Sunday, 23 June 2013

From The Desk to The Dance

I visited a friend recently who worked in one of those rickety old buildings in Soho. Even though it had been refurbished with TV-land’s usual shiny surfaces and feature walls, it still had touches of the old, the perilously small lift, narrow stairways and huge windows overlooking Soho Square. We were off to lunch where I would give her my four second potential boyfriends update which would amount to -  “Still no one. Moving on”. On the way out we walked past her colleague’s work-space. It was a tiny corner desk,  pushed up against the wall, most of which was taken over by files, an enormous PC with just about enough room for a photo of cat no doubt doing something unfeasibly cute.

I suddenly felt very, very lucky. I imagined having to come to that tiny, windowless corner every day, of having someone else demarcate my work area or having made a contractual agreement to be there every day (bank holidays, weekends and duvets allowing) and it made me infinitely grateful that I’d made the choice, 10 years ago,  to get out.

It wasn’t easy though. It wasn’t easy at all. I’d grown up, like many, to parents who were part of the job-for-life generation. My mum went into the very dependable and stable world of the NHS. The shift work, great pension scheme and training suited my mum’s needs, raising a young family (which she would soon be doing alone). Furthermore, on the off chance you got sick, you were probably best placed to get it sorted.

My dream, from childhood, however, was never to be a nurse, or a doctor, or a teacher. No matter how hard I tried to shoehorn my desires into the tried and tested paths, it wasn’t for me.

I was a natural, born, show-off! I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to write, I wanted to make films. I wanted to write books. I had ideas and stories and impersonations and silly songs and jokes tumbling out of me but there was one small problem - painfully low confidence which got chiselled away at further by unwitting adults, unkind school kids and the biggest culprit of all, myself.

I didn’t know it but I was fearful person (I still am when it comes to certain bugs, spooky films and basements) and so even though I was brave enough to take myself off to college to study drama and film, I opted for the A Level rather than the more practical Btec program, which my peers such as Idris Elba attended (I hope it worked out for that guy. He was quite a good actor).

I finished my A levels (2 Bs and an impressive E in Drama studies, I know. Kudos, Osho) but where people like Idris and others in his year group, believed in their goals and took themselves off to drama school, for me a career as a performer was not a goal but a pipe dream so I did what you are supposed to do, what we’re told to do and got myself a ‘proper’ job. This is the teaching I’d grown up into and the only one I really knew. So while others went off to enjoy a life of destitution as an actor, I went to a design school to learn to make TV programmes. If I wasn’t brave enough to be in front of the camera,  I figured I’d get a job behind it. As it would transpire, a long way behind it in what can be the arse end of the TV making process - post-production. Here we pick up the pieces of what may or may not have occurred in production. Directors and producers often turn to post production technicians to hit the ‘fix’ button that will magically correct poorly shot footage or even bad acting. Post-production are definitely the unsung heroes of the TV and Film making process. Many of my friends still work in that field, satisfying requests from maniacal directors and idiotic young producers. Fun times.

However for me, after 10 years of working in this field, switching jobs every  2 to 3 years (which, I’m sure, delighted my worrisome mother), I was unable to ignore the nagging sense of dissatisfaction. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with my job. I had great colleagues, we had plenty of fun times, including the annual three-legged race that took place once a year around Soho’s Streets with drinking stations at several post-production houses (if there’s one thing that makes drinking more agreeable it’s being tied at the ankle to someone equally as drunk as you). I made a lot of life-long friends during that time but I was started to get disillusioned by the road I saw ahead of me. It looked repetitive. My job was to help clients through the post-production process. I’d book in their edits, sound sessions and graphics but once one project was done, another would start shortly after. Sometimes you had several in motion at once but the net result was the same. They’d go and another producer would materialise in their place.  This world was starting to be a bad fit that no longer suited me. I was searching for something, contentment.

My lucky break came in 2000. I got made redundant. I was a technical manager for an internet start-up. The day I left was like a scene from a movie. Me and a couple of others took our box of personal belongs and had that awkward goodbye with colleagues who were secretly thanking their lucky stars it wasn’t them.

I’d been working in some form or another since I was sixteen. Never signing on, never not working. Apart from a few sick days, I’d never been home in the afternoon. That day, I got back to my flat, dumped my box of stuff, collapsed on the sofa, cried for half an hour and then slept and slept and slept.

Being made redundant was the best thing that ever happened to me. I maintain that it can be one of the most significant moments in your life. It creates a fork in your trajectory that wasn’t there before. It requires you to pool your resources and your resourcefulness and offers you a hand out of something that you may not want to be in.

I didn’t want to be in post-production and the redundancy set me on a path that would lead me to work on an ITV soap as a post-production supervisor. Even though I was still in post I was on site and got to mix and mingle with many of the actors. I asked them how you went about becoming an actor. I didn’t have a clue. It’s not like you fill out an application form and wait to be accepted. It was a world that was entirely unfamiliar. “Drama school” they all told me. Pretty much all of them had followed that route (apart from one who was a model but based on her performance in the show I wasn’t going to ask for her opinion).

So, with no idea what I was doing or what lay ahead I made the plunge, many years after my contemporaries had done so, and went to drama school.

The Academy Drama school trained students only in the evening so you could keep working to subsidise yourself. This had its pluses and minuses. You needed a pretty understanding boss and by that time I’d moved employers and was working for a big TV company on a hidden camera show. They weren’t really interested in my drama school training. They just wanted me to get my job done. Meanwhile, the principal of the school led with an iron fist saying that anyone who didn’t make their classes was out. This made from some interest and tense dashes across London during rush hour, particularly during tube strike days where I once had to micro scooter from Shepherds Bush to Whitechapel.

Eventually I finished the course…. What do I do now? I had to make the tough decision about how I was going to earn money. Far from Hollywood knocking down my door offering me roles in the latest Scorcese picture I had to make ends meet in much more pedestrian way. I couldn’t work in post-production any more. I realised, if I was going to make a go of this I would have to quit working in TV and take on temp work. Hmm I was back behind a desk but this time it was different. I felt free.

I had literally no responsibilities. It was great. All they wanted me to do was answer the phone. Perfect. Sign me up!

I signed up with a temp agency that was particularly sympathetic towards actors. Even now, I’m eternally grateful for that work as it kept my head above water in some especially lean times and I took my first and only bar job.

A friend of mine worked in an office opposite this Soho pub (one I knew only too well) and said they were looking for staff. I set up an interview with Dean, the manager and within 20  minutes, we were shaking hands and my first shift would be the following week.

I was… a barmaid. I’m not sure this was everything my mother had ever dreamed of for me. My mother is a self-confessed worrier and I’m pretty certain the first few years of me acting where some of her most troubling.

Between working in the bar and temping I just about had enough money to get by but only just. Going from a salary to a hand-to-mouth existence was scary, thrilling and testing. Rather than think about money on a month by month basis, I was now in week-to-week thinking. Did I have enough to get me through this week? Could I afford a take-away? How about some new clothes. Most often the answer was no. I had to check the prices on everything I bought. I remember going to a friend’s birthday at a posh bar where drinks were at least 7 quid a go. I worked out that I could afford 4 then I would have to bow out. I’d never lived this way before.

I’d always been salaried and in my 20s this constant flow of  cash had been my financial downfall. I was one of those credit card maxers, and after years of loans and credit cards I had nothing to show for it.

It was only when I got out of that cycle that I actually learned the value of money. When I started earning just what I needed, I finally got myself in the black and aside from a mortgage, that was the last time I was ever in debt.

I had very little. Some weeks no work would come in and those would be difficult, sometime I’d be exhausted from temping during the day then rushing over to the bar on a Friday night to deal with Soho’s many, many drinkers.

It was tiring but I was the happiest I’d been in a very long time. Not just happy, but content. I finally had the freedom that I’d craved. On days when I didn’t have any work, I would go to the park. I’d never been to the park on a week day afternoon. I remember sitting there, on a blanket in West ham park thinking, would I trade my 35,000 salary for this? No chance. I was broke but boy was I happy.

I was so glad I’d finally been brave enough to make that change. To step outside of what I thought I could do and reach higher. For many years I’d kept myself in a box, limiting my potential to known quantities. Sensible job, stable, reliable.

I’d taken a risk and I didn’t know where it was going to lead me. I’m always delighted when I see people make that leap for themselves. Pressing the fuck it button and saying, I want my life to mean more than what I’m in. I want more for myself. I deserve contentment and satisfaction in all areas of my life.

I started out working for free. With no track record and an blank CV I had little choice. My first acting job was a truly appalling play called, What Happened Last Night? Which I affectionately refer to as The Gay Rape Pantomime. It was the singularly most bizarre vehicle I’ve ever seen, written and produced by the star, it chronicled the story of a guy who comes out, gets gang raped with a whodunit B story about a guy who gets poisoned. Yeah, what did happen last night?? As the play opened with a locker room scene where the entire male cast are in the nuddy, we were never short of an audience but we certainly weren’t going to win any Evening Standard awards (unless it was the Inadvertent Farce award). The most important thing was, this got the ball rolling. I felt like an actor now. I carried on auditioning, started landing TV roles, got a great agent, left that agent, got a better one and started piecing together a career. It took time and there were as many disappointments as successes but I was doing something I wanted to do and when work began to slow down, I started to look for something creative to fill the void. Something I’d always wanted to do…. As terrifying as I thought it would be, stand up came to mind because, again I was feeling that unrest in my spirit coupled with that sense of being drawn to something, perhaps a calling, the whispers on the wind as Oprah calls it.

I went into stand up comedy in 2007 and the rest as they say, is gravy.

I feel it’s vital we grab a little happiness for ourselves - now. Too often we get comfortable with our discomfort, knowing there’s a dream we’d love to realise but fearing the pain of the upheaval rather than focussing on the potential joy of living the rewarding life we richly deserve.

I truly believe the world would be an infinitely better place if people got themselves in alignment with their heart’s true desires and worked towards that rather than the preconceived notions of what we think we should want. Too often social conditioning define our goals, hopes and dreams.
I know it seems like if people did what they wanted, we’d get a load of popstars and actors but I actually think, deep down, when you get to the heart of desire and work towards that rather than superficial egoist needs, you’ll see that there’s a vast tapestry of unfulfilled dreams floating around in the unrealised field of infinite possibility.  

Probably the only reason it seems so many people want to be famous is because deep down they’re looking for acceptance, or respect in some form. Once that’s healed, their heart can truly show the way to a more authentic calling.

People’s true desires are hugely diverse. The other day I met a woman who was a tax adviser. She adored her job. I mean, seriously loved it and it was nothing to do with tax. She loved helping people - couples, families, plan, get their affairs in order so that they can enjoy the best life possible. That’s what’s was at the root of her calling, helping people. Tax was the vehicle she used to achieve it.

We’ll find that far from everyone wanting to be on X Factor or win the lottery (not that that’s a job). You’ll see that many people long to work in nature, or teach, or paint, or sculpt or work with children but they feel that because they’ve already taken their career down a particular path, it’s too late and too risky to head back and start over, rather weathering the weight of compromise.

They’re forgetting of course that their life’s experiences mean they wouldn’t be starting over.
When I went into acting, my time in post-production was hugely valuable. I learned about how TV programmes were made, I had contacts who helped me and most of all, I’d learned how to be professional and organised which is a skill self-employed people need.

It isn’t starting again. It’s reworking. It’s rejuvenating, It’s reclaiming what’s yours.

Once we let go of the very fixed idea we have of what life should look like, so many possibilities are available to us. Creating just a little chink in the view of your world for other options to come in is where the magic can occur in your life. As Quincy Jones says, leave a little room for God (insert the word Universe here if you like).

Life should be like a dance not a plod or a march. It should have a lightness, an ease and a flow. It should have grace and style and humour. There will be some treading on toes, much learning, must correcting, but through mistakes we become better dancer and how much do we love watching a skilled dancer do their thing, even better to see two people, dancing together. There’s mastery, love and dedication to being in the moment that comes with that.


Your dance partner must be life and when you learn to dance with life you learn some awesome new steps. 

3 comments:

  1. Hmm... again, you really should get some of this type of writing published more widely, if you are not doing so already.
    My eyes usually glaze over within three sentences of this type of opinion piece, but yours (so far) have a good mix of clarity of thought and humour which sort of leavens the whole "... life can be wonderful" routine.
    Paul

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Paul. I'm only just reading this a year after you posted it and it made me smile :)

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  2. An inspiring read. I've only recently read your older blogs, and this one has really hit me (in a good way)
    It's helped me make up my mind about a change or three... Thank you!
    (I'll let you know how it goes...)
    - Gary

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