Sunday, 30 June 2019

Dreaming Bigger #3: The Diary and the Deal

Welcome back to Dreaming Bigger, the blog series where I try to make my unrealistic goals more practical and tangible. Though it's been four months since the last installment, I'm proud to say that it seems to be working. I write to you now following the success of Hideout Productions' first ever scripted show!

It ate up a lot of my free time and caused some stress along the way, but it was absolutely worth it. Performed to a sellout audience at the Nottingham New Theatre, 2021: A Sketch Odyssey was a success. So, to celebrate a creative idea becoming a reality, I thought I'd share a couple of unorthodox motivational techniques I've been using to fuel my creativity...

Jane Austen is Watching

As a child, my partner was an avid diarist, but A-levels and University left little time for it. So at the start of the year, she bought a "line-a-day" diary - a journal with one page for every day, and enough space to write a sentence or two on each day for 5 years.

Not to be outdone, I bought one too; but I've never really been a diarist, and I knew I'd never find time to record my day even in a couple of lines. So I decided to use it as a method for tracking creativity. Since I'm trying to do something towards a project every day, why not write it down?

Initially my ritual of writing down the creative stepping stone of the day did help me stay focused on my projects. But, inevitably, the habit has slipped. Yet it continues to be of use. Keeping it on my desk, unopened, serves as a reminder, not to write in the diary, but to use the little time I have to actually do something creative or productive.

Each page of this diary is headed with a quote or aphorism from Jane Austen's body of work, so even if the pages remain empty (as many of them now do, half way into the year), I know there are still some words of wisdom to be found within.

A Creative Wager

So now the sketch show is done and dusted, what's next when it comes to big projects? Well, this is where motivation two comes in.

Readers of this series will know that my own success is not a great motivator for me. I'm much better at getting things done when there are other people who I might let down otherwise. It would then seem ambitious for my next project to be a solo show. So how have I ended up submitting a one-man show to perform at the Nottingham Comedy Festival in November?

Well, I have a little bet with a fellow performer. He's also writing a one-man show, so we've decided to motivate each other. If both of us have our shows ready for the festival, then great. But if either of us doesn't, then not only do we have to pay the cancellation fee to the festival, we also have to make the other one a three-course dinner. It's a simple incentive, but effective nevertheless.

So, if you're struggling to get going on a creative project, then I suggest thinking outside the box. Not just when it comes to the content you're creating or the ideas you're bringing to life, but with the ways in which you find motivation. And remember that, even if your project is a solo one, you don't have to undertake it alone.

Until next time, thanks for your attention :)

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Wes Anderson and Shakespeare: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Even if you've never seen a Wes Anderson film, you're probably familiar with his visual style. Bright colours and beautiful, ambitious settings work with deliberate, often symmetrical composition of the frame to create a distinctive, stylistic picture that mirrors the wonderful worlds he shows us.

Anderson's critics have called this style superficial, a 'clever' artfulness that disguises films with no real meaning. But I challenge anyone to call his 2014 hit The Grand Budapest Hotel meaningless.

In case you haven't seen it, the film depicts the decline of an opulent hotel in the austere world of Soviet Russia, alongside the final years of its head concierge, M. Gustave. The story follows Gustave and his young protege Zero as they navigate this harsh environment while trying to keep the hotel running.

So where does Shakespeare come in? 

Towards the end of his writing career, William Shakespeare penned four plays that some scholars separate from the rest. Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest

These are plays that subvert what we've come to expect from the bard. There are always lovers, but they are not central to the plot like in his comedies. There are tragic elements, but rather than consuming and killing all the characters, those tragedies are solved by the end. For want of a better term, these four plays are often called 'romances', but I prefer the more obvious term 'tragicomedies.'

But what does this have to do with Wes Anderson? Well, there are some more specific tropes that these later plays share. Bear with me while I borrow from Wikipedia: 'The romances call for spectacular effects to be shown... opulent interior and exterior scenery, dream settings and the illusion of time passing.' Sound familiar?

As the film goes on, the charming, comic world of the extravagant hotel clashes with the cold, oppressive, tragic world of 20th Century Russia. Bright colours fade to pastels, and the beauty of the hotel's symmetry gives way to military, institutional symmetrical order. The Grand Budapest Hotel, like other Anderson films, is itself a tragicomedy.

But it's more than just visual style.

There are similarities in plot and content too. As mentioned above, the film features a pair of lovers (Zero and Agatha) whose love story is not central to the plot. All of Shakespeare's tragicomedies contain families who have been torn apart; we learn late on in the movie that Zero himself is a refugee from the conflict in the middle east, and at least some of his relatives are dead.

Fantastical settings, getting lost, taking shelter in harsh environments, being chased, usurped and undermined - all of these are common to both Shakespeare's late romances and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it is at the end of the film (spoilers ahead) that Anderson allies himself most closely with the Shakespearean canon, and the genre of tragicomedy.

As the old saying goes - if there's a wedding at the end, it's a comedy; if everyone dies at the end, it's a tragedy. Wes Anderson puts both at the end of his film. Zero and Agatha get married, but we find out from the narrative of an older Zero that both Agatha and Gustave died not long after that event. Tragedy and comedy juxtaposed in the starkest of ways.

But why?

Why has Wes Anderson (deliberately or not) chosen Shakespearean tragicomedy as the genre for his film? The simple answer is form following function. The script, to all intents and purposes, is a comedy. But it's a story about the realest tragedy of all: the relentlessness of time.

By the movie's end, many of the characters are dead, and Zero is an old man. In the outermost frame of the narrative, even Jude Law's author character is dead. The hotel is the last bastion of a bygone era, left half-empty and ravaged by the years.

But I think Wes Anderson is cleverer than that.

The plots of Shakespeare's tragedies can be described as redemptive. Prospero is re-instated as Duke of Milan; Cymbeline and her daughter are reconciled. The ostensible villains must experience tragedy in order to come out the other side as if they were in a comedy all along.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the other way round. We are faced with likeable characters for whom tragedy is inevitable. The adventure they go on isn't their punishment for being bad, it's the comedy that keeps the darkness at bay.

At one point M. Gustave himself says: "There are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide, in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh fuck it." That's what Anderson wants to show us through his use of both tragic and comic devices. The film is a tragicomedy because life is a tragicomedy. We must face the inevitability of time, but try to have fun along the way.

If you've made it this far, thanks very much for your time and attention. Since films lend themselves to the video essay format, here's one I came across halfway through writing this. Thanks again, and see you next time.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Dreaming Bigger #2: Traps and Time Sinks

For me, dreaming bigger starts with clearing my own path. With a full time job and an active social life, it often seems like there's no time for being creative and working on my own projects. But deep down, I know that it's me not taking the initiative and devoting time to them. So today, it's time to put on the gardening gloves and weed out the traps and time sinks that are easy to fall into, but hard to escape.

As someone who spends a lot of time doing research online, I'm very prone to the internet rabbit hole. Whether it's the quicksand of a Buzzfeed list article or the bear trap of a pointless personality quiz, I want to avoid negative, empty interruptions.

Distractions can be good. In fact, I often get my best writing done when I allow myself to be distracted. I'll find out a nugget of information to weave into a story, or rest my brain for long enough to think of that rhyme I've been searching for. But Chrome and her cookies are on my tail with personalised clickbait, ready to pull me into a world of banal sports gossip and pictures of well-dressed micropigs.

Worst of all for me is what I call the 'clever clickbait.' The stuff that gets me even when I think I'm on high alert. A good example is this one from Zergnet: "Workers reveal what it's really like to work at a buffet." The part of me that makes me click is expecting a riveting account of the buffet industry from the people who felt trapped by their hospitality job - clearly I've been spoiled by podcasts.

The rest of me knows what's coming: endless ad-filled pages of mildly amusing, mostly disgusting stories grabbed off Reddit about what customers do when they want to pay as little as possible to eat as much as they can.

I'm not saying it's an intrinsically bad thing, but it's literally designed to make you spend as long as possible looking at adverts. And that's time I could be spending being creative. So I'm trying to be more discerning, and make sure advertisers can't just scoff at my attention buffet for free.

The other big time sink I'm trying to change my perspective on is video games. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. They're great for when I've had a very busy day or week, and I need to relax while also engaging my brain. They sit nicely in between just watching TV and actually being creative.

But there came a point where I would be looking for any spare moment when I could squeeze in some video game time. And that's not helpful when it comes to dreaming bigger. If I have a spare half an hour, I want to work on that sketch idea, or call that pub to find out if we can use their upstairs room. With a full-time job taking up my time, I should be taking advantage of those moments, not just letting them pass.

Do you still fall for clever clickbait? Could you be making better use of your fleeting moments? If you want to dream bigger with me, think about what your traps and time sinks are and how you can shake them off.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Intro: How Alt-J announced themselves

When Alt-J burst onto the alternative scene in 2012, I completely missed the boat. I actually avoided listening to them because I had them confused with X-Factor dropout boyband Union J. Their names are similar and they both reached their breakthrough in 2012, but it was a silly mistake nonetheless.

Seven years later, Alt-J's Mercury Prize-winning debut album An Awesome Wave is a true favourite of mine. Its quirky a-cappella interludes, literary lyrics and use of world music have tempted many critics to dismiss them as pretentious and aloof. But as a listening experience it's second to none. To borrow from John O'Brien's AllMusic review, its "eclectic arrays of sound are woven together so effortlessly that the results never feel forced."

And as for the whole 'pretentious' thing... well that's what this post is all about.

Alt-J made their breakthrough with their third single 'Breezeblocks', released just a week before the album it appeared on. That song is where most people heard them for the first time, but that's not the introduction I want to talk about.

I want to look at 'Intro', the first song on their first album: a song that allows Alt-J to introduce themselves to listeners on their own terms. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they do have something to say about themselves.

The song begins with an 80-second instrumental introduction. Haunting piano chords give way to a clean, catchy guitar loop, and eventually the two combine to bring in the first line of lyrics: 'Shit them all festival, laugh at the beautiful." We're 90 seconds in and they've already told us everything we need to know.

With the rise of streaming services, and apparent decline in attention spans, mainstream music often does away with introductions altogether. According to a study of top 10 songs, it now takes an average of 5 seconds before the singer comes in, compared to 20 seconds in the 1980s.

Compared to chart music, Alt-J's intro is lingering, patient, perhaps even self-indulgent. But it, along with the jarring choice of a curse word to open their album, achieves the desired effect. They want to distance themselves from a genre, from a scene they don't relate to.

It's clear elsewhere too, particularly in the second verse: "Stickle brick, tickle quick, laugh at the beautiful." The band see today's pop music as a series of blocks being stuck together like toy bricks into familiar formulas designed to amuse, to give short-term entertainment. 'Today's charts don't see music as an art form', they say. 'But we do.'

Alt J do reveal their pretentious side in this song - disdain drips through every word. They seem to see the music they produce as 'better' than the popular music of today, simply because they approach it as an art form, rather than a way to make money. And while this may draw criticism in the papers, there are a lot of music fans who feel the same way.

Many feel ignored by a music scene that favours heavy dance beats over well-considered lyrics and carefully crafted melodies and harmonies. So can you blame Alt-J for reassuring those groups that they're not like that?

I think it's their superior attitude that gets them the label 'pretentious', rather than 'experimental' or 'indie'. I am also not the biggest fan of chart music, and I'm happy as long as Alt-J keep producing songs as beautiful as 'Taro' or as deeply vulnerable as 'Dissolve Me'. This band clearly do treat every piece they write as a piece of art, and I'm just glad they're self-aware enough to tell us that.

Pretentious or not, 'Intro' is a powerful introduction to a frankly astounding album. I listen to it again and again, and I haven't gotten bored yet. So perhaps they're onto something.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Dreaming Bigger #1: An Abstract Resolution

Happy 2019 everyone! I hope you're enjoying the new year so far, and that at least some of you are sticking to your resolutions. If you've already broken yours, don't despair! Remember that tomorrow is also the start of a new year, just not one you can buy a calendar for.

In theory, the more measurable a resolution is, the more likely we are to stick to it. And I can see the logic - give yourself a tangible outcome, and you'll be able to see the finish line as you approach it.

On the other hand, abstract resolutions are just a bit more fun, aren't they? Sure, it's unrealistic to say you'll climb Kilimanjaro this year if you've never been hiking. But the first step is commitment: confirming to yourself that this is something you seriously want to do. If you don't do that, it's likely you'll never achieve whatever it is.

With that in mind, my partner and I have made perhaps the most abstract resolution of my life: Dream bigger. In this blog series, I'll be trying to unpack what that means for me, and how I'm making it a practical part of my year.

If you read my blog at all last year, you'll know that I'm trying to take my creative projects seriously, and in my head that's inextricably linked to the idea of dreaming bigger. Growing up, I flip-flopped between wanting to be an actor and being a writer. Both competitive professions, my parents assured me, but I was sure I could do at least one of them, if not both. It's funny how certain kids can be, right? Funny, but inspiring.

When I was a kid, becoming an actor or writer was at least partly about being famous. In the world of YouTube, Twitch, Instagram and TikTok, fame seems so obtainable. If Joe Wicks can get famous for being healthy and good at selfies, surely our own fame must be just around the corner! Fame isn't really a driver for me anymore, but the idea of writing my own stuff for a living still has a huge appeal.

If I'm writing more, then it's more likely I'll write stuff I want to share. If I share the stuff I'm proud of, then I can start to build a portfolio, and eventually it might lead somewhere. Even if it doesn't, I've still used my skills to make something new and meaningful. And I like the feeling that gives me.

So that's how I'll be dreaming bigger in 2019. I'd love to have you along for the ride :)

Friday, 30 November 2018

Motivation: Creative Endeavours Part 2

I haven't made a blog post in about 5 months. I'd like to tell you that it's because I've taken my own advice, and been hard at work on various creative projects. But that's not entirely true.

In truth, I've recently found that my own success isn't a very good motivator. I've always been a creative person, and loved to be part of things where I can put my talents and interests to good use. But these things are almost never done just for me. If I've written poems, it's been for a school or university assessment. If I've acted in a play, it's been for the companionship of good friends working towards a shared goal. Indeed, my most frequent creative output these days is the e-learning I write at work.

Watching BBC's The Apprentice is always good food for thought on this subject. Watching them bumble through the production of a half-decent kids comic or come up with an engaging advert for a new airline is often infuriating, with my partner and me yelling our own (better) ideas at the screen. But when it comes to the boardroom and the question of who will be fired, it's almost always qualities like drive, confidence and the gift of the gab that win the day over creativity, logic and originality.

And that's why I wouldn't make it as a CEO. I'm not competitive, I'm not ruthless, and I have no desire to be either of these things. But it comes back to bite me when I sit down to write something... and end up putting it off in favour of something more immediate. As I mentioned a few months ago, I'm quite good at setting myself deadlines or incentives, and I even follow them most of the time. But deep down I know that I'm only doing this for me, and there's probably something else I could be doing, with or for someone else.

But, as luck would have it, I'm now in a prime position to make a change. Over the last two weeks, I've had a few creative projects handed to me all at once: an original nativity play for my church back home, a flyer for a local book club, and another comedy-based endeavour I won't mention until the time is right.

This is perfect - flexing my creative muscles on projects led by other people, with deadlines that I have to make if I don't want to disappoint people. Suddenly I'm squeezing writing into my lunch breaks, watching less YouTube and having good ideas of my own. If I get my head in the game, I can turn this into a routine, but where it's my own ideas and projects on the page.

Thanks for your time. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Hope in the hopeless: alternative music in a post-2016 world.

For many, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 was a terrible end to a pretty terrible year. High profile celebrities dying early every week, Britain choosing to leave the EU, and now the impossible President. Surely it couldn't get any worse.

And in many ways, it hasn't. Across the globe, mortality rates and cancer deaths decrease while wealth and education levels rise. The world of medicine is very close to completely eradicating polio. But in many ways it has got worse. Opiate addiction is rising in Western countries, civil war continues to rage in parts of Africa and Asia, and every week the news brings us stories of refugees being refused a secure home.

In a world that needs so much help, how can music have any kind of impact?
Well, maybe popular music can't.

Now, I'm prone to ranting about the charts. I can often be heard (both on this blog and off) dismissing pop music with its shallow subject matter and its focus on electronic over-production. But when all is said and done, chart music does what any popular media should - it entertains. Just as a romance novel provides escapism from the burdens of real life, pop music helps you forget the cares of work, and enjoy the evenings and weekends while you can.

Alternative music (defined here as any music that doesn't regularly appear in the UK top 40 singles chart) has a different role. And it's that something different that means it can't be pop music. Alternative music, almost by definition, is the anti-chart music. It doesn't help you escape from the world, it confronts the world head on. Alt music has thoughts and opinions on the issues of the world, and it wants to share them, however pretentiously (see Alt J) or humbly (Athlete) that might come across.

With this in mind, I've chosen three alternative albums that have come out since Trump's nomination as Republican candidate. They're all excellent, and I highly recommend you go listen to them. They are great examples of the role alternative music can have in exploring complex ideas in accessible format, while offering beautiful music for our ears to enjoy.

In October 2016, British folk artist Kate Rusby released Life in a Paper Boat. Those familiar with her work might see this as a classic Rusby album - lots of folk tales and traditional ditties set to new tunes, mixed in with some original songs - albeit with a new, more synth-led sound. However, those people would be somewhat missing the point.

The title track takes the perspective of a refugee mother, carrying her newborn baby across oceans in the hope of finding a safe place to rest. The woman is caught between the despair of her situation ("An ancient land I've left behind / In ruins now lies she"), and the optimism of the new life she has brought into the world ("This bundle that I carry is worth more to me than life"). The song is left unresolved, the refugee crying "will I feel my feet upon the sand?" echoing how, to a hopeless refugee, the world is a great, scary unknown. This plaintive, lilting song is a cry, to governments and  individuals alike, to show compassion to those without help.

But Rusby's vision on this album is far from pessimistic. The final track of the album, 'Big Brave Bill', tells the story of a Yorkshire-based superhero named bill who saves English people from problems big and small. The song never fails to make me laugh, touting Bill as 'the hero who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time', but the meaning runs deeper than that. We should be proud of our homeland, and the things that make it ours, but not to the exclusion of others. Bill is a symbol of local pride, but also of selflessness and compassion. Through this album, Rusby asks us to take note of life's nuances, not just to take the news at face value, and to use our capacity for compassion to do some good in a broken world.

Life in a Paper Boat - Kate Rusby (2016)
Favourite tracks: Hunter Moon, Life in a Paper Boat, The Witch of the Westmorland, Big Brave Bill

Until very recently, I just saw Elbow as the band who did 'One Day Like This,' and that was enough for me. But after their Beatles cover on last year's John Lewis Christmas advert, I started to explore them again. I'm so glad I did. Their 2017 effort Little Fictions is full of beautiful melodies, poetic lyrics, and so many meditations on the state of the Western world that I don't know where to start.

The most obviously political song on the album is 'K2'. named after the world's steepest mountain, the song paints an unrelenting whirlwind of current events - Brexit, the American-Mexican wall, the freedom of the press, and the misuse of social media that might "send us to a digital end". Yet within all this there is hope, and (perhaps predictably for Elbow) that hope is love. Garvey sings that the love shown by individuals has built a shelf on K2 that stops us from slipping to the bottom. "Love / Opens the fist just enough for a hand / to slip into the hand."

The rest of the album has a similar theme. Despite its bleak subject matter, it's a joyful record. 'All Disco', perhaps the highlight of the album, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously: "What does it prove if you die for a tune / Don't you know it's all disco?" Tracks like 'Trust the Sun' and 'Head for Supplies' acknowledge the growing tensions of today's society, "Something we dared never dream on TV everyday", but love and personal relationships always win out in the end.

Little Fictions - Elbow (2017)
Favourite tracks: All Disco, Head for Supplies, K2, Kindling (Fickle Flame)

The most recent album in this post came out just over a month ago: Chvrches' long-awaited third album Love Is Dead. This is perhaps the album closest to pop music, as the band often get mainstream radio play for their accessible, synth-heavy music style. However, it's the ideas present in the lyrics that lump this album in with the other two.

The album title is pretty pessimistic, as is the album's lead single 'Get Out'. In the lyrics, strains on a personal relationship cause singer Lauren Mayberry to lose her sense of self, and her only solution is to "get get get out of here" in the chorus. Similarly, ' Graves' comments on how those in power do nothing to stop the evils of this world - "They're leaving bodies in stairwells / Washing up on the shore / Do you really expect us to care what you're waiting for?"

But again, this is only half the story, and the album is more optimistic than it seems. The album's climax is the gritty, forceful "Never Say Die," Where Mayberry challenges us never to give up, even in our direst moments. In an interview about the song, she said she "really wanted to sum up a feeling of trying to be optimistic when you feel disillusioned by the people around you, but trying to keep going." And this is the theme of the album. Yes, there is trauma, personal and global, but we all have the capacity to keep going.

Love Is Dead - Chvrches (2018)
Favourite Tracks: Graffiti, Get Out, My Enemy, Heaven/Hell

I think my point has been made, but I'll conclude briefly. One of the things that keeps me listening to alternative artists, and keeps me looking for more, is their ability to create exciting, original and intelligent music. They are aware of what's going on in the world, but they know it's not their job to offer escapism. As songwriters, they have faced the issues head on, and still they have found reason to be optimistic. Every listener is an individual, and these artists' belief in our individual capacity for love, compassion and change, is a much-needed empowerment in a world like today's.

Well done if you got to the end, I know this was a long one. Do listen to these albums, I don't think you'll regret it. Thank you for your attention and I'll see you next time.