tomwrightdreamer

Musings on creativity from Yorkshire's Gangliest Diabetic Buddhist Theatre Director

Five Short Plays About Hope: 1

CONTIANS: Swears, British and American politics, depression.

February 2017 was quite a fun time for me, I was taking part in 28 Plays Later, I was directing Handbagged, a play I loved with a great cast. I had a cold and was contending with the tube every morning (as we were rehearsing in London – a city I haven’t lived in for 7 years – oh how quickly one forgets what it’s like)  but otherwise my life was good. But, like many I know, I was also in shock at what 2016 had revealed about the world; the rising to the surface of the hatred which I now must acknowledge was always there, but which I was protected from seeing by my privilege.

After my country had an ill-advised referendum, I spent every waking moment, when I wasn’t working, on social media, reading articles, trying to understand how the basis of my reality had shifted so suddenly. Then The Man Whose Name Has Meant I Have To Find New Words For The Card Which Beats Other Cards In Card Games was elected, and I realised that I was in danger of making myself seriously ill. So, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, I stopped visiting news sites. For two months I stayed news free. Ignorance, it turned out, really was bliss. I could get through my day without facing the growing panic of the world I lived in.

Eventually though, I heard some words by Robert Harrap, General Director of SGI-UK, where he said words to the effect of, ‘I want to read about the world as it is, so I can see how our spiritual practice needs to change it.’ So I upped the amount of Buddhist chanting and study I was doing and started buying the Week. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a very soothing experience – it has a neutral tone and reports what different papers are saying. For example, one might read; ‘Yesterday one thousand people died of plague in the UK. The Guardian thinks this could have been avoided by reversing the under-funding of the NHS while the Daily Mail points out that some of those who died were asylum seekers, so it’s not all bad.’ You see? Much easier to stay calm reading that.

As I started to feel bolder my mind started to turn to what could I actual do to make a difference. This preoccupation bubbled up repeatedly throughout the plays I wrote, so this week, to shake things up, I’m going to publish one of those plays a day, as Five Short Blogs About Hope

WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Lights up on an extremely lanky Yorkshireman in jeans, blue shirt, and a crumpled jacket. He looks up at the audience slightly startled.

ME: So, there’s this thing I’ve been thinking about. I’ve not fully got my head around it yet, but I thought I might as well share it with you and see where it goes. You find you’ve gone back in time to Germany, 1932. Hitler’s a big deal but he’s not yet Chancellor. Oh, and you can speak German. You’ve met up with some of your new friends, nice, well-meaning, middle class, vaguely artistic types. Not full-on Weimar republic hedonists, but still, pretty open. Not the sort to go smashing Jewish people’s windows. And they say to each other, and you, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do! I’m scared. Scared for me, scared for my country, scared for my family, scared for people who are different from me, but who will suffer under what might come. I’m so scared I can’t really function, I’m struggling to work properly, I can’t concentrate, I’m getting depressed. I’m not really present, (except they wouldn’t say that, as that’s a late 20th Century thing at best, but for now, go with it, you get the gist), I’m not really present in my work, or with my family. I’m barely present here now. I’ve got all this worry, not sleeping at night, but I don’t know what to do. I’ve been on some polite marches, signed some petitions, I’m voting for other parties, I’ve even put their posters in my window, so, you know, I’ve stuck my neck out. But I know it’s not enough. So, do I not worry about it? Do I go back to focusing on being the best employee, family member, friend I can be, and block all the rest out? Or do I go all out and try and stop this evil? And what would that even look like?’ And you know, that in a few short months, Hitler will be Chancellor, then there’ll be a fire, and – boom – within a month, no more democracy. Nazis’ are the only party. And for millions of people it’s too late – a highly efficient system of killing will be developed – they are fucked. And the fate of the planet has changed, dragging in France, Britain, Russia, Japan. Bombs are developed, bombs are dropped. And you know all of this is coming. You know it all in detail, from books and endless documentaries and Oscar-bait films. And your new friends turn to you and say, ‘What should we do?’ They want to be good people, and if they can’t be good, they want to be happy, but now they’re just miserable and impotent. And what do you say to them? ‘Do something?’, ‘Do Everything?’ ‘Do Nothing?’

Because we know. Like they did, in their hearts of hearts, those nice well-meaning Germans of 1932. They know what’s coming. And we know what’s coming. So I’m asking you, as a nice, well-meaning man in the UK in 2017. What the fuck should I do?

Silence.

End

 

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NaNoWriMo

WARNING: Contains swears, apparitions and the end of humanity.

As I said in an earlier blog, one of the great benefits of 28 Plays Later was that it unlocked my creativity, and that it showed me that I could make the time to write even in busy circumstances, and it emboldened me to take on the even bigger challenge of NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words (apparently the average length of the first draft of a shortish novel, I’m assured that they grow with each draft) through the month of November.

That turned out to be an even more profound experience; there is something remarkable about investing so many hours in your own creativity, without a likely return of money, fame, adulation. It’s a way of saying to your inner creative voice; ‘you have inherent value and I’m going to invest time and energy in to you.’ And, I found, the voice reciprocates.

I’ll write more about both the process, and the resulting novel in later blogs, but I want to share two of the short plays from 28 Plays Later which helped develop my thinking towards the novel.

As ever, I can’t tell you what the prompts where that led to these, but hopefully they will pique your interest. (A quick note, WordPress does not love tabs and indents so I have deviated from the standard British script format for these and all future scripts.)

THE VOICE IN THE WIND

This is a story I’ve been carrying in my head for over 10 years, never finding the time to get it into the world. Even knowing it so well, I was surprised by some of the details which came out.

ALICIA, 12, mixed-race, frizzy hair in buns, jeans, jumper, backpack, comes in to the room. Her parents hover in the door way. The room is clean but faded and aged. Bare boards. Bed. Dresser, fire place, standing mirror covered with a dust sheet.

She throws her bag on to the bed, which creaks.

DAD: On Monday we’ll got to Homebase and choose some paint. Then we can get this place fixed up. Any colour you like?

Pause.

Pink?

MUM gently thumps him in the arm. ALICIA wrinkles her nose at him.

DAD: Okay. Well, we’ll let you settle in.

He lifts in a large suitcase and closes the door. Wind whistles through the fire place.

ALICIA goes over to the bed and throws herself on to it. The springs creak.

SILENCE

There’s a big gust of wind. The lights flick off. The sun has set but there’s a little bit of gloaming left before complete darkness.

ALICIA tuts.

Wind starts to howl louder.

ALICIA rolls over.

WIND: Alicia!

ALICIA leaps up in the half darkness.

Pause.

WIND: Alicia!

ALICIA creeps towards the fire place. She’s about to get there when her DAD suddenly opens the door to her room, carrying a torch. 

ALICIA shrieks.

DAD: Sorry! We’ve only got enough torches for me and your mother, but we do have some candles. Here –

He walks to the mantelpiece and places a saucer, candle and matches. He strikes a match and slightly melts the base of the candle. Then he lights the wick. A warm glow part-fills the room.

DAD: There you go!

He goes back to the door.

DAD: Dinner in a few minutes, I reckon. Luckily the gas is still working!

Goes, shutting the door behind him.

Pause

WIND: Alicia!

ALICIA continues slowly walking to the fire.

There is a sudden and much louder:

WIND: Alicia!

The candle flares brighter. She jumps.

Silence.

ALICIA listens. Nothing.

Then a crackling sound:

CANDLE: Alicia.

She draws really close to the candle.

ALICIA: Did you just speak?

CANDLE: Careful! You nearly blew me out.

ALICIA: Sorry!

CANDLE: It’s difficult to talk this way. Take the sheet from the mirror.

ALICIA looks around. She sees it and removes the sheet. She sees herself reflected.

CANDLE: Now draw the candle closer.

ALICIA carries the candle closer. It flickers slightly and suddenly ALICIA sees MARY, a 12 year old girl wearing torn and bloodied clothing circa 1830 in the mirror, staring back at her.

MARY: Help me!

ALICIA screams, accidentally blowing out the candle. And plunging the stage into darkness.

The dusty bulb in the middle of the room lights up. The mirror reflects the room.

ALICIA looks around, still holding the candle. 

DAD: (FROM OFF) Help me set the table, Alicia! Dinner’s nearly ready.

ALICIA throws the candle down and rushes out of the room.

The light bulb flickers out. Mary appears again in the mirror.

MARY: Please, help me!

Blackout.

NATURE

The antagonists in the story above were slightly hazy when I started writing but the short play below helped unlock them for me. This scene is based on Laban efforts, a popular technique for creating either natural, or subtly uncanny, movement, often taught in dance or drama schools.

CAST

(NB: There are 8 Laban efforts. Only five feature in this play)

Flicking: Flexible, Sudden, Light. Flicking is flexible in its use of space and it resists both Weight and Time. It is a movement with free flow. It is crisp, light and always brief. Flicking’s costume consists of chords and whip heads which can be cracked to illustrate lines and gestures. He speaks suddenly but gently, with a tease and a smile.

Slashing: Sudden, Strong, Flexible. This effort is usually performed with free flow. When we think of slashing, the general thought is a sword slashing towards an object and meeting resistance. When performing, this effort tends to fade into a float at the point it would meet resistance. Slashing’s costume consists of blades protruding along every major bone and jutting from joints so that the slightest move creates cuts in the air. She speaks with a sudden, strong voice and a scowl, cutting into the conversation.

Wringing: Flexible, Sustained, Strong. This primarily involves movement in the opposite direction, such as wringing out a towel where your hands will move in two opposite directions. Keep in mind that wringing is not restricted to the hands. The costume is gives the impression of boulders which scrape together with each movement on the joints. His voice wavers with effort, as of barely contained rage.

Gliding: Sustained, Light, Direct. This effort is a smooth movement, generally performed with bound flow. There is a high level of control in this movement which comes from muscular counter-tensions. This is the way in which this effort differs from floating; floating does not have that level of control. Gliding has wings of stretched material from leg to arm, like a power glider’s costume, and is attached to flying gear in the rig. His voice is high and smooth.

Pressing: Direct, Sustained, Strong. Pressing is applied to pushing, crushing and squeezing (pressing from both directions). It is efficient in its use of space and is performed with bound flow which means that the action can be paused but not completely stopped. However, there is still a sense of fluency similar to the glide. Gravity and weight are closely aligned with this effort as they can help or hinder you depending on the direction in which you are pressing. The costume seems to be made of solid slabs. She speaks very slowly and carefully, with great weight.

Source: https://savannahindigo.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/general-information-about-the-eight-basic-efforts-laban/

THE PLAY

There is a fog and a gentle but diffuse light – it is the gloaming time. GLIDE swoops gently around the stage, billowing the fog in his wake. He may gradually come to a stop and then begin again when speaking. All the characters fully embody their action rest and movement and above all in the quality of their voice when speaking.

GLIDE: I am here. Come my brothers and my sisters it is time for the moot!

PRESS enters steadily and upon finding a place to stop begins the slow process of settling which will take the duration of the scene. There is the sound of the ground being slowly crushed beneath her feet.

PRESS: I am here.

WRING enters, each move twisting upon itself.  

WRING: I am here.

Suddenly SLASH has cut onto the stage and then is still.

SLASH: I am here.

Flick darts into the space opposite slash. 

FLICK: I am here.

GLIDE: Brothers and sisters, we are here to discuss the human problem.

FLICK: Fuck ‘em.

WRING: Fuck them.

SLASH: Fuck them up.

PRESS: Crush them.

GLIDE: Noted. But we might need a more detailed plan if we are to rid the world of all of them.

PRESS: And return it to the old ways.

SLASH: Red in tooth and claw.

PRESS: Gray and black and moss covered.

WRING: Brown and green in twisting vine.

FLICK: Blazing white in lighting strike.

GLIDE: Unseen but howling with the wind.

WRING: They think they are the masters.

PRESS: Trampling our kind under foot.

SLASH: Raising our sacred places.

WRING: Tearing up the land.

FLICK: Burning our buried treasures.

GLIDE: Thickening our pure air.

PRESS: So, how do we take back what is ours?

SLASH: Disease. Let a contagion spread amongst them quick as fire.

FLICK: The Sun. Let a surge come. Turn their pretty toys to trash.

WRING: Heat ‘em up till they gasp for drinking water and war with one another for green land to farm.

GLIDE: Let’s suffocate them with their own poisoned air.

SLASH: Great waves rising from the seas to drown their cities.

FLICK: Great fires to burn away their homes.

PRESS: All of these, my brothers and sisters. All of these at once so that they are surrounded, by flame from the West, water from the East, plague from the North, surges from the South and slow death pressing on them from the skies. All of these, my brothers and sisters until the last one lies, broken and alone, screaming for mercy and then, they too will be crushed before our might, returning. And then there will be silence.

GLIDE: And then we will roam free, through the air.

WRING: And forest.

SLASH: And the waves.

FLICK: And the sunlight.

PRESS: And deep within the earth. Are we agreed?

GLIDE: Agreed.

WRING: Agreed.

SLASH: Agreed.

FLICK: Agreed.

PRESS: Then away. To work our terrible revenge.

GLIDE soars away, FLICK flashes off the stage, SLASH sweeps off, WRING twists away and finally PRESS rise like a mountain as darkness fills the stage.

 

 

28 Plays Later

WARNING: Contains swears.

Part of the joy of 28 Plays Later is responding to the titles and briefs set by the Mysterious Overlord, Sebastian. Since I’ve never met him, half-way through the month I began to suspect that he’s not a flesh-and-blood person at all but some sort of sadistic AI designed to torture creative types by setting them bizarre creative hoops to jump through each day. Looking back over the month, though. I see that the variety of tasks was a great part of why the whole thing was so much fun; some might lead to flashes of creative brilliance which blossom into full plays, but others are the equivalent of lifting weights at a gym – developing parts of our writing we might have neglected.

But that does often make for odd reading. When you sign up, part of the deal is that we won’t circulate the prompts, which means I can’t tell you why I wrote this:

Fred walks in, covered with blue fur, beard, horns, bare feet, big beard. He walks over to the controls of the ship. He pushes some buttons.

Sephie, small and lithe, comes in after him, hisses and makes a bolt for the opposite door. The door hisses open to reveal Colin in a big coat, grinning, bald head: 

COLIN: OFFIE!

Sephie jumps and races out of the other door. Fred looks up.

FRED: What is she going to look like with a chimney on her?

He sighs and goes back to pressing buttons. The door closes on a still grinning Colin.

A third door opens and a harassed woman is running towards it. 

WOMAN: Aliiiiiiiiiiiiice! Noooo! She loves gloves!

The door hisses shut just as she comes to it.

The view screen of the ship is suddenly filled with a mysterious ginger-bearded face.

GINGER BEARDY: I am his reason.

A gangly youth comes on wearing tennis whites with matching sweatbands on wrist and head.

YOUTH: And then a duck walked in with a hat on.

FRED looks up and points at the view screen which changes to say the words ‘It’s Nice To Be Important But It’s More Important to Be Nice.’ The youth turns around and walks straight out.

The phone rings. FRED answers after two rings.

FRED: Hello, Two Ring Suzie here?

VOICE ON PHONE: (Very loud.) This is your early morning fact! Bromide is brown!

Dial tone.

FRED hands up and sighs.

FRED: Why do birds suddenly appear?

The door slides open and on the other side is a teenager wearing a green trilby and mac.

TEEN: Fish got to swim.

Birds got to fly.

Apart from ducks, which do both.

That’s that system of taxonomy fucked.

The door slides closed.

FRED looks back to the view screen. An Alien toy appears on the screen and goes ‘Rarrr!’

The lights go out.

FEMALE VOICE: (whispered) I’m breaking up with you and going out with Josh.

Lights come back on. FRED has disappeared. There is a bearded man in the chair instead.

MIKE: (To audience) Manchester is not a clever place.

The lights go out again.

MALE VOICE: While a live on turns the corner!

Darkness.

End.

 Hopefully some of the other ones I’m going to share here will actually make sense, but I wanted to start by sharing this one, as I was reflecting on why I want to share these random nuggets of brain wind. Last year marked a significant step in reconnecting with my creativity – I made time for writing, not because it would further my career or boost my finances, but because it acknowledged and celebrated the little creative voice in my head which had been whispering, ‘Don’t forget me!’ I’ve spent so much time mentoring playwrights and theatre makers I was in danger of forgetting what it was like to create myself.

And as rewarding as 28 Plays Later and NaNoWriMo were I could just stop there, leaving the work in a digital drawer. They served their function in that I enjoyed making them and felt nourished by the process. But there was another desire at work. Theatre is my first and greatest love, and what I love most about it is that it is a collaborative art form. The feeling of bringing together a team of exceptionally skilled and creative people, working towards the common goal of giving an audience an amazing, coherent experience, is the greatest thrill I know. The moment of sitting in the audience, watching a production for the first time in front of the public, and not even being sure of which idea on stage emerged from which creative, hearing the audience laugh, or gasp or cry, is extraordinary.

But it is also immensely hard work – finding the funding, bringing the teams together, rehearsing, takes months, if not years, from conception to conclusion. So, I wanted to find another, contrasting outlet for creativity, which required less effort. Just me and my laptop and a few hours. But if it stops there, it’s not quite finished. I need to put it into the world, for it to meet an audience. Not so that they can love it and shower me with praise, but so that it’s completed the process of any work of art, no matter how rushed and flawed. Are the marks on a canvas a painting till they are seen? Are the notes a piece of music till someone hears them? Are these really stories till they are shared?

And also, in my growth as an artist, I need to keep pushing myself to get better at both halves of the process; creating and sharing. And this is a crucial idea which I think the Artist’s Way captured very clearly, and which I sometimes find hard to communicate to other creatives and writers whom I support; the desire for something to be perfect before we are prepared to share it can kill creativity. I know of so many plays and novels rotting in drawers and hard drives. I know of hundreds more which exist only in the minds of my friends and colleagues. They whisper alluringly but without the courage to even write them down they will always remain only whispers.

I used to think that not caring about the response of a piece of work was a cop out, that it meant abandoning any attempt at striving for excellence. But now I’ve seen how deadly that idea of excellence can be on a fledgling idea stumbling towards becoming fully formed; it is like saying to a child, ‘Don’t try walking till you’re sure you can do it without falling over.’ How will it ever learn? Better, as Julia Cameron exhorts, to focus on bringing the idea forth, trust the universe to worry about quality, and be prepared to learn from mistakes. And through this I have found that I am still a perfectionist, but the focus of my desire for perfection has changed; if I apply it to the individual project then my creativity will be stifled, if I apply it myself as an artist I can continue to grow.

A friend of mine was assisting the premiere of a new play by a very prolific and successful playwright. When the show met the audience for the first time in a preview, my friend spotted a flaw in the script which could be fixed with an easy rewrite. My friend took a deep breath and exceeded his role by suggesting the change to the playwright. There was a long silence and then the playwright nodded, slowly, ‘Yes. Yes, that would have been better.’

‘So are you going to change it?’ asked my friend.

‘No,’ replied the playwright, ‘But I won’t make that mistake on my next play.’

That attitude, of perfecting the skill, learning from each project, but not smothering each project with the unbearable expectation of being perfect, is probably why the playwright is so prolific and successful. (It also shows, I think, an awareness of the process – something might be an easy rewrite but not be an easy re-rehearsal for the actors during high-pressure previews.

All this is to say that I’m sure that some of these short plays I’m about to inflict on you are not going to be great, I’m learning to care less about that and more about what I learn from writing and sharing them. But, while I’m not worrying if you’re going to like them, I do want you to know that I appreciate you taking the time to read them, and so, to that extent, I hope they are interesting for your sake, if not for their own! Thank you, as ever, for coming on the journey.

 

My Creative 2017

You may have noticed that there’s been a hiatus in blog posts of nearly three years! It’s been very interesting returning to it and thinking about how crucial my experience with the Artist’s Way in 2012 was to turning my life back on track.

This blog is about my creative journey as an artist, as opposed to my career as a director. For those of you who want to know more about that side of my work please visit www.tomwrightdirector.com or sign for my theatre newsletter here.

I’ve just posted my round-up of the year there, in which I describe the six remarkable and diverse projects I’ve worked on in 2017. Looking back at my posts from 2012 I see that I was indeed, as Julia Cameron says, in need of ‘artistic recovery.’ I was broke, and scared and stuck. The ideas I internalised during the (longer than) 12-week process of the Artist’s Way really helped me. Especially the idea that the universe wants me to be creative and that if I commit to the work (or ‘showing up at the page’) the creative force inherent in the universe (which as a Buddhist, I would think of as Buddhahood, and which Julia calls God) will support me in unexpected ways.

I have really found that to be true, and the work I on myself did then is why I was able to work on such exciting projects now.

This year, I decided that on top of my work as a director, I really wanted to ensure that I made space to develop my own creativity. So much of what I do as a director is about facilitating the creativity of others; weeding out my own ego and need to control, and instead empowering others to trust their own instincts. As Rufus Norris, Artistic Director, once said to me, ‘the director is the person who recognises the best idea in the room, not necessarily the person who has it.’ In fact, I’d go further these days, and say that when I direct, I try to be the person who enables everyone else to have the best ideas. Part of that has definitely been by using Julia Cameron’s techniques for quietening the inner critic, long enough to allow those ideas to start flowing.

But in the midst of supporting others to do that, I realised that I was running the risk of neglecting that quiet whispering voice in my own head which says, ‘I want to play too!’ So I made some time for that voice this year. In February I took part in in the brilliant 28 Plays Later where I wrote a short play every day in February, which was intense as I was in rehearsal for Handbagged at the time.

This competition is simple enough – you all contribute £19.28 to a pot, and then submit a play each day, which can be as short or as long as you like, on a topic set the day before by our leader in speed writing, Sebastian. If you fail to make the deadline on any day you forfeit your money, and the remainder is divided amongst the winners – the last people standing at the end of the month – minus a contribution for admin. As a result of the drop out I made a staggering 36p profit. But, far greater than that, was the value I got from being forced to write every day.

Lily, one of my sisters, put me on to it and we both approached the challenge in very different ways. I could only spare a bit of time each day, so I would start a 45 minute timer and would just bash through with no prep, research or editing. Lily was up till 1am every morning honing tiny masterpieces. It’s perhaps telling that all that love and graft led to one of those plays becoming an excellent production just a few months later.

I didn’t create any masterpieces, but I did fall back in love with spending time with just me and my creativity. And the advantage of having a crazy-tight deadline, and a miniscule financial incentive, is that it didn’t give my inner critic any time to engage, so I was able to write from a quick, clear place I haven’t accessed for years. Looking back over them a few months later, none fill me with the desire to put them on stage, necessarily, but they do serve as a good expression of where I was emotionally back then. And two of them fed in very directly to my next challenge!

In November, because I felt writing 28 short plays was too easy, I put myself through National Novel Writing Month and wrote a 53,000 word first draft of a story I’ve been carrying in my head for years. But that’s for another blog post!

This coming year I am going to post here fortnightly with plays, extracts of the novel, and reviews of creativity books and aids, so stay tuned! And remember, if you want to keep up to date with my theatre productions please see www.tomwrightdirector.com, where you can find out about my busy year ahead, including being artistic director for Generation Hope, an event supported by SGI-UK, a society dedicated to Buddhism in action for Peace, taking place for 6,000 guests across three cities using satellite broadcasts to link the venues on 17th March, aiming to inspire young people with the confidence to change the world.

As closing treats: here’s a video of me explaining Buddhism at Bettakulcha, an evening of presentations where everyone delivers a talk with 20 slides pre-programmed to change every 15 seconds! This was a few years ago, but I realised I never got around to putting it on the blog. I was speaking at breakneck speed and you can’t see me because I’m so tall my head was in the light, but it might be worth five minutes of your time!

At the other end of the spiritual spectrum, I’ve achieved my life-time ambition of being on a podcast! Poet and theatre maker, Jack Dean recorded this with me and Amie George who was the Yeti in Jack’s Horace and the Yeti. He gets his collaborators sufficiently drunk, then makes them play a storytelling impro game from the 80s. We had a lot of fun making it! However, be warned, it features both obscene language and, well. . . obscene things. Please don’t listen if you are of a delicate disposition, or, in fact, you want to be able to look me in the eye next time we meet.

I hope 2018 is a year of brilliant achievements for you, whether that’s in your work, relationships, or in making the world a better place, and thanks for following me on my journey in to having an even more creative year!

Me, talking about Buddhism on the radio.

Oh look – here’s me on BCB radio, talking about making theatre, SGI Buddhism, and saying ‘Urm’ a staggering amount. I’m at 11’20”.

 

 

Week Twelve: Recovering a Sense of Self

[I’m putting this up nearly two and a half years later. I wrote it at the time, but for some reason never posted it. So, finally – here you go!]

Faith? Well that seems appropriate.

Late again. Well, it’s been 24weeks rather than 12 but I’ve finally finished.

And what a final few weeks. I’m still digesting it all.

We had a very wonderful Buddhist course at a castle/Anglican nunnery (who knew those existed?) in Whitby. I wish I hadn’t read the chapter where Dracula arrives at Whitby, in a storm as a great savage dog, as the place was a little bit creepy; there was a lot of weather and there genuinely was a great big barky dog.

There were also lots of wonderful Buddhists from all over the North East and some very inspiring experiences of people’s faith in action. I broke my normal habit of staying tee-total on courses and discovered that lots of chanting followed by booze makes for quite a spinny-head.

A theme of the course was Joy. In Buddhism we talk about conditional and unconditional happiness, that it’s fine to enjoy pleasures coming from our environment, and even to use the desire for them to fuel our spiritual development, but the journey teaches us that there is a real, deep, and enduring happiness which can be found within, regardless of our circumstances. This joy comes through faith; faith in our own limitless potential, and our ability to overcome any obstacle. By changing our inner life we can change any circumstance, so why view any event as bad? It’s just another opportunity to grow.

There are some echoes with this weeks’ chapter:

‘Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.’ It is the inner commitment to be true to ourselves and follow our dreams that triggers the support of the universe.’

I followed that by meeting up with a guy I know who’s from Bradford. We went out for beers and he brought me up to speed on the city’s political and cultural situation, along with, vitally, where to get the best curry. We then had one of those glorious free-wheeling conversations migrating from socialism to Sufism, where we discovered great similarities between our different beliefs, and the sense of working for a common cause. Plus, did I mention there was beer?

I closed the Artist’s Way with a very intense five days. The first five were spent studying with Philippe Gaulier, the legendary clown master. This is “clown” as in a rigorous form of performance involving stepping out in front of an audience prepared to be totally open and vulnerable, playful and responsive, with no preconceived ideas of what you might do. There might be red noses and clown shoes, but there might not. There certainly isn’t an exploding car or a cannon that shoots you into a vat of custard. And clowning in this way is tough; you have to be imaginative and playful but also simple, honest, and open. It is a tightrope (if you’ll forgive me using a circus metaphor while trying to make it clear this isn’t the sort of clowning you find in a circus); lean too much on the side of trying too hard and forcing things to happen and you become fake and fall off. But lean in the direction of doing nothing at all and you will bore your audience and so, also, fall off. And once you’re off in front of an audience it’s almost impossible to climb back on again.

This particular course was a week on Buffon, a technique/approach/style (I still don’t know how to refer to it) which Gaulier developed with Jaques Lecoq, before evolving it in his own, distinctive way. He is short, pot bellied, with a gnomish grey beard, red glasses, multi-coloured waistcoat and beret. He has a very thick accent and a love of puns. ‘You need to wake up of tea. Way-cup of tea. You see? In France this is very funny joke.’ He lives in his Buffon character in such a way that he can give very harsh feedback playfully; ‘You are boring. Boring like a primary school teacher. Whose husband has died.’

The format was simple; we would play some games (with much humiliation of the losers, often, due to recent surgery on my foot, me), learn some skills, but mostly we would be up in front of the maestro, either being rewarded (with chuckles) or mocked for being boring. Be too boring too long and we’re off the stage.

He made me think a lot about gurus in theatre. I had taken a very strict anti-guru position in my work till now. As soon as we foster the idea that there is one person who is the fount of all knowledge it leads to a huge imbalance of power, and with any imbalance in power comes the potential for abuse. And I have seen in many rehearsals (and in even more actor-training lessons) the desire to create this unequal relationship on both sides: actors who want to believe that their director/teacher is omniscient, because it frees them from the burden of choice, and pleasing the leader becomes a satisfyingly clear goal, uncluttered with complexities of, say, ‘improving as an actor,’ or ‘giving the best possible performance.’ This does not apply to all actors by any means, but there are some for whom it becomes almost masochistic. Similarly, there are certainly directors and teachers who seek out those roles, not for the creative fulfillment it brings, or the joy of supporting someone else to be better, but for the adulation and power that come with it.

[Note from Future Tom – Phelim McDermott of Improbable wrote this beautiful letter to all such directors, exploring the impact it has on the whole industry.]

On the other hand, a certain amount of trust and humility are necessary to learn any new skill from someone who has mastered it.

I could feel similar forces at work in the room; I’ve known many people who have gone to France to study with Gaulier for a year or more, pretty much every day, clowning for him with him acting as the sole arbiter of what is good or not. In the room this week there were those who got it, who could walk the tightrope perfectly – obviously they were praised. There were those who kept falling off and kept climbing back up as the week went on, still not getting the subtlety Gaulier is looking for, and so trying too hard, and so falling back off. Their desperation increased to painful lengths by the Friday. And there were others, myself included, who got on the rope for long enough to know what it felt like to be balancing to hover between forced and empty, alive and alert and vulnerable. But we didn’t know how to stay there, and eventually fell.

By the Wednesday I had come to see and appreciate the magical quality Gaulier is looking for; it is mesmerizing and joyous, and terrifying to watch, a great quality for any performer to be able to access. His approach definitely worked for some people, hindered others. By the end of the week I’d realized I’d stopped volunteering to go in front of the maestro. Why was that? I knew what he was looking for, I knew I could do it, at least for ten seconds at a time, before falling. Looking back, I just think I didn’t want to please him enough. Although, I do think he would approve of this Julia quote: ‘Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. . . As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness. We need to learn to gently mull instead of churning away like a little engine on a straight-ahead path.’

The Artist’s Way, for all I’ve stretched it out, has been really central to my experience of the last few months. When I started, both my internal creativity and the external opportunities seemed to realize that creativity seemed very far away. Now I feel possibilities bubble up, within and without. It has certainly been a major turning point in my life. But, even though the course has ended, there’s not a neat finish to this story; I’ve changed direction but I’m still on the journey. If I had to summarise the one big change, it is that now I feel like the journey itself could be a source of joy and creativity.

‘Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.’

[And so, two and a half years later – how did life turn out? I was right back then, the Artist’s Way did mark a huge turning point. But that should probably wait till another blog . . . ]

Week Eleven: Recovering a Sense of Autonomy

Nearly there, and of course, blog is late again! It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. I’ve done Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, York, Liverpool, Stockton. I have spent a lot of time on trains (all of that time put to good effect; got some work and a lot of creative play done) but not enough time in bed.

The main thing I did in this Artist’s Way week was direct, and, to my surprise, perform in a multi-voice poem about, and performed by residents of Skye Edge. Skye Edge is a slightly run down estate perched on top of a hill which falls away to amazing views of Sheffield. As one participant put it when you stand on the Edge ‘it’s like windsurfing in the sky.’ The locals were interviewed and then their words were turned into beautifully evocative poetry by Sally Goldsmith. I blogged the whole process, including my creative vulnerability, on the Freedom Studios website, so I’ll keep it brief this time and refer you to these:

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/big-sky-the-first-read-through/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/northern-soul-northern-poetry/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/thelma-pat-and-marie-rehearse/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/skye-edge-the-metaphor/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/young-uns/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/coalescing/

http://www.freedomstudios.co.uk/post-performances/

As I say in the last one, the response from audience and participants was fantastic and it made we wonder about the value of that work, sat along side more high profile work I’ve done with professionals. Julia had wise words to say about the value we place on our creativity:

‘The market may be rotten even when the work is great. I cannot control these factors. Being true to the inner artist often results in work that sells – but not always. I have to free myself from determining my value and the value of my work by my work’s market value. . .

I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem – whether it will sell or not.’

As I say, I have been crazy busy doing fantastic things, but none the less, crazy busy. Within that it’s been vitally important to take snatches of time for me, ensuring I was visiting the creative well before I dried up. The particular well I went for was running and wandering.

‘Most blocked creatives are cerebral beings. We think of all the things we want to do but can’t. Early in recovery, we next think of all the things we want to do but don’t. In order to effect a real recovery, one that lasts, we need to move out of the head and into a body of work. To do this, we must first of all move into the body.’

I’ve managed three runs (the last back to my top speed of 5km in 30 mins, stat fans!) and several wanders. One wander took me past York gallery, which I haven’t been in since I was a child. And I experienced the gallery like a child, wandering and allowing certain things to catch my attention, others to slide past, not forcing anything. There was a video on a loop. A man had swum in the sea from Scarborogh, with a camera (presumably water-proof) strapped to his head. As the dark sea rolled beneath me, it was like I was there, and I got that feeling of awe I get whenever I look at the vastness of the sea. It was great.

I had an hour free before catching the train back from Liverpool (on which I am writing this post) and I took myself for a wander, obeying the instinct to drift rather than sitting down in a cafe and start writing funding applications. I noticed this.

I didn’t have time to see the exhibition but I like to think that it was referring to what my dad calls ‘Wanderment’, the desire to stroll, directionless, exploring, rather than advertising a particular exhibit.

And now, we enter the final stretch. On to week 12.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 9 Serenity

‘There’s no place I can’t be

Since I found Serenity.

You can’t take the sky from me.’

 

So let’s take it as read that Firefly is 588 minutes of the best television ever made. (Sceptical? Go watch it. I’ll wait.) Also, it’s just had its tenth birthday.

Serenity represents a number of things. First up, is Freedom; it allows the characters to live a life in constant transit; all journey, no destination. A useful image for someone who’s trying to live in the moment and be less hung up on ‘getting there.’

Second, it represents Resistance. Named after the last, ill-fated battle of those who opposed the Alliance, it represents the ability to stand up and speak out against the devilish nature of authority.

Third and final, it represents family. In the story a disparate group of people come together to form a surprisingly functional family. In interviews I am often asked to say which director I would most like to emulate. The truth  I would most like to be Joss Whedon; watch the Making Of: you can see the sense of playfulness and the sense of belonging Joss enabled his cast to experience. The feeling of playfulness enables the actors to go further, take risks, experiment. The safety is creatively useful for artists engaged in the incredibly difficult and pressurised process of collaborating on a piece of art. And that playfulness and camaraderie, the sense of being on a journey together, infuses the work on screen. So that once you’ve sailed on Serenity you feel like part of that family forever.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 8 The Ultimate Object of Devotion

I’m writing this on my way back from watching a friend of mine receive her Gohonzon. Receiving Gohonzon is to my form of Buddhism as Confirmation is to Christians. You might have been chanting for a while (I’ve know people receive after three months and others after seven years; I took just under two), it’s an act of commitment (not a binding legal one) akin to getting married. It’s like getting married to your highest wisdom and potential and making a promise to work together, through good times and the inevitable bad ones, no matter what.

Gohonzon receiving ceremonies really are like weddings in that I tend to well up during them and afterwards there is sometimes cake. I’ve been lobbying for Pimms as well but that hasn’t caught on yet.

Anyway, that’s the receiving ceremony. But what is it you are actually receiving? A scroll, written in classical Chinese,  modeled on the original one made by Nichiren Daishonin, the monk who spread the practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.

He lived a remarkable life. At the time (12th C Japan) the country was divided into parishes and if you were a peasant you were forced to support the temple of that parish, regardless of what form of Buddhism the temple may belong to. Imagine you were Church of England and you got a letter from the government one day saying that due to your post-code you were required to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like that. Additionally, these temples and their different sects of Buddhism encouraged the locals to donate to support the monks there, on the promise that, if the peasants kept their heads down in this life, they would be rewarded with Enlightenment in one of their future lives (or if you were of low social status you might come back rich. Or if you were a woman you might be fortunate enough to come back as man.) There was no sense that people could achieve enlightenment in their current life or that there was any point in changing the world they lived in, or that people are equally wonderful regardless of social rank or gender.

The Daishonin stood up against all that and taught people that they already had all the wisdom in the Universe in their lives and that by having faith in their own potential and that of others, they could reveal it. And the key to developing that faith was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obviously, this rattled a few cages. It rattled the cages of everyone who had something to gain by persuading people not to fight for a better world now, but to put up with their poverty and injustice. It annoyed everyone who was kept very comfortably and in positions of great power, by the donations and worship they received. It vexed everyone whose political position depended on the support of powerful Temples and Priests.

Unsurprisingly this pissed off loads of powerful people and as a result they heaped persecutions on the Daishonin, including repeatedly trying to kill him, and finally they exiled him, despite already frail health, to a freezing inhospitable island, full of other exiles, most of whom were ardently opposed to his beliefs. It was practically a death sentence.

Remarkably, his faith kept him alive through these various persecutions, sometimes miraculously. Finally, living in a barely-standing shack in the middle of a field where the locals left their dead to be eaten by birds and worms, starving and ill, he remained unbeaten in spirit. And he knew that this was because he was revealing the great potential inherent in his life, tapping that energy we all have access to.

Up until then many sects prayed to statues of Buddha. The original intention may have been to reflect that they too could manifest the qualities of the Buddha, but over time that got lost and it became, ‘Oh please help me Buddha, because you are way more amazing than I could ever be, and I am rubbish and incapable without your help.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha would have wanted.

So the Daishonin, in his freezing shack, wondered what object could people pray to; what would be the ‘ultimate object of devotion’, which, when chanted at, would connect people in to their own immense power, rather than seeking salvation from some external force. So he made the Gohonzon; he wrote Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, representing all the amazing power of the Universe, down the middle, and around it he wrote the names of Gods and Demons representing all the different aspects of life, positive and negative. The Gohonzon was a diagram, showing the truth of our lives; that, amidst the varied realities of our lives, the heart of our being, is this amazing capacity of wisdom, courage and compassion.

In that sense the Gohonzon is a mirror which shows us back our highest potential. Crucially, it is not in itself magic, or able to sort out our problems for us. The Daishonin warned ‘Never search for the Gohonzon outside yourself.’

The respect we show the Gohonzon, then, is the respect we show to our own highest potential. So we keep it in special box, we don’t take photos of it, we make offerings of fruit, incense, water and greenery (I’m using cacti because my greenery kept becoming brownery), we keep the area dusted, etc. We are offering those things to ourselves; they are metaphors which have meaning because we imbue them with meaning. On those days when I can’t believe in my own potential, when I want to curl up and for the world to leave me alone, the act of caring for and respecting the object which represents my higher self enables me to reveal the self-respect which I would otherwise struggle to muster.

And then when you chant, with the Gohonzon reflecting back the truth of your life, then you can start, sometimes painfully, to see the things you can change, the ways you can grow.

So, this would be most inspiring object and I’m very grateful to my younger self for deciding to make that commitment. It’s been an eventful marriage so far, which has required a great deal of work, but one I’m very glad I entered into.

Week Ten: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection

I started this week with a Buddhist course for the young men of Northern England. These things are always powerful, but for me this one was especially so, as I had been given the responsibility for running the thing. It was humbling watching so many young men from all over the planet, from so many social and ethnic backgrounds, coming together to encourage each other to believe in the limitless potential of all people. We arrived, it seemed to me, struggling with our environment (car break-downs, bosses hitting people with a deadline while they are trying to leave the office, ill relatives, or literally not having enough money to afford the fare), or with ourselves (why am I bothering? I should have planned for that, I’ve failed already, everyone is practising stronger than me. . .) Some didn’t make it at all, some did but then left, but those who stayed the course slowly, in some cases with great difficulty, worked through all of it, together.

It’s in the middle of such courses, as I am mentally juggling three dozen problems, that I learn something about myself. Normally, that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. Often, that I place an impossibly high bar for myself.

The discoveries on this particular course will continue to reverberate for weeks and months to come.

This week Julia talks about the blocks we throw up in front of our creativity.

‘We begin to sense our real potential and the wide range of possibilities open to us. That scares us. So we all reach for blocks to slow our growth. . .

Blocking is essentially an issue of faith. Rather than trust our intuition, our talent, our skill, our desire, we fear where our creator is taking us with this creativity. . . Blocked we know who and what we are: unhappy people. Unblocked, we may be something much more threatening – happy. For most of us, happy is terrifying, unfamiliar, out of control, too risky!’

Which sounds very like the Buddhist course, and our collective struggle to believe in the immense power and wisdom contained in all our lives.

Julia goes on to outline some of the things we can use to block this creative energy; work,  love, sex, drugs, alcohol, food. All of these things can be positives (apart from, you know, drugs, cus drugs are bad –ed.) but we can turn all of them into self-destructive blocks.

She then focuses in detail on the first of these blocks: workaholism.

‘If people are too busy to write morning pages, or too busy to take an artist’s date, they are probably too busy to hear the voice of authentic creative urges.’

Gulp.

I have taken recently to being very strict about my hours, partially in response to previous employers who thought that paying a living wage equalled owning your entire waking life. I long ago learnt, the very hard way, that I do my best creative work when I’m rested, fed, and have clean clothes to wear. But also it takes more than that. There are many studies about the need for quiet reflective space, about the way in which problems, creative or otherwise, can get resolved when the conscious mind is given space to think of other things. When I’m working on a text now, I study it over and over before the rehearsal period starts. But once rehearsals begin, I leave my copy in the rehearsal room each day. I work better with the actors in the room when I don’t allow myself to work outside it.

Both of my current employers are very supportive of my attempts to keep work limited to work-time. I now keep time-sheets not to protect me from them, but to protect me from myself. But if I factor in the other commitments I sign myself up for, then, yes, I struggle to fit in the pages, the writing, the reflecting. I’m at some sort of rehearsal, meeting, show every night this week, and for many weeks before and after.

I may need to work on not working.

Of course, those directors who careers have far-out stripped mine, give the impression of never sleeping for their constant, driven, work. But that would be a comparison, wouldn’t it?

‘You pick up a magazine – or even your alumni news – and somebody, somebody you know, has gone further, faster, toward your dream. Instead of saying, ‘That proves it can be done, ‘ your fear will say, ‘He or she will succeed instead of me. . .

As artists, we cannot afford to think about who is getting ahead of us and how they don’t deserve it. The desire to be better than can choke off the simple desire to be.

I had several breakthroughs this week. One was in updating my professional website (www.tomwrightdirector.com). I haven’t done this properly for three years. In that time I have done some of the work of which I am most proud, the most courageous, exhilarating, detailed, work. But because I made that work with young people in a Midlands town I had a hard time celebrating it. My website is really just that, the place where I honour the work so far with a paragraph and a few photos for each project. Working on the website brings up so many of those feelings for me. But I broke through that this week and, bar some tech glitches that I need to iron out, it’s up to date. A new beginning.

I also allowed myself a couple of artist’s dates. One was a silent walk led by sound artist Phil Harding around Bradford. A small group of us follow behind him, in silence, leaving enough distance between us so that we can’t hear the footsteps of the person in front. No phones, no recording equipment, just our ears and the people and environs of Bradford. Delegating all thought of trying to get somewhere, just contentedly following, my range of hearing opened up. The quality of sound deadened as we walked past wooden fencing, echoed as we went under a bridge, stilled and grew on the end of a railway platform, surrounded by trees. People’s voices were the best. My favourite, ‘What the fuck are they doing, walking in a lines like zombies?’

I also went for a stroll (with another bonus – the company camera!) along Ravenscar, between Scarborough and Whitby.

En route, by chance, I passed Cober Hill, where I spent two very significant holidays as a teenager with Youth Theatre Yorkshire. We would build characters on the first day and then stay in role for most of the next two days. The first year I was crotchety oligarch on a distant planet, facing a worker’s rebellion. The next I was a Tiger Priest who united the tribes of his forest against loggers. Born leader you see.

And here’s a closing thought to carry me on to the penultimate week:

‘The need to win – now! – is a need to win approval from others. As an antidote, we must learn to approve of ourselves. Showing up for the work is the win that matters.’

P.S. My back is doing much better now as Artist’s Way is now out on Kindle, thus saving a lot of lugging a large book around in an already over-filled bag! (Does mean there are no page number references this week, though.)