I am ridiculously excited. I’m like a kid in a sweet shop! I can’t quite believe that what I get to do every day is explore the artistic nooks and crannies of a brand new city, meet other people who love theatre and start making new theatre of my own. What?! Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
Within days of being officially ‘ready’ for action i.e. after it is no longer considered decent to eat chocolate for breakfast and model sleepwear continuously (although I shall continue to do this at points), my brother volunteers to put me in touch with his friend at the Lowry. The next thing I know, I’m being invited in for a cuppa with one of their Engagement Managers. She is incredibly friendly and welcoming and happily gives me an hour and a half of her time to explain the Manchester theatre scene, how things work at the Lowry and the various opportunities for artist development. She also offers to put me in touch with several key, local contacts and…offers me a ride home!
As I wait in her office while she sorts out her bits and pieces I chat to her colleague, who used to work at the Octagon in Bolton. Now I don’t want to be too quick to jump to cultural conclusions but somehow the warmth of this welcome, the easiness of striking up conversation with strangers and the fact that I am already ‘backstage’ so to speak, makes me feel like I’m instantly part of the family. Is it because they are northerners? Is it the northerner in me? Or is just that the Lowry have an excellent team of engagement managers? Maybe all three. Either way, the Lowry is a fascinating and impressive venue. Located just across the water from Salford’s Media City, it is architecturally impressive and apparently manages to strike an equally impressive balance between the commercial bottom line and a varied artistic offer. Although the Lowry has NPO status, its income from public funding is very low in comparison to other NPOs and with three auditoriums to fill (The Lyric – 1750, The Quays – 450 and the Studio – 134) and a weekly profit target that made my head spin; the fact that when I visited, it was showcasing contemporary dance from Italy, Spain and Sweden hosted by Manchester’s Company Chameleon, some exciting theatre with the award winning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and the James Plays, as well as lots of comedy and children’s theatre, seems pretty good going. When I lived up north nearly 20 years ago, Salford had a reputation for being fairly rough and downtrodden. Although much has happened in investment terms since then, walking the streets you still detect in the faces that sense of deprivation that L.S. Lowry became so famous for depicting. As the Engagement Manager I spoke with explained the distinction between Salford and Manchester in city council and demographic terms, think poor relation, it seems even more impressive to me that the Lowry regularly offers a broad and eclectic artistic offer to the people of Salford, and as my wise, former boss used to put it, “Doesn’t dumb down for Didcot”, or in this case Salford. Nice one. I feel like I could be part of this venue.
From one large scale venue to another. Today, Saturday 9th January, I’m off to the even more enormous Birmingham Rep for my first ever Devoted and Disgruntled. I’ve been wanting to make it to this, reportedly special, theatrical event for several years but only now I am a free agent, am I able to make it. Run in Open Space style, a facilitation technique that allows anyone to offer up a topic for discussion and everyone to attend and stay as long or as little as they like, D&D is like one, huge, messy, beautiful, continuous group improv. What theatre-maker could fail to love it?! Topics include everything from colour-blind casting, to nudist theatre, to where are the support schemes for directors who are still ’emerging’ but also over 30. As this last one includes me I go along, hoping, no doubt, along with the 20 or so others clustered around, to find out about that one magic scheme I was as yet uninitiated about. Pleasingly, I do find out about Theatre Delicatessen which exists to support theatremakers and artists in the creation of their work, particularly emerging artists working with non-traditional forms. I’m excited to discover their Forge North initiative, showcasing northern artists in London as part of A Nation’s Theatre Festival. An interesting debate ensues about what the definition of ’emerging’ is anyway? When does one stop emerging and finally emerge?, and if ‘finally emerging’ doesn’t look like being the next Simon McBurney, how do you know when you’ve made it? All of which leaves me reflecting on the crucial importance as an artist of considering and defining your own criteria for success, and of the importance of separating your identity as a person from your success as a artist. This is obviously something everyone in life faces, but given that art comes from the very core of who you are, it is perhaps a bigger challenge for artists than for some other professions? I’ve made this leap into the great unknown of full time theatre-making because I believe it’s what I was put on the planet to do. That might sound a bit “up your own arse” as they like to say in these parts but to be honest, if I don’t believe in myself, why should anyone else?
Midway through the month I’m struck down by some kind of lurgy and have to postpone a planned meet up with one of the Artistic Programmers at the Lowry. Even a simple thing like this highlights another facet of this issue of self-belief. I know I’m way too sick to go and I sound like a mangled parrot but even so, I find myself wondering if cancelling will be interpreted as a lack of interest or of unreliability. I think about this for a bit and realise that all such thoughts are entirely rooted in fear and I refuse to be defined by that. Also, having worked in a venue for three years, unlike a few theatre-makers I have met along the way with fish-n-chips on their shoulders (sorry guys, it’s true!), I know that venue staff are normal, generally lovely, supportive people with gigantic workloads. I haven’t yet met one with two-heads. I pick up the phone and as soon as I speak to the programmer my fears melt away, she is so understanding and kind, and even laughs at me (in a nice way) for thinking about trying to get out of bed. Phew. It now seems like a daft thing to have wasted my thoughts on – worth remembering for the future that!
A few days later and I’m excited to be attending my first proper event at HOME. HOME is a huge feather in Manchester’s cultural cap and launched in mid-2015 to combine the old Cornerhouse cinema and The Library Theatre within a brand new, purpose built venue near Deansgate station. The address is Tony Wilson Place. Presumably an entirely new street, named in honour of the infamous Factory Records boss – check out Steve Coogan in 24 Hour party People if you’ve no idea what I’m on about. As a quick digression, I have to say, having lived through the tail end of the Madchester revolution, dressing in multi-coloured tatt from Afflecks, joining the glowstick generation and generally having enjoyed being “Mad fer it”. When I now see the equally infamous Hacienda turned into apartment blocks and the ‘shiny but not shiny’ never-ending housing construction in central Manchester, I feel a bit of a pang inside and hope to myself that that spirit, that crazy, wild freedom, is still a part of this city’s DNA, not just a relic of its recent past. Anyway, as I say, I digress. Today I’m at HOME and it is shiny but shiny, in a good way. It’s huge and spacious and invites me to be at home here as a creative person. Good one. I join a New Writing workshop hosted by Manchester based theatre company Box of Tricks. It is excellent to be back in a studio space, surrounded by other creative people, quite a mixture in fact – some directors, a composer, several actors and someone who has accidentally found themselves producing a show (uh oh, have some chocolate!). Box of Tricks have been going for over ten years and work on a commissioning model with new writers, to create plays they want to direct. Clever. The two co-directors of the company, both theatre directors, lead the two hour workshop. After some basic definitions and introductions, the lion’s share is spent with them sharing the variety of ways they approach directing new writing. Some things, like uniting text, are very common but a refresher is certainly welcome; while others, such as Circles of Concentration, are more personal and unusual and it’s great that they are so open and generous with their own toolbox. It’s also a great chance to meet other local artists and I head home with several new connections made, of which one turns out to be another female director living in the very same place as me. Who wudda thunk it? As my very first contact at the Lowry also lives here I’m starting to suspect there’s something in the water. Which is odd because I left here at 18 fed up that there seemed to be little more to the place than charity shops, chip shops, heroin abuse and the sort of parochialism that made people look at me wierdly in the pub when I said I was going to India for a year. Speaking of chip shops – there’s something wierd going on up here with site specific work. Box of Tricks’ new show Chip Shop Chips is touring in chippies around the north and #ChipShoptheMusical a co-production between writer Emma Hill, Freedom Studios and The Octagon will be at Bolton’s famous Olympus chippie in mid-May. I’m super excited to see both! #ChipShoptheMusical combines Grime, traditional colliery brass band, soundscape and urban choreo. What?! Come on!
The old lurgy has been dragging on a bit so I decide to cheer myself up with a show. What could be better than “When I Feel Like Crap I Google Kim Kardashian Fat” by Mighty Heart Theatre? I really enjoy this uplifting one hour show that brings to life a whole cast of real life characters’ verbatim interviews on topics such as: body image, self-esteem, make-up routines and yes, fat. It is incredibly simply staged with only a washing line of front pages from Heat magazine and similar, the house lights remain up throughout and with performers charging up the aisles at points to take selfies and asking a slew of rhetorical/’come on answer us’ questions, there just is is no 4th wall. Yet, it isn’t ranty, is very human and kind and ends with a big heart warming sing-song. I like it! I discover it is presented as part of PUSH 2016 festival, a new festival programmed by HOME that aims to give a platform to the best of the fringe from the previous year. I’m heartened by this as it’s my first piece of evidence that there is a mid-ground in the Manchester theatre ecology, between the dizzy heights of artistic excellence reached by the MIF and the not-so-inspiring stuff I googled about fringe theatre in the city before tying up my red spotted handkerchief and heading here. That might seem a bit dismissive. I’m just being honest. I hope I’ll get to unearth that fringe a bit more and be proved wrong.
By way of redeeming myself with any proud, Mancunian fringe-theatre collaborators I have just alienated, I will say that overall, as I walk the streets of the city, following my nose and trying to sniff out the vibes in this place. I find it vibrant, exciting and filled with creativity if you keep your eyes open. Just the other day I stumbled on this beautiful Lemn Sissay poem “Rain” painted on the whole side wall of a local takeaway on Oxford Road. That’s what I’m talking about! In fact the city is teeming with words of inspiration plastered across public buildings (check out the pictures). I see this in huge letters across a building in Salford – “Creativity is forged in Manchester on the Anvil of Industry”. I’ve no idea who’s behind this particular slogan and I guess what I’m still in the process of figuring out is, are these bold slogans everywhere simply part of the Mancunian way – loud, proud and swaggeringly cocky? Or is there an element of “Methinks she doth protest too much”? At the moment, I’m still discovering….
Anyway, enough musing, what have I actually done to get myself started as a theatre-maker in the north, apart from wandering the streets and generally having a lovely time meeting people? As if by magic, a few weeks into January, I spot that the Bolton Octagon have an amazing Supported Artist opportunity available. Someone is looking out for me! The specific opportunity requires you to create a piece of site-specific theatre for their summer Reveal festival and this possibility suddenly earths something new I have been thinking about making. I’m back to being ridiculously excited as I start dreaming, scribbling and doodling ideas for this piece. Obviously I apply, which includes filming a 3 minute pitch video, rather unfortunately for my poor Oxford friend who I am visiting at the time, this includes filming in the p****ing down rain while the two of us try to side-step oncoming vehicles. That was actually a couple of weeks ago now and since then I have been called for and attended an interview. I’ll sign off with that mini-cliffhanger in homage to the excellent Arvon playwriting course I attended over the summer and our tutors’ insistence on the importance of keeping folk turning the pages! Until next month.