After the dizzying heights of A Streetcar Named Desire in August, putting my own hand to the plough this month feels a bit humdrum and pedestrian but the fact is, work ain’t gonna make itself, so I’ve gotta get hustling.
Actor Jules Hill and I are back at the Octagon Theatre’s Lab to revise and rehearse a scene from Joy Unspeakable in preparation for the Venues North pitching event next week at Waterside Arts Centre in Sale. This is a fairly big deal for me. Emerging theatre-makers and companies can spend shed loads of time and energy just trying to get a return email from theatre programmers and here I am, being offered a platform with twenty programmers from venues across the North, on a plate. So, no pressure then.
It’s a bit a scuffle to get things ready in time and I feel the need to prioritise, so invest the bulk of our time in rehearsing the scene, rather than rehearsing what it is I have prepared to say. Ooops. Yes, those of you with an instinct for doom know where this is going don’t you? Cue audience watching through fingers and a Psycho soundtrack as I stab myself with recriminations offstage afterwards. Ok, that is a wild exaggeration, at least of what actually happened (although I do channel a Basil Fawlty walk at one stage which simply cannot be explained from any angle). In fact, to the outside observer my pitch goes fairly well and writing this a little after the fact I know that a lot of positive things have come from it. Emails of interest from theatres in Huddersfield and Halifax, a meeting with Contact Theatre and several others in the pipeline. However, at the time, a couple of small moments of inarticulacy and inexperience lead to some serious feelings of inadequacy and a bad dose of imposter syndrome, the like of which I haven’t had to battle for several years. It turns out that this month provides a lot of food for thought on the topic of criticism, whether self-criticism or that of others.
Streetcar press night for example, just to briefly jump back in time. With the exception of one critic, who seriously didn’t get the memo about colour-blind casting, the reviews are good. Each of the national critics also emphasise one or other different aspects of the show by way of highlighting, in fairly generous tones, why, for them, it was a four and not five star show. Having not had the opportunity before to be part of a show that is reviewed by national level critics, I realise that I have been unconsciously carrying around a fairly dim view of theatre critics, imagining that they are possibly just overblown, overpaid, “those who can’t, teach” types, who fanny around the post-show bar seeking to bathe in the dimly reflected glory of the show itself. So, er, no judgement here, right? What I learn from this new opportunity, is that the national critics at least, for all the legitimate critiques in relation to representation and access, do actually know a thing or two about theatre and the process of making it. Where as most of the free press articles I read seem pretty anodyne or excessively particular to their own perspective, as in, “I really don’t like blonde hair in actors”. Ok, no-one said that but you get the idea. Yet, regardless of how clued up the critic is, how much weight should an artist actually put in their opinions? In this case the Streetcar reviews were good but from a box office point of view they were also irrelevant, as the show had sold out before it opened. The Royal Exchange has built such a loyal, local audience, that from this angle at least, they don’t need the critics.
The issue of critics and criticism comes up again a few days later at an open event at The Lowry where Rufus Norris (Artistic Director, National Theatre) is in conversation with Julia Fawcett (Chief Executive, The Lowry). He is asked outright by the chair about the fact that a number of his first season of shows, most notably Wonder.Land, were critical flops. I like Rufus Norris. He isn’t afraid to say what he honestly thinks, even if it may get him into trouble. He is honest enough not to try and pretend that reviews don’t matter at all, and acknowledges that of course he wishes the critics all told him he was brilliant all the time but also points out that in terms of bringing new, and considerably younger-than-normal audience into the NT, Wonder.Land did much, much better than many previous shows. Back to the audience again. Increasingly, I’m aware that there are at least two audiences occupying the space in my head: the actual, live, human audience I’m making a show for and the theatre-world audience of peers, programmers and critics. How much weight am I giving to each and who is it who really matters? To come full circle to my post Venues North self-criticism, I realise that as well as remembering that failure is just a natural part of growth, I need to define my own measures of success very clearly and definitely if I want to keep my sanity in this industry. Not that I haven’t realised, and even done this before, but the further you push out, the more strongly you need to know who you are, why you do what you do and what you think it looks like when you’ve done it well.
After this mini-epiphany, it’s time for some light relief. My first ever Tim Crouch play, Adler and Gibb, at The Lowry. For several years now the name Tim Crouch has been popping into my awareness as being synonymous with wit, quality, cleverness and just generally shows that I really want to go and see. And yet I haven’t managed to. Until now. On the other hand, I’m a tad skeptical going in. Recently I’ve been quite aware of how irony-laden the rhetorical stance of a lot of contemporary theatre is, and I’m not talking about dramatic irony (although technically it probably is at times) but more a kind of post-modern sensibility that while it definitely has its useful (if limited) place in philosophy, sometimes strikes me as emotional immaturity masquerading as intelligence. It’s kind of boring. And philosophically it doesn’t really create anything – except for maybe lollipop people, with massive heads and no bodies or hearts. So I am very happy to have my skepticism dashed and be delighted by this show. It’s true, it is more of a head than a heart play but it is so ingenious in the way it plays with form, that you can’t help but be seduced by it. At risk of being a theatrical tease I won’t say more than that, or I would probably ruin it if you get a chance to see it. Which you definitely should!
Hot on the heels of this is a devising workshop entitled Making Work Fast and Dirty with Live Art artist Rachel Mars whose show Our Carnal Hearts is on in the studio at the Royal Exchange this weekend. It’s a truly joyous workshop, reminding me how much workshops can vary, depending on the vibe set by the facilitator. Rachel is generous and has loads of great new devising tools to share but she also doesn’t aim in any way to be ‘an expert’, happily acknowledging her weaknesses and drawing on the group to plug the gaps. Contrary to what some might expect, this doesn’t make us doubt her but in fact makes us all feel free, open and happy to contribute our own creativity to the group. It’s also really great to have got to the stage, nine months into my time in Manchester, where I recognise not just one but a good handful of the theatre-makers at the workshop. I feel like I’m starting to develop friendships and find my own place in this creative community. It’s a good day! The pernicious pocket of doubt opened up by the Venues North pitch, just got filled up again with a little bubble of gold.
Tonight, I’m making my way to the Octagon Theatre in Bolton to see To Kill a Mockingbird. The director is Elizabeth Newman, the Octagon’s Artistic Director. She is one of the youngest venue artistic directors in the country, and she is, fairly obviously, a woman. No mean feat. I am looking forward to getting to know her artistic sensibilities better via her work. I suppose it could be tricky if I hate the show and think it is rubbish but luckily that’s not a dilemma I have to deal with as it’s a great show that I really enjoy. It would also be interesting to directly interpolate this script with contemporary race relations in America but that is not what this show is. From what I can tell Elizabeth is all about serving the actors and putting the characters and story up front. That is not to say that design in all fields isn’t important in her work, it definitely is, but the simplicity of character and story is in the lead. It’s also not to say that there isn’t experimentation, as she has arguably gone out on a limb to cast child actors in the fairly prominent child roles. Some would say this is a dangerous gamble as the true innocence of children on stage could easily highlight the artifice of everyone else in a way that is not exactly helpful when your main aim is to get get everyone to believe in the reality of the world you are creating. However, Elizabeth has stated that she believes in the abilities of young people and this production shows that, and argues her case for her very effectively. Although I can only really claim to be a part-time Boltonian, tonight I am definitely a proud one.
Adding to my knowledge of local venues, next up is a visit to Hope Mill Theatre, housed in an old mill in Ancoats, the slightly shabbier next door neighbour to the hipster haunts of the Northern Quarter. Describing itself as “Manchester’s newest theatre” Hope Mill is in their own words, “…the dream of couple Joseph Houston and William Whelton.” They describe how, “…after a career in theatre and time spent living in London, they were inspired by the highly regarded Off West End Theatres and smaller producing venues which dominate the London theatre scene. With this in mind and with the growing number of creatives living in Manchester and the ever evolving theatre culture, they set out to bring a brand new theatre experience to the people of Manchester.” They’ve barely been open a year and have already won awards for the venue, which is quickly becoming the go-to venue for theatre-makers looking to stage professional work, that for a variety of reasons may not be programmed by the more established venues. I walk into the beautiful bar and straight away spot a friend. Nice one! We go in together to see Sans Merci, an ambitious and provocative piece by local company Play With Fire Productions, a key member of which is Hannah Ellis, who also plays a leading role in running the ADP nights at the Kings Arms. I won’t say she’s a one-women tour de force as that would be genuinely unfair to all the other people involved in the company and ADP but I’m definitely glad she’s decided to put her multiple talents to work in Manchester’s creative scene.
This is a good spur to action in fact, because as much as seeing work and getting to know folk in the theatre scene here in Manchester is a genuinely important part of my day to day activities. I do also have some more directly focused tasks to do. Not least of all, writing an Arts Council funding application to take Joy Unspeakable to the next level! But just before I wade into that with my gaiters on, time for a final shout out for the irrepressible Mighty Heart Theatre. You might remember the name from my January blog about their show When I Feel Like Crap I Google Kim Kardashian Fat. These two lovely ladies were also pitching at the Venues North event, along with Powderkeg, Twelve Miles North, Colour the Clouds, Hidden Track Theatre, Four Shadows Theatre and Sam Brady, just to give everyone their dues. As September draws to a close we squeeze in a cuppa and a chat at HOME. Among other things they are developing a piece that touches on a number of similar issues to those addressed in Joy Unspeakable and so it’s great to chew the fat (no pun intended) with them. Currently supported artists at the Royal Exchange, they are proud feminists, lovers of all things leopard print and similarly in favour of fellow artists supporting each other and telling the truth about what it’s like out here in the badlands of emerging theatre making. And so, on that note, I will leave you with their excellent blog post about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of trying to do Edinburgh without committing ritual suicide off Arthur’s Seat. Enjoy!