Week One: Recovering a Sense of Identity

by tomwrightdreamer

So what I’m planning to do is share my end of week check-in with you. Due to my erratic lifestyle this will be somewhere from Friday to Monday. There’ll be any personal thoughts on the chapter of the week (not a précis; don’t want to do Julia Cameron out of sales) and observations on the tasks.

I’m not going to put up my morning pages, since so far, they are filled with invective about how tired I am, half-baked sexual fantasies and over-involved to do lists. Nor, necessarily, am I going to inflict the exercises themselves on you as I don’t think anyone wants to read a rebuttal of my first year English teacher’s marking of my essay on ‘The Highway-man.’ Actually, that one was pretty funny.

Shadow Artists

 The chapter starts by talking about Shadow Artists, those who block their own creativity by taking on roles supporting other artists. This chapter might go some way to explaining the most difficult question in British theatre, ‘Why would anyone want to work in stage management?’ (Genuine question – some of the most wonderful people I know are stage managers and it baffles me why they do what they do, although I am very grateful that they do do what they do.)

The chapter also begs a difficult question; is that what a director is? We didn’t come up with the story or the words it’s told with, nor are we up there bringing it to life every night. While theatre in some form has existed since the beginning of culture, directors as a role seem to have been around 500 years or so, mainly born out of the economic necessity of producers wanting to know who to blame. I suspect this is a question I will keep coming back to.


 ‘Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.’

“But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?”

Yes. . . the same age you will be if you don’t.’ p.30

It was my birthday last week so age has been on my mind a lot. Age is a dangerous thing. Not being old per se, but having a number attached to us. Once we start to define ourselves by this number there are people, living or dead, with a lower or equal number who have achieved way more than us. This comparison has eaten up some people I know, and has hacked a few chunks out of me too. I was very, very fortunate at the start of my career; immediately after leaving university I got one of the most prestigious director traineeships available, so I spent my first few years as a professional feeling like top of the class. Then people started to overtake.

In Buddhism we have a concept about each person’s unique potential:

‘Explaining that Buddhism teaches the principle of cherry, plum, peach, and damson, I said that just like the different blossoms, each person has a unique character and set of circumstances. Buddhism, I added, also sets forth the way for each of us to develop our unique potential to the fullest and make the most of our lives.’ (Daisaku Ikeda, NL7532ST)

So, if I’m a peach (stop sniggering at the back) I want to be the peachiest peach I can be. What point is there worrying about being out-appled by the Granny Smith in the bowl?

‘It is not how you compare to others that is important, but rather how you compare to who you were yesterday. If you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved something great.’ Daisaku Ikeda

So what I’m hoping to get out of this isn’t a recipe on how to get a show on at the National, but rather how to be making the work which only I can make.

Core Negative Beliefs

I love this section. We tell lies about what it means to be an Artist. The one about suffering is brilliantly addressed here, so instead I’m going to focus on bad behaviour and poverty.

Sure, there are incredibly creative people who behave appallingly, destroying the people around them, or themselves, burning up in a flash of creative vision and leaving some amazing art, and a lot of broken people behind.

But that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it.

The myth that it is the only way is dangerous. And we’re all guilty of keeping this pernicious lie alive.

When I was working in a big theatre we had a guest director coming who was the topic of conversation weeks before his arrival. He was coming from abroad so none of us knew his work, we hadn’t even heard of him before. But every time he phoned one of us up, he behaved so appallingly; was so rude, demanding, obnoxious, that we talked of nothing else. And what we said was, ‘Wow, if he behaves like this, he must be a genius.’

When I met him I realised his only genius was in behaving so badly that everyone assumes he must be great.

I’m sure I will come back to bad behaviour in the theatre as a theme, often. But the point for now is that beliefs like that, or believing that being an artist will lose you friends, family and leave you starving in a garret, dying of consumption, will block the flow of creativity.

I’ve got loads of these beliefs, but the most pressing one that emerged through this week’s Artist Waying is that I don’t believe artists can make money. Let’s imagine that you got had a run of incredible luck:

1) You are offered five studio shows in a year.  Theatres have less council, Arts Council and box office revenue to play with, versus mounting costs; more and more shows are being produced by groups of theatres and touring to each (so there are less total shows being produced.) But let’s say you are lucky, driven, charming and good enough to be offered five paying gigs.

Given that you have to prep, find a creative team, cast the show, lead at least three weeks rehearsals and a tech week, come back to maintain it and be pitching to get more shows, I think five is the absolute maximum without failing to sleep/going insane/doing terrible work.

2) Amazingly there are no clashes and you can take all five shows.

3) Each producer/artistic director is feeling generous and gives you the maximum you could ever hope for a studio show, which, until some corrects me, I am calling at £3,000. (Over the TMA recommended top rate for directors on a four week project.)

The odds of those three things happening, assuming you are brilliant and hard working, is just shy of winning the lottery.

And what’s your income from this amazing, unheard of, lucky streak? (Which will not leave you any time to temp, I promise you.) £15,000.

Average graduate salary? £26,000.

When I was on the National Studio Director’s Course (ooooh, hark at ‘im) I attended a brilliant workshop led my Matthew Dunster. There was one particular exercise where we were asked to imagine we were on our deathbed, having lived a full life. What would be the one thing of which we were most proud?

Before that exercise we were a group of very competitive and driven young directors. Afterwards, and for the rest of the two week course, we were friends. Nobody said anything to do with theatre. My answer, to my surprise was, ‘Having raised a really happy child.’

So I’m all for making sacrifices for my art, but £15,000? If I’m lucky? Are we saying that theatre is a game which can only be played by the independently wealthy? (Expect a separate blog post on this some time soon.) So, yes, if I want, one day, to impregnate a lady (relax, ladies, not right now) and raise the resulted human being in a stable, supportive environment, something big is going to have to change.

So, Julia Cameron? Do I have a negative belief about artists? Yes, I do.

So apparently I turn it around and write, in the present tense, what I want to be true and I write it out in my morning pages.

‘I am a successful, fulfilled and affluent creator and father.’

Come on Creative Force of the Universe, get to work on that.

Weekly Check-In

1)    How many days this week did you do your morning pages? How was the experience for you?

I missed one morning. Not too shabby. I took my journal into work, having failed to do it before leaving the house, but didn’t make the time there either. Other times I’ve written them on trains, in very shaky handwriting. Feels a bit like making contact with an old friend. And then discovering that the friend is perpetually grumpy about how early in the morning it is.

2)    Did you go on an artist date this week?

I did. I took myself off to Bettakultcha which is an evening in which people present a five minute lecture, accompanied by 20 slides set to change ever 15 seconds. The presenter can talk on any subject, providing they are not selling anything. The audience is encouraged to tweet throughout. Apparently it’s a bit like something else which sounds like Pikachu (but isn’t) and where they have 30 seconds per slide. In fact, it’s almost identical, but shorter.

We had presentations on a refuge for potential suicides, the Captain of the Beagle, pre-history, the Killing Joke, logical fallacies and one on volunteering to support a woman with Down’s Syndrome which made me cry. It was great seeing people, often non-professionals, talking about their passions. It left me pondering; what am I passionate enough to get up and talk about for five minutes? Or, maybe, blog about. . .

3)    Were there any other issues this week that you consider significant for your recovery?

Well, see above, I guess. See you next week!

P.S. Will aim for shorter blogs in the future – well done for getting to the end!