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2020 Theatre Round up (Sorta)

I resolutely wasn’t doing a round up for 2020. I mean what on earth were we going to round up? 

This year has, with no exaggeration, broken our hearts in theatre. There’s no other way to put it. We watched our industry disappear overnight. We watched it be left behind for support, be forgotten. We watched it fight back time and time again- online and in person- only to be knocked back again. Writing a 2020 round up seemed pointless. 

But yesterday I looked at my spreadsheet (of course there’s a spreadsheet) and I managed to go to the theatre 19 times before they closed. 17 separate shows. And you know what, I don’t want to forget the shows that happened in 2020 before all this happened. So here’s a little round up, no rankings, no ‘best’ just a few of the ones that stayed with me after all this. 

Shout out to the not mentioned in full; 10 Minute Musicals and SEEN: Utopias, two brilliant work in progress nights I got to be part of before all this. Shout out too, for Amelie and Soho Cinders, two beautiful and charming musicals that started off the year. And shout out to the RSC who I had the fun of seeing for the first time in a few years with As You Like It (and seeing my friend dragged up on stage). 

Oh and because we need to acknowledge it wasn’t a utopia before…a resounding screw you to the ‘Queer’ comedy night I also saw that did its best to reinforce that only a certain type of Queer Girl is welcome. May your undercuts have grown out horribly in lockdown. 

Prince of Egypt

Ok lets start with a less emotionally fraught one. I saw this one the last weekend at the theatre. And in any normal year my friends and I would be giggling over what was, let’s be honest, a bit of a hot mess at times. 

Look I’m still not sure what to do with the Interpretive Dance version of the Parting of the Red Sea to be honest. But you know what, I’m kind of glad I experienced it. 

Prince of Egypt isn’t a bad musical- we knew the music was excellent going in. And my God (erm pardon the pun) what a set of performers. It was at times beautiful, rousing, moving. It was also…you know what a lot of fun. I’m not sure it was what will go down in history as a GREAT musical, but I did have a fun time. And really, we need more of that. 

Less interpretative dance though lads eh? 

Waitress

This wasn’t my first time at the Diner, but I can’t let 2020 go without acknowledging that I got to see Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel in Waitress. I am such a long-term fan of both of them (I mean what self respecting 30-something Broadway nerd hasn’t fangirled Creel for years, and what self-respecting 30 something Queer girl isn’t in love with Bareilles right?). So this was special. 

It’s fair to say Waitress in London had a bumpy ride too. And seeing these two sing the score felt like the magic of the show brought to life again. 

I cried the minute Sara started singing. And for most of the second act and I’m not ashamed. 

Then I went to dinner with someone who, parson the expression, shit all over my love of the show. 

And if 2020 taught me one thing, it’s I’m never, ever putting up with people around me who take joy in making me, and what I love feel less than. 

And they’ll never read this, but let me say this; people who feel Waitress, really feel it beyond it being the cute pie show, we feel it for intensely personal reasons. The film (and the musical) touch on a whole bunch of things that are incredibly personal, and moving for a lot of people. And if you know you know. And you feel some of it on a deep level. And the show is cathartic, and a, pardon the pun, safe place to land. 

Countless shows are like that. Maybe for 2021 and beyond we can stop telling people that the thing they love isn’t worthy, or silly or not good enough. 

And Waitress? You mattered to me. And I’m glad I got to say goodbye with Sara and Gavin. 


The Visit

Oh Tony. Oh Tony. Did it really have to be four hours?

Actually you know what, it’s not a theatre year if I’m not having my arse numbed by a Tony Kushner play and I kind of love that I at least go that in. Lesley Manville wafting on, delivering a cutting remark, and wafting off again for four hours was also worth the ticket price alone. 

The Visit was an excellent piece of theatre, of the kind only the National can do. And again in a year filled with nostalgia, I’m so happy I got that. It is beautifully poetically written as only Tony can. And as only Tony can it was a fusion of the historic and the current political moment. As with so much this year it’s a shame we didn’t get to reflect on that political moment through theatre longer with Tony, especially given all that has happened since. Perhaps a revival of this in the near future, where we might be able to optimistically look at it and say ‘well we managed better.’ 

With anything Kushner this one felt personal. I was destined to make a return to working for the NT delivering some education work on the play, which of course got cancelled. But also given I spent the middle part of the year up to my eyes in Kushner and the NT, writing my Angels book, it was at least fitting I got to see this one this year. 

The King and I 

Again a more light hearted look, because even in a short year…not everything is perfect. 

Every few years, in a fit of optimism, I book a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And then I remember that they are long as balls, and there’s exactly two that I enjoy (Oklahoma and The Sound of Music, if you’re curious).

My God The King and I goes on. 

And on. 

Just….die already? Is that a spoiler? 

Ok in hindsight a colonialist musical about childcare wasn’t exactly on brand for me. But the score is pretty (if endless). And the performances were uniformly brilliant, yes even the kids (kids on stage is my pet hate, you can see how this was a mistake). 

Did I mention it was long? 

This is of course a classic example of how a musical can just not be ‘for you’ I fully respect the artistry involved in the show, while also knowing it’s not for me.


Ian McKellan

That first weekend of 2020, I got to see Ian McKellan’s one man show. Having missed it in 2019 on tour (despite securing tickets, I ended up unable to go). This delightful few hours love-letter to theatre and film was quite simply a delight. 

I have little to say that hasn’t been said a million times about Sir Ian. But a few hours in his engaging company, while he talked of theatre and film that has been the backdrop to many of our lives (being a theatre nerd, and a well, nerd nerd, Sir Ian and I crossed paths a lot. Not to mention his LGBTQ/AIDS advocacy). Sometimes you feel like you got to be part of a truly special event, and the closing night of Ian’s show was just that- a theatrical event you feel privileged to be part of. 

City of Angels 

This was a last minute addition and I’m so glad I got there. I bumped a return to The Visit (to a week later, which never happened) to catch this with Mum and a friend. It was the Saturday Matinee on the last theatre day. Outside the world felt like it was already on fire, so escaping to Hollywood Noir for a few hours was sublime. 

My heart breaks for this beautiful piece of work that only got I think a week open. The cast were the creme de la creme of the West End (and while we’re at it beautiful). It’s a musical that’s hard to explain- it’s dark and twisty with an equally dark sense of humour. It’s quirky and weird and also beautiful? It was one I was already sad not to be seeing again even before I left. So I really hope it gets the London run it deserves one day. 


Tylwyth
Original Review here. 

This is a play I raved about in March. And rightly so. I stand by my praise for Daf James’ witty writing, Arwell Gryffudd’s excellent direction, and the cast’s uniformly brilliant performances. I stand by how much it moved me, how much it felt like a coming home. 

But I think it’s good to acknowledge how 2020 has changed us and our relationship with art, and ourselves. And I think if I saw it again (And I really hope I see it again after the tour was cut short) I’d have a different relationship with it. Maybe one that challenges it more, but without taking away from the skill in the writing or performances. 

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to say. But for me, along with the wider political issues that 2020 has brought to light, I have spent a lot of time (and I mean a lot) reflecting on Queer identity, both my own, and the wider representations we see, and so I think my reaction to it might be slightly different now. I might challenge (though I understand where it comes from) the solely male representations of sexulity. I might challenge ideas that might seem maybe dated now, because actually 2020 has been a long year in how we see ourselves. And I might just challenge my own love for this play and ask myself what more I should be looking and asking for in terms of representation on stage. That doesn’t mean this play isn’t still brilliant, because it is. It doesn’t mean I wont, or shouldn’t enjoy it. I just feel like post 2020 if I saw it again I would ask ‘but what else?’ rather than just be happy with the fact we had a play about gay men on stage. 

Daf James and co are brilliant, make no mistake. And I hope the rest of the world gets to see this play, because it’s important. 

And I hope with everything else, we continue to ask ‘what next’ in terms of our Queer voices on stage, and fight for that too. This play really, when I think about it, kick-started my year reflecting on that. For which I am also grateful. 

Romantics Anonymous

Original review here

I saw this one twice. In a week. That’s how much I loved it. Honestly, it had been a long, long time since I saw something and fell, and fell hard like I did for this show. It was the kind of show I just wanted to dissolve into, and live inside for a bit. It’s a beautiful show in every respect- the simple set, beautiful costumes and sublime performances. All of it is a credit to the genius of Emma Rice’s work. 

But more than that, it was the kind of show, the kind of story where I felt SEEN. It’s a cliche perhaps, such a Millennial phrase. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I rarely see myself in love stories on stage, for so many reasons. Romantics gave me that. And laughs and tears along the way. 

I can’t put it better than I did at the time (full review here) so…

“It feels like things you have always kept hidden spoken out loud…and made beautiful. It feels like you’re seen, you matter… that you’re not alone.”

A Number

This was the last show I saw. On what was its last night anyway. The play itself is Caryl Churchill doing what Caryl Churchill does best. Though it’s actually one of the more ‘accessible’ ones in terms of the naturalism, and narrative. Sublimely written as expected. Perhaps a bit dated in some ways, but nevertheless fascinating. 

The two-hander performance from Roger Allam and Colin Morgan (or ‘Wee Colin’ as he’s known in our house) was beautifully, sometimes hilariously executed. It was to be frank a flawless execution of a brilliant play. I never reviewed it at the time, because it seemed a little pointless. But that’s really it in a nutshell. 

Roger Allam was in the first play I ever saw. And I’ve seen pretty much every stage appearance of his in the last (gulp) almost 20 years. I saw that first play with my Mum, I saw ‘A Number’ with my Mum, and one of my oldest friends from theatre-going. As I stood in the auditorium of The Bridge as we emptied out, I thought ‘Well if in whatever way we don’t get through this, at least that was a fitting bookend.’ 

Maybe it sounds dramatic now. But I’m sure also we all remember the fear that weekend we were all feeling. Both fear for health, for the future of all the things we were doing for the ‘last time’. And for us in the theatre, we could see the tidal wave approaching at that moment, and we knew it was hitting, and there was nothing we could do. So forgive me a little drama. I meant it in my heart at the time. I felt it. 

And so that was 2020. I haven’t included live streams. In all honesty, I didn’t watch as many as I could or should. I spent a good deal of 2020 with my heart too heavy for it. And maybe it’s dramatic, or maybe not. Maybe everyone reading this knows what I mean. 

I veer between heartfelt optimism and heartbreak still. And I’m not sure anyone outside our world understands what that feels like. Normal people I guess, know they’ll eventually get back to the pub or football. Even people who ‘quite enjoy’ theatre assume they’ll get back. 

But for those of us for whom it’s a job. But also our love. We believe- because we have to but we’re still scared right. And really, we just want our lives back. So much of our lives are tied up in theatre, and whether that’s healthy or not is not the debate right now. We lost a huge part of our lives. 

Romantics Anonymous was the last time I hugged one of my best friends. We cried on each other and hugged, and I think we would have held on a bit longer if we’d known. Another of my oldest friends walked to the station after that last performance and we said ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you again.’ and as much as we’ve talked every day, zoom quizzed and everything else, it’s another thing on top of that other thing. And we’re all tired. And sad. We’re normally spending this time of year judging each other’s Top 10 lists for the year. Counting up who has the most shows (we all know in my group who that is). Seeing how many Christmas shows we can squeeze in. Waiting excitedly for all the shows announced for the next year. Instead, we’re just trying to get through to the end of the year and hoping it’ll bring better things. 

Theatre is so much more to us all than the show on stage. It’s our friends. It’s our family. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever be going back to a career in theatre. And that’s ok. For me personally, that’s ok. There are other things in life. I will bounce back from that. 

But what I cannot face another year without, is my friends. My friends who I see through theatre, who I share those experiences with. I still ‘see’ them obviously, they are the people who got me through all this. But all I- we- want really is to meet on the steps of a theatre and hug again. And watch a show and cry on each other again. To eat a hurried dinner at Gourmet Burger Kitchen near the Old Vic. Or freezing my arse off at the Southbank food market. Or have a coffee at the National so strong that it makes us hyper all afternoon. We want to say hurried goodbyes before running for the tube again. Or to loiter in the bar after. Mostly, we just want to sit in the dark and experience that thing, that feeling again, with the people who get it. 

I wanted to write this blog to remember, that I did see shows in 2020. That theatre was real this year. And it will be real again. More dark times ahead. But I will even be happy to stand overheated in a toilet queue this time next year. 

The show will go on. It has to. I still believe that.

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Lesbian Actually- why Happiest Season is the early Christmas gift we need.

Happiest Season, which arrives on Hulu in the US today Wednesday November 25th, ticks all the Christmas film and rom-com boxes. It’s got awkward family encounters and secrets. It’s got festive set ups from ice skating to Christmas parties. It has ghosts of Christmases past (and relationships past) and a healthy dose of heart-warming romance. It appears to be a fun festive movie and it is. But Clea DuVall and Mary Holland’s film goes deeper than this, with a story about acceptance—from others, but also yourself—that will resonate powerfully with many.

Read more at The Queer Review

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What a Year of Tweeting Rejections Taught Me (with some help from the Hot Priest)

 Let’s talk rejections!

Over on Twitter, I’ve been doing a thing this year: every time I get a rejection, I tweet about it with a gif of Andrew Scott, and add £5 to my ‘rejection pot’. The rejection pot was not my idea, the tweeting Andrew Scott gifs very much were.

Why do it?

Firstly, the money (you can put any amount in, £5 seemed reasonable back when I had a job). The point of the rejection pot is to take that money and spend it on something utterly frivolous. Something you couldn’t usually justify. Originally, I had intended to use it for a big ridiculous meal. However, 2020 happened and that’s less fun. So I intended to use it for something I couldn’t normally justify spending money on. I’ll say what it is at the end of this post. The point is to get a treat out of it. We spend hours, days, weeks, applying for things, submitting, doing forms. All unpaid. So why not, if we’re able pay ourselves a little something, and as the saying goes, treat yourself. So that’s what I did. Also, if you care to do the maths, it helps you track how many rejections you got.

A quick note that I didn’t include job applications as ‘rejections’ unless I got to interview stage (or I’d be broke, especially given even pre-covid I knew I would be job hunting) and I didn’t (personally) choose to include pitches I did as a journalist, because those are so many, by the law of averages to get any bites.

So, what constitutes a rejection?

That’s really up to you.

For me it was a mix of the following:

·  Script Submissions (to theatres, and competitions)

·  Applications to writing programmes.

·  Book proposal submissions (this reminds me I left at least one off my tally to add).

·  Any other writing opportunity calls.

·  Jobs at interview stage.

We are gathered here today to discuss rejections

Why share my rejections?

I’m sure some people look at my Twitter rejection reactions and think one of two things. Either ‘Man she must SUCK’ (as one man basically said to me, charmer). Or ‘wow she LOVES attention’

Hopefully, anyone who knows me knows these things aren’t true. But why share them?

Firstly, not for attention, no but solidarity and catharsis. Even pre-lockdown, writing and the arts can be a lonely business. We sit with our laptops, in our rooms, getting rejected time and time again. And we’re mostly alone in the work we put in, and in those rejections. I wanted people to feel less alone. You know in theory you aren’t the only person who got that rejection, but usually, the only thing you see is the person that didn’t get the rejection.

And that’s the other side. I wanted to be honest about the rejections we all get. How many rejections it takes to get a ‘win’? I had dark times this year, when I thought dark, sometimes bitter things about myself, about people who were getting ‘wins’ while I was losing. Those are perfectly human emotions. But we don’t speak about them, because we seem to think talking about rejection either shows we aren’t a good writer, or that we aren’t a good person.

It means neither of those things.

It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer (or actor, or director or artist). It means you didn’t fit for this thing. Or yes, someone with a foot in the door opened it first. Or a dog ate your submission. It doesn’t mean it was bad. All those people with wins got rejected too. From 10, 20, 100 other things. They just only shared the win.

And you’re not a bad person for feeling those things. For feeling angry, sad and yes bitter that all those hours on that submission seemed to be for nothing, again. It’s human. We pour ourselves into our work as artists so of course, it stings when someone doesn’t want it. Of course, it feels like a reflection on ourselves.

And we should be honest about what it takes to succeed- and to fail. And about what we can learn from both.

Lessons in rejection

What did I learn from sharing my rejections?

Firstly, and most importantly, that I’m not alone. And that’s why I did it. To make myself and others feel not alone. So often when I tweet, I’ll get a DM from someone saying either they got rejected from the same thing, or something else, and they felt awful about it. But that seeing someone else get rejected made them feel less alone, less useless, whatever.

Do I think some people see those tweets and roll their eyes, call me attention seeking, say I clearly do suck? of course. But those people probably roll their eyes at all my tweets, and think I suck anyway. What I also learned is how supportive the niche you carve out can be. Yes there’s plenty of the eye rollers in my acquaintances. Probably a few who really enjoy every time an Andrew Scott pops up thinking ‘Yes that bitch got rejected again’ But there’s also so many people who say ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘forget that bullshit you’re better than that’ or just ‘Yay I love to perve on The Hot Priest’ either way it’s a lift in a dark moment. And the perving on the Hot Priest is important (in general, but also here), we should add levity to this. As much as it’s important, as much as we take our work, our art, our career, seriously, it’s also important to keep a sense of humour, of perspective. And if that perspective is a gif of the Hot Priest, so be it.

And beyond tweeting, and an ever-growing rejection pot, what else did this logging of rejections teach me?

Well firstly it’s no magic bullet. Some rejections just sting, no matter what you do. Some you’ve put your heart and soul into. Or pinned your hopes on. Or just thought you know what ‘Maybe this time’ and you get shot down. Again. Or you see the wave of people who DID get accepted, and you start to question everything. (I swear to the theatre Gods the BBC and their percentages can take a hike, I don’t need to feel like I’m in an American High School and everyone else made the top percentile and I failed thanks). And you still have days, where it all feels a bit pointless.

This is just to make the place pretty now right?

I did learn, to open my big mouth and speak up. Even if nobody is listening.

I have two pet hates in rejections, and I’ve been speaking out (though not calling out) the people who do it.

1. Sending rejections at ridiculous times. Save your rejections for business hours. Every basic email package has a scheduling option. Email me, I will teach you how to do it. And send them between 9-6 during weekdays. Not 9pm on a Sunday. I wish I could say it was only one of them I’d had. And before someone says ‘well don’t check your email out of office hours’ that’s not the point- it’s not on me, it’s on the organisations not to send people who put themselves in a vulnerable position by sharing work, to be in a spiral of self-doubt at 10pm on a Sunday. When two clicks could let them see it in the better light of day on a Monday.

2. Poorly written/callous rejection emails. Just take a tiny step back, think ‘would I like to read this’. Don’t put ‘you didn’t even make the first round’.

And we’re busy. I get it. It’s been a hell of a year. But that’s exactly why organisations should be choosing kindness.

What else did I learn?

I leaned to be mindful of my time, my energy. And what was worth applying for. There’s something sometimes in the numbers game. You do have to be in it to win it of course. But I deploy the same approach with submitting as I do writing; will this serve me in the longer term. Can I use it for something else? And this experience has taught me to be more mindful than ever about that. I don’t need the drain on my energy, my time when I know in my heart it’ll be a no., I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating or self-defeating way. I just mean, some calls you know it’s a waste of time, but you feel you ‘should’ because it’s ‘what you do.’ And what this year has taught me, what logging the rejections taught me, is actually you don’t have to, and to save that energy for elsewhere.

And on that note, this year, as it accidentally turns out, has been a good year to log those rejections. Because it’s a year, probably like many of us, I’m considering what I do next. If this fight is one, I stay in or if again, it’s time to not bother directing my energy at things that might be pointless.

And again, it’s not a self-deprecating or self-defeating thing. Its very pragmatic. I’ve not had a bad year, all things considered (losing a job aside). And as cliché as it sounds, I’ve learned a lot about who I am, as a writer, as a person, all that jazz. And for me looking at those rejections coming in, more and more I just didn’t care about a lot of them. And that’s as important as caring.

At least the Hot Priest cheers us up right?

The things I found myself caring about this year in terms of writing. In terms of what I put my energy into, what I was really pinning those hopes on…it wasn’t mostly, the things I’d submitted for. I started the year determined that I should make my mark as a playwright, continue my work as a critic, move on from my job to get a better one… that’s the dream, right?

A year of rejections. On particularly hurtful job…acceptance then taking away of said job before I could even start (oh then the job magically reappearing later) I’m looking at that array of ‘nos’ behind me and thinking…actually I’m ok with that.

Obviously in terms of job applications, being so fussy isn’t a luxury any of us have now. Or any time. But in terms of artistic things, a year of looking at, and sharing the rejections made me ask: Is what I’m chasing what I really want?

And right now, the answer is no.

And yes, it might be a 2020 thing. It might be a decade of fighting burnout thing.

Or it might be the right thing. Because like rejections, giving up isn’t always a bad thing. Not if it leads you to something better.

So I’ll pick up my rejections pot next year. But I’m not sure I’ll be applying to theatres. I’m not sure I’ll be picking up my pen to write a play any time soon. But that’s ok. Just like the rejections are ok too.

Oh and what did I buy with my rejection money? I bought a pair of Daniel-Levy designed glasses. I could never have justified buying otherwise. And who knows, maybe they’ll have some fortuitous writing-vibes for next year’s projects.…it’s worth a shot, right?

Wait that’s not the Hot Priest…time for a fresh start maybe.
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What Learning Again Taught Me: Indigenous Studies MOOC with University of Alberta

Previously I wrote about what teaching in these strange times has given me- both as an academic and as a human. And so, it also seems right that I write about what learning at the same time did for me. 12 weeks ago, I started a course with the University of Alberta. And for the last three months I’ve used my Sundays as my ‘back to school time.’ and it’s been a revelation in many ways- both in terms of the vital learning the course provides, but also in a broader way in thinking about how I continue to learn, and to work as an academic (forgive me we can never quite turn that bit of brain off can we?)

Am I as proud of this as my degrees? damn right.

It’s their free course in Native Studies called Indigenous Canada. And really the whole point of this post is to tell you, whoever you are, to sign up. You can do that right here. And while we’re here, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here.

The course is a 12-lesson Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that has been in existence since 2017 and designed to give an introduction to Indigenous experience in Canada. (First thought, British Universities, we need to get on this idea, being massively behind the times until 2020 forced us online…) You can do it in around 21 hours, which is about giving up an hour or so of Netflix or a little less doom scrolling on twitter. In practical terms, it’s 12 lessons covering everything introductions to key topics; from an introduction to Indigenous societies, through to contemporary life, art and activism. It takes around 21 hours with video lectures and weekly quizzes alongside reading. Basically, you can spend an hour or so a week less on Netflix, or doom scrolling Twitter and take part. Alongside the original MOOC for the last 12 weeks every Sunday, there have been live YouTube discussions about the week’s module.

Starting ‘sales pitch’ done. If that’s enough for you, then just click on the above and get going. But if you’re curious what I got out of it, why I’m talking about it…read on.

I also want to put front and centre a thank you to Dr Tracy Bear and Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle who created the original course and/or worked on providing 12 weeks on invaluable weekly discussions alongside it. Acknowledgement both as busy people giving up their time for that, but also undertaking the time and labour to facilitate people’s learning about Indigenous culture. 

Why start in the first place? partly, as a British person that decolonising is part of my cultural responsibility. Partly, my personal connection to Canada, having lived there, having relatives who still live there. It seemed a logical area to continue my decolonising of my own learning from.  In theory I should have a head start. I have a history degree actually a joint one in American and Canadian Studies degree. But it will probably come as no surprise that my education was lacking in diversity, decolonisation and specifically, given the American/Canadian element, Indigenous history. (McGill, where I did my study abroad, has had an Indigenous Studies programme since 2014 -far later than I was there- and Nottingham, where I did my BA still offers no specific modules on Native Studies at Undergrad level, which is frankly, unacceptable). I can’t fix what I didn’t do then, but I can do the work now. 

And so, when this course crossed my Twitter timeline, despite it being many (ahem) years since my Undergrad degree, I thought it was a good opportunity to fill in those gaps. And I hold myself to account that, righting that gap in my knowledge in any meaningful, detailed way that hadn’t really crossed my mind. 

Why not just read a book? Well why not actually take the opportunity to learn from experts, to learn in a structured way as this course allows me to build a foundation that I can go away and, yes read a book around. But also, the ability to listen to a range of experts talk about these topics, and challenge me as a learner, was also so valuable. So much of what I learned felt vital. And urgently applicable to the world we live in. And also important for me, as someone who works as a writer, as an academic, was finding those parallels of understanding and intersections with my own work, to go forward and work better. To adjust my own world views. Oh and to the slightly snotty attitude I’m sure some academics I know had, let me first say; if you lack the ability to see that all learning is good learning, or ability to see where intersectionality of learning is missing, or the humility to admit to your own gaps in knowledge, you need to maybe consider your place in academia. (Slightly fighty words? Maybe, I’m simultaneously tired of the academy’s bullshit towards BIPOC and other minority areas of research and teaching, and as an unemployed, possibly ‘failed’ academic one with nothing to lose so…fight on).

So, what did doing some structured learning for the first time since, what, 2007? Give me? Firstly, in all honesty, a whole host of Imposter Syndrome. Worried I’d fail a quiz (my dyslexic brain does not enjoy multiple choice!). I would sit there, feeling like a first-year undergrad again frantically trying to get every note down from lectures- I filled two notebooks in this course, frantically worried I’d miss an important point. (even though everything is online, and I can revisit). My personal highlight was frantically scribbling notes on Queer Theory before remembering…I teach Queer Theory. 

That was a silly, funny moment. Born out of my own generally anxious demeanour and perfectionism. But in the broader picture, I did know nothing here and that humility is a good thing. In a valuable lesson Dr Bear highlighted in one of the discussions, is that we all know nothing. And that actually coming at this with that in mind- made me learn in a way that if I just picked up a book and read to ‘tick off’ Indigenous Cultures in my ‘wider learning’ list would never have done. Because learning is a challenge. Especially a course, when as a white person, your sense of the world is going to be challenged, and the way you look at yourself and the country you come from and its impact on the world in the past. (As an aside, most Brits are very aware of the utter mess our country is currently making of things, but that’s another discussion…or is it, says the historian in me…that’s the learning we should all do too). 

But insecurity, and ultimately humility aside the course for me was a combination of becoming excited about vast swathes of learning that opened up cultures and history to me. And the hard learning about confronting that history. The latter is an ongoing and important work. And one that felt supported- and pushed, in a good way, by the weekly live discussions. Forcing us learners to contextualise- often with highly recent events, but also around cultural pasts, legal impacts and how we respond to the world. As a British person I’m conscious of the role my country had in all this, but to hear the ongoing impact is vital for understanding how to support changes being made to try and counter that history.

Alongside this, as someone who is yes, frankly a nerd, the chance to engage in new learning will always be exciting to me. Whether that was finding interesting alignments with Native Perspectives on my own work- of course as writer the elements of storytelling within Indigenous cultures of course sparked my interest. Those ways of educating, of organising, of governing and the way in which I as a writer use storytelling will forever be a fascinating element. And as a Queer person, and someone whose academic work sits in that area too, there was a combination of what I would call more ‘pastoral’ learning moments, when you find parallel with your own lives, lived experience. Particularly in the discussion sessions, the parallels with LGBTQ+ people’s lives came up. But also, in learning about the language, and approaches of Indigenous people to gender and sexuality.

An unexpected, but interesting parallel for me that both gave me insight, but also allowed me to have conversations about Indigenous cultures with someone who would not otherwise have had that conversation was around language and culture. For me as Welsh person, the parallels with loss of language and culture were fascinating. As a country, and particularly my Mother and Grandmother’s generation who lost the Welsh language, through a different kind of colonialism, and its impact on our history, culture and even lives today. The idea that for my Mother and Grandmother’s generation Welsh was- and is considered ‘bad’ or ‘useless’ and my generation’s drive towards using the language and being reinvested in the more ‘lost’ elements of our heritage as a result. A fascinating parallel and a way into discussions that have divided us for years also. But also, one that opened up with my Mum discussions around Colonialism and its impacts. My Mum is a 74-year-old Welsh woman who never went to University, but she already wants to know more about Indigenous perspectives because she never previously got a chance to- she wants to borrow books I’ve brought; she’s asked questions. Without this course neither of us would be doing that. And indirectly that reminded me why learning and teaching are so entwined too.

And of course, as an academic, I have to some degree, a place to have those bigger conversations. Possibly because of the nature of my own research, I’ve always seen academia as an activist tool This course meant more than just the factual learning I did. It was about the inspiration I gained from learning from these frankly brilliant academics whom I would never have encountered without it. Primarily this aspect was from being so inspired by the discussions led by Dr Bear and Dr Gareau and all their colleagues led each Sunday. These on one hand just provided space for conversations not possible in direct ‘teaching’ but also to integrate a wealth of personal experience, current events and everything else. Think what in an ideal world a brilliant seminar or conference paper looks like-except without that one middle aged white guy at the back saying ‘it’s really a comment not a question’ halfway through. Again, what academic discussions feel like they should be. What discussions for facilitating education should be. 

 And I don’t mean it in any sycophantic way when I say; they have exemplified what academia, what being an academic meant to me when I began and inspired me to keep fighting for that. As someone from, who does work on and from a minority perspective (with my additional privileges as a white person) that felt important. It wasn’t the point of the course, but I hope it’s appreciated to say- as I know how little thanks any of us often get, that. It’s actually been a long time since I felt inspired by academics, and on a personal level, this course gave me back that. It made me want to pick that up, in my own area and keep going at a time when it almost felt most futile to.

And to loop back around to the importance of the broader discussions this course facilitated, this discussion needs to also include that a huge part of that facilitating education was also the truly insightful discussion from Dan Levy who facilitated this taking of the discussion online. I’ve left out Levy’s involvement until this point because I wanted to foreground the Indigenous scholars who led the course, and discussions. But it would be remiss not to mention firstly Levy’s role in getting so many people to sign up to and complete the course it’s both an indication of truly using a platform for activism. It is after all one thing to tweet a link to something or donate. It’s quite another to commit to doing a 12-week course, but also to actively put the work in to facilitate further discussion around it week on week. 

Levy’s presence in the discussions did far more than just bring viewers as well- numbers may well matter but what will outlast that is the impact on the quality of the discussion Levy had for those who were listening. I hope it comes across the way I intend when I say to have a non-academic voice in there, someone also just learning this work, reframing their world view, I guess what I’m saying is a ‘normal’ person’s voice. But a highly intelligent, focused voice coming from a place of wanting to learn- and help others to learn, elevated those discussions. I mean basically if all of us could distil all the attributes of the best students and the questions they ask, into one person’s discussion Levy’s questions, contributions are probably what that looks like (how do we make that happen? Next time I’ve got a room of blank faces maybe I’ll also tell students ‘Learn from Dan Levy’s approach to learning’). But what was vital was Levy’s engaged way of discussing the topics from a learner’s perspective, before giving the platform over to the experts to guide everyone listening through. And in a way of leading by example, Levy flipping the difficult elements onto his own worldview, allows those listening to think about doing the same. And we need those ways in, that nudge in the right direction

And you know what, I can hear the eye rolling from anyone who made it this far. The ‘Oh so that’s it- an actor tweets a thing, so you do it that’s so shallow’. Paralleling the academic disdain at being ‘above’ it somehow. Firstly, I say to those people we’ve all bought things we didn’t need because an actor tweeted about them (whether we admit it or not). We’ve all watched truly terrible films or TV shows because of an actor too. Some of us even accidentally became academics because of Gillian Anderson (but that’s another story) and maybe in this instance, I finished this course before I finished Levy’s TV show (sorry…but this is because used it as bribery to meet a book deadline….). But actually, my own wafflings aside on this, there’s no better way to get people to care about something, than someone they care about showing they care. And I think Levy showing all the people who came to the course because he shared it how much he cared about it, kept people engaged, furthered that learning. And that frankly is the most honest use of any kind of ‘platform’ I know of.

Using whatever platform you have for good, for change has to be positive. One key take away from one of the discussions for me was that use of the platform. So that’s what this has been a lot of words to do.  I have an extremely modest platform. But I do have a collection of Twitter followers across academia and theatre who are extremely engaged people, who are looking to make good changes for themselves and the world. So that’s why I wrote this. That’s why I tweeted weekly about my studying. I always say about my writing- academic or creative-if it has an impact on one person, I’ve done my job. So, if one person now signs up to the course, or listens to the discussions, then hopefully I’ve been able to pass this on. 

Again you can do that right here. And while we’re here, once again, you can learn more about the Faculty of Native Studies here or donate to their work here. (Universities are getting budgets slashed left and right and we know where the cuts tend to fall first) 

There’s so much more I could write about this course. From being inspired by Dr Bear’s research, work, to the brilliant outlook from Chris Anderson about Native Studies ‘making simple ideas complex’ to every brilliant guest over 12 weeks of discussions I didn’t have space to talk about here. But this blog is already way too long. So much I learned both in real terms about Indigenous life, that I wouldn’t want to try and paraphrase here, but urge people to go and learn for themselves. Alongside that, the philosophical, political and personal reflections the work gave me have felt so valuable. And I felt inspired too, about the power of supporting people to learn. About the power of activism through whatever ‘academia’ might be. And of being part of a community of learners again. At a time of disconnection, wondering about my personal, professional direction. As I tried to maintain the belief that sharing knowledge as an academic is also important, it’s not too trite a sentiment I hope to say this course inspired me on that level too.

All of this with a huge thank you to the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta for opening up their virtual doors so we can learn, and a particular thanks once more to Dr Tracy Bear, Dr Paul Gareau and Sarah Howdle and Dan Levy for giving up their personal time to support that learning for so many people. 

(And if anyone wants to start a reading group to hold me to account for my now unfeasibly out of control bookshelf, let’s do that…) 

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Pick Me Choose Me Love Me- on writing, on giving up, on kindness.

This was not the blog I planned to put up today. I had another one edited and ready to go. It’s not a blog I have time to write. But it’s one born out of passion and frustration and those are usually the best/worst ones right? 

This really is a blog of two halves; one on the way we treat writers, and others in our industry. And another that’s been bubbling for a while with a question of ‘and what next’. 

Last night I received a rejection from a script submission. That in itself is no big deal- anyone who follows me on Twitter knows my attitude to rejections is openness and a sense of humour. I started a rejection pot this year, where I put £5 in a pot for every rejection, with the idea I can spend that pot on something silly and fun at the end of the year. And for reasons unknown, I started tweeting an Andrew Scott picture for everyone too. Partly to inject a sense of humour- it’s ridiculous the number of rejections we all get, so why not be a bit ridiculous with it. But I share those rejections also to both normalise and high light the rejections. We all know that social media is a highlights reel but also as writers or other creatives it sometimes feels like everyone else is ‘winning’ but for us. So I share the rejections, not for sympathy, yes for a bit of comedy. But also to make people feel less alone when they’re getting them too. 

So the actual rejection wasn’t a big deal. In all honesty, I’d forgotten I’d submitted to this theatre’s open call. It wasn’t like I wrote a specific script, it wasn’t like my hopes were pinned on the opportunity. But three things really galled me. 

  1. The rejection came out at 8.30pm. This is my pet peeve. Schedule rejection emails for office hours. It’s not hard. I personally often work until 9pm too, I was working last night when I got the email. But nobody needs that while they’re watching Bake Off and trying to switch off from the world. It’s about 4 clicks of time to tell even the most basic program to send at 10am. Give people their evenings off especially now when we all work from home and those boundaries are already all but gone. Maybe I’m over-sensitive, maybe other people don’t care. But I think some boundaries on where and when work falls, would do us all some good. 
  2. The email contained the phrase, and I quote ‘We wanted to let you know that your play didn’t make it past the first round.’ again maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but other people’s reactions suggest I’m not alone in thinking; have some tact people. Just do the usual ‘sorry you weren’t successful but thanks for submitting’ making a point that one didn’t get past the first round, in that way is unnecessary. 
  3. Wrapping the above in a call for paying for feedback via a dramaturgy service. Now we all need to hustle right now. But ‘hey your play was PROPER shite but also we can fix it if you pay.’ nah…send that email another day to your mailing list guys. 

And so the first half of this blog is about one thing; kindness. It doesn’t have to be a ‘cut-throat’ industry. Yes, the competition is fierce but we’re humans behind the emails. I get it, I’ve been there. I’ve been a busy administrator. I’ve been a person who wrote grant rejections. I’ve been the person who rejected students, who wrote to them about failing grades. I’m Chair of a theatre company trying to keep going in all this; I get it. 

But I hope, in everything I’ve ever done above I managed to stay human and be kind. In fact, after 2020 that’s all I hope anyone remembers me for, to be honest, that I was a decent kind person in this industry, because in the face of so much brutality and unkindness actually, I’d prefer it rather than just ‘success’. 

And it’s about a power imbalance, right? It’s about theatres ‘up here’ and everyone else ‘down there’ scrambling like some zombie apocalypse to get in the door with the doors slammed and limbs severed on the way in. 

And I just think, as we all try and claw our way back from this year, does it have to be that way? Can we not take time instead to try and foster relationships, and collaborations instead of being ‘us and them’…do we have to make writers feel like they’re lucky to get the time of day instead of appreciating the work they do? Appreciate the actors who spend time preparing for an audition that statistically they know the odds are stacked against them? We can’t totally dismantle the processes overnight (we SHOULD dismantle a lot of them) but maybe we can all try and include a kind word or two. Maybe the few at the top could remember they probably got there with a leg up and a kind supportive word too. 

Because also it’s easy to forget the work that writers- who I speak for here as that’s what I know- do. And we forget the emotional labour, the emotional impact of what we do. The hours sat working on something with a dim hope it’ll be something. But also how much of us we put into it. Our personality, often our experience, our trauma. And we do that gladly because that’s who we are. But the rejections are personal. 

To quote my favourite film ‘What does that even mean it’s not personal it’s business, it’s personal to a lot of people, it’s personal to me.’

We’d do well to remember that. Yes, it’s business, yes it’s not personal in some ways. But my God it really is personal in a lot of others. 

I had to say this. I teach a final playwriting class tonight where I’ll be teaching my students about ‘the industry’ and competitions. And I felt like I couldn’t do that in good conscience without saying that. 

Or without saying this, which has been on my mind for these long months we’ve been at home. 

I miss theatre. I miss theatre so much it hurts, like I’m not being dramatic it physically hurts some days. I long to be back in a theatre. 

But I also wonder if I’m done trying to work in theatre. Trying to write for it. I wonder, have I fallen out of love with it in that way. 

And look, thinking about the above, thinking about how personal writing is, how personal theatre is. Maybe, maybe it’s just a response to the trauma of having our whole industry whipped out from under us overnight. Maybe it’s a self-preservation thing that it’s easier not to want it anymore when nobody knows what, or how it exists either. 

But I also can’t shake a nagging feeling that it’s more than that. After all this, maybe no I don’t have it in me any more. And maybe I just don’t want it any more. And it’s two things right, it’s the fight. The fight to be part of that industry, the ‘want me pick me choose me’ fight (yes, I did just use a Greys Anatomy quote, but that’s all I hear every time I submit for something). But honestly, the words of Meredith Grey’s begging speech to Derek feel like ‘I love you, in a really really big, pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window, unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me, choose me, love me.’ how much does that sound like our dysfunctional relationship with theatre? 

Over here begging theatre to love me like Derek Shepherd

The feeling that after all this (you can see me gesturing wildly right) maybe, maybe I don’t have it in me to pick myself up again and do it again. 

And this doesn’t come from a ‘terrible year’ in that respect. I’m really conscious I’ve had a really good year. All things considered obviously. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I feel like there is hope for making my own work, making my own path, outside of blindly submitting to competitions. But we all go through too the ideas of ‘but is it worth it?’ and ‘what am I doing?’ at times like this I also always hear Mulder in The X Files saying ‘There’s so much more you have to do with your life’ which is a bit dramatic, but hey, that’s theatre. 

But I worry that I’ve fallen out of love with it. And at the same time, in a way this year I’ve fallen back in love with other forms of writing. And that’s ok. I’ve written more words this year than I have, well probably since I was forced to churn out my PhD chapters. And I’ve found a love of writing about things again. There’s a part of me that, if I could do that writing books about things in a sort-of-but-not-quite academic way forever I would. And I love writing articles, I love the journalism side of things and not just to spite my PhD supervisor who called me a journalist as an insult. And getting off the treadmill of theatre reviewing, and getting out of that bubble has made me so excited about what else I can write about in that respect. So maybe, maybe it’s just an evolution. And I’ve written fiction prose. I’ve written silly stories shared in the depths of the internet and some not at all. But I’ve also had comments there that said I’ve moved people and made a difference to them. And ok it’s not a theatre review…but actually, more people have read those stories than might ever see a play of mine. And more to the point what if I’m just better on the page than on the stage (yes I enjoyed that rhyme). Maybe I’m actually not a good playwright, I know I’m a good writer. Maybe I’m just supposed to do something else. 

And that’s it. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have any conclusions. 

I do say, we could all do with being a bit more kind. Because it’s such a personal thing this writing. It’s to quote a terrible children’s book, but whose quote stayed with me ‘to make good art you have to rip out a piece of your soul and not expect to get it back.’

Again, a bit dramatic. But I think when people rip out a bit of their soul and give it to you, then you owe them kindness. 

And if you’re going to rip out a bit of your soul, it should probably be for something you love. 

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What Teaching Again Taught Me

This week I finished teaching a 6-week course, I’m in the middle of teaching another 6-week block of another and I’ve had a few ad-hoc workshops around that too. And after what turned out to be an almost full year away from teaching for the first time in a decade, and the general 2020-ness of everything else I realised how important teaching is to me. 

First and foremost let me preface this with a caveat- this is about both general importance of teaching to me and a very specific type of teaching-optional learning for adults. It is not about the frankly astounding and astoundingly difficult job my colleagues in schools and Universities are doing. To my school teacher colleagues; you are heroes as much as our health workers and you deserve 100 times more recognition. To my colleagues in Universities; you deserve better. Honestly, I’ve got nothing more for you, you deserve so much better than what you VCs and the media are giving you, and I see you, I support you. 

Even with the difficulties, the insurmountably ridiculous situation my colleagues in formal education are facing, I think there’s a thing we’d all agree on right now; just how important education is now, more than ever. The times we’re up against socially, politically, personally, education offers us so much in all its forms. And I include myself as a teacher in that also.  

The teaching I have done then, truly has been a highlight of my 2020, but also very much saved my sanity, my sense of purpose. But also gave me so much more than I imagined. 

I didn’t realise how much I missed being able to quite simply, talk about things that matter to me. And I found that difficult at first too, the idea that ‘nobody cares about that’ when I’m about to do a deep dive into something, or find weird links across a variety of things that make sense when I finally get to the point I promise. A year out, and only very occasionally being able to nerd out with friends (or bore my Mother) I had forgotten that is my job when I’m teaching. That people (for the most part) want to listen to that information, they’re here for the detail. I also forgot that the reason we’re here is that I’m an ‘expert’ in the thing I’m teaching (I use quotation marks because my Imposter Syndrome really doesn’t like it when I do otherwise). 

But what I also remembered in teaching is, I have things to say. And things that might be useful, or make a difference, or at least be diverting or occasionally funny to people (have I mentioned my teaching career is really a substitute for one in Stand Up Comedy?). In teaching my LGBTQ+ literature course in particular I realised how much I have to say, which reminded me of my love of research, but also the joy in sharing it. 

It’s no secret I’ve had the confidence knocked out of me time and time again by academia. I frequently call myself a ‘failed academic’ and I kind of stand by that label. I haven’t succeeded by any of the traditional measures of our profession. I haven’t secured a job in a University, I’ve never published in a journal, I haven’t spoken at a conference in four years (after an experience that left me so traumatised I never wanted to go back). I veer between wondering if I’m just not clever enough for that world, or if I’m just really bad at playing their game. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t lost the love for the things that drew me to it- learning and sharing learning. Maybe I’ve just needed to find another way to do it. I first trained as a teacher 10 years ago, that wasn’t the right fit either (and people seem to disregard my teacher training as another failure too…) but I am a good teacher, and I do love it.

And I was nervous about returning to teaching, especially virtually. There were times I didn’t think I could do it. There were days when I had full-blown anxiety attacks before teaching. And every time if anyone could see me the first few minutes before class I’m watching one of my tried and tested ‘calm yourself down’ youtube videos. There’s also an added vulnerability to teaching online. I’m without an armour of my teaching clothes and make up in the same way. But also the physical envirnoment- teaching is more than just the words I’m speaking as we all know, and I’m a drama person, I talk with my hands, with props…sometimes interpretive dance. And inviting people into your home essentially to do it too, is weirdly disarming too ‘don’t judge my books, oh yes that’s a penguin stuff toy, don’t mind the sirens outside it’s all kicking off.’ It throws us all off, it’s all very artificial. But also it felt the most authentic thing I’d done all year. I found myself being really honest about things I loved, didn’t (Normal People, Call Me By Your Name we’re looking at you) and about things I didn’t know. After a while talking from my spare room felt oddly comfortable too.

But returning to teaching, especially now, having lost my job and been forced like many of us to think about what we ‘really want’. What I didn’t want was more of the same way I’d been living, or the same jobs, but having felt like I’d failed at the one thing I loved …I was feeling even more despondent at where that left me. So this timing, this remembering how passionate I am about learning, sharing and just about knowledge. And teaching adults, who want to learn for ‘fun’ really reminded me why I love this. 

I always think I’m a bit of a weirdo to be so passionate about things. To paraphrase something I heard at a conference (back when I used to go to such things) about people who are inclined towards being ‘fans’ of things, they asked the question ‘well what do other people think about’ and I feel that way about being passionate about (and ok nerdy about) the things I’m passionate about, in my research, my teaching, my writing…what DO normal people think about? But I also have this ceaseless desire to share that with people. And I get that not every particular deep dive of nicheness in my head is one that needs to be shared. But then there’s also, the idea that we all bring a particular nicheness to what we do and that’s where the…magic happens? to paraphrase Harper’s final monologue in Angels in America  ‘I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things’ and without any sense of ego, just that maybe one of these weird intersections of knowledge is worth sharing, either in teaching or elsewhere. 

But teaching adults, who just want to learn for fun, and teaching them in a pandemic, insolation, taught me the value of sharing knowledge. But also the community element of sharing knowledge. For two hours a week we came together and talked about books. It is of course an immense privilege to be able to do that, and of that I’m also mindful. But also, maybe for some of us also a mental health necessity. Either it gave us an escape, something else to think about, or it gave us other people/community for a moment that week, or it gave something to go away and do- read a book, an article, watch a film. Anything really to hang onto in all this. And that felt important too. 

I found myself growing really philosophical more than once. Teaching AIDS literature, for the first time since…all this…teaching Larry Kramer for the first time since his death, I found emotional and difficult, but it felt important to talk about. In my final class predictably I got passionate talking about Angels in America. We talked about travelling to the Bethesda Fountain, and how pilgrimages of literature in the real world mean something. And that felt important right now. I talked about my career and how Angels shaped it and that we all have to be, to quote myself ‘a bit ballsy’ sometimes. I didn’t think my silly stories would have an impact but apparently they did. And finally, as we talked about Angels thinking about where we all are right now, in that moment saying to a group huddled around laptops in their homes, because we can’t be in a classroom sharing this, talking about my favourite Kushner quote ‘there is an ethical obligation to hope’ and reminding everyone, as Angels tells us, that  ‘The world only spins forward’ seemed like an important thing to say, even if only a handful of people are there to hear it. 

And that session reminded me why teaching is so much more than ticking off weeks or texts, or theorists. It’s about coming together and experiencing something. And yes that’s pretentious and full of my own importance, but also, I think it’s true. For this, for my writing classes right now, it’s as much about the act of learning as what we learn. I’m not testing anyone on the books, or their writing, but they’re doing it anyway. And that’s powerful and important. 

And for me as a teacher, and as a person, it came at a time I needed it. Ten years ago I trained as a teacher and it’s never left me. It’s always been what I’m best at. I’ve just never found the right fit for where. This sort of thing seems to be. 

But beyond that, I think like many of us, locked at home, without a job, I’ve struggled with ‘and what now’ that’s bigger than this of course. But that reminder of what I do, what I’m good at, and more importantly what I love through teaching has really saved me this year. My students laugh, and rightly so at the strange tangents my brain takes me, and therefore us on. We would get through a LOT more actual textual analysis if my brain was more…linear. The weird connections I make, or side stories I tell, but I think it’s just because there’s a lot up there…a lot of nonsense for sure but also some useful stuff. All this has made me want to share that again, I have, at last count 3 more book proposal ideas, some random article ideas…and I feel like I’m sort of falling into who I am again. 

More importantly, I can’t wait for a chance to teach again. It’s not ideal, Zoom is very much not the one. I miss being able to properly talk to students. I miss being able to see their reactions properly (Yes, I’m a needy teacher, I need to hear them pity-laugh at my jokes). I miss being in a room with them for sure. But also I will continue to give anyone who wants to learn a chance to however we can. And that helps me just as much them too.

There’s a sister post to this, that I also went back to studying, just a little myself too. And how much that has informed my thinking on teaching, but also on my own ‘journey’ or however we want to put this with my life, my career and all that that entails. That learning deserves its own post for other reasons.

None of this comes with a magic wand of ‘oh great you’re a teacher and a real academic now’ none of it is the solutions to my failed academic problems or my unemployment problems. But I think in these weird times, a reminder of what you’re good at, and what you love, is an important thing. To steal another Angels quote ‘You’ll find, my friend, that what you love, will take you places you never dreamed you’d go’

Putting it out there in this post as a footnote…I’ve had a crazy idea for a while for a series of online lectures/discussions from academics and other experts on…just about anything we can think of, the things we want to nerd out about, and want a platform to do it on, and share with anyone who wants to learn. If you’d want to listen, or want to be part of it…let me know. 

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What Running for 30 Days taught me

Across September I ran or walked a mile every day. This was part of a challenge set by my friend Jeff. A huge advocate of running for mental as well as physical wellbeing, Jeff himself is running every day this decade…so a month seemed like the least I could do challenge wise. 

Why do it? 

  1. It’s 2020 we could all use some positive focus. 
  2. My running, while steady enough could use a periodic kick up the butt. 
  3. I had a book due October 1st (and any reason not to be doing that some of the day) 
  4. Bragging rights? 

Spoiler alert, it had a positive impact on all these. 

This also came on the back of a reassessment of both my exercise routine, and my relationship with exercise (and by extension my body) and (spoiler alert again) it had a really positive impact. 

Which isn’t to say I loved every run. This is not one of those blogs. I will never be that runner. Running is in equal measure: boring and hard work. Also I contest the person who said ‘you never regret a run’ I have deeply regretted many a run. To that end, there were many days where I would have possibly chopped off a leg not to run. But I did it anyway. Of the 30 days, I did a walk on 4 of them. Which as it averages out at a day a week seems fair. They were a 50/50 split between days when I was out and about (shocker for 2020) and didn’t have a chance for a proper run, and two days where my body just said a proper ‘no’. 

It’s important to acknowledge too that physically it was a struggle. I’ve been having a pretty rough time with my Ulcerative Colitis in a flare in recent months. And it’s a bit of a Catch-22, stress makes it worse, running reduces stress…but running also sometimes makes it worse (think about terrible stomach cramps, and desperately needing the loo and add jiggling about on a run for 40 minutes to that…not, as they say, the one). And added to that the fatigue that comes with it- chronic illness people will understand it’s not just the ‘bit tired don’t feel like it’ feeling it’s the cumulative total exhaustion. Again sometimes exercise helps, sometimes it feels utterly impossible. I worked around it, I changed time of day, I did different routes, I did less. 

That was an important lesson in running every day, not being so prescriptive about distance. While the challenge was ‘a mile a day’ normally I would beat myself up about running any less than 5k, or not meeting another arbitrary target I had set myself. But with the promise of running every day, that fell away. 

And that actually was key to a shift in exercise mentality I’ve been trying to teach myself. And which finally might have stuck. 

I hate to be that person, you know the Joe-Wicks-ing ‘lockdown was a real shift in my relationship with exercise’ person…but it was. I was at once stuck in a gym rut pre-lockdown- doing the same old routine, 4-5 times a week, bored of it and not progressing, but also not doing anything about it (largely because of a long ingrained fear of any kind of fitness instructor that stems from PE, which I wrote about more in this piece here. But also because I have a longstanding problematic relationship with exercise and food and all that comes with that. 

My issues with both have generally been under control for many years, but looking back I knew I was slipping back into the more hardline mindset of x exercise = y food and having an increasingly poor relationship with my body. Many things contribute to that. People around me talking about diets a lot. Feelings of not being ‘sporty’ enough to make changes. General stress and wearing down. Being unwell with my chronic illness but not aware of it yet (yes ironically being ‘fat’ earlier this year was actually ‘being ill’). And being suddenly forced to switch up my exercise routine in lockdown was actually really what I needed. 

And actually the September running challenge came at the right time. I was feeling a lot of pressure to go back to the gym the minute they reopened. And actually I’ve now decided to take a full year off from the gym. I may well jump right back in when that time is up. But a year off – still exercising, and possibly exercising more, is the reset I think I need. 

I struggled with the running challenge most in that respect actually- the feeling I ‘should’ be doing other exercise, doing more, even with running every day was the hardest to overcome. But in pushing through, by the end of the month my brain had caught up with my body and realised, this was ok too. 

I think it helped that I also coupled it with a commitment to try and do Yoga every day. I didn’t manage every day nor did I track that but I think I got to about 25 days out of 30, which while running too isn’t so bad. Yoga used to be a huge part of my life, to the point I was considering becoming a teacher. But I stopped going to classes, and then found myself too intimidated to return (seeing a pattern here…) but by recommitting to practice, I found I am now back in the place where I want and need to do Yoga (yes I’m afraid I’m that yoga wanker as well as a running wanker) and who knows, maybe I will reconsider that teaching too…

And so all that aside what did I get out of a month of running? 

Well, a comedy relationship with a bunch of stoned fishermen who spend every day at the lake I run around for a start. Try not to breathe too deeply going past…

For me what I really got back was running as a place of headspace and thinking time. Which is really why I do it. There’s no denying eve without a book deadline I struggle to stop working. Years of holding down a ‘day job’ alongside either studying or freelancing mean I just work, constantly. Having even half an hour a day where I had to be somewhere else physically helps that enormously. And in a month of high-pressure work running really helped focus and thinking time. Ironically I thought very little about the book I was finishing writing during my runs. I did, however, find I was daydreaming about other new writing project and just daydreaming in general…which was exactly what I needed to get back to my desk and write. 

September should have been a month of hard training to run first all three Disneyland Paris runs at the end of the month, and then the Cardiff Half Marathon. As much as the challenge of training for big runs is good, actually for 2020, a slow and steady, day by day month turned out to be exactly what was needed instead. 

I’ve taken a few days off running since the end of September- a reset is always important too, as it mixing it up getting back to other forms of exercise- I’ve missed the spin bike and a HIIT workout. But I’ll be back running around that lake next week (and hopefully continuing my 2020 streak of not ending up IN the lake) 

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‘What if I don’t think about the books’ Fear and finishing project book.

In the spirit of blogging this whole writing experience, it seems apt to mark this moment of sending off the first draft to the publishers. And while that is no doubt a moment of victory. I feel a little like I’m being judged in my celebration of that from academia with a sort of hair toss and a ‘Yeah and?’ because obviously in academia, everyone has a book, and like probably a better one than you. 

That’s what it feels like sometimes, all the time actually, this bitchy playground where the mean girls are looking over going ‘she’s writing what?’ and ‘oh my god she’s like blogging and tweeting about it, bless.’ 

Because I get that I’m not a ‘proper’ academic. And I get that my blogging my way through the book is probably met with snobbish disdain and yes, yes I frequently think about when it doesn’t survive peer review and I fail at it, how foolish all this will look. 

But also what if, what if it does actually make it the whole way. And what if my being honest about all this, all the way through helps someone else who doesn’t quite belong with the cool kids of academia (yes I’m aware that’s an oxymoron) 

And also I refuse to accept that this isn’t a big deal. I get that in academia you all churn out books like nobody’s business. But for normal people like me. (normal is a relative term here) it’s a pretty fucking big deal. 

Because here’s the thing. As much as on one hand I’ve never known ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ there’s one thing I did always want to be: a writer. And I think in many many respects I can now actually tick that off a list. But a pretty biggie in that dream is a book. 

So excuse me if I’m going to do my best to step back from that academic noise and say: but I wrote a book. That’s a pretty fucking big deal. 

And how was finishing it? 

I’d love to say anticlimactic, but I’m nothing if not extra, and I actually managed to end writing it on one of my favourite parts. And then I sent it to the publishers listening to one of the songs I’ve used on a loop to get the fucking thing done. What I can’t be extra about my book about the most extra play ever written? 

Thinking of which, there were a number of things I learned about writing in the process. The first being linked to just how…extra this play is. I realised, this morning actually so a little too late, that the reason I got so bogged down in the book, is because when you spend so long writing about Kushner you start thinking like Kushner. That you have to include all the things, every last thing he includes you feel like you have to include. This is the point at which I remind you all that the play is 7 hours long. There is no book on earth that can encompass all that and still be readable. That’s why in one respect it’ll always feel ‘not enough.’

I still had that fear. I kept hearing Ted Mosbey ‘What if I don’t think about the books’ In How I Met Your Mother (yes, sitcom wisdom, deal with it) Ted recounts the story of an architect who made a perfect library, but forgot to account for the weight of the books. So it sank into the ground. Ted tells the story as he’s putting off taking the leap to starting his own architecture firm.

Because he’s scared of taking that leap. For a long time I couldn’t write this thing because I was too scared of it failing. I’m still very scared of it failing but at least I did the thing. It also reminds me of one of the songs I listened to on a loop while writing it, which maybe just maybe seeped into my brain enough to get it done too; 

Cause I will say I don’t wanna play if I am gonna lose

I don’t wanna lose cause I didn’t play

And that’s sort of it too right. It’s easy to sit there and forever regret not doing it. And I asked myself, as the world seems to burn around me and whatever career strides I might have made look doubtful again, what’s the thing you’ll regret not doing? and it’s always this.

And what else about writing it? I enjoyed it. Sorry, I know that you’re not supposed to enjoy writing apparently, and think it’s the worst thing in the world. But to me it’s always been the very best thing. Did I love a week of going around in circles for one key bit of argument? No, not at all (did I give myself a ‘self five’ when I worked it out, hell yes) Did I enjoy trying to make the structure fit that felt at times like trying to make the play itself 2 hours no interval? Also not so much. Will I cry a lot when I get feedback that my dyslexic writing style is apparently not suited to academic writing? Yes. 

But did I read the final copy and think ‘Yes, yes this is what I wanted to say’ and did I fall in love with the play all over again in doing it? Yes. As above I didn’t say all the interesting things I could say, but I said a lot of theme. And I said them my way. 

And I know nobody wants to hear the ‘silver linings’ of 2020, but I couldn’t have done it without that. Given the choice, I think I’d rather not have lost my job, been locked in my house for months all that. But also, maybe, just maybe in the long term this is what I needed. Maybe this was more important than the job that never was, and it really was a blessing in disguise. 

Or maybe it at least gave me something to do in 2020. 

I learned a lot about how I write. Or more accurately accepting how I write. I look enviously at people who have extensive planners and white boards and they have a process down to the last hour as to how they’re going to draft it. 

With all the will in the world that is not me. I am a messy messy writer. There’s not really any plan. There never is. I realised that the only way to write this was to do it like I write fiction; let it tell me the story. When I write fiction there’s never a plan until ¾ of the way through when I wrangle what the characters  have ‘told’ me into something resembling a plot. And ultimately that’s what I did here- what’s the list of things I want to write about? Great, how do they fit together. And I wrote what I wanted, when I wanted to write it rather than trying to fit into an artificial plan of ‘write chapter 2 here, then 1’ etc etc. Which is probably why I ended up writing what was for me the thing I most wanted to say last. And editing the thing I like best last. It might not be the way they teach you to do it, but surely getting it done is what counts? 

And that’s what I rested on to finish too. I wrote on a notecard above my desk ‘80% is good enough’ I can hear the screams of horror at that. Surely nothing less than 110% is good enough right? Well maybe, but also done is better than perfect. And I’d rather have done. 

That was a tough 7 weeks, from when I really went all out on this. And tougher again in the last 2 weeks. I’m mentally exhausted. So, so tired. Paranoid about the judgement from people at my ‘self indulgence’ at doing this. Worried about time I’ve ‘wasted’ not job hunting. Doing this against the backdrop of a pandemic and all that hasn’t helped either. But it’s done. I got further than I ever thought I would get. And it’s ok to say I’m proud of that. No matter what happens next, I finished it. And that’s something. 

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P.E was hell

In an accidental viral tweet, and some angry thoughts about P.E after finally getting over a fear of exercise classes in lockdown (in my own room) I wrote a piece for Medium that tried to explain all that.

This lockdown is the only time in my life I have voluntarily done P.E. 

Read the rest of the article on Medium here
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Creative Conversations Podcast

Today the lovely Pen and Paper Theatre Co have featured me in their ‘Creative Conversations’ which you can hear here.

 

 

We chatted about the play previously included in their podcast ‘Flipcarts and Phillip Schofield’

 

Originally started life as a piece at The Other Room Theatre. And which you can read the full script for here.

As a lot of the conversation revolved around the piece, it seemed a good opportunity to talk a bit more about it…

 

Why did I write this piece?

 

Well it started off as a fun idea. And I’ll admit a blatant attempt to get into a scratch night. But also what are scratch nights for if not to motivate you to write?

 

I’ll open this on a serious note and say this piece is the first time I’ve got active hate for something I’ve written. Not via either the performance at The Other Room. Or the podcast version. But as I had shared the script (in good faith and a tiny bit of self promotion). I got an email, detailing in no uncertain terms that I was a terrible human for writing it. That I was offensive to both lesbians and bisexuals, and bizarrely given its one of the few things I’ve written not about HIV/AIDS to everyone who had died of AIDS too. Interestingly. Bizarrely I wasn’t offensive to Phillip Scofield, which I guess is something. Obviously if I actually do accidentally offend with some clumsy wording, let’s talk. But for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was being told I was wrong for just…existing in the world. Which long story short, it part of the reason for this existing.

 

It fused together a few ideas that had been kicking about; a ‘TED Talk’ style of performance which integrated audience address, with some life story. A joke about bisexuals fancying all women and 5 men/the idea of Ross and Rachel’s ‘list’ from Friends. And then…Phillip Scofield came out.

 

Had you asked me in January 2020 if I had strong feelings about Phillip Scofield’s coming out I would have said no. I was wrong. While we’re at if you’d asked me in January 2020 about a lot of things I would have been wrong. But that’s another story. Really all I thought I felt about Phillip Scofield were the following:

 

  1. He was a better Joseph than Jason Donovan (I will die on this hill)
  2. He was a better Saturday morning TV presenter than Ant and Dec (I will also die on this hill).
  3. He once (allegedly) snogged a (female) acquaintance of mine in a nightclub in the late 90s.

 

Also my dyslexic brain REALLY struggles with his surname so we’re just going to call him Phillip from now on. Phil if we get really friendly.

 

I was in work when I found out the news. You know back when we went to the office every day or had those job-things. And it was oddly emotional. I didn’t cry, but I felt something. Then I felt something familiar, that nervousness. My colleagues would be back soon and talking about it. Would they be happy and supportive, or would they be judgemental? I’d only been at this job about 8 months at this point, it could go either way…they were supportive, happy for him. And it was a personal relief too. That all to familiar sigh of relief moment that you wont have to defend someone’s right to exist.

 

So, it seemed I had thoughts about Phil, if not feelings.

 

 

The other strand of the play is this idea of not fitting in. Being out of step with how you should be, even within a community that you’re supposed to belong to.

 

One example for me came not long before writing this piece. I went to a comedy night run by and for Queer women comedians. And I have never felt less like I belonged. Partly being the provincial hick in a room of Shoreditch Lesbians. Partly being 35 in a room full of 25-year-old Shoreditch Lesbians. Partly that my ‘Queer Culture’ doesn’t align with theirs, and neither does my dress sense. I much like Captain America did not get their references. And I felt silently judged for it. Like they could sense I didn’t belong. And that actually…I didn’t want to belong. We talk a lot about a spectrum of Queer identities. But that’s only ok you’re on the right part of the spectrum, right?

 

That’s a far more complex and nuanced element to get into in this blog- and perhaps something the longer version of this play might explore better- but essentially, the way we dress, how we choose to live our lives…makes us excluded from the very community we’re in. My love of dressing ‘girly’ (and I’m not even that girly) means I don’t fit in often at best. At worst I’m confirming to the patriarchy. Well maybe I am, but also I just look better in a dress…

 

But there’s another element of course. Those Shoreditch lesbians? The undercurrent of a lot of the community…you’ve got to be a ‘proper’ lesbian to fit in. Bisexuals/Pansexual have heard it a million times. From the microaggression jokes, to the outright ‘you don’t belong’. To having your identity erased by who you’re dating. To not seeing yourself represented in the community you allegedly belong to.

 

And that’s why I wanted to write this piece. So people like me could see themselves in something. We’re getting better don’t get me wrong. TV in particular is streets ahead of theatre even in bi/pansexual representation. Just this week a long-loved character on my favourite trash-for-it tv show of 15 years, Greys Anatomy was revealed, almost inconsequentially as bisexual. Anyone who follows me on twitter or has had a conversation with me in the last two months, knows I am obsessed with Schitt’s Creek, and the pansexual representation there is the stuff of actual dreams. And there’s lots of other little examples popping up in tv that aren’t’ little to us, they’re huge. But weirdly theatre, where Queer stories actually have always been ahead of the curve, feels like it’s stuck in a binary. Gays and not gays. And bisexuals/Pansexual are some weird-shall-not-be-mentioned or side characters, or worse just don’t exist.

 

I also wanted to put a character in their 30s at the centre of a story. Particularly in fringe theatre, once you hit 30 you kind of fall off the radar, because apparently, you’re then either dead or a mountain troll? Or maybe young people’s stories are the only stories?

 

Basically, what I’m saying is I want to write pansexual romcoms, with women at the centre and won’t someone please commission this?

 

Finally, back to Phillip. Why was Phillip so important if I really hadn’t thought much about him before? Really, it’s just having those people in your life. Maybe it’s a bisexual thing, that it doesn’t matter to me whether a Queer person is male or female, if they’re someone I looked up to, or thought fondly of in some way, then it helps. And I think back to childhood and wonder, if the kids TV presenter had just been gay all along, how much easier it might have been for all of us to just accept who were as well.

 

Also I hear Phil’s got a book coming out. If he needs someone to write the stage version…I’m ready. Gopher and all.