After a few days pit stop in Oxford to catch up with some good friends and colleagues, I’m back on the Joy Unspeakable production trail. The month kicks off with meetings and more meetings, with Third Space Cafe (the venue we presented Joy Unspeakable in this summer), with Bolton Council’s Arts officer, with a social worker in the Bolton Children’s Services Team and via phone, with Charlotte Jones of the ITC. This last one is to get some specific advice about the process of setting up a company. As these various meetings unfold what I’m seeking to do is scope out more fully the edges of the next phase of life for Joy Unspeakable. At times it can feel like a moving target as new information comes to light, new creative possibilities emerge and ideas that initially seemed great go spiraling down the drain as new information emerges to reveal their flaws. This is all part of the process. True as this is, because it all takes place mainly in the domain of the head, the inbox and the Google search, I am starting to feel a bit grumpy. My brain flashes forward to that scene in the film The Shining where the wife discovers that her husband has typed reams of paper with just one phrase on it.
Thank goodness then, that this month I am starting the Northern Theatre Lab series with Animikii Theatre. I’ve not done much physical work myself this year, with the exception of a Theatre Ad Infinitum workshop back in Spring, where, funnily enough, I first met Adam Davies of Animikii Theatre. Even with a focus on directing, it’s important to me not to lose my own connection to my body, partly because this is what keeps me alive creatively and partly because it keeps me connected with actors and the requests I might make of them. So far, I have only signed up to the first session, taking place at Z-Arts in Hulme. I want to gauge the level of the course before committing to the full thing. I have a feeling its gonna be a shock to the system, and I am 100% right. Intuitively, I usually know what I need, even if my intellect hasn’t caught up yet. Despite the shock, and believe me when I say it is brutal, I know this is exactly what I need to be doing. I sign up for the full six sessions.
A few days later, I’m off to see one of my favourite theatre companies – Frantic Assembly – with their new show, Things I Know to Be True. It is a co-production with the State Theatre Company of Australia and apart from knowing it’s about families, I don’t know a whole lot more going in. Initially I’m a bit freaked out to discover that 90% of the rest of the audience are teenagers on a school trip. Thinking about different audiences and how they behave, this is actually really interesting. Before the show begins there is a lot of excited chatter and giggling, this suddenly and quickly subsides as someone somewhere begins a round of urgent “Shhhshing” that echoes around the auditorium like a Mexican wave. As nothing at all changes on stage, people eventually conclude that this is a false alarm and start talking again. This is swiftly followed by the “Shhhshing” game again. Like all normal teenagers, they are testing the limits – of their power and of the conventions of the audience. I am both fascinated and frustrated in equal measure, simultaneously thinking, “Please enjoy and experiment at what may be your first ever visit to the theatre and please shut up so I can enjoy this show without interruption.” After quite a lot of unprompted laughter in the first five minutes, they settle down. The show itself is great. A lot less physical than a usual Frantic show but it still packs an emotional punch. Which is where the whole audience thing really gets wild. By the end of the show, I am immersed in a kind of show within a show as I sit, surrounded on all sides by heavily sniffling and in some cases literally sobbing teenage girls. It is intense! It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed a reaction like this to a show and even then it was only one or two audience members. I’m surprised in a way that teenagers, who I associate with a level of emotional constriction based on fear of peer humiliation, would openly weep at a theatre show. Good. I like being surprised.
From the heartfelt to the hard-headed. Today I’m back at the Lowry for a tour booking training course I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years. Run by Mark Makin of Makin Projects, it is a jam packed day, covering everything from what kind of e-shot to send to a venue programmer to get their attention, to your tour budget, to the finicky details of deals: box office splits, guarantees, first calls, second calls and every possible different permutation thereof. I’ve met Mark before and it is genuinely fair to say that what he doesn’t know about tour booking, really isn’t worth knowing. In every industry you get people hawking themselves about as experts of one sort or another, quite a few of whom are basically talking out of their backsides but Mark is the real deal. Plus, as hard headed an operator as he absolutely is, he does genuinely care about the art and has been instrumental in bringing a number of emerging companies to the attention of venues via the house network. An initiative we could do with replicating up North! It’s a very valuable day.
Next I’m off to the Royal Exchange to meet Ali Pidsley from fast emerging, theatre company Barrel Organ who are here all week doing a residency. Ali, because he is a thoroughly nice chap, has offered to meet up with me for a brew to talk about how he has made it work being both a freelance director and running his own company. Nice one. Ok, so one of the big ways that this is possible is that Barrel Organ is a collective of about eleven people, in which admin and other tasks are shared. Interestingly, the way they run things is that in the admin/producing sphere everyone has their own, fixed area of responsibility but in the making sphere of the rehearsal room, its quite a fluid process in which creative roles don’t get pinned down until quite some way into the devising process. We also chat a bit about getting assisting opportunities and how much assisting experience is too much? Which is funny, because a few days later, unexpectedly, two amazing assistant directing opportunities in Manchester appear. One at HOME on City of Glass and one at the Octagon Theatre, a six month role covering various potential shows as well as running their youth theatre programme. Both are also decently paid.
This puts the cat among the proverbial pigeons. I mean, as it stands, things are all on course to pursue funding to develop Joy Unspeakable further, and although this wouldn’t stop that ultimately, it would certainly involve some significant adjustments to the timetable. I do quite a bit of mulling, and spend more time looking at calendars and excel spreadsheets than is healthy. I don’t feel like I can apply for anything that I’m not 100% prepared to back and follow through on. What would be the point? Eventually, after all the mulling and juggling I realise that I would be an absolute fool not to to apply for these roles, each of which would be an amazing experience, albeit in very different ways. So now the hard graft begins. I am not kidding in any way when I say that these two applications take me five normal working days to complete, and one of them is just a letter and a CV! I submit them both and don’t expect to hear anything until early December. This puts me in a difficult position as far as working on Joy Unspeakable goes. I’ve sort of reached the point where I can’t make major progress now without talking to other people and including them in my plans, but if those plans are set to change substantially, I don’t want to waste their time talking about old timetables. Hmmm. Time for some good ol’ British muddling though?
First stop, The Civic in Barnsley. Ian Morley, the programmer here, is clearly a busy man but he still makes time to talk me through the venue’s various artists development initiatives and to discuss the potential pros and cons of attempting to bring a site specific show about eating disorders to Barnsley. After a fairly brisk meeting, we go in together to see tonight’s show, The Collector, a well written and well crafted piece of technically lo-fi, political theatre set in Masrat prison in Iraq, previously one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious torture houses. Highly acclaimed in Edinburgh in 2014, it is a good example of how extremely simple theatre can still pack a punch when the writing is strong. I don’t get to see a lot of Barnsley itself, arriving after dark, but I do discover, chatting post-show with Ian and the guys from Red Ladder Theatre Company, who happen to be there; that the reason the nice looking bar opposite has cardboard all over the windows and pot holes in the glass is that some homeless guys smashed it up on CCTV, on purpose, so they would get arrested and have somewhere warm to go for the night. So that’s the state of play in Barnsley.
A nice thing happens the next day. Unexpectedly I get an email from an independent arts consultant who is working on on behalf of the Greater Manchester Theatres Group to explore Talent Development in the Greater Manchester area. The group wants to explore how it might better work together to support talent development – to check that the individual organisations aren’t duplicating too much and to see if there are gaps in provision. My name has been recommended to her as someone to interview. Which is kind of nice. It doesn’t mean I’m particularly special or anything but I feel like it’s a small confirmation of the quality of relationships I’ve begun to establish with some of the venues here, that I am trusted to contribute to this piece of research usefully.
An area that I haven’t delved much into since getting to Manchester, is dance. Although I’ve been to see a handful of dance shows I haven’t really had the head space to make inroads into understanding what the local provision is for dance artists. With as much of an interest in the body, physicality, movement and physical theatre as I do, it is an aspect of performing arts that I have a definite interest in. So meeting up with the CEO of Dance Manchester, (Greater Manchester’s central dance organisation) for a coffee today is kind of helpful! As well as generally having quite a lot of fun laughing about some comedic characters in the tea queue, she gives me a tour around some of the main umbrella groups, in addition to Dance Manchester, that support dance locally, including the Manchester Dance Consortium and Dance Network Northwest. She is also super supportive and promises to add me to various mailing lists. Sweet.
Every now and then my mind flicks back to my Assistant Director applications and I wonder if and when I might get called for an interview. No news so far. Each week, I also head down to the Arden School of Theatre in Ardwick for the Northern Theatre Lab. It’s a three hour class each week and is super physical. Whatever your craft or discipline, you are expected to enter into the training from the perspective of the actor. One of the principles we are exploring is how to shift yourself from consciousness as an actor (not seen as a good thing in this context) to automatism in which you act without thinking and therefore access a greater level of flow. In practice this often looks like following challenging physical demands at a rapid pace in order to get to a point of exhaustion in which the mind is no longer in control. I’m quickly learning which bits of me are out of shape and where my physical, mental and emotional blocks are. It’s powerful work and majorly invigorating.
It’s also nearly the end of the month and still no news about the jobs. I genuinely feel ok about it either way. I just sort of want to know, so I can either get started on a new challenge, or get cracking again with my Joy Unspeakable plans. I hate waiting. I’m not good at it. I’d rather walk for 30 mins than stand still and wait 10 mins for a bus. It is around this time of feeling a bit stuck, that I also come to the sudden realisation that I am actually a little bit knackered, and that although I have had some amazing trips this year – Savannah, Edinburgh – none of them could really be described as a holiday. It occurs to me that I have been working a fifty to sixty hour week all year and that I need a rest. I decide to take a week off. Sort of. I mean, I can’t take time off from my box office job at the Lowry at such short notice but I decide to cancel everything else and just spend a week mooching around staring at the ceiling, my toes and out of the window. This is very good for me. I have no problem just sitting around and staring out of windows. I do not get bored or feel guilty. I remember something very important – rest and processing time is essential. Note to self.
Reinvigorated and refreshed enough to feel I can happily make it to Christmas, I head off to my final event of the month – PDPA 2016. Professional Development Participatory Arts 2016 (to give it its full and rather enormous mouthful of a title) is a new initiative to gather together theatre makers and artists of all disciplines, whose work is in some way participatory. At this early stage in its existence the definition of participatory is pretty loose. Held in the beautiful Rochdale Town Hall, #PDPA2016 brings together a colourful assortment of around twenty multidisciplinary artists at various career stages. There are short presentations from five participants, including an especially brilliant one from my new heroine, Lauren, of Ayont Arts, about her project Girls Up Front, a social campaign to promote positive female role models for young girls. There is a brief presentation from Rochdale Councillor Janet Emsley, the Council Member for Culture, Health and Wellbeing and also a board member of Contact Theatre, and some peer led discussions around specific questions that each of us have brought to the day.
Predictably, quite a few of these focus on funding and where to get it but also, somewhat more inspiringly, about the perceived status of participatory arts in the wider arts world. This is something I have been musing about myself over the course of the year, so it’s really great to connect with a bunch of people who are asking similar questions. Talking with folk who are studying this topic academically is a real treat as they bring new language and new frameworks to my own thinking. It’s amazing how just naming things you have already sensed intuitively can be so powerful. I leave buoyant, with a lot of business cards in my pocket. Just one month left to go till the end of my first year!