Saturday 13 February 2016

Staring into the abyss

David: This might come as a bit of a shock, but in about six or seven weeks’ time our money completely runs out. We’ll be skint. We won’t be bankrupt, we won’t have debts, but we’ll have zero, absolute zero.

Jon: We’re staring into the abyss

David: Yeah, it’s quite a scary kind of prospect, you know, and it takes us right back to when we made the commitment to go to Derry in 1994. There was a period there of five years where we jumped into that abyss, and the two of us ended up living in an office space with all our possessions, illegally, we weren’t meant to be sleeping there…

Jon: Showering in the sink.

David: A Belfast sink in Belfast. In fact two Belfast sinks. I would heat up the kettle and then add cold water to it and then stand in the two sinks, one foot in each sink, and pour it over my head. God help me if anyone had come in. I was just a sort of naked soapy man in the most grimy toilet ever. It was horrible.

Jon: Yes, but it all fed into the show, I suppose. It was all put into Say Nothing. The caretaker, anyway. Frank. ‘I’ve been having some complaints! I know what you’re doing. You’re sleeping here.’ ‘No we’re not. It’s not a bed, it’s a stage set.’

David: Yes, so coming back to that, we’re thinking how did we survive then? And we have to work without designers, without technicians, we have to operate ourselves, we have to find a way, for example, with this show we would have to be able to build that set ourselves, and we don’t really have those skills, but we would develop them. Then we would have to learn Q-lab, and have the operating board outside the door where Jon is, pressing the ‘go’ button as well as acting his socks off…It’s like it’s going to that point, and you think that way we would be able to make a show that could go out at a rate that people could pay and still turn a little bit of surplus. Touring fees, if you’re doing well, are 800 to 1200 pounds per gig, to pay everyone properly it’s 1500 per gig, so you’re in this desperate need always for subsidy and then of course the gigs don’t come in the neat little zone that the Arts Council want…so we’ve got ahead of us now a few possibilities, Bridport and Kent, then possibly Bristol Mayfest then possibly the NRTF then possibly Edinburgh, which we have to think very carefully about, whether we can afford to risk that amount of money (that we don’t have), and then possibly an autumn tour….so you’ve got this horizon of bitty gigs that would all lose money, so you’re thinking what have we got in reserve?

Jon: Nothing.

David: Who could possibly fund us through that?

Jon: Nobody.

Chris: And just to be clear about the context in which this is happening. Presumably this directly relates to you losing NPO status last Spring.

David: Yes, the sequence there went after years of project money we were invited to be a Regularly Funded Organisation and that succeeded and we had six years of bliss, actually. And in the RFO phase you were allowed to apply for project money on top. So we had a lovely time.  We had the security of being able to pay ourselves a monthly retainer – the amount of which has remained the same up until this March. It didn’t ever increase. It just diminished in value. Then the NPO possibility came along and we were able to go up to this higher level of core subsidy of 100,000. But you were not allowed to apply for projects and that’s where it really started to go wrong. Our own staff were saying ‘You’re more of a project company than an organisation’ and I just felt there was a lack of imagination about the way we were using the funding, that we should have been more creative about that and they were actually saying to us ‘Don’t reapply for NPO.’ But we were saying ‘No, no, no. We are able to. We must. We cannot just say no we don’t want 100,000 a year.' So with the reluctant support of our own team we put in a new NPO application and failed. But the Arts Council were very apologetic, saying ‘Oh don’t worry, we’ll look after you, you can come to us for project money now, and you can get as much from that, if not more, and it will be better for you.’ So we put together a project application which was equivalent to what we’d been getting for NPO, and failed, and were told can you please resubmit for a smaller amount. And we said ‘Well, the tour’s in eight week’s time' and they said ‘Well, it has to be for under 15,000.’ So we went very quickly from being on 100,000 subsidy to being on 15,000. And luckily we’d been building up a reserve and were in a state where we thought we can now take a gamble and employ someone for a year.

Jon: Yes, and raise money, basically.

David: But the money’s not out there. The Arts Council want you to continue applying for these small things so that they can drip feed you and keep you alive, along with all these other artists who are being drip fed and kept alive, in the hope that on some distant horizon someone like Jeremy Corbyn will come in and start funding you properly again. So it’s very, very fragile, our existence and yes that gamble didn’t work, so we’re now faced with this prospect of zero money in March. And basically having to do the administration again ourselves. That’s a huge depressing lump of feeling, that you’ve been hit with and I don’t really know how we’re going to ride it out.

Chris: Sure.

David: I said to Jon the other day ‘Should we just hibernate?’ Try and squirrel ourselves away for a decade and re-emerge and see what happens. But I guess we’ll slither on. I can’t afford to slither on like I used to. I have dependants now. So then the pressure to get outside work increases and that of course requires commitments and Jon’s thinking like that too. In other words, veer towards hibernation. But it may be that we’re forced into hibernation because of this problem of having to work at Tesco or something. We’re not the most senior independent theatre artists that are still going, but you just think this ‘career’ is not a viable one. It eats up young companies coming out of college, full of enthusiasm, still subsidised by their loans and mums and dads, then they die off, fall out with each other…but there’s this supply of that, so the scene sort of struggles on, relying on these self-subsidised shows. We’ve attempted to get up into the middle scale by doing things like that two-hander version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and actually that turned less surplus than the remnants of our maverick style, which was Ideas Men, the last made for nothing piece…So that’s where the company’s at. Personally then, what effect is that having on us?

Chris: It’s such an extraordinary situation that a company like you should be facing that abyss, again at this point. And having to as yourselves whether it’s at all viable to go back to a way of working that…is there anything in that model that appeals to you?  

David: It’s ultimate, utter freedom. If you don’t have to answer to anybody, if you can just get out there and do a gig in a venue without having to report about it, you’ve got such freedom and it’s just joyous, you know. I’ve talked too much. Maybe Jon, you should say how you’re feeling, in your body.

Jon: In my body? Well, I’m getting a bit cold.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Jon Haynes Pick of 2014

My pick of 2014

There was only one thing worth catching in 2014 – that great, rumbling, thunderclap of genius: 


His performances are consistently surprising, but this year he surpassed himself in one psychologically athletic turn after another. There was his poker-faced and pathologically narcissistic Richard in The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. There was his inscrutable yet compassionate Mouse 1 in World Mouse Plague (co-written with the less talented but always interesting David Woods). Finally there was his gobsmackingly audacious Private Robert True in a one-off sharing of The Happy Ones (to premiere in 2015 – David Woods will have an insignificant off-stage part as Corporal Schmaltz). Unsurprising to hear that this most modest of actors has turned down the offer of an OBE for services to the arts in the Queen’s New Year Honours.         

Sunday 3 August 2014


D: We have a very fragile existence.

J: I’m still eating rocket salad out of plastic bags in my rented room.

D: We’ve been hugging radiators for the last week.

J: There’s no work on the horizon after the bit we’ve got next month.

D: We didn’t get programmed in a major festival, and while in one sense we’re relieved by that, we also feel we’re missing out on something.

J: The country’s on the brink of a double-dip recession and our funding is about to be snatched away from us even before it’s started.

D: And yet we’re happy, aren’t we?

J: Well we are when we consider the alternatives.

D: So let’s look at the alternatives. In a conventional office job you’d have a few hours to yourself a day. You’d have a mortgage but get little time to enjoy the benefits of it. Your existence might be soulless.

J: It might not. It depends on your personality. You might be the kind of person who loves that kind of life.

D: So this existence we have is perfectly suited to our personalities.

J: Apparently.

D: And if we had money would we actually have any energy to make anything?

J: There was a time when we had a bit more money but I think we were the same, just as creative.

D: I think we were less creative. We had to tour so much to make that money that we never had time to think about what we were doing. Now we have serious thinking time. For example, we know that when we start work on the next show we’re not going to go into a rehearsal room unplanned and run around with bags over our heads wasting energy.

J: What a shame. I could do with a bit of that. I think I’ll do it when I get back to my room.

(From The (unpublished) Ridiculusmus book of making comic theatre: Arseflop 2011)

Friday 14 March 2014

On previewing 'The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland'

It’s a very weird thing, previewing a new show. Not as weird as The Twilight Zone or the Bermuda Triangle or the ghost I saw in the grounds of Dean Close School, Cheltenham in 1978. But pretty damn weird nonetheless. It is excruciating too. Take this morning, the morning of the third day of our run in Shoreditch Town Hall. I woke at 6, having gone to bed at 1, and immediately switched on my computer, with whom I’ve been sharing a small room in a small flat overlooking London Fields since 2010. I checked the news of course to see if there were any updates on the fate of flight MH370. The search has now moved to the Indian Ocean. Malaysian authorities are rejecting the US’s theory that the plane went on flying for four hours after it lost contact with the radars, and in a press conference the day before a relative of one of the missing threw a bottle of water at a Malaysian Airlines official. I read an article on the BBC website about some of the passengers. There was – or is (because, as a friend of one of the missing said, ‘miracles do happen’) - a team of illustrious Chinese calligraphers, one of them aged 79. There was a couple returning to their two young kids after a short beach holiday. I recalled a Sunday Times magazine feature from the 1970’s about the passengers on Turkish Airlines flight 981, which had crashed in a forest outside Paris (a farmer found six seats in a field with dead passengers strapped to them), killing all 346 people on board. I must have been in my early teens when I read the article, but nearly forty years later I can still remember that a male model had been amongst the dead. After that I googled ‘The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland review’ to see if any conscientious reviewer had posted one already (the previous night being press night - though why they're reviewing previews I'm not sure). There were none. Then I thought I should really get some sleep. I wasn’t tired though so I sent a friend request to Jake Orr, who we’d met the previous day after a photo shoot for the show, and who’s just starting as our Assistant Producer. As I was talking to him, or, more accurately, listening to my colleague David talking to him, I carelessly poured peppermint tea all down my shirt. Jake, who had a metallic adornment set at a rakish angle in one lobe, asked us how the photo shoot was for us. ‘We have to be wary of gurning,’ David said, ‘as the more obvious gurning shots will inevitably be the ones they publish.’ This is very true. I spent most of the shoot being determinedly po-faced, especially during the Finnish folk dance, standing there with my weight on one leg, attempting to protect the arthritic knee of the other one, and watching Woods leap-frog over Talbot and Paolini. The trouble is, I might end up looking over-solemn, a parody of deadpan (‘His features lend themselves to expressions of gloom’; ‘he out-Busters Buster Keaton’; ‘he sings comic songs with a face like a Lurgan spade,’ and so on). Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we, when the reviews with their accompanying photos come out. If they come out. And if we can find out if they’ve come out. Kate Bassett from The Times was there. Terrifying. She reviewed our two man Earnest in 2005 and wrote ‘They’re just not great actors…their only option is to play everything knowingly fifth-rate.’ Yes, very possibly true, but then we were (she didn’t get it, which was of course our fault) meant to be playing two knowingly fifth-rate actors who were putting on a production of Wilde’s play. Kate Bassett sat, according to my colleague David, in the front row, but, perhaps a little considerately, on the far right side. That was in the first half, before the interval. We swap the audience round at half time and I’ve no idea where she sat after that. The other very weird thing about press nights (well, perhaps not that weird) is that once you know the critics are in you start imagining them. I’ve no idea, for example, if the voluptuously committed Lyn Gardner from The Guardian was in, but because I’d been on the receiving end of her complaints in the past (she kept on picking up her very large notepad, scribbling in it, putting it down, picking it up again, her response quite clear from the expression on her face, so no need to read the review, really, and anyway reviews are not meant for the artists, are they, they're intended as some sort of guide for the public), but yes, because of all this I imagined she was in. She was in the front row, just three feet from my right elbow. She had her very large notepad with her and she absolutely hated everything I did. Also sitting on the domestic side of the play, but on the other side of the row Kate Bassett sat in, was Ian Shuttleworth, critic of the Financial Times. Except it wasn’t, was it? It was Tassos Stevens, with a bottle of beer. There was another man in the front row with a moustache and dyed black hair and I was convinced he was someone from The Telegraph whose name presently escapes me. There were also several bloggers. And Time Out, I think, was there. I mean I felt they were there. I could sort of smell them. It was, then, an audience made up of critics and Tassos Stevens and Jake Orr. At one point someone in the audience started talking in a loud voice. Not a whisper. David, playing my character’s therapist, stared at them as though they were mentally ill and in need of swift diagnosis and, very probably, anti-psychotic medication. I ignored them, convinced that although the voice was deep and manly, they’d only turn out to be Lyn Gardner. Somehow we made it to the end. We had changed the ending, and will probably change it again, several times. It currently has a Finnish finish: we exit doing a hunched dance, wait for the blackout, wait for, hopefully, applause, and then re-enter for our bows. Or rather, actually, not for bows, having aired our loathing of the latter the previous night. We’ve chosen to nod at the audience instead. We’re not bowing and saying ‘we’re so grateful to be serving you, and being given the chance to humbly offer up this little piece for your entertainment.’ We are nodding our heads (possibly bigger than all the imaginary critics’) and saying ‘Yes, we’ve spent two years making a piece of theatre and that was it. It’s meaningful, we think, we hope, so please go away and think about it.’ And then we bugger off, go for a drink in a Shoreditch pub that’s quiet (they don’t exist) and return to our homes, knowing we won’t get good night sleeps…And then, and then, and then…


Thursday 16 January 2014

Some more things that may have contributed to the making of 'The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland'

Watching the 1967 Frederick Wiseman documentary ‘Titicut Follies’ in 2003 and again in 2013

Reading hundreds of books on the subject, amongst them ‘What is Madness?’ by Darian Leader and ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ by Thomas Szasz

Rereading ‘Awakenings’ by Oliver Sacks and trying very hard to watch the sentimental film again

Being mesmerized by the Roy Anderson films ‘You the Living’ and ‘Songs from the Second Floor’

Watching 'The Bothersome Man' for the third time, saying it’s for research purposes, although it wasn’t really

Reading Auden’s Christmas Oratorio while trying to write a Chorus for ‘The Eradication’

Watching a documentary about Brian Blackwell, who had narcissistic personality disorder, killed his parents and then took his girlfriend on an expensive holiday to the States, fantasizing that he was a professional tennis player  

Downloading the Finnish saga ‘The Story of Burnt Njal’ with a view to plagiarizing it for our Chorus

Revisiting Anouilh’s ‘Antigone,’ in which I played the messenger at university. ‘The queen! The queen! Where is the queen?’

Seeing Alan Ayckbourn's ‘The Norman Conquests’ in Liverpool because a character's exit from one play corresponds with an entrance in another and this is something we would like to try

Meeting Ben Sessa, psychiatrist and author of The Psychedelic Renaissance, and hearing him talk passionately about the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs

Visiting systemic family therapists in the Tavistock Centre who tell us about a man called Jaakko Seikkula who’s developed a dialogic approach to treating psychosis - Open Dialogue – that’s practically eradicated schizophrenia from Western Lapland

Driving to Western Lapland with David Woods 

Stopping on the motorway to take some photos, marveling at the special quality of the light and getting covered in mosquitoes

Searching for Keropoudas Hospital, where Open Dialogue began

Meeting a drunk man in a Tornio pub and finding out he’d been in Keropoudas Hospital
Wondering if an apparently deranged man in the street in Tornio is pissing or masturbating or both

Being welcomed by Timo Haaraniemi at Keropoudas Hospital and taking part in an impromptu simulated Open Dialogue session

Attending a Dialogic Practices conference in Hameenlinna and being over-awed by Jaakko Seikkula, Peter Rober, Professor John Shotter, Markku Sutela and just about everyone there

Tolerating uncertainty

Witnessing Jaakko Seikkula and colleagues disco dancing on the last night of the conference in Hameenlinna

Some things that may have contributed to the making of 'The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland'

Reading R. D. Laing as an ontologically insecure undergraduate and finding the idea of madness quite attractive

Flicking through The DSM IV and noticing I've got most of the disorders

A psychiatrist asking me if I agree that I'm a danger to myself and others and when I say ‘No’ telling me ‘In that case I’ve no option but to detain you under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act’

Spending 6 months in the Maudsley Hospital and finding madness wasn’t so attractive after all

Having my clothes taken away from me and being accompanied to the toilet every time I wanted to go

Being told that I wanted to get out but I didn’t want to get better

Agreeing, for a fee of ten pounds, to be the subject of a psychiatric presentation

Imagining it would be a bit like appearing on the Parkinson show

Discovering it entailed sitting on stage, answering questions from an audience of psychiatrists and breaking down in tears

Listening every morning to someone chanting from the ward below ‘Help me someone I’m dying’

Being ashamed to have a mental illness and not wanting anyone to know

My family trying to understand

Seeing a Pelican book on my condition on the bookshelves at home

Being told that I sometimes seemed quite normal

The book stating ‘It’s all about a desire for control.’ This wasn’t my experience. I felt out of control, actually possessed

Living near a mental hospital in Shrewsbury when I was a boy and ending up in it in my twenties

A nurse in hospital taking my temperature every 30 minutes and saying to me ‘I don’t know if this is what you want but if you carry on like this you’ll very soon be dead’ and my thinking ‘Good’

A patient called Roy Christy telling me how John Fowles the novelist stole his first wife from him on a Greek island. I was never sure if this was true, but years later I picked up a copy of Fowles’s Journals and discovered that it was

A man in the Maudsley sitting next to me and telling me he was Jesus and I was John the Baptist

A bearded lady in the Maudsley asking me if I thought she should kill herself or just put up with it

Seeing a night nurse throw a patient against a wall, reporting it to the hospital board, nothing being done and wondering if I’d imagined it

A nurse supervising the eating disorder patients’ mealtimes while slowly consuming a pot of very low fat cottage cheese

A manic patient called Liz who I found attractive and who told me I was an angel

As I got better beginning to fancy some of the patients, particularly a thickset suicidal boy called Darren

My psychologist telling me that she’d seen me looking longingly at a patient called Douglas who’d been experiencing hallucinations. It wasn’t true. Was she projecting onto me?

Going to the ward round. The eminent consultant (Professor Gerald Russell, whose hobbies include art galleries, photography and music) asking me how I felt and my saying ‘I am terrified about my imminent confrontation with the outside world’ and him saying ‘That’s a very philosophical statement. What exactly do you mean by it?’

After the ward round the nurse who had escorted me there saying to me ‘You did very well. What a wonderful opportunity for an actor’

Being allowed home for a weekend, scoring some dope at the Prince John in Peckham and walking out straight into the arms of the Metropolitan Police

Being taken to the police station and locked in a detention room. Explaining I was a mental patient and being let off

Making friends with a schizophrenic who told me he taught the Foreign Secretary’s children to play the cello.

Coming out of hospital and a relative saying to me on the phone ‘What are you going to do? You have to do something, you know’

Wednesday 24 July 2013

From 'The Ridiculusmus Book of Making Comic Theatre'

When they first saw each other in ‘the carpet room’ of the Poor School in 1990 Dave and Jon didn’t talk. They just eyed each other warily, as if they knew it was only a matter of time before something would happen. David did an impression of a stork for ‘animal study’ that Jon was rather impressed by and a couple of terms later Jon recited ‘Ode to the Asshole’ by Rimbaud, which David found downright peculiar. Cast as Polonius (David) and Hamlet (Jon), they ignored any direction they were given, devised bits of comic business and cut most of Shakespeare’s lines because they got no laughs. When David invited Jon back to his studio flat for midnight beans and toast Jon wasn’t that surprised to find David only lived two minutes away from his own abode in Nunhead, one of the cheapest and most inaccessible areas of what could still be called London. As they talked, ate the beans and toast and drank copious amounts of tea, more coincidences emerged. Before enrolling at the Poor School David had attended the same university as Jon and had done the same drama course that Jon had done there seven years earlier. They’d read many of the same books (or at least David thought they had) and shared a theatre-making language. It was derived on the one hand from Peter Brook, Grotowski, Stanislavski, Berkoff, Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, Keith Johnstone’s Impro, Albert Hunt’s Hopes for Great Happenings, Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and John McGrath’s A Good Night Out, and on the other from hours of improvising in devising rooms. David confided to Jon that at school and university he’d been called ‘Mad Dave,’ and Jon confided to David that at school and university he’d been notorious for being depressed.

Two years later, still meeting up for the occasional midnight beans and - if they could afford it - toast, David and Jon began to lament the fact that in their final shows at the school the imaginative leaps they’d struggled to make during the course were being thrown away for the sake of commercial casting. They were given roles as similar in age, sex and outlook to the most smiling and willing versions of themselves they were prepared to be. On one level this was understandable. The profession was notoriously competitive and to get a foot in its door perhaps one should play to one’s strengths. But David found it reductive and humiliating. He really should have left. Everyone was skint. They were expected to go in during the daytimes, so unless you had a very willing employer unemployment was the only option. David managed to hang on to his job by disappearing or pretending to be sick. Jon was sacked from his position as an insurance clerk. To save money he took to walking from Nunhead to the school in King’s Cross, and then to Kentish Town for their final year shows. A fellow student once took pity on him and hid a loaf of bread in his jacket.

By 1999 they’d been running a successful theatre company for seven years and their lives had markedly improved. Jon was living in an industrial unit in Belfast, sleeping on a piece of foam on a tabletop while mice scuttled around him in the dark. On the other side of a divide his colleague David snored on a futon bed. He’d told the caretaker of the building it was part of a stage set. They had to switch all the lights off at 9pm so as not to alert suspicion. They weren’t meant to be living there. It was rented out to them as office space. For seven years they’d shared the administration, driven up and down the UK putting on plays and, in spite of most people never having heard of them, received critical acclaim. Yet they couldn’t afford a home.

The making process was intense. They had intercourse, became inseminated with an idea (often simultaneously), gestated it, gave birth to it, christened it, nurtured it, created a profile for it, sent it to college, bought it a cappuccino machine (or at least a hand pump milk frother), shared awkward family gatherings with it, took it to board meetings, indulged in sordid affairs (side projects) and opened a building society account for it (got a grant and took it on tour). But ultimately they had to let go, move on and have another child together, occasionally holding embarrassing orgies with collaborators drawn from an expanding pool. Basically it was a marriage.

But what kind of a marriage was it when your idea of a meal together was a selection of pre-packaged salads and cartons of M&S custard and fruit compote carefully laid out on a futon in an industrial unit? Did you really want to renew your vows and reaffirm commitment to a partner of seven years who was engaged in similar catering activities two feet away on the other side of a glass divide? Was this a life at all? Was it really worth the sacrifices? What on earth did they think they were doing? Had they ever really stopped to think? Perhaps, Jon thought as he saw a family of mice making its curious way to David’s side of the office, a couple of them ferrying a fragment of a multigrain bap, perhaps one day they should sit down and write a book about it all. But that time wasn’t now. There was a farting sound. David had woken up. He thought he’d heard the caretaker pushing some post under the door, so he got up and shuffled over there to get it. ‘It’s come,’ said David timorously, waving a white manila envelope containing the result of their application for revenue funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He opened it. Jon was sitting up expectantly on his piece of foam. Their grant had been slashed in half. During a performance of ‘Dada’ Jon had been so deeply in role that he had told a member of the council’s board to piss off. ‘Oh God,’ groaned David. The caretaker heard him and barked out some expletive. ‘I’ve been having some complaints,’ he said (a reference to one from David about kids flicking shit on the toilet walls). But David didn’t really care. He read the rest of the letter, which concluded by telling them that the days of experimental theatre were most definitely over. ‘Oh God,’ David said again, ‘what are we doing?’