Chipping at the Hard Stuff: Reflections on my Leverhulme Scholarship


Back in mid-November, I was on a totally lush Hawkwood College Artist Residency as part of my Leverhulme Scholarship with Ferment at Bristol Old Vic (BOV). I was asked to write a few words for Team Ferment about it, but never got round to it due to a) various busy and b) an itch at the back of my mind that I’d like to do some deeper reflection on the scholarship so far and where it’s taken me – because it’s been utterly transformative for how I understand my perspective and skills as a theatre director (thumbs up!) but the journey has been waaaaay different to what I’d planned or anticipated (thumbs up!).

I came into the Leverhulme scholarship at a point of deep professional frustration.

The scholarship has been brilliant for letting me let it out, and then helping me work out what I can do about it and how I can do that on my own terms. The time – and the money to spend the time – has been crucial to that, as has the stamp of affirmation that comes from being awarded the scholarship. But really, the MOST important thing has been the regular, thoughtful interrogation I’m getting from the brilliant Emma Bettridge (BOV Ferment Producer). I’m lucky to be working a lot, but it means I don’t prioritise time to deal with the hard stuff that will open up new opportunities for me as a director. Right at the start of the process I asked Emma to keep pushing me out of my comfort zone, and she’s been brilliant at reminding me to keep chipping away at the hard stuff. She’s been genius at helping me start building that chipping away into my ongoing practice as a director.

Here’s a bit from my February 2017 application:

“By producing work through Sleepdogs, I’ve had the freedom to hone an artistic vision and approach that is deeply influenced by my cultural curiosity and my identity as a third culture woman of colour. But I think this unconventional approach makes it hard for commissioners and producers to assess my practice and imagine how I might be able to work with them. I’m at a point now where my lack of technical training, and the (false) perception of my work as devised rather than script-based, are making it impossible for me to develop as an individual artist and move towards a sustainable career as a director.”

Or more succinctly: I’d to use this opportunity to make myself more employable as a director please. It’s strange looking back at this application now, many months into the scholarship, because it reveals how unconfident I was about my skills and ability; how insignificant I felt my experience was; and how much I thought it was all about me needing to change, rather than the industry. It reeks of me seeking validation from the establishment.

In October, 6 months into the scholarship, Emma asked if I could send an informal update on where I was at. Here’s an extract from the update I emailed her:

“I was nervous that existing work commitments were going to make me feel like I wasn’t getting stuck into the scholarship, but actually it’s proved brilliant for me to use this time to honestly reflect on my current situation and to think in a very practical way about how and where I need to focus in order for me to push my directing practice in a way that meets my artistic ambitions (rather than seeking to ape what a ‘proper’ directing career looks like.)

The award has been a really useful “pressure” on me to be honest about my artistic desires, jealousies and ambitions and to be more clear and forthright about why and how I make theatre. As a result I am already more confident and forthright about my individual perspective as a female artist of colour, and as a theatre director who is interested in making productions that feel like they come from the modern world rather than some arcane notion of theatre tied to traditional conventions. In the past, I’ve been quite timid about expressing either of these aspects because I’ve feared they would marginalise me, and limit my opportunities to work in mainstream contexts. What I’ve realised is that I’m marginalised already by these things (!!) and it’s more powerful for me to own these positions and push for the value they can bring to mainstream theatre contexts.”

I’m struck by how much more confident I’ve become in my own artistry and the need to value it better and draw power from it. There are 3 key things that cleared the fog for me on this:

  • In May, I wrote and published this article, as a way of working through some deep-seated, inhibiting frustrations I had about being too “diverse” to be mainstream, yet not authentic enough to bring a “diverse perspective” in the eyes of producers.
  • In July, I heard a brilliant talk by Dr Sarah Atkinson about how women have been written out of history, which included a plea for more women to go for opportunities even when they don’t feel fully qualified (in a way that men have less of a problem with).
  • And in August I had a brief session with super-successful (and also not formally trained) War Horse etc director, Tom Morris, looking at AREAS OF BASIC THEATRECRAFTZ (AOBTz), which a) reminded me that professional experience trumps formal training and b) surprised me by revealing that I already understand and regularly employ AOBTz in my theatre directing – I just also tend to stretch it beyond its conventional purpose, and mix it up with techniques from other forms.

This quiet revelation about AOBTz has been crucial for me. Not only did that session give me confidence in my basic foundations, but it was also great to realise that I regularly apply technical craft from other forms (e.g. live art, dance, film) that are either not considered part of a director’s toolkit or dismissed as ‘uncrafted’ by the theatre mainstream.

In my first few weeks of Music GCSE, my teacher marked down one of my compositions for its reliance on perfect fourths and fifths.

“But it sounds good,” I insisted.

“Yes it does,” said my teacher, “but it’s not good composition.”

So I quit Music GCSE. I kept playing music and composing, but I was a bolshy teenager and I was in no way going to formally buy into the notion that the theory of music was more important than the experience of music. I guess it’s the same for me with theatre – though more mature me is more conscious of wanting to understand the craft in order to manipulate it more powerfully. There are always going to be people who judge me as doing the theatre craft badly, when actually I’m consciously trying to give the audience a more surprising – and hopefully more remarkable – way into the story and the experience. Ultimately, it all comes down to desire, and taste.

Having said all that, I end that October email with this:

  since august I have been feeling very frustrated and alienated by the theatre industry. I’m so ranty at the moment, but I hope I can channel that frustration into really strong meaningful creative work. I’m feeling pretty low about my opportunities as a director within the structures of our current industry and how people make connections and make assumptions […] I feel like I’m constantly fighting so hard for people to even acknowledge me as a director, never mind consider working with me. I need to be visible as a director before I even get to worry about whether people take me seriously or not.”

So since October, I’ve been focused on how I might address that invisibility. If you’ll allow me to talk frankly here, the fact is that the UK theatre industry is deeply conservative in how it functions, very concerned with peer judgement, and has black hole levels of London-centricity. I mean, I get it. We work with an ephemeral art-form. You can’t just pick up a DVD of someone’s production and get up to speed with their work – we need other anchor points to help us get to know who’s out there. The problem is that these anchor points – certainly in the field of script-led theatre – are skewed enormously towards traditional training routes, LONDON, those who work for theatres rather than self-produce, and LONDON. You might see all the new work in your local town, but you probably also go to London. You don’t necessarily also go to Manchester, or Newcastle, or Bristol as a matter of course. Especially if you’re a theatre critic. All of this is compounded by the feedback loop of current theatre criticism.

In the grand game of theatre industry top trumps, I have rubbish scores in all those areas. I’ve got an impressive CV of experience to point to, but no-one’s looking, because I’ve got crap scores in those boxes. I don’t have those privileges so I’m going to have to find other ways to get people to see me.

There’s stuff I need to practise, actual practical work I need to do, in order to improve my visibility as a director and that’s what I’ve been getting my head down to over the last few months. I’ve got to get better at articulating my practice and why people should be interested. I’ve got to get better at pitching my approach to plays. I’ve got to get out and meet more people who live in venues (artistic directors, literary producers etc). I probably need to get an agent. I’ve got to come to terms with being on repeat about the fact that despite not living in London, I’m up for working on plays in your theatre.

One of the great things about Bristol – and one of the main reasons why I choose to live here – is the clever, confident and ambitious artist community I get to play and think things through with. I’m not the only Bristol-based director experiencing this frustration and I’m working with allies to challenge our local producing theatres not to overlook Bristol-based directors for their productions. I love that this scholarship is helping me work with my peers to change opportunities for more than just me.

Last week, me and my fellow scholars gave a little talk about our experiences so far on the scholarship. We’ve all done different things, but we all talked about the incredible value in being able to genuinely learn as we went, rather than having to deliver prescribed outcomes. I’ve been able to rewire the machinery of my practice and map career routes I never thought I’d be able to take, without having to deny my artistic curiosity and background. There is NO WAY I’d have achieved this if I knew I was going to have to show some work-in-progress or pass an exam at the end of it – I’d have been way too focused on what I had to do, rather than actual learning. At the talk, Emma mentioned how hard it was to protect the non-outcome-focused nature of these scholarships. I’ll talk to anyone who’ll hear me about why that needs protecting.

I’m into the last few months of my scholarship now. There’s a lot of practical and intellectual graft, emotional steel and a shed-load of train journeys that’ll need to go into pushing my visibility as a director. But as I said back in May, right at the start of my scholarship: I need to get over it and make my story more visible. Because I’ve got a voice and a career in this business – and I want more different people to influence our culture not just at the margins, but all the way through.

Thank you BOV Ferment for awarding me time, space, money and support to push towards this. I can’t think of anything else like these scholarships. Here’s to the next cohort. Hope you guys run with it.

Tanuja Amarasuriya is a director, dramaturg and sound designer, whose work has been developed and presented nationally and internationally including at the National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Seattle International Film Festival, Manchester Royal Exchange, Battersea Arts Centre and BIOS (Athens). She has worked with playwrights and theatremakers including Dipika Guha, Selina Thompson, Sam Halmarack, Eno Mfon, Raucous and Timothy X Atack, with whom she co-founded Sleepdogs.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | #oneplaything

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, Mufti Games Director Malcolm Hamilton discusses his upcoming performance #oneplaythingCatch it at the Loco Klub, Wed 31 Jan.

Malcolm Hamilton

Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m Malcolm, I’m a theatre maker who specialises in play. For the past few years I’ve been using known games-like hangman and rock paper scissors- to make shows or engage people in ideas. This last year I’ve been a Leverhulme Scholar with Ferment and I’ve been concentrating on play theories and thinking. I’ve been running play activities and been using play in other contexts, like heritage engagement and housing consultation.

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
It’s a talk, and experiment and a play session. There will be some performance and we’ll play together. We’ll use play to explore a story and we’ll look at some problems our society has with play. I’ll invite you to think about your own play, and give you something to take away too. It’s about giving value and celebrating tiny, everyday moments.


What inspired/influenced your piece?
Last year, I was invited to a meeting of playful people in Leeds. It was the first ‘on the road version’ of the Danish play festival ‘Counterplay’. As a result of some relatively light street interventions, some very big conversations happened. We all got very excited. It was the pinnacle of a year consciously exploring play and #oneplaything is a sharing of that year.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
I’ve just been supported by Ferment for a year so it’s had a massive impact on me. My confidence has built, I’ve been able to explore new things and experiment with space to think. I’ve built some really strong new relationships and been able to focus my work enabling me to move forwards in a stronger, more disciplined way. I’ve been hanging about Ferment since the beginning and it’s been a great way to try out ideas and see great work in the early stages. There are some shows seen that have gone absolutely nowhere. And they’ve really stuck with me. Because as you watch, a tiny bit of that show, form or idea will help that artist develop, and if they hadn’t had a chance to work that out, they might still have one leg stuck behind a wall scratching their head, rather than dancing on the clifftops. And the good thing about dancing of the cliff tops in this context, is that we all get the chance to dance too.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | In the Dark

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, Bristol based artist Hannah Sullivan discusses her upcoming one-on-one performance In the DarkCatch it in our theatre, Wed 24 Jan.

Hannah-Sullivan- In the Dark.jpgTell us a bit about yourself…
I am a Bristol based artist, I moved here after graduating from Dartington College of Arts in 2009. I have been making work in the city every since, included previous pieces shown with Ferment ‘Echo Beach’ and ‘With Force and Noise’. I am a member of Interval, an artist-led network of performance makers in Bristol based above St Nicholas Market.

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
I am presenting a small one-on-one performance I created for a dark basement whilst on residency in Taiwan in 2017. The performance was generated out of time spent exploring the dark hours, reading a brilliant dark text ‘in praise of shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and the experience of living with a very generous family who welcomed me into an unknown place without much shared language.

What inspired/influenced your piece?
I began thinking about the dark when I read an article by Jeanette Winterson called ‘Why I adore the night’ – read it here.

This text changed my perception of the dark months of the year, and instigated the beginning of wanted to make some performance work that presented the positive qualities of darkness.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
I am sharing this piece at Ferment to find out whether it has a life outside of the context of the residency in which it was made. I am very keen to continue making work on the subject of darkness, and looking forward to learning whether this piece should be developed or whether it is the beginning of a series of small explorations. Ferment allows me to experiment with this very early stage work, this is something that Ferment has offered to several of my pieces. Being given the space to explore in this way is completely essential to discovering the potential of what the work I make can be.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?
Dark, slow, sweet

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | For The Record

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, spoken word poet Toby Thompson discusses his upcoming performance For The RecordCatch it on our stage, Thu 25 Jan. 

Toby Thompson - For the Record.jpg
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m a spoken word poet haling from the quaint old town of Bath. My poetry tends to revolve around themes of existential bafflement, nature, solitude, I’m bewildered by time passing. I’ve written a lot of love poems, mostly to imaginary girls, occasionally to real ones. Music is the driving force behind almost everything I do. I like dancing to tropical disco bangers. Italian bossa nova records from 60’s movie soundtracks occupy a special place in my heart. Jazz makes me melancholy in a happy way. Japanese waltzes make me want to stare into ponds forever. And umm my name’s Toby and I’m 24 and I don’t think I’ve missed anything?

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
What AREN’T I presenting at Ferment Fortnight! Almost everything in fact, everything except for what I will actually be presenting which I suppose is… a sort of meandering stroll through the garden paths of my music taste, punctuated with poetical musings on everything from psychedelic picnics to moonlit encounters with mallards to falling in love with women who turn out to be tigers and back again.

What inspired/influenced your piece?
Bill Evans, Nina Simone and Jeanne Moreau mostly, also persistent feelings of loneliness and hopelessness and wonderment and puzzlement and happiness and sadness. It’s a being alive thing.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
It means the world to me! But more specifically it means I get to try out a new idea in a gorgeous space with real life people as my audience instead of just all the plants on the mantelpiece in my bedroom. They’re very pretty my plants, but seldom if ever do they give insightful feedback.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?
Poems, vinyl, and candlelight.

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Ferment Fortnight Preview | Kinkens

Ferment Fortnight kicks off its biannual explosion of work-in-progress and scratch performances from 24 Jan. Here, Pip Hambly gives us an exclusive on her solo show KinkensCatch it at the Loco Klub, Thu 1 Feb. 

Pip Hambly.jpgTell us a bit about yourself…
My name’s Pip. I make theatre, and sometimes perform in other people’s. Most recently I played Robert in 1927’s revision of Golem, which was here at the Bristol Old Vic back in June and toured to some wondrous places. I did a science degree and then re-trained at the London International School of Performing Arts in Lecoq based physical theatre and devising, graduating in 2013. I’ve been making indie work since then, mostly in London where I’ve been for the past 10 years. I’m very fond of the mysterious, the ambiguous, the pithy and the intuitive.

What are you presenting at Ferment Fortnight?
Kinkens is a solo show about unanswerable questions, alone-ness and being next to things we can’t control. The word is Old Scots for ‘evasive answers to the questions of overly curious children’. It began its journey on the Starting Blocks programme at the Camden People’s Theatre with a question about why humans might have developed the capacity to ask about the meaning of life – what purpose that could ever serve.

Something that is noticeably challenging to the way we like to talk about states of unrest in the mind of the west is this meeting of eastern philosophy with western ideas about ‘mental health’. The outspoken are calling this the age of anxiety, and describing loneliness as an epidemic. I wondered if anxiety could speak, what it would say (and how), and what if loneliness was not an epidemic in itself, but a symptom of something else – a phenomenon we haven’t yet found a name for, but that requires aloneness to manifest. Kinkens is about trying to open up to the experience of those moments in life that we have to do alone – illness, loss, change and transition – and questions if these processes could, unlike the implicit isolation of language like ‘epidemic’, actually bring us closer together as humans. The piece also explores broadcast, communication, and ways of listening – and a fairly geeky journey of discovery into the world of amateur radio…

It’s still a work in progress – but right now Kinkens is an experiment of physical theatre with a semi-recorded radio podcast about the brain, the mind and the meaning of life. It asks what it might be like to assimilate into reality those things in life we’d rather pretend don’t exist, and allow them to be what they are.

What inspired/influenced your piece?
The condensed list:

  • A piece of research that came out last year entitled #StatusOfMind, which looked at the impact of social media on anxiety and depressive states in young people.
  • Podcasting and video blogging.
  • An exiled Eritrean nun I met in Kenya called Sister Yodit, who said the meaning of life was singing. The issue of not being a very good singer.
  • A lecturer in nursing and professor of compassion, who said enquiry is about being uncomfortable.
  • The Kid Carpet lyrics ‘no one gives a shit if you’re not special’, which I used in a short story I wrote when I was 17 about Japanese Bottled Cats.
  • Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts.
  • Atul Gawunde’s Being Mortal.
  • Paul Thagard’s The Brain and The Meaning of Life.
  • Straw Dogs by John Gray.
  • Metal Dance by Oskar Schlemmer.
  • People who rig and build radio communication systems. Particularly ones in remote places or during disasters. Amateur radio enthusiasts.
  • Sekido, The Tao, Saki, Camus, Beckett, Ólafur Arnalds, Owiny Sigoma Band and Des’ree. And Celine Dion.

What does the work that Ferment do mean to you?
I think it’s amazing that something like Ferment exists as a platform. Having just moved here I feel amazingly lucky to have my work programmed in the festival and to have the chance to meet and see the work of other makers in the city and the Southwest. It’s not so often you find venues with artist’s development programmes like Ferment at Bristol Old Vic, which nurture local makers and offer a supportive testing ground to try out new ideas, and I think it’s incredible and really important for the scene to flourish. I am very excited to be part of the fortnight.

What would you say the audience can expect in three words?
Intensely, whimsical existentialism.

Ferment Fortnight takes place at Bristol Old Vic 24-25 Jan before moving across the city to Watershed and Loco Klu from 26 Jan-3 Feb.  For more info and to book tickets, click here.