If January was a month characterised by continuous forward momentum, February has been more akin to me running headfirst through a wall, only getting halfway through it and then just sort of hanging there, wriggling. What I mean by this unflattering metaphor is that you can’t go far down the path of following your creative dreams before some stark realities start to rear their ugly little heads – realities like money, fear, motivation and risk.
I hear back from the Octagon. Interesting. I haven’t been selected as one of the two final artists but they like my concept so much that they invite me to present it at the Reveal festival anyway. This creates a dilemma. On one hand I’m thrilled they like my idea and it’s a fantastic opportunity to present my work on a platform supported by a well respected venue. On the other hand, it doesn’t include the package of artist support I had originally applied for. In other words, “You’re on your own kid”….and it’s quite a tight timeline. Gulp. I decide to remember that venue staff are nice, normal people who aren’t trying to do me in and call the Octagon’s producer for a chat. She is lovely, genuinely understands the dilemma and wants to help as much as possible. Yet she is also realistic about the help available, which is much more limited. We agree to come back to it in a month’s time. I have a lot of collaborator phone calls to make anyway before I can realistically make a decision.
I divert myself from this head wringing for a bit with some light relief…Macbeth! It’s the first time I’ve been to a proper show at HOME and I’m keen to get inside their auditorium and see what it’s like. I’m also drawn to this particular production by the focus on movement that it promises – the directorial duo is Carrie Cracknell, previously Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre (2007-12) and Royal Court Associate Director (2013-14), and the Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin of Lucy Guerin Inc. Post-show I’m puzzled. It’s a weird one – on one hand it is a slick, well produced, high-quality piece of professional theatre, with much to like, that leaves me at times feeling intimidated that I would even dare to one day try and live up to these exacting standards of quality. On the other, there is something about the show as a whole that just doesn’t punch me in the face in quite the way I expected it to. I spend quite a bit of time trying to puzzle through why this is and in the end I think it’s the very thing I was drawn to. Combining text (especially one as dense and rich as Shakespeare) and movement that goes beyond the more straightforward blocking of a naturalistic play, is not easy to do really well. I make no claims to have conquered this challenge. The more explicitly ‘dance’ sequences – the three witches and key ensemble scenes – work really well and are integrated fluently into the other more text-led scenes, so it isn’t that these two elements aren’t coherently woven together; but there is something about the stylised, rhythmic quality of the movement in the more text-led scenes that, despite the undeniably high quality of the acting, undermines the relational connection between the characters. It seems to leach some of the power out of what feels like it should be a really powerful production. Or maybe, the cast were all just really knackered? I did see it on the last day of the tour. Either way, it provides plenty of food for thought on this thorny issue I keep wrestling with – how to combine movement and text really well. To date the most compelling production I’ve seen in this respect was Frantic Assembly’s Othello but I’m sure there are many others out there I just haven’t seen yet.
Next up, I’m at the Lowry to meet one of their programmers. The one from the lurgy incident. She is super friendly and helpful and takes me on a whistlestop tour of the excellent, three-tier artist development programme available through the Lowry’s Studio. This includes an open entry Studio Members scheme offering free masterclasses, networking, creative activities with visiting companies and some light touch mentoring. A second tier called Developed With the Lowry, which is a 12 month, highly structured artist development programme for around 3-4 companies per year, and thirdly, a small number of Associate Artists who are selected annually from the Developed With the Lowry scheme and of which the excellent Theatre Ad Infinitum is a particularly big success story. Listening to the range of shows currently in development at one or other level of the programme, I realise I am hopping about in my chair with excitement. There is everything from a piece about Psy Ops and torture being made specifically for their scene dock, to a comedy based on one woman’s comparison of her life growing up in care, with the version of it contained in her social services case files, school reports and theatre critics reviews. Crikey. The mind boggles.
Meanwhile, back at the glamorous office (a desk in my room), there is less hopping about in my chair and more rocking. As in back and forth. Sometimes whilst holding my head in my hands. It’s all a bit Hamlet-esque but poke ironic fun at myself as I may, the dilemma is real. And it comes down to this – do I think I can single-handedly pull together a production team and the necessary resources to do justice to my new, site-specific piece in time to say “yes” with conviction to the Octagon? Or not. The romantic version of this story says, yes, of course you can, where there’s a will there’s a way and so on. Much of that is true. On the other hand, at what cost? Possibly one of the benefits of coming to a second career in theatre in my thirties is that I have already learned some basic life lessons, like being sustainable as a person – mainly the hard way, by crashing and burning in my mid-twenties! Also, creating a theatre piece isn’t a colour-by-numbers painting. Collaboration, which is essential for making theatre, is based on relationship, so I’m not looking for any old rent-a-collaborator. Finding the right people takes time. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m not looking for rent-an-anyone at this point, as this opportunity has arisen at such a pace that I currently have zero funding in place for the project. Cue quite a lot more rocking. It’s particularly challenging in that as an individual artist, rather than a charity or CIC, most grant funding is off limits. The Arts Council, who do fund individual artists and who I was blessed to receive funding from for my last project, won’t fund a project that has already started. Although there is a bit of wriggle room with this, the Reveal festival timescale suggests that an ACE funding bid would probably be rejected on these grounds. And perhaps they’d have a point? If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well an’ all that. Or am I just being a big old scaredy-cat and talking myself out of a great opportunity by overthinking all the practicalities? Cue more rocking.
Speaking of cold hard cash, today I’m back at the Lowry, for a part-time job interview. Ticket sales. The sharp end. Having worked in-venue as a Marketing Officer I like the idea of being at the coal face of getting bums on seats, though am glad not to have the overall responsibility for hitting that terrifying revenue target! The interview goes well and a few days later I get a thumbs up call, which brings a smile to my face. This is good news all round. Now I can stop living off a credit card, possibly get my car back on the road and secure a regular supply of Aldi and Lidl hot dinners. What starving artist? I might even treat that girl who works in the Whitworth Gallery shop to lunch. We had a deal that we’d both try and survive on £30 a week. I could even treat her to lunch at the Whitworth Gallery cafe? The delayed Whitworth Gallery refurb cost £15 million, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Manchester University. It reopened last February. As far as I can see, and so far I’ve only seen the cafe, it was worth the wait! The cafe is encased on three (and a half) sides by floor to ceiling glass walls, and is a good few metres off the ground, which makes you feel like you’re sitting in the branches of the trees of Whitworth Park munching a sandwich. I love it. It’s not exactly cheap but it’s full of sunshine and light and makes me happy.
Sticking with a feeling of happiness I head off to see some new theatre/film-maker friends’ anti-trafficking film Alicija, which is being screened as part of the Made in Manchester strand of the Manchester International Short Film & Animation Festival. The screening takes place at the old Cornerhouse cinema building (now part of HOME), and I discover that it’s now part of Manchester Metropolitan University and a hub for developing theatre and film talent. Cool. It’s a great evening with seven short films showcasing a real breadth and variety of local, film-making talent. Including, a hilarious short called Gnomes, directed by Josh Mullins. I round the month off by going to see some other friends’ show In the Vice Like Grip of It at the Lowry Studio. ivo Theatre are the latest company to benefit from the excellent Routes North scheme run in collaboration with The Lowry Studio, ARC, Stockton and Theatre in the Mill, Bradford. It’s an intriguing show about the insidious encroachment of government surveillance in the lives of the British population, told through the conceit of a romantic relationship. The piece is still in development so much audience feedback is encouraged in the post-show Q and A. Some of the challenges of the piece remind me of the challenges of making Faraway, So Close and how trying to encompass the nuances of a highly complex political situation in the form of a 70 minute theatre show, felt quite a lot like wrestling an amphetamine fueled wildebeest to the floor. I take my hat off to them and all other theatre-makers with similar aspirations.
And so, when all’s said and done, am I going to say yes or no to the Octagon? At this precise moment the see-saw is teetering back and forth as a variety of yes’s and no’s filter into the inbox from choreographers, sound designers and purse-string holders. D-day is still a few days away and so, at risk of establishing a repetitive blog ending that will swiftly become self-defeating – until next month!