I write from a delayed train to Bristol, where the tour of I Was Naked, Smelling of Rain opens tomorrow. I directed this show, by the visual artist Aidan Moesby, at ARC last year and it’s easily one of the most enjoyable and satisfying creative experiences I’ve had as a director. Not just because Aidan is a dream collaborator: entirely open to new ideas and entirely clear when he wants to go in a different direction; warmth and generosity do not preclude incisiveness and rigour. Enjoyable and satisfying rather becaus, the show, which is about loneliness, climate change and mental health, is rich, strange and entirely, assuredly itself.
Aidan’s never made work for performance before, but you’d never know it. I’ve never worked on anything quite like it and I really hope you get to see it. It opens tomorrow night at We The Curious in Bristol: https://www.wethecurious.org/the-box-live-performance
This time last year I was in the midst of my longest lean period in nearly a decade. We’re never immune, as freelancers in this industry, to sudden huge gaps: mine came up when four separate projects were postponed, moved, or cancelled, leaving a yawning gulf in the middle of last year. When the same thing happened ten years ago I was paying off the credit card debt for five years but I’m very fortunate to have, over the past five years, been able to build up a bit of a buffer against this kind of lean patch. Theatre Tax Relief is largely to thank for this availability of just enough reserves to survive.
This industry being, as it is, built on feast and famine, a year on and I’m in the midst of perhaps the busiest period of my entire life. Thursday sees the opening of not just I Was Naked, Smelling of Rain, but also 666 Comments: another show which has been immensely satisfying to direct. Totally different to I Was Naked, it stages a comment thread that unravelled beneath a comic strip posted online, about internet misogyny. The thread was a startling demonstration and vindication of everything in the comic. The show, by Aliki Chapple, hurls into the real world the bile and the wildness and the wit and the wisdom of that thread. It’s astonishing, hilarious and at times fucking terrifying.
The first performance on the tour of 666 Comments is this Thursday in Havant, Hampshire and then it’s touring all year: https://littlemighty.co.uk/projects-shows/666-comments/
On the subject of feast and famine, we learned that we had the money to re-rehearse and tour 666 Comments about four days before rehearsals were due to start. We’d submitted two applications for about £28000 which, despite being rated “outstanding” in at least one area and “strong” in the others, were nonetheless unsuccessful. So on the last day before the Christmas holiday, bit between my teeth and fully cognisant of the timeline, I radically rewrote the budget and application, and resubmitted at just under £15k.
It could well be argued that cancelling would have made more sense than cutting it back to the bone (in particular including my own fee) and playing chicken with ACE’s assessors in this way. That we didn’t do so is, I think, a triumph of tenacity over orthodox good sense, a triumph of nerve-holding.
The rehearsal process, though, was a vindication of the decision to forge ahead. Of course we all got into a mode of imaginatively assigning the time that would be released if the tour didn’t happen. The amount of work I imagined getting done! So when we finally got the money, and had to do all the associated work, it briefly felt almost inconvenient. But. We made this show two years ago. Aliki has been nursing the project for nearly a decade. It’s about time we got it out there. Not least because it is really fucking good. I’m immensely proud of having been a small part of making 666 Comments, I’m really overjoyed that we didn’t cancel, and I really hope you get to see it.
And if it was just those two shows, I wouldn’t be going on about how busy I am like the humblebragging motherfucker you know I am. They’re both directed now; I just have to swan in from time to time and offer something that might help keep everyone alive; in lots of ways directing is really relaxing.
March, though, sees the first two of four choir projects (e.g. http://www.danielbye.co.uk/blog/these-hills-are-ours-a-song-for-roseberry-topping), the filming of those projects to turn into shorts, and the opening of the stage show (http://www.danielbye.co.uk/these-hills-are-ours.html) all part of the These Hills Are Ours project. Between these things there’s quite a lot on my plate. So obviously I write this on a train from Kent, where I ran a marathon this morning. Why?
The week before the 666 Comments rehearsal process, on January 29th, I was scheduled to run 85 miles from my house in Lancaster to the top of Kinder Scout in the Peak District. It’s part of the process of making These Hills Are Ours, so if you really want to know why I’d do something so deeply steeped in folly, you’ll have to come and see the show.
Three days before the run was due to take place my baby son caught a vomiting bug. Two days before, my daughter caught it too. That same night so did I, feeling as rough as I’ve ever felt and praying we wouldn’t have to cancel the run. I spent the 28th in bed imagining I was getting better, imagining I was keeping food down, before having to admit that it was hopeless. You can’t run 85 miles if you can’t keep calories down.
A few people told me I was wise to cancel. It wasn’t wise. In the end it was an absolute no-brainer.
Instead of running 85 miles, I spent the afternoon of the 28th watching Little Women in the cinema. I felt gradually better. But I couldn't have run, and I was glad to have seen the film. If we hadn’t got the 666 Comments money we’d have postponed the run until February 13th, a delay of two weeks, but I emerged from my Gerwig glow to find we’d got the money. Instead of resting through 666 rehearsals I had to maintain a huge (for me) volume of training in order to minimise the probability of this thing being a total catastrophe. So now it’s 4th March. Next week.
And because, feast or famine, working in the arts is cruel, next week I’ve also ended up with two job/commission interviews, two thirteen-mile walks as part of planning and delivering this choir/film project, and time in four different towns and cities - not including the ones I’ll run through. Things get moved, and then they get moved again, and then there’s nowhere left to move them to and so they all end up happening at the same time. Feast. Famine.
This time last year I was in the middle of the longest lean stretch of the last ten years and so it’s important that I remind myself, from time to time, that although my life is ridiculous it is also extraordinary. I am overworked but I love my work and I thrive on these peak periods. I try in my working practices not to inflict these kinds of demands on anyone else but I am obviously humblebragging like a motherfucker here, of course I’m delighted with my ludicrous feast. I’m a teetotal vegetarian but I’m Henry VIII quaffing chicken drumsticks and gobbling wine.
Working like this isn’t sustainable, but if you choose it, it’s a ride. If you choose it. As lead artists, we have to remember that for no-one else on the team is it the culmination of a year or a life’s work. Everyone else has to be enabled to work sensible hours and take sensible breaks. Especially the design team, who go into tech two or three times a month and are expected to work fourteen hour days because the director has been nursing this project for thirteen years and finally got to make it. Just because it's your birthday, don't force feed everyone else.
Anyway, the marathon this morning went well. Physically, at least, I’m resting now before the long one next week. If you want to follow how that goes, I’ll be carrying a tracker and you can watch a dot moving slowly across a map here: http://live.opentracking.co.uk/thao20/#.
The route marked in red on that map is very approximate so don’t be alarmed if you see me veering off it. And I’ll be stopping every ten or fifteen miles to eat, change my shoes, peel off blackened toenails, etc, so don’t be alarmed if there are short stretches of inactivity. There’ll be occasional updates from my account (mostly not from me) via twitter if you want to know more.
Scheduled departure time is 3am on Wednesday 4th. The schedule says it’ll take about 24 hours. But it’s twice as far as I’ve ever run, so really, who knows.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will