Edinburgh Festival 2014 Round-Up

“Did you enjoy the show?” “Yes, it was good.”

Good. Bad. The only words I have left after seeing over 100 comedies, dramas and everything inbetween at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Sorry, all of the rest have gone in reviews – and even there they ended up repeating themselves. I’m pretty sure you could devise a drinking game around the times I’ve said “the play’s world”, “emotional journey” or “a celebration of [insert something rousing]”.

A lot of people think it’s not possible to do justice to every show you see when you’re writing up four, five or six a day. That’s because it isn’t. There will be a something that you give three stars to that, at a later date you think should have been four, or vice versa. You will try and get names and facts correct, but invariably you will undermine yourself by saying “Smith” instead of “Smyth” and announcing that “life was tough in ancient Rome 3000 years ago”. There will always be times where someone else (who I like to think has less reviews to write in more time) manages to say what you wanted better. And it will be annoying when you read it and you’ll wish you’d written what they’d written, and WHY DIDN’T YOU WRITE WHAT THEY’D WRITTEN, IDIOT…

But there are also times when you rattle off 300 words in 20 minutes and think: wow, that was better than anything I’ve ever done in two hours. Covering the Edinburgh Festival like I (and many others) do is an intense but inspiring experience where, every day, you push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. The downside is you have to re-read all of your reviews at the end to remind yourself of what you’ve actually seen. So, having done that, here are my observations on the 3.1% of 3,193 shows I was lucky enough to go to:

Just because a show seems feminist doesn’t mean that it is

Lots of people I spoke to at this year’s festival seemed to think: women on stage + dialogue about sexism = feminist play. But by focussing purely on women as the victims of men, the media and the make-up industry, plays such as Freak (by Anna Jordan) and Sirens (by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed) – as well-written and performed as they are – are in danger of making it look as if victims are all half the population are.

I have heard more sexist jokes in plays highlighting the problem of sexist jokes than I ever have in real life. And if I want to spend £15 on a lipstick, I’ll do it. In fact, Ontroerend Goed, even if I don’t want to spend £15 on a lipstick I’ll do it, just to show you that I can. Oh, and aren’t you the company whose show a few years ago, Audience, involved bullying a female audience member the rest of us were supposed to step in and ‘save’? Go feminism.

But there were also lots of shows that had more interesting female characters and perspectives on sexism too: Travesti put real women’s words into the mouths of male performers in a way that highlighted how farcical it is that men and women are still treated or viewed differently. Clara Brennan’s Spine is about two working-class women who certainly don’t need saving – least of all by a middle-class theatre goers who might think they know best. Pondling, written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, is one of the best depictions of a teenage girl I have ever seen on stage. And in The Capone Trilogy – three plays from some of the company formerly known as Belt Up, written by James Wilkes – the archetypical screen goddesses of the 20s, 30s and 40s are given their say within the traditionally male-driven gangster genre.

Some plays can change the way you watch all subsequent ones

I’ll never look at stand-up comedy or political theatre in the same way again. This is because two excellent shows – Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian and Confirmation – have, in my mind, pulled both of the genres to bits. And I’m very grateful to them for that. The first, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a stand-up performance within a play within a stand-up performance and dissects how making people laugh is often at the expense of others, who may or may not deserve it. The second, written and performed by Chris Thorpe, is a one-man exploration of how we use our experiences to enforce, rather than inform or change, our deep-held political beliefs, whether these are as a left-wing theatre maker or right-wing member of the BNP.

Many of the plays and comedy shows I saw after these two were made far more interesting as a result. Thanks to Gary, when I hear a comedian at Late ‘n’ Live telling an audience member from Pontefract “I spent half of my childhood there”, I automatically assume this is a load of rubbish. And much as I enjoyed another show, Cuckooed, in which comedian and activist Mark Thomas gives a compelling account of being spied on by the BAE Systems, having seen Confirmation I can’t help thinking it’s still only one side of the story. “I’m a very good liar, but everything I’m telling you today is true,” says Mark. But because I don’t like BAE Systems, I’m happy to ignore the first part of that sentence.

There are not enough good roles for female audience members

If you’re a woman, watching a play, and you’re picked out by a male performer, it normally means only one thing: you’re going to be serenaded, presented with flowers and, basically, turned into a generic female love interest. Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, a smart multi-award winning look at our attachment to things from the past, spends a lot of time doing this. Don’t perform or try and be funny, female audience members are told just in case we want to, god forbid, do our own thing.

Whenever I’ve seen the brilliant comedian Adam Riches (whose shows are built around audience participation) pick out a woman they are turned into someone whatever cartoon-like eccentric he’s playing fancies. In contrast, male audience members, who are chosen far more often, get to do things like ride ‘lizard men’ on skateboards, seduce Ryan Gosling’s mother (played by Riches) and be covered in the contents of pots of Yakult. Even in Every in Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan’s lovely, upbeat show about finding things to be happy about, an embarrassed-looking woman in the front row is turned in a familiar girlfriend-type. Cue everyone waiting for inevitable awkward snog.

Kiss-him-or-spoil-the-show is often the implied message for women who find themselves chosen to join performers on stage. Sometimes the audience are even chanting some such thing, or cheering their approval increasingly loudly. And so, behaviour that in real life might be classified as, at best, mass bullying or, at worst, sexual assault is turned into light entertainment.

If you want to make me cry in a play, this is how you do it:

Be funny. Be sad. Be funny. Be sad. Keep alternating. Be more funny. Be more sad. End with a character either facing death or dying. Zap the house lights up. Tell me to get out because there’s a five minute turnaround time.

OK, maybe don’t do the last one. But basically this formula of shifting from something funny to something sad and back again is one that I and the many other anonymous figures sobbing in dark venues find very effective. Daniel Kitson probably does it best and summed it up in his 2012 show As of 1.52 GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title as “’I’m thinking, I’m crying, I’m laughing,’” before adding, “You’ve been Kitsonned.”

Unfortunately, Daniel Kitson didn’t have a theatre piece at this year’s festival (although he was dong comedy, with friends, at The Stand), but keeping someone in the mini-tissue packet business going was Irish writer Pat Moylan’s Beowulf: the Blockbuster, a nevertheless uplifting story about the power of storytelling in which a father uses the ancient poem and all of its magic to tell his young son he’s dying. There was also So it Goes, Hannah Moss’s moving but playful autobiographical play about dealing with her own dad’s death told almost entirely without words (because there are some things words can’t say). Which leads me to…

There were a lot of plays about dead or dying fathers

As well as Beowulf: The Blockbuster and So It Goes, there was Banjo Man, Quina Chapman’s upbeat but touching play celebrating the life or her father, the creator of the 90s cult song Swamp Thing, and her childhood with him. And the semi-autobiographical Jim, by David O’Connor, which follows two sons brought together through dealing with the death of their cantankerous dad.

So, if you’re one of those people looking for ‘Festival Themes’, there you go.

Sometimes the best plays make you feel the worst

To be honest, I spent the majority of The Christeene Machine thinking “my god, when is this going to end?” It’s a confrontational show, particularly if you’re standing, like I was, right at the front of the stage. And that’s the point – or part of it. Basically, it’s the kind of explicit New York underground LGBT cabaret show designed to make you feel at times very uncomfortable. But it was also the most invigorating thing I saw this year, juxtaposing understated monologues with genuine menace as Christeene and her dancers shouted and stamped their way through explicit yet expertly choreographed rap numbers.

This combination of down-to-earth friendly banter with images and behaviour that make you recoil in horror is something that Kim Noble also uses in his epic show You’re Not Alone in which real-life and fiction, as well as comedy and theatre, are blurred together to form a piece that veers from being bleakly funny to heartfelt to horrific approximately every four seconds. It can’t really be confined to a single theatre performance, drawing on the lives of real people who, we are told, have been secretly filmed or recorded. While this makes it ethically dubious, Noble’s disregard for social norms is also part of what makes it so fascinating and simultaneously uneasy to watch.

Vanity Bites Back also plays with audience emotions, asking us to laugh and then throwing this back in our faces, morphing from a seemingly innocuous one-woman character show, by Helen Duff, to a bold and thrillingly fresh exploration of a troubled relationship with food. The lesser-known venue, in the dark and damp South Bridge Vaults, brilliantly lowers expectations, as does the smiling, chirpy woman who greets us there, before all of this is sharply and painfully undermined.

None of the above three plays are comfortable to watch and all of them are all the better for it.

Interesting shows have interesting problems

A lot of plays I’ve enjoyed at this year’s festival have things wrong with them: their stories needs dealing with, everything finishes too abruptly, there are too many ideas crammed into too little time. While these issues could do with being sorted out, they are BORING to talk about compared to how enjoyable the shows containing them are. The Art of Falling Apart has a structure that, yes, falls apart but it also has brilliant characters – probably too many brilliant characters – and one of the best depictions of going on a night out clubbing I’ve ever seen.

One of my favourite shows this year, Looking for Paul – Wunderbaum, ends with all of the characters covered in what appears to be excrement and mayonnaise, with straw shoved into any available orifice. But it’s also a terrific satire about public arts funding, the type of people who become artists and the things that, rightly or wrongly, drive them. The ending goes on too long and the piece risks becoming the very thing it’s sending up, but the fact it otherwise so successfully breaks down and parodies theatre itself, while still being a great piece of theatre, is (unlike, I imagine, the watery spaghetti which covers the stage) simply delicious.

There are lots of good three star shows. But many of you won’t go and see them.

“What’s got five stars? I only want to go and see four or five stars,” people are often saying to me. But if you’re interested in  a play’s subjectmatter, or you like a certain genre, or are following the work of a specific writer or group, seeing a three star show could well be more enjoyable that a five star one about something you have no interest in by a company you hate. Why avoid something that sounds entertaining and just your kind of thing because it hasn’t got that magic extra, highly arbitrary, star?

Here are some of my favourite three star shows from this year’s Festival: Milk Presents: Self-Service, Burger Van, Blind, First World Problems, Something’s in the Living Room, Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve F*cked, Glue, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, Beans on Toast, How Does a Snake Shed It’s Skin, Standby for Tape Back-Up, I’m Thinking of Leaving Facebook, The Secret Wives of Andy Williams.

The star system has lots of problems

Here are some of the main ones:

• It is impossible to accurately ‘rate’ plays by giving them a number between 1 and 5. Invariably there will be shows that both have the same amount of stars and one will clearly be better than the other.

• Critics generally think a three star show means something interesting but flawed, or well put-together if not exactly earth shattering. Audience members think it means avoid at all costs.

• Choosing how many stars to give is difficult when you respond well emotionally to a play that is technically less successful. Or vice versa. You may have the “3 stars or 4 stars?” conversation with yourself. It can go on for hours.

• Normally about three weeks after you’ve written a review – when the show is over and no ones cares what you think any more – your true and lasting opinion becomes clear.

Celebrities sometimes face unfairly harsh criticism just because they’re ‘big names’ (and other times it’s completely justified).

I thought Simon Callow in Juvenalia was an interesting if somewhat meandering insight into everyday life and attitudes in Roman times. Others found it to be full of sexism and prejudice too dubious to stomach in today’s world. Meanwhile, Callow complained at the Fringe First Awards that “the London critics” don’t properly appreciate one-person shows. Whether this is true or not, I do sometimes wonder if being a ‘big name’ at the Edinburgh Fringe means critics are likely to judge you more harshly.

Saying that, the fabulous Nancy Dell’Olio put no effort whatsoever in to her one-woman show Rainbows From Diamonds. While I gave it one star, it has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen albeit for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching someone do a completely unrehearsed speech at a wedding – one that went on for over an hour, cost thirteen quid and involved a ten minute costume change during ehich we stared at an empty stage accompanied by incongruous dramatic music.

I don’t often feel like I want to get directly involved in other people’s shows, but this was like stepping into A&E, discovering a patient was haemorrhaging and that all the doctors had disappeared. I might not know what I’m doing or be the best person for the job, but Nancy, if you need a script, I’ll give it a go. Failing that, call someone. Call anyone. Whatever they can come up with can only things better.

***

Hopefully some of the above shows will go on tour and you’ll get a chance to see them. But, like every year, there will probably some that won’t and the only record that they existed will be in a few people’s memories and any reviews, blogs and features that commemorate them online. While that’s a bit sad, it’s also one of the things that makes the Edinburgh Festival special. No amount of ‘round-ups’ like this or ‘best of’ late-night TV programmes on BBC3 can really capture what it’s like to be there.

If you still haven’t had enough of reading about the Edinburgh Festival 2014 here’s the rest of my reviews

How to be an Edinburgh Festival reviewer

Every year there are more critics at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon there will be more than there are shows. When that happens they will have to take to the stage and review each other. Eventually, the whole process (and possibly the whole festival) will implode and all that will be left is a giant meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square with a few charred fliers and scratched lanyards covered in radioactive dust.

This week, for the eighth year running, I’ll be one of this army of notetakers in comfortable-yet-smart-yet-waterproof shoes, getting on the train at Kings Cross (yes, some of us live in London I’m afraid) with a suitcase full of big coats, out-of-date Microsoft products, and stars. Awaiting our arrival will be audiences, primed to see who we give these stars to. In some cases they will be so dazzled by them that what happens on stage will seem far brighter (or duller) than it actually is.

Those putting on shows will also be waiting to see what we think of them – many ready to hurl a disproportionate amount of praise or abuse in our direction depending on whether we “get” (i.e. like) or don’t “get” (i.e. dislike) their work. Everyone else will be, at best, ambivalent to us as we embark upon three weeks of frantically typing in bars and cafes or from the pavement, like nothing else – not even the massive meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square – matters. Because if the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a competition for who can be the busiest I don’t know what it is. Oh yes, it’s an arts festival. Or is it dream lottery? Or a chance for Foster’s to sell you beer?

It’s actually all of these things, and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s really good fun, especially if you’re reviewing it – even more so if you’re getting paid, and more so again if you’re getting paid properly. I mean, really, what better job is there than doing something you love all day in a place where large numbers of people are doing the thing they love, and then writing about it? For a month!

If you’re lucky enough to be joining me and many others for the first time as part of this disparate, fractious, paid, under-paid, not paid, experienced, not experienced, enthusiastic, cynical, happy, not-so-happy group of people classified as fringe reviewers – welcome.

There is an elaborate and often difficult to figure out hierarchy among reviewers at the festival. The ones who work for certain newspapers can be disparaging about the ones who work for other newspapers, and the ones who work for other newspapers can sometimes seem to think very little of the ones who work for websites (unless they’re websites they like, and then that’s OK).

At least once a day you might end up in a conversation about what qualifies someone to be an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer. People may even ask you directly, usually because they’ve had a negative review or they’d like your job. Of course, there are no qualifications (BA theatre critic?) in the same way there are no qualifications for people who read scripts or commission TV shows or decide you’re going to win or lose this competition or that competition. Someone in a position of power just decides that you’re able to do the job in the same way whoever’s in charge of them at some point just decided they could do their job.

And if you can’t get someone to publish you (or even if you can), you can always publish yourself online. Newspapers are cutting back, websites are growing. Of course it’s more difficult to get people to listen to you from a small blog with an out-of-the-box turquoise font than, say, the front page of Scotsman – but at least no one’s stopping you from giving it a go due to lack of space, budget or appreciation of your genius ideas.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about artists producing their own work. And more and more people who write about this work are publishing their own reviews. The spirit of the fringe – that everyone can have a go – has spread. And while some people might be horrified by that, I’m just happy there are other people sitting on the pavement typing. It makes us more visible to passing buses.

So, if you’re coming to review the festival for the first time – or if you’ve been before but would like me to tell you how to do your job – here are my tips for being an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer:

* If you’re under 30 you might want to try and win the Allen Wright Award. Or you might not. But you probably will.

* If you’re over 30 you might want to moan about being too old to enter the Allen Wright Award – or the fact you didn’t win it in 1997. Or you might rise above all of that. But you probably won’t.

* People putting on shows are not your friends – unless they are your friends, and then you should avoid reviewing them (that is, if you want to stay friends).

* Your opinion is your opinion. Other people will have different opinions, but they can’t tell you you’re right or wrong because that’s why it’s called an opinion.

* Sometimes there will be a general consensus regarding which show’s a multi-prize-winning work of a creative god, and which isn’t. It may be disconcerting that everyone disagrees with you. But it may be that you’re ahead of your time.

* At some point you’ll give a show a number of stars you later think was too generous or too conservative. Either way, everyone will have hundreds of the things by the end of August. By this point you might (rightly) question what stars mean anyway.

* Three shows is an ideal number to review in a day. Four is do-able. Five is too many (but not impossible). Seven is dangerous.

* You will write something nonsensical. You will forget to eat. And drink. You will leave all your money in a venue that looks just like another venue. That’s what happens when you review seven shows in a day.

* If you want to see and hear interesting stuff out and about, don’t wear your press pass around your neck. People will know you’re from the press.

* At some point there will just be you in the audience. You will feel awkward, but not as awkward as the performer.

* You might notice other reviewers taking notes. Chat to them. Chat to everyone. They will tell you stuff. But wait until the show has finished first.

* People will refer to you using only your surname. i.e. “Stott says this to that.” If you’re a woman and you’ve written something they really hate they will precede it with “Ms.”

* Be prepared for every performance you see to be amazing. Many of them won’t be, but at least you’ll have given them all a fair and equal chance.

* Sometimes the characters actors play are more appealing than the people they are in real life. That is the power of acting.

* Don’t say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. At some point, that someone will want to chat to you about it. And then you’ll have to say them to their face anyway.

* The Festival is one of the few places where many people get to do a job they love – at least for three weeks. Others are simply working to earn money and be a part of it. So be nice to the bar/ restaurant/ café staff. Serving you falafel is probably not their dream.

Making sense of the Edinburgh Fringe Guide 2014

A blog originally published in 2013. I was going to write a new one, but my friend said “why don’t you just update that other one you did that was really funny” – and how could I say no to that? (Although I also wrote a new one anyway…)

***

Choosing what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a stressful process for a lot of people, particularly my Dad. Throughout August he emails me saying things like: “We want to go and see four- or five-star theatre show at 3.30pm on Sunday 12th August at the Pleasance Dome, or within a five-minute radius, and it can’t be like that dreadful boxing one that won all the prizes you sent us to last year. Do you have any suggestions?”

By this point, I’m usually seeing lots of shows for The Scotsman and, as a result, have lots of recommendations. However, I can’t remember when or where any of them took place because venues, times and titles are a jumbled mass of numbers and letters rolling around my head like lottery balls. So I just email him a single word: the name of my favourite. It has really stuck in my mind and I’m pretty sure will win all the prizes. Why wouldn’t it? It’s by the company who did that wonderful boxing play.

It’s around this time of year that lots of lists come out called things like ‘Top 20 things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe if you can’t be bothered to read the programme’. They predominantly suggest you go and see shows by companies or individuals who have done good stuff in the past, similar to the way banks only lend to people who can already prove they have lots of cash. These shows are ‘a safe bet’. However, safe can mean predictable and, in some cases, disappointing. For instance, you’re unlikely to appreciate a harrowing expose of sex trafficking, no matter how well done, if what you really want to see is a musical starring ex-soap stars.

Reading the Fringe Guide for yourself avoids this. It means you will be more likely to find and see what you want; less likely to have to buy your ticket now (or last week). However, it’s a time consuming process. I know, because I do it every year. It’s boring! Don’t even try and read more than ten pages without a break. But, in the end, it is worth it. Out of the hundred or so shows I see each year most of the ones I choose are good, and the ones I like best are often on few people’s lists except my own.

In 2008, I was one of the first and only critics to see Little Bulb’s debut show Crocosmia, performed in a hotel room. There were two other audience members. Their last show, Orpheus, sold out Battersea Arts Centre. A picture of their 2013 one, Squally Showers, topped the Guardian’s ‘to see’ list. In 2007, I saw one of the first performances of the recently formed 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It went on to win multiple awards and tour the world. The company didn’t have critics at their follow-up show in 2011. They didn’t need them.

Seeing a great show before anyone else is brilliant. You can take your time and choose where to sit, you won’t have someone else’s head blocking your view because there is no someone else, and the cast will probably chat to you at the end because they’ll be so grateful you came. “Why did you come?” they’ll ask, impressed that you’ve managed to find a venue listed 5km off the edge of the festival map. “Oh, I just read about you in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide,” you’ll breezily reply. None of this is going to happen when they’re selling out the National Theatre and appearing on BBC Breakfast.

While you will never again have the chance to see Little Bulb or 1927 in a quiet, unassuming atmosphere uncluttered by expectation in the way I originally did, reading the Fringe Guide will increase the likelihood of you having a similar experience with another currently unknown company.

But be warned, the Fringe Guide is a bewildering place: hidden gems are submerged in a cauldron of false advertising and unsubstantiated claims. In order to find the really good stuff, you’ll need to weed out the really bad stuff. To help, I’ve created a dictionary of the kind of terms you’ll come across here – words and phrases describing shows, and what they really mean:

Edinburgh Fringe Guide Dictionary

Immersive
You will probably end up on stage.

Site-specific
There isn’t a stage

One-on-one
Talk about your life with a strange man

Interactive
A strange man will try to snog you

A classic dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century
A pointless new setting for a familiar old tale

A rollercoaster ride of emotions
Lots of people crying for no obvious reason

Tackling issues
Talking about issues

Heart wrenching
Self-conscious

Poignant
Slow

Loveable
Annoying

Experienced
Boring

Burlesque
Stripping

Hilarious!
Painful!

America student company
Cheerful, rich teenagers on holiday

Iraq
Play written in 2003

London Riots
Play written in 2011

Ban the Bomb
Play written in 1963

Brechtian
Don’t go if you like Brecht

Beckett-like
Weird and confusing

New writing
Play by someone no older than 25

Monologue
Long

Verbatim
Saying other people’s words for them

Giving people a voice who don’t have one
Writing other people’s words for them

Science meets theatre
Someone like Brian Cox

Theatre meets art
Someone like Tracy Emin

Suitable for under 4s
Don’t go on your own if you’re 43

Suitable for over 14s
Don’t go on your own if you’re under 4

Adults only
Sex

Starts at 1am
Probably good

Free food!
Croissants

Multimedia
A projector

Five stars (audience member)
The critics gave it two

Five stars (unnamed source)
Everyone hates it

Five stars (well-known critic)
You will be left feeling mildly disappointed but predominantly smug

Won a prize in 2002
And hasn’t won one since

The critics loved it
We care what other people think

The critics hated it
Fuck other people

Adapted from a radio play
Was better as a radio play

Is on the telly
And should have stayed there

Anti-establishment
Mainstream

A play about tuition fees
Created by people who don’t want to pay them

A lot of hard work has gone into it
It’s not very good but please be sympathetic

Robert Burns
You will only see this play at the Edinburgh Festival

There will be a Q&A afterwards
No one will ask questions except the director

You will laugh until you cry
You may cry but not in a good way

You will cry until you laugh
Could be interesting

Good luck!

If you still can’t face the idea of reading the Fringe Guide and were really hoping this blog would be another list of recommendations for shows from someone who has yet to see any of them, please continue reading.

 

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Enthusiasm, Brent Forrester and the 344 bus

“Sally Stott is more enthusiastic than experienced… and probably isn’t being paid very much.” This is what someone who is very experienced and not especially enthusiastic said about me when I first started reviewing theatre plays (although despite his concern about my supposed lack of income, he didn’t object to me buying him a drink). Years previously, I had failed to get a job as a literary assistant in a big agency. Why? Because, as I overheard the interviewer later say, I was “too enthusiastic.” It was, after all, “only a job.”

As time passed, I inevitably got more jobs and more experience, as pretty much everyone who lives and works in a city for a certain amount of time does. However, while I like getting paid to do cool stuff as much as anyone else, I intend to never become more experienced than I am enthusiastic. Even if I end up with so many interesting and well-paid jobs that I have to increase my levels of optimism to a point where no one can bear to be in the same room as me, I will strive to maintain this imbalance – because if you can’t be increasingly passionate about whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, what can you be?

“You love everything,” people sometimes say when I like something that they don’t. “You hate everything,” I sometimes say when they dislike something I love. While they might feel that I am too free with my praise, I sometimes suspect they are too sparing with theirs; that their emotions have been dulled by years of trying to find what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right. It’s easy to dismiss enthusiasm as naïve and childish while applauding criticism – however unfounded – as the mature and adult response, one based on thought and analysis rather than low-brow emotions. And yet, emotions are a large part of what both art and life are all about.

In the UK, it sometimes seems like being cynical rather than enthusiastic is the default position. There is a driver on the 344 bus, which (when I’m not cycling) takes me from Battersea to Central London, who says “hello” to every person who boards. This may not seem unusual to anyone who lives in the north of England – where both he and I are from – but in London it’s pretty rare. You can see it on the confused faces of the passengers. “Please do not be alarmed that you have a cheerful and polite bus driver,” he said a week last Friday to the bewildered top deck, “You can write about it in your diaries.” Or blogs.

Later that same day, I go to a talk by American screenwriter Brent Forrester, organised by the BBC Writersroom for comedy writers and producers – and gate crashed by some of us script readers – where he talks about the importance of “relentless positivity.” It’s something he sees as invaluable for generating ideas when writing as part of a team, which he has done a lot of, having worked as a writer and showrunner (someone who leads the group writing process) on The Simpsons and the American version of The Office. He explains that while it’s useful to ultimately decide which characters and stories have potential and which don’t, “an over-developed critical mind can end up permanently destroying ideas.”

Brent has just returned from running a four-day residential for BBC Comedy writers where they have been working in small groups to come up with ideas for new shows. He observes that sometimes British writers can put one another down and sees this as a “cultural thing” that doesn’t help team writing. He later talks about how he has experienced working in “cold, quiet and serious environments” and how this doesn’t lead to creativity. He also highlights how executives who sit in on writers’ meetings create a formal mood that isn’t conducive to developing good work in a relaxed atmosphere (this causes a few uncomfortable glances around the room).

While the people left the 344 bus on Friday looking happier than when they got on, we script readers left Brent’s talk feeling more inspired and upbeat. “Great question,” we spent the afternoon saying to anyone who asked anything – great or otherwise – in our basement reading room, in the same way Brent had to everyone who put their hand up in his post-talk Q&A.

American people have a reputation for being constantly positive and while it’s something that’s easy to sneer at, it’s also pleasant to be around and – if Brent’s dazzling writing career and cheerful persona are anything to go by – leads to a successful and happy life. He is a hugely experienced writer, but it was his infectious energy that everyone was talking about for the rest of the day, rather than his CV. Having worked on numerous great shows, I imagine if someone said he was more enthusiastic than experienced he’d take it as the compliment it clearly is.

Should writers ever give up?

“Never give up” is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books Writing for the BBC (by Norman Longmate) had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Never give up, never surrender,” characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life,” it begins, continuing: “…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.”

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: “The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted.”

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. “I always believed I was a writer,” he says, “it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of.” Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. “It focused my writing,” he says, as did getting feedback on his work. “Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief.”

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. “I self-produced and put on my own plays for years,” he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. “I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially,” he says. “There have been low times of giving up and thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?'” Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. “I have stopped before,” he says, “then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again.” Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? “I love writing,” he says, “In short, probably!”

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, a new writer called Emma commented: “I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…”

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that’s why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. “Do, or do not,” George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. “There is no try.”

Written for BBC Writersroom

 

 

 

Why I won’t stop wearing make-up (for charity or anything else)

“But you look beeeeaaaautiful, babes!” Facebook friends might say, as if I need telling this. Or at least they might if I had posted a no-makeup selfie – which I haven’t. Rather than being peer pressured by the numerous ‘nominations’ I’ve had over the past few weeks, I am sticking to my usual method of charity fundraising, which is running around Battersea Park in the mud and rain with over-competitive commuters, before getting a cold. It’s more fun.

Many people commenting on the no-makeup selfies (on Facebook and elsewhere) seem to think that it’s impossible for women to both own mascara and be happy with who they are.  For me, wearing make-up isn’t any more of a statement about my self-esteem than wearing a jumper. They’re both a way of looking presentable, similar to brushing my hair or tying my shoelaces. Some days I want to wear make-up, some days I want to wear a hat.  What I put on my head has got as much to do with anyone else as what I put on my face, and the phrase “it’s for charity so it must be good, right?” isn’t going to change that.

“But men don’t wear make-up,” you might point out. Well, maybe they’d look better if they did. Saying that, if the male backlash selfies (criteria: vast amounts of rouge, powder and lipstick) are anything to go by, most haven’t got a clue how to put it on. But, with time, I’m sure they could learn. Afterall it can’t be that hard, right? We girls can do it.

I don’t have a problem with anyone, male or female, trying to look good. It is possible to do other things as well (most people manage) and it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re self-obsessed or vain. And even if you are, when would it ever be OK for friends and strangers to tell you this? At the very least, it’s pretty rude.

There’s a misconception that all women think they look dreadful without make-up and that their insecurity levels go up and down depending upon how much foundation they’ve got on. In fact, a study by psychologist Nicolas Epley showed that women (and men)  believe that they are better looking – and better at everything – than they really are.

When I was a fashion student desperate to do something more controversial than sew sequins onto Lycra, I decided not to wear-up make-up for a week. It was boring. I needed it to look the way I wanted in the same way I needed red shoes, zebra print leggings and jacket covered in tiny mirrors (oh, why did I get rid of that…). The heavily made-up 90s pop/punk band Shampoo also did same for a magazine article. It made me think: if you were properly punk, Shampoo, wouldn’t you have just told whoever suggested that to fuck off?

In particular, I object to guys – who don’t have to put up with half of the crap that women do – telling me that I shouldn’t wear make-up. It’s as patronising as them telling me that I should. No, we’re not crumbling on the inside because we decided to put on a bit of lipstick this morning, thank you very much. In fact we feel great. And we look great too – better than you, and that’s partly because we’re wearing make-up.

Dear men who hate cosmetics: Rather than putting all of your energies into telling women how they should behave and look, as men have since the dawn of time, maybe you should be campaigning for it to be more acceptable to wear make-up yourselves? Put on some mascara, eyeliner and foundation (do it properly, don’t make yourself look like a clown because you’re not ‘brave’ enough to apply concealer in a non-ironic way), post a picture on Facebook and I’ll let you know how good, bad or beeeaaaautiful I think you look. Because you need me to tell you, right?

Theatre: Frankenstein

With plenty of purple velvet, strobe lighting, smoke and a pre-recorded soundtrack accompanying every scene, this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is billed as ‘The Modern Prometheus’.  It’s like director Simon James Collier was planning to premiere something at Westfield Vue, but instead ended up in the theatre above the Lion and Unicorn pub.

Take away the many distractions – including scenes with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the author herself – and Adam Dechanel’s adaptation (part 1 of a Gothic Trilogy) is actually pretty literal. Victor Frankenstein, his love interest/ adopted sister Elizabeth and friends deliver their thoughts and handy plot information into the mid-distance as if each of them has swallowed the book. In trying to fit in every scene, the production struggles get to the essence of the tale – namely, what it means to be human or a monster – until some way into Act II.

It’s difficult for the cast to create anything other than melodrama when delivering their lines to soaring music. Sam Curry brings the twisted body of The Creature to life in a way that is fittingly gruesome. But a temporary wooden stage, which clunks every time the performers jump on and off it, otherwise feels unfortunately appropriate.

Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, London. Until 15 March.

Written for The Stage. 

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