‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.
Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over. At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly. I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.
To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long. Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.
These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.
However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?
I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:
Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.
I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space. I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.
I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.
Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response. It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.
A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals. This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities. For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?
You can’t stop the passion
Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate. I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.
Changing direction and starting again
There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’ new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago. Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.
Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.
The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people. Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.
I hope you can come to see it.
‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your seats.
The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.