I am writing in response to no particular review or reviewer. I have been fortunate to have had a sizeable number of reviews written about my work over my career so far and this is a cumulative thought upon my own reaction to the more negative ones of which there have been several.
First of all though, I want to tell you a story...
When I was 21 years old, I was in the Dunedin Operatic Society production of Les Miserables. I loved every second of it. I was "at" university during the day and treading the boards in one of my favourite shows at night. I would finish performing at about 11.30pm, then we'd all go and get drunk next door and then I would stumble along the high street, stop at McDonalds to buy a 20 pack of chicken nuggets and then continue to wander drunkenly home. High on the euphoria of that heady combination of youth, hard liquor, the glow of the footlights and whatever the hell it is they put in chicken nuggets, I dripped along the high street in a state of happy delirium. The world was my oyster, all was right with the world...
I thought I'd imagined it... but no, I had definitely heard that word. I happened to hear it at about the same time as something bumped into my shoulder. It was a wide, almost deserted footpath so there seemed to be no reason why the shoulder barger should have needed to barge me, but there it was...
So... I could have continued down the street, eating my nuggets in peace. But I couldn't leave it alone. I stopped. I turned and shouted after them... "What did you call me?" I'm not sure why that particular question popped into my mind, especially because I knew exactly what they'd called me. They'd called me a cunt. In fact they'd said it quite clearly. What was it I was expecting from this particular interchange? I was effectively throwing a glove down upon the floor, my archaic notion of honour had been challenged. "Pick your weapon sir. Nuggets at twenty paces. Very well! Turn and throw you scoundrel!"
I had hoped of course that my "What did you call me?" challenge would either go unnoticed (in which case I win) or that I would elicit some sort of apology from my assailant (in which case I would also win). But every person reading this right now, knows that neither of those two things happened that night.
What happened was this... the fellow turned around and started walking back towards me. When he was about four inches from my face he answered my question... What did he call me?
"I called you a cunt."
Then he slapped me in the face and ran off down the street.
Apart from the time myself and a few friends decided to recreate fight club on the streets of Wellington, which resulted in a face being smashed into a cash point, this is the only instance of violence that has been inflicted upon me by a stranger. I suppose I should count myself lucky that it hasn't happened more often...
So dearest reviewer... I'm sure you understand where I'm going with this extended metaphor. Well, just in case it wasn't clear. You are the stranger that met me that dark night and whilst I was in a blissful state of euphoria, you called me a cunt, slapped me in the face and ran off down the street. I never knew who it was who interrupted by nuggetorial wonderland, just as it is likely I will never know you. But be aware, just like that midnight assault almost 16 years ago, your words will not be forgotten.
Reviews are very strange things. I love them and hate them. I crave them and despise them. I avoid them like the plague and yet I am drawn to them like a moth to the flame. Each one has the potential to make me grin with delight or sink into the depths of despair. It's the possibility, the hope, that I love so much... the hope that someone, somewhere, a complete stranger understands what I am trying to do.
Because believe it or not, generally speaking, writers don't intend to write sub-standard shows. We don't intend to write even a great show. I can't speak for others but I aspire to write exceptional work. I might not ever succeed in that aspiration, but it remains the full-blooded intention of every piece of work I engage with. This intention, this aspiration may not seem particularly important to you, but it should be. I'll tell you why.
Aspiration beyond means is the lifeblood of human endeavour. It should be praised. Not ridiculed, because if it is careless with it we may miss out on something truly great. You may argue that any artist who hopes to have a career should have a thick skin. I disagree. The only reason we have developed our thick rhinoceros-like hide is because of you. But that doesn't mean that's the way it has to be...
I am not by any means trying to curb your self-expression, or your opinion, or your right to say whatever the hell you please about whatever the hell you like. I appreciate that you are an artist as well, that in every review you put a piece of yourself out there. I appreciate that. However, there is a difference. I just spent years writing a show, your work was a matter of hours. It's not a criticism. That's just a fact and it can't be argued about. And it may be the case that yes, my show was terrible in your opinion. My question to you is this:
Is there a better, more useful way of saying what you have to say?
I'm not a reviewer so I don't know if this is possible. But as a composer and lyricist it's a question I grapple with every minute of my working life. Can I rewrite this line so my audience will understand it better? Can that lyric sing more? Can that melody shine a little brighter with just a little more work? What is the best way in which I can express my aspirations in the time available to me? Sometimes it's just the choice of word that can make all the difference...
You are writing for an audience. The general theatre going public. I wonder if you also know that I am part of your audience. I know you can't please everyone, good lord I know that much, and I know you shouldn't try to please everyone. People can be hard to please after all, but it's just something to consider. The writer is your audience too, whether you want us to be or not, I'm afraid you don't get to choose. And I think that can only be a good thing.
Because I believe, you owe something to the aspirations of the work you are reviewing. You don't owe the work anything at all. But without those tragic, ever-failing, star-clutching, podium-grabbing aspirations, where would we all be? It doesn't bear thinking about. Treat your review like the work of art that the show you are reviewing is trying so desperately to be. You don't have to respect the work itself, but give the aspirations their due. They are trying their best to be beautiful.
A writers aspiration to create great work deserves to be nurtured, not strangled.
And to return to my earlier metaphor. By all means, slap me in the face and call me a cunt. But then give me a friendly wink and a "You can do it!" pat on the back as well. Please don't just run off into the dark Dunedin night.
I may never well "do it!" but I'll want to keep trying and isn't that the important thing?
PS. I am prepared for an absolute slew of "you don't know what you're talking about" from all you reviewers out there in theatre land if you catch wind of it. And I also realise that I'm putting myself in a hole by asking reviewers for something which I have no right to ask of them. The fact is, I'd love to chat with you guys more about it, I'd love to hear the opinion of the reviewer. As a non-reviewer myself I'd love to get to know a bit more about your craft.
It's Easter Sunday and our crowdfunding campaign has just 46 hours left on the clock. We really want to try to get to £5,000 so that we can give the production it's best chance of telling the story of the Disappeared in a way in which it deserves to be told. Most of you who read my blog already know the story of how the show came to be in existence, but maybe one of the things that you know a little less about is what goes on behind the scenes in the creation of a show like this. So I thought I might use this opportunity to share with you my own experience of showmaking:
The Shame of #Crowdfunding
My first experience of crowdfunding was with Rhys Jennings, my collaborator on the new musical The Wicker Husband which just had it's first reading at The Other Palace last week. We had reached a point in the writing process where we just simply couldn't afford to continue to live and work on the show without paying ourselves and the people who we needed to work with. Rhys suggested the Crowdfund and whilst at first my little brain was reluctant to ask friends and family for their hard earned money, so that I could blow it all on wicker dreams. I soon discovered something different.
People were not only willing to support our project, but they were EAGER to do so. Some of them had been hearing about it for so long that for them it seemed like an opportunity to will something out of nothing. Which is essentially what (as creators of theatre) we do every day. That was a great first experience of crowdfunding for me. Rhys proved particularly adept at adapting himself to being a crowdfund master and really went full pelt. We successfullly raised over £5,000 for our project which has contributed immensely to the successful reading that we had last week.
So when I came to be involved in my second crowdfund for Paper Balloon's The Boy and the Mermaid, you would have thought I would have had less scruples than before about getting the word out to the people. But... as the build up to the crowdfund began, I found myself again wondering to myself "How dare you ask these people for their money. They've worked hard for it. And not only that... some of them have already supported your work. You can't ask them again."
But again, I stopped in my self-flagellating tracks when I found that not only were people happy to respond and give some cash, but that the people who had supported the previous crowdfund were supporting the new one as well, sometimes even more generously than they had before.
So, I started thinking about what it was that people are supporting when they give to a crowdfund. I have given money to a few myself, I would consider it far too hypocritical if I hadn't. And looking back at those projects I can see two different reasons for my donations:
1. I wanted to support the person's work, regardless of the project.
2. I wanted to support the project because I believed it to be important.
Looking at the people who have given money to my various projects, it's clear that there are some who support me primarily because they care about me and they want me to succeed in my endeavours (and in my mother's case, they don't want me to starve). Then there are others, who share on social media their own stories of the show that I am involved in and those people donate because they believe in the cause.
This led me to think a little about shame and vulnerability (I've been reading lots of self help books recently). It's interesting that I never feel shame when I am asking people to support a cause that I really believe in. For example, The Wicker Husband is a story about society pressure on people to look and conform to a certain "acceptable" norm of prettiness. The Boy and The Mermaid is a call to arms for small ones about the Syrian Refugeee Crisis, about how we should celebrate differences not vilify them. And my most recent crowdfund for These Trees Are Made of Blood is an important human rights story about state terror, disappearances and the power of indivduals to change society for the better in the face of incredible tyranny.
These projects I will talk about until the cows come home and I will never be ashamed of asking those around me to support them because I believe that the work is worth doing and important.
However, the problem with any work that you make in the creative industries is that it inevitably has a huge part of you inside it. And it's when I feel like I'm asking for money for people to support ME as a person that I feel shame.
For me, in this industry in particular, it grieves me to admit that alot of my self-worth is tied to money. I don't consider that to be my fault and I don't consider it to be unusual, having talked to many people about it. This is an asbolutely natural consequence of living in a capitalist society that rewards people with numbers in their bank. I am absolutely no exception to this. I really wish I was, but that river runs pretty deep.
This means that when I start asking people for money to support me, I feel immense shame that I am not good enough at what I do to be earning a living wage from it without their help. Of course that is simply just not true. I am good enough, I am a skilled musical theatre writer with plenty of experience but the fact remains that money is not always directly related to ability.
So in crowdfunding I have to split my personality in two. The part of me that feels shame that I am not succeeding I have to tell to "shut up and go and sit in the toilet and read a paper until it's all over." The part of me that believes in the project jumps into the fray with all guns blazing and demands to be heard.
I thought I would write about it here, not only because we are about £800 away from our minimum goal for our crowdfund and I'm shamelessly going to push it (Please donate whatever you can, it really means the world to us - note how in using "us" I am deflecting from the shame of using "me"!), but also because crowdfunding is here, it's here to stay and it's going to be a big part of our creative industries in the future and I believe that if we can get over ourselves, that can only be a good thing.
If you have a project that you are working on that needs to get the next step (despite our excellent reading for The Wicker Husband on Thursday we failed three times to get any funding from the Arts Council for it) then maybe go for a crowdfund. You've got to believe in the cause, in the story, but at the end of the day I've found belief in a cause will jump all over any shame you feel.
And if you so feel like it (and because I've currently locked my ego in the toilet) Please donate by clicking below. Either because you support me as an artist or because you believe in the work.
I'm writing because I can't bring myself to go to sleep yet. I've just gotten home from the showcase presentation of The Wicker Husband at The Other Palace and I must admit I may be slightly inebriated, although not so much that I can't still bash out an innaproppriate blog on the internet. It's been an extraordinary day, after an extraordinary week with an extraordinary bunch of dudes and dudettes working on The Wicker Husband.
It seemed almost a mad proposition. Rehearse the full 2 and a half hour show (including 32 musical numbers) in four days and then present it to the industry, friends and family and supporters. Our mentors George Stiles & Anthony Drewe pushed us hard to finish the show and I'm so glad they did. Mainly because I feel like now I can stop thinking about it for the next week or so. No scoring. No playing the guitar. No writing. No nothing....
Oh dear, I've just made myself a little depressed. No, not really. After an intense year of work on the show filled with progress labs, rewrites, late night calls to writing partners and directors, I'll be glad to put the lovely Wicker Husband aside for a little bit and do an Easter Egg hunt with my God Daughter this weekend.
We did it, and it was done in the most remarkably stress free manner for me. I thought this week was going to be one of the most challenging of my life, but thanks to the incredible skill and talent of Charlie Westenra and Mark Aspinall, together with the dedication and hard work of an absolutely outstanding cast of performers, I found myself just sitting back and enjoying myself. Playing along with the marvellous musicians, listening to the cast, the director and MD bring the score and story to life.
I'm not going to say too much more here as I'm suddenly extremely tired. Except to say a huge thank you to our wonderful cast: Tyrone Huntley, Anne Marie Piazza, Clive Rowe, Sebastian Torkia, Rebecca Trehearn, Jamal Andreas, Loren O'Dair, Roger Evans and Elexi Walker. They brought the characters to life with such vivid imagination and I can't thank them enough for their dedication to the show. To Charlie and Mark for their incredible skill in putting the whole thing together. To Lettie,Victoria, Martin and Sarah for putting the whole event together. To George and Ants for their wonderful mentorship. To Ursula Wills Jones for writing such a wonderful short story.
Also to David Gregory for making everyone sound so great and to the whole team at the Other Palace.
Most of all though my ultimate thanks goes to Rhys Jennings. A man who has become more than a friend and a writing partner. A person whose talent and skill I have watched grow and thrive over the last four years. Thank you for entrusting me with this story, thank goodness you decided to tell me about it in that pub in Oxford all those years ago. It's been a ride my friend. And after our partners have gotten us back for a while, let's keep on. You're a fricking legend.