Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Dear David Cameron

Dear David,

I rent a house and the wall outside was chipped, cracking and looked a state.

So I sanded it down with the help of a friend, removed the dirt, the flaking paint and weeds. I bought paint and painted it so it looked fresh and new. My next door neighbour saw me outside painting and said “oh have you bought the house?” “No” I said, continuing to paint “we’re just renting”. “Is it worth it if you’re renting” he asked looking a little confused. I paused for a second and then said “Just because I’m passing through doesn’t mean I can’t make it nicer on the way”.

This will be the last time I write to you I’m afraid, our acquaintance must come to an end, I fear you, like many of your contemporaries will be consigned to the history books, mere headings, subtitles and footnotes in the annals of politics, talked about in hushed, nervous tones. But I want you to know that you won’t be forgotten, time may weary you, the years may pass, but I will remember you and what you have done and stood for.

Now I know that the chances are you will never read this – I know this because I monitor the people who read my posts and I know I have a core audience of about 13 people – it’s statistically unlikely – in many ways simply writing this would be a waste of time if it wasn’t so cathartic, so freeing, so important to say the things I’m about to say.

I want to ask you what you have done with my country.

I was brought up to believe this was a country where knowledge, learning, education was incredibly important. Instead I find a nation where the young are burden with mountains of debt from trying to achieve more, better, to reach higher. Where experts are not listened to and unsupported opinion reigns strongly while fact and critical thinking is left to die by the wayside. Where education is increasingly narrowed, where the only thing between a joyless experience of learning is the dedication of overworked, underpaid, under appreciated teachers. Where initiative, innovation and experimentation are taken from the hands of expert educators.

I was brought up to believe that we were an inclusive nation. Where we cared for those less fortunate, where we opened a door to help a neighbour, where we comforted those downtrodden and offered them safe haven. I thought we wanted to help people get off the streets and into safe, secure homes rather than put people there. I thought we’d look after the poorest, rather than take away all they have while scapegoating them. I thought we believed that every member of this country was equal, regardless of whether they lived in a Conservative, Labour or Liberal area. That everyone deserved the best, not those simply in the right constituencies.

I thought we were dreamers. A land of James Dyson’s, Clive Sinclair’s, of eccentrics who wanted to push the barriers. Make the air cleaner, roads safer, land greener and sky bluer. But all I see are huge corporations sucking, draining country. All I see are obscene amounts of money passing from state to individuals. All I see is the bullying tactics of media moguls, changing the very direction of travel with a headline, a poster, a hateful word.

We fought evil. Racism had no place, we thought in bigger pictures, we thought about ideals, about how the greater good was the unity of all, to help bring the liberalism and British beliefs to other shores, not to lose them on our own. We would challenge lies feverishly and without mercy. We were the nation who recognised the early signs of right wing racism and offered support, helped, we never thought we see it here.

I thought that Britain’s place in the world was to make the world a better place – to make it happier, safer, more caring and stable – all achieved with a stiff upper lip and a fundamental belief that if we all worked for the betterment of others then our own happiness would be secured.

So what went wrong?

Maybe those beliefs were all lies. Maybe it’s an imaginary view of an imaginary place that never really existed. Maybe I was the only one who wanted them, maybe society isn’t ready to work out what comes next after the greed, the selfish self-gratification and capitalism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I know the answers, I’d just hoped we were prepared to try and find better answers rather than fall backwards to the failed solutions of days gone by.

And so I ask you David, what did you do, what did you really do? In that rose-tinted world where experts, facts and truth were cornerstones of British values – did you leave this place a better place than you found it?

So David, if you want to chat, have a coffee, talk about it all, then tweet me @mrfreeman1984, let’s work out what you do now to make amends, or maybe we could just sand and paint a wall and leave it a little better than before – just see how that feels.

Best, Sam.

Brexit: What next?

It happened.

I woke up this morning and felt sick, a wave of almost grief coming over me, that was swiftly followed by anger and then sadness. The UK has voted to leave the EU. It feels like the worst decision that has ever happened, it quite likely is a massively bad decision, but it is a decision nonetheless.

My immediate thought as the markets crashed were, selfishly, how will it effect me, what for the future and what should we learn from this.

There is a reality that the UK is considerably more conservative and right leaning than many people generally think. While this is a devastating result we should, perhaps, not be terribly surprised. Bare in mind that while UKIP only has 1 seat in parliament (0.2% of the seats) they received 12.7% of the popular vote at the last election. Certainly the first-past-the-post system has insulated us from this right-leaning part of the nation. We should also be aware that more people voted for UKIP than the Lib Dems, SNP and Green Parties – they are the third most popular party in the UK.

However, and I say this with an incredibly heavy heart, what we have witnessed is democracy in action – yes, we may hate the result – yes, the older generations have forced change on younger generations they didn’t want – yes, Nigel Farage is still being a smug, arrogant, arsehole. But democracy has been served – elected officials placing the fate of the nation in their own hands – rightly or wrongly – the people have spoken.

So where do we go next? My initial thought was back to bed, screw the lot of them. But that’s not terribly helpful and despite everything I still have to go to work. I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.

  • While there is conservatism strongly represented in older generations, younger people are more liberal than ever which gives me hope for the future.
  • UKIP have been a single issue party. There is a huge question about where they go next? Without a convenient scapegoat will they disappear? And if they do (and God I hope they do), who will take those voters.
  • There will be considerable economic impact as a result of this vote – this will undoubtedly effect the poor and young working people. But it will also hit the older generations, pensions, housing and more. There will, possibly be a reduction in house prices across the UK – whether there will be any jobs for people, or if inflation goes wild, that’s another matter. Eventually, everything will balance out. Simply put business works better in stability so stability is key.
  • We should examine the core of what our democracy is and how we conduct it. We rejected Alternative Vote and voted in one of the most right-wing, anti-poor, aggressive governments of the past 30 years. We also rejected accepting the considered views of our elected officials to put this subject to referendum. Was that a good idea? We won’t know for years.
  • I’ve read that lots of people said “I’ll leave the country” or have suggested that Scotland or Northern Ireland should hold independence votes. I desperately hope that doesn’t happen. I still believe we’re better together – the question is can we find a shared vision of the future that describes what we want to be in positive, aspirational tones, or are we stuck in the blame game with no exit in  sight.
  • We need to address the issues of misleading the public and hate crimes. Both have been committed by leading Brexiteers (and a few Remainers) during this hateful campaign. Will those people be brought to justice. When we ignore overt racism and the twisting of fact (or just bare-faced lies) where does that leave our nation?
  • The media must take some blame for this – again, when papers can publish lies and hate crimes, when they can aggressively destroy people, and take sides, we should ask the question about where news (impartial) ends and entertainment begins and how we and the masses can ensure the difference is obvious.

This is the start of a new journey – a new and terrifying journey. For hundreds of years we have been Great Britain, the United Kingdom. We need politics to find a new message, a new goal, perhaps even a written constitution so that we stop making a mockery of the words Great and United and live them.

Today is a hard day, the start of many hard days, it can seem bleak and dark, but it’s our duty to find that light, find our future and make our nation everything it promises but doesn’t yet deliver.

TV Review: Community

Viewing habits have completely changed.

Whereas once upon a time we’d anxiously plan our forthcoming unmissable shows in the Radio Times, carefully highlighting the key programmes and negotiating with family members for sole use of the television, and, or VHS, now we’re all on-demand, streamed and downloaded.

We’ve also lost, to an extent, that long drawn out process of watching a series. No longer do we (with a couple of exceptions) patiently tune in at a set time, watch and then curse that it’d be a whole week until the cliffhanger was resolved. Now I binge watch like a terrible addict, unwilling to sleep, desperate to know the next twist, a culture of “just one more episode” or “I’ll be up to bed after just… oh yes, another hour gone.” We overlook that we can pause shows, the whole story arcs have to be taken in, we’ve moved on from Last Of The Summer Wine to a world where episodes are episodic as part of a broader narrative rather than stand alone.

In the past 12 months I’ve watched the following shows: The Bridge (amazing), Hinterland (amazing), Line Of Duty (amazing), Making a Murderer (intriguing), Love (overrated but still good) and Breaking Bad (amazing). However I felt like I was needing a break, after all there are only so many shows about murder, deception, corruption and despair you can take, sometimes you need something fun.

Let me introduce Community.

It was one of those shows that popped up on Netflix, the type which looks like it might star Adam Sandler and thus be of no inherent value*. It wasn’t helped by Netflix’s categorisation of the show – “suggested for you” – no, fuck you Netflix, you don’t know me, I make my own choices in this world and don’t need your help.

Apparently I do.

Community is a show about an arrogant former lawyer (Jeff), fired from his job for faking his degree and qualifications, going to community college to retake the exams and, well, get back to lawyering. It’s about the study group he becomes part of and his journey towards humility**.

Let me start by saying the first 4 episodes are slow burners. There’s a lot of character work, the progression seems slow and the apparent lead, named Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) is unbelievably unlikable. It all feels very staged and a little bit like a sitcom by numbers. However don’t let that draw you into a false sense of security that this is another shit American TV comedy. Once you get past episode four you hit a clever, rich and silly series. It’s not serious, deep or going to change the world but it’s funny and experimental and is so heavily littered with pop-culture references that it constantly surprises.

The point where it really flies is where the focus moves from Jeff to the other cast members and becomes a more ensemble show. The cast includes Chevy Chase (who nails the role as the unintentionally racist, homophobic, elderly rich guy), Gillian Jacobs (who, despite having a story that starts around her being wooed by Jeff, develops a really interesting and rounded character), Danny Pudi (as Abed, my favourite character who acts as the vehicle to bring film and TV references into the series) in a great double act with Donald Glover (the ex-sports star) with reoccurring cameos from Ken Jeong and John Oliver.

So why watch?

It uses physical comedy better than many shows out at the moment – at a time where someone falling over is generally not added as a joke here it is included – included and done well. The film references – so far I’ve seen Apollo 13, Dawn Of The Dead, Battle Royale and Mean Girls – all clever, not always subtle, but always respectful of the source add a cool, weirdly alternative dynamic. It’s also fun, and light. It’s the pudding of the TV world. You don’t need it, it’s not going to fill you up or give you nourishment, but everyone will be happier with it.

*harsh, but he is criminally badly used as an actor, someone get him doing realism and he’ll be great.
**this is in no way a spoiler, it’s pretty damn obvious.

To EU or not to EU (that is the question)

This last weekend I did the usual things people like me do. I went to Waitrose wishing I’d brought my Aldi bags so people would regard me as “dangerous” and “a maverick”. In my new found capacity as a garden-renter I pulled up some weeds, watered some inexplicably expensive plants I’d been forced to buy and used some mint from my new herb-garden to add something extra to my boiled potatoes. I also wore shorts, with converse and socks. Like I said “dangerous”.

It was all going rather well, I’d read The Guardian, Independent (sport only) and then flicked around on Lifehacker.com to discover how I can become, well, even more me when the doorbell rang. It was a Leave campaigner.

The bald 60 something man was very jovial and he, like me, expected that the interaction would last less than 30 seconds. He’d ask me if I could help, I’d lie and say I’d think about it and then he’d leave happy that a tiny step had been taken. It’d be like the Oxfam people all over again just with less guilt about children dying as a result of wanting to get back to, well, anything.

“Hello, I was wondering if you knew which way you were voting in the upcoming election” he said, smiling and handing me a flyer. “Oh I think so” I replied with a knowing smile. “Right” he said, taking out his clipboard on which a list of houses with either ticks or crosses was fixed, “can I ask which…” It was at that point that something broke in me, I looked down at this flyer in my hands, at the lies printed there for all to see, at racism and mistrust disguised as fact and I thought, no, not today, we’re going to talk about this.

The conversation lasted 20, maybe 25 minutes, all conducted on my doorstep with both of us feeling irritation but, towards the end, perhaps admiration towards the other.

It didn’t start well. After he’d explained that he’d lived in Spain for 15 years after buying a house over there with a carrier bag of cash (it’s how they do it), and how he’d never heard anyone speak Spanish once (I didn’t ask if he’d in fact moved to Essex) and how it was better we left because of the USSR (not sure about this one, it just came up), we chatted about how the EU had offered protections to workers that UK governments were against in the past, how tenants were better protected than ever (at which point he told me he was a landlord…), how only 12% of our laws were really influenced by Europe and they tended to protect worker rights, and y’know, do good stuff.

We chatted about how the £350 million figure was clearly not true and that the EU helped regions that would never get the support of central government (particularly Tory governments who have a habit in not investing in a place unless you vote for them). We talked about how everyone who is a respected, analytical, intellectual thinks remain is a no-brainer.

We talked and nothing changed. He told me about how the problem was immigration (apart from the good ones) and how it was the English language that was the problem. Being the best at music and culture had taken its toll, encouraging people to want to live here (said the man still tanned from 15 years in Spain). He left convinced that I was an idiot firmly putting a cross on his form and shaking his head, asking to take his leaflet as he shook my hand.

I realised that the arguments I’d given for staying in the EU however were those largely given by the media and started to think about the reasons I believe we should stay in the EU. So, here they are – agree or disagree, that’s your prerogative, comment below if you’d like.

My five reasons for voting to stay…

  • I believe that bridges are better than walls – I want to live somewhere connected, friendly, where access is easy and simple. I don’t like nationalism but I like cultural differences. Walls breed nationalism, fear and hate and I don’t like it.
  • Many of the EU’s laws protect me, in work, from the UK government, from multinational companies. The powers of the future are not nation states but global corporations who can buy and sell influence. A group together is stronger than an individual.
  • I resonate more strongly as European than as an American. Yes we share a language, but I believe in universal healthcare, socialism (not to be confused with communism), a less litigious society, a world of us rather than me, also I really like nice Italian and Spanish tapas.
  • I like to think that we are a nation that helps people. There was a celebration of a man who died who during WW2 organised Kindertransport to save hundreds of German Jewish children from certain death. They were refugees. I’d like to think as a nation we still have that will to help those less fortunate – if only we could see through our insecurities.
  • We live in a more connected world than ever before. Technology is changing how we interact globally. It’s breaking down barriers. So why erect more of them? Both reform and leaving are hard to do. But reform offers a chance to work collaboratively and that’s where great ideas happen. The best creative and innovative work I’ve seen has been cross-cultural and cross-age. That’s where invention happens, where dreams, ambitions and change happens. But it needs to be incubated, supported, and I think that is in the EU rather than alone.

Navigation for a 21st Century Man.

Today I went for a drive to Wales with my better half.

It started fairly certain enough – the same roads I go along each day for work – then a slight mistake and then a single lane track with grass intermittenly growing out of the centre, dubiously small “passing points”, clammy sweaty palms on the steering wheel as the hedgerows got taller and taller and then, after a few miles the blessed relief of another A road leading to safety again.

It was a lovely trip, to Mold for a bite to eat then over the winding roads to Ruthin (pronounced Rithin) for a relaxing stroll next to a river, past some lovely houses, through a field of cows and then back to my incredibly hot car for a journey back made longer by fading mobile internet and a reliance on apple’s sat nav.

There was something lovely as we walked through the fields, incredibly relaxing, as if a burden had been lifted that I think I needed. I wonder sometimes if we spend enough time looking around at the beauty around us, instead choosing to focus on the minutia of our lives, the little things that gradually get to us.

I’ve been reading a book recently called “don’t sweat the small stuff”. It was one of those Amazon purchases bought when I was feeling a bit under pressure and had various things whirling round my head at 2am preventing a solid night’s sleep. I’ll save you reading it, the title says it all, essentially, it’s about picking what to worry about and what is, on the scale of things, not that important. It’s a lovely theory, unfortunately one that is both incredibly difficult to live by but also incredibly frustrating for those around you.

You see loads of those memes (i think they’re called that) across facebook, twitter and the internet in general like they’ve been scattered at random. Mostly I tend to steer away, not least because they’re usually accompanied by either a cute animal in an unusual location, a sandy beach with a single set of footprints or of a famous person who is now dead.

The nearest I’ve got to a saying to live by, I think, is Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day. I like the idea that it’s about the multitude of small steps that build to create something bigger and better.

The question I find myself asking is what is Rome?

I think it’s something different to everyone and not necessarily to do with work, or careers. I think it’s more general than that, it’s to do with what sort of society we want to live in, what we want life to be, how we want to treat people and in return they treat us, it’s to do with society, community, faith and love. But most of all it’s about peace. Finding peace that you built your Rome and with your dying breath can smile and say “I made a difference”.

Which gets me back to the wrong turn. Those miles going down the single lane track, the hedges getting taller, seemed incredibly daunting, but now I know what’s down there, and that, if taken carefully I won’t die and I’ll come out the other side – it is now just another path. There’s a metaphor or maybe a parable in there maybe. Or maybe I’m tired, have eaten too much ice cream and need sleep. Night.

IN OTHER NEWS
I’m conscious that creatively I’m doing fuck all* at the moment so need to get back on it. I’m considering making a short film, probably a documentary, so if you’ve any suggestions of something I could create in a day that’d be great. I’ve been considering going down the ipad filming road, one that seems eminently sensible to me at the moment considering the ease with which to work them and also the quality of the footage… Anyway, thoughts welcome… It’s either that or storytelling/standup and tbh I’ve lost my nerve so badly I suspect that’s beyond me at the moment.

*technical term

Three weeks later… Eggs, theatre and badminton.

I realised on my drive home today that it’s been a while since I wrote anything, or indeed saw people. For those wondering, I’ve started a new job in lovely North Wales at Theatr Clwyd. I think it’s important to say that as years ago I went off radar for a few weeks and a friend put “RIP Sam” on my facebook wall. This led to some people genuinely thinking I’d died which weren’t helped by people winding them up. So, anyway, I’m not dead, I’m in Wales. Or, well close to Wales, I’m in Chester.

This feels increasingly like one of those slightly awkward letters that you’d invariably get at Christmas from family or friends who lived a bit too far away to see. They’d include all the year’s events in one side of A4 and would always describe various member of the family as “getting taller”, “achieved the A-Level results he wanted” or even “flirts with danger”. I always wondered what the subtext to these letters, written by the matriarch of the distant family might be. Instead of “getting taller” you might read “needs to leave home”, the A-Levels quote could easily be replaced with “failed” and “flirts with danger” is definitely code for “Is a cock”.

The new job has been pretty intense with quite long hours so far. There’s that part of you before you start somewhere new that is always the optimistic planner – in week one I will assess, week two I will solve, week three I will rest with my work done. Of course it doesn’t quite work like that. I feel I’m still in the assessment phase, getting to grips with the quirks and oddities that are inherent in any job. There are some incredibly friendly, genuine people working at the theatre which has made life a lot easier and has made me excited about getting to work in the morning. It feels like a bit of juggling at the moment perhaps with lots of balls in the air and the VHS on fast-forward. I think I’ve definitely dropped a couple but equally have caught a fair few too.

The best moments so far have been when my team made a cool video for an upcoming show, getting file sharing working (it’ll work perfectly by the end of next week mark my words!), walking up the box office staircase every morning to the most incredible view of green fields, small mountains and endless skies, the green room keeping me alive with huge portions of food, and eggs. Yes eggs. There’s a lady who brings eggs round from a local farm and you can buy eggs, from your desk, from a farm. It made my day.

The driving hasn’t been too bad, not least because I’ve now managed to relax to the soothing tones of BBC Radio 4. 95% of what it has on is brilliant if you give it a chance, the remaining 5% is The Archers – but then noone’s perfect. I love the obscurity of some of the shows that are on offer. This week, as a sample, there was a show about puppets and puppeteers hosted by a presenter with a pathological fear of puppets. Melvin Bragg’s “In Our Time”, a show with perhaps the most misleading title of all time when we bare in mind 90% of the show was about events in 1000BC and the rest was about Plato. And finally the beleaguered journalists interviewing people about the EU referendum. One particular highlight was a fish monger who came out with this confused gem.

“I sell mussels, I sell cockles, I sell fish. We won two World Wars. We need to stand on our feet again so we should leave”.

I did slightly wonder whether the journalist had genuinely asked him about the EU or if he just said put 3 sentences together that offer no coherent argument about anything at all.

Anyway. Finally tonight I played badminton for the first time in 4 years. As I’m taking the break from standup I thought I should try and get fit again. I’ve had this  notion in my mind that I have, what I describe as “residual fitness”. This is like a store of fitness that would allow me, at a moments notice to run a marathon, or throw a javelin, or walk up some stairs faster than normal. With this in mind I thought I’d be okay. And in many ways I was. The skill, the racquet technique and positional play wasn’t horrendous.

Turns out though that “residual fitness” is massive bullshit. During the warm up I had sweat pouring down my face, my chest tightened, I genuinely considered just crying on court to be let off this. It was like cross country, painful and tiring, just without an overweight gym teacher with psychotic tendencies chasing you. I managed 6 games in all. Game 4 I peaked and although I was struggling, started to enjoy it a lot more. Game 5 was the killer. About half way though I realised that I couldn’t see through half of my left eye. It was like someone had put a crystal over half of it distorting the view. It came back after I sat for 10 minutes so I had one last game, make my excuses and fled.

Slightly bizarrely another person who was attending the club for the first time was someone I played badminton with at Uni. There was an awkward moment of “are you who I think you might be”. He suggested he wasn’t sure it was me as i looked younger than he remembered. Now before you think “well that’s a win” i should also tell this, in work I’ve been asked my age three times. I’m always coy replying “how old do you think I am”.

Their replies?

33, 38 and 40.

So there you go.

Anyway, to summarise I’ve got taller, got the results I wanted and have been flirting with danger loads.

Night x

A final(ish) gig report.

On Friday I did, what will be, my last gig for probably the next 6 – 8 months. I’m taking a break while I get sorted in a new job and have also been struggling with my confidence to apply for gigs so it felt like a break might be good to reinvigorate me too.

Confidence is a strange beast, you see it when you watch football, the striker who whereas normally would calmly trust themselves to deliver instead lingers too long, overthinks, panics and then sky the ball kilometers over the bar, their confidence shot. For me its rarely shown up when I’m onstage but instead a lingering doubt that has accumulated with the single voice of “you’re shit, why are you doing this”. It affects me applying for gigs (and I realise as I write this how ridiculous that seems) and also has some other side-effects. In the lead up to a gig I’ll stop eating properly for a couple of days, my sleep patterns will change, hilariously I sometimes get the night sweats accompanied by dark dreams of failure. I know I obsess about anything that isn’t perfect and inherently don’t trust feedback. For example if someone says to me that I was good, my mind instant starts thinking “well you would say that wouldn’t you, because you’re a nice person and not a twat” – after all, no-one gives honest feedback, not really, unless 100% anonymous.

Which kind of begs the question why am I writing a gig report I suppose? I think as a record that I did the gig. Maybe so I can write down what it was like before it comes a tainted memory and also so when/if I pick up standup again I have a previous marker.

So the gig…

It was a charity fundraiser, a phrases that usually makes you want to stick a fork repetitively in your own eye, but it turned out to be really nice. Raising money so that kids can have new leotards for their gymnastics club is surprisingly fertile ground. I was MC which is a position I think I’m reasonably strong at and, in a hot room, I think it went okay.

The opening section is always slightly terrifying as you’ve no idea whether an audience will be coming with you – I think I need more material sometimes at the top of the show, but then I’ve seen MC’s who rely on the material and don’t improvise from the room and it can seem a little formulaic and staid(sp?). Usual interactions with the front row bounced nicely if not explosively and although they were warmish when I brought Allan Finnegan on (who is ace, book him, actually book everyone I mention) they maybe needed prepping a little more. The audience was on tables which in theory is great (somewhere to put the drinks) but in practice means you’ve audience further away than you’d like and a row of people who were late on row 2 didn’t help.

The middle section was much better, lubrication with beer invariably helped as did some pretty crude fingering jokes, material about Bluetooth-enabled leotards and a giant of a man whose sperm was the size of a subway. I think going a little crude in the middle tends to work for me if they like me after section one, it also means I can gauge it for the final bit about whether to go worse or rein it in. There are occasions I notice that I go a little panto-dame-esque with “you can do better than that” but I think I manage it by making sure that I keep dipping to my reference points in the night (leotards, man giants, subways).

Final section was spot on (which I rarely say), I asked the audience if they wanted darker material, they said yes, I said no, then told an elongated spitroast joke about an elderly 3 some in their 80s which gets darker everytime I tell it. I particularly like being able to use a stage whisper to change the tone and also find that silence for this works really effectively. The punchline “vaseline” is as horrendous as it sounds but hit perfectly and it also gives me chance to talk to the audience about how it’s lucky I’m not telling that joke tonight.

We ended, as invariably charity gigs do, with an epic raffle. 20+ prizes of differing quality dispatched within 5 minutes including the most hideous cuddly toy ever seen. Overall it was a nice gig I suppose. One downside was Radio 4 not working in my car on the way home but then I’m not sure I can include that that as an element of my gig report.

So that’s it really, keep up with tedious marketing blogs on here and the odd bits of theatre stuff and I’ll write again when I start again!

 

P.S. Oh, another blog worth reading is by Jim Bayes, it’s really interesting if you like the gig report/thoughts of a new(ish) comedian – click here)

 

A new job and a new city

Tomorrow I start my new job in the Marketing department of Theatr Clwyd. It’s been 3 weeks of “changes” to say the least. I’m usually relatively risk and change averse so to find myself living in a new city, starting a new job, where I’ll be driving for an hour each day is pretty galling but also pretty exciting.

I have to admit that the new job is the part that is worrying me the least. That’s not to say over the past week my mind hasn’t run wild as I sleep with various permutations of disasters that, realistically, would never happen. The first dream was last last week and involved me turning up to work on the first day in Wales (which looked suspiciously like Hull – imagine my horror) to be told very matter of fact that they’d chosen to rebuild the theatre and was I any good at DIY – a dream that is incredibly dull but also impossible – noone would ever trust me to rebuild a whole theatre, and certainly not when they were relying on me for assorted woodworking skills.

It’s been weird seeing things I programmed and did in Liverpool with a sense of detachment. I was torn whether to go to see the wonderful Mark Watson, but then at the same time thought it might be a bit weird to go back to my former place of work so quickly. There’s previews in July with lots of people who are a) great and b) I know (Bilal Zafar, Adam Rowe, Che Burnley to name  a few), so I might pop back to see them. It reminded me of the comedy nights we use to run at York Theatre Royal. Huge sprawling epic club shows where you’d get 600 – 800 people laughing at a mixed bill of acts. I remembered that the first one we did the interval lasted 35 mins because the bars were so busy. Its remarkable how much has changed in the past 10 years really.

Moving to Chester has been interesting and slightly nerve wracking. It’s odd moving from somewhere where you have a big support network to somewhere that feels altogether more isolated despite Liverpool being 45 mins down the tracks. We’ve moved house and we still have a room (actually 3 rooms) which could solely be described as having the purpose of box storage. It’s been really nice to move into a proper housey house opposed to the flat which while lovely could feel a bit claustrophobic. It’s the little discoveries about a new house that both torment and simultaneously amuse me. Our dishwater has a setting to delay washing dishes. Why is that? Who thinks “I’ve filled this up, it’d be great if it came on in 12 hours time?” Helpfully the previous tenants have also removed all the labels from the dishwasher meaning it’s more a Russian Roulette style of washing. Chester feels a little bit like Scarborough to be honest – it has that small town sort of vibe, pleasant and lovely and a slowly pace.

If I’m truly honest the bit which is worrying me is the drive from Chester to Mold. I’m not a confident driver at the best of times and have a habit of rerouting myself to avoid places where I’ve had issues. So far I’ve changed my route to work to avoid 3 roundabouts (one which shit me up), but also avoiding changing roads on account of being nearly run off the road the last time I attempted to change lanes. That said my little car (Skoda Fabia 1.4 Comfort, 2003) has performed admirably and since the introduction of Radio 4 to my drives I seem a little more serene.

Anyway, I start tomorrow and will probably blog a bit about how things are going. If you’re ever in Chester do say hello, etc… Oh and my final stand up gig is this Friday in Chorley. I’m quitting for a while to focus on the job (and also because I’ve massively lost my nerve, which should be interesting as I’m MCing).. See you soon!

Clubbing and other inherent evils.

Memories are strange things.

image 1

Get your hair cut

They are neither truth nor fact and are all, invariably, tainted by what came before and after. In House of Card’s Frank Underwood’s memories must be very different to the reality (often mistakenly mixing necessity with cold blooded murder). Memories are also, it would seem, Facebook’s new favourite thing to plague you with -presumably they got bored of pokes, games involving farming and videos of cats. A week ago my memory was of me looking slightly pissed in a bar in York about 9 years ago. A lot has changed since then; I now cut my hair regularly (and fret about its gradual disappearance), I don’t wear silk shirts nor do I drink particularly heavily any more. I also don’t go out clubbing. A friend of mine commented on the picture “Those were the days!” and I started to wonder, were they?

I started going clubbing when I was 16, part of a group of lads who, in the absence of any sort of ID relied on being moderately tall and wearing a black shirt to avoid tell tale sweat patches. It was a strange period of excitement, standing outside Club XS (in Scarborough) for the best part of 2 hours in the Yorkshire drizzle, as countless slightly older people pushed in front, waiting excitedly to get inside to get inside to, we thought, some sort of sexy Narnia.

scarborough-bowls-centre

Open to everyone – apart from us.

Invariably we’d only ever get in 50% of the time on account of looking 13, but also reciting over and over again your fake date of birth as you approach a bouncer is somewhat suspicious.  I  struggled with lying about my age for a while – unable to ascertain both how old I needed to be to get into a place and also how old I should pretend to be to get by socially. I stuck resiliently at 16 for the next 4 years including, in a disaster of epic proportions being ejected from the Alexandra Bowls Centre (you read that right), after playing pool on an afternoon because I, and my now pissed off looking friends were under age. Apparently the Bowls Centre had higher standards than any nightclub in Scarborough in the early noughties.

Club XS though was the pinnacle of what my 16 year old mind could imagine. Sure it was grimey, you stuck to the floor like it covered in sticky white glue (it actually might have been something else), it only served three drinks, all of which were luminous and glowed in the dark as if they’d been freshly delivered from Chernoybl. The downstairs played rock music for people who were too cool to be upstairs and the upstairs played everything else (including Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen at 1am) for those who though there were other colours but black to wear on a night out . We danced, threw up, waved at people we’d seen often hours earlier at college, and then walked home, taxi money spent, the 4 miles back, eating a cheesy garlic bread and lamenting that we weren’t cool enough to pull girls.

drinks

Regret in drink form.

The walk home was often more memorable than the night out.

Two particular nights stick in the mind. One where we walked home along a disused railway track (like the unseen, night-time, drunken part of The Railway Children that was sadly cut from the film and later stage adaptation) where Steve, who usually handled his drink far better than me declared that he needed to sit down and promptly sat on a bench, a bench which turned out to be a big bush of nettles. The second was when I was walking home in the rain with Chris some years later (and him a now beefed up member of the armed forces). I made a joke about someone on the other side of the road who looked like they were on drugs. Turns out they were, and after punching me in the face over a walk, then apologised, insisted “that you’re not who I thought you were”, asked us “don’t call the police” and then sprinted off down a passageway, leaving me dazed and military-trained Chris sheepish.

My days of clubbing were fun for a while –  I decided that dancing like a dick was far preferable to being made to look like a dick through countless rejections from girls. We developed a range of dance moves from fishing to the now near legendary fried breakfast that would perplex out fellow clubbers. For a bit I was a clubbing battering ram – friends would send me to dance on the dance floor first, using my inability to dance to create a large open expanse devoid of any other life but perfectly suitable to accommodate a badminton team or a night out of theatre studying uni friends avoiding writing essays. Smoke was thick in the air – you’d wake up the following morning and sniff your room to be met my the unmistakable stench of dis-guarded clothes forever infused with marlboroughs and the slight whiff of body odour and despair.

But was is good? I’m not entirely sure. For a while I loved the excitement, the thrill of being a little out of control (but still within very strict guidelines). To go out with hopes, dreams and come home sodden and damp with the bitterness covered by the emergence of a monster hangover created by lager and black sambuca. It was an experience, that I can say for sure, good or bad is hard to define.

It all ended when I was 26 and I became tired of the reality of the whole experience. Waiting to get in now filled me with anger at the inadequacy of the queuing system, comedy dance moves stopped being cool and ironic and were scorned and mocked, the music had moved from being fun to a mix of tracks torn from “Now that’s what I call shit volume 9” and “Things without a tune volume 5” and the smell, now devoid of the uniformity of cigarettes, was simply stale BO and vomit filled with the pieces of a thousand shattered dreams.

It’s all, of course, just a part of growing up, once you get settled your desire to dance around people who you share so little in common with disappears. You move on, tastes change, occasionally you look back and think “those were the days”, a tingle of nostalgic excitement accompanying the idea of doing it all again. But then, without the shrouding effects of a hangover, or teenage lust and excitement, it all seems just a little bit shit and you shudder at the memory, turn on Netflix and disappear into House Of Cards.

I wonder if Frank ever went clubbing?

 

 

The art of the season brochure

Today I signed off Unity Theatre’s season brochure – the last of my six year tenancy as Marketing Manager (I’m going to Theatre Clwyd and am dead excited as you will undoubtedly discover over the next 6 months!) – and I felt a wave of emotions briefly as I said “yes, print it”.

The first was relief, that was quickly overcome by sadness that that was it, done, and that was even more quickly overwhelmed by reminiscence. I can chart the progression of Unity’s marketing and its development over the past 6 years through the brochures most clearly – each one filled with battles won and lost, decisions correct or not, lessons learned – many of these side-by-side with changes in my life, my progression as a marketeer but also the solidification of an element of Unity’s brand over time.

I wanted to write a little bit about it to help clarify my thoughts about them, but also because they often get overlooked in marketing conversations. We regularly (and rightly) talk about social media, digital, CRM, experience management and more, but rarely about the place of one of our staples, the fibre of the marketing world, keeping us regular – the humble season brochure.

I appreciate that as I write this some people will read this who’ve abandoned them, others will be sticking rigidly to them. This is not suggesting that the way we worked is correct for everyone. The opposite, you should market as effectively as possible to the audience of your venue and your community – do what works not what’s necessarily fashionable or demanded by board members or friends.

BrochuresWhy not get rid?
I remember about 10 years ago when I was starting to get into Arts Marketing attending an AMA conference where marketeers were confidently proclaiming that now we were entering a digital world that “brochures were dying” and predicting they would be deceased within 5 years. That never happened, nor did any of us predict that youtube would catch on, myspace would die and that people would ever find 120 character sentences (or tweets as they became known) interesting.

I was part of this “they’ll be dead crowd”, so why didn’t it happen? It didn’t happen for a few reasons, some economic, some brand and some job security led. Economically we were getting a good bump from sales when they were produced, not huge advanced bookers but a good chunk. In addition our website, digital profile and online booking was terrible and needed an overhaul and it made economic sense to distribute the brochure with lots of shows in rather than loads of different flyers (over 40 shows a season). The print we were receiving was pretty bad too – it had an air of the unprofessional at times – this was an easy way to gloss over that. However there was a limited budget of which it was eating far too much, it lacked clear brand direction, it wasn’t the most exciting or dynamic or USP led thing but it was tangibly doing a job in sustaining audiences effectively within resources.

Brochures2How Unity’s changed?
I had a mentor who said to me that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and I think it’s quite true. What’s also true is that once Rome is built (or certainly the foundations are there…) you forget what things looked like before.

The change in Unity’s brochure happened over 2-3 years really – at the time I found it frustrating that the change didn’t happen quicker, but in retrospect it was necessary as lots of different things were aligning at the same time which is not an immediate transition. We never had enough money to do a full rebrand so instead changed things gradually – it started with rewriting copy, trying to remove the jargon, anything superfluous and really define who it was for: audiences (yes I know that’s vague, but I’m opposing this to people who work in theatre all the time). Sentence lengths shortened, academic language and jargon was phased out, plot and content came to the foreground, form and style to the background and the number of arguments with companies increased hugely as we ripped their copy apart and reassembled it for our use.

Brochures3Then came a design step change – we started thinking about values, what our work encapsulated, what was important to us. We also, ordered every brochure from every other theatre in the country and went through them with a fine tooth comb. If there was something clever we highlighted it, if the tone appealed we cut it out, if we hated it we found out exactly what we hated. It was a useful exercise in finding the things that we related to, that were exciting and dynamic. We had a challenging moment with our long standing designer and eventually parted ways and so auditioned (such a theatrical word, I mean “went through tendering”) from 8 designers to see a) how they related to the brief, b) whether we thought we could work with them, c) if they brought things to the table and d) price.

We had better copy, a designer who related to the theatre, our way of talking about the organisation was becoming, dare I say, less serious and we had found an aesthetic that worked. We changed the size of the brochure from a 150mm square to A5 – this cut costs dramatically, reduced our postage costs (for packaging) and we sourced the printer (rather than designer) meaning we could shop around a bit more.

Brochures4Obsession/Deconstruction
This began a period of time of “bringing together” which was essentially of aligning all the elements of Unity which had previously felt pretty disparate. We updated the website (with usability and navigation top of the agenda), examined our mailings, looked at how the building presented itself as we looked around and generally tried to improve everything one step at a time.

With the brochure we started a process of deconstruction after every brochure – we used audience and staff feedback to gradually refine what we had. This usually involved taking two brochures apart, gluing them to sheets of A3 and writing “this is shit” with massive red circles over anything that didn’t quite work, putting down new ideas and also using the retrospective knowledge of shows that didn’t sell and applying them to what we’d done to get “what we’d have done differently”. That was then applied to the next brochure and so on.

The brochure covers began as quite dark with a bold colour, reflective of where we were at the time, but also, in a city filled with great venues, something that helped make our brochure stand out and look dynamic and different against the others on offer (please note, I’m not saying better, just different). Then as we progressed we had natural development – firstly to place the shows at the core of what we were doing, then to go brighter and then to offer something completely different to coincide with a new artistic director.

As we progressed the content became tighter and tighter, the formatting became more exacting and the deconstruction kept continuing (top tip: always start by talking about what works otherwise you’ll feel drained after the meeting!). We made sure that the tone fitted our brand identity and also increasingly matched the positive audience perception but also the work that we put on stage.

Brochures5I was incredibly lucky in having a succession of Marketing Officers and Box Office Managers who were liberal with their opinions and were passionate in leading the charge. I can’t stress enough how important they were in making things develop and move forward. Two things that spring up that’s useful for brochures 1) make sure you’ve someone with a good bullshit detector and 2) be prepared to compromise sometimes. The bullshit detector is incredibly useful because we all write with a voice that is unique to us – sometimes it will sneak into things we’re writing (copy for example) and needs to be sought out and put right. In my case I can occasionally write “bullshit”. Or, more specifically, overly complicated complex sentences with an excessive amount of exclamation marks. Sometimes when you get deep into “brochuring” or “the marketeers burden” you can need this jolt to get you back on the straight and narrow and stop you hallucinating reviews and shows that are “unmissable!” The compromise element is that sometimes you can’t win every battle, it’s better to pick and choose what you’ll compromise on and give yourself more time to work on something else – after all time is finite.

This has all led (that was quick) to our latest brochure – the one I am most proud of – that I signed off today. It is thinner than all the others we’ve done, cheaper to produce and takes the smallest amount of the marketing budget than it ever has. I know there will be an error in it that we missed – there always is. I know that in a years time I will look at it and think it’s shit because the new thing I’m working on will have surpassed it in my mind. It will sell tickets. It will drive audiences better than its predecessors. It will tell people what Unity is about.

And it is throwaway.
The only place remembering those brochures past is this blog now. Something that’s worth remembering – it has a job to do and then it’s gone.

The future?
This kind of brings us back in full circle. Is the brochure still the thing? Will it be here in 5, 10, 15 years time?

I was thinking about this a lot recently and trying to define my thoughts. A couple of points below which will change in time, they will, I’m sure reverse, contradict or, upon finding something new out, be deleted from my consciousness completely. Here goes:

  1. They won’t die but will evolve – they have a function which is to drive audiences to the website as well as inform. There is room for editorial which few have really approached – for helping people understand what we do and why, and, for many of us, explain why we’re worthy of their time in a less sell, sell, sell, way. This feels a distance off at the moment…
  2. People like the tangible – ever noticed how people still go to real shops even though amazon exists. Some even go to bookshops. Some people find it hard to connect with digital everything. I like to scribble on my Edinburgh brochure, make notes, pass it to people. That’d hard to do with a PDF. For that reason I think they’ll survive. Maybe simplify, become more listingsy… Not everyone is a digitally-savvy, tablet-using, apple-loving, pdf-opening, hipster-bearded, digital native. They shouldn’t be excluded.

I’m aware I’ve not covered loads of stuff – from segmentation models, how we did distribution, the rise and fall of the mini-brochure, linking online and digital, why we removed the logo from the front cover (its become off-brand… oh the irony…) and also the merits of various paper stocks in relation to their brand values. However I hope this has been interesting to you marketing geeks – as always please share this article far and wide, send me a tweet @mrfreeman1984, follow me on facebook (click here) and leave a comment underneath.

Links

Best, Sam.

Rain, driving and hills

Today was an odd day with a smattering of driving pain, driving in rain, new dawns and sunrises. It was my first post interview visit to my new employers in North Wales, a pre visit before I start properly in Wales. I was at Unity in the morning sorting some brochure odds and ends before driving over. I realise now that I’ve learnt the following things.

  1. It’s faster to get the bus into Liverpool city centre than drive and parking.
  2. £4.50 for parking is an obscene amount…
  3. …especially when you don’t have the correct coins and the machine doesn’t give change.
  4. Stalling at traffic lights in rush hour doesn’t endear you to your fellow drivers.
  5. Nor does stalling again 30 seconds later in front of the same driver as before.
  6. The third time is when they think you’re taking the piss

IMG_20160329_184938So I drove over to Wales and the icy rain started to fall, literally rain with ice, as if rain alone wasn’t quite hardcore enough. It was with a little trepidation. When you start a new job you’re entering the unknown – what if they hate you, what if it’s awful, will it ever stop raining?!?

I can happily report that I had a lovely time. The building is immense, I’ve never walked round a place for 35 mins and then discover a cinema, or a cafe or a subterranean tunnel. I can also report that the bakewell tart is excellent and served at a size which promises diabetes, there is a great pub next door (from where I’m writing this), incredibly friendly staff, offices with space (a foreign concept to me as I’m used to working in a cupboard) and some incredibly exciting plans.

The wind howled, rain poured and then as I finished the sun came out and revealed the view that’d been disguised by heavy set rainclouds. 

Beautiful.

 

 

Review: Batman Vs Superman

***Contains spoilers***

Batman Vs Superman reminds me of going clubbing around 2004.

I was living in York, a single man exploring the world within half an hours walking distance of my house and I was giddy with the excitement of life’s seemingly endless possibilities. Or at least I assume I was. I must have been giddy in some sense because during that period I would religiously go on nights out which ended, each time, exactly the same way. We’d drink, dance, the excitement would build, “this” I’d remark, “is going to be the greatest night ever”. Each night I’d dream of meeting the woman of my dreams, whisking her off her feet to a romantic conclusion. The reality was far different. Each night would end with me alone in the corner enviously watching more confident sleazeballs (opposed to geeky romantics) bump and grind away before helping a friend who’d vomited in their hair home (via McDonalds) and then I’d pass out and prepare for a monster hangover.

Batman Vs Superman was like that experience all over again. It starts well, it’s gritty sure, but actually it has some clever storytelling, that creates a spectacle of an epic while maintaining the intimacy of learning about the characters at the same time. It’s stylishly shot, you can almost smell the scum and decay of society when we meet Gotham, while in Metropolis the aftermath of Superman’s battle with Zod has left scars (strongly emotive echos of 9/11 and New York) but also hero worship.

Henry Cavill was a known quantity going into this film and he continues to play Superman well, if perhaps, lacking enough of the internal turmoil that makes modern superheroes more dynamic. Like in Man Of Steel we are teased at this greater depth without it ever really being given for a meaningfully long enough period of time – the brief moment with Kevin Costner seems out of place and doesn’t add much other than to prove that both Superman and Batman dream lucidly. The relationship with Louis Lane (Amy Adams) is interesting, but given the speed with which their relationship has developed through the first two films, any subsequent appearance in the next film will presumably involve grandchildren, a messy divorce and an affair. Amy Adams is a great actress but she’s not given enough to do. Louis is resourceful sure, but again, it doesn’t feel like a well-rounded character.

batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-ben-affleckBen Affleck. Two words to inspire fear in any DC Comic fan. When his casting as Batman was announced a wave of fear spread around the globe. I am, however, pleased to report, that he’s actually (and whisper this) pretty good. He makes a convincing Bruce Wayne, perhaps more so than Christian Bale. He has a physicality that shines, while his more advanced years play well against the stark dystopian background of Gotham. The interaction with Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) feels right –  a different dynamic to the one established with Caine and Bale – but one that plays Alfred, refreshingly, as a technical wizard and co-conspirator rather than simply a servant. Like Cavill’s Superman I wanted more time to get in depth with the new bat – we get glimpses, but not enough for Affleck to stretch his acting muscles rather than just his, well, muscles.

As for the other roles, Jesse Eisenberg is suitably deranged as Lex Luthor although there is a clear struggle to make his character’s decisions logical (what’s his motivation for any of it?), the parallels with Bruce Wayne could have been developed further and instead is limited to a single line. Gal Gadot’s Wonder woman is great and when in disguise she add a level of tension played off against Affleck that feels like it will develop slowly and cleverly but instead is wasted with a reveal that comes all to easily and obviously in the huge fight sequence.

And it’s here we hit the problem. The film is of two halves (as those nights out in York were). The first where you think this is going to be amazing and the second where you have a crushing disappointment. The first where nuanced character and plot drive things forward, the second a thunderf**k carcrash of a fight sequence perfect for 10 year old boys and suitable for noone else. None of the cast are to blame – instead the finger should be point squarely at the director.

Like Man Of Steel and, to an extent 300, the film suffers from fight overload. A five minute fight scene is fine, ten minutes managed well can be fun, however when that stretches to a seeming eternity where the fight sequence seems completely incongruous with the rest of the film with layer upon layer of death and destruction being added you have to ask the question why. An explosion is not made better by adding extra explosion – Snyder goes for broke – there’s a point in the film where an Atomic Weapon explodes – that, remarkably, is not the end point, that’s the stepping off point for more and more explosions that add nothing. Economy is great for focusing a narrative – this loses its focus for well over an hour.

Great superhero movies end with victory that comes because of intellect, brains and not just brawn. Superman should win because of his humanity, Batman should win because of his cunning and ingenuity, Lex Luthor should operate in the shadow and be foiled by this combination. Instead we get a zombie monster, punched and then stabbed to death in an hour of CGI fighting and a headache inducing cacophony of explosions.


★★☆☆☆ “Wait for the DVD and watch while drunk”

Arts Marketing: Six things I wish I’d known…

I have been given two pieces of rock solid theatrical advice in the past 15 years and both I’ve used when directing shows. The first was from a now-acclaimed performer and creative who said the key to any show was to “get in quick, say what you have to say concisely and get out quick”. The second was from a brilliant and respected Artistic Director having a flippant moment with the brilliant “audiences will forgive a multitude of sins when you have a nice set”. The first I think applies to much in life and the second when put into the context of me being about to direct a show I’d written, rather galling. Both however were effective and have driven my logic around theatre, firstly that it’s about not wasting time and secondly it’s recognising that theatre is more than the words.

As many people now know I’m leaving Unity Theatre where I have spent the last 6 years as Marketing Manager. Inevitably as I wind down this part of my career to move onto a new and exciting future I start to think about the changes I’ve know, how they’ve effected me and what I wish I’d known 6 years ago when I started. With that in mind I thought I’d write down 6 things, not top tips (I’m not quite that arrogant) that I wish I’d been told at the start. If they’re useful please tweet me or comment at the bottom of the page.


rome-colosseum-1480086-640x480 #1 | Rome wasn’t built in a day
This took me a long time to realise and it only really sank in when Paul Clay, a brilliant arts manager, said it to me. When I started I believed that I could turn everything around in a year, that everything that needed updating, systems replacing and ideas formulating, could be done in 12 short months. It doesn’t work like that. Good change, I think, is built brick by brick and not imported wholesale – especially when your organisation is not overburdened with cash. Unity’s website development took 3 years to reach where it is today – not perfect by a long stretch, but a mile away from where it started. Having a clear idea of the endgame is key, but it has to be tempered with reality. I had a running phrase with one of my Marketing Officers Paul (who is an amazing musician) that “This time next year it’ll all be perfect”. Invariably it wasn’t. We’d reach a year later and yes, by the standards of 12 months ago things had improved, our expectations had risen, meaning that we were looking for the next step rather than taking in the step we’d already taken.


writing-1560276-640x480#2 | There’s rarely a definitive right answer with creative
I once had an argument where another arts marketeer described something I wrote as “awful”. I, internally, described them in slightly less pleasant terms and got wound up by it. There is no definitive rights or wrongs with creative (e.g. images, copy etc…). There are factor that effect its success; whether it speaks to your audience (which is different venue to venue), whether it fits your brand identity etc… but ultimately the mark of success is whether the show sold. I would also be wary of directors, actors and others who tell you that they’re the most qualified to write or create images. As a marketeer we are the ears and eyes of the public – we have to filter through the arts bullshit, through pretention, and find the gems, those bits that will relate to as wide an audience as possible and not just the people who work constantly in the arts, on shows or with other creatives. When you’re being concise and making a strong sell (or invitation) your role is to sell tickets and the brand. It’s okay to say that, well, actually noone has ever bought tickets because of the lighting designer or the DSM apart from family members (sometimes that can also extend to the writer and director) – people want to know what it’s about first, what it says second and who says it third (unless you’ve a star). Bare in mind that even as I write this I can remember exceptions to the rule – so also remain flexible.

As a final aside to this I am also of the opinion that “experience” can also be, on occasion renamed as “baggage”. Also just because you work in marketing or admin makes you no less or more a creative person than anyone who defines themselves as creative – it’s merely that they happen to be being creative differently – if they think they’re better than everyone because of it then be wary (or shoot to kill).


notepad-1192373-639x839#3 | Never be content with the status quo and fail regularly
The point where something needs to be looked at is the point when someone says it doesn’t need to be (and also when they say it does too). There will be a moment when you’ve redone the website, sales are going well, the e-bulletin is hitting, social media is bobbing along and you’ve upgraded everything. Don’t stop. Don’t f**king stop. Start re-examining, don’t be satisfied with where you’re at, look to what’s next. Sometimes you have to experiment to try new things – we discover improvements by failing. If you’re trying new things and failing regularly, so long as you’re learning as you go and implementing those failures it’s no bad thing. Our aim is for long-term success not short-termism. A to-do list can be good for this (but also occasionally soul destroying).


anger-management-1422668-640x480#4 | Management and leadership are different and are not limited to managers and leaders
This is a general thing. Management is about making systems work and managing them – leadership is about having vision, pushing in a direction and taking people with you. This can happen as a CEO or as an usher and anywhere in between. They’re different skill sets and they’re not always in Ben Hur type situations, but recognising these moment and supporting them and when other people are doing them can be really rewarding. Oh an shut up more. Let people talk. I don’t do that enough. Listen then speak. But obviously not everyone at the same time.


owl-chatting-1385170-639x426#5 | Sometimes everyone doesn’t need to give their opinion
Those meetings where we all gather round to chat. It feels lovely and democratic, every opinion is heard, angles looked at. They are useful for an hour maximum – once a year – everyone can have 5 to 10 minutes – but invariably people leave disappointed if you don’t follow the path they suggest. There are things that need group chats and things that don’t – it takes a while to distinguish between the two and sometimes you’ll get it wrong – but I would encourage action in most situations rather than endless debate. Try it, get it wrong, learn from it. It’s faster and while you may occasionally look like a dick so long as you have humility occasionally it’ll be fine. Also, for some things people will never know. Changing how you write a mailing doesn’t need debate, just do it. Worse case scenario is that someone will get pissy with you. They’ll get over it.


the-cliff-1529309-640x480#6 | Have faith
Sometimes we forget we were employed because people believe in us, our skills, our opinions and our ability to make the right decision. I’ve had points where I thought “what the shit am I doing” and “am I making a terrible mistake”. Those doubts are natural. They make you redouble your checks and work harder to make things effective. There will be a point where you’re on the precipice (for me it was a new brochure design and rebranding), you’ve done the work. Jump.

Oh and have a marketing friend or friends. Ideally outside your organisation. Chew the fat with them. I go for cake with the brilliant Sarah Ogle and it’s amazing how just sharing an issue, frustration or an idea can lift a dark cloud or inspire a new thought.

Change & Anxiety

I’ve always thought that change is quite a healthy thing when it’s done sensibly. To be constantly evaluating and examining how you can do things in new and better ways and to constantly adjust and improve. I saw a show by Daniel Kitson (who else) a few years ago which motivated change in me. It was about how by breaking a major change into hundreds of tiny elements you can make the big step manageable. It was that show that made me to the small steps into doing stand up and storytelling.

I’m about to have a much bigger change, a new job in a new place, moving house and city and there are moments where it feels terrifying. It’s at those points that this small step thinking starts to kick in – making it more manageable. At the same time I’m lucky as Louise is really supportive too. What I’m finding odd are the bits of change that nestle in the back of my mind and fester there and how weird they are.

I’m going to expand on the three main ones and, you’ll quickly see, they’re pretty unexpected and all give me anxiety.

  • A litany of assorted driving based worries.
    I don’t like driving. I never really have. But for this job I will be driving to work daily. The worries about driving mount daily. Today I drove to Mold in the morning to sort some forms and the worries included: what if 1st gear stops working, am I changing gears smooth enough, what if all the car parking is gone and why is everyone trying to kill me. The final one came from a huge lorry carrying rubble that clearly didn’t see me and cut me up so badly I nearly ended up off the road. There was a moment where I thought, “well they must see me now, I mean there was nowhere I could go”, but no, they ploughed on and I was unceremoniously almost forced into the hard shoulder. Then later on another car  (yellow Vauxhall if you know them?) joining the motorway just ignored that I was in the lane they were entering (they’re meant to wait) and so I had to pull out wide to avoid them crashing into me, then speed up (in a 50 zone) because of the speed another car was going behind me. Horrible. At most I reached 54 mph to avoid the car, but because I’m OCD about speed limits my head went crazy into scenarios about me being arrested, thrown into prison for speeding, perhaps things would happen in prison, essentially it ended with my funeral and no mourners. Then just as that anxiety started to back off I was at a traffic light in 1st gear again wondering if 1st gear was working and if I was changing gears smoothly enough. I mean surely it’ll wear off when I’m commuting regularly? Surely?
  • The gas bill & utilities
    When we moved into our current house I actually burst into tears because I hate sorting utility bills that much. The combination of poor customer service, indecipherable pricing plans, call centres who are frustratingly unable to do anything and gauges that are not clear or are hidden drives me to despair. Gas is the worst, I dread it completely and utterly. That moment when they say “are you sure the property has gas” and you say, “yes, I’m looking at a gas boiler”, and they say “are you sure it’s gas” and you start to doubt whether the blue flame is gas or a figment of your imagination.
  • Remembering Names
    I struggle with names until I’ve met someone 6 or 7 times. It makes me anxious because I then use those markers that scream “I’ve forgotten your name” – such as mate, sir, chap, boss, etc… In a worst case scenario my head forces me to take a punt on their name and there’s a horrible moment where they say, no, that’s not me and look at you as if you’ve killed their cat. That of course makes it worse because at least killing a cat would be better than the embarrassment you ponder. Then just as the anxiety starts to back off you’re at a traffic light in 1st gear wondering if 1st gear is working, if you’ve a speeding ticket from avoiding a collision, whether a truck marked death is just around the next corner and whether, after all that, EON will ring you. Well. I think we can all agree that’s awful.

That said, I’m dead excited about my new job. Even despite these things. Expect lots of blog posts in the next few months about ideas, marketing and doing new things! Night x

10 things I unexpectedly like

Hello regular reader, this is Sam. Normally, as you know, I tend to write a lot of excessively ambitious, dream led pieces on either a) the state of theatre and how we make it better or b) the shit gig I’ve had. I appreciate that that they are very different, but they are both also a little bit dark – they centre around dissatisfaction with the status quo, or something I’ve done wrong or something else incredibly thought provoking but ultimately glum. And I’m not glum. Not all the time. That’s why today I’m writing a list of 10 things I unexpectedly like to share with you so that you can discover something new.

#1 – Seville and particularly Perroquets
I went on holiday to Spain a few months ago and it was lovely but the main talking point between me and Louise was my obsession with Perroquets (or parrots). There’s something magical about seeing a parrot in a tree, outside, not in a cage and then see it fly up into a flock of parrots as if there’s been some sort of mass escape from a pet shop. Love it. See them live in Seville.

#2 – Ben Fold’s album So There.
I really like this album, quite a bit more than his last few if I’m honest. It’s relaxing, the songs have the sort of retrospective melancholy mixed with with that really appeals to me. It’s really interesting to go through Ben Fold’s albums year by year and chart the progression from Piano Punk Pop Rock to Orchestral Ballad (and Symphony) writer.

#3 – Richard Hawley
I was taken to see Richard Hawley against my will. I didn’t know who he was, what he did or why, frankly, I should be forced to stand in a queue of people who looked like older, slightly more downbeat versions of, well, me. Turns out I can see into the future, and to accomplish this I have to go to a Richard Hawley gig. The music is great, light rock music for people who like sitting and nodding at gigs rather than jumping around like a lunatic.

#4 – Pesto chicken spaghetti
Spitroast, a takeaway near my house is a pretty brilliant thing. They sell, as I’m sure you’d guess Spitroasted Chickens (opposed to being a base for low-grade pornography). They have the usual list of a full chicken, a half chicken, the full Sunday Roast (which is huge), but then they also have Pesto Chicken Spaghetti. It’s lovely. Really good pasta, nice pesto, freshly spitroasted chicken, Parmesan and sun dried tomatoes. It’s a great takeaway and doesn’t make you feel bad 2 minutes after you’ve finished eating.

#5 – Making Focaccia
It’s really hard but I love it (said the bishop to the… ahem). I watch The Great British Bake Off and I love it. About 2 years ago I watched an episode where the technical challenge was Focaccia. Dead easy I thought, I’ll do that now. And so started my quest to make a good focaccia. So far after about 40+ attempts they have, universally turned out (or in at least 10 times, not turned out), as flat, grim, horrible tasting planks of breadwood. But it’s incredibly relaxing to make, even if the taste of my finished result makes you wince and grimace.

#6 – Hot Chocolate from Furrow
Furrow is a little cafe on Allerton Road which is an offshoot of the Baltic Bakehouse. They sell, lovely bread, delicious sticky buns (which I am eating as I write this) and also hot chocolate. It is rich and creamy and delicious. However even more satisfying is that some parents told their kid on a table over from me that he couldn’t have one, so I order one straight away to torment them. Extra cream, yes I will.

#7 – Star Wars T-shirts
I was bought a Star Wars t-shirt as part of a secret santa a few years ago and it was, by far, the best secret santa I have ever got. This t-shirt has been worn close to oblivion and has now been supplemented my my girlfriend purchasing me other ones so that I can legitimately say I now have a collection.

 

#8 – The words “Galling”, “Calligraphy” and “Plop”
Okay, three words which I like for different reasons. “Galling” I like because if you drop it in a conversation people look at you as if Shakespeare or Wordsworth was in their company – it lightens any sentence and makes you seem twice as smart as normal. “Calligraphy” is just a hard word to use regularly, unless you work in the pen section of WHSmiths, but when you do get to say it, it’s deeply satisfying. “Plop” is simple – imagine Rowan Atkinson, now imagine him saying “Plop”. You’re smiling now right?

#9 – Oxfam Book Shops
I like going to Oxfam book shops, yes largely there’s a lot of Dan Brown (it’s an easy way to realise that noone enjoyed reading Deception Point) and Ben Elton (Does every house in the country have 2 copies of Popcorn?) but sometimes you stumble upon a gem. Playscripts are favourites of mine because invariably they are annotated from long past amateur productions. 5 books for £10. Yes please.

#10 – Earl Grey Tea
I really like Earl Grey Tea. I think it’s because as a child my mum would make pots of tea with two bags – one regular and one Earl Grey. It reminds me of Sundays reading the newspaper before dinner – indoctrinated on flowery tea from a young age.

 

A 21st Century Theatre

There have been two questions that have been in the back of my mind for the last three months.

The first, slightly randomly, is what will the new series of the X Files be like? I mean will they recapture the magic? In this digital age of intrustive observation is an FBI agent on the ground still a useful tool? Will it be any good?

Well actually we do now know and the answer is, “it’s not as good as we remember”. The originality of the early series have been lost as what was innovative became pervasive and then, in time, became, old fashioned.

The second is much more mundane and has been prompted by work and is the question of what a twenty first century theatre looks like. I think it’s a good if also massively frustrating question, we should be pushing towards a vision of the future we are incessantly told, a Utopia where, presumably people line up every night clamouring for the latest piece of new writing instead of the show on Netflix.

It’s a tricky question because I think every time we get close to answering it we place ourselves in what can feel like an uncomfortable situation with an uncomfortable proposition. People are not lining up at our doors fighting for tickets. There are swaths of the population who don’t buy into us conceptually or are excluded financially or intellectually. Do we really matter to the population as a whole? Are we making a difference?

With that in mind I started thinking about my dream theatre. I know, it’s gone all a bit grand designs. I started thinking about when I was 16, working at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and my dream was to be an Artistic Director. At that point if you’d asked me that question my answer would have invariably involved an obscene amount of Ayckbourn and Godber, the odd Tim Firth play and, well, that was it really. Just no fucking Shakespeare – he’s dead, get over it.

Now some 15 years later and asking the same question the theatrical repertoire would undoubtedly be broader (still no more of that shit house Shakespeare, single hand preventing theatre from moving on for 400 years – I’m not a fan, can you tell?) but now my focus would be less about what’s on stage, but more about the very nature of what community is about and how it is supported to flourish.

I used to go to a bar called Mello Mello in Liverpool. At first I just liked it because it was warm, no-one bothered me while I wrote, the cake was good, coffee was cheap and it was full of cool but not hipster people. I felt horribly uncool (as many readers will know is entirely true). But after a while it felt like my place, the nods from people who would go on to be friends, the new cakes I’d be excited to try, the absurd shows, even the crapness of the toilets, it had something intangible that brought together a community of people. I visited 4 times a week. When it closed I was devastated. Tonight after work (and a particularly shitty day) I walked towards it in need of a pick-me-up and then realised and instead got the bus home to write this feeling glum (Louise is away this week, expect more blogging than usual).

So many theatres profess to have community at their core – this ideas of being the centre of our community – but how often do we really interrogate what that is? Do we actually mean it? If community is at the core of what we do, what is it that this country, our towns, cities and villages need, that will bind us, make us stronger, happier, then as a supplementary question, is what we do, is how we operate fit for fulfilling this purpose? Who is our community? If we’re funded then should our responsibility be to make that as open and accessible as possible? Surely we should be there to protect and bring together everyone?

Damian Cruden at York Theatre Royal once did a speech to the staff that stuck with me. He told everyone in the room that we weren’t there to serve the shows, nor the theatre, the management, or ourselves, we were there to serve the people of York, the citizens of our community. It was probably the most inspiring thing I’ve heard.

The challenge for theatres, to become more relevant again, I think, is about how we start to have community in our everyday lives and make what we say and do match more. How do we become a 21st century theatre, how are we successful, how do we have people clamouring at our doors. It starts with community not art.


Things to ponder…

In a theatre designed around community…

  • how much is a coffee?
  • how much is a ticket?
  • when are they open?
  • do they have open sessions for you to chat to the directors/managers

 

 

 

 

A set of pure, unadulterated terror

This week I had 2 gigs which for me is a lot.

I don’t do as many as I used to, I get bored of my material incredibly quickly which is problematic as it’s incredibly unmotivating for doing gigs. A good example might be the storytelling set(s), I know that they work every time, but that makes them so dull, yes there’s a pleasure from getting the laughs but it feels monotonous. I’ve tried a few things to try and break free of this but to no avail really. I’ve written stand up sets which are okay but I think feel a little safe, the storytelling is easy but quickly loses excitement (and takes a long time to create) and then the musical comedy, well, everyone largely hates that so that hasn’t been so much of a problem. The closest I’ve got is compereing, unfortunately regular compere gigs are hard to come by and it’s unlikely any promoter will get me compereing unless I’ve done middles or opened for them. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

I’ve been fascinated by improv for a long time doing bits in school, college and uni although never seriously and only fleetingly. I think part of the issue with improv is that I struggle to believe I’m a good actor, pretty much because I’m a lousy actor. I feel like the fraud a lot of the time in the presence of other improvisers, being on stage I feel like the audience are looking at me asking what the flying fuck I’m doing there. I also struggle with the competitive nature of it, there’s the “we’re all in it together” nature, but combined with my insecurities I feel like a non-league player being placed with a team of Lionel Messi’s and horribly out of my depth, or, to put it another way, like Newcastle in the Premier League.

Which is why I guess it’s odd the set I did on Thursday. Me and Mike Osborne have used improv in our writing sessions to good effect, spitballing ideas based on the other persons suggestion. Essentially we write random ideas and have to do a minute on that subject with what comes first to mind. It’s a great point to jump off at. But I started to think what if the audience suggested my entire set, a bit like SetList but with more audience engagement so people feel more connected to the performance and have more buy-in. How could i have the terror of doing new material each time but with the fun of improv but feeling secure on stage?

So at the start of the gig I gave everyone a piece of paper and asked them to write down a statement or question that might be my material for tonights show and put them, sight unseen, in a black velvet luxury bag. I opened with some silly stuff, getting the audience to chant (When I say Com, you say Omedy), then told a story about other gigs I’d done well at and that I was doing this material to be the most versatile comedian ever. What followed was Operation Prawn, a vague story about a mission at the Sealife centre to push prawns to the top of the food chain by killing off sharks through breaking natural selection, to do this Rolf Harris was called upon to fist the sharks to death with the only lubricant red and brown sauce, taken from the insensitive fish and chip stall at the centre. Everything underlined was audience suggestion.

So did it work. In a nutshell “kind of”. Firstly I was opening which made the room tricky and it was a little cold. The intro didn’t really work as playing high status and crucially pretending to be successful doesn’t work for me because I don’t have the supporting material, persona or verve to pull it off – i don’t do arrogant on stage well, I’m much better as politely vulnerable. Making it lower status and me as the underdog would help more but I’d need 3 bankers at the top to aid this. The audience were engaged apart from two people who arrived late who I’d not spoken to pre-show. I think the early interaction was good as was using the audience members but that it needs streamlining to keep the pace high otherwise there are lulls when a new idea is taken out of the bag and read by an audience member (the bag lady).

Slowing down and placing myself firmly in the story and establishing the problem needs to be centre of this – finding the resolution to the problem is the journey and I didn’t quite find it. Visualising the space helps the audience, and it’s not a set for huge laughs (yet) more oddity… I need to structure what goes on the suggestions, a few people wrote jokes (to help) while others wrote questions – i needed a mix and maybe another device to create these would be nice – maybe a dictionary, a random phrase from a book or something else.

It was terrifying but not awful and really enjoyable to do. Although I was chatting to a comedian afterwards who said he felt sick during it as each idea he’d try and play along. It’s definitely one that will develop over time. I think key to this is getting more comfortable with finding the ideas and stretching them as far as possible. I was very conscious that when practicing with Mike and Steph that the longest I’d managed was 8 minutes. When I actually did it I reached 15mins. I need to slow the fuck down. Take my time, relax and also smile as much as possible – the audience need to know I could be fucked at any second but I’m okay with that.

I’m going to try and develop it over a bit of time so if you have a shit gig I can try this out at then please let me know, also let me know what you think/whether I’m a lunatic or not. Night, Sam x

Forks in the road

Preamble
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where I am in my life.

It was all sparked by an invitation to the 10 year university reunion and as I looked at the names and faces on the list I started to ponder, what have I done with my life. Not that this is an unusual feeling, not by any stretch, I imagine everyone regardless of their relative success has daily moments of this. I think it’s that we imagine what we thought we’d do and then compare it to what we have done and we focus on what’s missing rather than what is there.

Facebook isn’t helping this whole thing either, it’s sending me daily reminders of what I was doing 8 years ago and it’s a reminder firstly that I should have gotten my hair cut more regularly but also that the dreams I had, certainly in relation to my career, have not panned out how I imagined. That’s not to say that there haven’t been good moments, directing Gaffer and Floating, performing stand up (and most importantly meeting Lou) have been some of the best things to have happened.

But while there have been great moments I don’t seem to feel like I’m making progress with my work and creatively.

Problem Section
The directing opportunities have somewhat vanished – the chances to put on new shows after the success of the last one have dampened – most regularly I think by a lack of ambition or imagination in getting them off the ground which I find infuriating. But equally I’ve not been independent enough, I’ve not created enough work by myself, self financing or self producing enough work. Part of it is time, but part of it is something else.

I know from my playwriting that I got one bad review for a show 5 years ago and pretty much stopped writing. It was a brutal, harsh review written by someone who was clearly a bit of a prick, but it got right inside my head. Instead of moving on, getting on with the next show, the next idea, I just stopped, bitter that something hadn’t been handed to me. And why should it be?

With stand up I had a bad gig outside of Liverpool for a promoter I really respect (following someone who got a standing ovation) and couldn’t get my own inferiority out of my mind. There’s an extent to which I would never have won in that situation, and also an extent that the material needed tweaking. But what’s worse is that since then I’ve not applied for any gig with progression. Even though I suspect I’m a very competent MC, I’ve not made that jump and had the confidence to say I can do this.

I was looking for the cause of this and I think perhaps there is a huge element of fear holds me back in some situations. In work but also directing, playwrighting, comedy and storytelling. I have this fear of being shit and people knowing. Being found out as an imposter. Again not a new story, and one that, invariably everyone feels from time to time.

I appreciate that this all seems rather glum, and please, rest assured I’m not reaching for the gin bottle as I type this. Instead I wanted to talk, optimistically, about how I’m trying to get over it.

Solution Section
I made a graph. That’s it really. I’ve realised that what I struggle with (as much as the fear of failure) is an inability to see progress being made. When I’m writing something that’s 10,000 or 24,000 words long then 100, or 200 words can feel like such a small step, steps that you can’t really see build. So for two of the projects I’ve made a word count graph – so that I can see my targeted achievement against my actual. It’s geeky but (so far) it’s really worked in keeping me writing regularly on both projects.

graphI created an ideas board of things I’m working on and these are all things with defined dates to achieve them by. I’ve started having meetings with potential collaborators, and, importantly, I’m now focusing on projects that are not reliant on people in positions of power to approve or disapprove, they can all just happen because I want them to.

I realised that I don’t want to gig at weekend clubs, that’s not something I’m interested in (certainly not as anything other than MC) and that I can create comedy that is good, albeit not stand up in a different forum. So my storytelling will become my live performance outlet supplemented by MCing my gig in Liverpool, as will creating videos and podcasts. The stand up I want to do is storytelling and projection based (a la Will Adamsdale, Dan Bye and Dave Gorman) and relies more heavily on understanding of structure, plot and narrative as it does stand up – so feels possible for my skillset.

Finally I think I need to be braver. There are thousands and possibly millions of people who “have a book in them”, or “could do stand up” or “would love to act”, but ultimately that means jack shit unless you do. Equally, unless you do, unless you strive to do the things rather than talk about them then why should your opinion (and that is all it is) matter to me. Of course, the proof is in the action – check back here in 12 months to see if it’s worked or not I suppose.

Reality Check
And finally I have time.

I worry all the time about being left behind, not achieving what I want, or the placing of arbitary timelines on success. I wanted to be an Artistic Director by the time I was 30. That didn’t work out. But only the 30 bit. Ambitions are all achieveable but we have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right knowledge and circumstances to achieve it.

Not everyone is a child prodigy, not everyone has made it by 30. Alan Rickman was 46 when he got his first major film, Ang Lee became a full-time director at 38, Samuel L Jackson’s breakout role was at the age of 43, Stan Lee created his first successful comic at 39 (Fantastic 4), Colonel Sanders was 62 when he first franchised KFC and Harry Berstein’s first book was published when he was 96.

See, I’ve got ages yet.

Night xx

 

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