Having led last week on “artists aren’t snowflakes”, I had a meltdown yesterday in the face of an application form. I don’t believe in karma, and I don’t believe the gods punish hubris, but I do think this was inevitable sooner or later. Constantly putting yourself out there to be judged eventually always turns into judging yourself. Perhaps one reason I enjoy working on other artists’ applications is that I can exercise this skillset without consequences for my self-esteem.
And some forms really are nastier than others. The questions seem to be asked with narrowed eyes. They all seem designed to imply the real question: “you’re a fraud, aren’t you?” Once that question’s in the room, it’s hard not to answer “yes, yes I am, please don’t tell anyone”. I’ve become immune to it through high exposure, but Grantium definitely has this effect.
Artists directly involved in these recruitment or commissioning processes isn’t the only way to avoid this effect. Humans would do. But it’s certainly easier to make a process empathetic if you’ve been on the other end of it.
All of which is by way of introduction to saying that last week’s blogpost got lots of responses. I’ve done a bit of a round-up of them below.
I had a terrific week last week making a deep dive into Arthur, the Edinburgh show. At the end of it I did a work-in-progress presentation, maybe half-expecting to come out of it thinking, yep, pretty much nailed that. All I need to do before the festival starts is learn the words.
Not a chance. There’s still a huge amount to do. And the ways in which the challenge is unfolding itself are fascinating.
The living room setting, so fundamental to a show about the meeting point between genetics and the domestic environment, also ruthlessly exposes particular kinds of writing. Usually in my shows I’m able to make unvarnished statements of my own opinion, by arranging them as a series of jokes, or gathering them into a space created by story. I’ve never bought the standard opinion that you can’t get away with saying what you really think; the problem is much more often that it’s done badly than that it’s done at all. But in this show, the space for that kind of writing is radically reduced. Likewise the sudden deep dive into emotional self-exposure, the sudden shedding of a layer of skin, something I did a lot in Going Viral, for example, easily feels icky here. Basically, it seems rude. It's like when you meet someone at a party and after nineteen seconds of small talk they break into a lecture on their thesis subject or their relationship breakdown.
But we’ve all been at parties where people have earned our trust enough to embark on that conversation. The advantage of the living room setting is that it facilitates a lightness that I hope characterises all my work. Participation is much easier to navigate. There’s a genuine conversational feel, and it is often a genuine conversation. The corresponding challenge is that the lightness is so baked into the performative context that it’s harder to introduce weight.
The show, for those who've missed the announcement, is performed by me and my baby son in the living room of whoever books it. It's about genetics, class and inheritance: the things that make you you. For better and for worse. For richer and for poorer. The baby in a living room seemed an elegant way of bringing into play the interaction between genetics and the domestic environment. It's the nature-nurture debate in show form. Except of course nature-nurture isn't really a debate: almost everyone instinctively agrees that it's a bit of both; it's nature via nurture. So the show embarks on a journey through some of the current science, which is by turns surprising, alarming and challenging to some of those instincts. In some ways you have way less control than you think you do: the fact of being you is in some ways utterly inescapable. But in others, you have far more control than you think, perhaps even more than you'd like. Combine this with some really astonishing stories of child development, twin-snapping and dog-cloning, and you have loads of ingredients for a really fascinating, provocative and enjoyable hour.
Anyway, the work-in-progress was incredibly valuable, because it finally revealed for me the spaces in the show where the lightness can let the weight in. Fascinating, provocative and enjoyable are brilliant adjectives, but there's an emotional one still missing, and now I know how to fill the gap.
It was the Clougha Pike fell race on Saturday, and with a trail ultramarathon coming up this Saturday, I planned to take it nice and easy. No point getting injured, and I’ve done nothing of even close to high intensity since before my ankle injury in March. Then the gun fired and off I went, racing as hard as permitted by my shaky fitness and the blazing heat of the afternoon.
It’s a glorious route, with loads of different kinds of terrain: firm grass, rough bog, bouldery scrambles and even the occasional earthen trail. After the initial melee, a group of about six of us were trading places all the way to the summit. I was desperately thirsty in the heat, and pathetically grateful whenever the terrain briefly evened out enough to pick up a bit of speed: moving faster produces a breeze. But it also elevates your heart rate. I don’t know if I’ve ever been hotter and I was playing chicken with collapse through overheating. By the top I was still in this group of five or six, but I was at the back of it. The woman just in front of me had the exact same shoes as me and they were weirdly hypnotic.
Then we passed the summit and it was possible to cool off without keeling over. It’s really rough ground most of the way down, but there are still opportunities to pick up speed. By halfway down I was at the front of our little group; by two-thirds I’d broken away and by the time I put on an extra burst for the final downhill to the finish I couldn’t see any of them. I’d never thought of descending as a particular strength of mine, but it might be a relative strength when I haven’t the lungs for climbing.
I don’t know where I placed overall as they still haven’t published the results, but I’d guess I was about 30thout of 150. Not a spectacular result but given my total lack of appropriate training I was delighted. I thought it might take me an hour; I finished in just over fifty minutes.
Since coming back from injury I’ve passed the pain around both legs and although you wouldn’t say I’m re-injured, I’m yet to have a single comfortable run since March. The current niggle is a slight pull in the middle hamstring on my left leg, which has nagged quietly for just over a week. On Saturday this little niggle made me wonder whether maybe I shouldn’t run, and was another good reason why if I ran, I shouldn’t race. I started towards the back of the pack to keep myself sensible. By thirty seconds in I’d forgotten about it and I spent the first half-mile or so moving gradually up the field. Half an hour after the race, there it was again, where it’s been ever since. I went to the physio this morning and I’m hoping the battering I sustained at his hands means it’ll ease up before Saturday’s race.
55 kilometres will leave nothing unexamined. Again, I’m planning to take it very easy, and it should be a little easier to reign myself in over this sort of distance. Slow and steady wins the race. Except in this case it won’t be slow and steady, it will be Damian Hall. Last year he won this event by a clear 35 minutes, a few weeks before going on to place fifth at UTMB. While I was racing Clougha Pike this weekend he was in the process of setting a new record on the Paddy Buckley Round, a 70-ish mile course over about thirty Welsh mountains. He’ll still win on Saturday by another huge margin. If I finish within two and a half hours of him I’ll be over the moon.
Then they came for the left-wing playwrights and I did not speak up, even though this was quite obviously the thickening end of a fucking massive wedge.
The establishment rallying around Boris Johnson this week has been quite the sight to behold, and in this case it has involved them ripping to shreds the integrity of people whose integrity surpasses that of almost anyone I know. What Would Eve Leigh Do strikes me as a decent moral barometer for quite a range of questions.* This savaging has also involved the right-wing press shredding plenty of their own previously-stated values, because the principle of free speech is all very well unless it’s used to attack one of their own. Then you must be silenced, and silenced forcibly. Your right to write plays critical of establishment positions will be called into question. Your support of progressive causes will be used to undermine you. Your past will be raked through, exaggerated, distorted, and lied about. The trigger-phrase “left-wing playwright”, used to set loose the attack dogs, should be terrifying to anyone who knows anything about the early 1930s.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, next we got Boris’s bus story. I’ve been enjoying the number of people who interpret this ludicrous episode as part of a Machiavellian plot, a "distraction tactic". It seems to me quite clear that Boris has no strategy, no plot, and that he really is that loose of a cannon, that casual of a liar. As observers of Trump can confirm, this doesn’t make him any less terrifying.
And it’s not as though Hunt would be any better: the fact that he’s mostly, I think, honest about the damage he wishes to inflict doesn’t make him any less damaging. But it’ll be Boris, god help us all. Domestic abusing, serial philandering, pathological lying, lazy, inattentive to detail, perennially prone to huge blunders, ferociously racist, dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, conspiracy-to-assaulting Boris. His tendency to lie in relation to buses may be the most charming thing about him. Maybe it is a distraction. I still don’t think it’s a tactic.
I’d like to finish with some of my responses to the many responses to last week’s blogpost. It's a massive subject and any one of these brief notes could form the basis of a whole other essay I don't have time to write. So instead there's this:
- No, there’s absolutely no guarantee that artists would treat their staff any better than anyone else does. Some artists are massive arseholes who shouldn’t be put in charge of anything. I don’t want to suggest that more direct involvement from artists in the running of institutions would be a magical fix-all for the entire system and culture in which we operate.
- Producers are mostly brilliant and creative people. Curation is a creative role, and in the post I name several individuals among many who do brilliant and important work with and for artists. I do not want to drive a wedge between producers and artists. That is literally the opposite of what I want. I want to remove that wedge. As well as wanting more artists in positions of responsibility, influence and leadership, I'd like more ways for producers and administrators to be creative.
- I’m under no illusions about how hard it is to run an institution, and how possible it is for this to bring you into conflict with your values as an artist. There are plenty of examples of artists getting consumed by the system, and merrily fucking people over just as they themselves were previously fucked. There are plenty more examples of artists spitting themselves out of that system bruised and nearly broken, with little or no change effected. I’m grateful to these artists for the visible efforts they made and in most cases they made more difference than they realise. Several said they wouldn’t do it again. That’s ok. Thank you for what you’ve done. It’s someone else’s turn.
- Yes, it is important that artists are more represented at board level of arts organisations. It is equally important that more people who work in the arts in any capacity are represented at board level of arts organisations. I’m honestly astonished by how many theatre boards have literally no one on them who knows anything about how theatres are run, or really anything at all about the industry. (There’s one example very close to my heart that makes my blood boil, and I’d happily name and shame if there wouldn’t be substantial collateral damage to people I hold dear.)
- Collective and cooperative management structures and more balanced remuneration structures would, likewise, be a bloody good start.
- A lot of people think artists should start their own spaces, not just get jobs in existing ones. Yes, that would be great. But the power and the money are in the existing ones. I repeat my call for an insurgency.
- Plenty of people in administrative roles in many organisations are (or were) practising artists but the current structures require them to leave that at the door. I’ll be told I’m being naively dreamy here, given huge pressure on capacity, but what about a half-day a week, like google?
- No, having the ability to navigate an excel spreadsheet is absolutely no benchmark for leadership.
- If you've read this far, your reward is to be told that I put my money where my mouth is and applied for a Programmer job in a theatre I admire. Watch this space.
Book of the week: Landskipping by Anna Pavord, a personal cultural history of our relationship with the idea of landscape. Lightness and weight.
TV of the week: It’s still the cricket world cup, where Eoin Morgan’s “pressure off” captaincy is surely going to have to admit that the pressure is on. The spectacle of England pretending to be relaxed has been deeply weird. They were never relaxed before. They were intense and brutal. You don’t take the heat off by pretending there’s no heat. That leads to the sort of lackadaisical fielding we've seen more often in the last three weeks than in the last three years. You take the heat off by admitting there's heat, and loving it. The last week or so feels like a rare mis-step by the England captain, despite his extraordinary flat-track-bullying of Afghanistan.
All that said, it seems harsh to blame Morgan for anything after the extraordinary work he’s done over the past four years. The real problem here is that James Vince is to Jason Roy as a beautiful painting is to the wild sea.
Edinburgh Fringe tip of the week: I spent last weekend doing a couple of days work with The Roaring Girls, your favourite theatre company that you’ve only heard of if you’re from Hull. Their show Beach Body Ready takes on body image culture, and it’s very funny, very frank, and at times blisteringly furious. Those are my favourite bits, but the whole show is super. It’s at the Pleasance.
* This piece is worth going back to again and again
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will