Tag Archives: Directing

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.