This Week In Showbiz - featuring a timebomb, some future projects, several meetings, a 5K race, a dash of hope and a gratuitous swipe at Sir Nicholas Hytner
There’s a timebomb sitting under my working life at the moment. A week on Wednesday, Sarah will be officially 38 weeks pregnant, so the new baby could be born any time. The official due date isn’t until March 13th, but given that Dot was born at 38 weeks and one hour, you’ll understand why we want to be ready. And so I’m trying to get as much as possible done on all my upcoming projects, before this invisible deadline kicks in.
Usually I parent rather than work on Mondays, but in a week like this teaching can form an exception: I spent the morning with the terrific group of students I’m supervising through the creation of their final-year show. Having got back from Devon late on Sunday evening, I’d already been up first thing to unload and return the van (I mean, I was up first thing because I have a two-year-old, but then I had to unload and return a van). So the working week hadn’t started and I was already knackered. I was grateful to spend the morning just soaking up and responding to what my students have been up to since I last saw them. Then I spent the afternoon as Monday should be spent: hanging out with my daughter.
On Tuesday Boff and I went for a run over Kinder Scout. We’re working on a project called These Hills Are Ours and we were retracing the steps of the 1932 Mass Trespass. It seems almost impossible to imagine now that before that action this vast tract of moorland was entirely shut off to public access. As Boff tweeted afterwards, we ran with history clinging to the soles of our shoes, grateful with every step for the actions of those trespassers in 1932 that won us the right to this fantastic run. Don’t let anyone tell you protest never achieves anything.
The core of the project is a series of runs from the centre of the city in which we find ourselves, to the top of the peak overlooking that city. We’re exploring the role of hills and mountains in the urban imagination, the need for escape, and the system of land ownership that places barriers between us and that escape. For me it’ll be the most personal show I’ve yet made: the opening section (as it currently stands) tells the story of me running from Middlesbrough to the top of Roseberry Topping, through scores of memories of my upbringing and background. It’s funny and sad and simple, consisting of little more than me telling stories and Boff singing songs, with a bit of chat between us and the audience between. It’ll be the first show I’ve made where all the stories are true. It looks uncomfortably as though the climactic story is going to be about me running from my house in Lancaster to the top of the Lake District peak you can see from my road - a distance of some 45 miles. Watch this space…
The show is just one aspect of the project, which is also going to involve putting choirs on top of hills and making short films of the process. Community choir projects are what Boff and I have done together over the past six or seven years and this time the community is one of runners. The show itself will hopefully see the light of day a little over a year from now, but if all goes to plan you’ll be able to see some of the choral and filmic elements later this year.
The run itself was glorious. There’s some reasonably stiff climbing on the way up, but it never seems far. And once you’re on top it’s one long gently undulating ridge line. Peaty and rocky, it’s the kind of run that keeps you alert with every step, but it’s incredibly runnable all the same. And it’s hard not to blaze along full of low-level astonishment at the fact that if you did this 100 years ago you’d be shot at by the gamekeeper.
Apart from one excellent meeting each day, the rest of the working week was lower in exhilaration and lower still in fresh air, being entirely about budgets and timelines and applications and project plans. At this point I could wax lyrical about excel and froth mightily about grantium, but perhaps a better way of introducing you to more of these projects will be through the meetings.
Wednesday’s, about These Hills Are Ours, was really positive, and fired me with even more enthusiasm about the project, and will hopefully lead to a partnership with a fantastic organisation who have absolutely no history of supporting any theatre whatsoever. OUTREACH.
Thursday’s was lunch with Jennifer Street, the first work-in-progress of whose show Why Do We Care? I directed earlier this year. Jen is a circus artist and intensive care nurse. (Yes, really.) Her show brings those two things together in a fabulous exploration of the nature of care, featuring an inflatable unicorn costume and audience members as obstacles in a gymkhana. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out next steps for the project, which we did. It’s going to be a further period of R&D later this year, with the aim of finishing the show and getting it on the road in the spring of next year.
And Friday’s meeting was with Aliki Chapple, whose show 666 CommentsI directed in the spring of last year. That show stages an online comment thread in all its technicolour monstrosity. It is terrifying and unexpectedly hilarious. Directing it last year was an enormous pleasure and a privilege and we’re now gearing up for the next stage of activity. This year or next it may go to Edinburgh, but it will certainly tour from this autumn.
AN ASIDE: Last year there was a bit of a furore when it was noted that Nicholas Hytner had never directed a play by a woman. Not just seldom. Literally never. It’s almost incomprehensible. Like, over a career as long as his that can’t occur by chance: it has to be deliberate. Anyway, after meeting Jen and Aliki, I wondered idly how many of the shows I've directed over the past year are by women. Turns out it’s four. Out of four. If this proves anything, it is that I am objectively morally better than Sir Nicholas Hytner. There can be no other conclusion.
Friday finished with a 5K race. I was hoping to do well in this because it’s completely flat and has no sharp turns, so I’d taken a couple of easy days beforehand (by which I mean not running fast or long, rather than taking the day off work) in order to try and run faster than I ever have over the distance. Truth be told, my 5K PB was always softer than my 10K or half marathon times, because I never ran a 5K back in my twenties when I was fast. But still, you don’t get PBs for free and I’m not sure Friday evening, at the end of a week in which I was knackered by Monday morning, is the ideal time for racing.
The race had a cut-off of sub-7-minute-miles - roughly a 21 minute 5K - so it was always going to be fast. A few of the lads could be overheard targeting the course record of around 15:something, for which there was a prize of thirty quid. My goals, by contrast, were: 1) don’t come last; 2) don’t get lapped; 3) go under 18:59 to set a new personal best. It says something about the field that as I stood on the start line I was marginally more confident of #3 than #1 or 2.
The field went off like the gun was firing at them, with the exception of me and one other bloke, who was audibly shocked by the pace. I spent the first half-lap of a four-lap course nestled in second last, just praying that this other bloke wasn’t gaining. Even then, my pace felt a bit hot, but I was feeling OK so decided to stay on the edge. And gradually, people started to come back to me, realising one by one that they’d gone off too fast. As the race went on I must have overtaken nearly half the field, without being overtaken once myself. This must be the definition of a well-paced race; almost the first time I’ve managed that in a 5K. I was pleased with this in itself. I was even more pleased when at the finish line my watch said 18:23, a new PB by over 30 seconds.
Most of you aren’t the least interested in my running exploits, but I have to tell you now that one of my few remaining lifetime goals, and by far the largest, is to run a marathon time in a time starting with a 2. This is right at the edge of what I might possibly be capable of, I am completely obsessed by it, and at 38 years old, it’s soon or never. My last marathon was run in 3:10:54 and I was thoroughly pleased, given that it came off relatively little training. I’m running Edinburgh in May and I'm already fitter than last year. I know I could take five to seven minutes off reasonably comfortably, in so far as anything is comfortable when running a marathon. Or just maybe I'll go all out for sub-3, in which case I might fall apart entirely, or just to aim for five to seven minutes nearer, in which case I’ll be pretty confident.
As soon as I got home on Friday, I entered my shiny new 5K time into this race predictor. It suggests my 5K time predicts a marathon finish of 2:59:08. That 5K was an abnormally fast course, and the marathon is a different proposition entirely, so before making any decisions I’ll see how I do at 10K (three weeks from now) and half marathon (two months). But consider the carrot dangled.
All of this takes no note of the fact that in a couple of weeks my sleep is going to be detonated for at least the next year. But on Tuesday, Boff told me that peoples’ running generally gets a boost after the birth of a child (also after the beginning of a new relationship and the end of an old one). This seems utterly incredible, but it is true that mine kicked up a gear after Dot was born. Then Boff told me that he did his Bob Graham the year after his eldest was born and I lost my last excuse not to go all-in.
Show of the week:I loved the work-in-progress of Leo Burtin’s With Bread. Along with his co-performers Aliki Chapple and Katherina Radeva, Leo tells stories personal and historical that delicately teases out themes of migration and friendship, as we collectively make bread. Then we break and eat the bread together. It’s elegant and satisfying and although we made flatbread, it’s still rising. I was also grateful for it because it was on Friday afternoon, I was knackered, and I was glad of a decent excuse to ease off on work before the race that night.
Run of the week: I've given you two already. What more do you want? OK, Boff and I went out again today.
Telly of the week: I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m excited about the new season of Trapped, which started last night on BBC. The first series was by miles the best TV I saw that whole year, and that was the year I watched Breaking Bad. Crime drama that isn’t predicated on the subjection of women is pretty rare, so it gets points for that from the off. It goes on to playfully upend the genre's tendencies in this regard, right through to the solutions. Crime drama this politically astute is even rarer, and for it to boil this up with real depth of character and feeling, well, I can’t think of another example. And all that says nothing about the twisty intensity of the main plot. Series two can’t possibly match it but if it’s half as good it’ll still be sensational. I can’t give you a tip based on anything I’ve seen because the only TV I’ve seen this week is about seventeen episodes of Hey Dugee.
Book of the Week: I'm reading This Land is Our Land by Marion Shoard, about the history of struggles for land ownership in the UK. If you've read this far you'll know why I'm reading it, so I'll just leave you with an extract:
"For nineteenth-century English labourers, dispossession was the natural state. Their collective memory did not accommodate the idea of land ownership by people like themselves. As a defeated class they looked only to improve the terms of their subjection, and in their own time, they failed even in that."
Heroes of the week: by contrast, I was beaming full and wide this week reading about the schoolchildren striking in protest at what we generations above are doing to the planet they'll be living on long after we've gone. Hope for the future rarely comes in portions this large.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will