Tag Archives: Choices

A bit of a rant about “Skivers and Strivers”

On my way to the studio this afternoon I was listening to the radio and heard something that really annoyed me. I’m not sure what it was, since it was a short journey and I didn’t hear the beginning or end of the programme, but it was someone on Radio 4 talking about “skivers and strivers”. I can’t help feeling that these terms are noxious Cameronite propaganda designed to make people who have recently been shafted by a double dip recession and subsequent high unemployment rates feel bad about themselves. Anyway, some middle-aged man was putting his perfect elocution to questionable use by attempting to describe the frustration experienced by commendable, hardworking “strivers” when they get up for work early in the morning and see curtains closed in houses across the road, where idle benefit-scrounging “skivers” are lolling around in bed. Much was made of an anecdote about a jobseeker who dared express a preference for jobs that started later in the morning, maybe after 9.30am.

I know you should never get too riled up by anything taken out of context, but I was angry. By the time I’d taught today’s session, got home and done some domestic bit and pieces, I was still annoyed. My computer doesn’t get along well enough with BBC iplayer to let me listen to the programme now – which is probably quite a good thing, since throwing things at people talking in my computer is not the greatest idea – so I am writing this blog post from a position of partial ignorance. Perhaps all the points I intend to make in this post were made later in the programme. I hope they were, although I doubt it. Either way, I’ll make them here.

What really infuriates me about that man’s attitude is how rigid and unrealistic his view of what constitutes a work ethic is. You have no idea who is behind those closed curtains. Ever heard of a night shift? The person you’re branding lazy and a “skiver” might very well have been up all night putting out fires or caring for the sick and dying. The people who do those jobs are already underpaid and undervalued – let’s at least do them the courtesy of allowing them to sleep when they’re not at work.

There are also plenty of people who might not be doing lifesaving work but whose hours are not 9 – 5 or any approximation thereof, and we don’t deserve Plummy Radio Man’s condemnation either. Personally, I tend to wake up some time between ten and eleven. I’m usually online within half an hour of getting up. I faff about on social media for a bit while the caffeine kicks in, but social media isn’t just a toy for me – in amongst the cat pictures and updates about lunch choices, there are links to all sorts of things that are important to a freelance theatremaker. I hear about companies, submission deadlines, development schemes and industry news this way.

Then as my brain wakes up, I start replying to emails, writing budgets, plans and applications and drafting articles and blog posts that I’ll revisit and shape properly later in the day. Some days I teach, in which case I head in to the studio. Some days I edit and feed back on other people’s scripts, in which case I stay at home and probably remain in my pyjamas and wrapped in blankets for warmth. Some days I have meetings to go to. Sometimes I have rehearsals.

In the evenings I might be teaching, rehearsing, in meetings, at the theatre or some other event where I can network and meet collaborators and keep an eye on what’s happening in my area of the industry. Or I might be in front of my laptop working on a plan, budget, article or script. If I’m out during the evening, I’ll be back on the computer when I get home. I keep working until shortly before I go to bed, usually between 2 and 3am.

Now, I’m not saying I have my nose to the grindstone from 11am until 3am. Of course I have breaks and slack times and sneaky reads of sites that are nothing to do with anything. I play with the cat, I antagonise my husband (who also works from home much of the time). What I am saying is that I don’t have much of a social life or straightforward non-working time. I’m mentally on call all day, every day (which is not a complaint, by the way, it’s one of the things I love about my life and work because it’s how my brain works anyway). I don’t have many friends who aren’t also collaborators, so although I spend a lot of time with my friends it’s rarely just social. We have work meetings and we cram our catch-ups into the gaps.

On Sundays, Jen rests. I don’t check email, I switch my phone off. If I’m online it’s for entertainment purposes. I avoid company other than cat and husband. I cook. I spend ages reading in the bath. I try not to write, although I don’t always succeed in this.

Like I said, I’m not complaining about what my work life involves. It’s busy, but it’s great. I wish it involved a little more actual earning of money – financially I’d be better off on benefits – but we get by. It might be a while before we can afford a holiday, but as you can see from the above, I don’t have a particularly healthy attitude towards time off. I’m quite happy to work long hours because I enjoy what I do and as Noel Coward said, work is so much more fun than fun.

Just don’t dare tell me I don’t have a work ethic simply because I don’t start work by 9am. I’ve lived my life for a long time and know I don’t function well in the mornings. Even when I was living in London and the alarm went off at 5:50am each day so I could be on the tube a little after 7, I was never on form in the mornings. I know when I work best and I make the most of being freelance to allow me to work during my most productive hours. Does this somehow make me a “skiver”? By Plummy Radio Man’s standards, probably, since apparently only jobs that require you to be in work by 9am count as respectable employment.

Well, I suppose theatre was never considered the most respectable of professions. I can live with that. It’s not so much that I feel personally offended by Plummy Radio Man’s views. It’s more that I find this ideology of “skivers and strivers” and the demonising of those on benefits deeply disturbing. If it’s irritating to be a self-employed freelancer facing criticism for not working at the correct times of day, it must be soul-destroying to be a chronically ill person who can’t work and perhaps sleeps more than the average eight hours due to high levels of pain or medication side-effects. Or to be someone who had a job until they lost it due to the lovely double dip recession that they didn’t cause, and who hasn’t been able to find another one. Or to be someone who has never had a job because they stepped straight from education into high youth unemployment, where some bright spark wants to swap jobs that didn’t pay a living wage to begin with for Workfare placements that don’t pay at all and where unpaid internships have become commonplace?

I must stop before I become too irate to be coherent. I hope Radio 4 had someone putting another point of view. This “one size fits all” way of thinking, this ridiculously naive idea that anyone who isn’t employed and wealthy just doesn’t want to work, is dangerous. It chips away at the confidence of everyone who doesn’t currently fit that image. It erodes our freedom to choose a path other than one that leads to a 9 – 5 job and diminishes our respect for those who do take those paths. If you want to be cared for in hospital, have emergency services available round the clock or even simply to have someone pour your pint when you go to the pub or write the play that you go to see after work, you should respect the fact that they might not work the same hours as you. They’re not “skivers”, and the fact that there’s a small number of people out there to whom that label could accurately be applied does not excuse its sloppy, inaccurate and degrading application to anyone who might have good reason to be asleep while others commute.


A Response to the Creative Scotland Board Meeting Report

The statement from Creative Scotland’s board gives me cause for hope. Like many artists I was expecting a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the scale of the problem, perhaps even denial that there is a problem in the first place. Instead we got a statement that was respectful, refreshingly low on empty corporate-speak and even showed a certain amount of humility.

 

They’ve acknowledged responsibility for the deterioration of Creative Scotland’s relationship with artists, they’ve promised change and given a rough outline of how that will happen, they’ve even actively solicited our judgement on how they get on. It’s extremely promising, and there are points that merit particular praise. For example, the board vows to get rid of “strategic commissioning”, eliminating one of the most contentious issues Creative Scotland has had to deal with recently. They give a special mention to the staff who have been working under difficult circumstances. They confirm what was said at the Artists’ Open Space about simplifying the language used. These are all good things.

 

That said, at the moment it’s all just words and time alone will tell whether the words will become action.The board has asked for time to implement these changes, which I think is wise. Best to take as much time as is required to do a thorough job. If they make good on their promise to deliver a detailed plan with a  timeline in the New Year, and if they continue to communicate openly in much clearer language, it will be possible to have a proper conversation between artists and Creative Scotland. I’m sure there will be more frustration ahead before we reach a harmonious way of working, but if the end result is a funding body that has a strong working relationship with artists then all the drama of recent months will have been worth it. The Year of Creative Scotland has come to an unexpectedly positive close.


Noting a Broken Pattern

Today (or yesterday, I suppose) I had a really useful meeting with Sandy Thomson, Artistic Director of Bell Rock (formerly Poorboy), in her role as a Cultural Enterprise advisor.

I had gone seeking advice regarding Tightlaced’s structure and legal status, as well as hoping to pick up some tips from an artist who successfully runs a theatre ensemble herself. She gave me lots of information and food for thought regarding company structure and how a co-operative model might work, and she referred me on to other Cultural Enterprise resources for anything she couldn’t help me with herself. (If you’re an artist who doesn’t already know about the Cultural Enterprise Office, READ THIS NOW. Then come back here and finish reading this.)

But just as important as her advice was her support. I don’t get many chances to talk to other artistic directors of methodology-led ensembles. Sandy and I spoke about the possibilities and pitfalls presented by ensemble work and she reminded me that considering my own needs and wants is not only allowed but actually essential.

We talked about the boom and bust patterns that seem so difficult to avoid in the leaders of groups who work this way, which led me to acknowledge a very important milestone that I had allowed to pass unnoticed – even by me.

I have not experienced physical burnout since April.

I know that probably sounds like nothing, but for me it’s major. For years I’ve run on 12-weekly cycles, working flat out for three months at a time and then collapsing with a monster cold/flu-type thing which seems to be the physical manifestation of my exhaustion. I’d take a day or two off if I could (by which I mean I’d keep working but I’d do it from home) then I’d drag myself back up to full speed as quickly as possible.

It was a ridiculously unhealthy attitude, don’t think I don’t know that. I once fractured my coccyx and destabilised a couple of joints and went straight from the ambulance to rehearsal with no time at all to rest. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but at the time I saw it as the obvious thing to do. I started behaving this way because I felt I had to, because there was never enough time to do everything I felt I should be doing, then I kept doing it because I was trapped in the pattern.

This time last year I figured out exactly how destructive my pattern was and made a promise that I would get better. I had just finished Romeo and Juliet and I was ill, yet again. I had been deteriorating for over a month, starting with the usual cold and culminating in a kidney infection. I’d like to say that was my last physical burnout, but despite my promises to myself there was one more to come. I completely overworked myself in March and had one last cold from hell to see me through April.

Since then, though, I’ve been doing well. Even though this has not been an easy year in terms of mental health, where physical health is concerned I’ve been a lot better at maintaining my equilibrium. Even if I’m knocked flat on my back by a cold tomorrow, the fact remains that I have come this far. I paced myself so that I didn’t succumb to Fringe Lurgy. I struggled mentally around the anniversary of my Mum’s death but stayed physically well. I was anticipating burnout after the double bill, but in spite of all the long days, late nights and endless energy being poured into the work, I was still standing afterwards.

As I said, this probably sounds like nothing, but do you know how long it’s been since I went more than twelve weeks without exhausting myself to the point of illness? The last time I can remember was 1995. Seventeen years ago. Something I hadn’t actually stopped and worked out until today. So it’s important to me – the footprint of the first tiny steps in the direction of a healthier approach to work and life.

Sandy talked to me about the importance of reward and recognition, and the fact that recognition is often of equal or greater importance than reward. It felt that was. Something in my mind feels lighter for realising this. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of letting up on myself after many years of berating myself for (ironically enough) being too hard on myself. (I’m sure that sentence could be better constructed and not contain the same word three times, but… welcome to nearly 2am.)

There’s more that came out of the session and I’ll write about that as I work through it. Some will be here, some on the Tightlaced blog. But for tonight, that was the big thing. Thank you Sandy. If nothing else had come out of the session, it would have been worth it for that alone.


Some thoughts on Artists Open Space

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing up my thoughts on the Open Space at Waverley Gate. What with directing and producing two shows concurrently, this is the first spare moment I’ve had to write things down! With any luck, I’ll get round to answering some of the emails I’ve received in the wake of it too…

It was a very intense day. On the one hand it was very exciting and inspiring to be around so many artists who all felt strongly about the need for change. On the other, there were a few frustrations – the focus was mostly on how we make it easier for artists to access the money available through Creative Scotland. I’m not denying that that’s important, but I don’t think that rethinking the application forms is sufficient. These problems with Creative Scotland are the result of ideological problems. For Creative Scotland to function well and be useful to artists rather than an obstacle to them, it must sort its collective head out.

When I look at the information currently available on the CS website and at their funding forms, I see language which reflects some troubling ideology. It’s very ‘businessy’. The Creative Scotland staff who attended the Open Space were at pains to point out that part of CS’ function is to act as an interlocutor between artists and government, making the case for our continued funding and role in society. Fair enough, but the issue is that if you don’t speak both languages you’re not much use as an interpreter. If artists are expected to learn the ‘businessy’ language (assuming it can be learned, because some of it looks like it really doesn’t mean anything), what’s the point of an intermediary? If that’s the role CS wants to fulfil, they need to speak OUR language. If they only speak the language of government, they can hardly be surprised if we regard them as an agent of government.

The thing is, solving this problem involves a lot of talk. I got a strong sense that several people at the meeting regard ‘talk’ and ‘action’ as mutually exclusive terms. They’re not. Sometimes talk is exactly the action that’s needed. And how do you carry out any kind of collective movement if you don’t plan it first? There’s no point in ‘taking action’ if all you’re doing is charging around blindly. First you have to figure out what to do, and that’s a lot easier if you have some idea why you’re doing it. Creative Scotland needs to figure that out. WE need to figure that out. I can see why it’s an unpopular view – it’s hard work, long-term work and it’s much less dramatic/fun than charging around blindly or yelling about how “someone should do something” and demanding resignations. Yet until we actually knuckle down and do that work, we will run into the same problems again and again and again.

Having said all of that, one of the principles of Open Space is that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. This meeting was the start of the process, and it was a bloody good start. I remember the organisers of Devoted & Disgruntled saying that they usually find that on the first day of their events everyone is more disgruntled, rediscovering their devotion on the second day. Considering how angry and frustrated the artistic community has been, it’s hardly surprising that there was a lot of attention going to surface issues. (I had originally hoped to make it a two day event for this very reason, but I could only get the Waverley Gate space for one day. I took what I could get.)

The other major frustration was numbers. 90 people signed up via Eventbrite. 35 of them turned up, plus another 10 – 12 who hadn’t registered. There are always no-shows, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of freelancers with busy schedules, but that was a ridiculous number. When the event showed up as sold out I had to turn people away.

On a personal level, it’s also a wee bit infuriating to see how much better attended the Glasgow meeting was today. I love Edinburgh, I really, really do, but when it comes to actually speaking up for ourselves and not being apathetic, Glasgow beats us hands-down every time. I hear so many people complaining that it’s hard to make a living as an artist in Edinburgh, it’s easier if you go to Glasgow – but do something to change things in Edinburgh and where are the people who complain? You want things to change, TURN UP and make it happen – or don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

On the positive side, I think that between Artists’ Open Space and the Tramway World Cafe we have succeeded in making it clear to Creative Scotland and their board that this is not a problem that’s going to go away in a few months’ time. (Perhaps some of their board members will actually come along to future meetings. They really need to, just as members of the senior management team need to make sure they continue to be present. We need them to be a regularly-appearing feature of the arts world, otherwise we’re naturally going to perceive them as shut away in their ivory tower upstairs from Amazon.)

It was also really useful to bring artists together. There were plenty of cards being exchanged and I’ve had some lovely emails saying how much people got out of the day. There are now a few more artists who want to make change and know where to find each other. It’s small, but it’s important. We need to keep networking, keep talking, keep making little changes in attitude and action.

In terms of Creative Scotland making changes, probably the biggest point to come out of the day was a promise to rewrite the website with the help of various organisations such as the Literature Trust and Federation of Scottish Theatres. They’re planning to rewrite by next April and I doubt this gives them time to learn our language, but perhaps we can harness our collective power to work through our representative organisations and make our voices heard. If there is an organisation that represents your art form, contact them and check that they’re being consulted and that they’re looking after your discipline’s interests. We have a chance to make change here if we keep applying the pressure.

There was also talk about the need for artists in the decision-making process, on the Creative Scotland board and in consultation roles where they can share their expertise from an external perspective. It seemed that the need was acknowledged, so now we need to hear how that’s going to be achieved. I’m still gathering reports/notes from the meeting and posting them on the Artists’ Open Space site, but once they’re all in I’ll send the link and action points to Andrew Dixon and his team. There will definitely be a request for hi to outline their plans for increasing artist involvement.

So at the end of all this I’m still feeling optimistic, and I can’t wait to hear what has come out of the Glasgow meeting. I’m also feeling somewhat drained by the whole thing, but that could have something to do with the impending dress and tech rehearsals for the double bill… Plans are afoot for more Open Spaces to continue the work, but I won’t be doing anything about organising them until my shows are up and running next week.


A Right Stooshie and the Question of Excellence

So here’s what’s been happening:

  • An open letter signed by 100 artists was sent to Creative Scotland, expressing dismay at the way the organisation has been run so far and requesting a fresh start. Click here to read it.
  • Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Creative Scotland, replied to the open letter. Some of it is reasonable, some of it is a bit disappointing, none of it is the end of the matter. Click here to read it.
  • In his State of the Arts blog for the Herald, Phil Miller shares his thoughts on Sir Sandy’s response. He suggests that some at Creative Scotland see current events as “the game-changer” and that the attitude of Holyrood towards Creative Scotland has altered drastically. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll already know that I think Creative Scotland is troubled and in need of reform, particularly where their communication with artists is concerned. That’s why I set up Artists’ Open Space – it’s not just the fact that we talk that’s important, it’s how we do it. I’m pleased that most of Creative Scotland’s senior management team has agreed to attend, but it’s what they say and do at the meeting and afterwards that’s important, not just their attendance.

In all this back and forth between artists and CS, I see both sides laying claim to “success stories” and talking about “artistic excellence”. The thing is, I don’t see anyone defining these terms and it strikes me that this is where our communication difficulties lie.

What is “success”? Is it profit? Is it impact on people’s lives? Is it fulfilment of the artist’s goals? Is it meeting the brief set by the supplier of the funding (and if it is, is that not rife with the potential to be patronage at its most sinister?) A piece of art can be successful in many different ways, but I believe the most important function of art is to affect individuals.

It may seem very dramatic to say that a book, poem, sculpture, play, song or anything else has changed your life, but it’s not inaccurate. Mine’s been changed by very minor things, like having a song or a poem help me to make sense of events in my life, and in major ways, like seeing paintings or reading books that made me feel less alone after the double-whammy bereavement. (The latter might sound minor. It’s not. When you’re newly orphaned, anything that makes you feel less alone is a whopping great triumph.)

Numerous artforms contributed to my development not only as an artist myself, but as a person. From my first nursery rhyme onwards, the arts have helped to develop my literacy, numeracy, awareness of history, geography, science, society, empathy, identity and ethics. They played a major role in shaping me as a person and they continue to do so.

I’m not amazingly well-educated, but I’m fortunate enough to have been encouraged to think critically throughout my life. That’s why I can get this far with expressing the influence the arts have had on me. However, despite my postgraduate education and the unusually large amount of time I devote to thinking about these things, I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to tell the full story. How could I possibly disentangle my own mind to the point where I can tell you which of the many books, paintings, plays etc. gave rise to particular aspects of my thoughts, beliefs and personality? I feel ridiculously ill-equipped to figure it out. Yet due to the life and influences I’ve had, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

When I see something for the first time, I don’t know what its long-term effect on me will be. Years ago I saw Donatello’s carving of Mary Magdalene and her face and body language have haunted me ever since – she’s a perfect picture of grief and loss, and seeing her made me feel that someone understood the magnitude of my own bereavement. Even though Donatello has been dead for centuries and I haven’t seen that carving again in almost a decade, the memory of it gives me comfort and perspective. I doubt that he knew as he created it that his work would be having such powerful effects on a young Scottish woman with dead parents so many centuries later. I certainly didn’t realise as I looked at it that it would stay with me for years to come.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would say that it’s the long-term impact of art that makes it successful. But how to measure that? If your audience is made up of people with decent critical thinking skills and an inclination towards blogging, they might continue to volunteer feedback in years to come. But what about the non-bloggers? Or, more crucially, the people who haven’t had the education or opportunity to become decent critical thinkers? It seems to me that a true measure of artistic success would require a massive change in education to enable people to  understand how the arts affect our lives, to analyse the effects and express them clearly.

Yes, it’s idealistic. There’s little point in trying to fix a problem by thinking small. Better to think of the ideal and then see how close you can get to it. That’s the bit I’ll think about in another post, since it’s going to take more energy than I currently have to start figuring it out.

Going back to the Creative Scotland stooshie, I think that if we’re going to improve communications between organisation and artists, a good first step would be to work on commonly-accepted definitions of our terms. There’s little point in talking if you’re always at cross-purposes and little point in funding criteria written in words that no-one really understands. Language reflects our ways of thinking, and before we do anything else we need to understand our own thoughts. Who would have thought that understanding your own thoughts and finding the most accurate words to express them would require such a lot of consideration and discipline? But it does, and if we haven’t done that then whatever we do next is built on shaky foundations.


Open Space Invitation

The details of the Artists’ Open Space on the 26th are now finalised and you can click here to register for it. It’s free to attend, but there’s a limit the number of people who’ll fit in the room so best to register.

Please spread the word. And please come if you can. The Open Space, like everything else in life, belongs to the people who turn up…


Plugs and theatre politics

Next week one of my short plays is being produced by Black Dingo as part of the company’s launch event. Information can be found by clicking here.

I’ve got a lot of time for Black Dingo. This is a production company that aims to provide a really valuable resource for grassroots theatremakers – a one stop shop where you can be matched up with the collaborators you need to make your project happen, and where basic production elements like modular sets and multi-purpose lights are available at prices that are realistic on fringe budgets.

It’s an ambitious project and a real labour of love on the part of the company’s director, David McFarlane. I’m not only excited about it because one of my plays is being put on, but because this kind of enterprise is what gives me hope for grassroots theatre.

Black Dingo is part of the growing number of fringe theatre companies who not only want to create excellent theatre, but who feel strongly about treating the professionals involved in a fair and ethical manner, who look for ways to make production costs more manageable so that more of a show’s budget can go towards payment of artists. It’s a company that understands the value of exchange, of shared resources and of thinking beyond the next production or individual ambitions.

It’s a starting point, and quite a good one. There are plenty of us who see that the old fringe theatre model is not sustainable, but that’s not to say that we’ve figured out the perfect new model to replace it. There is no Fair, Ethical and Financially Viable Fringe Theatre for Dummies. It’s a process, not a fait accompli. But it’s a fascinating and exciting process to be part of, and it’s a hell of a lot more rewarding than just sitting around lamenting the failure of the current model to thrive.

Theatre politics aside, Black Dingo has an interesting and mixed programme in store. My contribution is Lost Love, a play about a SatNav that falls in love with its owner with deadly consequences. It’s part of the Shots triple bill, along with Eros and Psyche by Hope Whitmore and David’s own play Sanctuary. You can see these on 8 and 11 October at The Granary in Leith.

There’s also a double bill of Texan comedy from James McLure – Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star. I’ve seen both of these pieces in rehearsal and can’t wait to see the finished shows. The writing is really snappy and both casts are handling the balance between pathos and humour adeptly. And if you fancy something more serious, there’s Grace Under Pressure. I don’t know much about that one, but I do know that the title role is played by my lovely friend and frequent collaborator Danielle Farrow, which is usually a good sign that it’ll be worth watching!

Once we’ve got the opening night out of the way I’ll tell you the story behind Lost Love and save future undergraduates a bit of hassle by supplying the biographical reading myself…


Talking to Creative Scotland: Making Plans

This afternoon I had a meeting with Kenneth Fowler at Creative Scotland. It was a pleasant chat, refreshingly free of corporate-speak, and I should probably mention in the interests of clarity that he was the one who got in touch with me.

The most important thing first: I got the go-ahead for an Open Space at Waverley Gate. It won’t be organised or structured by Creative Scotland – it’ll be an open, artist-led conversation. The beauty of Open Space is that anyone can propose a discussion; it’s not a chaired meeting with an agenda, it’s a series of self-guided conversations around a central theme. How that theme will be worded I’m not yet sure, but I’ll be seeking guidance from some more experienced people as I figure it out.

Hopefully, this will be a starting point rather than a one-off event. I’d like to see this developing into a series of regular, roving meetings so that there’s a means of ongoing communication between artists/arts organisations in all parts of Scotland, following the Devoted & Disgruntled model. Collectively, we can feed back to Creative Scotland – and why stop there? There are plenty of organisations out there who exist to administer funding and develop artistic talent. There’s cultural policy to be created. It would surely be beneficial to everyone concerned (by which I mean everyone who cares about the arts whether as creator or consumer) for these things to be informed by continuous feedback from the arts industries themselves.

Of course, all we can do is have the conversations. Once we’ve passed the information on, it’s up to Creative Scotland and other arts organisations to decide what they do with it. Maybe they’ll use it wisely, maybe they won’t use it at all. If it’s the former, that’s great! We all win. If it’s the latter… well, we’ll have tried. We’ll have done as Andrew Dixon asked and brought the conversation to Creative Scotland, not just to the newspapers and Twitter – but much more importantly, we’ll have brought it to each other and we’ll all be better informed and have expanded our own networks in the process. We could do worse.

I’ve been accused over the past wee while of being too optimistic, insufficiently cynical, too willing to give Creative Scotland the benefit of the doubt. All of these things are fine with me. I find it far too easy to be cynical. Being optimistic is more of a challenge. But I’d really rather hope and work for the best than expect the worst. The arts funding situation in Scotland is far from perfect, but it’s the situation we’re in. If we don’t like it – and I haven’t met a single person, artist or administrator, who seems to like it – we need to change it. And by we, I mean artists, audiences, administrators, creators, consumers, everyone who cares about the arts for any reason whatsoever. An Open Space is not a panacea, but it’s a way to bring people from all of these areas (and probably others I haven’t thought of) together, and that seems like a decent place to start.

As soon as I’ve arranged a date to use Creative Scotland’s space, I’ll start spreading the word… Keep watching!


On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.


Openness

A friend who reads this blog recently asked me whether I’m concerned about the possible repercussions of writing as candidly as I do. (That might make my friend sound a bit judgemental – that’s not the case, I believe she was asking out of curiosity, not judgement, and she knows me well enough to know I’d take it that way.) The answer is ‘not really’.

Perhaps I should be, since this is a public blog on my personal site and I don’t make the slightest effort to conceal my identity. But to be honest, you won’t read anything here that I wouldn’t tell you in person, and if you asked about it I’d tell you on pretty short acquaintance. If I’m open about it in person, why not online?

There was a time when I worried about what people would think of me if they knew I had mental health problems. I would never actively conceal it, but I wasn’t as relaxed about it as I am now. For a while I stumbled through conversations making vague references to ‘illness’ and ‘being unwell’, trusting that people wouldn’t enquire further. They didn’t, but I found I wasn’t comfortable with keeping the waters muddy on purpose.

It’s difficult not to talk about it when you have these problems. I don’t mean that I spill the whole story to every passing stranger, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a decade and I’ve lost large chunks of time to the Crazy. There are gaps in my CV, my educational history and my life story due to non-functioning headspace, and if I’m getting to know someone it means that sooner or later they’ll start to notice that the chronology of my life doesn’t make much sense without context. My options are 1) redirect the conversation if it goes anywhere near the subject, 2) gloss over it by making the aforementioned vague references, or 3) tell the truth, with or without all the gory details.

I prefer the truth. I spent long enough being uncomfortable with all of this and fearing other people’s judgement. Keeping things vague only keeps people at arm’s length, and feeling that no-one knows or understands me feeds into the low moods during depressive episodes. Yes, it’s a leap of faith every time. No, I’m not always happy with the results. But on balance, it’s worth it. I can deal with the occasional bit of judgement in exchange for having other people open up in response to me.

As for whether this blog will ever hinder me professionally, I don’t know. Once again I find that I don’t really worry about it. I’m a self-employed artist and I choose to work with people who are likely to have experienced these things themselves or seen them at close quarters. The levels of judgement are reasonably low. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case elsewhere in the industry, on the commercial side where the focus is more on business than art, but the choices I’ve made mean that I’m unlikely to find out first-hand.

More importantly, some of us have to take the chance. Talking openly about something that’s stigmatised will always put you at risk of being subject to that stigma. It’s not for everyone, but these days I’m feeling secure and supported enough to do it. I know how lucky I am to have that – there have been times in my life when I haven’t had that support and I know how much harder it makes things to be dealing with it alone. Every judgement, every bad day seems a hundred times worse. I haven’t forgotten that, and that’s why I feel the need to reach out from where I am now in the hope that it does some good. It helps me more to focus on that than to let myself go down the route of giving too much thought to what people I’ve never met or barely know think of me. If writing this costs me a job, I doubt it’s a job that would have lasted.