I am sitting in a darkened theatre watching Sue Austin fly around me in her underwater wheelchair at her first ever hometown show, and I feel the traces of her soaring ambitions everywhere. This will be a more personal blog than my last; not because I’m not engaged in the work of this exhibition but because the journey I am taking feels poignant today.
As a dreamer of dreams and a maker of bold moves I hope Sue will forgive me for not giving a more thorough coverage of the piece here, but I do encourage you to come and see us next week in Salisbury. Reactions to the exhibition thus far have been great, and to see new technology being wrangled for positive social change as well as artistic expression is thrilling.
Since my last blog post I have written my first large funding application (£208k of fear and adrenaline), taken on a crowd-funding campaign for performance poet Rowan James, contributed to Dao’s planning meetings at Pallant House, started scripting an educational film, written press releases and tweets galore and zoomed through miles of sunny countryside, pages of ideas and the bloody, beautiful history of the blues with my mentor Trish at the wheel. This week has mostly been gaffer tape and ad-hoc modifications to parabolic mirrors, so I’ve got my tecchie swagger on.
It sounds completely daft but I can’t remember the last time I was treated with such intellectual respect, had my ideas and experience valued so much, trusted even, and felt a sense that I have something of substance to offer other people, even now in the first few months of my training. To dig the way that I think is about the biggest compliment you can pay me, and the generosity of Dao, Freewheeling and the other teams who have contributed to my learning so far is quite humbling.
I fell on my feet into performance, starting out as an accidental showgirl at 18 and making cabaret my shiny, unpredictable domain for ten years. In many ways I’ve grown up separate from a lot of the ‘real world’, mainly due to working during most other people’s leisure time and being out of step with regular working hours. At 29 I am having my first real weekends! I feel part of the world in a way that I always thought I wanted to avoid.
Maybe it’s just me growing up a bit, shedding a little of the arrogance of showgirlish youth, but I feel connected to, and appreciative of, people in a new way since making moves towards producer-hood. I suspect the novelty of a regular modest paycheque is doing a fair amount of this legwork; I always joke that performance is a great career if you aren’t into financial stability or a personal life, but it appears that not having to chase (my own) money all the damned time really is rather good for the brain.
“Worrying about money is a waste of your intelligence”, said my dear friend Aste Amundsen last year, (lending me train fare after another gig paid late), and I think she is right. Being broke, starving artist-style, is good for a lot of things; it teaches you great blagging skills, sharpens your creative focus and gives you plenty of time to consider the imbalances in the world, but the creative benefits of sometimes not being sure if I can pay my rent have long worn off and I want to use my brain for ideas, not fear, and to make that release possible for other artists too.
This new world of funded, ‘legitimate’ art, administrated art, has so much planning, strategy and partnership involved that even when working remotely I never feel alone as all activity is towards shared goals; by turns leading, following, supporting, promoting, speculating and facing facts.
The 14+ hour days, the race to get the show fit for public consumption, the ready bonds of teams thrown together are all familiar territory, as is bright lipstick and red wine to warm up and cool down respectively, but this feeling of coming inside, of being part of a mission, is gratifying in a way that a round of applause for a few witty songs has rarely fulfilled. It’s not as rushy, as sparkly, as reach-for-the-moon as performance adrenaline, rather it is something approaching wholesome, and exciting in a far-reaching way.
I’m discovering fears and strengths I didn’t know I had: scaling 20 foot ladders to adjust projection rigs is one stomach-churning thing, but it turns out that flyering and asking strangers into an exhibition spooks me far more than bowling on to stage in a latex catsuit to entertain a couple of hundred people.
Having been a professional show-off for so long I assumed I could rely on an ability to speak to anyone, anywhere, but I’ve often also joked that I like people, at a safe distance from the stage, preferably whilst I’m armed with a microphone, and it turns out it’s true. It’s also possible that I just hate canvassing, but in small teams needs must, so I shall do my best to be brave.
Approaching art projects that have existed long before my involvement is interesting; being able to adopt a concept and work out how I can be most useful is a world away from the sweaty-palmed experience of being the main and often only driver of a project. It’s wonderful.
I am emotionally invested in the work in so far as I want it to do well and want to do as best a job I can, but the action of having an overview, keeping in mind always the bigger picture, the ultimate outcome, the best for everyone, is very freeing compared to the agonies of solo leadership.
I want to be useful to others, to contribute to change and to progress, and I want some damned power in this world. Being a performer, no matter how popular, hardworking or successful, means you are mainly at the bottom of the arts food chain and dependent on the tastes of others for work.
I want to move up the food chain and steer my destiny and those of others, and I get the sense that producing is the best way for me to achieve this. I’m still occasionally moonlighting as Ophelia Bitz for fun and extra cash, and I hope to develop new theatre work in the future, so do keep your eye out for a dingbat in a catsuit talking faster than she can run. The ol’ broad has shown me a wonderful decade and I’m not about to put her out to pasture completely.
I am listening and watching for now, trying not to see into the future or over-think the changes that are happening to me. To be paid to learn, to not have all the answers, is unbelievably freeing, and I am delighted and grateful that Trish and Sue chose me to be here.
Staring vaguely into the middle distance in a chalet in rural Wales, it’s hard to process that for the last week I’ve been on a tidal schedule; a wind-burnt face and a sleep-deprived sense of befuddlement my only souvenirs of a week on the bank of the Thames helping Liz Crow bring her ‘Figures’ project into being. Was it only a few days ago we stood outside Parliament giving interviews to Finnish news channels and to Occupy? The BBC DID show up, didn’t they?
The human cost of austerity as a theme for a project is one I’m totally behind and the value of humanity in arts production has featured heavily in lessons learned this week. Working under tough conditions, be they battling 60mph winds or a being in a group of strangers thrown into a flat together, is par for the course in production, but the ability for a team to pull together and play nicely is key to success.
3am rarely brings out the best in anyone but we managed, by and large, to bring a little gallows humour to our early starts and heavy loads.
Every court needs it’s jester, and when I realised I was unable to help with a lot of the physical aspects of the performances due to a back injury I took my role as Production Support to be in part serving as a cheerleader for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing amongst the team. Yup, a bit of mucking about whilst loading a van can go a long way, I feel, as does the timely application of bacon sandwiches, so I hope I was able to contribute a little to the team.
None of this would have worked without excellent planning, and commendation must go to Producer Jess Edge for preparing the most formidable schedule to help us keep on track! I’ve worked with complicated scheduling before as part of the production team of the Unfairground at Glastonbury Festival, and the skills of good resource- and people-management are totally transferrable in all outdoor arts endeavours. If everyone is clear on their roles and know exactly where they need to be at any given time it allows for much better problem solving in the moment.
I tip my hat also to Liz’s PA Jess Keily; her amazing skills and patience really highlighted the importance of skilled and properly funded assistance for disabled artists. Without her we would have struggled to keep the project afloat, and her excellent communication between the team and Liz helped us to adapt to Liz’s energy levels and requirements.
Liz herself has been a joy to work with; even freezing her fingers and toes in the clay and wind for hours at a time she always came back from the shore smiling and kind. Endurance work really is a test of the body and will, and Liz’s commitment to her work has been unshaken throughout. She’s a very impressive woman who’s work I will be following from now on.
Please do have a look at the Figures twitter account for details of the project and the stories behind the sculptures. We live in uncertain times and I will be watching the results of the general election closely for movement in funding to arts and disability.
It’s nice to be back in the real world, and to not have to wear four pairs of trousers to keep warm, but there was something magical about being the only people awake on the riverbank watching a lone figure making many small ones, making a quiet but powerful protest for vulnerable people in society. Let us strive to take care of one another and keep up the pressure on government to be accountable and fair to us all.