14/48 lessons in humility

14/48 is always a thrill, and last weekend was no exception, but it never ceases to amaze me how much of a crucible it is. It is very much extreme theatre – resulting in the kind of manic highs and lows I (in innocence and ignorance) associate with drug use and extreme sports.

After a return to the stage in November and February, it was back in the director’s chair for me. Directing The Hunchback’s Lament in London last year was a deeply needed refreshment after struggling with the challenges of All in the Timing – I dove into a project with no real fear of failure, in part because I didn’t know what that might look like, the project being entirely new to me – and having the benefits of a full night’s sleep and overwhelming enthusiasm, on top of a cracking script and brilliant actors.

This time… well, I think I was more anxious perhaps because I felt I had something to prove, and a clearer idea of what failure might look like. I am one of those dreadful people who is never happy with anything less that astonishing genius – I want to be brilliant, especially in public. Which leads to frequent disappointment, because obviously. I honestly don’t know how people stand me.

I’m not alone in my tendency to teeter on the edge of panic and despondency prior to performance – if I hadn’t see a hint of it in one or two of the other directors I might have seriously questioned my sanity.

Friday’s play, The Stones of Jeremiah by  Christian Alexander was a challenge – I spent the day in agonies over whether I had managed an interpretation that worked, and wouldn’t outrage the writer.

I demanded a challenging mix of 4th-wall-breaking comedy and high drama, which relied heavily on the audience-charming comedic talents of Kirsty Mealing, the intense machismo of Damien Dickens, and sinister power of Shaun Hartman, as well as a smoke-drenched stage, a projection of flames, and a stage bathed in intense red lights.

The actors were amazing, and I think it came off despite my worries, but I’m still not convinced the writer thought I did him justice.

The second day I spend largely in transports of delight, convinced I had a hilarious script impossible to spoil, Rebecca Newman‘s Chastity of the Milkman was another 4th-wall-breaker, asking for the kind of over-the-top energy and wackiness of children’s television, delightfully paired with an overtly sexual theme.

But then of course pride goeth before… a nightmare of a tech led to a scramble in the hour and a bit before the show to get some kind of dress and tech rehearsal. Although actors Steve Archer, Perdita Lawton, and Alyssa Muego surpassed themselves with joyful energy and brilliant physicality, the first performance showed that I neglected to give the actors sufficient time to memorise lines, the confidence to go fully over the top, and burdened them with too much stage business without the time to finesse. The actors were of course valiant, and quite funny, but it was their second show in which they really shone and the script had the outing it merited.

Milkman also provided a wonderful chance to play with the 14/48 band – Jade-Leanne Pearce, Hannah TorranceDave Morris, David Pearce, Akshay, and Richard Leverton – who created the sexiest, dirtiest version of ‘Every Day’ by Buddy Holly imaginable, and it was delightful.

Every play in the world should have a live band.

The great thing about both of the plays was the freedom to paint in broad strokes – there is a time and place for subtlety and nuance, but this was not that time. Go big, or go home.

But big choices are big risks. 14/48 is very much a distillation of the theatrical process. Any mistakes you make have a lesson demonstrated quickly and sharply enough for you to see where you’ve gone wrong almost immediately. Which is not at all to say that the shows were not good – indeed if nothing else they showed the talent of the actors and writers. I can’t help wondering what I could do even with a week with such ability.

Yet doubts remain. Practice might not ever lead to actual perfection, but one does learn by doing. Right? There is the yogic perspective – one does not practice to reach a point where one no longer needs to practice, one practices as an end in itself. Or to use a more cliched turn of phrase, the journey is the destination.

The final sensation of 14/48 in the alcohol-soaked bacchanal that follows the final Saturday night performance is relief and camaraderie – it wouldn’t be so intense if we didn’t all care quite a lot about how everything turned out. So of course it is addictive – spending time with people as obsessed about theatre as oneself, the highs and lows creating a kind of feedback loop – the juxtaposition making each seem more pronounced.

The thing about intense experiences is that it makes you feel more alive and more human – so much of life is trundling along. 14/48 is theatre with the volume turned up, the saturation and contrast at cartoonish levels. And predictably, I can’t wait for another go on the rollercoaster.

 

Two plays in two days – and that was just me

After my delight in directing at the inaugural London 14/48, I was determined to join the next round in Leicester. It’s downright addictive, and I thought I might have a go at the acting side of things. Because if there’s anything I love more than theatre, it’s novelty.

“I memorise quickly” I thought, “I can take it.”

Hubris?

You betcha.

Acting is an entirely different beast from directing at 14/48 – though success and happiness demand the same trust in the process, and your fellow actors.

With directing, there is at least the sense of relief that you aren’t actually the one on stage (though of course, if you’ve invested yourself in the work you are, it’s just that not everyone cottons on. It’s like when you’re in a dream and you’re watching yourself from the outside but feeling everything on the inside).

With acting, there is no watching from a safe distance. You’re under the lights in a room full of people and either you get them into your world, or not. And if you fail, well, then you’ve got ten torturous minutes of people suffering through your incompetence.

No pressure then, right?

I lucked out (I mean, all of the plays would have been great fun to be in – and I wanted to collaborate with literally every actor there – but the fates handed me two roles that were just made for me, and perfect co-actors). In the lottery both days I was cast in Jess Green’s plays – well structured, great characters, and boy howdy, that second night play about Workfare? I mean, damn. Smart, surprisingly poignant political theatre written overnight (directed with sharp insight by 14/48 Wolverhampton producer Neil Reading) and delivering an emotional punch and rich political arguments in under 10 minutes? That, my friends, is impressive. Shaw, eat your heart out.

Also, I sweet-talked my way into ad-libbing a couple of closing lines with winking communism jests. And I snuck in ‘I am the Walrus’ into the second show on the first night. Because apparently I am secretly dying to be a stand-up. One of my selfish joys of the weekend is that people were actually laughing (sincerely, or at least in a convincing imitation of sincerity) at all [ed-most] of my quips and witticisms.

What I loved about London 14/48 is that it distilled everything I love about theatre – focus, energy, creativity, and trusting collaboration. In Leicester, I was further seduced by the warmth and acceptance and (dare I say it) genius of the community as a whole. All these good, lovely, talented people brought together by a shared passion to create. If I listed everyone who kinda blew my mind I’d essentially be reprinting the programme.

And while it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much capability without feeling the occasional twinge (or more) of envy, the inclusiveness of all involved turns jealousy to pride. Because if these are your people, then their success is yours, too.

As someone who has moved around so frequently in life and is always a little homesick no matter where I am, there was something about being around these people that felt like a homecoming.

It is no small thing in life to recognise when you meet your tribe.

Next up… Wolverhampton?