Waiting for permission

pic by jordan prosser

Here are two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, as a writer / maker, you need to be responsive to your audience. As a theatre-maker, you are making work for an audience, and you are always testing, experimenting and refining to see what will work in front of a crowd. If it doesn’t connect with an audience, it doesn’t connect. To make work only for yourself is not only arrogant, it’s also ultimately pointless.

On the other hand, as a writer / maker, you cannot create work purely to please people. You cannot chase popularity or make work entirely based on what you think people will enjoy. Above all, you cannot let the opinions of others shape your own sense of self-worth. If you do, you paralyse yourself.

In theory, it’s easy to separate the two. Do the audience engage with the work, does it resonate, does it speak to the human condition and the times we’re in? That’s different to the question of ticket sales, media coverage or endorsements from famous people.

In practice, they are hopelessly entwined and it’s a headfuck trying to separate them. Put simply: if you’re not getting anywhere professionally, is it because you’re an iconoclast who’s ahead of their time, or because you’re just a bit shit?

It gets even messier when you consider that developing your craft and improving as an artist is inextricably tied to professional opportunities. If you work with good collaborators, you’ll improve. If you work with amateurs or in isolation, you probably won’t.

When an artist has a break-out hit very young and then proceeds to have a stellar career, I wonder to myself: was it because they were stunningly talented, or was it simply that that first hit let them work with the best people who helped them shape and grow their craft? (I don’t believe in talent, so.)

In some ways that doesn’t matter – even if you’re completely isolated and forced to figure it out for yourself, there are no barriers to improving your practice. Maybe you can’t get to the highest heights of what you might be capable of, but you can read guidebooks, you can watch youtube clips, you can follow forums of practitioners. You can keep getting better, and for me that’s the only thing that really matters – to know that what you’re making now is better than anything you’ve made before, and that what you make next will be the best yet.

I have idiosyncracies and obsessions that don’t interest audiences. I have blind spots and weaknesses that I need collaborators to identify. I have a familiar bag of tricks I’m too eager to fall back on and I need to ambitiously stretch myself to grow past them. Like any artist, I guess. Without an audience or a professional context, I’m prone to noodling away on inscrutable pointless projects. I spent too many years doing that and I’m always in danger of slipping back into that mode.

But equally: I’m really vulnerable to giving my power away to others. Needing validation to take a step.

When we were 17, my best friend Jack and I auditioned for a local amateur production of a Terry Pratchett novel. They said they’d call back within a couple of days, then didn’t call back for two weeks. It was awful – I was so wound up and anxious, even while I knew that it was utterly trivial. Finally they told us we hadn’t got in. But the experience was so grim, we swore that we’d never again let someone else have that power over us – we’d never wait for someone else to give us permission to make work. We started our own company, writing our own scripts and giving ourselves the parts we wanted.

I still can’t handle auditions, I refuse to go near them. But almost as disempowering are things like funding bids or residency applications. It’s miserable to put them in and miserable to wait for them. I’m always fine when the rejection letter arrives – it’s just the waiting and the uncertainty that sucks. It feels like I’m waiting for permission to do my art, waiting for acknowledgment that I can go ahead and write.

Of course the reality is that the people I’m waiting for permission from are just a hardworking bunch of professionals sifting through a big pile of applications trying to make a difficult call in a limited timeframe. A rejection (or an acceptance) is not a judgment that says anything about your value as an artist, it’s just an imperfect means by which people inside institutions try to open the door a little for people from outside.

But still, it’s disempowering to put your hand up and wait to be picked.

So within me is always the struggle: Should I be trying to find other ways to put my stuff out into the world, trying to reach people and apply for opportunities and share what I’m doing so I can get feedback on what I’m making? Or should I put my head down, ignore the outside world, and just write – just follow my instincts and write new work, refine the work I’ve got, try to push my practice a little further?

This tension has obviously been exacerbated by the virus.

The kind of feedback I rely on the most – putting work in front of a live audience – is now completely impossible. At the same time, the social/cultural/economic landscape has changed so drastically that it’s quite feasible that what I’m writing might not resonate with audiences any more. Am I writing work that’s relevant in the world of 2020, or am I still writing work for 2019?

This is not just a question of content and themes. My whole artform, the world of live performance, has been torpedoed. When (not if) it comes back, there’s no guarantee it will look anything like it did. How will audiences gather? How will theatres program? What will a season look like? I don’t want to be writing work that depends on conditions that no longer exist in order to connect with audiences.

Now, more than ever, I am hungry for feedback and input into my creative process to help me grapple with these questions.

At the same time: with most of my paid projects evaporating into the haze these last few months, like everyone I’ve been trying to shore up my remaining work by applying for some of the opportunities that are out there. That means going in for funding rounds or competitive programs that are massively oversubscribed. Opportunities that would usually get 60 applicants are now receiving 500. With those sorts of numbers, more than ever success is down to random chance. You can’t take a refusal from these programs as saying anything meaningful about your work – but that’s easier said than done.

In the exact moment you really need feedback on whether you’re heading in the right direction, the magnetic fields shift and all the compasses start spinning wildly.

Despite your best efforts, some weeks you find yourself waiting by the phone or the inbox for a bit of good news, for permission to make your work.

What I’ll say is: in this moment, feedback from friends has been the lifeblood. I am getting up each day and finding my way back to the work, back to the writing, purely because of the goodness of humans who have read recent drafts and shared their comments. Emails from colleagues and peers with feedback and comments and ideas have been the motivating force. In the absence of anything more tangible, those emails *are* my creative community. And I am very fucking grateful.

So shout out to everyone who’s helped someone else with a creative project this month. You are the bloodflow.


sick with influenza on Mt Makiling in 2011. pic by jordan prosser.

This window of time is a flurry of digital performances and presentations. The week before last I presented a mini-season of Break into the Aquarium, my interactive heist drama about rewilding and the future of ecology. Last week I gave a talk about my practice working with scientists to make games about complex systems with Boho and Coney.

Next week I’m doing two presentations, but very much in the facilitator role:

Tuesday 28 July – Green Manifesto
A conversation with Filipino artists and activists about what’s happening on the ground in the Philippines right now. JK Anicoche and Sarah Queblatin will speak with Jordan Prosser and myself about the current state of politics, the environment and the arts in the Philippines in 2020.

Wednesday 29 July – enVisage
I’m interviewing my friend and collaborator Hanna Cormick about her work as a mask artist and mask-user, in this moment.

An expert in theatrical mask, as both a mask maker and mask performer, Cormick has apprenticed under the world’s leading mask makers in France and Indonesia, and taught mask performance styles since 2002.

Around 2013, Cormick fell out of love with mask performance, but two years later was struck by a cluster of rare diseases that have left her with breathing complications and an immune system so haywire that the outside air could kill her – Cormick now relies on medical masks to help her breathe, and cannot leave her filtered safe-room without a full-face respirator and oxygen tank.

25 – 26 August – Broken Hearts 2035: Politics and post-pandemic romance
And then next month, Jordan Prosser and I will be launching a new hands-on exploration of post-covid future scenarios. In this high-speed 30 minute online performance, we look at some of the possible futures that lie ahead of us as we emerge from the pandemic.

Finally, if you’re interested, please sign up to my newsletter – an occasional missive (~10 letters a year) about arts and science and my upcoming projects / writings.

Take care all!

pic (and design) by gillian schwab