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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.

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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

Plague Diary, III

3 June

The most London thing: an ad on the side of a bus advertising an event at the Marriott promoting Pakistani bonds (‘Invest in Pakistan!’). & of course it’s three months out of date, bc London 2020.

5 June

I’m not a big Nando’s fan, I can’t eat most of their food, but I have a soft spot for it ever since I lived above one in Sydney back in 2009, and occasionally I’ll stop in to one in a shopping mall and eat a haloumi burger and chips, maybe after a long day of work or performing a show on tour or something.

Anyway, what I’m saying is: I’ve really indexed Nando’s reopening to my happiness, and the fact that I can now get a takeaway burger and peri-peri chips is a sheer fucken joy.

8 June

A taxicab repainted to say ‘Sanitised interior, partitioned, safe to travel’. This world, this world.

11 June

Four kids in the Primary School playground today, the first in months. They’re running around in a kind of ecstatic overload, so much playground, so little time.

Deaths dipped below 100 a day this week. Maybe they’re cooking the stats, maybe not, but it felt good.

12 June

In the Philippines, Duterte has passed an anti-terror bill allowing the police to detain anyone for days, weeks, months, on suspicion of terror or ’supporting’ terror, essentially installing martial law in all but name.

The horror of that: and then, suddenly, all my friends have found sudden swarms of fake facebook accounts in their name. 2, 3, up to 20 different accounts all using your name, suddenly all over Facebook, sending friend requests to people you know… Someone from the administration said the tactic is to replicate your account, to copy posts and mimic your account in every way, and then to add in additional new posts that are incitements to terror – give the govt an excuse to peruse your account, invite facebook to kick you off, smear your name as a provocateur. Awful times right now.

I’m balancing the logical certainty of more awful shocks against the irrational hope for better times.

14 June

A construction worker coming out of a closed-up betting shop near Stepney Green carrying most of a dead tree. Has it turned into a forest indoors?

15 June

Shops open today, with physical distancing. The queue outside Sports Direct stretches for several blocks.

The VR place ‘CYBERPUNK VR WORLD’ remains closed.

The guy in the Asian supermarket is doing shoulder presses behind the counter with a band, wearing his facemask, bless. (That might not be lockdown related, specifically.)

20 June

Today, for the first time in over three months, we caught a train and left our little strip of East London.

Everyone required to wear masks on the underground, not everyone obeying that rule. Next to us in a carriage, three young unmasked Italians chatting loudly, I was so conscious of the tiny particles from their mouths filling the carriages.

On the train I remembered the sense of dread and despair I felt when I caught the tube from Mile End to Heathrow Airport at the end of January to fly to Manila, how I thought that this might be the last time I catch the tube, how London might be decimated, the plague could destroy us. The virus is very, very bad, but not as bad as I feared back then.

I remembered – different but equally awful – in early March, when the virus was loose in the UK, cases were escalating, and the government blithely ignored it. Day by day I was  more scared, knowing that our window to deal with it was closing and we were fucking it. And in retrospect, I wasn’t wrong to be so scared.

So now, even though it’s bleak and will continue to be bleak, it didn’t feel as bad.

We went to Crystal Palace to see the dinosaurs. On the Southern line from London Bridge to Penge West, Rebecca says, ‘it feels good to be moving through an overgrown industrial environment in a machine again.’

22 June

Streets back to life round Aldgate, flirting couples on a Monday evening, a big group of cyclists talk to the Imam outside the mosque, they overtake me, twenty big bearded men, I pass them again outside a grocer’s, all drinking the same flavour of ice tea and wiping sweat off their brow.

Last night slipped trimming the back of my head and now I have a tiny bald patch – and on the street a guy passes me with patterns shaved in the side of his scalp and I guess the barbers are back and I’m jealous

23 June

A man hassles me near Cephas Street to buy him an oyster card, when I offer him the snacks in my bag he could not be less impressed.

White kids in their twenties all in tight white t-shirts and sunglasses pass carrying house plants in backpacks.

Yesterday a couple by Brick Lane, two kids with great quiffs and mullets, tight-fitted coats down to their ankles and doc martens, and man, bless all the people whose creative practice is their personal style, what have you been doing these last few months?

25 June

Today, a mistake. The last few days catching the train to work in the morning, quiet on the District line, only one or two other people in the carriage. Today though it was 31 degrees in the late afternoon so I thought I’d catch the train home.

Nothing moving from Aldgate East station, obstruction on the tracks. Waited on the platform with masked people, stretched up and down, mindful of being trapped indoors with the virus. Sat on an unmoving train for five minutes, then stepped out and walked to Liverpool Street to catch the Central line instead.

Ten station attendants out the front of Liverpool St Station holding big foam hands with pointing fingers, directing traffic around the station – there’s now one entrance and one exit, foot traffic flowing in one direction. The Central line was quieter than I’ve ever known at this time, but still, one in five people not wearing masks, caught in this tiny unventilated chamber with all these bodies, I felt like a fool for risking it. Headphones playing Andy Stott’s Faith in Strangers, I laughed when I realised, truly I put my faith in all those strangers tonight.

26 June

In Australia, Victoria was averaging no new cases a day, then there was a sudden outbreak, now there’s 53 or more, double figures and rising and the state in lockdown.

Israel was down to 10 new cases a day, they ended lockdown, now there’s been an outbreak and they’re back up to 532 new cases a day.

The US is peaking, Houston’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed, Florida is spiking, Arizona, it’s desperately bad.

The UK reopens almost completely on 4 July. We’re at more than 1,000 new cases a day and we’re reopening. There will be a major new spike, there will be a massive outbreak, of course there will be. If there’s a plan when that happens, it hasn’t been communicated. What are we doing here, suddenly it feels insane.

On the way to the station tonight I thought, I know this feeling – this is the feeling of hyper-alertness I have when I’m travelling somewhere unfamiliar, the sense of fear and caution around every possible encounter. I never relax it until I’m back somewhere I know is safe. And now maybe I’ll never relax it again.

27 June

Wearing this black cloth mask means I can silently sing along to tunes on my headphones on the train and no-one can see

28 June

Grimy sweaty heat. At lunchtime, working in the office, someone left the carpark gates open, and suddenly a group of 15 people rushed in to conduct a heroin deal directly under my window, maybe 10 feet from my desk. One man selling, everyone else buying, and it was hectic, shouts and arguments and threats. One man yelling ‘My six fucking pounds, my six fucking pounds!’ and it was over in ten minutes, they sprinted back out into the heat, and it was strange and sad.

That evening on Whitechapel High Street, heading home from work, on the street opposite the East London Mosque, a man lying on the pavement, his head jutting out into the bike lane.

A cyclist had stopped and was watching him, concerned. I ran over and got the guy’s head, drew him off the bike lane on to the pavement. He was unconscious, breathing shallow, overdosing on something, muscles tense, so skinny. The cyclist called the ambulance – but was overexcited, giving incorrect info to the hotline (‘he might not be breathing! he might be dead!’) and I knelt on the pavement and held the man’s head and checked his breathing.

Someone stopped by and gave us disposable masks to put on, and I felt like a fool – I’d been there holding this guy for 10 mins and hadn’t thought to put a mask on – and then of course I put it on upside down, which didn’t make it seem like I had command of the situation. But he was okay, unconscious and trembling but stable, and the paramedic arrived, an Australian lad, who was calm and chill and told the excitable cyclist who was regaling passers-by with the story of the situation to please be quiet.

The paramedic drew the guy’s t-shirt up – he was so, so thin – and found a needle in his pocket, tho thankfully still sheathed, and a tag somehow affixed to his belly – a blue plastic tag, like it had been pierced to his skin somehow, I don’t understand. The paramedic told me, this means he’s been in one of our ambulances already today, we’ve already given him narcan. Another set of paramedics arrived and I helped load the guy up onto a stretcher, helped strap his feet to the bed and wedge his bag in there too for him, and then farewelled the paramedics and walked on my way.

And only as I walked off did I realise that I’d seen the guy earlier that day, scoring drugs under my office window, and I felt so sad, two overdoses in one day, and it was such a hot day.

1 July

My favourite cafe on Whitechapel High Street are serving takeaway coffees, but this weekend they open fully. The barista is trying to be happy about it but he is clearly nervous.

Leicester just shut down again after a big outbreak. The stats the government are sharing were not the full stats, it seems.

On the train in the morning, some people wear masks, some people don’t, and I can feel the clock ticking in my head. Enclosed space, two people sitting opposite each other – if neither are wearing masks, less than 5 minutes to infection. If both are wearing masks, maybe 10 minutes at most.

2 July

This week the tide went out in me. I’m okay, and I’ll be okay, but I feel like I don’t have much to say or give.

I stopped reading. I have too many thoughts swirling around in my head, no energy for projects, no momentum. Instead of opening a book or looking at my computer I came home from work and sat on the couch and looked at the wall, out the window, for hours. I wasn’t bored, I had thoughts, my head was full, but no energy to do anything with them or to take anything more in.

Last night I sat on the balcony and looked out over the gardens below. In one of the gardens where a fox has made her den, three little fox kits came exploring out into the garden in the twilight. They poked into flowerpots and ran back and forth along the fences. One of them crept through a gap in the fence to the fancy rock garden of the middle class couple that live behind us. It looked up and saw me. I waved, and it ducked under the porch with just its snout showing.

Three fox kits playing in the evening doesn’t mean that anything good will happen, it’s not a promise, but it happened.

3 July

The city fixes it, when I feel flattened out, it always does. I see a guy in the passenger seat of a van take a deep draw on a cigarette and laugh, or the girl in the fancy jewellery store furtively ducking behind the counter to eat the hot chips her boyfriend has brought her, or two girls dressed up all glam for friday night pass by Altab Ali Park, and all the men stand up a little straighter, including me – and just that is enough to make me feel better. Humans, I love you, you weird fucken animals

4 July

A lady in a WOMEN FOR MIKE 2020 t-shirt lining up outside the supermarket this morning. Still no explanation for that.

5 July

City back to life today, shops reopened, restaurants and bars, everything back to normal, typical London summer weekend, it feels like the eye of a storm.

6 July

This morning, a police officer (community support officer? what’s the difference?) stopped the train and gave the woman in the carriage down from me a mask, and we didn’t move again til she put it on.

7 July

I’ve run out of momentum. The roads just aren’t there for me. I know intellectually that it’ll be alright, it’s possible to find a way forward, but right now I can’t see it. Friends have been kind to me this week.

9 July

The new routine. Train to work in the morning, mask on in the quiet sparse carriage, District line from Mile End to Aldgate East. Working in the office. The building is open again, there are people down at the ginnel welcoming you in in the morning.

In the mid-afternoon, walking to a cafe for a takeaway coffee. The place is open again for dine-in service, there are fewer tables but they’re all full. The baristas wear facemasks or shields. People sit maskless inside, eating meals, reading books, chatting. I envy them, except I don’t envy them at all.

I take a coffee and sit in the courtyard outside the studios, and I don’t read, I don’t write, I sit with the coffee in my hands and look at the sky and for a few minutes don’t think.


It’s been a surprisingly busy month, given all the venues are closed. We get by.

The biggest thing to share is that I now have a newsletter. I’ll be sharing about 10-12 posts a year, with news on upcoming projects, new writings, and other dispatches from the world of climate science and the arts. Please subscribe!

I’ve also published a series of essays about my practice entitled New Rules for Modelling. This is an attempt to capture some of the lessons from the last 10-15 years of projects with Boho, Coney and Sipat Lawin, working to explore complex systems and possible futures through narrative, design and gaming. Very curious to know what you think, if you have the time to read.

Last month, Jordan Prosser and I presented a short digital season of CrimeForce: LoveTeam, our interactive police procedural looking at the future of genetic surveillance and boy bands. We’re now diving into making a new work, this time exploring some of the fascinating scenarios being put forward for the post-covid world. The new work is called Broken Hearts 2035: Politics and post-pandemic romance, and we’re doing a short season at the end of August – RSVP now if you’re keen.

Last week I did a short digital run of Break Into The Aquarium, my solo performance about rewilding and the future of eco-activism. This was a lot of fun, and thank you to everyone who came, including/especially the people who have taken on the job of caring for snails.

At the end of the month, Jordan and I will be hosting a conversation with JK Anicoche and several other Filipino artists/activists entitled Green Manifesto. We’ll be discussing the current state of affairs in the Philippines, and what that might mean for the future of the country in the next 5-10 years. Strongly suggest you come along, this will be fascinating.

And lastly, I was stoked to be shortlisted for the Griffin Playwriting Award for 44 Sex Acts In One Week along with four other beautiful works by Australian writers. The award went to Dylan Van Den Berg’s beautiful Way Back When, which is stunning and which I am very excited about the future production of.

That’s all for now. It’s choppy waters out there, wishing you all a lot of love and care, look after yourselves, I don’t know what this world is coming to

Plague Diary, II

20 April

Noticing all the tiny hollows and tucked away spaces where rough sleepers live – the hole punched in the fence near Aldgate East station, you can just see a little grassy crawlspace where people gather on late nights.

Yesterday it was springtime Sunday, people were out strolling, glammed up summer dresses, with nowhere to go.

Today, walked up from the office to Shoreditch along Commercial Street, past the Spitalfield Markets. All empty, all silent. I’ve never seen this part of London so deserted. But with the sun out and a cool breeze, it felt like it’s all stored up, all this energy, the city ready to jump into life the second it’s given permission.

21 April

The helicopters taking off and landing on the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street, the moment of worry when everyone looks up, bright afternoon sunlight, red helicopter settling on the landing pad, someone else’s emergency.

Today I got a takeaway coffee from a little hole-in-wall cafe on Commercial Street. Young barista from Melbourne, told me he took a trip to Canberra once in Year 6, he’s just glad he’s not back in Australia during this. I feel that too, I don’t know why.

First espresso coffee in nearly 6 weeks, I felt a buzz in my stomach like a good pill coming on at midnight in a packed club.

23 April

The ‘closed due to covid’ signs that people printed and posted on their stores a month ago are now tattered and torn

Some kids hustling for business outside the ASDA offered me weed, gave me a playing card with a phone number on it. How are the drug dealers going amidst all this?

27 April

Things I thought were strange a month ago that have now become normalised:

– Silent streets
– Queues to get in supermarkets
– Masks – to begin with they felt like overkill to me, but now it feels like wearing masks is just the good, upstanding citizen thing to do

My hands have never been this clean. My skin is so dry.

This week Australian news is all about the contact tracing app, which has just been released. Debates around privacy etc. Here in the UK the numbers of new infections have just started to dip below 5,000 a day, which means we’re a long, long way from being able to loosen lockdown.

This weekend, reading about new reports from the US, Covid causing surprise strokes in young people. Clotting the blood like crazy. The virus is so far from what we thought it was two months ago, or a month ago.

29 April

On the way home from work, about 15 delivery drivers standing outside KFC, like they were about to rush the doors. Has KFC just reopened? What is that?

The street market outside Whitechapel Station had closed up by the time I was walking home, one stall had dropped a load of coriander and the concrete had been sprayed, so I walked through green coriander stuck to the wet stone, like seaweed in rockpools.

1 May

36 days into lockdown. Wuhan opened up this week after 76 days, so, not quite halfway according to that measure.

2 May

The KFC has shifted to delivery only. It’s crowded outside with delivery drivers waiting on bikes, showing their phones with order numbers up to the glass, ready to be handed bags of food.

On a bus, an ad for ‘Dr Doolittle’ starring Robert Downey Jr, opening in cinemas on Feb 7. Must have been printed on the bus back in January, after 3 months of weather, Downey Jr’s face is pale and haggard, I relate.

Today, two days in a row, the new cases rate has jumped back over 6,000/day in the UK. Trying not to be disheartened. R=1 or very close to, I guess. A reminder to try and take this stuff week by week rather than day by day.

5 May

As I walk from Mile End to Aldgate and back every day, I’ve realised that more and more I feel like I’m underwater – like I’m walking through an underwater canyon with the buildings like rocky seamounts on either side that just break the surface. Swimming along the seafloor with all the other fish, watching cars like big sharks race by on the road. I realise I’m deep down and I don’t expect to come up to the surface again until this is all over, which means, perhaps, never. And it’s quiet underwater, or rather, what you hear is mostly the sound of your own breath.

8 May

Walked up through Shoreditch briefly this afternoon. Warm day. Couples out dressed up fancy showing off skin in Brick Lane, standing outside closed restaurants. Someone has sprayed masks over the faces on all the popstars in gig posters around Shoreditch lane, and stencilled MASK UP everywhere.

The UK is talking about relaxing lockdown restrictions so that people can gather outdoors. The numbers haven’t gone down at all, it was more than 6,000 new cases on Thursday. It feels desperate, unplanned.

12 May

Arts Admin has installed what looks like a black go-pro clamped to a stripper’s pole in reception, but I hope it’s a body temperature cam. Exciting futures!

13 May

guys if I had to roll through several decades of political disintegration, inept authoritarianism, social collapse and escalating climate impacts before we finally turn ourselves around as a species and start to face the greatest threat we’ve ever known, there’s no-one I’d rather do it with.

17 May

In my next life I’ll wake up in the thick of the first real wave of global collapse amidst escalating heat, heat, heat like I’ve never known in this whole life, and yet I’m still going to spend my whole life in love, telling stories, fighting you and your rich friends, we’re going to win, not in this lifetime and not in the next, but we’re going to win

18 May

This A4 printout taped to lamp-posts around Mile End Station:

‘FACE MARKS
GLOVES
SANITISER
SHEILDS

GET AT ME
reg@greedycow.com
stay safe’

Reg seems like the kind of guy who could sort you out with whatever you needed, if you needed it.

26 May

Feeling a general sense of benign goodwill towards the world.

I’m choosing to use this as the line between part one and part two of the pandemic. Emerging into part two, this is the next phase, this is the forward push. Not clambering back out of the hole, no, but feeling like I have the strength to continue on through whatever happens next.

Dominic Cummings is all over the news today for his breaking the quarantine, his unrepetant attitude, he is truly much loathed.

28 May

The thing that is going to make me crack, and really finally lose it at the pandemic, is that there is a screw loose in my laptop, after I took it to get the battery changed back in February. The guy at the Apple store didn’t screw them back in properly, and it’s the smallest thing in the world, I could easily swing by there and have them fix it up – only then they closed down, and the world closed down, and when I ordered a replacement screwdriver the size was wrong, and so I’ve been retightening the screw with a butterknife every couple of days, and it is slowly sending me insane.

29 May

One of the big questions on the Superforecasting website is: will the Hajj happen this year? Surely it can’t, surely it can’t – and surely that’s another first-in-history event.

30 May

This week, the WHO put out a press release reminding people that there might be no vaccine. There may never be a vaccine. We don’t get one just because we want one.

In the US, riots in several cities after a police officer murdered a man by kneeling on his neck, for seven minutes, in broad daylight, on camera. The bleakest thing is that there’ll be big infection spikes a week from now in Atlanta, LA, Minneapolis – and yet I don’t blame them in the slightest.

Trump is bickering with Twitter, possibly happy to have the attention taken off the US deathtoll, which just passed 100,000. The US has just pulled out of supporting the WHO. China has just imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong which will make any kind of protest illegal. Xi Jinping gave a speech saying that China’s strategy to dealing with poverty, pollution and potential financial collapse is “to rally more closely around the party central committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, uphold socialism with Chinese characteristics, and follow the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and realise the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”

Interesting that even as the strongman authoritarian rulers arc up, real power feels less and less centralised.

31 May

The walk home tonight from Aldgate to Mile End. The little enclosed community near Stepney Green has fabric tied to the gates to spell out HOPE. They left some free books on the pavement this morning with a sign that said ‘Read Don’t Scroll’, but now the books are gone and the sign remains, a weird command but that’s fine. Past Genesis Cinema, the homeless young guy who paces back and forth here each morning is sitting on a park bench with a full bag of grapes, opening it with a big grin on his face. The cinema marquee reads ‘If you’re looking down you’ll miss the rainbows – Charlie Chaplin’. They’ve fixed the spelling on the sign since yesterday, which is a shame, I preferred it slightly off-kilter.

This is where the future started, for me, on this walk up and down a street in London, in the spring, as I gradually learned to stop expecting.



A pic from 2004, outside C-Block Theatre, Gorman House, during rehearsals for Vampire Play. Because why not. Pic by Nickamc.

Like for a lot of people, this last couple of months has been very much about keeping my head down, getting work done when I can, and trying to cover the shortfalls in my financial situation. Theatre has taken a real hit, there’s no question – I feel for every theatre venue, theatre company, and every freelance artist, myself included.

But in the midst of all that, there’s been some work and some writing. I had a couple of lovely readings of 44 Sex Acts, with thanks to some beautiful humans who jumped in and read parts for me and gave me extremely good advice and input. I got to hear the new Hadley script out loud, which was a mad blessing. I’ve spent some time ruminating on the last decade’s worth of projects, and trying to sift through them to see what lessons I’ve learned and what skills I may have developed. And trying to figure out how to navigate the chaos of the next few years, without surrendering my practice. You know how it goes.

But now, I’m excited to say, there is a performance to announce! Jordan Prosser and I are going to do three online performances of our show CrimeForce: LoveTeam, our choose-your-own-future sci-fi cop drama about the murder of a boy band member in the year 2050. We’re doing two shows for Australian audiences (Wed 17 and Thurs 18 June) and one for UK audiences (Fri 19 June). Head here for more info, and to sign up.


A character from CrimeForce: LoveTeam. Image by Sacha Bryning

And lastly, Rebecca’s book Fathoms is out in the world – well, out in Australia at least (the US edition comes out in August and the UK in November) – and according to Tim Flannery, it’s a masterpiece. Grab a copy, be kind to yourself.

Plague Diary, I

27 March

Walking to the office this morning, first day of daylight savings. Cold spring wind blowing gusts along Whitechapel High Street. Today is the first day I can remember where the debris being blown is mostly blossoms and leaves rather than garbage.

The floors around the Kaaba in Mecca are white. I didn’t know that because I’d never seen it without thousands of worshippers surrounding it.

The pope prays alone in St Peter’s square in Rome. That’s a first in history, perhaps.

29 March

The signs in shop windows telling you they’re closed are a perfect expression of that shop’s character.

  • Small but officious travel agencies or optometrists, ‘Due to government advice, because of the Covid-19 regulations around social distancing, we will be temporarily closed, apologies for the inconvenience.’
  • No-fucks-given Indian restaurants, ‘CLOSED due to VIRUS’
  • Hipster art gallery with pangolin paste-up, ‘Closed til further notice: U Know The Score’
  • Bars, ‘We are filming you right now and there’s no money on premises, don’t even try it
  • And the Genesis cinema, which I walk past every day and which is giving me a little sense of positivity, has turned its cinema sign to just say: ’tis but a scratch’

Today I flipped between imagining that it will all be over and back to normal, then having moments where it sinks in that it will never be the same again.

Fri 3 April

Single plane in the clouds on the way to work, made me realise how quiet the skies have been. Feels like the air is clearer. I know that air pollution is way down, psychosomatically it feels like the outlines of buildings are clearer in the distance.

The Australia Council for the Arts announce 4 year funding. A big tranche of arts orgs have lost out, more than I expected. Places starting to go under. I felt myself wishing, on the walk home, that I could just see all the destruction now, that I could just know how bad it’ll get, and therefore just work from that, rather than continually revising expectations and having to readjust my expectations one week at a time. But uncertainty is part of the package, isn’t it?

Sun 5 April

Buses with signs on them advertising movies that are still to open in cinemas long closed. ‘Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo, in cinemas now!’ No, no it is not.

Handwritten sign taped to the bus door by the driver, ‘please enter by the back door’.

The Old Vic have put posters up all around Mile End saying PLEASE BELIEVE THESE DAYS WILL PASS

Every day I hear the call to prayer from the East London Mosque echoing out through Whitechapel, which I’ve never heard before all the years I’ve been working here. Eerie and strange and lovely.

7 April

The Australian Rugby League has announced they’re ‘open’ to the possibility of quarantining all their players on one island away from their families for the rest of the year in order to enable them to get back to playing rugby. Why not? Why not anything, as of this week?

Work meeting to talk about furloughing today. I didn’t know what a furlough was a week ago.

10 April

Outside the Co-op supermarket, two young guys wearing huge gas masks with side filters, holding plastic-gloved hands and carrying groceries, maybe medical students from Queen Marys University? An old dude with white stubble stands on a doorstep in shorts and a singlet smoking a cigarette and looking at them in contempt. Two dudes listening to trap on their phone walk past, each with a face mask, each tugging it down to take a hit on a joint before passing it to the other and pulling the mask back up. Each of us pandemics in our own way, I guess.

12 April

A note in the coronadaily points out that parts of the lockdown are certain for months still to come, but many Americans have less than one month’s savings. There will be food banks soon, he says, the government needs to be honest about this.

14 April

Today was the first time I read the phrase ‘No Mask No Service’

16 April

The Tesco staff now wear t-shirts saying ‘Please keep 2m distance.’ In future years, when people hold Covid-themed fancy dress parties, that’s what I’m coming as.

Today I learn that the challenge of managing headphones, sunglasses and facemask was designed for people more coordinated than me.

17 April

Before, I had lots of lives: meeting friends, working in cafes, catching the train, early mornings at the gym, date nights out to see a show, curled up trying to sleep in a plane seat… more than I could count. Now I have three lives: at home with Rebecca, alone in a deserted office working, and walking up and down Whitechapel High Street in between the two. Not complaining, three is still a lot.

Dan Hill says: ‘According to Instagram, everyone is baking bread. According to sales figures, they’re not.’


This is the bit of the post where I’d normally talk about what I’ve got coming up, and right now I can truly say: not a lot. At least, not a lot I can invite you to. I’ve been busy, in that way that a lot of freelancers are busy, trying to handle the impact, save what can be saved, plan what can be planned, and keep writing in the midst of it because writing is what makes me happy.

I’m hacking away at redrafts of 44 Sex Acts In One Week, my awful romantic comedy about a mismatched couple trapped into a week of endurance stunt fucking. If you’re curious, there’s more about it on the website, and a short script extract – which is now out of date, given that I’ve been rewriting and fixing and editing. So I’m looking forward to sharing more of that soon.

In my maker-on-retainer role at Coney, I’ve been working with Tassos Stevens to prototype a series of new Remote Socials, digital gatherings that explore different kinds of interactive play, regularly on a Friday night. There’s three more coming up, more info here if yr curious.

Most exciting, though, is that my partner Rebecca’s book is coming out! Fathoms: The World in the Whale is launching in Australia at the end of April, in the USA in August, and in the UK in November. Ed Yong (who btw has written two of the most essential big-picture pieces on the pandemic, here and here), said:

‘Fathoms took my breath away. Every page is suffused with magic and meaning. Humanity’s relationship with nature has never been more important or vulnerable, and we are truly fortunate that at such a pivotal moment, a writer of Rebecca Giggs’s calibre is here to capture every beautiful detail, every aching nuance. She is in a league of her own.’

Lessons learned from Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?

pics by Sarah Walker, poster by Joyce Garcia

In early 2017, when Sipat Lawin and I were on tour to Castlemaine Festival with our interactive show Gobyerno, JK Anicoche and I took a morning out to have a coffee and talk about future projects. We started discussing the idea of a play – you know, an actual play, in a theatre – looking at politics in the Philippines.

In mid-2018, the first version of that show was performed in Manila. Just under two years later, in February 2020, we toured the work internationally to Arts House in Melbourne as part of the AsiaTOPA Festival.

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? is a big show – a huge action-musical beauty pageant. The plot follows the kidnapping of Filipino popstar Gracielle V, and the efforts of a small group of fans to track her down and rescue her. It’s a big theatrical spectacular – dance scenes, fight sequences, costumes, glamour, excess – and it’s also a sampler of Filipino pop culture, surveying the last 40 years of iconic Pinoy pop music.

pic by brandon relucio

The tour went really well – a sold out season, excellent reviews, a great audience response, and everyone involved was a real delight, from the Sipat crew to Arts House, to our Melbourne dance collaborators from House of Devine.

Behind the glossy projections and edgy fashions, the ultra-slick dance moves and remorseless entertainment, there’s a hall of mirrors where art and propaganda become almost indistinguishable. It makes for gut-wrenching, unsettling subtext.

However avowedly “not political” this show may claim to be, probably the closest analogues in European culture would be the work of Belarus Free Theatre and Pussy Riot, or Brecht in Threepenny Opera mode.

The talent, courage and urgency that fuel this all-singing, all-dancing satire of celebrity culture make electrifying theatre.

– Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands is as flashy, glitzy and energetic as it is intelligent, subversive and fun. It takes popular entertainment forms that shouldn’t necessarily work together, the action adventure and the glamour contest, and smashes them into each other in a delightful way that doesn’t entirely conceal how intelligent it is.

– Rob Reid, Witness

pic by sarah walker

It’s also a major accomplishment to pull a project like that off. This show had a touring party of 12, which is a lot, and it’s a full-blown multimedia extravaganza – 360 video projection, non-stop choreography (with 15 people onstage), live video-streaming, detailed lights and sound… and without showing off the budget, we did it for Very Very Cheap.

We were lucky – we were booked to fly through Hong Kong on our way to Australia, those flights were cancelled – but we were able to refunded and alternative flights. We were watching the news every day for coronavirus to wipe out the production – but through sheer luck, the outbreak didn’t escalate in either the Philippines or Australia across all of February. It wasn’t even a major news item in Australia while we were there, certainly it didn’t impact our audiences. If we’d been performing even a week later…

But it also worked so well because every single person threw everything at it to make it happen. Arts and performance venues always amaze me with how generous they are to touring companies, but on this occasion, Arts House really went above and beyond to make this show possible. Now we’ve done it once it’ll be comparatively quite easy to do it again, but that first production – that was such a risk, and Arts House really went out on a limb to make it happen.

pic by sarah walker

LESSONS I LEARNED FROM THIS PRODUCTION:

– I love watching Sipat Lawin on stage
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed myself so much on tour, and a large part of it for me was simply the pleasure of seeing the artists of Sipat Lawin back onstage. For years, the company has been presenting all kinds of participatory work, site-specific and community work, creating platforms for conversation and contemporary rituals. The work the company does is so grounded in the community of Manila. They’ve shifted a long way from their origin as a theatre company emerging out of the Philippines High School for the Arts.

But at the same time, they’re all still such theatre creatures – and they come to life on stage like no other artists I know. After touring Gobyerno to international festivals for a few years, I felt frustrated that no-one knows the secret: that Clyde Enriquez and Adrienne Vergara are phenomenal triple-threat performers. So a big motivation for creating this show was simply to give them a platform to show off their acting, their dancing and their singing.

And then Ji-ann Lachica and Bunny Cadag came on board, who I am mad fans of! And Blanche Buhia, who I hadn’t met before but who is great!

pic by brandon relucio

– I create problems, JK solves them
JK and I have worked together as writer and director many times over the years, but this felt like a real crystallising of our collaboration in a lot of respects. In particular, over the last month, as the script more or less solidified, I found myself in the role of identifying problems. Dramaturgical issues, things that weren’t quite right in the flow of the action, tonal problems…

And it felt to me that as long as I could identify a problem with enough precision, JK could solve it. If I could explain an issue with a sequence, but also, explain what that sequence needed to do in abstract terms, JK would find a way of bridging that gap. His bag of tricks seems to be bottomless – and even better, he’s so adept at using unexpected elements to solve a problem, to use lights or audio or video or text or dance or costume in really counterintuitive ways.

– This is the hardest script I’ve ever worked on
I’m credited as the writer of the show, which is an overstatement. It’s probably better to say I was responsible for the script, which was more about making sure all the material that everyone wrote was roughly balanced and connected. But it was very, very difficult.

Trying to create a performance that’s so rooted in Filipino context make sense for an international audience while making it meaningful for a Pinoy crowd too: it felt like playing both sides of a chess game where both players follow different rules. And what became clear through the season in Melbourne was that this show doesn’t work when it’s 90% there, or even 95% there – it needs to nail it, or else it’s going to fail badly.

We were in real trouble back in October, at the end of the last development – Emily Sexton from Arts House and Saddiah Boonstra from AsiaTOPA came across to watch our sharing and they were incredibly positive, but there were some fundamental problems with the tack we were taking, and it was going to sink like a stone in front of an Australian crowd. And I didn’t know how to solve it.

This is the only process I’ve ever been involved with where I’ve thought, ‘I need more white people in the room’. I was the only international eye on the material, and I lost all my objectivity, and I no longer knew what Australian audiences would or wouldn’t connect with, or how to make sense of it.

Thankfully, Hadley read over the script and cracked it, pinned down the central idea which let us put a new lens on it and gave us a way to frame the material for westerners. And thank christ, it worked, because the first time we put it in front of Australians was on dress rehearsal night.

pic by brandon relucio, wtf is jk wearing here

– There’s a pleasure in withholding
Even if we’d tried, we couldn’t explain all the cultural nuance or political context in the play for a western crowd – and it would have been exhausting and boring for everyone if we’d tried. So we tried going the other way – having translated the script into english, we translated certain portions of it back into tagalog – effectively making those parts inaccessible to the Australian audience.

That way, we hoped, people would understand that they couldn’t understand – that there were things in this story that were out of their reach, and that was fine.

This is not a device I’ve ever tried before, or even seen used that I could recall, so it was a total gamble – but it worked.

– One of the pleasures of Filipino performance is excess
The first production of Are You Ready in Manila in 2018 went for nearly 4 hours – with no interval, and with the audience on their feet for most of it. Theatre in the Philippines is longer, bigger, more emotional, in every way more than theatre in Australia.

For the Melbourne show, we had a hard time limit of 90 minutes – so how are you going to capture that excess in that timeframe? Containing that excess risks diluting it. But it’s very hard for western audiences to cope with an epic durational Filipino work, with those huge emotions. We get tired, we get bored, it starts feeling all the same to us.

(Conversely, it’s worth remembering that western theatre often reads to Filipino audiences as short, bland and boring.)

For example, in the original Manila performance, Ienne’s religious homage was 27 minutes long. In the Melbourne version, it was a mere 7 mins. But it was heartbreaking to lose all that material, partly because from my perspective, the longer that sequence went, the funnier it got.

pic by sarah walker

– I don’t know what western audiences saw when they saw those scenes
I genuinely don’t know whether the Melbourne audience experience would have been improved by recognising all of the myriad references and details in Bunny’s performance as Malaine, or whether the strangeness of it was its strength.

– Without the execution of the spectacle, the show wouldn’t have worked
I’ve seen (and done) lots of theatre in Australia that gestures towards spectacle, but this one really had it. Choreographer Jared Luna made it BIG.  Lighting designer Roman Cruz, video artist Joyce Garcia, cinematographer Brandon Relucio and sound designer J Laspuńa made it feel like an immersive cinema experience. Sigmund Pecho’s stage management, with the help of Kirby Vicente and Rod de los Reyes completely tied it together. The dancers of House of Devine came in with such energy and precision.

I think the concept and the script of the show were pretty smart (of course I’m gonna say that). But smart doesn’t make for a good night out – I don’t necessarily book a show because I want to see something smart. What I want, deep down, is to see something beautiful, colourful and reckless – and then to have a thin veneer of smart layered over it so I can tell myself I’m still a sophisticated theatre-goer. That’s what Are You Ready is for me – a gloriously decadent spectacle with just a little smattering of Clever as spice.

pic by sarah walker

– Acting opposite Adrienne Vergara is HARD
In my one scene with Ienne-Ienne, I had to literally bite my cheek every night to stop myself laughing. Eventually the inside of my mouth was in genuine pain because I’d been chewing it so hard, so I had to develop other strategies, like counting backwards in my head while she was talking, or else I was guaranteed to lose it and laugh.

Don’t get me started on trying to write scripts for her. She is brilliant and merciless.

– I want to do it again
Please, someone book us to do the show again. I promise, Sipat Lawin will make your theatre explode with light and heat.

pic by sarah walker


So it’s 13 March, and obviously everything is in shutdown due to the virus. I’ve got a couple of gigs upcoming that are now either cancelled or on hold, and everything is very fluid. Hope you and yours are keeping well.

Couple of quick links on the topic of the virus:

The Atlantic posted a good piece answering the question ‘What does social distancing mean?’

If you want some good commentary from an epidemiological perspective, chronyclecovid19 is doing a great daily briefing newsletter.

For the keeping of your soul in these turbulent times:

Julia Johnson just released a stunning new single ‘Breathe Him In’ – soothe your heart for 3 mins.

And most exciting of all, my partner Rebecca Giggs book Fathoms is now available for pre-order!
In the US!
In the UK!
In Australia!

!!!

Lessons from Thinking Bigly

Ben Yeoh is an investor, a playwright and chair of the board for Coney, the UK theatre company I work for. We bonded over conversations about systems theory and climate change, and in 2018 he invited me to be a co-presenter for his Thinking Bigly performance lecture.

The show takes a bird’s eye view of the climate crisis from an economic and policy perspective, and then dives into the big question: What can we do?

This is much more in Ben’s wheelhouse than mine. I work a lot with climate scientists and researchers, but these questions of policy and solutions are well outside my understanding. But Ben wanted some help creating some interactive sequences in the show, and I jumped at the chance to be involved – partly to get to perform with him (Ben is a powerhouse & a big inspiration for me) and partly because I was pleased to be pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to grapple with these issues through a very different lens.

We’ve performed the work about 10 times now, in theatres (the Pleasance, Theatre Deli), museums (the Museum of London), for private businesses (pwc) and community groups. Ben’s also presented a solo version a few times, on his travels as a sustainable investor.

Doing the show has been educational for me in the best possible way. It’s forced me to grapple with climate policy and economics, to examine my own lifestyle, and to reflect on where best to put my energy.

The show keeps developing and evolving with each performance, and it wasn’t until a few months in that Ben produced this slide, which sums up the show beautifully, and which I love so much I’ve adopted it as my go-to for how to tackle the crisis in my own life.

Lower One Impact
Pick one impact you’re having on the planet and work on lowering it. The idea here is that rather than trying to transform your lifestyle to become completely carbon neutral, pick one particular area where you’re having an impact and work to reduce it.

Start by calculating your impact – the WWF footprint calculator is a good start. Identify one area where you can make a significant difference. For a lot of people, that’s likely to be flying, eating meat, or driving a car. Work on bringing it down. Then when you’ve reduced it or eliminated it, turn to the next thing and address that.

Support One Innovation
Ben uses the word ‘innovation’, but I’d say ‘solution’. The point here is that climate change is intersectional – it cuts across every facet of our lives and society – but that means that the solutions are intersectional too.

There are so many places you can start to make a difference – there are countless charities and NGOs out there striving towards climate solutions. Pick one (or two, or three) and support them, either financially or with your time.

If you’re in a wealthy economy, use your money to support NGOs and organisations working in the developing world – your money goes a long way, further than you think. Support small and diverse orgs.

Project Drawdown is a breakdown of 100 different climate solutions. Have a flick through this list and see if any of them resonate with you. If so, find an NGO working in this space, get behind them. Support education for girls. Donate to the clean cookstoves initiative. Help Indigenous groups fighting for land rights.

For real, learning more about a particular climate solution and supporting a particular organisation or project will genuinely make you feel better.

Start One Conversation
We need to talk about the massive changes happening to the planet more than we do. Be willing to start that conversation. Don’t lecture people or just dispense depressing facts, talk about it.

Try, ‘I’m scared about how I’m going to live in a decade or two. How about you?’ Or, ‘What are your plans for when the crises start to escalate?’ (I mean, pick your moment, obviously, don’t be weird.)

Be vulnerable, be curious, be open, be compassionate, be a human with other humans in the midst of big global transformation.

Write One Letter
In terms of effort vs reward, writing letters is the most impactful thing you can do politically. When did you last write a letter to a politician? Or a CEO?

For me, writing letters to politicians is a slightly unnatural thing to do. It feels weirdly private, whereas posting something on social media feels public. You don’t get the same immediate feedback – you do sometimes get a letter back, but it takes weeks or months. But the facts bear it out: this is the most powerful thing we can do to effect political change.

I’m trying to make a routine of writing one letter a fortnight, to a politician or to a CEO. When I have the impulse to put something on social media, I’m trying to convert that urge into writing a letter. It’s counterintuitive but honestly if we could convert a fraction of the time we spent tweeting about climate change into letter writing, we would swamp politicians’ mailboxes and they would have no choice but to take it seriously.

These are my reflections on some of what I’ve learned from researching and co-presenting Bigly. I highly recommend getting this from the source, tho – come to a performance of Thinking Bigly (though I warn you, they tend to sell out as soon as Ben announces them, he has a following), or at the very least, get on Ben’s mailing list. Well worth your while.


 

Six new productions of Kill Climate Deniers in 2020

From the 2018 Griffin Theatre production. Pic by Brett Boardman.

I’m really excited to announce that there will be six new productions of Kill Climate Deniers this year, in six different cities.

Sydney University Drama Society – 11-21 March, Sydney
Monash University Student Theatre – 26 May – 6 June, Melbourne
io Productions – 22 July – 1 Aug, Launceston, Tasmania
Canal Cafe Theatre – October, London
Švandovo divadlo – July-December, Prague
Canberra (secret) – July, Canberra

These are all badass companies and makers and I’m excited about each and every one of them. If you’re in any of these cities: GO CHECK IT OUT.

It’s hard for me to judge, but six new shows feels like a lot – it’s certainly more productions of a new script than I’ve ever had before.

As much as I want to claim all the credit for having written a brilliant play*, it seems to me that this burst of new productions is a consequence of 2020. Everything caught fire. My parents nearly lost their home. We were treated to the pathetic performance of politicians gleefully shilling for fossil fuel interests even as thousands of people (my best friends!) were evacuating from their homes. We are staring down the sheer nihilism of a political system willing to condemn future generations to an uncertain existence on a degraded biosphere.

Fuck those guys. I’ve never felt it more urgently and fiercely.

Theatre, of course, doesn’t change the world. Theatre can’t even change people’s minds. (This show, I promise, is not ‘reaching across the aisle’ to convert anyone.) But what theatre can do is gather a group of people together in a room and provide space to reflect and share. And that’s not nothing.

In conversations with the six companies producing the show, each of them has expressed that producing this play is not just about the end result on stage – it’s also about the conversations they’re having in rehearsals, the fundraisers they’re holding for climate charities, the activism they’re undertaking alongside the work… It feels like putting on this show is an excuse for organising and gathering forces, making good things happen in the world.

So I’m excited and proud and excited and scared and excited.

*I’m very proud of the script, I won’t lie


Are You Ready? pic by Sarah Walker

I just landed back in London after a month away working in the Philippines with my true loves the Sipat Lawin Ensemble, on our grand action-musical Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? We did a beautiful sold-out season in Melbourne, with some great reviews and a really lovely response from the Filipino community.

V happy with this review

& this one!

Now back in London, and getting ready for four things:

Break Into The Aquarium
FutureFest, Fri 20 March
A brand new interactive show in which the audience carry out a heist on a major cultural institution. A deep dive into the world of rewilding and the future of ecology.

Thinking Bigly: A Guide To Saving The World
Theatre Deli, Thurs 26 March
The latest performance of Ben Yeoh and my performance-lecture about climate solutions. Sadly sold out, but keep an eye out for late release tickets.

You’re Safe Til 2024: Deep History
Theatre Deli, Wednes 1 April
The second episode of YST24, combining a deep history tale of the last 75,000 years of human history with a minute-by-minute tale of my hometown over new years eve three months ago.

Coronavirus
This is a shock to our globally connected social-economic system, and as a freelance playwright and performer, it’s already taking its toll. But we’re gonna get through this, and I’m determined to not be caught off guard by it. So it’s a good time to do some scenario planning and think through some possible outcomes.

My Thinking Bigly colleague Ben Yeoh has written an interesting post with reflections from his perspective in the health/investment landscape.
I’m enjoying biologist Ian Mackay’s Virology Down Under blog on the topic.
And this NYTimes piece made me want to send a bunch of flowers and a thank you card to every single person in Wuhan. The hell those guys went through to buy us those eight weeks – much love, much love.

One final shot from AUR – this one c/o Brandon Relucio – just purely for my look of bemusement at JK’s outfit here

The indifference

Black Flag

Rereading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, as I do every couple of years, because it’s such a lovely story. He charts out the evolution of the American hardcore underground over the 1980s in a series of beautifully written band profiles. As always, the story of the Minutemen is beautiful and inspiring, but this time what stuck out for me was a line in the chapter about Black Flag: ‘the frustration of toiling in the face of indifference.

This struck a chord.

In the world of art, you often hear stories of work that faced opposition – being booed, attacked by critics, censored, banned. We all have stories of being ripped off, let down, burned out, screwed up…

I sometimes get asked if it were hard facing the opposition to Kill Climate Deniers. The answer is: no. Having a chump politician and some pundits gunning for your work is energising. Being told by theatre companies that they like the script, but they’re not going near it because they don’t fancy the fight was honestly some of the better rejections I’ve ever had.

Opposition to your work is easy.* What’s hard is indifference.

In my career to date, the hardest reaction with which I’ve had to contend has been a lengthy, prolonged shrug from the world.

You put in the hours, the months, the years, and yet no-one seems to care. The people who engage with your work seem to enjoy it. There’s nothing obviously wrong with what you’re doing. And yet you don’t seem to be progressing. The world keeps finding new ways to not give a shit about what you make. Your creative life is no different than it was five or ten years ago, except that you’re more tired. And so on.

At least an active opposition gives you something to respond to. There’s friction, there’s hostility, there’s something. Whereas indifference is just nothing. Trying to get energy off indifference is like trying to strike a match on a wet rag.

Active opposition makes for a memorable narrative. It’s much more interesting talking about the poem that gets charged with obscenity, or the play that generates jeers and walk-outs from its audience on opening night.

It’s less interesting to say, ‘I worked for ages on this thing, and then when I shared it no-one really responded to it. It didn’t go anywhere. Nothing happened.’ But man, the second one is a thousand times harder than the first.

How do you get energy off being ignored? What Azerrad says about Black Flag that I love is that they fought indifference. That they responded to indifference by digging in, stubbornly, and saying, ‘you’re all wrong – what we’re doing is important, and the less you care, the harder we’ll fight to prove it.’ They took a kind of perverse pride in being ignored and dismissed – they turned their failure to draw any serious audience into a badge of honour.

I wish I could do the same. The closest I come is that when I get turned down by a theatre company or a funding body or whatever, I promise myself that I’ll do the project anyway, just to spite them. I’ll make something so good that they’ll be sorry and embarrassed they ever doubted me.

Yes, spite is an unhealthy, negative emotion, but maybe it’s better than despair or surrender.

There’s one other Black Flag story in Azerrad’s book that I love. The band drive all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a gig, and only two people show up. The band’s young singer is disappointed, but the bass player sets him straight: ‘There may only be two people in the audience, but they came to see Black Flag.’

I return to that paragraph over and over again like it’s scripture.

——–

* In fairness, I’m talking about the kind of opposition that targets your work, not the kind of opposition that sets out to systematically belittle, oppose and destroy you personally. Structural inequality is a whole other thing, as are the media campaigns which set out to swarm on and harass the vulnerable. (Speaking of which: destroy News Corp.)


pic by anna kucera

It’s mid-January 2020. Spent the first two weeks of the year in a long-distance panic as my home was hit by the worst fires in recorded history, evacuating friends, destroyed homes and devastated ecosystems. Grim start to the decade.

I was due to do a performance of break into the aquarium at Theatre Deli, but instead I cancelled it and replaced it with a new show, created in the space of a week – an iteration of You’re Safe Til 2024 about deep history, the origins of humanity and the unfolding fires. I performed that this Thursday and it went well – well enough that I’d like to find a space to present it again soon. (Get at me if you have any thoughts!)

Also, Ben Yeoh and I did a performance of Thinking Bigly at Deli – my favourite so far. We’re performing it again in late March if yr keen.

I’m heading to Manila in a couple of weeks to run a climate-art workshop with JK Anicoche, and to rehearse Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands with Sipat Lawin. Then we head on to Melbourne to perform the show at Arts House from Wed 26 – Sat 29 Feb: get tickets! Come!

And then I’m back in London in March to launch break into the aquarium at FutureFest on 20 March.

As ever, feel free to get in touch if you have any suggestions that might make my life more interesting. And otherwise: peace!

1 January 2020

Hi everyone
let me stand before you today as leader
to express my sincerest sympathies for your losses

for the fear, for the damage, for the deaths
most especially for the hours days weeks spent waiting for news, for help, for supplies, or just for some kind of clarity about what kind of crisis this was going to be
before it resolved into being the worst kind.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry beyond what words can say.

I apologise because I struggled to get to where I am
I worked hard for decades, I threw everything at it, I cut corners, damaged friendships, told lies and lost touch with my own truth along the way

I wanted to be at the top
and the truth is I didn’t have a plan for when I got here
I wanted to be a leader, not to lead
and now you need leading and I honestly, truly have nothing to give

in here it’s very dark, in here it’s hollow, in here there’s nothing to give

and I apologise because I have it
your country
myself and my friends, we have it
we have our hands on every lever

and we won’t give it back
not til the sun is dark at noon
the ash washes up on the sand
the smoke creeps in under the doors and fills the house
the stars are blacked out
the highways are cut off
the phones no longer work
the animals flee in great mobs from the smoke
the water is stolen out of the ground and sold back to you in tanks
the elderly are suffocated in the smoke
the hospitals are out of power
the families sleep in their cars on the beach
the kids are ready to rush into the water when the sirens go

if you have a fire plan, enact it now
remember, don’t use a wet blanket
a dry woollen blanket is the best coverage

until then, what else can I do but goad you?
with celebrations, with sports matches, with sneering newspaper columns to mock you?

in heaven, the sight of the suffering in hell is part of the reward
what’s the point of being up here if we can’t enjoy the sight of your pain?

here, have cricket!
have editorials complaining about swear words and rude gestures!
be scolded for your bad manners in the 45 degree haze!

here, this’ll rile them up!
this’ll get under the skin of the self-righteous urbanites!
give them a poke while they’re choking to death!
give them a lesson on manners while they wait to know whether they should evacuate
tell them how brave they are with a twinkle in our eye

because cruelty is part of our reward

and part of your punishment is to know that after me
comes another one like me
and another one, and another one

until the last exhausted family sheltering from the firefront on the beach stumbles into the surf

How to be an artist: a list.

Last week I had a chat with playwright and maker Noemie Huttner-Koros, as part of PWA’s This Is How We Do It podcast series. The idea is that a few younger writers interview a few more established peeps about playwriting craft, and practice, and etc. It’s a lovely project, and a grand privilege to be in a lineup of writers including Paschal Berry (yes!), Declan Greene, Lally Katz and Kate Mulvaney.

I scribbled down a bunch of notes before and during the conversation, thoughts and ideas about playwriting and art-making and career paths and so on. In the end the conversation went where it went, but I still have this page of disconnected notes – so in the spirit of this blog, I’m going to type them up as a list – a pillowbook of stray observations and life lessons.

Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans All Boiled Into Sky (2008). Pic by ‘pling

———

Playwriting is about creating interesting problems for other artists to solve. You don’t come up with the solutions yourself. Every artist surrenders control of their work when it leaves their hands, but as a playwright you surrender more control, and earlier, than most other written forms. Lean into that.

———

Produce your own work. Produce other people’s work. I became a producer (of festivals, mostly) for five years almost full-time. It’s a super useful skill because you’re serving other people’s visions, you’re helping them realise their ideas – and you’re learning how it’s done. You’re also building a network of potential collaborators and advocates down the line.

On the flip side, don’t get trapped as a producer if you really wanna be an artist. There are plenty of kickass producers, curators and editors who are passionate about what they do – there are also a fair few who are embittered artists who gave up on their own work. Surely it’s better to get out of the game altogether than to be working on behalf of other artists and resenting them? (That’s what woulda happened to me, anyway.)

———

When I stopped being a producer to focus on my own art, I took a significant step back, career-wise. Most people who knew me knew me as a festival-maker. People didn’t know or care about my scripts that much. I had to go back almost to the beginning.  It was worth it.

———

Mick Bailey said, never have a plan B – you’ll end up using it.

I don’t know if this is good advice or not but I followed it.

———

Kill Climate Deniers is easily my most successful script – it won a play award in 2017, subsequently has had multiple productions in a few different countries, it’s done very well for me.

A couple of months before it won the award, I wrote a note to myself where I acknowledged that the project was a failure. I’d invested a huge amount of effort in it and had pushed it out into the world a few different ways, but there didn’t seem to be a significant appetite for the work.

It was the same script before and after that award. A thing is a failure until it’s not.

I am NOT saying ‘believe in yourself, keep pushing, history will prove you right’. What I’m saying is, if you’ve been pushing a project for a while, there’s no real way to judge whether it’s is on the cusp of success, or if it’s dead in the water and you should give up. This is a desperately hard conundrum.

———

I don’t get off on reworking classic Greek texts, ancient myths or Shakespeare plays (but no disrespect to people who do).

The myths that resonate with me are the shelf categories of Gungahlin Video 2000, where I worked from 2003-05: Action, Romance, Comedy, Drama, Martial Arts, Horror, Kids, Documentary and Foreign.


Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans, pic by ‘pling

Every good idea is either too bland or too weird when you first come up with it. It doesn’t matter – if you pursue any idea far enough and deep enough it becomes rich and unique.

My play Oceans All Boiled Into Sky was my distraction project, my guilty pleasure that I worked on when I was supposed to be working on other things, because it was so weird that I didn’t feel like anyone would ever engage with it, so I didn’t feel any pressure. The further I went into that insanely specific scenario,* the more it became the most interesting thing I’d ever written.

*a kid doing his driving test 4 billion years in the past when planet earth had just finished forming, while the oceans were still billowing clouds of steam

———

Working across multiple different communities (Canberra, Melbourne, London, Sydney, Manila) has been good for me because

(a) when work is thin on the ground in one place, there might be activity in another, and

(b) it means I’m always starting at square one. In London, no-one cares about the project I did in Melbourne. In Manila, no-one cares about the show I made in Sydney. It’s humbling but good for me.

———

I don’t know this for sure, but I think that when you’re starting out as a professional artist, your best shot at finding work is to become an expert at something. Ideally, the best in the world. Find a niche, then find a sub-niche of a sub-niche of that niche, and master it.

Science theatre is a niche. Interactive theatre is a niche. Interactive science theatre is a deeply sub-niche field. But because there were so few artists working in that space, Boho ended up becoming the go-to company for when people wanted that extremely bespoke thing. We scored gigs in the UK, Sweden, Australia, Singapore, China, we paid bills with it – because there was really no-one else doing it.

As Glyn Roberts said, ‘Once you’re top of your field in whatever tiny subset of the field you choose, then you can branch out.’

———

I’ve been making theatre about climate and global change for about 15 years now. The subject of climate change has gotten more attention in the last few years, because of obvious reasons. But: I wouldn’t recommend making art about the climate just because it’s timely, or because you think you should.

If you’re fascinated by something, go towards that. Follow that curiosity, that obsession, and go deep into exploring something within the field. Don’t try to talk about the whole of climate change: be specific. Even more important: whatever you’re exploring, be obsessed with it, be an expert in it, be delighted by it, be undone by it. I suspect audiences follow the thread of what fascinates and excites you, not the thread of your earnest good intentions.

———

I started out in Canberra, in what I later learned was a small scene. It did not feel like a small scene. It was a struggle and we had  enough panic and desperation.

If I’d moved to a bigger city, a bigger arts ecology, at that early stage, I would have been eaten up by it. I wouldn’t have had the courage to make my own stuff because I would have been stifled by all the other work being made around me by older, better artists.

———

The payoff for achieving things is really, really fleeting. After watching Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers – the 5th preview – where it all came together, I walked on my own through Kings Cross and felt like this big clean wind was blowing through me, and the weight was off my shoulders, and I felt like I could relax.

That lasted about 8-10 minutes and then it was back to stress, panic, fear, guilt, all the base ingredients of the life.

———

A project is a success if it leads to another project. If every project leads to, on average, at least one more project, you have a sustainable career.

———

Always mention the fee in the first email or phone call.

———

The relationship is always more important than the project. If it’s a choice between compromising the project or burning your collaborator, always take care of the person.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they’re super rare.

———

I am 36 and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I began to learn how to learn.

———

Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans, pic by ‘pling

———————————————————————–

Meanwhile, in my world: it’s been a really busy, outward-facing couple of months.

In September, Reuben and I presented You’re Safe Til 2024 as part of the UnWrapped Festival at the Sydney Opera House. The Opera House! So luxe! This was super fun, and a really great couple of shows.

Over three weeks in September-October, I was in Manila, working with Sipat Lawin on a development of Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands. Super exciting – this monster of a show is coming to Melbourne in February and I am JAZZED ABOUT IT.

In London, a game that I co-developed for Coney and the Wellcome Trust was played at the One Young World climate conference. Temperature Check is a game for 50 or so players about climate change, health, and managing a city in the face of escalating natural disasters.

Then at the end of October, I presented the first 30 minutes of a new work, entitled break into the aquarium steal the fish, at the Barbican as part of Nesta’s Future of Storytelling event. This was the first outing for this new solo show, which will premiere at Nesta’s FutureFest in March 2020. The work looks at the future of nature, ecology and eco-activism. The audience released some mosquitoes into the lecture theatre in the Barbican! Bless!

If anyone’s in London, I’m doing a work-in-progress showing of the full work on Tuesday 3 December – details here.

In London, Ben Yeoh and I presented a few outings of performance lecture Thinking Bigly, at Theatre Deli and for the Ealing Green Party. Bigly is an exploration of sustainability and how you can take climate action. There’s more info on Ben’s blog (and I’m going to write more about it soon).

Finally, I went up to Edinburgh a couple of weekends ago for the Traverse Theatre’s First Stages festival, which featured a staged reading of an extract from 44 Sex Acts In One Week, alongside five other dope new works.

Now it’s deadlines scribbling reading research rehearsals, trying to make things make things and hold tight.

As ever, if anyone’s got any proposals that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch. Otherwise: peace!

at Carlos Celdran’s Living Room in Malate, Manila, with Bunny Cadag. RIP Carlos Celdran, <4 <4 <4