Of course I ended 2019 with every intention of doing an end-of-year round-up. I'm not short of thoughts about the bad, the bad, and the ugly of it. Yet here we are on the 14th of January, and what little you might have cared about my favourite show of last year while it was still last year dwindled to nothing with the imaginary rip of a page on an imaginary calendar. And as for what you think about my opinions on the General Election, well, I couldn't even bear to talk about that on twitter.
Anyway, this year I've decided I'd like to be more of a looking forward kind of guy, so instead of dwelling on the past, here's a little round-up of everything I'm up to in the year ahead.
1. With Boff Whalley, I'm creating These Hills Are Ours, a new theatre piece. On the surface of it, it's about running absurd distances up big hills. But really it's about land ownership and our ability to endure. The show opens in London at the fag-end of March, and then from April to June it goes on a very extensive tour of venues the length and breadth of England.
2. As part of the wider These Hills Are Ours project, Boff and I are collaborating with four communities in four corners of England to create choral pieces about their relationship with their local peak. These will be sung on a journey from town to peak, in north Devon, Stockton, Lancaster and London, in March and April. If you fancy joining a choir for one of these, get in touch.
3. Then we're turning these into short films.
4. Funding permitting, we tour 666 Comments this spring and autumn. I love this show. It's a combination of utterly terrifying and fucking hilarious and I really hope you get to see it.
5. I Was Naked, Smelling of Rain gets an outing at We The Curious in Bristol on 27 February (there's currently an installation version in residence there), with a plan for more touring of the full show either later this year or early next. This is one of the more remarkable and unusual collaborations I've ever been part of: it's by the brilliant Aidan Moesby, a visual artist making his performance debut, and it is a really rare and special piece of work.
6. Although I'm not strictly "up to" this, as my work on it's pretty much all done, How Does This Politics Thing Work, Then? is touring throughout the year. Find a seven-year-old and get along.
7. I'm collaborating with Sarah Punshon to write and direct a new family Christmas show at the end of the year. It's not been announced yet, so I can't tell you much, but it's Beauty and the Beast. Other people's deadlines being what they are, I'm closer to having a first draft of this than of These Hills Are Ours. It's pretty exciting to be entrusted with something on this scale and writing so far has been a real blast.
8. I'm once again collaborating with second- and third-year students at Lancaster university to create their end-of-year shows. I love doing this. It's invigorating and it's refreshing. It's a trip to the well.
9. Running-wise, the current plan includes three marathons, two ultra races, one ultra-distance challenge and probably an ad hoc bunch of shorter races. The ultra-distance challenge is particularly silly and terrifying, not least because (weather permitting) it's in a fortnight. It's the final piece in the jigsaw for the making of These Hills Are Ours. Follow me on Strava if you want spoilers.
10. Over the last couple of years I've done an increasing amount of ad hoc mentoring, basically whenever someone asks me. Tonight, for example, I've two phone calls with artists and am reading an ACE application for a third. AREN'T I NICE. I'd like to continue being helpful to others in the way others were helpful to me when I was getting started, so please don't be shy about getting in touch. (Somewhat inevitably, those who aren't shy about getting in touch tend towards the white and the male, so in particular, please don't be shy about getting in touch if you don't look like me.)
11. Isn't that enough?
12. There's room for one more writing project. Get in touch if that's for you.
HAPPY NEW YEAR
In four locations, we have been working with community groups to explore the relationship between the people of that place and the peak that overlooks it. Out of this work we are writing four songs, one for each place.
The songs will be sung by choirs made up of the local community, at several stages on a journey from the centre of the town to the top of the peak. We want to turn these journeys, and these songs, into short films.
It’s part adventure film, part music video. We don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. We’re eager to hear from film-makers who are as excited by the project as we are.
The project has been commissioned by Beaford, Eden Project North, Lancaster Arts and Shoreditch Town Hall, and is produced by ARC Stockton.
We anticipate a relatively small crew, with highly portable equipment. While we do not imagine it is necessary for the whole crew to accompany us on the whole journey, there will be some unavoidable rough and steep terrain on most if not all journeys. A recce day before each shoot will identify locations for filming to take place.
The journeys are currently scheduled to take place as follows:
1 March – Devon (destination tbc)
8 March – Stockton to Roseberry Topping
15 March – Morecambe to Clougha Pike
4 April – London (destination tbc)
We anticipate the films being approximately 5-8 minutes in length. They should all be complete by the end of April, after which they will be published online and exhibited in theatres and galleries alongside the tour of our theatre piece on the same themes.
We would like to receive proposals from film-makers or teams who would like to take on all four films, and also from teams who identify one with which they have a particular connection. Please tell us about the approach you would take to filming, including an outline of crew and equipment. Stylistic references, including but not limited to your own work, would be particularly welcome. We are happy to receive proposals in any format. Written proposals should be no more than three A4 pages and filmed proposals no more than five minutes.
We have a budget of £6500, in total, across all four projects. This includes the filming days indicated above, a recce or planning day in advance of each (we’d only expect the director/project lead at this, not necessarily the whole crew), and editing. It should also cover all expenses any equipment hire. Please send us a breakdown of how you would apportion this budget.
Send proposals by email to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday 14th January. We will aim to shortlist and be in touch with all candidates within a week. Shortlisted candidates may be invited to an informal interview, which is likely to take place via skype or similar.
If you have any questions or require any further information, please get in touch at the same address.
UPDATE - FAQS
We've had an overwhelming volume of interest in this project, so I'm updating this post with some of the questions we've been asked most often.
Could you tell me a bit more about the structure of the films/songs?
Each of the four will have a slightly different structure, but let’s start with what they have in common. In each case the song will be about the relationship between the town/city and its peak, and will be sung by a choir from that place. It’ll be sung by them on a journey from the town/city to the peak. The film will be of that journey.
We expect footage will be taken at various stages of the journey - we don’t expect the film crew to lug equipment the whole way along with us – the journeys will be at least ten miles. On recce days we can determine the best locations for filming, and locate these as close as possible to roads. The obvious exception here is on the final uphill stretch, where we do need you to accompany us. Lightweight equipment will be an advantage!
In at least one case the main journey may be made by a smaller group, with the choir only singing at the beginning and end of the journey. In at least one case the choir may be runners rather than walkers. Still, in all cases, the choir singing the song will be the soundtrack to the film – hence the reference to music video in the initial callout.
It is likely that the structure of the journey and the song will themselves dictate to a large extent the structure of the film. We want you to be responsive to these, but we don’t want you to be shy of making strong suggestions – the fact that the songs are themselves works-in-progress gives you a clear opportunity to contribute to this as a full collaborator.
The most important thing, though, for you to get across to us at this stage, is a sense of your instincts in relation to your stylistic approach to the material.
Can you share the songs with me?
We’re still in the process of writing the songs, with the communities involved. So we’ve nothing to share yet. But to give you some idea, there’s documentation of some of our previous projects on this page here – of the projects covered on that page, musically we expect to be in the world of Wonderstruck and We’re Here.
What is the budget expected to cover?
Basically it should cover all aspects of your work on the project. Fees for you and any collaborators you bring on board. Any equipment hire necessary. Travel and accommodation. You are not expected to cover any of the costs involved in creating the project in the first place – getting the community from A to B is not your responsibility; you just have to film them doing it.
We’re aware that the budget is not massive. We’re not expecting helicopter shots.
Will all the sound be recorded live?
We hope to be able to record the choir in rehearsal too, in order to have some backup sound. We have a couple of options in mind for how best to ensure tempo and pitching are matched. We'll welcome your suggestions on this. Boff’s also pretty good at this stuff and can if necessary lead on recording the rehearsal. He'll also want to have some input to the final sound mix. We do, though, need you to capture sound live and will be very open to your suggestions about the best approach to getting good quality sound - without denying that the wild card of nature is in play.
Is the schedule set for the filming days?
Not yet, but here's a very rough outline. We expect to gather singers for a final rehearsal fairly early in the morning – around 9am. The journey will begin around 10am. We expect it to take several hours. Sunset, though, will be a hard deadline. In March it’ll start getting dusky around 5pm.
Is there a bad weather plan?
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.
Is there room for spoken text in the form of interviews with choir members and/or creative team?
This wasn’t part of the initial idea, but we’re definitely open to it.
Is the idea for the films to be more “documentary” or more “artistic”?
First off, I’m not totally sure I accept the distinction. But the impulse behind the various people asking this question seems to be about content as much as tone – are we looking to explain the story behind the whole journey, or do we want the songs and journeys to stand alone? We’re totally open on this. But even if it’s the latter, it could potentially be done very lightly, with a bit of opening on-screen text, leaving the rest of the material to speak for itself.
Are drone shots a must?
No. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’d be great. But other approaches are possible.
This photo was taken by the brilliant Casey Orr as a publicity shot for These Hills Are Ours, but as November rolls into December, it sums up how I'm feeling at the year's end. Exhausted, beaten up and ready for a rest, I've had two colds in three weeks and I keep getting minor injuries. And after two weeks off for Christmas, it doesn't get any quieter, so in a desperate attempt to remove stresses from my life, I decided to quit drinking until my birthday in June. I feel much better for that, but I'm still knackered.
On Sunday I'm meant to be running a half marathon. My training has been a joke but running isn't one of the stressors that I can easily remove from my life. Partly because it's a relaxant and a depressuriser, but mostly because the show Boff and I are making requires us both to be fit. And at least I'm better off than him. He's got a broken toe.
The show itself doesn't need any special fitness. We'll mostly be sitting down. It's what surrounds the show, and what we're doing in preparation for it, that's alarming. The morning after the final show at each venue we're going to lead anyone who wants to join us in a run escaping their town or city to the nearest high or wild place. This will be easy enough in, say, Lancaster, where Clougha Pike is less than six miles from the theatre. But in London it'll be more like a marathon. And then we'll have to get back.
And these will all be parkruns compared to the set-piece story we're planning to tell at the end of the show, for which we've somehow decided I'm going to run a route of approximately eighty-five miles, over the Forest of Bowland, Pendle Hill and a stretch of the Pennine Way. To say any more would be spoilers, but I mean, holy shit. I'm in decent shape at the moment, but relying a bit too heavily on the Christmas break to provide a miracle rest cure.
Boff and I are in Stockton at the moment doing a few days writing and thinking around the project. It's an amazingly easy collaboration. We tell each other what we think about what the other is doing, take each other's notes, and move on. I've rarely been in a room with less ego. If I'd had a top ten single and run a 31-minute 10K I'm pretty sure I'd be all ego. Not Boff. (When first getting to know him I was never overawed by his rock 'n' roll past, but when I round out his 10K time I was struck dumb by the sense of being in the presence of greatness.)
Last night we ran a workshop on another aspect of the project. In four places (Lancaster/Morecambe, Stockton, London and north Devon) we're creating a choral piece about the journey from that place to its nearest peak or refuge. As if we didn't have enough to do with the show, we're also turning these choral pieces into films, and three of these films will have been shot before the show opens. So yesterday evening a group of people came together to think and talk with us about Roseberry Topping, the Matterhorn of Teesside. It was a real pleasure and confirms again the huge enthusiasm for the ideas behind this show we're amazed to find shared by so many others.
Because at root this isn't a show about running. It's a show about our freedom to roam in incredible places, and a tribute to the people who won us that freedom. Running is simply our way of celebrating their victory.
I've entirely overhauled my working process and it's been transformative, but the major casualty has been this blog.
If you work in the arts - I'm sure it's true in other fields too - it's expected that you'll answer any email that comes in, day or night, more-or-less immediately. I've lost count of the number of times I've received something late morning asking for an URGENT response by 4pm the same day. This is usually a deadline that could have been predicted much further in advance. But because of these occasional alarms we've all learned to be tethered to our inboxes, just in case.
Having been in rehearsals is an acceptable excuse for leaving something a few days but no longer. Having been in Edinburgh for the Festival is tolerable only because everyone else is there failing to reply to email. Having a script to write or a show to imagine: absolutely not. It would be easy to forget that this last part is my actual job, not answering emails. At various times over the past few years I've become convinced that my real job is answering emails, and making art is a hobby I squeeze into the gaps.
Not any more. I've been in more-or-less full-time rehearsal since early September, and I have a show to write and a major project to design. I also have the kids all day Monday, and when Sarah's in full-time rehearsals, as she is now, all day Tuesday too. My working days are precious, and they're for making my work.
Here's a list of things I no longer do during the working day:
- answer emails
- write funding applications
- write copy
- update websites
- anything to do with budgets
- and you know, all that sort of thing
The kids are asleep by shortly after 7pm. I tidy up the mess from dinner, clear up the kitchen, and sit down for an hour or two to do admin.
I'm convinced it has made me more efficient with my time.
I can focus on 1-2 tasks maximum, plus a bit of inbox maintenance. I don't have time to so much as glance at twitter, and I don't want to, because as soon as I'm finished the task to my satisfaction, I can read a book. In the past couple of weeks I've got round to doing some things I've been putting off since June or July.
If I watch a show or have a phone call or something, it eats into this time. The week before last I was in tech, so it was gone entirely. But that's no different to usual when opening a show.
It's not for everyone. Some people simply don't want to work in the evening: I get it - until September this year I was one of you. And some people already work in the evening. And some people are unable to work in the evening. This is also get, again for similar reasons.
The key thing, though, is putting tasks in boxes that appear too small. Work expands to fill the time available. Even if you don't finish something, it's amazing how much headway you can make with it in two hours.
More to the point, my days are free to do my actual job.
Maybe at some point I'll migrate these evening sessions back into the daytime. Late afternoon maybe. A 3pm deadline for creative work in order to do the other stuff. But for the time being, there's just too much to do by day, and I'm enjoying it all the more for having a clear head.
When things collapse, it can feel like they’ve been teetering for a long time, but the final crumbling usually comes quickly. I think we’ve finally reached that tipping point with the Edinburgh Fringe.
People have been saying the Fringe is unsustainable for years now, and yet it’s gone on not only sustaining itself, but posting bigger numbers in every column year on year. Round about this time every year we usually see the news that once again audience numbers are up on all previous years.
That’s not going to happen this year. We’re yet to see any hard data but reports that audience numbers have dropped are rife. It’s hard for me to say from my own show, because it’s an incredibly limited capacity so it sold out reasonably quickly. But looking around, that seems right. It's somehow quieter around Summerhall and the Pleasance Courtyard. Comedians who've had a steady, consistent audience for several years (this barely ever happens in theatre) are seeing a steady, consistent, smaller audience this year. There are of course hit shows selling out. But you can get tickets for things you wouldn’t expect.
The reason is easily identified. Accommodation costs have gone up about 35-40% this year. That sounds like such a ridiculous increase on already ridiculous costs that it can’t possibly be true. But it is. Our three-bedroom flat this year costs £1500 more than the one I was in two years ago. A change in Scottish tenancy laws gave more power to the tenants over their departure dates - a good thing - but led to the unintended consequence of far fewer properties available for the month of August. The resulting squeeze in supply of course created higher demand, and - who'd have thought it! - landlords were emboldened to considerably increase their already sky-high prices.
People who’d already made plans to bring shows up to the Fringe had no choice but to find ways of weathering these increased costs. Audiences are in no such corral. Those who usually come for a fortnight have come for a week; those who usually come for a week have come for three nights; those who usually come for a couple of nights often haven’t bothered at all.
Journalists and promoters have also found it harder to get up and see as much work as they might usually. There’s been less press covering the festival this year, and there’ve been fewer promoters shopping for shows for their venue. In some ways this is worse for artists than the drop in audience numbers: many are at the Fringe in order to sell a tour, impossible without some decent reviews and a good number of programmers.
Everyone already knows that you’re guaranteed to lose a packet at the Edinburgh Fringe. The size of that packet has increased, even if you already budgeted on a conservative box office assumption. In the past, a sufficient number of artists have assessed that risk and considered it a worthwhile investment in the potential future life of the show.
This is without even beginning to address the huge barriers to access created by the necessity of this assessment, and the position of privilege enjoyed by those who are in a position to make it. I don't want to suggest that I think up until now things have been rosy: clearly not. It's been impossible for a lot of people for a long time; it's in the process of becoming impossible for many more too. And even to those for whom it remains possible, will it continue to be worthwhile? Losing an increasingly large packet might make sense if you've got one to lose, so long as you can book a tour off it. If you can't even do that, why bother?
Don’t be surprised if next year show numbers are down with audience numbers. The feedback loop that kept it all growing year on year will work the other way too, and the air could go out of the balloon very quickly indeed.
It seems churlish to be writing this towards the end of a successful Edinburgh run. In fact, in lots of ways this Fringe has been a lot less stressful for me than ever before. My show doesn’t have a venue: I take it to the home of whoever books it, with capacity determined by the size of your living room. So although I’m doing two shows a day, that’s still less than 500 tickets to sell across the course of the run, far less than I’ve sold in any Fringe run for over a decade. With that release of pressure on box office comes a release of pressure on reviews: it’s lovely if they’re positive, but my pocket doesn’t so keenly feel the need for them. And the show’s not going to tour, so I’m not worried about promoters either. It makes me wonder why I'm here at all.
This show exists because of a slightly ridiculous concatenation of circumstances and has been made quite quickly as a result. I had four other projects, all of which moved out of this summer in the course of two catastrophic weeks in March. Suddenly I had five empty months ahead. I had a bit of producing and project planning to do on other upcoming projects, and a lot of applications to write. But there were no project budgets from which to pay for that work.
Over the past seven or eight years, the theatre company that bears my name has built up a small reserve. This is mostly from theatre tax relief claims, along with a couple of budget underspends or better-than-projected box office. In theory that money's there in order to be able to put some of it into grant applications as match funding, but it's also there for when the day gets very rainy: if I have no other paid work, it means I can continue e.g. writing grant applications as might be the case if I were AD at an NPO (albeit on a much lower salary).
(As an independent artist this is a position of extraordinary privilege and I've used as much of this time as I can to support the work of younger and emerging artists - over the past five months this averages out at a little over half a day a week.)
(I'm also concerned that the weather front we're currently facing mean there'll be more rainy days ahead than not, and there isn't much of this money left.)
The project producing, grant applications, and so on, were going to amount to at most a couple of days a week. And meanwhile, with a lot of creative projects delayed, some indefinitely, I was feeling a bit frustrated. So, shortly after 10am one morning in early April I said to my wife, I could just make a new solo show on a shoestring and take it to Edinburgh. She said, what about that idea we had about a home show with Dot when she was a baby? We could make that with Arthur. So we had a look at the Fringe website to find out the registration deadline. Answer: 5pm that day. Game on.
We wrote a budget for a show that had no venue costs, no flyers and no posters. Apart from our time, our costs were someone to do PR, about £50 in props, a couple of train fares, and thousands of pounds in Edinburgh accommodation. For the budget to balance, we needed to sell 70%, and although we had fewer of the usual methods available for trying to make those sales, that figure still represented far fewer tickets than I'd usually expect to sell. It felt worth the risk.
Why it felt worth the risk, I'm still not sure. This Edinburgh run hasn't been an investment in future touring. We just did it for us, just because we wanted to make this show. Its success has been unnecessary. It's been an exercise in lightness, in intrinsic over extrinsic motivations. I'll reflect further on the show itself when the run's over: although it's gone well there have been some absolute shockers along the way. But on the whole, this month has disproved the theory that artists need a gun to their head in order to do good work.
The format of the show has also inadvertently resulted in me being much more able to remain outside the Fringe bubble. I’m not tied to a venue and we have no flyers or posters. And I spend a lot of time being welcomed into people’s homes in parts of the city I previously knew barely or not at all. Escaping the orbit of the big venues feels like freedom, even when I’m escaping to do a show. It's been even better when I'm escaping for a run.
I've said before that I'm mystified by runners who come up for the Festival and then do all their running round and round the Meadows. I mean, you do you, and if you're enjoying yourself I have no wish to dissuade you. But I'd go mad. There are so many great places to run in this city and almost all of them (with the exception of Arthur's Seat) are an escape from the melee. I've done most of my running over the past week in the woods around the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill. This is closer to Marchmont than is Holyrood Park, but I'm yet to meet a festivalgoer who's even heard of it, let alone been there. Craiglockhart and Braid Hills are barely any further, but if anyone's heard of either it's because of Siegfried Sassoon and again, most wouldn't know it's even in Edinburgh.
There are loads of these green hilly places, so this is a great city in which to be a runner, and last week was the heaviest training week I've ever had. Sixty miles, 10,500 feet of climbing and that's without counting the innumerable miles traipsing round Edinburgh carrying a baby. The endurance athlete Ian Sharman is a huge advocate of weight-vest hiking as training for ultra runners and I've thought about that a lot during long walks to shows in Leith: I'm exhausted by this festival, as always, but everything about it is good training. According to my phone, my average step count for the month of August is just over 30,000. In March I ran a good 10K; since then I've run a marathon, a trail ultra and a long fell race and not been well-trained for any of them. Next weekend I run another trail ultra and for the first time since March I feel ready.
I do need to catch up on some sleep, though.
In the spring of next year Boff and I will premiere These Hills Are Ours and there's an open debate about whether we bring it to Edinburgh. It feels like a good Edinburgh show for loads of reasons but my current inclination towards is obviously emotional: I've had a lovely time this year, and I want more of the same. That is utter foolishness. I don't want to be the last artist in Edinburgh when the Fringe finally collapses. It's become, for most, and under the normal circumstances to which I'd be returning, a sort of nightmare vision of itself. Still, it's been a big part of my life and I think I'll miss it when it's gone.
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.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will