2018 started for me, with a bit of a tough conversation with myself in the mirror. Although I didn’t have much in the way of time off over Christmas, January gave a bit more space for reflection. Although I had been very lucky to receive so many excellent opportunities to direct and assistant direct in late 2017, in this month of short, grey, drizzly days and long, cold nights, I couldn’t entirely avoid the problem that had been nagging in the back of my mind throughout. How am I going to get Joy Unspeakable, my in-development show exploring eating disorders made? Like, actually made, as a full length, studio production, with the potential to tour. Not an idea, not another funding pitch but an actual, finished show, that people can book tickets for and come to see.
Not getting the Arts Council funding in back in July 2017 was a big block to progress and the freelance directing opportunities that followed this bad news, were a welcome opportunity to divert into some practical creativity, and just be an artist instead of a producer for a bit. I’m 100% confident that doing this was the right decision at the time, but now, I have to face the facts. If I’m going to get this show made, I’m going to have to choose – between working my butt off as a producer on funding applications and partnership development to make Joy Unspeakable possible, thereby sacrificing directing for some time because this ground work is unpaid and so my remaining hours will have to be spent doing guaranteed paid work i.e. work that is easy to get, like selling tickets and so on, so I can you know, eat and stuff. Or, give up on the dream of making Joy Unspeakable and only pursue freelance directing jobs thus allowing me to be creative, leaving time to work other, low-paid jobs, to give some limited financial security but meaning I don’t get to make the piece of work I really want to make. Why this seemingly black and white logic you might wonder? Why not do a bit of both and get the best of both worlds. Well there is a very simple answer to that – money! Cash, cash, cash.
Yep, if there’s a learning curve to be had for me in this season it is all about finance. In order to make Joy Unspeakable I need to raise finance in the significant tens of thousands. This is in the context of an extremely harsh funding climate in the Arts after significant government cuts, which makes it really, really tough and is going to take all the hours in the day available to me and then some. Meaning I literally don’t have the time to do both Joy Unspeakable and freelance directing, plus try and earn additional money to try and boost my income to a manageable level. Can I just be really honest for a minute? It’s really hard. Period. You know that, “if I’d known then what I know now” thing? That. However, I am extremely passionate about making this show and so after a pretty lengthy mirror talk with myself, I make my decision. Joy Unspeakable it is.
I do a number of things in order to try and square the circle I am constantly trying to square, which is: how do I create a situation where I have regular work that pays sufficiently well per hour for me to do it as minimally as possible, in order to free up maximum time for me to do the time consuming work of funding applications and partnership development, not to mention script writing, and also have that work be as relatively stress free as possible, so that I can keep a clear head for my number one priority (my own theatre making) and not go under with stress and burnout by being spread way too thin? It’s also not as simple as just delegating to others because I haven’t yet met the people who share my values and vision sufficiently to be willing to work for nothing on it like me (despite actively looking), and people of the calibre I need in order to do the job properly, rightly expect to be properly paid i.e. not in Quality Streets. However, I have nothing to pay them with. So at present, it is just me.
Well, what can you do, do what you can and keep going. So, I negotiate with my box office job at the Lowry to go casual i.e. a zero hours contract where I am not guaranteed work but am also not committed to a set rota, so that if better paid work comes up, I can take it. And as luck would have it, it does come up. I take a two day a week job that comes up at the Octagon Theatre as a Digital Marketing Assistant. It’s a short term, 10 week contract and during that time I am responsible for the Octagon’s social media and to a lesser extent, press. It’s actually a great, fun group of people to work with and nice to have the camaraderie of a team around me. Some of the highlights include: getting to see Jane Eyre, Hamlet and East is East for free via working the press nights and interviewing director David Thacker and observing him in rehearsals (the blog I wrote for them on that is here).
I also get separately employed for a couple of days to do picture research for designer Amanda Stoodley on the Octagon’s production of East is East and really enjoy the moment when I see a good handful of the images I found, blown up to huge scale on the floor of the Octagon main house when the show opens. As this job comes to an end, I get a second box office job (also as a zero hours casual) at Manchester’s famous Palace Theatre – by the by an interesting foray into the world of commercial theatre. I also rethink my fundraising approach for Joy Unspeakable and decide that what I need to do first and foremost is apply for funds simply to support me to have the time that I need to write the full version of the script. I apply to the Peggy Ramsay Foundation for £2100.00. I also apply to Sick! Festival for £4000 of Catalyst funding that would be connected to staging the show at their 2019 festival and, at the end of March I am thrilled to see the Arts Council announce a whole new funding stream, specifically targeted at individual artists who want to do R & D on a project and step-up in their practice. It’s perfect for me and you can apply for up to £10,000. I get to work on a bid for that too!
By way of maintaining my creative sanity in the midst of all this essentially administrative heavy lifting, I do also try and see as much theatre as I can afford to and get to a number of events that feed my heart, mind and soul. This includes a trip to Blackpool to connect with an amazing community theatre practitioner who used to work at the National Theatre and has now launched Electric Sunshine, a community theatre company for adults and whose puppetry workshop I am privileged to attend and participate in; an Arts Council and Lowry co-produced event for socially engaged theatre practitioners called Uncommon Ground which is uplifting and frustrating in equal measure, the former because of the excellent people gathered and the latter because of their collective failure to properly listen to each other, and which includes at one point, a pitch (stage) invasion by the audience who are fed up with being talked at and decide to take over the mics. Classic – trust the theatre folk to stage a revolution!
I see some really great shows – among the highlights Something Dark by Mancunian legend Lemn Sissay which reignites my faith in the simple power of a personal story, authentically told, The Almighty Sometimes which is a brilliant debut by writer Kendal Fever, Circle, Mirror Transformation directed by Bijan Sheibani which fastidiously and perfectly recreates an adult community drama class, and the quiet drama, hilarious comedy and human connection that unfolds between the characters, and lastly James Graham’s critically acclaimed This House set in the House of Commons in the tumultuous political times of 1974, which is extremely entertaining. I also spend a bit of time supporting and encouraging a younger theatre maker who is making her first show for REVEAL. It’s actually really rewarding to be able to encourage someone else along the way and I must admit I find myself thinking about that thing they say that, “you communicate with others the way you want to be communicated with” and realise yet again that what I’d love is a mentor on this journey. And finally, I get down with the Socialists for an afternoon at a Radical Readings event hosted by the Working Class Movement Library in which my friend and actor Elle Pemberton is reading alongside Maxine Peake (I’m sure we all know the story about Maxine and her Communist granddad).
From one set of revolutionaries to another. I also sign up to a writing workshop at the Royal Exchange with Associate Artist Chris Thorpe. I know of Chris by reputation only and have never seen any of his work but as I expect, he makes an impression. Imagine if you will, a man of pure breed Mancunican accent and posture, with the soul of a prophet and the heart of a child i.e. one in equal measures tender and ruthless. Add to that the wicked sense of humour of an East End pub landlady and you get the gist of the kind of chap he is. The workshop goes all over the place, at one point we are all speed-networking while Chris walks around waving an i-phone pumping out Taylor Swift (don’t ask me?), and what I take from this glorious mayhem, is one extremely vital reality that somewhere in the midst of all the monotonous minimum wage work and “please-I-really-am-worth-it” funding applications I had forgotten, and that is this – creativity doesn’t apologise. Without the artists, none of the theatre industry would exist. That is not to sanction rudeness, or diva-like behaviour but when you are nose to the grindstone trying to convince anyone who will listen that you and your ideas are worth investing in, it is easy to start to feel like you, the artists, are the shrimp at the bottom of the pile and that you have to accept whatever the moneyed institutions or organisations dish out in terms of expectations and relational dynamics. Thank God for people like Chris who are there to remind us that what comes first is the art, and that should be what everything else lines up behind. Thank you sir, I salute you.
Around this time, I also decide to redo The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. For anyone who’s never heard of this, it is amazing and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s a book, a practical book, that you read and do, over 12 weeks. It is for anyone, at whatever level, to reconnect you to your creativity and blast through the blocks you have inside that prevent you taking action to pursue it. Doing The Artist’s Way creates a really important chink of light in my world that helps me to keep going with all the other stuff. Like mind boggling tax workshops on how to complete my self assessment and a three day, yes that’s right folks, three day interview for a facilitation job, which I do not get, in which the company gets to pilot their new training material on the group of 10 interviewees for free and for which none of us are paid, not even expenses. Hey freelancers, you’re welcome! Can you tell I’m not finding the working conditions of my new life entirely satisfactory?
It is around this time that I decide to join Stage Director’s UK, a relatively new, professional association for stage directors which, while not a fully fledged union for legal reasons, does advise and advocate on behalf of its members on a whole range of issues, including matters relating to pay and contracts. Shortly after I join, there is a call out for deputies to represent SDUK in various regional hubs and although feeling a full on deputy role is more than I need to take on at this point, I offer my support to whoever steps up. As it turns out, this is one of my friends, a fellow Manchester-based director called Benedict Power, and he and I, along with another female director get together one afternoon at the Royal Exchange cafe to thrash out a plan for how to get started with establishing SDUK North. It’s a great chat encompassing everything from opaque job adverts, to low pay or no pay, to the challenges of working as a parent and a director and way more besides. Although we start out a bit ranty, no doubt the result of many months and for some years, of struggling through layers of this kind of crap with little or no support, by the second half of our meeting we are all very engaged, highly constructive and coming up with some really good ideas for how to move forward, as you might expect from passionate people who actually just really want the chance to do a good job and thrive. It is so good to be connected like this. Directors very often work alone and carry the emotional load of a show in a way that can feel quite isolating, and the chance to have some real talk with kindred spirits is a big boost all round.
Speaking of boosts, the arrival of the first glimpses of Spring sunshine seem to coincide with a series of much more encouraging developments. So for some time I’ve been knocking on the door of a small number of selected individuals who I have identified as being ideal people to become trustees of the company I hope to launch this year and through which I will produce Joy Unspeakable. It’s a slow process as usually the sort of people who are well placed to do this are uber busy and getting a coffee with them is an Olympian task. I am delighted to say that despite a number of no’s that essentially equate to, “I’m just too busy” I’ve managed to meet with, talk to and secure a yes from a fantastic woman who is highly experienced in the social change sector and also extremely creative, though not in the theatre world. I am absolutely delighted to have her on board!
This is followed by a meeting with a seed funding organisation, who have previously supported me but whom I’d thought wouldn’t be keen to support me again as I have yet to fully deliver on the vision I shared with them i.e. making the full version of Joy Unspeakable. However, encouraged by a friend who knows the organisation, I meet with my contact there again and explain the situation which is essentially that everything is ten times harder than I thought because of funding and finances but that I actually have done a tonne of work towards my goal. I am fully bowled over then, when after what I consider to be a relatively short and inadequate explanation, the lady I am meeting with offers me £5000.00, on the spot. This is a crying-with-relief type situation. This means I will stop sliding into debt and can actually afford to work on moving forward with Joy Unspeakable for a good couple of months without having to do loads of other work. I ride a rainbow cloud through the streets of Chorlton shouting Halle-flippin-lujiah! on the inside. Who knows, I was so happy, I may have shouted it on the outside too! And finally, they say things come in three’s. One morning I am minding my own business, churning out emails, researching funding options and talking to the ITC about company set up procedures and into my inbox pops a wee email. It’s from the Talent Development administrator at the Royal Exchange theatre and in summary, this is what it says:
The National Theatre have been on to us because they are slowly waking up to the fact that there is actual sentient life beyond the M25 (I paraphrase) but having glanced at the extortionate, deregulated train fares required to travel there, have had to simply write There Be Dragons on their cultural maps and instead contact their friends at courageous, regional venues like ours and ask, who are the talented, up and coming directors locally, that we really should be talking to but for reasons of cash and dragons haven’t yet managed to? And the thing is, well, this is the thing. The Royal Exchange wrote back to them and said – me. Hahahahaha. What? No, really. That actually happened. The Royal Exchange wrote me an email and told me this and told me to get onto this person at the National Theatre and organise a meeting asap. So once I’d finished getting up off the floor, put my chair back upright again and sellotaped my jaw back to my head and so on, I got on my laptop and wrote them a flippin email. What the heck? I’ve got a meeting next week.