The other day I went running outside, early in the morning while it was still dark. It was cloudy and as I left the streets and ran further into the park land, it became darker and darker until I could see almost nothing. I had run this way many times and had some sense of where the path probably was. I was nervous and thought about slowing down to a walk. But it was cold and the whole point of running was to get some exercise, so I kept running, fast, into the darkness.
After a few minutes of doing this I realised that I was inside the perfect metaphor for devising theatre. You can’t really see where you’re going. Sure, you’ve done your best to convince funders, partners, venues and possibly also yourself, that you do. But really you don’t. You’re following a hunch, a spark, the thing that started you making this piece in the first place, and that gives you a feeling of the general direction in which you’re headed. Also, there is something a little bit familiar about the path, even in pitch darkness. Because you have made things before. And although everything you make is completely different, there are some things about the process of making them that remain the same.
What is really important though is to keep running. Because if you get cautious and hesitant, if you want to play it safe, then the work that you make won’t be so interesting. This isn’t about not being afraid. I spend a lot of the time when I am working being afraid, especially in the mornings and the evenings when I’m not in the rehearsal room. It’s about keeping making through that fear. Sometimes I manage this; sometimes I don’t. There should, of course, also be, spaces for pause, for reflection, for evaluation but this comes in certain parts of the day, after a spate of making, not in the middle of that making.
Like my run, it is often the middle phase of the making process that is the murkiest. The early phase, when anything is possible, is daunting, but generating initial ideas is fun and relatively easy. And the final phase, once many things have been decided and there is a structure in place, can be tricky and can be stressful, but is still much easier than the middle. In the middle you know that it can’t just be anything any more, but you don’t know exactly what it is. You know that it needs to have a shape and structure but you are not yet sure what that will be. You have lots of pieces of material but you know that they can’t all be in the same play, but you can’t quite see yet which bits will sit well together. This is the phase that I find hardest. But experience has taught me that if I hold my nerve through this phase and resist the urge to tie down too much too quickly, then things will fall into place and decisions that seemed so difficult suddenly become obvious. To put it another way, if you keep running through the dark for long enough then the dawn will begin to break. At any rate, that’s what I’m keeping telling myself at the moment.
Post script: I’ve now bought myself a head torch for running outside. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s an equivalent for making theatre….