I used to run a theatre company. It was a lot of fun. My friend David kept saying, “It’s great that it’s fun, but when are you going to start making money?”
The lack of money constantly loomed over us – when I say “us”, I refer to Phillip, who set up the monster originally, Linda, who was beautifully in charge of the Education programme, the great trustees, who gave up so much of their time and energy and all the theatre professionals who worked with us – sometimes for a fee, sometimes for a big, warm thank you.
But I was part of the leadership of this company (though I would have never called it “leadership” then) for 15 years. It’s what I did. The voiceover stuff, the teaching, they were my freelance jobs. The unpaid ongoing work I did for the company, was my job.
Looking back, I can see why. I have a need to create with people. I can create on my own – always have, only child with a very strong imagination – but at one point it becomes meaningless. Our graduation at drama school – like many other graduations – consisted of a show made up of monologues. It was a “show case”. We’d come on stage on our own, do our 2.5 mins piece to show how great we are – or rather what we could be typecast as – and then we’d move on to wait for one of the three musical numbers.
I found the experience pointless. I love acting with others. I always hated monologues. I absolutely coped and loved Juliet’s speeches – but they were part of a plot. On their own, what’s the point of a monologue? It’s much more fun to play with your friends.
In the end, I did the only thing I could do to survive the experience (you should see the way I sulked, the director struggled…): I wrote my own piece. Juliet Wakes Up, in iambic pentameter. Unfortunately, I never cracked it. The piece was better than the team the director and I formed. He didn’t get me; I didn’t get the purpose of the show case. (A few years later I saw this piece performed by someone at Imperial College’s Dramatic Society, in an event organised by my friend Kat – a much better interpretation!)
I didn’t do well at the show case. I got no agent. No casting directors knocking at my door. But guess what, I did get a comment that has resonated since then, from one of the stage managers at Her Majesty’s Theatre (London). As I came of stage he said, “Did you write that?” “Yes.” “That was really clever.”
(You can judge for yourself, the poem is included in 17 Poems for the Angry Commuter.)
This story was a long-winded way of saying: I spent 15 years running a company because I wanted to create with people I could laugh with and look up to. As the company grew and evolved, (the work sometimes grew and evolved, and other times… let’s face it, it was terrible) I found myself constantly finding ways of bringing the company members together, to have a sense of company when we were all freelancers and rarely had the opportunity to be in a show or a workshop together.
Key to this were the Freestyle Performances, a day where anyone could put a short piece of theatre together and present it to an audience who were bribed with food. (Have a look at the trailer below.) Yes, food was key at these events, which lasted around 5 hours and consisted of 7 – 10 pieces. Some pieces were gems; others were really painful to sit through. Oh well, that’s experimentation for you and that happens when you give people a playground: sometimes they build sandcastles; other times they throw poo at each other.
The Freestyle became the testing ground where we created some of our best stuff (I was particularly fond of Goddess and our version of Mrs Wobble the Waitress), some of our wackiest stuff and some of our most collaborative stuff.
At one point though, I got tired. I got tired of looking after people, of being in charge, of being the one person for whom the company was a priority. I’m incredibly conscientious and was also very aware that if people didn’t feel valued, didn’t feel involved and weren’t getting any personal satisfaction from being part of our work, they just wouldn’t come back.
Yes, there was money involved every now and then, but, although of course it made a difference in taking a job or not, I never felt the difference in rehearsal. It didn’t matter whether a project was paid or not, or what the budget was, the joy and discipline of working together was always there – or not. But cash didn’t make a difference.
So, being burnt out from looking after people, I took what seems now to be a 5 year sabbatical. It wasn’t meant to be that, just a change in career. I set up a company, on my own. Then set upanother company, also on my own, but guess what, I got bored of the monologues.
I sought out playmates. My first “professional friend”, as I call those with whom my professional relationships turn into friendships (there’s loads!) was Lisette. Through Lisette and through just working with her on the 21st Century Work Life Podcast (and now Happy Melly One) I met many others. In January, I wanted to create a webinarprogramme for those running virtual teams and offer it to the world for free to see whether anyone would bite and later pay for it. But I didn’t want to do it on my own. So I asked Lisette, Hugo and Gerard to join me. We delivered the programme – it went well but it hasn’t yet turned into sales. But it definitely strengthened my relationship with all of them and it was a lot of fun. (First full circle, see the first lines of this post…)
Meanwhile, Lisette and I started pulling together anyone we met and liked in the “virtual team” / “remote working” space. The result: Virtual Team Talk, a group of now 100 and some people from all over the world, who work in virtual teams, or freelance as consultants, or are self-employed, or create software for virtual communication etc. Maybe only 25% of us are really active in the group (we chat on Slack and meet on Zoom and Sococo) but that’s a lot of friends to play with.
On 9th June, guess what. We’re having our first “Internal Affair”, an online conference only for the people in the group, to share “our stuff”, experiment and generally just get together doing something.
David and Mark will be talking about lean coffee online, Lisette will be putting a session together on creating a team agreement, I’ll be pairing up with Michael to run an open space around VIRTUAL, Hugo will organise a discussion about how we can evolve his training venture, Judy will do her “metaphor thing”, Dr Clue will run a treasure hunt… etc etc…
I’m not sure how it will turn out. I’m not sure if it will be too much. Or too little. Or if any of us will hang around for most events or we will get Virtual Team Talk fatigue… But there’s nothing like doing something together to get to know each other. A community is all very well, but it only begins to have an identity and an organic purpose when people start collaborating.
Or you can also scrap the last few lines and just read the deep truth:
“I’m playing with people I like and look up to – and it’s great fun.”
The fact that I’ve come back full circle, without intending to and without almost realising it means that playing with others is at the core of who I am.