Tag Archives: Dead Parents

Looking Back on a Lonely Christmas

The tree is up and lit, the flat smells of spiced biscuits and hot cider (testing new recipes on some friends ahead of this year’s Christmas party), there have been carols on the stereo for much of the day and my husband and I just finished watching one of my favourite Christmas films, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. This will be our second Christmas together, so we’re still establishing our traditions – and I’m so glad that we are.

I love Christmas. I had a secular upbringing and have never been baptised into or practised any religion, but I’m quite happy to get in on other people’s religious festivities if it means a bit of light and merriment in darkest December (and my birthday is on the 20th, so it’s a time of year I’ve always associated with celebration anyway). However, as much as I love Christmas, for some time after my parents died I had no idea what to do about it. I feel like I’m finally finding my way back into it after a long gap.

The final Christmas with Mum and Dad was a lovely one. I remember they gave me a pair of red stiletto boots, which I still have, and for a joke they gave me some Brio (the wooden train set stuff). I had always wanted Brio when I was little  but it was beyond our budget back then, so instead I got it when  I was on the cusp of adulthood and the family’s finances were much healthier. They had planned to keep the joke for my 21st, but I’m glad they didn’t since only one of them would live to see it. There’s a photo somewhere of me and my Dad, both still in pyjamas, building a scene from Back to the Future III out of Brio. We went through to Linlithgow for lunch and to uphold the family tradition of feeding the ducks. I had made Christmas cake for the first time. The tree was the same tree that we have in our living room now.

Of course I didn’t know it would be our last Christmas together – at that point we had no idea anything was wrong. But the following year my dad and I spent Christmas wondering what to do with ourselves, not feeling right about honouring any of the traditions, not feeling right about ignoring them either. I had just turned 21, but we didn’t feel like celebrating when Mum had died just a couple of months before.

The year after that, when I had just turned 22, I spent my first Christmas as an orphan. I have no siblings, am not in touch with my extended family, and at that point I hadn’t made most of the friends I have now or grown close enough to impose myself on them for Christmas. On Christmas Day I went to see family friends. I was supposed to stay over, but I couldn’t – nothing to do with them, I just couldn’t stand being the recently bereaved guest at someone else’s family Christmas. I have never been good at being a guest. I like to be around the things and people that are mine, and ever since my parents died I have struggled to be around other people’s families, knowing that I won’t ever be around mine again. So I went home to find my central heating had broken down. 2004 was really not my year.

The thing is, Christmas is utterly miserable for the newly bereaved. Everything is geared towards family and togetherness. Everyone you know is getting ready to go home for the festive season, talking about their travel plans and bitching about their family’s traditions. There is no escape from adverts full of wide-eyed children watched over by a generation or two of smiling adults, all gathered together to rejoice in having everything you’ve just lost. You can’t set foot in a shop without seeing something you want to buy for your dead loved ones, and if you can find the energy to put up a tree there’s a conspicuous gap at the bottom where your gifts to one another would usually be.

But the worst thing of all is the music. Now That’s What I Call Everyone Else Having An Amazing Family Christmas Except You Because Everyone You Love Is Dead And You Are Alone 82! Logically you know that you can’t be the only bereaved person for whom Christmas is proving challenging, but that doesn’t help when you’re being bombarded with All I Want For Christmas Is You and all its horrifically cheerful counterparts whose lyrics take on a whole new meaning after a significant death. It’s a toss-up between those and more obviously melancholy tracks like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas  and Stop the Cavalry for which is most likely to provoke floods of tears. And then you get to feel bad because no matter how sympathetic people are, you still know you’re bringing them down at Christmas.

So why am I writing this rather depressing post? Because it gets easier. As the years go by you find ways of coping. You find new people to spend Christmas with, and maybe one day it even feels right. You invent new traditions, you reach a stage where the old traditions are no longer too painful to observe. Perhaps some people get to the stage where they can join other people’s families for Christmas. I haven’t got there yet. I wonder if I ever will.

Most importantly, I wish I had found a post like this on 24.12.04 when I spent Christmas Eve staring at my computer screen trying to make the time pass, knowing that there must be people out there in same predicament but feeling the need for proof. Would it have helped? I don’t know, because I never found what I was looking for. Perhaps there wasn’t as much out there on the interwebs back then. Perhaps my google skills just weren’t as good. But at least I know that if there’s a Jen-equivalent out there this Christmas, desperate for a little comfort, this post will be out there. If it does nothing else, at least it confirms that she’s not the only one. I’ve always found that knowing I’m not the only one helps. I hope she feels the same.


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.


Story time!

A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Outside Thoughts event. It’s a simple format. Short stories are selected and given performed readings which are then made available as podcasts. Very straightforward, very well done.

One of my stories, Old Woman with Masks, was selected for the September event. I was delighted by the reading (of which more below) and by seeing my story in such excellent company. The standard of the writing was very high (read: I frequently felt outclassed). Podcasts from the evening are being released one by one, and I’d really recommend following Outside Thoughts on Facebook so you get notified when they’re available. Especially because the next one that’s due to be released is a real cracker – one that you’ll identify with if you’ve ever been chatted to by some random weirdo on a bus…

Anyway, enough about other people. My story was written when I was 22 – I was still walking with a stick after the massive car crash, just past the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, coming up on the second of my Mum’s , still feeling like I was living on borrowed time because I was on cancer watch myself. It was a hell of a time. I wasn’t writing much, because, as I’ve discussed here before, I was too deeply submerged in the trauma to make much sense of it yet. I could write, by which I mean I could construct things competently,  but I couldn’t yet get anywhere near the things I needed to write, which meant that things didn’t quite ring true to me. When writing doesn’t ring true I quickly lose interest, whether as writer or as audience.

Old Woman with Masks was a breakthrough piece for me. It was the result of a writing exercise in a short story class – I was given a prompt to work from, a postcard showing James Ensor’s Old Woman with Masks. The figure in the painting began speaking to me straight away, and I’ve loved Ensor’s work ever since. He loved skeletons, I love skeletons, it’s a match made in… somewhere.

When I got to Outside Thoughts and saw the lady who had been cast to read my story, I was a bit concerned. Pam Tibbetts, I thought, looked too young, too stylish, too sophisticated for the humdrum, stifled character I had written.

And then she began to read, and I was instantly won over. By the time she got a few paragraphs in, I was utterly convinced that this was the way the character in the story looks and sounds in her own head. Pam did a fantastic job, and our chat afterwards was lovely. I love it when performers can take my view of a character and turn it on its head, especially when it’s a character originally of my creation.

You’ll find the story here if you’d like to have a listen: http://outsidethoughts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Episode-Six.mp3

Old Woman with Masks – Ensor


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.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…


The Introductory Post

I am Jen and I am an artist.

Confession time: I rewrote that first sentence again and again before settling on that form of words, because there’s still a bit of me that struggles with applying the word ‘artist’ to myself. If that kind of internal struggle/level of wankiness distresses you, you might want to leave this page now because it’s only going to get worse.

I direct, write, act, and dabble in film, music, poetry and cross-platform work. Theatre is my first love and it’s where most of my energy goes. If you had asked me a few years ago I would have said that I wanted to work in mainstream theatre – regional houses, West End, well-known material, straightforward stuff. Then I spent a couple of years in London and discovered forms of theatre that I had never imagined. My horizons expanded exponentially and I found myself deeply dissatisfied with much of the work I had wanted to do before.

That’s not to say that I never want to touch a canon play again. Quite the opposite. I believe that if you’re going to work with new writing and experimental techniques, working with classic texts keeps you in touch with the things that make plays work. What I want to change, first in my own practice and then in a more widespread way, is the approach – rehearsal and performance techniques, interplay between disciplines and most importantly, ways of thinking.

I came back to Edinburgh and reshaped my company, Tightlaced. I started building an ensemble of actors with whom I could share Affectable Acting, the technique I had learned from Aileen Gonsalves during my time at Mountview. I began talking to those actors about their ways of working, the challenges that face them and the skills they need. I spoke to other directors and writers about why we make the work that we do and how to strike a balance between the need to build our CVs and the breathing space our work needs in order to fulfil its potential.

Those conversations are still ongoing and probably always will be, because we need to keep analysing and learning and improving if we want to be better artists. And if you don’t want to be a better artist, why bother being one at all?

That’s where the struggle begins. This kind of artistic introspection was not part of my upbringing. I grew up with the idea that theatre is for entertainment, acting is just pretending and being an artist is about god-given and indisputable talent that you don’t really need to work at. I went to schools that didn’t offer drama or music as subjects or clubs. I was specifically banned from doing them outside of school during my exam years (not that that stopped me). I didn’t know anyone who was in a position to tell me what being an artist is actually like, that there are grey areas all over the place and the development of your skills is never-ending.

It wasn’t until I reached my 20s that I began to realise any of this. It wasn’t just a case of getting older and wiser, it was also the result of my parents dying. I found myself with massive freedom, because when you no longer have a family you don’t have to explain what you’re spending your time on to them any more. But on the flip side, I had a mass of emotions to deal with, constantly trying to outrun a tidal wave of grief and feeling that I was betraying my parents every time I did something they wouldn’t have approved of or would have been suspicious of, such as enjoying experimental theatre. It took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that if they had lived, I would have done plenty of things they didn’t approve of and that actually, in the long run, they wouldn’t have minded as long as what I was doing wasn’t making me unhappy. They were good people who (much as they struggled with this sometimes because, well, they were parents) understood that their daughter would live her own life.

I’m not writing all of this to gain your sympathy. I’m writing it because my non-artsy background and dead parents are two very significant influences on my development and path. With a different upbringing and/or a less bumpy entry into adulthood, I might have learned about various things sooner and taken a different, perhaps more conventional route. Then again, maybe not, because I’m quite stubborn and wilful and prefer to learn from my own mistakes, so I usually find a way to take the more difficult, less direct path.

That’s why I’ve titled this blog “The Scenic Route”. That’s what my Mum used to call it when we got lost – “taking the scenic route”. We always got there in the end, and quite often we discovered new, interesting things along the way. It’s a decent metaphor for my life (although my husband is certain to mock me mercilessly if he reads this). I know where I want to be, but I’m taking the scenic route and it’s time I owned it as a choice.

So I’m writing this blog with Future Jen in mind, the future equivalent of the Jen who would have benefited from a frank account of what it’s like to be on this path rather than the over-simplified success stories that you read in newspapers and magazines. I’m writing in the hope that this will lead to discussion with other artists. I’m writing because writing has always been the best way to get my mind into some kind of order, and since I’ve always felt the compulsion to share and blogs provide a means for sharing, that’s what I’m going to do. This will be an account, an exploration and whatever else I feel the need to let it be.