Ever Decreasing Circles

On Thursday evening I had a conversation with a Designer/ Director about the relative merits of Postgraduate study when it comes to the arts. I paid out my £4,000 worth of fees and took the Postgrad route, she didn’t. Could the benefits of a year spent with people who share your interests and being immersed in your ‘subject’ be balanced out by a year of doing small projects, learning on the job as it were? Neither of us were able to come up with a definitive answer, dependent I’m sure as it is on the individual concerned.  So when I saw 99seats post on the insular young-writer it immediately struck a chord.

I should set my stall out – I did an Undergraduate degree in English at a University that does not even have a drama department (and was recently bashed over on the Guardian Theatre Blog for that very reason). I then left education, moved myself and my overdraft back to Leeds and spent the next three years working in a theatre (with a couple of sojourns to spend hours photocopying in an office and to get stupidly drunk and sunburnt whilst working for a touring theatre company) doing jobs that are as far away from the creative side of theatre as it is possible to be whilst still residing in the same building (or field). Then I moved to London, went back to Uni to do a Masters in ‘Writing for Performance’ and, as it stands, pay the bills by working for two different theatres, again doing jobs that have little to nothing to do with the act of creating theatre.

As such I straddle the camps of learning by doing and learning by study. Back in 2006 I did a new-writing programme where, possibly as the common denominator, the examples we were given to ‘study’ were from television shows. It drove me insane. How could someone possibly understand how to write a play if they hadn’t even read Hamlet? Or Chekhov or Ibsen or Pinter or Stoppard or Hare or – I could go on. And how can you write for performance in Britain if you don’t know what Punchdrunk or Kneehigh or Complicite are doing? My time “in the classroom” is something I fundamentally believe has improved me as a writer.

Yet, I decided when I was 18 that I wanted to write a play. I didn’t write my first one until I was 20 (and no one but the drawer of my desk saw a copy of said play until I was almost 22). What I did do though, was get involved with making theatre. I stage managed, I produced, I promoted. I knew, even then, that there was no way I could possibly understand how to write a play if I didn’t understand the process. There was no way that sitting in a classroom could teach me about the power of rustling bottoms as I learnt when I spent a year ushering in a Rep theatre.  And during my MA the most useful single moment in the entire course was when actors got their hands on my script and I could hear the moment words came out of their mouths what worked and what didn’t.

Certainly I’m keen now to go out and do, try things, make mistakes and learn along the way. But I feel everything I’ve learnt so far supports this and I’d be loathe to have to give up any of the things I’ve learnt in that setting. And I suppose that almost where I ended up in the conversation I was having on Thursday night. This is what has gotten me here, it need not be the same route for everyone.

99seat’s observation about the closeted circles playwrights work in is even more pertinent, though. I agree entirely that some life experience along the way is vital – I needed those years between my degrees to go out into the world and meet people, and screw up, and get screwed over just as I need more of the same, as each year of my life makes the world a little less black and white and I am forced to re-write my path each time. But I knew instinctively what 99seats meant when she wrote:

there’s another metaphor, too: the Amish. Insular, slightly backwards and odd, incestuous. That’s what I fear the whole field is becoming. We spend so much time with each other that we’re all we can talk about.

Certainly not all of my friends are involved in the arts, but the overwhelming majority are. Of my London-based friends the percentage rises dramatically. And I’ve seen the incestuous, odd world of such a group close up in the last year.

Is that necessarily limiting? Or is it unavoidable that we’re going to gravitate towards each other (particularly with people at similiar stages of their careers) and as writers and theatre makers we just need to remember to turn our eyes outward?