Number 2 - Flipping Perspectives
Something happened yesterday that proved the value of flipping your perspective.
I was participating in a workshop as part of the Young Vic Directors Programme. It was a Zoom session with directors who had ‘done a bit’, looking at whether we were making the work we actually wanted to make. To those outside of theatre, this could seem like a strange question to ask. I’m not sure how many people ask themselves on a regular basis: ‘am I doing the work I want to do?’ Maybe they do, I don’t know.
You go into theatre because you want to make theatre. There is no other reason to. You certainly don’t go into it for the money. It’s quite difficult to ‘fall into’ a career in theatre – it’s hard enough to climb your way into theatre, let alone fall! This has two results. First, there is an assumption that simply by making theatre you are doing what you want. Second, you are just so damned grateful to be making any theatre at all, that you rarely question whether it is actually the type of theatre that you want to be making.
Lockdown has been an opportunity for many directors to take a step back and look at their work with fresh perspective. For a lot of us, this has been quite enlightening. We work incredibly hard to get any project off the ground, we are hustling and hustling just to get a look-in for a job. Even when we get that job, it will probably be paying us roughly £100 a day and that’s only for the official days of work. This begs the quite big question, if you’re getting paid so little, why would you ever make anything you don’t really want to make?
This is where the second of points made above comes in. If someone offers you a job, you feel like you’ve won a prize (often it is even presented as winning a prize!). You are just so thankful for the chance to get paid for making theatre that the kind of theatre it is doesn’t really matter.
Then, you are so desperate to make sure you get more work afterwards, that you work incredibly hard on that project. You work so hard to make sure the results are good or (more to the point) not bad, that the £100 a day you’re being paid – in practice halves, because you are actually working 12-16 hour days, 7 days a week for the duration of the project. In my experience, you literally dream about the piece.
The result of this is that you actually get a reputation for being good at doing the work that you never intended to do in the first place! So, you get asked to do it again. And again. And again. And because the industry is so afraid of failure, you quickly get pigeon-holed and it becomes very difficult to break free from the label you have been given.
In other words, it is incredibly easy and common for directors to quickly find themselves doing work that they never wanted to do and feeling trapped.
So, during this time where theatre is essentially in hibernation, we have a rare opportunity to take a look at ourselves and ask: ‘are we making the work that we want to make?’ I would also add to this: ‘are we making work in the way that we want to make it?’ Certainly, for me, the process of making is as important (if not more so) than the piece itself when it comes to whether it is work I want to make.
At first, I thought these were questions that needed to be asked on an industry-wide level, by Artistic Directors, Executive Directors and Producers. In other words, I believed change had to happen from the top down. Now, I’m wondering whether this is a change that can happen from the bottom up. If theatre-makers and directors set new parameters for how they make work, then the industry will have to adjust accordingly.
Many feel trapped by the standard process of making theatre. Roughly speaking: programme a show 12-18 months in advance; then attach the core creative team, design the show, design marketing material; then have 3-6 weeks of rehearsals, 1 week of previews, a press night and a 4-6 week run. Some would like to have longer to make a show, with periods of research and development. Some would like shorter turnarounds – keeping each project short and sweet.
The point is, if we all start asking for what we want and confidently stating ‘this is how I work’, then theatres will have to start accommodating us. We should not be confined by an idea of how theatre ‘should be made’.
This is a very long-winded way of saying, we have got some ability to take the power back. Theatre buildings cannot exist without theatre to go in them. But theatre can exist without theatre buildings. As directors, small companies and theatre-makers, we can start to think about new structures and new ways of working. Think about what you can do that is in your control.
I’m not at all saying we should do away with theatre buildings. There are many, many fantastic theatre spaces around the country (and world), run by amazing people, doing amazing things. All I’m saying, is that theatre-makers shouldn’t feel like they have to please these ‘gate-keepers’ of the industry all the time. We should be able to make things our way.
This has strayed somewhat from what I thought I would write about! But has highlight the first flipped perspective – maybe the power can be with the artists? Maybe we can change the way we work? Maybe we can be the artists that we want to be and, in doing so, shape the industry accordingly?
The other flipped perspective takes me back to the Young Vic Zoom workshops. When I boiled down what work I wanted to make, I thought I wanted to make work that questioned why we are here – as in, why do humans exist? What is reason for us being on this planet? (I’ve always been a bit drawn to existential angst). When I compared this with the work I had made, however, I struggled to see the link.
Then I realised that I was looking at it the wrong way around. I didn’t want to shout into the void ‘Why am I here??’, I wanted to gather my fellow citizens around me and say: ‘Look at all the amazing things that human beings do and continue to do! Look at the amazing things that we all feel and experience and will go on feeling and experiencing until the end of humanity as we know it!’ That simple flip of perspective, suddenly opened up all that I have made and want to make in the future. It is the reason why I like to tell big epic stories; it is the reason why I like to tell stories from the past and from other cultures. These are stories that put our lives in perspective, and show us that someone, somewhere has felt what we have felt.
So, the simply act of looking at a question or a problem the other way around, can be massively liberating. If you’re feeling stuck, try flipping the perspective.