The Little Tea Towel That Could
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about merchandise. Specifically, the swag that I have been developing to support my stage show, ‘Looking For Me Friend’. As some of you may know, ‘Looking For Me Friend’ is a musical homage to the late, great Victoria Wood – a stand-up comedienne, writer, musician and much more – who we lost back in 2016 to cancer. We also lost Alan Rickman, Prince and David Bowie in that same year, but for me the loss of Vic was by far the most significant.
I grew up watching Vic with my mum and sister, and since losing my mother (also to cancer) in February last year, the show has taken on greater meaning for me than I ever imagined. After decades of watching my plays and being confronted with various ‘Mother figures’ in my work – who may or may not have had anything in common with her -, this show celebrated us in a way I have never shared before. Of course, the irony is that this is the show Mum will never see.
A much younger me, David Bowie and my Mama
The project for my stage show began in November 2019, when myself and my director, Sarah-Louise Young and musical director, Michael Roulston – both also old friends of mine who share a love of Vic – first got in a room together, along with The Cabaret Cat, naturally. Over two years later, the coronavirus pandemic means that we have still only been able to perform the piece a dozen times, and always the 1-hour ‘festival-style’ version. And we’re luckier than some in theatreland right now!
The Cabaret Cat in rehearsals
So, with over twelve grand of my own money invested in the project to-date, I turned my attention to developing a brand of merch that would support the show and celebrate Victoria in equal measure. Back at the end of 2019, when deep in the R&D process of making the show, I was revisiting Victoria’s work in all its forms – from sketches to plays, songs to stand-up, and even full musicals and documentaries. Whilst trawling through all this material I began to make a list of every word or phrase – no matter where it came from – that Victoria used in her published work three times or more. In doing so, I began to build a kind of ‘Victionary’; a lexicon – if you will – of Victoria’s very own. A distillation of the language, catchphrases and non-secateurs that millions of us have grown to love and use in everyday life over the years.
Indeed, part of the content of my stage show explores how Victoria’s work in the 80s & 90s became a modern Polari for young gay people like myself and Michael, literally seeking out their ‘friends’ from the potential threats one was met with during commonplace social encounters back then. What I mean to say is, if you heard someone quote Vic, it was a pretty sure bet they’d ‘get’ you. Even if they weren’t gay. And that meant a lot back in the eighties if you were ‘different’.
Michael Roulston and I backstage at the first ever show
So, after hours and hours of research, I had my ‘Victionary’, and my initial plan was to create a design – kind of like those word bubbles that Facebook used throw up to see what you talked about most? – containing nothing but those pure words and phrases that got three or more nods. Not being known for my design skills, but feeling very clear on what I wanted to create, I sought out a collaborator – and who better than a chap I had recently found on TikTok, lip-synching to Vic’s sketches of ‘Kitty’ as originally portrayed by the fabulous Patricia Routledge!? As well as being a dab hand at this, Mr. Luke Benjamin just happens to be a graphic designer by trade, and was more than willing to get involved in my barmy project!
Me with Graphic Designer Luke Benjamin
Whilst we soon got to grips with the look and style of the thing, it became clear to me during the first couple of design drafts that there were some very famous quotes of Victoria’s which, though not used three times or more, were so iconic that we just could not leave them out. So, in went ‘Red Cabbage, How Much?’, ‘What Was It Muesli’ and ‘Nasty Blouse’ to name but three. Next, we realised that there are a huge amount of Wood fans who’s entry level to her work was the sitcom ‘dinnerladies’, and anything before that might be lost on them. So, we chucked in some mentions of toast and diving boards (don’t ask!) and rejigged things all over again.
Lots of tea, giggling and nine versions of the design later, and with a lot of feedback from both old friends and new ones made online in the various Facebook groups that celebrate Victoria, we finally came up with our ultimate design!
‘Ta-Da!’ as Petula Gordon might say.
So far, so good, but now I had to choose the initial product the design would feature on. I knew I wanted something fairly kitsch and but also mundane, cos frankly that’s what Vic has always focused on – ‘I see life from the chip pan level’ she once said in an interview. So, what better product than a tea towel that was light, easy to store and could be posted through a letterbox! Little did I know then, that the great woman herself had sanctioned tea towels as her preferred gift of choice in an article from twenty years earlier!
After choosing my product, I needed to find a supplier that could deliver 500 units to me in time for Christmas 2021 and it was already September! Well, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that a number of the suppliers which I dutifully researched and short-listed, were not able to deliver with such a short lead time because of – altogether now! – Brexit. Of course. Sigh.
Nevertheless, I did finally find someone who could help and soon 500 custard yellow and shocking pink tea towels were winging their way to me from a factory in Hertfordshire, and the orders were lining up. The public response was fast and loud, and we sold out the initial run in less than three weeks. A wonderful problem to have, but now the chase was on to find another supplier to – hopefully – get us some more in time for Crimbo! In late November, our prayers came good and Santa was delighted to be told he’d got all the Vic-fans covered for the festive period, as another 300 stock arrived.
Since the tea towel went on-sale, I have received the most tremendous response – not least from people who actually worked with Victoria. The celebrated choreographer Stephen Mear; Ria Jones, who toured the UK as Mrs Overall in the musical of Acorn Antiques; toast-loving Sue Devaney, from the other side of the ‘dinnerladies’ counter, and Rachel Gleaves who has not one but two iconic cameos in that same show – all of them have praised and even bought our humble little design in its inaugural tea towel form.
It’s been so wonderful to connect with other Vic fans, and to help promote my stage show whilst simultaneously re-filling the coffers of the project. My mailing list has increased by 25% just from merch customers wanting to hear about the next product we will come up with – the answer, by the way, is that we’ll be dropping around 25 new products on a print-on-demand basis via Printful in a matter of weeks!
And then, Grace Dent happened…
Now, food critic and journalist Grace Dent has not actually seen my show – just like the majority of people who have bought the tea towel – but a friend of hers had and bought her one as a gift. Imagine my surprise when she chose to drape it over her knees during a photoshoot for The Guardian’s ‘Feast’ magazine back in November! Sadly, the online version of the publication shows a different image, but that didn’t stop Dent’s kind gesture from setting my newly opened Etsy store on fire with orders. I know a few Etsy sellers, and they all speak of how long it take to get ones store going, so I’m taking it as a big win that we ended the year with 18 orders, 2 five-star reviews and 19 followers to the account. Thanks, Grace!
Finally, I’d like to give a big shout-out to my old pal Kath and her partner Andrew, who have kindly offered to trial my tea towels in their stunning gift shop, ‘Treehouse’ in Crouch End, North London. As well as being my old stomping ground during drama school, Victoria lived fairly locally to Crouch End herself and even shopped in ‘Treehouse’, meeting and chatting to Kath along the way.
Kath & Andrew of ‘Treehouse’
Hey look, I know we are only talking about a tea towel here, but after the challenges of the past few years – especially for those of us in the arts, and particularly live entertainment – I’m taking all this as a win and celebrating it hard.
Hopefully, by April we shall have Tote Bags and Greetings Cards in stock to take to gigs alongside the tea towel, and Printful will do the rest on-demand via my on-line store, thecabaretgeek.com/shop. Until then, please pray for the UK theatre scene, and do what you can to support independent creatives; and that doesn’t always mean money. Sharing or liking a social media post can make an enormous difference. Helping build someone’s mailing list will too.
Thanks for reading, and double thanks if you’ve seen the show or bought the tea towel; here’s to a brighter year ahead for us all. Maybe you know someone who’s kitchen needs a splash of pink and yellow to help that along..?
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Theatre Etiquette, and recent memes that I have shared made me increasingly aware that this is actually a rather delicate and complex matter. So, let’s unpack, shall we?
The above image is the meme that brought about all these thoughts and conversations, and I’m very grateful to the people who commented – particularly those that politely took the time to point out the possible issues here for audiences who are disabled or neurodivergent. I’m also grateful to the folks at ‘All That Dazzles’ for this bit of levity. Now, to me this meme is tongue-in-cheek opportunity to have a rant, so why did people take umbrage? Well, to begin with I think that we need to acknowledge that the very term ‘Theatre Etiquette’ is pretty vague, and suggests that the way people are expected to behave in a theatre is the same as in a cabaret club or music venue. This, at least, was part of the reaction I received (probably because I am @thecabaretgeek) from my followers and fans online.
But even within the hallowed walls of a theatre, the way we are expected and indeed invited to behave varies wildly depending on the show we are seeing. Is there really a world in which the audience should experience and respond to a classic production of The Rocky Horror Show the same way they would a traditional offering of Uncle Vanya and get it right both times? What about the interaction of pantomime? Or a Juke Box Musical which literally invites you to get up in the aisle and dance and sing along? My first outing to the theatre, post-lockdown – he said, like there aren’t going to be any more. Right? RIGHT?! – was to see ‘Here Come The Boys’ at the London Palladium. For the most part, this was a vehicle for the professional dancers from ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and the very first thing we were told by the compère was to take photos, sing along a get up and dance. Twenty minutes later, it was evident the audience were essentially being asked to make up for this particular productions failings, but I digress.
Now look, I have the enormous privilege of being taken to the theatre since the age of seven, and had made very clear to me ‘the rules’ – unless otherwise stated. But, if ‘Here Come The Boys’ is the first theatre visit you’ve ever taken even if you are a grown-ass adult, how on earth are you to know that your trip to ‘Hamlet’ the week after will have you met with frowns, glares and shushes for simply behaving exactly as you were told to? People are not mind readers. We need guidance. We need to be told and we need to understand why.
When I teach the art of cabaret and compèring in my various training courses, I often suggest that the best way to facilitate an audience’s experience is to treat them like a group of kindergarten toddlers. We crave rules. We want to be led. What is the job of a bus driver? To get you from A to B, right? How? SAFELY! So, take control of the wheel, people. Don’t throw all your toys out of the pram after the event. Anticipate it. Expect it. You don’t have to be a theatre professional to have seen countless movies and television adaptation of theatre-goers in Shakespearean times booing performers off-stage, throwing rotten fruit, and copulating in the back (sometimes not even!) row during a performance. In the tremendous book ‘The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi’ by Andrew McConnell Stott, there is more than one anecdote of an actual murder in the auditorium during a show and they STILL didn’t stop performing! Now, I’m not saying any of those things were right then or acceptable now, but I am asking – bearing in mind the two examples just given – when these rules of etiquette were drawn up? And by whom?
It is refreshing to find a rant online like the one we began with, not least because most other rails against this so-called ‘bad behaviour’ are so often centred around the needs and desires of the artistes and not the audience as a whole, bad eggs notwithstanding. In over thirty years of straddling the dual roles of both performer and promoter/booker/producer, I suppose that I have a rather unique point of view when it comes to who’s agenda should be served. As the years have gone on, I have been privy – both backstage and in my teaching work – to an increasing amount of wish-list demands from my fellow performers, from not wanting to be touched to demanding tips and free drinks from an audience as standard, to insisting that the purchasing of merchandise be somehow mandatory in supporting the arts. Some of these issues have more import that others, but the voice of the artiste and how much agency they have over where and how they do their thing, is increasing every year. Long overdue, you may think, and I would not disagree with you, but in an industry that has struggled for decades to get bums on seats, do you really want to add your voice to the list of reasons why people should just stay home? This is their night out, and your job. They are the customer and you are in service. Sorry if that’s not your bag, but it’s where I always try to start. Even if your onstage clown is a vile, mercenary dissenter of the human race (ever seen me host in drag?!), you can still be of and in service. I am reminded once again of the gift my fellow theatre-maker Sarah-Louise Young (@slytheatremaker) gave me when she asked of a piece we were making together, ‘Who Is This For?’
So, fellow performers? Who is this for? There is no wrong answer, and each thing you make may have a different response. But isn’t it a brilliant question? Does it speak to this debate? I think it should. It does to me.
YES, of course we need to be able to hear ourselves and our cast mates over Karen and Tony having a full blown convo throughout Act Two, but isn’t it, frankly, more important that Karen and Tony aren’t p***ing off the other audience members around them? They’ll be the ones that won’t return to theatre in a hurry, not you. You’ll just go ‘bad day at the office’, rant about it on Twitter – making one more person feel unwelcome within the doors of the venerated space – and then get on with your life and career, should there be one…
In the art of cabaret, we break the fourth wall. It can hardly be classed as cabaret if you do not. If that term is unfamiliar to you, think the protagonists of Chewing Gum, Deadpool and Fleabag speaking direct to camera and you’re half-way there. Panto does it. So does any production of Rocky Horror. And Shakespeare does it too – depending on which character you are. If you have spent your childhood at pantomime, then Rocky Horror in adolescence and then discovered the anarchic, underground revolution that is cabaret and burlesque clubs, you are hardly well-schooled in sitting quietly in a row of strangers, stifling your coughs and waiting 45 minutes plus before re-mortgaging your house for a Choc Ice and then doing it all over again. On the contrary, like ‘Here Come The Boys’, the cabaret compère will more than likely instruct you on how and when to respond, and encourage you to do so. A little like the Toastmaster of the Music Halls in the time of Joseph Grimaldi.
Compères guide. They lead. They facilitate for all in the room. And they do it with originality, flair, character and – most importantly, the personal touch. Sometimes I give the people talking amongst themselves more attention. Because I know it’s what they want. So I give three minutes over to that and they feel seen and the rest of our collective two or three hours together is smoother because of it. And I’ve asserted my authority – hopefully with some humour and charm. I fear that, in comparison, we have become entirely deaf to the dreary, repetitive and more-often-than-not recorded announcement to turn off phones, etc that have been a daily soundtrack to us since our first trip to the cinema…
The final mention should go to our brothers, sisters and butterflies who are neurodivergent and disabled. There are people who cannot stay silent or still for two hours. Or four twenty minutes, for that matter. This is not their fault and they have no control over it. They are not a danger to you or anyone else. Don’t we want these people to feel welcome at the theatre? Because the meme we began with certainly won’t do that. In 2019, I performed my first ever ‘relaxed’ performance of pantomime (or any other theatrical form, actually). Cinderella at the Regent Ipswich offered one matinee performance where the lights didn’t flash, the whizzes didn’t bang and my pal Gavin Ashbarry and I, as Ugly Sisters, were invited to be slightly less ‘ugly’ in our attitudes. Bravo to that, if it encourages more people to shows and promotes inclusivity. Pretty shocking that I had to be a professional live entertainer for thirty years before learning such a thing existed or was possible though, eh? Sat at the back row of a musical the other week, a chap near the front needed to go to the loo three times in the 1hr 10 mins of the first half. He was extremely discreet and quiet, and sensibly had sat himself on the end of an aisle. None of this stopped the woman two seats from me from pointing and laughing at him with her friend every time he had to go. Really? Dude.
So, as per usual, I don’t have a definitive answer. I never do. I don’t know it all, but I’m sure my writing style can come across as though I do. I fear that it will take the arts a long time to return to the busy and prolific pre-pandemic times, and I would simply urge theatre professionals to consider this before posting a comment or meme that could turn off a theatregoer for life. We need them a lot more than they need us…
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Am I An Artist?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether or not I truly am an artist. Since writing this blog, I have been bandying the word about and letting it jostle alongside ‘creativity’ and ‘skill’ and, after many years I think I’ve even finally managed to eschew the cheeky little ‘e’ on the end of it, which made clear I wasn’t a painter and hinted that I might also be a little pretentious. Quel dommage!
However, now I am beginning to wonder if I might be a bit of a fraud. You see, to me a ‘real’ artist, eats, sleeps and breathes their art – and I don’t. Or at least I don’t feel as though I do. Take Kate Bush, for instance. She is a good example of a person who makes things whom I know very little about and have researched even less, yet I assume that she bounces out of her hand-carved oak bed each dew-dappled morning and immediately rushes to a grand piano or a guitar Joni Mitchell once gave her backstage and slaves away there, searching for two more chord and the truth whilst the washing piles up, the garden over-grows and all forms of communication are ignored. This, to me, is a real artist. Isn’t it? Shouldn’t the process be painful? And require some form of hermit-ry? And be utterly relentless at the expense of all else.
Or take the musical comedian Bo Burnham, who’s stellar new Netflix special ‘Inside’ – written, performed and filmed entirely alone during lockdown and isolated in his home over a period of more than a year – is the absolute antithesis of what I did during lockdown; start one project and then drop it, start another then drop it. A sporadic viewer of my Daily Vlog project on YouTube during the early months of the pandemic would be forgiven for thinking I’d enrolled in a Duke of Edinburgh (RIP) Awards Scheme on how many side-hustles one person can fuck up in a year. Judging by his finished product, Bo and I did at least seem to share a similar despair during this time but whereas I was surrounded by the detritus of half-baked ideas and hair-brained schemes since better thought of, Burnham has managed to create one piece of finished art which is, quite simply, game-changing. The Bastard.
During a recent Whatsapp conversation with my fellow creative Jamie Anderson, the vocal coach and all-round cabaret diva recently shared the – as yet un-cited – quote that ‘the worst thing to ever happen to art was to start calling it content’, and I’m not going to argue with that. I’m pretty sure that one thing neither Bush or Burnham are doing is feeling the need to update their followers on Instagram about their daily doings. My own relationship with the platform is certainly not so cut and dry and you can add Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Patreon to that list too. And part of the problem here surely is that we as freelance creatives feel obliged to multi-task to a degree which borders on the inhumane, especially once you take into account the amount of content which is expected to be created for no immediate monetary reward. Once you’ve uploaded your latest YouTube videos (still nowhere near monetised in spite of having 1,203 followers, and a handful of videos with over 20,000 views each) and published the latest edition of your podcast (Up Yer Arts is a 12 episode series of conversations on creativity with some fascinating and top-notch fellow makers which has so far gone overlooked by all but a handful of loyal followers, and certainly hasn’t made a red cent for either my co-host, technician or myself) one then turns ones hand to the exclusive content for your Patrons on the Patreon platform.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love my patrons and am truly grateful for their continued support, but I’m one of many on the platform for are on the wrong side of the tipping point where how many patrons you have outweighs the benefits you generate for them and threatens regularly to take your focus away from the very thing that your Patrons want to support; namely, what you actually do for a living. I think Patreon is a good platform and a great idea, and I’m committed to giving it my best, but as with many of these things, one does tend to spend half one’s life explaining to potential patrons what Patreon even is before you can start specifically pitching what you’re on it for. And so, you end up working for Mr. Patreon (Jack Conte & Sam Yam, as you asked) as much as you do Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr Pichai (Youtube & Google) et al. Ho-hum.
For a long time during my twenties, I strove towards the seemingly mythical goal of not having to have a ‘day job’ (see my blog post from March for more on this) only to find years later that the space which was cleared when I did pack in said day job has been filled by social media tasks, admin, washing machine cycles and accounting software.
If you, like me, are a freelance creative who is privileged enough to practise their art (ugh, that word again) as their main job then please take a moment and consider, in pie chart form (naturally) your weekly tasks and how much of the pie they take up. Perhaps you run a household and are the main cook and bottle-washer? Do you delve into the QuickBooks app daily, or sling receipts into shoe-box hibernation until that fateful January weekend of hair-tearing? And then there’s all the time spent on ones latest side-hustle, which in my case is hand-crafted potpourri, which also serves as my first piece of ‘merch’ – or merchandise for those of you whose brains haven’t been entirely addled by RuPaul’s Drag Race – and the contender for the Most Off-Brand Bit Of Marketing 2021.
Perhaps like me you have been working as a teacher and mentor alongside making your own work? It was within the last seven days during dinner with friends, when I heard one of them declare with much glee that ‘Those who can’t, teach.’ Oh, good. Are we still accepting that old chestnut? How lovely to be back socialising with other humans again. Not. Perhaps there’s a conversation there for another day but facilitating/teaching/mentoring can often be part of our pie.
Emails; phone calls; voice notes; WhatsApp’s; invoices; chasing overdue invoices; networking; fielding enquiries; regularly educating sentient adults on how ‘exposure’ is what people die from, not live off; hand-washing costumes, ordering train tickets…Any of this sounding familiar? And all in the name of one’s art, but not actually the making of said piece of art. And whilst we’re (almost) on the subject of hand-washed costumes, I want to give a HUGE shout-out to Macy’s for stocking the blingiest and best showbiz jackets I’ve found worldwide. Check out their awesome ranges.
But I digress…
An old friend recently got a book deal and has been receiving rave reviews, decent sales and really making a name for themselves within their genre. I took them out to lunch to celebrate their success and cheekily enquired how much of the £7.99 price tag for their paperback actually went to them. They replied, ‘Before I pay my agent their cut, I think I get 55p’’. I’ll just let that sink in. 55p. BEFORE the agent takes their cut. And to top it all off, in spite of my friend being supported by a reputable publishing team who has their best interests at heart, and with their own PR & Marketing department, it was made clear from the outset of their relationship that the writer would be expected to run their own social media accounts and provide regular, original content. The phrase ‘you don’t have a dog and bark yourself’ comes to mind. Woof.
As a freelancer who chooses to represent themselves (see my April blog for more on that!), I’m also dealing with all clients (both realised and potential), venue owners, bookers and promoters all through a self-imposed and very necessary filter which protects them from the creative side of me that would gladly tell them all to F off if I am asked once more to find some ‘wiggle room’ in my fee, or consider that the event ‘is for a good cause’. I’m a good cause. Pay me. My writer friends story gives me confidence that this is the right situation for me, at least for now, but still that piece of the pie that is actually ‘making the thing’ flavoured is beginning to look more like a sliver than a slice.
So, hopefully you’ve considered your freelance pie. Now consider a close friend of around the same age. Perhaps a sibling even. But make it someone with a salaried job. Dollars to doughnuts that they are surrounded by at the very least a finance department, a maintenance team, a cleaning crew and an Manager to support them. An HR Department to protect them from a whole spectrum of potential clashes and concerns. Perhaps they have an assistant. Perhaps they have two. And guess what; every single one of them will be paid their salary regardless of whether they make a new thing or not. They certainly won’t be expected to work for free. And if they do make a new thing they’ll likely get a bonus. Or a promotion. Or become partner. And whether they make a new thing or not they’ll get two weeks paid holiday to do with whatever they please. Every year they get that. Amazing, innit?
When a musician makes a new thing the most powerful platform they can share it on these days is Spotify, where CEO Daniel Ek will give them USD.0033 per stream. When Ek was challenged about this his response was to suggest musicians should work harder. Woof, indeed.
So, am I an artist?
Can we afford to be one, our privileges notwithstanding?
I’d love to explore this further but I have a load of washing to hang out and a Bolognese to make.
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Freelance Creatives & The Economy
I have been thinking a lot lately about the British public’s relationship to freelancers and specifically (because it’s me) to self-employed creatives. As lockdown eases and we wait patiently for the government to announce whether they will indeed open up the next stage of the roadmap on May 17th, contact with old acquaintances are beginning to increase, and alongside it comes the cringeworthy conversations and patronising lip-service to the arts and creatives:
‘The arts are so important to our souls’
‘We must be respectful of the fact that you cannot do your little shows yet’
‘Obviously the arts aren’t essential but they are a nice bonus’
Here’s the thing, chaps: I’m as guilty as the next man of posting memes like ‘The earth without art is just “eh?”’, but to stop at that is really missing the point in a big way. How big? How is £10.47billion? That big enough for you? Because that’s how much money the arts and culture contributed to the UK economy in 2019. In that same year the Premier League brought in £7.6billion. Yes, that’s right. WE BEAT FOOTBALL. And yet we have all watched recently as Boris drops literally everything to take meetings and make public statements about the proposed (now defunct) Super League and its potential damage to ‘The Beautiful Game’, whilst a global pandemic rages on and our theatres, music venues, comedy and cabaret clubs and more all stay closed on his say-so. Dominic Cummings disgraceful alleged comments on the arts early on during the coronavirus crisis (‘Let the f***ing ballet dancers get to the back of the f***ing line’) continue to go unchecked, and the pathetically inconsequential Oliver Dowden (in charge of both culture and sport – why are they lumped together??) limps along saying little and doing less.
Where are our champions?
Who will fight for the arts?
It is unfortunate that two of the biggest producers of theatre in the UK’s history are falling short of the mark. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber rather unhelpfully quit his peerage in 2017, and seems more focussed on his own legacy as a theatre impresario with the – albeit extremely impressive – renovation of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, whilst Sir Cameron MacIntosh has been all but silent publicly for the past fourteen months, except to defend his decision to halve the orchestra of Phantom of the Opera when it returns to the West End (Add to that the amount of mannequins filling the stage of that production in lieu of real actors, and it may as well be a one-man show.)
Perhaps Johnson’s recent support for British football is more about crowd-control and the very real threat of increased domestic violence, than a fair weighing up of the viability of that sector. Remember when all actors, dancers and singers were called ‘unviable’ by our own government? That was a nice day, wasn’t it? Do we have to riot in order to be treated with equity (Don’t get me started on that tooth-less institution)? Must we storm Drury Lane and rip out Webber’s newly uncovered cantilevered staircases to get a response from the powers that be?
A recent article in The Guardian reports that figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics show job vacancies in the arts and entertainment, in the period January to March 2021, were down 79% on the equivalent period in 2020. We are ‘by far the worst hit part of the economy, well ahead of even hospitality at 70%, and soaring above the average across all industries of 23%.’
Where will this leave us a year from now? How many drama schools will go to the wall? Think of the dance studios and rehearsal rooms all empty and under threat of conversion into luxury flats along with the music and entertainment venues that we have already lost.
If I haven’t made my point clearly enough yet, let’s finish by taking a look at my own current work and its effect on other freelance creatives. Since late 2019, I have been working on the creation of a stage show entitled LOOKING FOR ME FRIEND, which celebrates the musical genius of the late, great Victoria Wood. In spite of all that has happened in the past year or so, I am committed to this show and its future – £8K worth of commitment to date, actually -, in spite of the fact that the opportunity to share it in any meaningful way – fiscally speaking – will continue to elude me until later next year, thanks to the decisions taken by our government. Nevertheless, my work on its development does not stop, and neither do the many collaborations which are involved.
You can’t promote a show without great images, and the photographer Steve Ullathorne has taken some absolute corkers, with the help of my Director, Sarah-Louise Young – another self-employed creative and invaluable co-conspirator from the start.
Similarly, the demand for clips and trailers in video form are a must these days and thanks to the skills of Rebecca Kenyon of Mote of Dust Films and Jason Thompson of Sound Ideas, I now have a lovely selection of clips from the show as well as a banging trailer, full of fun and colour: https://youtu.be/WZGMvbybxVA.
My yoga teacher Lisa Askem continues to help balance both mind and body during the most turbulent of times, and yes I do one hundred percent see her work as integral to my own. It is not a ‘luxury’ to counteract the effects of thirty years of corsets, heels, costumes that don’t fit and the lugging of suitcases on public transport (thanks Sadiq Kahn for handing all the luggage racks on buses to The Metro ‘newspaper’).
As well as my tremendous accompanist Michael Roulston (pictured below), who must be paid for each rehearsal, performance and R&D process (why would he not be?), over £1k has been spent on creating bespoke sheet music that could not be otherwise sourced, much of which will never get used in the final show. That is no reflection on the great work of transcriber Carl Greenwood, of course.
Tailor Gabriel Adams is now commissioned with making my two jackets for the show, specifically branded in our signature pinks and yellows, and prop-maker Leigh Hayward made me a beautiful banner for social media post purposes early on; not that it is currently appropriate to use at the few gigs we do have coming up.
Some of the few gigs I have been able to pop up and perform in-between lockdowns (it’s very like a game of whack-a-mole, to be honest) have been thanks to the help of venue booker Catia Ciarico of Goldtrash Productions and this very blog was optimised and published, as ever, by Mark Snell of Ideal Vantage.
That’s eleven. I could go on, but you get the point. These people are all freelancers like me, who pay taxes like me and who, in turn, give work to others. As I do.
I am the lucky recipient of a SEISS grant, based on my last three years of tax-paying, and that is a wonderful initiative to have. One cannot remain unaware of the enormous privileges we have in this country, seeing as we have the catastrophic effects of coronavirus on others. However, Rishi Sunak has left behind thousands of other self-employed people who have fallen through the cracks of his scheme. We are not all in the same boat.
So, next time you consider the arts, maybe consider us as a real, viable sector of the UK’s workforce with a significant impact on the economy, rather than just ‘a nice bonus’. Something I highly doubt that anyone the arts has ever received or expected, by the way.
‘Looking For Me Friend: The Music of Victoria Wood’ is fortunate to be able to performing one-off nights at a handful of venues across the country between May and Oct. Full details at www.lookingformefriend.com.
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I have been thinking a lot lately about ‘The Gatekeepers’ in my life and career, and the power they may or may not hold over me and my goals. I first broached this subject in a video exclusive to my Patrons on Patreon after being inspired by a podcast discussion with Amanda Palmer – a fellow Patreon creative. With over 13,000 patrons, Amanda is the huge success story of Patreon and an aspirational beacon whose light us fellow creators can only marvel at when it comes to connecting directly with one’s fanbase and cutting out the middleman. I believe in learning from the best and putting my money where my mouth is, so have become one of Amanda’s patrons myself; she, like me, offers many things totally free to all at the point of use (like this blog!) and so, why not? Check out Amanda’s famous TED talk for more on her approach to The Art of Asking.
The Middlemen are, in many ways, just another word for The Gatekeepers, and here’s what I mean by that phrase. Think of one example of a person, institution or job title that you feel is a barrier between yourself and your desired goals. If they were only to recognise your brilliance/potential/talent/work ethic (delete as appropriate or choose your own) then doors would fly open for you and the sun would come out. As a creative, I will not be alone in feeling, over the years, that an agent or agents in general represent a metaphorical door, sealed shut with a massive sign on it saying ‘CLOSED’ in big red writing. And underneath in much smaller font, ‘to you’.
Whether as a writer or performer, the feeling that there is some magic kingdom within which lies theatre moguls, publishers and Hollywood film producers all clamouring for my attention and thrusting contracts and Parker pens into my fist is palpable. But to get to that Kingdom I must first slay the key-wielding dragon that is The Agent.
At this juncture it is important to acknowledge that I used to be an agent to other entertainers, albeit for non-sole representation (and that is a very important distinction), but nevertheless I have spent some time on the other side of the table and am still not above becoming in thrall to the powers of The Agent.
So, here’s the thing: in over thirty years of working as a creative, the amount of time I have spent wishing for, searching for, begging for, desiring, researching and hoping for an agent is entirely disproportionate to the amount of time I have spent asking myself exactly why I want one, and what I expect will happen by getting one. Long gone are the days when in order to reach a casting director or get any kind of audition, you needed a cigar-toting fat cat behind a mahogany desk to ‘hook you up’. We have the internet. Just type in what you’re after in a search engine. Done deal. The agent, whether they like to admit it or not, is an endangered species. One of the reasons I’m not one any longer. As I say, an agent is simply one example. What is yours? And do you really need/want them? Really?
My job is to create. To say what I see. To tip the world on its side and share the view from that angle. And I must trust that what I need will come to me; the collaborators I deserve will find me. If they are not forthcoming, then the checklist should perhaps go something like this:
- Who is showing up for me and my work?
- Am I valuing what/who I already have?
- Is my desire for more or different the answer?
- What is lacking here?
- Will The Gatekeeper(s) truly provide what I desire?
- Where did this belief stem from originally?
- Does it still serve me to keep feeding this belief system?
- What will it actually add my life/work?
And, if I truly feel I do still need The Gatekeeper;
- Can I adapt my output in order to best speak to a more defined group and attract the desired people without sacrificing the integrity of the work?
Number 9 really does need to come last after asking all the other big questions first. And in the case of Question 8, don’t forget that there’s a bunch of stuff The Gatekeeper may well take away from you. Artistic control? 10-25% of your earnings? Less agency of your own work and life? Maybe ponder the origin of the word ‘agency’ for a bit. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!
We all want validation; and creatives much more so than most. When you are regularly given a round of applause simply for finishing a days work, it can really screw with your mind. And Gatekeepers, be they agent or otherwise, are in the business of withholding. Their power lies in what is behind that bolted door. So we better make sure there’s something worthwhile on the other side before devoting so much time to getting to it.
I wonder whether there is validation, love and acceptance out there right now for you and me, but we’re so busy looking over the heads of the people clamouring to hug and thanks us to be grateful for what we have. Maybe there is no gate. Maybe there is no keeper. Perhaps we forged that giant iron key from a very old story that simply doesn’t serve us any longer.
Do what you do; the rest will find you.
The people who turn up are the right people.
Every audition is a two-way street.
Make sure you are needed as much as they are wanted.
Finally, do yourself a favour and watch the fantastic CALL MY AGENT on Netflix, and thank me later.
‘Til next time, if saved…
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The Cost of Art
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the art that I have made over the years. I am proud to be able to say that for over fifteen years now my work has been my art.
It has paid the bills. Put food on the table. Turned a profit. It is a significant watershed moment in the life of the artist when they can say that they have found, finally, after much trial-and-error, a way to diversify their artistic talents enough to say goodbye to the Day Job for the final time. Farewell, call centre! Bon Voyage to ironing other peoples clothes! Don’t let the door-to-door selling of dusters hit you on the way out!
I do not mean for my levity to belittle that moment. Because it is very rare, and some are never privileged enough to experience it. For others, it is a birth-right. I am amongst the weary warriors who have hacked through the brambles and thorns to a clearing in the woods where making art is possible. But, even if you do get there, mighty warrior, there will inevitably be compromises.
I remember when I first met my husband, who did a degree in Economics at University many moons before, he asked me whether I had created a Profit & Loss (P&L) for my current creative project; at the time I was putting on the UK premiere of an award-winning Canadian play at one of London’s finest fringe venues, The Finborough. Now, until then the extent of my experience with any kind of sums to do with my creative output was strictly reserved to that of the back of the proverbial fag packet or beer mat, let alone an Excel document. It’s a wonder I had survived creatively at all the previous decade and a half prior to meeting him. So he patiently sat me down at the computer, and together we worked out the potential profit and the potential loss of the show and I have included this ritual in my work ever since.
I do not live in a world of infinite financial resources, and I never have. If I want my art to be my work then I have to create art that pays for itself. And in order for that to happen, I need to make art that somebody wants to buy. And so , to compromising. Do people want to hear the songs I desire to write or the stories I want to tell? Is my screenplay part of the current zeitgeist? Am I a voice that the nation wants to hear from right now? Must my art be the size, shape and length of a TikTok video in order to push through the millions of other voices, opinions and hearts calling out today? And will whatever platform I choose to share my art on ultimately strangle it to death?
I often tell my students the story of the writer Jeannette Winterson’s experience of adapting her novel ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ into a six-part television screenplay. She says it was a little like someone coming into your art gallery and saying ‘I love that vase in the window. Can you smash it up and make it into six cups and saucers for me?’
I am not proud of all of the pieces of work I have created in the past 30 years. Which artist can say that they are? I’m particularly saddened to admit that the P&L-of-it-all has all too often had a much larger voice than the creative ones at the table. How many times have we heard that the BBC is run more by accountants than creatives these days?
As I write this I am going through the grieving process of losing my mother, along with the all the things so many of us have lost in the past twelve months. Adverts for funeral homes and restorative yoga flood my News Feed. I’m expecting a catalogue for Doctor Scholl sandals to plop onto the door mat any day now. It stands to reason there be a shift in my values right now. A questioning of who I am, what I want to say and my contribution to the world outside. And, of course, the world outside is going through some pretty enormous changes itself. Tectonic, some might say.
So, along with the regret of certain art-works comes a desire to leave behind the style and substance of some others, which were perfectly acceptable at the time but which no longer serve me, and would leave a sour taste in the mouth of today’s audiences. We’ve all seen how television shows like ‘Friends’ have been greeted by a younger generation thanks to Netflix et al, and how that younger generation has been left feeling cold by that which we once lauded as the best comedy for a country mile.
As an audience, we want a piece of art that speaks to and of us, in a way relevant to today. And as an artist, I want to create work which nourishes both myself and my audience, wherever they might be found. Compromise will always be a part of the equation, as will an Excel spreadsheet of some kind. But I hope as I navigate these fresh waters in the coming months and years that I strike the right balance and do not sacrifice the integrity of my art in order simply for it to be seen.
One thing is for sure though, first there must be a piece of art before it can be rejected. And rejection has always been a part of the process too, sadly. My fears around rejection and how much more of it my artist heart can bear will have to be the subject for another day.
See you next time, if we’re saved.
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Talent, Skill & Practice
I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between talent and skill.
A talent, the world seems to suggest, is something that is God-given, perhaps from birth, for some of us. A skill, however, is something that you have to work at. For many artists, their daily grind is to hone a talent into a skill over time. This is where practice comes in, of course, and with it the tricky matter of discipline.
I appreciate that nothing about the above paragraph is exactly mind-blowing, and yet it is only now at the age of forty-five, with 30 years of work as a creative behind me and the backdrop of the last long ten months of coronavirus-induced career paralysis, that I have really had the chance to unpack these notions and ask what they mean for me and my art.
Until relatively recently, I had been in Survival Mode. Most certainly this was the case since moving from a sleepy village in Kent at the age of nineteen, to study musical theatre at a London drama school. Survival Mode means grabbing. Saying yes to every opportunity, no matter how ill-advised. Survival Mode is filling your pockets with canapés at that event where you are supposed to be impressing people, because you don’t know when you’ll next eat. Survival Mode demands that long-term goals are approached, when even possible, via the circuitous routes of day-jobs, side-hustles, rash decisions and less-than-perfect compromises. And outcomes.
For isn’t that what we seek through art? – The Perfect. Something genius.
‘They were a genius’
Were they? Or did they work really hard, stay focused and instil their artwork with a depth and richness that wholly satisfied the consumer? Maybe that is genius for some?
Survival Mode does not give the artist the luxury of genius. Of perfect. There is nothing romantic or aspirational about being a struggling artist. The hungry painter in a heat-less garrick high above the eighteenth arrondissement will starve. Or freeze.
For some, the survival mode period comes to an end. Sometimes this ends with the artist in a ditch, looking up at the stars. I know. Isn’t it a wonderful life? I’ve always wanted to sit in a pool of other people’s dirt on a filthy pavement in the freezing cold and gaze up at the passers-by in their new winter coats that I cannot afford because I am an artist.
And sometimes, if you work hard enough – duck here, dive there, get given a lot of support and love from believers of what you do and who you are – sometimes Survival Mode morphs into a more comfortable, less perilous daily existence. After decades of chipping away at debt, doubt and disinterest. One where there are opportunities to breathe. One day, filled with daffodils, you realise you have the luxury of saying ‘NO’ to someone. Or something. Anyone. Any thing. But the option to say no. The very option. Mind-blowing.
And the strangest thing about moving from survival mode to what we might then call Denial Mode is that it can take years for you to notice you’ve shifted modes, and longer still before adjusting your relationship to practice, to skill, and to art and how they fit in to your new, breath-taking, option-laden life.
It would be easy for me, at this point, to suggest that the last ten months have been a gift from the artist-Gods. The longest ‘Artist’s Date’ in history; divine intervention with collusion from Julia Cameron herself. But the reality of the situation is that we have been scared. We have been blind-sided. Days and weeks and months that should have been filled with the dusting off of our teenage acoustic guitar; that long-awaited self-imposed internal yoga retreat for your soul; or the tenacious goal of sitting down each day simply to write, have instead been punctuated by fear, by being disenfranchised and told we are ‘unviable’ and should ‘retrain’ and, for some of the unluckiest, a lack of financial government support so total that it has destroyed the artist within us completely.
If the arts and artists are unviable, it is purely due to the decisions taken by our government during this pandemic that have made them so. An artistic genocide amidst a global pandemic. You have that on your hands, Messers [sic] Cummings, Johnson and Sunak.
And so, it has been only in the past few weeks that I myself have managed to hack my way through the emotional brambles of self-doubt, financial worry, health fears, loss of worth, mixed messages, contradictory signals and blanket disregard for our artistic death at the hands of this mis-managed crisis to emerge, slowly, cautiously and with no track record whatsoever for practice; skill-honing; art-perfecting.
There is an opportunity here. This is a moment we won’t get back.
Hack through the thorns and twisted, blood-soaked vines to find your art.
And always remember to never confuse output with input. With creating content vs building something significant. This month I will ask what my art is worth, and not what I can get for it.
I shall leave the final word to the British screen and stage actor Katherine Parkinson, on giving advice to her younger self from a recent article in the Evening Standard:
‘It is not fanciful to try and do something you love; you are not being indulgent to try and pursue something that fits. Any truthful voice is valid.’
See you next time, if we’re saved.
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A Victoria Wood-filled month!
Fans of the late, great comedian Victoria Wood have a lot to look forward to in October, with news of new TV compilations, the release of the long-awaited official biography and yes, my own tribute show to my idol back on stage at long last!
Biographer Jasper Rees is the lucky chap to have bagged the gig of writing the official biography of Victoria Wood, entitled ‘Let’s Do It’, which fans like myself have been itching for for literally decades. Out later this week, the book follows some (in my opinion rather lame) attempts at biographies of ‘Our Vic’ from both Neil Brandwood in 2006 (mostly quite mean-spirited, I felt) and her own brother Chris Foote-Wood shortly after her death (barely readable frankly; like someone with a large bottom had brush past a word processor). Let’s hope that ‘Let’s Do It’ succeeds where these two failed.
Now, I don’t have many details so I don’t have many details, but there are whispers of both Channel 5 airing a show celebrating Vic’s life and work in the coming months as well as real telly presenting a new compilation show based on personal notes of Victoria’s that have recently been uncovered which suggest which her own favourite sketches are. As much as I love them, it would be nice if it isn’t just the same old ‘two soups’ and ‘acorn antiques as a leisure centre and sun-bed centre’ clips AGAIN!
Perhaps most terrifying of all, though, is the news that, if 2020 hadn’t been bad enough for the nation, I am going to be allowed on-stage once again! And this time I shall be sharing the show I originally created for the cancelled Edinburgh Festival, celebrating the music of her highness Miss Wood. Entitled ‘Looking For Me Friend: The Music of Victoria Wood’, the hour-long show features myself and pianist Michael Roulston of Fascinating Aida sharing 12 of Vic’s songs and exploring the musicality of her sketches and phrasing also. We kick off at The Two Brewers (its gay, but we ask for the other menu) on 22nd October and are going to Cambridge, Norwich and Birmingham this side of Christmas, so do check out the webpage for more details and come along to see us.
Until then, stay warm, take care and don’t whirl a chip pan above your head; you might chip your nail varnish.
Back In The Saddle!
After six long months away from live events, last weekend I ventured onto public train for a seven hour journey – that’s 6.5hrs more than any other since March! – to the North East in order to host a mini-festival in Brotton, on behalf of the Festival of Thrift.
Each year, my badge-loving ringmaster events host presides over this award-winning festival which is usually held in two massive fields in Kirkleatham, welcoming over 45,000 visitors over two days. This year, of course, that cannot happen and so we worked with Redcar & Cleveland council to put on this mini version, with social distancing guidelines, in order to show you how you can ‘Thrift Your Place’ with handy tips, tricks and inspiration from the FoT team!
One of the lovely things about my work is getting to know different parts of our beautiful country, and staying in Saltburn over the weekend, was a real treat. I walked on the pier, had chips, and enjoyed ogling a surfer in a wetsuit braving the elements.
Footage of our mini-festival was shown as part of the digital edition of Festival of Thrift, which we called #ThriftFestUpcycled, and which took place on Saturday 12 Sept. I hosted the five-hour live-stream event from the window of the Palace Hub in Redcar, and my what a learning curve that proved to be! With a producer in my ear and a floor manager flapping their arms as we attempted to link up to multiple outside locations, zoom workshops, DJs from their home and BSL interpreters in studio with me, it required lots of patience – and tea!
Working alongside the brilliant Festival of Thrift team each year really is a pleasure, and they have all bravely embraced the new world of zoom calls, safety protocols and online streaming with the same spirit of calm and professionalism that they deliver the festival each year. However, meeting my new bestie at my B&B was, if I’m honest, the very best part for me…
You can meet him and find out how the mini-festival went, by unlocking my latest #BehindTheScenes Patreon video, where there’s loads more pics, videos, discounts, exclusive and free gifts for as little as £3 per month. And you’ll be doing your bit to #SupportTheArts too! Why not check it out? www.patreon.com/thecabaretgeek
See you next time, if we’re saved.
Plums For Patrons
As many of you know, Harley the Cat and I have been very busy in the garden these past few months. Collecting and preparing the rose petals that eventually become my Artisanal Potpourri (available at www.thecabaretgeek.com/shop) has taken a lot of our time, but there are also plums, pears and greengages to pick from the fruit trees too.
I started making plum jam two summers ago and after destroying no less than three expensive saucepans by burning it, I think I finally got the hang of it! Plum jam is a particularly simple jam recipe for a beginner, not least of all because the plums have natural pectin, and so you are really only dealing with the fruit, sugar and a little water (there’s a couple of minor other ingredients that help, but I’m no Delia Smith so I won’t go into it here too much!)
Suffice it to say, that what I lack in saucepan retention I hope to make up for in plum preservation: the idea of perfectly good pieces of fruit rotting on their branches or falling to the ground and going to waste horrifies me and so no matter how busy I am, I will do my darnedest to get that fruit used somehow. Harley likes to ‘help’ wherever he can.
Now, it hasn’t been the greatest of harvests, and I don’t own orchards full of trees, sadly, so I have decided that this year Paulus’ Plum Jam will be available only to my Patrons, without whose support this entire year would have been tougher both financially and emotionally.
Patreon is a platform where, in return for a monthly fee of your choice (starting from £3) you can receive exclusive updates, discounts, free gifts and all manner of other goodies from your favourite creative. if it helps, think of me as a Giant Panda and Patreon as the WWF.
At the moment, my patrons are eligible to receive:
10% off my products in my Shop
15% off my training courses
Exclusive ‘Behind The Scenes’ videos
Exclusive Musical Performance videos
Weekly photographs of Harley the Cat
Weekly ‘Throw-back Thursday’ images from my archives
Exclusive ‘Tuesday Talks’ monologues
…and a FREE pot of Paulus’ Plum Jam!*
And all of that from just £3pcm! You’d make your money back (and then some) immediately signing up for a one-day course with me.
It’s a crucial time for The Arts and Artists, and this is one small way that I can thank you for all your support over the years, so do head over to www.patreon.com/thecabaretgeek and find out more today.
See you next time, if we’re saved!