Jordan took this pic of me nine months into my middle age
Last year around August I had a week up my sleeve without work, and no urgent projects or deadlines or anything. I had enough money up my sleeve after doing this residency with Jordan, and I had work coming up in Sweden in October, so I decided to take a week without seeking money and do a five year plan.
I was living at Emma Hall’s place in Melbourne, and so every night when she came home from work or from rehearsals (building her new work Ode To Man), I was sitting with sheets of paper and index cards spread out over the floor, trying to condense my vague ambitions out of the air into some kind of actual plan.
First step was to do an update on where I’d gotten to since my last attempt at a five year plan, which was in 2013. I’d just finished the third You Are Here festival, just turned 30, and made a solid promise to myself to get out of festivals and arts producing for good. I have memories of making a solid set of plans at the time, but when I looked back on it, it was more like a 5-page stream of consciousness written after the final night of the festival, lots of panicky sentences in all-caps saying WRITE FINIG JUST FUCKING WRITE
But it was good rereading it anyway. I could say, at least, I’d fulfilled that minimum criteria of not going back into festivals or producing. (I was lucky, all the time I remember I was lucky, to get one of those Ozco Early Career Fellowships before they swept them away thanks to Brandis’ pointless beef with the Council.) And then I turned my head to the next five years.
I wrote a list of headings, all the different facets of life I thought were important, which were, roughly:
• Physical health
• Emotional health
• Creative practice
• Public profile
Then underneath I wrote down everything I could think of that I wanted from each of those facets of life in the next five years.
(yes I know, I included ‘sex’ in my professional five year plan, it seemed worth considering)
Some of it was straightforward, some of it was not. I spent a bunch of time reflecting on the kind of art I want to make – how have my tastes changed in the last few years, what structures do I need to make in order to make the stuff I want to make, etc. I did a bit of writing at the time about an aesthetic paradigm that emerged from Kill Climate Deniers and Kids Killing Kids, a way of coming at a core idea from a number of different forms, honouring the fact that I have neither the discipline nor the craftsmanship to just write something plain, simple and beautiful.
I also dug my head deeply into the question of how to make a living while making art, given that I don’t really want a regular job on the side (I travel too much to make that work, unfortunately). Is it possible to earn a basic living through small commissions, consultancies, writing gigs etc, in the specifically weird sub-sub-genre of participatory science performance drawing on complexity theory and resilience thinking?
It has to be. It has to be, because, as Mick Bailey once said, never have a plan b.
So I wrote a list of things to try, questions to ask, hypotheses to test, that circle around, ‘Who would pay for the sort of work I do? Under what circumstances would they pay for it? How much would they pay for it? How frequently could I expect those sorts of opportunities to arrive? Can I live off that much money?’
Now it’s a year later, and I’m in London, trying to make this city work for me, trying to answer these questions in this context. I’ve spent four months as Associate-in-Residence with Coney (concluding at the end of August), working on my own systems gaming stuff which has grown out of Boho’s work in this field, as well as doing some small commissions work for Coney.
London’s a good place to try to answer these questions. It’s no better or worse than anywhere else in the world, but if you’re an artist working with scientists, it’s easier here than a lot of other places. There are many, many arts and cultural institutions here that create a full-blown arts ecology, crowded and dense, with many many places where a person can carve out a niche. And, bluntly, there’s money. It’s expensive to live here, but there’s money moving through this system, and people willing to try new things and ready to experiment. So all of that is helpful.
I have no answers to any of these questions, but the people here are great and I’m enjoying it, so there’s that. Good sunsets. A cafe near Bethnal Green overground station where old Turkish men drink coffee late at night and talk over the top of each other. Bhangra and grime blasting out of car windows. Bright moments.
And then meanwhile, in the midst of this, Kill Climate Deniers won the Griffin Playwrights Award! This was exciting, this I am so, so grateful for. Conscious of how, because I got lucky this time around, how many other playwrights missed their turn. But grateful, still. Lucky, happy, relieved, grateful.
But of course, winning an award like that can also knock you around, if you’re not careful. Something like that (for a personality like mine) can fool you into thinking that things are going to get easier from here on out. Like you’ve just been let off the hook, and from here on out you’re not going to have to struggle to get your work out into the world.
I think I subconsciously subscribe to the idea of some kind of professional finish line, whereby winning an award means ‘I’ve done it, I’m through, I can relax’. Intellectually I know it doesn’t work like that, but at some level, getting a nod of acknowledgment like the Griffin Award was like a signal to take my foot off the accelerator.
Bad news and rejection knocks you around but good news can also insidiously trip you up and make you lose focus on the real shit.
The real shit, which is, roughly: shut out the noise and the poison and just write.
The summary of my five year plan was basically: ‘Find a way to exist in the world that lets me make theatre, keep writing, with all the good people, and keep going, doing good and not causing harm.’
Chatting with Charlie Sofo many years ago about how well he was doing with exhibitions and projects at that time, I asked him whether he was succeeding. He said, ‘Success is if you keep going, failure’s if you stop.’
I like that framing a lot. It’s simple, but there’s something in it I didn’t consider at the time, which is that to ‘keep going’ gets harder / trickier / more expensive as you go along. The cost of being an artist rises over time, because as you improve, your standards go up, and the time and energy (and money) it takes to create a work that exceeds your last work increase all the time. And at the same time, your friends and peers are settling into real lives, real jobs, earning real money, achieving real life milestones, and you’re still… well.
So, when I won the Griffin Award, I had a bunch of chats with Glyn Roberts, now returned from Brisbane to Victoria, to take on directing the Castlemaine Festival. One day I’ll write down in one place all the snippets of advice and insights Glyn has given me (it’s Glyn who told me a couple of years ago to ‘stop writing plays’ as a way to make it as a playwright – I need to expand that out into a post in its own right) – in this instance, he pointed out that winning a prize like Griffin does very little on its own. You can do things with that award, it could be leverage in trying to get up certain projects or broker conversations with certain people, but as a thing in itself, it’s inert. You put it on your CV, on your website, you go on the list of previous winners on Griffin’s website, and then that’s it, unless you make that not be it.
And so, this is the eternal picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to return to the writing. Back to the real work. There are a million posts like this in the decade I’ve been writing this blog, countless attempts to tell myself, ‘Finig if you keep going you can keep going, if you don’t you can’t’. Countless links to this Out Hud song that starts with a weary voice saying, ‘Okay, let’s do the next one.’
It’s Sunday night in London and the sky’s darkening over the apartment blocks, listening to Out Hud, hope you’re all fighting, keep fighting