The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the slight delay to this month’s blog, put two and two together and come to the correct conclusion that yes, we are doing the Octagon show! That’s right folks, buckle up, we’re going in!

It was a really tough call. At the point at which I had to make a final decision, I had no choreographer, no money and no plausible option for an artistic mentor. I also had a long list of reasons why it might be better to wait, neatly listed in the cons column (familiar to those from the list-making school of decision making). Then, at the eleventh hour, I had a provocative conversation with a new friend, also a creative person, whose insights made me simplify the decision into a choice between fear, or faith. I stopped and was really honest with myself, and realised that beneath all the good, reasonable arguments to wait, the truth was that deep down, I was just scared that the lack of full resources might reveal my own creative deficit. Fear. Which is precisely what this new piece aims to challenge. Have you ever noticed that if you want to make anything authentic and real, you have to walk the walk in your own life?

So this is me, stepping out of my comfort zone and saying yes, in faith, that the heartbeat of this show and what it stands for, is more important than me possibly taking an ego-bashing. S**t!

By now, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Click the link below to find out more about the show, but please remember to come back and finish reading!

A brand new show: Joy Unspeakable

First week of devising in the Octagon Lab

Early devising experiments for Joy Unspeakable

Julie Hill exploring physical images

In the midst of all the wrangling and decision making, I still make sure to get out and about, to try and keep a healthy perspective and not get too focused my own navel. March kicks off with an Open Evening for artists, hosted by the Manchester International Festival. It says something about the democratic approach of the organisers that this invite is open to anyone, from the guy I meet who’d recently left his job as a plumber to pursue theatre-making, despite his family’s complete bewilderment, to the well established artists who present excerpts of their work on the night. Each excerpt is followed by a short Q and A with new MIF Artistic Director John McGrath, until recently at the helm of the National Theatre Wales and also no stranger to Manchester, having led the Contact Theatre earlier in his career.

Each artist is invited to share their key ask from MIF, which is also a provocation to the audience, who then feed our responses on to the MIF staff dotted about the room. As it is an ideas gathering event, where everything is welcomed because the nitty-gritty of decision making is, as yet, far in the future, it is hard to get a strong sense of how far the democratic approach will eventually stretch. There seems to be a lot of appetite, even a bit of fairly friendly heat in the room, for increasing the links between the international visiting artists and those local to Manchester, via mentoring, rehearsal observation and other ideas. Will this request be heard?

It’s still early days, but by the end of the month, MIF email attendees with an update. It identifies the key themes of the night as diversity, local community engagement and access to MIF for local artists. Although details of how MIF will move forward with these areas are still relatively general, with the exception of big things like applying to the Arts Council’s Changemakers programme to host an Associate to focus on diversity, it definitely feels like they heard what was being said. Whether it can all be incorporated into MIF2017 is yet to be seen and in all honesty, probably not a realistic expectation; but if what I’m trying to figure out here in Manchester is whether the higher echelons of arts and culture connects to the grassroots, this is definitely evidence of a dialogue!

It's a good buzz at the MIF Open Evening

It’s a good buzz at the MIF Open Evening

John McGrath throwing out some provocations

John McGrath throwing out some provocations

A fortnight later I’m very excited to be heading to a weekend workshop with Complicite theatre company. Complicite is one of the leading lights of devised theatre in the UK (and possibly internationally) and is synonymous with an extraordinary level of creativity, so I’m expecting big things. The workshop looks at adaptation, specifically in the context of their latest show The Encounter, which adapts the novel Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s very simple – you must. It is an absolutely incredible feat of creativity, technical sophistication and committed, chameleon-like performance. The solo show is performed by Complicite’s Artistic Director Simon McBurney, using nothing more than several, highly sophisticated microphones, feeding binaural sound into each audience member’s headphones, a massive amount of imagination and a few very basic props (water bottles, videotape, crisp packets). It will take you to unexpected places and send shivers down your spine. Go and see it!

The workshop itself is led by Kirsty Housley, co-director of The Encounter. It’s a large group of about thirty of us packed into the rehearsal studio at HOME and the atmosphere is slightly tense and nervous. I guess everyone is a bit intimidated by the name Complicite. We start off with a few warm up games and I’m interested by how much Kirsty encourages competition as a value, something that continues throughout the workshop. It’s not that I can’t see the value of competition in the context of games but I’m also interested in what this value does, or doesn’t do, in terms of creating an atmosphere of experimentation and creativity among a group. I don’t think I’ve made my mind up about this yet but even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s good to be challenged to think differently.

The workshop is also a great opportunity to get to know a few of my fellow Manchester-based theatre-makers and this actually turns out to be one of the big highlights. That, and the opportunity on the second day to meet Simon McBurney and ask him the $64,000 question: ‘How do you make it good?’ I try not to phrase my question this bluntly but it’s a measure of his perception that despite my best efforts to soften the edges of this question we all secretly want to ask, he sees straight through me and amusingly rephrases it thus. His answer, in case you’re interested, is to embrace chaos. This is exceptionally encouraging because, as it turns out, having decided to make Joy Unspeakable, this is precisely what I am now in the middle of.

Week 3 rehearsals in Third Space cafe

Third week of rehearsals – getting to grips with the script…

...and bringing it to life

…and bringing it to life!

Life speeds up substantially. Because of schedules, our sound designer is only available until early April, which means we have to get the whole soundscape down before then. This is a big deal. The soundscape is a major part of the piece and also includes a significant amount of vocal recording. This means that a lot of script has to be written too. It’s simultaneously exciting and scary at the same time. Although the timeline is tight, something about an imminent deadline seriously stimulates creativity and my brain is firing off ideas like crazy. Good, bad, ugly and frankly ridiculous, they all get scribbled down in my little black show book.

At the same time I am also furiously juggling 101 practical production jobs, which is tough. One of my big concerns about going ahead with the show was that having only just started this adventure up North, I haven’t yet had time to develop a relationship with a producer. Probably the most difficult aspect of making my last show, was having to play the roles of both producer and director. Although both are creative in different ways, and both must collaborate very closely, the head space of a producer and a director is significantly different. Having to constantly switch between these in an instant is tough, not to say schizophrenic at times. It’s a personal challenge to be disciplined enough to ignore the many pressing production issues and deadlines at times, because I am determined to put the creative heart of this show first. Honestly, at times this is terrifying. I mean, how will we promote the show without any marketing materials? In the future I hope I’ll be in a position where I don’t have to choose between creative and production but perhaps, just this once, it is an important lesson to learn. After all, if there is no creative heartbeat, what’s the point? So if nothing else, this is a brutal lesson in priorities.

Sightlines in a flat floor cafe - it's all getting a bit maths

Sightlines in a flat floor cafe – it’s all getting a bit ‘maths’

Every theatre has this - some are just a little clearer with their labelling than others.

Every theatre has this, some are just a little clearer with their labelling than others!

To round off the month, I am off to see a works-in-progress show at the Lowry. Bucket List by Theatre Ad Infinitum. This is the second piece I’ve seen from this company, the first being Ballad of the Burning Star, a satire about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, which I saw when I was researching Faraway, So Close. The company are known for reinventing themselves each time they create a new show, although physical theatre is a major part of their raison d’etre. Bucket List, developed with Mexican actor and close collaborator Vicky Araico Casas, is set amidst the casual violence of Mexico’s border towns and an all female cast tell the story of Milagros, an orphan girl who is also an extremely talented chess player.

The show is fantastic and extremely inspiring in terms of my own theatre-making. With a bare stage, incredibly simple lights and no props, Theatre Ad Infinitum create a compelling, exciting and vibrant show that skillfully takes large scale political issues of global capitalism and brings them down to a human level, without losing the important detail of the specific, political questions. It’s a major feat to achieve and this inspiration gives me a huge boost as I head back to the many thorny questions of how to make a compelling, engaging show….about bulimia.

Wish me luck people!

Support the making of Joy Unspeakable.