Ment-Well #5: Start Where You Are
Author: Rebecca Saffir
When is a theatre artist not a theatre artist? Over the last six months, I’ve felt that the fact that I’ve never submitted, never mind been approved for, an ACE [Arts Council England] Project Grant, makes me a mere pretender, an also-ran, a shadow-artist. In theatre bars and foyers (remember them?!) I’d sip my cheap wine and nod sagely as my interlocutors bemoaned the vagaries of Grantium [ACE’s online portal for grant applications], swapped tips on getting bids approved and promised to attend each other’s shows. The bitter tang of jealousy would coat my tongue and stop me from speaking: sorry, could we rewind, can someone explain to me how this actually works? The industry-wide shutdown has done surprisingly little to stem my feelings of inadequacy; having not participated in any ACE-funded projects over the course of my nascent career I wasn’t eligible for any of their relief packages and anyway I felt like others deserved it far more - I mean, was I even enough of an artist for the Arts Council?
I’ve been on more Zoom calls than I can count this summer where a certain experience of ACE Project Grant applications, and by extension interactions with the Arts Council generally, have been simply taken as read by the facilitators or participants. It’s left me feeling out of step and off the ball, feelings I hate, because I very much prize being extremely on the ball and totally in step at all times.
These are difficult qualities to maintain at the best of times and they are really hard to maintain in the middle of a global crisis.
Maybe it’s time to give myself a bit of a break.
Caroline, the session facilitator, stressed the importance of letting ACE know where you are now: They’re not expecting everyone who applies to them to be experts already, or selling out huge venues already, or even selling anything. Be honest about where you are now, be realistic about what support you need from them to make the work you want to make, show them what you’ve already done and how they can help you do the next thing. My imposter-guard, the part of me so valiantly warding off anything or anyone that isn’t allowed in that it frequently throws my artist out of my self, was sent for a long walk around the block.
Start where you are.
We moved on to a discussion of techniques and methods for generating material in a rehearsal room. Such is the emotional intensity of Living Through This Time: merely hearing the words rehearsal room seemed to infuse our Zoom-room with a kind of tenderness. Warm up. Improvisation. Notecards. Designer. I think we’re all yearning for the day we can be in a room-room with any of those things again.
Being able to physically plot, track, change and document ideas and material was a recurring technique within the group: a strong affection for walls, Post-Its and highlighters was shared. The value of the vomit draft was also mentioned; this phrase initially came up in the discussion about ACE applications but found an echo in the later discussion of how to actually make the work you’ve asked for money to make. Get it out. Get it all out, with as little judgement or self-censorship as you can manage, and then edit, refine, hone in, polish.
Noting this similarity between making the art and making the application for the money to make the art calms me: a piece of art is trying to make the person on the other end feel or do something, and so is a funding bid. Judging by our conversation today, there are lots of ways you can approach either of them, and there will always be other artists who want to help you.
But the process of making theatre isn’t all communal joy and colourful stationery: sometimes things will be hard and people will be… people. In an echo of our previous discussions around the responsibility for wellbeing, the group shared some experiences of difficulty in the rehearsal room, times when the flow of communication and generation got stuck or stymied or twisted or broken. One of our number offered the possible solution, particularly for those of us with disabilities, chronic illness or mental health conditions, of creating and providing an access rider (here’s more information: https://www.accessdocsforartists.com/), so that our collaborators know what we expect and need in order to do our best work.
I glance around my tiny ‘study’, which is actually a converted entrance hall and not wide enough for me to hold my arms all the way out on either side. I’ve taped up a series of notecards attempting to capture and categorise the things I’m thinking about for the next thing I’m trying to write. It’s like a model box of a rehearsal room, complete with eight rectangle collaborator faces on my screen staring back at me.
Start where you are.
What are 'Ment-Well' articles?
Between July and October 2020, eight early-career theatre makers will come together to explore different aspects of their making process. They will be guided by writer, theatre maker and performer Caroline Horton who will facilitate five Mentoring sessions. In between the mentoring sessions, Artist Wellbeing Practitioner Lou Platt will facilitate Wellbeing sessions. In a hope to share discoveries and learnings with the wider community, each participant will create a 'Ment-Well' article that will capture something of one of the nine sessions. These articles are for collective self-reflection and a transfer of knowledge. They are to be approached by the author and audience with a sense of lightness, spontaneity and curiosity, and may be a seed or starting point for further thought and exploration - nothing more, nothing less.