I am Jen and I am an artist.
Confession time: I rewrote that first sentence again and again before settling on that form of words, because there’s still a bit of me that struggles with applying the word ‘artist’ to myself. If that kind of internal struggle/level of wankiness distresses you, you might want to leave this page now because it’s only going to get worse.
I direct, write, act, and dabble in film, music, poetry and cross-platform work. Theatre is my first love and it’s where most of my energy goes. If you had asked me a few years ago I would have said that I wanted to work in mainstream theatre – regional houses, West End, well-known material, straightforward stuff. Then I spent a couple of years in London and discovered forms of theatre that I had never imagined. My horizons expanded exponentially and I found myself deeply dissatisfied with much of the work I had wanted to do before.
That’s not to say that I never want to touch a canon play again. Quite the opposite. I believe that if you’re going to work with new writing and experimental techniques, working with classic texts keeps you in touch with the things that make plays work. What I want to change, first in my own practice and then in a more widespread way, is the approach – rehearsal and performance techniques, interplay between disciplines and most importantly, ways of thinking.
I came back to Edinburgh and reshaped my company, Tightlaced. I started building an ensemble of actors with whom I could share Affectable Acting, the technique I had learned from Aileen Gonsalves during my time at Mountview. I began talking to those actors about their ways of working, the challenges that face them and the skills they need. I spoke to other directors and writers about why we make the work that we do and how to strike a balance between the need to build our CVs and the breathing space our work needs in order to fulfil its potential.
Those conversations are still ongoing and probably always will be, because we need to keep analysing and learning and improving if we want to be better artists. And if you don’t want to be a better artist, why bother being one at all?
That’s where the struggle begins. This kind of artistic introspection was not part of my upbringing. I grew up with the idea that theatre is for entertainment, acting is just pretending and being an artist is about god-given and indisputable talent that you don’t really need to work at. I went to schools that didn’t offer drama or music as subjects or clubs. I was specifically banned from doing them outside of school during my exam years (not that that stopped me). I didn’t know anyone who was in a position to tell me what being an artist is actually like, that there are grey areas all over the place and the development of your skills is never-ending.
It wasn’t until I reached my 20s that I began to realise any of this. It wasn’t just a case of getting older and wiser, it was also the result of my parents dying. I found myself with massive freedom, because when you no longer have a family you don’t have to explain what you’re spending your time on to them any more. But on the flip side, I had a mass of emotions to deal with, constantly trying to outrun a tidal wave of grief and feeling that I was betraying my parents every time I did something they wouldn’t have approved of or would have been suspicious of, such as enjoying experimental theatre. It took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that if they had lived, I would have done plenty of things they didn’t approve of and that actually, in the long run, they wouldn’t have minded as long as what I was doing wasn’t making me unhappy. They were good people who (much as they struggled with this sometimes because, well, they were parents) understood that their daughter would live her own life.
I’m not writing all of this to gain your sympathy. I’m writing it because my non-artsy background and dead parents are two very significant influences on my development and path. With a different upbringing and/or a less bumpy entry into adulthood, I might have learned about various things sooner and taken a different, perhaps more conventional route. Then again, maybe not, because I’m quite stubborn and wilful and prefer to learn from my own mistakes, so I usually find a way to take the more difficult, less direct path.
That’s why I’ve titled this blog “The Scenic Route”. That’s what my Mum used to call it when we got lost – “taking the scenic route”. We always got there in the end, and quite often we discovered new, interesting things along the way. It’s a decent metaphor for my life (although my husband is certain to mock me mercilessly if he reads this). I know where I want to be, but I’m taking the scenic route and it’s time I owned it as a choice.
So I’m writing this blog with Future Jen in mind, the future equivalent of the Jen who would have benefited from a frank account of what it’s like to be on this path rather than the over-simplified success stories that you read in newspapers and magazines. I’m writing in the hope that this will lead to discussion with other artists. I’m writing because writing has always been the best way to get my mind into some kind of order, and since I’ve always felt the compulsion to share and blogs provide a means for sharing, that’s what I’m going to do. This will be an account, an exploration and whatever else I feel the need to let it be.