Chipping at the Hard Stuff: Reflections on my Leverhulme Scholarship

6 Feb 2018

Back in mid-November, I was on a totally lush Hawkwood College Artist Residency as part of my Leverhulme Scholarship with Ferment at Bristol Old Vic (BOV). I was asked to write a few words for Team Ferment about it, but never got round to it due to a) various busy and b) an itch at the back of my mind that I’d like to do some deeper reflection on the scholarship so far and where it’s taken me – because it’s been utterly transformative for how I understand my perspective and skills as a theatre director (thumbs up!) but the journey has been waaaaay different to what I’d planned or anticipated (thumbs up!).

I came into the Leverhulme scholarship at a point of deep professional frustration.

The scholarship has been brilliant for letting me let it out, and then helping me work out what I can do about it and how I can do that on my own terms. The time – and the money to spend the time – has been crucial to that, as has the stamp of affirmation that comes from being awarded the scholarship. But really, the MOST important thing has been the regular, thoughtful interrogation I’m getting from the brilliant Emma Bettridge (BOV Ferment Producer). I’m lucky to be working a lot, but it means I don’t prioritise time to deal with the hard stuff that will open up new opportunities for me as a director. Right at the start of the process I asked Emma to keep pushing me out of my comfort zone, and she’s been brilliant at reminding me to keep chipping away at the hard stuff. She’s been genius at helping me start building that chipping away into my ongoing practice as a director.

Here’s a bit from my February 2017 application:

“By producing work through Sleepdogs, I’ve had the freedom to hone an artistic vision and approach that is deeply influenced by my cultural curiosity and my identity as a third culture woman of colour. But I think this unconventional approach makes it hard for commissioners and producers to assess my practice and imagine how I might be able to work with them. I’m at a point now where my lack of technical training, and the (false) perception of my work as devised rather than script-based, are making it impossible for me to develop as an individual artist and move towards a sustainable career as a director.”

Or more succinctly: I’d to use this opportunity to make myself more employable as a director please. It’s strange looking back at this application now, many months into the scholarship, because it reveals how unconfident I was about my skills and ability; how insignificant I felt my experience was; and how much I thought it was all about me needing to change, rather than the industry. It reeks of me seeking validation from the establishment.

In October, 6 months into the scholarship, Emma asked if I could send an informal update on where I was at. Here’s an extract from the update I emailed her:

“I was nervous that existing work commitments were going to make me feel like I wasn't getting stuck into the scholarship, but actually it's proved brilliant for me to use this time to honestly reflect on my current situation and to think in a very practical way about how and where I need to focus in order for me to push my directing practice in a way that meets my artistic ambitions (rather than seeking to ape what a 'proper' directing career looks like.)

The award has been a really useful "pressure" on me to be honest about my artistic desires, jealousies and ambitions and to be more clear and forthright about why and how I make theatre. As a result I am already more confident and forthright about my individual perspective as a female artist of colour, and as a theatre director who is interested in making productions that feel like they come from the modern world rather than some arcane notion of theatre tied to traditional conventions. In the past, I've been quite timid about expressing either of these aspects because I've feared they would marginalise me, and limit my opportunities to work in mainstream contexts. What I've realised is that I'm marginalised already by these things (!!) and it's more powerful for me to own these positions and push for the value they can bring to mainstream theatre contexts.”

I’m struck by how much more confident I’ve become in my own artistry and the need to value it better and draw power from it. There are 3 key things that cleared the fog for me on this:

  • In May, I wrote and published this article, as a way of working through some deep-seated, inhibiting frustrations I had about being too “diverse” to be mainstream, yet not authentic enough to bring a “diverse perspective” in the eyes of producers.
  • In July, I heard a brilliant talk by Dr Sarah Atkinson about how women have been written out of history, which included a plea for more women to go for opportunities even when they don’t feel fully qualified (in a way that men have less of a problem with).
  • And in August I had a brief session with super-successful (and also not formally trained) War Horse etc director, Tom Morris, looking at AREAS OF BASIC THEATRECRAFTZ (AOBTz), which a) reminded me that professional experience trumps formal training and b) surprised me by revealing that I already understand and regularly employ AOBTz in my theatre directing – I just also tend to stretch it beyond its conventional purpose, and mix it up with techniques from other forms.

This quiet revelation about AOBTz has been crucial for me. Not only did that session give me confidence in my basic foundations, but it was also great to realise that I regularly apply technical craft from other forms (e.g. live art, dance, film) that are either not considered part of a director’s toolkit or dismissed as ‘uncrafted’ by the theatre mainstream.

In my first few weeks of Music GCSE, my teacher marked down one of my compositions for its reliance on perfect fourths and fifths.

“But it sounds good,” I insisted.

“Yes it does,” said my teacher, “but it’s not good composition.”

So I quit Music GCSE. I kept playing music and composing, but I was a bolshy teenager and I was in no way going to formally buy into the notion that the theory of music was more important than the experience of music. I guess it’s the same for me with theatre – though more mature me is more conscious of wanting to understand the craft in order to manipulate it more powerfully. There are always going to be people who judge me as doing the theatre craft badly, when actually I’m consciously trying to give the audience a more surprising – and hopefully more remarkable – way into the story and the experience. Ultimately, it all comes down to desire, and taste.

Having said all that, I end that October email with this:

 since august I have been feeling very frustrated and alienated by the theatre industry. I'm so ranty at the moment, but I hope I can channel that frustration into really strong meaningful creative work. I'm feeling pretty low about my opportunities as a director within the structures of our current industry and how people make connections and make assumptions […] I feel like I'm constantly fighting so hard for people to even acknowledge me as a director, never mind consider working with me. I need to be visible as a director before I even get to worry about whether people take me seriously or not.”

So since October, I’ve been focused on how I might address that invisibility. If you’ll allow me to talk frankly here, the fact is that the UK theatre industry is deeply conservative in how it functions, very concerned with peer judgement, and has black hole levels of London-centricity. I mean, I get it. We work with an ephemeral art-form. You can’t just pick up a DVD of someone’s production and get up to speed with their work – we need other anchor points to help us get to know who’s out there. The problem is that these anchor points – certainly in the field of script-led theatre – are skewed enormously towards traditional training routes, LONDON, those who work for theatres rather than self-produce, and LONDON. You might see all the new work in your local town, but you probably also go to London. You don’t necessarily also go to Manchester, or Newcastle, or Bristol as a matter of course. Especially if you’re a theatre critic. All of this is compounded by the feedback loop of current theatre criticism.

In the grand game of theatre industry top trumps, I have rubbish scores in all those areas. I’ve got an impressive CV of experience to point to, but no-one’s looking, because I’ve got crap scores in those boxes. I don’t have those privileges so I’m going to have to find other ways to get people to see me.

There’s stuff I need to practise, actual practical work I need to do, in order to improve my visibility as a director and that’s what I’ve been getting my head down to over the last few months. I’ve got to get better at articulating my practice and why people should be interested. I’ve got to get better at pitching my approach to plays. I’ve got to get out and meet more people who live in venues (artistic directors, literary producers etc). I probably need to get an agent. I’ve got to come to terms with being on repeat about the fact that despite not living in London, I’m up for working on plays in your theatre.

One of the great things about Bristol – and one of the main reasons why I choose to live here – is the clever, confident and ambitious artist community I get to play and think things through with. I’m not the only Bristol-based director experiencing this frustration and I’m working with allies to challenge our local producing theatres not to overlook Bristol-based directors for their productions. I love that this scholarship is helping me work with my peers to change opportunities for more than just me.

Last week, me and my fellow scholars gave a little talk about our experiences so far on the scholarship. We’ve all done different things, but we all talked about the incredible value in being able to genuinely learn as we went, rather than having to deliver prescribed outcomes. I’ve been able to rewire the machinery of my practice and map career routes I never thought I’d be able to take, without having to deny my artistic curiosity and background. There is NO WAY I’d have achieved this if I knew I was going to have to show some work-in-progress or pass an exam at the end of it – I’d have been way too focused on what I had to do, rather than actual learning. At the talk, Emma mentioned how hard it was to protect the non-outcome-focused nature of these scholarships. I’ll talk to anyone who’ll hear me about why that needs protecting.

I’m into the last few months of my scholarship now. There’s a lot of practical and intellectual graft, emotional steel and a shed-load of train journeys that’ll need to go into pushing my visibility as a director. But as I said back in May, right at the start of my scholarship: I need to get over it and make my story more visible. Because I’ve got a voice and a career in this business – and I want more different people to influence our culture not just at the margins, but all the way through.

Thank you BOV Ferment for awarding me time, space, money and support to push towards this. I can’t think of anything else like these scholarships. Here’s to the next cohort. Hope you guys run with it.

Tanuja Amarasuriya is a director, dramaturg and sound designer, whose work has been developed and presented nationally and internationally including at the National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Seattle International Film Festival, Manchester Royal Exchange, Battersea Arts Centre and BIOS (Athens). She has worked with playwrights and theatremakers including Dipika Guha, Selina Thompson, Sam Halmarack, Eno Mfon, Raucous and Timothy X Atack, with whom she co-founded Sleepdogs.