By Sean Mahoney
Before the show:
Some writers can put everything in a three-minute poem. Some can’t. You watch them tell a story that rests on the periphery of a much larger world they’re building up courage and skill to tell us about, and you hope the opportunity to tell it lines up with their confidence to write it. These writers, while it’s unsatisfying to watch them be frustrated in traditional performance poetry settings, often find ways to use the craft they’ve learnt in another medium, be it collections of poetry, short stories, musical projects or, (ahem) one person shows.
Before my residency at the BAC, I was working at a fast food restaurant in Covent Garden called Shake Shack, putting receipts on trays, fries on trays, pouring gooey cheese over fries (to then put on trays) filling cups with coca cola, sprite, and other soft drinks. During rush hour, when the orders seem to endlessly multiply like pop up windows on a virus-ridden computer, I’d find creative new ways to mess up these incredibly simple tasks. It’s a demoralising situation when you’re being shouted at for putting a large sprite on a tray that was instead in need of a Coke Zero.
In a job like that, your passion becomes so much more important because it feels like the only way out. In my hour break I’d wolf down my complimentary burger within a minute and head to a Pret with my notepad, buy a tea and write. I’d feel proud of myself for writing in this break, even if the writing wasn’t very good- and it rarely was- but it meant a lot to keep writing, to keep the motor running.
I’d been performing poetry for a couple of years at this point. I had relative success with a poem about heartbreak that got onto channel 4 and helped me win a Literary Death Match. The success of this poem was fantastic, but my lack of confidence always had me see it as the poem’s success more than my own. Part of this was because the poem was written about an intense feeling of heartbreak, a feeling that I wasn’t enthusiastic about. I became scared to ever do a gig and not perform it. It became a crutch and stunted my creativity and confidence massively.
Luckily, the (spoken word) artist formerly known as Polarbear brought Zia Ahmed and I on board for a residency, wanting to look at fatherhood and passing on stories- and also because he wanted us to write something together (we didn’t). I was by far the weakest link in that group (no shame) but somehow wound up getting a meeting with Richard Dufty, a BAC producer.
Richard and I met in a cafe near the BAC and he asked me if there was anything I wanted to write about. Anything big. I’ve always known that if I ever got an opportunity to write about something for longer than three minutes, it’d be boxing because it was the only thing I really knew anything about. He said they couldn’t pay me anything big- until he realised I wasn’t over twenty-five, which allowed me to somehow get two grand and a two-week residency. I was getting nine hundred a month at shake shack, full time. I quit immediately.
Writing the show.
This was the first time I was paid to write. Not a gig. Not writing on a day off, or during a lunch break, but to write. My lunch break would be a break from writing. Being so used to building up thoughts in my head and then pouring them out in a condensed moment made the amount of time feel excessive and alien.
Eventually, I got into a rhythm. After the first day, I brought in my old boxing bag with everything in it (wraps, glove, skipping rope, etc) and would listen to three songs on loop- Hugh’s Look Back in Laughter, Kevin Gate’s Roamin Around and Schoolboy Q’s Hell of a Night. When I couldn’t write I’d wrap my hands, put on gloves, shadow box and skip. Sometimes I’d write and write and write and look up, and realise the sun had gone down and I was in darkness.
The BAC liked what I’d written so gave me another residency (about a six-month break in between) but recommended I get a director- I was lucky to work with Yael Shavit, who I had worked with on a Roundhouse group project the year before.
Yael helped change the show from a collection of moments to a cohesive story- from the writing to the performance. After a week what was a twenty-minute reading became a forty-five-minute show (without no ending) Round two done, we were given another week- another six-month break- but this time with three shows as well.
In between these months, Yael and I were in conversation a lot- I’d send her work and she’d see every corner I cut. We’d exchange ideas about how slow moments should go, what works where- never afraid to cut ten minutes or to explore every possible place the story could go. The show became a collaborative project at this point, and Yael made everything so much better, it was much more fulfilling to make this with someone, and not just toil away on my own- and Yael wasn’t the only person who was part of the collaborative process.
Milly Prett, a performance artist was brought in for the December residency- She helped with the writing- picking up with details that were missed (turns out I don’t ever write about the colours of things), early ideas for staging- and with Yael, really pushed me to rid myself of wanting to be liked, or wanting to be seen as a good person on stage (not the point of the story, ha)
(Here’s a little side story- a couple of days before the show, I got a call from a cancer charity- but get this- I knew the voice of the caller! It was an old friend of mine from a youth theatre project. She asked her manager if she could chat with me and he said yes. I thought we’d ask each other how we are, what we’re up to, etc. But instead, she proceeded to sell me on monthly payments to this charity. I kept insisting that I was broke, that she knows I’m broke. I wanted to get off the phone but just felt so awkward about it, along the way I let her know that I’ve got a show this week and she says- get this- that she’ll bring ten of her work friends to the show, if I make a monthly payment. Being incredibly worried about ticket sales, I relented and give my info. She never came)
Three shows done. Dad finally sees it (it’s as much about him as it is boxing, which if you know my dad, you know he loves) And I get the David Jubb thumbs up. Another six months break and I’ll be performing the show for three weeks in the summer.
Yael brought in a movement director, Helen Heaslip- who made the show ten times better, but also helped me get to a physical and mental state to perform such a physical show for three weeks. Sometimes I’d spend half a day just walking straight lines as characters, stuff that feels silly but became so essential when inhabiting the characters I’d write about. We’d then work on my voice, my posture, stretching- the last time I felt that fit I was actually boxing.
There was a moment when rehearsing with Yael and Helen, putting on my old head guard, I had a very sudden and sharp feeling that I was a fraud. I had to take twenty seconds to compose myself, but it stuck with me. I realised I needed to do something about this, so a month before the show came out, I went to all my old gyms and trainers and told them about this show. Can’t tell you how much it helped me. I handed them flyers, one of them even put the picture on the wall next to me of when I was in the Islington Gazette.