I have enormous admiration for polymaths who make it work, because I have to admit that juggling art forms has caused me nothing but trouble.
As a child, my parents were always supportive and I never felt pressured into pursuing a Real Job* – in fact, my mother always said I should be a writer. But when I was six, I decided I was going to be an actress. 10 years later, I started training in Musical Theatre, confident I’d be a West End star by the time I turned 20. When in one of my tutorials I was asked whether I had a Plan B, I answered quite confidently that yes, I did have a Plan B. If things didn’t work out, I would to move to Paris and become a jazz singer. (Later that year I received a Rough Guides book as a birthday present from my father. I told you my parents were supportive).
Somewhere between my diploma in Musical Theatre and my degree in Performance Arts, I decided that what I really wanted to be was a theatre director. So I set up a theatre company with a friend and we put on a couple of plays and it was great fun and I learnt a lot and I think the main thing I learnt was that I didn’t really want to be a theatre director.
And so, having crossed West End Star and Theatre Director off my list, I was accepted by the (now Royal) Central School of Speech & Drama. Over the three years we studied Acting, Voice, Movement, Directing, Dramaturgy, Writing, Text Analysis, Creative Producing, Contemporary Theatre Making, Interdisciplinary Theatre Practice and of course Performance Art (I briefly thought it might be the path for me when my friend Julia and I attempted to conduct a civil partnership in front of the class – our backdrop a porn film and our soundtrack Rachmaninoff – to illustrate, um, something about stereotypes and attitudes towards same sex marriage) – so pretty much most things that relate to most jobs in theatre.
I left Central full of ambition, inspiration and creative drive, but in terms of defining my practice I was none the wiser. The height of my polymathy came when I collaborated with a group of fellow graduates on a multi-disciplinary piece for which I wrote, performed, co-directed and co-produced. The show enjoyed a successful run in Edinburgh, but wearing so many hats made me long to focus on one thing and refine my craft in whatever that one thing was.
Back in London, I resolved to put all my energy into what the six year-old me had decided it wanted to do. I invested in some headshots that looked nothing like me, got myself an agent and promptly began auditioning for lots of jobs that I had no interest in whatsoever (most of the time they had no interest in me, either). As an out-of-work-actor, I suddenly found myself with time. Time to think about who I was and what I really wanted to do with my life and whether I was actually any good at any of the things I thought I might want to do and I don’t know how it happened but I just started writing.
(In case you’re wondering how I paid my rent through these periods of contemplation, another string to my bow of semi-skills is playing the piano – not so well that I can add Concert Pianist to my list of credits, but well enough that I can find accompanying and teaching work.)
Some time later, I joined the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme and set about writing my first play. I liked writing, not only because I do like writing, but because it was something I could do on my terms. I could write whenever, wherever I chose to, without needing to pick out a suitable outfit or travel by tube or even leave my flat if I didn’t want to. I wondered why I hadn’t started doing this earlier. Then I remembered that writing was something my mother always said I should do.
That was three years ago. Since then, I’ve written a few more plays and watched some of them come to life and I’ve decided – yes, I’ve made the decision – that this is what I want to do. It’s been my longest, most committed relationship so far. That’s not to say I won’t have affairs – I think that when it comes to art it’s healthy to play the field a bit.
I hope that one day I can find peace with my inner polymath. And if all else fails, at least I know I can fall back on that career in Paris as a jazz singer.
* For the record, I believe that a job in the Arts is a Real Job. When one applies oneself, which one must in order to make a living, it requires discipline, dedication and all of the qualities found in a so-called Real Job. It’s these kinds of labels that help to reinforce the idea that arts and culture do not play a vital role in our society, which they do.