May your enemy be happy

Photo by Lorraine Penrice

There was a time a few years back when the media was full of tales about how Mindfulness could change people’s lives.  “That’s so Kings Heath!”, I remember scoffing to one of my friends as we sipped our skinny decaf americanos in a vegan-friendly café in, you guessed it, Kings Heath.  The irony didn’t escape us but neither of us can afford Kings Heath so we do enjoy dissing it – never too loudly, though, seeing as half the West Midlands arts community seem to live there. 

Imagine my surprise when, at our next rendez-vous, the same friend piped up about a Mindfulness class she’d attended at work during lunchtime.  Worse, she claimed it had been well worth missing her chicken baguette.  ‘It was quite relaxing’, she ploughed on, without a hint of shame. ‘We climbed up this massive mountain, and actually smelt the air!’  Hmm, I thought, mentally scrubbing out our next two caffeine dates.  But we have been friends a long time and she does always insist on buying me cake, so perhaps there was another option.  I could attend a Mindfulness class myself. I mean, why not? You probably shouldn’t slag off something you haven’t tried, although it’s never stopped me before.  Eventually, following a brush with anxiety, I thought perhaps I’d better give it a go.

My expectations were confounded the minute I walked into the session (in Kings Heath, obvs). The group comprised an array of different sorts, none of them stereotypically Kings Heath, and we all shared the same nervous smile, offering each other only momentary eye-contact and praying we didn’t recognise anyone. The meditation session that followed was indeed relaxing. I too breathed mountain air. 

However, the most interesting part for me was when we were asked to think about a person we didn’t like. As I struggled to think of a potential candidate, my neighbour rolled her eyes, whispering that she was spoilt for choice. 

Having conjured our nemesis, the next bit sounded easy: we had to wish them well….genuinely.  ‘May you be happy, may you be well.’  I managed that bit okay, and I almost meant it. ‘May you love and be loved’ came the next wish. I managed that too, but it was that part which stuck with me long after the session.

Somehow the act of wishing your enemy well and, crucially, hoping they ‘will love and be loved’, felt like it made a real difference.  It helped open up a new distance in your connection with that person, a much-needed objectivity, a rising-above the pettiness of bad feeling.  For me at least, it triggered a kind of welcome release. 

So, in the spirit of generosity, I send Mindful greetings to you all:  ‘May you be happy, May you be well, May you love and be loved’.  Because that is actually all we need. 

Goggle eyed

My New Year’s resolution is TV-related due to the many hours I’ve spent goggle-eyed in front of the box recently.  In fact, over the 43 weeks since the first lockdown, I’ve probably watched upwards of 1,500 hours of television. That’s an incredible 62 days!  For two whole months, I have squirmed around on my lumpy sofa getting neckache, while voraciously consuming the likes of Netflix, BBC, Ch4, ITV, Youtube and even Ch5 (I couldn’t resist All Creatures Great and Small).  My kids want us to apply to Gogglebox so “We can earn p’s” for our mis-spent leisure time. 

But is it mis-spent?  As a writer, I’d say not.  You learn from other writers’ genius – or lack thereof – and I’m always wondering aloud (to the irritation of my whinging sofa-buddies) whether this or that dubious dramatic decision was made by writer, director or producer.  I generally give the writer the benefit of the doubt, by the way – as an act of professional solidarity or perhaps from bitter experience, take your pick.

My problem is I’m too busy analysing the drama to enjoy it.  Only the truly amazing stuff (Ozark and The Crown, most of Spiral, the first few episodes of Queens Gambit, and currently The Serpent) absorbs me sufficiently to distract from my professional micro-judgements.  Now I think about it, maybe my 62 days of TV-watching should count as work – which would be in addition to the actual work I’m actually doing in a day, and no-one should work that hard!

So my New Year’s Resolution is to jettison my work identity out-of-hours, so I can lose myself in other people’s fantastic drama.  Plus I’m buying a new sofa. 

Aldi shopping trolleys

Essential trips

Ugh, I hate lockdown.  Okay, for those of us already ‘home-working’, it’s not that different – I can still put on a wash or drop the forgotten PE kit/homework up to school (when it’s open), and the fridge still beckons every half hour.  But I keep hearing about other writers feeling “just SO inspired” (huh!), churning out shiny new scripts (puke), and being “more prolific than ever!” (whatevs).  Haven’t they heard there’s a pandemic?  Who can concentrate on being creative when there’s so much going on?

Me, I have to go out.  Leave the online shopping slots to those who need them, I say – I’ll happily do the Aldi’s run, queuing round the car park in driving rain or fighting in the aisles for toilet roll.  I’ve done countless errands for my elderly neighbour – the bank, the pharmacy, even the garage once – all essential trips, of course.  And they are essential for me too:  it’s only when I’m not looking, that ideas sneak in through the pores of my skin.

Over the summer I was struggling with a new pitch, feeling jittery as the deadline loomed.  One morning, queuing by the trolleys, I found myself listening to the woman in front, hissing frantically into her phone, complaining bitterly about what sounded like a horrible situation.  I found myself nodding along to her conversation as I remembered facing similar circumstances a while back.  The anger and sadness, the frustration and sheer desperation flooded back, and I suddenly knew that that had to be my next project.  Emotionally it was fantastic territory, set in a world I know (though I wish I didn’t), with characters I understand, and, most of all, I cared deeply about what happened.  I felt my jitters fade and my body relax as the new pitch began to take shape in my head.  Pandemic or not, normal service had resumed. 

Young man on phone

THRIVE-ing!

Along with two other BOLDtext writers, I’m delighted to have started some research into online narrative structure and form for young audiences. Funded by ArtsConnect, our THRIVE project will allow us to identify and analyse the favourite short-form content viewed by 14-25 year-olds in our region on platforms such as TikTok and Youtube. We’ll be exploring any narrative elements that improve engagement with a young audience, in order to innovate our creative practice as theatre-writers and members of BOLDtext Playwrights. We’ll be sharing our findings with our Local Cultural and Education Partnerships, and on the BOLDtext website.

Soho House

Power of Invention

As one of BOLDtext Playwrights, I’m spending lockdown developing our new site-specific & science-specific show, Power of Invention, which will explore Birmingham’s Lunar Society around the turn of the 18th century, and the ground-breaking scientific advances inspired during their full-moon meetings.   Centred on the home of industrialist Matthew Boulton, our audience will meet above-stairs figures such as James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Anne Boulton and Joseph Priestley, as well as the below-stairs folk who kept the household going, and protected them from the riots.   Collaboration between the physicians, engineers, chemists, botanists, geologists, philosophers, poets and entrepreneurs of the Lunar Society, led to the development of many of our modern technologies.

Our shows will take place at Boulton’s home, Soho House in Birmingham, with input from Birmingham Museums and ThinkTank, and funding from Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.  We’ll issue confirmed dates as soon as we can.

Following the success of Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up at Birmingham’s central lock-up, we look forward to bringing the Lunar Society and its important scientific discoveries to life in its original space.  Watch this space!

STOP PRESS:   We are also preparing another of our regular evenings at The REP with staged readings of four new short plays under the heading of Common Wealth, penned by myself, Helen Kelly, Vanessa Oakes and Tim Stimpson.  Originally scheduled for June, we will let you know when we have a new date.

Learning to love feedback (yes, really!)

I’m giving a workshop at the East Meets West festival later this year (date tbc) on the tricky subject of Feedback.  My mission is to persuade you that it’s a positive thing – even when it’s negative, in fact especially when it’s negative!  Don’t believe me?  Well, come to the workshop and find out how I learned to love feedback.  More info and booking details will be added when confirmed.

The workshop is primarily for drama writers of all levels of experience, however producers and directors will benefit too by understanding the intricacies of the feedback process.  Learn how to listen to ‘notes’ and analyse their underlying message, then how best to use that feedback to drive your script forward into a new, much-improved draft.

Into the autumn

Thanks to everyone who came to Behind Bars – Ghosts of the Lock Up at the proposed WM Police museum on Steelhouse Lane this July.   The show had wonderful feedback, and we loved presenting our audience with a fascinating glimpse of our great city’s criminal history!

Next stop Digbeth.  As part of the Birmingham Weekender festival on 4-6 October 2019,  BOLDtext Playwrights have been commissioned by the festival to share our contrasting experiences of Digbeth culture in self-performed pieces, so please watch this space for details of venue/times etc.   Photos by Julie Kenwright and Anand Chhabra

muscroftandtommytankphoto

Your ugly mug

Before cameras came along, police had to rely on an artist’s impression or their own memory to identify a suspected offender.  ‘Sitting for a portrait’ involved the entire police watch crowding round the suspect, staring into his/her face to memorise distinctive features for future reference.  That alone would have put many off a life of crime!

But by the late 1840-50s, commercial photographers had been brought in to provide a rather more reliable service in the form of ‘mugshots’.   In those early days, studio photographer William Eagle was used by Birmingham police, and you can admire his craft from the many collodium plates at the proposed West Midlands Police Museum on Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham’s notorious former Lock Up.  They have a genuine rogues gallery of mugshots on display.

Murderers and thieves were accorded the same careful attention from Mr Eagle, as would a visiting dignitary:  he would pose his ‘clients’, providing a screen behind them and one can imagine him positioning their elbow on a dainty table, next to the elegant pot plant used for his paying customers.  His mugshots even included a gilt frame!

SONY DSC

By the time CID officer Charles Muscroft became police photographer at Birmingham Lock Up in the 1930s, things had changed quite a lot.  Yorkshire-born Muscroft relished his new role, delivering regular lectures to local photographic societies and happily offering his portrait services in a private capacity.  So when he was accepted as an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, you can imagine his pure delight.  He knew the intricate skill – talent, indeed – that was essential to capture scenes of crime accurately and comprehensively, and to produce reliable mugshots for use by police and the courts.  He felt his photography was capturing the truth.

Sergeant Charles Muscroft features in Behind Bars – Ghosts of the Lock Up – which is being performed on site at the Lock Up this July 12/13th and 20th/21st. (more…)