How Being Paid with No Expectation Changed How I Make Theatre

Incubation: Hope

6 Minute Read

A few weeks into lockdown Stephanie asked me if I would like to be involved in a new project: Incubation. It would look at what happens when artists are paid to just be artists. Alongside Amy Conway and Harry Josephine Giles, I filled in a simple form about what I was interested in at the moment and what support I would need to continue exploring it. I was interested in dirty hands, bringing people together, and clay. I wrote a lot about Field by Antony Gormley.

What is clear to me is, despite the perfectly viable option of taking this paid time to think, dream, and ponder through the wild ride of Covid-19, the urge for artists to make art is strong. My favourite bit about making theatre is bit where I get to make theatre from start to end. For me, it is inevitable that I would end up making something

Participant Hope-Object from Creative Conversations

So through asking people to Imagine your hope is a precious object…,  I created space for people to reflect on hope through thirty Daily Questions online, facilitated Creative Conversations during which participants made a hope-object with me, and began drafting a new story from all I had heard.

Importantly, I have also been afforded the time to explore and re-evaluate my artistic practice when the expectation of an outcome or product is off the table. 

In the hope that sharing any of this may contribute to your thinking on the discussions of forms of Universal Basic Income, here are some of the ways how this process radically altered how I worked:

• I was better able to listen to the need for any artistic activity I undertook in the communities I am a part of*, in the participants, and within myself. By listening better, I could make something that was beneficial for as many people connected to the project as possible, including myself.

• I was supported to work more comfortably around my existing commitments and obligations for the betterment of the art and my artistry.

• I was able to be much more considerate in how I made choices to work, adjustments to the process, and avoid short-term gain at the expense of longer-term damage to the project and participants.

• I was able to explore ways of working that allow others to participate in the making of a project (in small ways so far).

• I am able to better articulate how I work and the anticipated and actual outcomes of processes I embark on. This makes me more precise in communicating that to whoever needs to hear it; what I need, where it can go, and who it can engage with. 

• I grew more meaningful connections through the process, and the products that emerged throughout by using the longer-term nature of this work as a lens through which to talk to others, often at a deeper level than “networking”. This includes the other Incubation artists, notably Stephanie.

• It allowed me space to be not very good at stuff and time to get better at that stuff without being detrimental to the project itself.

• I was allowed to be unwell without losing out on work, money, or at the expense of the project itself. 

• I had space to think deeper about what happens next with the project and plan better to let that happen.

• The outcomes and learning from the project were allowed time and space to be identified and disseminated and more easily. This has the potential to allow others to learn from this thinking and spark innovation more widely across the industry.

• Working within a network of other projects allowed me to focus more on what I am making by being able to hand over some of my obstacles to artmaking; notably the project management tasks. 

*I have chosen to use this terminology instead of audiences because I’m not sure audiences is a helpful term when we’re talking about process.

Participant Hope-Object from Creative Conversations

Fundamentally, I have found so much more satisfaction from working in this structure than I have in the short, cramped processes I have grown used to. It is worth noting, however, that it hasn’t all been idyllic for me – there have been difficulties in working in this way. 

So, for the sake of openness, this is what I struggled with in this way of working:

  • By only working one day a week, I fooled myself into thinking that I could squeeze more into my week. It meant that some of that unconscious thinking time was chipped away by other projects – usually those with high expectations for incredibly fast turnaround times, typically on participatory or collaborative projects that struggle to fit neatly into existing structures.
  • I felt quite alone at times in the process because it felt unethical to ask for people to talk to me in their free time about a project in which I was being paid to have those conversations and that engagement. It often left me feeling unable to seek help.
  • I put pressure on myself to make the most of my one-day-a-week on the project for fear that there wouldn’t be time or space for anything that took too long. This is, of course, a learnt habit from years of pressurised working conditions based on stop-start models that I need to unlearn.
  • My self-imposed rigid timetable meant that my time on all my work bled into other days. Sometimes there’s that meeting for something else that can only happen on the day I’m working on Incubation. How could I learn to value my time on Incubation when I operate within in a system where my time as a freelancer is generally at the whim of salaried organisations?
  • I was unclear of what constituted time on Incubation. I didn’t value my down-time as time I was working on the project even though I was still thinking about the project. How do we measure the time engaged in making theatre when the making is happening almost entirely alone?
  • I also recognised that this project alone did not solve all my problems: I need other infrastructure around me in order to operate. For posterity, this project took place almost entirely during a full lockdown. To be more successful, I needed access to spaces, people, equipment, libraries, archives, tools, and the social interaction which is unavailable to me currently. These projects do not operate in a vacuum.

As part of identifying what some of those other support structures might be and building off a conversation between all the Incubation artists about the terms emerging and established, I have put together the following list. It is rooted in the idea that emerging artists don’t feel they can ask for what they need, and established artists feel comfortable asking for what they want.

Here is what I need and want from making theatre:

I need a space. This is to make in, meet in, and exchange in; it should be a work-only space and not my living area.
I need an exchange. This can be between me and collaborators, other artists, non-professional artists, and anyone else; it is the space between us where ideas are shaped.
I need quiet and focus. I live between a dual carriageway interchange and a school, working on a laptop in my living room, and this has atomised my creative thinking.
I need the freedom to work in other places surrounded by people. I believe it is in these spaces that culture exists, and requests for artwork is made in.
I need trust. This is from collaborators, partners, organisations, and funders.
I need bravery. This is from myself, collaborators, and participants.
I need paid. This is for the time I spend on making the project.
I need a plan. This is so I know how to enter the project, navigate it, and prepare for where it goes next; it should be adaptable.
I need to share. This is a way in which the ideas are focused and received by people who are not me.

I want good food. I would like access to somewhere to enjoy food easily and communally.
I want access to nature. It is here I feel my best ideas have emerged.
I want time alone. I see value in taking time to orientate myself artistically, digesting inspiration.
I want things to be left where they are. I am mainly talking about items I am making with like papers, rather than having to put everything away all the time.
I want paid. This for all the time I spend thinking about the making the project.
I want the work to have a champion. Me championing the work is incredible, however, at least someone else championing it makes this a much more successful project for everyone. 

Participant Hope-Object from Creative Conversations

What’s next?
In ten minutes I have a meeting with Stephanie to wrap up the project, sharing all I have been thinking about ready for a new stage of fundraising to materialise the ideas at a later date. I have put the project to bed, tucked it in, and wished it a pleasant sleep. 

Designed by Sean McGonigal, a small digital zine of the Daily Questions will be shared online for people to enjoy at their own pace in the meantime.  

And hopefully, I will soon be inviting people to embark on a story with me built from the conversations and exchanges over the last 6 months about hope. Of course, if you know my other work, there will be a twist in how that story happens…