revew: Contact Young Company – How To Be Better
How To Be Better/
by Contact Young Company/
dir Common Wealth/
design Russ Henry/
It’s the end of the year. Which speaks swathes. Another block of past is elapsed and another series of plans have been altered or acted out, mostly the former. Writing this, I’m adding to a growing block of ‘end of year’ posts, lists and columns that the online criticism community are putting out. Simon Bowes has laid down a (First Provisional) Manifesto, Meg Vaughan has unleashed a speculative fiction 2016 in theatre, Andrew Haydon, Exeunt and others have dropped 2015 best-of lists. Like every year before it, 2015 is poising to freeze forever and turn into history. Like Ezra Pound’s furious annotations of that early draft of The Wasteland – 2015 is sliced and highlighted to preference.
A couple of days ago, my Exeunt review of Contact Young Company’s How To Be Better went online (and if you want a more concise review go there). This isn’t that review. Just under a year ago, I started this new website and right from the beginning I was calling the things I was writing on here ‘revews’. So if the Exeunt piece is my review, this is my revew.* I like spelling things however I like** – I do it a lot on twitter – and it’s not a massively calculated decision, but it’s mostly to do with reminding myself that I want to write differantly.* In short, language and writing is so historically imbued with implicit heirarchies and systems of oppression, I don’t want mine to be trustworthy. I want readers to second guess my writing, and their reading of it.
To describe it in a very limited way, How To Be Better is about self-improvement. Which also means it tackles New Year’s resolutions and that sense of insufficiency that we’re all goaded into feeling at this time of year. I’ve been looking back over the extended edit that was my 2015 and over the past twelve months I’ve been pretty bloody lucky. I’ve started reviewing regularishly for Exeunt and become a self-employed theatre maker, which I’m constantly amazed at and thankful for. But I’m no more satisfied to sit still than I was last year. I’ve been busy and I’m sure I’ll continue to make myself busy for another twelve months, and another, and so on. I’m motivated to self-improvement and a lot of the time (particularly being self-employed) that means I forget to stop working and wind up overworked and stressed and I could certainly be kinder to myself in that respect.
I’m white and male so I’m fairly enabled to act on my motivations, meaning, I guess, that it’s easier for me to avoid stress than most. Theatre is most of my life, almost all of my life, in one way or another. And I want to write more self-consciously when I write about it. I want to challenge myself and hold myself to account on my opinions. I suppose the self-improvement I want to seek, I want to achieve through changing the way I write. What all this boils down to is that one of the biggest things I want to do is write more, longer, sprawlingish posts (like this one), where I’m not sure where I’m going to end up when I start.
When I started reviewing for Exeunt, I pretty much stopped revewing on here. Since June, I’ve written thousands of words of theatre crit and I’ve posted just two revews on here, one of which was of a parliamentary speech. The writing I’ve been doing for Exeunt has, I think, been getting better – I’ve been given a lot of space to practice. My Exeunt review of How To Be Better took me less than two hours to smash out, once I’d recovered from an afterparty hangover. I’d like to think I’m a more competent writer than I was a year ago and I owe a lot of that to Exeunt for taking me on and giving me deadlines to write towards (historically I’m much better at getting stuff done with a time limit attached).
Thing is, with some exceptions, I’m not sure the sort of writing I’ve been doing for Exeunt is the sort of writing I really want to be writing. In November, I wrote a piece for them about Pomona, the place, which is the thing I’m most proud of writing for them this year, because I was given totally free reign, and because it most matches the sort of stuff I was writing before I made the move to Exeunt. Normally, if I’m reviewing for Exeunt, I’m conscious of the expectation that I write in a certain way, and there isn’t the space within that to, say, write in IPA or structure my paragraphs backwards or write mostly about myself and not actually the piece. All of these, by the way, I think are totally reasonable expectations for a publication to have when they’re generating material for readers.
So I find myself toying with the idea of writing more. Because I want to continue writing for Exeunt because I enjoy it, I think it’s important to get representation for shows in the North West, and because I think it encourages me to grow as a writer. But I also want to write the kind of thing I’m writing here – as long (or short) as I want it, formally ambitious, not necessarily particularly informative about the piece I’ve seen. And I do honestly think that this sort of ambition is a problem. Because I rarely consider a middle ground, I rarely consider giving one thing up in favour of accomplishing another, I just pile expectation after ambition on top of my pile and it weighs me down and I give myself too much to achieve. No matter how much I do achieve I want more from myself. And maybe in the course of that I end up feeling like a first draft covered in angry scribbles.
I can recognise myself doing this even as I continue to do it. Earlier this year, I overworked myself and very nearly burned myself out but managed to take a few days off, which did me wonders. I’ll probably do that again this year; my working life doesn’t have a structure and I’m poor at giving myself one. At the moment I’m alright with that.
At a point in How To Be Better, we were split into groups to form ‘truth booths’. We sat and shared truths about ourselves with some of the performers and other audience members. My truth was that I’m not certain how long I’ll be able to last being self-employed. I’d like it to be indefinite, obviously, but I’ve no idea. Things are going well for me right now and I’m thankful but the future’s uncertain. Then we had to write down a piece of advice for ourselves. Mine was ‘Trust yourself to keep at it,’ which is maybe my only option right now.
And of course I’m not just writing criticism. I don’t get paid for criticism (that’d be a hell of an aim for this time next year and I’ve no idea how I’d manage it). If I say I make theatre because I have to, I must have a hell of a compulsion to write critically because I put a huge amount of time and effort into it. And I’m not about to start regretting it, either. Anyone who’s asking the question “can a critic also be a maker?” I guess just sit back and watch me, cause I’m attempting it. Of course I’d like to defiantly shout “can too!” but I’ve only been self-employed since the summer so the jury’s currently still out on whether I’m capable of keeping myself fed for a year.
This isn’t a New Year’s resolution. Partly because I find that whole construction as disingenuous as the idea of me giving a piece of theatre a star rating, partly because I doubt any predictions I might make about 2016 will be reliable. 2015’s been a helluvan unpredictable year. But it’s been pretty ace, too. There are a lot of things I want to achieve, but I don’t want to make a list. I’ll just keep at it, self-improve by attrition. The biggest thing I’ve learned this year is that, whatever I want to accomplish, I need to love people, care for them, and trust them to care for me too. Going to see How To Be Better was one small lesson in a year of lessons. May I keep learning. May I keep active. May I keep ambitious. May I keep care.
*I’ve been reading Derrida this week, making me a nuisance.
** Leo Mercer writes a lovely article about free spelling here.