.S. reading it back, I am suddenly aware that I’ve spent too much of December listening to ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)’. It’s drenched in it. I know, and I’m not sorry.

 

Some thoughts on audience…

 

1) Your audience don’t owe you anything. This is a fresh audience, with fresh perspectives, who are coming at it from blank. I often find the first performances of a production the most fun, because there’s no precedent, no expectation; audiences come at it with an open heart. Then, by word of mouth, or reviews or social media, as a run goes on, especially if you’ve got a positive reaction, I find it can often become more challenging. Because the audience come in expecting to be impressed. Expectations can be a fucker. They make us hard and unbending. But we all have them. Audiences can be strange and unknown quantities. Don’t let it catch you out or worry you too much. Just stick to your task.

2) The audience don’t owe you a laugh on that bit, or to be moved on that bit… every audience member, and audience as their own little ensemble/community, will respond differently to your work, every single time. It’ll connect to some, it might not to others. And that’s ok. We’re all human beings wandering around with our own life experiences, with our attention caught by different things. All you can do is stay true to what we’ve created as a group, our intention and the world of our play.

3) You never know how someone is effected by something. I’ve sat through plays of mine where the audience hasn’t let out a single sound. I assumed they hated it. Then they’ve come out saying they were deeply moved. Humans are a strange breed of fish. This is especially true in the UK where we’re all emotionally constipated. Don’t assume your audience isn’t connecting to something because they’re not giving you the reaction you’re expecting (see, you have expectations too).

4) Don’t play for laughs, don’t play for a specific reaction at all, just know your intent with each moment and beat of the play, and be open to different ways that you might explore and play with it. Play the games we’ve embedded into the play, and play them with commitment and openness. Don’t think that because a delivery worked yesterday, it’ll work today. Don’t bake things in and leave them there. You cheat yourself and your audience of the magic of the live form. We’re not making a film or recording something so it stays the same way forever. For magical reasons I don’t totally understand, the audience know when you’re authentically creating something in the moment, there’s a liveness, an audacity and a charge to it. They also know when you’re copying or imitating someone else or something else you’ve done before. They’re dead clever. So don’t bake things in and leave them set. Keep on playing with them, alongside your intentions and the characters you’ve created. Fresh performances, every single time.

5) Everyone’s a director. Once you’ve made something and put it out there, suddenly everyone has an opinion, a thought about how it could be tweaked or shifted. I’m guilty of it. You probably are. Actually it’s a huge compliment because it means that audiences are engaged enough in your work to want to take ownership of it. However, you can’t take it on. A lot of it is just taste, and that’s why art is so great, it hits everyone differently and makes everyone feel differently. But, if we create a play to please everyone, we create a play for no-one at all. If we’re not specific in our work, we’re beige. Beige belongs on the walls of your local library. Not in art. So, your job is to smile politely and then swiftly delete it from your memory or, even better, try some assertive communication and stop someone who’s giving you a note ‘I’m really pleased you’re so engaged in it, but I don’t think hearing specific feedback is going to serve me right now’. Or something similar, in your own words. Of course, if you’re interested in someone else’s opinion (and there are lots of interesting people, opinions and thoughts out there of great value), I’d advise taking it up after the run of a show. Because if we all take notes from different places, we’re no longer working cohesively on the same world and vision.

 

Trust me, you can’t please everyone.

I run theatre workshops for primary school groups, exploring arts and creativity. At the beginning I’ll introduce myself as a theatre director, and ask the young people what they think that might mean. Some regulars: “you tell people what to do”, “you tell actors where to stand”, and on one occasion, “you shout at people”. Oh dear.

At the beginning of that same workshop, I once said I was a performance artist, for reasons unknown to me (I had momentarily lost my thread). The participants came back with some interesting suggestions, but, as I was really none the wiser, I mainly nodded and made appropriate supportive noises. Lesson #1 kids- we’re all making it up as we go along.

To the point: what is the role of the director in the creation of theatre? I recently took part in a Meisner short-course led by Jack Price (I digress again, but it’s brilliant, and if you’re interested in this kind of thing, I recommend it. Here’s a link). Jack described the role of director as that of ‘highly attuned audience member’ which I thought that was interesting; we are (hopefully) always thinking about the audience as we create our work- the role they have in the world of the play, the story we’re telling them, why we’re telling it to them, what effect we want it to have on them,  how we want it to hit them (or stroke them, or hug them, or tickle them etc etc), when we want them to work harder, how we bring them in. There’s also an underlying provocation here that to create theatre we need an actor, or a few of them, and an audience, of some kind. A director and an audience does not theatre make. This could in fact be the end of this blog-post. But I’m afraid I’ve got more to say. On the other hand, no-one is forcing you to read, so you’re welcome to stop here. Thanks for swinging by.

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So we have two directions of thought here- the director as the dictator and the director as the observer. I’ve been mulling over it, and, ever a fan of a grey area, I’m heading towards something more nuanced; the role of the director as increasing the bandwidth. That is, the role of the director is to take a play that they connect to, mine it for all it’s worth, ask all the questions, and spend the rehearsal period, with actors, exploring. That does not mean fixing answers. That’s an end-point. And theatre, by-god, is not about end points. That’s what makes theatre so special- every time we see it, it is always unique- its very liveness means that time was the only time you’ll ever experience it that way, and that time, and that one;  it lives from moment, to moment,  none of which can be replicated. So, whilst creating characters, building relationships between them, getting inside of what they say and why, getting inside the rhythm of a play, from where I’m stood, the role of the director is to make everything s-t-r-e-t-c-h.

Let me be specific, because I realise I’m treading the line of incoherent metaphor here. I’m currently directing ‘All of Me’ at VAULT Festival, written by the magnificent Martin Brett and performed by the ever playful, ever authentic Jack Wilkinson. Jack plays Gareth-  lonely, isolated, bitter and angry (Gareth, not Jack). So we started the rehearsal process by asking tons of questions about Gareth, and then using Laban techniques to explore all the potential ways in which a body might move- moving lightly, or with great strength is just one example (I wrote a post exploring this in more detail here). The point of this work is, rather than drawing from our natural inclination to move in a certain way (very personal, and we’ve each of us been doing it our way for a lifetime, so also very challenging to change)- we are retraining the muscles to be open to anything. We used Meisner technique in the same way, to flex the impulse muscle, to get out of our heads, and wire the text into our impulses- so it comes from our bodies rather than our brains.

So rather than take a sledge hammer to a text and insist that it is this way and that way, and you move here and speak that there like this, I think our job is to stretch it. To take it to its limits, play at all ends of it, and then, with the actor (never for them), decide where you’re headed. And that does not mean, we’ve explored everything and now we’re doing it like this- it means, we’ve had a really good look around, and we’ve found this, and this and this interesting- let’s keep on playing.

Terrifying for actors and directors alike, because we’re really not making final decisions about much, but  also the most fun I’ve had. I’ve just come out of a tech this morning (in which we plot the lighting and check the sound cues behave themselves) where we basically decided we’d light the whole of the stage, most of the time, because we’ve no idea where Jack will move to at which point. Save the words in the script, we’ve very little idea what he’ll be doing each night at all. It depends on where the playing, and the audience, and the magical breath created between the two goes. And that my friend, is not a thing that we can (or should wish to) dictate.

While I’m here- I don’t know how many times I’ve used the word ‘polish’ as part of a rehearsal process- it’s stuck somewhere in the glue of my brain, I suspect from tap dance classes as a child (I wish I was joking), but never, never again. (Or at least, if I do, please shake your head furiously and scream something alarming but not abusive in my direction as a reminder). For there is no place for tidy or polished in theatre- that tidying is where we kill it dead, because if we’re presenting real life, in all its dimensions and possibilities, we must do it in a way that is clumsy, vulnerable, beautiful, unpredictable, smelly, sweaty and most importantly of all, authentic.

All of Me is on at VAULT Festival from 1-5 March @ 6:30pm (matinees 4 & 5 @ 3:15pm).

For tickets see http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/all-of-me/2017-03-01/

Community, Fear, Sharing, Uncertainty

Grief

I have tried, and failed, to write this blog post five times. In fact, this is the scariest thing I have ever written. I want to write about grief. A cheery Christmas blog-post about grief. You. Are. Welcome. But precisely because it’s Christmas, ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, I think it might be time.

 

In September, my (our) dad, Michael, died. Since then, I have struggled. There is a (sort of) famous axiom that grief cannot be presented on the stage. When I hear that, part of me rolls my eyes and part of me gets it- but I think the attitude that lies behind it is a little dangerous and extremely unhelpful. Grief is central to our existence, to our human experience (‘all that lives must die’), so why put it on some platform of untouchables? In my experience, grief can be incredibly isolating- it’s a real effort (for me) to remember that we’ve all lost someone or something important to us. It’s one of the great human truths; we will all lose, we will all know that pain at some point. So why make it holy? Of course, there’s a lot of mystery around grief, especially in death, what happens to us when we die, are we still around, in some form, if not, where do we go? A shit-storm of uncertainty. But the loss is certain. I have found it to be true however, that we all experience grief in totally different ways, and that can be scary; we want people to be alright, whether that means grieving in the same way, or getting through it.

 

So here’s what I know helps- talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, dance, talk, talk, and talk. Even if your sentences barely cling to any sense, verbalise it, vocalise it, express it in whatever way you can, to people you trust. And listeners, you don’t need answers, just keep eye contact and stay there. And what about worry? Naturally we want the best for the people we love. We want them to be through the sad and painful bit, onto the new perspective, lessons learnt, finding energy and joy again bit. As human beings, we aren’t so good at the sticky bit in the middle, the sadness, the exhaustion, the loss, the anger. But, what else are you meant to feel? Hope? Some days, sure. Gratitude? Yup, sometimes. But I suspect if I went around thanking my lucky stars that it’s Christmas and I am young and healthy and loved, you’d doubt I was really facing reality. We want people to be ‘better’, but even that language isn’t helpful, because all these emotions are as much a part of life as any other. So, all I can say is, it’s painful, but it’s so, so normal. I’m pretty sure 50% of my therapist’s time is spent telling me that what I am feeling is totally normal. So let’s take this idea of grief as something exceptional and call it something else, normal, part of the life-death deal; dear grief, get down from that pedestal immediately (please).

 

Other things I know- grief is not something to get over. My grief represents the love and the relationship that I have with my dad. It is huge. It has a weight to it, a shape to it- I think of it as a big triangular stone that sits behind my belly button. It’s a sort of tomb I suppose, a marker of what I am carrying, the pain of it, absolutely, but also the love, the luck, the significance of it- what we have lost and what we have known. I figure I have two options with this belly-stone 1) ignore it, let it fester, get cold, grow mould and damp 2) polish it up, good and proper, make it gleam. Out of respect for my dad, and myself, I choose the latter. My grief isn’t something to get over, it’s not going anywhere, it might feel less pronounced one day, I’ve really no idea, but it’s a badge of mine, the kind you’re presented with at some life-ceremony you can’t remember accepting an invitation to; I didn’t choose it, but I’ve got it now, so I’m looking after it, good and proper.

 

And what about Christmas? The place where this began. I wrote a blog-post about this (oddly, exactly) two years ago- I actually suspect I’ve always felt a bit funny around Christmas- forced cheer sits uncomfortably with me (I am, after all, British). There isn’t much space for grief though, in a traditional Christmas narrative, so here’s my idea, let’s make some. Some concrete things I recommend for people experiencing grief: keep warm- hot water bottles, slippers, soup, blankets, armchairs. Read, learn and connect to the inner-thoughts of other people. Be honest, talk about it, cry about it. And if you’re a friend or family member- buy any of the above as a gift, make sure there’s plenty of milk in the fridge for tea, listen, listen, sit and listen. Trust them to lead it and stay there, with them. It might also be helpful to find a way to mark what or who you have lost at Christmas, include them- whether it’s making a photo album, creating a playlist of their favourite songs or doing a food-shop in their honour (dad’s mainly consists of crystallised ginger, dark chocolate, eye-wateringly expensive nuts and German biscuits- a man of refined taste). And know that, like life, the sadness will not be forever, it will come and go, and we’re capable of holding lots of other things all at the same time. And most importantly, you are not alone.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about how audiences respond to theatre; about how every one of us is an expert at deciding whether a performance was effective or not, because theatre, in my thinking, is about making audiences feel. How exciting then that I can’t tell you whether, or how, a piece of theatre will make you feel, that no-one can. How wonderfully democratic that we each come at it from our own starting point and that no-one is more expert at being an audience member than anyone else.

Working as a trainee director on ‘dreamplay’ with Baz Productions, at The Vaults in (in fact, under) Waterloo, I’ve come back to this again- I’ve been thinking about theatre performance and narrative, and the pressure to ‘get it’, or not. Inspired by Strindberg’s original, the play is about dreams and the dreamer, about how we experience dreams- how we see them, hear them, how they make us think, feel and what they do to us. Placing the audience as dreamer, the play immerses us into the world of a series of different and sometimes related dreams, as we pass through different spaces in The Vaults and the 8:05pm train to Woking rumbles over-head.

Actually- it’s sort of about those things. And here’s where I think it gets interesting; it’s open, it doesn’t tell the audience what to think or feel, rather it presents us with a series of things that are played so truthfully and with such life and openness, that they are little presents in themselves. This openness is central to the Director, Sarah Bedi’s, process, which from the outset was about working with a group of curious and committed performers to find the game in each scene, and to play that hard, and differently, every night. This was never about blocking, fixing or choreography, this was about finding the game and keeping it alive and engaging for the performers and audience alike.

What struck me about ‘dreamplay’ is that each scene tells a different story, and there are links, and echoes, and gifts in each one, but there isn’t a coherent whole. Or rather, the coherent whole is the audience’s journey through the piece, the dreamer, taking part, experiencing, feeling and engaging. This isn’t a trick- there isn’t a story that you’re ‘meant’ to unearth, there’s a narrative framework- Agnes, a kind of angel-figure, comes to earth to find out why human beings are sad- but, really, understanding that (or not) shouldn’t alter your experience of it. What I love about this play is the beauty and commitment of each moment, each performer, the feel, smell and acoustics of each space. What I take away from it is a series of beautiful things that brought goosebumps to my arms, laughter to my belly, tears to my eyes and a pleasant shooting sensation down my back.

Now, let me be honest- as an audience member, I’m often guilty of needing to know the meaning- what I’m meant to learn, the joke I’m meant to be in on, the irony I’m meant to raise an eyebrow at, who I’m meant to trust, who I’m meant to be suspicious of- I want to get ahead so I can be ‘in’. It’s a test, and I want to pass, please. That creates a fair whack of anxiety, often leaving me dissatisfied and prone to blame (I’m working on it). But what if there is nothing to ‘get’. What if it’s up to each of us to feel and respond to a piece of theatre as we will, and if that means taking away five 2 minute segments where some beautiful movement sequence felt like freedom, or a wail hit so poignantly and hard at grief it made you hold your breath, or a light and a shadow felt like being 5 years old again, or an argument felt so totally yours, you realised you needed to apologise- well, what if that’s enough.

I think there’s a big responsibility here with theatre makers- directors, performers, designers and their creative teams – to connect to and engage audiences in a way that they feel safe and confident to respond to a piece in a manner that is totally their own, because that is so much more robust and profound than ‘getting it’, so much more flexible, personal, moving and ultimately, I think, much more valuable.

We’re into the second week of rehearsals for Anything Other’s first show, All of Me. I’ve been thinking (my mother: “always dangerous”): rehearsals can feel like a terribly private and elusive space, so in the name of transparency, I thought I’d write about some of the ways that I’m approaching it.

All of Me is a new play, written by Martin Brett, about gambling addiction… kind of (I do qualify this in a moment, so, ‘bear with’). It’s a one-man play and that one-man is Gareth, played by Tommy Burgess. We’re rehearsing for 3 weeks in a secret location (a primary school in Sidcup). To structure the rehearsal period, I’ve taken inspiration from other directors & practitioners who write about their work, my experience so far as a theatre facilitator and practitioner, and from taking part in director training courses at the Young Vic and Central School of Speech & Drama, and other practical workshops. I’m quite pleased that when I consider my approach as a whole, it’s rather a mish-mash of  theories- especially pleased because they’re apparently at odds with one another (“I work on text because I don’t believe in psychological approaches” etc). I’m one for inclusivity, so here’s my first directing discovery: make it work for you. I find that the kind of directors who write books about what they do (i.e. successful), call 4 weeks a very short rehearsal period, and therefore make exercises work over a much longer period than is feasible for your average financially struggling emerging director (poor me, poor me…) so you’ve got to adapt, chop and change. Besides, that way you can make it your own process and then write a book about it and make your fortune.

So, to start with, I’m breaking down the rehearsal schedule into roughly 1 hour blocks, and in each of those blocks, exploring either the text, character or the world of the play (we warm up every day and if I’m feeling nice we get lunch and tea breaks). I took this structure from Mike Alfreds, who works on each of these layers (text, character, world) simultaneously throughout the rehearsal period, so that they all start to inform one another and develop into a natural and aligned whole; a play where the text is clear, the characters truthful and everyone inhabits the same reality (even if it’s not at all real).

So far we’ve explored character through the Laban Efforts- working with different ways of moving, using weight, tempo and space. A very simple overview, we can move heavily through a space (like wading through mud, where there’s great effort involved), or very lightly (like there are balloons beneath the armpits). We can move in such a way that our movement is constant and sustained or broken and in bursts (like a boxer). We can move directly and with purpose (no movement wasted getting somewhere), or freely through a space (available to move in any direction). We can find a really wide range of movement (and therefore a place to draw characters from), but we rarely do- we’re often stuck in our own habits and physical (often mental) constructs, so it’s important to start with as wide a range of movement as possible before we create a character (otherwise we might be cheating ourselves of something surprising and most important of all, truthful). Discovery two: start with the broadest possible range of options and play with them to their fullest potential before you start making definite choices. When we fix something too soon, we miss the potential for it to surprise us, to be brave and to do something different.

Although All of Me is a one man play, Gareth makes reference to a cast of characters that I think it’s important we get to know better in the rehearsal room- who are they, what do they mean to Gareth and why does he bother mentioning them at all? We need to get clear on that, so that Tommy as Gareth can talk about them with purpose and precision. We’ve roamed the streets of Sidcup casting characters mentioned in the script, we’ve structured improvisations between them and Gareth (Katie Mitchell has some very specific instructions on how to structure improvisations to give them purpose and direction, which I like) and hot-seated Gareth with other characters, e.g. his dad, to better understand their relationship. The key to all of this work is to 1) be specific about what you’re setting up Discovery 3: boundaries unleash creativity 2) let what unfolds, unfold 3) Reflect on it afterwards and fish out what’s useful post-exercise (don’t worry if it suddenly appears that someone has a sister that is never mentioned in the text, go with it and discuss it afterwards and take what is useful in relation to better understanding the text).

I’ve been giving Tommy 30 minutes of each rehearsal day to explore the character of Gareth. In this scenario I sit and observe. This has been a real eye-opener for me; with each hour of rehearsal so finely accounted for, I’ve realised how important it is to leave some time to let all of the work sink in, for the actor to play, to claim the work, and to start tying all the ends together. There’s a lot of doing in directing (my version of it, anyway), and sometimes sitting back and handing over can be a really excellent way for the performer(s) to discover (and for you to be surprised). Discovery 4: leave time for it all to come together.

We’ve also been looking at the wider world of the play- the nature of problem gambling, what makes someone an addict, why someone might start gambling and how and why it might become a problem. As well as conducting our own research (Katie Mitchell recommends using books because internet sources can be sketchy, but it’s also a wealth of information, so I wouldn’t discount it by any means), we’ve met with counsellors from the charity GamCare and people working within the gambling industry, to get both sides of the story- a fundamental part of the ethos of Anything Other. This research has been invaluable to our interpretation of the play in that- although Gareth has a gambling problem, it is really a manifestation of his loneliness; Gareth is acutely alone, and he uses gambling in part as a smokescreen- “my problem is gambling”, and in part as a way of filling the void- with numbers, bets, odds, wins, losses, chasing and statistics, there’s not enough space for him to ponder underlying concerns around his identity, his purpose and isolation. We’ve used that research to inform the physical characterisation of Gareth too- his movement is light, so he is often on his toes, meaning even when he stops (pauses), he is never quite still- he’s always about to tumble into something else, always ready to move away from all that he’s avoiding.

Next, I want to make sure that we consider every beat, every line of the play, because it matters why we say things; we (usually) speak because we think we’ve got something good, or important, informative or entertaining to say. That brings us to actions. I learnt actioning from director Sarah Bedi, and it’s a technique that Max Stafford-Clark favours (putting it lightly). It’s a lengthy process, but a fascinating one. In week 1 we broke the text down into chunks of text where there’s a definite shift in focus- that totals 21 chunks (I’m not big into semantics, some people call it units, others sections, could be called ‘elephants’ as long as we all know what we mean by it)- all of which we’ve given simple titles explaining exactly what’s going on- not interpretive but the bare bones, e.g. ‘Gareth charts his relationship with Derrick Wentworth’.  We’ve then divided up the beats in each unit- that is, the thoughts. So every time there is a new thought, we mark it as a new beat. We then play, on our feet, with potential actions for that beat. An action is something I (the speaker) do to you (the listener)- the line might be ‘Why are you lonely Derrick?’, and an action might be ‘I hurt you’, ‘I flatter you’, ‘I belittle you’, ‘I pinch you’. Try saying that line whilst doing those things with it- you’re only using the line of text, but you’re using it to e.g. pinch you. Once we’ve assigned an action to each beat for a whole chunk of text, we work out Gareth’s objective (what he’s trying to do) for the chunk. We do this process on our feet and we keep it big for the first week, so it gets into Tommy’s muscle memory and so that we explore the full potential of each action (it’s truthful even if it’s not naturalistic). Discovery 5: It’s much easier to start big and reel it in.

As we develop the unit objectives, we’ve started to identify Gareth’s super-objective (what he wants overall, most in the world), and his through-line (what he wants in the play). All of these parts should be related to one another, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t conflict- all the better if there is, because out of that comes real and interesting characters, as well as drama (if Gareth knows what he wants and gets it straight away, our play is about 30 seconds long, and we might need to offer the audience a refund). Discovery 6: Don’t make 30 second long plays. Or do, and don’t charge more than a coca-cola fizzy bottle for them.

As we get into week 2, we’re starting to look at the use of the set with set designer Nicola Ralph (which I’m not going to talk about here because I’m rather excited about it, and I want to leave something to tantalise), as well as the use of technology- projection and music. Interestingly, I’m more hesitant about how we use technology to tell the story as we get further into rehearsals;  I take that to be a totally positive thing- I feel so excited about the quality and depth of the writing, character and world that we’re creating, and crucially Tommy’s embodiment and interpretation of it, that I’m concerned technology might distract from, rather than support, us. Discovery 7: Consider- Does what you’re doing (every prop, breath, action, sound and music cue), serve the story that you’re telling? But, as with all things in the rehearsal room, I think it better to do and play and see what comes out of the other end, rather than make decisions before we’ve tried the full range of possibilities.

I’ve heard the word ‘uncertain’ repeated over and over in the news this week. With the EU referendum on Thursday, the killing of MP Jo Cox and the mass murders in Orlando; I know it, and I feel it too. It’s a time of unknowns- how our country will identify itself in the world, how we weigh up tragedy, murder and loss with life moving forward, as before, and how in that two-way momentum, we hold onto anything, most of all, hope. In my experience, with uncertainty comes helplessness, because, if there’s nothing solid to cling onto now, how does anything come out the other end definite, dependable, and above all things, certain.

 

It occurs to me though, that we might be fooling ourselves-  that now is a time where the uncertainty of the world we live in has been made more visible to us- but, really, it’s been that way forever; I suspect that we’re living in a constant state of uncertainty, but we’ve gotten good at building structures around us that tell us something different. I suspect that uncertainty is something we all face every single day, because, although we might have expectations about what our day will hold, about how our relationships will work, about how we will spend our time, who we will spend it with, how we’ll feel at the end of it and what will happen to us, we’ve really no idea. And of course, it’s right that we have expectations- it makes us human, gives us hope and a future to aim for and move towards. But it’s what happens when those expectations aren’t met, when we’re anything but certain- that’s the bit I think I’m struggling with.

 

I believe a lot of the hate we see in this world comes down to fear- fear of uncertainty. If things aren’t what you planned, hoped for, or expected, it can be terrifying, and I’m only talking about my own small share, let alone all of yours. Add that together and we’re essentially fucked. But how much easier it is to attribute that fear of the unknown, of uncertainty, that things might actually get worse, onto something, or someone, because, if we do that, things are certain and solid again- there’s action that can be taken, things that can be done- if x is responsible for y, we just need to minimise the impact of, even better do away with, x. And x by the way could be anyone, literally anyone, anything- open a newspaper, go for a walk, look around you, take your pick.

 

And that’s why I’m setting up a new theatre company- Anything Other. Our aim is to sit in that sticky uncertain middle bit, called life. We want to bring people together, the hated and the hater, the feared and the afraid, to muddle through that uncertainty, that fear, to find, strengthen and celebrate the bits that connect us. Uncertainty isn’t going anywhere, but I believe that we can change the way we relate to it, sit in it and struggle with it, and it could be a point for connection, if we’re brave enough. www.anythingother.com

It feels like a question which should be pretty straightforward and simple to answer, but it requires some thought. A lot of it actually. And it’s important, really important, that people who are making theatre, can answer that question.

This month I took part in Springboard at the Young Vic- a week of training, networking, and play for emerging theatre directors. If you ever get the opportunity to take part in it, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s one of the best weeks I’ve ever had as a theatre maker- I spent it with peers, also in the early stages of directing, taking part in practical workshops and talks from leading theatre directors in the UK, giving an insight into their process, getting you to have a go, and answering questions, any questions, lots of questions… no question too stupid. It was a really rare opportunity to build a network of peers and be given a glimpse into a process that can seem incredibly elusive, private and, a bit magical for all that.

Towards the end of the week, one of the guest directors- Caroline Steinbeis, came to speak to us about theatre, why she makes it, where she starts from and how she runs a rehearsal room; Caroline was incredibly eloquent, insightful, articulate and inspiring, and really got me thinking about the place you start from as a theatre director- the why. There’s a rather brilliant Ted Talk by Simon Sinek on Why– I recommend a watch, but he essentially says that all too often, when companies are marketing products, they start with the What and How, which isn’t all that affective in creating loyal customers, whereas companies who do it really well (Apple), start with the Why and move into the What and How from there. Simon talks about it in terms of Marketing, but I think it’s very useful when applied to engaging theatre audiences (which is, after all, who we make theatre for); if we want to engage audiences in what we do, we need to be clear on the Why.

So, I’m going to ask myself that terribly important question now: why do I make theatre? When I was first asked that question, some words popped into my head: human beings, human experiences, connectedness, loneliness, isolation, learning. And then some sentences: sharing experiences about human beings, to help connect people, make us feel a little less alone, to make people feel. And then I sat down, thought about the work I’ve done so far that I’ve really enjoyed, and the things I haven’t enjoyed, and the things I’ve enjoyed within the projects that I haven’t enjoyed, and the things for which enjoyment isn’t the right word, but it’s felt really, really important, and it boils down to this: the human condition. That’s what I’m really interested in when I tell stories on stage, our plight as human beings to work out why we’re here, how we fit in, or not, what we value, what moves us and how we treat each other as human beings. I want to make theatre about the human condition that helps people to feel things, all kinds of things, and that hits people in the chest, down their spines, and on the skin on their arms. I want to make theatre that talks about our connectedness as human beings, even if it’s terribly uncomfortable; that promotes understanding and helps people feel a little less alone.

So, whilst I might not always achieve all of those things, that will always be my aim, my starting point, my Why. And if I’m not starting out from there, I’m probably barking up the wrong show. So, I challenge you to do the same thing, sit down and ask yourself Why, whether you work in theatre, in photography, music, as a lawyer, a nurse, a car mechanic, a shop assistant, in PR… ask yourself Why, Why am I doing this, and let me know what you arrive at.

Well, it’s been a while… I could fall back on ‘not enough time in the day’, or ‘got stuff going down’ (the latter, if I were American, or just cool(er)), both of which are, to some extent, true. But here’s the truest bit: I’ve been afraid. Still am a bit. I’ve been afraid to write about what I’ve been creating in case it doesn’t count, or isn’t interesting enough, or doesn’t come across right. I’ve directed a few things recently with the criminal justice charity I work for, Only Connect. The things I’ve made (we’ve made, really) have actually been rather brilliant, or, I’ve had a rather brilliant time making them (I’m sure there’s a distinction, but I’m not too fussed). This actually goes a bit further than being afraid to write a blog post; I’ve also been afraid to call myself a Theatre Director to anyone remotely involved in the industry, and afraid to start creating a show that’s been simmering in my imagination for about 2 years now.

So, time for a little courage, and to talk about fear. I’m reading a rather brilliant book at the moment called ‘Big Magic’, by Elizabeth Gilbert, that talks about the fear/creativity partnership. I say partnership because, according to Gilbert, the two are pretty inseparable. Gilbert explains that when you’re doing something creative, be it as an artist, or as a person flexing creative muscle, chances are, you’re going to have to invite fear along for the journey. She writes a rather beautiful letter to fear, something along the lines of ‘fine, you can get in the car, there’s a space in the back for you, don’t touch anything, don’t ask me to change the radio station, and I’m driving’ (actually her letter is a good deal politer and warmer than my version, but you get the gist). Now, I think the important distinction to make here is that fear is not useless. If you’re in a house that’s burning down and fear helps you to make a bolt for the door, or a leap from a low-positioned window, well then yes, that’s probably fear doing its job rather nicely. And of course, let’s acknowledge- making something new, creating, is scary, because it’s an unknown, an uncertain… and what if it doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped? So, fear, for me at least, is a given.

So if fear 1) can serve a purpose 2) is a given, why have I, and I suspect a few other people creating things on this earth, found it to be such a nuisance? Avoidance. The avoidance of fear. I’m going to share a few things I’ve learnt over the past year, in the hope that they might be useful, and might save you some time, and if not, well, it’s helped me organise my thoughts; one can put a good amount of energy into living a life that avoids fear, but 1) it’s probably going to get you anyway, eventually, on “some idle Tuesday” ref: “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (1998) 2) fear is a feeling, a feeling that we create, which evolves from a thought, e.g. ‘if I make this play and it fails, a lot of people are going to think I’m a dimwit, and I’m going to have to live in a bog’, and feelings, like thoughts, can’t always be trusted (this is complicated, but it’s to do with your truth, not the truth, I’m sure someone somewhere has written something very clever about it) 3) avoiding fear uses up an incredible amount of energy, probably enough energy to make a play, get some feedback, re-rehearse it, try again, and again, a few times over 4) The actual event /thing/reaction/moment you fear, probably won’t be as bad, or at least as simple as that which your fear imagines. Don’t get me wrong, in my experience, when things are hard it can be exhausting, lonely, sad, confusing to name a few, but it can also be mundane, enlightening, perspective –giving, love-inducing (which sounds weirdly sexual, I don’t mean it to), amusing, and you carry on. You carry on.

So, with all that in mind, I’m going to write a blog-post (done), create a show (give me a year), and change my e-mail signature to Theatre Maker (give me 5 minutes). And on this little road trip, I’ll be driving; inspiration can sit to my left, creativity in the back, next to fear, who can sit in a child’s booster seat, wearing a cycle helmet- or maybe I’ll just bung it in the boot.

Script Club is a project which sees writers going back into the communities in which they grew up to write a new play with, and for, that local community. Natalie Mitchell, writer for Eastenders, is from Medway and has written a new play, Thrush, which focuses on a young girl, Ashley, growing up in
Medway. The play explores mental health, sex and relationships, as we see Ashley struggle to not let her mental health issues stand in the way of her relationship with her new boyfriend, Ollie. We started the project with an idea of what the script might be, but knew that to write something truthful and relevant, and to engage new audiences, we had to ask the experts: cue 110 young people from Medway! Towards the end of last year, Script Club ran a series of free workshops and taster session in youth centres, at the Brook Theatre, LV21 and with already existing youth theatres in Medway.

Over the course of these workshops, we met a wide range of young people from very different backgrounds, all of whom have been incredibly open and generous; we’ve spoken about sex, about sex education, about relationships, about the best and worst parts of growing up in Medway, about school, about the different social tribes in school, about friends, and family, and home, we’ve created short scenes, written monologues, drawn safe spaces, thought about collections (how and why we collect things), created characters- the conversations have not stopped flowing, that is, until we start talking about mental health. At that point, everything goes a bit quiet. It’s clear that the young people that we’re working with aren’t used to speaking openly amount mental illness, they feel uncomfortable and quickly move onto safer ground. At this point, we realised that it was really important to meet with psychologists and councillors from Medway who work directly with young people experiencing mental health issues. Experts from Mid-Kent College and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) in Medway explained to us how a young person with a mental illness might be referred to see a specialist, the obstacles that they might face in so doing, the way in which a mental health illness might present itself, and how mental health issues are understood (or not) in the wider society.

Over the past few years there has been a sharp increase in young people identifying themselves as experiencing a mental health issue, yet there is still a lot of stigma attached to mental health- one expert working in Medway told us the most common question asked by young people when disclosing for the first time that they think they might have a mental health issue: ‘Will I be sectioned for this?’ In conducting this research, it became more apparent to our team the responsibility that we have to truthfully present to the audience the daily struggle that Ashley faces both as a teenager, finding out about her own sexuality (and that of many others- as she runs a lunch-time sexual health clinic) and as a young person living with a mental illness. What’s more, it’s become apparent that through Thrush, we have the opportunity to create some frank, honest, and much needed dialogue with the local community around mental health.

Christmas is nearly upon us, and, whilst I’m looking forward to a break, to some lie-ins, and to some laughs with people I like (some of whom, I’m related to), I’m not feeling all that festive. Whilst it’s lovely to have family together for a few days, and for everything to slow down a bit, what I’m not on board with is the anticipation of Christmas; the build up, the count down, the shopping frenzy, the mandatory cheer. I wonder why we pour so much energy, pressure and expectation into one day of the year, and I worry about the way in which it might affect ourselves and others. I think it’s the same gut-reaction I have to weddings; it’s a lot of fuss over one day when there’s (hopefully) a pretty long stretch ahead that could do with some attention too.

I’m worried about the pressure that we place on ourselves and others at this time of year- the pressure to be always chirpy, always slightly drunk and always surrounded by loved ones who love us back- and about how isolated and alone that might make some people feel. A small caveat here, I’m coming at this from a non-religious point of view and whilst I’m aware it’s Jesus’ birthday, from what I’ve heard about him, I think he might agree… As a community, we could take some responsibility- by all means let’s celebrate the 25th, but why not spread it out a little and see a little more joy in each day that comes before and after it? I really believe that we might be happier if we engaged with each day a little more like we do Christmas. And I wonder, if by putting less pressure on one event, we might create more inclusive communities where difference between those who ‘have’ and ‘have not’, is less sharply drawn. In a bid to do just that, I’ve purchased a second advent calendar to use in January, so no one can accuse me of no follow-through.

So, I bid you a Happy Christmas for the 25th, and Happy Living for every other day that surrounds it.