UNIQUE (just like everyone else)

Last month, I was invited to speak at a “Meet the Industry” event for performing arts students at Southeastern Regional College. I thought this was hilarious for a couple of reasons:

  1. I’m really just a prose writer who’s been masquerading as a lit-manager/dramaturg for the past three years (don’t tell Richard)

  2. “Industry” seems to imply “mechanical precision”, “conveyor-belt manufacturing processes” and “money” – things neither I nor this industry have a lot of.

Hilarity aside: Listening and speaking at SERC that day, I felt hugely aware of my seemingly odd, non-theatrical background – and yet comfortable & invigorated in my work exactly because of it. I got to think about what my ‘outsider’ view lends me as a dramaturg in the long run:

  • a keen sense of what’s THEATRICAL in a piece of writing. I love prose. I have no qualms telling someone they’re writing it. The universe needs good prose – and good playwrights who know how to avoid it.
  • a closer kinship with the AUDIENCE than with the playwright. I’m a theatre enthusiast with a good eye for craft; so I’m thinking “what would this be like to see and how else could it be tackled?” rather than “how would I have written this differently?”
  • a real & true VARIETY of things to work on in my life: something that feeds me and jollies me along because it’s not a direct match with my own everyday artistic output.

I discovered in my fellow speakers (be they actor, administrator, company & stage manager, director or union rep) a healthy dose of Renaissance Person: a willingness to learn more than one thing from a spread of different angles. If there’s another rise of the polymaths, theatre is mos def leading the charge.

Far from rattling off that classic, cookie-cutter process (degree --> job --> success), the other industry folks talked about their pasts as variously driven misfits, trying & tasting experiences with an inspiring zest. No path sounded straight or easy: The actor estranged from her family because of her decision to ‘pursue the stage’. The young exec suddenly dropping the high-flying career and fancy car to study stage management. The professional stage manager who now manages a dance company. The ex-industrial worker (arrested during the mining strikes in the ‘80s) turned Equity rep. No one takes the quick & easy route – because it’s largely mythical. And frankly, darlin’, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting and chaotic out there in the world than you need to bother imagining.

During the discussion, I had a wonderful-awful moment – being asked a question so good I didn’t know what to say off the cuff. A student asked what I considered to be UNIQUE, in terms of the particularly Northern Irish theatre that Accidental is carving out through our experiences. No clue what I said. But what I meant was:

  • For a WRITER: Approaching a story with zero fear or embarrassment, and from an unexpected angle that allows for delicious contrast. Something I saw recently that 100% nailed this for me was Stewart Parker’s TV play Radio Pictures, which is about the making of a radio play and the construction of a theatre (in a quirky, wonderful way) – a surprising and uneasy meld of genres.
  • For a COMPANY: Inventing a new style & form for each production, an approach sharply tailored to the playwright’s voice and the story’s impact; being unafraid to deviate and experiment – typical narrative pathways be damned.

So yes. I came away from “meeting the industry” with an unexpected sense of belonging to a unique and agnostic tribe: I don’t know which way this will go till I get there, and that’s dandy. I just know I have to get started again & again, project after project. And I have extra faith in the fact that there is no typical pathway.