Last week the Arts Council announced that “relevance” was replacing “excellence” as the central plank of their strategy for the coming years.
Except that isn’t quite what they announced at all, is it?
As far as I can tell from the various garbled versions of the speech that I’ve managed to cobble together into something meaningful, what was actually announced was that art would be prioritised when it represented a meaningful intervention in people’s lives. This is either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective.
In the latter years of the Labour government concerns were consistently raised that an instrumentalist approach to art deprioritised the quality of that art. This rests on the assumption that art which has an impact on peoples’ lives can’t actually be any good, which is obviously nonsense, but nonetheless, as a result of these arguments, the pendulum swung towards excellence as the key priority. Except it didn’t really. It was either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective. Because alongside that shift came the slogan “great art for everyone”, and throughout the last decade the “everyone” has been at least as important” as the great”. There's a nuanced blog post to be written about why I think this is a good thing, but there isn't time for that today. Let me just say that ACE haven’t so much changed their strategy as tried to draw more attention to what it's always been. I’m with them.
Next, an announcement.
Many of you will be aware that in a moment of madness last month, I decided to raise money for an emerging artist by running a 44-mile mountain race. The background to this is on the fundraiser page here, but the short version is that it’s getting harder and harder to start a career in this industry and I wanted to do a small thing to help someone.
I’m thoroughly delighted to tell you that that someone is Caitlin Gleeson and the project is POUR AND SERVE. I got an astonishing number of brilliant applications and I really wanted to be able to support far more of them. So in the end the thing that made the difference was that this is more than just a show.
It's a show first, though. Pour and Serve is set in a working bar and uses free drinks and audience interaction to explore how the language of sexual harassment perpetuates a culture of violence against women. Just on the level of the show, you’ll understand straight away why it’s up my street: it’s engaging, it's interactive; it reels the audience in with humour and uses that heightened level of engagement to get deep into something that really fucking matters.
I know Caitlin a little. She was in my R&D room at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, an experience she wrote about here. What knowing her a little means is that I know a little about how brilliant, thoughtful and sharp she is. It wasn’t a criterion in discussion of the applications, but I’m very happy to be able to offer a bit of continuity of support.
And it’s more than a show. It’ll be accompanied by a series of workshops that use the show as a starting point for a discussion of sexual harassment and consent. The workshops will help participants develop strategies for intervening in situations before they snowball. And they’re run by Hebe Reilly, whose expertise comes from work with Manchester Rape Crisis, Fearless Futures, and others, and is developing the workshops with Caitlin.
So when it comes to thinking about the best use for this money, it was hard not to give it to a project that’s not just a show, but also uses the platform of a show to make some targeted interventions into the culture that might make a real difference.
If that’s not relevance, I don’t know what is.
In the stooshie about Simon Mellor’s speech there’s been a rehash of a lot of arguments about ACE’s use of quality metrics. Here I agree with most of ACE’s critics. It would be ridiculous to say that they’ve abandoned “quality” because of difficulty with its measurement (not least because I don’t believe they’ve abandoned quality), but I do hope they move on from some of the experiments of the past few years. About a decade ago they introduced “peer assessment” to try to make more transparent the process of evaluating the quality of a piece of work. The trouble is that those doing the assessing are very rarely the artists’ peers. Too often they're written by theatre critics There are some brilliant theatre critics out there, but peer assessment was sold as bringing the specific perspective and experience of a working artist. Whether or not you think that's a valuable part of the ACE process, not many people are getting it. Ten years on, maybe there's an argument for it as the only way we can possibly create a sustainable future for theatre criticism. But it isn't peer assessment and we shouldn't call it that. When I want peer assessment, I ask my peers; I don't commission an essay from them but engage them in conversation. In future, though, I think I'll commission a couple of essays, too.
Running forty-four miles up and down mountains sounds like quite a lot but in reality it's a drop in the ocean. There's a systemic problem here that this doesn't even begin to address. Whether it even succeeds in drawing attention is debatable. I just want to draw attention, though, to the fact that in the past couple of months, since writing those original posts about this, I've had some excellent conversations about more strategic approaches to addressing the systemic problem. We're not going to fix the fact that there's less and less money and support, but we might be able to address some of the skew in who manages to access it. Watch this space.
When agreeing to raise money by running up and down mountains for ten or eleven hours, I should have given some thought to what happens if I’m injured and can’t run. I obviously want Pour and Serve to have the money, but equally, the sponsors have paid for me to suffer: what if I can’t?
I ask this, of course, because I’m injured. Being an injured runner is like being a writer whose computer is installing updates. THIRTY FOUR MINUTES?
I’ve been training incredibly well; on the form of my life. As many of you know I’m gunning for a sub-3 marathon in Edinburgh on May 26th. Two weeks ago I raced a 10K and ran 37:57, which is the fastest I’ve gone over that distance since I was 24: if you put that time into this widget, it predicts a marathon time of 2:58:03. It’s on. It is fucking on. Not much room for manoeuvre, but this is a lifetime goal, and it’s on.
The day after the 10K I went for a long fell run and didn’t even feel that achy from the race. I ran the Helvellyn leg of the Bob Graham Round, I made two really stupid navigational errors (have a look at the GPS on that Strava link and see if you can tell me where), and I still got round really comfortably on a fast schedule. The rest of the week training continued well and on the Saturday, with a trip to the gym still knotting my hamstrings, I did ten miles with three sets of two at half marathon pace.
Later that day, my leg started to hurt.
That was over a week ago.
I’ve had one aborted run since and no more on the horizon. It turns out I’ve inflamed my posterior tibial tendon, which is the one that connects the ankle to the calf. This sort of thing usually heals in about six weeks. Edinburgh marathon is in six weeks.
It’s not completely unimaginable that I’m recovered enough to run. It is almost impossible to imagine recovering sufficiently to run sub-3. It is unbelievably frustrating. Building up to a marathon takes time and I’m going to have to do it all over again.
I feel like Sisyphus watching the rock roll downhill.
I’m sure I’ll be fit by the end of August, but whether I’m 44 miles of mountains fit is another matter. Please hold my posterior tibial tendon in your thoughts, and please sponsor me as further motivation to do all my rehab.
This is a short post and a late one. I make no apology. My son was born this week.
i know right!
It's a bit less overwhelming the second time. The jump from three to four seems much smaller than that from two to three. But it's still a pretty big life event and as much time as possible is to be dedicated to simply holding the baby.
I don't anticipate posting anything until the end of the month. My priority is holding, and so for you, this holding page. It's a summary of offers, opportunities and requests. Here goes.
Emerging artists support fund: I'm running a 44-mile mountain race to raise money for an emerging artist or company. If you think you might be that artist or company, please get in touch by the end of March. Otherwise, please donate. There's a bit more about this madcap scheme here and here. £725 was raised in the first 24 hours and I've not done anything to publicise it since then, so I'm very optimistic that it will reach its target.
If you're one of the people who's been in touch re: the opportunity, apologies for not replying yet. Did I mention my wife had a baby? I'm literally typing this with one hand and holding the baby in the other.
Weirdly, since advertising the opportunity, more people have been in touch to ask what I can offer by way of mentoring than to express interest in being given a large sum of free money. Your call, obvs.
Foodbank Fabaret. A week on Saturday (23rd March) I'm performing at this fundraiser for Morecambe Foodbank, created in response to the horrendous local MP's flat denial of the fact that local children are driven to eating from school bins. He really is a prize shit and I'd happily egg him if it weren't a waste of eggs. Baby Arthur will be on stage with me, making his debut at 12 days old. The organisers are very keen that people can attend regardless of ability to pay, so if you'd like to donate but can't come, buy a ticket and let the organisers know that you'd like it to go to someone else.
Going Viral. As things stand this one in Leeds will be the 98th performance of Going Viral. I'd like it to get to 100 and I don't need to make money on it (although I'd prefer not to make a loss if possible!).
If I can do it at your venue (defining "venue" however you choose), please get in touch, especially if it can benefit a cause.
Bit of a gap. I've got lots going on this year, including the premiere of one new show and substantial steps towards another two. But there is a bit of a gap in the middle of the year. If you can make use of me on your project over the next few months, holler. Did I mention I'm a father of two?
I can make some concrete offers here. First up, there are two or three things I'm writing that I'm not going to self-produce (and not, I might add, because I don't love them!) So if you're looking for a script to produce and you like my work, get in touch. Wherewithal to commission me to finish it a bonus.
Secondly, over the past year I've made a big return to directing. Through my twenties directing was almost the whole of my artistic practice; through my thirties it's been almost none of it. I never intended it to fall away entirely and I'm delighted to be back at this particular coalface. Last week I did a bit of directing on a project with five people on stage. Five! Unimaginable riches! Somebody please let me direct something medium-sized before I pop!
BSF, if you can make use of my eyes, my attention, and my capacity to diagnose and treat my own boredom (on any scale) then please get in touch.
TinyLetter. If you'd like these blogposts to be delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for my TinyLetter. I don't think you get the pictures, but there's only one picture in this one anyway.
Tiny Heroes. There are three performances of Tiny Heroes in April: In Kirklees, West Yorkshire on Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th (tickets here) and in Lancaster on Friday 26th (tickets here).
Run of the week. This regular feature is truncated this week, but I can't miss it out entirely. Sunday's 20-miler turned out to be my last run as a father-of-one and it was a beauty. The virtue of getting a bit lost is the unexpected things you find: for the first time in real life, I saw a hare. It was incredible. I watched it all the way over the next hill, and you really can't believe how fast they move. By this point I wasn't lost in the sense that I had no idea where I was, but I was so in the sense that my sense of my location was rough at best. I've been trying to improve my navigational skills, though, and comparing map and compass told me that if I just followed this watercourse roughly south, I'd get to where I wanted to be. This involved jumping an inordinate number of fences and fording the watercourse (it started as a beck or brook but by the end it was a large stream or even a small river) at several eddying points. It also involved seeing a hare and, not long before I was definitively found, a deer. If you want to see creatures you don't usually see, you need to go where people don't usually go.
Read of the week. I've read several things this week and I can't recommend any of them. I'm still reading this, though, and can still recommend it.
Show of the week. Bit of a weird one, as I haven't seen anything for weeks, but Kieran Hurley's Mouthpiece is about to open in London so I wanted to give it a shout out. I saw it at the Traverse shortly before Christmas and the more I think about it, the more I think it was the best thing I saw all year. Full disclosure: Kieran is a mate. But friendship by no means obliges me to like it anywhere near as much as I did.
But I'm not going to talk about it at any length. I have a baby to hold. BYE!
This is the longest sustained period of Artistic Director Musical Chairs I’ve ever known and it shows no signs of slowing down. In the last week or so Damien Cruden, who’s been at York Theatre Royal since before I’d heard of York Theatre Royal, and Sarah Franckom, who was at the absolute top of anyone’s game at Manchester Royal Exchange, have been the latest to vacate their chairs.
It’s Franckom’s departure that has drawn the most attention and that’s hardly surprising. In the five years she’s been sole artistic director she has completely transformed the organisation. When I used to make occasional trips over from Leeds to Manchester in the last decade, what I invariably saw were solid but unremarkable productions of solid twentieth century classics. There wasn’t much going on beyond the plays and no real sense that this was a theatre in Manchester. I once heard it described as the most provincial theatre in the country, on account of its behaving as though it was in very-very North London. And I once substantially embarrassed myself by badmouthing it in the Barbican foyer, sitting opposite a man who turned out to be Braham Murray.
In the last five or so years it has become a theatre deeply embedded in the life of Manchester, commissioning work that grows with the grass of the city. Its productions of classics have been radically imaginative. And how many theatres, in or out of London, would have commissioned Chris Goode’s version of Jubilee? Or Rash Dash’s Sisters? Franckom’s own directing has been as brilliant and imaginative as her programming. Her production of Our Town is one of the best things I’ve seen in years. And beyond the plays, it has offered unprecedented levels of engagement and support to local artists in Manchester and the wider north west. Franckom is a huge act to follow.
It used to be that these periodic phases of artistic director musical chairs were simply because one or two people went at the same time and everyone else moved up one. That’s not tenable this time around. Without even mentioning London, in the last couple of years we’ve seen departures from HOME, Bolton, Plymouth, Live, Pitlochry, Oldham, Keswick, Birmingham, Sheffield and now York and the Royal Exchange. I’m sure I’ve missed some. And as far as I’m aware the only vacancy to arise because of the sitting artistic director moving somewhere else was that at Bolton. This can’t all be a coincidence. To lose two or three artistic directors in a two-year period might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose a dozen suggests something more sinister.
So what’s going on? You know the answer. It’s austerity. Though it’s been less heralded, there’ve been a similar number of Executive Directors moving on: running theatres is no longer possible in the way it was ten years ago. It’s nine years since the Coalition came to power and brought austerity with them; that’s nine years of budget freezes alongside nine years of rising costs. Philanthropy, the government’s magic wand, does not work reliably if at all outside the M25. So every year it’s been possible to do less than the year before. That’s only sustainable for so long. Occasional miracles of transformation can be performed at the better-funded regional theatres like the Royal Exchange, but these are increasingly outliers. The model is broken. Basically, everyone’s knackered.
It seems fitting that in a week where everyone’s been singing the praises of Sarah Franckom, I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and support for emerging artists.
I spent Tuesday with Alex Kelly, who mentors me. I spent Wednesday with a couple of people I myself mentor. I benefit hugely from my conversations with Alex, which basically constitute me thinking aloud in the presence and with the guidance of someone who’s been round the block a few times more. We drink a lot of coffee and he asks excellent questions. If I give half as much to the people I’m mentoring, they’ll hopefully get something from the process too. But the ecosystem artists emerge into now is very different to the one that welcomed me.
I was lucky enough to start out in the early 2000s, a few years into the Labour government, when arts funding was at a forty-year peak. Without the relative ease of accessing support, I wouldn’t be here now. Artists emerging today have to work for years to start accessing funding and those from backgrounds like mine aren’t able to survive. I do what I can to help, but basically this amounts to occasional phone calls and emails of support and advice, coffee and questions, and reading endless draft arts council applications. Last year I was able to get a series of nine emerging artists into my R&D rooms (e.g.) (e.g.) and do something a bit more substantive. None of it is enough. (ALTHOUGH if you think I can be of help to you, do visit my mentoring page!)
It sometimes feels as though I spend about 40% of my income on crowdfunders to plug the gap in someone’s budget. In plenty of cases this is even when there is public funding. It can feel, in these cases, like audiences are being asked to pay three times: once in tax, once in crowdfunder, and finally at box office. I want to stress that I don’t begrudge this money spent on crowdfunders, only the system that makes it necessary and thus further disadvantages artists without rich friends and family.
Every so often someone bolsters their crowdfunder by running a marathon or a 10K to draw attention to their cause. And this gives me an idea. At this stage of my career, though I'm happy to support others, I feel embarrassed by the idea of doing a crowdfunder for a show of mine, although god knows I could often enough do with one. And I also feel embarrassed by the idea of running a marathon for sponsorship. Running marathons is what I do for fun.
But later this year I’m running this race, which is a bit longer than a marathon, and will be a genuine challenge.
So here’s my idea. I’m going to raise sponsorship by running this race. But not for one of my own projects. For a young or emerging artist. I don’t know who yet. Get in touch if it might be you. It’ll be an artist or company with one or two shows under their belt, probably socially or politically engaged, probably in the north of England. Someone who doesn’t necessarily look like me, possibly (but not necessarily) someone I’ve already been mentoring/supporting.
I’m not going to have a show of the week, run of the week, etc, this week, because I want to end on this offer. Please spread it around your networks. I’ll make some sort of announcement early next month, assuming all goes smoothly with the new baby, so if you want to be considered, please get in touch by March 30th. There’s no formal application process, but if you think your project is a good fit, please get in touch and tell me why I should run 44 miles in the mountains to help make it happen.
The opening of the Dukes/Red Ladder co-production of Glory on Friday was Sarah’s last duty before going on maternity leave. If this baby arrives on the same schedule as our first, it’ll be tomorrow. It’s getting a bit real.
So last week was a good one for contemplating the magnitude of such life choices. Not just because of the heating planet: it was half-term, so between us we needed to find a full week off work in order to look after our firstborn. It being Sarah’s last week, I got very little done and instead mostly spent a lovely week with Dot. Therefore this post will be short.
Glory, though, was a source of great pride. I’m on the board of Red Ladder and it’s been a real thrill to watch them gradually get back to fighting weight after the shock of being omitted from the National Portfolio a few years ago. I joined the board shortly after the company left the portfolio and have watched (and, to some degree, participated) as they’ve shifted their priorities and their focus, re-engaging with their community as well as hugely increasing the ambition of their work.
I wish I could claim some credit for brokering this co-production with the Dukes, but despite appearances, the collaboration between my wife’s theatre and the company on whose board I sit had absolutely nothing to do with me.
Glory was also a terrific symbol of the journey the Dukes has been on since Sarah became AD two and a bit years ago. That was the sixth show the theatre has produced this financial year, which given the scale of the operation and the challenges facing all theatres, is pretty remarkable. Included in that six is the most successful Christmas show the theatre has ever produced, a new kids’ show several of whose tour venues described as “the best show we’ve ever had”, a sensational production of Educating Rita, a play I’d previously thought little of and two major co-productions. Added to which, the family shows have thrived on joyous subversion of traditional gender roles and been built on a basic assumption that a diverse cast and creative team is a given.
And then there’s Glory. Glory is terrific. The plot has the structure of a Bernard Manning joke: a British East Asian, a black ex-squaddie and an asylum seeker go into a wrestling gym. And Jim Glory, the faded former wrestler who owns the gym, is a bit of an accidental Manning, peddling lazy assumptions and backing them up with faulty logic. For the rest of the show the four characters pit themselves against the assumptions they’ve made about one another, and that we’ve made about them. You could describe it as a bit mechanistic, as Mark Fisher does in this excellent review, but as Mark also points out, that’s to overlook the wit and flair with which it’s done. The production is fantastic, the cast is fantastic. The design is gorgeous and the lighting is beautiful. And the wrestling is fucking incredible.
When Sarah became AD at the Dukes, I was obviously thrilled, but I had to mourn the loss of my regular dramaturg. My loss is Nick Ahad’s gain. It’s obviously not all down to Sarah, but I think this is by far Nick’s best play yet. His works sits in the same bit of the spectrum as that of Richard Bean: broad, raucous, hilarious but also bruised and bruising. At its best it has the potential to get into Martin McDonagh territory where there’s real scabrousness and bite. And where both of those dramatists have come apart a bit in recent years through work, (and statements in defence of their work) that comes perilously close to (some would say “is”) deliberate racism, Nick’s experiences as a British South Asian mean that when he gets into this territory he does so with a sense of responsibility and nuance that – believe it or not – doesn’t weaken the jokes. If he wounds, it’s because he’s wounded.
Glory is touring. It deserves a long life. You should go.
Book of the week: I’m still ploughing through the doorstop that is This Land is Our Land; it’s still brilliant and scholarly, but on Sunday I took a break and while Dot was asleep I raced through Vassos Alexander’s Running up that Hill. It’s a breezily enthusiastic account of his experiences in the world of ultra-running, running iconic races like the Spartathlon, the South Downs Way 100 and the Dragon’s Back. He’s tremendous company, Alexander, and I’d happily run alongside him for a long way. Ideal Sunday reading.
Run of the week: It was a fairly light training week last week so I didn’t think I’d have anything to report in this category. For the first time in a while my Sunday long run wasn’t anywhere hilly or scenic so it didn’t seem likely to be noteworthy. It wasn’t even especially long. But it was tremendously satisfying. The same loop was my final longish run before the Yorkshire marathon in October and that time I set out to run it at target race pace, around 7:10/mile. It was a really hard effort and I barely managed to hold the pace. On Sunday I set out to take it fairly easy: not plodding but not racing either, keeping my heart rate in the aerobic zone, which threshold for me is around 155. I have no idea whether I stayed in that zone as my watch died after three miles, but before then I was ticking along at 7:10/mile and the effort seemed steady so I stayed at that pace. So what was a hard workout in October is now a fairly easy Sunday trot. More evidence in favour of making a serious assault on sub-3 at the Edinburgh marathon in May.
Show of the week: I saw four shows this week and I’ve talked about one above. The others were all also excellent and as I’m not watching anything soon, I’ll spread them out and talk about them over the next couple of weeks. But for reference, in case they’re near you, I highly recommend Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange, Rabbit Girl and the Search for Wonder by 154 Collective (touring; which I saw at the Dukes) and Duvet Dancing, a kids’ dance show which we took Dot to at Lancaster Arts. Dot responded by at one point stripping down to her pants. No-one knows why. It's been a lovely week.
This Week In Showbiz - featuring a timebomb, some future projects, several meetings, a 5K race, a dash of hope and a gratuitous swipe at Sir Nicholas Hytner
There’s a timebomb sitting under my working life at the moment. A week on Wednesday, Sarah will be officially 38 weeks pregnant, so the new baby could be born any time. The official due date isn’t until March 13th, but given that Dot was born at 38 weeks and one hour, you’ll understand why we want to be ready. And so I’m trying to get as much as possible done on all my upcoming projects, before this invisible deadline kicks in.
Usually I parent rather than work on Mondays, but in a week like this teaching can form an exception: I spent the morning with the terrific group of students I’m supervising through the creation of their final-year show. Having got back from Devon late on Sunday evening, I’d already been up first thing to unload and return the van (I mean, I was up first thing because I have a two-year-old, but then I had to unload and return a van). So the working week hadn’t started and I was already knackered. I was grateful to spend the morning just soaking up and responding to what my students have been up to since I last saw them. Then I spent the afternoon as Monday should be spent: hanging out with my daughter.
On Tuesday Boff and I went for a run over Kinder Scout. We’re working on a project called These Hills Are Ours and we were retracing the steps of the 1932 Mass Trespass. It seems almost impossible to imagine now that before that action this vast tract of moorland was entirely shut off to public access. As Boff tweeted afterwards, we ran with history clinging to the soles of our shoes, grateful with every step for the actions of those trespassers in 1932 that won us the right to this fantastic run. Don’t let anyone tell you protest never achieves anything.
The core of the project is a series of runs from the centre of the city in which we find ourselves, to the top of the peak overlooking that city. We’re exploring the role of hills and mountains in the urban imagination, the need for escape, and the system of land ownership that places barriers between us and that escape. For me it’ll be the most personal show I’ve yet made: the opening section (as it currently stands) tells the story of me running from Middlesbrough to the top of Roseberry Topping, through scores of memories of my upbringing and background. It’s funny and sad and simple, consisting of little more than me telling stories and Boff singing songs, with a bit of chat between us and the audience between. It’ll be the first show I’ve made where all the stories are true. It looks uncomfortably as though the climactic story is going to be about me running from my house in Lancaster to the top of the Lake District peak you can see from my road - a distance of some 45 miles. Watch this space…
The show is just one aspect of the project, which is also going to involve putting choirs on top of hills and making short films of the process. Community choir projects are what Boff and I have done together over the past six or seven years and this time the community is one of runners. The show itself will hopefully see the light of day a little over a year from now, but if all goes to plan you’ll be able to see some of the choral and filmic elements later this year.
The run itself was glorious. There’s some reasonably stiff climbing on the way up, but it never seems far. And once you’re on top it’s one long gently undulating ridge line. Peaty and rocky, it’s the kind of run that keeps you alert with every step, but it’s incredibly runnable all the same. And it’s hard not to blaze along full of low-level astonishment at the fact that if you did this 100 years ago you’d be shot at by the gamekeeper.
Apart from one excellent meeting each day, the rest of the working week was lower in exhilaration and lower still in fresh air, being entirely about budgets and timelines and applications and project plans. At this point I could wax lyrical about excel and froth mightily about grantium, but perhaps a better way of introducing you to more of these projects will be through the meetings.
Wednesday’s, about These Hills Are Ours, was really positive, and fired me with even more enthusiasm about the project, and will hopefully lead to a partnership with a fantastic organisation who have absolutely no history of supporting any theatre whatsoever. OUTREACH.
Thursday’s was lunch with Jennifer Street, the first work-in-progress of whose show Why Do We Care? I directed earlier this year. Jen is a circus artist and intensive care nurse. (Yes, really.) Her show brings those two things together in a fabulous exploration of the nature of care, featuring an inflatable unicorn costume and audience members as obstacles in a gymkhana. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out next steps for the project, which we did. It’s going to be a further period of R&D later this year, with the aim of finishing the show and getting it on the road in the spring of next year.
And Friday’s meeting was with Aliki Chapple, whose show 666 CommentsI directed in the spring of last year. That show stages an online comment thread in all its technicolour monstrosity. It is terrifying and unexpectedly hilarious. Directing it last year was an enormous pleasure and a privilege and we’re now gearing up for the next stage of activity. This year or next it may go to Edinburgh, but it will certainly tour from this autumn.
AN ASIDE: Last year there was a bit of a furore when it was noted that Nicholas Hytner had never directed a play by a woman. Not just seldom. Literally never. It’s almost incomprehensible. Like, over a career as long as his that can’t occur by chance: it has to be deliberate. Anyway, after meeting Jen and Aliki, I wondered idly how many of the shows I've directed over the past year are by women. Turns out it’s four. Out of four. If this proves anything, it is that I am objectively morally better than Sir Nicholas Hytner. There can be no other conclusion.
Friday finished with a 5K race. I was hoping to do well in this because it’s completely flat and has no sharp turns, so I’d taken a couple of easy days beforehand (by which I mean not running fast or long, rather than taking the day off work) in order to try and run faster than I ever have over the distance. Truth be told, my 5K PB was always softer than my 10K or half marathon times, because I never ran a 5K back in my twenties when I was fast. But still, you don’t get PBs for free and I’m not sure Friday evening, at the end of a week in which I was knackered by Monday morning, is the ideal time for racing.
The race had a cut-off of sub-7-minute-miles - roughly a 21 minute 5K - so it was always going to be fast. A few of the lads could be overheard targeting the course record of around 15:something, for which there was a prize of thirty quid. My goals, by contrast, were: 1) don’t come last; 2) don’t get lapped; 3) go under 18:59 to set a new personal best. It says something about the field that as I stood on the start line I was marginally more confident of #3 than #1 or 2.
The field went off like the gun was firing at them, with the exception of me and one other bloke, who was audibly shocked by the pace. I spent the first half-lap of a four-lap course nestled in second last, just praying that this other bloke wasn’t gaining. Even then, my pace felt a bit hot, but I was feeling OK so decided to stay on the edge. And gradually, people started to come back to me, realising one by one that they’d gone off too fast. As the race went on I must have overtaken nearly half the field, without being overtaken once myself. This must be the definition of a well-paced race; almost the first time I’ve managed that in a 5K. I was pleased with this in itself. I was even more pleased when at the finish line my watch said 18:23, a new PB by over 30 seconds.
Most of you aren’t the least interested in my running exploits, but I have to tell you now that one of my few remaining lifetime goals, and by far the largest, is to run a marathon time in a time starting with a 2. This is right at the edge of what I might possibly be capable of, I am completely obsessed by it, and at 38 years old, it’s soon or never. My last marathon was run in 3:10:54 and I was thoroughly pleased, given that it came off relatively little training. I’m running Edinburgh in May and I'm already fitter than last year. I know I could take five to seven minutes off reasonably comfortably, in so far as anything is comfortable when running a marathon. Or just maybe I'll go all out for sub-3, in which case I might fall apart entirely, or just to aim for five to seven minutes nearer, in which case I’ll be pretty confident.
As soon as I got home on Friday, I entered my shiny new 5K time into this race predictor. It suggests my 5K time predicts a marathon finish of 2:59:08. That 5K was an abnormally fast course, and the marathon is a different proposition entirely, so before making any decisions I’ll see how I do at 10K (three weeks from now) and half marathon (two months). But consider the carrot dangled.
All of this takes no note of the fact that in a couple of weeks my sleep is going to be detonated for at least the next year. But on Tuesday, Boff told me that peoples’ running generally gets a boost after the birth of a child (also after the beginning of a new relationship and the end of an old one). This seems utterly incredible, but it is true that mine kicked up a gear after Dot was born. Then Boff told me that he did his Bob Graham the year after his eldest was born and I lost my last excuse not to go all-in.
Show of the week:I loved the work-in-progress of Leo Burtin’s With Bread. Along with his co-performers Aliki Chapple and Katherina Radeva, Leo tells stories personal and historical that delicately teases out themes of migration and friendship, as we collectively make bread. Then we break and eat the bread together. It’s elegant and satisfying and although we made flatbread, it’s still rising. I was also grateful for it because it was on Friday afternoon, I was knackered, and I was glad of a decent excuse to ease off on work before the race that night.
Run of the week: I've given you two already. What more do you want? OK, Boff and I went out again today.
Telly of the week: I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m excited about the new season of Trapped, which started last night on BBC. The first series was by miles the best TV I saw that whole year, and that was the year I watched Breaking Bad. Crime drama that isn’t predicated on the subjection of women is pretty rare, so it gets points for that from the off. It goes on to playfully upend the genre's tendencies in this regard, right through to the solutions. Crime drama this politically astute is even rarer, and for it to boil this up with real depth of character and feeling, well, I can’t think of another example. And all that says nothing about the twisty intensity of the main plot. Series two can’t possibly match it but if it’s half as good it’ll still be sensational. I can’t give you a tip based on anything I’ve seen because the only TV I’ve seen this week is about seventeen episodes of Hey Dugee.
Book of the Week: I'm reading This Land is Our Land by Marion Shoard, about the history of struggles for land ownership in the UK. If you've read this far you'll know why I'm reading it, so I'll just leave you with an extract:
"For nineteenth-century English labourers, dispossession was the natural state. Their collective memory did not accommodate the idea of land ownership by people like themselves. As a defeated class they looked only to improve the terms of their subjection, and in their own time, they failed even in that."
Heroes of the week: by contrast, I was beaming full and wide this week reading about the schoolchildren striking in protest at what we generations above are doing to the planet they'll be living on long after we've gone. Hope for the future rarely comes in portions this large.
We opened Tiny Heroes in Devon this week, under the aegis of the wonderful Beaford. They co-commissioned the first version of the show, so it means a lot to go back and open this final version with them three years later. It went incredibly well. I’m delighted. I’m also knackered: I write this having driven for eight hours today (Sunday), from Devon to Leeds to Lancaster.
I love rural touring. I love meeting a community in its own place, a community that may have almost nothing in common beyond their shared investment in that place. I love rural communities because their remoteness can mean that they’re that much more reliant on one another despite their differences. In many respects these communities can appear homogenous, and in many demographic respects this is troublingly accurate (I am aware that it's much easier for the feelings I describe to arise in a white man). Even so, it doesn't take long for this surface homogeneity to dissolve into surprisingly different perspectives and experiences.
And most of all, I love the welcome and the hospitality. My schtick is all about hosting, so it's fun to do shows where I'm so manifestly a guest. The space itself and the community's pre-existing relationship with that space do a lot of the work of hosting. Even more so than in any of my other work, I can't get away with pretending to be anywhere other than here, because everyone instinctively knows they have permission to interrupt, like your grandad heckling at your wedding.
It seems fitting to have headed off on a rural tour straight from Slung Low’s new place. There’s nothing remotely rural about Holbeck, but still, Slung Low's approach has a lot in common with that prevalent on the rural circuit. The importance of hospitality, of shared meals, of a sense that community comes not just from shared interests but from a shared place. We can’t build a world together if we only ever interact with people whose interests correspond with our own. We have to meet on shared ground.
But I’m not going to spend too much time singing the praises of Slung Low. I did that last week, and will surely do so again.
While rehearsing this week I stayed at the home of Dick Bonham (among his other qualifications, the director of Going Viral and The Price of Everything). With his partners-in-crime Howard and Choq, Dick recently opened a new venue, The Constitutional, in Farsley, west Leeds. And while I’m generally sceptical about the practice of opening new venues left, right and centre (hemhemthefactoryhemhem), The Constitutional is exactly how this sort of thing should be done. It’s the latest development in nearly fifteen years of work deeply embedded in the community of Farsley. For ten years, Dick and Howard (and later, Choq) ran an annual street festival in Farsley, where they all live. It was made in collaboration with the local community. At its peak ten thousand people showed up.
Then “the people who brought you Farsley festival” started a monthly night in an old mill building, called Trouble at Mill. They put on a piece of theatre and a band, Dick and Howard emceed, there was good food and a great bar. It was basically A Good Night Out (complete with Soviet-propaganda-style marketing). And the local community had learned to trust these people, so they showed up in force. The first year there was some ACE subsidy. For the next four, they didn’t need it. And now, from once a year through once a month, at the Constitutional, they’ve gone to 3-4 times a week.
You can’t do this unless you’ve been having a conversation that whole time. If you just build it without asking anyone if they want it, why the fuck would they come?
(I’ve been thinking a lot about community this week partly because I’ve been rural touring and rehearsing at Slung Low and staying at Dick’s. Also partly because I feel the lack of a community in my life at the moment. I’ve felt it for more than five years and I’m incredibly jealous of Dick’s embeddedness in Farsley. There are loads of reasons for my famished, shallow roots at the moment, and some of them are currently a bit raw to talk about in public. But given how much of my work is invested in the value of a community working together to make a difference in their place, it’s a bitter pill that I’m no part of any such community. There are loads of things I want to do, but for the raw reasons and others, it hasn’t been able to happen. Watch this space. I hope.)
Show of the week: it was last week really, but I don’t see much at the moment so I’m banking them where I can. We had a giddily expensive day out in Edinburgh last Saturday to see Touching the Void and it was a twisty, psychologically acute version of the vertiginous nightmare. David Greig has taken huge liberties in some ways and been startlingly faithful in others and it adds up to a terrific shift of perspective on a well-told tale.
Telly of the week: that last episode of Les Miserables was terrific, wasn’t it? That lingering final shot of children begging in the street: our heroes Marius and Cosette may be happily married, but so what, we still need a revolution. I said last week that I feel the need for optimism in the discourse now more than ever and my love for this bleak ending may seem to contradict that. I don’t think it does. Optimism doesn’t mean a happy ending, it means an ending that suggests happiness will one day be possible.
Radio of the week: everyone was rightly full of love for Bob Mortimer on Desert Island Discs and I commend that episode to you if you missed it. Once you’ve listened to it, go back and listen to this wonderful episode of Chain Reaction in which Mortimer interviews Vic Reeves. It’s deliriously, perfectly silly. It's so far from being like any art I'd ever argue for as to make recommending it irresponsible. And yet here I am. I’ve listened to it eight or nine times and will do so regularly until I die. It's the greatest comfort. It reminds me of home. It feels a little bit like love.
I'm afraid of the level of self-revelation this represents.
We’re just about to enter week three of rehearsals for Tiny Heroes, unless you count the weeks we spent making it the first time, or the second time. Yet despite it being probably the most rehearsed of my shows, I don’t imagine you’ve heard of it, because no-one notices the things that don’t tour to regional theatres. Or indeed, no-one notices the things that don’t tour to London or the Edinburgh Fringe. By which measure, since everything I’ve finished in the last year has been community-focused, you probably think I haven’t made a show in years.
So before I get on to anything else, since you haven’t heard of it: Tiny Heroes is a show about acts of heroism, small and large, and about the dangers of the very idea of heroism. At its core are stories of often virtually invisible acts of heroism, sourced from the communities with whom I worked when developing it. It was originally commissioned by the Bike Shed in Exeter and Beaford Arts in North Devon. It ran for two weeks across those two places in February 2016. The second time round, we made a new version for Leeds and it ran for a week there in December 2017. This third version brings together some of those stories along with some new ones and some we’ll collect along the way, to create a sort of national tapestry of arguments about heroism. It’ll be on the road on and off throughout 2019.
Since The Price of Everything I’ve found political optimism harder and harder to maintain, but I still think it is the only responsible political choice. Yes, we probably are all a bit fucked, but to act on that basis is to do nothing. It’s no coincidence that my bleakest show (or at least, my show with the bleakest ending) is also my award-winningest. That show, Going Viral, was also about grief, so I was finding optimism especially hard. But generally, I think hope, though it’s hard, is worth the effort. So it’s nice to get back into Tiny Heroes, which, while acknowledging that we only need heroes when things have already gone badly wrong, celebrates dozens of causes for optimism. With songs.
Hero of the week: we’ve been rehearsing at Slung Low’s new gaffe, the Holbeck Working Mens’ Club, after an unfortunate double-booking elsewhere left us, at short notice, without a room. I wasn’t going to ask Slung Low, because they’re literally building the venue as we speak. But I did a shoutout on Facebook and Alan stepped into the breach, tall dark handsome stranger that he is. I know a lot of people whose values infuse their work and the structures they build around it. I try to do this myself. But no company I know does it with such ferocious rigour as Slung Low. Heroes all.
Confession of the week: I promised myself I’d do a blog post a month this year and here we are on the third of February. The thing is that imagined posts inflate in my head until they just seem like far too much work. Then I saw Annabel is doing weekly blogposts and thought, that’s an idea. (Annabel is, as ever, an inspiration.) A shorter one every week oughtn’t to be impossible. Sometimes I’ll talk about my work, sometimes I’ll talk about the industry, sometimes I’ll talk about politics, just depending on what’s been going on in my week. I can put a photo from the week at the top, maybe another. And at the end I can do a little rundown of stuff I’ve read/seen/done, like this:
Show of the week: hard to see this becoming a regular feature as parenthood means I see very little at the moment. But I loved Third Angel’s Department of Distractions. In lots of ways it’s a massive departure for Third Angel: it looks and smells like an Actual Play. Despite that, it is stuffed full of all the things you want from Third Angel, with the bonus of an incredibly satisfying plot. It’s choc-a-bloc with Pynchonesque, Twin Peaksy details, my favourite being the bloke who fakes his own death several times a day. About halfway through I found myself thinking it had a curious absence of politics, but then, in the next scene, there they were. And the ending plays out in a few different ways depending on the politics of what you think is going on. It’s a great script by Alex Kelly. The cast are great. The entire design team – Bethany Wells, Heather Fenoughty, Katharine Williams – have done rich things that keep it alive and moving before the story kicks up a gear. I really liked it, and I’m still thinking about it, and I'll be thinking about it for a while.
Third Angel have been a hugely important company for me: their work is really different to mine, three or four of their shows that have influenced me profoundly, and I still carry them with me. The first of them was pushing twenty years ago, but there it still is, in my head, no doubt getting further and further away from whatever it was actually like.
Telly of the week: In about forty minutes it’s the final episode of the BBC Les Miserables. I love it. The novel is overblown and melodramatic and you can absolutely understand how the musical got to be like it is. But this adaptation puts back in all the context and the politics that the musical denuded, and that are what make the novel so remarkable. People often remark how extraordinary it is that a mainstream musical was made about mid-nineteenth century revolutionary French politics – and of course this would never have happened without the subsidised sector. But it’s not really about the politics, is it? What I love about this TV adaptation is that without sacrificing the entertainingly hokey plot, it puts that political context right back at the centre. Every episode opens with an image of widespread human misery that somehow then haunts the rest of the episode. Thirty-five minutes. I should just have time to get this post up before it starts.
Book of the week: I’ve just finished Johnny Muir’s The Mountains Are Calling, which is about hill running in Scotland. It’s fabulously enjoyable if you like that sort of thing (and I’m aware that most people don’t). Most noteworthy to the general reader will be the chapter on Jasmin Paris, who suddenly came to national attention a couple of weeks ago when she won the Spine Race along the Pennine Way.
This week I was in a pub with a friend who expressed irritation about the times when, come the play-offs every year, people suddenly affect interest in her niche sport, basketball. They don’t know these teams and players, they’re just repeating something they saw in the Guardian. Whereas no-one has ever expressed interest in my niche sport, long distance hill and mountain running, so I was delighted when the absolute legend that is Jasmin Paris briefly became a star. She is surely the most impressive human alive and I don’t even think her outright victory and ten-hour course record (while stopping to express breast milk at every aid station) is her most impressive achievement. She’s the fifth fastest ever on the Bob Graham Round, which only about two thousand people have ever even completed. And she’s the outright fastest at the Ramsay Round, which less than 150 people have ever managed. And next month she’ll submit her PhD thesis.
Run of the week: Tomorrow marks the beginning of a sixteen-week training cycle til my next marathon, so this was probably silly. But you can’t turn down the fells in the snow. The photos above were taken on the run.
This week Daniel Bye got me to run up a mountain.
Well not a mountain
More like a hill
And he didn’t really make me do it
And I didn’t really run
I sort of ran for a few minutes then coughed out half a lung’s worth of phlegm and crawled to the fucking top in bursts of walking every few minutes, complaining all the way
Meanwhile Dan practically skipped to the top then leapt off like a fucking mountain goat to his next destination: Captain Cook’s Monument
But I still fucking did it ok so that’s what really matters
And I did it because Dan was going to
Because he created the opportunity
And I wouldn’t be alone doing it
(Would I fuck walk up Roseberry Topping alone at the end of November without prior encouragement?)
But it was a nice metaphor for the entire week, I think
I entered the room this week feeling more tired than I have in a long time:
And without this opportunity I absolutely would not have broached the idea of making any kind of new work
But through the encouragement of Dan and Naomi and Ruth I worked on four new show ideas. Four new ideas that might become pieces of solo work, or group shows, or even community engagement projects. And I’m excited about all of them for different reasons. I have to share one next week and I’m not entirely sure which, yet.
All of these pieces have to consider the community. They must all be shows/projects that someone on Stockton High Street could come across and go ‘yeah alright then’, and then, sitting in the theatre watching, still go ‘yeah alright then’. They must be for the people from where I’m from, and it must be able to benefit them.
And during this week I have had the chance to hear about a wealth of work from three different artists. And that’s really exciting: to be encouraged to make whilst supporting and spurring on separate pieces of work, and to work in a new way that I have never encountered in the professional world, especially funded.
This week I nearly cried when I left some milk in my boyfriend’s mam’s fridge that I was going to use for my cereal the next morning. I was that tired.
This morning I ran up a mountain (shhhh) and this evening I have new ideas for work in the midst of burnout, of being preoccupied with other jobs and a project that I have been with for a long time now
And it was all thanks to the encouragement of others, to the creation of opportunity
And I feel refreshed
I feel thankful
And most of all, I feel really excited to see what everyone shares next week in Newcastle so we can keep on encouraging each other further'
My lungs are a little bit on fire and no amount of breathing seems to be taking in enough air. My legs feel like they’ve tripled in weight and lifting each one up and placing it slightly further ahead, slightly further uphill feels impossible. My face is a grimace and my eyes are trained firmly on the ground, frantically trying to work out where to put each foot so I don’t slip. I pause, look up to see how far behind I am and surprisingly find it isn’t much, and in this split second I take in a lot. The bright sky, the big, furry cows beyond the fence to my right, the almost silky-looking grass on top of the moor that is closer than I expected, and Dan and Boff running only just ahead. This all fortifies me so I take a deep breath and push on, still looking up, and in no time I’m at the top, hands on hips, lungs gratefully swallowing air, head taking in the huge view of Saltaire and Bradford and (if you squint) Leeds that stretches out below us. I think, as if I got myself here?
I spent a week as Dan’s ‘person in the room’, which was essentially an invitation to be witness to his R&D process and have some time to make my own work too. I had some idea about what to expect and was prepared for some writing, some chatting and some reflecting (and very unprepared for some running). I’d met with Dan a couple of weeks beforehand and we’d chatted about what we’d both be working on. He’s in the middle of a monster R&D process, teasing out about nine ideas for shows, including one about running ultramarathons via places that are out of bounds, and one about escaping cities by running up hills with Boff Whalley. I would be working on Spill, a solo show about memory, being brought up catholic, trauma and wine that I’d performed a scratch of the week before at HOME in Manchester.
For the first two days, the room was full of writers: me and Dan, plus Stef Smith, Emma Geraghty, Chris O’Connor and Matt Rogers. These days oscillated between writing independently and getting together to chat about what, how and why we were writing. I had two of the most productive writing days of my life; even though most of the time we were completely in our own bubbles, being around other people who were writing made it feel so easy. Thursday was spent with Dan and Boff, and Friday was just Dan and me. Every so often we migrated out of the room to celebrate each other’s victories (another thousand words!), make coffee, and chat about what we were finding difficult, what was going well, what we needed to do next. I sometimes really struggle to honestly reflect on work with other people, but being with such a lovely, open and generous bunch made this feel effortless.
A lot of big questions came up throughout the week. Some of the things we asked were: what do we do with all the anger we hold at the world? Why do people make solo theatre? Is it because it’s easier to budget for one performer, or because in a post-neoliberal world everyone has become so self-centred they only want to share their own experience? Or, less cynically, is it because it gives you the chance to properly be with an audience in ways that are actually quite hard to articulate? How do you best work with an audience? How do you make sure your audience are looked after while still maintaining just enough risk that they’re invested in the show? How do you look after yourself when making shows about difficult stuff? If you seem to be at risk is this good or bad for the audience? What happens when we die? How does being a lapsed catholic shape your life? Why do some people feel unsafe running by themselves? Could you convince a choir to run up a hill? I also spent a lot of time asking myself why I make theatre, of all things. While I’m not sure there are easy (or any) answers to some of these questions, they feel necessary to ask; sometimes not knowing tells you how much work you’ve still got to do.
Most of the week happened at the lovely Theatre in the Mill in Bradford but, as one of the shows Dan is developing is about escaping a city on foot, on Thursday we ran out of Bradford to Baildon Moor with Boff. I run often but I run slowly, and for relatively short distances, and on flat land. This run was three times further than I’d ever run in my life, and up a hill. I was wholly convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and at first tried to politely decline, but Dan told me it wouldn’t be too far and that I’d be fine. Still, Thursday morning came and I was terrified.
I spent a lot of the week feeling scared. To be fair, Shivers, a night of brilliant but horrifying ghost stories we saw at the Constitutional in Farsley was to blame for a lot of this. But I was scared of running, of the possibility that I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I was scared that I somehow wouldn’t be good enough at being the person in the room, despite Dan being very clear about what he expected of me. And making Spill scares me a bit, too, because it’s quite personal but also because I’m worried it might actually just be shit. Throughout the week though, I gradually realised that these fears were mostly baseless (apart from the ghost stories – that fear was definitely justified). The run was hard but I did it. Being the person in the room was brilliant – once I was there it was so easy to ignore any self doubt I’d had and crack on. And for the first time, I genuinely felt like I could make Spill, that it was a good enough idea, that I was good enough to make it, that even if it’s shit at first, there are a whole host of people who can help.
Being a person in the room was one of the best working weeks I’ve had. I felt like an enormous amount of trust and value had been put in me but this spurred me on rather than overwhelmed me, made me think: I got myself here, I am good enough, I can. Dan said after the run, ‘you could do a half marathon next week, if you wanted to’. And I think, I could! But I wouldn’t have realised it before.
It’s very seldom I go into a creative room unprepared. More often than not I know what my role is in the room and why I am there. I am there as a director, writer, performer or part of the creative team, creative thinking and making offerings that will enhance the production, play, show.
Before this, I had seen Daniel Bye on stage at ARC Stockton turning my mind’s cogs, making me think and ponder about the world we live in, making me question and most importantly making me Feel. I find his work… what word is the opposite of submissive? When you have to sit up and pay attention because you don’t want to miss anything and you can’t escape because you don’t want to? Anyway that is exactly what he does to me, through his shows.
So to be asked if I would like to be in a room at ARC Stockton for a week with Dan, where he is an associate artist and I’m the artistic associate, was exciting and intimidating, exhilarating and explicably harrowing. What can I tell him that he doesn’t know already? How can I contribute? His thinking, his language, his mind is superior to mine. His will is stronger. He has a PhD.
To prepare for the week I asked him to send me anything he wants me to look at or think about. He guided me to his blog. This blog http://www.danielbye.co.uk/blog
So many Ideas, so many stories and so many shows. Even if he makes his two ideas into shows, a year, and I hope he does, he’s all sorted for the next five years. The ideas weren’t just off the cuff, quite the contrary in fact. They are rich with flavour, their ingredients fresh, you can sink your teeth into it.
I was also really impressed with the way he works, “I’m all right, you’re all right kind of way”. There was no hierarchy, no leader and no follower. I really envied his openness and his nonchalant manner in the room. He had stuff to write and he gave me time to work on my own stuff. We checked in in the morning and we checked out afore the day’s end. Made a plan for the next day and off we trot.
It felt like we didn’t really do much work. We talked a hell of a lot. He with his double espresso and me with a black coffee. Most days my brain hurt, a good hurt.
All in all, I’ve had a great experience of being The person in the Room. Although we come from a different side of the spectrum as far as performing goes, we are quite similar as far as ethics, ethos and importance of telling stories. I feel like I’ve got to know the other person in the room whose work I really appreciate.
I’m really excited about what Dan will work on next. Keep on keep on friend.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will