Eurotrip opening titles

I’d never seen the 2004 comedy Eurotrip (a favourite of Charlie Lyne among others) until yesterday, but I laughed pretty much throughout. And if I’d been in any doubt about the kind of movie I’d be watching, the title sequence pretty much sets the scene. It’s not only a lovely use of animated graphics — before it became a cliche — it does exactly what a title sequence should: it sets up the tone and promise of the movie. Nice work, Prologue.

The Importance of Being Earnest

One of my favourite holiday novels this year was Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, the story of Doug Fanning, a rapacious investment banker who has just built his own McMansion, and his feud with Charlotte Graves, the ageing history teacher who owns the crumbling house next door. It’s a clash not just of generations but of values, and one of the best attempts in fiction to analyse the current crisis. In a book full of gorgeous writing, one paragraph in particular struck a chord. Towards the end of the novel Charlotte decides to take action. And this is what occurs to her:

As she stepped down the ramp onto the floor of the barn, she began to feel as she’d imagined she would, reading those stories in the papers over the years of the environmentalists and the anti-free traders who broke the law in the name of some greater justice, the anticipation of the act clarifying experience, rescuing it from the prison of language, the inward purpose blessing the otherwise desultory of meaning. And yet, for that very reason, she’d always considered such extremism adolescent. Too simple. Willful in its ignorance of the world’s complexity. And so deadly earnest. And yet how judgmental she’d been. What, after all, was wrong with earnestness? Weren’t Fanning and his kind earnest? Weren’t all the polluters earnest, the physical and the cultural? And did anyone ever impugn or mock them for it? No one ever thought to. Avarice was never shackled by a concern for authenticity. It didn’t care about image or interpretation.

People who care strongly about the environment or human rights or working conditions are so often apologetic or self-deprecating about their strength of feeling. People who care strongly about money never have to be. It’s time to be proud to be earnest. Let’s never be ashamed to care.

Edinburgh Fringe highlights

Edinburgh is one of the highlights of my year: the perfect antidote to that back-to-school September feeling, a way of kicking off the autumn re-ignited and inspired. And that’s never felt more true than this year. All of the shows, of course, were written long before the riots that shadowed this summer. But taken together, some of the best ones amount to a kind of manifesto, a plea for an everyday activism that won’t accept that Britain is broken, and suggests a positive way forward.

The most overtly political show was Josie Long’s The Future Is Another Place, a passionate plea for engagement, for optimism and for a different future to the Government’s grimly utilitarian approach. With the Coalition attacking all the things that she personally loves — do they really hate forests? And libraries? And arts education? Yes, if they can’t turn a profit — she has found a new and urgent voice, campaigning with AES and UK Uncut, and appearing on The Daily Politics, where she admits to a soft spot for Michael Portillo. But becoming more political has not made her less funny; by becoming more personal, and more particular, her work has become more distinctive too. Five years ago she was an alternative voice. Now she’s a necessary one.

Gentler on the surface, but just as passionate beneath, You Once Said Yes by Look Left Look Right is a thrilling adventure in optimism. You begin the show with a briefing, and are given a bright orange bag. You are then directed to leave the theatre, without any further instructions. On the street outside, a foreign student approaches you. She’s looking for her hostel, and needs directions: will you walk with her? Accepting her request leads to a series of small favours, each involving different characters, spread out across the city, leading to an unexpected and exhilarating ending. Although each individual section is no more than ten minutes long it’s a surprisingly emotional experience; as with Ontroerend Goed’s Internal there’s a curious cognitive dissonance between knowing that this is theatre and feeling a genuine connection with the people that you meet. Above all it’s an argument for generosity, for listening, for making connections, and for the infinite value of serendipity.

For a more bracing form of interaction, try Ontroerend Goed’s Audience, which comes to London in December. One of the most polarising shows on the Fringe, it is, in essence, exactly what it says: a show about being an audience. As you arrive you are welcomed, and offered a place to put your coats and bags. You are addressed by a young woman who outlines the “rules” of theatre, and how an audience behaves. And then an image appears onscreen behind her: the image of you. As the on-stage video camera roams across the audience, the performers give voice to your thoughts: sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes cruel. But this is just the beginning of a show that’s centred on confrontation, initially between one actor and one audience member, but increasingly between the cast and the audience, and even between different factions of the crowd. It’s uncomfortable, unpredictable (the show is structured and scripted, but audiences behave differently each time. One night the cast had a shoe thrown at them; on my night a furious woman berated one of the cast long after the show had ended) and exhilarating: a meditation on the nature of obedience and crowds. You might like it, you might not, but don’t believe the critics who claim that it’s cynical. It’s not. It’s manipulative and knowing, but it’s heartfelt, and talking to the company afterwards revealed a genuine, excited curiosity about human motivation and behaviour. And be warned: most reviews of the show give away much more than I have. The less you know the better.

Ontroerend Goed’s last show was the equally divisive Teenage Riot, which is pretty much the evil twin of Glasgow youth theatre Junction 25‘s I Hope My Heart Goes First. Devised and performed by a large teenaged cast, it’s an exploration of love: romantic, sexual, filial, fraternal, played out in a series of fast-moving, often very funny vignettes, linked by expertly choreographed movement and dance. One of its most striking insights about youth culture is its ability to be absolutely sincere and absolutely ironic at the same time; you can laugh, for example at My Heart Will Go On while being shamelessly moved by its sentiment. This is a show about self-discovery, about first love and first heartbreak. And it’s a reminder of how much of love is theatre. There’s an infectious joy to the whole cast, the joy of putting on a show, and it leaves you with a great hope for the future.

Another, very different show about youth is Chris Goode‘s mesmerising The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, the story of a shy, gay teenager who becomes sidekick to Wound Man, a superhero of sorts based on the famous illustration in Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae. It’s a touching, tender, very funny piece of storytelling that argues that vulnerability can be its own form of strength, and that no-one should be afraid to be afraid. It left a good third of the audience quietly tearful, and has the best joke about a dog’s bottom ever.

Thirsty (picture, top) the new show from the brilliant Paper Birds, looks at another all too familiar element of growing up British: binge drinking. Its familiarity is immediately acknowledged in the show, which began as an investigation — complete with voicemails from drunken members of the public — into drinking and its effects on every sector of society. But much as creator-performers Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh wanted to avoid focusing on any one group, an overwhelming majority of the stories they heard were about young women: how alcohol touches their work lives, social lives, family lives and sexual lives, and how it can become the one relationship that remains a constant through them all. Full of wit — both visual and verbal — and some of the Birds’ best physical theatre, including an extraordinary extended drinking scene, it’s nonetheless a dark and haunting show, one to look out for when it tours next year.

The greatest value of our action

My brilliant friend Kwela ran this year’s Creative Company Conference in Haarlem and asked me to write a piece for their website. Here it is:

Stephen Hawking recently gave an interview in which he said that “There is no heaven or afterlife … that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” He was then asked, in the absence of heaven, how people could best spend their lives. His answer was simple: “We should seek the greatest value of our action”.

In one phrase, Hawking overcomes not just centuries of superstition, but centuries of social expectation, convention and prejudice. He tells us to care less about what others think, and more about what we can achieve. And he tells us to focus on the long-term: not the greatest fame or greatest fashion but the greatest value for our lives. 

But if his mantra is simple, it’s also challenging. How are we to judge value? How long term should we be thinking? And who are we hoping to benefit?

These are difficult questions. But they’re the right ones: they’re the questions that every project — every person — should be asking, and they are, perhaps, a key to a more fulfilling life. We make a thousand conscious or unconscious judgements every day: how much will this cost? How much can I charge? How fun will this be? And for whom? Hawking’s philosophy cuts through this: how can I create the greatest value from the actions that I take?

It’s an acknowledgement, too, of the journey: we are always seeking, never there. I will never write the perfect movie. You may never run the perfect business, or invent the perfect green device. There’s a generosity of spirit, an implicit acknowledgement that we all — often usefully — screw up. But as creative, curious, imaginative people, let’s all seek the greatest value of our actions. And then we’ll have no cause to fear the dark.

The Arts Emergency Service

The Arts Emergency Service is an organisation co-founded by Neil Griffiths and Josie Long to help keep arts and humanities education open to as many people as possible. As they say on their website:

We believe an arts degree is NOT a luxury and the decision to study for any degree should be based on talent and passion rather than a financial trade-off between debt and future earnings.

Here’s a piece that I wrote for them (and potential arts graduates) as part of an ongoing relationship between AES and LoCo, which runs the London Comedy Film Festival:

Arts are a luxury. They’re a luxury like beauty. Or democracy. Or justice. Like laughter. Or empathy. Or peace. We don’t need writing, or painting, or acting. And we don’t need composers, comedians, cartoonists, conductors, choreographers or clowns. And you don’t need to be any of those things. After all, there are plenty of other careers. Sensible, practical, profitable careers. But I suspect, like me, you have a yearning. A yearning to do something different, that feels natural, that you love. Something, in all likelihood, that will inform, inspire or entertain other people too.

I studied English at university because I wanted to write. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I was the kid who made his cousins act out stories on the stairs. The boy who refused to write postcards, and sent people poems instead. At my university I discovered other people who saw the world in the same way. We liked the people who made pipelines, but we loved the people who made plays. We shared skills. We shared resources. We shared biscuits. We were interested in more things than we had time for. And some of us, secretly, cried at the news.

Did this mean we didn’t make things happen? Did it mean we couldn’t face “the real world”? No. Because this is the lie we have to fight here, the lie we’re always being told: that arts and humanities people need to grow up, get real, do something practical. That being entrepreneurial means being boring too.

Because we do need to be entrepreneurial. That’s just reality. Funding is tight. Degrees are expensive. But there’s no recession in painting, no deficit of jokes. So I won’t be told to “get real” by a world several trillion in debt. And hard times mean hungry audiences. Last year, despite the recession, film ticket sales went up, not down. It was the most successful year ever for London theatres. And more people visited museums, galleries and archives than they ever have before.

So how can we seize this opportunity? We don’t have to be business to learn from business. We need to be fast and focused and alert to opportunities. We need to know our audiences better, and make them a clear promise of what we’re here to do. We need timelines and deadlines and efficient ways of working, not to limit creativity, but to make the most of what we have.

The real value of an arts degree is not the nine thousand pounds a year. It’s the nine thousand hours a year. That’s the reality: you will be paying one pound for every hour of each university year. So make the most of them. Social media makes it easier than ever to find your kindred spirits. Recession has, ironically, created new spaces for new work. Use every one of those hours to connect with new people, to challenge old ideas and to create a bedrock of work that will kickstart your career.

Arts and humanities graduates do live in the real world. We see its beauty and its strangeness, its cruelty and pain. We see its injustice, its indecency, its incandescence. And we have always found a way to show this, however hard the times. We are starters and doers and makers and activists: people who make something new every day. What we do is a luxury that makes every life worth living. And nothing’s more worth fighting for than that.