October is a busy month! Everyone is fully entrenched in back-to-school mode and I am on a roll with the best of ’em.
The fun kicks off with Contact Theatre’s Fun Palaces event, part of a national campaign for community participation in culture originally conceived by legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood in the 1960’s and recently revivified by writer Stella Duffy. Contact is nationally recognised as a theatre that puts young people at the centre of all it does, not just providing opportunities for them, (although it does this really well) but ensuring that young people sit on its board of directors and have a major voice in programming the top quality work they present. I’ve only got an hour or so, so I dive straight into a digital kite-flying workshop which is part of Journeys Festival, celebrating the talent and stories of refugee artists. This awesome project allows you to connect your real, moving human body to the strings of a digital kite, visible on a large projection screen in front of you, that you then fly over a variety of rooftops including India and Afghanistan. It’s a genuinely cool combination of uniquely human and digital forms.
I have to tear myself away to go and climb (literally) into my seat at the top of the Grand Circle of the Palace Theatre to see the much anticipated Giselle. Choreographed by Akram Khan and performed by the English National Ballet it is an amazing, inspiring, beautiful production. The set and costumes, designed by Tim Yip, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, are stunning. Sometimes, this is another way of saying the show itself wasn’t all that but that is absolutely NOT what I mean in this case. Hard on the heels of this wonderment, comes Wish List at the Royal Exchange Theatre. This is the first show directed by Matthew Xia (Associate Artistic Director, Royal Exchange) I have ever seen. I love it! Wish List is written by the Bruntwood prize winner Katherine Soper and is a four hander that deftly and compassionately reveals the pressures continually bearing down on two, recently orphaned teenagers, reliant on one zero-hours contract job and in desperate need of benefits, one of whom has serious OCD. It’s encouraging and exciting to see this slice of life being championed and represented by arguably the city’s most prominent producing house.
I try to convert all this inspiration into motivation for cracking on with my Arts Council funding bid. Prior to writing my first ACE bid back in 2014, which, thank God, was successful. I was aware of quite a lot of eye-rolling and woe-is-me like behaviour from other artists at the mere mention of an ACE bid. Coming into theatre from a charity sector background where rattling tins at grant funders is a standard part of daily life, I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. At risk of alienating myself from my peers it did seem entirely reasonable that a body responsible for managing public funds was not going to just dish this out to any old randomer with a vague idea for a show, scrawled on the back of a fag packet in florescent pink lipstick. I do still essentially hold to that position. However, I will add that rather like my second bungee jump, the work-dread second time round is somewhat greater. This time I know what I’m letting myself in for and they are nothing if not thorough these art hustling, pen-pushing folk. I ping out quote requests, arrange partner meetings, meet with other theatre practitioners, email new potential partners and research possible match funders right left and centre, as I try to gather together the dossier of information required to get to the point where it is worthwhile pressing the big, red, electronic button on the damn thing.
It is therefore a blessed relief, in the midst of this, to be granted, off the back of a simple coffee meeting with the local rep of a seed-funding network, a substantial lump sum (several thousands) towards Joy Unspeakable and my development as an artist. Woohooo! Thank goodness for trust. These funders are not ones for emblazoning their name and logo all over the public domain, so apologies for appearing a little cloak and dagger with the details but suffice to say, this is a major boost to my motivation to get the ACE bid written. Hooray! Once more into the breach etc.
Tonight, I’m back at the Royal Exchange, with around twenty other emerging directors, to hear from Sue Emmas of the Young Vic and Rachel Twigg of the National Theatre about their director development opportunities. All the information shared by the Young Vic is easily accessible on their Director’s Programme website here, so I won’t pointlessly regurgitate it. The National Theatre’s information is a little less straightforward to access and understand, so for anyone who missed it, the gist of things is that if you’re interested in working as an Assistant Director for the NT, which they, mildly confusingly call Staff Directors, the kind of things they are looking to see are: that you have been making work professionally for 4-5 years, that you have worked with large casts and can work at the scale the NT operates at, that you have some prior experience of assisting and know what the role entails, a balanced CV i.e. that you have actually directed as well and are not just a serial AD (my words not theirs), why it’s a good development opportunity for you, any specialist skills you have i.e. your fluent Mandarin (!) and that you are organised, level-headed, a good communicator and have a directorial voice they are interested in. The main route in, is by getting your work seen. Invite the New Work Department to see your show and send them a copy of your CV with the invite. The NT also runs a two week Director’s Course annually which is by invitation only to directors whose work they have seen and who they think would benefit from the opportunity. So yeah, it’s probably a pretty narrow bottleneck to get onto that course but that’s the facts people. Get to it. On the Londoncentric thing, I’m encouraged by the fact that the NT are sending members of the New Work team up to Manchester (thanks Royal Exchange) and that we had Rufus Norris up here a few weeks ago. Having lived in London for ten years I will say though, you lot really need to get beyond the M25 on a more regular basis…but I still love ya!
A few days later I meet up with Matthew Xia to debrief the Streetcar observations. We have a good chat and I’m excited to hear about a couple of future directing opportunities that I will now be eligible for. More of that as and when they arise. When we last met, Matthew was also gently prompting me to consider a few issues in regards to my direction as a director, namely, do you want to assist, direct in venues or direct your own work via running a company? We return to this theme. It’s a tricky one as there are pros and cons to all three and I don’t necessarily think they are mutually exclusive. True as this may be, the push towards an answer helps to refine my own thinking about where the priorities lie and also in which order to pursue these different paths. For now, the immediate focus is making my own work and establishing a company, while keeping an eye out for other freelance opportunities that I could realistically undertake. Oh yeah, and…..hold it all lightly, cos you never know what’s round the corner.
On the topic of setting up a company I’m off to the Independent Theatre Council’s (ITC) workshop today at The Lowry about legal models for a company. As unglamorous as that may sound I am genuinely excited about it. I’ve been researching and exploring this question on and off for several years when I stop to think of it. My main interest is in deciding, hopefully once and for all, whether a Community Interest Company (CIC) or a charitable company is the best option to go for. The former arose out of the Social Enterprise movement and in the smallest of nutshells, lets you run along a more business style model but with a social purpose. Among other things, the claim is that it frees you from a certain amount of red tape. A charitable company, a charity to you and me, among other things makes you eligible to apply to the widest range of funders available, as well as offering certain tax breaks. Obviously, it is a quite a lot more complex and detailed than this and there are pros and cons to each which I could geek out about extensively but I’ll spare this for anyone with more than just a passing interest. It is a very good workshop, Charlotte Jones (CEO, ITC) was previously a lawyer and really does know her s**t. She also genuinely cares about start up theatre companies and I realise over the course of the workshop just how much of an advocacy role the ITC play for our sector. Another delightful discovery is the relatively recent change in tax laws regarding theatre companies, which is a very welcome piece of information. I leave the workshop a lot clearer and although haven’t yet quite finalised my decision, I have at last hammered out clear answers to all of the fiddly questions I had. Which is major progress.
What next? Well yes, that is in fact the title of the event I’m off to today. Geddit? Facepalm. What Next? Is a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK, to articulate, champion and strengthen the role of culture in society. There are volunteer run chapters across the country. Today is a large, national gathering at HOME, open to all, with a sliding scale of fees depending on your size, which is cool. It’s a head-spinny day of the kind you get when the hive-mind gathers together in bodily form, fuelled by caffeine. On the up side, I make some great and unexpected connections, find myself unexpectedly discussing the North/South cultural divide with the CEO of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and take part in some thought provoking discussions about the arts and its role in the community, discovering that in Manchester the local police have acted as the commissioners for theatre work to address honour-based violence. Interesting. On the less jolly side, I struggle to engage with the keynote from the Rt. Hon Matt Hancock MP who, given he is a last minute replacement and does not seem to be exactly getting the tone right with his jokes, I feel a sort of alternating current of sympathy for and frustration with. This latter because with his heavy emphasis on the importance of the digital future I can’t help wondering, in the context of the current funding environment, where the real support for live theatre will be in amongst the excitement of live streaming and pre-recording as a way of exporting brand Brittania around the planet and “increasing our soft power”. Hmmmm.
As a result of the Venues North pitch, I am now on a roll to visit a number of venues across the North, to get to know the programmers there and to get to know the places, as part of research for a possible future tour of Joy Unspeakable. First up, is ARC Stockton, a multiform arts venue in Stockton-on-Tees. I head off on the 3-4 hour drive. Wowsers! If you wanna get a handle on who the left-behind voters revealed by Brexit are, get yourselves down to Stockton. I spend an hour or so wandering round the main street and a few side streets. It’s an old market town that was, in a previous era, home to heavy industries like shipbuilding and engineering but which, like many towns in the North, experienced rapid decline in the late 20th century. The architecturally beautiful, stone buildings of the centre are mainly filled with bargain basement brands, betting shops and pawn shops. I pass a fairly busy Pound Pub (?) where it’s a pound a pint, and across the road a fight breaks out between a man and a woman who is, possibly, his girlfriend. There is an atmosphere of tension and hopelessness in the air. Given this backdrop, it is then, an incredible achievement and a sharp rebuke to the notion that theatre is only for the middle classes, to discover later, when I meet up with ARC Stockton’s CEO, that the venue regularly gets good houses for experimental, contemporary theatre. Also, it’s not a case of the posh people driving in from some well heeled suburb far away. Apparently there are very few such postcodes round here. We have a great chat and, in line with their strong talent development programme, I get a real sense that ARC is a venue committed to developing artists, that genuinely understands what that involves. I watch the studio show that night, Tanja, a fantastic piece of campaigning theatre produced by Strawberry Blonde Curls that highlights the lived experience of asylum seekers in this country. It’s a great example of well connected theatre and practical campaigning, with a variety of useful, straightforward political actions to take, that are highlighted in the Q and A and available to do on the spot.
I must have the social realist bit between my teeth now as the next day I’m off to see American Honey at HOME. A much talked about film at the London Film Festival this year and directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. The film explores the lives of a so-called ‘Mag Crew’ as they travel from state to state across the USA, stopping in low grade motels to get high, party and celebrate their earnings. It is a deeply affecting film and powerfully captures a sense of lostness, tribalism and camaraderie that arises from a group of twenty-somethings who hail mostly from the non-privileged classes of modern America and who have chosen each other as family, at least for now. Having driven across America for three months in 1989 as a kid with my family, I’ve always been aware of how much bigger, more diverse and complex a country it is than America-bashing liberals in the UK like to acknowledge (sorry guys). This distaste is understandable, as the USA that gets exported is a toxic mix of bubblegum Hollywood and the Military Industrial Complex. So yeah, I get why no-one is very taken with that but there is also a lot more to the USA (both for good and ill) and this film gets under the skin of a much less visible aspect of its society and culture. I hadn’t realised what an emotional sucker punch the film would strike and so, arguably, I’m in no fit state to go almost immediately into the theatre at HOME to see Gecko, one of my favourite theatre companies, with their new piece Institute, about mental health. Oh Lord. By the time this day is done I’m a bit ruined. Gecko are just an incredible company that I look to as something of a pinnacle in inspiration terms. Institute is a complex show, with incredible movement as ever and loads of amazing moments. Personally, I don’t emotionally connect to it quite as powerfully as I did to Missing and I wonder to what extent this is related to the exclusively maleness of the main characters. I’m not sure whether this is true or not and even it was, I don’t mind. I’m happy for there to be a space to explore the intersections between mental health problems and society, as they are experienced by men. I can’t really process any more emotional pain today so I just drive home in a bit of a daze, thoughts and feelings bubbling just under the surface.
The next day I am at Contact Theatre at Why Fest? as part of my research for the further development of Joy Unspeakable and also to meet up with local theatre company Art With Heart. Why Fest?, although dealing with important, challenging topics about the lives of young people and the provision for them, is looking at solutions and empowering people to take positive action. So it’s a good balance to the last few days’ provocations. Some great things happen. I get to chat with Grace Victory, who recently presented the awesome BBC 3 documentary Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and is a fantastic, honest voice for positive messages about bodies. I watch a short film about the UN Rights of the Child and listen to a panel discussion about What Makes a Good Childhood? All of it helps me begin to calibrate some sense of what young people in their teens and early twenties are dealing with and feeling out there. The closure of a lot of youth centres across the country as a result of funding cuts is not new but one thing I am genuinely shocked to hear is that a local branch of McDonalds has apparently banned young people from coming in. It was the only warm place they could get together and presumably they were gathering in large enough numbers to make someone feel uncomfortable. I don’t know the full story so can’t really comment on the rights and wrongs but the fact that it was the only place these young people had to go, is the stand out fact for me. I also get to meet the lovely Rachel and Sarah of Art With Heart. A Lowry supported company, they are a locally based theatre company who create new work with a focus on encouraging youth people and women in arts, as well as creating a variety of projects that contribute to community cohesion and inclusivity. They are awesome! We have a good chat about what they do and what I do and they are just generally very welcoming and suggest a few helpful connections for me. I have to say, so far, I have found the Manchester theatre community to be one of the most friendly and welcoming set of people I’ve had the pleasure to come across. I’m sure there is the odd witch-at-the-party out there but so far, I haven’t met them. Hooray for the North!
After all the recent socio-political and emotional heavy lifting I really do need to switch off for a bit and what could be a better way than a night out at the Women In Comedy Festival to see my mate Rosie’s show Bloody Mary and the Black Widow. The Women in Comedy Festival, patron: one Maxine Peake, is now in its fourth year and is a homegrown comedy festival founded by Hazel O’Keefe on feminist principles, that takes place over ten days in venues across Manchester. This show is being performed upstairs at Gullivers, a pub in the Northern Quarter with a couple of performance spaces upstairs. It pulls a really decent crowd and we are all stuffed into a large, village hall style room-with-raised-stage, at the top of the building. The show is riotous, anarchic and loads of fun. I am legit cracking up. You can often feel the undertow of obligation to say nice things about your mates’ work, which can be tricky to resist if it’s not actually true. Luckily for me, no such challenges tonight as Rosie, who I’ve never actually seen perform before, does a cracking job of bringing a variety of characters to larger-than-life comical brillance. Fantastic! I think I had actually forgotten for a second there that theatre can be funny.
October closes off with a joyous bit of creative exploration via Curious School of Puppetry’s taster day at HOME. Since incorporating some puppetry elements in Joy Unspeakable I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring this aspect of theatre making. We begin with the simplest of tasks, simply finding the bodily states that are needed to be an effective puppeteer. This slowly builds up, via a variety of explorations (puppeteering a tennis ball, bringing a stick to life) to hand puppets and eventually creating short interactions between two teams working a three-person puppet each. It is SO MUCH FUN! I love the immediate access to the world of the imagination that a puppet allows. In a way, the lack of a human body for a character requires you to step into the ‘What if” of make believe immediately and you are no longer confined by the same rules that might confine a play with actors. Anything that opens up a new or greater access to the world of the imagination is gonna go down well in my book.
So that’s October, a lot of input and (churning along in the background), developing progress with the monster (the ACE bid). I’m off to Oxford for a few days head space and to catch up old friends and colleagues. So long for now!