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?
The tour of Instructions for Border Crossing starts this week at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, then Bristol’s Tobacco Factory on Sunday, then more.
In a newspaper, that sentence would be in italics at the bottom, to explain why you’ve just read a lengthy thinkpiece about my experience of performing the show in Edinburgh, but I want you to buy tickets, so I’m getting it in up front.
On the morning of my final performance at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, this wonderful review appeared in the Scotsman. (WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS, SORT OF).
It’s one of those rare reviews that not only loves the show but also seems to really get it and the intentions behind it. However much we might kvetch about reviews, when one really connects with what you thought you were up to, that’s satisfying. And Joyce MacMillan, incidentally, has gone two for two, having done the same with Going Viral two years earlier. Thanks Joyce! See you next time!
But my immediate reaction wasn’t this, so much as MAN, I could have done with this a fortnight ago. Joyce saw the show on its fourth performance, two and a half weeks earlier. During the course of the run, the show was seen by six separate critics from the Scostman. (Or, perhaps more accurately, press tickets were booked in the names of six separate individuals on behalf of the Scotsman.) I’d fully given up on a review ever appearing and I don’t expect ever to solve the mystery of why so many people booked only for a review to appear at the very end, written by the first of them to come.
Last time I was at the Fringe I’d had four-star reviews in several national newspapers by the time I went on for my second preview, and it was only a few days later I learned I’d won a Fringe First. The show sold extremely well for the rest of the run. I was very spoiled and it was – at least on the surface – a much easier time.
This time, the reviews were more restrained. They were warm but not ecstatic. Despite being seen by up to half a dozen people from the panels of various awards, no awards were forthcoming. The show sold extremely well some days and more slowly on others, yo-yo-ing crazily from day to day according to no pattern I could discern. It was a normal experience of the Fringe and it was – at least on the surface – a tougher time.
In fact, I had a much nicer time this year. Although by all external markers Going Viral was going extremely well, it was almost the end of the run before I was really enjoying performing it. For at least two weeks there was a massive disjunction between my experience of performing the show and the show I was reading about – even when the reviews were good, even when they were good and discerned the intentions behind the show, I didn’t feel the show was really achieving those intentions until the last week. That feeling was exacerbated by the fact that barely anyone I wasn’t friends with ever told me in person that they’d enjoyed the show, and social media was largely silent.
Instructions for Border Crossing changed radically from the first performance to the second, and more gradually throughout the rest of the run (This is for another blogpost). But that first performance and one or two outliers aside, I thoroughly enjoyed performing this show. And more people than with any previous show (including The Price of Everything) came up to me in the bar to tell me how much they’d loved it. Importantly, a sizeable proportion of these people had stories about how they’d been directly affected by some of the subject matter of the show. Many people tweeted their enthusiasm.
But somehow these experiences weren’t finding their way into print. They weren’t part of the mainstream narrative around the show, which I guess, based on the reviews, was that it was pretty good, some great bits, interesting, clever, but maybe doesn’t all quite tie together or isn’t quite satisfying in the final analysis. (Which sounds like plenty of shows, actually, but certainly isn’t the peak of anyone’s ambition.)
And that affects audience figures. And smaller audiences make it harder for a show to really land hard, especially one that asks quite a lot of its audience. It’s no coincidence that the strongest shows were those with most people in the room. (Another subject for a future blogpost.) I should stress again that I'm not complaining about any of this. It's the normal experience of the Fringe. If anything it's even smoother and more pain-free than that normal experience, which is of no-one really noticing or caring at all.
So although the experience of doing the show day-to-day was immensely rewarding, I was getting a little worried about the tour. The autumn tour of this show is tremendously exciting. If five years ago you’d asked me to write a list of all the venues I really want to be touring into, it would have looked a lot like this tour. And they’d booked it before it existed, which is a tremendous and humbling vote of confidence.
But watching from afar, would they worry that they hadn’t got what they’d hoped for? Had they been banking on another award-winning box office smash? Would they be able to sell the show; would they be invested in selling the show when they’ve also got salt. and The Believers are But Brothers, two bona fide sellout hits that also happened to be the two shows directly before mine in the same room?
This sort of worry suggests a profound lack of faith in the brilliant people at all those venues, but that’s the sort of thing the Edinburgh Fringe makes you worry about when you’ve no real things to worry about. Of course they’ll be able to muster the enthusiasm. The show’s good and plenty of people have said so. Also, it’s their job and they’re good at their jobs. But my god that Scotsman review made a difference to my ability to not just know this but really feel it. Man, I could have done with it two weeks earlier.
Honestly, though, the real reasons I had a better time at this Fringe than two years ago were my friends and my running, and if you’re more interested in the theatre industry than my life, I’d stop reading here.
Two years ago, very few of my close friends were around during the Fringe. I’d come off stage after doing Going Viral and be at a total loss about what to do. I’m pretty good in my own company but at times I became seriously lonely, the kind of loneliness that makes going to the Summerhall bar to see who’s around a gauntlet of anxiety. If I talk to people and it’s awkward, that might be worse than not risking it at all. Maybe I won’t risk it. And then when I do, this anxiety guarantees it will be awkward. For much of the Festival I was living in a flat on my own, so going home never seemed particularly thrilling.
This year I had people in the flat and enough good friends up (and through, and down; not everyone heads north to the Festival) to be confident of someone with whom to pass a happy hour. The difference that made to my mental health for the month of August was immense. Doing what you can to be sure of this is going to become my #1 tip for solo artists heading up in future, unless you’re almost frighteningly robust.
My #2 tip for everyone is take up running. (And although it definitely puts me in a better place mentally, that’s not why. Being told to go for a run is one of the more exceptionally annoying things doctors say to people suffering from depression.) Edinburgh is a beautiful city and running is a great way to see more of it. On the first Sunday (after finishing that first huge rewrite) I ran down to Portobello beach and back along the Brunstane Burn path. The next Saturday I went to Edinburgh Parkrun along the promenade at Cramond. The following day I was taken on a tour of the route of the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race. I’d never been to Portobello, or Cramond, or along the Brunstane Burn path, or up any but one of the seven hills. And sure, I could have walked any of this. But I wouldn’t have. I’m now looking forward to my next trip to the Festival in order to do these routes again, and also to get the train out to Linlithgow and run back along the Grand Union Canal, and a trip to the Pentlands.
And the longer the run, the less time there is to worry about when the reviews will come out, about which you can do nothing, however much difference, in hindsight, they might have made.
There's a lot of new work coming up in 2017. Over the next few weeks I'll write posts about each of the upcoming and ongoing projects.
In the meantime, though, in keeping with annual tradition, here's a somewhat delayed audit of last year.
Public performances given: 98
Tiny Heroes: 8
We're Stuck: 32
Error 404: 13
The Price of Everything: 4
Scratch performances towards the making of Safe House: 3
Miscellaneous collected short pieces: 1
Public performances of work I wrote but wasn't in: 5
Talking Statues: 1 (although this was an audio piece, so you could say it was as many performance as there were people who downloaded it. Unless they all listened to it at once.)
We're Here: 3
Nice Walls: 1
Panel discussions and that sort of thing: 7
Weeks of R&D on Thinner Blood (Dick Bonham's new show which I'll be directing this autumn): 4
Amount of material to show for it: a full draft in good working order
Weeks of R&D on Safe House (my own new show, which goes into rehearsal in a fortnight): 4
Amount of material to show for it: some decent ideas which don't hang together
New writing word counts:
Tiny Heroes (10837)
We're Here (1090)
Nice Walls (584)
Talking Statues (388)
Why I Don't Wear Shoes (1256)
Safe House (countless discarded drafts)
Plus a handful of short pieces that will never see the light of day and unquantifiable attempts that didn't come out.
Successful applications submitted: 3
Unsuccessful applications submitted: 13
Performances cancelled: 6
because of poor administration: 1
because of poor sales: 2
because my wife went into early labour: 2
because of rioting: 1
2016, not being a sentient being, didn't deliberately kill all those celebrities. Nor did it rig those elections or intentionally embolden the far right. So if you're expecting 2017 to swagger in with a whole different vibe, you're setting yourself up for a mighty disappointment. I can't remember a moment in the past when the onset of January arrested prevailing historical trends. That's on us.
You can't stop your favourite celebrities from dying. You're getting older. I expect the attrition rate of people who've been famous since the seventies and eighties to continue, if not to increase. (I don't imagine many 20-year-olds thought this an unusually bloody year, although of course I haven't asked any.)
The fascist drift, though, that we can affect. 2017 will be better, but only if everyone who wants it to be actually does something about it. Join your local antifa, support migrants' rights, campaign, organise, debate. Love. And, where necessary, fight.
Hoping 2017 will be better won't make it better, unless that hope gets you out of your chair. Fearing it will be worse won't have an effect either, unless that fear gets you out of your chair. The only effect you can have is positive. Get out of your chair.
Personally, 2016 has been a pretty amazing year. I became a dad. That's hard to top.
Professionally it's been pretty good, too. One new show and a lot of touring of existing work, including the last six weeks of the year in India. And if you think we've got it bad politically, you should take a trip to Modiland.
Politically of course the year has been awful. It's also been my most politically inactive year for quite a while. I wonder how many other people, depressed by prevailing trends, also let their energy slip this year?
The Going Viral tour of India is about halfway through. In the past two weeks we've been in Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Chandigarh, doing seven shows, staying in five hotels and countless hours of travel time. It's tiring but I can hardly complain. My job for this month is touring a fantastic country and doing a show I love to audiences who receive it with real warmth and enthusiasm. I could hardly be more privileged.
We're now in Bangalore enjoying a welcome two days off before shows on Saturday at the British Council and Sunday at Rangashankara. Then it's back on the road - Tuesday in Hyderabad, Wednesday in Chennai, then back to Bombay for a couple of days' cricket. By next weekend we'll be in Kolkata for a theatre festival, then Guwahati, then back to Mumbai for another festival.
Bombay. Mumbai. It's so confusing. Everyone in Mumbai calls Mumbai Bombay, unless they work for the government. Everyone from outside of Bombay calls Bombay Mumbai. In Britain in particular we call it Mumbai because we don't want to flout the wishes of its citizens by calling it by its colonial name. But Bombay isn't its colonial name and its citizens find the name change ridiculous. So I'm inclined to call it Bombay.
Doing a show partly set in India has been a real pleasure, and I've been able to put back in some India material that got cut during rehearsals because the UK audience found it bewildering. In Bombay in particular this material has gone down a storm.
The question I'm asked most frequently here is "how have Indian audiences reacted differently to audiences in the UK". Local minutiae aside, the answer is "not at all differently". Differences are created more by performance space than by city - and more by my ability to negotiate that space than by the space itself. The two performances in Mumbai alone were as different to each other as either one was to any given UK performance. At NCPA's Sunken Garden I didn't do a good enough job of negotiating the demands of outdoor performance, which, coupled with a few sound issues, made a genuine relationship with the audience very challenging to establish and sustain. At Prithvi Theatre, a relationship with the audience comes as a given - it's almost the perfect space for the show and one of my favourite theatres anywhere in the world - and so the challenge instead became staying on track and actually getting on with the show from time to time, rather than just playing with the audience. These two shows, in the same city, on consecutive nights, could possibly be my least and most enjoyable performances of the show anywhere ever.
Then we got to Delhi, where the contrasts may not have been quite as extreme, but they were emphasised by the two performances having taken place not just in the same city but in the same venue. It was in the British Council theatre, an end-on space with a raised stage, the kind of space that's radically hostile to the confected round on which Going Viral thrives. Three small banks of audience perched on the stage, with the fourth bank, a 250-seat rake, yawning back into the darkness. The first night I didn't make it work at all, pushing too hard, straining my voice by trying to reach the back row while facing away from them half the time, not really adapting to the new context, to some degree out of irritation at having to do the show in a space so unsuitable. Contrary to popular belief, it's easy enough to be intimate in a big space - but not so much if you're facing the back half the time. On the second night, I played the room I was in rather than the one I prefer to be in, worked with the main seating bank much more, relaxed a bit, and it was an absolute blast. The audience got so involved and so much happened that we added about fifteen minutes to the run time and I've rarely had such a warm response at the end.
And then the same space in different cities or just on different nights can have very different results. In Chandigarh, in a space much more obviously appropriate to the show, the audience was almost totally silent. I'd done two shows the week before in virtually identical British Council spaces in Pune and Ahmedabad and they'd been an absolute blast, yet here it felt dead. I tried to work with the audience's silence rather than begging for laughs, to give a good account of the show's shifts of energy and rhythm, to stay relaxed despite the lack of feedback. The response at the end was incredibly warm. I should remember this more often back home, rather than inwardly cursing the audience for their silence.
The difference between audiences here and audiences in the UK aren't markedly different in part, of course, because the main cultural obstacles to encountering this show have already been overcome. No one comes unless they back their ability to follow a text in English for seventy minutes. This carries with it certain implications about the class background and privileges of the people I'm reaching here. (That's of course to some degree true back home.)
So finally, it's particularly fascinating to do a show that is, to a large degree, concerned with the corrosive effects of white western privilege on the rest of the world, here in a part of the world that has been a notable victim of British expansionist imperialist privilege-building. Early in the show there's a quip about my being - as a straight white western male - "basically a perfect storm of privilege". That often gets a laugh, at home as well as here. On a couple of occasions here it's also had a round of applause. And as I pointed out to the audience in Delhi on Sunday, that's what privilege is. It's an unearned round of applause from the universe for your mere existence. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the fact that this improvisation itself also got a round of applause.
A couple of credits:
I'm hugely grateful to QTP here in India, who've been behind all three of my visits to this incredible country. They are exceptional producers and exceptional people. They're putting together the 18th edition of their festival of young peoples' theatre and would be incredibly grateful for your support: https://www.wishberry.in/campaign/thespo-18-youth-theatre-festival/#/campaign-new
In particular, Varun Bangera of QTP has been on the road every step of the way, making everything happen and making everything work. He is a proper gem and I'd be lost without him, often literally as well as metaphorically
I'll write a separate blogpost about touring with a baby, but I'm eternally grateful to Sarah and Dot for coming to India for six and a half weeks when they both frankly have better things to do. I wouldn't want to be anywhere without them.
And of course I'm very thankful to the British Council for backing the tour and making it possible.
There's some truth in Ed Vaizey's observation that a decent majority of people working in the arts are left wing, but really, there's a surfeit of right-wing art. Andrew Lloyd-Webber does quite well, for example, and I expect Ed Vaizey has heard of him. Tom Stoppard does ok too. The Lion King is the most conservative thing I've ever seen and Billy Elliott is such an incredibly rare example of a West End musical with explicit leftist politics that I can't think of another one.
And his examples of plays whose failure to exist somehow proves his point that theatre is "relentlessly left-wing" are just weird. I don't know of a single anti-Brexit play either (not least because there hasn't been time), although I do know that the NT are planning a fence-sitting verbatim piece that will please either no-one or everyone. I must have been on paternity leave when all the pro-unionisation plays were on this year. And are there dozens of pro-Venezuela plays that I'm somehow missing?
As a theatre-maker whose work actually *is* relentlessly left-wing, I resent the implication that everyone else is at it too. Most of the main stage work I see is politically horrible. I expect Vaizey would like it a great deal.
The first week of the Edinburgh Fringe is probably not the best moment to announce I'm making a new show. But this is, at least, peak time for reading about theatre, so I'll take my chances and let you know something:
I'm making a new show.
The material is already different to what I said it would be before I started work, and it'll be different again by the time it's finished. But here are some sketches of what I currently think it's about.
I'm instinctively sympathetic to independence movements. I'm instinctively hostile to borders and particularly to the creation of new ones. But new independent states inevitably lead to new borders, new checkpoints, new illiberal immigration policies. It's hard to see this contradiction being resolved. So the show as I currently understand it is an attempt to pursue this argument between two incommensurable positions, both of which I hold.
It's a made-up story set in a tottering oligarcho-fascist sort-of Britain, run by an oppressive President who is absolutely definitely not Theresa May, no, nothing like her. From this crumbling country micro-states no bigger than villages are declaring independence left right and centre. Will everyone please stop declaring independence, says the exasperated President, who in no way resembles Theresa May, why would you think that.
It's also a really-happening sequence of events taking place in this theatre, relying heavily on the presence and activation of its audience. Some of you will join me on stage and play a game of jenga to the death. You will collectively play the oppressive President. Some of the words in the show will be different tonight because of things you said or did. If you want you can have some toast.
Many of these ideas may well not make the next draft.
If I had to write the flyer copy right now, I would describe the show as "the exposed gearbox of a political thriller". The image would be me clutching an AK47 and the stuffed toy mouse I had as a child. Had, and - full disclosure - still have. If I had to write the flyer copy right now, I would have to come up with a title.
These crumbs of content and form are an evolution from the starting point of the process, which was an investigation into notions of "security" - the things we do to make ourselves safer, many of which end up making us a good deal less safe. The walls we build. The fears that make us safer as well as those that don't. For the moment these starting points continue to inform what I think the show is - maybe this will remain so; maybe it won't.
The most consistently difficult and frustrating question continually asked as artists is "where do you get your ideas from?" This question fundamentally misunderstands the process of making work as I understand it. I don't have ideas. I map out territory that seems of interest, and I keep exploring it until I find something surprising - a story element, a counter-intuitive fact, a theatrical moment. Enough surprises put together in a sufficiently satisfying order and you have a show. Which makes it sound easy, but I know I'm going to need the full year between now and the show's opening.
First though, a week off, walking in the Lake District. Then I'm going to start a new draft and hope to finish it before my daughter is born in early September. At that point I'm going to disappear from the face of the earth before re-emerging to do a half-hour scratch at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 5th of October. By that point I hope the show will have a title. And indeed half an hour's worth of scratchable material. PLEASE COME.
The show will premiere in Edinburgh almost exactly a year from now - whereupon I hope one of you will attempt to distract attention from it by announcing your own show for 2018. And although as of this moment very little of my new show exists and it doesn't have a title, it does have generous support from Arts Council England and a string of brilliant commissioners as long as your arm. So I can't really back out of making it now. Those commissioners are: Harrogate Theatre, HOME Manchester, Norwich Arts Centre, Oxford Playhouse, Unity Theatre Liverpool and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Producing, as ever, will be the extraordinary Annabel Turpin and ARC Stockton. These are wise and generous organisations that present, produce and support terrific work. They can't all have called this wrong. The only conclusion available is that my new show is going to be a remarkable work that changes the face of theatre as we understand it. So that's a load of my mind.
Fortunately I have a creative team the envy of the western world. Director Alex Swift has two shows in Edinburgh right now - Heads Up by Kieran Hurley and How to Win Against History by Seiriol Davies. Both shows are doing ridiculously well so it's good of Alex to set me up as his hat trick ball. Dramaturg Sarah Punshon spent Friday with me on this project, as a result of which I have any sense at all of what this show is. Hannah Sibai is designing and Katharine Williams is lighting. They're all awesome.
I haven't got anyone on board for sound yet but for that half-hour scratch at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of Furnace on 5 October, I'm more than a little delighted that joining me on stage will be the incredible Steve Lawson, who will improvise a soundtrack to whatever I'm doing. PLEASE COME.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will