A handful of hope

This post is bringing you a little round-up of the things that have inspired me this past week, the things that reassure me that there is good in the world still. I’m about to head off to Burkina Faso to make a short film about how churches are working with their local communities to bring positive change.  I hope I’ll return with some good stories, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be offline all week. So in the meantime…

This is a short film about the power of writing handwritten letters, and, more than that, the hunger we have for people to be present with us when things are tough, however that is transmitted…(actually see comments below for the link).

You might remember I wrote a post a few months ago about Knocknagoney, on the edge of Belfast.  It’s a loyalist community and had one of the highest crime rates in Northern Ireland, but since the church started bringing the different community groups together things have totally changed (and crime figures have dropped).  This article talks about the film we made and the impact it’s having, and there’s also a link to the film.

This week we said goodbye at work to an amazing colleague who’s been at Tearfund more than a decade.  She recently adopted two sisters who were 4 and 5 and after a year of parental leave has decided not to come back to her demanding job. I keep returning to what a brave and beautiful thing she has done, for all the sleeplessness she is enduring and the past trauma she is helping her girls to work through. My friend Kelley wrote a beautiful reflection recently entitled Tread Softly on my Adoption which feels important.

And finally I came across a brilliant project through a friend who’s involved, called Scene & Heard.  They mentor kids at schools in Somers Town in London and help them to write plays which professionally actors then perform.  Have a look:


A Ruby by any other name…

Do any of you remember a campaign run by the Body Shop in 1998 featuring the “Ruby” doll?  In case you don’t, here she is:

She was swiftly shut down by Mattel, the owners of Barbie, who felt she was making them look bad.  (Or just obscenely thin).

You could argue that producing another plastic doll wasn’t the best way to challenge stereotypes of women in the media.  The very concept of reducing femininity (or even masculinity) to an inanimate ideal is flawed and unhelpful.  But it got a lot of people’s attention and, in Anita Roddick’s words,  “[exposed] the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.”

I stumbled across her voluptuous form only a year or so ago while googling on behalf of my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls.  I enjoy the coincidence of our names.

And I’ve thought about her again this past month, while The Ruby Dolls have spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.  We’ve had a fair amount of press attention, most of it really positive.  And during our very first interview, we were grilled on our feminist credentials.

How could we claim to be intelligent women telling important stories with a name that made us sound like “a strip-tease act” (asked Fest Magazine)?  Why had we chosen such a pejorative name, seemingly contradicting our more sophisticated ideals?

Read the rest of my blog over at The Sophia Network.

Taking Edinburgh home with me (but leaving the rain)

Last night I made a list of the theatre shows I have seen in Edinburgh this month, as this adventure draws to a close.  Tomorrow it is home time.

I’ve counted 19, 11 of which were free.  And I’m going to try and squeeze in one more freebie this afternoon.  I think I have the smallest total of all the dolls, but it is still A LOT. I don’t think I usually see that many in a year.  What a treat.

I’ve been trying to think what I should say about it all.  Is it too much?  Is it economically unjust? Is it self-indulgent?  It feels too soon to be able to have processed any of it.  Instead I’m going to offer you a taste of the best things I am taking away with me, the things that have enriched me this past month:

Ali McGregor has made me want to be a better singer and Camille O’Sullivan convinced me to be braver in telling stories through songs.  Mark Thomas has made me want to work on my articulation and, together with Tony Benn, has stirred back to life certain political convictions.  All the plays I have seen about war (A Solder’s Song, Soldiers’ Wives, Captain Ferguson’s Balloon Warfare) have cemented a visceral hatred of violence and the lack of imagination that drives it. The poet Harry Baker has impressed me by being so young and brilliant and entirely himself.  The three Dutch boys clowning and slapsticking their way through 3 shows a day of Nothing is Really Difficult  have brought joy to my soul with their mad flyering techniques and amazing accents.  The two girls known as RashDash theatre company have resurrected my optimism for emerging theatre, with their raw energy and creativity, and loud commitment to things that matter (this I echo).  Their production of Ugly Sisters (Cinderella told by the underdogs) was a highlight.  I am grateful for the simple beauty of Waiting for Stanley, the adrenalin-party that was Rhythmic Circus, the sustained strength and whimsical intentionality of Mess, and I think I’m going to love the ukulele playing in Formby later.

Those crazy Dutch boys

(I also blogged in more depth about Mark Thomas and Camille O’Sullivan earlier).

So there’s a month of talking up some good theatre.  I’m looking forward to re-engaging with the rest of life now.

What’s the point? Practical musings on art and economics

In the midst of festival mania, yesterday I went and heard Tony Benn speak.   There’s a film being made about his life and they were previewing some of it and then Mark Thomas was interviewing him. (The film is excellent and I hereby recommend it).

So I joined hundreds of radical lefties (bringing down the average age) to go listen.

Amongst all the more straightforward lefty political questions, a lady stood up and talked about the fringe.  She said she was increasingly frustrated by the enslavement of artists at the festival (referring I think to the fact that artists don’t make any kind of money up here, and in fact usually end up paying for the privilege of performing), and how all the money is instead going to the landlords of Edinburgh (who hike up rents in August to mind-boggling levels) and, presumably, some of the big producing companies.  She then asked a very generic question – “So what gives you hope?”.

This is our little paper man, Chaim, from our show. He has had to take up busking to survive financially.

I reckon it’s easier to answer that question than to speak into the complexities of the Edinburgh Fringe economy.  I find it easier, anyway. Tony Benn talked about having spent a lifetime working for change and then having seen some things change, and so that makes him think they can.  But what would he have said about the fringe?

Today, as I was flyering and trying to persuade the public to come and see our show, I met a couple who had seen The Ruby Dolls yesterday.  They loved the show, but wanted to know, as festival virgins, what bringing a show here achieved – what are we hoping will happen?

I was on the spot.  (Do I mention wild fantasies of being handpicked for stardom?). No Ruby Dolls were at hand to rescue me.

It all makes me ponder what the point of being here is, one show in 2695, especially given the ridiculous money involved that rarely comes back to you. My answer to the lovely couple was about reaching a big new audience with your show and getting press attention all of which will open doors for future work and tours and the like.

But why is it so flipping hard to make art work economically? Answers on a postcard please.

On the one hand, I look at lots of actor friends who struggle and work hard and have their sense of self-worth eroded year after year by crappy jobs and lack of progress and instability.  And I want to shout ‘ENOUGH!’ Why do something that makes everyone so miserable?

And at the same time, I believe passionately that art and creativity are crucial, at the very core of who we are.  Wonderful art enlarges us all, takes us places nothing else can, makes news ways of living and thinking possible.  I don’t want people to give up.  I don’t want to give up (most days).

So the only answer I have at the moment is to engage our imaginations and creativity in finding ways to make it work that are weird and wonderful and unlikely – involving combining different kinds of work and ways of living.  (Hence I shall continue to search out people who do this and write about them in my blog). Like this bloke said:

“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” ~Robert Henri


On Courage

Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be experienced in many different ways.  This is my third time.  It can be a bit of a laugh (usually if you’re young and unburdened by budgets); a glorious cultural adventure; a masochistic, tortuous endurance test; or simply a tiring alternative to burning a few thousand pounds. But I think that in many cases it involves courage.

I went to hear a singer a couple of nights ago called Camille O’Sullivan and I was gobsmacked.

The show wasn’t perfect from end to end but there were moments of totally transcendental beauty as she told stories through songs, and something in me hasn’t been able to forget it.

She has an interesting story.  The Telegraph profiled her recently (apparently I am turning into my parents and sourcing all current information from The Telegraph. This is partly because they just gave our own show 4*s and so I like them).  She used to be an architect, but then following a serious car crash in which she nearly died, she decided to do what she really wanted.  Which was to sing.

She had been “afraid of criticism, afraid of the audience, afraid of putting myself out there, but life is for living, and if you’re scared of something, maybe you should head towards it, because it might be what you need to shake you into being alive.”

I seem to be attracting reflections on courage right now.  A few blogs I follow have been themed in that way.  And frankly the whole experience of being at the Fringe makes me think about it even more.

When you get rubbish reviews or have small audiences and yet 3 weeks stretch ahead of you in which you will keep putting your show in front of people, it is a test of courage.  Yesterday I saw a show called A Soldier’s Song in which a man recounts the true story of his time fighting in the Falklands.  I went because war horrifies me and yet my brother fights in one, and my dad and grandfather before him. It’s a brutal, angry account of war, but what hit hardest are the moments he reflects on the shame he feels coming to terms with what he has been part of.  The man is not a professional actor by trade; he is a writer.  But his courage in standing on a bare set every night, recounting his tale and confessing his fears and doubts, strikes me as one of the more courageous outings at the Fringe.

Doing something for a one off isn’t too scary.  I went to a comedy show the other night and I was late, and the ushers told me that the only way latecomers were admitted was if you walked in, and declared to everybody (including the comedienne), very loudly “Darling, your show was so marvellous last night, I just had to come back.”  And I did it.  1o seconds of embarrassment don’t frighten me.  But continuing to dare to put something personal and hard-fought-for in front of an audience every night for 26 nights…that takes more.  I don’t mean just going through the motions, but continuing to put your heart and soul into something. Because there’s the risk that nothing comes back, or, worse, your offering is rejected, discredited.

Am I a courageous person? It feels like it’s taking courage to be here and do this, to join so actively in the conversation (even though the biggest risk of all is getting totally lost in the scale of this festival, so no-one actually hears you…).  But when I think about the future, I think I have a large capacity to be a scaredy-cat.  Maybe the trick is not to think so far ahead.  Camille said in her recent interview:

“I’m not saying every day is a joy. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind, but then I remember everything is a choice, and this is my choice.”

Here’s to small, brave choices.  And for a treat, here’s Camille singing:

Camille O Sullivan – The Ship Song from Feenish Productions on Vimeo.

Who else has made you who you are?

So here I am at the Edinburgh Fringe.  The topic of my first Edinburgh blog is confronting who and what has come before you in your family histories, and how that has made you who you are.  It’s what our show tries to ask you to do, and I found another amazing show doing the same kind of thing that I want to tell you about.

[If you hadn’t guessed already, it’s likely that my August posts will have more of a theatrical flavour than is usual in a single month, although there are some other films on the way that will burst you (and me) out of the Edinburgh bubble.]

I have been sick, which is a terrible way to begin the fringe, as you need an enormous dollop of energy just to keep doing your show every day, let alone flyering the general public for hours, or taking in anyone else’s artistic endeavours. But yesterday I made it out of the flat and actually saw *another show* which was just beautiful, so I need to tell you about it.

Mark Thomas is an alternative comedian best known for his political campaigns – for example he has written a book and done stand-up shows exposing Coca Cola’s involvement in the arms trade.  I like his blend of humour, heart and justice-seeking.  So I was a little surprised to find he was doing a show up here called Bravo Figaro, about opera.  It turns out the piece is really about his dad – a violent, Methodist-Thatcherite workaholic builder known for his colourful language – and his surprising passion for a traditionally upper-class art-form.

He is brilliant storyteller in so many ways.  Technically, he’s a pro: I was in awe of his articulation.  But more than that, there is such a powerful combination of honesty, humour, and real clarity about the story he wants to tell you. That’s one of the my favourite things about the show actually – he felt like he really wanted to tell me this story, like it mattered.  But how do you tell a personal story for 70 minutes and not make it feel self-indulgent?  You give people opportunities to laugh at you.  You give them a wider context so they can connect with your very personal story.  You give them quirky details.  And you chose very carefully the magical moments when things become quiet and important.  (It worked, I cried).

Mark Thomas was very clear that this is not a story about redemption and healing and forgiveness – they might be part of the bigger story or they might not.  This story is about a gift, a beautiful and unique gift that he was able to give to his dad at a point in his dad’s life when he had almost ceased to be contactable.  His dad developed Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and was increasingly unable to respond to the outside world or to control his own muscles.  During the show we hear his dad’s real, barely articulated voice for ourselves, as recorded by Mark Thomas a years ago.   And yet it is into the context of increasing alienation in terms of their human relationships that something truthful and beautiful and pure is given as a gift which stirs life and connection.

It wasn’t wholly intentional that the first show I saw in Edinburgh was so close in theme to our own show, which is also about family stories, ancestors who have gone before us.  But maybe it meant that Mark Thomas’ show landed with particular force for the four of us (it was a group outing).

I think that in different ways both shows are probing something deep and important. If we let them, they make us ask questions about what has gone before us, and what is has deposited in us – for good and for bad. For me this has been part the personal journey I’ve gone on (and I think the other girls have gone in) in creating our show. It’s not about neat endings and full reconciliation, but the honesty of confronting what came first and what its legacy has been.  Then, from that place we are able to choose our response, to choose how to live. Mark Thomas’ act of generosity towards his father is not given from a place of blindness to his dad’s brutality; it is not offered as a symmetrical or reciprocal gesture.  But the beauty of it lies in the fact that it is instead a generous choice to celebrate something unique and wonderful; to draw a line after the bad and perpetuate what was special.

What are the good things you want to carry forward from your family history?

Finding people to go on adventures with

Tomorrow I’m embarking on an adventure.  The Ruby Dolls are off to Edinburgh for a month to perform our show, Rubies in the Attic, at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Rubies in the Attic – at Assembly Roxy for the Fringe

It has made me think about the huge adventure of the last three and a half years, and about teams and when you can’t do things on your own.

I was reading Michael Hyatt’s book, Platform, recently, about how to use social media to get noticed in a noisy world. There was an interesting chapter about building your team (or your “pit crew”) which looked at things like admin support, personal management, agents etc.  And as I read the chapter, I thought, “irrelevant!”.  Not just because those particular roles seem unimportant right now, but more importantly, how can you build a team you can’t pay?! How can you persuade people to join you on a journey when you don’t really now where it’s headed?!

And then I remembered The Ruby Dolls.

We started meeting up together three and a half years ago to sing some close harmony songs from the 1940s, thinking we’d get gigging and making some money.  Only a while later we decided we were much more excited about being a theatre company than a band, and so we started making theatre.  We have ploughed hours, days and weeks of our lives into this company, around other jobs which enable us to pay our rent.  It’s a serious level of commitment, week in, week out, for hardly any money, for so long.

Jess shows the graft behind the glamour…

And we’re all quite different. Which is a way of saying we don’t always get on.  There are tensions, recurring disagreements, moments you want to shake each other.  I once spent a whole week of full-time rehearsal seething with unspoken rage (learning: this is never helpful).

We had some help this last year, in the form of an amazing coach called Martin Howden, who took us through Myers-Briggs profiles and team dynamics and strategic planning.

And then we’ve assembled other people, seriously talented people, who have joined in, for similarly minuscule financial rewards.  A virtuoso Musical Director! A shrewd & experienced Producer! A gorgeous & gifted Director! And now a Company Manager! (This is no mean feat given that working with four passionate and headstrong Ruby Dolls is no walk in the park).  How have we done it?  We found them through mining our friends and contacts and advertising in Arts Jobs. But I’ve no idea how we persuaded them to join the adventure.

There is no team I have ever worked so intensely with, or who know so fully what I am like to work with (apart from the husband).  And I am totally convinced that what we have produced together is miles better than what any of us could have achieved alone. My husband always says that the deepest friendships are often forged through a shared task.  Turns out he’s onto something.

There’s no way of knowing where things go from here, but before we head up north I am just pausing to celebrate our brilliant (unpaid) team.  This would be a rubbish adventure alone.

Writing stories about everything

I have recently joined twitter.  I also joined linkedin (apologies to everyone who got the mass email invite) but I don’t really understand the point of it yet.  My boss at Tearfund asked me if I was tweeting about work, or The Ruby Dolls, or what.  Which is a question I asked myself before I started.  And it turns out the answer is YES.

I spent the first six years at Tearfund feeling like a fish out of water.  Flailing around wildly (on the inside).  And just in the last year or so I’ve reached a place where I’ve seen more connections between the disparate parts of my life.  The theatre-making.  The travelling.  The community-building.  The Jesus-following.  The fighting-poverty-and-injustice.  And while it might be easier to find my place in the twitter sphere (and, in fact, in the world) if I were only to blog about (or work for a living in) development, or churchey stuff, or theatre, I think I’d be less of myself.

So here’s to a life that doesn’t fit into categories.  And some current highlights:

Our mate Ash Barker is about to arrive for a visit!  He and his wife and kids live in the biggest slum in Bangkok and have done for about a decade.  Ash has written a book recently called Slum Life Rising: How to Enflesh Hope within a New Urban World, telling some of their story.  He recently finished a PhD on Christian ministry in slums.  For the first time in history most of us live in city, with 1/6 living in slums.  It raises huge questions for those of us who want to help bring transformation to the unjust structures of the world and see people released from poverty.

One of my favourite stories of those is about a woman called Poo.  She is part of their slum community in Klong Toey, and Ash’s team helped her to set up a cookery business, now recommended by trip advisor and many other sites.  She even has a book, with the same name as the business: Cooking with Poo!  Some of the story is on the website.  I am SO EXCITED because we’re off to visit them in Bangkok soon (will come back with a film, I promise) and I’m going to learn to cook with Poo. Brilliant.

In other news, our theatre company are back in the saddle again and we spent an exhausting weekend revisiting the stories of our ancestors in anticipation of our previews at Riverside Studios next month and then our run at the Edinburgh Festival.  One of the other Ruby Dolls has blogged an update on our last few hectic months.  It feels like we’ve been developing these stories forever, but the exciting thing is that we’re finally getting them out to the audience they deserve.  Because they’re great.  Come and see!

And one more thing.  I’ve just posted another little video I made in Argentina a few months ago.  Enjoy.

Juan Jose and church in Buenos Aires from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

Talking about the bad to talk up the good.

I have been to the theatre twice in the last 3 weeks. Yes, twice.  The height of extravagance. In theory, as an actress I should go often, but going to the theatre costs a fair amount of money.  However, I got a free ticket and a not-very-expensive one so I went to see Posh at the Duke of York’s Theatre and Three Kingdoms at the Lyric.  And I was quite excited.

Both plays have some great reviews (although Three Kingdoms slightly less consistently because it is, quite frankly, too long and a bit weird). They were both creative, energetic, and intelligent productions and the theatres were full.  The performances were brilliant, the sets were inspired. One of them (Three Kingdoms) was about the huge social scourge and injustice in our midst, namely human trafficking, which you’d think would be just up my street. And yet in different ways they left me totally cold.   And while this blog is supposedly about good stories, please indulge me while I say a few things about stories I don’t like (I’ll try not to rant).

Stories tell us things about the world.  They can’t help but put forward a worldview, which you may or may not share; they are saying ‘this is the way the world is’. So when I blog all these stories about good stuff happening, about people finding a way out of poverty, I am trying to tell you that this is what the world is like, because it’s what I believe.  That despite the hugely complex and overwhelming problems the world has, there is hope.  There are people who believe that and are walking a different way and finding ways out of the problems. (And incidentally, I’d like to infect you with that belief).

These two plays paint a world that is bleak, compromised, and at times utterly repulsive.  It is a world ultimately without justice or the hope of it, where power belongs to the corrupt.  So apparently neither playwright is very optimistic about our future.

Now clearly the world is corrupt and compromised.  Just last week I blogged about a district of Mumbai where 15 brothels house 75,000 women, most of them trafficked.  I think art should reflect these awful truths. But watching those plays left me worn down and apathetic (the exhaustion I felt at the end of Three Kingdoms wasn’t just because of its length but the fact that half of it was in Estonian and German and I forgot my glasses so was straining at the subtitles).  The plays told me that this is just the way the world is and nothing can be done.  (This was a bigger deal in Three Kingdoms when you’re contemplating the world’s human trafficking trade, whereas in Posh you are presented with the possibility that the UK is run by idiotic, selfish, spoilt and violent rich boys).  They don’t take you to any new horizons or make you think that anything else is possible.  I think they shrink our imaginations and diminish our compassion.

So this is why I don’t like bleak stories, because I ultimately don’t believe in a bleak story.  I’m not trying to shut down the pessimists, I’m just saying that I think something is missing from their stories.

Three Kingdoms

When language fails…

Now I’m not great at failing things, in fact I take some effort to avoid it (notable tactics: avoid taking part if you might fail; conceal effort until success is achieved), but my foreign language skills just don’t cut it when you put them up against my ambitions…  I’ve been learning Spanish for the last few years which I LOVE and think I’m great at, until my annual submersion trip to Latin America where no-one speaks English (or everyone pretends not to). Last week I was in Argentina, trying desperately to keep my head above the raging waters of the Spanish language.  I came close to drowning a couple of times.

Much as I love Latin America(definitely my favourite part of the world), I have never got used to the feeling of not fully understanding what’s going on, or being able to say exactly what I want to say.   I mean, I get most of it, but never quite all, and so it feels like there is this strange, impenetrable fog between me and everyone else. Most of the time.

For most of my trip I was participating in an “encounter” (conference) mainly for young adults from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, all about the arts and integral mission.  I gave a 30 minute talk – in Spanish (a first!) – about some of my experiences, and my reflections on the importance of story…and then I performed one.  I performed a 3 minute monologue, retelling a story they were familiar with from the Bible, but from an unusual angle.  And I did it in English, not Spanish (although I gave them a translation).  And do you know, weirdly, it was the monologue they connected with?  Writing a 30 minute talk in Spanish was an enormous feat for me, a brave attempt to step through the language fog in the hope of connecting. But somehow, dramatic storytelling in my own language dispersed the fog in a way the talk couldn’t.  Was it that the story I chose was a common starting point, a shared reference? Or was it that inhabiting a story (performing it) connects more deeply that simply describing one?

It’s funny how stories can sometimes transcend language.  One of my friends from Peru, Ruth, was telling me about her friendship with Jane inAustralia.  Ruth doesn’t really speak English, but somehow, when they were together, they had this incredible, rich, emotional connection where they were able to share their stories with one another, and understand each other. There was an intense desire to understand and be understood, and so somehow it worked.

Lots of people say that seeing Shakespeare in Japanese, or Chekhov in Russian, has been an incredible experience. I’ve usually been a little too scared to try. But I guess it should give me hope.  On the last night of the “encounter” about 8 people got up to tell a story (trained by the amazing storyteller Alicia Perrig) – and I only understood about half of what they said.  But with some of them, it actually didn’t matter – I felt absolutely caught up in it, captivated.

There’s one other moment on the trip where I felt like the fog cleared and I was face to face with an great story: Somehow I ended up on the outskirts of Buenos Aireson my last night with some amazing new friends, visiting a church community made up mainly of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.  The sheer joy of how their lives were changing and what they saw God doing in their community was plain as day and totally infectious.

Here they are, complete with tambourine playing children: