This year started with the very positive news that I had been permanently employed at the Octagon Theatre Bolton, as a Participation Practitioner on a part-time basis.
Even for those 100% in the know, Participation Practitioner is a potentially vague job title, so for the avoidance of doubt, what this means is that I direct theatre productions with young people, learning disabled young people and older people’s groups on a termly basis, as well as an annual Summer School production and other ad-hoc directing opportunities. Sometimes these productions are quite intensive pieces, involving commissioning writers, working with the theatre’s wider stage management team and additional freelance support workers, and sometimes they are smaller scale, end of term sharings for a family audience, to demonstrate the learning that the participants have acquired over the course of a term, looking at puppetry skills for example (which I did with the youngest two groups in the Spring term).
I have always believed that it is possible to make great, high quality performance work with non-professional performers, albeit sometimes the form of the work may be somewhat different to that of a straight play with professionally trained actors. However, until relatively recently a lot of the theatre industry has looked down with a level of snobbishness at what has been variously called Community, Participatory or Socially Engaged theatre practice, believing it to be of an inferior quality and thus affording it an inferior status. While I’m sure on occasion this reputation has stemmed from some poor quality productions, there is a whole new generation of theatre-makers, of which I’m proud to be part, who believe it is entirely possible to make artistically excellent theatre with members of the community who may not be professionally trained in performance.Thankfully the industry’s attitude to community theatre is changing and increasingly, the most forward thinking theatres are recognising the profound value added to a venue of performance work by, with and for the community. Luckily for me, with our brilliant new Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham at the helm, the Octagon Theatre is one of them!
A few of the pieces we’ve made this year that I’ve been especially proud of include excerpts from a brilliant play called Brainstorm, originally created by the excellent youth theatre company Company Three and Emily Lim (a leading proponent of this new attitude to community theatre at the National Theatre) that explores the neurology of the teenage brain, The Bolton Chronicles, a site-specific piece, created with the older people’s group out of fascinating conversations about Bolton’s past, present and future and written partly by the company and a feminist remix of Snow White with 8-11 year olds that I wrote and directed for our Grimm Tales two week summer school. As the word ‘feminist’ still (confusingly for me) causes some folk to hear ‘man hating Lesbians with short hair’ let me be clear what I mean by this – I mean a version of the story in which the female characters are allowed to have agency and make choices, as opposed to being passive, silent, cardboard cut-outs that other characters act upon. You know, basically just ordinary, real women, like in real life. That kind of feminism. Ok, rant over.
Pre-show warm up with the cast of The Bolton Chronicles
The Bolton Chronicles show pics
Snow White show pics
One of the enjoyable aspects of the Octagon role, if a somewhat time consuming part, has been the opportunity to do a fair bit of writing. In fact, it’s been a year of writing really as I have also continued with, and now graduated from, the John Retallack Playwriting Course in Oxford, that I began back in September 2018. While I must admit it’s been a relief (since the course ended in July) not to have to travel six hours to Oxford and back every Monday (exhausting!) it has been a fantastic, rich opportunity to expand and deepen my understanding of the art and craft of playwriting. John has been a great tutor, I’ve discovered a number of fantastic writers and plays I had not previously read (a few favourites include John by Annie Baker, Iphegenia in Splott by Gary Owen and Snowflake and Albion, both by Mike Bartlett) and hugely benefited from being part of a group of eight, committed writers who have actively engaged with and critiqued each others work over the course of nine months together.
During the course I produced a number of monologues, dialogues, a short play, scoped out a full length play and wrote the first half of it. At key points we were able to do a table read of our work with professional actors and the course culminated in a showcase of our work, performed by professional actors to a small, invited audience. I also got to meet the amazing playwright Mike Bartlett in our final session and had a drink with him in the pub!! He’s a really nice bloke, for the record. Our group in particular gelled so well that we lobbied John to create a second year, which, to my surprise he actually has agreed to! I’m very much hoping to be able to do this but as the total cost of £2000 is prohibitive, I’ve written to the Split Infinitive Trust (Alan Ayckbourne is a trustee) to ask for some financial support and am currently waiting to hear. Fingers crossed.
Will Adolphy and Tamsin Heatley performing a reheased reading of my script The Gap
This summer has been a moment of completion in a number of areas. In July I completed the Class of 2019 producer training at the Lowry that also began last autumn. This excellent artist development initiative has been invaluable in both keeping my knowledge fresh and adding significantly to it. Although they may not sound super sexy, making sure I am up to the minute on the finer points of tour booking, audience development, Arts Council Project Grants funding and negotiating financial deals with venues, is extremely helpful and important in the solid development of the theatre company, ensuring that we have the industry specific business knowledge to underpin our artistic and social vision.
In a similar vein, in July I graduated from The Lions social entrepreneurship programme in Coventry, and was delighted to wield my trophy aloft a la the FA Cup. This graduation marked the completion of two years of attending the Lions boardroom three times a year to report on the progress of my vision. It has been slower progress than I had initially expected and The Lions, knowing first hand the reality of the path to success of many entrepreneurs, have supported, encouraged and stuck with me and we both felt that although I have yet to complete the project that I originally pitched to them for, after two years, I had made substantial progress towards this goal, in the light of the various obstacles to be overcome. They agreed that it was right to mark this progress by graduating along with my peers.
Graduation day at The Lions!
Which brings me to the state of play of the company development. God, I tell you what? If I’d have known it was all going to be this hard I really might have thought twice before departing from a comparatively comfortable situation and jumping off into the financial abyss?! But nothing good comes easy so the saying goes and although I know sometimes it’s good to know when to quit, in this situation I AM A BLOODY PITBULL and we will do it! In fact, we’ve made some really good progress this last nine months despite my reduced availability for company work due to taking the job at the Octagon Theatre. Yet we are still not where I wanted to be at this point! Ideally we would currently be rehearsing the final version of Joy Unspeakable, our debut show as a company, and getting ready to share it with the world (or at least Manchester) next month. That is what we were aiming for last year when we set our company goals.
I am an achievement oriented personality. Whenever I do any form of personality test, be it Myers Briggs, the Enneagram, a rainbow colour wheel the official name of which I now forget or the red, blue, green, yellow thing, they all say the same – I am a type A, get things done, performance oriented collector of ticks, gold stars and pats on the head from the teacher (you can thank yourself at this point that you didn’t have to suffer through sitting in a classroom with me). So you can imagine that not hitting this target, again, has the potential to make me feel well….quite s**t. How will I validate myself now? Self-protective irony aside, at times, it really has made me feel s**t. I have often felt like giving up and returning to a life of predictable income, reduced adrenaline and less Rage Against the Machine of government arts cuts and financial insecurity.
But the thing is, and maybe all of this has been a complicated and elaborate lesson enabling me to learn this one thing. It’s not the success (however you define it) that validates you. It’s the fact that despite all the frustration, delays and utter nonsense of it all, you can look yourself in the mirror and say that you are doing everything you can to go after what you believe matters and from this flows a source of life and self-respect that no-one can take away from you. Personally, I think that really matters in life.
I mean don’t get me wrong, if I’m still trying to set up a theatre for social change company in ten years time, something has gone terribly wrong and if anyone is still left reading this blog at that point, I implore you to please send me to your shrink for assistance, but I don’t think we’re there yet and so, as they say, A luta continua!
On the plus side, this year we have made real, tangible progress. Flying in the face of received wisdom, despite still not being officially, legally registered (a long story) and because at this point I am literally hysterical with boredom waiting to share it with you, I am throwing caution to the wind and am thrilled to share both the official name of the company, which is…….drumroll please….Ordinary Glory….and, the brand new, company website. Ta da!
Please check it out here and let us know what you think www.ordinaryglory.co.uk.
We have also made great, creative strides forward in understanding and articulating to ourselves the full heartbeat of the new, improved version of Joy Unspeakable. This is really quite massive and we are super excited about it. So, the new show is now going to be a Verbatim show, which means that the text of show will be taken directly from the verbal testimonies of specific, real people, two of whom will be the lead artists making the show i.e. myself and Tiffany the designer. There is loads more exciting, creative stuff that we have painstakingly worked out over many conversations, debates and cups of tea but to tell it all now would be to skip to the end of the book so instead, we’ll invite you to come and see the show when we do finally put it on stage in Manchester next year. Good things are worth waiting for right?
As I write we are setting up conversations with our hoped for creative contributors and collaborators across Manchester (and beyond in some cases), and it really feels like a creative momentum is starting to build. Sometimes, it is just a matter of timing and when it’s ready, it’s ready.
In other news, as well my work at the Octagon and all the developments with the company, I’ve also tried to develop my freelance work to try and earn some more money, though this year have had to mainly sacrifice freelance directing work as it simply doesn’t fit around the timetable of my job at the Octagon. However, I’ve done some interesting theatre facilitation work with Muslim women in Oldham for local company Finecomb Theatre, after quite a lengthy interview and training process have begun working as a Public Speaking Trainer for the National Citizens Service (NCS) and came very close, (down to the last few out of 50) to getting a job as a theatre facilitator for the excellent company Cardboard Citizens, but didn’t, which was real shame as they would be a dream company to work for and I would have earned £6000, which would have paid for my writing course and paid off some of my debt. Ach well, next time.
I’ve also kept my hand in as a Deputy Rep for Manchester Stage Directors UK, continued to run a monthly Actor’s Workshop for invited actors at Manchester Met University, spoken at an Arts and Faith event in Manchester and managed to see the following shows in order to ‘feed the lake’ of creativity as Madeleine L’Engle put it: Fat Girl Singing, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Nanjing, Mother Courage, Into the Light, The Lancastrians, Top Girls, Hobson’s Choice, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, One Night in Miami, Vinegar Tom, That’s the Trouble with the Poor and Guards at the Taj.
Looking ahead to the rest of this year, the really big priority is to (please God) finally get the legal set up of the company over the line in time to apply for R & D funding in November. Without going into too much personal detail, we found a brilliant new co-director earlier this year and have done all the legal paperwork but he has had some serious heart health problems and so we are now in a holding pattern until he is recovered and well enough to review this and sign off on it all.
However, despite these challenges, I have every faith that we will get there! Onwards and upwards.