As an unexpected burst of sunshine signals the possibility of Spring, I thought I’d better write my Winter blog poste haste!

Cast your minds back to September last year and I am on holiday in Turkey. Hallelujah! What is the relevance of this to a blog about making my way as a theatre maker in Manchester you might wonder? Well, to me it is this. When life as a freelance artist is a sometimes seemingly continuous string of set-backs, obstacles, financial worry and gnawing self doubt, it can after a time, become simply too much. Your head starts to implode and your hope drains away down the plug hole. This is usually the time when people with more secure jobs take a holiday to get away from it all and recalibrate. So far, so sensible. For the emerging artists however, this is not usually an option. Who will pay for it, being the obvious question? And yet, taking rest is such an essential and necessary part of all creativity. It is for this reason that I want to give an extra big Big Up to my excellent mum, who, because she is excellent, took me away on a proper holiday for the first time in a good few years. Thereby averting mental breakdown. Not actually a joke. What a legend! Here are some gratuitous holiday pics to remind me how great it was.

So I am back, truly refreshed and genuinely astounded to discover how different all my problems look after two weeks in glorious sunshine eating Turkish Delight and not thinking about them. Problems, what problems?

I start the playwriting course in Oxford. Every Monday I make my way down south by train to join seven other developing playwrights and the course tutor John Retallack, in a smart room at the top of Vincent’s Club in Oxford to discuss, explore, read, play, share work, share frustrations and slowly, try to work out what it actually means to write a play. I am so grateful for this opportunity. I have long known that I am the world’s biggest procrastinator and that without a solid framework and some terrifying deadlines, it’s entirely possible that I will spend my life staring out of a window, twirling my hair and thinking a bit more about the meaning of life. I mean that is still a lot of fun but what I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t convert brilliantly to column inches, or double spaced script pages. So, you know. I need help. By now I’m five months in and I have already learned so much. John is a great tutor, with just the right balance of patience and whip cracking. It’s almost as if he’s been a theatre director for thirty years (jokes). By now we’ve all written a variety of monologues, scenes and short plays, or in some cases (like me) the first part of a longer play, and had the opportunity to read, see and reflect on the work of some of the best writers currently working in British theatre. I’ll be honest, it’s extremely humbling. I don’t mean that in a faux modest Oscars speech way, I mean it in more of a, “Holy s*** whatever made me think I could be as good as that?!” kind of way but despite the Fear of God that frequently arises in the face of the task in hand, I am doing it. And that is the main thing. In fact, increasingly I’m realising that is the only thing. Just do the work. Just keep doing the work. 10,000 hours.

Meanwhile, back in lack of income land, an opportunity has come my way. The Octagon Theatre have invited me to work for them as a facilitator with Artbeat, their theatre programme for over 55 year olds and Little Bridges, their theatre programme for 8-14 year olds with learning disabilities. This is great! After a few weeks of settling in and getting to know the participants, I find it is a great source of life. With Artbeat I am working on an end of year production called Shop Window, written by the Octagon Theatre’s New Writing Associate, Janys Chambers. It’s a great ensemble piece, inspired by a combination of the theatre’s main stage festive production The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes ballet by Matthew Bourne, as well as all the other versions of the Red Shoes tale that exist. I love working with this enthusiastic, passionate and joyously opinionated group of Boltonians who all bring so much to the party. We present a fantastic piece at the end of the year, the highlight of which is an ensemble dance number to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

Artbeat at the Octagon, in front of a detail from the set

Working with the brilliant photographer and videographer Jon Harvey, I also film and create a personal fundraising campaign via Patreon, a really clever new platform that connects artists to supporters. In case you missed it, please check it out here.

The Patreon campaign is also by way of trying to think laterally about ways to support myself financially that don’t end up with me having no time to develop and launch the company. That old chestnut. At the time of writing, it has reached 20% success and I am so thankful to all the people who are supporting me. Next step is to try and widen the reach of the campaign to those who don’t know me but might share the vision. Any help with this is very welcome.

The Autumn months also initiate a collaborator conversation with an excellent human and theatre designer Tiffany Dawson. Tiff and I have been aware of each other for a little while but of late have started a conversation about potentially working together in the context of a company. This is really exciting. Tiff is a brilliant designer who most recently worked as an Design Assistant on Party Skills for the End of the World, a Manchester International Festival production. The short version of this much longer conversation is that we are now collaborating and at least in the short term, are trying to share the load of producing admin between us, so that we can both have a chance at being creative as well. There is still way more work to do than there are people to do it but having someone to share this with certainly makes it a less lonely journey.

We are helped in our endeavours by the brilliant Artist Development folks at The Lowry, where via the Class of 2019 programme that I, and by extension now Tiff, are doing. Through this we have been able to refresh or learn for the first time, skills in talking about our work, the maths of theatre deals, see examples of socially engaged companies’ practice and much more to come. Last week we were sweating away with calculators over theatre deals and although Tiff did at one point look like she might run away due to having numbers dyslexia, I think, on balance, it was A Good Thing. On the more creative front, since December we have been working on the company website with the help of a really awesome graphic designer called Micah Purnell, who because he is a legit boss with a history of ad-busting billboard campaigns across Manchester and thus liked our ethos, decided to work with us at a major discount (because we couldn’t afford him otherwise) and now, we have a sparkling new website which is really exciting!

Only annoyingly, I can’t share it with the wider world yet. Due to various setbacks on the personnel front (health related), our company is not yet legally incorporated. Call me a crazy, paranoid, litigation fearing nut job but having been advised by the Independent Theatre Council not to put the company identity out there until it’s legal, I’m just gonna wait. So I’m afraid that means you have to too. All good things….

In the meantime, some shows I’ve seen. In the last wee while I’ve managed to get myself along to see Othello/Macbeth, Matilda (I took my niece, she loved it!), All You Need is LSD, Best of Bolton 2018, The Mysteries, The Maids, Lowry Shoots scratch night, Push Festival launch party and last but not least, on the closing performance – The Inheritance, Part 1 only (cos you know, money).

A scene from The Inheritance

I’ve continued to support the growth of SDUK Manchester and we’ve hosted a couple of good gatherings for local directors. I also made it down to London, with travel expenses kindly part paid for by SDUK in order to make it possible, to a workshop with Lyndsey Turner, one of the country’s top female directors, all about pitching. She was AWESOME and obviously I now immediately want her to be my best friend in a deeply worrying way. I think probably the most awkward bit was when she was trying to leave at the end and had to actually shake her leg vigorously to prise my fan girl hands off her ankle. I jest of course. Or do I?

An SDUK Manchester gathering at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Christmas and New Year is a combo of the more traditional festive family activities (I actually cooked Christmas dinner this year for the first time) and A LOT of shifts at The Palace as we herd Christmas show audiences in and out of the building at a rate of knots. It’s the busiest time of the year for most theatres. This is followed by the deep joy that is completing my tax return. Commiserations for any fellow travellers reading.

On a more buoyant note, 2019 begins with some really good news. Having sweated away for a good two days completing the application, and prepped and delivered a taster workshop for young people….AND… completed a formal face to face interview, I am delighted to say that I am now employed permanently by the Octagon Theatre as a part-time Participation Practitioner!! Hooray! A what now? Yeah, I know. To decode – I plan and deliver theatre workshops and direct productions with groups of young people, some with learning disabilities, and adults, as part of the Octagon’s Creative Engagement Team. I wrote a blog about it here here. Worryingly this one features me in a hard hat;)

And that is pretty much the size of things as February starts to disappear. Overall I guess it’s not too shabby, and there’s even some sunshine out! Oh yes, and finally, I also recently had the delight of spending the day in London with some amazing friends and artists who were over from the States. You might remember them as the people who hosted the artists retreat I went to in Savannah back in 2016. Together we had a lovely time at The Globe theatre!