#6 - Giving Up
"Fear or love baby don't say the answer"
A few times a year I feel with utter clarity that I have to give up on musical theatre.
I edit my non theatre CV, I update my LinkedIn page, I start scrolling jobs in tech or advertising companies and I start to wonder about life with a regular salary, a sense of security and some self esteem.
I have often thought that working towards success in theatre is a bit like buying scratch cards with the hope of making a living. Random and improbable. Unlike other careers there is very little progression, very little structure and hardly ever a pay rise. Theatre works not by paying you more, the more experienced you are. It works by paying you very little regardless with odd flashes of better pay if and when you have a lucky moment or decide to do a “money job” which usually means a show you don't like, value or care about that much.
Theatre isn't designed with progression in mind. It is designed for almost everyone to be trapped in a regular Sisyphean struggle to push our respective boulders to the top of a mountain over and over.
Lately I have also found myself finding it harder and harder that the thing I love brings me so much regular pain, angst and uncertainty.
Eight years ago my brother asked me to describe the place in the industry I was aiming for. Who in UK theatre did I want to be? Whose life was the sort of successful that I wanted it to be mine? Whose career path should I investigate and try to emulate? It was a question that led me to realise that the career I wanted didn't exist. I hadn't seen it before. I didn't want to direct glossy tours of popular jukebox musicals. I didn't want to direct revivals of mega musicals. I wanted to direct new musicals.
His question also made me realise that it was too late to reinvent myself as a director of plays who could classily fall into directing the one musical a year that I envy. The industry seems to love finding people who have never directed musicals in their entire career before inexplicably giving them the rare few musicals that looked and felt like shows I would want to make. It turns out that perhaps I should have spent the last fifteen years ignoring musicals if I'd wanted to make them in the current landscape.
There is of course a musical theatre industry in the UK but it is mostly interested in perpetuating the same systems, structures and shows over and over again. It is mostly commercial. It sees musicals through the thinnest and most restricted of gazes. Then there is the rest of theatre which sees musicals as something to be embarrassed about. Something to undermine and snigger about. And there I was stuck in the middle feeling like I didn't belong on either side.
On realising these things I decided to strike out on my own. It felt like the only conceivable path. A friend noted that instead of knocking on doors perhaps I should build a bonfire. So I did. I celebrated the writing and shows I believed spoke to a different way of thinking. I produced concerts and chamber musicals. I decided not to ask for permission.
And in and of itself, this worked. I found myself more and more in places I enjoyed with people I cared about. But as I tried to fight for a new system I often found myself implicitly and explicitly at odds with existing systems.
I also found myself stuck between systemic flaws and myself. I found myself frustrated by the systems that currently existed and stuck between the contradiction of trying to fit into other communities or be part of my own. I found myself disagreeing with people and practices and with time beginning to feel like it was running out, I began to find myself making enemies the more I stuck to my own principles.
This was also woven in with the hegemony and power dynamics intrinsic to theatre. Theatre is designed to harm those who don't internalise its structures and rules. And sometimes in feeling adrift within those structures I harmed others. My unhappiness would, I came to realise lead to unhappiness in those around me. Sometimes I would find myself working inside systems that would harm me and lead me to harm others. And this would lead to a cycle of guilt and self immolation that would inevitably lead to more harm.
The issue is, if there's no place for you, if people don't value what you value then it becomes very hard to act positively all the time. If you don't feel safe then it feels almost impossible to make safety around you. The issue with a bonfire is that if you aren't careful it can burn you and others who come near.
There is also a very real thing about theatre and especially musical theatre is that so many of its processes and structures are engrained and that doing things differently can often feel like you are doing it wrong. Disagreement which in a more structured environment can feel safe, feels unsafe in theatre. Feels like trying to live in a desert or at the North pole. It feels like when you try and live without or in opposition to structures that you and everyone you work near is being asked to be uncomfortable but it is so easy for that discomfort to tip into a lack of safety. So how do you fight for new systems and new processes without harm for yourself and others?
In 2019 I was diagnosed with a malicious form of skin cancer. Through treatment and surgeries I was eventually told I was cancer free, but I still live with that spectre of my mortality right beside me. This made me care a lot less about what people thought of me and made me more outspoken, more aware of time running out, and more eager to carve a new place within an arid landscape. But I found that this newfound ability to publicly disagree, this newfound bravery made me seem to many, as even more of a problem. My human mistakes and missteps became part of a pattern of public rebellion. More and more I found myself at odds with systems and people who seemed happy in their houses and their glass buildings and who had no idea why I was loudly hoping that some of those houses and buildings would cease to exist and something better might be built.
If someone had grown up their whole lives wanting to live inside the glass shiny buildings of musical theatre, then I had become a threat. It struck me that even idealism hurts people for whom that idealism holds no value.
There were then meetings and processes and rehearsal rooms that my antagonism to certain ways of doing things again led to negativity and stress in me and those nearby.
I got into theatre because I love it. I believe in it. I care about it. But if you don't want to be part of it as it currently exists then I now realise that this can mean you spend as much if not more time acting from a place of negativity than of positivity. And gradually this begins to grate on you and others.
I have so much that is positive. Close collaborations with incredible writers. The ability to hear a newly written song almost every day. I am respected as a passionate and intelligent advocate for the form of musical theatre. I have concerts and shows and commissions that are made on my own terms that I can share with those who want them. But I also realise that I have harmed people. I have upset people. I have punched my hands bloody at systemic walls that won't come down and I have set fire to myself and others in the hope of building a bonfire that might just might be visible from the windows of institutions and individuals who sleep soundly in their shiny houses and buildings.
This week I watched tick, tick…BOOM and I spent most of it in tears. It is a story that is full of idealism but also is shot through with the pain of trying to blaze a trail. Of trying to stand apart. The film chronicles the endless struggles to get your voice heard against the backdrop of mega musicals, jukebox musicals and film adaptations. Of trying to say something original. Now I am in no way trying to claim I have the vision or talent of Jonathan Larson. But his struggles and his dreams feel so nearby to the way I’ve spent my years. Of knowing that time is running out to do the things I most care about. The end of the film (spoiler alert) is not a success story but one of another bolder pushed up a hill for eight years that instead of making it to the top rolls back down the mountain. Another thing thrown against a wall that refuses to stick.
A friend once said that life would be a lot better if we could see what was round the corner, but the irony is, we never can. We just have to keep pushing knowing that something might be just ahead. But how do we give ourselves enough energy to keep pushing into the unknown. There are two Sondheim lyrics that exist in my head on a near constant loop.
This one from Road Show:
“Some may not work out
Some go up the spout
Plenty more around the corner
And what’s waiting round the corner
Isn’t that what life is all about?”
And this one from Anyone can Whistle:
“Make just a ripple,
Come on, be brave
This time a ripple
Next time a wave
Sometimes you have to start small
Climbing the tiniest wall
Maybe you’re going to fall
But it’s better than not starting at all”
Another friend noted that because Jonathan Larson died, it is our job to carry on because he couldn’t. Now of course his struggles eventually led him to make the show Rent but he also never got to stand atop the mountain of his success because he passed away on the opening of the first preview. Jonathan’s entire life was a struggle and we are all his descendants. We are all here because of him. And we have to go on out of deference and respect to him.
Again I will say that I’m not for a moment comparing myself to him. His talent, his genius are not things I ascribe to myself. But I work alongside and with so many writers who have his spark, his talent, his energy, and who have decided to speak for him and because of him. And I get to be near them almost every day.
I know we aren’t curing cancer, or saving the rainforest but I do believe we have the ability to change the world. But I also know that doing so will require people to change their minds. And changing peoples’ minds is nearly impossible. But if anything can do it, I profoundly believe it is music and stories.
The cycle of wondering whether or not to give up repeats and repeats. Every few months. But every few months something reminds me why I’m here. A new song, a new idea, a new possibility, the realisation that none of us are alone. There are people who want the same thing as us, and we have to find them. I have come to realise that we are capable of holding each other up even if there is no one else holding us up.
So will I ever give up? I doubt it. But yet again I am sitting here thinking about it and right now I realise that I have to try not to erase sadness and anger, but to try my very best to have more positivity than negativity. Remind myself of what matters and try and have more good days than bad.
tick, tick…BOOM as a story doesn’t for a moment say that we will always have good days. That we will always triumph. But it says, keep going, the struggle is part of it. It says people have tried to do this for generations before you and will be trying to do this for generations after you. Some of its most potent sadness and rebellion is encased in song and music. Its pessimism and optimism are knotted together. Both, like music and words, happen at the same time.
Mostly I am keen to look at the things in my life and career and community that give me stability and safety. To focus on them a little more and to focus on the walls and the glass buildings a little less. I doubt I will ever entirely erase the negativity from my life, the sense of injustice and rebellion. But maybe inch by inch I should look to rebalance things. To focus on the positive a little more. I regret the pain I have caused and I am working day by day to mitigate it in myself and others. To find ways of balancing frustration with creativity. To find more ways to love and fewer to fear.
Newton’s second law establishes that all closed systems get increasingly chaotic. This is why things get damaged and you can’t go back and repair them. This is why materials that get tarnished can never be cleaned. I have upset people and systems and I have realised that little is going to change that no matter how hard I try. But if you open a closed system, then the chaos dissipates. So more and more I am going to try and open up the windows and doors.
There is so much love and optimism. And for Jonathan that is where I am going to try and situate myself. Jonathan should be 61 years old right now and he didn’t make it past 35. We are all living his life for him and his struggle was powered by a blazing passion and belief that outweighed the anger and the pain.
He said it all in his song Louder Than Words
“Fear or love, baby
Don't say the answer”
It is probably both. All of the time. But it has to be both. If there’s too much pain then it’s time to find more love.
“Why do we play with fire?
Why do we run our finger through the flame?
Why do we leave our hand on the stove
Although we know, we're in for some pain?”
It’s impossible to play with fire without it hurting us. But it’s important to realise that if we and others are in too much pain that it’s time to find more positive things.
“Why should we try to be our best
When we can just get by and still gain?
Why do we nod our heads
Although we know
The boss is wrong as rain?”
Nodding our heads all the time is wrong. But sometimes it is going to rain and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
“If we don't wake up
And shake up the nation
We'll eat the dust
Of the world wondering why”
None of us have a choice. We can’t give up. But each day from now I will have Jonathan nearer me insisting that there is as much Love as Fear and perhaps that’s all any of us can do.
Thank you for reading
If you haven’t seen it, here is a thread I wrote on Twitter just after watching tick, tick…BOOM
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