Originally written for People United, 21 June 2014
One of the very great pleasures of my writing life occurred on Friday. Over breakfast I wrote a few stanzas, in a loose sort of metre, with half a rhyme-scheme. In late afternoon I heard them sung back to me by Boff Whalley, transformed but recognisable, raw material mined carved and polished in a few short hours. Seasoned songwriters will be yawningly familiar with this sensation but for me, a fat-fingered guitarist and toad-throated singer, it appears as nothing other than a miracle. Even more giddyingly, we then wrote another one. The pure miracle of it, though, was just one part of why I was so excited. It was also exciting because of 2p pieces. I’ll explain.
I’ve spent this week in residence at Manchester Museum with writer-composer Boff Whalley, director Sarah Punshon and theatremaker Josh Coates, exploring the extraordinary collections, preparatory to making a large-scale participatory performance called Wonderstruck, to be performed there in November. We’ll be working with (hopefully) over a hundred performers, including five choirs, to create a weekend-long performance inspired by the wonders of the museum collection.
It’s not hard to be wonderstruck by that collection. During the course of this week we’ve been meeting the museum’s curators and staff, and they are as fine a collection of humans as you could encounter. It’s hard to imagine a group of people more collectively enthused by their work and their subject. To take just one example, I never thought the time would come when I’d be excited by geology, but an hour with David Gelsthorpe, the museum’s Curator of Earth Science Collections was enough to change that. Three-hundred-million year-old fossils! Specimens collected by Marie Stopes because of an encounter with a Japanese love rat! A meteorite as old as the earth and as big as a football! And a hundred and eighty million years ago, those bones were swimming in the sea!
We started with the idea of using performance and song to amplify the wonder of the museum’s collections, but we’ve quickly realised that it can go much further than that. What is wonder for? The piece has been co-commissioned by the museum and People United, an organisation whose mission is to increase the amount of pro-social behaviour in the world. We want to broaden that, on this project, to include pro-environmental behaviour. The museum, a relatively small one with an incredibly diverse collection, makes it very easy to see connections through history – and not just between us and the humans who made the fingerprints on that 30,000 year-old pot, but also between a 180-million year old fossil fish and the frogs in the vivarium. It’s not just about us.
Can a weekend of performance ever really have an impact on people’s behaviour, however brilliantly realised it might be? I think it can – but only as part of a wider culture of social and environmental awareness. Last week we were talking about those 2p machines, you know the ones they have at seaside arcades? Any given cultural stimulus is just like 2p in a machine. A really remarkable show might be as much as 6p. And unlike the machines at the seaside, which are perpetually on the brink of emptying themselves down the chute (but never quite do), most people are a long way from their tipping point. Every so often, though, your show catches someone at just that point. Then your 2p worth might tip them into a whole new way of being.
The beautiful song Boff wrote on Friday made me start to hope this piece might drop a couple of coins at least. That was why I really got excited.
Some people use the new year as an opportunity to wrap up everything that's been going on over the last year. I'm always too exhausted to do that, and anyway I still haven't finished my Christmas shopping. Some people use the summer instead, the end of the school year.
I thought my return from summer holiday might provide an appropriate opportunity. I've been away, now I'm back, so this means it's autumn, right?
It wasn't even a holiday, exactly. We were in the Philippines, and for the first week I was doing The Price of Everything and running workshops. It was absolutely wonderful. And for the second week, yes, we were on a beach. But there was a typhoon, which, if you've never experienced one, isn't restful.
So here I am, back, jetlagged do I think it's midnight when it's late afternoon, and the autumn is, to all intents and purposes here. This is what it looks like:
(I'm not wrapping up the first half, or the last year - nobody wants my top ten of anything. So this is my ten next things, in more-or-less sequential order.)
1. I've got a first draft deadline at the end of the month for the new show I'm making for Polka Theatre. The show runs for the month of March 2015. It's about how we know what we think we know, why we trust the people who tell it to us, and, you know, what it means to be human. It's for 8-11 year-olds.
2. We're making two more Story Hunts over the next couple of months, in Heckmondwike (mid-August) and Middlesbrough (mid-September). Doing Story Hunt in my own home time adds a particular piquancy that both tantalises and alarms.
3. I'll be creating a new piece of work with a community company at Royal and Derngate between September and March, on the theme of the aftermath of war.
4. I'm working with People United, Sarah Punshon and Boff Whalley to create a large-scale participatory performance installation in Manchester Museum. That's in mid-November, it will feature about five choirs, and it's called Wonderstruck.
5. Sarah is making an interactive piece for families about maths, and I'm working as a performer on that.
6. There'll be a new Six O'Clock News in Lancaster in early October.
7. I'll be opening a new touring solo show in Edinburgh 2015 (I'm having a year off this year). That's about the spread of disease and it's about advertising and it may or may not be called Going Viral. I'll be working with an epidemiologist as part of the early R+D later this year/early next and I'm hopefully going to be able to confirm an exciting international element to the project.
8. I'm under commission at Live Theatre, which has been one of my favourite theatres in the country since I first went there many years ago.
9. Amidst all this, I'm hoping to make a bit more time to write reflections on the ongoing, the upcoming, and the outside world, over the next few months.
10. This didn't seem like quite enough to be going on with, so on Thursday I've got an interview about a commission for a project I'm REALLY EXCITED ABOUT OH GOD I HOPE WE GET IT. Wish me luck.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will