Who the Fuck is Rachel? Or: Take reviews with a pinch of salt

I recently spent time with a group of very talented playwrights, and one of the many running jokes that developed from our conversations is the ringing refrain: “Who the fuck is Rachel?” This said by a playwright who received a review criticizing the character of Rachel.

PLOT TWIST: There was no character named Rachel.

Point being, critics make mistakes. They’re human. There are some wonderful and knowledgable critics out there, but they have subjective opinions and likes and dislikes like anyone else. Good reviews are great for the ego, but ego is bad for making theatre. Unless you are opening a major Broadway show* and the NY Times is in, reviews aren’t that big a deal.

When I was an actor I regarded critics (and casting directors, and basically everyone) as near-omnipotent beings who must be appeased. (Mostly.**) This is nonsense, but learning how to deal with reviews is one of those things that no one ever teaches you, and regardless of how much advice you read it’s always an unexpected and surreal learning curve. A few lessons learned:

One of my plays comprised two separate plot strands. The first review I read praised plot B to the heavens as the saving grace lifting the potentially generic A plot above ordinary levels. The second review raved about plot A and complained that plot B dragged it down.

A couple of bloggers complained that a vital plot point was not explained, when it was made explicit in one line of dialogue. It’s easy to be defensive but it’s also important to consider to what extent they represent the audience. Did they zone out, or is the line just too easy to miss?

People will request comps and then not show up, or show up and not write a review. Obviously sometimes there are genuine emergencies (lovely critic who contacted me to apologise while ill – this is not aimed at you). But when you’re reliant on ticket sales to break even, an unused and unpaid-for £15 ticket for an otherwise sold-out show is a bit of a kick in the teeth.

Seeing your cast and fellow creatives praised is even better than praise for your own work.

A review that loves your writing but hates your cast or director is a peculiar form of torture.

A critic that understands that all parts of a stage production – writing, acting and directing – work in harmony with and feed from each other, is a good one.

Glowing reviews are good for showing your mum and putting on funding applications and marketing material, but not much else.

Bad reviews aren’t necessarily more helpful than good ones, but they can be.

Some critics try to be as positive as possible, some delight in being scathing. Buckets of salt required in both cases.

If a critic says something truly stupid or plain wrong, say out loud: “Who the fuck is Rachel?” We’ll get it.

Don’t sweat it.

* If you are opening a major Broadway show: congratulations and do you want to be my friend?

**A short diversion: the first play I ever acted in as an adult received a terrible, terrible review after the first performance. Not just a bad review, but a thorough evisceration of everyone involved. It was personal and it was nasty. It was on an obscure blog, but it still gutted the cast, flopping around the dressing rooms gasping for air like fish hooked from the sea. Turns out the reviewer was an actor who’d been fired from the play after the read-through. Guess whose name I still remember ten years later and will never cast?

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Dear Dr (a message to Healthcare professionals treating self harmers in hospital)

The perks of being a dinosaur

I’m a regular in my local, that probably doesn’t sound unusual or uncommon except I don’t mean my local pub I mean my local a&e department. Like around 1 in 4 people in the U.K. I have mental health problems and often require medical attention for self harm, I decided to write a post about my experiences in a&e as an open letter to medical professionals.

A collage picture of a wolf howling with song lyrics “Lately it’s hard to let you know that I’ll never learn” above and below

Dear Dr or health care professional

The NHS is underfunded and over stretched, you work long hours in a challenging conditions often with little thanks or support; it’s impossible to be oblivious to the current state of our health care system. When you’re juggling patients and trying to be in 3 places at once it’s not hard to understand…

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Absence / Blogging for Graeae

I have been ridiculously lax in keeping this blog updated, mainly because I’m somehow managing to blag fairly regular actual writing work.

I have two plays on in this month’s VAULT Festival and a short on off-Broadway next month.

I plan to resume blogging, but in the meantime, peruse some blogs I have been writing for Graeae, who I am spending a year with as part of Write to Play.

 

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On chronic illness, agoraphobia, FOMO, self-care, spoons, and probably a bunch of other stuff…

It’s not something I really write about (yet?) but I have the genetic condition Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes amongst other things frequent joint dislocations, pain and fatigue. I’m mostly sort of okay and I look mostly sort of okay, but I can’t do as much as everyone else, and I need to rest and take recovery time fairly regularly.

Which is fine, and over the years I’ve learned by trial and error how to do this and still lead a mainly normalish life. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a job I can do from my sofa in pyjamas, that can accommodate both the ‘absolutely cannot go out’ days (that’ll be writing days) and the ‘actually feeling pretty good and want to go and pretend to be normal’  days (let’s schedule some meetings and rehearsal room visits heyho!) and which enables me to take time off without anyone’s permission when I need it. It’s a huge privilege and one I wish all disabled/chronically ill people had.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Sometimes finding that balance can be incredibly hard, because your body lies to you. Your brain lies to you.

In the past I struggled quite badly with agoraphobia. I don’t know why, whether it was organic, or a side effect of depression, or whether a rather severe EDS relapse triggered it.

I feel like I have to constantly negotiate a fine line between caring for my physical needs, and my emotional needs.

As my writing career has gone from strength to strength (and heaven thank whatever wonderful thing I did in a past life for that), I’ve been busier than I ever have been. Which is wonderful, but it’s hard to resist the temptation to say yes to everything, and sometimes looking at my packed schedule makes me panicky about whether my physical health will hold out. Finding a line between what limits I need to impose for the genuine good of my physical health, and not letting my lizard brain talk myself into believing I can’t manage something out of fear, is a challenge.

I don’t know why, but out of all the mistakes I’ve made and no doubt will continue to make, nothing makes me feel like more of a fuck up than deciding I “can’t” go to something I’d otherwise been looking forward to (“you’ll be too exhausted” “it’s important to conserve your energy” “if you stay in you’ll get lots of writing done” “if you go it will be crowded and horrible). I know a lot of people love cancelling plans, but I’m so weirdly intransigent that I genuinely don’t say yes to social events unless I really want to.

I’ve read enough articles on the FoMo (Fear of Missing out) phenomena* to think it’s Hipster Nonsense**. And it feels so whiny and self-indulgent to cry about choosing not to go to some party or theatre event and then regretting it. But I think about everything I’ve missed or that illness has stolen from me over the years, and what’s most exhausting is the constant responsibility for ‘Spoons’ self-policing.***

I could write a whole other post about feeling othered and the difficulties of practising self-care in an area of an industry that tends to skew pretty young (well, ‘up and coming’ or ’emerging’ playwrights and theatre-makers tend to be young) and being surrounded constantly by actors, who tend to have remarkable fitness and stamina. It’s not the worst thing in the world and it’s nothing compared to what so many disabled people live with, but it is awkward and just kind of … wrangly, having to insist on regular healthy meals and a reasonable bedtime when working with a group of 23-yr old actors and theatre-makers who think nothing of springing from ten-hour coach journeys into a full day of rehearsals, eating from vending machines and petrol stations to save money, and drinking all night.

But fundamentally it’s about the question: How do you integrate being a Person with Chronic Illness with just being a Person? How do you integrate your internal person with your external persona, regardless of ability-status?

And if you enjoyed ‘Naomi takes on and completely ignores the point of vaguely trendy pseudo-psych slang from several years ago’, don’t miss my upcoming blog entry on Imposter Syndrome!

*When FoMo was a thing, back in the dark ages of about 2012.
**Hipster Nonsense.
***If you’re unfamiliar with the Spoons theory.

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Yet more ramblings on Measure for Measure

I went to see Ophelia’s Zimmer at the Royal Court recently (a play set entirely inside Ophelia’s bedroom, exploring what her off-stage life is like and reducing Hamlet to a minor character). During a Q&A afterwards I wanted to ask a question someone else asked: if you could Ophelia’s Zimmer another Shakespearean woman, who would it be? Katie Mitchell replied that she wanted to (or was in the process of) writing something that explored Miranda’s life on the island prior to the events of the Tempest. Which is very slightly annoying since I submitted literally that exact idea to the RSC recently (a festival commission they were inviting applications for) and was rejected. Of course if it turns out Katie Mitchell also submitted her idea to them and won, all will be forgiven.

Anyway, my answer to that question would as always be Isabella, because I’m desperately curious to know more about her life outside of the play. We know her father is dead (his grave is explicitly referenced) and presumably her mother is dead also but is never mentioned.* Her brother’s common-law ‘wife’ goes through almost her entire pregnancy without Isabella knowing about it, so evidently she’s not living with him nor probably especially close to him. She doesn’t enter the nunnery until act 1. So where the hell has she been living? I’m seriously asking: I’m not a scholar by any means and I know I have a few followers who are Shakespearean scholars. What would Isabella’s life realistically have been like prior to the start of the play?

I’m always confused when people say Measure for Measure is a sexist play. I could make a lot of defences against that, but the one I’m interested in today is the idea that Shakespeare is critically examining the handful of narrow roles that were available to women in that era. Lucio makes this explicit: If you are a woman and are not a wife, widow or virgin, you are “nothing” (i.e. a whore, literally a vagina**). Isabella is a virgin, but virgin had specific meanings and roles attached to it. If you were a virgin, you were either pre-marriage, under the care of a male protector (even the wonderfully feminist Beatrice, who declares she will remain single forever, is able to do so only because she’s her uncle’s ward) or you were a nun. I’m not a historian but I can’t imagine it life as an unmarried independent women was an option for many people who were not queen of the country. It’s not like Isabella could get a flat and a job somewhere. The entire play, in my reading of it, is Isabella being pushed into the different boxes marked Women and not fitting into any of them.

It’s significant that the play starts on Isabella’s very first day at the convent. Shakespeare would not make this detail explicit if it wasn’t intentional. She could easily have been a long-term nun or novitiate who’d been living there for an unspecified period of time. Why her first day? What has happened prior that led to her deciding to become a nun on that day? I don’t get the impression she is extremely young. If she genuinely has a religious calling, why is she only now entering a nunnery? Practically the minute she enters the nunnery for the first time – Lucio interrupts literally in the middle of the “and here’s where you hang your coat up” tour – circumstances snatch her away again. Isabella has tried the box marked Nun, wanted it, but it did not fit.

The second thing that happens to her (and it’s significant that, while Isabella is a character with substantial agency, all the major changes in her life are caused by men entering uninvited and lobbing plot hand grenades at her) is Angelo’s demand that she prostitute herself to him by threatening to kill her brother. Isabella flatly rejects this and never wavers. The box marked Whore did not fit, either.

Then the Duke enters her life, again uninvited, and manipulates her into his going along with his convoluted and ultimately entirely pointless plan*** which results finally in his marriage proposal. The box marked Wife gapes open … and then the stage fades to black. The sheer fact that Isabella becomes mute at this point and until the end of the play (having been defined up to this point by how articulate she is) surely shows that the Wife box does not fit, but she’s on the last box, she’s out of options? She stops talking because she’s fallen down deep into the one remaining box, regardless of whether it fits or not.

*The grand Shakespearean tradition of invisible non-existent mothers. Maybe Ophelia, Isabella and Beatrice should form a club.
**The word “nothing” was a euphemism for vagina in Shakespeare’s day.
***The bed trick fails, the decision to accuse Angelo publicly fails. Ultimately the only thing that works is the Duke standing up going, “Because I’m the Duke and I say so,” something he could have done at literally any time.

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Why I Write About Rape

Jodie Foster made a brilliant and much-needed statement recently about the over-reliance male writers/directors have on rape as a plot device and explanation for female motivation. I agreed with her, but then I felt uncomfortable, since I’ve used sexual assault themes in my own writing more than once.

In one of my current plays, a character reveals in the second half that she had been raped. I was very careful as to the context and the handling of this revelation. First, I wanted to explore the subject of marital rape and coercive non-violent rape within a romantic relationship, as this is something I think is overlooked. The character does not even realise what happened to her was rape until many years later. I wanted to write a non-stereotypical portrayal of domestic violence, where the woman is neither put upon victim nor plucky survivor. And more than that, I wanted to write a character whose rape was only a small part of herself and her history. My character is in her 60s, and was raped at 19. It’s something bad that happened to her, but it’s something in the long-past that hasn’t haunted her and doesn’t define her. I wanted to show that rape survivors can and do go on to have long lives, and are not defined by having been raped. The play sets up a situation where the character’s doctors are looking for a black and white explanation for her mental health issues, and her teenage rape is dangled as a potential cause and then swerved. Because her mental health problems aren’t because she was raped 40 years ago, they’re for a whole mix of societal, familial, personal, possibly biological, and unknown reasons. It’s important to show that. I wanted to subvert the “character goes crazy because Bad Touching happened when she was young” trope. Is that a good reason? Does writing need a good reason?

There’s a minor subplot about a psychiatric hospital porter being sexually inappropriate around female patients (stealing their underwear, saying inappropriate things, and masturbating secretly when he thinks they can’t see him). Now this is in the play because it’s actually based on a real event, but it’s surprising how many people have complained that he’s not more overtly abusive to them. “It would raise the stakes if he actually tried to rape them!” Well yes, but that would make it A Play About Rape, and I don’t want to write A Play About Rape. I don’t think we need one. Because it’s not A Play About Rape, it’s a play about the myriad ways in which the patriarchy controls women. The female psychiatric patents in the play have their agency removed and are put on constant display/monitoring ‘for their own protection.’ To be blunt, I don’t need to rape them. The fact that a man is looking at vulnerable women in his care in a sexually objectifying way is enough. And actually it’s really fucked up to act like rape is somehow the only thing that counts, like our culture puts such a high price on the value of the hymen and the importance of penile penetration that only forced P-in-V sex is considered rape and only penetrative rape is considered significant, like the billion minor acts of sexual aggression women experience daily don’t collectively cause just as much damage?

I fundamentally am not willing to deal with anyone who claims I need to rape my characters to make the stakes high enough or the sexual abuse real enough, because the entire point is: none of this is okay. No form of sexual abuse or exploitation is minor enough or mild enough or “excusable” enough to make it okay. If a man working in mental health care masturbating over his female patients isn’t ‘bad’ enough for you to consider high stakes (of which, more on that later), you need to address your own issues.

I have something else in development about a girl who’s held prisoner for a long time (a la ‘Room’) — but a crucial part is that she is never raped during it. The kidnapper is a sexual predator, and she is essentially an abuse survivor, but at no time does he penetrate her. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not but I really want to write something about the themes of abuse, power and domination that’s not about the physical act of rape. I don’t think it’s a cop-out.

I’m not sure if this entire post isn’t just a self-indulgent “but it’s okay when I write about sexual assault because…” but I think it is food for thought. Is it more permissible to write about rape if you’re a woman? If you’re a sexual abuse survivor? Is it more about your reasons for doing it, or how you do it? How do we establish ownership over stories – our own and other people’s? What is the line between exploitation and exploration?

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The Great Class Debate in Acting

So everyone and their mother has waded in on the Great Acting Class Debate and I guess I’ve ranted about it in my head enough to feel compelled to chip in.

I was reading this Guardian article and what really annoyed me was the utter lack of separation between the issue of onscreen stories, and the issue of actors’ backgrounds. Of course these are highly interrelated issues, but conflating them is problematic.
Everyone seems to agree that the classism rife in the British acting industry is a terrible thing, but there seems to be a default argument that goes something along the lines of: “We know it’s terrible that there aren’t more working class actors, but it’s not our fault, the Great British Public just prefer period dramas and other posh shows, but we really should make the effort to make more socially worthy working class dramas.”

Am I the only one seeing two massive problems with this? First, the assumption that working class actors can only play working class characters. Second, the idea that anything “working class” is boring and worthy — serious dramas about people having arguments in kitchens — that we ‘should’ commission, should watch, in much the same way we know we should eat our vegetables and floss our teeth.

Challenging and combating these false assumptions that should be our top priority, because what point is there in helping working class actors go to drama school if they’re going to graduate into a world where it’s taken for granted they can only play working class characters having arguments in kitchens? Now some iconic working class roles have been created by actors from a working class background (Julie Walters in Educating Rita is one example the press seem very keen on) and that’s wonderful. But it feels like they’re treated like zoo animals, and not as what they are, which is simply actors. Why shouldn’t an actor who grew up on a council estate in Peckham play a Lord on Downton Abbey? It’s just acting. Being working class and playing working class is not less acting than being working class and playing posh, and the assumption that working class actors can in essence only play themselves (when posh actors can play anything*) is demeaning and condescending. I might be being idealistic, but we should be striving to reach a point where all actors can be considered for all roles, with casting decisions being made purely on talent.

The emphasis too on opening up a number of drama school places to working class actors, while certainly helpful, ignores the increasingly useful alternate avenues for actors shut out of the traditional system. I’ve long been a supporter of TriForce, who run the truly democratic** MonologueSlam, probably one of the best avenues for unknown or new actors to get seen by industry people. Compare the diversity (in all ways) in a MonologueSlam audition room with one at RADA, it’s startling. Maybe the solution isn’t to try to fix places like RADA (though that certainly needs to be done too), but to be less reliant on it in the first place?

And really class is such a nebulous, complex subject to begin with. Far be it from me to judge how anyone else self-defines, but it drives me bonkers when people who grew up in Islington and went to private school and now work in the arts and live in £5m houses bang on about how they’re proud to be working class because their great-grandfather went down the mines. My own family history is a snakes and ladders quagmire of social mobility. I’ve been rich and I’ve been homeless. I was raised by academics yet left formal schooling at 13. I’m only now unpacking the complexities of my own privilege.

People rise and fall through the class system and each movement carries changes. Social mobility or the desire for it is massively frowned upon (look at all the class hatred aimed at the Middletons), but sometimes people genuinely don’t fit in with their own environment. My father came from a working class Yorkshire family and was an outsider due to his sensitive, bookish nature, high IQ and passion for classical music. Then he went to Cambridge where he was bullied into hiding his accent and roots. The social mobility going to grammar school and Cambridge granted didn’t just give him material advantages, it gave him a life where he actually fit in and was among like-minded souls. But at the price of having to change himself. And really that’s fucked up in itself, because appreciating classical music and books shouldn’t be a posh person thing. One of the brilliant things about the arts is that it is traditionally classless (part of why the current Eton-invasion and class war is so upsetting) – we’re in the arts because we don’t want to be defined by things like our social class.

But you know, I look at this debate and I honestly have no idea where I fit in. Am I working class because my parents were working class? Am I middle class because my dad went  to university and had a white collar job? When my family combusted and I ended up homeless, did I keep my class status or lose it? If you’re born upper class, are you permanently upper class? How do you define a child’s social class to begin with? If a child’s social class is defined by their family, what’s their class if they don’t have a family? Or are all displaced youth underclass by definition? What about posh girls who run away from home? What if they run away and never go home, live on the streets, become hookers, but still have titles and family estates somewhere? Are you still working class even if you’re a multimillionaire movie star? Is your class defined by your accent or your bank balance? Can people truly ever transcend their class barriers?

*The Guardian quotes Nina Gold as saying Eddie Redmayne couldn’t play a working class character even though it would be “fun” for him, which, why? Okay there’s a valid argument about not taking away the few precious roles that actually do go to working class actors, but fundamentally anyone should be able to play anything.

**No application forms, no submitting your CV, anyone can audition, jump up and perform in front of the entire room for 60 seconds and the best performances win.

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