Five women who shaped me #IWD

It’s International Women’s Day. And while there are always various political debates about it I do think it’s as good a day as any to celebrate the women who inspire us. I try to vary my lists or posts year on year, so this year I’m going with Women who have shaped my life in some way.

This year is a theatrical theme. And a mix of ‘famous’ people, and those from ‘real life’. Oh also the number is a lie. It’s technically 6/7.

Kirsty Sedgeman 

First up is the Academic- inspiration/friend/mentor call her what you will (Superwoman-Mc-Awesome is catchy) cheerleader I wish I’d met YEARS ago. Kirsty Segdeman. If you’re a theatre academic you’ll probably know Kirsty. She’s a brilliant academic, and master of the gif-paired tweet thread. She works on Audience research and is kicking down doors to make theatres, and Universities listen to researchers. She’s also a fantastic champion of PhD students and Early Career Academics. And a voice for the working class/unfunded among those. Above all else shes’ a tireless cheerleader, and brilliant friend. Here’s a her twitter, give her a follow.

 

Gillian Anderson

nerdist623

Look it’s not IWD on this blog without a reference to Gillian Anderson. If we’re talking ‘famous’ women, she is hands down the most influential woman in my life. Dana Scully as a character shaped my teenage years, and my future self in ways no other woman- real or fictional has. Indirectly, I’m a Doctor because of her. Firstly because Scully taught me that women shouldn’t hide their intelligence. Secondly, she made me want to be ‘Dr’ something. And thirdly, if it weren’t for Gillian Anderson I’d never have set foot in a theatre. More on that on is here. 

I went to my first play because Gillian was in it. And I begged my Mum to take me all the way to London to see the woman I adored on stage. And while in part I was ‘just’ fangirling. I was also sat there falling in love with the theatre. I still have the notes I scribbled in the margins on the train home.

And it’s rare you can say a teen idol of yours genuinely continues to shape your life. From playing the kind of women I want to see on stage and screen, to writing books, to being an outspoken activist and advocate. Gillian Anderson is a constant source of inspiration, and motivation to be a better woman. And to lift up other women with me. I may have wanted to be Dana Scully when I grew up, but actually now I want to be Gillian Anderson when I grow up.

Elise Davison and Beth House

These ladies come as a package. In the best way. Elise Davison and Beth House They run Taking Flight Theatre company. For whom I am honoured to be Chair of the board of Trustees. Taking Flight makes inclusive theatre, and makes theatre inclusive. That is everything they make has inclusive work at the heart of it- think integrated BSL and audio description. Think disabled actors being part of every company. Think all the things everyone else should be doing.

They also campaign tirelessly for inclusive theatre, accessible theatre and all round a more open accesible arts scene. And they do it all with company built from nothing, and like so many of the women out there juggling family life as well. And again they are tireless supporters and cheerleaders of me and all I know, and I’m really lucky to know them. Every time I think none of it’s worth it any more, I look at the work they do, and remember it is.

 

 

Stephanie J Block

download (1)

For those who don’t know, she is a fiercely talent Broadway actress. I first saw her in ‘The Boy From Oz’ , which was also the first musical I ever saw. Formative in so many ways, for making me fall in love with musicals for also being the musical that set me on the path to my PhD research. As a 19 year old discovering musicals for the first time I fangirled HARD for Stephanie. My first fangirl-crush on a Broadway performer, I’ve been lucky enough to see her in several shows since (not bad considering I live in Cardiff!). But what started as a teen fangirl moment allowed me to follow the career of a brilliantly talented, but also wonderfully principled and inspiring woman.

Stephanie J Block may never know how seeing ‘The Boy from Oz’ changed my life. Because of that musical I went on to rediscover my love of drama/theatre. I went to RADA. I came back to that musical when starting to think about a PhD- it’s actually the core of my ‘theatre about AIDS’ ideas starting. What she also may never know is the kindness she showed a 19 year old, who was living far from home at that point, who had just lost a parent. When I fan-girled at her on my trip to the show, the kindness she showed me- listening to my no doubt ramblings, talking to me about my studies, stayed with me as a lesson on how to treat people. And that important moment of someone you admire, when you are young, taking and interest, really pushed me to do the same. For kindness and in her work, she shaped me without knowing it.

Last year I cried my face off (that’s the technical term) watching her perform in Falsettos, a musical I’ve studied, written on and talked endlessly about as an academic. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t seen this woman, in a musical once upon a time and been incredibly inspired. And that felt like such a powerful thing.

 

Marianne Elliott

download (2)

It’s rare you get to meet, let alone talk at length with someone whose work you admire so greatly- or whose work is about to impact on your life so greatly. So I feel really lucky to say that the last of my list did just that. And has impacted my life in ways direct and indirect I can’t even begin to count.

Firstly, in the abstract. As the genius kick-arse (British spelling please) theatre director she is. Like anyone with an eye on British theatre in the last few decades I’d repeatedly found myself admiring, an inspired by the work Marianne Elliott has brought to the stage. In a field where we still all to rarely have women in ‘top jobs’ to look up to, seeing someone not only at the top of her game, but also unafraid to take creative risks while there, was and is an inspiration to a generation of women in theatre.

That in itself is enough to shape a person. Little did I know when I was shouting “WAR HORSE IS INNOVATIVE THEATRE” at my PhD supervisors  while defending it’s relevance to a discussion of AIDS in theatre (true story) that one day I’d be chatting to Elliott about Angels in America.

Elliott may be an genius director, whose work on Angels in America has reshaped my thoughts on the play, after a decade of working on it. But what she did for me personally by letting me have a tiny part in that, is something I still can’t quantify. It seems a simple thing, but the fact that she wanted my input. That she told other at the NT about me, and that she let me write that programme essay have had a remarkable impact on my life.

In practical ways, people saw that essay, or heard about my work on the play. And doors have opened a crack. (After years of physically trying to beat them down). But more than that, even without that. The simple fact she thought my work was worth listening to. Academia, life, theatre had all beaten me down. But that act of a woman reaching out and saying ‘yes you are worth listening to’ really did change everything. And that’s the power of what women supporting women, lowering the ladder instead of pulling it up can do.

If Marianne had chosen to ignore the person brave (or stupid) enough to email and say ‘hey I know this play better than you do right now’ I probably wouldn’t have given up before the curtain even came up on Angels. Instead I’m writing the book I always wanted to write. I’ve been commissioned to write a play. I’m writing articles about theatre again. And more importantly last summer I fell in love with it all again.

The fact that Elliott also has the company I’m most excited about (as I wrote about here) that promises to give a platform to more female creatives, gives me so much hope for women in the industry. Because I can’t think of a better woman to lead the way.

And of course to the countless women who inspire and shape my life every day. Friends, family, colleagues.  Let’s keep building each other up, shaping each others lives in the best ways possible.

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

angels-in-america-cast-portraits-1280x720

 

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.

19399755_10154714524353857_72419760300224498_n

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.

 

19275066_10154714523418857_2417774784941966985_n

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.”

161

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.

 

5000 (4)

“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.

1e4b1-tumblr_inline_ov7j0um0e11rvivc3_540
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.

41

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.”

20429839_10154843744313857_6480955795488396504_n

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’