Only good work

A year ago when my tango school started taking it off I realised that in creative endeavors what matters the most is the quality of the work.

I know. It’s so obvious. But bear with me…

In performing arts, you really need to hustle to get a project off the ground.

So up until then, in my 5-year career a lot of the focus had been on Bums On Seats: Filling up the spaces. The quality of the work was taken for granted.

So many of my discussions with friends revolved around using Instagram, Facebook, Kickstarter…

Of course, we thought, the work is great. But the ‘anxiety’ was always around marketing. After all, even Gemma Arterton famously said actors are asked to post more pictures of ‘outfit of the day’ or lunch meals to get more jobs

Until recently.

When we went to perform at Brighton Fringe, most of our seat tickets had been sold.

I’m guessing it was because we had had great reviews for the show. For the first time ever, there was little marketing involved on our part.

No extensive flyering before, just a few interviews.

It meant that we could come to the venue, warm-up and get grounded, give our best during the performance… and hug and thank the audience at the end.

Not that you can’t when you’re working hard to sell yourself, but it’s easier when your energy is not depleted…

We could take the time to truly connect with them, share our art with generosity and show appreciation for their support.

So it got me thinking.

Of course, marketing is key for any business, even one that’s art-based.

But if all you need to get to connect with the joy of making arts is a few series of stars lined up on media sites, I know where my efforts are going towards: out with Instagram, in with better, bolder work…

Did you say immigration? How a thirst for adventure turned into a star-rated play

I’ve always wanted to travel the world.

Throughout high school and my first 3 years at uni in a small French town, I was impatiently waiting for the moment I could step on a plane and discover the world.

And once I started, I never looked back.

But not as a traveler, no. I had no interest in being a tourist. I wanted to be A Local.

To know the roads, discover the culture, understand the jokes, speak the language, decipher the local politics. I wanted to soak in the culture from the inside. To gorge on it.

I longed to feast on the thrill of exploration.

I’d look up from the memoirs of some extraordinary adventurer, gazing out the window into the grey, low sky of Parisians suburbs and imagine the excitement of a life under the Indian Sun, of speaking Mandarin or exploring the Baleares Islands.

How I longed for it… Dreaming of absorbing cultures to add spices, salt, pepper to my bland daily life.

How do you move to a new country when you have no contact, no experience, know only basic English, and can only bring to the table a burning desire to keep moving?

Any excuse would do.

I became an international student, then a clerk, an NGO-worker, even a banker. Mexico, Madrid, Kolkatta, Manila, Hong-Kong, I could never stop. 3 months, 6 months, a year… every time a bit longer, but just enough for me not to get bored, and be ready to fly again.

You see, I wanted to have the thrill of discovery, but without the blandness of familiarity.

I was a fish. The girl with a thousand stamps on her passport, which I exhibited proudly at customs, and wherever I landed next.

Until one train ride I’ll remember forever.

The closest country. France’s frenemy. A 2-hour train ride. But no return ticket.

It was time to ‘grow up’, and settle down.

Live in one place.

Re-create daily life. In a new country, true, but the same life my parents had created for us and that I’d been running away from all that time.

A life where the flavors are familiar, where you know the streets like the back of your hands, where the local barista knows your coffee order.

Where you don’t get the thrill of being A Foreigner.

How I dreaded that life.

And yet, how I needed that life.

Years of travels and constant uprooting had left me penniless. I was more connected than ever, with friends across all the continents and an exciting facebook feed. Pictures of NY, HK, sunny beaches in Thailand and match games in Sweden… Yet I had never been more lonely.

The friends I’d grown up with joked about my latest travels, but didn’t invite me to birthday parties and baby showers anymore. Why would they, if I never could make it? They were lucky, if I showed up for weddings at all.

And, especially, my mind was going round in cycles.

The thousand flavors of constant travel had left me mentally exhausted. I didn’t know what I liked anymore. And I couldn’t sit in silence in a room for one evening. Like a junkie, I always needed more. More excitement, more new names, more new roads. To the point where I didn’t know who I was.

Taking a full-time position in London meant settling down.

Meeting people. Meeting them again, one year, two years from now. Properly discovering them. And letting them see who I was.

Letting go of the exciting new-girl-in-town-identity and becoming a woman who can give directions to tourists, visits counties twice, has a network and a career and has never properly set foot in the British Museum. Becoming a true local.

With all the blandness and the familiarity it implies.

And God knows that wasn’t easy. Past the excitement of the first few months, you discover that your life is your life, the same life, wherever you are.

I learned to enjoy the contrast between a fast-paced week, and the slowness of a Sunday spent in a pub. My co-workers let their guards down and became friends. I found my favorite city escape (Brighton), and started going there every couple of months. I discovered I could predict when it would rain, and finally, a few years in, bought practical shoes.

I truly was A Local.

But, especially, I discovered that life on the slower side has one advantage: it allowed me to create deeper connections than I’d ever had.

With people who’ve seen me change and grow. Who’ve seen me at my best but also at my worst. Who’ve forgiven me for stuff, like I’ve forgiven them. Close friends who’ve consoled me on the dark winter nights or neighbors who smile at me when they see me on the street.

I’ve exchanged the anonymity of the traveler’s life for one of tighter bonds and deeper connections.

Recently I went to France to renew my passport.

My heart tightened a bit when I handed over the old fully-stamped one.

But I received a new one instead. Whose serene blank pages are inviting me to keep traveling. But by going deeper instead of going wider. 

And so to share my experience I’ve co-written Behind Our Skin, a fast-paced and visceral play where two stories of immigration merge and diverge. Our show opened in August last year to great reviews in Edinburgh.

If you are at Brighton Fringe on the first weekend of May join us for a fast-moving drama. You won’t regret it. And in true British fashion, we do drinks after 😉

A spiritual writing process

I am starting to believe in God

Or at least in some sort of spiritual Helper.

Because recently I’ve found that by putting my writing into the hands of a spiritual guide, it’s flowing.

I used to have to push through the words and sit through hours of blocks. As Elizabeth Gilbert says: be the plow mule.

Long, painful, boring creative work, which is now unblocked*

The Hand of God has touched my blank pages.

Or, rather, a special little book called The McGyver Secret.

Written by McGyver creator Lee Zlotoff to help artists, entrepreneurs, and anyone who wants to create anything come up with ideas.

His concept is simple: we all have an inner McGyver inside of us, which will readily provide answers to any question (creative, top notch, high quality answers), should we bother to ask.

It took me years of searching for a process that worked for me, and this one does. I’m writing my next play and in just 15 days had three fully fleshed-out scripts to choose from.

So I’m sharing it here hoping it gives you some tools, and helps.

It’s not McGyver only, though. I’m combining it with Self-Love Gold from Julia Cameron and a sprinkle of Magic Fairy Dust from Marie Forleo.

Step 1: “Produce before you consume”

This is a mantra from life coach Marie Forleo who reminds us that our daily bucket of willpower is limited. So better tackle the big creative tasks first thing in the morning, before it gets trickled down by us consuming what others have created.

It also has the added benefit that you’re not starting to write with your head filled with the amazing stuff people who are ahead of you in the creative journey have produced. 

Which means that your book, your songs, your play… need your attention before your social media feed.

This one’s a bit tough for me so what I do now as soon as I wake up is make coffee, sit at my desk, and start working. 

Step 2: Weed out the judging and the whining

Ok, I whine a lot… and judge my words a lot… which doesn’t help when you want to get your creative juices flowing.

How to avoid that? Julia Cameron’s Morning pages.

If you don’t know what these are, know that they have almost cult status among creatives. I’ve joined the ranks and do them religiously every morning.

They consist in a stream of consciousness writing – a minimum of 3 pages, every morning. You can’t stop until you’ve reached the bottom of your third page, even if the only thing you’re writing is “I don’t know what to write, this is so boring…”

It weeds out all the petty thoughts that play in repeat in your brain: once they’re on the page, they’re out of your sytem and you can connect to the Inner You that actually has something interesting to say.

They’re gold.

Step 3: Let Mac take over

Then comes the time for actual work, and I basically let ‘my innerMac’ take over.

The day before, I’ve written down a question, such as “Why is my character angry at her partner?”, or “Can you help me write the introduction scene?”, and I let the writing flow. A bit like the morning pages, except that this time it is not me writing, it is… someone else…

The answers come, and usually they’re amazing. And I’m not doing anything.

Weird.

Kind of spiritual.

Super efficient.

 

Step 4: Ask the next question

Once my writing is finished – roughly after 30 minutes to one hour – I write the next question I want Mac to answer: ‘“ok, so you said her partner cheated on her, but with whom?” Stuff like that.

Then I close the shop and call it a day.

Usually, it is 8.30-9.00am, and I’ve done my most important work of the day.

 

That’s it.

Simple, but relaxing because it allows me to move forward with my writing without stressing out about it.

And I have some pretty cool ideas for my next show, so if you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, come and say Hi!

I hope this helps.

Now I’d love to hear from you.

What is your process? Do you too have a spiritual approach to creativity, or do you take a more rational approach?

Please share it in the comments below.

Much love,

Anne

PS: if you are at the Brighton Fringe this weekend, I am performing Behind Our Skin.. come say hi?

rekindling that relationship

This time last year I decided I was going to write a play and put it up at the Edinburgh festival.

I had a vague idea of what I’d like it to be about, wrote a 4-line paragraph about it, sent it to a venue and got accepted.

Yes, it was that easy.

Up until then.

Because then came the properly challenging part.

Writing it.

I’m so glad I actually got the play set up before because otherwise, I’d never have finished it. Ever.

It was probably the toughest 4 months of my life. I spent the days in a limbo, oscillating between numbing my brain to avoid thinking about it and letting sheer panic take over my body.

Fast forward through a painful daily writing routine, night sweats, and the big production rush…

and the play actually went quite well (just kidding, it was an effing triumph)

So, note for self, external pressure involving tight deadlines and huge sums of money work…

Afterward, though, I was glad to put it all away, focus on my dancing and let go of that show.

The script got cleaned up a bit, we sent out thanks, divided the money and I pressed close on my computer file with a sigh of relief. No lingering feelings of nostalgia. The script and the memories spent winter tightly shut in the dark, gathering dust and slowly fading away.

But with early 2018 came two invitations to perform, and Brighton and Sheffield. And we always say Yes to the stage.

Have you ever revisited past work?

You open your notes with a sense of trepidation, and then it always seems so… outdated. So insignificant. And even if you can still spot one or two areas of brilliance (“that was a good line…”), I’ve found there’s usually a ‘meh’ feel to the whole thing.

The words you thought were so perfectly aligned, so brilliantly brought together have lost their shine and feel awkward and clumsy.

Still, last weekend, we opened the script and reconnected with the old words.

Is it that it was one of the most gorgeous weekends Paris has seen this year?

The sun was shining beautifully, flowers were in bloom and the crowds filled up parks and terraces, generally high on life.

Or it might simply be that learning lines comfortably spread out under a cherry tree beats the rush of a stressful run.

I don’t know what it was, but we fell in love with our play all over again.

Like seeing an ex-partner and remembering fondly how much you’ve experienced together, and how they’ll always be a part of your heart.

6 months of ‘being on a break’ do that to a relationship: all the words came back easily but suddenly we can tweak things up, play more.

We’ve performed it so many times, it is now so deep into our skin that we now have the freedom that comes with familiarity and time.

As if by opening the dusty scripts wide and letting the sun warm up the faded words we’ve given them a second life. 

One that’s more cheerful, more daring, more loving, freer.

It was a love story in the end.

The Very First play

True, it wasn’t the Very First One.

The Very First One was in the South of France when I was 8 – and with a dozen of cousins we’d prepared a succession of acts, walking the adults from the swimming pool (choreographed jumps and dives!) to the living room (dancing-worm rendition by my 5-year-old little sister and her cushion) to the stairs (singing by the girls).

A first dabble at entertaining & seducing an audience.

How easy it was, back then….

And then, 20 years later, came the real one. The one with a real performance space, where you spend the money, invite all of your friends… and sit in front of a blank page for hours on end.

The one where you have no idea what you’re doing but this is what you really want to do right now.

I thought – smart ass – that I’d make it easier on myself by rewriting something already written. So I adapted a beautiful Japanese Kabuki tale from the 18th century – the Love Suicides at Sonezaki – and to London post-WWII. (The audience knew! Nothing shady :))

It became not only a play but a musical – with a cast of 10 actors, 12 dancers, and a live band. All this on the enormous budget of £800.

Yes, I don’t do things by half when I get started….

These were probably the hardest, most tense months of my life. I wish I’d known what I know now about mindset and not letting yourself be controlled by fear back then.

I was consumed with worry. It was sitting on my shoulder, walking around with me as I went through my day, voraciously eating away at my sanity. 

Worry.

Not only about how to direct and manage such a huge crew, where to find the money, and how to get an audience, but especially – especially:

What if they don’t like it?

Can I ever survive an audience not liking it?

What if they don’t like it, don’t like it, don’t like it, don’t like it…?

And guess what.

They didn’t like it.

Truth is, it wasn’t good. It was a First Play.

They were kind, and smiled, and congratulated me. Until the drunken guy at the pub took me to the side and said “Did you too come see that play? I left after 20 minutes… It was so boring.”

Probably not his best pick-up line.

I left the pub drunk & in tears and sobbed through the night.

But hey.

It wasn’t very good.

But it was a first start.

It is what allows me to write today. And I’m grateful for that.

Being Part of Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Awards

Last August my show, Behind Our Skin, was selected for the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Awards. It was my first time encountering this award, but I was fascinated by the great work they do in bringing forward plays with a political theme. Behind Our Skin is about 2 immigrant women living in the UK and France, so I guess that this is why we caught their eye.

#JeSuis, which won the award this year, was a powerful dance performance about the political situation and freedom of speech violations in Turkey.

I love the fact that theatre can be simply pure entertainment and/or carry a strong political or emotional message. I have asked Juliet Swann, assistant to the Amnesty International Scotland Team, to share more about the Award, its selection process, and #JeSuis. Here is Juliet:

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What is Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Awards? When was it created and why? 

This is Amnesty International’s 14th year of running the Freedom of Expression Award at Edinburgh Festival. We have a long-standing relationship with the Festivals, from comedy events in aid of Amnesty International to the Imprisoned Writers events at the Book Festival.

We run the Freedom of Expression Award because more than any other art form, excellent theatre makes lasting emotional as well as an intellectual impact on the audience.

It is also a reminder that this important freedom is not one which can be celebrated equally around the globe where regimes will imprison, torture and kill their citizens for simply and peacefully expressing their political or religious views.

 

How are the shows selected for the Award? 

Currently, the long list is selected based on pre-festival awareness of shows, their description in the fringe programme and our professional critics’ knowledge and experience. Some shows are self-selecting. We are reviewing the nomination / long-listing process and aim to bring in a more definitive set of criteria in future years. Once the longlist is chosen, all the shows are reviewed by volunteer critics who pass on their thoughts to our judging panel who then visit the recommended shows.

The productions share the ability to inspire, inform, engage and sometimes terrify us by their powerful depictions of human rights abuses.

 

What did you particularly enjoy about  #JeSuis, which won the award in 2017? 

#JeSuis is a powerful wake-up call to everyone on the climate of violence and oppression that people in Turkey are currently enduring. To see attacks on freedom of expression portrayed through the medium of dance was incredibly powerful and accessible even for those who have no experience of dance performances. A production addressing freedom of expression in Turkey is particularly resonant for us as an organisation as our colleagues from Amnesty International Turkey were languishing in jail at the time and although freed on bail still risk reimprisonment.

 

From words to play – how to bring a play to life?

How do you turn words on a page into a vivid, mesmerizing piece of performance?

What do you do when the play is so strange and complex that you do not know where to start?

And how about when the play itself is not written…? When it is just the germ of an idea, not fully expressed yet?

My guest today is a director and producer whose approach to theatre-making is inclusive: Tonje Wik Olaussen tells you how she invites actors, writers and more into the creative process and stays true to her vision as a director.

Click on the video to watch 🙂

Tonje kindly shared some of her favorite books with me, which are now definitely in my reading list:

I hope you enjoy the interview and I see you in the next video 🙂

Anne