How would you describe yourself and what you do?
Surprisingly hard question. I’m a freelance artist, which has always meant working across multiple disciplines. I started as a poet when I was only nine; moved into performance poetry when I moved to Manchester; from there to playwrighting, and from playwrighting to directing. And I always sang.
Tell us a bit about the work you’ll be performing at STUN.
Alaska is a mix of all the things I do. I’ll be launching the print and ebook versions of my first solo poetry collection, published by Crocus Books/Commonword. It was in the Commonword group Identity that I first began performing, and back in the day I was chair of Commonword for a few years.
Alaska the book includes illustrations by emerging black artist Bethany Hermitt, from Young Identity and Inna Voice. Her illustrations are the starting point for animations by Tommy Ollerenshaw, and Maria Gabriella Ruban from Filmonik is creating films, all of which will be on DVDs with the printed book. Young Enigma artist Afshan Lodhi will be creating an interactive ebook which will have embedded links to everything.
And the poems are inspiration for a one-woman stage show, directed by Darren Pritchard from Company Fierce, working with Digital Artist Andrew Crofts and vocal coach Yvonne Shelton. So there will be vocals and movement and beautiful images and experimental video. It’ll be totally different from the printed version – as Darren says, “the show is the poem that’s not in the book.”
It’s a microcosm of the way I work: collaboration, working with new and exciting folks, giving people – especially me – a chance to try things they’ve never tried before.
What it’s all about: being frozen and numb, then woken up with sudden, violent emotions – love – and falling for somebody bad for me, bad to me. Then it all disappears again and I can’t believe it ever happened. I want to make the audience feel that with me.
What got you started?
I started writing and singing before I was nine, so I can’t remember. I’ve always done it.
What was your big breakthrough?
When I went to the old Identity workshop, Lemn Sissay was running it. I started performing with Identity, and got invited to be part of a poetry collection with Lemn and two other established poets. Then Lemn recommended me for a playwrighting residency with Theatre-in-Education company Pit Prop, which was based in Leigh. That’s how I got my first professional playwrighting gig.
What’s the best advice you’ve had?
I’d been working as a playwright and a poet and getting produced by the BBC and published and all sorts, when I had a conversation with director Lawrence Till. He said that people still remembered one of my community plays, Heart and Soul [Oldham Coliseum 1994] as one of the best things they’d experienced in theatre, and that I should take myself more seriously as an artist. I realised that I wasn’t being serious, and that he was right. I’ve always been scared of being pretentious, big-headed. I realised you could be honest in your work without all that.
It’s always that moment after a performance when you know it really hit it, really worked. I feel it even more as a director than as a performer, helping people do great performances.
Can you describe your process?
I try to work collaboratively. For me that means getting good people around you, talented people, and then setting them free to do their thing. There’s no point in getting a really good lighting designer and then thinking I can tell that person how to do the lights: they know it better than I do, and what I love is seeing things I could never have thought of.
Same for everybody, for actors, same for stage managers – stage managers, production managers see more theatre than any of us, and I’ve saved many a production by listening to them. I try to encourage people to try their ideas and see what works. But that means I try to always find people who have loads of ideas in the first place.
I learned this the hard way – when I try to tell people what to do, especially actors, it never works.