A three step guide to our three act play Paul Smith, artistic director
A suspicious reader may suspect the title of this blog was chosen purely for sexy alliteration purposes. They would be a tiny bit right but mainly those three words are ones that I - and I suspect most theatre makers - associate with making new work. We’re in the process of making our most ambitious show to date, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I want to use this space to talk about the panic, pressure and possibility that currently fills my every waking hour.
Before I get started properly I want to make sure we’re all on the same page…
Making new work is hard. Like, really hard.
And it’s a bit like sex in that you very rarely get to watch other people do it, so most of the time have no idea if you’re doing it right or not - you just have to follow your instincts. With that said, I’d love to hear if the experiences I’m talking about here chime with other theatre makers or not. Anyway….blog post.
Part One - PANIC
Personally, I have a long relationship with PANIC (you have to write it in capitals to do it justice). Not so long ago and for quite a while I was spending pretty much every minute of every day battling with either debilitating PANIC attacks or the threat of an imminent debilitating PANIC attack.
Thankfully, I’m a lot better at the moment but by that I don’t mean free from PANIC, I mean I’ve learnt to live with it. However, one of the hardest things in doing so is that I genuinely believe every good theatre maker needs a certain degree of PANIC in their lives and in their creative process.
In my personal life I define PANIC as "the nagging, unrelenting fear of everything going wrong". Professionally I define PANIC as "the nagging, unrelenting fear of everything going wrong while people have paid money to sit and watch it happening".
The real difference is that I find the former not at all useful and the latter absolutely crucial. Since November 2013 when Hull was announced as the next UK City of Culture there has been one question on my mind and in my ears: "What are you doing in 2017?"
This question could be interpreted in many ways but in truth, there is only one genuine meaning: "What are you doing in 2017 that justifies the funding, support and opportunity given to you?"
And for a long time, I panicked. I panicked about answering that question because I felt whatever I said would never be good enough, never be bold enough, never be exciting enough, could never quite repay the investment of the 2017 team.
And it wasn’t an inactive PANIC; I wasn’t frozen to the spot or struck with the AD equivalent of writers block, it was the opposite. I was overwhelmed by possibility, which we’ll come to later. I wanted to do EVERYTHING and I wanted to do it all BRILLIANTLY. That feeling has never quite gone away but, that PANIC and desire to be able to answer that question sufficiently has led me to work harder and push our ambition further than ever before.
Part Two - Pressure
If PANIC is the first Matryoshka doll then pressure is the second, waiting uncompromisingly inside her larger doppelgänger. Or are they sisters? Or different sized versions of the same being? I’ve never quite understood them!
There was a time not so long ago when the city of Hull felt like a bit of a reprieve from ‘industry’ pressure. Everyone was simply enjoying the fact that there was a new scene blossoming and celebrated all that was on offer. Now, it feels like the game really is afoot with expectation greater than ever and the city being taken seriously.
That’s a very, very good thing as Hull is perfectly placed to produce all sorts of varied, challenging work (Silent Uproar, Pub Corner Poets, The Roaring Girls and Bellow are just a few examples of companies making genuinely bold, brilliant work). One of the big challenges the city is now facing is that the lack of critical dialogue in the city is beginning to make it difficult to learn from making work here.
To be clear, I think there should be lots of pressure placed on us all and no-one should purely be thankful that we exist or happy that we’re all giving it a bloody good go. And for that to happen, we need to get better at talking about the work that is being made. The true legacy of the City of Culture year will be that companies like ours expect more of ourselves, have more expected of us and can deliver, raising our game with every piece of work we make.
Yes, pressure is a horrible thing to have to deal with; it weighs you down and tries to drag you to the ground but it also forces you to flap your wings to stay afloat before you eventually soar.
The fact is that as a result of the pressure placed on us we are being more ambitious and more industrious than ever before. All We Ever Wanted Was Everything will (of course) not be the perfect piece of theatre. I would love for there to be genuine engagement and critical discussion about that, rather than "it was good/it was bad" but, whatever happens, I know that when people say "What did you do in 2017?" we’ll be able to answer proudly and without apology because of the pressure that comes with being taken seriously.
Part Three - Possibility
So far, I’ve said that I believe both PANIC and pressure are useful in the process of making theatre. I’d like to be really clear that those two things would be a disaster without possibility. Possibility is why we do it and what keeps us going on not enough money and not enough sleep. It’s that feeling you get when, for the first time through all the worry and angst and fear, you catch sight of what it COULD be, of what you COULD achieve.
And that’s what makes it the most terrifying ingredient of all. The idea that I might never reach that mirage of what could be is what keeps me awake at night.
What if this perfect storm of age, place and opportunity go to waste and we don’t make the most of it?
What if I let down those people who have invested in the project and the company along the way?
What if we don’t do absolutely everything possible to make sure that this piece of work achieves absolutely everything possible?
That’s the real panic. That’s the real pressure. And I believe it is that last question that should dominate every process and every piece of work.
For All We Ever Wanted Was Everything the possibility is huge. We’re creating a three-act epic that spans twenty years and tries to understand the world we inherited and the world we’re leaving behind. It has live music, it's in a nightclub and it's taking place bang in the centre of arguably the biggest party Hull has ever seen. The stage is set, all we need to do now is embrace the panic, relish the pressure and realise the possibility.