Tag Archives: Directing

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.


A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.

The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.

He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.

In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.

Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.

Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.

A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?

McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?

It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.

The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.

Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.

Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.

All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.

Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.

So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.

Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.

However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.

It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.


Plugging Project: Kabarett

This post will involve a little less introspection than usual and a hell of a lot more plugging. I have an event coming up that I’m quite excited about…

On Saturday 27th July I’ll be taking part in Project: Kabarett, a fundraiser for an amazing immersive Weimar experience. It’s the brainchild of Susanna Mulvihill, who plays Madeleine Smith in Tightlaced’s production of I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards, and it’ll be opening at Summerhall in January 2014 – but first we need to find the money.

The show itself, properly titled 1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett, will bring together Edinburgh-based artists from all sorts of disciplines and many of the people who are currently working on the project will be taking part in the fundraiser on the 27th. I don’t know the whole line-up at the moment, but I know about a handful of the performers and can assure you that it’ll be an eclectic mix and a great night for £10!

We’ve got three short plays from me, Susanna and Tightlaced Resident Writer Fiona McDonald (who was recently longlisted for the James Tait Black Award, so we’re all even prouder of her talent than usual). We’ve got Miss Fi and the Lost Head Band, Eleanor Morton, Colin Hoult, Tom Watton, Hazel DuBourdieu and a sneak preview of song of the music for 1933! We’ll also be giving you a chance to win a variety of interesting prizes, ranging from Fringe tickets to a custom-written short play.

Susanna and I also have our first outing as Chanson et le Chat, taking on a few operatic favourites and hopefully winning. It’ll be the first opportunity anyone has had to hear me sing in public since 2005 (I think), so it’s a combination of nerve-wracking and exhilarating for me… and possibly for the audience! Our programme consists of Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini and the inevitable Delibes, and we’ve been having a great time getting them into shape.

So if you fancy an evening of appreciating and supporting Edinburgh’s local talent before the world arrives on our doorstep for the Festivals, the trick is to contact sporadicmusic@gmail.com to book tickets! Please come. You’ll love it.

 

And of course, there’ll be an over-long introspective post about the return to singing at some point between now and the 27th… I wouldn’t dream of doing this or anything else without a little bit of angst.


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.


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…


An Invitation

A short post today, because I’m full of the cold and barely know my own name so coherent content is beyond me.

I never got round to writing a post about my experiences at Devoted & Disgruntled. It was at the end of July, which meant that by the time I’d got my thoughts together I had no time to write about them. The moment for going into detail may have passed, but the short version is this: it was fantastic.

My expectations were not high. I was expecting apathy, a small turnout, a fair bit of moaning, little by way of solutions, lots of walking on eggshells. I’d also never been to an Open Space meeting before, and to be honest I was suspicious of the promise of open, self-governing discussion. I expected to get their and find that everything would be unsubtly guided and that there would still be right and wrong answers according to someone’s agenda. This probably tells you quite a bit about the things I fear and some of the experiences that have left their mark on me along the way – future posts, every one…

So imagine my surprise when I got there and found out that the meeting was everything it promised to be. It honestly was facilitated, not led. The meeting set the broad question “What are we going to do about theatre?” and under that banner, we were at liberty to call discussions on whatever we wanted. The range was massive, from the role of Creative Scotland to the role of ushers, from being a mid-career artist to how we were all feeling midway through the second day.

Everything felt very free. We could move from group to group, speak freely, tweet freely. There were no rules, just a few guidelines for how to get the most out of it – and those guidelines were focused on permission, not restriction.

It’s amazing what a difference that makes to someone like me. Tell me what I’m not allowed to do and I’ll immediately get annoyed and start kicking against the rules. Give me freedom to do as I like and I’m much better behaved. I suspect that’s true of many, perhaps even most artists.  We’re not really ‘rules’ people on the whole, are we? (Again, future posts…) Perhaps greater freedom rather than greater regulation is the thing that will help us find creative solutions to the problems facing the theatre industry.

I didn’t want the weekend to end. I was overwhelmed, over-stimulated, exhausted and energised all at once. All I wanted to do was rest for a bit and then start up again. That’s how I found myself speaking up in the closing circle and offering Tightlaced’s rehearsal studio as a space for a follow-up. I’d love to think that we might be able to have regular satellite groups, but one thing at a time.

So this is an open invitation to anyone who wants to come to the follow-up meeting. You don’t have to have been at the weekend in July. You just have to want to come. Here are the details:

Date: Sunday 16 September

Time: 10.00 – 19.00 (You can come and go as you please. I recommend bringing a packed lunch if you’re coming for the full day.)

Place: Studio G21, Art’s Complex, 151 London Road, EH7 6AE. Click here for directions/buses.

Click here for the link to the Facebook event, which you can join and distribute as you please.