Why I am Worried to Talk

Last year I wrote a blog about my mental health and how it is tied to my work as a theatre maker. I think it generated a lot of discussion, and it was also a great help for me, as many people reached out with kind words and boosted my self-esteem when it was at its lowest. 

The blog undoubtedly was a useful stage in my recovery so it would make sense that I write another while I’m struggling again. But this time it has been much harder. I have tried to type some words every day for about three weeks and I haven’t been able to until maybe this moment. We will soon see… this might be deleted or if you are reading this now, then it might just be that I’ve manged to scramble something together. Thank you, I hope it is a worthwhile read. 

The last few months have been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I have been signed off again after having a big dip in my mental health. I had to leave a production I cared deeply about and was really excited to work on. To top it off, with my actions, I scared a lot of people who I love and respect. This has naturally come with lots of mixed up feelings, guilt, helplessness, vulnerability and huge amounts of regret. I am getting lots of support and help to deal with it. My family are caring for me on an hour to hour basis and supporting me in particularly low ‘can’t get out of bed days.’ The NHS mental health team and doctors in Fife are working with me to try and make this a long-lasting recovery. My industry peers have picked up and carried on what I had to leave behind.

One of the ways this was achieved was by putting the standard out of office on my email. My colleagues picked up any emails coming my way and spoke to contacts, carefully explaining that I was taking some time off and they would deal with things in my absence. This is of course absolutely the right protocol. Standard procedure, I would imagine, for any sickness.  My team mates were stepping in and stepping up to ensure that I could step away. This meant I should not stress over work and focus on my recovery. 

The only thing was, this is  incredibly difficult. As difficult as it is to write this blog. As difficult as it is to write in a tweet that I’ve been unwell. As difficult as it is to mention to friends and colleagues when I see them face to face. 

This is for one simple reason, I am scared of letting people know. I’m scared that ‘everyone gets one’ is the way we might look at the world. Ross was unwell but now he’s better. But if he’s ill again, not even one year after the last time,  then maybe, he’s not getting better. Maybe the unconscious bias is that I have just put myself in the unreliable zone. There is a truth in that. I have dropped the ball on things, twice. That’s hard to say but maybe that’s what other people might think. 

I worry a lot about what the narrative of having a consistent mental health problem might do in an industry where work can ebb and flow and there is no shortage of artistic talent who can do what I do, reliably.   

I also worry about what that means as a director who is looking to take on more demanding projects with greater strains and stresses. Does it seem like I can’t cope? 

I also worry about my role within the room. If the director is anxious that can feed into the room and affect the process. Even if the anxiety is medical and unrelated to the strength of the project. No one wants that director in their rehearsal rooms. 

I’m unsure how many of these worries are well-founded and how many are fed by my current high level of anxiety. 

What I do know is that so far, the industry has been incredibly supportive and open. 

Amazing podcasts like ‘Don’t Speak’ by Mim Attwood and Amy Taylor, and ‘Putting It Together’ by Brian O’Sullivan are opening up debate about mental health. Activists like Drew Taylor, Cultured Mongrel’s Emma Jayne Park and FST’s recent training programme highlight our growing awareness in Scotland to consider mental health in an industry that can sometimes be very exposing.

However, my recent bout of mental health has made me wonder What Can We Do Better?

I am a heterosexual white middle-class who has the wide support of family and friends. I am incredibly privileged and yet I have been knocked by the pressure of our industry.  Mental health affects us all so we need to ensure that our industry can protect those less well supported  by our society. We need to make space for more diverse voices, so we need to do more for well-being in our industry. 

For instance, we need to create opportunities for people to talk about mental health not just at external training events but when they are right in the midst of productions.  Can we make people aware of who they can check in with  throughout the process without feeling embarrassed or stigmatised? 

We need to examine how the rehearsal process works. I love a tech week. Love it. But recently as I was signed back into work my doctor recommended me working only 37 hours. I completely ignored this. Production weeks are not scheduled this way and I didn’t feel empowered to have the conversation. Schedules are in place and the show has to work to the deadline of opening night. So, I ignored the advice and I worked. And this has arguably had an impact. It was my own decision and I take this on but could an actor or a stage manager really feel supported to ask for reduced hours on production week? Would it be allowed.  Maybe we need to start thinking differently to ensure that we can support a neurodiverse team to work in new ways to make exciting new work. 

Is there that space when you have a cup of tea with a new theatre or producer or company where we can ask each other not just what do we want to make but how we can support each other in the best ways to do it? Each artist might have different invisible needs. Is there a way we can make the conversation easier and not necessarily rest on the shoulders of the freelance artist pitching for work?

 ‘I would love to direct a show for you, can I get some extra time to stretch out the tech weeks?’ 

I’m not even sure I could say that right now.  I need to get better at figuring out what I need and talking up front about it. But if there is an early career artist struggling like I have; can we find a way to make those questions and conversations easier for them? 

 This has been a hard blog to write and I don’t have any answers (evidently, I’m bloody sick again) but I’m heartened by the support I have been given. I know there are wonderful artists, producers and theatres working hard to figure this out. I hope my experience might help a little. 

Promises I Made

Earlier in the year I was selected to be part of Assitej’s Next Generation Programme for their Artistic Gathering in Beijing. I entered the programme with so much excitement and anticipation. The team of people who I met were quite extraordinary and I feel connected to artists around the world. However, the programme itself over worked us all and was not rewarding. It felt sad to know that many aspects of the programme were fuelled by exploitation. As one example, our translators worked over 12 hour days and were volunteers.

I was asked to give this speech late on Thursday night for the Friday morning. I wrote it extremely late and delivered it very nervously in the morning. I wanted to read it again and publish the speech here so that I can remind myself of the promises I made. I will strive to adhere to them and fulfil them whenever and where ever I can. 

Hello, thank you for giving me this time to speak. Thank you very much to Assitej China for hosting us. And by ASSITEJ CHINA, I want to make sure that this thank you extends to everyone throughout the festival. 

Many many people have worked tirelessly this week to support us in our journey. Rainbow and Albert, our translators, our guides, our friends have been with us every step of the way, looking after us. You are the beating heart of this group and without you this encounter would not have been at all possible. 

The camera crews who have documented us so closely. Every tiniest detail has been captured. They have followed us, working incredibly hard to ensure this experience can be remembered for a long time to come. The volunteers, bus drivers, performers, stage crew, workshop leaders and  theatre staff. 

Mao Ernan, Ken Jiro, Yin Xiaodong the President of Asstiej China, the entire Assitej EC and everyone who put this programme together. You served us with good hearts and good intentions. And while at points many of us struggled and at points suffered, we know the intention was heartfelt and we ask that you, like us will learn from this experience. 

I am writing this speech very early in the morning  and speaking it on very little sleep please accept my deepest apologies as I know I will have left someone out. I extend our thanks to them. 

I also want to extend a special thank you to our Chinese collaborators, you have welcomed us with the most open of arms and been willing to play and come on this journey with us. 

I know that China has a bright future in TYA. I did not learn this in shows or workshops. I learnt it from you, the next generation of artistic leaders from theatres all over China. Your passion to reach children from the biggest of cities to the tiniest of villages with work that comes from the heart is breathtaking. 

I mean this from the bottom of my heart. You are all absolutely Sasha! 

I arrived only a week ago and already so much has changed. This group arrived with red eyes and messy hair to a room full of strangers.  

Our eyes have got redder and our hair has gotten messier but now I am in a room full of friends who I will love forever. 

The moments I will treasure are those we made as a group of young leaders taking control and making our own future together. 

 In a room full of artists from all over the world, we heard about our passions and what drives us to become who we are. Tears were shed because the art of honestly speaking and honestly listening across the world is a powerful, beautiful and cathartic experience. That we made happen. 

 In the evenings we took the pressure off us for 10-15 minutes and we played games together. We had fun. We laughed. We shared simple exercises, and, in this time, we learnt so much about what ignites us.  

 ‘I’m Falling’ – No I’m only kidding. 

 That is true cross-cultural exchange. No performance, no speech, no ceremony can capture those moments. 

 But all of this, the good memories and the bad will soon be in the past. At this festival we were asked to work closely with our fellow artists from around the world and imagine a future together. 

 As we move forward from being the next generation to The Generation of artistic leaders. I promise to you all I will never forget this experience. I am making a promise to you all now. And I hope you can join me in this promise:  

 I promise to treat artists with the utmost of respect, care and compassion. Whether they are young or old or somewhere in between, they are my equals and their experience is as valuable as my own. I will listen to them.

 Just as importantly, I will respect, care and treat well everyone who supports artists. This applies to, translators, guides, camera crews, ushers, those who work in the hotels. Those who we encounter once or many many times. We have a duty to protect them and treasure them. We should never let them be exploited. Without other people we cannot do what we do. 

 I will listen. I will watch. I will treat other cultures with respect but l I will never abandon my values and I will ensure they are heard when they need to be heard. 

I promise to look after the next generation, no matter where they are from. I will support them, and I will never abandon them. 

This promise is an immense responsibility and I do not take it lightly.  I offer this promise to you all and I hope you can join me in this. 

 Thank you 

Bumps in the Road

I’ve not written in a wee while. Mostly, because normal service has resumed, and I am pleased to say I am doing a lot better than I was at the start of the year. Hooray! Bring out the bunting and the platters of lactose free treats! It is good news for me and I am so happy to be working and doing what I love. But it would be a total fabrication to say it has been plain sailing.

I have wanted to prove to myself I am fit and healthy and I have dived back into work. And work has been very kind and forthcoming. I just finished a twenty day stretch. Not something I would usually brag about. There are so many people out there working much harder and much longer than me. But considering I wasn’t even managing to get out of bed a few months ago, this really does feel like an achievement. Some of the days were very long and some were shorter, but it was 20 days of work in a row. And I’m proud of the projects I worked on and everything I achieved. So seriously, I would like some lactose free goodies or something…

But this is perhaps a weird sense of achievement. I can sense my family, my friends, my psychiatric nurse smiling encouragingly while at the same time saying, 

‘ummm maybe it was this kind of work routine that didn’t help in the first place.’ 

And in a lot of ways they would be right. But the thing is, I am a freelance artist and when I’m faced with the chance to do what I love and get paid for it. It is really hard to turn that down. I don’t earn much for what I do.  And sometimes there can be stretches when not a lot comes along. So, if you get the chance you take it. You say, yes, I’m sure I can squeeze that in. And you do it. Because it’s probably an exciting project and also, it’s a pay cheque that keeps you going for another month. You might even stretch it over a couple if you have a lean patch coming up. 

And what happens in that lean patch. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but it can be when I work the hardest. Get those applications in. Dream up the next few ideas. Update the website. Email out for some more work. Try and build my skill sets. Hustle for the pennies! 

Days off are great but they can be more of a rare treat than an expected outcome. You take the work and then you hunt the work. You love the work, so you forget that there should be space between the work.  And that can become an issue. Easily. Your mental health can slip and slide when you aren’t even noticing. When your mind is on the task in hand it is easy to forget that the breaks are important too. 

So, I have been thinking a lot about this. I can’t be the only one who feels this. I want to offer something practical. A genuine offer that isn’t much, but it might be something for someone. Are you in the midst of a massive project crying out for a weekend or have you been staring at a blank calendar and despairing at an ever decreasing (or increasing if you don’t count the minus sign) bank balance? Need a few days respite… I have a pretty comfy double bed in my little cottage home in Aberdour (recently voted second best place to live in Scotland – screw you Melrose!). The village is a 35 min train from Edinburgh. It has not one but two beaches. Its surrounded by acres of farm land and great walks. It has its own castle. A good pub. Some great cafes. We do have a cat. But she is pretty friendly. 

So maybe you need a couple of days. Maybe you know me, and it would be lovely to catch up. Maybe you only know me in passing. Maybe you’ve just stumbled onto this blog by accident. You can use the room as a hide hole and we won’t bother you. You can come down say hello and join us for dinner. It’s up to you. This invite is open to someone who might need it. An artist that needs a wee break. 

Anyway. I’m going to stop now. I’m taking a wee break myself.

Straight White Males in Transit

I have moved to Fife and now often find myself on the train heading to my work in Edinburgh. Trains are fascinating. People from all backgrounds heading from one destination to another, joined together in a journey. I’m not sure if it is the extended journey time, extra space or the prevalence of table seats but they seem to be paradoxically more social and more private modes of transport. People can more easily find themselves engaged in conversation with a fellow passenger and at the same time others seem to let guards slip that they would usually hold tightly in a public space.

All of this is to say that I confess, I am an eavesdropper and a sneaky one too. Sometimes my phone dies on the journey home but I keep my headphones on. They sit comfortably over my hat and I suppose, can be a clear do not disturb sign that I sometimes wear when I am particularly. No noise comes out and I can hear the world around me still.

I hear this conversation, two guys, maybe a little older than me. Not by much. Both in suits. I guess they maybe work in finance as they join us at Edinburgh Gateway which is near the airport and some of the bigger bank offices.

They are chatting work, candidly, I want to know if my hunch on their career is correct so I tune in a little. I don’t get an answer. Instead I am left pondering another question entirely. I admit I can’t recall the conversation word for word but its about a new position in the company:

‘We are both out of the running completely though’


‘Says it at the bottom welcomes applicants from diverse backgrounds. Should just say white men don’t apply for fuck sake ‘

‘I’m gonna tick the boxes for black lesbian women. I’ll be top of the list.’

They make a joke about what their black female names should be. I don’t challenge them. To my shame I glance around and notice everyone is white, so make the awful assumption it matters less. Plus, I have my headphones on so I legitimately could argue I didn’t hear. I’m writing this now and I realise I make those quick calculations all the time. It’s safer for me not to get involved and let it slide. In my position of total privilege, the world is safer because I can let things slide. Plus most importantly, I play the conversation out in my head… I ask them not to make the joke, suggest it is racist…no don’t want to be too direct… could be construed as racist…how?...well…what if we get on to the employment question…he would be better as a black lesbian female…welcomes background from diverse applicants… I know they are wrong but I can’t win the argument. I don’t have an answer

I do not have an answer. I should have an answer.

This blog post isn’t penance or a hope for forgiveness that I didn’t call them out. I didn’t and haven’t done that thousands of times. I have calculated my own safety and let things slide when I shouldn’t. It’s wrong and blog posts don’t excuse it.

Also,  all of my blogs are personal – so it makes it about me and it shouldn’t be about me.

So why am I writing the blog post? I’m trying to figure my answer. It is probably so obvious to most of you. But sometimes privilege makes things easier. So you don’t need to work as hard. You don’t need to figure this stuff out till your 30. No one is asking you too. You can walk in and remain unchallenged. Sometimes privilege makes you stupid.

I am a Caucasian heterosexual male or a male heterosexual Caucasian or a heterosexual Caucasian male or whatever order you so please. The reason this works is that the words are both adjectives and nouns. They are simultaneously descriptions and a name for people who may fit within that description. They transcend merely the physical description and become labels that carry their own cultural and societal associations.

The associations are presumptive. Most of our most progressive cultural movements today are about breaking down these associations. My adult hood has been filled with books, theatre shows, films and conversations with friends showing how fluid identity can be when measured on any of these spectrums, race, gender or sexuality. However, the labels still stand and can be hugely useful in our society. How else can we prove a gender pay gap than by listing employees and employers by their gender and job position then measuring that against their salary? We see the colour of the skin when we look at our houses of parliament and notice that pinky white hues still dominate disproportionately to the population?  We seek labels to form part of our identity. I know that when I have been ill in the past, weight has been lifted of my shoulders when a doctor names the condition. Naming things is important, it groups our thoughts. Helps order them.

We should have people in all positions from all backgrounds, diversity broadens the depth of experience. It creates healthier environments, it means in your business broadens horizons and therefore can see more opportunity.  You aren’t hiring a spokesperson for a race, gender, disability or sexuality – but you are hiring their own individual life experience and perspectives. You want as broad and as interesting a palette as possible.

So when it says ‘welcomes people from a diverse background’ you aren’t excluded. Find what makes you unique and if you can’t then don’t blame the diversity in you company. Blame the lack of it. It’s not the black lesbian woman that is stopping you it’s all the white heterosexual males that are already there.

‘That’s what I should have said. That’s what I didn’t say. I hope I have strength next time to say it…at least I now have an argument. 

Difficult by Default 2. Dangerous by Default

I made a promise to myself I wouldn’t write this blog until I could complete the story but there has been so much frustration built up over the last few weeks that I need to share it before I end up dying from helpline exhaustion.

So, when I left of on my last blog I was already pretty annoyed but hopeful that an hour-long meeting at the job centre could sort it out.  An hour speaking to an expert who can help me through this labyrinth of bureaucracy. Someone who deals with the system every day and knows the ins and outs can help me with what I thought would be a fairly simple task, apply for and receive statutory sick pay for the period I have been signed off for. As you may have predicted my hope was very misplaced.

I asked my dad to join me for the meeting. I was anxious that I might get frustrated with the process and thought it was best I had support there as I was informed in the last meeting that the task ahead would be gruelling. So once again me and Dad head up to the G4S security guard at the door and give our names. Once again there seems to be no record of us on their numerous lists but after showing our email notification of a meeting we are allowed in and sent upstairs.

There we are greeted by William. William is an affable fellow who will be leading us through the process. We begin working through my Universal Credit claim. Standard questions. Showing various documents including bank statements and passports. William clicking through in response to my answers.  Then it comes onto my work. As usual, freelance is not a box that sits happily in these systems, so I am required to list every payment I have received over the previous two years.  This involves me going through every invoice I have given. UC doesn’t work in tandem with HMRC and won’t go by financial years like myself assessments.  I need to work through various spreadsheets to ensure that they have a record of every payment. With each payment I need to list what the job was, when it occurred and who engaged me with this work. As you can imagine this is something like 40+ projects I need to list out. I’m lucky I’ve come prepared.

My dad is perhaps dealing less well with the absurdities of the system. ‘Is this system not much harder for you guys?’ my dad asks affable William. He guffaws. ‘No, no, no I love it.’ He replies genuinely. ‘I put it all into the system and it works it all through, calculations and everything. In the old system I had to do much more work.’  I am taken aback. Confused by someone having job satisfaction in just inputting data. My dad continues to explain, ‘you know it seems like a lot of work for someone who is looking for their sick pay. When I was working it was just paid by my employer, I suppose it’s the same with you too. You don’t need to worry about it or so many hours of forms.’

‘I hadn’t really thought of it as statutory sick pay before, replies affable William. He then goes on to explain how when the system came in they weren’t trained in all the aspects of it and he doesn’t know the background of things and how interesting it is to think of sick pay and he might look into that. Alarm bells ring in my head. This is not an expert. It is a man clicking buttons in response to my answers. He is literally a middle man between me and a computer screen. He functions to nod his head at my passport and then as a giant index finger on a mouse. What does he mean he has never thought about Statutory Sick pay? That is what I have always asked to be looking for. A creeping sense of dread comes over me. This has been a huge amount of bureaucracy, such a giant amount of form filling. I have paid my NI contributions, why do they need to know about my income? 

Oh my god, the feeling tingles over me. It honestly makes my hairs stand on end. I am in the wrong system. At the start of this process. I have been put down the wrong rabbit hole. This man isn’t an expert, so he is not going to identify that I am not here for his particular set of click button answers. We leave the meeting; the UC claim is complete. Emma just needs to fill in another box or too and I can claim apparently. But already I am thinking, what the hell am I allowed to claim here exactly?

As an aside, I begin to think, this is not at all what I imagine a job centre to be like. I have read the horror stories in newspapers and I expect a faceless bureaucracy. But not this. I expect a job centre to be a place for guidance also. A place where you can go to look for work and be helped and supported in this process. It is not that at all. It is a giant form filling machine. You are just a hole to be punched in a punch card. No wonder people get trapped in these systems. There is no help out they only offer warrens of bureaucracy to burrow down with the promise of a bit of cash at the end of it maybe 5 weeks down the line. It is such a self-defeating system.

Anyway, I get home. As you can imagine as someone suffering from anxiety with depression the realisation that literally hours upon hours of work has been a waste of time sets me back a lot.  I phone a Universal Credit helpline. A very helpful lady named Nicola listens to my situation and decides that I am right. When I first phoned the ESA helpline they advised me that I was in a universal credit area and would need to deal with them. Universal Credit then, not listen or perhaps understanding my specific claim for statutory sick pay advised me to begin filling out a universal credit claim online. But what should have happened, what could have stopped this whole debacle. I should have been informed that I am actually eligible for a ‘New Style’ ESA claim. These are for people in Universal Credit areas whose claims where previously covered by ESA but not by the replacement service of Unversal Credit. Nicola speaks to my case manager, Shahzeb (I have a case manager?? It would have been good to know that) who will look into it.

Shahzeb and me enter into dialogue on my Universal Credit claim page via the journal. Its like  a messenger service for my claim. There are 73 entries in this journal, most with tasks me and Emma had to complete. But my journey with the journal is coming to an end…hallelujah. Now Shahzeb emails me 4 forms. 2 of which I have to fill out. 2 of which are the proofs of ID I need to bring along to my ‘new style’ ESA meeting at the job centre.

That is right one more meeting. I fill in a 8 page 53 question form that is so poorly formatted the text of the questions and the tick boxes don’t align.  Questions repeat themselves. It’s like a Kafkaesque puzzle to decipher what they are actually asking at points. I look out every form of ID I can find, and I wait for my meeting. This time it better work.

So along me and Dad go. Affable William is waiting. Here we go again. He takes my forms. He looks confused. He laughs at his confusion. Not realising his body signals make me fill with dread each time. What has gone wrong now?  He photocopies some documents. That is it all complete. I’ve not even been asked a question. I could have emailed these forms and bypassed the meeting. The process has taken so long, that I am now back at work, So I’m taking time off for this meeting.

Ahh well. Hopefully that’s it sorted.

One week later, I check my Universal Credit page and see my claim is closed and I can no longer ask questions etc without starting a new claim. But no one has told me when my payment might be due. My sick period is over, but I have no sick pay (which I remind you I pay my national ‘insurance’ for this very reason). I decide it might be best to phone and find out what is happening.

That was this morning.  So today I have listened to hold music over my phone for about 50 mins, a culmination of 4 phone calls.  You see I looked on the Gov.uk page on ‘new style’ ESA, it advises me to phone Universal Credit. They apologise, website must be wrong.  My claim is closed. I need to phone the ESA helpline. ESA say they have no record of me and that there is two ESA’s. There are part and full ESA’s and I’ve been put through to the wrong one, they will transfer me.  Beep Beep and I’m back in the Universal Credit helpline.  I speak to them. I am mildly frustrated. They explain that they can’t help the only thing Universal Credit does for ESA is send out the applications and arrange the appointments. I am given a whole new number. A different number to call. I call it. It transfers me to the ESA helpline I have already been on. They have no record of me, perhaps they can transfer me through to Universal Credit who can help. MY DEAR GOD. I sigh and say, ‘its fine.’ Im worried now that all of this will be for absolutely nothing and I will find out I should have applied for a ‘new style part 2 universal support claim’ or something.

I am so lucky to have a loving family support me. My health has not been great. I can’t imagine how people suffering depression can go through this system without support. I can’t imagine how people with more sever or longer-term conditions can survive this. It is a test of resilience that I am so close to failing. It’s genuinely painful. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel like you are begging for something, as a citizen you are entitled too.  I am exhausted by this process and it is now affecting my mental health and my work.  It’s inhibiting my step back to work not aiding it.

I’ve emailed Shahzeb, I’m praying he might be able to answer me with something more than ‘your universal credit claim is closed.’ 

Balancing Acts

These are my own personal reflections on the RFO news from Creative Scotland. Forgive me as I try to put my thoughts in order.

For many artists in Scotland, yesterday was a hard day. In April, artistic companies throughout Scotland had submitted detailed business plans and application forms to be considered for 3 years of sustained funding provided from Creative Scotland. Creative Scotland is a publically funded organisation with the primary focus of promoting and funding arts in Scotland.

The funding is the lifeblood for many organisations and it has been a long drawn out process to get to this announcement of funding. As government budgets were moved to the autumn this affected Creative Scotland budgets and pushed decisions into December and then into January.

If you are funded, you are placed in Creative Scotland’s Regular Funding Portfolio of organisations. Therefore, funding doesn’t just come down to the quality and provision it provides, the portfolio needs to balance. Balance is a tricky thing when there are many weights on the scale. How does the portfolio address people throughout the geographic spread of Scotland, meet different demands for differing artforms, balance the access across a socio-economic spectrum and ensure there is an equality and diversity provided?

This is of course not an easy task and I’m sure the decision to award funding when demand outstrips the resources available makes the process much tougher. However, it is a primary function of Creative Scotland. It receives public subsidy to do this.

Today, I can only reflect and say I believe they have got the balance severely wrong. This is in no way a criticism of those who received funding and who will serve Scotland in the future years as cultural and artistic beacons. But the whole task is about achieving a balance, with so many great companies out there and a plethora of companies that could have been funded but didn’t then the whole task it seems to me seems to me to be picking from a spoil of riches. It isn’t about finding companies good enough – the task is ensuring t there is a balance.

When you cut the two funded children’s theatre companies – you deprive almost 20% of the Scottish population of theatre that is made specifically for them.  It could be argued, that other companies could pick this up. The producing theatres do shows for families every Christmas and there are great companies in the portfolio that can and do make work for children bit this is missing the point. The point of children’s theatre companies is to ensure that children have access to high quality theatre that they can enjoy and be enriched by all year round.  The point of having dedicated companies is that they lead the way and inspire us, all of us who make work for children to see the standard of work that can and should be made. They make top quality work and make the whole sector better.

Catherine Wheels has personally inspired me, and I can hand on heart say all of my peers, to up our games and strive to make top quality work. The company is a true beacon that inspires me to create better work, be a more responsible artist and ignites a passion in me for being an artist. If you hack this away, what is there for young artists to inspire to? Grow, be successful, then be damned by that very success.

And then there is Birds of Paradise and Lung Ha’s both incredible companies again making top class work.

This is not a balance. It just isn’t. You need leaders in the field. Trailblazers, specialists. If you create a portfolio that doesn’t pull and stretch in every direction. You don’t get balance. We need children’s theatre companies making every children’s theatre show better and disabled led theatre companies making every theatre up its game on inclusion an diversities.

Alongside this these companies don’t just create their own great shows. They foster the whole sector. Numerous artists have been supported and encouraged in practical, meaningful ways. They have supported people because with the support and sustained funding they once received they were generous, as leaders in their field should be.

Creative Scotland have spoken about the forthcoming strategic fund for creating and touring work that they hope might fill this gap. But these people were already creating and touring work. What they provided alongside this was infrastructure. That is what you are funding at its core, artistic infrastructure.

It is telling that in this year, our National Theatre of Scotland is working with Birds of Paradise and Catherine Wheels on two separate co-productions.  This is another publically funded body who is looking to promote and celebrate the greatest makers in our nation working with two companies another body has decided don’t merit sustained attention.  This alone can be seen as a damning indictment of some very short-sighted decisions.  

But decisions have to be made and sometimes people can get it wrong. That’s ok. Because if we are strong enough and brave enough we can hold up our hands to a mistake and change it. Creative Scotland please consider this. 

Difficult by Default

The facts are simple enough to understand. I am trying to claim statutory sick pay. I am self-employed and have paid up on all my National Insurance Contributions. I have been signed off for a period which has meant me missing work obligations and therefore pay. In order to do this as a self-employed person in my area I need to enrol for universal credit.

This is where it all starts to get tricky. Universal Credit is a system of welfare that looked to simplify pay-outs for claimants in whichever system. It has been roundly criticised and attacked as a bureaucratic nightmare that manages to disenfranchise the claimant and keep lengthy distances between claim and first pay-out.  The system is digital by default which is a premise that while online registration should not be the only way to access the system, it is greatly encouraged and should help simplify the process.

I am in no way an expert in the intricacies of our welfare system but I wanted to communicate my experience with universal credit so far.

Firstly, it began with a cursory online search – how does a self-employed person claim SSP? I didn’t know.  This took me to gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay where I could find no information for self-employed workers. Annoying but understandable, that is a particular niche. Further googling took me to Employment and Support Allowance. The Gov.Uk webpage leads me to believe this is how I access SSP. I give them a call. After going through some standard procedures, I give my postcode, I am informed that I am in an area where universal credit is rolled out and I need to apply for that.

Great. I am getting somewhere. It needs to be done online. That’s fine for me – I have a laptop. I was on it at that very moment.  I type in the address and begin my process as a Universal Credit Claimant.

The process, as expected is arduous.  Scroll down boxes and forms galore. I make my way through all this. There is a handy tick box page keeping you updated on what you still need to do. It informs me, as I am married, my wife also needs to register as a claimant. Odd, she has also been signed off at the moment as she supports me through a difficult illness.  But she is an employee of the NHs so her SSP and any additional payments while signed off come out of her payslip and is dealt with by the NHS. She doesn’t need to claim. But it won’t let me progress without her.

This stalls things for a bit. My wife needs to fill out her own details.  This proves troublesome as her last payslip was from before she was signed off and we don’t want to fill out anything incorrectly.

This has already been a good couple of hours of form filling and I am already frustrated by it. It certainly isn’t the easiest task to complete when suffering from depression. We decide to put it on pause. It allows me to tackle the application when I am calmer and allows us to wait for the NHS payslip.

It finally arrives and we complete my wife’s ‘claim’.  Great. Next Steps. Forward we go. I look on my tick list. I have to verify my identity. OK.  I give them my home address history, passport information, driver’s licence and two bank card details. The result comes back. Not enough information to proceed. I am unsure what else I can provide them. But they have a solution at hand all I need to do is verify my identity with any one of their approved identity verifiers.  Just download the app and off you go – there seems to be no other simple way around this.

I click on the post office. It is the only one I have heard of so the only one I remotely want to share this info with.  Laptop open screen on the application page and now phone out and app downloaded. I begin to think of my mother. She is in no way computer illiterate and had to work with computers a lot before. But this is beginning to get complicated and taxing. Downloading apps. She would be struggling by now. She is not retirement age so it is perfectly feasible she could be applying for this. I also begin to think that with libraries being closed across the UK, access to the internet in free and welcoming spaces is limited.

But I am privileged to have access and capability so on I plough. The post office app requires me to scan in my passport and then to take a photo. The photo taking task can only be described as a comedic escapade. It has an outlined head. You have to fit your head to it. So, you move the phone back and forward trying to get it just right for the most official selfie you have undertaken. Snap 1. Now it informs you turn your head to the side. It wants a police style mug shot. You do this. You wait. Nothing happens. IT appear not to take but you can’t see the phone your head has turned to the side. You turn back and it takes. A blurry image of your face turning. You reject this one and start the whole process again. You repeat this a few times. You begin to try and figure the system out. Is it a timer. Do you have to wait for a long timer? Nope. Does it register the movement of the turn of the head? You begin trying to forcibly and deliberately move the head to register. Do you need to move your head then press the phone? No joy, no joy no joy. I get my partner to look as I take the selfies see if she can figure out what is happening. I give up. They get one picture of me facing the camera with stern passport face and one blur of me turning in bewilderment trying to figure out the annoying system.  It seems to be accepted. Thank God!

So now I am verified. Great. Next up. Now I need to phone for an interview. I phone. I press the correct numbers to the answers on my dial pad. I am informed via electronic voice I have an interview at 10.20am on Monday in Kirkcaldy Job Centre.  No possibility of negotiation or consideration for my diary. I am signed off but I have a number of doctors and psychiatric appointments.   I don’t live in Kirkcaldy but it is my nearest branch. The appointment clashes with a doctor’s appointment for my wife. So, our car is taken. I look at public transport but it proves possible but quite tricky for the time frames and I am very anxious. I know that job centres can look very unfavourably on late or missed appointments. As a 30-year-old man I have to phone my parents. Ask If I can get a lift.

Final few steps before the interview. Add my C.V.  I’m not looking for a job. I have a job. One I love. One I am lucky enough to be going back to and that I can make a living at. But I upload my C.V and write down 4 skills I have and 4 jobs I could do. I fill in the faceless impersonal forms and feel as if I’m lost in a spiral of bureaucracy. I write about my work situation in the comment boxes. I just want statutory sick pay.  don’t think anyone will notice. I’m now wondering if this is a colossal waste of time.

Oh wait, just when I thought we had gotten over all the hurdles before meeting someone. Now my wife is asked, please download an app. Pleas scan in a passport and a photo. She doesn’t even want to claim. She submits a face and a blur also.  Arrgh.

Have we made a mistake? Have I ticked a wrong box that has put us down this path? I check. I double check.  We haven’t.

I wonder if I even need sick pay. I wonder if National Insurance is now one giant insurance racket

It is now Sunday; my appointment is tomorrow. I wonder where this adventure might lead next. I am not excited to find out

Artists and Marketing

Here is a story I heard. I am unsure if it is true but I choose to believe it. My favourite playwright, Edward Albee is being interviewed. The journalist is writing a preview for his new play ‘The Goat’ or ‘Who Is Sylvia.’   The journalist asks can you describe the play in 10 words or less. Albee’s reply is quick and taut, ‘If I could do that, I wouldn’t have written the damn thing.’

I like this anecdote for so many reasons.  It perfectly sums up my own responses to trying to contain a piece or sum it up. For a good work of art, an intricate creation, this is an impossible task and one I’m not envious of others for trying.

This is my understanding of marketing. A difficult and slippery job. How do you sum up a show and all the myriad of reasons to see it? Can you take the spectrum of a play and master it in one brush stroke? How do you entice an audience to the work in one image, a blurb or a tweet?

I don’t know if there is a theatre maker in the country who hasn’t once looked at some piece of marketing and thought, ‘this is rubbish, I could do a better job.’ I know I have. But reflecting now. I’m sure I couldn’t.

Artists are completest. They don’t go into an art gallery look at the postcards for sale and say, ‘I get the picture.’  Yet this is what we ask of our marketeers. They get a show title, maybe a script. If they are lucky some ongoing dialogue with the busy director and even on rare occasions the designer. But until the show is made, all the decisions haven’t been taken. The canvas is still only a flat sketch. This is what marketing departments have to go on.

Alongside this, we put our marketing departments in uniquely difficult positions. Theatre marketing is the servant of two masters. The artist and the public. Other products bend to public perception, to deliver what the public wants to see. An artist’s job is to jostle, challenge and provoke trough entertainment. An artist will not always bend the knee to the will of the people.

Even writing that last paragraph makes me realise another layer of difficulty. So now we have a marketing department asked to sum up a piece of art while it’s still in an embryonic form while conveying it pleasingly and excitedly to the public. As if the will of the people is one universal voice. ‘Yes, we like blue’ it all says at once. As if it isn’t a whole spectrum of personalities and quirks and tastes. You can only please some of the people some of the time and under these circumstances that moment of pleasure at an image, a blurb or a tweet is a minor miracle.

So, I will try to take a pause the next time I bemoan the size of a marketing department and the easiness of their job. Still, a rubbish image is still a rubbish image. But under the circumstances, could I really do any better?  

Imagery found online from 5pound theatre production of 'The Goat.'

The Show Must Go On

‘The show must go on’ that’s the old stalwart phrase. It’s like a theatrical version of the old stiff upper lip or ‘Keep calm and…’ motifs. It speaks of something noble and virtuous. The chips are down but, by god, we keep on going. It’s admirable. We’ve all heard stories of actors muddling through. In the face of sickness or injury and ensuring the audience get what it came for. After all that is what we offer. Bodies in space. If the bodies aren’t there, there isn’t a show. So, it is essential that we band together and hold the spirit of ‘never say die’ close to our hearts.

But sometimes, we should be aware. Sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Or at least the version which you wanted. I have been very lucky, in my last two projects I have worked as a puppetry director and as more of a dramaturg. Important but not necessarily vital elements. Which has meant the show has gone on. But If I was a performer or a director on any project at this time, life would have been much different.

Officially, I have been signed off work until the 21st of January. I have been suffering from Anxiety with depression. This has meant more than a few nights in hospital and a terribly scary time for my family. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to revisit the details. But during this time, I was trying and failing to ensure that I fulfilled my roles to the two productions I was working on. The pressure of failing weighed heavily on me and fed into me ending up in hospital time after time.

I have received support, love and care from both Tortoise in a Nutshell and The Lyceum teams.  During a time when our industry is rightfully doing some much needed soul searching and questioning its moral and ethics, I have found it comforting to know that my needs have been so well supported when I really feared they may not be. Both also, it must be said supported me financially even when I failed to meet contractual requirements. This was hugely encouraging and only know as I’m officially signed off do I realise how important this was.

Currently, I am undertaking the herculean bureaucratic effort of applying as a freelancer to the new universal credit system as the only way to access any form of statutory sick pay for self-employed people in my area. It is not, for this blog, but It is one of the most stressful things about being signed off. I am so glad that when I was at my lowest point neither of the theatre shows looked to pay me less as this would have been devastating for me mentally.

So, what was the cause of this pressure? I wasn’t essential. Both shows were being made both with and without my presence at various times. Progressing with my input well but managing just fine without. The people surrounding me who were in the know were taking care of me. So, the only thing I can say about the pressure was I think it was built in my head. I am an artist. I must create the art. As a theatre maker, the show is the thing. That’s what we do. We carry on. We artists, make work to be shown. It’s like a weird artist machismo. We must bleed for our work. Do everything we can to realise our creative ideas.  Cry out to the world all our feelings of laughter or sadness, through our work.  This pressure is all in my head and it is utterly useless in making my work. I have an image like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man of the perfect artist. They are there with their oeuvre and their tale of suffering for each one, here I was impoverished, here I was persecuted, here, how I portrayed my mental anguish. Holding up idols of artists, somehow thinking their ability to create in face of their repressions is what makes them great. The brightly burning, quickly diminished candles. The pure, fragile objects reflecting the world as it tears at them. Even as I type this, I find myself leaning to this model but we should fight this. Artists are not Prometheans with flames. They are humans. They identify with the common humanity. They reflect tribulations that a human can find themselves in. They are no set apart. And that means like all humans, its ok for things to get on top of them. To take a pause and take a breath.

The show must not be the be all and end all. After all the arts is about human interaction and it is so important that we keep the people at the centre of it. Cancelled or altered shows may mean bad box office and disgruntled audiences. But I need to learn that there will be another chance, another time for art. If all art is abandoned then make sure to abandon it at the right time. Abandon it before it starts taking your health with you. Abandon it, abandon the whole craft and know it will be there to pick up when you come back.

‘The show must go on,’ is foolish posturing.  To hell with the show. There will another show, the artists must go on and sometimes that mean the artists must allow themselves to stop.