We've all been to a show and thought to ourselves. "Good lord. What a load of self-indulgent twaddle. Someone needs to take a chainsaw to that script."
Self Indulgence is often thought of as a terrible thing, and surely that is very true. It often refers to a scene or a song which reveals that a writer is trying a bit too hard. It’s a show off, it patronises it’s audience and it outstays it’s welcome.
But I’d like to make a case for the importance of self-indulgence in the life and craft of a writer. I would like to propose that there are (at least) three areas of your work where you can't over indulge... indeed it's almost essential to improvement in the craft of writing and I’m going to talk about them all over myself right on my very important and indulgent blog.
Being a professional writer means dedicating yourself to it. It doesn’t mean starving yourself, or going on a bender to get “life experience”, it doesn’t mean driving yourself or those around you mad with insane habits, it doesn’t mean indulging in childish or prickish behaviour. You don’t have to be a dick to be good. The two things are completely unrelated to one another. If it so happens that there have been amazing writers who were also amazing knob ends, that’s by the by. The one does not preclude the other. In fact in many ways, we would probably find that the amazing knob ends became amazing writers in spite of (not because of) their total prickishness.
What I mean by dedication is spending time learning about your craft, which basically means DOING it. Even if this is just ten minutes a day that still counts as dedication. I think dedication is demonstrated more by consistency and regularity than by quantity. It is possible to work full time in an unrelated field and still be dedicated to the art of writing, you still get to call yourself a writer as long as you can demonstrate consistent dedication to the art of writing. So indulge in the art of writing, be dedicated to it, that can only be a good thing.
To write a real character you have to practise the art of empathy. People may disagree with me that empathy is something that you can practice, and I completely empathise with their disagreement. I think of empathy as basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes for a time, trying to see and feel all the things they might be feeling in a particular moment so that you can better understand their emotional situation and (if needs be) help them through it.
I think it’s true that some people have a natural empathic inclination and that others have less natural ability, but I also think that (no matter where on the empathy scale you fall) if you want to be a writer, then you would do well to practise empathy whenever you can. Essentially, a writer needs to empathise with every single one of their characters. Especially when their characters have a personal history/views/opinions that are completely alien to that of the writer. The ability to step inside another persons heart and mind is the most important tool of the writer and is probably the least taught.
Personally, I think the teaching of it is fairly simple. In that all you have to do is practice. To do it regularly until it becomes a habit. The best thing about empathy is that it’s one of those things that you can literally practise ALL the time. It doesn’t take time away from your other chores or passions, indeed you can even do it whilst on a date with your significant other and they need ever know your secret… the practice of empathy involves using your imagination to a large degree. Whenever you see someone in a particular emotional state, try and spend some time imagining yourself in their position.
One thing’s for sure, it is empathy which gives us perspective. It shows us how our characters see the world, it teaches us how they interact with it. As a writer you can never be too empathetic. You’ll probably find that it improves other aspects of your life as well.
To make our lives a little easier we surround ourselves with the familiar. We have friends who share our basic values and beliefs, we live in places that feel like home and we surround ourselves with things we know and understand. But it’s only when our values and beliefs are challenged that we really start to think about why we have them in the first place. Why are the things that are important to us actually important to us? Is it because they were important to our parents? Is it because it’s what our society says is right?
For me, a value or belief is absolutely meaningless unless it is questioned. If it is worthwhile it will be able to withstand the rigours of interrogation, if it is not, it will fall by the wayside where it belongs.
And there is nothing, absolutely nothing like travel to test your preconceptions and assumptions about the way the world should be. When we travel, we have the opportunity to practice cultural empathy on an epic scale. We have the opportunity to meet people who believe in something completely different to us, something completely alien.
When our fundamental beliefs and core values are questioned we often feel like we are under personal attack and we put up defences to keep ourselves safe. But the walls that we erect are not keeping us safe from anything. Much like Mr-Donald-Fuck-Trump’s-Mexico-Will-Pay-For-It-Wall we are defending ourselves from an imaginary enemy. Our minds are fear-mongering.
But the questioning is not there to destroy you. It’s there to make you stronger. So travel, question, allow yourself to be questions. Indulge yourself in that.
The word ‘emerging’ is one that is full of hope and promise, full of potential and expectation for the future. It implies that one is leaving one state of being and entering another. When one thinks of ‘emerging’, one may be prone to think of the butterfly emerging from it’s cocoon, transformed from the earthbound caterpillar into a multi-hued winged beauty, ready to soar into the skies...
But I’m not sure if many of us are entirely aware of what exactly happens inside the cocoon in order for this miracle to occur…
Well, first the caterpillar digests itself. It literally eats itself alive. Pleasant experience? Well, I’m not a caterpillar so I can’t claim to know for sure, but apparently were you to cut open the cocoon at the right moment, then a tasty caterpillar soup would ooze out and fall onto your shoe. Nice.
Then, once the caterpillar has disintegrated all of it’s tissue, it uses the protein rich soup to fuel the advanced cell development required to form all the various parts of the butterfly… the wings, antennae, eyes, genitals, beer belly, the whole shebang.
In other words, a caterpillar basically destroys itself in order to become a butterfly.
So, why the shit am I talking about caterpillars and butterflies? I suspect you can all guess. It’s that word, that vague, nebulous word:
This word is often placed just in front of another fun, rather vague and nebulous word:
Thus the two words combine to create the increasingly vague and nebulous term:
Now, When one thinks of an ‘Emerging Artist’, there is I suppose, a not entirely unexpected notion that they will one day ‘emerge’ from the chrysalis of their training and burst forth onto the theatrical scene, their beautiful butterfly wings shimmering in the glow of the footlights.
However, there seems to be a problem...
The cocoon in which a person transforms into a theatrical artist in the UK doesn’t seem to contain all of the necessary protein-rich resources available to our dear friend the butterfly.
To become a writer (and I’m still working on it, believe me) you have to do what the caterpillar does. Yes. Basically, you have to eat yourself. In order to master anything you need to spend a huge amount of time actually doing it. And time is a limited resource. You have to eat, you have to sleep, you have to pay rent. And whilst your earning the money to do those things you also have to find the time, the inclination, the motivation and the energy to actually write. You live on friends couches, you shower in hostels, you drink Asda brand lager and you write. You do this for years. It ain’t no holiday but it’s all in the service of a hope that one day, the sacrifice will pay off and you will emerge from your cocoon as a fully formed, skilled writer, able to afford Heinz baked beans and Sainsbury’s Finest Brand Ginger Biscuits or even the occasional shopping trip to Waitrose.
This hope, assumes that the cocoon will provide the protein necessary to build your soupy dreams into something of a writers career, but unfortunately such resources, so abundant in nature are not so readily available to the theatrical wannabe in the UK.
In the UK theatrical world there are a number of schemes that are focussed upon ‘Emerging Artists.’ This is great, it’s really good that our industry wants to build new voices, there’s clearly an intention there, what’s a little disheartening is that while the industry wants to develop new voices it doesn’t seem to have any real idea of how to do that.
It’s not good enough to say to someone relatively new to the craft:
“Here, you look like you’re working pretty hard, you have some talent, have an opportunity.”
Great, you’ve been given an opportunity. That opportunity will develop you, it’ll help you grow as a writer, you’ll learn things you never even dreamed of, you might work with some great people and make some great connections. But that opportunity will come to an end. What do you do next?
Well you look for the next opportunity, the next award… only it seems that in having had the first opportunity it disqualifies you from having another one. Are you now considered to have emerged? Are you ready to fly boldly into the theatrical world, your wings unfurled, blinding all who see you with your unique and powerful artistic vision?
No, of course you bloody aren't. One opportunity does not make a writer. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to have close to 30 professional shows produced in the UK and internationally. I’m still considered to be a new, emerging artist, but many of the opportunities that are available to emerging artists are now closed to people like me. And I am by no means the exception to the rule. I have known writers who have been ‘emerging’ for over ten years.
Make no mistake... We are the rule.
There is a huge amount of luck, hard graft and good timing that goes into a writers career. You also have a responsibility to build an infrastructure for yourself (people and theatres and venues who will believe in you and produce your work).
But beyond this, I believe there should be an industry infrastructure that goes beyond single awards and opportunities, or even, two or three or ten. It’s simply no good to put a couple of stepping stones into a huge swamp and say:
“There you go, we’ve done our bit! Good luck me old mucker!!”
I accept that writers must do their part to help their own careers but if the industry doesn’t step up to put down a couple more stepping stones then our best writers are going to fall into the swamp. They’ll be overwhelmed by life’s financial responsibilities and the wonderful work they might have produced will be lost at the bottom of a bog.
Someone once asked a really smart CEO the following question:
INTERVIEWER: "What do you invest in? An idea or the person who had that idea."
CEO: "The person of course. They could have a million ideas just as good or better, especially if I give them the chance to think of them."
This is a serious question that needs to be asked of the gatekeepers of the theatrical industry in the UK both for the sake of the artists and for the artistic future of the industry.
Fortunately there are wonderful organisations that do incredible work specifically to support the writers of new musicals at every step in their careers such as Mercury Musical Developments, but there is only so much they can do to help. We really need the larger theatres, commercial theatres and national institutions to start following their lead and provide more investment for writers to support them as they build their careers. The future of the industry depends on it.
We need more resources in the cocoon so we can build more butterflies.
Wouldn't that make the world a more beautiful place?
So today, I'm very excited! Today you won't be hearing about Jasper Mountbatten III coke fuelled trip to Monte Carlo, you won't be hearing about Derek Bluebottom's bed sores or 1000 mile stare, you won't be hearing about the rage and violence boiling inside Colin Shitsmearer and you certainly won't be hearing a whisper out of Timothy...
Today I am hosting my very first GUEST BLOG!!! Sound the trumpets, bring out the monkeys, carry forth the golden elephants and bang your sausage filled bellies. Amy Draper (genre busting Director/Maker of These Trees Are Made of Blood and the RSC's Day of the Living) was bored so I suggested she write a blog.
I'll let Amy speak for herself, but needless to say, in her own Amy way she went about producing something that was completely NOT what I suggested and is ever the more wonderful for it. If I want my blog to be anything, I want it to be a place for humour, honesty and truth in an industry that is absolutely drenched in facade. Amy has done exactly that.
Just a little bit about Amy before you hear from her. Amy and I have known each other and worked together for about six years now. She hired me to write songs for a little show she was working on called These Trees Are Made of Blood. She is a unique, special, brilliant and honest collaborator. I have seen her at her highest and at her lowest. We have shared and solved more theatrical conundrums than I can remember. We have argued passionately and intensely about many a thing and we have laughed so much that the rehearsal room has been fit to burst with it. Today I get to count her as not only one of the finest new theatre makers in the UK but as one of my dear friends.
You can read all about Amy's credentials and her work here:
But enough of all that. Amy has written a blog and that's why you're all here so listen up. She's got some important shit to say:
Kintsugi (Or how not to write a blog about devising)
By Amy Draper
"There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
- Leonard Cohen
Hello. I’m a director and long-term collaborator of Darren’s. Together we have been through the highs, the lows, rehearsals, production politics, late night celebratory beers and early morning creative crisis meetings. He’s seen me at my buoyant, intuitive best mid-rehearsals, and my gloomiest, rejection-receiving lowest. I’ve seen him eat a lot of McDonalds (and, ya know, create
musical magic during a tea break). It’s been a journey. Our latest project was a gift of a project at the RSC. But right now you need to picture me sitting at home mid-week, about 7 weeks in to an unemployed stretch that, at current prediction, will last until the start of February. Darren suggested I write a guest blog for his website to help keep myself occupied. He suggested I write one about the devising process, a real passion we share. I thought about this for a week or so and then decided… not to. Which is a little presumptuous on a blog that isn’t even mine. But you’ve got to write about what’s getting you fired up, and, currently, what’s getting me out of bed is… the issue of not having anything to get out of bed for. Theatre at its beautiful best can bring people together, facilitate empathy through storytelling and therefore, I really believe, effect change. What I wanted to muse on is how we, as theatre makers, can not just survive, but thrive during the “off periods”, when creative connection is limited and often the greatest change you’re pondering is of the underwear variety. In fact, even the language I’ve been using doesn’t help. Off period. Unemployed. Not working. Between jobs.
Off. Un. Not. Between.
For the purpose of this blog I’m not going to talk about money or day jobs (as covered by Darren). Money worries are obviously a thing, but I want to talk about wellbeing. Like many of us, I struggle in these times. It’s not that I can’t think of lots of things to do – emails, coffee meetings, reading or research (not to mention “fun life stuff”, which is equally if not more important) – but somehow, as the days trickle by and your inbox remains empty, it’s not enough. Directing is, fundamentally, a
team sport. It’s a collaboration and there’s only so long I can collaborate with myself, in my pyjamas at 2pm. When people ask, “so what are you working on?”, I stammer. I could, legitimately, tell them in glorious detail all about the projects that are maybes. The sparks, the ideas. But instead, I just kind of go “um…”
Off. Un. Not. Between.
Negative space. This is not healthy. In fact, even for a high-profile-super-woman-director who had upcoming productions all the time, I’d say 4-5 a year is the maximum possible. Which means that even then you’d only be in a rehearsal room for about half the year. Which leaves a heck of a lot of this troubling negative space. What I lack during these times is connection. I mean the kind of creative empathy that comes when rehearsing exciting work in a room full of artists, experts in their respective fields. The kind of
empathy that makes me a bit softer, a bit kinder and a bit more open to other people and their experiences. In the negative space I simultaneously become a bit woolly and also harder edged. Less patient, more self-centred, less empathetic. Which I think is a problem, not only for my work but for how I interact with people close to me and react to the world at large. See there I go, “me, me, me”. Of course, by “I” I really mean “we”. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that every freelancer knows this place.
This blog could also potentially have been about useful activities and coping mechanisms for the lower moments. Fresh air, exercise, reading, seeing friends. These are all as obvious as they are important.
So, this is where I’ve got to instead.
In Japan there is an artform called Kintsugi, which is when broken pottery is mended using precious metal. The cracks suddenly gleam gold or silver. The pieces are reconnected, and the break becomes the most beautiful thing. Traditionally this is seen as a poetic comment on embracing your unique imperfections. But I wonder whether it could also be applied to perceived imperfections of work schedule – time that feels empty.
Could we try to reimagine these seams of time as golden rather than grey? As vital, positive space that is full of possibility – personally and professionally – to grow a little. Above, I described the RSC job as a gift. Is it possible to see the spaces between in the same way? After all, what could be more valuable than the gift of time. What will you do with yours?
END OF BLOG
Thanks for that Amy, you're a blooming legend for sharing your experience of a difficult and little talked about aspect of the career of the freelance theatremaker. You can read all about Amy's credentials and her work here:
Also, producers and venues reading this. As wonderful as it is, let's fill some of that downtime huh? Check her out. She's fricking awesome.
At JFK airport waiting for my flight home and thought I would wrap up this American adventure with a quick blog about my experiences over the last few days. If I’m perfectly honest, my brain is practically empty but let’s see what it can manage.
The Festival began on Thursday, taking place over two full days during which the eight selected musicals were shown twice each. Each was cut down to forty five minutes and the cut had been approved by NAMT prior to casting. Most writers chose to do the same thing which was basically an abridged act one that would leave audiences wanting more, whilst giving a flavour of the storytelling, characters and style of the piece. I was lucky enough to catch all of the other performances except for Rob Rockiki’s Monstersongs because it was on at the same time as The Wicker Husband (fortunately it’s being performed at The Other Palace in London next week, so we’ll get to see it anyway. Also quick plug for Rob, please go, he’s just the loveliest man and such a talent).
It is always with mixed emotions that I see another writers work, especially when you are part of the same festival and all vying for the attention of a huge number of producers, venues and other industry folk who can potentially help you. There is a part of you that hopes that your piece gets as strong a response as others. It’s often harder (at first) to just sit back and enjoy the incredible work that is being shown to you, because there’s a part of you sitting in judgement. Fortunately the feeling of judgement quickly goes away when presented with work as varied and exciting as was on display at NAMT. The shows were all so markedly different that it was impossible to compare them really. Some were thrilling and bombastic, others were nuanced and delicate, some were otherworldly, some were very much based on real life.
It was utterly inspiring to see work of such high quality here, it made me want to work harder and be better but also made me feel very proud of the fact that The Wicker Husband was here and was part of it and that so many people were responding to the work in such a wonderful way.
I’ll tell you a little about how it worked… Rhys and I would go on stage at the start of our presentation and do a short ninety second introduction to the piece, then we would rush out into the audience to watch the piece from the stalls. Bearing in mind this is the first time I have stepped away from The Wicker Husband as a writer (I’ve always been playing guitar or doing something…) so that was a scary experience too. We'd then watch our incredible cast and band bring the whole thing to life. As soon as the showing had finished, whilst audience were still applauding Rhys and I had to rush out of the theatre and stand next to a small table out in the foyer which was full of information about our show including drop cards with our newly minted demos downloadable on them. There were email sign ups for people to write their details if they were interested in the show. After the first performance I was terrified as we waited by the table for the audience to start coming out. What if no one was interested? What if no one wanted to speak to us? We had been assured by NAMT staff that this would not be the case and as ever they were completely right. It was quite intense as people from all across the industry from Broadway and West End producers to University performing arts faculties lined up to shake our hands and talk to us, some hugged us and thanked us for the show, everyone wanted to know what happened in Act 2 and after about 20 minutes of spinning around, shaking hands, taking business cards and smiling most of the information on our table had disappeared. Ciera (The New Works Director at NAMT) came by after the crowd had disappeared and asked us to put any business cards we had received in a bag that she provided.
Needless to say, it was all pretty overwhelming, and ours was certainly not a unique experience as we could see after the other shows that there was plenty of enthusiasm for all the writers and their shows. It felt almost uniquely American, they wear their enthusiasm right out on their sleeve and are completely unashamed to tell you that they love your work. As a Kiwi and a Brit, I can certainly say that it was one of the most intense experiences of my career and I went to have lunch utterly exhausted.
From what I understand, Rhys was continually being stopped by people throughout the festival to tell him how much they had enjoyed the piece, my experience was somewhat different. I find such situations rather difficult, I tend to avoid eye contact and I suspect that I tend to put on a face which says “Please don’t talk to me.” It’s funny, I think I’m a natural extrovert but am not great at accepting praise and am not particularly good in huge groups of people. Large groups of 15-20, yes. Any more than that and I tend to hide away and get nervous. This is one of the things that I know I really need to work on, and I think I got better as the festival progressed and as suspected many people came up to me as well during the final party. Rhys couldn’t walk for more than a few meters without someone stopping him.
The second day was much of the same with similar enthusiasm for the piece together with a writers panel at the end of the day.
Then we were whisked away to a party, then an after party and then Rhys and I stayed out until 4am sitting in a small irish pub drinking and talking about the whole experience.
And now it’s all done. What happens next, who knows? NAMT will collate all the responses to the piece and let us know if people are interested and they will get back to us in the next couple of weeks. The whole event was just so immaculately organised by Ciera and the team at NAMT and we can’t thank them enough for having involved us in this years festival. Also a huge thanks to the British invasion that showed their support for us at the festival including Victoria Saxton, Andy Barnes, James Hadley, James Dacre, Lettie Graham, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Andy Chan, Stephen Greenhalgh, Mark Shenton, Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour. I’m sure there are other people that I’ve missed out, I hope they will forgive my completely dead brain if so.
That’s it fellows, I’m just about to board my plane and I’m looking forward to coming back to my lovely London and seeing you all soon. Maybe at Fanatical (the new musical by Matt Board opening very soon!). A massive thank you to our wonderful USA Wicker Family who brought the piece to life so wonderfully. Love you guys and couldn't have done it without you.
Tonight I am feeling all sorts of emotions.
Thus far only a few of your will know why. Regardless, it has prompted me to write a post whilst slightly inebriated. I hope you will forgive me for any in-articulence. To get you up to speed, a few weeks ago the president of the Fred Ebb Foundation (fellow who, with his mate John Kander wrote musicals such as Cabaret, Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys) called me whilst I was working at Trinity Laban. He told me that I was one of seven finalists for The Fred Ebb Musical Theatre Award (one of the most prestigious musical theatre awards in the world). He told me that my work was now being passed onto the finalists panel and I would find out by the end of the month about the result.
Now, the thing about this award is that it’s worth $60,000. The money is given to you to do with as you please. There are no conditions attached. It’s simply an award that recognises your potential as a writer and gives you some money to help you realise that potential.
I know that many of us writers live right on the breadline. Sometimes we wonder how the hell we are going to pay the rent for the next month. I know I certainly do. It’s not a comfortable existence. But shit man, if you want a comfortable existence you should be looking elsewhere. Anyway, when the opportunity for an award like this comes along you start to imagine another life, a life where the idea of security, children and family might be possible alongside your dream of writing musicals for a living. It’s literally a potentially life changing amount of money. And as much as you tell yourself that you aren’t going to win it, that you are only one of seven equally deserving finalists there is a tiny little sliver of hope, a little light shining there in the dark that can’t be dampened, the idea that maybe, just maybe all the things you have hoped and dreamed of might actually be possible. They might be literally waiting around the corner… “Could be… who knows…”
So it’s utterly crushing when you find out that you didn’t get it.
Isn’t it interesting that when someone wants to give you good news they call you on the phone, but when they have to give you bad news they send you an email.
This evening I was with Rhys and his lovely husband Josh when I received the news that I hadn’t won the award. I was glad not to be alone. I told them both immediately.
I think this is an important step.
Don’t get me wrong, I am the grateful recipient of a bunch of musical theatre awards which have been life changing and incredible and I will remain endlessly grateful for them to the end of my days. But you may not know that I have also (along with plenty of others) come pretty close to a bunch of awards that I did not get. Amongst them:
2 x finaliist for The Cameron Mackintosh Composer in Residence Award
1 x shortlist the Cameron Mackintosh Composer in Residence Award
1 x finalist for the Kevin Spacey Musical Theatre Award
1 x finalist for the Old Vic 12
1 x shortlist for the Old Vic 12
3 x finalist for the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award
What I’m saying is that whilst I’m very grateful for those wonderful wins, I’m also a bloody well-seasoned loser.
So what have I learned about how to handle being a loser?
First, tell someone. Anyone. And tell them quickly. Tell a stranger on the street if you have to. Because the sooner you tell someone, the sooner the reality of loss will sink in. And the sooner that happens, the sooner you’ll get over it. The sooner you get over it, the sooner you will get back to writing.
Next? Eat something. Preferably something sugary and with a cookie like consistency. I’m literally sat in Brooklyn right now, eating my way through an entire box of oatmeal and raisin cookies. I feel better already.
After that, feel bitter and sad, and outraged and all of the negative things. It’s alright to feel that way for a little while. Drown your sorrows in biscuits and beer and bitching.
But after that, maybe realise that the thing that you’ve lost was never bloody well yours to begin with. Although it may not feel like it (given your proximity to it), nothing has actually changed for you. No one has taken something from you. All that has occurred is that something that was never yours was not given to you.
And finally, just take a second to think…
When you win an award it is a wonderful feeling, there are so many incredible things that can come with it; gratification, personal fulfilment and satisfaction. These are all brilliant things.
But none of them really compare to the power of losing...
When you lose, something happens to you. An ember ignites. The spark of creation. Desire, want, hope, drive and ambition… these are the things that come of losing. It pushes you to be better, to work harder, to become greater, to show the world what you are made of.
It is not winning that makes a winner. It is losing.
Having said that, I'll still be blooming applying for every award I can find as I need the moolah innit!
Good night all. Tomorrow is the first presentation of The Wicker Husband at NAMT. Wish us luck!!