As I tidy my desk, my working table in my studio, I keep finding bits of old card. Card for model making. Or, as I like to think of these seemingly old and discarded bits of card- the leftovers of ideas. I am confronted by my own leftover ideas which have in the past year more or less resembled evolving ways of situating spectators on the same field.
In the past year I have mainly been creating spaces around tables. Tables for eating and tables for discourse making. In some instances tables that will facilitate both – discourse making for the soul and feeding of the body. Tables have been taking centre stage. Sometimes cheap trestle tables, other times custom build tables. But broadly speaking a flat surface on four legs around which people could gather.
All of these projects have essentially been looking at ways to structure, enable and carve space. Space for conversation and space for meeting one another. Space for difference and space for communality. Space for growth and space for debate. Space for anger and space for delight. A safe space. Space without discrimination, where listening takes place, where what is said lands in solidarity.
A meeting place. A place where a meeting will happen. Time will pass. Ideas will forge, ideas will break, change, evolve and transform.
Conversation is how I make anything happen. Yes, I often close the door to my studio so that I can draw uninterrupted but then, I open the door and ask of those around me – what do you see? More and more I wonder how much of theatre making is really given time for a genuine critical conversation to take place around any given live work.
So, what happens when the live work is the conversation?
What happens when we stop “entertaining” you, and instead ask of you to be present and participate? What happens when there is a demand you listen?
Back to tables! In the past year, most of the projects I have designed have been about facilitating conversations. Often conversations between strangers. When an invitation is presented, to share a small space and to investigate a common ground, often I find that people arrive prepared to do just that- find a common ground, listen and contribute, even though their contribution maybe appear to be small and quiet, they are there for a reason. That reason could be simply to listen. Listening as contribution.
This has really altered how I think about designing space. I think of them now as listening places. A place to allow that space to actively listen, because when you do actively listen it allows you to hear another voice, a voice different from yours. So, when we talk about diversity in the arts, for me that means- voices I know little of, voices I may not understand, voices I hardly hear, voices I barely see. It is though enabling listening that I hope I enable change. Change to enable and foreground exchange!
The next Selina Thompson project I am working on as a designer and creative collaborator is SORTITION! Continuing on from the brilliant Missy Elliot Project working with Black British teenage girls in Manchester, London and Leeds, SORTITION is asking you, the young people across the UK to think about ‘our’ political system. So, if you are 18-30 year old, GET INVOLVED!
It’s Friday night. I am not hungry. I am not drinking. I didn’t slept last night. I have had a good day talking with three fellow artists and thinkers. But I have spent the day putting a brave face and keeping going despite.
I sit in front of the telly, with my laptop, trying to write a clever shout of anger into the faceworld. It has a good dose of self pity, aren’t I broke, what if you reapplied for your jobs every six weeks or three months, this is fucked, touring doesn’t work, most venues offer obscenely shit fees, a commission does not mean a grand, the power imbalance in the arts and particularly when it comes to funding is obscenely of kilter, why do programmers think its ok to simply ignore communication for months on end,,,, …. I write it and it definitely says- This is mega fucked up and I am angry in case you didn’t get that. I close my computer, watch some shit telly about cross-breed dogs. I cry! I cry because the dogs are too cute and I need one. I NEED a dog. NOW!
I open my computer, I delete the the post on facebook. I go to bed. I don’t sleep, again.
It’s Saturday morning. I get up not having slept. My thoughts are full of anxiety. Nothing different so far, this has been going on for months, since last day of our Autumn tour which finished in mid November 2017.
I begin to feel angry with myself for not posting the facebook post. What angers me is the fact that actually talking about failure or my difficulty is shameful. I feel ashamed for not having got the funding I set out to get. I already feel ashamed knowing I will have to go to the board to tell them this. I feel ashamed at failing to get the money. I feel ashamed at not knowing how to play the system because playing the system is what every damn successful bugger is doing. I feel ashamed at being too honest, i.e not playing the game, not fitting, not ticking the boxes that I think are set out to privilege one group over another. Why the hell can’t be about making good work? This is all my fault. I am not successful. It pains me to write this, it pains me to say it.
Aware of all that, I am recognising that my privilege to moan about failure is a very capitalist trait and as a young commie I am thinking I must be able to cross that boundary and move on. But that is not how it works.
Shame and failure are very connected. They are for me ,anyway.
I came to this country on a full scholarship in 1999. My first solo exhibition sold out entirely, every single drawing. That was when I was 16. I got a first class honors degree in London for which I paid myself ( It took me five years rather than three to complete, I worked my little ass off. At points I had three part time jobs as I was doing my degree. I deferred my degree twice to work, so I can save the fees, then £8000 a year because as a non European, or overseas student I was not allowed a loan, thank f**k for that!) My first performance piece was called Defferal to celebrate the fact that I made it against all odds.
In 2014 I found myself performing our* award winning Near Gone in Ukraine to be told by a high level diplomat that I was a Failed Strategic Import!
Failed- lack of success, non-success, non-fulfilment, abortion, miscarriage, defeat, frustration, collapse, foundering, misfiring, coming to nothing, falling through
Strategic- planned, calculated, deliberate;
Import- bring (goods or services) into a country from abroad for sale. “supermarkets may no longer import cheap jeans from Bulgaria” **
At that point, I was rather reminded that my success (whatever the hell that means) was somewhere long ago, when I was young, because people are obsessed with youth anyway, we fetishise youth, far away, before it got tricky, when I was living in the capital, before I put on weight, when I could sleep, when I wasn’t really aware of capitalism and the rat race, maybe about ten years ago.
Ten year ago I would have been 26. I look at the 26 years olds around me and I recognise just how far ahead of me they are and how many light years ahead they are of my then 26 year old self. But then again, I didn’t have the privilege of having English as my mother tongue, neither did I have mum and dad cover the bills when I couldn’t. I was an immigrant. I remain an immigrant, only older.
Of late I have been thinking and looking back at where I went wrong.
I didn’t take a full time job being a picture framer
I didn’t take a full time job in a posh furniture shop, even though Marco Pierre White himself basically dragged me to his friend’s shop on the Chelsea road where I spent years selling obscenely expensive pieces (pieces of frickin furniture)
I was once late to a press night at the Gate Theatre
I left London
I said no to designing a feature film (because it was six months of unpaid work)
I designed a lot of shows for shit money, or no money for years, to build my portfolio
I told people what I genuinely thought of their work, when they asked
I didn’t get a British passport
I never shagged anyone to further my career
All the above decisions were based on my idea that I could make it. I could make it against all odds. The romantic notion of coming from humble background and working my ass off was going to overcome my socio-economic background, my Balkan heritage of enslavement and definitely overcome being an immigrant expected to clean toilets.
I began to occupy the space of the other. I arrived at that space slowly and consistently. But never did I think that occupying that space will have such an effect on my mental health and on my sustainability. Ten years ago, there was no facebook or twitter, there was email and phone calls and meeting people in person. That is how I got the work.
Back to shame. My lack of success makes me feel very ashamed. I feel ashamed to talk about failure. My failure.
I know what you are thinking- who cares anyway. Well, the only person that cares is me. I care. Which is why I am ashamed.
I feel ashamed to ask for fees that I know I frickin well deserve.
I feel ashamed to ask for royalties on design jobs because that is seen as greedy.
I feel ashamed to be bought tea, I must offer first.
I feel ashamed when fellow compatriots, i.e. Bulgarians happen to serve me in a cafe.
I feel ashamed to tell my work colleague I haven’t got us a gig here, or here, or here.
I feel ashamed when I start the sentence We didn’t get…
I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my colleague
I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my partner
I live in capitalism and I know that success is everything in this capitalist world. I particularly love my socialist liberal friends with hefty salaries “fighting it”. We are conditioned to compete, with each other, all the time. I was reminded of this the other day when talking to a fellow artist. She began to refer to me as her competitor. That made me feel extremely uncomfortable. What an idiot I was thinking I was talking to a friend. I guess I make that mistake all the bloody time.
Shame! My shame! To say- I am not ok! I am not OK, this is not ok, because I feel like a failure. I feel like a failure because as an independent artist is a really hard to build sustainability, and it is very easy to fall between the cracks. The cracks between the priorities of someone else.
A failure to keep going, going, going, gone. A failure to hold my nerve.
A failure for admitting I am failing. I am failing and I am fast falling.
Because failure is sooooo unsexy, so uncool. So, that is me for the rest of eternity- un freekin shaggable (not literally!)
*our – Two Destination Language
** The bit about the cheap Bulgarian jeans genuinely came up online when I googled the meaning of import
Earlier this year I crossed the midpoint. A midpoint for me.
I am 35 and I am from Bulgaria. I am Bulgarian (an ethnos of South Slavs,Thracian,Turks or locally known as Pomacks and Roma) holding a Bulgarian passport. A European Bulgarian passport. It’s red and it has a chip in it so I can go through those fancy automated gates at immigration desks on arrival at various European cities.
I was born in Plovdiv, with its beautiful old name of Philippopolis, a future European capital of culture in 2019. I am, I must say, very proud of that. It’s a small city of extreme beauty famous for its culture, a melting pot of visual arts, theatre and folklore; a large open air Roman theatre which is very well preserved; and the stunning architecture of the old city. It is also known for the problems around segregation of the Roma ethnos community, the dramatic closure of all of the old Turkish baths, and a glorious mosque bang in the centre of town — literally built on top of what used to be the entrance of the Roman Stadium. Plovdiv is probably the most diverse city in Bulgaria!
Stop with the bragging! I am currently sat on a plane, mid-air, flying, flying to Bulgaria. A thing I have been doing for the last eighteen years. And since 2008, I have had the privilege to travel all over Europe freely, without a visa, whenever I need or want.
I say a privilege because it is exactly that!
Born in 1982 — the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Kate Bush’s Dreaming came out and in Bulgaria the big cinema hit Band with No Name came out — I was raised under an authoritarian regime of the Communist Party. The Prime Minister at that time had been in power since 1954, a year before my dad was born and eight years before my mum was born. So I and my parents were born under the same political regime, under the same political party and under the same Prime Minister of the Republic and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
I was about two when my mum and dad went on holiday to Germany — East Germany, to Dresden via Yugoslavia (now Serbia), then Czechoslovakia ( now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Poland. It was just before Christmas and they brought me back brown corduroy dungarees and Polish leather boots. On the way back, they stopped by the Corecom and brought back Toblerone. This not simply a journey or a trip but an experience of a lifetime.
In those days, back in the 80’s we, I, the common Bulgarian, couldn’t travel easily beyond the Borders of our country. If you were high up within the Party membership you could visit other communist states but travel outside the Soviet Union was almost entirely unimaginable. It was impossible.
Then ‘89 came. I was 7. Travel was still unimaginable, impossible, but no longer because of the borders. Lots of the middle class and wealthy Bulgarian families emigrated: to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the United States to name a few. They were ready, prepared; the wall came down and they fled. My family, whilst having the foresight, didn’t have the finance. So, many years went by, the country was struggling with inflation, corruption (still very much a problem, more on a governmental level, then the common police bribery) and poverty.
We lived through that. In the 90s I was a teenager and more things felt possible. The first time I traveled abroad was visiting Istanbul with my parents, I must have been 14. The second time I traveled abroad was when, in 1999, I went with my class from the High School for Fine Arts, to Prague in the new Czech Republic. It was extremely exciting. The first time I visited the Prague Quadrennial I was 17 and I didn’t really know I would become, amongst other things, a set and costume designer.
My parents began to travel a little more, to Turkey, to Greece, to Serbia, to Croatia; on rare occasions to northern Italy or to Germany, the western parts. It was a time of possibilities. As cultural workers, my parents were part of many cultural peer exchanges, cross border programmes between artists unions in the old Soviet Block.
In 1998, I came to England, for the first time. I remember my English teacher queueing outside the British Embassy in the bright spring sun for our visitors visas. I don’t have a copy of my first visa to the UK but I so wished I did. Then in 1999, I came to England to study for a year. One thing lead to another and I stayed behind. Ambition got the better of me. Or capitalism. Or both!
I went to Wimbledon School of Art, then an independent institution, now a part of the University of the Arts London. I paid what overseas students paid! I had no loan, I worked every weekend from the second week I arrived in London in my first year. I made friends, I fell in love, I kept working: both the paid work which meant I could live, and the artistic work which kept me going.
I spent many years, during all seasons, traveling back and forth, and many hours queueing at the British Embassy in Sofia. My identity, my motifs, my moves, my jobs, my work was all scrutinised. I remember clearly one of those times: a while after my wedding, Bulgaria still outside the EU, I was applying for a spouse visa. A grilling interview in which every word I said had to be proved. Having to show photos of my wedding, legalised documents, proofs, character references by people I worked with back in London. Quizzed by my choice of church where the ceremony was held and best of all, how many times had my then husband visited, did he understand my culture, what did he think of the food? Although he was sat outside the interview room, he was not allowed to join me. Frankly, I had no freaking clue if he liked the food, to me it seemed a strange question I did not know the correct answer to. Then I waited a few days. My life in the hands of others.
Then in December 2007, I travelled to Bulgaria, to stand on the central square in Sofia to countdown the seconds which welcomed Bulgaria at the European Union. Boom: 2008! In the same square, I remember marching in the freezing cold, nineteen years earlier, next to my mum and dad in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the dictatorship my family and I were all born under.
Since 2008, I have travelled within Europe quite a lot. I have loved and cherished rail trips, overnight Eurolines coach journeys, flights. I started to approach the immigration booths with a little more confidence and a little less fear. I smiled, wished the people at immigration a nice day.
Now, it feels like a right. A human right to be able to move freely. A privilege I have become used to, a privilege which sees me now going to Venice, Brussels, Edinburgh, London and Sofia in the space of just three weeks. I have favourite airports, favourite cafes in those airports and a speedy way of negotiating manoeuvring at various ports.
I have also grown to love the in between, the between places and counties, between cultures and languages. I have grown to love the act of travel.
Earlier this year, on my way to Dublin to lead a DIY project On Otherness and Othering I was asked if I needed a visa to flight to Dublin. I replied sharply that, as a European citizen, I didn’t! But perhaps, soon, again, I will need a visa to visit the place I live and work and the people I call my friends and the one I love.
I am 35. In my lifetime so far I have seen dictatorship, post communism, failed capitalism, neoliberalism, populism and Brexit-ism. My life continues to be its own journey of negotiating and manoeuvring between the power of borders, barriers and in-betweens.
My life in the hands of others, your life in the hands of others. Our lives in our voting hands!
PS — Mentioning voting reminds me it was Theresa May who, as Home Secretary, abolished the UK Border Agency in 2012 and introduced Border Force. What do those words mean as we wait to approach the desk?
Two Destination Language has began work on a new show about celebrating difference. For the designs of this show I am using lots and lots of curtains! Curtains for the costume and the set! More to follow in 2018! Boom!
Supported by Live Art Development Agency and Create Ireland, I ran a workshop exploring identity, otherness and difference in Dublin in September. Working with a bunch of brilliant artists we had a roaring time exploring, pushing, and instigating change. Boom!
Waves crashing into rocks, making a racket in my head.
A very unsettling sort of a feeling, as if like walking on broken glass. Dodging shards of opinions and looking for space to land my own. To nest my own feeling of despair, uncertainty and unknown.
I think, two things have contributed to this.
One- saying No! Saying no to an outrageously bad deal and feeling guilty about saying no, recognising my powerless position, recognising how that can become quite the powerful position if I spoke about it and how by speaking about it I might then deal with the consequences!
Two! The Referendum! Everything about it. The in, the out, the unknown, the known, and where I sit amongst all this.
I am 34! I left Bulgaria when I was 17, precisely 17 year ago. I am in the middle. My childhood background defined by communism, by rules, by being from the provence, by poverty, by running wild on the streets, by going to school on my own changing buses and feeling totally safe, by my utterly brilliant young parents who instilled every sense that I can do whatever I want, by my dog Sara, by being other, the chubby one, the one with short dark hair, the one that was the first on the dance floor. The one unafraid to be looked at.
In November 1989, I was 7! Then, there was rebuilding! Of almost everything!
In August 1999, I landed at Heathrow Terminal 2. I remember queuing at The British Embassy in Sofia on a hot summers July day preceding that landing, well actually three days of being totally petrified – “what if they say no?” People: I had won a scholarship! A scholariship to study in the UK for a year, a full, all expenses paid sort of scholarship. A dream come true sort of a scholarship, one place sort of a scholarship with 200 others students fighting for that one place. And yet, what I remember most is queuing. Waiting. For another person to make the decision on my future. I got a yes!
A year later, I did some more queuing! A year later, more queuing, more queuing etc, etc, you get it. I became quite accustomed to being the other, to queuing, to waiting for others to make those decisions. Don’t get me wrong, in the meantime I was working my little socks off. I paid for my education almost entirely, I had no loans. In the first year, my parents helped me – and a very generous donor. I got a job and paid my way entirely from then onwards. Between my second and third year at college, I took a year out to work and make the money for the final year of my studies. I got a 1st Class Honours Degree, not that that fact counts for much in life, but it does look nice on paper.
In 2005, I married an Englishman. On my interview for a spouse visa, they asked me the most scrutinising questions about our relationship, they wanted to see photos of our wedding, they asked what food we had, who were the guests. They asked everything you can imagine and the things you probably can’t imagine. I got the visa.
In 2008, Bulgaria became part of the EU. I went home especially to join in the celebrations. I remember drinking cheap fizzy wine with my parents and my brother in the main square in Sofia. Dancing and feeling a great sense of jubilation. Not a great deal has changed since then but one defines all my parents dreamt they were able to do. To travel!
I remember the next time I returned to the UK using a different aisle on my way to passport control. I remember having the feeling that now I would like to travel a bit more and learn about other cultures and countries.
Since then I have done a bit of travelling, mainly in Europe. I have learned a bit about every country I have visited and I have loved being at each one. I absolutely love going online and being able to search for short holidays in Europe knowing I could visit if I wanted to. I absolutely love being free to do that without visa restrictions.
So, here I am, writing this from a small conservative village in Hampshire on the Sunday of the monarch’s birthday, hearing stories of English football fans embroiled in violence, the day after a visit to London seeing an exhibition of knickers at the V&A, after a night on which 50 or more people have been killed in Orlando, on the day when no doubt some boat somewhere is trying to reach Europe. Trying to reach Europe! Oh, Europe!
I write this as I feel so very totally unsettled by the provocations of the Out campaign, the scaremongering and wondering, really what would happen on June 23rd! Where would I be, not geographically but where would I end up being as a human, as a Bulgarian, as a European, as a person who knows Britishness so well, as a person who thinks and dreams in English, as a person whose identity and place will never be clearly defined. As a person who opposes definition. As a person who rebels to be defined. As a woman dating a Scotsman. As an artist?
I am an immigrant! I came from one place to another. I migrate between borders. At each place I change and return different. I am not just a woman, not just 34, not just a Bulgarian, not just European, not just an artist, not just heterosexual, not just into grapefruit in the morning, not just a resident of a small conservative village in Hampshire, not just….
And the crashing continues, the radio is full of debate, and imagining the ugly faces of some politicians keeps annoying me to no end. And the waves get higher and higher and my breathing is somehow slowed down, like slow motion horror movie, and I am poised and I just can not wait for the horror to finish. Then, I will deal with the consequences……then I will try and deal with whatever comes.
Here I am sitting at the very lovely Lyric Theatre in Bridport! I am devising, directing and writing a new piece by Michelle O’Brien based on her relationship with her 91 year old Mum. It’s coming on very nicely indeed!
In the meantime however I have been doing a bit of drawing in the evenings, to relax! Below are a few drawings done on A5 cartridge paper with sharpies! As ever, for sale! Enjoy!
Sparked by an article at The Stage about potential “exploitative” working methods of You Me Bum Bum Train, I felt like writing a thing or two.
So, let’s just come out and say, I have never worked for You Me Bum Bum Train in any shape or form so I do not have a first hand experience of their working methods/process. I have seen their ads for unpaid internships many times and many times I chose not to apply.
But, I was reminded of the time I did assist on such opportunities, so the below is about that!
About twelve years ago, I “worked” for about three or so years as the assistant of a theatre director on large projects. I did almost everything that didn’t involve soldering bits of electrics – good thing too, because I would have brought down the entire grid, no doubt! Prop making, set building, directing, designing, stage managing, you name it I did it. I did it all for either no pay, or expenses only. I learned so much! In fact, I could say I learned almost everything. Almost everything of one person’s methods of making theatre. I got a hell of a lot out of it, so much so that I began to think I COULD DO THIS!
At the end of those three years I was knackered, and I felt rather unhappy that somehow I could not progress from getting expenses paid, to getting my knowledge and ideas paid. I was certain that I simply cannot have a day job to subsidize a theatre job. I wanted to be good at my theatre job and I wanted to be paid for it, so, I stopped assisting.
It took precisely a month to get a paid job in theatre. Paid for my ideas and knowledge. It paid very badly, but it paid. Then it took another nine years for me to leave the day job and for theatre to become the day job. So, for the last three years I have existed on my theatre work (for the record, no mummy and daddy pay my rent, they never have, although I am sure they wish they could!) When I say theatre work I mean – designing set & costumes, writing, devising, performing, teaching, running workshops, painting, model making, set building, producing, writing funding bids, stage managing, tour booking, production management, etc, etc… I am 34! This means that when I reached 31 I was able to start to “reap” the benefits of my education as my sole income.
Now, let’s get this straight. This is pretty complex stuff.
Sometimes I imagine a 20 piece band playing music live on stage while Alister and I play.
Sometimes I imagine working with such vast budgets I could flood a stage.
Sometimes I imagine working on a vast stage!
Sometimes I imagine wearing a different outfit I have designed every time I go to London.
Sometimes I imagine I have a house.
Sometimes I imagine I have a dog.
Sometimes I imagine shopping at Waitrose and buying everything I want.
Sometimes I imagine I can pay my way so happily I would not need to check my current account balance every day, a few times a day.
On occasions, now, I sometimes have assistants. Sometimes, I can’t manage the work load, or I can’t be in two places at the same time, so I pay people to help me out. I pay my assistants. Always!
Back to the complexity. People have choice. Except when they don’t. There is never an unpaid opportunity. It doesn’t exist. Someone somewhere is paying for it!
In the arts we are quite simply in danger of undervaluing our own work so much that it becomes hard to make the case for other people to value it. A good place to start this little campaign, is by paying the people we value and the people we literally cannot do the work without.
It takes time to make work. It takes time to fundraise for that work. Sometimes, it takes time to recognise what the work is, which bit of it is the work, this bit, that bit or all of those bits in one.
It is ok for time, to take its time. And it’s absolutely fundamentally necessary for the work for be ambitious. But just remember, someone somewhere somehow is paying for it.
In my mum’s words “The cheese in the shop costs the same for everyone”.