At the end of Wild Conference on Friday, I went for a run around Temple Newsam woods, and while I was out some good funding news landed. I’ve written a bit over the past few months about feeling like it’s been tougher than usual this year, but still, I was astonished by the sense of relief. I could have wept.
Relief is a huge part of our industry, which is constructed around gradually mounting pressure to an extent that is so obviously unhealthy I hardly need talk about it. A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks with agonising toothache, at one point so bad that I had to pull over at the side of the road because I couldn’t drive safely for the pain. Having a woman pull it out with a pair of pliers was a horrendous experience, but I have never felt such a rush of relief. I walked out of the dentists and astonished myself by bursting into tears. I had to have a sit down. After I’d recovered I thought, this feeling is what I used to get at the end of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Wild Conference itself was a relief, too. There's so much that's unhealthy about the way our industry is structured, and a big part of that is the way we talk to each other. Yet here were 500 people in a field, cooking lunch together and talking about the things that mattered in a way that was healthy and constructive. Be kind. Be useful. It's a relief to think that there is at least 500 people's worth of good faith in our industry.
Lots of people have been posting their self-care tips ahead of the Edinburgh Fringe next month. (Victoria Firth’s are good) But they all add up to one key thing: do everything you can to avoid letting the pressure build to the extent that having a tooth pulled would be an improvement. Catch yourself before you start repeatedly hitting refresh on the Scotsman website. This is not a good mental place to be.
I’m not going to add to the tsunami of advice for your self-care routine during your run on the Fringe. Instead I’m going to play to form and talk about running. The main thing that stopped me from mentally disintegrating when I was last at the Festival (Instructions for Border Crossing, 2017) as compared to the time before (Going Viral, 2015) had nothing to do with whether the show was going well. It was running. I know that doctors often patronise people with mental illness by suggesting they go for a run, and I know very well that it’s not as simple as that. BUT. Getting out of the melee and into the green, at whatever speed, is vital to reminding you there’s a world out there. You don’t have to watch every show. The Royal Dick will not miss you for an hour. You cannot affect your show's success every minute of every day.
Most of the people you know will be spotted running round and round The Meadows like hyperventilating goldfish. This is fine, especially if you’re doing some interval work, and I’m sure you’ll catch me at it at some point. But lots of people decide that in the free time they imagine having during the festival, they’ll take up running, and going round and round the Meadows is the perfect way to get bored out of this resolution. So here are a few more diverting possibilities.
There are loads of routes around Holyrood Park. The views are way better than the meadows and a full loop is only about five miles, so most days you’ll only need to go round once. If you fancy a bit of hill work, also in Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. Arthur’s Seat is like a motorway during the Festival, so I’d suggest you mostly stick to the Crags. The panoramic views out to sea and across Edinburgh to the Pentlands are stunning, and give you a chance to get your breath back. And unlike Arthur’s Seat there’s a nice longish ridge line that’s lovely and runnable. Do Arthur’s Seat once though; it is a great workout.
For a slightly longer run, carry on through Holyrood Park along Duddingston Road down to the sea at Portobello. Then turn right and run along the coast for a couple of miles before turning right again at the Booker Wholesale warehouse to run back into town along Brunstane Burn. The whole loop is about fourteen miles and most of it is off-road.
Whether in whole or in part, check out the route of the Seven Hills of Edinburgh. All seven hills – Calton Hill, Castle Hill, Corstorphine Hill, Craiglockart Hill, Braid Hill, Blackford Hill and Arthur’s Seat – provide fantastic views of the city, and even the most adventurous of Festival goers has rarely been up as many as three of them. But they’re all easy to reach from wherever you are, and they’re all set in pockets of green space that I'll be exploring a lot more this Festival. Two years ago I was lucky enough to be taken round the whole loop by David Greig. I won’t remember his route exactly and will make some poor choices on the way, but I would very much like to pass on this gift to someone else. Let me know if that's you.
Finally, just outside Edinburgh, bigger and more imposing than anything in the city itself, are the Pentland Hills. You can get to the foothills via public transport, or indeed on foot: Hillend is only about five miles from the meadows. Once you’re there, you might just fancy getting up one peak. But I’m in training for a big race at the end of August, so my last long run during the Festival will be the route of the Pentland Skyline race. It’s about sixteen miles, with over 6000 feet of ascent, plus the round trip. Let me know if you want in.
I’d be very surprised if anyone accepted that last invitation. But if anyone wants to join me for a morning shakeout during the Festival, let me know. Wednesday is long run day for me, but apart from that, I’ll mostly be doing a gentle 5-7 miles each morning, with maybe one harder session on Saturday or Sunday. Company is very welcome, especially if it gets you running somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise have explored, and even more so if it helps release a bit of the pressure.
Race Report: Lakeland Trails 55K
Saturday 29 June
The numbers on my watch no longer make sense. I can’t be doing 34-minute-mile pace; this bit’s downhill. But nor can I be doing 7:30 pace. It’s a long time since my legs felt fresh enough for that. Then my scrambled brain puts this in some sort of order: I’m not doing a 34-minute mile: I’ve run 34 miles. I’m not doing a 7:30 mile: I’ve been running for seven and a half hours. Numbers on this scale are so unfamiliar that I can’t make sense of them.
The good news is that 34 miles means the finish can’t be far. This is a 55km race, which is just over 34 miles, so the finish can’t be far. It definitely can’t be far. Except it doesn’t feel like we’re coming into Ambleside yet.
I’ve slowed down substantially by this point, but I’m still going. At the half marathon distance I noticed that I was starting to feel tired; at the marathon distance I didn’t notice anything apart from my legs and the heat. My run by now was a shuffle. Even the slightest uphill was a walk. But here’s a dirty secret. On the uphills, most ultra-runners “power-hike”. This is a euphemism, and it means “walk”. So although I’ve slowed down, so has everyone else.
Success in marathons comes to people who sustain their speed, or perhaps even get slightly faster as the race goes on. Success in ultras comes to those who slow down the least. Given how much I’d slowed down, how battered I felt, I was amazed every time I passed someone, but it still kept happening. During the whole second half of the race, only three people passed me, and I took two of them back again soon afterwards. I kept drawing level with people expecting them to pull away, only to find I was leaving them behind.
For the first ten or twelve miles plenty of people had been passing me on the uphills and I let them go. I was trying to take it really conservatively. Trying, but not entirely succeeding: on the downhills I was taking them all back, plus a couple more, because what’s the fun of a race like this if you can’t enjoy the downhills? A little voice in my head occasionally told me that I’d regret blowing my quads to pieces by blazing all the downhills. I let that slow me down a touch, maybe, but if you brake too hard it just makes the quads do more work. This is my first ultra. Might as well have a spectacular detonation and see what that’s like. It’s all experience.
But despite slowing down, that detonation never came. One of the remarkable things about this experience was that, however hard it was, and it was hard, it never occurred to me to doubt that I’d get round. At one point I remembered Hayley Carruthers at the London Marathon earlier this year, collapsing as she crossed the finish line and coming round an hour or so later uncertain of whether she’d finished (she did). That’s going to be me, I thought, as I felt myself get woozier and wobblier. The heat was the worst part. Last Saturday was the hottest day of the year so far, with the kind of humidity where you can’t tell where your sweat stops and the air begins. Whenever we crossed a stream or passed a tarn I would fill my hat with water and put it back on my head. The bliss lasted at most thirty seconds before I started to bake again. But it never got grim enough for me to doubt I’d at least make the finish before keeling over.
But the thing with a race being a different length to advertised is that you don’t know when the finish line will come. Maybe it will be just around the next bend. Maybe it will be another five miles. OK. Make your peace with that. So when I turned the corner and saw the finish funnel, I had a strange mixture of delight and disappointment. Disappointment because although I have no desire to collapse over the line, I want to know what it’s like to push through the sense that it’s impossible to continue. But I could have kept going. If this was about finding my limits, I hadn’t quite done that. I went from “I can barely take another step” to “my big race at the end of August is only another eight miles: EASY” before I’d even crossed the line.
The delight took precedence though. At the end of my last marathon, about twenty people crossed the line around the same time, some charging, some shuffling, all running their separate individual races. The finish was lined with people cheering seemingly at random. It didn’t make any sense, and crossing the line wasn’t a particularly satisfying feeling. On Saturday, during the course of seven and a half hours, the field was sufficiently spread out that there were no other runners within a couple of minutes. So the cheers at the finish were all mine and it is definitely the best feeling I’ve ever had at the end of a race, however well I’ve run. The announcer on the PA: “runner 635 coming down the final straight now, Daniel Bye from Lancaster, with a huge smile on his face…”
Some of that was relief. I’ve done it. The tooth is out. And again, I could have cried. As I came round that last bend, running with a bit of purpose now, a woman joked that I was going to win the race. I guessed I was about 50th, pretty respectable but I’d certainly had to work for it. Two days later I learned I was 23rd, out of about 360 finishers. I’d had no idea I was so far up the field.
I had a couple of hours astonished delight before I learned my result from the Clougha Pike fell race the weekend before: 48th out of about 170. The field in a fell race is much tougher. Fell running is more challenging physically and mentally. My astonished delight is now long gone as I contemplate this weekend’s race. Though shorter, this will be much, much harder than last weekend’s race. The terrain is way rougher. And steeper: despite being 14 miles shorter there’s an extra 3000 feet of climbing. That’s roughly the height of Scafell Pike, which funnily enough the race goes over about two miles from the end. And of course, being a fell race, you have to navigate your own way around. I did a recce of some of the course two days ago: visibility was appalling and although I was never lost, at no point was I on the best line, or even a good line. My strava track looks as though I must have been drunk and if visibility isn’t a little better on Saturday I’ll go from 23/360 to DNF. I’m obsessively checking the weather forecast for Wasdale, and reminding myself of dark places I’ve been in during Edinburgh Festivals passim.
Relief comes, I think, not just when a physical threat has passed, but when a threat to your sense of self has passed. Good reviews are causes not for celebration but relief: the world, or the bit of it that I’m giving prominence today, continues to endorse my sense of myself as someone who is capable of doing this job for a living. Crossing a finish line is a physical relief because it’s over, but much more of a mental relief as the runner is able to sustain a sense of themselves as someone who can struggle through this endurance challenge. For some that’s a parkrun, for some it’s 100 miles, but the feeling is the same. Contemplating Wasdale this weekend, for the first time ever before a race, I find myself genuinely afraid that I may not be able to do it.
This is exactly where I should be, just as it was right to keep submitting applications over the past few months despite a not-that-unusual-actually run of ill luck. Because not only did that funding come in on Friday, but another bit of good news landed yesterday for the same project. And while I was trying to take that screen grab, another, on a different project. From not knowing if I could afford to leave the house this autumn, my dance card is now full. The relief!
Exhibition of the week: It's actually a few weeks ago now that we went to Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal. But I didn't get round to writing about it at the time and it’s absolutely the best small gallery I’ve been to in years. We went in the last week of the Refuge: The Art of Belonging exhibition, which unfortunately you've now missed. It gathered work by artists who’d fled Nazi Germany for Britain, perhaps most notably Kurt Schwitters and Lucian Freud. As well as being a display of some fantastic portrait and landscape painting, its curation gently but insistently returned to the theme of what cultural riches refugees have brought to Britain. I may have misremembered this, but I think the B-word may even have been mentioned in some of the interpretation. They were careful not to draw direct parallels between contemporary Britain and 1930s Germany, but they did just enough to say: BE CAREFUL.
There are riches elsewhere in the museum too. At first sight I wasn’t particularly taken by any of the room full of George Romney portraits, and but for their brilliant curation I’d have left thinking little of them. But the curation tells a story of Romney’s determination to paint grand landscapes and his need, as a working-class artist, to keep painting commercial portraits to feed himself and his family. He came back home to Kendal and died in poverty, having never achieved his ambition. And what could just be a room full of decent but unremarkable portraits becomes a story about art and the class system, and about a tragic life in the face of that. It becomes a provocation to now. And then you go round and look at the portraits again, knowing that he did one every day with all this pressure telling on every corner of his life, and they appear so much more.
On the way out I spotted a small exhibition by a local artist, no more than ten photographs or collages. by the entrance. The images show young people dressed in clothes with a binary-splintering array of gender significations; clothes also designed by the artist. The images are intense, sharp and vibrant, and they put your pigeonholes in a cocktail shaker and get you drunk on the results. Frustratingly, despite every search term combination I can think of, I can't find the artist's name. I've emailed the gallery and will post here when I get a reply.
Meanwhile, for kids, there were smocks and berets to dress up in. Dot wandered happily around the Refuge exhibition pointing out her favourite things while dressed in a red beret. She’s decided she likes museums.
Small town museums get a bad rep and “local” is often code for “ropey”. This absolutely smashes all that to pieces; it’s a genuinely brilliant little museum. It’s easy to get a bunch of Turners, or a bunch of anything else, and just say, here you go, here’s a load of good pictures. It’s much harder to use those pictures to tell a story about the artist, their world, or the world we live in now. This museum consistently manages to do all three and I can't wait to get back in a couple of weeks for the next exhibition.
SPORTS REPORT: As I write Australia are 37/3. Only a mug would bet against England winning the world cup from here, which is a truly terrible thing to say out loud.
Fringe Tip of the Week: Drone by Harry Josephine Giles. I saw an earlier version of this two or possibly even four years ago and I still think about it. It’s an extraordinary spoken-word text in which the two meanings of the word drone – the remote bombing device and the anonymous office worker – are smashed together and danced between. As well as playing with the meaning of war in the age of phone bank capitalism, it also gloriously dissolves various binaries of gender into a thick soup. And since I saw it Harry has started singing in a punk band, which has got to lend an extra something to their performance.
Job Update: I mentioned last time that I'd put my money where my mouth is and applied for a job in a theatre building. They invited me for an interview and I did a lot of prep. I was ready, and excited by the possibilities of the position. Then the day before the interview the board stepped in to put the recruitment process on hold. I'm not going to say too much about this, because I have some confidences to honour, but it was another factor in my ongoing feeling that I was banging my head against the dead end of a series of blind alleys. Am I done in this industry? Was that it? Do I have any other skills?
The day that would have been the interview was the same day I went for that run round Temple Newsam. I don't believe in karma, but I definitely felt I was due a break.
Read of the Week: as a sort of Harry Josephine Giles bonus, please read this fantastic essay on their blog, Access Means It’s Not For You. It’s wide-ranging and laser-focused and it’s absolutely full of insight and challenge. I particularly love the analysis, drawn from the work of Sarah Ahmed, of the “non-performative access policy” - a piece of language whose purpose in existing is to do the opposite of what it says.
It reminds me of the ongoing tendency, in the world of theatre to having open meetings on this subject or that subject, or urgent and wide-ranging conversations. I went to a (brilliant) one of these a few weeks ago at which a few courses of action were suggested. The convenor of the session suggested that the next stage was to get some people together to talk more about these courses of action. How about you just do one, I said. Pick one, and do it. It might not work, but then you’ll have something to talk about other than talk. Then you can try a different one. As almost all writers know, a meeting is not action. “The policy makes nothing happen, and sometimes by making a policy, you deliberately stop things from happening.” I’m not, by the way, having a go at the people who convened that (brilliant) meeting. The commitment to talk over action is just so deeply baked in that good people mistake the former for the latter. Get me, writing this on my blog, as if it’s action.
To come back to where we started, Wild Conference felt like a healthy shift in this. The talk felt meaningful. It was making things happen. It was performative.
(The word "performative" has shifted in meaning in popular usage, and this makes me a bit sad. I like that language evolves but sometimes the evolution leaves a gap. "Performative" is now more often used to describe an insincere speech act than one that makes something happen, as in the section above. If this is the way the language goes then so be it, but we'll need a new word that means what performative used to mean. See also "reticent" and "mindful".)
Writing Report. Last week was all about structure. Arranging and re-arranging the post-it notes. By the end of the working week I was far from sure I'd got anywhere. The pressure was building, and as often happens at this point in the process, I started to feel that sense of looming dread. Maybe there's no show here after all. Then Sarah brought in a massive new possibility and I re-arranged the post-it notes around that. Did another work-in-progress on Sunday. The work has progressed. The relief!
Are you coming to Edinburgh for the festival? Do you have experience looking after children? Would you like to earn £1000?
Due to making this show not only my co-star but the whole family will be living in Edinburgh 30 July - 25 August. That includes his mother, who needs to work, and his sister, Dot, aged nearly 3, who needs to play.
We need about 100 hours of someone’s time during the month of August: playing with Dot, taking her to playgrounds, museums and out for picnics. She is super fun and WLTM same.
We need 9-12 or 9.30-12.30 every day except Sunday. As well as these key three hours in the morning, we'd also like another approximately 30 hours of afternoons, spread through the Festival at whatever times most suit everyone's show schedules.
We would like if possible to find someone who can do the full period: however if you could only help us for one or more weeks of that time, or if you can do every day except Tuesdays, or whatever, get in touch. It doesn't have to be the same person for the whole Festival; it just needs to be the right people.
We will pay you £10 an hour.
Please send an email here explaining your experience of childcare / playing with 2-3 year olds, when you’d be available, and anything else you think is relevant. Deadline 9am Friday 19th July.
Please only apply if you have truly considered the idea of getting up in time to get to Marchmont for 9.30am whilst doing whatever else it is you’re doing at the Festival. We don’t want to add to anyone’s Edinburgh burnout! Hoping this might instead be useful to a young artist.
We’ll arrange Skype or in person chats with shortlisted people - but we’ll get back to everyone.
Having led last week on “artists aren’t snowflakes”, I had a meltdown yesterday in the face of an application form. I don’t believe in karma, and I don’t believe the gods punish hubris, but I do think this was inevitable sooner or later. Constantly putting yourself out there to be judged eventually always turns into judging yourself. Perhaps one reason I enjoy working on other artists’ applications is that I can exercise this skillset without consequences for my self-esteem.
And some forms really are nastier than others. The questions seem to be asked with narrowed eyes. They all seem designed to imply the real question: “you’re a fraud, aren’t you?” Once that question’s in the room, it’s hard not to answer “yes, yes I am, please don’t tell anyone”. I’ve become immune to it through high exposure, but Grantium definitely has this effect.
Artists directly involved in these recruitment or commissioning processes isn’t the only way to avoid this effect. Humans would do. But it’s certainly easier to make a process empathetic if you’ve been on the other end of it.
All of which is by way of introduction to saying that last week’s blogpost got lots of responses. I’ve done a bit of a round-up of them below.
I had a terrific week last week making a deep dive into Arthur, the Edinburgh show. At the end of it I did a work-in-progress presentation, maybe half-expecting to come out of it thinking, yep, pretty much nailed that. All I need to do before the festival starts is learn the words.
Not a chance. There’s still a huge amount to do. And the ways in which the challenge is unfolding itself are fascinating.
The living room setting, so fundamental to a show about the meeting point between genetics and the domestic environment, also ruthlessly exposes particular kinds of writing. Usually in my shows I’m able to make unvarnished statements of my own opinion, by arranging them as a series of jokes, or gathering them into a space created by story. I’ve never bought the standard opinion that you can’t get away with saying what you really think; the problem is much more often that it’s done badly than that it’s done at all. But in this show, the space for that kind of writing is radically reduced. Likewise the sudden deep dive into emotional self-exposure, the sudden shedding of a layer of skin, something I did a lot in Going Viral, for example, easily feels icky here. Basically, it seems rude. It's like when you meet someone at a party and after nineteen seconds of small talk they break into a lecture on their thesis subject or their relationship breakdown.
But we’ve all been at parties where people have earned our trust enough to embark on that conversation. The advantage of the living room setting is that it facilitates a lightness that I hope characterises all my work. Participation is much easier to navigate. There’s a genuine conversational feel, and it is often a genuine conversation. The corresponding challenge is that the lightness is so baked into the performative context that it’s harder to introduce weight.
The show, for those who've missed the announcement, is performed by me and my baby son in the living room of whoever books it. It's about genetics, class and inheritance: the things that make you you. For better and for worse. For richer and for poorer. The baby in a living room seemed an elegant way of bringing into play the interaction between genetics and the domestic environment. It's the nature-nurture debate in show form. Except of course nature-nurture isn't really a debate: almost everyone instinctively agrees that it's a bit of both; it's nature via nurture. So the show embarks on a journey through some of the current science, which is by turns surprising, alarming and challenging to some of those instincts. In some ways you have way less control than you think you do: the fact of being you is in some ways utterly inescapable. But in others, you have far more control than you think, perhaps even more than you'd like. Combine this with some really astonishing stories of child development, twin-snapping and dog-cloning, and you have loads of ingredients for a really fascinating, provocative and enjoyable hour.
Anyway, the work-in-progress was incredibly valuable, because it finally revealed for me the spaces in the show where the lightness can let the weight in. Fascinating, provocative and enjoyable are brilliant adjectives, but there's an emotional one still missing, and now I know how to fill the gap.
It was the Clougha Pike fell race on Saturday, and with a trail ultramarathon coming up this Saturday, I planned to take it nice and easy. No point getting injured, and I’ve done nothing of even close to high intensity since before my ankle injury in March. Then the gun fired and off I went, racing as hard as permitted by my shaky fitness and the blazing heat of the afternoon.
It’s a glorious route, with loads of different kinds of terrain: firm grass, rough bog, bouldery scrambles and even the occasional earthen trail. After the initial melee, a group of about six of us were trading places all the way to the summit. I was desperately thirsty in the heat, and pathetically grateful whenever the terrain briefly evened out enough to pick up a bit of speed: moving faster produces a breeze. But it also elevates your heart rate. I don’t know if I’ve ever been hotter and I was playing chicken with collapse through overheating. By the top I was still in this group of five or six, but I was at the back of it. The woman just in front of me had the exact same shoes as me and they were weirdly hypnotic.
Then we passed the summit and it was possible to cool off without keeling over. It’s really rough ground most of the way down, but there are still opportunities to pick up speed. By halfway down I was at the front of our little group; by two-thirds I’d broken away and by the time I put on an extra burst for the final downhill to the finish I couldn’t see any of them. I’d never thought of descending as a particular strength of mine, but it might be a relative strength when I haven’t the lungs for climbing.
I don’t know where I placed overall as they still haven’t published the results, but I’d guess I was about 30thout of 150. Not a spectacular result but given my total lack of appropriate training I was delighted. I thought it might take me an hour; I finished in just over fifty minutes.
Since coming back from injury I’ve passed the pain around both legs and although you wouldn’t say I’m re-injured, I’m yet to have a single comfortable run since March. The current niggle is a slight pull in the middle hamstring on my left leg, which has nagged quietly for just over a week. On Saturday this little niggle made me wonder whether maybe I shouldn’t run, and was another good reason why if I ran, I shouldn’t race. I started towards the back of the pack to keep myself sensible. By thirty seconds in I’d forgotten about it and I spent the first half-mile or so moving gradually up the field. Half an hour after the race, there it was again, where it’s been ever since. I went to the physio this morning and I’m hoping the battering I sustained at his hands means it’ll ease up before Saturday’s race.
55 kilometres will leave nothing unexamined. Again, I’m planning to take it very easy, and it should be a little easier to reign myself in over this sort of distance. Slow and steady wins the race. Except in this case it won’t be slow and steady, it will be Damian Hall. Last year he won this event by a clear 35 minutes, a few weeks before going on to place fifth at UTMB. While I was racing Clougha Pike this weekend he was in the process of setting a new record on the Paddy Buckley Round, a 70-ish mile course over about thirty Welsh mountains. He’ll still win on Saturday by another huge margin. If I finish within two and a half hours of him I’ll be over the moon.
Then they came for the left-wing playwrights and I did not speak up, even though this was quite obviously the thickening end of a fucking massive wedge.
The establishment rallying around Boris Johnson this week has been quite the sight to behold, and in this case it has involved them ripping to shreds the integrity of people whose integrity surpasses that of almost anyone I know. What Would Eve Leigh Do strikes me as a decent moral barometer for quite a range of questions.* This savaging has also involved the right-wing press shredding plenty of their own previously-stated values, because the principle of free speech is all very well unless it’s used to attack one of their own. Then you must be silenced, and silenced forcibly. Your right to write plays critical of establishment positions will be called into question. Your support of progressive causes will be used to undermine you. Your past will be raked through, exaggerated, distorted, and lied about. The trigger-phrase “left-wing playwright”, used to set loose the attack dogs, should be terrifying to anyone who knows anything about the early 1930s.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, next we got Boris’s bus story. I’ve been enjoying the number of people who interpret this ludicrous episode as part of a Machiavellian plot, a "distraction tactic". It seems to me quite clear that Boris has no strategy, no plot, and that he really is that loose of a cannon, that casual of a liar. As observers of Trump can confirm, this doesn’t make him any less terrifying.
And it’s not as though Hunt would be any better: the fact that he’s mostly, I think, honest about the damage he wishes to inflict doesn’t make him any less damaging. But it’ll be Boris, god help us all. Domestic abusing, serial philandering, pathological lying, lazy, inattentive to detail, perennially prone to huge blunders, ferociously racist, dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, conspiracy-to-assaulting Boris. His tendency to lie in relation to buses may be the most charming thing about him. Maybe it is a distraction. I still don’t think it’s a tactic.
I’d like to finish with some of my responses to the many responses to last week’s blogpost. It's a massive subject and any one of these brief notes could form the basis of a whole other essay I don't have time to write. So instead there's this:
- No, there’s absolutely no guarantee that artists would treat their staff any better than anyone else does. Some artists are massive arseholes who shouldn’t be put in charge of anything. I don’t want to suggest that more direct involvement from artists in the running of institutions would be a magical fix-all for the entire system and culture in which we operate.
- Producers are mostly brilliant and creative people. Curation is a creative role, and in the post I name several individuals among many who do brilliant and important work with and for artists. I do not want to drive a wedge between producers and artists. That is literally the opposite of what I want. I want to remove that wedge. As well as wanting more artists in positions of responsibility, influence and leadership, I'd like more ways for producers and administrators to be creative.
- I’m under no illusions about how hard it is to run an institution, and how possible it is for this to bring you into conflict with your values as an artist. There are plenty of examples of artists getting consumed by the system, and merrily fucking people over just as they themselves were previously fucked. There are plenty more examples of artists spitting themselves out of that system bruised and nearly broken, with little or no change effected. I’m grateful to these artists for the visible efforts they made and in most cases they made more difference than they realise. Several said they wouldn’t do it again. That’s ok. Thank you for what you’ve done. It’s someone else’s turn.
- Yes, it is important that artists are more represented at board level of arts organisations. It is equally important that more people who work in the arts in any capacity are represented at board level of arts organisations. I’m honestly astonished by how many theatre boards have literally no one on them who knows anything about how theatres are run, or really anything at all about the industry. (There’s one example very close to my heart that makes my blood boil, and I’d happily name and shame if there wouldn’t be substantial collateral damage to people I hold dear.)
- Collective and cooperative management structures and more balanced remuneration structures would, likewise, be a bloody good start.
- A lot of people think artists should start their own spaces, not just get jobs in existing ones. Yes, that would be great. But the power and the money are in the existing ones. I repeat my call for an insurgency.
- Plenty of people in administrative roles in many organisations are (or were) practising artists but the current structures require them to leave that at the door. I’ll be told I’m being naively dreamy here, given huge pressure on capacity, but what about a half-day a week, like google?
- No, having the ability to navigate an excel spreadsheet is absolutely no benchmark for leadership.
- If you've read this far, your reward is to be told that I put my money where my mouth is and applied for a Programmer job in a theatre I admire. Watch this space.
Book of the week: Landskipping by Anna Pavord, a personal cultural history of our relationship with the idea of landscape. Lightness and weight.
TV of the week: It’s still the cricket world cup, where Eoin Morgan’s “pressure off” captaincy is surely going to have to admit that the pressure is on. The spectacle of England pretending to be relaxed has been deeply weird. They were never relaxed before. They were intense and brutal. You don’t take the heat off by pretending there’s no heat. That leads to the sort of lackadaisical fielding we've seen more often in the last three weeks than in the last three years. You take the heat off by admitting there's heat, and loving it. The last week or so feels like a rare mis-step by the England captain, despite his extraordinary flat-track-bullying of Afghanistan.
All that said, it seems harsh to blame Morgan for anything after the extraordinary work he’s done over the past four years. The real problem here is that James Vince is to Jason Roy as a beautiful painting is to the wild sea.
Edinburgh Fringe tip of the week: I spent last weekend doing a couple of days work with The Roaring Girls, your favourite theatre company that you’ve only heard of if you’re from Hull. Their show Beach Body Ready takes on body image culture, and it’s very funny, very frank, and at times blisteringly furious. Those are my favourite bits, but the whole show is super. It’s at the Pleasance.
* This piece is worth going back to again and again
The organisational orthodoxies are rapidly changing in our industry, and they’re doing so with very little strategy, so among other things in this short messy essay I’m going to arrogantly propose one, because fuck it, why shouldn't it be up to me.
An increasing number of venues are moving away from being artist-led. And let me start by saying that I don’t think a venue being run by a non-artist in itself means there’s a problem. Fifteen years or so ago there was a wave of this in Scotland in response to the brilliant job done by Neil Murray at the helm of the Tron: the model became tenable because Neil demonstrated it could work. Around the same time an increasing number of theatres across the UK gradually moved away from a sole leadership role where the Artistic Director was also Chief Executive, to either a joint leadership role, where there were two separate figures with hierarchical parity, or a model where the AD sat underneath the Chief Exec. This all became tenable in the face of mostly pragmatic considerations and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this either, but it's now clear these changes were the thin end of the wedge. It is increasingly unorthodox even to assume that an arts organisation should be led by an artist.
The usual logic underlying this, very often at board level is that the “business” should be run by someone with “business skills”, allowing the artist to get on with the art. This is done with good intentions: and of course, the business side of things should serve and support the artistic side. But there aren't two sides. You don’t have to buy into the logic of free market capitalism to note that the business is the art. The business is art. Art is the beginning and the end of why we’re all here. There’s no harm in getting a decent pint while I’m in the building, but I didn’t put on the show in order to drive bar sales. If we drive a wedge between the arts organisation and the art itself, we get into very murky territory.
Even though the number is shrinking, there are still buildings run by people who direct plays, but even this isn't a particularly heterodox model. The Lyceum in Edinburgh is the only theatre I can think of run by any other kind of theatre artist. Why not more theatres run by writers? Why not a theatre run by a lighting designer? It becomes even more rare when you look not at mainstream theatre but at the section of the industry I exist in. Why not buildings run by Selina Thompson, Greg Wohead, Emma Frankland and Rachel Mars? I have absolutely no idea whether any of them would be interested, but I do know they’d be fucking great. These artists are all intimately involved in the producing side of the variously-constituted organsiations that serve as vehicles for their work. They combine a clarity of vision in their own work and an ability to nurture and support the development of myriad other artists whose visions differ. You don’t know the half of what most of them do for others. They all have an imagination and a capacity for problem-solving that would blow the doors off Fort Knox.
But not only are there almost no figures like these running arts organisations, there are barely any comparable figures twenty years older doing so. It’s hard enough to imagine any of us making a confidently sustainable living making our own art, never mind doing so at the helm of an organisation that exists for others.
There’s a presumption that the current generation of artists wouldn’t want this. I argue that we must want it. Otherwise arts organisations will get further and further from artists. Worse, the presumption that artists wouldn’t want the responsibility of leading an organisation is one part of a widespread well-intentioned infantilisation of artists. It’s necessary for artists to muster just enough of a grasp of producing skills for their career to take off. Then, all being well, someone else will take over these roles and the artist will no longer have to worry their pretty little heads about it. For some artists, this is the absolute dream and I wish those artists well. For plenty more, it’s massively disempowering. It limits your understanding of the context within which your work operates. It contributes to a drift away from artists having a place at the table in conversations about how our industry operates. But most artists are not special snowflakes who will melt if shown a spreadsheet. The industry does not need to operate on our behalf. The industry is our art, and there’s a danger of artists, by wittingly colluding in this infantilisation because it buys us an extra half-day a week, gradually giving up the tools we need to participate in conversations at the highest level.
This relates directly to artists’ understandable frustration at the increasing number of producers and programmers there are in the world, existing on salaries and making decisions about whether we get to earn a living. It’s important to note that many of these people do brilliant and valuable work, not least because curation is an art form in itself, with its own set of skills and crafts. But of course it’s frustrating for artists, because it establishes a clear hierarchy of value in which we consistently come off worse. I’m nearly forty, I’ve got two kids, I put an awful lot of time and energy back into supporting younger and emerging artists, and I still don’t know whether I’ll be earning a living in September.
There’s no big conspiracy at work. This is all done out of love for artists. But I do think that the best producers and programmers work on behalf of artists by working alongside them. Here are a few examples: Annabel Turpin, Katy Snelling, Ali Ford, Ben Rothera. I’m arguing not against the enormous achievements of these and many other remarkable individuals, and I'm certainly not arguing that they shouldn't continue doing what they're doing. What I'm arguing against is the increasingly orthodox assumption that the Venn diagram of producing skills and artistic skills is two separate circles. Buy this assumption and you get for free the assumption that no artist can ever run an arts organisation again.
So with the increasingly rare exception of a small number of mainstream theatre directors, the people at the helm of arts organisations have largely spent much of their careers up to that point working in those arts organisations in more junior roles. It’s a terrifyingly precarious time across our industry, and boards have an understandable aversion to the risk of appointing someone to a position when there’s nothing on their CV indicating their aptitude for the duties of in that position. Therefore it’s obvious we won’t get more artists in leadership positions if there aren’t more artists elsewhere in the organisation. In mainstream theatres this used, sometimes, to be the experience gathered by people in Associate Director roles. These days there are barely any such roles. And in our corner of the industry there never have been.
I have a very simple proposal: give an artist a job. Structure your jobs in arts organisations so that they can be done by artists: if an artistic director can direct two or three shows a year, a programmer or producer can make and tour one. More to the point, there can be no more important subsidy for the arts than paying an artist a salary.
Artists. We need an insurgency. Apply for programmer and producer jobs. Explain why an artist’s eye is of value in these roles. Demonstrate that artists have the skills required by these roles: we understand the funding context; we can use Excel, Word, Grantium, even YesPlan; we see a lot of work; we have a deeply embodied understanding of the challenges faced by emerging artists. It is our job to imagine the previously unimaginable. Imagine that.
Venues. Allow yourselves to imagine that this is not crazy, and equally importantly, it is not sour grapes*. Be open to structuring these roles to make it possible. Artists are not special snowflakes with no ultimate grip on hard reality. We will bring dynamism and diligence. Who better to hold relationships with artists than someone who has had the same set of experiences? How better to structure mentoring and artist development than in the person of someone for whom it is lived experience? What better way of demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be sheer bloody slog until the industry slowly forgets you? And fundamentally, who better to charge with the task of continually reimagining the industry than the only people, in the final analysis, it can’t survive without?
* Not in general, or in my case. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve written this because of some job application I’m annoyed wasn’t successful. Like everyone else like me, I thought those jobs were for other people: there’ve been no such applications. But there will be now.
Book of the week: As part of my research for Arthur I’ve been reading Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a beautiful book about the experience of parents whose children have lives far from what they could have imagined. He introduces the concept of vertical and horizontal identities, an incredibly useful construction which may pre-exist his work but which is new to me. A vertical identity is one that tends to be passed down from parent to child: skin colour is the clearest example of something that is thus inherited and around which identity is constructed, but other examples include nationality (with the exception of immigrants) and to a greater or lesser degree religion and class. Horizontal identities are those which children as often as not don’t share with their parents (although as in the above cases there are of course exceptions), and thus must be formed in relation to a peer group. Solomon’s own example is his homosexuality; others include traits as varied as genius, deafness and dwarfism. It’s a brilliant book about the contexts and processes of identity formation, but most of all it’s brilliant about the experience of parents:
“[My mother] didn’t want to control my life – though she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.” Despite being a vivid depiction of these struggles, the book ultimately documents many ways in which parental love has managed to triumph. “We live in xenophobic times, when legislation with majority support abrogates the rights of women, LGBT people, illegal immigrants, and the poor. Despite this crisis of empathy, compassion thrives in the home, and most of the parents [in this book] love across the divide.”
Run of the week: I’ve been at ARC for a week working on Arthur so on Sunday I took the opportunity to run to Roseberry Topping, a hill piled high with memories for me. It’s about twelve miles away, so last time I did it I looped round from there via Captain Cook’s Monument and dropped into Great Ayton for lunch. This time I’m in training for a long race next weekend, so I joined the Cleveland Way and doubled the distance by carrying on all the way to Saltburn. Moors, peaks, rivers, streams, woods, cliffs, and seaside: this route had every kind of scenery and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Since then I’ve eased off a lot, partly to taper down for the 55K next Saturday, but equally because it’s the Clougha Pike fell race the day after tomorrow. It’s my first time at my local fell race, and while I don’t want to go all out and knacker myself for next weekend, equally, I want to be sharp enough not to have to stop and walk the steep bits.
TV of the week: I’ve paused my rewatch of season three after The Wire until after the cricket world cup. Eoin Morgan! In the meantime my list is piling up: Chernobyl, Years and Years, The Virtues, what else have I missed? Was Gentleman Jack good? What was that one about the woman who’s been released from prison? And for some reason I never did get round to the second season of Deadwood, which I want to see in order to watch the film. Is this an actual golden age of television? Perhaps, but it’s still not as good as The Wire and in next week’s TED talk I will explain to you why.
Writing report: it’s been a full week of writing for the first time in a very long time. So far I’ve been working on Arthur for odd days and half-days, with two days at a time a rarity. I’m far enough along that this isn’t too worrying in terms of the deadline, but you can only get so deep in this time. This week at ARC Stockton has been a blessing in that I’ve been able to fully immerse myself in it and thus get in way deeper. It’s also been well-timed in that I can never plunge straight into something without first spending time tracing its edges and contours. I need to develop a sense of where its centre is, where the heat is, where I can get deepest. Then I need time to put everything else aside, take a deep breath, and get into an unfamiliar land. That’s what this week has been. By the end of tomorrow I’ll have a finished draft and even though I’ll only have three or four half-days on it next week, having got this far I’ll be able to plunge straight back in at this depth with increasing confidence. I may even get a bit further. But perhaps I’ll just circle around another plunge pool until the week after when I have three days at a time again.
God, it’s really difficult to talk about the process of writing without sounding like a wanker.
Kids say the funniest things report: “Hello cat, hello dog, are you poorly? Better, better, better, better, better. All done now.”
Two weeks ago today I wrote most of a blog post about anticipation. A childcare emergency interrupted me before I could finish it, and I’ve been waiting to find time ever since. If you’re the sort of person who’s amused by very minor ironies, then there’s something in that for you.
In the blogpost I wrote about the various things I was waiting for at the time, mostly in my professional life, but also in my personal life. That evening I was off to an awards ceremony (Everything There Ever Was, which I made in the summer with Boff Whalley and Unfolding Theatre, was nominated for a Journal Culture Award). I had skin in the game of two separate pending Arts Council applications. I had two separate applications for jobs and commissions. And in the days after writing the draft post, one after another, each of those decisions came back in the negative. So most of what I wrote that day no longer applies. Instead I should write the usual blogpost about dusting yourself off. Getting back on the horse. About how it never gets any easier.
All of which is true, except of course I’m now waiting on a whole series of different decisions. There are about six different commissioners sitting on decisions about two or three of my upcoming shows. There are three or four more pending ACE applications in which I'm a named member of the team, ranging between two days' mentoring and full creative collaboration. There’s another job application in. And all before I start tour booking tomorrow, and multiply the agony exponentially.
A couple of weeks ago I said it sometimes feels as though my job is answering emails. It isn’t. It’s waiting for the replies.
I’m often struck by gratitude that I’m not beset by the lack of control experienced by actors. But when playing this waiting game, it’s hard not to feel an almost total lack of control over one’s life. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that seventy percent of my time this year has been setting up work, and in the remaining 30% I have to do my actual work full-time in order to remain alive. I'm thirty-nine and I've got two children. Fucking hell.
In that context, taking a new show to the Edinburgh Fringe is an obviously unhinged decision. It’s even possible only because of the mass depopulation of my summer: for various unrelated reasons, four separate projects moved from the next few months into next year, and I was suddenly faced with a long empty stretch. I could collapse on the settee in despair and frustration. I wouldn’t judge anyone for whom that felt like the right choice. For me the right thing to do was spend the time on a show idea I’ve been sitting on for three years, and which happens to be relatively cheap.
You can read more about the show here. There’ll certainly be more about it on here in the next few weeks and months. Having met a writing deadline yesterday, with a shambles of a first draft, it’s my only creative focus between now and opening.
Let me know if you’re going to be in Edinburgh this August and fancy booking it. I’m not kidding when I say it’s going to sell fast: it already is.
The other major element of anticipation and uncertainty in that blogpost from two weeks ago was the question of whether or not I would run the Edinburgh marathon three days later. Close followers of this blog – both of you – will know that until two months prior I was hoping to run it under three hours. A tendon injury in my foot meant that I then lost six weeks of training, only starting again less than two weeks before the race. With three days to go, I had no idea whether my aches and pains were down to the sudden launch back into training, or because I genuinely was a wreck. I felt more sure Theresa May couldn't last the week than of what I was going to do that Sunday.
Reader, I went to Edinburgh. I decided to start, and give myself permission to not finish. I decided to take it fairly easy, around 7:30 a mile, and just see how I felt. If I was able to sustain it, I’d reach the the sixteen mile mark on almost exactly two hours, whereupon I could make a decision. If I was feeling great I could pick it up to just under 7min/mile and thereby shave a few seconds off my PB. If that seemed too ambitious, holding steady at sub-7:30 pace might see me sneak under 3hr15, which seemed like a decent B goal. And if I was feeling dreadful I could slow down or just stop.
For the first eight or so miles 7:30 felt incredibly comfortable but then I started to ache. By the halfway point I was struggling badly and decided that if I didn’t feel better at sixteen miles I was definitely going to pull out. When I hit sixteen miles, on almost exactly two hours, I suddenly realised that I felt fantastic. The PB charge was on. I put the hammer down to sub-7s and went for it.
It didn't last. On about eighteen miles, the route turns 180 degrees and the last eight miles take you back the way you came. I’d been warned about the wind on this course but I couldn’t quite believe its brutality when it hit me. No wonder I'd been feeling so good on the outward leg. I'd had a following gale. Within two miles of turning into it, the wind had blown away the unlikely goal of a new PB, and the B goal of around 3hr15. Despite the ridiculously remote probability of these goals having been achieveable on one week of training in two months, I hadn’t thought how I’d approach the race if they became unattainable. There was nothing left to motivate me. I fell to pieces.
For the last four miles I was running around ten-minute miles, which I'd consider slow uphill. I creaked home in 3:23:41. And I immediately felt quite pleased. Under the circumstances of training and conditions, this is a respectable time. A mate was coming to meet me for lunch, but I’d finished before he got there, because it never occurred to him I might finish that fast. This is good for the ego.
My ankle is still not entirely reliable. It seems pretty sound on the flat. But as soon as I get on the trails or the hills, I can’t quite trust it.
My next three races are this (the 55K, not the 100), this, and this. And though they'll be the hardest races I've ever run, they're mere warmups for this. If any has any magic ankle magic, please magic it to my ankle.
TV of the week: While you’ve all been going on about Chernobyl and Gentleman Jack (I will, I will), I’ve been rewatching The Wire. All I have to say is that it still stacks up. Season Two, by many considered to be the weakest, does have some wonky moments, but at its best it is Arthur Miller and Brecht in one. It is a portrait of an entire society and of how all the pressures of that society combine to produce immense human tragedy. People were doing top five TV shows on twitter last week and I wanted to say:
5: The Wire, season 5
4: The Wire, season 2
3: The Wire, season 1
2: The Wire, season 3
1: The Wire, season 4
I have to admit that this is stolen from a top three footballers list that goes around Middlesbrough circles:
3: Juninho (second spell at the club)
2: Juninho (third spell)
1: Juninho (first spell)
Show of the week: In that draft blogpost from a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why you should all go and see Selina Thompson’s Saltat the Royal Court. You’ve missed it now. But anyway, to finish, here’s what I wrote about why you ought to have gone.
As a straight white man, it’s relatively rare I see a show that feels as though it’s not talking to me. Even shows about racism or gender inequality, rather than primarily representing those experiences for those who might share them, are often directed at people who look like me, for the purpose of persuasion or plea. I’m sure there’s value to this, by the way, and I’m not having a go at anyone. It’s also of course possible to do both.
But when I do see a show that very clearly isn’t talking to me, it’s often thrilling. I love the work of Rash Dash because they so often feel as though they’re principally talking to the women in the room. By all accounts Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, which I’m devastated to have missed, does the same. The men can come if they want, sure, but it’s not forus. This refusal to pander to culturally dominant perspectives is also certainly the basis for plenty of critical fuckwittery.
Anyway, I bring this up because Selina Thompson’s Saltis now on at the Royal Court. I’ve seen it twice and I’d go again. Selina is one of the most brilliant artists (and minds) at work right now. She is absolutely talking to a primary constituency of black British people, and I fucking love that doing so this unapologetically (because why should it be something to apologise for?) has got her show to the Royal Court. She is absolutely talking to a primary constituency of black British people - which makes it all the more important that white British people go. And look, if you look like me, I’ve made it sound as though it’s something you should do because it’s good for you, like cabbage. But you should go because it’s searing, human and alive. If you can get over not being the focus of attention then it’ll be the best thing you do all year.
Sometimes it feels as though my job is answering emails, but that’s to undersell the time I spend writing them. My job at the moment is as much producer as artist, so at least half my time is spent trying to build projects. It’s going well and there’ll be some announcements in the coming weeks, but I never thought it would happen. And I never thought I’d enjoy it.
For the week ahead I’m actually excited that every day is a desk day. No workshops, no teaching, no rehearsals. Bar one skype, no meetings even. Despite appearances, it’s an exciting week because that much time affords sufficient reduction in pressure on everything else to be able to allocate a decent chunk of time to writing. Signing off press releases, negotiating with venues, applying for licenses; everything else always appears so much more urgent than writing. In theory I always give the first half of every day to the important, rather than the merely urgent. But for the past few weeks there’s been too much urgency and too little desk time.
So of course I’ve engaged in a surfeit of magical thinking about what can be achieved in four half-days. The target is finished drafts of two separate things. Neither is yet half-done. The drafts don’t have to be good; they just have to be drafts.
I have all this time at my desk partly because a couple of months ago my summer summarily emptied itself out. Four separate projects, for entirely unrelated reasons, were moved out of this summer and into next year, leaving a vast desert of unemployment. I’m going to talk much more about this next week, in particular how it’s being navigated practically and financially. But for now, I’m in the unprecedented and joyous position where writing and producing my own work is, unequivocally, my actual job. This hasn’t really happened before, not in this way. I’m thirty-nine next month and I still can’t quite get over the fact that I’m actually doing this, this is my job, it’s allowed. So it’s a good job I’m finding a way to enjoy it.
Read of the week: despite never having read any of her actual memoirs, last week I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Don’t let a lack of any interest in that form put you off. It’s a terrific, pungent, uncompromising, practical guide to writing for any art form. Particularly bracing is her insistence on refusing to let yourself off the hook by writing about anything short of the core of whatever is really bothering you. The real challenge – she gets into this, too – is discovering what that core is. It’s not usually the thing you thought it was when you started.
I’m juggling writing three different things at the moment, and I found the book differently helpful for all of them. One of them is a new show I’m making for the Edinburgh Fringe (which will be formally announced in a couple of weeks). I’ve got loads of material I quite like, but none of it was really catching fire. A few years ago I might have settled for this and trusted that the jokes would be good enough, or the core question interesting enough, to either compensate for or disguise the absence of real heat. But you do more work, you get better at sniffing out your own bullshit. Mary Karr has given me a few more tools for getting deeper.
Watch of the week: It’s increasingly apparent that Line of Duty andGame of Thronesare designed to be compulsive rather than coherent. In the early series of each I used to forgive the stupidity on account of the compulsiveness, but as the same flaws repeat again and again, their compulsiveness becomes itself a stupidity.
Until the last five minutes, I actually thought this series of Line of Duty was the best one for ages. Then I threw up my hands in exasperation. Stupid stupid stupid. I’ve been under no such illusions about this series of Game of Thrones, although I liked the episode where nothing happened. I tell myself that I’m allowed to watch this shit, rather than doing something productive or good for that couple of hours a week, because I’ve got two kids and popcorn time is sorely limited. But there are far better stupid ways to spend my time.
Run of the week: I haven’t run for five weeks now and although this injury is on the mend, I’m not quite there yet. Every time I’ve been to the gym I’ve posted on strava that I think I’m a week away from running. I now think it’s less than a week, but I’ve been saying that for about three weeks.
Yesterday, though, I did run about a bit in the park with my daughter and a friends’ two kids. We played chase. The kids had big silly grins on their faces the whole time and so did I, reminding me that however obsessed I get with breaking three hours for the marathon, running is for pleasure. Also reminding me of what I’m missing.
Last week the Arts Council announced that “relevance” was replacing “excellence” as the central plank of their strategy for the coming years.
Except that isn’t quite what they announced at all, is it?
As far as I can tell from the various garbled versions of the speech that I’ve managed to cobble together into something meaningful, what was actually announced was that art would be prioritised when it represented a meaningful intervention in people’s lives. This is either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective.
In the latter years of the Labour government concerns were consistently raised that an instrumentalist approach to art deprioritised the quality of that art. This rests on the assumption that art which has an impact on peoples’ lives can’t actually be any good, which is obviously nonsense, but nonetheless, as a result of these arguments, the pendulum swung towards excellence as the key priority. Except it didn’t really. It was either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective. Because alongside that shift came the slogan “great art for everyone”, and throughout the last decade the “everyone” has been at least as important” as the great”. There's a nuanced blog post to be written about why I think this is a good thing, but there isn't time for that today. Let me just say that ACE haven’t so much changed their strategy as tried to draw more attention to what it's always been. I’m with them.
Next, an announcement.
Many of you will be aware that in a moment of madness last month, I decided to raise money for an emerging artist by running a 44-mile mountain race. The background to this is on the fundraiser page here, but the short version is that it’s getting harder and harder to start a career in this industry and I wanted to do a small thing to help someone.
I’m thoroughly delighted to tell you that that someone is Caitlin Gleeson and the project is POUR AND SERVE. I got an astonishing number of brilliant applications and I really wanted to be able to support far more of them. So in the end the thing that made the difference was that this is more than just a show.
It's a show first, though. Pour and Serve is set in a working bar and uses free drinks and audience interaction to explore how the language of sexual harassment perpetuates a culture of violence against women. Just on the level of the show, you’ll understand straight away why it’s up my street: it’s engaging, it's interactive; it reels the audience in with humour and uses that heightened level of engagement to get deep into something that really fucking matters.
I know Caitlin a little. She was in my R&D room at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, an experience she wrote about here. What knowing her a little means is that I know a little about how brilliant, thoughtful and sharp she is. It wasn’t a criterion in discussion of the applications, but I’m very happy to be able to offer a bit of continuity of support.
And it’s more than a show. It’ll be accompanied by a series of workshops that use the show as a starting point for a discussion of sexual harassment and consent. The workshops will help participants develop strategies for intervening in situations before they snowball. And they’re run by Hebe Reilly, whose expertise comes from work with Manchester Rape Crisis, Fearless Futures, and others, and is developing the workshops with Caitlin.
So when it comes to thinking about the best use for this money, it was hard not to give it to a project that’s not just a show, but also uses the platform of a show to make some targeted interventions into the culture that might make a real difference.
If that’s not relevance, I don’t know what is.
In the stooshie about Simon Mellor’s speech there’s been a rehash of a lot of arguments about ACE’s use of quality metrics. Here I agree with most of ACE’s critics. It would be ridiculous to say that they’ve abandoned “quality” because of difficulty with its measurement (not least because I don’t believe they’ve abandoned quality), but I do hope they move on from some of the experiments of the past few years. About a decade ago they introduced “peer assessment” to try to make more transparent the process of evaluating the quality of a piece of work. The trouble is that those doing the assessing are very rarely the artists’ peers. Too often they're written by theatre critics There are some brilliant theatre critics out there, but peer assessment was sold as bringing the specific perspective and experience of a working artist. Whether or not you think that's a valuable part of the ACE process, not many people are getting it. Ten years on, maybe there's an argument for it as the only way we can possibly create a sustainable future for theatre criticism. But it isn't peer assessment and we shouldn't call it that. When I want peer assessment, I ask my peers; I don't commission an essay from them but engage them in conversation. In future, though, I think I'll commission a couple of essays, too.
Running forty-four miles up and down mountains sounds like quite a lot but in reality it's a drop in the ocean. There's a systemic problem here that this doesn't even begin to address. Whether it even succeeds in drawing attention is debatable. I just want to draw attention, though, to the fact that in the past couple of months, since writing those original posts about this, I've had some excellent conversations about more strategic approaches to addressing the systemic problem. We're not going to fix the fact that there's less and less money and support, but we might be able to address some of the skew in who manages to access it. Watch this space.
When agreeing to raise money by running up and down mountains for ten or eleven hours, I should have given some thought to what happens if I’m injured and can’t run. I obviously want Pour and Serve to have the money, but equally, the sponsors have paid for me to suffer: what if I can’t?
I ask this, of course, because I’m injured. Being an injured runner is like being a writer whose computer is installing updates. THIRTY FOUR MINUTES?
I’ve been training incredibly well; on the form of my life. As many of you know I’m gunning for a sub-3 marathon in Edinburgh on May 26th. Two weeks ago I raced a 10K and ran 37:57, which is the fastest I’ve gone over that distance since I was 24: if you put that time into this widget, it predicts a marathon time of 2:58:03. It’s on. It is fucking on. Not much room for manoeuvre, but this is a lifetime goal, and it’s on.
The day after the 10K I went for a long fell run and didn’t even feel that achy from the race. I ran the Helvellyn leg of the Bob Graham Round, I made two really stupid navigational errors (have a look at the GPS on that Strava link and see if you can tell me where), and I still got round really comfortably on a fast schedule. The rest of the week training continued well and on the Saturday, with a trip to the gym still knotting my hamstrings, I did ten miles with three sets of two at half marathon pace.
Later that day, my leg started to hurt.
That was over a week ago.
I’ve had one aborted run since and no more on the horizon. It turns out I’ve inflamed my posterior tibial tendon, which is the one that connects the ankle to the calf. This sort of thing usually heals in about six weeks. Edinburgh marathon is in six weeks.
It’s not completely unimaginable that I’m recovered enough to run. It is almost impossible to imagine recovering sufficiently to run sub-3. It is unbelievably frustrating. Building up to a marathon takes time and I’m going to have to do it all over again.
I feel like Sisyphus watching the rock roll downhill.
I’m sure I’ll be fit by the end of August, but whether I’m 44 miles of mountains fit is another matter. Please hold my posterior tibial tendon in your thoughts, and please sponsor me as further motivation to do all my rehab.
This is a short post and a late one. I make no apology. My son was born this week.
i know right!
It's a bit less overwhelming the second time. The jump from three to four seems much smaller than that from two to three. But it's still a pretty big life event and as much time as possible is to be dedicated to simply holding the baby.
I don't anticipate posting anything until the end of the month. My priority is holding, and so for you, this holding page. It's a summary of offers, opportunities and requests. Here goes.
Emerging artists support fund: I'm running a 44-mile mountain race to raise money for an emerging artist or company. If you think you might be that artist or company, please get in touch by the end of March. Otherwise, please donate. There's a bit more about this madcap scheme here and here. £725 was raised in the first 24 hours and I've not done anything to publicise it since then, so I'm very optimistic that it will reach its target.
If you're one of the people who's been in touch re: the opportunity, apologies for not replying yet. Did I mention my wife had a baby? I'm literally typing this with one hand and holding the baby in the other.
Weirdly, since advertising the opportunity, more people have been in touch to ask what I can offer by way of mentoring than to express interest in being given a large sum of free money. Your call, obvs.
Foodbank Fabaret. A week on Saturday (23rd March) I'm performing at this fundraiser for Morecambe Foodbank, created in response to the horrendous local MP's flat denial of the fact that local children are driven to eating from school bins. He really is a prize shit and I'd happily egg him if it weren't a waste of eggs. Baby Arthur will be on stage with me, making his debut at 12 days old. The organisers are very keen that people can attend regardless of ability to pay, so if you'd like to donate but can't come, buy a ticket and let the organisers know that you'd like it to go to someone else.
Going Viral. As things stand this one in Leeds will be the 98th performance of Going Viral. I'd like it to get to 100 and I don't need to make money on it (although I'd prefer not to make a loss if possible!).
If I can do it at your venue (defining "venue" however you choose), please get in touch, especially if it can benefit a cause.
Bit of a gap. I've got lots going on this year, including the premiere of one new show and substantial steps towards another two. But there is a bit of a gap in the middle of the year. If you can make use of me on your project over the next few months, holler. Did I mention I'm a father of two?
I can make some concrete offers here. First up, there are two or three things I'm writing that I'm not going to self-produce (and not, I might add, because I don't love them!) So if you're looking for a script to produce and you like my work, get in touch. Wherewithal to commission me to finish it a bonus.
Secondly, over the past year I've made a big return to directing. Through my twenties directing was almost the whole of my artistic practice; through my thirties it's been almost none of it. I never intended it to fall away entirely and I'm delighted to be back at this particular coalface. Last week I did a bit of directing on a project with five people on stage. Five! Unimaginable riches! Somebody please let me direct something medium-sized before I pop!
BSF, if you can make use of my eyes, my attention, and my capacity to diagnose and treat my own boredom (on any scale) then please get in touch.
TinyLetter. If you'd like these blogposts to be delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for my TinyLetter. I don't think you get the pictures, but there's only one picture in this one anyway.
Tiny Heroes. There are three performances of Tiny Heroes in April: In Kirklees, West Yorkshire on Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th (tickets here) and in Lancaster on Friday 26th (tickets here).
Run of the week. This regular feature is truncated this week, but I can't miss it out entirely. Sunday's 20-miler turned out to be my last run as a father-of-one and it was a beauty. The virtue of getting a bit lost is the unexpected things you find: for the first time in real life, I saw a hare. It was incredible. I watched it all the way over the next hill, and you really can't believe how fast they move. By this point I wasn't lost in the sense that I had no idea where I was, but I was so in the sense that my sense of my location was rough at best. I've been trying to improve my navigational skills, though, and comparing map and compass told me that if I just followed this watercourse roughly south, I'd get to where I wanted to be. This involved jumping an inordinate number of fences and fording the watercourse (it started as a beck or brook but by the end it was a large stream or even a small river) at several eddying points. It also involved seeing a hare and, not long before I was definitively found, a deer. If you want to see creatures you don't usually see, you need to go where people don't usually go.
Read of the week. I've read several things this week and I can't recommend any of them. I'm still reading this, though, and can still recommend it.
Show of the week. Bit of a weird one, as I haven't seen anything for weeks, but Kieran Hurley's Mouthpiece is about to open in London so I wanted to give it a shout out. I saw it at the Traverse shortly before Christmas and the more I think about it, the more I think it was the best thing I saw all year. Full disclosure: Kieran is a mate. But friendship by no means obliges me to like it anywhere near as much as I did.
But I'm not going to talk about it at any length. I have a baby to hold. BYE!
This is the longest sustained period of Artistic Director Musical Chairs I’ve ever known and it shows no signs of slowing down. In the last week or so Damien Cruden, who’s been at York Theatre Royal since before I’d heard of York Theatre Royal, and Sarah Franckom, who was at the absolute top of anyone’s game at Manchester Royal Exchange, have been the latest to vacate their chairs.
It’s Franckom’s departure that has drawn the most attention and that’s hardly surprising. In the five years she’s been sole artistic director she has completely transformed the organisation. When I used to make occasional trips over from Leeds to Manchester in the last decade, what I invariably saw were solid but unremarkable productions of solid twentieth century classics. There wasn’t much going on beyond the plays and no real sense that this was a theatre in Manchester. I once heard it described as the most provincial theatre in the country, on account of its behaving as though it was in very-very North London. And I once substantially embarrassed myself by badmouthing it in the Barbican foyer, sitting opposite a man who turned out to be Braham Murray.
In the last five or so years it has become a theatre deeply embedded in the life of Manchester, commissioning work that grows with the grass of the city. Its productions of classics have been radically imaginative. And how many theatres, in or out of London, would have commissioned Chris Goode’s version of Jubilee? Or Rash Dash’s Sisters? Franckom’s own directing has been as brilliant and imaginative as her programming. Her production of Our Town is one of the best things I’ve seen in years. And beyond the plays, it has offered unprecedented levels of engagement and support to local artists in Manchester and the wider north west. Franckom is a huge act to follow.
It used to be that these periodic phases of artistic director musical chairs were simply because one or two people went at the same time and everyone else moved up one. That’s not tenable this time around. Without even mentioning London, in the last couple of years we’ve seen departures from HOME, Bolton, Plymouth, Live, Pitlochry, Oldham, Keswick, Birmingham, Sheffield and now York and the Royal Exchange. I’m sure I’ve missed some. And as far as I’m aware the only vacancy to arise because of the sitting artistic director moving somewhere else was that at Bolton. This can’t all be a coincidence. To lose two or three artistic directors in a two-year period might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose a dozen suggests something more sinister.
So what’s going on? You know the answer. It’s austerity. Though it’s been less heralded, there’ve been a similar number of Executive Directors moving on: running theatres is no longer possible in the way it was ten years ago. It’s nine years since the Coalition came to power and brought austerity with them; that’s nine years of budget freezes alongside nine years of rising costs. Philanthropy, the government’s magic wand, does not work reliably if at all outside the M25. So every year it’s been possible to do less than the year before. That’s only sustainable for so long. Occasional miracles of transformation can be performed at the better-funded regional theatres like the Royal Exchange, but these are increasingly outliers. The model is broken. Basically, everyone’s knackered.
It seems fitting that in a week where everyone’s been singing the praises of Sarah Franckom, I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and support for emerging artists.
I spent Tuesday with Alex Kelly, who mentors me. I spent Wednesday with a couple of people I myself mentor. I benefit hugely from my conversations with Alex, which basically constitute me thinking aloud in the presence and with the guidance of someone who’s been round the block a few times more. We drink a lot of coffee and he asks excellent questions. If I give half as much to the people I’m mentoring, they’ll hopefully get something from the process too. But the ecosystem artists emerge into now is very different to the one that welcomed me.
I was lucky enough to start out in the early 2000s, a few years into the Labour government, when arts funding was at a forty-year peak. Without the relative ease of accessing support, I wouldn’t be here now. Artists emerging today have to work for years to start accessing funding and those from backgrounds like mine aren’t able to survive. I do what I can to help, but basically this amounts to occasional phone calls and emails of support and advice, coffee and questions, and reading endless draft arts council applications. Last year I was able to get a series of nine emerging artists into my R&D rooms (e.g.) (e.g.) and do something a bit more substantive. None of it is enough. (ALTHOUGH if you think I can be of help to you, do visit my mentoring page!)
It sometimes feels as though I spend about 40% of my income on crowdfunders to plug the gap in someone’s budget. In plenty of cases this is even when there is public funding. It can feel, in these cases, like audiences are being asked to pay three times: once in tax, once in crowdfunder, and finally at box office. I want to stress that I don’t begrudge this money spent on crowdfunders, only the system that makes it necessary and thus further disadvantages artists without rich friends and family.
Every so often someone bolsters their crowdfunder by running a marathon or a 10K to draw attention to their cause. And this gives me an idea. At this stage of my career, though I'm happy to support others, I feel embarrassed by the idea of doing a crowdfunder for a show of mine, although god knows I could often enough do with one. And I also feel embarrassed by the idea of running a marathon for sponsorship. Running marathons is what I do for fun.
But later this year I’m running this race, which is a bit longer than a marathon, and will be a genuine challenge.
So here’s my idea. I’m going to raise sponsorship by running this race. But not for one of my own projects. For a young or emerging artist. I don’t know who yet. Get in touch if it might be you. It’ll be an artist or company with one or two shows under their belt, probably socially or politically engaged, probably in the north of England. Someone who doesn’t necessarily look like me, possibly (but not necessarily) someone I’ve already been mentoring/supporting.
I’m not going to have a show of the week, run of the week, etc, this week, because I want to end on this offer. Please spread it around your networks. I’ll make some sort of announcement early next month, assuming all goes smoothly with the new baby, so if you want to be considered, please get in touch by March 30th. There’s no formal application process, but if you think your project is a good fit, please get in touch and tell me why I should run 44 miles in the mountains to help make it happen.
The opening of the Dukes/Red Ladder co-production of Glory on Friday was Sarah’s last duty before going on maternity leave. If this baby arrives on the same schedule as our first, it’ll be tomorrow. It’s getting a bit real.
So last week was a good one for contemplating the magnitude of such life choices. Not just because of the heating planet: it was half-term, so between us we needed to find a full week off work in order to look after our firstborn. It being Sarah’s last week, I got very little done and instead mostly spent a lovely week with Dot. Therefore this post will be short.
Glory, though, was a source of great pride. I’m on the board of Red Ladder and it’s been a real thrill to watch them gradually get back to fighting weight after the shock of being omitted from the National Portfolio a few years ago. I joined the board shortly after the company left the portfolio and have watched (and, to some degree, participated) as they’ve shifted their priorities and their focus, re-engaging with their community as well as hugely increasing the ambition of their work.
I wish I could claim some credit for brokering this co-production with the Dukes, but despite appearances, the collaboration between my wife’s theatre and the company on whose board I sit had absolutely nothing to do with me.
Glory was also a terrific symbol of the journey the Dukes has been on since Sarah became AD two and a bit years ago. That was the sixth show the theatre has produced this financial year, which given the scale of the operation and the challenges facing all theatres, is pretty remarkable. Included in that six is the most successful Christmas show the theatre has ever produced, a new kids’ show several of whose tour venues described as “the best show we’ve ever had”, a sensational production of Educating Rita, a play I’d previously thought little of and two major co-productions. Added to which, the family shows have thrived on joyous subversion of traditional gender roles and been built on a basic assumption that a diverse cast and creative team is a given.
And then there’s Glory. Glory is terrific. The plot has the structure of a Bernard Manning joke: a British East Asian, a black ex-squaddie and an asylum seeker go into a wrestling gym. And Jim Glory, the faded former wrestler who owns the gym, is a bit of an accidental Manning, peddling lazy assumptions and backing them up with faulty logic. For the rest of the show the four characters pit themselves against the assumptions they’ve made about one another, and that we’ve made about them. You could describe it as a bit mechanistic, as Mark Fisher does in this excellent review, but as Mark also points out, that’s to overlook the wit and flair with which it’s done. The production is fantastic, the cast is fantastic. The design is gorgeous and the lighting is beautiful. And the wrestling is fucking incredible.
When Sarah became AD at the Dukes, I was obviously thrilled, but I had to mourn the loss of my regular dramaturg. My loss is Nick Ahad’s gain. It’s obviously not all down to Sarah, but I think this is by far Nick’s best play yet. His works sits in the same bit of the spectrum as that of Richard Bean: broad, raucous, hilarious but also bruised and bruising. At its best it has the potential to get into Martin McDonagh territory where there’s real scabrousness and bite. And where both of those dramatists have come apart a bit in recent years through work, (and statements in defence of their work) that comes perilously close to (some would say “is”) deliberate racism, Nick’s experiences as a British South Asian mean that when he gets into this territory he does so with a sense of responsibility and nuance that – believe it or not – doesn’t weaken the jokes. If he wounds, it’s because he’s wounded.
Glory is touring. It deserves a long life. You should go.
Book of the week: I’m still ploughing through the doorstop that is This Land is Our Land; it’s still brilliant and scholarly, but on Sunday I took a break and while Dot was asleep I raced through Vassos Alexander’s Running up that Hill. It’s a breezily enthusiastic account of his experiences in the world of ultra-running, running iconic races like the Spartathlon, the South Downs Way 100 and the Dragon’s Back. He’s tremendous company, Alexander, and I’d happily run alongside him for a long way. Ideal Sunday reading.
Run of the week: It was a fairly light training week last week so I didn’t think I’d have anything to report in this category. For the first time in a while my Sunday long run wasn’t anywhere hilly or scenic so it didn’t seem likely to be noteworthy. It wasn’t even especially long. But it was tremendously satisfying. The same loop was my final longish run before the Yorkshire marathon in October and that time I set out to run it at target race pace, around 7:10/mile. It was a really hard effort and I barely managed to hold the pace. On Sunday I set out to take it fairly easy: not plodding but not racing either, keeping my heart rate in the aerobic zone, which threshold for me is around 155. I have no idea whether I stayed in that zone as my watch died after three miles, but before then I was ticking along at 7:10/mile and the effort seemed steady so I stayed at that pace. So what was a hard workout in October is now a fairly easy Sunday trot. More evidence in favour of making a serious assault on sub-3 at the Edinburgh marathon in May.
Show of the week: I saw four shows this week and I’ve talked about one above. The others were all also excellent and as I’m not watching anything soon, I’ll spread them out and talk about them over the next couple of weeks. But for reference, in case they’re near you, I highly recommend Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange, Rabbit Girl and the Search for Wonder by 154 Collective (touring; which I saw at the Dukes) and Duvet Dancing, a kids’ dance show which we took Dot to at Lancaster Arts. Dot responded by at one point stripping down to her pants. No-one knows why. It's been a lovely week.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will