Can you tell us a bit about your practice?
I’ve got an incredibly varied artistic practice. My background is very much in poetry – my first collection is coming out in January. It’s a series of sonnets about the pandemic from a variety of voices, inspired by my doctor telling me that due to my underlying condition I wouldn’t be prioritised for intensive care treatment if I developed Covid. When I was developing my solo show, NOT DYING, I brought in elements of comedy, storytelling, extended monologue and multi-media work, interacting with videos, which I really enjoyed. I’ve also been working on research for an upcoming Netflix show which gave me experience around scriptwriting. So, at the beginning of lockdown, when I wanted to stretch myself, I wrote a play, Three Generations. I’m working on my next show for CRIPtic 2021 at the Barbican. I’ve applied for arts council funding to run a development programme for d/Deaf and disabled artists with monthly workshops open to the wider d/Deaf and disabled artist community and specific development for four emerging artists to pitch ideas that can be performed both online and in person, depending on the restrictions we’re facing by CRIPtic 2021. The artists will be paired with an established mentor who has the right skills to offer them to help develop their piece. In a totally different field, I’m also doing a masters and I work as a health and social care policy consultant and as a charity CEO.
My practice works better under pressure. I find with too much time and space I don’t work on anything whereas when I feel pressured I can create quite prolifically. I very much experience myself as facing significant time constraints that come from an awareness and closeness to one’s own mortality. This has taught me to focus on not wasting effort or energy.
Can you tell us about an experience that made you want to become an artist?
I actually think I ended up an artist by accident, almost because there was nothing else I ever could have been. I’ve always written, I’ve always created. I’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to develop it into a career as well as a personal practice but being an artist was so engrained in me that it just happened. I never overtly pursued an artistic career until one came to me in response to the work I was putting out into the world.
My practice works better under pressure. I find with too much time and space I don’t work on anything whereas when I feel pressured I can create quite prolifically.
What conditions do you require to be creative and make the work you want to make?
I need constraint and enforced focus. I need deadlines. I need accountability and I need structure. I work far better knowing the work is going to be seen by somebody at a certain time and thus must be done. I’ve developed a strong process of creating that pressure for myself, whether it’s by deciding that I’m going to write so many thousand words a day or edit so many pages of script a day I have to exist with that absolute expectation of myself that I do not allow myself to break. So, in some ways lockdown has been really productive for my practice as it’s created an exterior sense of that enforced focus and cramped space that I need. But the balance to that is that I need a lot of physical space, a lot of air and a lot of nature. I need to be able to get out of myself if I’m going to go into myself far enough to create. I also work better in company, when I’ve got someone I can bounce ideas off and discuss things with. I create through interaction and when I have to create that interaction with myself it’s a lot harder.
Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Barbican and how what impact it has had on your work and career?
My career hasn’t just been affected by the Barbican, it’s been shaped by it. CN Lester invited me to perform in Transpose in 2016. Since then I’ve had extensive and much appreciated support from the production teams as I worked my way through the Open Lab Pit residency, where I developed my solo show NOT DYING from a rough script into a more complex piece. This gave me so much more confidence in my artistic abilities. I later suggested that I curate a showcase of d/Deaf and disabled artists in the Pit and the producers recommended that I make my solo show half of it. The result was CRIPtic, which was a huge success despite my being quite seriously ill in hospital for 6 months in the run up to it. I managed to get permission to come out and perform the show in October 2019. It was quite a tense time, especially for the production team!
The Barbican has launched, nurtured and shaped my career from nervous poet to confident artist. As a disabled artist I face considerable access barriers and the Barbican has always taken every possible step to minimise these. When I came to perform NOT DYING as part of CRIPtic the Barbican created a backstage dressing room with a changing bed and a fully adapted shower including a mobile hoist. Without this support there is no way that I could have put the show on and I’ve never encountered another theatre that has offered anything like this level of support.
Lockdown has been really productive for my practice as it’s created an exterior sense of that enforced focus and cramped space that I need. But the balance to that is that I need a lot of physical space, a lot of air and a lot of nature. I need to be able to get out of myself if I’m going to go into myself far enough to create.
What do you remember most about your experience working here?
How warmly professional it all was. I never had the sense that I was an amateur in a professional space, even when I was reading my poetry onstage for the first time. I was treated as a professional and expected to perform at a professional level but I was always treated with great warmth. The Barbican has created that sense of an artistic community and a really welcoming atmosphere. I always ask Angie Smith for notes after my performances and I know that if I’ve got an artistic idea that I want input on then I absolutely could send the team an email. The Barbican is an environment with high expectations in the very best of ways, in which you’re not left so much room that you can fail but you are expected to work to succeed.
How has the Barbican programme influenced you professionally?
Has there been work staged here that has resonated with you and your practice? I was lucky enough to see the Masculinities exhibition prior to lockdown and that influenced me a lot. Particularly when I was writing my play Three Generations. It helped me explore and understand the different perceptions and self-perceptions around masculinity. Thinking about the different ways that men might try and encounter themselves as being men and masculine people might encounter themselves as being masculine made me explore the cultural framings on masculinity, which really helped when I was trying to unpack what disabled masculinities might mean.
Who have you most enjoyed collaborating with and who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
It has to be the other CRIPtic artists I worked with last year – Amelia Cavallo, Signkid, Jackie Hagan and others. It was an incredible experience to be curating such a brilliant line up and working with such exceptional artists. With Barbican personnel, it has to be the stage manager, Lu Hamlin, who somehow makes sure, in a totally calm way, that everything goes according to plan, and Bernie Whittle, the producer of CRIPtic 2019, who somehow coped under the pressure of “I don’t know whether I’ll actually be there on the night or whether I’ll still be in hospital”. Somehow Bernie trusted that it would be a huge success regardless and this belief in me was transformative!
In terms of future collaborations, I’m really hoping to work with more experienced disabled artists as mentors on the upcoming CRIPtic next year. I’d love to work closely with people like Mat Fraser, Liz Carr, Jess Thom and Martin O Brien because of how they’d all stretch and develop my practice. I’ve been researching Martin O Brien in particular recently because I’m so fascinated by his endurance art and durational performances and what I can learn from that in terms of the limits of the body, medicalisation and body horror. He’s a live artist with cystic fibrosis who does durational and endurance-based practice as a way of demonstrating his experience rather than just telling it. Watching parts of his show online was fascinating and really made me think about the ways in which one can use art to reclaim from a medicalised body.
Love what you’re doing for its own sake not because it can be a career. Because if you don’t that’s not going to get you through the long periods where you maybe can’t get the work you want
Can you tell us how you have been affected by the current pandemic?
What challenges has it presented you with and has it changed the way you approach your work? My life has been very altered by the pandemic as someone who received the official “Shielding” letter. I go out on dog walks but nothing else. I’m incredibly cautious, I don’t really see friends, I don’t really see family. It’s really affected the way I live my life. This reminder of my own mortality has forced me to focus on creating as much work as I can, partially as a bulwark against worsening mental health from lockdown. I decided at the outset that this wasn’t a lockdown it was an extended creative retreat and that however affected I got by the pandemic I needed to focus on the universe giving me time and space to really create. So I did a lot. I finished my first poetry publication as well as my first play. I was lucky to be in a situation where I could do this – experience of long hospitalisations has taught me to work from one room, which gave me far more skills to handle lockdown. I’m used to limitations being put on my capacity by a mixture of my underlying impairment and society’s lack of adaptations to it.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to develop a career such as yours?
Firstly, love what you’re doing for its own sake not because it can be a career. Because if you don’t that’s not going to get you through the long periods where you maybe can’t get the work you want so you absolutely have to love it and be creating because you want to create.
Secondly, be ruthless with yourself. Know exactly where you want to be in five years’ time. Identify people who are where you want to be, look at what they were doing five years ago and really research what it takes to get to where they are now. Break down your five-year plan into three monthly sections, with measurable and achievable targets. Take every opportunity you can to learn more about the industry.
Thirdly, make sure you love your backup plan. Through no fault of your own your artistic career might not succeed, so it’s really important to have something you love doing as a plan B. Knowing all your eggs aren’t in one basket also allows you to take artistic risks that can massively develop your practice.
As a wheelchair user the vast majority of small theatres are not accessible for performers, even if they’re accessible for the audience, making it difficult to do the sort of preliminary work that gets you a show at the Barbican. The fact that I was able to start at the Barbican gave me to opportunity to make the connections I then needed to keep going. But if you don’t have access to connections then you can be as talented and committed and hard-working as you like but as a disabled artist you’re going to struggle to get anywhere because the places you need to be to get where you eventually want to go often aren’t accessible to you.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to developing other artists. My career has been a mixture of hard work, talent and a lot of luck and part of that luck has been generous gifts of mentoring and support. The Barbican seems truly unique to me in its commitment to nurturing and developing artists beyond a single opportunity and creating the conditions that emerging artists need to succeed. It’s that combination of high levels of support and high levels of expectation that is such an offering.
What does the immediate future hold for you? And how would you like to develop your practice?
My poetry collection “Shield” is published by Verve Press in January 2021. I’m appearing in The Ghost Light at the Barbican, also in January. The idea of performing on the Barbican main stage is absolutely mind-blowing. Looking at that line-up and realising that I was on it – I can’t quite explain how incredible that feels right now. I’ve got CRIPtic coming up in The Pit in autumn 2021. I’m also developing my stage play, Three Generations, which I would like to see put on. It explores three generations of the same family in the pandemic all shielding in different locations and how the pandemic fractures and heals existing family tensions and divides.
Where we can learn more about and see some of your work?
Shield comes out in January 2021 with Verve, and is available for pre-order with free P&P now. I’m performing as part of Barbican Ghost Light in January, and am curating another CRIPtic Pit Party in autumn of 2021.