Tag Archives: Responses

A Provocation for the Declaration Festival

Tonight (technically last night, since it’s about 1am) I gave a provocation at the Declaration Festival. It was for the closing event, responding to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to rest and leisure). I was delighted to be part of it, particularly to be in the company of Jenny Lindsay and Harry Giles and their excellent, deeply personal responses to the topic. 

My own response was likewise personal. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from the mental health angle. This is the text…

 

Hi. I’m Jen. You might already know that. I’m never sure how much you know.

 

Thanks for coming. Not that you had a choice, but still… thank you.

 

I hope you like the weather. I chose it specially. I thought it would be a good introduction to my mood, you know? A bit grey. Frosty. Kind of a foreshadowing thing.

 

It’s really nice to see everyone here today. What’s even nicer is that I’m pretty sure that most of you are real. You look real.

 

Except you. You, not so much. I’m not sure whether I’m hallucinating you or not, and it’s not really polite for me to ask complete strangers whether they’re real or not. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to you, just in case you are a hallucination and everyone thinks I’m crazy for interacting with someone who isn’t there. I’d wait until someone else has demonstrated that you’re real to them before I said or did anything involving you. It’s a bit convoluted, I know – the easiest way to establish your reality would be to touch you, but there are two problems with that. First, if you’re not real then this entire room full of people would see me waving my hand through empty air. Second, if you are real then – wait, actually, it’s three problems. Because the second problem would be that I’d just started pawing at a stranger for no apparent reason, and the third would be that while we were in physical contact you might be able to read my thoughts.

 

That’s why I’ll avoid shaking anybody’s hand if I can. You seem like very nice people, and I’ve no doubt your hands are clean and everything, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t really like letting people read my mind until I get to know them a bit better. It makes job interviews and networking sessions a bit of a bitch. Especially when people don’t employ me or don’t reply to me, because then I wonder whether it’s because they saw something in my mind that they didn’t like. I wouldn’t blame them. There’s a lot in there that I don’t like. And here’s an interesting thing – I’ve never succeeded in getting work from someone whose initial greeting involved a kiss on the cheek. I hate cheek-kissing. If touching my hand gives you access to my thoughts, kissing my cheek is like plunging head-first into them. So I’ll keep my distance and run the risk that you’ll think I’m stand-offish. I get that a lot. Stand-offish, reserved, arrogant, bitchy… I just don’t want to let you into my head, that’s all. I’m sorry. It’s not meant as a slight.

 

And now I’m noticing that all of these people are staring at me and that means I’ve been concentrating on you for far too long, trying to figure out whether you’re real. That suggests that you’re not and that I’ve been looking at an empty chair for all this time. So they think I’m weird already. And it’s not that they’re wrong – I’m well aware that normal people don’t have these kind of hallucinations – but I would rather they got to know the professional side of me first. The functioning side. And now they haven’t. Again.

 

The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’m in control of this situation, after all. This entire room is part of my story, it’s a construct made in my own mind, so in theory I could turn it into anything I like. Surely, if everything here is the product of my will, I could have manifested a scenario in which I walk into the room and you all automatically think I’m amazing? I could have dreamt up people who have been waiting their whole lives to hear public speaking skills like mine. Why would I imagine a situation where people look at me with long faces, or sneakily check their phones while I’m talking, or think I’m crazy just because I sometimes see things that aren’t there?

 

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you look like you’re having a terrible time. Is it just to do with this? Or is it something bigger? If I’ve imagined you, if I’ve made you exist, have I given you an existence that’s that bad? I’ve done that before, and I feel pretty guilty about it. So if I have… If I have then I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what to do about it. The easiest thing, the usual thing, is for me to steer clear of other people. If I can manage my environment, it’s easier to tell when things are real. It limits the possibilities, but not in a bad way. Just in a way that makes life more manageable. Less exhausting.

 

Because that’s what this is. Exhausting. Every time I’ve been in treatment, when I’ve explained the experience of this lovely combination of schizotypal ideas of reference, magical thinking and good old ADD, that’s what my various therapists and head-shrinkers have said. “That must be exhausting.” Every time. And they’re right.

 

They’re right.

 

This is my punishment, my penance, the price I pay for bringing you into existence and making you miserable. The price of inhibited dopamine uptake, deficient serotonin production, of a genetic quirk that triggered an intermittent madness in me. A mind that never stops tormenting me for the real and imagined things I’ve done. A brain I can’t trust, can’t ever turn my back on. A reality in which I can never, ever… rest.

 

And that’s why I’ll always struggle with Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure. For someone like me, with a mind like mine, the management never stops. No amount of recognition or legislation will ever be able to force me to let up on myself. The coping mechanisms have to be constant, otherwise they won’t exist at all.

 

But because of that, I appreciate everything that leaves me with only this battle to fight. The wider the recognition of the right to rest and leisure, the more I feel like I have breathing space. Time to myself, time to hide from the world and focus on quieting the noise in my head. Knowing this to be my right makes me feel better when I see the judgemental faces that my brain conjures up looking at me as if I’m lazy or workshy or seeking attention.

 

Are they judgmental, these faces? Your faces? Are the expressions I see on them real? Are the faces themselves real?

 

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough energy to reach a conclusive answer.

 

All I know is this.

 

I’m tired.

 

And I need to rest.


Thoughts on yesterday’s Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting

Yesterday I went along to the Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting at the City Art Centre. EPAD is a project run by Lucy Mason and Nicholas Bone to bring those involved in Edinburgh’s performing arts together, get them talking to each other and finding practical ways to share resources and match up means and needs.

It feels necessary and very useful. It’s open to anyone within the performing arts in Edinburgh, and so far the attendees have ranged from emerging artists just setting out to established practitioners and people who work for organisations like the Festival Theatre and the Traverse (which is a supporter of the EPAD scheme). It’s a good mix, and a great way to get into a discussion with people who might otherwise have proved tricky to network.

Network. Who actually likes networking? We’re all told how important it is, but how many artists actually consider themselves any good at it? And how many break into a cold sweat at the thought of it? It feels so calculating, deciding that a person is someone you must know and setting out to form a connection with them because it’s politic to do so. Trying to initiate a conversation for networking purposes can be a strained, tongue-tied affair, along the lines of trying to ask someone out but with the added pressure of knowing that you’ll run into this person again and again because it’s a small industry, so you can’t fuck it up. And if you’re in any way anxiety-prone, as many artists are, your attempts will be underscored by that voice in your head saying “This person doesn’t want to talk to you, why are you pestering them? Look at their face, they just want to have a quiet drink and here you are ruining it. Look at how long it’s taken for them to reply to you, they’re trying to find a polite way of asking you never to talk to them again. Leave them alone. Stop inflicting yourself on them. You suck at networking. And theatre. And life.”

What a luxury, then, to have a forum that allows connections to be formed in a less forced, more natural way. Instead of desperately trying to think of something witty and memorable to say, you can focus on the questions asked within the discussion groups. You’re there to talk shop, so you don’t have to worry that it might be boring or inappropriate to talk shop (always a concern out in the wild). There are clear instructions on how to move from group to group to ensure a good mix, so you don’t have to worry that you look like you’re following a particular person around the room. By the time the group discussions end, you’ve got a good idea of who you’d like to talk to and why, and you can start chatting to them about something they said during the discussions rather than relying on the usual “I love your work” intro (because while it’s probably true that you love the work of a person you’re trying to network, it’s such a cliche that it feels dreadful to say). There’s plenty of time left at the end for chats, and the room is spacious enough for the chats to be spread out. It’s a very good set-up, and I’m immensely grateful to Lucy and Nicholas for making it happen and facilitating so well.

During yesterday’s discussions, the two themes that stood out for me were Space and Communication. Edinburgh’s a city with a lot of underused or disused spaces. Many Council properties sit empty, just waiting for someone to come along and suggest a luxury hotel/student flats/superpub development, or to fall into a state of such disrepair that there is no alternative to demolition. Some spaces are used for temporary arts projects – the Market Street arches, for example, have housed a couple of pop-up festivals. Some start out as temporary projects but grow, bit by bit, into permanent (or as permanent as any such project can be) ones like St Margaret’s House. These temporary or not-so-temporary users are given the task of maintaining the building so that it doesn’t become derelict. They might not generate the same level of income for the council as commercial rental would – but if no-one wants or can afford to pay commercial rates for these spaces, surely non-commercial lets are better than disrepair and vandalism?

It’s not only the empty buildings that are worth considering, though. There are plenty of underused spaces within working buildings too. Meeting rooms and function suites that sit empty most of the time – the pub downstairs from me has a meeting room that is seldom used in the evenings, and they let me use it for table reads for no fee. As long as we buy drinks they’re happy, and sometimes they give us free chips. Several of my friends in London have rehearsed in theatre foyers during the day, while the building is staffed but they’re not actually disturbing anyone. Most of the artists I know are not proud about where they prepare their work. All they want is a space, preferably one that isn’t their bedroom or front room, and preferably one that won’t cost them so much that it renders the entire project impossible.

I’ll talk more about why we’re so short of rehearsal spaces in Edinburgh another day, though. The important thing to know is that it was a prevailing concern at yesterday’s meeting. No less important – perhaps even more so – was the issue of communication.

As I’ve said, major Edinburgh venues and companies were present yesterday, and that was fantastic… but there were a couple of notable exceptions. First, the Council. One Arts Officer was present, but looking at the Councillors listed on the minutes from the last Culture & Sport committee meeting, I don’t think any of them were there. They should have been, especially after the Desire Lines process where it was made clear repeatedly that artists need to be able to communicate with the Council directly. Funding EPAD was a good start, but the answer isn’t money. It’s joining the conversation in person.

Second, Creative Scotland. Yes, the organisation exists to serve the whole country, but Edinburgh exists as a part of that country. What happens here affects artists elsewhere in Scotland. Cultural policy and practice in the capital city should be of interest to CS, and they should be seen to engage. The City Art Centre is a few minutes from Waverley Gate. Yes, it was a Saturday, but it was Saturday for everyone. Most of the people in the room, if not all of them, were giving up their time for free, for something they believe in. When asked the question “Who would you most like to have a conversation with?”, most of my group agreed that they would appreciate a chance to speak to Creative Scotland, particularly to Janet Archer. There will be a chance to talk to Creative Scotland at their Open Sessions next month (though whether Janet Archer will be there I don’t know – I will tweet and ask), but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone from the organisation at an EPAD meeting? At something that isn’t organised by Creative Scotland itself? I think it would.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that no-one from either of these organisations had heard about yesterday’s meeting or was free to attend. This is not intended as a slight, but as an expression of hope for the future. They’re people we need in our networks, and I hope they’ll be represented at the next meeting, ready and eager to join the discussions and speak to artists face to face. I’m looking forward to it already.


Over and Out

 I’ve seen this article doing the rounds on social media over the weekend. For the non-clickers in our midst, it’s a piece by Sarah Hepola about binge drinking and the experience of blackouts. She describes the experience of waking up in odd places, not certain how she got there or what she had done the night before. She talks about the panic, fear and confusion the blackouts could cause, and also about the freedom that went with being drunk. It’s an interesting piece to read from my own perspective – someone who doesn’t drink and never has, but who is no stranger to blackouts. So I thought I’d write a post of my own, what with having a blog and all.

People often seem surprised when they realise that I don’t drink. I don’t make a big deal of it, this one blog post excepted. There are two situations in which it tends to come up. The first is when someone is trying to offer me a drink and seems puzzled (or in some rare cases offended) by my request for a soft drink. I’ve met people who thought I was trying to spare them the cost of buying booze, or that they were trying to get me drunk, or who thought I was somehow being shy. In that case I will reassure them that there’s no issue, I just don’t drink. The other situation is when it’s medical. How many units a week? Zero. Yes, zero. No, I don’t drink at all. Yes, I’m sure. It’s surprisingly difficult to convince a GP that you don’t drink – I saw a GP in my teens who actually accused me of being in denial about an incipient alcohol addiction and it must still be in my notes, because I get asked about it to this day.

I’ve also never taken recreational drugs, which seems to surprise people even more. Not even a single experimental puff of a joint. If I can tell you what it’s like to be on opiates or benzos, it’s because they were administered in hospital.

Now, I realise that all of this is probably making me sound like a total fucking goody two shoes. I’m not. While clubs and parties aren’t really my scene, when I do go out I am quite capable of matching my behaviour to the people around me. I’ve had friends try to take my car keys away from me, thinking I was too drunk to drive because I was so giggly and nonsensical. I can disinhibit with the best of them when I want to.

So why, if I’m not completely uptight and joyless, do I not drink? There are two reasons. First, I absolutely fucking loathe the taste of alcohol. I’ve always been willing to try new things in case I someday find something I like, but every time I take a sip I get an overwhelming hit of ethanol and it’s really, really unpleasant. People assure me that this is what it’s like for everyone and the trick is to push through it and get used to it. But I never did, probably because of my second reason, which is this: I am a control freak.

Yes, I know, plenty of control freaks drink. Not this one, though. And this is where the blackouts become key to my story. Imagine the phenomenon described in that article  – finding yourself in a place you don’t remember going, having to piece together your actions based on what people tell you and any physical evidence you may have left, like receipts and the like. Now imagine knowing that this definitely wasn’t the result of drugs or alcohol. There’s nothing you can attribute this to except possible stress.

There you have my experience. These blackouts, or dissociative episodes, or whatever you want to call them, are bloody terrifying. I had a handful during my teens. Mostly they just consisted of lost time when I was at home, or classes that seemed to skip past in minutes. The first time I became aware that something odd was going on was while I was at uni, and in the early stages of my breakdown.

I found out about it one day when I phoned my parents and they were both furious with me. I didn’t know why, but I soon learned that I had called them the night before, quite late. It was an angry, rambling phone call, during which I said things that I would never normally have said to them. They were upset, understandably, and assumed that I had taken something. I hadn’t. I was certain I hadn’t. The last thing I remembered was heading out with some friends, so I checked with them. Sure enough, I had started acting strangely and had run away from them at some point. Someone had seen me in the Students’ Union using the payphones, which must have been when I called home. Apparently I had yelled at some kids for vandalising a bush and chased them down the street. I have no idea what else I did. I have no memory of any of these things. I just woke up the next morning as if nothing had happened.

After my parents died, during that strange, hermit-like era when I was living in their house, I think I had quite a few blackouts. It’s difficult to tell for certain, because I was living alone for much of that time. I’ve always been somewhat reclusive, and apparently I’m quite good at continuing to appear functional during most blackouts. But there was certainly something going on. Things would move and rearrange themselves around the house, odd things like my car keys being deliberately positioned in the middle of the hall floor, or things arranged in specific patterns. I tried not to think too much about it and laughed it off, calling it “my poltergeist”, but it seems considerably more likely that the actions were mine, just unremembered.

There have been other incidents, some of which frightened me badly. The time when I was on sertraline for depression was particularly bad. There are gaps in my memory that I find quite distressing. There would be times when I wouldn’t just find out what I had done second-hand, I would clearly remember having done something, only to find that I hadn’t – I’d lost some time and just filled in the blanks incorrectly. I had to come off the medication and just hope for the best.

Knowing that blackouts happen to me, prompted by nothing more than stress, makes drinking or taking drugs a really frightening prospect for me. I’ve been out of control too often, and I don’t like it. I have to try to get control and maintain it, to identify why they happen and do what I can to prevent them. The idea of doing something that I know could actually bring about a blackout… nope. Absolutely not.

Do I envy the people who can have a drink or a joint and not worry about this stuff? Yes. Bizarre as it may sound, I envy people whose blackouts have a clear-cut, understandable cause, and systems in place to support them as they tackle any problems they have with that cause. I’m still floundering around trying to figure out where this overlaps with PTSD and where it doesn’t and whether there’s some root cause that I’ve blocked out. It’s confusing and frustrating, and exactly the kind of thing that sometimes makes me wish I could reach for something that would help me relax.

I’ve written versions of this post before and never put them up. Talking about this openly makes me nervous. I fear being judged for it, that people will think I’m making it up or exaggerating or that I’m just insane. As ever, I write this in the hope that if there are other people out there experiencing the same things, perhaps at an earlier stage in their journey and wondering if its just them, they might find it and know they’re not alone. And for anyone who wants to judge me, there’s plenty of material here already, so I might as well just do it. When the bridge is already on fire, no sense in worrying about an extra splash of kerosene, right?


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.


A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…


The Tyranny of the Telephone

The internet can be a daunting, even terrifying place, but there are times when I’m incredibly glad to have access to it. In particular, I find it very comforting to be brought into contact with other people who share the same apparently unusual behaviours as me. For a long time I wondered whether I was the only person who was genuinely terrified of the phone. By being open about my hatred of phones online, I discovered that it was a surprisingly common fear – amongst my friends, at least.

Have I always been this way? Yes, for as long as I can remember. It was easier back in the days when I was very small and being taught to answer the phone when it rang. The deal was that I could answer provided I said “Hello, how may I help you?”, answered any direct questions and then handed the phone over to Mum or Dad. At that stage I didn’ t have to worry about actually making the calls. As I got older and was expected to have actual conversations with the people who called, or – worse – to call people myself, the anxiety began to set in.

What am I scared of? Being judged and getting things wrong, mostly. Like the writer of this article – http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2013/08/why-are-you-calling-my-texting-device/ – I don’t always find it easy to hear exactly what people are saying on the phone. I’m very sensitive to background noise, and anything with more bass than a human voice will drown out whoever I’m talking to. I also find that hearing someone’s voice when I can’t see their body language and facial expression is like reading a letter with every third word blanked out. It’s a confusing experience and I find it difficult to trust disembodied voices on the ends of phones. Unless I’m talking to someone I know, really, really well (and sometimes even then), my stupid depressive conviction that everyone hates me tries to get out of control.

However, when I was younger it was easier just to shut my anxieties up and get on with things. I could talk myself through the fear, doing a kind of rudimentary CBT. I still hated it when I called my friends and their family members answered because that interfered with the script in my head, but I could do it without having a meltdown. I was never exactly comfortable with phones, but I could deal with them and even have long conversations with people I knew well. Then, as with so many other fears of mine, the trouble really began when my parents died.

To be absolutely precise, the trouble began when Dad was dying. My mum went quickly from diagnosis to death, and for the couple of weeks that she was in hospital we barely left her. Dad and I would dash home to wash, change clothes, top up our supply of cornflakes and peppermint tea for her and then go back. When Dad got diagnosed he was at a much earlier stage, so the plan was for life to go on as normal until the need for palliative care grew more pressing. A few days after he came home from hospital, he had a stroke and ended up right back there.

When Dad and I arrived at A&E I was warned that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He did. Then I was warned he probably wouldn’t make it through the next 48 hours. He did. I snatched a few hours’ of sleep in some unoccupied doctors’ quarters but didn’t dare go further away than that. After day three, the doctors encouraged me to go home, get some sleep, spend a bit of time outside the hospital. After I’d been home for some sleep and a shower, I went shopping. Specifically, I went looking for the kind of yoghurts my dad liked. As I pulled into the driveway, my aunt came and told me that the hospital had phoned and it was that “come at once” call. I went tearing across the city, terrified that I might be too late.

I wasn’t. Dad would survive for another four months, but throughout that time he would not only be dying of cancer, he would be at risk of a secondary stroke which would probably kill him. Since he was partly paralysed and I couldn’t handle caring for him on my own at home, he was transferred to the hospice. I practically lived at the hospice until he died, but I still had to go home for showers, changes of clothes and occasional time off and nights in a bed rather than a chair. My home phone and mobile numbers were written in large letters on a pinboard in my dad’s room and I have never been more diligent about keeping my phone charged. Every time I left the hospice I was just waiting for my phone to ring, dreading that it would be the call telling me to come back because we were at the end – or worse, the call telling me that I could take my time because it was too late.

As it happened, my dad never had another stroke. In fact, he made an incredibly impressive recovery from the first stroke. It was truly galling to watch him battling to regain his vocabulary, his diction, use of his right hand, while at the same time watching him wasting away as the cancer took hold. (He even got as far as being able to recall most people’s names accurately, though he always confused mine and Mum’s. That was painful.) He died slowly, his body shutting down bit by bit, and I was with him throughout it. But even though I never got that call telling me he’d had a second stroke, the fear of it never left me. I learned to associate ringing phones with bad news, and that’s why my mobile lives on silent.

After Dad died I was subjected to harassing phone calls on the house phone for some considerable time. That didn’t really help with the phone fears. Upwards of five times a day, any time from morning until the small hours, a particular member of my family would call and leave long, rambling, often threatening messages on my answering machine. (In retrospect I should have reported it to the police, but it’s amazing what you don’t do when you’re newly orphaned and made promises to your parents. Or I should have changed my number, but I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be in that house for much longer and I would change my number when I moved. To change my number would have been an admission that I wasn’t getting out my dead parents’ house any time soon.)

So, none of these things really helped me to deal with the existing fear of phones. I have mad CBT skills, but it’s an inadequate weapon against this particular demon. When my phone rings I am convinced of the following things:

1) Someone I love is dead/dying.

2) Failing that, someone I love now hates me.

3) Failing that, I am in some kind of massive trouble with someone over something.

4) Failing all of those, the person who used to leave those message has found me again. (This one is why I NEVER answer calls from numbers I don’t know or withheld numbers. EVER. My job makes it necessary for me to have my contact details available, which means that occasional calls from unknown numbers are inevitable, but that’s why I have voicemail. If a client leaves me a voicemail I expect that they’ll leave their name and ask me to call them back. If a friend leaves me a voicemail I expect it to be an emergency, because they all know everything I’ve written in this post and that I don’t appreciate being put through the phone fear unless something is wrong. Friends who want to chat to me know to text me first so I’m expecting their call. People who call from an unknown number and don’t leave a voicemail… I HATE THEM ALL. When that happens, I get those joyful feelings of “they’ve found me, it’s all going to start again, how much do they know, have they found where I live, am I going to have to change my number/move/call the police”. And this goes on for ages, just because some people won’t leave a fucking message. Thanks! Thank you so much! I love reliving traumatic experiences just because it’s too much work to say “This is X, I’m calling about Y, please call me back.” If it’s important enough to warrant a phone call, it’s important enough to leave a message. If it’s not important enough to leave a message, why are you calling me in the first place?)

This is why I love email. And Facebook. And Twitter. And video calling on Skype. And blogging. And texting. And pretty much anything else that means I can communicate with people without phone calls. Nothing beats a face to face conversation, of course, but if that’s not an option I’d rather use pretty much any means of communication rather than the phone.

There’s more to explore here, so I will revisit this subject at some point – as always, I’ve written until I couldn’t write any more and need to step away from this topic for a bit. The external influences on my fear are pretty clear, but it would be easy to get stuck on them and not look at the root causes. There are issues here concerning control, feeling unable to communicate with people, feeling that people are incredibly difficult to understand but that I have to keep trying and trying to do so. All the things that pushed me towards theatre, essentially. Though, sadly, I don’t think that “don’t phone me, just write me a play and I’ll write you one back” will ever catch on.


Pre-Creepie Stool thoughts on strength and complexity

Creepie Stool opens tonight. My plans to attend a rehearsal were scuppered by hospital time (no Fringe flu for me, this year I went for full-on gastroenteritis and getting pumped full of IV fluids instead). Consequently, tonight’s performance will be almost entirely new to me. (I say almost because I’m still expecting to recognise the odd line here and there, but you never know, I suppose…)

Anyway, just in time for the opening of my play, this article starts doing the rounds on social media: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Can’t be bothered clicking? It’s Sophia McDougall writing about the trope, primarily found in film but also prevalent in theatre, of the Strong Female Character. She dislikes Strong Female Characters because they are so seldom proper, rounded characters. Instead they are the same old weak, male-dependent figures except they also kick people (usually men) in the face. They still don’t get to have, y’know, personalities.

There are plenty of comments from people who think it’s not a problem because they can name a few female characters who are rounded, human and well-written. Many of them cite characters who are actually none of these things, but even if they were, the fact remains that we need more. There’s still a huge imbalance between male and female protagonists. We’re still defining particular films and shows and plays as being “for women”. It’s still tough for a female actor over 30 to find meaty roles.

I’ll admit that I had all of these things in mind when I wrote Creepie Stool. I had agreed that it would be a three-hander for a female cast before I had even chosen the subject matter, and both of those decisions were purely pragmatic. There was enough money in the budget to pay three actors. Women are more plentiful than men in the industry. On a personal level, I like to write roles with specific actors in mind and I know several excellent actors who happen to be both female and over 30. Writing for a particular actor can be an incredibly useful starting point, because then I can take that person’s qualities and think about what conflicts and secrets and challenges they could have… Basically, I sit down and think “how can I give this person a hard time?”

None of the characters in Creepie Stool are intended to be representative of all women, or of a particular section of society, or to be role models or good examples of any kind. I wanted them to be messy, fearful, just trying to get through life without everything collapsing around them. None of them is in a particularly great place – Jenny sees herself as a matriarch but she’s beholden to her son and to a daughter-in-law whom she protects and resents in equal measure, Marjory has married somewhat above her station and lives in fear of disappointing her exacting husband and/or her family, Christian has reached an age where she needs to get married or wind up a spinster with no security, and her choice of husband is severely limited by the secrets she carries around (one of which is never explicitly mentioned, and I wonder how many people will even notice it). They’re all aware that they have to keep other people happy if they want to have a roof over their heads. They’ve all got things they have to hide and public faces they have to show if they want to survive. They have things they love and want to protect, things they fear losing, things they’re proud of, things that upset them, things that interest them. Jenny has monologues because there are things she will only tell the audience, not the other characters in her world. Marjory doesn’t, because it would be bad manners to monopolise the conversation that way. Christian doesn’t, because there are things that are too private even for a soliloquy. Some things you don’t even tell the audience.

I hope, I desperately hope, that some of this will come across in the writing. More than anything else, I want people who see this play to find the characters believable. If I can go to bed tonight feeling that I wrote three layered, complex characters, I’ll be happy. They’re not “Strong”. None of them knows kung fu (that I’m aware of). The world they live in removes much of their agency. They all have to take a certain amount of shit from other people because, well, who doesn’t? They’re quite capable of being paralysed with fear and indecision, but no-one is coming to save them.

And they’re all on the poster.

 

Debbie Cannon as Marjory, Angela Milton as Jenny, Belle Jones as Christian