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.