Joe Douglas reflects on his first six months at Live Theatre and themes in Clear White Light
Live Theatre’s current production, Clear White Light by Paul Sirett, is set at St Nicholas’s Hospital in Gosforth on a locked Mental Health ward. The characters within the play, both staff and patients, have a wide range of metal health issues, which the action of the play and the lyrics of the songs explore.
The director, Joe Douglas, wrote this piece during the rehearsal process, reflecting on the themes and his first six months as Artistic Director of Live Theatre.
Okay, take a deep breath...
Been at Live Theatre nearly five months now and yet to set foot in the rehearsal room to do what I do. Turns out Artistic Directing is very different from just directing plays. So, what have I been doing..?
Not sleeping. At points I’ve been not sleeping coz of the kids or drinking (bonding) or the worries about being a shit Artistic Director or trying to get my head around Arts Council England’s directives. But at points, there’s not been a lot of sleep.
Not freaking out. Max (Roberts - Emeritus Artistic Director) has been here for over 30 years. Thirty! There’s legacies and then there’s this place, entwined within a complex network of stories and stories mean people and people means politics.
Learning. My head is bursting. Not just with managerial, procedural, jargontastic processes that every institution has but with all the new names, faces and places that make up the actual North. People say “the North East” or that where I’m from (Stockport originally, if your interested) is Northern. It’s not. Newcastle is further north than a whole chunk of Scotland. Look at a map! I’m a southerner. There, I’ve said it. It’s out there. God that feels so much better, now let’s tell some new stories...
Plays. Talking about plays people want to write, plays they have written, plays they wrote a long time ago and I should read. Plays that Live should produce rather than any other theatre. Because Live plays need to entertain, be funny, have music, be politically engaged, talk about real life as it’s lived now. Or imagined so that it shows us how to live better. And they must be great new stories, above all. Coz that’s why the company exists, to put working people’s experience on that stage.
And amidst all of this change, the embracing of this extraordinary opportunity to artistically lead the only regularly funded, building-based theatre company in England outside of London that is solely dedicated to new plays...I have often been struggling to control my breathing and escape the endless, cyclical negativity dancing round my head.
The myth of the tortured artist is one we need to bust wide open, redefine and reclaim. (It’s up there with the badly behaved, egocentric, usually male theatre directors, but we’ll save that for another blog.) My sense of self is so interwoven with my work that my inner/emotional/imaginative life can really suffer. Doubt is helpful - it can stop you making an idiot of yourself and being rigorous in your choices - but when it begins to inhibit behaviour and decisions, something isn’t right. And I’ve too often found myself on the wrong side of this careful balance since starting at Live Theatre.
Not that you’d probably notice. In my second week here, I held a series of meet and greets aimed at the new theatre community that I had recently joined, an offer to come down to our beautiful Undercroft space off the main bar for a cuppa and say hello. The final one was mobbed and someone cannily suggested: “is it a bit like an anxiety dream where you’re having a birthday party and you don’t know who any of the guests are but they all know you?”
I’ve moved down to Newcastle from working in Scotland and my favourite Scots word is “gallus”. An admirable, cheeky boldness. I’ve tried to embody gallusness in my professional life and my shows in recent years. But the gallus persona isn’t always authentic (funny that, working in theatre) and lashing a sense of self esteem to theatre projects can only ever be as fleeting as the last good audience...
I felt that very acutely as a freelancer, which is what I’ve mainly been over the last ten years. It’s so easy to become or feel like you are becoming dislocated from the industry when You have to be the main proponent of You all the time. You build relationships with those curious people who actually have “salaries” in “arts organisations” in the hope they might be dazzled by your nascent genius. Or just give you a job. That sense of dislocation is the main reason those initial meet and greets at Live Theatre have become informal networking sessions that we now call Open Undercroft, a chance to connect with staff here but also each other. To initiate those daunting conversations, feel a bit less alone and keep grafting together. Like online social networking (when it works well) but in a physical place.
Meaningful work breeds self-esteem. Secure work breeds self-esteem. Many of the opportunities that this industry provides offer neither. The knock on effect to mental and emotional stability of theatre workers is enormous.
When I was Associate Artistic Director at Dundee Rep on a fixed term contract, I worked with probably the only three fully employed actors in the UK. Those three extraordinary women who have been members of the Dundee Rep Ensemble for almost twenty years - along with the myriad of other ensemble members who join for combinations of mid to longer term contracts - have a confidence that comes from being able to work regularly. There is less stress in the rehearsal room, as most of the company are able to focus on the job in hand, not constantly be looking to the (often lack of a) next job and subsequent issues with cost of living.
In an industry predicated on short-term, infrequent work opportunity - increasingly common in the so-called gig-economy of Zero Hours - full time jobs are scarce and competitive. This anxiety over work and money is spreading much more widely across society.
I’m lucky to work in one of the roles where there are some full-time, permanent jobs are available. Though the Globe (an actor), The Lyceum (a playwright) and the National Theatre of Scotland and ARC Stockton (both producer-led) are just some of the organisations currently crushing the outmoded notion that successful artistic leadership has to come from a director. I won’t be surprised, when the dust settles on the current merry-go-round of AD jobs in british theatre, if that list is a little longer.
And how have I responded to my newly privileged, salaried position? By occasionally feeling like I’m cracking up! “SELF-CENTRED PRICK!”, my brain screams. Helpfully.
Destigmatisation of mental health still has a way to go, but I can try to help by doing what I do and direct a play.
Clear White Light is a new play by Paul Sirett, with the songs of Alan Hull of the band Lindisfarne. The story is set in St Nick’s Hospital in Gosforth, where a young, female, student nurse is about to embark on her first night shift on an all-male ward. The play switches between Edgar Allen Poe-inspired gothic thriller and social realist commentary on mental health provision in austerity-era NHS. All interspersed with the songs of one of the UK’s most underrated songwriters, the late Alan Hull. Alan worked at St Nick’s as a psychiatric nurse just prior to joining Lindisfarne and like many mental health professionals he suffered himself. He was ahead of his time in many different ways, including by talking openly about his own troubled mind, telling Sounds magazine in 1972: “I probably am mad, and everybody else is, but they handle it very well. I think we're all in the same crowd.”
Max Roberts has been developing the project over a number of years and was slated to direct it. Three weeks after I started at Live Theatre he offered the play to me to direct, in a typical act of generosity. Generous acts matter.
The fact I’m able to be objective and write about the management of my own mental-emotional health, suggests I’m currently doing okay. I think that my recent episodes have been triggered by sudden, massive life changes and that as I grow into my new job and community my health will improve. The anxieties of leadership and responsibility will take getting used to. Some of the self-help literature available from St Nick’s that I’ve been reading as research ahead of rehearsals has been very useful...
Depression and anxiety seem to stem from a cocktail of present environmental circumstances, experiences during adolescence (brains are now recognised to be developing until the age of twenty five) and inherited genetic traits. Every brain and its processing is unique. I’ve been learning recently about the phrase Neurodiversity, a movement attempting to champion and popularise the theory that “different” isn’t necessarily negative. That brains which are often branded Learning Disabled, for example, are the victims of prejudiced, reductive comparison to a “normal” that is entirely false and rooted in privilege.
Creativity relies on diversity. Diversity is partly about the language we use and the eyes that we see through. Different perspectives offer a richer pool of stories and ways of expressing them. Live Theatre has a proud tradition of working people’s stories, which are often ignored by wider media. Our stage has allowed their struggles and concerns to be humanised and expressed since its foundation almost fifty years ago. My job is now to keep searching for those marginalised voices - broaden that pool - and help to turn those voices into extraordinary playwrights. The very act of seeing yourself or your experience expressed artistically gives a sense of value, self-worth. In our class-dominated society, so many issues around self-esteem and our resultant feelings, thoughts and behaviour can be attributed to our background and upbringing.
But we are in the midst of an epidemic that is life threatening. People aren’t being reached in time, suicide rates are rising. The North East has the highest rates of mental illness in England, with children and young people being severely affected. Men disproportionately attempt suicide. In too many cases, somewhere along the line, there is a failure of communication and understanding and a lack of adequate support. Clear White Light speaks, in part, to the damage that austerity economics has caused the NHS.
But we must talk to each other more honestly. And that’s what theatre can do. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing it can really do, get people talking. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Live Theatre was because the auditorium lends itself to social interaction. The audience is right next to the action, the stage fills the room (and therefore your imagination) and if you’re sitting in the “cabaret seats”, you receive the performance in an especially social way. Strangers start to chat across the tables.
It’s easy to forget how recent the advent of social media is, given how pervasive it has become, broadcasting stories from our lives to wide audiences. We are beginning to understand the double edged sword it offers, in creating projected personas and the disconnect between them and our true selves. It is an environmental factor, in driving up the anxiety levels of many users and particularly affecting young people. With Clear White Light, we aspire to redress that negativity, if only for a short time. Authentic, honest communication is desperately needed. And theatre, as the original Social Media, must play its part.
Artistic Director, Live Theatre
Director of Clear White Light