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Staying in the game

In September I went to hospital for the first of two operations to remove a tumour that had spread from my appendix into my bowel. It was a stage 4 cancer and things weren’t looking good. A few hours after the operation, my phone beeped. Without thinking I reached for it and discovered two rejection emails. One from theatre and one from TV. Morphine is a wonderful drug, and I just rolled my eyes and laughed at the irony. I get rejection emails all the time. Why should today be any different?

I’ve been working in the arts as a playwright and screenwriter for about 6 years now. Before that I was a social worker. I worked in some pretty stressful and harrowing situations, so I thought working in the arts would be a piece of piss. But the reality is that if you’re not careful, this industry can take a terrible toll on your mental health.

For me, the first big mental health flashpoint came when I got two massive rejections within a few weeks of each other. Having worked on the commissions for about three years, when the final verdicts were delivered, I got into bed and stayed there.

Around that time, I was offered a place on the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course. I look back on my behaviour in that programme with regret and shame. I was arrogant and conceited and full of pent up anger. Not long after that, while Channel 4 was considering a script of mine, I ran out of money again and got a job giving tours on the open top buses in London. The tour route drives past Channel 4 HQ on Horseferry Road and I would duck and hide on the top deck four times a day as we passed Channel 4, hoping no one would see me. I was petrified my cover of being a “successful working writer” would be blown. I got the bus home, back to my pathetic life of ready meals and porn.

As a social worker I have removed babies from crack houses, I have been torn to shreds on the witness stand, I had a pack of dogs set on me. In my private life I have painfully separated from my long-term partner, I have been gay-bashed with weapons twice. You’d think as a writer, I could handle a few “thanks but no thanks” and some empty seats. But there are times I couldn’t. As a social worker you’re trying to disrupt power dynamics, to alleviate people from them. But as an artist you’re at their mercy. It’s David versus Goliath – individual artists, up against powerful institutions and indiviuduals, operating in a world of rigid unspoken rules of what you can and can’t do.

It got to a point when I had to admit that, not only was I unhappy, I hated the person I had become. This industry was not bringing out the best in me. In social work I thrived. In the arts I died.

So I took back power wherever I could. On my website I published all my bad reviews. I find pretending people haven’t hated some of my work tiring, so I don’t do it anymore. My ambitions used to be plays in the Olivier, transfers to Broadway, recurring dramas on Netflix. Nowadays my ambition is to have a nice day. Those other things might come, they might not. But I can still have a nice day.

And this is the key: I have separated my work from my worth. I don’t eat and breathe TV and theatre now. I consider it a place I visit Monday to Friday, then leave again to pursue other fulfilling aspects of my life. This industry doesn’t get to have all of me.

The final thing I’ve done is start speaking up. There’s a culture of fear that permeates the arts world – a feeling that we shouldn’t speak up when we’re treated badly, we mustn’t bite the hands that feed us. But this industry is skewed with complex power dynamics bearing down hard on artists. We’re expected to suck up poor behaviour from huge organisations or individuals so we don’t blow the long game. I’ve started telling theatres what it’s like to work with them - good and bad, and there is often so much good. Personally, I prefer to have the conversations in private. And it works both ways: in those meetings I’ve had some feedback that was difficult to hear. But it was invaluable.

On Christmas day I woke up on the floor of the toilet in the hospital ward, covered in my shit and vomit. I made a commitment in that moment to prioritise my dignity. Not just as a human being but as an artist. Some of that involves a healthy dose of delusion and self-deception, I admit. (The lies I’ve told myself just to get out of bed some mornings!) But it also involves gently holding up a mirror to the people with power and saying, “this is what you’re like.”

So now I imagine inside of me I have a candle. And no critic, no gatekeeper, no empty auditorium gets to blow that out. I guard it fiercely. And I can mooch around the park and appreciate the green grass or the protean sky. The dog that bounds round my feet, happy in its ignorant joy, that wide-eyed baby living presently in each second of the day: they can teach us a lot. My worth as a human being is not directly linked to my success or failure as an artist. I can be rejected and still be happy. I’ve decided to be confident things will work out. Joy has returned to my life and I’m not letting go of it. And strangely, I feel my best work is ahead of me.

Some rejections are hard to take of course. The other day I had a production fall through on the same day as a broadcaster turned down a pilot. And that evening I got stood up. But life goes on. My priorities have changed: happiness is there for the taking. I bend but I don’t break. I have goals but I’m flexible as to how I get there. And for the time being, I don’t have cancer. So I’ll keep on going.

During lockdown the country looked to the arts for relief and entertainment, and yet we’ve lost many talented people because they weren’t given enough support to weather the storm. Artists are brave warriors. They enter the ring every morning, and exit battered and bruised only to march right back in the next day. To the artists reading this, I salute you. For your grace, your dignity and your integrity. How you navigate this industry and stay in the game is no one’s fucking business but yours.