Max Barton, 26 January 2014

Conversation involved, among several others who didn't get a chance to write their


Jen Lunn, Caroline Dalton, John O'Donovan, Mary Price-O'Connor, Lavinia Hollands,

Toby Tyrrell (war on terror) Jones, Holly Norrington, Teddy Lamb, Amie Taylor, Daniel

York, Kevin Shen, Lucy Sierra, Jess Mabel Jones and myself, Max Barton.

I started this conversation in order to discuss how we as theatre makers are often

required to put ourselves in certain boxes when selling ourselves, applying for jobs,

when choosing which work to make and indeed just giving an answer to the dreaded

question ‘what do you do’.

A man I know only as Ellis opened the discussion with a quick response before having

to move on, but it was one that we came back to several times. Ellis has struggled a

lot over the years with packaging himself but his ultimate conclusion has been a)

package yourself differently for each project and more importantly b) try and find the

passion that unites the strings to your bow, as it were. I.e. if you are a

director/writer/actor/deviser/everything else then try to find the thing you do that sums

you up - perhaps making work of many kinds that generally encourages people to

reassess their value system for example.

After Ellis' departure we talked round the subject in many ways, discussing how there

are boxes within boxes. First you have to decide you want to make theatre, then you

might have to decide what job you do within that, then decide what style you are

interested in, then decide what subject matter etc. etc.

Selling yourself

It was pointed out that this is a particular problem for emerging companies and artists

who may have to start defining themselves before they've even made any work, and

there was a general feeling from the group throughout that doing is the best way of

finding out.

You quickly, and sometimes necessarily, have to choose your unique selling points

(USPs) as a creative in this deeply competitive industry. Some felt that this is

important, as you need to be able to justify why your work has a place amongst

everything else. Others felt that this was soul-destroying and cynical.

In the end I think the group began to find a middle ground, where boxing yourself for

publicity makes sense, as long as you throw it out the window when you get in the

room, and treat your box as an amorphous one, ever-changing and developing as you



The conversation veered several times towards the disparity between a career-focus

and an art-focus. We talked about dreams, aims and objectives in life, and how in

some ways the idea of ‘making it’ has become the religion of a lot of theatre-makers -

the antidote to existential crisis. Here Tim Minchin's wonderful speech made at the

University of Western Australia was mentioned, a talk which helped me to start to

unpick and reassess some of the dreams that I had subscribed to thoughtlessly.

Check it out here.

The point being, put all your energy into the thing your working on, package it with

whatever USP you want in the end, but focus on the present goals not the eventual

one. Then the whole box becomes less constrictive and more or a positive framework.

The box is more for explaining your things to others rather than a guide for yourself.

This seemed helpful for people in the group who have so far avoided setting up

websites due to a fear of pigeon-holing, who now see that these can shift and change

all the time, and that a bit of decision making in the present can be helpful.


We also discussed at length the stigma that is sometimes attached to people who try

to do too much - in this case there was a feeling that there may be good and bad ways

of doing this, depending on the type of work you want to make and your skill set.

Perhaps if you're working at a big traditional theatre where you are putting other

creatives out of a job by taking too many slices of the pie, you are being selfish or

unnecessarily uncollaborative, although there was some strong argument in favour of

the idea that if you do this very well there's no reason you shouldn't be allowed to.

Maybe the point is that you are putting your head rather higher above the parapet the

more aspects you control, and so if you come away decapitated you've ‘asked for it’ -

this was expressed both with resentment and favourable support. It was also

suggested that in more form-pushing work this stigma is less present, as there may

not be others who traditionally do what you are trying to.

This was all torn apart and articulated fabulously by a member of Dumbshow, who

said you just have to be Billy Big Balls (Fanny Fat Flaps was suggested as an

alternative) about it in the end and just put your ass on the line. If it's great then people

swiftly stop caring.

10,000 hours

There was a caveat. Maybe be careful not to pursue your bow strings that are less

brilliant. There was a lot of use of the phrase Jack of all trades, master of none, which

some felt was valid and others less so.

We talked about the idea that 10,000 hours is how long it supposedly takes to become

‘expert’ in something. In disciplines like ballet/instrument-playing/juggling/whatever this

is clearly more tangible, but perhaps in theatre-making it's not such a concrete

medium. Other experiences may well make you a better actor or director, almost

certainly a better writer, and so 10,000 hours of practicing theatre technique is hardly

the key to success (check out many young actors who are brilliant at early ages or

young writers from other backgrounds who have something truly interesting to say,

because they have a first hand relationship to the subject matter).

The basic conclusion in the end seemed to be that you do have to box yourself in at

many points during your career, sometimes constructively and sometimes negatively,

but perhaps the key is to not give a fuck about it and just do it. Ultimately there are a

whole load of ingredients that make up you, and perhaps CVs and websites can read

more like recipes (I use the cooking reference as several people talked about how

when people asked them what they did they kind of wanted to say that they loved

cooking and were damn good at it as an answer, even if that's not their chosen career


Be an expert at being yourself and the box sort of forms around you.