My lungs are a little bit on fire and no amount of breathing seems to be taking in enough air. My legs feel like they’ve tripled in weight and lifting each one up and placing it slightly further ahead, slightly further uphill feels impossible. My face is a grimace and my eyes are trained firmly on the ground, frantically trying to work out where to put each foot so I don’t slip. I pause, look up to see how far behind I am and surprisingly find it isn’t much, and in this split second I take in a lot. The bright sky, the big, furry cows beyond the fence to my right, the almost silky-looking grass on top of the moor that is closer than I expected, and Dan and Boff running only just ahead. This all fortifies me so I take a deep breath and push on, still looking up, and in no time I’m at the top, hands on hips, lungs gratefully swallowing air, head taking in the huge view of Saltaire and Bradford and (if you squint) Leeds that stretches out below us. I think, as if I got myself here?
I spent a week as Dan’s ‘person in the room’, which was essentially an invitation to be witness to his R&D process and have some time to make my own work too. I had some idea about what to expect and was prepared for some writing, some chatting and some reflecting (and very unprepared for some running). I’d met with Dan a couple of weeks beforehand and we’d chatted about what we’d both be working on. He’s in the middle of a monster R&D process, teasing out about nine ideas for shows, including one about running ultramarathons via places that are out of bounds, and one about escaping cities by running up hills with Boff Whalley. I would be working on Spill, a solo show about memory, being brought up catholic, trauma and wine that I’d performed a scratch of the week before at HOME in Manchester.
For the first two days, the room was full of writers: me and Dan, plus Stef Smith, Emma Geraghty, Chris O’Connor and Matt Rogers. These days oscillated between writing independently and getting together to chat about what, how and why we were writing. I had two of the most productive writing days of my life; even though most of the time we were completely in our own bubbles, being around other people who were writing made it feel so easy. Thursday was spent with Dan and Boff, and Friday was just Dan and me. Every so often we migrated out of the room to celebrate each other’s victories (another thousand words!), make coffee, and chat about what we were finding difficult, what was going well, what we needed to do next. I sometimes really struggle to honestly reflect on work with other people, but being with such a lovely, open and generous bunch made this feel effortless.
A lot of big questions came up throughout the week. Some of the things we asked were: what do we do with all the anger we hold at the world? Why do people make solo theatre? Is it because it’s easier to budget for one performer, or because in a post-neoliberal world everyone has become so self-centred they only want to share their own experience? Or, less cynically, is it because it gives you the chance to properly be with an audience in ways that are actually quite hard to articulate? How do you best work with an audience? How do you make sure your audience are looked after while still maintaining just enough risk that they’re invested in the show? How do you look after yourself when making shows about difficult stuff? If you seem to be at risk is this good or bad for the audience? What happens when we die? How does being a lapsed catholic shape your life? Why do some people feel unsafe running by themselves? Could you convince a choir to run up a hill? I also spent a lot of time asking myself why I make theatre, of all things. While I’m not sure there are easy (or any) answers to some of these questions, they feel necessary to ask; sometimes not knowing tells you how much work you’ve still got to do.
Most of the week happened at the lovely Theatre in the Mill in Bradford but, as one of the shows Dan is developing is about escaping a city on foot, on Thursday we ran out of Bradford to Baildon Moor with Boff. I run often but I run slowly, and for relatively short distances, and on flat land. This run was three times further than I’d ever run in my life, and up a hill. I was wholly convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and at first tried to politely decline, but Dan told me it wouldn’t be too far and that I’d be fine. Still, Thursday morning came and I was terrified.
I spent a lot of the week feeling scared. To be fair, Shivers, a night of brilliant but horrifying ghost stories we saw at the Constitutional in Farsley was to blame for a lot of this. But I was scared of running, of the possibility that I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I was scared that I somehow wouldn’t be good enough at being the person in the room, despite Dan being very clear about what he expected of me. And making Spill scares me a bit, too, because it’s quite personal but also because I’m worried it might actually just be shit. Throughout the week though, I gradually realised that these fears were mostly baseless (apart from the ghost stories – that fear was definitely justified). The run was hard but I did it. Being the person in the room was brilliant – once I was there it was so easy to ignore any self doubt I’d had and crack on. And for the first time, I genuinely felt like I could make Spill, that it was a good enough idea, that I was good enough to make it, that even if it’s shit at first, there are a whole host of people who can help.
Being a person in the room was one of the best working weeks I’ve had. I felt like an enormous amount of trust and value had been put in me but this spurred me on rather than overwhelmed me, made me think: I got myself here, I am good enough, I can. Dan said after the run, ‘you could do a half marathon next week, if you wanted to’. And I think, I could! But I wouldn’t have realised it before.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will