Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I have always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner and a volunteer relief aid worker in war zones. I have written libretti, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat and copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the so-called mainstream.
I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills. I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new, or that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.
But it’s difficult and daunting to initiate projects and career paths, especially when writers are often solitary figures in an industry that seems to work in mysterious ways. How to progress is a central question. I spent years expecting everything to suddenly become clear once I had gained enough experience, but now I don’t believe there is one route, method or direction. This is a territory that can’t be definitively mapped. Yet when I look back over my own career, there is a logical pattern, an apparently designed trajectory, although my progress felt haphazard and peripatetic at the time. The only conclusion I can draw is the importance of being guided through the labyrinth by individual curiosity and passions. It is the only way to stop getting ‘lost’ or losing time in dead-end pursuits.
Too often emerging writers second-guess what directors or publishers want, or copy trends rather than setting them, or enter into a strange ventriloquism using a borrowed voice, not their own. When developing new writers, I encourage them to work from their passion/s, to identify and locate what engages or fascinates them. I’ve found that this engagement will often translate into the quality of the work, providing the writer with their particular viewpoint, whilst sustaining them through the long and often arduous process of rewriting. When writers are truly connected to their material they are unlikely to abandon the project – and I think it essential to finish things – their practice is often richer and more complex and they’re less willing to accept second best. It also means the work has content – the writers have something to communicate.
When I started out as a playwright, it was still usual to send one copy of the script out at a time and then endure an agonizing wait of many months to hear from the agent/literary manager/editor/director, only to repeat the hateful pattern all over again. I learnt to cultivate a third skin (a second isn’t thick enough) and, despite my sympathies for the invariably over-worked literary gatekeeper of that time, to loath the power balance. I wanted to be in control as much as I could be of my life, my work and any emerging neuroses. The depressive, solitary writer waiting anxiously by the letterbox/inbox was all too possible, so I distracted myself by reading widely and hungrily the work of women writers in other countries and centuries and exploring performance aesthetics which had fired my imagination.
My understanding of dramaturgy and the multiplicity of theatre languages bloomed when I became increasingly involved in Disability arts and culture and collaborating with Deaf practitioners, using visual language in performance alongside spoken and projected English. A new horizon of performative and dramaturgical possibilities opened before me, along with new markets and opportunities outside the UK. Without realizing it, I had embarked on my freelance career and begun my own professional development. By following my curiosity and being open to new experiences, writing, and form, I grew – and by developing further skills in application writing and producing, I became increasingly in control. I was no longer the passive female writer and maker, but one who was pro-active, controlling and owning ‘the means of production’.
But writers are often shy creatures, backstage, off-camera. It is asking a lot to expect them to be suddenly dynamic and inventive, which is where networks or informal support systems come into their own. I have a close group of allies and friends who act as sounding boards, dramaturgs, editors and actors for readings of works in progress. We barter and pool our skills, mentoring and nurturing one another. When starting out, we even impersonated each other to bypass nerves or modesty, finding it easier to chase up one another’s contacts and scripts rather than our own. Being part of a community is invaluable, as is learning to collaborate and ask for help. I think being aware to our fascinations is important – being alert and conscious of what fires our imagination – and ready to act on it. Fortune may favour the brave, but as Louis Pasteur advised: chance favours the prepared mind.
© Kaite O’Reilly Extracted from ‘How Did I Get Here?’ The Writer’s Compass. National Association of Writers in Education. https://www.nawe.co.uk
I’m not one for making new year resolutions, but I am mindful of that sense of a fresh new slate many experience this time of year, and so decided to share the above essay commissioned by NAWE many years ago. I hope it may engage and perhaps encourage the many writers I’ve met across the world who follow this blog, and hopefully anyone curious enough to read this. In 2020 I feel we need to be more inventive, connected, and creative than ever before – to be kind and angry, gentle yet strong, resistant and problem-solving. I aspire to have integrity, empathy and what my mother called common bloody decency, given there is so little evidence of that in many current political leaders around the world. I think we also need to feel that the arts and culture has significance and impact, and we’re not just fiddling while Australia and many other parts of the world burns.
As hate crimes, intolerance, ableism and racism becomes ever more normalised, I feel I have to resist and refuse, offering alternative narratives and representations. That perhaps is the only power I have as a writer – to try and encourage empathy and understanding – ‘othering’ is harder to accomplish when you’ve sensed what it’s like to be in another’s skin.
This is why I am such an advocate for diversity and under-represented voices and perspectives. I try to present these in my work, but also support others making work that is political, fresh, and passionate. I’m delighted to be mentoring Dzifa Benson and Lisette Auton into 2020 – fabulous writers tackling some fascinating and important territory (more of which, in their own words, anon) – and continuing to advise the brilliant Carri Munn on a performance project initiated at National Theatre Wales which is both personal and communal, already packing a tremendous punch.
Further hidden stories and perspectives will be explored throughout 2020 as I continue searching the archives of the South Wales Miners’ Library and Richard Burton Archives, guided by historian Professor David Turner as part of Swansea University’s Creativity Fellowship. David’s specialism is disability during the industrial revolution and with his support and access to his splendid research, I hope to write a series of historical ‘d’ monologues over the year’s fellowship, to join my contemporary The ‘d’ Monologues.
Other professional highlights include revisiting Told by the Wind, a performance using the Japanese aesthetic of Quietude, co-created with Phillip Zarrilli and Jo Shapland a decade ago and still in repertory with The Llanarth Group. We’ve been invited to share the work at The International Theatre Festival of Kerala in Thrissur next month. On our return, Phillip and I will go immediately into rehearsals for The Beauty Parade, a collaboration with composer Rebecca Applin and performer/visual language expert Sophie Stone, seeded in my Creative Wales Major Award exploring ‘the performative power of words with music.’ I will continue working with emerging composers on CoDI Text, a project with Ty Cerdd, and look forward to teaching a masterclass in writing for performance at Ty Newydd with fellow playwright and dramaturg David Lane. After all that activity I will need some time to write and focus, so I am immensely grateful to have been granted a Hawthornden Fellowship, which will allow me a month’s retreat and concentrated work on a new project, linked to my Creativity Fellowship at Swansea University.
All in all, already a busy year… but there is still time to be supportive, part of a community, and to rage against the negativity and fear pedalled to us through politicians and media. Resist.
I wish you all a creative and joyful 2020 – and to resist, resist, resist.
Change will come.