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.
A few weeks ago I advertised an opportunity for emerging(ish) theatremakers, and the experience was so positive I'm now advertising four more.
For those who missed it the first time round, I am undergoing some very broad-based and open-ended R&D on a range of different projects, from an overlapping set of starting points. Earlier in the process I wrote this about the project as a whole and it remains not entirely inaccurate.
I have some funding to support an emerging(ish) theatre maker to join me in the room for each of the eight weeks. Let this opportunity be known as Person in the Room. Here's a bit of writing by Emma Geraghty, who was Persons in the Room #1-2, and here's a bit by Kamaal Hussain, who was Person in the Room #3. Another piece by Umar Butt, who was in the room last week, will follow in a few days.
Now I'm looking for people to join me at:
Theatre in the Mill, Bradford, 30 Oct-2 Nov
Theatre in the Mill, Bradford, 6-9 Nov
ARC, Stockton, 27-30 Nov
Northern Stage, Newcastle, 4-7 Dec
Given the way these weeks have tended to roll, it makes sense if the Person in the Room is someone with a writing practice, or at least with writing as part of their practice. At least part of the time is going to be writing time. In most of these weeks there'll be at least one day with performers in the room getting work on its feet and on these occasions there'll be a chance to focus in on your work as well as mine. In all four weeks there'll be a range of different people through the room, my collaborators on a range of projects.
A couple of location-specific things: at least one day in Stockton will be focused on a project for young audiences: you don't have to have a special interest in this area, but let me know if you do. And one part-day of each Bradford week will involve an extended research trip away from the theatre on foot, aka a long run to the hills. You don't have to have a special interest in running 15-20 miles in which case you're very welcome to meet me and Boff at the end point. But again, let me know if this floats your boat.
The Person in the Room is required to prepare nothing, and to bring nothing into the room beyond their brain and their heart, and to do little more than to respond to what they see and hear, using the aforementioned equipment. Additionally, they'll document the week in some form - that could be a blog post but it could equally be a short video or a cartoon, or an imaginary animal. As you'll have seen above, it's mostly been blog posts so far, but I'm still holding out for that imaginary animal.
There's £500 to pay for your time, plus travel expenses. Accommodation can be provided if necessary, but do note that I'm committed to working predominantly with people who have some pre-existing relationship with the venue or the town/city in which we're working.
To apply, email me on danielbye AT ymail DOT com (not gmail). In the subject line, let me know which of the four weeks you're applying for (you can express an interest in more than one). In the body of the email, tell me who you are and what you'd like to get out of the week. Tell me a bit about what project of your own you'll be working on during the week, when opportunity arises, and maybe a bit about how I can help. Tell me where you're based and what your relationship is with the town/city in which we're working.
I encourage applications from people who don't look like me. Please let me know if you have any additional access requirements. I will meet them.
The deadline is one week from the time I post this advert, so that's 15.24 on Monday 1st October.
I'll get back to people as quickly as I can. My decision will be made on the basis of who I think I can help, as well as who can help me.
Two weeks ago (maybe a little more), I applied for and was accepted to be Daniel Bye’s PERSON IN THE ROOM. In my mind it was a longshot; Dan is a very experienced theatre maker, whose name I have known for some years, finally met him in Edinburgh last year, and whose show there, Instructions for Border Crossing, had made a rather large impact on me in terms of form and content. I, on the other hand, am an artist at the very beginning of my making career (I had my first show as maker in Edinburgh last year too), and despite Dan’s PERSON IN THE ROOM shout out being for EMERGING(ISH) artists, thought that my work was not at the level he would want for this R&D period.
There’s little false modesty in that; I like so many others, suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, and am, of course, my own worst critic; but, in went the short application, and two days later I received my successful reply. Dan sent me a brief outline of the week, and said he would send through some stuff to read through. I settled myself down into the idea that we would be working on some very specific ideas, which had already gone though some of Dan’s process (both thought and theatrical).
The surprising part of that initial brief, was the offer to examine some of my own new work, within the room, and with Dan and the other artists present. There is a level of generosity in this that, in my experience, is almost unheard of. Every R&D I have done has been with a specific agenda – to work towards a product, however rough in form, a step along the process of making a show. It’s not that this wasn’t true here, but there was a freedom in both Dan’s thinking, and approach that allowed for others to individually create, as well as work towards his ends.
The week went like this:
Monday – Dan doesn’t work Mondays. As a father and maker, he has learnt to allow himself additional time to be just that, to spend time with his daughter, to run (a passion of his) and to just be. Great! He did, however, offer me the use of the room to pursue my own work. As a serial procrastinator, who can find any home distraction useful in pursuing the delicate art of not tackling things, the offer to get up in the morning and ‘go to work’ on my own work was a wonderful thing.
I was able to sit in the space, without either my husband or my dog, the washing up, the hoovering, ironing or a thousand cups of tea to distract me. I used the time to research my next piece, and galvanise some thought about where it was going. I went home having a feeling of better direction on the piece, and a warm virtuous glow.
Tuesday – we arrived at 10am, and Dan went through his vision of the week. We then spent a few hours till lunch discussing the themes Dan was working on, in general terms; ideas and thoughts, both personal and social, all of which led towards an idea Dan has currently. It was simply that, a conversation. Work adjacent; work informative, but a conversation. Ease-making.
The afternoon comprised the jotting down of ideas under a set of general themes, related to the morning’s conversation. A part of that was working with Dan through his process, valuable advice for collating ideas and zoning in on items of interest through that process. Having done that, we sat down again and wrote. Dan working through some of the stuff we’d come up with earlier in the afternoon, and me, at Dan’s prompting, further developing my own work.
Wednesday – after the usual ‘hellos and how are yous’ (Dan had been for a big run the night before), we sat down to more of the same – writing and developing our own work, till lunchtime (no small amount of coffee was consumed during this period).
At midday, a group of three performers arrived, and after the meets and greets, we dove into Dan’s written world. Movement towards the more traditional R&D. Reading his work, and discussing it. And then, the generosity I spoke about earlier kicked in. I was given the opportunity to do the same with the performers. My works was given the same time and space and discussion. It always astounds me (maybe it shouldn’t), what a group of intelligent, incisive artists can bring to my own thought process and practice.
Further discussion took place, Dan giving us some things to think about for the next day; and also made the same offer to the performers in the room, for their work to be shared with us tomorrow; and given the same space and time and discussion. And off we went.
Thursday – we started again in the same vein. Initially, Dan and I spending the first part of the morning writing, and further developing our ideas, this time under the influence of the previous day’s discussions.
Performers arrived a little later, and we again went through the process of working through the changes with them, the same time and space and discussion being given to our work.
And then the other artists offered their work, and we went through the process again. I know I keep saying it, but this level of generosity is so unusual to me; but something I’m discovering is more common among independent theatre makers, than in the ‘acting’ world. The day ended and we all trotted off, and certainly in my case, and I hope in everyone’s, a sense of having had some invaluable insight into my work.
Friday – came in slightly later, as Dan was auditioning some performers for an unrelated project; and then; after a brief chat, we were joined by another of Dan’s associates; a Creative Producer/Dramaturg; and we spent the day discussing theatre making; the industry; frustrations; ideas; collaborations; skill sharing; politics; theatre politics; social engagement; funding; diversity and a lovely fantasy of what we might do with a budget of £250k. And off we went, our various ways.
It’s been an incredible week, in many ways. I’m exhausted. But in that really good way. I’ve travelled artistically and mentally this week. I’ve been advised; questioned; encouraged and inspired in a safe environment, and felt I’ve been able to offer those things to others without at any time feeling like I was the junior artist in the room. It was wonderful.
And for that experience, Mr Bye, I cannot thank you enough.
It’s just after seven in the evening and I’m sitting in the corner of the rehearsal room. The musical director is leading the band and one of the community choirs in song. The composer is playing cajon in the band. The director is singing in the choir to fill in a harmony part that’s being sung by one of the other choirs. There are a few idiosyncratic decorative sashes dotted about the place, which the designer and I made this afternoon along with a different community group. There’s some literal rose-tinted spectacles and a box full of seaweed which plays a folk song when you open it. One of the community choir has brought a dog.
This is my favourite bit of being the writer. My work’s mostly done and everyone else gets to do theirs. More so when I’ve written some words and they’re not just spoken but sung back at me. Even more so when the people singing them are the people the material originally came from.
This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve collaborated with composer Boff Whalley to create a huge site-specific participatory community performance featuring original songs and community choirs. It’s probably ten per cent of my working life but equally probably my favourite ten per cent. And this is the biggest one we’ve done yet.
I spent a couple of months meeting members of their community to find out about the history and memory of Crimdon Dene. I wrote some lyrical sketches. A few days or a week later, Boff would send the sketch back in song. We’d pass it back and forth for a bit until it was time to move on to the next one. And now here we are in a room in Blackhall Colliery in our final community company rehearsal before the show on Saturday. The community shared itself with me. Me and Boff turned what they shared into songs. And now here they are singing those songs back. It’s a bit magic.
This Saturday, this one small group is going to come together with several more to fill Crimdon Dene with the songs and stories of itself. There’ll be somewhere between fifty and sixty community performers. It’s called EVERYTHING THERE EVER WAS. It's about a family who don't believe where you come from makes a difference to who you are - until (SPOILER ALERT) they do. And it's about how the history of everything there ever was in this place has led to us being here, singing together, about the history of everything there ever was in this place. Not an unambitious project. The scale of it can be measured in a few incidental details. My favourite is that it’s the first show I’ve ever made that’s had its own AA brown signs.
It’s on Saturday afternoon in Crimdon Dene on the beautiful east Durham coast. 4.30pm, because this is also the first time I’ve done a show the start time of which has been determined by high tide. It is going to be unutterably special. There's a community choir, a live band and a picnic. There may even be a dog. Please come. If you can’t find it, follow the brown signs.
I'm working on some new material w/c 3 September at Shoreditch Town Hall. I have some funding to support an emerging theatre maker to join me in the room. Let this opportunity be known as Person in the Room.
Given what is likely to be happening in the first half of the week at least, it would make sense if the Person in the Room was someone with a writing practice, or at least with writing as part of their practice. For the first couple of days, as it happens, I'll be mostly working up some text. In the latter half of the week there'll be some performers in the room getting this on its feet a bit.
The Person in the Room will therefore be enabled and supported to spend some of the time working on their own material. They are required to bring nothing into the room beyond their brain and their heart, and to do little more than to respond to what they see and hear, using the aforementioned equipment. Additionally, they'll document the week in some form - that could be a blog post but it could equally be a short video or a cartoon, or an imaginary animal.
There's £500 for them. I can pay travel expenses within London. Similar (identical) opportunities outside London will follow very soon.
If you're interested, or know someone who is, email me on danielbye AT ymail DOT com (not gmail) and tell me who they are and what you'd like to get out of the week.
I encourage applications from people who don't look like me.
UPDATE: It's been pointed out that a deadline would be helpful. Here's one: Monday 27th at noon. I'll get back to people as quickly as I can. My decision will be made on the basis of who I think I can help, as well as who can help me.
Dan writes: last week I blogged in brief about the R&D process I'm undergoing. Thanks to the taxpayer's munificence, in each R&D venue I have a bit of funding to bring a relatively emerging artist into the room. They get a week's fee (above equity minimum IHYK) and their travel, so no-one's getting rich off the gig. Anyway, for the first week in Lancaster I was lucky enough to snare the services of the fantastic Emma Geraghty. Emma is perhaps best known as a member of Powder Keg, but you should keep your eyes wide open for her forthcoming solo show Fat Girl Singing, and indeed for all things Geraghty.
The job of the person in Emma's role each time is much the same as anyone else in the room: bring your brain and your heart, respond to what's in front of you, and if you perceive yourself to have a brief, trespass far beyond it. In addition to this, their job is to document the week in some form, so without any further ado I give you Emma's blog.
I have edited this only slightly to take out a bit where she was nice about me. I wouldn't want you to think I've commissioned someone to big me up on my own blog. I wouldn't want you to think that at all. Enjoy. Bye out.
I'm writing this sat on a delayed train to Manchester. The airconditioning is broke and there are a group of “football lads” chanting and chugging cans of Carling. If there was ever a time I wanted to escape, this would be in the top three.
I was worried at the start of this week that I didn't have anything to bring into the room or into the discussion, and imposter syndrome poked its head around the doorway and refused to fuck off for quite a while. I'm still firmly in the category of emerging artist, which is fine, but there's nothing like that label of not-quite-there-yet to make you feel like your voice is invalid. This week wasn't like that. The environment created was open and generative, it allowed space for everyone's voice and everyone's opinion, and allowed people to engage with debate on the same level. Very Knights of the Round Table. Without the fancy armour or the questionable sexual politics.
We talked a lot this week. The theme was escape. Escapism, escapology, how and why we escape, reconnecting with nature, going into the wild, being in wilderness, stone circles, safety, history, privilege, ultra-distance running, pilgrimage, complicity, dislocation, trespass, land ownership – you get the idea. Generally a lot of things. The discussion never stopped. There were a lot of post-it notes.
A day with Dot, Dan's intrepid one-year old. Adventures in the play park. Creative eating of a jacket potato. Big conversations about getting away from the city and gender presentation and what we want to achieve when we write or perform something. Equally big conversations about the ridiculousness of land ownership and the power of trespass, and confused class backgrounds and the myth of social mobility and what that actually means. Lots of chat.
People in the room. Aliki, Andy, Dick, Katharine, me, and Dan. How do you escape? What are you escaping from? Can you fail at escapism? Psychogeography. The mythology of landscape. Romanticism. The real Sharpe's Challenge is seeing how far you can get through Sharpe's Challenge. Real stories of trespass.
All of these show ideas. Who works on them? Why should they be made? Sharing writing. Reading a script together. This town is our town and our town is great apart from the incident.
The big question left in my head (which I want to write more about at another point) is the issue of complicity. If we escape from something in society that is bothering us, then we ignore it. We do nothing to change it. We just remove ourselves from the picture, turning our backs on everyone else that is still being affected by this thing. It's not good enough. And it's a privilege. When your existence is politicised then you don't have the luxury of escape. You don't choose when you participate in certain debates, your very act of being means that you have to engage constantly. You have to be always willing to fight. And I get why the idea of removing yourself from that is appealling. I do. I want to do it the majority of the time. But there is a difference between ignoring something and consciously disengaging from a toxic environment. The difference between a tactical retreat and just running away. I could go and live in a remote place, turn off all my social media, completely reinvent my identity, change everything. I could start again – well, if someone gave me enough money to do so, but that's a different privilege and that's not what I'm talking about – but I would still know that the issues I am escaping from exist. I would know that people are still being crushed by capitalist pressure to conform to the ideal body. I would know that women are still being subjugated by the patriarchal system we live in. I would know that the queer community are still under constant attack. And I would have to make the conscious decision to ignore that. Which I just can't do.
But we cannot be expected to constantly engage with all that shit. We need to breathe. We need space to be ourselves without being continuously ready to fight. So we can take a break. Recharge. Regroup. Let our voices heal so that when we do dive back in, in whatever form that is, we are ready to do it. We're strong again.
This was one of the weeks that reminded me why I do theatre. I felt like my voice was heard for the entire week, and the stuff we were talking about felt important, and that we were on the way to making theatre that needs to be made. And it was fun. I felt really looked after this week – not wrapped in cotton wool (because I would have died, sweet lord, it is so warm), but in a way that there was no judgement and everyone appreciated everyone else being there. I also learned a lot more about ultra-distance running than I thought I would.
We watched Nanette together (incredible, 10/10, would recommend) and did an escape room (we got out and solved a murder and I shot a crossbow and won a beer). We talked a lot about stand up comedy, I wrote about millions of bees and Dan hallucinated an existential wolf. It was productive. We're all very smart and clever and also rather pretty.
When Instructions for Border Crossing opened in Edinburgh last August, it was the first time for five years I’d opened a show without knowing when the next new show was going to open. I’d been bouncing from deadline to deadline for five years.
I was fucking knackered.
Still, my first thought on realising this was, shit, that’s it, I’m done. I’ve no new work lined up and probably I’ll never get to make any ever again. This was allied to a fear that if I’m not making work I’m not getting paid and if I’m not getting paid I’m not paying the bills. Shit.
This quite quickly gave way to relief. I was fucking knackered. I didn’t have any ideas and I was completely drunk dry. A break, a fallow period, a refilling of the well. Thank god.
For a month or so I was just glad beyond words not to have to tell anyone what my next show was, although of course it didn’t stop people asking. And when they did I would beam my unknowing in a broad grin. I don’t know, and I don’t have to know.
Quietly, in this period, I started writing. Nothing deliberate, nothing for a particular project, nothing planned, just sketches. Some came quickly, some came slowly, but there were quite a lot of them. On average I probably did more writing between September and January than I do in a year when I have two deadlines. But it was just for fun.
It turns out I’ve got starting points for about nine different shows. Some of them are quite well-developed.
This week has been the first in an R&D process that will be spread through until the end of this year. I’ve tried to design the R&D process so that I can sustain for as long as possible this sense of developing work for fun and without commitment or deadline. It seems I get more work done that way, and the work itself has a wider range. They're not all solo shows, for a start. Some of them I'm not in at all. At least one I write and hand over entirely to someone else.
Nine shows could keep me busy for ten years so I'm not going to finish them all any time soon. But I’m going to keep them all in the mix and keep bringing in a range of people to respond to them. And by Christmas I think I’ll be able to invite you to a work-in-progress showing of several potential pieces of new work. And you can tell me which ones you want me to finish.
I’m not promising to follow your advice.
Each R&D week I’ll write a bit about whichever of the new projects I’ve been focused on. As a teaser, though, here are some titles. You can play spot the difference with the ones in the image above if you like: several have changed title this week and only three of them are unlikely to change again. You can also play a game of guessing which ones you want to see on the basis of working title alone.
Thanks to my local theatre the Dukes for hosting this week, and to Dick Bonham, Aliki Chapple, Emma Geraghty, Andy Smith and Katharine Williams for bringing their brains and hearts into the room at various times throughout the week.
Instructions for Border Crossing is about to hit the road again. I can't wait to get back out with it. I love performing this show.
It never stops being fun because it’s genuinely different every night, depending on what the audience bring. This means it honestly won’t be the same if you don’t come. Don’t let that put you off though: I’m not interested in humiliating audience members or making them look stupid. Looking stupid is my job.
The show changed rapidly throughout its Edinburgh run, and for a while not just the interactive sections. All of it. Between the first and second previews two thousand words were cut and rewritten. Joyce McMillan came early in the run and wrote this so it must have been doing ok early on. But it undoubtedly grew from that point - it was towards the end of the run before people started saying it was their favourite of my shows so far. It's an incredibly slippery show and it took that long to get a firm grip of it. It's the kind of show that won't ever be wholly under control and that's part of the excitement. I'm really thrilled with the results and I want you to come and see it.
The show was born out of a frustration that, despite so much patent awfulness in the world, I’m less and less involved in anything that might make genuine change. I wanted to tell a story about some people who go as far as they can to make change, people who make me look rubbish by comparison. Because I’m a massive narcissist, the story is also about how rubbish I am, and why that might be. You’ll be somewhere on the continuum between rubbish like me and brilliant like the made-up people in the show. In either case and everywhere in between, the show is definitely aimed at you. Yes YOU. So you'd better fucking come.
I love doing the show because of the space to be genuinely responsive to the audience, but also because it’s a thrillingly unusual format. The audience interaction mixes up with some carefully-crafted storytelling, some almost-stand-up-ish sections, some games and some lashings of live art. It's constantly on the verge of being a total mess and at times the only thing stopping it from tipping over entirely is the fact that I'm nice to be in a room with. If you've met me in real life, don't let that put you off. I'm much more charismatic on stage than I am in real life. It takes a lot of energy to pretend to be that witty and dynamic, and I can only manage it for seventy minutes at a time, preferably when paid handsomely.
I also love the show because it’s really good. Get your credit card out. Here are some tour dates.
I've spent the past two weeks working on this with the brilliant Aliki Chapple.
It's timely, brilliant and chewy.
It stages the comment thread that unfolded below an online comic about sexism on the internet. The ensuing thread embodied every point the comic made about sexism on the internet. It really is astonishing what some people, real people in real rooms in real places, will type and send into the world, with every indication that this is what they really think and feel. It really is astonishing and it really is terrifying. And sometimes it really is hysterical.
So the show is the internet made flesh in all its grisly, unhinged, diverse, beautiful horror.
Despite some of the voices represented in the show being the absolute worst people imaginable, it's been a pleasure to work on. And despite these dregs of humanity, there is in there, in the end, a kind of hope.
I'm incredibly grateful to Aliki, who's the powerhouse behind the project, for bringing me and everyone else on board.
You should come and see what we've been up to. ONE NIGHT ONLY.
From this graph of my pace while running the Helvellyn Trail 15k in October, you can see the moment I fell. The graph falls too, from occasionally touching six minute miles to a total standstill. The grey graph in the background represents the elevation of the terrain and if you look closely at the point where I fell you’ll notice two things: firstly, it’s at the end of a period of fairly steep downhill running. Secondly, after that point the graph is an exact mirror, because after establishing that I couldn't continue the race, I turned round and hobbled back to find a race marshall. As you can see, not quickly.
I had stitches across my knee joint. I was on crutches for two weeks and couldn’t bend my leg until January. A series of infections developed in my leg, which at one point ballooned out to about a third more than its usual size. Mud and lacerations don’t mix, especially if you’re in the Lake District and it takes five hours for you to get to a hospital and get it properly cleaned up.
TRIGGER WARNING: towards the bottom of this post there is a picture of my bloody knee. It probably doesn't look as bad as I've made it sound, but still, if you don't like blood I'd find a way of disabling images in your browser. Or just stop reading when my thigh hoves into view. They cleaned the wound out with a brush, certainly the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever experienced, much worse than the fall itself.
When I’d finished falling, I got up to continue running. But my leg wouldn’t go. I remember, during the fall, being surprised that I was still falling. I waited quite serenely for it to end, so I could catch up with the bloke in front of me, who I'd been thinking about trying to pass. Needless to say, I never did.
A few months ago I posted the first instalment in what I promised would be a series of blogposts about freelance theatremakers and money. You can read it here. This, the second instalment of that series, has been heavily delayed by that fall. The pain, the infection, the difficulty of getting around on crutches, the total exhaustion of it all, meant that everything non-essential had to be dropped. This isn't just an elaborate excuse, although it is also that. More pertinently, it's relevant to the argument I'll be making.
A couple of weeks after that first post in this series, I also posted this, about parenthood as a freelance theatre-maker. I wrote optimistically about the fact that I was finally starting to get on top of things. Reader, it did not last.
From the moment of my injury until Christmas I was locked into a desperate race to stay on top of the bare essentials, delivering the projects I was absolutely committed to delivering. Some things were easy enough to shift from my list for the time being: I’m not being paid for this blog series, for example, and there’s no hard deadline, so it could go. Other important but not essential things, like updating my website (many of them still pending), were likewise struck from my list. I abandoned planning for two projects I was hoping to start proper work on round about now, and decided not to write three separate applications for commissions and opportunities. I just had to make it to tomorrow.
Five days after the injury I was on stage in Error 404, albeit sitting completely stationary in a stool, high on painkillers, guts twisted by antibiotics. I got through two shows and collapsed asleep for an hour, before heading back into A&E because my leg had ballooned again. Even then, in the couple of days before that I'd had to cancel several shows, because I was unable even to sit without intense pain. These shows were the most substantial, but they weren't the only bits of work that I was simply unable to do, or which became considerably more expensive to undertake because I couldn’t walk anywhere.
At a conservative estimate, this injury cost me just over £800 in lost work and increased expenses. That's a little shy of two weeks' living. This figure assumes that I wouldn’t have got any of the commissions or opportunities I ended up not applying for, and that the projects I had been developing wouldn’t have led to any paid work. As my hit rate for commission-type applications is about one in ten, the chances are I wouldn’t have got any of those. But of the two other projects in the pipeline, I think at least one would be at the stage of paid work by now, so I think the real cost to me is in fact well over £800. This is especially so because in October, before my fall, I knew that March to June were looking a little thin for work and I was focused on trying to find something for that period. March to June are looking a bit less thin now, but I think they’d have looked a lot healthier if I’d spent any of October to December trying to do something about it. I think the real cost of that fall will be more like £2-3000.
This isn’t an invitation for you all to join me at my personal pity party. I’m aware that my hobby is a moderately dangerous sport and that injuries are not unheard of. It was hella muddy and people were slipping and sliding all over the place. I was the one unlucky enough to put a rock through his knee. Fundamentally this is of course my own fault.
It nevertheless illustrates the precarious balancing act of maintaining a freelance career in theatre. However well you're doing, it only takes one thing for it all to come tumbling down a hill. It only takes one thing for you to be in serious financial trouble. Whether that one thing is to some degree self-inflicted is neither here nor there. If I had a desk job and fell down a hill I'd take some sick leave and gradually pick up the slack.
That it only takes one thing, whatever it is, to knock a successful freelance career into a very deep hole, can be illustrated by any number of examples from the conversations I've had in this series.
In one case, it was a relationship breakdown. This tremendously increased financial pressure on my friend – he faced house moving costs, near-doubling of rent and living costs, and loss of the potential support of his partner if faced by a tough month or two. Coupled with profound emotional stress, considerable loss of time, and diminished ability to focus clearly on generating work, he had a massive hole blown in his finances. When your partner also works in the industry and many of your connections are held in common, this gets even worse. My friend is still in considerable debt as a result of this period, now several years ago, and is still rebuilding from the semi-enforced career break.
In another case, parental bereavement was the trigger for an enforced leave of absence. In others it might be injury or illness.
In most cases, it’s as banal as one failed Arts Council application.
I heard this story from almost everyone I spoke to and in two cases, as I detailed last time, it led to serious debt.
Of course you’ll say that it’s stupid to rely on Arts Council funding so heavily that one failed application can blow a huge hole in your financial year. But seriously, what’s the alternative? Plenty of funding is always raised from other source. But it’s a rare project that doesn’t require at least some ACE subsidy. Due to precisely that requirement to get other partners and other money on board, it’s only possible to plan projects so far in advance. If you're lucky, you might have time to rewrite and resubmit a failed bid once before the dates sail by. You can't put another project in place just in case the bid doesn't come off: to do so would be in incredibly bad faith with anyone else involved in Plan B. You submit the bid for Plan A and hope the project can go ahead. You're well-established and you know the bid is strong so you have reasonably high hopes.
From time to time, though, they don't come off. The reason ACE give is always "competition for funds", but that's not much useful as developmental feedback. What you want to know is why someone else won that competition this time. And there you are, having imbibed the idea that artists are in competition with one another, as though it's a race and you were hoping to pass someone but instead you took a nasty fall.
We operate in a system where one failed funding bid can have established internationally touring artists unable to pay their rent. It’s all very well to say that we should have better financial planning or more of a financial safety net. Where is that safety net going to come from?
I had a safety net equivalent to just over two months’ living, accrued very slowly over the previous five years, until eighteen months ago, when I spent most of it on six weeks paternity leave. If ticking over on roughly the UK median, as is the case for me and pretty much all of my conversational partners, you can, if you're frugal, squirrel away maybe three weeks' worth a year. If you're lucky and get one big project you might manage more. Last year was a very regular one for me, so I was in the process of building my safety net very slowly back up when we had to move house for Sarah’s work. In order to enable Sarah to take a full-time job without it destabilising our then very young baby, I volunteered to do an increased volume of childcare.
Due to the house move and the reduced capacity, I whittled my safety net back down. It doesn't take long. In the autumn I was once more in the process of starting to painstakingly build it back up. Then I fell down a hill. The next few months being as they are, thin, then unless something big and surprising comes in, I’m going to remain on the precipice for most of this calendar year and probably some way beyond. And I'm doing fairly well.
This year, two separate projects of mine are reliant on Arts Council funding about which we’re currently waiting to hear. I will never learn my lesson, because the real only lesson is "don’t choose this career". And if this level of precarity is true of the apparently comfortable, how much worse is it for the obviously precarious?
Some of us might have backup work for fallow periods, but when this pays at anything like a decent rate, it is not easy to magick a full-time living out of it at barely two months notice.
Seriously, what is the alternative? None of the people I've spoken to so far have had an answer to this, any more than I have.
Meanwhile, the precarity of this career is quietly intensified by the incredible level of invisible labour necessary to sustain it. It takes an experienced bid writer around twelve hours to prepare a £15000 Grants for the Arts application on which six or seven people might rely for maybe a month's work. That's approaching two days' work that might never be paid, and that's just one example of the unpaid work freelance artists do to keep going. This invisible work has to fit in around the actual work, so if you're already working beyond full-time, as is the norm in this career, it remains a mystery how it ever gets done. Lunchbreaks aren't taken, evenings disappear, weekends are vanishingly rare, exhausted collapse is never more than weeks away. Then what?
It only takes one thing to push you over the brink. With no holiday pay, no sick pay, no compassionate leave, no paternity allowance and the joke that is statutory maternity allowance, you only have to teeter to fall hard. Find yourself in need of any of these benefits and you're in serious trouble. Find yourself in need of them two years in a row and you're fucked. And not only are you fucked, but your knee hurts, you're still single, and your dad's still dead.
It is surely neither necessary or helpful for artists, established or otherwise, to be so precariously balanced. And this precarity is too endemic to be a matter of individual planning and management. We're not talking about poor lifestyle choices or moral failings here; take two months wages from anyone earning roughly the UK median and they'd be in serious trouble. This is systemic.
I'm aware of how privileged I am even to be in a position to make this complaint; I'm aware of how much worse it could be for me if I hadn't been dealt some pretty good cards. This is true to very varying degrees of my conversational partners, but the feeling of precarity and the experience of having falling over the precipice at least once is close to universal.
We've all entered this career fully aware of these risks, but the cost of a fall doesn't need to be this high. Can we not, as an industry, as a culture, find ways of making the trail less muddy, the hills less steep, the rocks less sharp?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will