The following article was commissioned by Trowbridge Town Hall, in response to a residency there by me and Boff Whalley in June this year. It was published in the most recent edition of the Trowbridge Community Newspaper.
You should check out Trowbridge Town Hall. They're a brilliant organisation. Their upcoming Christmas show Miracle on 34 Seymour Street was made through a similar process to the one described below. I'd go.
Some things just won’t resist turning into metaphor.
We spent our first morning in Trowbridge clearing scum off a pond. The sensory garden out the back of the town hall is a peaceful oasis, at least on days when there isn’t a stonecutter at work twenty feet away. But the garden only stays beautiful thanks to the indefatigable efforts of a team of volunteers. In Trowbridge, such efforts are a theme.
Yet despite the beauty of the spot and the huge good will we were met with by the volunteers, pond scum just keeps insisting on becoming a metaphor. For reasons that entirely escape me, Trowbridge is not widely regarded as a great place to be, visit, or live. Even many of the people of Trowbridge to whom we spoke were at best mealy-mouthed about the place. So consistently is it done down that, as a visitor, you start looking for things that confirm this reputation, which begins to obscure the fact that this is an incredibly handsome town. You have to clear the scum of reputation in order to see the water clearly.
That same evening we visited an allotment run by Trowbridge Environmental Community Organisation (TECO). For weeks they’ve been planting radishes only to have them eaten by slugs. So they plant more radishes, and they’re eaten by slugs too. And so on. The persistence of the TECO team is Sisyphean, it’s heroic, and again it’s an irresistible metaphor for all for work done by volunteers across the town to keep clearing away the pond scum and make it beautiful. Mel Jacobs, whose community garden in the park filled with local plant varieties had just been substantially vandalised and who, with a heavy heart, set about starting again. The team brought together by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust with whom we spent a morning in galoshes picking rubbish from Paxcroft stream. Layla in the plastic-free shop, whose business exists because plastic – plenty of which we picked out of that stream – is choking the planet, but who hadn’t served a customer for two hours before we came in to talk to her. I bought a huge quantity of nuts, enough to last the whole week, but it didn’t cover two hours of costs. As we left another customer came in.
We were brought to Trowbridge by the good folk of the Town Hall, to meet people who give up their time to make Trowbridge a better place to live, who get their hands dirty in order to transform the environment, or to preserve it. It wasn’t just environmental issues, either. We spent a fascinating and enormously enjoyable evening with the change-ringers in the church tower, geeking out on the minutiae of peals. Like so many pursuits you’re aware of but haven’t ever tried, bell-ringing is a lot more complex than you think, a whole secret world of knowledge and skill. And now whenever I hear that beautiful sound ringing out across any town, I know a little bit more about the nature of the work the ringers are putting in to creating the space I’m moving through.
Even a semi-wild place like Biss Meadows hides an incredible amount of invisible work, which we were introduced to by Jenny Fowers when she took us on a tour. Like so many people we met, she was refreshingly un-NIMBYish, celebrating the graffiti under the bridge and offering support to a homeless man taking shelter there. Some people want their beauty spots to represent a kind of perfection that’s only possible if you exclude basically all people. And as soon as you start making decisions about which people are most desirable in your beauty spots, you start excluding the kinds of people – the young, the homeless, the too-loudly-enjoying-themselves – who might have most to gain from access to places like this. Another bit of reputational scum wiped away, there.
With Gill Cooper we did a circuit of Courtfield Orchard, which despite being a historic woodland with several rare or unique trees, is under threat of development. Because of that, we couldn’t actually go into the orchard, we could only peer through the fence. The security guard came over and I was braced for a confrontation. But she was incredibly lovely and supportive, and just as keen that the orchard – and the house – be restored to use for the people of the town. It meant a lot to Gill, to save this place – she was full of memories of drama rehearsals in the house, and more – but she’s not sentimental about it. Things, times, places, they all change. Let’s just make sure it’s for the better, eh?
The change about which people most complain in Trowbridge is not unique to Trowbridge, it’s a national one, perhaps international. The gradual desertification of the town centre is a problem everywhere you go, and everyone knows it’s because of Amazon and because out-of-town shopping centres have better parking. But no individual can hold back that tide. So people pass blame to local councils, but in many cases there’s little they can do to promote local upstarts in the face of global behemoths. Their budgets are so tight that it’s hardly surprising they struggle even to offer rate relief – and plenty of that rate relief would mostly benefit landlords who themselves aren’t local either.
But what are you going to do? All you can do. Open a plastic-free shop, a small art gallery, an independent café. The slugs will come and eat some of it, so you plant it again. Pick plastic out of the water. Ring bells. People who care are the only thing that ever made a difference in this world, and they’re making a difference in Trowbridge every day.
On a personal note (and this is the paragraph that I expect might get cut from this article), I found our week in Trowbridge incredibly moving and inspiring. It resolved me to get involved in some of the kinds of activity we saw in Trowbridge in my own home town. Like a lot of people I spend a lot of time complaining, and there’s a degree to which the art I make is an extension of that complaining. I’ve been quite politically active in the past but have found the energy required impossible to sustain under the daily pressure of life when the pace of change is so slow. But the radishes I planted in Trowbridge, they grew, and now I know that you can beat the slugs anywhere.
It’s not been on for a couple of months, but for whatever reason I’ve been thinking about Ted Lasso, the TV show whose success is just as heartwarming as the show itself. Ten or so years ago a TV show this relentlessly sincere just wouldn’t have got made. Everything had to be laced with cynicism and irony, especially comedy.
In a talk to a group of writers at Leeds Playhouse a few years ago, the wonderful Jo Clifford once said that awards are too often won by gloomy plays that confirm our worst fears about the world. Plays that uncynically, sincerely live in hope, that dare to dream, or even demand that the world might be changed, are usually dismissed as naïve. They don’t win things.
Shows that live and end in gloom confirm our fears. This is reassuring. Things are bleak, they’re inevitably bleak, there’s no point in trying to fight the bleakness. Five stars.
We have to risk naivete in order to effect change.
Of course I’m not saying that all you have to do to win awards is be miserable. But if you want to make a positive contribution, look clearly into the fact that you’re less likely to win awards. Think hard about why you’re really doing this. Do you want prizes? Or do you want to help people live well in the dark?
My award-winningest show, Going Viral, is also my gloomiest. There’s a lot I love about that show, but its downbeat ending I consider a capitulation. Would it still have won awards if it had ended in hope? I don’t know. But I’d prefer it that way.
Nor am I saying you can’t go to dark places. Hell, Ted Lasso does that. Sincerity, lack of cynicism, these aren’t in fact the same as naivete or sentimentality. Life is incredibly hard. The world is a bleak and oppressive place. But if we’re going to dig into these things, let’s come back to the surface with hope or tools for change.
Two years ago I was exhausted, injured, overworked and suffering my fourth cold in six weeks. I was grumpy a lot of the time and don’t imagine I succeeded in hiding this from my kids.
Though there was a touch too much of it, I was excited by all the work and wanted to be able to bring my best self to it. I also had big running goals and wanted to be able to fully commit to training, but 50+ mile weeks make big energy demands, while my energy levels were through the floor. Something had to give.
I spent hours scanning everything on my plate trying to figure out what could be taken off it, and when the answer came it was obvious: if I cut out booze for a few months, I’ll get better sleep, recover from exercise better, preserve energy, and generally remove an unnecessary stress from my system. Like everyone, I’ve cut out the booze loads of times before, and although I think I once managed a month, most of those times it’s lasted less than a week.
This was different. It wasn’t “I ought to”, it was “I want to”. It was “if I do this, I might be able to manage everything else”. It might sound daft to excise such a pleasure from life in order to work and exercise harder, but these things, when I can do them well, they’re what bring me pleasure. If I didn’t do what I do for my job, I’d want to make space in my life to do it anyway for my hobby. I’m privileged to get to do what I do full-time, and I don’t want to piss away that privilege in hangovers. And I don’t know about you, but when exhausted, injured, hungover and ill I struggle to be good-humoured when the kids get me up at 6am.
So I was all-in, but after a week I was still knackered, and turning down drinks after gigs felt like I was hosting an alien. Three weeks in I caught another cold, which turned into a migraine, but I’d committed to this and I was going to give it a go and miracle cures probably don’t happen overnight.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I started to feel better, but I do know that I ran a decent half marathon that December, then a week later won a race for the first time since school sports day 1996 (Hartlepool ParkRun, 19:something, not a stellar time but you can only race the people who show up, right?). Until March 2020 came along and detonated everyone’s plans, I was doing all the things I wanted to and giving them my best. Through that time I wasn’t always buzzing with energy – it comes and goes – but I was never ill or injured.
The plan had been to stay sober until June 3rd 2020, my fortieth birthday. When that date rolled around, instead of gathering in the function room of a pub with all my nearest and dearest, I was at home on a zoom quiz. Having a drink just seemed daft. Why not see if I can manage a year? When November 11th 2020 duly rolled around, an awful Wednesday in an awful month in an awful, when I was as unhappy as I’ve ever been, there was nothing whatever to celebrate and having a drink seemed totally absurd. So I quietly went from “I’m not drinking” to “I don’t drink”.
Two years on, my life feels eerily similar to November 2019. I’m at full capacity and fully committed. But I’m not exhausted, I’m not injured, I’m seldom grumpy, and I’ve had one cold in two years. The evidence is in. Two years, no beers: bring on the next two.
Two weeks ago saw a new record at Big’s Backyard Ultra. This most exquisitely sadistic of race formats goes as follows. At 8am, the competitors set out on a 4.1667 mile loop. At 9am, assuming they’re back in time, they do it again. And at 10am, 11am, 12pm, and every hour, on the hour - until there’s only one runner left. That person, having completed a final loop solo, is then declared the winner.
Four and a bit miles in an hour sounds easy. Doing it again: also fairly easy. A third time shouldn’t be too hard. But how long will it remain easy until it becomes difficult? When does a pile become a heap? The peculiar loop length means that after 24 hours, the remaining competitors will have completed exactly 100 miles. And counting.
The maxim of “a little and often” is applied, by the authors of books to be found for sale in railway stations, to almost every endeavour in life. Write for 4.1667 miles a day and before you know it you’ll have finished the first draft. Sip regularly from a glass of water and before you know it you’ll have drunk a hundred miles.
Run for half an hour four or five times a week and before you know it you’ll be entering races that will break you open and have you weeping in public. It’s no different to writing plays, really.
Before the recent Big’s Backyard Ultra, the record for most loops completed was 81, a total distance of well over 300 miles. On Tuesday afternoon, having begun running on Sunday morning, three runners set off on that record-equalling 81st loop. But halfway round, Terumichi Morishita fell, and blacked out. I’m pretty sure his brain, finding his body prone at last, simply overrode his declared wishes and enforced sleep.
You imagine the remaining runners willing their competitors to stop, the sooner for the suffering to be over. But that’s not how records get broken here. Once you’re the last one standing, you only get one more loop whether it’s the 2nd or the 82nd. To break the record, you need someone else to go all the way with you. Until just before the end, it takes teamwork. Only after that does it become Squid Game.
The record broken, Harvey Lewis and Chris Roberts were clearly hanging on by less than a thread. On the 84th loop, Roberts turned back, leaving Lewis only a solo 85th loop to complete in order to be declared the winner. A little and often, and before you know it you’ve covered 350 miles.
This race is obviously extreme, but the writers of the railway station WHSmith books aren’t completely daft. If you ran 4.1667 miles a day every day except Sunday, you’d cover a hundred miles a month - even in February. It doesn’t need to be National Novel Writing Month (although I think it probably is; it usually seems to be) to write 500 words a day. That’s 10,000 a month: no-one needs to write that much, just turn up every day and do something, just get round the block, just do enough to stay fit.
Often I have thoughts or feelings that I want to document on here, but it seems bizarre to post this or that having written nothing whatsoever for months. Why is this the thing that got me to break the silence? So I’m writing this post to start forming the habit. I’ve taken this idea out for a jog and after 4.1667 miles I'm back at the start line, but at least it’s exercise, and at least you now know about this stupid race. I’m not planning on posting every hour on the hour, but a little and often. Before you know it my stride will have smoothed out and I’ll look like I write prose all the time, and I’ll have written 86 loops.
It’s only another four and a bit miles.
WILD TOUR OF DEVON
Promoted by Beaford and Carn to Cove
In mid-May Boff and I finally premiere These Hills Are Ours. We do so in ludicrously grandiose style.
We're running from show to show, between performances in five rural locations across the whole county of Devon, and covering nearly 120 miles in the course of the week. The shows will be in a range of non-performance spaces: barns, fields, hilltops; and mostly outdoors.
We begin our journey at 3pm on Sunday 16th May in Northam Burrows, at the mouth of the River Taw on Devon's north coast. We'll be sung on our way by a small choir singing an arrangement of one of the songs from the show. Then we'll run off on the first leg of our journey.
Along the way we'll sleep in campsites, barns, and on one occasion, the pavilion of a local amateur league football club. At about halfway, we'll pass the sources of the rivers Taw and Dart, which rise within half a mile of one another, and whose mouths mark the beginning and end of our journey.
We'll finish, exactly a week after starting, at Sugary Cove, by the mouth of the River Dart, where we'll be welcomed by a larger choir singing the same song.
Then we'll collapse with grateful exhaustion.
The whole Wild Tour is a celebration of all the things we've been unable to do over the past year: perform live, sing together, and run in places too wild to be accessible from our front doors.
You can follow our progress live via OpenTracking here, where a map of the approximate route will be visible from a few days before our departure.
There'll be daily updates via various social media. A good place to start will be my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Beaford, our commissioners and promoters in Devon, will also be posting more regular updates at their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
For the numerically-inclined, the itinerary and approximate mileages are:
Sunday 16th - Northam Burrows to Woolsery - 12 miles
Monday 17th - we'll rehearse in person for the first time and open the show in Woolsery.
Tuesday 18th - Woolsery to Dolton - 22 miles
Wednesday 19th - Dolton to Bondleigh - 10 miles, with a show in the evening
Thursday 20th - Bondleigh to Chagford, via Taw Head and Dart Head - 25-26 miles, with a show in the evening
Friday 21st - Chagford to Ashburton - 16 miles, with a show in the evening
Saturday 22nd - Ashburton to Blackadon Farm - 12 miles, with a show in the evening
Sunday 23rd - Blackadon Farm to Sugary Cove - 20 miles, final choir performance, collapse
(Please note that these shows are all very-limited capacity and are on sale only within the local communities.)
Finally, during the course of the week we'll be making a film with the wonderful Bevis Bowden, which will arrive on my YouTube channel later this year. I wouldn't rule out updates turning up there during the course of the week, either.
It's going to be a hell of a way to open a show.
I read recently that a lack of novel experiences inhibits the formation of new memories, although I can’t remember where I read it. This has been a perennial problem for me lately. I can’t remember names, dates, words, facts, information, why I came in this room. It’s tempting to put this down to age, but I prefer the theory about novel experiences. Who’s having novel experiences lately? We’ve all been trapped by the same four walls for over a year. The same screens, the same faces, the same same. Nothing to fire the synapses, nothing to build neural connection, nothing to keep rebuilding the old ones. Is synapses the right word? Is “neural”?
Last week I was in Newcastle for a work thing, which conveniently doubled as an opportunity to see my mother. Then I drove down to the Peak District, and stayed over in the camper van. The next morning Boff and I ran eighteen miles over Bleaklow Head and Kinder Scout. I was away from home less than 34 hours, but that’s more experience packed into a day and a half than I’ve had so far this year.
We were running that route because Saturday was the anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass. Our show These Hills Are Ours, which will finally open next month, begins and ends at Kinder, which forms the destination of an epically long run I talk about in the show. So we wanted to revisit the terrain before finishing the text of the show, and we wanted to do it on this day in particular. It was a revelation.
It was a glorious day, so the number of people out wasn’t surprising; what was surprising was how young they all were. Dozens and dozens of young couples. Kids bounding down the track. All races and colours. People associate the hills with crusty middle-aged white blokes grumbling into their beards, but on Saturday that was just me and Boff.
The current draft of the end of These Hills Are Ours has a bittersweet quality, as we worry about the future of access and all the ways it’s being assailed. Watching the number of people who took a walk over Kinder as lockdown ends to be their right, we needn’t have worried. Most of them may well have had no idea of the significance of the day; it’s just that the weather was fantastic. But equally, they’d all be absolutely outraged by the idea that this might no longer be permitted: even though, less than ninety years ago, it wasn’t. I’ll remember those shining faces for a long time. I hope the fact that it was memorable means I’ll start remembering everything else too.
I wrote the below blog post for the Society of British Theatre Designers, who published it here.
One of the many small wonders of this largely wonder-free year has been watching so many designers apparently become activists overnight. I suppose it oughtn’t to have been surprising. Designers are nothing if not problem-solvers, three-dimensional thinkers, and imaginers of new worlds. Yet before this year, the spectacle of a campaigning designer was not one I was accustomed to.
It’s obvious why. Designers (and I’m principally talking about set and costume designers in this post, but it’s true of lighting design, sound design, and all other design areas too) are commonly at work on multiple projects, haring from tech to production meeting to white card presentation, transporting a model box 250 miles, supervising a paint call and attending a costume fitting – and that’s just Monday. The rest of the industry are accustomed to complaining about the length of the working day; we don’t hear these complaints from designers because they don’t have time to make them.
In the context of this astonishing overwork, pay and conditions for designers remain absolutely shocking. The standard ITC contract on which many agreements are based hasn’t substantially changed since 1993 (the other industry standard, the UK Theatre/SOLT one, is rehashed every four years but is yet to address many of the above concerns). In the meantime the industry as a whole really has changed. Three decades ago, for example, it was standard practice for set and costume to be created by two separate designers specialising in the respective areas. Now, one designer almost always does both jobs - for one fee. Too many productions don’t budget for the cost of a model box, although they regularly come in at well into three figures just for the basic materials, to say nothing of overheads or weeks of time.
Over the past decade we’ve seen a move towards using 3D modelling softwares like vectorworks and AutoCad in the design process, which you’d imagine might reduce the need for physical models. But where the software aids construction, it isn’t always as helpful to directors who prefer a physical model. So it often becomes an additional piece of work, taking additional time. This in its turn relies on designers having access to expensive software with annual licenses that take a sizeable chunk out of a freelancer’s annual income. And that’s before you’ve put the time into learning how to use new and ever-changing tools.
So much of this and other design work, meanwhile, remains largely invisible to the wider team. Some would be shocked if they knew the truth; others do their best not to look at it because they know what they’ll see. Divide your designer’s fee by the time they’ve actually spent on the work, and you’ll terrifyingly often find they’re barely making minimum wage. On the Fringe, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever doing so: those most at risk of overwork, burnout and exploitation are those in the wild west, with no production management or venue support, and without even an inadequate contract to protect them.
It would be wrong to say there’d been no efforts to organise against this before March 2020. In fact, there’s nothing new about designer-activism – it’s just received shamefully little attention industry-wide. The Society of British Theatre Designers, the Equity directors’ and designers’ group, and others have all been working hard on this for years. Throughout this pandemic they’ve continued to do so, and there’s been progress. But partly because, as with many freelancers, the operations of power are heavily stacked against designers, it’s hard to think of a big win to point to. As ever it’s a graphic reminder that venues and management own the means of production and are not on the side of labour. We’re an industry that pretends to be about people but that people can be habitually valued so little reveals how little beyond lip service this goes.
But as the sector has been stripped bare this year, of course these conversations have been put on hold. Like every advance it looked like we might have been making as an industry, the most precarious, the most poorly-paid and the most overworked are those in danger of getting the worst deal in whatever brave new world the survivors construct around themselves in the next year or two.
Of course this all goes double for designers of colour, disabled designers, non-gender-conforming designers, working class designers, and designers from other marginalised identities, backgrounds – and locations. It might appear obtuse to start an argument on behalf of designers when there are so many apparently more pressing problems. But like in so many other areas of the sector, these are the pressing problems. If we’re not treating everyone well, we’re going to remain inaccessible to everyone who doesn’t look or sound like the usual suspects.
So the really surprising – and thrilling - thing about seeing all these designers seeming to become activists this year, was that it wasn’t even on this subject that their activism focused. I’m thinking of Bethany Wells raising thousands for struggling artists by designing and selling tote bags. I’m thinking of #scenechange wrapping our theatres as a reminder that we all still exist. I’m thinking of Max Johns, just as I began writing this, producing a blueprint for sustainable practice in design and making, of the Freelancers Make Theatre Work campaign, of the Ecostage/SBTD Sustainability working group. It’s amazing what good people can do when they’re not working back-to-back fourteen-hour days.
As we all work together to rebuild the sector, I hope all of this won’t be forgotten. I’m grateful to my designer friends and colleagues for everything they’ve done this year. You have my solidarity. I want to play my part in building a sector that’s more hospitable for everyone, and the writing of this blog comes as part of a journey out of my own ignorance – too much of what I’ve described here has been as invisible to me as it appears to be to the sector as a whole.
So what can be done, practically? Firstly, join your professional organisation, join your union. Your representatives are fighting hard on your behalf and their voice gets stronger with every new member. And on an individual level? Early career designers – ask for what you need. Even if it’s not forthcoming, companies need to know what they’re really asking. Too often these systemic failures are built on the ability of those in positions of power to ask the impossible – their permission to do so must be continually resisted. Directors and theatre-makers, as well as producers – we need to get better at having these conversations with our teams. Ask designers what they need to do the job, ask them how much time it will actually take and adjust the budget accordingly. I’ll be doing this from now on. What else? And who’s with me?
On Monday I go into rehearsals. I can scarcely believe it. Sleeping Beauty opens at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster on Friday 11th December.
I had to stop myself from giving form to my doubts by writing "is scheduled to open". Because honestly, I think I'll only really believe it's going to open once it has. So much has been cancelled this bloody year, so much has fallen through, that nothing can be relied upon.
We are urged to cultivate gratitude. Things may be lost, fall through, get cancelled. Be grateful for what we do have. And I'm grateful to have had the pleasure of writing it alongside Sarah. I'm grateful for the rehearsal process we're about to enter, which I know will be joyful. I'll be grateful for all that, but it won't stop me being gutted if in the end no-one gets to see it.
It's an extraordinarily brassy call from the Dukes. Most theatres either didn't take the risk on a Christmas show in the first place, or have since pulled them. Karen looked at Lancaster around Christmas time and saw that everything had been cancelled: the ice rink, the big wheel, the lights switch on, everything. Christmas looked thoroughly depressing. So the team at the Dukes figured out a way of remodelling everything about the usual process of putting on a show, and giving the people of Lancaster something to enjoy at Christmas. In the process, I have learned an astonishing amount about ventilation, but if that's what it takes, so be it.
As things stand, we're due to open These Hills Are Ours in January too. I'm in danger of entering a permanent state of disbelieving astonishment.
I’m trying to get a few thoughts down each week on my childcare days, while Arthur naps. They’ll be brief and may end abruptly.
Ten years ago almost to the day I saw a show performed in my own accent, for the first time in my life, and it blew my head off. I wrote this piece about it for the Guardian, back when they used to publish writing about theatre. I look back on it now and think that the experience may have been one factor in a total transformation in my career that took place around then. It’s not long after that that I began work on my first solo show - somehow it was now ok to sound like this.
Ten years before that, I was at university, and well on the way to having lost my (working-class, Teesside) accent. At some level I must have been ashamed to come from where I come from, and I felt that in order to get anywhere in this industry I needed to pretend to be middle-class. That show isn’t the only thing that made me feel like I was legitimate as I was, but it was a big factor. It was more than ten years before my accent made its way home, and even now in this industry I often feel unsure it’s ok to sound like this.
Representation matters, and our stages will always be peopled by the same faces and voices if the same faces and voices are the only ones we represent. But representation is limited by access. Starting a career in theatre relies on often years of unpaid labour, and if you don’t have a laundry list of privileges you’re unlikely to survive this war of attrition.
I say all of this knowing that I’ve scraped through this far no doubt thanks in part to the fact that my lack of class privilege is offset by my possession of every other privilege there is. And I scraped through this far only barely: I’ve written before about the experience of being heavily in debt, which is for many the only way through that initial bottleneck. Perhaps the most startling aspect of that period of my life is something I skirted around in that blogpost: due to the extent of the financial difficulties I was in, and a gap in a precarious work schedule, I ended up homeless for six months. In that blogpost I artfully describe us as living “a semi-nomadic lifestyle”. What that means is we didn’t have anywhere to live. At thirty, with success in the industry behind us, we couldn’t afford it.
At the time I rationalised this as making sense in the situation, and in that blogpost you can see that several years later I still bought this rationalisation. But homelessness is homelessness: we hopped from spare room to spare room, but we didn’t have anywhere to live. We were never on the streets, but I look back on this period ten years on and my sense memory is all about how exhausting and stressful it all was.
The other thing I didn’t piece together at that time, is that it’s just a couple of months after we found somewhere to live (a cheap room in a shared house in Armley, west Leeds) that I saw that show performed in Teesside accents. And I didn’t have to pretend any more.
This industry is disgracefully difficult, and I don’t see it getting easier any time soon. But the least we can do is make sure everyone’s on stage, and that we deny no-one the means of getting there. And this goes way beyond money. The way we structure access to our industry, and the ways this inhibits real access, go way beyond that. But I’ll have to talk about that another time, because the baby’s waking up.
UPDATE: since publishing this, the Barbican have issued a handsome apology to the many artists concerned, and committed to providing individual feedback to all those who would like it. It just goes to show that anger and frustration collectively voiced can lead to change. I'm leaving the post up unedited, because the points all still hold, and this is far from being an isolated incident. Capitalism is reducible to nothing if not shitty behaviour, to the extent that the shitty behavers sometimes need it pointed out to even notice that there are alternatives. (Some of you will say that this is generous. But in this case, given the fulsomeness and immediacy of the apology, I'm ready to be generous.)
Again and again yesterday, I saw screen shots of the same three-line rejection email. It came, said multiple tweets, from a “large well-funded organisation”,* who’d advertised an open opportunity. These artists had worked hard on their applications and in return they got three lines. And I’m not just saying they worked hard: one young artist I follow on twitter said his application had taken three full working days. That sounds implausible, but look at the replies and you see he’s no outlier: applying to this opportunity took work. Replying to these applications, though, that took no work. Three lines. In exchange for three days.
Then today I saw a similar tweet about a totally separate opportunity from a different “large well-funded organisation”. If anything today’s was worse. The artist in question had not only received a curt rejection with no opportunity for feedback, but she’d also been asked for feedback on the application process. You couldn’t make it up. These are not one-off cockups; this is a massive systemic problem.
Now I appreciate that if you get hundreds of applications, then replying with individual feedback takes time. But if you’ve read the application, and decided to reject it, you’ve made that decision for a reason. It might take a few more minutes to commit that reason to your screen, but those few minutes are nothing compared to the days spent by the applicant. It is literally the bare minimum.
Organisations like these want to demonstrate ways in which they’re supporting artists with these opportunities. But their actions reveal that what they’re actually involved in isn’t support, it’s retail. If I go into JD, I don’t have to explain to all the trainers I didn’t buy exactly how they could be a better fit. But artists are not just another pair of shoes you don’t want. Continually putting ourselves up for sale shreds us, and the least you can do is acknowledge our humanity.
Organisations get away with this because the successful artists will be grateful for the opportunity and who knows, it might be brilliant and well-supported. So they’ll shout about it, and big it up, and everyone will forget, again, that supporting that small number of people involved treating a much larger number of people like unwanted footwear.
Organisations advertising these sorts of opportunities should be prepared to offer individual feedback to everyone who wants it, as a condition of offering the opportunity. If that means fewer opportunities and more humanity then so be it, but honestly, it’s reading the applications that takes time and effort, not writing individual responses. That takes more time, of course, but not so much more. I always try to give some sort of individual response to everyone who’s applied for every opportunity I’ve offered; if people ask for more feedback, I give it. (I’m sure I fuck up in this, and if that’s you, er, I welcome your feedback.) I am not a ‘large well-funded organisation’. I am a time-poor freelancer whose every minute spent giving feedback on something is a minute not being paid for something else.
If I can do it, a ‘large well-funded organisation’ can.
Which means they’re choosing not to.
* it's the Barbican
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: