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?
This was originally posted on the NotNow Collective blog.
I don’t know if anybody has ever mentioned it before, but becoming a parent really eats into your productive time.
My wife works full-time, and I am a freelancer, so in order that our one-year-old daughter is not with a childminder all the time (which in any case we couldn’t afford), I look after her on Mondays and Tuesdays. The theory was that it would be just about possible to do in four days (Wed-Sat) the work I used to get done in five (Mon-Fri). Especially when you factor in nap time on Mondays and Tuesdays.
This theory has proven hilariously inaccurate.
For a start, I already worked plenty of Saturdays, so it’s not a 20% reduction in work time, it’s a 33% reduction. Also, unless I’m away from home, the working day is now at least an hour shorter, often as many as three. And as every parent knows, nap time isn’t work time, it’s when you get the laundry done.
(The one thing no-one told me about becoming a parent was that it would lead to a fivefold increase in the amount of time I spend dealing with laundry.)
But the key loss of productive time is actually the time it didn’t look like I was being productive. When you’re a writer, the time spent running errands in town, idly reading a book on a fascinating subject, or just having a Sunday, that’s all work time. This work is invisible to the casual observer. But under the surface, characters are having conversations, a dramaturgical problem is being teased out, or a fascination is becoming an idea.
I think about 75% of my writing used to be done in this way. By the time I finally got to my desk to write something down, or into the rehearsal room to rough it out, it came relatively quickly.
The amount of time I now have to follow an idle train of thought has been decimated. A child’s needs are so immediate that it’s rarely possible to stay in your head for more than a minute or two before you have to change a nappy or read Hairy Maclary for the fourth time this morning.
It would be conventional at this point to say that it’s totally worth it in terms of the sheer pleasure brought by our child. But I’m not sure this process is susceptible to that sort of cost-benefit analysis. Like, I don’t regret for one second the fact that we chose to bring this tiny person into the world. She’s wonderful. The process of watching a person becoming more fully herself every day is an enormous thrill. I feel immeasurably enriched by her existence and I miss her every hour we’re apart.
I miss her every hour we’re apart, but after two days of being together, I really look forward to some time on my own.
For most of the first year, I was desperately racing to keep up with everything I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t succeed. It wasn’t all down to the baby that I got a bit behind: for four months of that first year when my wife started her new job, I ended up having Dot three days a week. We also moved house to a new city. We went through the full gamut of major life changes within the space of about seven months. It's hardly surprising I was overstretched.
Still, it is becoming more manageable. I’m now almost at a point where I’ve caught up with everything I’m supposed to have done. With one notable exception, I’m at most a week or two behind schedule with any given project. By Christmas, I’ll probably have caught up entirely. Except perhaps for that one notable exception. Well, maybe two. But it is becoming more manageable. Honest.
It’s astonishing to me now how much time I used to waste. I say this as someone who’s always thought of himself as a pretty good manager of time. I was not notably unproductive. But now, if I get a few hours at my desk, I note that almost none of that time will be spent checking twitter and facebook. I am barely aware of what’s going on in the world of professional football, and that’s not just because Middlesbrough got relegated last season. Almost none of my working time will be spent dithering – I used to agonise over certain tasks until they were unavoidable. Now I write a first draft of that email or that document and it’s surprising how often that’s the email or document I’d have ended up with after agonising until the deadline. I usually have time to redraft it and because I’ve not wasted any time dithering and agonising, I’ve still spent less time on it than I would have before.
I’ll be honest and say that, as you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t done that redraft on this blogpost. Generally, though, I’m getting to a point where I’m doing better work in less time than before I became a parent. So now, if I get a few hours at my desk, it astonishes me how much it’s possible to do. (Anyone planning to have children on this basis should know that the first year is murder whatever you do, and it only takes one night of (more) interrupted sleep for it all to come tumbling down.)
I’m not writing a new show at the moment, so I’ve no idea how this apparent progress will translate to the sharper end of that process. But I have spent a fair amount of time writing new material that may or may not develop into anything finished. One of these pieces of new material has formed a lot of my trains of thought over the past month and I’m excited to note that I’m now able to follow those trains of thought for more than a couple of minutes. Hairy Maclary still stops them in their tracks, but somehow I’ve adjusted to the new rhythms of life and these days they wait for me in the sidings.
Someone once said to me, if you want to get someone to do something for you, ask a busy person. A not-busy person will have so much time that they won’t schedule your thing, they can do it whenever, and it will slip and slide and never get done. Meanwhile, a busy person will do it next Thursday at 10.35am.
Now I think that if you want something done, ask a parent.
Don’t, though. It’s just a figure of speech. They’ve got enough on their plate.
When debt first entered the conversation, I’d forgotten how bad my own had been. It’s more than five years since I paid off my crippling credit card bills and now the only debt I’m in is the socially-acceptable form, a mortgage. I think I’d also forgotten it because I’d buried it. It’s so obviously stupid to get into thousands of pounds of credit card debt that I'd seen it as a product of my own idiocy, rather than of an endemic structural problem that ends up biting most people who do what I do, and biting many of us hard.
The conversation was with an artist a few years younger than me. But regardless of age, in this whole series of conversations I’ve so far come across only one exception to the general rule: it is simply impossible to build a career in this industry without saddling yourself with a frightening level of debt. The kind of debt that keeps you awake at night, that ever paying back seems unimaginable, that makes very real the threat of bailiffs.
In this blogpost I want to talk about debt.
As a culture we are deeply wedded to the idea of financial self-sufficiency. People who can’t pay their own way are persona non grata. You don’t get sent to debtor’s prison any more but we still see bankruptcy as a personal failing, a moral one too. And to go into a career in the arts is to court a life of precarity over security, to strike fear into the hearts of your parents and to know that for many onlookers, proving the worth of your art is indistinguishable from proving your ability to make a living from it.
I’d better track back a bit. If you’re interested in the context, read this section. If you just want the juice about debt, skip to the picture of a bag of coal.
The context: I’ve been having a series of conversations with fellow artists about money. These conversations are part of a project that would be designated “organisational development”, if I were an organisation. The wider project is not just about money. There’s an audience development strand, a business plan strand, a strand interrogating the way the work is made and the rhythms dictating when; and so on.
This particular strand involves me talking to a series of artists broadly comparable to me in terms of where they sit in the industry, and asking invasive questions about money. In terms of its relation to the broader project, the hope with these conversations is that from each of these artists I’ll get one nugget, one small tip or hack that makes survival that little bit more straightforward. These nuggets will add up to a strategy for sustainability, enabling me to be that much more robust, that much less precarious.
This isn’t how it’s panning out. I can’t point to a single thing one person is doing that, were I to have thought of it, would have materially improved my condition in recent years. Nevertheless these conversations have been incredibly valuable.
In public, the money conversation comes up every so often, usually when one artist or another is tested to boiling point and bubbles over loudly enough to turn it into a blogpost. Sometimes this leads to a series of productive conversations. Often it leads to a series of people sharing the experiences that led to a similar boiling point for them. This brings a problem out into the open and arguably that’s productive in itself, but it’s relatively rare that it leads to any change. I don't know that this project will either.
This series of conversations is my attempt to get a snapshot of where my peers are at, while operating at a slightly cooler temperature. (Or at least, what feels like a slightly cooler temperature. I realise we’re all frogs boiling in the same pot.) I’m talking in total to around a dozen people, all of whom: have a few shows under their belt; could be considered “established”; are aged 8-10 years either side of me; are earning all or close to all of their income from their artistic practice. This is not a data-gathering exercise and the findings with be qualitative. It is not a large enough sample size to be broadly representative or generalizable. The primary aim of the exercise is that it should be useful to me. I now think that it is also of interest to others, whether or not their position in the industry is comparable, and that's why I'm publishing some thoughts. But that isn't the primary aim.
In the interests of full disclosure I should add that the group of people to whom I’m talking is a close-to-even gender balance, contains a mix of people who live in different parts of the country, is about 80% white, about 70% straight and generally representative of diverse social groups in many of the ways you’d want it to be. I should also be honest and say that this is not because I have put any effort into being representative. That I put no effort into being representative and yet ended up with a relatively diverse group is perhaps in a small way a good news story. Until you consider that it’s still more white, more able-bodied, etc, than the population as a whole.
These conversations are ongoing and I’ll write a series of blogposts each focusing on a slightly different issue.
Finally, I should say that the conversations are conducted under Chatham House Rules: I can report what’s been said, but I can’t report who said it. I won’t name or otherwise identify any of those with whom I’ve had these conversations, although some of them may subsequently be happy to identify themselves. I leave that to them, though, and until then I will occasionally change some of the identifying details in order to protect peoples’ anonymity, the condition which enables total honesty in these conversations. If I misreport or misrepresent what they've said, or take it inappropriately out of context, then that responsibility lies with me, too. What I say in this blog is of course my perspective on the facts. I don't plan on distorting any facts in order to maintain my perspective.
Unlike at the beginning of one of my shows when I pretend all this is real and it turns out it isn't, I want you to know that this is all too real.
Anyway, debt. Here are the headlines. The person with whom I had that first conversation is in four figures of debt to payday loan companies. Another person is out of sight into her overdraft. Another borrowed thousands from his parents, which he recognises he’s privileged to be able to do but was still winded by the shame and embarrassment of suddenly having to do this several years into a very successful career. Yet another has a mixed portfolio of all these debt types. My own credit card debt peaked somewhere just south of seven thousand pounds and there came a point where I was unable even to pay off the interest.
All of us are ostensibly successful artists making our living from doing this. We all tour nationally and internationally. We almost all earn around the UK median income - most of the time. We have a good recent track record of Grants for the Arts applications and people commission us to make work.
But that's now. How did we get here? It wasn't frictionless. What follows is my story, but it's eerily similar to those of others.
I fell short of box office targets two or three times. These weren’t self-imposed targets, by the way, created in order to make budgets balance for Arts Council purposes. They were from venues (London and Edinburgh) just reputable enough not to charge an upfront hire fee, but instead, to make it payable in arrears if box office didn't cover it. This at least meant the shows could go on – if I'd really thought about the financial risk I don’t think I’d have countenanced paying this sort of money in advance. But a month or two after the run, just when I began to think they'd forgotten, a bill would come in. I could see no available option other than to put it on a credit card.
And then, in your early twenties and trying to make theatre, some months you just don’t make any money because instead of doing whatever you do to pay the bills, you were making theatre. So that month maybe the rent goes on the credit card bill. In my case on one occasion I went five or six months without paying the rent at all. Just when I began to think the landlord had forgotten, he phoned to say he hadn't. So that went on the credit card too.
How else do you get started in independent theatre? You have to put on shows. Putting on shows costs money. Someone has to meet those costs.
To an extent it paid off. By the time I was in my late twenties I was doing ok, earning my living from a mix of theatre work and HE teaching. Although the monthly credit card payments were hefty, they were just about manageable. I spent hours scouring websites for good deals on credit card balance transfers at 0% interest for 6 or even 12 months, so that I could pay off some of the principal rather than just servicing the interest. I had a good couple of years work-wise and gradually got it down to three or four thousand.
Then a regular gig I’d had for over a year came to an abrupt end when the company ran out of money. Looming ahead was a gap in the directing work that tended to come in and make up the rest of my income. I was suddenly going to be without any real income for months.
So I was unable to make the payments. I was barely able to make rent. For six months Sarah and I lived a nomadic lifestyle, living wherever we (mostly she) were working. This made practical sense for some of this period, but it was also driven by financial necessity. For a year after that we rented rooms in house shares. We sold a lot of stuff. Sarah helped me out a lot in this period, including helping me to pay off some of the debt.
By some semi-deliberate omission, I let her believe I was entirely out of credit card debt. Of course I should have told her I wasn't. But I was embarrassed. I felt that the scale of this debt represented the scale of my stupidity. It didn’t represent the extent to which there’s an endemic structural problem in our industry. Or the extent to which it seems stupid even to contemplate entering this industry if you come from a working class background with no support to fall back on. Me and my friend with the payday loan problem and my friend with the overdraft and the rest, the shame crippled us and we felt stupid for being so presumptious as to ask to sit at this table.
I entered a process of arbitration with the credit card company, just as my friend did with the payday loan company. They levied no further interest and reduced the payment to a smaller and more manageable sum for a period of several years. I paid off the last of this debt more than ten years after it started piling up. My friend is on a similar timeline, albeit still paying. It was two more years before I also crawled out of my overdraft.
I mentioned one notable exception to the general story, which is that everyone I spoke to has or has had significant debt. Apart from him and me, everyone else is still in some of that debt and still struggling with it.
He was in his early twenties and making a show with a mate. A couple of weeks before showtime his mate came round to his bedsit in Bristol, in a terrible state, and said, I can’t do the show any more. The bailiffs have just been round. I’ve got nothing. My friend cut up his credit cards then and there and has never had one since. He did the show, or a rather different one, on his own, and now makes very successful solo work.
I’d like this story to suggest, as does everything else in the culture, that if you’re just iron-willed enough it’s possible to get on in this industry, even when you’re not from a privileged background and have no parental backing, without accruing a huge debt problem.
I’d like this blogpost to operate on readers like that experience did on my friend. Just cut up your credit cards! Simple!
But while that experience obviously had a huge impact and was a huge factor in keeping my friend back from that brink, there’s a bit more to the story.
Although he’s not from a privileged background, it turned out his partner is. Unexpectedly one day they inherited a substantial amount of money from her family. With it they bought a house. I've been round and let me tell you it's a lovely house.
Two bits of advice emerge from this narrative:
- have an important early salutary experience that leads through example to a visceral aversion to the idea of debt.
But broadly speaking, it's get in debt or fuck off.
I’m now in more debt than ever. It’s into six figures. But it’s the socially-acceptable sort. We’ve got a mortgage. Even getting the mortgage seems like a miracle in the wake of the past fifteen years of highlights from a financial disaster movie. And it’s going ok.
But it can all come tumbling down so quickly. The person in debt to their parents was on a great run. Then one G4A application went the other way and within no time they were in danger of being unable to pay the rent. Another was ticking along fine until a relationship broke down and although they weren’t financially dependent on their partner, life gets more expensive and more complicated and you haven’t planned for that. A third has just never earned enough for long enough, in the more than ten years since graduation during which time they have had numerous substantial artistic successes, to get out of their (interest-payable) overdraft.
This conversational project was an attempt to explore some more reliable routes to financial sustainability as an artist.
There aren't any.
Granted, two or three people seem to get to a point where you can’t imagine them not surviving in the industry for ten or twenty years, for their whole lives even. That’s not true for most of us. Writers can have one or two major successes that lead to their work getting international productions. Those of us whose writing and performing has become almost indistinguishable have little legitimate aspiration to such windfalls and the security blanket they bring.
And let’s be quite clear about the fact that there are plenty of people whose lives are so much harder than struggling artists. For a start, as I made clear earlier, the sample group for these conversations is explicitly people who are doing ok for ourselves. But for how long? And at what cost?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will