I am now in the tunnel. Every creative process must come to this eventually.
The relaxed, enjoyable process of opening out possibilities, exploring new ideas, colours, sounds, styles and influences, of building relationships and trust slowly and patiently, and of having a spacious sense of time must, eventually, come down to this – focus, grit, blood, sweat, tears and the determination to bring the vision over the finish line, come hell or high water. This is where it gets lonely. The pressure mounts, the trust I have built is tested, the cracks in everyone (including me) begin to show and I know I just have to hold my nerve, keep the faith and keep taking the next step in front of me.
Our rehearsal time at the Octagon’s Lab space ends and we transfer rehearsals to the site-specific location – Third Space Coffee. This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, being able to rehearse in the actual set, with fully realistic sightlines, stage space and set furniture, is fantastic, as everything is ‘real’. On the more limiting side, Third Space is a working cafe, open to the public six days a week, so our rehearsal time is limited to evenings and our longest rehearsal length is usually four hours at most, normally three. This is hard as a normal rehearsal would usually be at least six hours. It often feels like we have barely got going when we have to stop and pack down. Still, I look on the bright side and focus on the challenge of ensuring decent sightlines in what is essentially a hybrid between theatre-in-the-round and a traverse stage, on a flat floor. At one point I find myself trying to choose between enabling a ‘back row’ to see the show at all or blocking fifty percent of the final scene for the entire house. Clearly neither of these are good options so I figure there must be a third way I haven’t thought of yet! So much of theatre-making is about creative problem solving – the more open minded you can be, the better.
Delightfully, the script is now ninety-nine percent finished and with only minor tweaks left, the focus is on completing the last few vocal recordings, so they can be added to the final, final soundscape mix (pity the poor sound designer). To be fair, most of the recordings were finished ages ago in April but due to rewriting the opening scene we have to re-record a mother and child section. I decide that if Simon McBurney did it (it’s his daughter’s voice that interrupts McIntyre in The Encounter), then so can I. I rope in my five year old niece for a recording session. With the old Hollywood adage, “Never work with children or animals” ringing in my head, I over-prepare and put aside a four hour slot to generate three minutes of recording, as well as arming myself with a large selection of chocolate bribes. In the event, it is incredibly smooth. My niece, who I suspect has the performer gene, leaps to the mic early, ready to do a take before we’ve even finished learning the song! Hurray for small mercies. Plus, I get to eat a lot of chocolate.
Meanwhile, over at The Lowry, Week 53 – a brand new festival of work that runs 28 April – 8 May, is in full, glorious swing. I see various shows as part of the festival but the one that especially hits me is 100% Salford. A collaboration between The Lowry and German company Rimini Protokoll, this ambitious project explores the cultural trends and social make-up of the city of Salford through the lense of one hundred Salfordians who perfectly represent the city’s demographics based on age, gender, household type, geography and ethnicity. The piece begins and the one hundred participant-performers walk out onto a slowly revolving, round, flat-floor stage and briefly introduce their personal object (a teddy, a mirror, a photograph etc.). Then they introduce the next participant-performer, who they have recruited to the project, kind of like a chain letter. No one acts, they are just themselves. Yet as the piece unfolds it blossoms into a beautifully poetic piece of theatre. The participant-performers respond to increasingly personal and revelatory questions by standing in the location on stage that most accurately identifies them – ‘Which postcode are you from?’ ‘Are you a racist?’ ‘Have you ever cheated on a partner?’. Seen from above via video projection, a complex and moving tapesty of real people evolves out of their answers to seemingly simple questions. By the end, as these ordinary people of Salford gaze proudly, even defiantly, out at the audience from raked, bleacher seating, I feel an incredible connection to them: unsung, unknown to the world but people, who despite their flaws and failings, carry an incredible sense of dignity. I take great inspiration from this and it buoys me up for the coming weeks rehearsals.
Today I am meeting up with Ben Occhipinti, Assistant Director at the Octagon Theatre under the RTYDS scheme for a catch up about how Joy Unspeakable is going. The one hour chat just goes to prove the inestimable value of a bit of support and encouragement for early career artists, especially directors, from someone who actually knows and understands what they are going though. That is in no way to play the victim card but simply to highlight that a short amount of focused, supportive conversation with another, more experienced director, really is worth its weight in gold. Just feeling like someone else in the world gets what you are dealing with is huge. Also, for me, this conversation – engaging, supportive and direct – comes at just the right time to intercept an area of procrastination I am in danger of getting stuck in. It forces me to park some of the bigger, dramaturgical questions I am wrestling with and just go out and buy all the bl***dy props. Genuinely very helpful advice.
I am now focused towards the preview, in the first week of June, at which the Octagon’s artistic team will see the show prior to the festival opening. In my more self-doubting moments I imagine a large shepherd’s crook reaching on stage and quietly removing my entire show from the festival programme. Not a particularly helpful head space to spend time in. The preview is my internal deadline and everything now dances to that tune. As ever, this is easier said than done. Although the crowd-funding campaign has, all things considered, done very well, I can’t afford to hire the proper sound equipment to road-test the soundscape in advance, so the preview will be the first time I hear how the soundscape, which is a very significant part of the piece, actually works with all the other components. Cue nail biting. Also, although I am very grateful to Manchester based Massive Tech for the excellent deal they cut me on sound gear, the excellent financial nature of this deal means that I will have to return all the gear after the preview, only to re-collect and re-rig it all several days later for the actual festival. As Joy Unspeakable starts to move into that intensely practical phase in which set, actual props, lights, sound and so on all begin to become tangible realities, no longer creative concepts and possibilities, the reality of what I am trying to do – essentially the job of director, producer, set designer and stage manager, single-handedly – begins to hit home in fairly painful ways.
I work every day of the week, without exaggeration, for fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I get up at 6 am, prep for rehearsals, order props online, drive to buy props, call sound equipment hire companies, drive 45 minutes to rehearsal, rehearse for four hours, drive 45 minutes to work, work a 4 hour shift, drive an hour home, work for several hours on my laptop – sending final edit notes to the sound designer, posting ads for sound operators on various websites as I currently have no sound operator confirmed, emailing notes to the assistant choreographer, and usually, finally turn off the light at 1am, 2am on a bad night. Occasionally, I remember to eat. The irony of this is not lost on me. Thankfully I am so far away from the days of having an eating disorder that slightly disordered meals don’t phase me. However, the fact remains that chocolate and coffee cannot be considered the staple of a healthy diet – unless obviously your dietician is a technician or a film editor!
Yep, I am now completely immersed in the tunnel. I miss opportunities to apply for the prestigious Hodgkiss Award and to attend the Young Vic’s latest open day as there are literally not enough hours in the day. It’s frustrating. At the same time no part of me resents the workload. I am happy to do what it takes. In fact I still genuinely feel privileged to be able to do this. It’s just that I know the work I make will be much better when I have the proper resources and a full team. I also know that this kind of schedule cannot be sustained except in short bursts.
In the midst of the mounting craziness, I keep an eye on myself.