Author Archives: jenbitespeople

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, director, dramaturg, spoken word artist and acting coach. https://ko-fi.com/jenbitespeople

2021

Am I doing an end of year round-up this year? Idk. I wasn’t going to, because as I’ve said before, last time I did one 2020 happened. However, the stage seems to be set for 2022 to be a mess regardless of what I do, so might as well, eh?

Before I do, a quick thought about the assertion I’ve seen made on social media that we shouldn’t be sharing good news or success stories at the moment because it’s been such a difficult time for a lot of people. My thought is this: I disagree 100%. Yes, it’s a bad time for a lot of people – but it’s always a bad time for someone. Any time you share good news, someone who reads your posts will be ill, have had a recent bereavement, have received an unfortunate diagnosis, have lost work, or just be having a lousy day. They might even be in the middle of a run of horrible events. I know that feeling well – I had one from 2000-2005, involving getting sick for a couple of years, having a major depressive episode with adventures in psychosis, losing both parents and my dog, getting stalked, and getting messed up in a car crash. Throughout those years I watched friends and acquaintances graduate, do healthy young people things, get exciting jobs, move in with partners, marry, have kids, travel, all sorts of fun and fulfilling things that were not available to me. Does it suck? Yes. But people’s lives have different paces, and this is how mine has been of late.

I spent the first few months of 2021 creating an opera – or rather, taking a selection of opera’s greatest hits, re-texting them and weaving them into Oscar Wilde’s short story The Remarkable Rocket. When it became clear that ESO’s 2021 offering was going to have to be online, and was going to have to be something more malleable in response to illness and changing circumstances than any existing opera could be, it made sense to create something bespoke and I’d been wanting to do something with that story for a while.

What ensued was perhaps the maddest project I’ve ever embarked on and something I can’t imagine doing under any other circumstances. Yes, I’ve wanted to write a libretto for a long time, but I never anticipated it being something I’d do 1) in just a couple of months, 2) to fit a selection of existing melodies ranging from the 18th century to the 20th, or 3) knowing I’d have to direct the result over Zoom and then edit together the performances of singers who weren’t in shared space at any point in the process.

The end result was completely bonkers, but in a completely different way to my 2020 online opera, The Den. The singers involved in The Den got direction from me over Zoom while filming themselves on their phones, then uploaded the footage to Drive. It was a time-consuming process that I just wasn’t going to be able to facilitate with a large cast, particularly not while also editing together the audio for three choruses. For the sake of keeping things as uniform as possible, we chose to film using Zoom itself. The results of this vary from one person’s internet connection to the next, and there are some moments where backgrounds cut out/devour faces or people freeze mid-chorus, but those are things we had to accept as testaments to the time and conditions within which we were working. As much as I’d have loved Rocket to have had high production values, the important thing was to make it happen at all. Considering what a wretched time students were having in general, I wasn’t willing to let them down by giving up on a fun project just because it was challenging. We made something daft and joyful and very, very rough around the edges – but we made it at a time when opportunities to make anything were at their fewest, and I’m more proud of its joyfulness than tormented by its roughness. 

As meatspace life began to resume I picked up a project I’d conceived back at the beginning of Lockdown 1 in 2020, a vehicle for Marion Geoffray called Danger DuVall: Space/Time Adventurer. Danger began as one of those late-night messenger chats about all the work we’d lost and what we could do to replace it, so we’d come up with this idea for an online show that could translate into a live experience later. The aim was to create chaotic sci-fi romps with an interactive educational element, experienced through a combination of Zoom performance and the contents of a trainee adventurers’ pack delivered to audience members’ doors – something Marion had already been piloting in her own practice.

Early in that first lockdown, we kept finding our applications rejected because the experience would involve additional screen time for children, or because we could not, as two freelancers with no infrastructure or resources, solve the problem of digital poverty to make the piece universally accessible. But we persevered, keeping an eye out for the right opportunity, and eventually it came in the form of a YTAS micro-grant with additional support from Imaginate, which allowed us to create a small pilot project in collaboration with filmmaker Lucas Kao in which we could try out the format.

Once again, this is a bonkers project that exists because some passionate and imaginative people threw their whole hearts into it. It’s extremely interactive, to the point where it has to be semi-scripted rather than fully scripted to allow for Choose Your Own Adventure elements where the audience’s choices can radically alter the way things play out. It’s got a retrofuturistic aesthetic and an obsolete talking supercomputer. Ever tried to make one of those using only the remnants of other projects and your own limited crafting skills? Genuinely, my biggest worry going into the first show was that children raised by Alexa were going to look at SARKI (System for Accessing Research, Knowledge and Information) and scoff. But they didn’t – they seemed captivated by SARKI’s flashing LEDs and “interactive” menu system, and if they tried to tell it to self-destruct, well, that was very much in the spirit of experiment modelled in the show. To see the way our young audiences bought in completely to Danger’s world, her situation, the urgency of her need, was glorious. We have further plans for our intrepid Adventurer, perhaps in 2022, as the pilot wholly convinced us that there’s an appetite and even a need for what the show is doing and its intense feeling of liveness.

That energy was essential as I went into my next project, directing Hannah Lavery’s The Unseen Child for Hopscotch. A delayed project from the spring of 2020, Unseen had had a digital development week. We’d spent months batting ideas for potential hybrid versions back and forth, but ever-shifting regulations made it near-impossible to predict what could be done in terms of retaining a live element. So in July we created a digital version, shot in Hopscotch’s rehearsal space.

I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to working through my thoughts on what makes digital theatre an art form in its own right, distinct from film and distinct from an archive recording of a piece of live theatre. I don’t think there’s a neat answer, no clearly-codified set of criteria you can consult to distinguish between film and digital theatre – my own belief/personal guideline is that digital theatre lives in relationship to live theatre. Nice and vague, right? Let me expand.

When I make theatre, I prefer to make either immersive work or work that will happily show how it works. The fourth wall is not my jam – either the audience gets invited in or we come outside and meet them there. So the question of who the audience is, where they are and how to issue that invitation or meet them where they are was foremost in my mind. Are they the camera? Are they on the other side of the camera? Is there a way to make being on the other side of the camera feel like it isn’t a passive experience? Of course there is – I’m hardly the first to have explored this territory. But it’s really easy to slip into forgetting about the audience and just capturing pretty pictures, so I had to keep checking in with my own thoughts and influences.

I also believe that when a piece of theatre is intended to exist both digitally and live, the versions should speak to each other. That meant not doing anything on camera that would be completely impossible to achieve in live (and low-tech, minimal set-up) performance. I don’t intend that Unseen’s eventual live form will be a faithful replica of what’s on screen – considering how it was shot, that would be damn near impossible anyway – but there should be resemblance and similarity of feeling. Sisters, not twins, essentially.

There was also a challenge to be faced in terms of my process. I like my rehearsal rooms to prioritise discovery and experiment, and in my limited experience of making work on camera, it’s tricky to balance an experimental room with a carefully-planned storyboard and shooting schedule. I have to hand it to Hopscotch here – they put no pressure on the team, but encouraged me to lead with process and let the outcome be what it may. And they’ve put other work my way since we wrapped Unseen, so I can confirm that those weren’t just empty words.

While I was in Glasgow working with Hopscotch, my husband was at home working on our next show (the first we’ve created together), Meet Your Doom. Another delayed 2020 project, this time for Hidden Door, MYD is a one-to-one(ish) spoken word show in which I use a deck of specially-created tarot cards to predict the outlandish and over-the-top demise of each audience member. I’d asked Mark to come on board to design the deck using his skills as a montage artist, and I love what he came up with. The images are gorgeous and I appreciate the way he wove tarot imagery and pop culture together to create something I could use as prompts for the stories.

Of course, figuring out how to pitch a show predicting people’s deaths during a pandemic was always going to be tricky (in my defence, we were not yet in a pandemic when I started work on it). There was much to consider in terms of how we shaped the invitation to audiences, how to make the tone of the experience clear at a glance and allow people to make an informed choice whether or not to participate. I spent a lot of time figuring out exactly how to phrase the text on our A-board and how to costume myself, and I created a little hand-out card with links to good resources on dealing with  bereavement and/or your own mortality, because I know that sometimes the after-effects of a fun show can be surprising. We delivered MYD as a roving show, wandering the festival and parking ourselves here and there to allow interested people to come to us. I thought that was important – whereas with other walkabout/in-character work that I’ve done there was an expectation that performers would initiate interactions, for Meet Your Doom I wanted there to be no pressure to participate or go along. An enthusiastic approach was what we wanted. It’s an odd feeling, trying to make people feel invited and safe at the same time as playing a harbinger of doom, but the interactions we had were a lot of fun and it appeared to work for people, so I think the balance we struck was a good one.

I have plans to create a digital Meet Your Doom at some point, and to expand the deck. Currently it’s just the Major Arcana, but having tested the format I think there’s room to include the remaining cards. Depending on the whims of the funding gods, that might be a project for 2022, as might the digital experience.

The other thing I was working on while Mark created the MYD deck was a commission from Pitlochry Festival Theatre to write a monologue that would form part of a trio of Ghost Stories. The brief was to draw on Perthshire legends, so my mind immediately went to a story about Alyth, which was my first home, and the sightings of naked ghosts that had troubled the residents in the early 20th century.

My lifelong obsession with ghosts is no secret. I’ve always been fascinated with how we conceptualise them, why we need them, the ways in which it’s possible to believe and not believe all at once. Just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, I suspect there are very few sceptics to be found alone in dark woods – certainly my own hard-won scepticism has been known to crumble in such circumstances, shouted down by the horrors of old traumas and a childhood full of seeing things that weren’t there.

The piece I wrote, When Soft Voices Die, is a story of undealt-with grief and the often comical things people do to ward off fear in the dark. It opened under a full moon in the Explorers’ Garden, beautifully performed by Glenna Morrison, and I loved the way the chill of the night air and the constant movement of the breeze, of leaves, of drops of rain and busy wildlife, played into the atmosphere. All of those elements that contribute to the feeling that you’re not alone in the dark, and that you’re actually quite  small and afraid and perhaps there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I love PFT’s expansion into using its outdoor spaces as performance spaces, and I love that when I got to write my first (I hope!) piece for Pitlochry it was site-responsive.

There were other projects, of course – the piece I wrote for Dante 700, the various bits of workshopping and dramaturgy that I did, the storytelling, all the odd things that defy neat categorisation. And I wonder why I’m so tired… Oddly enough, in both 2020 and 2021 my brain has burned out before my body has. I’m not used to that. What normally prompts me to acknowledge burnout is the onset of a particularly stubborn respiratory infection that leaves me weak, stick-walking and mainlining throat sweets throughout months of coughing (pro tip: alternate one Locket, one Soother for maximum relief without chapping your tongue). This is a new experience, and I suspect due in part to not being able to do the things I’d usually do to recharge my brain, like go to art galleries or museums or trawl through books I can’t afford at the NLS. I think I’d weather the need for constant project re-planning and writing endless applications better if my usual recharge points were available – or if I had hope for them becoming available to me again any time soon.

As for 2022, who know what will happen? I have two developments coming up in January that I’m really excited about, working with a combination of long-standing collaborators and new faces. I’m scratching a new piece as part of Snapshots at Manipulate, exploring the scale of space and the impossibility of conceptualising our place in the universe in a complete reworking of Star Cuddie. I’m also revisiting the story of Jenny Geddes to R&D a new storytelling/theatre show, Rabbler. Mark and I are working on a screenplay. I have a book coming out, of which more later. All of these plans are as covid-proof as I can make them, with options to move online if necessary.

As for non-work plans… I don’t think I have any. It seems futile to make them. Fortunately, I find a lot of contentment in spending time at home with my husband. We have lots of excellent books and films, and the world is full of things we haven’t learned about yet. I have plenty to be getting on with in terms of learning how to balance a busy schedule with the effects of nerve damage. I’m setting no goals, no resolutions, nothing except get my work done, enjoy my home life, love the art. The usual. Try not to die, try not to lose my balance. Have a little scream into the void every now and then. And disclaim all and any responsibility for the fate of the world in 2022.  


On being a terrible warning rather than a good example

Yesterday I posted a picture on my Instagram. This picture:

Each of those sheets of paper contains the name and history of a current writing project of mine. Just writing – no directing, no dramaturging of other people’s work. Some I’ve marked Active – they’ve got a deadline attached, or they’re currently under consideration somewhere, or they’re spec scripts that I’m actively working on. Some are Dormant – they’ve not got any current deadlines and I’m not awaiting any outcomes, so they’re resting for now until the next opportunity to do something with them comes along. My rationale for laying them out this way is that I can see everything clearly at a glance, and I can easily add notes every time there’s a new development. Some I’ve been working on bit by bit for several years, some are quite new.

Shortly after posting this, I found myself doomscrolling a thread about the glorification of overwork and how we shouldn’t be using social media to demonstrate how busy we are. My first instinct was to think that I shouldn’t have shared the photo. My second was to contradict that, because I don’t do this to glorify it. I do this because I care about painting an accurate picture of how an artist’s life (or at least *this* artist’s life) works, and this – the sheer ridiculousness of having to keep 21 different pieces alive in my head simultaneously – is it.

I don’t know whether this is typical. I often get the impression it isn’t, when I hear other writers talking as if they work on one piece at a time, or about the difficulty of generating ideas. But I don’t actually know many other playwrights who don’t have a non-theatre income source that means they can choose to spin just one or two plates at a time. And the ones I do know who are in that position are generally more successful than me, so they spin fewer plates because they work on larger commissions at higher rates.

To a certain extent, this suits me. I think. In a way. I don’t know what to do with my brain other than exhaust it. Doing something I’m good at, something I can get wrapped up in, keeps a lot of psychological and even physical pain at bay. Switching from task to task is draining but it’s also exciting in a way that focusing on just one thing for a long period isn’t. My capacity to care deeply about each individual project is apparently unlimited, and that care masks the effect of the switching.

In other ways it doesn’t suit me. Theatre paying so poorly that I need to juggle so many tasks is a problem in and of itself, but it’s also a great way to ensure that I’m too busy to keep on top of tasks that I dread or am not good at. It’s a great way to put myself back into the burnout cycle that I only ever managed to break during the first lockdown. It’s exhausting. I can see why people who don’t have my compulsive (a term I use accurately, not lightly) need to do this, or whose choices are in any way more limited than mine, might stop. And I can see why anyone considering walking this path might find it useful to have this information so they can make an informed decision.

The unfortunate truth about working in the arts is that if you choose or need or want to work on just one project at a time, it’s very unlikely that you’ll make a living from your art alone. I say “unfortunate” not because I think having a money job makes an artist any less of an artist – I say “unfortunate” because I think it’s sad that our work seldom attracts fees commensurate with the work involved, and also because there’s a general perception that a good writer is a commercially successful writer who doesn’t need a money job.

Personally, I really like my “day” job (in reality mostly an evening job). I get a lot out of teaching. I love constantly revisiting the basics of my art form, and sharing the joy it gives me. I think it’s an honour that I get to help people find the art in themselves and love it. But I’m aware that I have a responsibility to present an accurate picture of what life can be like if you choose to make your art your income. You can love the art in yourself and not make it your full-time pursuit. Shakespeare had other income streams. Garrick was also a venue manager. It’s more important to find a balance that suits you than to fit someone else’s ideas of what artistic life should be.

And if balance isn’t something your obsessive brain does well with, it is – or should be – ok to acknowledge that and advise that it’s not a healthy way of doing things. Descriptions of my own practice are not necessarily advice. See me as more of a cautionary tale.


Apparently you’re supposed to update blogs or something idk

I haven’t updated this thing in ages. Nearly two years, to be exact. At the end of my last post I said that my 2020 was looking pretty good, so it would be my fault if the year was a total bin fire… well, sorry about that one. It will be no consolation to read that my 2021 has been great and my 2022 is also shaping up well, so consider this fair warning that we’re probably in for an asteroid strike or the kraken waking.

This isn’t an end-of-year post. I’ll do one of those in December for maximum obnoxiousness. This is just a statement of intent to return to posting publicly every so often. Same old material – mostly theatre, occasional mental health. I’ve no idea where I think I’m going to find the time or energy for this, but that’s a problem for Future Jen.

Anyway, this is not a very exciting update so allow me to jazz it up by revealing that I’ve been recording some of my short stories and will be putting them out on YouTube. I’m planning to release one a month, though there’ll be a bonus story in December because I couldn’t choose between my two Festive Season-specific stories. The pilot video is up, so if you fancy a story inspired by my uneasy relationship with the A9 you can find it here and subscribe to be notified when the next one goes live.


2019

What, so I only make end-of-year posts now? Possibly. As a glance at the Gig Archive will show, it has been a busy year. Fortunately it has been a kinder year than 2018, bringing no further losses, and a far more professionally satisfying year. There’s still a lot going on in the headspace, but the rough times in therapy aren’t something I’m ready to write about yet. Maybe later. Maybe never.

I’m not doing the decade round-up because there are too many things I’m angry about from this decade and I’m not going to post about things as if I’d made my peace with them when I haven’t. Besides, I have a theory that decades don’t actually change when you reach the -0 year or even the -1 year, they take until about -4 or -5 to establish their own identities. So I might do that round-up in 2025. Or I might wait until 2022 and look at how things have gone in the decade since the world ended. Either way, I’m not doing it just now.

As for the 2019 round-up… well, why not? It has been a decent year. So here’s what I can remember:

Writing: This feels like the least active aspect of my career this year, though when I stop and think about it I’ve done a fair amount. I wrote two more shows for EAS – Timesync, which was an adaptation of The Tempest mixing Shakespeare’s language with mine, and Eggshells, a huge piece of choral storytelling about the North Berwick witch trials. Given how difficult it is to find opportunities to write for large casts of adults these days, I feel very fortunate to have had this chance, and I love finding ways to challenge actors at different stages of their development. I also started playing around with the idea of adapting Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach’s Lyric Novella and tried a bit of it out at In Motion Theatre’s Write Lines event. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll adapt the rest – mostly because I feel I should ease up on the genderfuck protagonists before I write myself into a rut – but I might.

I keep thinking that I haven’t been writing much fiction this year, and it’s true that I’ve only written one new short story – and that one was another daft Christmas story that I wrote specifically so I could get cheap laughs by Whamrolling people, because apparently that’s who I am as a person. And the short story on which Grave is based was published in Haunted Voices, which was lovely – though I wrote the damn thing so long ago that I keep forgetting that happened this year. However, I did also finish adapting Heaven Burns into a novel, so I suppose I did write a fair old chunk of fiction. Whether it works or not, I have no idea. My plan for 2020 is to stop freaking out about the damn thing and actually send it out into the world like I should have done ages ago.

Teaching: I’ve written about this on Facebook but not over here, so here it is – I really enjoy teaching. I love watching people develop into actors and watching actors develop into better actors. I love being the one to introduce students to practitioners, exercises, new ways of doing and seeing things, and watching them experience it all for the first time or rediscover skills they haven’t put to use in a while. I love what it does to my own practice as well as theirs, because it really is true that you don’t fully understand anything until you’re able to explain it to another person.

Fortunate for me, then, that this year has involved quite so much teaching. I’ve continued working with EAS’ Stage 3 students and took the first Performance class of the year, and in January I began teaching the first cohort of students taking the ATCL Diploma. I designed EAS’ version of the course, helped select guest artists, and celebrated as 100% of the students passed with Distinction. I’m very excited to see where our first cohort will go, and looking forward to welcoming new students in the new year.

Performing: Being broken mentally and physically at the start of 2019, I really wasn’t keen to perform much this year and didn’t seek out opportunities as much as I might have. I did bust out Grave a couple of times, once for In The Works Theatre where I opened for the truly delightful Space Gecko Project, and then for a short run at the Scottish Poetry Library during the Fringe. I also made my debut at Loud Poets, which was an excellent gig that I enjoyed the hell out of (and continued finding thrown sweets in my bag for weeks afterwards). By the end of the year I felt I’d got my mojo back somewhat, so I did a couple of open mics to give the Christmas stories an outing and we’ll see what happens in 2020. I have plans for Grave. I might resurrect Star Cuddie if I decide I need an excuse to dye my hair black again. We’ll see.

Directing: After the fringe in 2018, as I spent my time curled in a ball of physical pain and existential terror, I came to the conclusion that I hated directing and wanted nothing more to do with it. So naturally, I’ve done more of it throughout 2019 than ever, and only one of my gigs was something I specifically sought out. From my students’ work to a Summerhall lab, two Fringe shows (technically three if you count self-directing my own), starting work on my first opera and did preliminary bits on a couple of projects for next year. I’ve been learning to trust my instincts again, and realising that even though last year’s escapades kicked the everloving shit out of me, they somehow managed to yield good things.

Dramaturgy: aka MY FAVOURITE THING. I love working with other people’s texts, I really do. I love getting to know people and finding out what story they’re wanting to tell and what their voice sounds like, and whether they need to be gently coaxed or gently terrorised. This year brought opportunities to work with first-time writers, established writers, writers exploring new disciplines, and writers who have, as all playwrights should, been dead for three hundred years (closer to 400, but I’d rather quote accurately than count accurately). I was going to get specific and mention each of these projects by name, but they’ve been numerous and my relationship to time is terrible, so I’m worried that I’ll have mentally assigned some of them to the wrong year and will forget things and upset people. Suffice it to say that if I’ve dramaturged your work this year I had an amazing time doing so and I want to geek out over the broad sweep and minute word choices of your scripts again soon.

 

I’m heading into 2020 with a number of projects that really excite me lined up – the main tranche of rehearsals for Cavalleria Rusticana, the R&D week and Manipulate sharing of Canto X (the Dante-inspired thanatheatrical piece on which Flavia and I are collaborating), and the thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other thing I can’t talk about yet. And the other things that are waiting on funding decisions. 2020 looks promising – so if the world completely goes to Hell then I apologise for doing the life equivalent of planning a barbecue on a sunny day.

 

Jen at Cymera


2018

I have not liked this year. Professionally it hasn’t been too bad, politically it’s been ridiculous, and personally it has been overshadowed by loss, painful anniversaries, the rekindling of an old trauma and several months of physical pain. My biggest achievement this year is probably that I’m still standing (albeit sometimes with the aid of a stick) and that by the start of 2019 I’m writing again. And there has been progress, there have been things I’ve been proud of mixed in with the awfulness, so I’m going to use this post to remind myself of that.

2017 was a good year for me. I’d done the 100 Rejections challenge and felt the benefits. I’d had publications, scratches, a residency and a lot of promising meetings. My goals were to do the challenge again, get one of my plays staged, assemble my short story collection and start shopping it around, and to tour the spoken word show I was working on.

Things got off to a good start. I began 2018 with a Tom McGrath Award, allowing me to write another draft of Volante. I’d been given a small grant by Illicit Ink to develop Star Cuddie (the above-mentioned spoken word show about women in astronomy), and I had a scratch lined up at Summerhall and would later debut it at Hidden Door. By the end of February, Flav and I had a work in progress showing lined up at a festival, and I’d just found out that I’d won the ART Award.

Then the HellCat died, and my relationship with the year never really recovered. I don’t want to go into detail about how what happened to him echoed what happened to my parents, or the series of weird coincidences that followed and made the headspace difficult to manage as the schizo brain began screaming “what did I fucking tell you” and basically didn’t stop. Working through the trauma and StPD stripped a lot – honestly most – of the joy out of the things I was doing. It meant the blows to my confidence hit much harder, which led to my ceasing to write anything for my own enjoyment, and to my sending half as many submissions/applications as last year.

So I definitely failed to repeat the 100 Rejections challenge, since I only actually racked up 50 submissions – and ten of those were just in the last month, since I started feeling things again. However, my hit rate has been as high as in 2017. Out of 50 submissions (technically 48, since I had to withdraw two due to the pieces being accepted elsewhere), I made it onto 11 shortlists, which yielded 6 acceptances. While quite a few of my acceptances in 2017 were for small things like getting shorts into new writing nights, in 2018 my applications led to readings and a staging of full works. I also found that the work I’d done in previous years continued to pay off, so 2018 brought me a fair amount of work that I didn’t specifically seek out.

While I scratched and debuted Star Cuddie as planned, I had to put the project on hold after Hidden Door so that I could concentrate on Heaven Burns. The feedback I got from the audiences at Hidden Door was very positive, and I’ve begun some good conversations that will hopefully lead to my putting the show on its feet again in the near future. I’ve also got exciting news about my other spoken word show, Grave, but you’ll hear that when I’m allowed to share it.

The one goal for 2018 that I definitely hit was getting one of my plays staged. Winning the ART Award got me a full Fringe run at Assembly Roxy, something I couldn’t possibly have afforded to self-fund, and I’m incredibly grateful to the Assembly team for all they did for me. What I love about the ART Award is that in both years of its existence, it has supported artistically risky plays. Neither Andy Edwards’ Scribble nor my own Heaven Burns were conventional crowd-pleasers, and while I can’t speak for Andy, I can say that I really appreciate the opportunity I was afforded by the Roxy’s boldness. The value of their support was inestimable, and I’m especially grateful to Luke Holbrook for his interest, guidance and apparently infinite patience.

Of course, the joy of plays that aren’t conventional crowd-pleasers is that they don’t please everyone, and Heaven Burns got the full range of reviews. Some publications loved it, one even nominated it for another award. Some hated it. Some were exactly the people who should hate it. The one piece of feedback that was consistent across the board was that the play strained at the limits of a Fringe time slot, and it’s true – it’s a big play, and it needs a bit more breathing space. It also needs a bigger team and a proper production budget. I have no definite plans for its onward life at the moment, but I’m also currently taking my first actual time off since before rehearsals began, so let’s just see what happens. For now, I’m glad that it happened and grateful to everyone involved for their belief and their work.

In addition to Heaven Burns, 2018 saw Old Bones visiting Prague and Buxton. Over its two short runs it played to full houses and great reviews, and audiences really seem to love the intimacy and interaction of the piece. I’m so proud of Daniel Hird for rising to the challenge I set him, successfully self-directing and getting the show out there into the world. I believe there are plans for future performances, to be announced in due course. And hopefully it’ll make its way to Scotland at some point!

Then, right at the end of the year, there was the staged reading of Volante at the Edinburgh Multilingual Stories Festival (which is honestly one of the loveliest small festivals I’ve encountered). I gave the new draft I’d written courtesy of that Tom McGrath award to Flavia and the new cast, and we spent a couple of days going to town on it. I love coming back to a script after spending a solid chunk of time away from it, and after the darkness of Heaven Burns and Old Bones I was in desperate need of the hope and self-renewal of Volante. Even though it was just a reading and not a full production, it seemed to strike a chord with people. Hiding out in the tech box, watching people come out of the audience and join the actors for a dance on stage after the epilogue was a lovely feeling.

So of my four goals for 2018, I achieved one twice over, put one on hold to facilitate another, and made it to 50% of the other despite adverse circumstances. The only one I failed at completely was finishing the collection and beginning the hunt for a publisher – and even then, most of the work is done so that’s an easy one to pick up now that my energy is coming back. For a year that was so miserable on a personal level, that doesn’t feel too bad.

There were other achievements, too. I did two other performances at Hidden Door – reprising The Ambassador’s Reception with Interrobang & Poetry as Fuck, and sharing a stage with my husband for Interrobang’s The Edinburgh Bible, which we also performed at the Book Festival. I had pieces published by 404 Ink and Marbles Mag. I wrote two plays for the students at Edinburgh Acting School, an adaptation of Tartuffe and a new piece called Deidkist Dolls, which let me explore writing for large casts. I joined the steering group for Theatre Directors Scotland, and I now run the Facebook group and am working on a proposal for a slush fund scheme that has the potential to do something truly radical (big words, I know – but not ones I use lightly).

I should probably illustrate this with pictures, tag people, all that kind of thing. I should probably set goals for 2019. But that can wait. We’ve got just under 48 hours of this strange year left to go. Plenty of time to figure out what to do next, and for the moment I am out of steam.


Picking back up

So that was 2018 and being 35. For all the horrors that await next year, I’ll be glad to be done with this one.

By the end of the Fringe I was completely burned out. It felt like everyone was struggling this August, it was a tough one – and I’d managed to bust my knee in the last days of July, so it didn’t take long to find myself both literally and figuratively limping. Fringe flu got me a few days in, giving me a cough so bad that I cracked a rib, so by the end of the month I was held together by bandages and gaff. I’ve been wanting to write about this year’s Fringe experience ever since, but even now, months later, I don’t have the bandwidth. I was back to work within three hours of Heaven Burns closing and my head has been noisy ever since.

I had anticipated that the anniversary of my mum’s death would be a difficult one. 15 years is a long time, and it had been weirding me out for some time that at 35 I would be 15 years from the last time I saw her and 15 years from reaching the age she was when she died. The schizo brain insists on trying to map all sorts of doom-laden meanings onto that, and events around me were not helping. Much as I hate to get cryptic, I can’t talk about those events – some aren’t my stories to tell, some I don’t have words for. The important thing is that time passed, and the headspace started to recover a bit in November.

I do want to do a Year in Review post and talk about the things I’ve got coming up next year and my goals for 2019, but I think that’ll have to be a separate post. This will do for now.


Heaven Blogs: Opening Day

After two days of previews, today was our official opening. The past few days have felt about a month long and about five minutes long simultaneously.

Our first preview was a bit of a blur. The joy of the Fringe is that you don’t really find out what your get in/get out will be like until the first day, when everyone has moved into the dressing room, the venue is full of people and time is not on your side. By the end of the show we were all completely wrung out, but the audience feedback that we got was positive and enthusiastic and we were all set for Preview #2.

The following day I got a call from Susanna, who plays Christian, letting me know that she was unwell to the point of being unable to stand. My heart breaks for any actor who ever finds themselves in this situation. Being unable to perform sucks massively, and all it takes is breathing around the wrong person, touching the wrong door handle or having the wrong person hand you a sandwich. It’s rubbish, and we missed her badly.

I stood in on book, since we had a decent number of people booked in and didn’t want to cancel at such short notice. It’s been a while since I last performed in anything that wasn’t spoken word, but if you’ve ever seen my spoken word you’ll know that it’s all sneakily theatrical character stuff anyway, so the transferable skills are there. More importantly, Marion and Andrew are absolute stars who handled the new dynamic with ease and supported me through the whole thing. I’m so, so glad to have such a lovely, tight-knit and capable team (and so, so glad that everything went well, since several of my EAS students were at today’s performance!)

Tomorrow we should have Susanna back, and I’ll be so happy to hand back the witchpricker’s needle and go back to my rightful place out front, notebook in hand. It’s been fun, but I love her version of the character, I have no desire to wear the torture bra ever again, and I am itching to see the whole beautiful cast back together.

We’ve also had our first review, and I’m pretty pleased that even when we were one actor down and the understudy was literally limping through the part (I sprained my knee last week and the choice was to use my stick or the script – I chose the script), we got four stars.

Click here to read it. 

Click here for tickets! 

Kevin the Chair

The Chair awaits Susanna’s return.


Heaven Blogs: The End of Rehearsals

This is technically my day off – my last one until September. After two weeks of rehearsal and months of preparation, Heaven Burns is very nearly ready to hit the Fringe!

It has been a gloriously enjoyable rehearsal period, thanks to having a brilliant team. When you’re working on something as intense as this, you need people with a decent line in nonsense to keep you sane and I’ve definitely had that. In between the technical complexities of choreographing violence, navigating the psychological twists and turns of the script, and sweltering in a roasting hot tent, there’s been cake, improvised one-man versions of the show, and quite a lot of dancing to early Britney in full 17th century gear. It’s been immense amounts of fun.

Today my flat is full of freshly repainted props and newly laundered (and subsequently newly bloodspattered) costume bits. I’m very confused by being able to see daylight and my body can’t understand why it’s not lunchtime yet. After lunch I’m going to drag my brain into a different project for a little while, because we all know there’s really no such thing as a “day off” when you’re freelance, only days where you work on different things.

Tomorrow and the next day we’ll meet for line runs and the mad run, and then on Thursday we open. Tickets are available from the Assembly website (and other places, but it’s better for us if you buy them from there). I can’t wait to put this show in front of an audience.

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Susanna Mulvihill as Christian Caddell. Photo by Jen McGregor.


Heaven Blogs #??: Into the Unknown

We started our main tranche of rehearsals today. It’s been a long day, or rather the latest in a series of long days, and the words in my head refuse to arrange themselves in an orderly fashion and be typed out. We launched straight in with a very complex scene, the actors pulled out all sorts of interesting and exciting things, and I’m champing at the bit to get back into the room tomorrow and shape the material we found.

But first, emails and showers and sleep. Let’s pretend this isn’t a non-post for the sake of maintaining the blog, shall we? Look, media content! Check out this gorgeous photo of Marion Geoffray as Isobel, taken by the wonderful Chris Scott. It’s not the one I’ve been posting everywhere else, this is a blog-exclusive (not in any way a consequence of me forgetting to vary the pictures):

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Heaven Blogs #4: A post that got away from me somewhat

I’ve just spent three incredible days in the depths of the Roxy, watching characters who have existed in my head for three years starting to take shape.

I can’t pretend that I have even the least amount of chill about this. The process of making theatre blows my mind every single time, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to work this way on one of my own scripts. I’ve watched other people direct my text, I’ve directed other people’s texts, but I’ve never been both writer and director on anything but development pieces.

Over the past few days I’ve found myself saying repeatedly that I know almost nothing about this play. That might sound like an odd thing for the writer to say, but… it’s true. Yes, I poured my research and craft and love and labour into the script. I thought I knew the characters and their motivations inside and out. Then I actually got into the room with the actors and realised how utterly wrong I was.

Letting go of the script is always nerve-wracking. I’m used to that. But when I hand it over to another director, it’s out of my hands. This time I am the director, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to assume a position of complete authority – to say “this is my text, my word on it is final, the actors’ job is to serve my vision”.

The fact that it would be easy is precisely why I don’t do it. It’s far more difficult for me to relinquish control and just trust the actors to use their instincts and intelligence… so that’s what I have to do, because I know how much I love the results this process can yield. Besides, it would do an injustice to this play if directing it were not a leap of (or into) faith.

On Monday I handed the cast over to Flav again. We’ve had a change of lineup, losing our original Isobel, which meant welcoming a new member to the team – the excellent Marion Geoffray of Theatre Sans Accents. Fortunately Marion is a veteran of the Domingues D’Avila experience, having participated in Flavia’s PhD workshops earlier this year, so she fitted right in and it has been thrilling to watch her bring her own unique qualities into the room.

I wish there was a way to describe what happens in the rehearsal room without sounding utterly wanky. Either it sounds boringly hippyish, all about grounding and breathing and repeating the same phrases over and over again, or it’s fanciful to the point of being alienating. I could write about the strange alchemy that takes place when you get the right combination of people and words and energy and music, but… does that mean anything to people who weren’t there? It’s a live performance medium. Everything that has happened these past three days is unrepeatable. It can only exist in the moment, you can’t experience it through my retelling. Even if you come and see it in performance, that will be something different. There’s no way to pin down that feeling when you see something that’s just right for the very first time, and that’s probably for the best since the act of pinning it down would kill it. We aim to create those moments in every performance, of course, but that’s still a very different thing to watching it happen in the rehearsal room – and inevitably, a different thing to seeing it through my eyes. The one thing no audience member will ever bring to this show is the years of living with Heaven Burns in their head beforehand. That’s just me.

Experiences that are impossible to capture precisely in words are infinitely frustrating. It bothers me that I can only tell you that these three days have been amazing and ask you to take my word for it. I want to make everyone who reads this understand that I’m so incredibly excited about this show, and that this script has occupied a special place in my heart for reasons that even I don’t fully understand, and that I feel tantalisingly close to making it into the thing I’ve always thought it could be. I want you to understand that these past few mornings I’ve woken up with my heart pounding with excitement at the day’s work ahead of me, and I’ve never felt that way about a show before despite having worked on many things that I’ve loved. Watching the cast making discoveries and taking me into parts of this fictional world that I hadn’t realised existed is something new and intoxicating, and I’m grateful that I have the chance to do this.

This was not how this post was going to go. The plan was to write something insightful about process and music and being in the moment. But fuck it. This is what I’ve got. I suck at marketing but I occasionally surprise myself with my capacity for candour. Come and see the show and maybe more of this will make sense, I don’t know. Come and see it because that’s how being part of the weird wanky alchemy of theatre works.

Melted

That’s me dying of warm weather on the pavement outside the Roxy on Monday, but it’s also a pretty accurate representation of how I feel right now. Knackered and collapsed but so, so happy.