Guest Blog Post: Charlotte Mcshane and Sebastian H-W get together and discuss what it means to be a solo aritst.

On Friday 13th March  Charlotte and Sebastian met up at his studio in Stratford, East London, where they devised, brainstormed, mind maps, lots of questions they have about what it means to be a solo artist and how they make work. You can catch their shows as part of  Sprint Festival’s Triple Bill Thursday on 19 Mar.

Charlotte’s show ‘An Intentionally False Statement‘ will be performed at 7:15pm. Click here for more information and  Sebastian’s show ‘Rebels Atlas’ will be performed at 8pm. Click here for more information.

Why do you make solo work? (Do you hate people?)

[SEB] So I don’t hate people as much as it sounds! I like making solo work, makes it sound like you’re a complete misanthropist. I’m not. No, I make solo work, mostly because I worked in a performance collective for many years, called Cluster Bomb Collective, from about 2009 to 2016. And that was great, it really taught me about collaboration, working with a range of different artists, that’s what I wanted to do at the time. However, it was difficult to get funding bodies, institutions, festivals etc. to recognize what a ‘collective’ is, as opposed to a theatre company, which I think is something quite something very difficult to do here in the UK, I think, on the continent Europe it is/was much easier for both audiences, organizers, residencies to understand how you work – to understand that you have a fluid group of people that work and collaborate on artistic projects.

And then that was kind of yeah generally affecting how we started kept making work and you know we were working for no money really. And it just got very exhausting.  It’s s increasingly becoming more and more difficult to get any large scale funding. And I think it’s just easy for me to work on my own, self produce, get some money, and then develop a project and invite people onboard or aboard the ship that I’m kind of steering. But that requires a ‘good crew’ to navigate the waters of tricky, contemporary, devised performance.

(Char) Oh, I definitely do it because I hate people! No, people are great but it’s true I don’t ‘play well’. I think I’m quite different to your journey into solo then Seb as it’s pretty much the only type of performance I’ve ever really wanted to do. While studying at uni I did a solo performance course with this great visiting tutor called Bryce. He was amazing and the course completely changed me and what I wanted to make. Through a confidence thing, it sounds strange but I’m more scared of sharing ideas with a collective then presenting a full show to an audience. I like the control it affords over the work and also so much stuff is autobiographical it would be full on weird for anyone else to make it with me. Also, I never have any money to pay myself, let alone other people and I’m only comfortable not paying myself.

What motivates you to make the show?

[SEB] Whenever I make a piece of work are the things I’m most interested in how they connect. So like who, when I make work, how does it relate to me, if it’s starting ‘from me’, if I am the starting point for the making of the work, which often is solo work is, I ask myself “what is my relationship to the thing that I am making?”.

So in relation to this my new show, so that I’m working and bringing to CPT is that it’s about belonging, and it’s about belonging to London, to a city that I didn’t grow up in, that I moved here too. And it’s about living through rapid change rapid regeneration and gentrification, and the spectacle of what living through like the Olympics brought to that area.

So that’s what motivates me to make work is, perhaps, what you could say quite pessimistically, is trauma. But, yes, I think that I perhaps I say that quite lightheartedly but actually is, there is like a lot of depth to it. And to me, I think what motivates me to make work is this kind of excavation of the self, an unearthing about the past and understanding that through making performance, through making theatre, through embarking on a research project, that you get the chance to interview, and then you can reassess, albeit in hindsight, what has happened to you.

Yes. There’s a lot of debate about that. But to me that’s very important and I feel to share that with an audience to allow us to unpack some of the things that will just happen to us that will, we will live through, but making and carving out time and space, in the theatre, for us to think about that, intellectually physically, emotionally, through nonlinear perhaps quite strange or unsettling ways.

[CHAR] That’s beautiful Seb. I really like that idea of your story being unearthed beyond death. With me, it often starts with a thought, that I then go on to overthink a lot and it leads me to wonder, well if I’m thinking about this all the time maybe other people are? I often approach topics that I believe people aren’t talking about enough and that I think we as a society in the UK just don’t deal with very well. Often they’re taboo subjects or mired in feminism and for my own enjoyment, things that people feel awkward talking about. An Intentionally False Statement, the show I’ll be doing at CPT, was motivated by this idea that I just don’t get why people aren’t more honest with each other. Or I do get it, actually I really get it, but I’d like to strive for better. I can’t STAND it when I think someone has made something up just for the sake of ease. Tell me the truth, I can handle it…I can’t.

What journey has it been on already?

[SEB] So the journey of making Rebels Atlas actually started at CPT when I was part of the Starting Block Artists development platform where we got a very small commission mostly commission to start making scratch, which we performed at the 2018 Sprint Festival, as a, as a whole night of work. We had Dirty Rascals, Kelly Green, Natasha Brown… everyone was fantastic and everyone actually all of their shows have gone on to have a new life beyond that. And so I made a different show made a show called ‘Transient Boarders’ in 2018, which was a very kind of trying to interview a very specific group of people which actually became very difficult to contact for lots of reasons and I wanted to interview people who’d been displaced out of London, who were living in temporary accommodation, ideally like hotels or B&Bs. But that the process of trying to meet those people was very difficult and we didn’t have the funding to be able to go and travel around and do all these interviews all the time, that so it became more about focusing in on the narratives of people who were experiencing displacement around Stratford and Newham.

Anyway, regardless of the difficult process with the start of the show, I enjoyed piecing it together. However, perhaps ironically, I wanted to deconstruct it and tear it up and start again.

But at the same time, it always, it feels like gentrification itself, it feels like you’re just presenting the facade of someone’s story and that has all of this backstory that you’ve heard as a documenter as an archivist, as, as the listener. Where does that go? How do people find out more? where does that story live? What is that archive? And the more I thought about that the more I realized the archives should be a map, because that especially in relationship to this concept of regeneration in cities and migration and people moving around the city and out of the city, that the map was this political tool that could both house and pinpoint where people’s narrative existed on a form that people can understand because we’ve all seen maps we’ve got some concepts of how maps work and how we use them and I think that’s something that is changing as well. And the fact that we now pretty much use maps on our phone.

So I think and then about like the digital mapping and how that was something I was interested in, as a tool that we use all the time. It’s very ubiquitous and everyday. But it’s still subject to lots of methods of control – what gets put on a map and what gets left out, and how you can use maps to think about the future but also reflect the past. So that from that I was like, Okay, If we create this online mapping tool, how can I use this as a means to both collect people’s stories in the future as the project grows. But also, can the map have a tool for resistance at all for activists and communities to connect with each other, find out where services are where research sources are where other people in their community are located that they can contact with support around displacement and dispossession. So Rebels Atlas by its name, then became this. This projects centered around what mapping of resistance to regeneration could be.

In early 2019 I got some bigger seed funding from Shoot Festival Coventry which is in Coventry. And that was great – that was where I really got the most money and support to develop this show, and because of that, I was able to do more interviews, think more about video projection, lighting costume etc. yet really kind of shot through that funding into kind of the work, shot up to a high level.

And then I came back to London off to working on that, and then finish my MA, and through doing the MA I got some funding from the university to go to New York. I went there specifically the funding brought me to New York specific as you work with an amazing organization called the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, who the kind of name gives it away, really says it all!. They are a collaboration of urban geographers, but they’re also activists and they started in San Francisco and they mapped or use maps as a tool for understanding data around displacement and regeneration and rising rent costs, slum landlords. And they have different factions. For some of them. One side is this kind of data analyzing where they build maps for political campaigns, or legal aids services, but they also have a more kind of creative department or, you know, set group of artists that work on oral testimony, or history or testimony, legal testimony. And I was really interested in going to meet them to understand kind of where those overlaps are between the making as artists and as activists, kind of the roles that the story and stories can play in raising awareness bringing your stories to a legal place beyond just a creative, or simply kind of activating these archives into things that can have a real change in people’s lives livelihoods living conditions. futures. Yeah, it was. It was incredible. I wasn’t there for very long, but it was definitely a big turning point. And that really cemented in the reason why the map was so important to my projects.

So I came back to the UK, to finish my MA. And I then carried on the development of the project from Shoot Festival in Coventry through this little trip to New York, back, and then I decided just to kind of focus in on finished trying to finish my MA final show 30 Minute focus on East London, and on my story of arriving to East London around 2012 living through Olympic regeneration being part of the opening ceremony, and then meeting different generations of neighbours and understanding what resistance to the master planning of the Olympic regeneration was. I still it’s because it’s still ongoing. And it will be 10 years a decade, in 2022. So we’re kind of building up to understanding more about what that is, on a very local grassroots individual person to person level.

[CHAR] Wow, firstly, and this shouldn’t be my only takeaway and it isn’t but I’m so jealous you got to go to New York, that must have been amazing. My journey with the show is far shorter. In fact, my performance at CPT is a work in progress so it has long way to go rather than it’s been a long way. Last year in Manchester, where I’m from, I did a installation piece called Tell Me Lies. It was a one on one piece where people came into the toilets, sat in a cubicle next to a cubicle I was in and ‘confessed’. Some of the things I heard there led me to want to do a full piece about it but the subject is actually so widescoping, it’s been hard to zero in on one thing. Once you realise how prevalent lying is, it opens up a whole can of worms!

Where is it going next? Future life?

[SEB] So, I without giving the story away, I am now no longer based in London. So I’m interested now in applying for Arts Council (while we still have access to public funding) to develop the project into a performance installation really, I feel like the story is there. But I’d like more funding to develop. What a performance installation of Rebels Atlas could be. I’d like to get more money to develop the mapping software that I’ve been using, Maybe to work with a proper GIS data mapper, seeing how accessible this archive of collected stories can be, and making a performance installation of the show, so that the talk the show can talk to lots of different venues. I’ve had interesting feedback about who is the show for. Is it for the displaced? is it for the working class audience? is it for people who just moved to a city? is it for property developers? Or Is it/can it be for all of these people? And who do I want in the audience? who should see the show?

I’m always very interested in tour-ability and how your show can exist in different places. I think I definitely, I get really into installation building into this like scenographic kind of larger-scale installation, ideas, and thinking about how this digital map can exist n the physical world. How could that be housed and transported?

[CHAR] I’d really like to get some funding and be able to take it on the road. Interview lots of people, get more lies/confessions out, keep researching false statements that have then caused ricochet affects. Maybe even get an installation going so people can confess to a phonebooth and I don;t have to necessarily be there.  My hope is to get other people involved in the background so I can focus on the performance without worrying about marketing, lighting etc. My hope is then, once I’m really happy with it as a full piece to tour but before that, I’ll be honest, it needs tweaking.

As an artist, do you have a process and can you describe it?

[SEB] Yeah, probably! This, I think, I think my process, always starts with research, or it starts with a burning desire to make a show about, like, an issue or something that I’ve realised that is very close to my life. But understanding that it’s more than just your story.

So like, when I made a show in 2017, called Chokolatul which was about, about chocolate. (Obviously) but chocolate as a way of understanding about my ancestry, my heritage, my family and it was about nationality migration, racism, post-colonialism. Then, having had the idea to the process came out of seeing an opportunity, a residency, and being like that’s a great pot of money, or that’s really interesting support, or those people are offering a great platform. And then it sparks, an idea of like – How does my practice or my ideas or my interests relate to the open core they’re presenting?

And this one came out of First Food Residency while revolves around First Nations indigenous food of Mexico. It was a collaboration between the UK and Mexico for a year in 2017, I think. And I was like, ‘What food do I relate to?’ and it literally took me like weeks and then it hit me, of course, is chocolate. My parents both whacked me over the head, of course, why didn’t you think of this thing before! And then from that I then my process was like okay I’m gonna find out everything I can about chocolate, I’m gonna watch all the documentaries, all the books, emails some key people, just really dive in deep to a process of understanding, and I think that’s very reflective of my upbringing of like constant book reading and moving to the UK, suddenly being displaced from where I was born and the homeland that I thought I knew to come to a new place I’d only ever read about ‘in’ books, suddenly become very obsessed about only reading books, as a coping, escapist survival mechanism. For years, I became very isolated. But I think from that and since we’re building that kind of confidence, through the trauma of secondary school. I think a lot of us can relate to it so something I carry with me of like that kind of wanting to absorb as much knowledge and understanding about subjects.

But that is it but that is like navigation, the process is navigating a lot of the often quite conflicting information you can get given or some things that are clearly quite written in a way that are meant to present, or highlight some aspects more than others. So yeah, so then I then research something, and then through that research, often just by reading things I get inspired, I’m like, oh yeah what if, how could we represent the colonial influence from the Spaniards hating and changing the taste of Aztec chocolate. How could we bring that to life in theatre, of course yeah it’s a cooking show! We’ll have Hernan Cortez come out and cover the chocolate in white sugar. So yeah, so just from reading a book, I have this quite often absurd, often fantastical often a bit obscure, ideas about how to make that and then you workshop it, either in space or in your head, or bedroom, wherever that is. And you make, and then you start building a show together from lots of different building blocks, and then the tricky thing is, how does it all fit together or like what is the red thread How Does, does it inhabit one world or do you just has to present lots of different worlds, particularly in kind of device long nonlinear live art and theatre-making It’s often the conundrum.

But actually I think most of my shows are always in process, I feel I very rarely make a show I never feel it’s finished. And I don’t think that will ever change just because I think I’m always more interested in the process and I am in what’s made at the end. And I’m also the I think how we were taught at Darlington, my, my BA art school university was the process of performing the process is as important as the final product itself. And that’s still something that really resonates with me and how I might work. But that I. The issue is how fully can an audience understand that process or have access to it. Being able to understand that, that is an ongoing question

I think, as, as an artist I’m always having to I think we read without unless this is particularly difficult because it is exponential it’s always growing and shifting direction. And the map keeps changing. But that is itself of interest, and it’s interesting.

[CHAR] I don’t think I have a set process. Shows have come from different ideas and sometimes I’m so sure about something I want very little external knowledge of similar threads to make sure I’m not influenced. But sometimes, research is so key, learning as many opinions as possible and just thinking about it for weeks, months before I ever start to write something down. Or I tend to carry a notebook around me so then it’s going through them to find the dotted jargon of an idea I made months ago! Then, I tend to use music to help me think through an idea or how can I communicate this as a song? Comedy is pretty important to me so in the process of making I want it to be able to lean in to serious moments but never take itself too seriously.

How do you prepare for a solo? Do you hide at the top of a mountain?

[SEB]  I don’t hide on top of a mountain. I’d like to – if It’s part of the making of the show! I have actually hidden on top of a mountain, Teufelsberg (the devil’s mountain) in Berlin as part of a process. That was fun, bit lonely, and we almost killed each other but that’s okay. We’re still friends.

Anyway, so I prepare in different ways for different shows, So I think this show. Interestingly, it’s starting to felt the most like holistic or like I’ve thought about lots of different ways of preparing for it, and it’s definitely physical exercise is really important especially it’s about reflecting on the Olympic agenda of like healthy bodies, Athletes, athleticism and so running has always been a physical energizing embodying preparation process thing I’ve done.

It’s a process. just all of that aerobic moving of the body’s really, really inspiring and gets to know the blood pumping juices flowing and gets the brain neural networks and connecting better. And so I always go for a run in production week leading up to the process before we’re rehearsing.

So running physical activity is quite good for preparing learning lines, and also trying to have as much of your tech ready as possible to rehearse with us quite useful, it’s quite difficult especially with this show, as like there’s a lot of technical cues there’s lots of video and Bluetooth connections in the show. So lots of different parts you know lots of different sets of props and costumes. So, preparing for that is tough because obviously you can’t always have a mate on hand to keep pressing GO on QLab. So after I prepare by making lots of rehearsal tracks which are like lots of long tracks we’ve got some gaps in between where in between audiovisual cues, this space where I fill in live, like line-rehearsing, which is good because it also, it starts to in building a sense of like time duration for different parts of the show. And it also keeps you on your toes as well because you’re like you’ve got a machine that you’re playing off and playing with.

But it’s what’s really difficult is preparing for having an audience that’s really difficult when you’re doing a solo, and you’re working with no funding, and you can’t just can’t always just get your mates around to have a look at something in the studio or at home.

So running. being in a public space using tech, that’s kind of how I prepared for solo. And then generally just psyching myself out thinking like why am I doing the show, who’s the show for what’s the story I’m trying to say, what do I want people to come away from it at that but then also, laying avoiding getting too overwhelmed by remembering that it is work in progress that it is an ongoing story. And each step is further down the path of building the story, of developing yourself as an artist, and meeting people and getting your work out there.

[CHAR] I wish I could hide at the top of a mountain, Teufelsberg sounds amazing and I lived in Berlin and STILL never got there. I think my problem is I don’t prepare for a solo, there’s just a lot of pent up nervousness and excitement that now I hear your running idea I’ll try but mostly goes into very nervous bowel movements. Too much information? Possibly but you’ll probably not like my show if you don’t like that.

Do you seek out feedback? And how do you use it?

[SEB]  I do seek a lot of feedback. I think that has come out of often a lot of my work is built around and relies heavily on participation interaction working with audiences, Rebels Atlas, funnily enough, has yet to do that, and I think that’s because the process and funding of this show has had a very end-on-theatre focus and context. But I’d like it to in the future. But having trained with the incredible company’s ZU UK, who ran and facilitated the MA, I did at the University of East London who now have an MA at Greenwich shout out here. Go and do it. It was great. I think they practice is incomparable, a company that I’ve worked with professionally and also I feel like I’m continuously in awe of and feel that it’s a long journey I’m having with them. We’re developing, what kind of ‘post-immersive’ performance will be.

 For them/ZU UK and myself asking specific feedback questions is really important, because how else do you know if your interactions, your moments of participation, in the show have worked? Because as artists, especially solo artists, we have all these ideas in our heads. And we’re like, let’s just do them try them out but actually where’s that feedback where’s the callback?

And I do collect that anonymously. I think it’s important to have in try and have anonymous feedback system so you can have some honest criticality about the work and ensure people feel like they don’t need to hold back.

[CHAR] It’s a work in progress so if I don’t have feedback there’s not much point in showing it. You can think a show is something but until you actually get it in front of an audience, you just can’t know. I agree, anonymous feedback is important as I truly want to know what audiences thought and there’s no point in someone just saying they thought it was good when they didn’t, just to spare my feelings.

Do you have a way of psyching up before the show? How do you keep energy up as a solo performer?

[SEB] I think I need a lot more psyching up than I used to. And I think maybe I’m getting older. I’m only 31. I know – It’s over for me. No it’s not, not yet! But yeah, I think recently my confidence has been a bit more precarious. I’m sure that’s just reflective of our current climate for the past five years more around precarity in the arts, and the world, climate change.

So, yeah, I need more psyching up for a show. And that comes again through running a physical g-iing up and going through my lines, but not overdoing it so much that it’s just I feel that I’m too over-rehearsed g-iing up comes from. Kind of centering yourself and remembering where the stories come from, like where’s the shows come from, where that emotional, intellectual space has come from and kind of honing in tapping in on that.

And then also, remembering that the show is in honour of the people that I’ve met and the activists the ordinary people the neighbours. I’m realising that this show is for them, it’s by them, it’s from them, and that as a storyteller I’m honouring that their story, that is still important still needs to be heard. And it’s still inspiring – like there’s, there’s one person in the show called Safford Hammond, who’s whose speech and text is so powerful that it had to be a video, I could never do them justice, there’s no one else could explain that story better than Saffron.

We have to draw on the fire of a new generation, of the next generation. and that what we do is for them as much as we honour those who came before us as much as kind of an older, ancestor generation, worked hard to get us to where we are today. We are in a line of the legacy of activism is what I feel what this show is about, and where I want it to go. And that becoming activists, around housing justice around regeneration is a journey in itself.