Wednesday, 9 July 2014

What's a nice girl like you doing in a PhD like this?

I frequently get asked 'what's your PhD actually on', usually I just reply 'Drama' or 'American drama in Britain.' if pushed, or if it looks like it'll elicit an amusing response I say simply 'AIDS in theatre' sometimes in fact I just say AIDS. Generally I do this if someone looks like they'll have an amusing reaction, or if they're being generally disparaging about the whole PhD endeavor.

For the record, the current title is Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: Transposing and Reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent and in it, I explore how both plays communicate AIDS to an audience in their content and the way this works with a British audience. I look at press responses, and how these plays fit into the wider context of theatre in Britain. Later I look at revivals, of these plays and consider how years later these plays continue to be relevant and impact on theatre in Britain. 

Why do I avoid this? because it's easier than then having to explain 'but why do you want to research AIDS?' people are happy with the answer 'drama' it's suitably broad and fluffy. It can also be dismissed with a 'oh that's nice' you say AIDS you don't get that response. If I were doing a PhD on cancer, whether scientific, social or cultural I know I'd get a nod and a 'oh that's so good of you, such a worthy cause.' Sadly, still my PhD doesn't elicit such a response. Generally the response is a resounding, if unspoken 'ugh'. There's also an unspoken 'but what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?' which perhaps should one day be the title of my autobiography, but I digress.

Why is it so odd I should be doing this? particularly when the very definition of a PhD is looking at something obscure that nobody else is particularly interested in. Why then, is looking at AIDS in drama something I hold back from telling? I did it this week, my friend sat next to me happily gave the full description of her work on Welsh choral music (which is really interesting incidentally) I muttered 'drama' and hoped I could shuffle away. I feel like I should be embarrassed, or defensive. I usually opt for the former, it being the easier path, also when I go down the other road I turn into Larry Kramer. Which is I realise a niche PhD related reference. Good. Google him.

I'll save my Kramer-esque rant about why what I do is important. The second question that follows, should I bother to explain is 'But why?' again unspoken, why do you, a normal looking woman, want to do something like that? again if it were cancer, nobody would think twice. Because it's AIDS, I must have some deep dark reason, probably I'm guessing  a lot of them think I have HIV. And you know what if I did, I'd speak out. I'd say 'Yes I decided to do this because of how this has affected my life' that's not true though. It's the same with gay rights in general, to be vocal about gay rights makes certain assumptions about sexual preference.

Two things on  this, I'm a big animal rights activist. I'm not a llama. You see the absurdity? I'm not offended by people assuming I'm gay or have HIV, because why would I be offended to be considered either of those things? they aren't things that reflect poorly on someone's character, one is a sexual preference you are born with, one is a viral infection. I don't think badly of heterosexuals or people with the flu, therefore think I'm gay, think I have HIV if that helps.

But still, why this? why do any of us who pick our own PhD topics do it? The short version is, I loved the plays. Really for any literature/film/drama based PhD this is a must.

As with everything I do, it was the 'wrong' way to do it. I didn't have any great academic aspirations to consider the American Epic Theatre or any such thing.

The first performance I saw with AIDS in was out of the blue and unexpected, and I blame it for the seed that became this massive part of my life. I saw Hugh Jackman in 'The Boy from Oz' in December 2003. Mum and I were in New York, and at this point tickets were easy to get. It was Hugh Jackman, in a musical, why not? Neither of us knew who Peter Allen, the real life singer-songwriter he portrayed, was or that he died of AIDS related illness. I loved the musical. Love is perhaps too mild a term. I was obsessed. But that, is another blog entirely. The Boy From Oz hasn't made it to the PhD but in some convoluted series of events, it's the start point.

I discovered Angels in America during a grim cold winter in Montreal. Our TV didn't work so we relied on the video store around the corner (remember those kids? this was 2003, before Netflix. Hell it was before Facebook, we were one of the first Unis to get it, anyway I digress) My flatmate and I were scouring the shelves, trying to find an alternative to our one Family Guy box set. She pointed to Angels in America and said 'That's supposed to be good. It's about AIDS' (and so said every description of that play/series ever) I shrugged said ok let's watch it. And we did, and I loved it and bought it and it became one of my favourite series. It became perversely my cheer myself up DVD-having as I do the theory that sometimes watching people worse off than you cheers you up. I fell in love with the actors, and more in love with Emma Thompson.

Around the same time I stumbled across Rent. I'd recently begun to really get into musical theatre, see above, Hugh Jackman again is to blame. And I was also getting involved in a lot of online fandom related to theatre. You can't swing a cyber cat in musical theatre forums and fansites without coming across 'Rent' as a must-have-must-be-a-fan-of. So I found myself  trotting off to a Montreal record store (again remember them?) and buying the Rent cast recording. I tried to listen to it on the bus home, but the ride was too bumpy and my CD kept skipping (again, yup, remember those) I remember listing to 'What you Own' over and over on that bus ride though. I remember standing in our orange kitchen, when everyone was out, listening to 'Will I' over and over. Soon I knew every word of the whole thing. Except the phone numbers, I still can't remember those.

Later that year, I saw Rent, finally, on Broadway. It's a cliche but it was at that point the most moving evening in the theatre I'd ever had. Still over 10 (gulp) years later I can count on one hand the number of performances that match it for emotional impact. It's hard to explain, particularly to those who don't like musical theatre. But it felt like being hit by a truck, in a good way. Midway through I just felt a wave of emotion that told me, yes this is something, yes this is going to last. There is something about Rent, if it's a musical for you that just grabs a hold of you and refuses to let go. Even now, though I see it's flaws, though I see it inside out and back to front, it still has an emotional hold. For Rent it's also about finding it at the right moment. I found it when I was a bit lost, living in a foreign country, old enough at 19 to get it, not so old to be cynical about it. And over the years it's been a part of me. It's part of the reason I got more into musical theatre, that I engaged online about musical theatre. Rent became a big part of my theatre education. Rent, its cliche, to say became a part of my growing up, because that year was really important for me.

I always say, in describing these plays, both personally and professionally, that Angels is the head and Rent is the heart. Angels is an engaging artistic political declaration of so many things. It's intellectual, it's critical, it's artistic. There is still so much heart in it, but it gets to your heart through the mind. Rent on the other hand is raw, visceral, it hits straight to the heart. It's still got so many things to say, to teach, and Larson was oh so clver too. Just a different clever. Angels will cause you to start a political revolution and quietly tug at your heart while you do so. Rent will rip out your heart and put it back together and let you go thinking about revolution. Angels is poetry, and a well structured argument and delicate beautiful words. Rent is rough around the edges, a hard musical beat and a mash up of conflicting styles.  I cannot separate them or judge which one is 'better' because they serve the same aims in such different ways. And both have become a part of my personal, artistic and intellectual identity. I speak their lines without noticing, I hear character inflections in my mind, and I adopt their philosophies.

Both plays became influential. I'm a fangirl at heart and when I fall I fall hard. So I followed various cast member's careers. Devoured everything I could on the writers, directors, anyone associated with it. I bought albums and films and books. These plays became part of my world, and they spun out into other plays, musicals, films and books. And so on, as is the fannish life. I used Rent in my Undergrad dissertation, in the impeccably titled 'The Serious Side of the American Musical' original, really original. Then as luck would have it Angels in America was revived in London as I did my Masters, so I wrote my dissertation on that. Both had been cemented into my life. When it came to proposing a PhD it was always the natural progression, I never considered doing anything else. I cannot honestly say why, other than I loved the plays still, and it was an area I was passionate about.

Why so passionate about AIDS? again, disappointingly perhaps, I have no deep dark story about why. I don't know anyone personally who has AIDS, never have. The best I can do is this: I grew up in the 1980s (I was born in 1984) I have never known a world without AIDS and when I was a child it was one of the most terrifying things in the adult world I could think of. The tombstone adverts on television voiced by John Hurt made it seem like AIDS was about to leap out of an alleyway and kill you. I didn't really know what it was, but I knew I was supposed to be scared, so I was. The time and place I grew up in was also rife with homophobia, if you weren't being a 'bellend' (an insult I'm actually all for, it makes me weirdly nostalgic) then you were 'so gay'. In a rough British Comprehensive school in the 1990s being 'gay' and the added 'you've got AIDS' were commonplace. Being gay wasn't a thing we talked about, and AIDS was this scary thing lurking in the darkness.

That's partly why I think I have become so passionate about the cause. Because I still see areas of society where that's still the case. For every fluffy drama loving, liberal friend I have, there's hundreds of people out there still throwing out those insults I heard as a kid. It's easy to forget sometimes, once you grow up and surround yourself with people who have the same values, what a harsh world it is out there. The reality being that AIDS is still a threat, and being gay is still a threat in itself for those in hostile environments. AIDS charities struggle to raise funds where others wouldn't simply because the stigma still remains. People still fear the condition, people still hold prejudice. There's still not enough research, comparatively for the amount of people diagnosed. And, as we get further from the original epidemic panic, people become complacent and infection rates rise.  Just because AIDS is no longer a death sentence, doesn't mean it's not a threat. And it still needs to be on the agenda for discussion. And that's why these plays are still important, and that's why this PhD feels important. Keeping the discussion going.

That's perhaps why, I wasn't ready for the discussion to be over after two dissertations, so I carried it on. And I believe that these plays still have a lot to say. They might be over twenty years old now, their content may now be historical work, but it is still important, and will carry on being so. Theatre allows for an ongoing updated dialogue in the way that film or literature doesn't in quite the same way. So this PhD is just my bit of the conversation.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Normal Heart

This is not a real review of 'The Normal Heart' having spent the last four years writing about AIDS and theatre I'm too invested for that. 

I'll admit I was wary. As anyone is about a new adaptation of something they love. I'm wary about new stagings of it, but I'm even more wary about transposing it to a new medium. I was also wary about the team behind it. On one hand HBO were producing it. The team that did the seemingly impossible in bringing Angels in America to screen so successfully. Alongside this Larry Kramer was writing the screenplay adaptation of his play. To my mind nobody else could do it. Larry knows his work, Larry also knows film. On the other hand, the director was Ryan Murphy. Known for 'Glee' Murphy is not the first name that crops up on an ideal directors list for anything, not least The Normal Heart. In Murphy's defense the list of directors I'd have been happy with right away is very short. Also in Murphy's defense I quite enjoyed the first season of Glee. However I feel he also owes me £8.50 and two hours of my life for the Glee film. 

So I was wary. Casting was announced and I was wary. Could Mark Ruffalo carry it? I knew nothing about him really. Supporting cast had some good people. Jim Parsons could do it, he did it on stage. The trouble with knowing what stage performances have done with the role, means nobody is ever going to quite fit. With the exception of Joe Mantello. Because he's an exception to every rule. 

But the trouble with something tranposing from stage to screen is that feeling of a stage version, of a stage performance. You can't perform it the same on stage, therefore it will be altered. And how to react to that?

On the whole I thought the film was good. I'd rather have this version than no version. That sounds like a back handed compliment. It isn't, I genuinely think this is a good version of The Normal Heart. If it gets Larry Krammer's story to more people, if it preserves it on film, I'm happy with that. And actually it translates to screen well in Murphy's hands. Most of the changes he made, I was happy with for the sake of the different medium. 

And film does add elements, it gives visuals and fleshes out a story in a way that's impossible on stage. It also makes the performances more visceral, more real. On stage it's impossible to realistically take an actor from healthy to dying in two hours, we suspend our disbelief and use tricks to make it so, but we know they will bounce on stage healthy again at the curtain call. The exception ironically being Stephen Spinella's performance in Angels in America that set the rumour mill into overdrive about his health. But on film, you can feel like a character is dying, intimately see the affects of their illness that are only alluded to or representative on stage. There is something to be said for that head on collision with the affects of AIDS that film provides. On stage I don't feel it less, but the physical realities on film are hard to get away from. That AIDS is being depicted in graphic detail on film is still important, as is the explicit, overt depiction of gay sexuality on film is also an important aspect. It's different on film, no doubt, but not worse. There is only one scene, which I won't spoil, that I felt was lessened for seeing it realised. On stage it's a story that's told, and one that hits not so much the heart as the gut. It's visceral in it's telling, and actually what my imagination always conjured is far worse than seeing it realised. Some things are more powerful unseen. 

The performances overall were strong. Again, what I want from a portrayal of Ned Weeks and what the average audience needs are two different things. But Mark Ruffalo hit the mark on almost every important beat. And his dialect coach is a genius-to the point I had to pause the film to comment on how accurate his voice work was, and for that if nothing else I give him high marks. If I closed my eyes I could hear Larry Kramer. 

One or two cast members I had issue with, Julia Roberts in a difficult role admittedly just didn't gel for me. Neither did Taylor Kitsch, again in a difficult role. I don't think either actor was bad, just not quite there, and probably simply miscast. Ruffalo aside, the stand out performance for me was Jim Parsons. He was no surprise having seen him as Tommy in the stage version, I knew he could do it. But faced with the version on film, and some slightly altered scenes, Parson's brought more depth the to role, and was for me an emotional anchor to the piece. Parson's casting, and performance in the role of Tommy hopefully helped audiences who were finding it hard to connect with Ruffalo's Ned Weeks (not Ruffalo's fault, at times Ned/Kramer is hard to connect with at times). The rest of the supporting cast on the whole were also good. Points particuarlly to Joe Mantello, who is always brilliant but pulled at my heart strings because of his long connection with this play, and others like it. Similarly a cameo from Stephen Spinella was enough to break my heart in the opening minutes. 

And did The Normal Heart break mine? Not as much as the stage version is the honest answer. But, I say this with the caveat that maybe it will more on repeat viewings. I was on edge, waiting for the answer to the question 'will it be good' that I didn't engage as fully as I might have. So I reserve judgement fully. I do know that there were moments where I felt something breaking. When I saw Stephen Spinella yes, but also when Tommy spoke at the funeral,  when Ned takes care of Feliz, and many other moments. The moment that really got me however was the 'I belong to a culture speech' Ned Weeks says the following; 

'I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold These are not invisible men.'

As the speech goes on, I truly felt the emotion of the piece. What I felt were Larry Kramer's words. Because through all this, it's Kramer's writing that still rings true, that still hits where it hurts and is still so utterly desperate after all these years.

Much was made, when the film came out, of why? why do we need this film? why now? To answer the last question first, is perhaps to answer all three. Because it took this long to get here. Because it's taken years of fighting to get a film made. Because still there is reluctance to address these issues, to commit them to film and air them in public. Because while it is fiction, Kramer's play is also historical record. Why do we need the film then? because despite this historical track record things still remain a certain way. Things have changed yes, for people with AIDS, for gay people. But not nearly enough. And the fight that Kramer depicts still goes on, for recognition, for support. AIDS is still an issue, in America in Britain, all around the world. Finally why make this film? well to remember those involved. To remember what Larry Kramer and his friends did, and why they had to do it. Why do we make art about any historical event? because in remembering someday someone will hopefully learn. In this case history is not quite over anyway. We still need people like Larry Kramer to shout.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Drowned Man (round 2)

Last Friday I went for round two (and sadly final round) of Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man' write up here, for my own memory and anyone who is interested in that sort of thing!

The account of my first encounter is here:

I went to round two, after much deliberation with no plan. I decided that letting my nose and instincts guide me the first time served me well. And as I wouldn't have the luxury of multiple visits to see everything I wanted to see, I felt I'd have a more enjoyable time just letting it happen. I had a few vague 'wants' some of which happened some didn't, and as is the Punchdrunk way, some things I didn't think I'd bother with, I did and they turned out to be the best parts!

I was in the first lift (I think? someone who was with me could probably correct...) for those keeping score, and wanting to know which cast member I'm talking about it was Friday 27th 5pm show.

One of my vague thoughts was to spend more time in the studio, but as I got out in town, I wandered through and came across William and Mary. With nobody else around having the scene all to myself seemed too good a chance to miss. I had them to myself, and almost to myself for a good fifteen minutes. In my first show, I'd chopped and changed between Mary, Miguel and William for my first loop so I made the decision to follow William for the whole first loop. I really enjoyed seeing the story I'd pieced together in my first show, entirely from one character's point of view. And this version of William was also very different to the last, again the beauty of TDM repeat viewings. One thing began to amuse me, a fellow audience member clearly decided I knew what I was doing and started following me. Not only sticking to me like glue whenever I took off after William, as if I knew where he was going (I mostly had no idea) but also following me to wherever I stood in a scene, as if I had magical information about the best position. I hate to break it to you girl in the camouflage print shirt, I just like to be out of the crowd when I can...or there was just a tall person in front of me.

At the end of that loop I decided to take myself on a wander and see what happened. Making my way down the stairs from the desert, I decided to go all the way down to the basement. I'd set foot in the basement for all of two minutes last time, so I wanted to see some of it. I wandered a little around the big space (and I forget what order I stumbled across these scenes so forgive me) I cam across the Doctor and a woman who I think was the PA? (leopard print outfit, sexy and sassy?) watched their scene and wandered some more. I also came across Mr Stanford, on the phone, and then shredding a head shot, the scene where he says the line 'I made the horse run, I can make it bolt; he scared the life out of me so I left him to it and wandered some more, poking about rooms like the Foley room and generally exploring.

I continued my wander a little longer, spending some time with the Gatekeeper as it was quiet in there! poked around his room a bit until Ramola arrived. I watched her scene in the office, where she types and followed her via the Doctor down to Mr Stamford in the basement. At which point I left them both-the combined crowds were a bit much and I wasn't overly invested in either of them at that point, and feeling the heat I took myself off to Studio 3 for a break.

A personal observation at this point-which was about the mid-point of my show. Firstly, a similar thing happened last time I went. At about the same point in time I felt both tired, overwhelmed and a bit 'done'. Last time I accidentally found studio 3, took the chance to re hydrate, sit, and have a bit of a time out before diving back in, at which point I was fine. Both times in fact the second half of my show has been better. I think maybe my mind needs time to adjust before enjoying it, something I'm sure would change had I been multiple times. This time something else came to my attention, there was no midway for me with TDM, either the expereince allowed me to toally lose myself in the world of Temple Studios, forgetting everything, or the silence, the isolation actually left me disconnected with my own (very loud) thoughts. I also learned a lesson in your own mental space being really important. Not that it could be helped but my poor head wasn't in the greatest place on Friday, I'd had an epic meltdown at the station earlier, for long and boring reasons. And sadly my brain just wasn't letting go. In a way I'm sad, almost heartbroken that my only second chance at TDM was ruined a little by outside things, and by my poor head being a mess. Anyway, I took myself off to the loos, had another little meltdown, put my mask back on and went back in. And, actually the second half of my visit I really enjoyed.

Due to everything above, I think I was feeling not lazy, but less inclined to rush about, see and do everything. I wandered into the town. One of my favourite things to do is to simply wander in the quiet space and have a poke around (I'm nosy what can I say?) so I was quietly doing that, minding my own business when the Dust Witch stormed past. Well, if old Dusty storms past you have to follow right? So I followed and watched her bathe Migeul. As it turns out, 1960s Hollywood Dust Witches have the same vile coloured burgundy bath that I used to have...but I digress. Leaving Miguel to dresss (and squelching my way out) I wandered a bit more and decided to take my lovely friend's advice for having a bit of a breather and hang out in the drugstore for a while.

I wandered into the Drugstore just as the Drug Store girl was taking someone in for a 1:1 so I hung around and waited for her to come out. I spent the rest of the loop either with her or with Tuttle. My first introduction to Tuttle was when he used his hips to 'bump' me out of the way at the Drugstore counter (I genuinely hadn't heard the door and he somehow sneaked up behind me) I had no idea he was Tuttle at that point,but a little while later I wandered over to his shop. As I arrived he was giving out jellybeans and had to lean over and around several toys to give me one commenting 'Gee there's a lot of you in here, I should start charging' I confess I fell a little bit in love with this Tuttle (and I really wanted to hug him when the Gatekeeper chased him!)  I shared the rest of the loop between him and Drug Store girl (who gave me a lemonade, and later a little wide-eyed nod as I helped her pick up her postcards.) I actually felt I got the most out of this loop, by staying in the town/fountain area I got to see a lot of the comings and goings and felt a bit more a part of the 'world' by observing this one spot of it. That would be my advice to a person who hasn't seen it, as much as picking one person gives you a story, picking one spot (as long as it's a fairly busy one!) will give you another story.

I followed Drug Store Girl down to the murder, slowly, as I knew that's where we were going and for my first show I'd been following Wendy for the final loop so had gotten a good look. I stayed back out of the crowds for the murder which ended up giving me an excellent front row view for the finale-before which I got a wink from the PA. After which I looked up and saw two arms held out to me-the Grocer took my hands and led me out, kissing my hands softly as he went. When we got to studio three he pulled me into a little dance, then pulled back and started into my eyes before kissing my mask and saying 'thank you' over and over. I muttered a 'thank you ' or two to which he replied 'no thank you'. And disappeared.

With a little fluttering or eyelashes and showing of my lipstick stained mask I was also allowed to keep it, which was an added bonus (but did look a bit odd on the train home to Cardiff)

So that was round two, and sadly the final adventure in Temple Studios. I wish I'd discovered the show sooner (or realistically had chance to go sooner) I'd never had made it as many times as some people but I feel for me 3-4 times would have been great. I feel like I got enough from my experience, but I know I'd have loved more. Sadly, this time it wasn't to be. But it was still magical. I know that the experience isn't for everyone, I know some of my theatre friends have their issues with the show. And with my critical hat on I could find them too. But for me, the experience, and the enjoyment of the time in the performance far outweighs that. And it's so rare to find something like that. Although every theatrical experience is individual, there is something lovely about something so very individual, and so very unique to every audience member that enters those lifts.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Self Funded PhD "advice"

I was recently asked for advice on Tumblr about self-funding a PhD so I thought I'd go into more detail here, on the off chance someone can benefit from my "wisdom".

I'll be honest, my first instinct is to say 'don't do it' but really that's not quite true. I'd say 'don't do it unless you are really sure'. People who are funded may disagree with me (and feel free to comment if so) but doing it self-funded is harder. Although the pressures (particularly of finishing to time) are greater with a funded PhD, the supreme juggling act of a self funded one, make the physical act of getting the damn thing on paper, and you out in one piece more of a challenge.

So here in no particular order is my advice:

 Make sure you want to do it.
This goes for any PhD. But if you're paying for it out of your own pocket make sure it's what you really want. That you're doing the research at the place you want

Loans can be your friends (if you can get them)
Loans are notoriously hard for postgrad study. I was lucky and did a PGCE the year before (that's the first time I said that was lucky, it was hell on earth) and for that you can get student loans. So I topped up my already substantial debt with more. It paid my first year's tuition. If you are going to get a loan (and if you can) for anything I'd say earmark it for tuition. You can find a way to get by for food and rent, but if a bill for £3k plus lands on your mat you need a way to pay. My back up was always paying on credit cards and playing 0% interest hopscotch for a year. Luckily it didn't come to that, but if you have to, then you have to.

Remember with fees you are a customer, stand up for your rights.
University registries can be a difficult bunch. I spent my first term trying to pay them without success only to get a bill 2 days after Christmas telling me I'd defaulted on fees and would be kicked off my course. I stood up to them, and all was well. You have the right to pay by installments, you have the right to not pay until the last day they're due. Don't let them bully you.

The 'customer' status also applies to your PhD itself. Universites increasingly treat Undergrads like customers and the slightest grumble is sometimes treated like World War Three. The same approach is not given to Postgrads, particularly PhD students. This isn't a personal gripe (for those still spying) but I've heard enough horror stories. If you feel you aren't getting what you pay for, or what you were promised (even if all you were promised was a dusty corner in the library) then speak up. Even if not directly, speak to student services, student union, student rep, you ARE paying for this and we should end the culture of just being eternally grateful to be let in.

Don't waste too much time chasing scholarships/bursaries
Yes they might help, yes it looks good on a CV BUT at the same time, all those hours you spent filling in/searching for money could be spent earning some money or actually doing your PhD. I'm not saying don't but I spent too long listening to advice about chasing funding, when in fact I should have just been getting on with the work.

Don't compare yourself to others if you don't get funding.
It doesn't mean you aren't as good. It's a lottery. The right research at the right time and the right place will secure funding. You could have identical credentials and still not get it. Don't beat yourself up about it, accept it and plough on.

Be honest with your supervisors (and anyone else who can help or advise you)

On this one I start with no matter how uncomfortable it makes them we're British. We don't like talking about money, it's vulgar. Tough. Money affects your PhD. I'm always put in mind of this exchange from 'Friends':

Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.

For supervisors, living on next to nothing is possibly a distant memory. Dependent on their age (I'm being delicate here) they may never have even experienced student loans. If they're younger, in order to be supervising you it's been a fair few years that they've been on £30k plus (more if they're higher-ranking) so they may need some gentle reminding that it's hard living on dry pasta and having a baked potato as a 'treat'. I'm being sarcastic (and referencing a well loved radio 4 sitcom) but the point still stands. For anyone in a position to supervise a PhD, the debate over whether to buy food or books is likely not a current issue. If you're lucky they remember what it's like and are sympathetic, if not it's still an issue they need to be aware of. I'm not saying spend every supervision moaning about lack of funds, but if things get really bad, they need to be told, because likelyhood is it's affecting your studies. Even if it's as simple as saying 'I can't hand this work in over Christmas because I need ot take advantage of the extra hours at my job, so I can take time off in January' just gently reminds them that you have to fund this yourself, and you have to fit both kinds of work into your day.

Be honest with your friends.

Friends and the PhD is a whole other blog post. However, whether self funded or not, you're probably not making as much as your other friends of the same age. Be honest about that. Explain that you have to watch the budget. I once was quite blunt and told someone 'That cocktail costs an hour's wages, I can't afford it' at the time it was harsh but it put things into perspective and we adjusted our social engagements. Yes it sucks. It sucks not to be able to do the things you like. It really sucks when it's people's weddings or big Birthdays and you just can't afford to give your friends what you want to. If they are your friends they will understand. And one day, they might be low on funds and you can treat them to a cocktail, or buy them the sort of Birthday gift for their 40th that you wanted to for their 30th. I repeat, if they are your friends they won't care. If they are your friends they don't care if you talk over a cup of tea on their sofa or fancy cocktails.

Choose your paid work wisely and be wise about teaching work
I cannot emphaise these two things enough. Firstly teaching, I was offered teaching work which was the key draw to my choice of University. Frankly it was the only way I was able to do the PhD. I was offered initially 6 hours of seminar teaching per week. This worked really well, the module leader supported me and another PhD student well and though demanding wasn't too demanding. As time went on I was offered additional teaching, and marking which is difficult to say no to both in terms of the money and the experience. I took on too much, including too much responsibility in running modules. Supervisors and students need to be mindful of this trap, the supervisor may be trying to help (either financially or for experience) but both sides need to be mindful of the stress and time away from the PhD.

When hourly paid teaching comes to an end it's also tricky. I turned down 2 hours a week teaching this year, because I felt that the amount of preparation/time relative to income wasn't worth it. As a result I've probably been written off as a HPL for my current University. That's sad, but I made my bed I suppose. That was after a long anxious summer waiting to hear about teaching hours, of which there were really none. It's a difficult game to play, especially when juggling other work.

The other work you do is also important. It's a fine balance between income and sacrifice to the PhD. At my worst I juggled 4 jobs. The nature of work is important too, I worked in a call centre (in hindsight boring, but do-able as it required no physical or mental exertion) I worked for two theatres, and as a support worker for disabled students in my University. The latter is by far the best job I had, I learnt lots (particularly having sat in on lots of lectures and worked with lots of students) to the point I'm now considering this area as a career option. The theatre work was related to my PhD and seemed like a good idea at the time. The one theatre was a great job, I learned lots and enjoyed it. The second was without a doubt the worst job I ever had. Barely a shift went by without me crying before/during or after. I later took a full time job from which one of my closest friends got me fired. So all in all an epic fail (as the kids say)

What also happened to me was exhaustion. Working nights during the final year of my PhD nearly finished me off. I'd leave for work at say 4.30 and get in at 11 but be up again at 7 and at my desk by 8 trying to work on the PhD. I wasn't eating right, I wasn't sleeping right and all for minimum wage. I was exhausted and my work wasn't what it should be. During the brief period I returned to an office job I experienced the two killer elements that drove me from that in the first place: boredom and 'clever girl resentment'. I was bored out of my mind and my colleagues started sneering the minute they heard I was doing a PhD (which I tried desperately to keep secret)

Those jobs are just my experience, I detailed them to show it takes a careful balance and a good fit to support a PhD. I'd go for minimum wage, minimum effort any day if it keeps a roof over your head and food (books) in your cupboards.

Pace your paid work 
And remember why you are doing the work. You are working to fund the PhD that is all. Focus on that.

You'd be surprised how little you can get by on so in those key PhD months scale back the paid work, when the PhD takes a break, scale it up. Abuse the zero hour contract machine for all it's worth.

Try not to schedule a late/long shift before important meetings. For some supervisors won't care that you've been pulling pints until 1am, they'll still rip apart your work, and if you're anything like me you'll cry from sheer exhaustion. Do what you can to schedule paid work around your best PhD hours whenever you can. And when you can't just accept that this is the life of self-funding, it sucks but you'll get through.

It will probably take you longer
I'll end this with something I'm yet to make peace with. The sad fact is the self-funded PhD will take longer. I hate this, I resent it with every fibre of my being. But it's a sad fact of life. Physically you cannot do the same amount of PhD work while funding yourself. There is also less pressure on Universities to push you through without the end of a bursary snapping at their heels. Push them though, because they'll let you go on forever otherwise. And push yourself, but not too hard. A viva is no good if you collapse from exhaustion halfway through because you were flipping burgers until midnight.

Finally, usual disclaimer, these are my general experiences compiled with experiences of others. They are in no way a directed attack on my University or former employers. Well one former employer, I maintain that it was the very worst job I ever had.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Grotty Right of Passage (or the tail end of PhD writing)

I decided to write a blog about current PhD state of play, or state of mind. Mainly to avoid actually doing any more PhD work for half an hour.

For a visual, I feel I currently look like Bridget Jones as she imagines being eaten by Alsatians. Or Chandler in 'Friends' during the 'sweatpants' phase of a break-up. Or on really bad days like the Flukeman from the X Files, my skin has achieved the same grey pallor.

I am trying to get the PhD in for the mock viva by the end of May, with a view to final submission in July. Pressure is on, and I'm being kept on track by working with a professional proof reader (side: did you hear that supervisors PROFESSIONAL PROOF READER. A professional is correcting all my appalling grammar, so we can stop talking about it now.  Yes that's a risky comment but I think I'm allowed that one) Helpfully, my lovely proof reader prefers to do it chapter by chapter so I'm not waiting on her. This of course means I have to maintain a certain pace of work in order to keep her in chapters. This is all good. I'm getting it done, I'm also making sure it's of a good standard so I have to do the bare minimum after she's proof read it.What this does mean is a final push of living and breathing this.  But a final dash to the finish is better than a limp in last right? (and that is the only sport analogy I'm likely to ever use)

But I am exhausted. I am more mentally tired than I have ever been. Imagine how it feels doing the most revision for a really big exam, the intensity with which you concentrate in the last few days...except those last few days last a month or more without let up.

I have barely left the house. I go to the gym and to the supermarket just to feel I have been somewhere and get some air. I am letting myself out to have the odd coffee with people, I'm making myself go to choir and not skip it so I have some proper human interaction, but mainly I feel like I'm locked away. I am currently so thankful for the internet. The interactions I'm having every day with friends (or occasionally telling strangers on the internet they are wrong about something) is keeping me sane. Well close to it. One conversation yesterday did include the phrase 'I do apologise for the number of penis references today' but hat has more to do with me than it does my current situation...In all seriousness if I didn't have people able to talk to me online I'd have lost it by now.

Not to say there aren't moments when I think I have lost it. I was genuinely unsure what day it was for a while today. And actually, if it weren't for the presence of red underwear or male genitalia respectively on my Tumblr dashboard  I'd forget on other days (if you don't understand that reference, it probably means you are a sane normal person so ignore it). Still all the days blur into one endless stretch staring at my computer screen.

And physically I feel like hell. Not just generally 'a bit grotty'. Though I will say the window of each day where I'm not in a) gym clothes and a hoodie or b) worn out jeans with a hoodie is getting gradually smaller and smaller. I mean I feel physically exhausted by my mental exhaustion. I'm still getting out and going to the gym and getting fresh air by walking the dog, and I think this is the only reason I'm not really ill by now. Today I have terrible vertigo (something I get when I'm run down) and I've spent half of the last week feeling faintly nauseous most of the time. There's nothing actually wrong except general worn-out body and mind. Of course not sleeping isn't helping. This week's strange stress-dreams included: running, just running for ages,(I find running boring when I'm awake never mind asleep), being chased by Russians, and being Andrew Scott's girlfriend (I had to break it to myself that really wasn't going to happen for several reasons). All resulting in general zombie-like appearance.

It's not all bad. I was away for two days last weekend, and I have a couple of days out planned to save me from going completely insane. And it's getting there, it's almost, probably, very nearly, possibly close to being done. And then I'll sleep. Hopefully without running away from Russians and Andrew Scott.

But, as the esteemed and wise person who gave me the title of this blog said 'if you don't feel like that you're not doing it right.' All I can say is...roll on July.

Monday, 28 April 2014

"Working 9 to ..." oh maybe not....

It's fair to say the last few months have not been the best in some senses. There was at one point I declared the whole of March didn't happen, I stand by that.

On the whole the PhD has not been the main arbiter of doom for once. Well indirectly it has, in the sense of everything I do/don't do/could do is governed by the PhD, but in terms of direct causes of misery and angst it's input has been minimal. Comparatively, I mean the beast still gives good game in the misery stakes but hey ho. And anyway we're not allowed to talk about that here, not yet. It's time will come.

No, the main cause of issue was employment, and its various associations. Now anyone who knows me or knows this blog knows my ongoing battle with employment, so yes this is a bit PhD related. Trying to self fund a full time PhD is in itself, a full time job. Therein lies the problem. For the past 4 years I've supported myself through, it feels like every means necessary, aside from selling organs or outright prostitution . Some of my jobs have felt like outright prostitution. At this point I was juggling two evening jobs with working all day on the PhD. I felt like death most of the time and looking back, both my health and work were suffering. A full time admin job came up in one theatre, so I applied thinking it might be better the 9-5 life. And by some miracle (or later curse) I got the job.

So I took the job. I'd agonized over it. I turned down an interview for a really great job for it. I probably wouldn't have got the job, and the timing was all wrong but still. It was regular hours, it was decent, secure regular money. And I'd got to the point where I needed that.  I felt guilty and I felt I had to take that. So I took the job. It was fine. I was bored but I expected to be bored. The hardest part was in fact pretending I cared passionately about the job. I felt like I was hiding a guilty secret, that I was counting the months until I'd escape, PhD in hand to a better job. Or just you know escape at least. I felt I had to hide the PhD, that it would be used against me as it has been before. I needn't have worried I never got that far.

I decided if I was going to write this, I had to write it honestly. I won't name names but I will lay it all out honestly from my point of view. During the first week I was told 'read through the files on the system and familarise yourself with how we do things' this was practically all I was given to do, and the only instructions. So I started working my way through, making notes of questions, of things I found that didn't look right/things that were in the wrong place (there were many, believe me many issues) In the process, I  found a letter, not filed properly which when I looked at it (to see what it was/where it had to be) turned out to have the name of a friend on it. Figuring out what it was, I closed it (without reading it aside from gathering what it was from the name/title) and made a note on my long list of 'things I've found that need sorting'. Here I made a mistake, a silly thing generally yes, but I couldn't have guessed just how much of a mistake. I sent a text to the person in question 'just found your x letter lol' was the gist. It was intended as a joke, and more a way of having a little chat about my new job, followed by a text that was essentially 'well you know I'm nosy lol' (I don't really say lol a lot, but I'm using it for emphasis) Said friend replied with a 'lol' of their own and I went on with my day, assuming everything was fine.

Nearly a week later (yes a whole week)  I found myself getting fired for that text. Now I don't deny yes it was a bit of a daft thing to say. But it was a private exchange between friends. Friends who have a history of talking about work. Friends who have previously said far worse things about work in private exchanges. There's a lot more to it, in that someone else in the department seems to be under investigation for serious breaches of confidentiality, and that I seem to have been made an example of. That generally the department (and the company) is not a shining example of best practice. I was kicked out of the job with no investigation, no fair hearing and no attempt at investigation. In hindsight I don't care. I'm glad I found out after just a week what kind of environment I was working in; one where payoffs have been made to staff where it suits the company, one where people are forced to go off sick with stress due to the treatment they've received and one where a fair hearing only happens if your face fits (or your manager plays by the rules)

But in all that, in all the anger against the organisation I sat bewildered, because this has come out of a friendship. Or a betrayal of the friendship. The friend and I talked, and I believed their story as told, to a degree at least. I don't think the intention was to get me fired, I really don't. But that's still what happened, and it still hurts. I don't know the motivations behind what happened (for all parties involved) I do know that we had a grown up discussion about it, which I respect a great deal. Initially I accepted all the explanations at face value, of course the more you reflect on things, the more holes in stories, or further questions arise. In the scheme of things how much does it really matter? I'm able to forgive, I have forgiven. Trust is another matter entirely. However, it's now been nearly 2 months and I've not heard from that person since. Maybe that tells me all I need to know. I don't know. Either way I've moved on, and what will be will be. (que sera sera or something) It's sad, it's very sad but my world won't end,  and it wasn't destroyed from losing this job, far from it.

Likewise, in situations like this you find out who your real friends are. Those who were there on the day, who phoned me, who texted or emailed. Not just that day but in the weeks following. Who still check in that everything's ok, or ask if anything more came of it. Those people care, those people I trust. And there are more than enough of them. I'm so grateful to those who listened, who emailed, who talked sense into me when I needed it. In the wisest words of my trans-Atlantic twin 'Making friends as a grown up is hard, but these people are bad news' I intend to print out and put on my wall.

It also helps to find out what you really thought of the work you were doing. The next day, after I got fired,  I emailed my old boss, asking if he needed any help in the upcoming busy exam period, on the off chance. He nearly bit my arm of for help as they are always busy. However what he showed me in the next week or so, is what an employer who values your contribution can be. I've not been so happy to go to work in a long time. And I truly love that job. It's not going to give me financial security, but it gives me a bit. It also gives me a sense of being able to do a good and valued job. Something that's been missing for a long time. I'm not built for a 9-5, of "yes sir, no sir" culture. I'm built for doing what's needed to get the job done, for working whenever whatever is needed. Above all for a job that feels like you actually did something today.

Following all of this a friend and former colleague who is a few years ahead of my in PhD completion and academic career gave me the best advice I've had in a while. She told me to stop work, to stop looking for work and just finish the PhD. And as scary as it is, that is the best advice. And that's what I'm doing, with the help of my Mum. I did take my old support worker job back, for a few hours here and there, but generally it's just me and the PhD. And we might, might just be getting somewhere.

A friend told me last week how much better I seem, that even in talking about my PhD I seem calmer, happier. It might be just offloading those jobs, it might be that in offloading those jobs I moved away from an environment that was just doing me no good at all as well. Make of that what you will.

Maybe, if I may finish with a cliche, it's true, sometimes you don't get what you want (because what I wanted was a job that would let me go to New York and play with my Trans-Atlantic twin, and Alan Cumming) What I got, is a chance to finish this damn PhD once and for all, what I got was freedom from a job and environment that was doing me no good at all.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Punchdrunk 'Drowned Man'

The Drowned Man

This week I finally got to see Punchdrunk's latest offering "The Drowned Man" even typing that I wonder is 'see' the right word? Probably not. Experienced perhaps? Lived? Survived even? It's not anything you do as passively as 'see' there is nothing passive about it, as three hours of running up and down stairs will attest.

I have wanted to see a Punchdrunk show for some time. But it's difficult, it's not everyone's cup of tea and i rarely get to London alone. Plus, I'll tell you my deep dark secret now it's done: I was scared. Genuinely scared.

I'm what I think is commonly known as a wuss. A wuss with a hated bordering on fear of audience interaction. Scratch that I'm terrified of audience interaction directed at me, I just hate it with everyone else.

When I say scared I mean really scared. I don't do haunted houses, I don't even do Disneyland because people in costumes scare me (yes I do know it's weird) I'm not good in confined spaces, I'll admit I'm easily spooked in the dark. I'm just easily spooked. Like I say, wuss.

So why did I want to go so badly? Curiosity sure, the idea this was a major player in contemporary theatre I was currently missing out on. I also have a twitter friend who is utterly passionate about the show. They have excellent taste so I figured I had to find out for myself.

All this silly wussiness did manifest as genuine anxiety as the week drew in. I was helped by reading accounts of the show online, and by said twitter friend above who gave me some guidance (and valuable toilet info). I wasn't helped by the overly enthusiastic fan in the queue who regaled me and my new found queue friend with tales of experiences so intense she had to come out and sit down alone for a while and other such delights. Queue man (who was handsome, and had a very nice beard by the way) and I exchanged tentative glances, what had we let ourselves in for?

As the moment approached I'll admit genuine fear took over. Only telling myself I had paid for this, and people would see if I ran away kept me in the queue for the lift. I calmed a bit as I encountered my first actor in the lift. She was a person, she wasn't that scary (actually her make up was a bit scary) then I panicked, I failed to 'escape' the lift at the first point. Was that a good thing! Bad thing? Stepping out into the darkness I stuck close to my group until we came across some actors.

The first scene I happened to see was familiar, I'd seen it in promotional material for the show. Quickly I was sucked in by the powerful dance performance in front of me. The scene ended, I followed one of the actors a short distance, another scene began. Another breathtaking dance scene. A lover of physical theatre, and of dance to be up close to the actors for this kind of performance was mesmerising. I was quickly sucked in. Again I followed a character. I watched scenes unfold in close quarters- I'm keeping specifics vague for those wishing to avoid spoilers. I followed 3 interconnected stories for a while actors the 'loops' as they are known. As I was flitting a bit between three characters whose stories were closely entwined (because of course they are all entwined) I got an overall picture.

Following the characters began to build my confidence. I followed one to the eerie sand filled floor above, I grew braver in getting closer to the action. Having completed a loop with one set, in the town half of the story, I began to seek out another, in the studio part. Following a few characters I ventured into new spaces, but nerves and wariness, and perhaps weariness got the better of me. For a time I wandered I near empty spaces I'd already been in, taking in the detail, enjoying the chance to wander in the set.

This chance to wander without the actors or action close by was a real highlight for me. Many I know like to seek out the obscure characters in these quieter moments or parts away from the main action. For me the chance to wander in the world alone was actually better. The quiet solitude of wandering dream like through this world was so magical.

Eventually I found my way to the Studio 3 space which is an' in character bar'. Here audience members are permitted to take off their masks and talk to one another. A band and singers entertain while some characters drop in and out. For me, and many others I think it provides a chance to regroup, rest a moment before diving back in.

For the second half of my visit I immersed myself in the other part of The Drowned Man World, the studio. For a time I didn't bother following a particular character just explored the spaces I came across, observed what was going on, followed someone for a short time. Eventually I did settle on a character who saw me through to the end and the grand finale. For the finale they manage (and lord only knows how!) to get the audience in one space. It is a spectacularly executed finale that also brings the audience together as an 'audience' for really the first and only time.

So that's what I did (spoiler free) but what did I think? More importantly what did I feel? Part of me still doesn't know. But I also can't stop thinking about it. Not the plot, which I got in minimal form, but wasn't that bothered about anyway because that doesn't strike me as the point. The point really is the experience of it. What did I experience? I can't help feeling not enough.

Partly this is my a fore mentioned wussiness I was never going to be crawling into dark spaces or opening doors alone, and in a Punchdrunk show this is my failing not theirs. Maybe on a return visit, now I feel I know it a bit more, maybe, just maybe this coward would open a few doors. But I think even with the bravest intentions it takes more than one visit to really experience it. It's so overwhelming and sensory and experience that in one visit you can't wrap your head around it. On a return visit I'd have, not so much a plan, but an awareness. I'd also have taken in the bigger picture so be inclined to look at the smaller stuff.

At first I was a bit perturbed by this, the idea of a show so big you can't possibly take it in all at once. How dare a company presume people would want or even could do that. I realise though, you don't have to. It's actually me. Many people will go, have the experience take it for what it was, whatever it was for them, and go away. Maybe tell their friends, maybe bring someone else to see it. The reason I feel, not unfulfilled, per se, more that there's so much more to get, to see and experience that I didn't get to see, is because that is my disposition. And it's a disposition that Punchdrunk feeds. There are countless plays I've seen well countless times. I've never felt the need to justify seeing them again because to me it's self evident, every time you get something different. The difference begin in the case of The  Drowned Man is that they tell you, they show you that there's so much more to see. They feed the addiction before you even begin. 

And the other key difference is it's visceral, or perhaps somewhat primal. I've had what I've described as visceral theatrical experiences before  sitting on my arse in a darkened room. It stands to reason that physically following, touching the story will only enhance that for the kind of person who connects to performance. I do think that's a caveat of these experiences, you need that kind of disposition to totally connect. The kind that is won over or indeed freely given over to the experience. Is it a little bit pretentious as some critics have claimed? Yes, but nowhere near as much as some far far lesser works but far lesser companies. I feel Punchdrunk have earned a little prevention by now! and anyway nobody died from a little pretentious art. And it's not really as bad as people make out. I found it actually so honest in its emotions, in the actors connection with the audience that actually the overarching idea, might be pretentious, the delivery isn't. Or is that all I their master plan? Is it part of the illusion, the game we are all playing in visiting Temple Studios?

As I type that last sentence I realise it's game over for me, I've given in. I've started thinking about it like a fans unpicking it,trying to identify the messages, the meanings. I want to dive into that world. It still scares me, but I think I'm ready for it this time.