I’ve been working in professional theatre for forty years, mainly as a playwright, before that I did a lot of acting and directing and writing, so theatre was kind of in my veins from the age of about fifteen. I finally turned professional as a writer full time, in nineteen eighty-two. But lately, the past three, four years as austerity, and arts funding cuts and cuts to the BBC and reorganisation at the BBC, have taken their toll, I’ve found myself basically without work. And when that happens you can’t pay the bills and if, as I have, you’ve got a typing induced bad back, a long-standing back problem, it’s difficult to find anything else. Which is how I come to be at the Old Fire Station through Crisis, and just from my point of view is pure chance really that Crisis is so arts orientated. I've been coming nearly a year.
I came in here a very crestfallen and rather miserable old bloke. I came for two of those Marmalade sessions, and got really involved, and I remember Liam my Progression Coach came up to me and he looked a bit startled, and said, god you look different what's happened? I said, well how do I look? And he said well you look younger you look - and I said well I feel like I'm getting up in the mornings and I've got a purpose in life, I've got something to do that I'm engaged with, I feel is useful not just to me but to other people. It’s great, it gets your adrenaline going, makes you feel differently about yourself and other people.
I went to the playwriting class, doing the sort of thing I hadn't done for forty years, you know? Just someone says look at this photograph and imagine the character behind it. I do that all the time in my head anyway, but it’s just nice to be in a position to do that and to be challenged like that and then to see what other people have made of different photographs, and it just suddenly reawakened all the - you know I was seriously thinking of giving it all up, but with that and then Hidden Spire, the play Sawdust that we did, where I got roped in as one of the cast members – it reawakened everything for me.
I said to them, genuinely, I don’t know if I'll be able to learn the lines, and it was a problem, you know that part of my brain was probably out of - I hadn't done that for a while. I just spent every morning of the rehearsals - I would go outside, because I was staying at my daughters - go outside with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, I'd sing the song that I have to sing about three times, and then I'd go through all my lines best I could, and even then I'd still come into rehearsals and forget them!
We had some people who'd never acted before, some people who'd done it once or twice and then three or four professionals, and I kind of straddled the whole group really, and as I was playing the ringmaster it kind of felt right. So I was a little bit separate in that sense, but felt totally part of the company. It's that sense of inclusivity, nobody is written off, nobody is patronised, everybody's treated with the upmost respect, that is just a rule, you know? It’s because of having somewhere to come to, that you know is a sympathetic space, that has largely sympathetic people within it.
First of all, I told myself that I was just one of the Crisis bunch and I should remember that at all times and not go in there and say that I was forty years in the theatre and therefore I can tell you all. And actually it was great because you could just occasionally, like if someone who'd never acted would say to me, how do I learn lines? You know this is while I'm having a quick cigarette outside, and I'd say well what I used to do was this, and then the next day they'd come in and say oh that worked!
It was little things like that you could - and little bits, tiny little bits of stage craft where there's a problem and you just think, actually I, without appearing to be a know it all, I do see how this could be solved quite easily. And that was a lovely moment when you kind of saw that all blossom.
We did four nights, four performances, four full houses, we did a Q and A on the Thursday night, virtually the entire audience stayed behind, I've never - usually you get seven perverts staying behind for things like that. People were asking real questions that you wanted to answer, and you thought, people do want this but they've been starved of it.
I came along to the first read through of the Christmas show and I thought oh I'd love to be working in this environment - it reminds you very much of the world that I joined. And a couple of days later the Old Fire Station contacted me and said, do you have any thoughts? And I thought, well yeah obviously I do, but I thought would be impertinent of me to offer them. So I just put down what my honest thoughts were about it and how I thought it could improve, but the fact that I did like it very much and I thought the two actors were really engaging. I thought the script overall worked very well and the whole idea worked very well, I could see how it was going to work in the theatre. And I got lovely emails back, just from everybody saying thank you so much you know it was a real help, and it’s really nice to get another pair of eyes.
It’s been a shot of adrenaline in lots of many different ways, just being around the place – it’s a place where you like to come, where somebody like me fits in for god’s sake! And it’s a place where I can talk to the artistic director, I can talk to you, I can talk to the people working in the Café, I can talk to the people doing what, in any other environment would be regarded as 'the menial jobs' as equals and they treat me as an equal, and oh that’s probably the thing that I've always loved most.
And I feel differently about this city now. I go down the street and you can guarantee I'm going to bump into at least one or two people that I know, either through here or people from the Council or whatever, or from other homeless charities and so on. And because of that, because I have to admit, I am just another homeless person being treated the same as other homeless people are, and that’s pretty bloody awfully, and you feel this sort of solidarity. Whereas before I would have walked down the street feeling outraged and sympathy and all of that – but I was just an onlooker. Now the strongest feeling I have is one of solidarity and that’s hugely important to me.
I’ve got about half a dozen, eight good friends all around the country, and I'm regularly in correspondence. And I wrote to one of them - this, that, you know - and I just got this email back, 'it sounds to me like you got your mojo back'. And I said, well that's how I feel. I mean I'm not saying it’s not all going to collapse in a pile of ashes, it could have done that forty years ago, but it didn’t. And the sort of enthusiasm that I've still got, it was always there, it wasn't here when I came here back in February – gone. I thought, there's nothing much left for me. And yet now I believe again - because I've been writing a play and I'm looking at it thinking by god this is going to turn everything - but you think that with everything you write.
I don’t think I would have got round to writing it if I hadn't been coming here. I wouldn't have felt that I had the confidence because I'd lost contact with people, with places, with the sort of people that I like being surrounded by. My voice and the voice of many people like me has been if not extinguished, it has been crushed to the point of irrelevance. And we live in a world where there is, more than ever, important stuff to be explored and expressed. Some people are doing it in the theatre, more power to their elbow. Mostly they're doing it against all the odds.