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.

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.