Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection
For those of you who have missed the story so far, I came home to York to lick financial and emotional wounds after over a decade of work as a professional theatre director. Having made the decision to move back to the town where I grew up with no real idea what I would do there, I got a job at the University of York.
The job is Comedy Outreach Officer, the self-fulfilling job title (I tell it to people and they laugh at me.) It is also COO for short. Two gags, one job title. The job is part-time, on a 16-month contract, and involves inspiring young people to consider coming to University using material found in the Alan Ayckbourn Archive. The job is very rewarding; I love working with young people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds. The University is also a fantastic environment to work in and I’m proud to be part of the Theatre, Film and Television Department; it allows me to gently explore the possibilities of further study and a career in academia. I am also learning a huge amount about how to structure plays from studying AA’s work. Being part-time, it has also allowed me the space to explore my own creativity, through doing the Artist’s Way and the money enables me to keep my head above water. Finally, it provides me with an excuse to stage short Ayckbourn plays in the amazing theatre there with the students (22nd and 23rd June if you happen to be passing through.)
I am also loving York. It has grown more cosmopolitan, with lots of indie cafes and art venues springing up. There is also something very profound about practising Buddhism here; half my life I lived in York, half my life I lived in London, where I met the practice. Now the two halves have met. And Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo sounds amazing with a Yorkshire accent. So I’m in no rush to leave.
Six months in, however, and the old doubts started to come back. Namely, while I have been doing a lot of theatre work of one kind and another my last show with professionals was a while ago. While COO provides a respite and a chance for reflection, my CV will be no better at the end of it than it was at the beginning. My inner critic whispers ‘failure’ in my ear and the prospect of rebuilding my professional career seems to be ever receding. I often feel very far away from my old life in London and the feeling that I was on a clear trajectory towards West End success.
All of which makes the fact that now, in addition to being Comedy Outreach Officer, I am also Associate Director of Freedom Studios all the more remarkable. Freedom Studios evolved out of the legendary political theatre company Red Ladder and is dedicated to making work for, and with, the diverse communities of Yorkshire, especially those in its home of Bradford.
The post is part-time, pays enough that by this time next year (if I’m very careful) I will be in a much better place financially, and is a purely creative position; I will be spending all of my time for them planning and delivering artistic work, as part of a small and very passionate team.
In the interview they asked me, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ I replied, honestly. ‘I have no idea. I used to know. Now I don’t. So I’m allowing myself 12 weeks of not knowing, a rigorously defined period of uncertainty and doubt, while I do this Artist’s Way Course.’ When I was offered the job, they told me it was that honesty which swung it for me. Talk about synchronity. The Universe, in the midst of my unknowing, as given me the chance to make meaningful theatre with people to whom it might make a real difference, as part of a unique theatre company. At the same time, I get to continue to work with other young people via the Uni and dip my toe into a possible future in academia. And all this while remaining routed in Yorkshire, and fulfilling my responsibility as young men’s Chapter Leader. If I had been asked to sketch a perfect outcome of my decision to move home I wouldn’t have dared to dream of this.
Julia this week talks about listening to our inner creativity. ‘When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.’ I’m certainly listening differently to my own thoughts and feelings at the moment and within that the creativity is beginning to bubble up. ‘We deny that in order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly.’ P. 121. (Which I guess applied to dating as much as it does creativity.) On the creative side, though, this struck me in light of my closing comments last week: ‘Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. . . Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.’ P.117. With this in mind next week I’m going to post some fiction, even if short. Or crappy.
I don’t normally do reviews here, but I saw three pieces of theatre this week and they filled me with hope. Firstly, I saw an evening of short pieces or extracts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Matchmakers, where writers and directors are paired up to play together and see what happens. I was struck that there are places to play and take risks, like, in the case of one group, throwing out the script and making their piece entirely wordless. Secondly, I was daunted to discover that Scarberia at the Theatre Royal York was 1 hour 50 straight through, no interval. I nearly turned around and went home. I’m so glad I didn’t because the result, exploring the tangential relationship between two sets of 16 year old friends from Scarborough, Canada and Scarborough, Yorkshire. The result was a joy, largely down to great writing and beautifully vulnerable acting. Finally (and there is a family bias here) I saw Isango’s remarkable production of Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where there was an audible inhalation from the Hackney audience when a character, without shame or equivocation, said the word ‘Socialism.’ In a world where ‘The Great Money Trick’ is being played with increasingly ferocity, raising the possibility of an alternative to free-market capitalism still seems like the breaking of a major taboo. Whether the S word seems like the solution to you or not, surely it’s time to allow ourselves to talk of other ways of doing things without embarrassment? Let’s at least put all the options back on the table and dare to dream of a better world, and even start to take baby steps towards it. After all, as I’m learning on this journey: without hope, there is no hope.