Jack Of All Trades….
ThickSkin’s Theatre Blog, 3 November 2022
This blog is about process and how I do what I do. It feels a bit weird because I don’t know whether I’m alone in the way I like to do things or if I’m amongst many others who want to constantly develop skills outside of our main focus. My main focus is being a director, but I haven’t really had a direct route to that or trained specifically as one. On my website under my name, it says – Director, Movement Director, Choreographer. I would like to add a few more things like Composer, Sound Designer and maybe Video Designer, but I worry that will cause eyes to heavily roll so let’s stick with the three that are there. I never wanted to be just one thing and I never really knew what I wanted to be at all. I wanted to keep learning and be lots of things. I wonder how many people are the same. Trying on lots of hats, dipping toes, and doing the things that make us creatively fulfilled. So, this is what my blog is about. Developing your creativity and constantly adding to your list of skills to become a more rounded creative individual. Not taking away from your main focus but feeding it. Becoming a 360° artist with a multi skilled approach.
As a company that makes new work either through a devising process or working closely with writers, we make work that we ourselves would want to see as theatre goers. It reflects our own tastes and watching it might be the easiest way to understand us as people. It may be because we are in control of the whole process from the generation of an idea through to the presentation of the product. A lot of the time I find creating our shows a deeply personal experience and incredibly exposing. But I know I’m not the only creative to say that. We are all vulnerable when it comes to show and tell. The worry about being the right person for the job and knowing everything you need to know can be crippling at times, so that’s what we need to break away from. To be allowed to venture into unknown territory and absorb things for a while without question.
When we started out as ThickSkin, myself and Laura were renegade in our approach to making work. We had no money and had to beg, borrow, and steal our way to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010. Maybe not steal but we definitely used everything we had at our disposal. At the time we couldn’t afford a creative team for our show, so I designed the set, lighting, sound and video projection and I also operated the show for the whole festival in the damp caverns of the Underbelly Cowgate. There were financial reasons for having to do all of that, but I also wanted to immerse myself in all aspects of what we do. Collaboration with a larger creative team came much later to us but the early work that we made on our own formed the basis of our style and forced me to learn and to be technical and experiment and try things outside of my comfort zone.
I’ve always been a bit of a magpie when it comes to my own creativity. I see something I like, and I want to work out how it is made, deconstruct it, and rebuild it. Work out if it has a use in my own creative world. I’m fascinated by technology and engineering, and this fuels my need to learn new skills. Most of these skills involve the creation of something, the making, or in the case of our digital work the programming and code of software. Rewind to me as a child growing up in a working-class family. My dad was a carpenter for the local council, and I grew up watching him work, fitting kitchens mainly but he would also build stuff from scratch that he thought up in his own head. Things we used in our own house. Beds and stuff. I was fascinated by the pencil scribbles on scraps of paper, all shapes and lines and measurements to the millimetre. I loved the precision of this and the planning! It goes without saying that this has filtered its way into my own creative process, maybe not working with wood, but in the way I plan and build. The need for precision, quality and a bit of creative bravery.
Learning by observing and being able to have a go at something with no pressure for an outcome is the way I have always furthered myself. My school thought I was odd when I wanted to take 3 creative subjects for A-level. Theatre Studies, Music, and Art! But they let me do it, and I made it work. I never wanted to stand on the outside looking in and I wanted to learn in the way that felt right for me. Our education system in this country is failing young people by squeezing creative subjects to the point of non-existence. I was lucky back then and I fear for what we are doing to the young creative minds out there right now. Maybe that’s a whole other blog?
One of our main ambitions for ThickSkin is to create an environment where creatives can focus on learning new skills in the making of theatrical experiences, either live or digital or a combination of both, and providing pathways through the company that allow for various routes and outcomes. It was heartening to read Lyn Gardner’s recent opinion piece on exactly this, just recently. It’s in our DNA and has led to our method of nurturing 360° artists.
For me in school it was synthesizers that caught my attention in music lessons. I tried to learn the trombone and the cello, but I kept being drawn back to the electronic music making devices. This learning would all come back to me later in life, I just didn’t know it at the time.
After completing my degree in performing arts at University and not knowing where to put myself, I ended up working with Frantic Assembly as an associate, and that was the thing that really gave me the opportunity to experiment. They were all about collaboration and getting stuck in regardless of what your role was. I was delivering hundreds of workshops in schools and colleges and sometimes that meant spending a week in residency somewhere, devising and presenting unique performances that had all the Frantic Assembly qualities we could throw at it. These projects had two practitioners and we both led on all the elements from the devising/directing to the sound and lighting design for the final showing. I loved working alongside those early Frantic artists, like Georgina Lamb and Imogen Knight who are two of my favourite movement directors to this day. No two residencies were the same and they were always fuelled by the buzz of adrenaline. It was a model of working that took us all over the world and we saw these projects a chance to play and test our own creative muscles with students who were up for going on the journey with us. It was as much about the process as the finished product.
Cut to 2020 at ThickSkin when the pandemic hit and we started to make ‘PETRICHOR’ which was our first venture into the world of VR. Due to the restrictions around Covid we had to keep the team as small as we could, so I took on the role of composer and sound designer. Drawing on everything I had learnt back in school and on various jobs in between, and also having the extra time due to lockdown to learn some new software meant I felt comfortable in that world and also eager to play with some new music making toys. Weeks passed in my headphones listening to versions of tracks that were rough but slowly they become more polished and then finally I had made something! and no one popped up to say, ‘who do you think you are? Get back in your lane!’
This is probably a good time to talk about Imposter Syndrome! Which I have always had in some shape or form. In every new rehearsal room, I have this fear of being outed as not good enough to be there. I also felt this when stamping my name next to the words Composer and Sound Designer. Probably because it was the first time I had really been that. It felt good be able to invest in a different form of creativity and it ended up being a finalist for an Off West End Theatre award so I must have done something right. I don’t want to take away the fact that people who trained to be composers and sound designers will always be the best person for the job. This is more about a personal need to further myself. My understanding of composition, music and technical sound design help to further the relationships I have with sound designers that I work with. Likewise for lighting and set design, it is about having some sort of knowledge of the processes that deepen a creative relationship and make us more rounded as individuals. I believe this is true for all creative people. A willingness to learn and be inspired by the things we know least about, is the driving force that makes us more than just the thing we might seem to be.
I guess what I’m trying say here is that having more strings to your bow doesn’t dilute your main focus. It reinforces it and lets you draw on loads of different areas of creativity. It makes you a better problem solver, a better collaborator, and that’s the kind of artist that we at ThickSkin want to develop and work with. Those that enter the room with eyes wide open and ready to see the potential in everything.
ThickSkin Theatre Blog by NEIL BETTLES
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