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Project Book update…Painful Progress

I don’t know if I ever intended monthly project book updates but here we go….

Well I’ll be honest this isn’t so much of a ‘project book’ update as it will be a general moan about life. But this blog is designed to both document the book-writing process as much as it is to share the research. And the reality is, this kind of stuff is part of the process.

So, life update. Or at least job update. Or indeed lack of job update. I spent Christmas working in a bookshop. Which was hard work but fairly enjoyable all told. And before it ended I found out I had a temporary admin job lined up. Happy days, I can have a routine, and work on my research around the work.

As it happened the job wasn’t what I’d hoped. For reasons I may get to talk about in more detail another time. But added to that, this week they decided to let me go. And I’ll be honest I’ve taken it hard. From the financial worry once again, to the crippling feelings of ‘failure’ at still not having a ‘real’ job. And, well nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough do they?

Alongside that the ever-present panic that I’m going to mess up this opportunity to write the book (and the play, there’s a play that’s due around the same time).

Add to that a feeling of deflation around other things. I’ve been trying to jump on the Angels Broadway bandwagon and pitch articles to different outlets, throw myself at the publicity as ‘Dr Angels’ and see if anything bites. But nothing is. I know it’s par for the course in that world to get rejections. But knock back after knock back there is putting me back in the ‘not good enough’ frame of mind or the ‘losing out to people who just shout louder.’

And on the latter point there is a frustration. With this play, that I know I’m one of the experts on, and that there aren’t many of us (I’m never, in case anyone thinks so, conceited enough to say I’m the best or only one. There’s some excellent fellow Angelologists out there every bit as deserving to share their thoughts as I am. But also I’m one of them, I want my voice in that mix). But instead I’m feeling like a third rate academic, that nobody wants to hear from.

Finally, this week. I did a thing I find hard to do and asked someone for help and advice with the career, with writing- after they’d offered. I got shot down. I got told I wasn’t deserving to be paid for writing as I hadn’t ‘paid my dues’. I got told I clearly didn’t ‘want it’ enough as I’m not living in London, being a starving artist and sacrificing it all for my work.

An objective me can sit back from this week. Take in the knocks that are par for the course. Brush off the ones that are just bad luck or bad people. But that’s hard too. And right now I feel defeated, and deflated. And as if all this fighting, all the scarping and scarping I did last year was for nothing.

And where does that leave Project Book?

I’ll be honest, I’ve not done a lot lately. The combination of work, and the frustrations around it being back again but out of reach have blurred my focus. But I’m slowly switching that around to inspiration again. Channeling all that into wanting to make it the best I can make it. Because I fought this far, I’m not letting myself down.

And right now I feel like I’ve let myself down. I’ve lost another job. I’ve not made any progress, not capitalised enough on opportunities I had. And that maybe I’m just not good enough.

It is a kind of painful progress I guess. And my ‘dreaming ahead’ in this moment is putting a kind of blind faith that prioritizing finishing the book is the right thing to do. But that’s scary, because what if, what if it all goes wrong. It’s all for nothing and another year is wasted. What then? But I guess also, what if you don’t. What then have you wasted?

But ultimately in times like this, all I can do is write. Sit down and write the best book I know how to write. And even if it’s not good enough, at least I’ll know I tried.

And so to ‘spinning forward’ where am I with the actual writing (Stop moaning about life Em an actually talk about the book…) My projects for this month are as follows:

  • Edit Introduction chapters and work on original productions
  • Source any missing material around these
  • Collate information on 2017 production (reviews etc)
  • Create a detailed plan for 2017 analysis

The book has shape in my head now. And many spin offs and avenues that may or may not get explored here (maybe they won’t fit, maybe it’s a 2-parter, as a true child of Kushner should be right?)

It’s there, it’s alive. It’s waving papers in the air an shouting at Mormons.

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Project Book update…Painful Progress

I don’t know if I ever intended monthly project book updates but here we go….

Well I’ll be honest this isn’t so much of a ‘project book’ update as it will be a general moan about life. But this blog is designed to both document the book-writing process as much as it is to share the research. And the reality is, this kind of stuff is part of the process.

So, life update. Or at least job update. Or indeed lack of job update. I spent Christmas working in a bookshop. Which was hard work but fairly enjoyable all told. And before it ended I found out I had a temporary admin job lined up. Happy days, I can have a routine, and work on my research around the work.

As it happened the job wasn’t what I’d hoped. For reasons I may get to talk about in more detail another time. But added to that, this week they decided to let me go. And I’ll be honest I’ve taken it hard. From the financial worry once again, to the crippling feelings of ‘failure’ at still not having a ‘real’ job. And, well nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough do they?

Alongside that the ever-present panic that I’m going to mess up this opportunity to write the book (and the play, there’s a play that’s due around the same time).

Add to that a feeling of deflation around other things. I’ve been trying to jump on the Angels Broadway bandwagon and pitch articles to different outlets, throw myself at the publicity as ‘Dr Angels’ and see if anything bites. But nothing is. I know it’s par for the course in that world to get rejections. But knock back after knock back there is putting me back in the ‘not good enough’ frame of mind or the ‘losing out to people who just shout louder.’

And on the latter point there is a frustration. With this play, that I know I’m one of the experts on, and that there aren’t many of us (I’m never, in case anyone thinks so, conceited enough to say I’m the best or only one. There’s some excellent fellow Angelologists out there every bit as deserving to share their thoughts as I am. But also I’m one of them, I want my voice in that mix). But instead I’m feeling like a third rate academic, that nobody wants to hear from.

Finally, this week. I did a thing I find hard to do and asked someone for help and advice with the career, with writing- after they’d offered. I got shot down. I got told I wasn’t deserving to be paid for writing as I hadn’t ‘paid my dues’. I got told I clearly didn’t ‘want it’ enough as I’m not living in London, being a starving artist and sacrificing it all for my work.

An objective me can sit back from this week. Take in the knocks that are par for the course. Brush off the ones that are just bad luck or bad people. But that’s hard too. And right now I feel defeated, and deflated. And as if all this fighting, all the scarping and scarping I did last year was for nothing.

And where does that leave Project Book?

I’ll be honest, I’ve not done a lot lately. The combination of work, and the frustrations around it being back again but out of reach have blurred my focus. But I’m slowly switching that around to inspiration again. Channeling all that into wanting to make it the best I can make it. Because I fought this far, I’m not letting myself down.

And right now I feel like I’ve let myself down. I’ve lost another job. I’ve not made any progress, not capitalised enough on opportunities I had. And that maybe I’m just not good enough.

It is a kind of painful progress I guess. And my ‘dreaming ahead’ in this moment is putting a kind of blind faith that prioritizing finishing the book is the right thing to do. But that’s scary, because what if, what if it all goes wrong. It’s all for nothing and another year is wasted. What then? But I guess also, what if you don’t. What then have you wasted?

But ultimately in times like this, all I can do is write. Sit down and write the best book I know how to write. And even if it’s not good enough, at least I’ll know I tried.

And so to ‘spinning forward’ where am I with the actual writing (Stop moaning about life Em an actually talk about the book…) My projects for this month are as follows:

  • Edit Introduction chapters and work on original productions
  • Source any missing material around these
  • Collate information on 2017 production (reviews etc)
  • Create a detailed plan for 2017 analysis

The book has shape in my head now. And many spin offs and avenues that may or may not get explored here (maybe they won’t fit, maybe it’s a 2-parter, as a true child of Kushner should be right?)

It’s there, it’s alive. It’s waving papers in the air an shouting at Mormons.

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Thank You Jonathan Larson (again)

A slight diversion. But as this is the ‘research blog’ it seems only right that I take pause today to talk about the ‘other half’ of my academic life. And so much more.
Larson wrote ‘How do you measure a year in the life’ and the more years that go by- in both his work a part of my life and since the world lost him- it becomes harder to encapsulate those things in words.
Larson’s work shaped me personally and professionally. And musical theatre owes him a debt. We would, theatre kids, likely have no Hamilton if it wasn’t for Larson (Don’t believe me, listen to your God Lin-Manuel while he tells the story of how Larson’s work shaped him here ) Now we aren’t all Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. But I’d bet that most of us theatre kids of a certain age (and the generations after us) owe a little something to Rent. And actually, like Miranda I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Rent.

For me I came late to it. I was 19 and just discovering musical theatre. And of course, on that discovery Rent came soon after. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake.
And so, Rent became a part of me. In that way anything you love intensely in your teens and early twenties does, it became entwined with my growing up. When I started I was a bit younger than those characters, but as time passed I grew up into them and lived on past that point in life. But they remained there. Part of the lessons learned on the way:  I wished to live with the abandon of Angel, love like Collins and be fierce and fearless like Maureen. All the while, being a lot like Mark- the observer, the outsider (and a bit like Larson too it seemed). I gathered the stories, consumed everything on this musical. The year the film came out is a halcyon daze of celebration for this thing we loved in my mind. Early internet fandom (hello Hamilton we got there first) and the sharing of information, grainy video clips, and friendships made. Rent marks out moments in my growing up, a constant soundtrack, my musical home. 
Fast forward a few years, and a few more. I wrote a PhD.  I wrote a PhD on Rent. I am when I’m not being Dr Angels, Dr Rent. And I fought hard for that PhD. I fought people who said I had no business writing on a musical at all. I fought people who said this musical wasn’t worthy. And I did it anyway. I like to think Larson would be pleased with that. Not just that someone, from country thousands of miles away, wrote a PhD on his musical. But that she fought damn hard to prove the legitimacy of it. Because Larson was passionate about musicals as an art form. And we’re getting there now in that recognition, but boy did he fight for us too.
I spent my PhD, when I was doing all the defending, telling people who inevitably asked about the two plays ‘Angels is my head, Rent is my heart.’ That does both a disservice- equally both deserve the analysis I gave them, and equally both are loved. But I was right, there is something about Rent that is etched into my very being. Even without thinking of it, it runs through my veins in the way only music you fall in love with at the right moment in your life can. I have a companion, and inspiration for life in that. I can fall back on it in times of joy and sorrow, or even when I’m just feeling a bit lonely. It’s my friend and companion. And by now it’s a part of me.
(And yes, by the way anyone with the foolish notion to marry me will have to endure Seasons of Love in the ceremony, it’s just the way it is).
 I spent four years with my head in this (and a couple of other pieces). I deconstructed, I stepped away and analysed coldly. I was forced to defend my choice of Rent, a ‘lowly musical’ as a piece of serious work. I was forced to look at it in the most critical way. And I began to feel like I should have ‘grown out of it.’
Almost exactly a year ago I came out of a production of Rent that was, firstly the best version of it I’ve seen since the original. Secondly, one that so profoundly affected me I had to sit on a bench desperately texting the two people I knew would understand, to pull myself together and move. After all this time, all these years, still it’s in my bones. In the very soul of me.
And maybe some people out there feel Rent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there’s no denying the influence it had on people. From the extremes of, yes writing a PhD on it. To the lesser extent that it just helped people through difficult times. Or that it made them happy.

And for me who Larson was, along with what he achieved, is a part of why every year on this day I pause to think about how he inspired me and continues to. Larson fought hard for what he got. And yes, before anyone says so, for every Jonathan Larson there are dozens if not hundreds who never achieve what they set out to. But does that mean we should all stop trying?
In Tick Tick Boom Larson writes the following:
“I want to sit down at my piano and write a song that people will remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning. For the rest of my life.”
“When I emerge from B minor or A, 5 O’Clock Diner calls, I’m on my way. I make a vow right here and now, I’m gonna spend my time this way”
That there, in whatever form is what Larson gave me. That feeling that dreams are worth it, if they’re worth it to you. And I’ve come to realise, very slowly, that this is what matters to me. To write, to make something that matters to people. Larson doesn’t put a number on it- he couldn’t have known after all quite what Rentwould become. But it was always the drive to make something. He was 35 when he hung up his battered Converse trainers to go and work on the workshop of Rent. Of course, the story has been mythologised in Broadway history. And Larson had a series of minor successes that led him to that point. But I still hold onto that. It took Larson until 35 to hang up those shoes and leave the diner he worked in. And I like to think he’d have carried on trying beyond that had he needed to. I’m not a believer in anyone sacrificing everything for their art. But you live with what you’re comfortable with. That’s what Larson did- for him working in a diner meant space to write. And that’s what drove him.
I listened to Tick Tick Boom on the drive to work in my last ‘proper’ job. The one I swore would be the last job I settled for. That I was taking the leaps to try and chase some dreams. Yesterday I got fired from a Temp job that was set to become all consuming and not let me follow up on what I’m really trying to do. And no, chances are I won’t be another Jonathan Larson. But if I think to Larson on a parallel path, I’m sure he’d rather have got to say, 50 and said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot.’
And that’s what Larson gave me. The music that shaped my life. And the power to keep going. Through that music. And through how he lived.  Even when it feels like it’s falling apart.
I’ll be honest, my life has felt like it’s falling apart this year so far (and it’s only 3 weeks in). All the tiny steps forward made last year feel like they’re going hurtling back and 100 miles per hour. But I will pause. Breathe. Listen to Jonathan’s music, and think about how it set me on a path that drove me this far. And hope that it can carry me further.
I’ll be sending four claps up to you tonight. And saying once again, Thank you Jonathan.

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Thank You Jonathan Larson (again)

A slight diversion. But as this is the ‘research blog’ it seems only right that I take pause today to talk about the ‘other half’ of my academic life. And so much more.
Larson wrote ‘How do you measure a year in the life’ and the more years that go by- in both his work a part of my life and since the world lost him- it becomes harder to encapsulate those things in words.
Larson’s work shaped me personally and professionally. And musical theatre owes him a debt. We would, theatre kids, likely have no Hamilton if it wasn’t for Larson (Don’t believe me, listen to your God Lin-Manuel while he tells the story of how Larson’s work shaped him here ) Now we aren’t all Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously. But I’d bet that most of us theatre kids of a certain age (and the generations after us) owe a little something to Rent. And actually, like Miranda I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done without Rent.

For me I came late to it. I was 19 and just discovering musical theatre. And of course, on that discovery Rent came soon after. Eventually I made it to Broadway to see the show. I loved it, who wouldn’t. Interestingly it wasn’t that first time that had a profound effect on me, but I think the second or third. I remember so distinctly being sat in the Mezzanine of the Nederlander theatre and being hit by a wave of emotion stronger than anything I’d felt before, in the theatre, and rarely have since. And although I loved Rent, as musical theatre fans do, it was that moment it really became a part of me that I’d never quite shake.
And so, Rent became a part of me. In that way anything you love intensely in your teens and early twenties does, it became entwined with my growing up. When I started I was a bit younger than those characters, but as time passed I grew up into them and lived on past that point in life. But they remained there. Part of the lessons learned on the way:  I wished to live with the abandon of Angel, love like Collins and be fierce and fearless like Maureen. All the while, being a lot like Mark- the observer, the outsider (and a bit like Larson too it seemed). I gathered the stories, consumed everything on this musical. The year the film came out is a halcyon daze of celebration for this thing we loved in my mind. Early internet fandom (hello Hamilton we got there first) and the sharing of information, grainy video clips, and friendships made. Rent marks out moments in my growing up, a constant soundtrack, my musical home. 
Fast forward a few years, and a few more. I wrote a PhD.  I wrote a PhD on Rent. I am when I’m not being Dr Angels, Dr Rent. And I fought hard for that PhD. I fought people who said I had no business writing on a musical at all. I fought people who said this musical wasn’t worthy. And I did it anyway. I like to think Larson would be pleased with that. Not just that someone, from country thousands of miles away, wrote a PhD on his musical. But that she fought damn hard to prove the legitimacy of it. Because Larson was passionate about musicals as an art form. And we’re getting there now in that recognition, but boy did he fight for us too.
I spent my PhD, when I was doing all the defending, telling people who inevitably asked about the two plays ‘Angels is my head, Rent is my heart.’ That does both a disservice- equally both deserve the analysis I gave them, and equally both are loved. But I was right, there is something about Rent that is etched into my very being. Even without thinking of it, it runs through my veins in the way only music you fall in love with at the right moment in your life can. I have a companion, and inspiration for life in that. I can fall back on it in times of joy and sorrow, or even when I’m just feeling a bit lonely. It’s my friend and companion. And by now it’s a part of me.
(And yes, by the way anyone with the foolish notion to marry me will have to endure Seasons of Love in the ceremony, it’s just the way it is).
 I spent four years with my head in this (and a couple of other pieces). I deconstructed, I stepped away and analysed coldly. I was forced to defend my choice of Rent, a ‘lowly musical’ as a piece of serious work. I was forced to look at it in the most critical way. And I began to feel like I should have ‘grown out of it.’
Almost exactly a year ago I came out of a production of Rent that was, firstly the best version of it I’ve seen since the original. Secondly, one that so profoundly affected me I had to sit on a bench desperately texting the two people I knew would understand, to pull myself together and move. After all this time, all these years, still it’s in my bones. In the very soul of me.
And maybe some people out there feel Rent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there’s no denying the influence it had on people. From the extremes of, yes writing a PhD on it. To the lesser extent that it just helped people through difficult times. Or that it made them happy.

And for me who Larson was, along with what he achieved, is a part of why every year on this day I pause to think about how he inspired me and continues to. Larson fought hard for what he got. And yes, before anyone says so, for every Jonathan Larson there are dozens if not hundreds who never achieve what they set out to. But does that mean we should all stop trying?
In Tick Tick Boom Larson writes the following:
“I want to sit down at my piano and write a song that people will remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning. For the rest of my life.”
“When I emerge from B minor or A, 5 O’Clock Diner calls, I’m on my way. I make a vow right here and now, I’m gonna spend my time this way”
That there, in whatever form is what Larson gave me. That feeling that dreams are worth it, if they’re worth it to you. And I’ve come to realise, very slowly, that this is what matters to me. To write, to make something that matters to people. Larson doesn’t put a number on it- he couldn’t have known after all quite what Rentwould become. But it was always the drive to make something. He was 35 when he hung up his battered Converse trainers to go and work on the workshop of Rent. Of course, the story has been mythologised in Broadway history. And Larson had a series of minor successes that led him to that point. But I still hold onto that. It took Larson until 35 to hang up those shoes and leave the diner he worked in. And I like to think he’d have carried on trying beyond that had he needed to. I’m not a believer in anyone sacrificing everything for their art. But you live with what you’re comfortable with. That’s what Larson did- for him working in a diner meant space to write. And that’s what drove him.
I listened to Tick Tick Boom on the drive to work in my last ‘proper’ job. The one I swore would be the last job I settled for. That I was taking the leaps to try and chase some dreams. Yesterday I got fired from a Temp job that was set to become all consuming and not let me follow up on what I’m really trying to do. And no, chances are I won’t be another Jonathan Larson. But if I think to Larson on a parallel path, I’m sure he’d rather have got to say, 50 and said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot.’
And that’s what Larson gave me. The music that shaped my life. And the power to keep going. Through that music. And through how he lived.  Even when it feels like it’s falling apart.
I’ll be honest, my life has felt like it’s falling apart this year so far (and it’s only 3 weeks in). All the tiny steps forward made last year feel like they’re going hurtling back and 100 miles per hour. But I will pause. Breathe. Listen to Jonathan’s music, and think about how it set me on a path that drove me this far. And hope that it can carry me further.
I’ll be sending four claps up to you tonight. And saying once again, Thank you Jonathan.

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Angels Crashing in: Broadway gets closer.

How many times can I fall in love with this play all over again?  And how also does it still hurt so damn much.

Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue

It’s something that’s been kicking around my brain a lot, as the production moves towards Broadway.

Today spurned on by the article in Vogue and the gorgeous images taken by Annie Leibowitz I think I crystallized a few of those thoughts.

Let’s backtrack again. The article in Vogue. With pictures by Annie Leibowitz.

And of course the small fact that Angels is back on Broadway (in the theatre most recently housing Cats for added nerd value). And with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace and the wonder-New-York-Recently-Discovered that is Denise Gough.  (I’m staking the claim now America, you don’t get to keep her.)

All of that is enough to make this nerd heart leap. But what I’m still struck by is the power this play still has. Even in the thinking about it.

The Messenger arrives in the original production

I spent years writing about this play in what felt like the backrooms of academia. This play has always been a pretty damn big deal. From opening at the National Theatre and on Broadway to great acclaim. To the theatrical, political and cultural statements and stirrings it caused. You don’t get to be ‘The most talked about written about’ play in American theatre for nothing. But, fighting my small corner on it,  I spent years of a PhD and beyond feeling like Louis and his piles of research- shouting from the photocopier hoping someone would listen. I’ve written about all this before. How I was done with it all. How this production changed all that, changed me. But I guess every time it still sneaks up and surprises me with the sheer force of it.

Actually through most of the PhD I looked like this.

Why does it still surprise me how much I fall in love with it?

“You’re not stupid so don’t ask stupid”

Alright Mormon Mother you’re right.

But why then does it also feel like my heart is breaking?

“When your heart breaks you should die.”

Thanks for that Harper.

 And the emotions all of this- as the Broadway production is in rehearsals, as the theatre is being dressed, as it almost is time for these Angels to fly on Broadway for the first time in 20 years. It’s an impressive number. It’s an impressive play. And impressive production. But this play, this production is so much more.

When I was slaving over a 100, 000-word thesis on it. It felt like the forgotten masterpiece. In the UK it crashes back through our ceilings about once a decade. And last time, Daniel Kramer’s masterful incarnation stirred feathers, but was no ‘Heaven Quake’. This time around it was the theatrical event of the year for many. And suddenly, my passion project was everywhere. For the first time in a long, long time it felt like the world was paying attention again.

Suddenly, through also virtue of some pretty special actors involved- whether it was for Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield or Denise Gough your interest was stirred (Special shout out to a subset of theatre Twitter in the James McArdle camp of ‘you have my attention’). All of theatre world was talking about it and it was joyous. Even when we disagreed, even when people still 20 years on couldn’t wrap their heads around Perestroika as the wonderful difficult second child that it is. Even when those who loved the original couldn’t gel with Elliott’s re-writing of the style. It was vibrant, and passionate and intellectual debate. Even those who hated it. But it also felt like London embraced this play once again with the same welcome it had 25 years ago. It felt like it stayed a bit of a worst kept secret, this wonderful creation on the South Bank.

Why does it rip at my heart to see it on Broadway? Because it’s terrifying. And wonderful. All at once.  It’s sending this crystallized, inventive but boundary pushing creation from Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre back ‘home’ to New York. And it feels almost-to use an appropriate idiom- a bloody cheek for a bunch of Brits to be giving it the first Broadway revival. But it also feels bloody good. And a little bit exciting that we know what’s coming.

It is as Prior himself might say, ‘Wonderful and horrible all at once’. This precious thing you guarded for so long, that you fought for (and over- viciously) is now suddenly being once again the fodder of the masses. And as much as you wanted the world to share this thing you love, there’s also a part of you that wants to keep it close, for fear somehow in the sharing it gets ruined.

And it’s wonderful because you want everyone to know just how brilliant, and life changing and exciting it is. (And I have enough of Louis in me to be unable to resist that) But being so close to something, as researching a PhD makes you, it feels horribly exposing. Seeing that thing under such public focus, takes what you’d kept so close to your heart for so long. Because also suddenly everyone has an opinion. And everyone might have an opinion on your opinion, should you dare to say ‘Um actually I know this play better than a lot of people….here I have a thing to prove it.’

And of course on a personal level I’m desperate to write about it and to have a platform to do so- and my heart is breaking a little that, no matter how many brilliant pitches I write, I probably won’t get the platform to do so. And my heart is in this play, and I have more of it in my head than frankly some of the people who step out on that stage. I have ten years of head and heart, and I’m pleading with the Universe to just give me one more chance to share it- More Life once more if you will.

But most of all I’m bursting- with pride and love that this thing I love is soon to be back in the world again.

Seeing those pictures again, I was struck most of all by the sheer force of it. Every time I think I’m back to that colder intellectualism, something takes hold of me again.

And with this production, it feels like us Brits are in on the secret. We know how wonderful it is. What an incredible feat Marianne Elliott pulled off with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Even those Americans who saw the NT Live broadcast who think they know, don’t really know the real power of it in person. And that’s exciting to watch happen again.

There is a force of nature to this play. It not only gets into your head, but it is under your skin and takes a hold like no other piece of art ever has. And it is that, that driving, consuming love for it that keeps me writing. And I cling onto that. Like Prior’s ancestors in that boat.

Sometimes you just need a hug when you think about it

And yeah it still can knock me sideways. That’s how I know it’s sincere. That’s how I know I have to keep working. That the  World only Spins Forward.

And I have lots more to say about all that. I hope to say it. I plan to. Somehow.

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Angels Crashing in: Broadway gets closer.

How many times can I fall in love with this play all over again?  And how also does it still hurt so damn much. 

Photo: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue 

It’s something that’s been kicking around my brain a lot, as the production moves towards Broadway. 
Today spurned on by the article in Vogue and the gorgeous images taken by Annie Leibowitz I think I crystallized a few of those thoughts. 
Let’s backtrack again. The article in Vogue. With pictures by Annie Leibowitz. 

And of course the small fact that Angels is back on Broadway (in the theatre most recently housing Cats for added nerd value). And with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace and the wonder-New-York-Recently-Discovered that is Denise Gough.  (I’m staking the claim now America, you don’t get to keep her.)



All of that is enough to make this nerd heart leap. But what I’m still struck by is the power this play still has. Even in the thinking about it. 

The Messenger arrives in the original production 

I spent years writing about this play in what felt like the backrooms of academia. This play has always been a pretty damn big deal. From opening at the National Theatre and on Broadway to great acclaim. To the theatrical, political and cultural statements and stirrings it caused. You don’t get to be ‘The most talked about written about’ play in American theatre for nothing. But, fighting my small corner on it,  I spent years of a PhD and beyond feeling like Louis and his piles of research- shouting from the photocopier hoping someone would listen. I’ve written about all this before. How I was done with it all. How this production changed all that, changed me. But I guess every time it still sneaks up and surprises me with the sheer force of it. 

Actually through most of the PhD I looked like this.

Why does it still surprise me how much I fall in love with it?
“You’re not stupid so don’t ask stupid”
Alright Mormon Mother you’re right. 
But why then does it also feel like my heart is breaking?
“When your heart breaks you should die.”
Thanks for that Harper. 


 And the emotions all of this- as the Broadway production is in rehearsals, as the theatre is being dressed, as it almost is time for these Angels to fly on Broadway for the first time in 20 years. It’s an impressive number. It’s an impressive play. And impressive production. But this play, this production is so much more. 
When I was slaving over a 100, 000-word thesis on it. It felt like the forgotten masterpiece. In the UK it crashes back through our ceilings about once a decade. And last time, Daniel Kramer’s masterful incarnation stirred feathers, but was no ‘Heaven Quake’. This time around it was the theatrical event of the year for many. And suddenly, my passion project was everywhere. For the first time in a long, long time it felt like the world was paying attention again. 


Suddenly, through also virtue of some pretty special actors involved- whether it was for Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield or Denise Gough your interest was stirred (Special shout out to a subset of theatre Twitter in the James McArdle camp of ‘you have my attention’). All of theatre world was talking about it and it was joyous. Even when we disagreed, even when people still 20 years on couldn’t wrap their heads around Perestroika as the wonderful difficult second child that it is. Even when those who loved the original couldn’t gel with Elliott’s re-writing of the style. It was vibrant, and passionate and intellectual debate. Even those who hated it. But it also felt like London embraced this play once again with the same welcome it had 25 years ago. It felt like it stayed a bit of a worst kept secret, this wonderful creation on the South Bank. 
Why does it rip at my heart to see it on Broadway? Because it’s terrifying. And wonderful. All at once.  It’s sending this crystallized, inventive but boundary pushing creation from Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre back ‘home’ to New York. And it feels almost-to use an appropriate idiom- a bloody cheek for a bunch of Brits to be giving it the first Broadway revival. But it also feels bloody good. And a little bit exciting that we know what’s coming. 


It is as Prior himself might say, ‘Wonderful and horrible all at once’. This precious thing you guarded for so long, that you fought for (and over- viciously) is now suddenly being once again the fodder of the masses. And as much as you wanted the world to share this thing you love, there’s also a part of you that wants to keep it close, for fear somehow in the sharing it gets ruined. 


And it’s wonderful because you want everyone to know just how brilliant, and life changing and exciting it is. (And I have enough of Louis in me to be unable to resist that) But being so close to something, as researching a PhD makes you, it feels horribly exposing. Seeing that thing under such public focus, takes what you’d kept so close to your heart for so long. Because also suddenly everyone has an opinion. And everyone might have an opinion on your opinion, should you dare to say ‘Um actually I know this play better than a lot of people….here I have a thing to prove it.’ 

And of course on a personal level I’m desperate to write about it and to have a platform to do so- and my heart is breaking a little that, no matter how many brilliant pitches I write, I probably won’t get the platform to do so. And my heart is in this play, and I have more of it in my head than frankly some of the people who step out on that stage. I have ten years of head and heart, and I’m pleading with the Universe to just give me one more chance to share it- More Life once more if you will. 



But most of all I’m bursting- with pride and love that this thing I love is soon to be back in the world again. 

Seeing those pictures again, I was struck most of all by the sheer force of it. Every time I think I’m back to that colder intellectualism, something takes hold of me again.

And with this production, it feels like us Brits are in on the secret. We know how wonderful it is. What an incredible feat Marianne Elliott pulled off with Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Even those Americans who saw the NT Live broadcast who think they know, don’t really know the real power of it in person. And that’s exciting to watch happen again. 

There is a force of nature to this play. It not only gets into your head, but it is under your skin and takes a hold like no other piece of art ever has. And it is that, that driving, consuming love for it that keeps me writing. And I cling onto that. Like Prior’s ancestors in that boat. 





And yeah it still can knock me sideways. That’s how I know it’s sincere. That’s how I know I have to keep working. That the  World only Spins Forward. 

And I have lots more to say about all that. I hope to say it. I plan to. Somehow. 

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Why Elliott & Harper is the company I’ve been waiting for

As the first production from Elliott & Harper opens its doors for previews tonight, it’s worth pausing to think what this new production company means and why indeed we need more like it. Something of a ‘power house’ company formed of Marianne Elliott and Chris Harper. Both coming from the National Theatre- as Director and Producer respectively- there’s a real understanding of both the craft of theatre and the audiences that do- and don’t- come to it there. And made by and produced by in the commercial realm. That’s potentially very exciting.

 

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Firstly, the act of two people who really love theatre, really understand  it both from an audience point of view and an artistic point of view. Secondly, one of the UK’s best directors striking out on her own to make work on her own terms. Thirdly, and you bet it’s an important factor, a woman artistic director. It’s all exciting, and has the potential, we already know to produce exciting work. A company that is starting with a new Simon Stephens play ‘Heisenberg’ starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham is obviously a pretty strong start. When your second play is a radically re-imagined Company, with Rosalie Craig in the starring role, and a small matter of Patti LuPone also starring. Even in the most unforgiving critic’s eyes that’s a bold and strong start.

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Why then is Elliott & Harper both such a good idea and an important one for? Firstly, then theatre people making theatre. As loathe as some critics are to admit it, we do have a lot of great  work happening in London and beyond (and can we pause to note that already Elliot& Harper are working beyond London with their collaboration with West Yorkshire playhouse, this gives me great hope for a regional outlook in the future) The London fringes, subsidised sector and indeed a lot of regional work are brilliant, daring and pushing boundaries and audiences to the limits. And that is wonderful work. I love the West End, I love a big musical and a classic play. I even firmly believe there’s a place for Mama Mia in this world, but what we need is a balance.  Performance that challenges audiences, gives something new, twists those classics but is also accessible to casual and seasoned theatre goers alike.

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And you know what, I think Elliott Harper are the ones to brings us that. Theatre people who understand both theatre as a craft, and audiences. That’s what our theatre needs an intelligent alliance at the head of a production company, one that understands and wants to challenge but excite audiences. The Harper in ‘Elliott&Harper’ will drive a production company that’s business savvy, but also doesn’t lose sight of the.We have a lot of business savvy producers, and we have business savvy producers who do I’m sure care about the work. But I fear a lot of them have lost touch with that. In a difficult market, when a proven commodity or safe bet is easier it feels like ‘why?’ is a question only answered by ‘money’. We need money in theatre, we all know that but a producer relationship with an artistic director that drives that question ‘Why?’ with a more complicated answer is far better for us all in the theatrical world. And having a director like Elliott then answering those questions for you with the productions is possibly a recipe for theatrical gold in every sense.

Elliott’s directing work has always been both risk taking and accessible. Proof that you don’t have to alienate an audience to challenge them, that you can be bold to engage an audience not put them off. Proof also that visuals and spectacle and turning theatre on its head work only when engaged with the heart of the matter: human storytelling. The National, where Elliott &Harper have both honed their craft, is as a rule good at this kind of risk taking. Of pushing boundaries with form or taking a risk on the kinds of stories told.  Any of Elliott’s ‘big hits’ could have ended in disaster, and in interviews she’s far too modest to say so, but in other hands they likely would have. From the ‘let’s tell this children’s story but with puppets, giant horse puppets’ to the Scottish fairy tale with a floating princess and Tori Amos music, to the inside of an Autistic boy’s mind to, yes, Angels crashing through ceilings. These were pushing theatrical boundaries in one way or another.

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But in their final execution were so well put together that it becomes almost too easy to forget that element. As a personal example, the most vicious argument I had with my PhD supervisor was about War Horse as an innovative piece of theatrical storytelling, because it’s so easy to miss just how clever, innovative and important it was. (Given my PhD itself was 3 years of arguing that Angels in America is an important theatrical work I can’t help but be amused, and wonder if I could now persuade Elliott to shout at my supervisor for me)

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Known for big storytelling, and big visuals- from Angels crashing to Rosalie Craig floating for an entire performance, to yes, those horses again. But what perhaps goes unnoticed in the bigger picture is that all of Elliott’s work is at its heart about people, the human stories. And that’s what makes her directing not just good, but something special. Anyone can throw together big visuals with the right team, and the right budget. What distinguishes Elliott’s work is that underneath all those big images is a story driving it.

 

Angels in America proved that once and for all, the biggest most sweeping spiraling narrative you could ask for, writ large on the Lyttleton stage and some full on Brechtian Epic staging, but what came through are the people. In ten years, while the Angel crashing to the stage will be a memory, it’ll be how you cried for Prior or the affinity you felt with Harper (or Louis….no just me?) that you’ll remember.  When I think of Curious Incident I have a general memory of the slick, brilliantly realised staging. But really, I think about Christopher and his story (ok and the dog). Elliott’s work is big and risk taking, but the thing that always guides it back is an innate instinct at her heart as a director for stories. That she’s also one of the most conscientious and through directors working today also helps.

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Too many productions seem a little ‘thrown together’ a ‘best fit’ or ‘will do’ which leaves glaring gaps obvious to, and ultimately off putting and insulting to audiences. Not in Elliott’s work- no research stone, or exploration of staging or performance seems un-turned until it fits together. The work always feels like it gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and investment, and repays that with a sense of authenticity to the work.

And yes, it’s important that it’s a woman at the artistic helm. Not just because we need more women visible in what is a male-dominated industry. But we need more women visibility taking charge and running things. That Elliott has used the status and freedom that being at the helm of the National Theatre’s biggest hitters not just to pick and choose what she directs, but to take more artistic charge with a production company, is exactly the steer the industry needs. Elliott could well have gone on directing for the National, or the Old Vic or frankly any other major theatre company who would a) be lucky to have her b) probably bite her arm off to have her direct for them. But in choosing to break out alone Elliott has taken back control, and is able to steer not only her career but in a broader sense the theatrical landscape in directions she chooses. And my goodness does it make a nice change to write ‘she’ in all these sentences.

This isn’t about quotas, or a numbers game. It is also about getting women’s voices heard. And that is on stage and off. Off stage it’s about the sense of hope a woman in charge brings, the idea that the person running this show (in the literal and figurative sense) understands the challenges women face- firstly to get a foothold in a room of noisy men, but then as we get older and it gets harder to be heard, as we juggle children with career, still playing catch up from before and often fade further into the background. And it’s not about saying women will automatically give other women opportunities (though that’s what men have been doing since the dawn of time) it’s saying women will recognise those struggles. The women who end up working with Elliott will still be the best of the best, because they’ll need to be, but the difference is that elsewhere those women might have been overlooked.

And then there’s telling women’s stories. Putting women’s stories at the forefront. That doesn’t mean telling only stories about women or written by women (though obviously that is something we all need to keep pushing for) but it means not pushing the women to the back in the stories we have. Looking at how Elliott directed Angels we already see that- in a story that is filled with men, the voices of the women still rang out strong and for once I felt Harper’s story was as much at the centre. Now in Heisenberg we have a woman in Simon Stephen’s play sharing equal footing with the male character- that’s a woman’s story on stage. We aren’t asking for it to all be about women, we just need stories, and directors who get that voice heard.

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And a part of that of course is Company. That deserves its own analysis just for existing. But the fact that people (men) are already complaining that it won’t work, exactly proves why it’s a story begging to be told. As a 33-year-old single woman, honestly the thought of Company told through a woman’s lens makes me want to cry- because it feels like my voice is being heard. Because I’ve heard all the things thrown at Bobby a hundred times, and because as a musical theatre nerd I want a woman at the heart of something not just to fall in love with the man. And because well who doesn’t cry a bit at the thought of Rosalie Craig in anything right? But in all seriousness, maybe the piece has started to age with Bobby as a man but put a woman’s voice at the heart and it feels like that answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask. And that’s why, that’s why we need women like Marianne Elliott taking charge, making work.

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And if your opening move involves re-writing Sondheim…well I can’t wait to see where you go from there. So, Elliott & Harper, break a leg as Heisenberg opens its doors. And from there…who knows but it looks like it’s going to be something worth watching in every sense.

 

Elliott & Harper continue their first season with ‘Company’ later this year. Meanwhile their co-production of Angels in America opens on Broadway in March.

Angels in America opens on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre New York on Feburary 23rd. Tickets availble via Ticketmaster .

Company opens on 26th September at the Gielgud theatre  Tickets available here via Delfont Macintosh 

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A Kind of Painful Progress; Angels in America and Me.

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First published on my research blog 25th August 2017 

 

Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails, tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.

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I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind, and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again.  To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved. Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.

A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much. Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven into the fabric of my life.  From not to over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me. But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched onto.

 

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Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s Prophecy, is in me.

I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it, fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.

“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left. Except to run.”

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And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of an old life, and an old me.

And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that concrete bunker…I started to find it again.

There are of course wonderful special things about the production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior Walter style is a great one).  If someone asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel, Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s not what this is about.

But all that aside, at different points in the performance, the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it, always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of the thing you missed most in the world.

This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew. There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point, will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.

 

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“But still….bless me anyway”

Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant (though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul and refuse to let go.

 

And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that ‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little bit more of who I was.

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Genuine image of me in my worst job ever

The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk, in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something). Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally, it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not ignoring that email when it made its way to her.

I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll work there one day.’ And he did.  I did the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well got it.

Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you.  Of course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t actually have words for that.  The point (the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said ‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.

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In part, all of this has been about getting that external validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of course that means the world.  To look at that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can find the words.  Except to say thank you, which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.

 “I’m almost done”

It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me- every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre is supposed to give you: community.

So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:

“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”

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And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something. My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.

“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

 

And of course, as ever, ‘The Great Work Begins’

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2017 Round up

Here it is a list of the 10 shows that for various reasons made a mark in 2017. Some commentary being naturally longer than others…

Here are my ‘top 10’ in sort of order but sort of not…

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Far Side of the Moon- Robert Le Page- WMC

I’m including in part for the experience of seeing a Robert LePage work in the flesh. It’s a rare opportunity in the UK and rarer outside London. So, in a theatre nerd sense the ‘experience’ as much as the performance motivates this ranking. However, ‘Far Side of the Moon’ was such an engaging fascinating experience, and really unlike the rest of the year’s theatre going that it had to be included.

 

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Yank! – Hope Mill Theatre/Charing Cross Theatre

Musical theatre is my theatrical life-blood. It’s what I fell in love with, and I love when a show comes along that just captures your heart. Yank! Is a deceptively simple piece of musical theatre writing- a short and heart-breaking love story- but it’s a brave, and beautifully written piece of work. The music is beautiful, again deceptively simple that just sneaks in, takes hold and sweeps you away. I’m so glad it got the reception it did in London and Manchester this year and the small cast really were exceptional. Yank! Rode in and stole a piece of my heart.

 

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My Body Welsh – Chapter- By Steffan Donnelly

This was a show early in the year. A fairly quiet one man show, telling stories about growing up in Wales. When I scanned down my list of shows for the year it just gave me a warm feeling remembering the show- often funny and almost poetic in the writing. It was one that stuck with me, and a worthy mention in the top 10.

 

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Our Town- Royal Exchange Manchester

I was very lucky to be going to the Exchange for a meeting, and to be invited to a matinee at the same time. My first time up there seeing a show, and what a show. A brilliant adaptation/updating/call it what you will of the classic American play. The Exchange is masterful at working their unique space and this worked brilliantly. From the incorporation of audience on stage in Act 1 to the ‘lights up’ approach to much of the play that meant looking the audience and actors in the eye. Despite all these innovations it was the strength of the actors that really elevates this. In act 2 when everything else is stripped back to a virtually bare stage, it was simply one of the most moving experiences in the theatre all year.

 

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 The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough

Sometimes you see a play at the right moment for it to work its way into your head and heart. Busy World is Hushed did that. More than this though it’s an example of an excellently crafted play in both the writing and production. It’s written in the way that great plays are, in a way that it tackles big questions through smaller moments. It may be, on the surface, three people in an apartment talking for much of the play. But what it asks of the characters, and of the audience is far more. From sweeping questions about life, death and faith. To seemingly smaller ones about the choices and attitude we adopt to our lives, Busy World is Hushed covered a broad spectrum. But the setting felt real enough, honest enough for it not to be a play ‘about’ these but one that was honest to these fascinating characters instead. For me that’s the kind of play I love, the kind of play I hope to write. It was also an example of how to craft a production- the intimate setting of the Finborough working perfectly with the setting in a crowded New York apartment. And a three-hander handled impeccably by a trio of excellent actors. It was,  in short, an evening of what a damn good play should be.

It struck a few chords with me- from life past and present, and for that had a real impact emotionally and intellectually.  From the fact one character is an academic struggling with a book project (amused me more as I was interviewing one of the actors that weekend for my own book project). To the line that (to paraphrase) as an only child, all the responsibility is on you. It’s a play that I just ‘clicked’ with and one that a couple of months later still pops up in my thoughts.

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Holding the Man- Above the Stag

 A little play in a little theatre, but one that moved me as much as any of the ‘big hitters’. I adore this play, and this production more than does Conigrave and Murphy’s work justice. It’s obviously one that speaks to my ‘sensibilities’ being an ‘AIDS play’. But I’ve always had a soft spot for this story- the ‘Coming of Age’ story cut short by the epidemic. The one set outside the usual parameters of New York and San Francisco. The one that has a peculiarly Aussie aporach to things that is refreshing.

I love this play for it’s sheer theatricality too. It’s simple in many ways- doubling, lots of use of props and wigs and the odd silly voice. But it’s effective. It’s damn funny, it’s sweet, it doesn’t make a fuss about sexuality while also addressing it head on. If you asked me ‘how to write an AIDS play’ this is actually the one I point to- it’s the one I can watch over and over. And that doesn’t mean it isn’t packing an emotional punch. I actually cried buckets more tears at this than some of the other more ‘famous ones’. In short it’s my ‘little play that could’ and I will always adore a chance to see it again. As my review (here) talks about this company truly got to the heart of it and I love them for it.

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Hamlet- Almeida

Hamlet was once my most loathed Shakespeare play, so that I saw this twice in one summer is testament to how much I loved this production/Andrew Scott’s performance. Like two other productions further down this list, Robert Icke’s production did that thing of building it up from the ground up again. As did Scott. It’s a feat to say, ‘To be or not to be’ as if nobody has uttered those words before you, but he managed it.

The sheer raw emotion of Scott’s performance took it away from ‘The Danish Prince’ and back to the young man struggling with grief and life. It was masterful, understated and a wonderful two fingered salute to anyone who ever under-estimated Scott as just ‘Moriarty’.

This is one of those productions I actually have little to say about, because I can’t actually articulate it. I think with Hamlet we all connect with different versions of him at different times, and for me that version really struck home. Something about the raw power of grief- the anger of grief and the confusion in life that it creates just really came to life in the play for the first time, and touched a raw nerve somewhere inside me. I fell in love with Scott as Hamlet, his vulnerability as a n actor but also the sheer intelligence of it. Really though these are just words failing to articulate what is intangible. Which is really the magic of Shakespeare done right.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

My final theatre outing of the year, and it was a gem of a production. I cried with happiness within the first 10 minutes. It just felt like one of those magical musical theatre moments that grabs hold of you and just soars. It’s a beautiful high-energy production that leaves you grinning and full of love for it’s camp fabulousness. More importantly it’s also a diverse, inclusive and working-class without going the full Oliver. It feels real underneath the glitter and heels. There’s such heart to it.

To see on stage somewhere that resembles where you grew up shouldn’t’ be underestimated. I feel like I went to that school. It felt real. So, thank you for that, for a world on stage that looks like the one I grew up in. Yes, this is all in musical theatre land, it’s the fairy-tale version. But it’s a fairy tale that felt like it had enough truth to it to be honest.  To see also a musical that unapologetically and matter of factly embraces LGBT characters is frankly where we should be in 2017 (or 2018 now). That it’s simply not an issue for Jamie or his family that he’s gay, that he’s accepted and supported sends a powerful message. Yes, it might be a fairy tale for some still, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power and importance of having characters, and stories like this on stage, even in 2018.

We often lament the lack of musical theatre writing in Britain, this shows we do have the capability, if only theatres could invest more in developing the work.

The last two of this year really couldn’t have been anything else really….

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Rent- Theatre Clwyd/St James/Tour

Technically this production began in 2016 but as it was the first thing I saw in 2017 I’m counting it. (and as it toured for a good chunk of the year). And anyway, how do you measure, measure a year…

What to say about Rent? It’s like having an old friend back. It had been long enough since I last saw it for Bruce Guthrie’s production to really work it’s magic again. It was like coming home.

And yet it wasn’t. Because this production felt like it built it again from the ground up. Having spent far too much of my life as both a fan and academic looking at Rent, I know the tendency to enshrine it in the infamous ‘Xerox production’ of a musical. And so, I applaud Guthrie for his wiping the slate clean approach. These were no longer echoes of the original cast- and perhaps because now enough time has passed for it to be so- but they were their own characters again. Seeing it so intimately from row B in the St James’ was so powerful an experience it too me back to the first time I saw it. Afterwards I sat on a freezing cold bench texting the two people I knew would understand until I could get myself together enough to walk to the Tube.

When something is that ingrained in you, so much a part of you, to feel it re-written and given back to you, that’s something special.

I saw Rent twice more on tour. Someone asked me after my feelings about it, and I said something like

‘Rent will always be a part of my life I’m sure, but if that was the last time I see it I can’t think of a more perfect way to remember it’

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Angels in America- National Theatre

I should have no words left for this by now…but I am a child of Kushner and I’m sure I’ll find some. I can’t separate the production, and the experience I had with/around it.  But I’ll try for a moment.

The production, like Rent re-wrote what I thought I knew (and as an aside, if theatre ever stops doing that, it’s time to stop). It looks and feels different to any other incarnation I’ve seen- as well it should, what’s the point in a ‘landmark revival’ that keeps things static. I’ll be shouting about Perestroika in particular the Brechtian Epic staging that Elliott took literally and then some. I’ll be cursing the lights going up while praising the genius of it for years to come. And now when I hear the birds in Central Park for real, I’ll also hear and see that stage. Which is exactly as it should be. The beauty of the neon, the almost balletic quality of the design…and that Angel crashing in. It was everything I never thought it would be, everything I wanted it to be. Even in it’s imperfections, which I grew to love too. It was falling back in love with the thing I thought I’d lost.

And those performances. These characters I know better than my own friends. I’ve lived with them for so long, and I’m incredibly fussy about how they get brought to life.  But boy did this team do them proud. It’s unfair to pick favourites as it’s a team effort, but my dear ‘Mother Pitt’ Susan Brown (along with all the others she takes on) is a tour de force of a performance. Denise Gough ripped through Harper and the audience with a force of a tornado but then quietly sat down and broke everyone’s heart. Andrew Garfield screeched so high that only dogs could hear him, but underneath it was a Prior who was sweet and vulnerable and so very strong. Amanda Lawrence flapped those wings and gave us unhinged Angels by the whites of her eyes, Nathan Lane gave us the evil of Roy Cohn, with a mischievous and dangerous comic timing. Baby Joe by Baby Russell had a darkness too him that was painful to watch (and yes that arse). And Nathan Stewart Jarrett could command an audience with the snap of a finger. And finally, in the nicest possible way, I still want to slap James McArdle in the face and say ‘You bastard, that’s it! That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’ (I mean I probably won’t actually slap him. Probably).

And as for the experience, what more can I say? (wait that’s the other AIDS musical). I said a lot here, but really Angels gave me so much this year. Some of you are probably tired of hearing it. But I can’t under-estimate how much the experience meant, and what it will (hopefully) mean. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book about Angels. Nearly 10, 000 people saw my essay in the programme. I met Tony Kushner and talked on the phone with him. I connected with so many people via this play, so many people who cheered me on, who thought what I had to say was interesting and gave me the confidence to go forward and chase after those things I wanted.

When Marianne Elliott thanked me for my help, when she said I helped make it. Or when Andrew Garfield hugged me and did the same. It’s not because they are ‘famous’ people that it meant so much. It’s because they had made that thing I describe above, the thing that meant so much.  They gave me back the thing I loved, and let me be a part of it. And for that, 2017’s theatre will never leave me.

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Project Book Update: More Life!

Greetings Prophet! Ok so it’s been a while…life (and temp jobs) intervened and the ‘Angels’ part of my brain got turned off. But I’m back, and excited to get back into it. I missed month 3 update, and skipped ahead. But I have news…

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Project book has a publisher! 

Yes that’s right this ‘Tomb of Immobility’ has a home! The as-yet-untitled Angels book is being published by McFarland, probably in early 2019.

I don’t actually have much more of an update than that. Other than to say finding a publisher was the hardest thing until it wasn’t. And I think that’s a sign you’ve got it right. From first contacting the team there it felt ‘right’ and was really smooth and easy discussion. So while I’m still the slightly unhinged one in two-day-old clothes waving research at Mormons…maybe someone is listening.

The only other thing I have to say is this; firstly there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about publishing your PhD related book. For me as ever it was more stumbling through (ever the Louis) than by design. I don’t have a plan, since when have I? I don’t have an academic design I’m trying to fit with. I’m just doing what’s right for me and the book I want (no, need) to write.

And that’s everything else I have to say really. I have to write this book. This particular book has been ‘in’ me for nearly 10 years. And I’m so excited to finally get to say what I have to say…and say it my way. And that, my singular ‘dream’ in life has always been ‘write a book’…and so, here goes….

The world only spins forward…or something like that.

P.S Working title for this monster is ‘Fuck You I’m a Prophet’ I highly doubt I’ll get away with it but…