Hello! Just a quick note to say that whilst I am still writing longer form pieces here, I’ve shifted smaller thoughts to a weekly Tinyletter. The sign-up is here: www.tinyletter.com/patelograms.
Will be back here with something meaty soon!
Hello! Just a quick note to say that whilst I am still writing longer form pieces here, I’ve shifted smaller thoughts to a weekly Tinyletter. The sign-up is here: www.tinyletter.com/patelograms.
Will be back here with something meaty soon!
OK so this is not what I promised I’d write. Not exactly.
What I had promised was an article about how to cope with reviews. The idea was that it was the article I wish I had when I started out. Now I have written that (it’s bloody long) and if you want to skip straight to it, click here. I won’t judge. But if you want a bit of preamble about what this year has meant for me, I promise it’ll enrich the reflections in the review piece and morever I’ll keep it brief.
Still reading? Ok so, here’s what happened.
Trying to writing this blog post in the context of having had three pieces of work out within the space of three months made me naturally reflect on the year that’s gone by. I started 2018 needing to take a month out. I find myself ending it in the same place, just with less ability to do it. (Do you ever really get to take proper time off? The answer to that is probably yes and that’s top of my list of things to figure out for 2019).
I’m very, very, very tired. I feel like I’ve been very, very, very tired for a very, very, very long time. At least though, with An Adventure at the Bush and Doctor Who finally meeting their audiences, I’ve put to bed projects that took up many years of my life. They both require a giant amount of research. In fact, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to read a book again for pleasure instead of work. They both pushed me as an artist who wants to be responsible in the stories that he tells. They put massive strains on my personal life in ways that I regret.
When I ask myself why I let that happen, what was it that made them so important, once I ducked past the “this story is very important to tell because of x” (all of which is true), what sits at the bottom of it all is that for me both those pieces of work and Sticks and Stones, a play I wrote for the wonderful Paines Plough were all about proving that my earlier projects weren’t a fluke.
I reckon I’ve done that – all three were fairly favourably received, and I’d gladly work with everyone I made those pieces with again. There is the impulse to make art that proves something to others, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And then there is another impulse to make art that is solely for your own comfort and consumption. It’s the equivalent of cooking potato faces and spaghetti hoops for dinner. If others like it – great! – but that concern doesn’t sit at the very top of your thinking. More often than not, there’s some cross over at least.
An Adventure was 95% potato faces and spaghetti hoops. I thought of the audience in terms of how I was taking them through it and how they might approach the play, but the way it was made and the way it was presented – it’s the most “me” thing I’ve ever made. In its style and concerns yes, but also it was the play I needed right then, more than anyone. I knew on the final preview that no matter what happened after that, this play had already given me what I needed. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my paternal grandfather died whilst I was writing the play. He did, in fact, die a week after my telling him I was doing so for the first time. Making that play allowed me to grieve him in a way that I couldn’t have managed without it. I felt like it was a gravestone for him that the act of cremation naturally robs one of. Here lies Jayanathibhai Patel and his story – or a version of it – was told.
It won’t surprise anyone that knows me even a little bit to know that I think about my place in this country a lot. I think about the fact that once all my grandparents are gone, I have no real connection to anywhere else. Both culturally and legally. In a world that’s increasingly pulling up the drawbridges, this is where I am, whether I like it or not, with this face, in this country. My grandparents did a wonderful job of trying to make Britain a place that might work for me, but I never quite felt that connection I was aching for. I asked myself: How can I, in turn, make this a less lonely island? An Adventure was also that for me.
In that and Who, I worked with two predominantly South Asian casts this year and whilst I kind of wish I could say it didn’t mean much to me, it really did. I had conversations I’ve been wanting to have since I was fifteen. I felt both lighter and more driven. Sitting on a lunch table in the South of Spain, with an actor who’s been in the game for decades, a couple who were around my age, and one that had just graduated from drama school, I finally felt like this was an industry where I not only belonged but could make work that was important to me and enjoyable for others for a long, long time to come. To be, alongside the great Malorie Blackman, the first writers of colour on Doctor Who is a horrible honour, but I’m sure glad it was for the sake of that story.
Doctor Who also marked the occasion of my moving from being a local storyteller (theatre and domestic dramas which feels manageable) to being a global storyteller which is one hell of an eye-opener, particular if it’s a beloved show that you’ve made that move on. Your Who ep could be someone’s favourite ever and it could be the one that destroys someone else’s love of the show. It could go down horribly here and be a triumph in the States. There is absolutely no real emotional logic you can arm yourself with to make that less weird or easier to take. It is ridiculous but I’ve learned a lot and (mostly) loved it.
All in all then, it’s a banner year?
Sort of. Because if 2018 marks anything else, it’s also – being absolutely honest – the closest I’ve come to wanting to end my life in four years. I don’t say that to try and elicit a shock or sympathy and I don’t want to linger on it for too long. I took the steps I needed and I’m in an alright place now, but I want to drive home the point that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and a sustained peace. I’m sure a part of me thought that was the case when I was a younger man, but the final thing 2018 has taught me is that this is categorically not true.
So I look forward to a 2019 where I can embrace my limitations in some parts of my life, take the limiters off in others, keep pushing for excellence but to also find a joy in being a beginner again. Maybe I’ll learn to bake.
You guys are all so into baking right now. Is it cause of the show? Are the baking and the judging inexorably linked? Oh! Speaking of…
APPROACHING CRITIQUE: A BRIEF GUIDE FOR THE PANICKED AND SOON TO BE PUBLICLY JUDGED
Getting critically evaluated, be it by Lyn Gardner or your twelve-year old cousin is fucking nauseating. Even if the review is good, you’ll probably feel more relieved than joyous. Happy that you didn’t throw up on your shoes rather than suddenly assuming you’re a God. And every time I think “I’m used to it. I won’t care.” Every time I’m wrong. I suppose it’s good in the sense that if you find yourself not caring at all then that’s probably a bad sign. I want to care til the end of my days because to me it means that I’ve invested in it and that I’ve left a bit of myself behind in the work. But how is that possible? In a world where even the most addictive substances create a tolerance, how is there no inoculation to this horrible effect?
My theory as to why you keep caring (which, to repeat, I think is healthy) and why it always stings a bit is that there is so little time to steel yourself for it even if you want to. Most new productions are being worked on right until press night and you’ve probably spent months before that trying to be open to changes and improvements and being a good collaborator. In order to do that, you need to be quite vulnerable and open as an artist, willing to accept critique and work on it which is tough but made easier by knowing you’re making the play with people who want it to be good and who (hopefully!) like you as a person. The gap between final preview and press night is not enough time to disengage that mode of being and close yourself up. By the time people come to review the work – people who don’t have that investment in you or the play – you’re still in quite a vulnerable place.
By the by, if you don’t know anything about me and are wondering what’s informing what I’m writing here: I’ve had four or so full-length theatre pieces reviewed and the same again for telly, so whilst I’m not deep into my career, I’ve had enough experience to throw out some pieces of advice that I wish I’d known before I got started. I’ve not had anything out and out panned and I’ve not had a runaway critical smash either so I hope that most of what I’m writing speaks to the middle range of responses which will be most artists’ experience.
We’ll do this in three parts. The first will be about approaching reviews when the play (or other public piece of art) is out in the world. The second will be how to consider the response after the fact. The third will be about actions and techniques to try when you’re a few months post show and in that blissful in-between stage of making work that won’t be out in the world for a while. My focus will mainly be on dealing with critics but will encompass some aspects of audience response too.
WHAT TO DO WHEN IT’S ON
These are the main approaches that I’ve seen other people try and those that I’ve tried myself. You won’t find what’s best for you until you give a few of them a go. Also, some techniques work better for different projects.
It’s also worth noting that each carries a different load of stress. Nothing you do will make the experience *entirely* stress free or less nauseating I’m afraid, that’s just part of the deal of putting your stuff out there to be publicly judged, but you have some say in the *type* of stress you have which I suppose is some comfort.
Anyway, here’s what you can do:
1) Don’t Read The Reviews
2) Read Them, Don’t Engage
3) Read Them, Engage
Let’s dig a little into each of these…
DON’T READ THE REVIEWS
This is something I see writers do once they’re a few plays into their career (using the term ‘career’ loosely here). They might look at them after the fact, but the aim is to not go anywhere near them whilst the play is running. For a writer just starting out, I think it’s pretty impossible to bring yourself to not look at reviews, hoping as you are for critical validation (who doesn’t want to read a good review? And they’ll be good because you are, obviously, a genius. Or at least so you think. Sometimes.)
When I started out, I found this approach a bit high-minded. It felt so dismissive – “I don’t care what they say. I know it’s great.” By the time An Adventure came around *totally* got it. I was so sick with worry, felt so fragile and that play was so close to my heart that I couldn’t bear to sit and take what might be a mauling. So I tried very hard to not read the reviews. And you know what? I managed it and felt great. For a bit.
Because the big problem with trying not to read the reviews is that they will probably, in some way, leak out to you. With An Adventure, this happened in what feels like now quite a hilarious fashion. I had actively told everyone that I wasn’t reading the reviews to pre-empt them showing them to me. So I was sitting on the wall of the terrace outside the Bush, blissfully unaware, feeling pretty good about life. The press night the evening before had gone well – for me it wasn’t quite as good as the preview before it, but well enough despite some Prominent Director’s phone going off in the quietest scene. Just then my phone went off and it was Madani. We had a friendly opening exchange, just shooting the breeze and then he says “so listen, here’s the rundown” and I realised I had told everyone I wasn’t reading reviews *except* for the director. Whoops. Before I could stop him, he’d given me the summary: “They’re all good. But there’s an outlier.” For fucks sake. No bliss for me, ever again, just the gnawing question: “Which one, which one was it?”
Social media is another way you’re going to hear about reviews. You might post telling people not to tell you, but there’ll be a proud/combative relative or old school friend tagging you in a post saying how the reviewer really gets it/should burn in hell. Sometimes the actors will leak opinions from reviews to you. There might be a summary floating around the office of the theatre the play is in.
Basically, this approach is probably the best thing for your mind, but it’s also really, really hard to maintain, especially if you’ve got a long run and still have some plugging to do for the show. If that’s you – there’s an app called Buffer that lets you set up social media content ahead of time and not see the replies or have to go on the platform itself. Invaluable. Otherwise, get off social media and make sure you tell absolutely everyone and their mum that you don’t want to hear anything about the show. Get the hell away for a bit if you can. This isn’t an approach that I think works for me long-term because I find it hard to cut myself off from the world. I like to stay involved in the show, I like to be able to talk to the actors as much as I can, I like to hang around the theatre, I like to talk to audiences after, I like to suffer and celebrate communually so I’ll never be able to dodge the feedback. But if you can do it, you’re an absolute hero and have my respect.
READ THEM, DON’T ENGAGE
This is my default (and mostly where I ended up with An Adventure after my attempt to dodge reviews failed). Partly it’s out of curio-vanity, partly it’s because I don’t want to hear it from anyone else and partly because I want to be able to respond to questions or concerns within the company with the full knowledge of what they might have seen. It’s hard to be an effective cheerleader for the team when you don’t know where they are in the league.
A way to do this that’s kind to yourself is to not try and seek them out as they come in. Instead, go do something completely non-work related the day after press and then set aside an hour or two by yourself in a quiet place and Google away.
If the thought of that makes you queasy, find a partner or a good friend, and ask if they’ll look at the reviews and give you a summary. At least that way you get to maintain some distance.
Try to resist the urge to dismiss responses out of hand, even if you think they’re unfair. The horrible thing about an unfair critical opinion is that the critic won’t be the only one to have it. That review will speak for at least one other person. So if you’re interested in understanding the range of responses, you’ve got to face it.
The benefits of this approach is that you get to know and move on. It provides some degree of that looked-for inoculation. Once you know that someone has had that opinion, it makes the next time you encounter it easier. Let me tell you, this is particularly useful with something like Doctor Who. The consolidated viewing figure for my episode was eight million people in the UK. That, like the vastness of the universe, is a fucking terrifying thing to consider when lying in your bed late at night. However, that’s not eight million opinions, that’s probably about four or five generalised responses. Knowing “Ok so broadly people love it because of X though some folks really hate Y” made it easier for me to just get on with my life.
With plays, once you’ve taken in the reactions, more often than not things get brighter because there’s so much to enjoy about your work being on; the way the actors’ performances deepen, the way the scenes get tighter, the morbid thrill of seeing how different audiences respond, the utter weirdness that sets into a cast’s inter-personal relations when they hit the four week mark.
READ THEM, ENGAGE
Red Alert. This is the most fraught approach. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes tonnes emotional fuel. I’ve only really done this once with a theatre critic who’d reviewed my first play and given away a massive plot point and I wanted them to adjust the review to not do that. Unless they’re massively misrepresenting your play to a potentially broad audience, I think there’s little to be gained from engaging with critics, especially if it’s in response to a negative review.
Having said that, audiences can be different, and I don’t think engaging with them is bad per se. I liked doing a tweet-a-long for Doctor Who that exposed my process and I made a point of doing it with Murdered By My Father because it felt important to talk to the young demographic that we were targeting with researched-backed knowledge and clarity about the quite harrowing piece they’d put themselves through and how it manifests in the real world. Talking to people about An Adventure and what it had meant to them made all the work I put into it worthwhile. Even playing whack-a-mole with trolls on social media has its charms (as long as you don’t let them burrow too deep into your head).
If you’re going to respond to/engage with either critics or audience members, be sure to ask yourself what master it is in yourself that you’re serving. If it’s ego, be wary, if it’s curiosity careful to not mine too deep or you might end up in self-loathing, if it’s anger or hurt, take a step back and breath before you dive in. The world of the creative industries is small. If you have to piss someone off, make sure you’re super clear about why you’re doing it. People can be arseholes. Categorising the arsehole helps diminish their power and it useful when explaining their arseholery to others (ok, this image needs work.)
Some other tips: Learn to take a compliment. Even if it’s just “thank you, that’s very kind.” Resist the urge to tell the person who’s told you they like what you’ve made a list of the things that are wrong with it. They probably don’t care and it’s only really you who needs to reflect on that. If you’re a leading creative on the project, get in the habit of spreading praise amongst the team (Please remember your goddamn designers, lads) and reasonably absorbing blame rather than reflecting it. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’ll do you well in the long run.
THE REVIEWS ARE OUT. HOW TO COPE WHEN…
THEY LOVED IT
Wonderful! Thank Santa for that. Enjoy the crown of daisies. Be pleased for yourself and your collaborators. Let a bit of yourself feel vindicated. Put it on your website. File it away for a rainy day/an Arts Council application. Line up your most audacious project that you’ve squirrelled away. Ring your Dad and tell them you were right to ignore them.
But don’t believe the hype. I know you want to. But you can’t. Even when it’s earned, you can’t get hooked on validation because it’s dangerous for your sense of self but also your ability to just do your job. It’s the same when actors get laughs in a play – it’s such a clear and immediate response, that to find you don’t get that response another day is devastating and can really throw you off course. You grasp for it to the detriment of the rest of what you’re doing and you can’t let it do that. Eyes forward, focus on the work and moments to come.
THEY HATED IT
Fuck those guys! What do they know? Well…they know they didn’t like what you’ve spent years slaving over and I’m here to tell you friends that it sucks and not only that but it will always suck.
Worst of all, your friends probably know. And you know they know. And they know you know that they know. But nobody wants to talk about it. If you feel they’re itching to be supportive, maybe bring up – vaguely – the spectre of a couple of bad reviews and watch as the floodgates open and they tell you how it doesn’t matter, and you’ve made what you wanted to make etc etc. Some of it will be true. A lot of it won’t. But it’ll still be nice and you’ve earned a bit of nice.
The aforementioned “outlier” than Madani told me about turned out to be probably the worst review I’ve ever had. That it was from The Guardian and written by someone with a not dissimilar background to me made it doubly hard to take. Never mind that it was otherwise across the board positively well received, humans have a strong negativity bias and it magnetises your attention on responses that push firmly against your hopes.
You’ll feel miserable. You’ll draft witty, cutting responses to the reviewer. You’ll dig into their biography. You’ll look at their other reviews and that’ll either validate you or horrify you (“They gave four stars to what?”). You will basically be looking for a way to dismiss the opinion. Sometimes that’ll be valid. Often it won’t. That’s why it’s hard.
Especially since a bad review can be an absolute body blow. That Guardian review basically put me to bed for three days. A friend of mine who otherwise had a wildly successful and much loved show had exactly the same feeling and response to their one bad review. They’re a smart and rational and wonderful person. Doesn’t matter. You can’t really push the feeling away in the first instance, you just have to sort of go through it. Let yourself feel really shitty. You’re allowed to feel shitty. You worked hard and it mattered to you.
When you pick yourself up, remind yourself how you felt about the show before it got reviewed. Outside of all the framing you tell yourself of certain things not being right or needing time to settle did you, fundamentally, create the piece you set out to make. If the answer is no, you can self-evaluate and consider why that happened and how to avoid it next time. If the answer is yes then for the love of God, embrace that. I’m so bad at this but trying to get better and An Adventure was one of the first things that let me do that. I adored that play. I adored that company. I had made pretty much exactly what I wanted to put out into the world and I felt so lucky to have had that opportunity. Wallowing for a bit is fine but I would be an idiot to dismiss the joy a project like that gave me because of some dissenting voices. If it’s still running, keep your focus on finding the audience who need that play, for whom it means more than anything. If you’ve made your work with care, they will be out there.
Eventually, with time, you make your peace with naysayers objections and when you do it helps to learn this phrase by heart: “I guess it just wasn’t for them.”
THEY SHRUGGED AT IT
Honestly, I think this is the trickiest one to deal with and it’s hard to give advice for. We hope for our work to elicit a passionate response, one way or another, and someone going “yeah, it was fine” can be incredibly disheartening in a way that is disproportionate to what is a fairly positive reaction. You can’t get fired up from the thrill nor can you galvanise each other to fight back against a mauling.
The careers of even the greatest writers you adore will be pocked with Shruggy work. It might be the audience wasn’t up for that kind of work in the time it was made, it might just be it’s a fair effort that didn’t quite find its fullest expression, it might have suffered in contrast to another similar show. For whatever reason, there’s no shame in this, even if it feels disappointing in the moment.
I find the best way to at this kind of response is as a bit of an emotional score-draw. “Thank God I don’t have to get too wrapped up in a response!” Both bad and good reviews can be addictive (and I screenshot segments from both). Take the calm that only comes from “They liked it! They mildly liked it!!”
IT’S OVER. NOW WHAT?
Finally, beyond press night and the run of the play, here are a few things to consider trying in order to make myself feel more zen about reviews and life as an artist.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’VE MADE
With a bit of time and space away from the project, I think it’s useful to sit down and try and grapple with what you’ve done. That might be, finally, looking at reviews if you haven’t.
Consider the basis of the critiques you’ve received. Turn them over in your mind, ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it or not. If so, what might you keep an eye on next time? Ask if the project did what you hoped it might do. Did it surprise you in ways you didn’t see coming? When my first play, True Brits, finished its run at the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered an unexpected feeling in that one of my proudest achievements with that play was for it to have a brown man on a theatre poster at the Edinburgh Fringe, a fringe where the only other brown man on a theatre poster was a browned-up Italian man, starring in a musical about Buddha. In that context, that poster felt mighty to me and I’ve been obsessed with my show posters ever since.
Otherwise, this part usually involves trying to get a grasp of how the work was received by the people in the industry (I’m so sorry for using this word) whose opinions matter to me, considering my next steps and if I need to change my process or my priorities.
For example, if the show was a success, I think about what projects I might like to work with that team again on if I can. What might be the stories that could fire us up? Can I put it to the front of the queue so it can in the works before that actor disappears into the stratosphere?
If you’ve made something absolutely heinous which you think was a disaster in every way and you hate everyone involved, perhaps you need to dig back into short pieces, applying for scratch nights, search for art that you think will reenergise you, seek out new collaborators. On that note…
CONSIDER WHAT YOU’LL MAKE NEXT
If you’re anything like me, you’ll get a bit of a creative wanderlust in the aftermath of a project. “I should make a musical next!” “I should make an epic!” “I should make an easily tourable intimate two-hander that in some tangential but beautifully metaphorical way refers to Something Big In Science.” Some of this energy comes from other things you’ve seen but often some of that energy can also come from the reviews and responses and that can easily lead you astray. A touch of “I’ll show ‘em!” is useful for an artist, if not just to get you going in the morning, but you can’t let it dominate the big artistic choices you make. Be clear about what’s driving you.
In that respect, the single most useful question I’ve found to ask myself when looking to start a new project is “what compels me?”. What’s that conversation you find yourself coming back to again and again when you’re five hours deep into a session at the pub or thinking on at three in the morning. You might, honestly, find it’s nothing. In that case, maybe don’t write for a bit. Definitely not for theatre. I find it’s a medium where it’s easy to sniff out the lack of compulsion in a writer. Try something else for a bit. For example TV – though it definitely can and should tell soulful stories driven by people invested in the tale they’re telling – sustains itself more heavily on narratively driven, episodic, high concept pieces than theatre does. This means you can be part of a wider writing team (something theatre has no real equivalent of) and it can be a place to tell stories that don’t necessarily come from the deepest place within you but still allow you to be playful, exercise your craft with flair and learn a lot.
TALK TO SOME CRITICS
You may not be in the frame of mind to do this immediately after the show is done, but I’ve found it invaluable to talk to people who review about what they look for, what the pressures are on them, what their process is, why they do it. If not just out of curiosity, it makes me consider what a tough job it is and how I’m really glad I don’t do it. Of course, you don’t have to become best mates (it’s probably quite difficult if you’re both still active and a conflict of interest to some extent) but you might find it enlightening. And hey, if you add them on Facebook you might get some decent pictures for your dartboard.
SOW THE SEEDS OF YOUR OWN DESTRUCTION
This sounds a bit counter-intuitive but what I mean is that it’s incredibly healthy both for your mind and the industry for you to put a bit of time and thought into how you can support those coming after you. Depending on your situation, it will take different focuses. For me, as A Visible Minority In The Arts (TM) I’m obsessed with thinking about how I can bring through more People Like Me, if not just to take the burden of representation off my own shoulders. I don’t want to do this job forever. I’m excited by what other people are making. I want to help if I can. Any experience you have will be gratefully received by someone with none, even if it doesn’t feel like it. So make yourself useful.
The one caveat here is that this should be on your own terms. People might be eager to hear from you but you can’t give and give all the time. Be clear about that from the start – you’re not mugging anyone off, you’re just protecting yourself in what can be an emotionally demanding job. They’ll come to understand when they get to your position.
CONCLUSION (AKA THE TLDR)
Critiques are emotionally tumultous. The bad ones drag you to the floor, the middling ones make you wonder why you bother and the effusive ones run the risk of turning you into a right dickhead. There’s lots of different ways to navigate them, but they will always be a part of your life. Finding some way of embracing/negating that early will make your journey easier and if you’re really lucky, one or two will tell you something about your work you never expected and when that happens it’s luminous.
Wear none of them too heavily, hold the friends who absolutely understand what you’re doing close (what a heart-filling pleasure it was to have peers I’ve known for years see An Adventure and tell me “that felt like everything you’ve been working towards since I first met you”) and always remember that the only critic you truly need to please, to care about, the one who will be there judging your work before and after, forever and ever is you.
You made a show. It’s hard. Harder than people whipping off a casual thought can know. So be nice to yourself, yeah?
I started writing this blog as a way of chronicling my journey as a writer. Considering the last few years have contained several big beats in that story, I’ve been a little remiss in updating it so let me correct this now.
Today is the press night for An Adventure, the biggest piece of work I’ve created in my life.
Am I still allowed to say that? At what point in what I know is a fairly blessed career does it come off as indulgence or dishonest? I tell myself that it would be worse if you weren’t scared and that if you ever find a point where you’re casual about it then you’ve probably lost some care for the work. But that doesn’t stop you wishing you weren’t.
I’ve had my issues with critics in the past, though I think they’re usually passionate about the job and they have the potential to be useful for a range of perspectives on the same piece. It’s not them that makes me scared, exactly. They like what they like and in that regard, as I said to actors yesterday, every night is press night. I suppose what really terrifies me is that now is the point where you have to own the big decisions you’ve made with such cockiness when everything was still a hypothetical. Previews are done, the show you’ve got now is the show that people see over the next five and a half (!) weeks. There are no more excuses.
So I want to reflect a little on the process that ended up with this show. The origins of it go way back to me being on my MA and wanting to write about Mau Mau Kenya, and particularly the interaction between Asian and black Kenyans during that time. What has found its way to the Bush is a much “messier” version of the play I would’ve written straight after finishing my MA. I learned an absolute tonne about how to write on the course, what a well-made play looks like but since then I’ve learned a lot about my tastes too. I love a dramatically taut piece of writing, with twists and and secrets and reversals and huge events and it’s a skillset that’s served me well in television. But with both film and theatre, I love sitting in a space and luxuriating in a work, with the characters. This play is something I wanted people to feel like they could let envelope them.
Having said that, I suspect that since it has almost the reverse trajectory of a classic dramatic build it will perhaps feel anticlimactic to some. This is entirely what I’m seeking to produce, a replication of the feeling of the characters in the play – a life slowing, shrinking, not quite working out how you expect. But it’s one of those aforementioned big decisions that you have to own and accept that it won’t land for some people (that doesn’t mean though, as already stated, that it isn’t scary).
More broadly, I think our creative endeavours are as often motivated by lack as they are by desire. A lack of a certain face on a stage. A certain story. A certain style. For me, it’s mostly roles that are my drive. Roles outlive you as a writer and to create them is to leave behind a vessel for other to refill with whatever they wish. This was the first place I felt that lack.
It made me want to create these two Asian characters as romantic leads, across a span of ages, where they are mighty and complex and – yes, even happy at times. Madani said when we were talking about the marketing images that “brown people are never smiling in posters” and that made me laugh. As someone who was made some definitely unsmiley moments for brown characters, I wanted to rebalance my output a little.
That desire for romantic leads I think comes from knowing that there is a lack of my own in that I’ve fucking awful at relationships and am staying well clear of them for a while, yet there is nothing more I adore in life than seeing people in love. One of my favourite things is hanging out with couples who are really into each other. It makes me hopeful for the world. And that’s the last lack – the hopeful narrative. I’ve tried to put as many stories that have a hopeful aspect to them into the world as I can, even if it’s work like Murdered By My Father where the hope comes after the fact in the way it might change a life for the better via either a phone call to a charity or a better informed police officer.
In creating a mythology of my grandparents’ lives, one that I can share with my kids and their kids one day (when I sort myself out), I aim to honour their hope more than anything else. After all, it’s their own mythology of the future rather than one of the past that makes immigrants so daring. Unlike native inhabits, they know there is nothing romantic in the past, but if they were to cast their eyes further to the horizon, there might yet be a chance to find a good story for themselves. Whenever I despair about where I am or what I’m doing, I like to remind myself that immigration is an act of hope. I exist because people had hope that if they could not change the world, they could at the very least change theirs. The last post on this website is my paternal grandfather’s eulogy. I’m gutted he never got to see this play, though my maternal grandfather, thankfully did. That he came out smiling took six years of worry off my shoulders.
A final thought – writing this play has aged me. There’s a head-wrecking meta-dynamic going on within in it, in that it spans a lifetime and I can tell the parts that were written by the younger version of me and the older one. While it’s meant to showcase the people whose lives I wanted to write about, it’s as much a conversation with myself, a document of my own process.
Which is really what this blog is meant to be. Must do better.
I’ve been asked by a few people to provide this, so here’s the eulogy from my grandfather’s funeral:
I’d first of all like to reiterate what Foi said and thank all the people who have supported us over the past week and for taking the time to be here today.
When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of hours being babysat in Dada’s office, impatiently flicking through television channels, waiting for him to finish work and take me home. In that office he had a little sign that I thought about as I sat down to write this. It was a picture of a bird and began with the words: “If you love something let it go…”
When you love someone like I and the rest of his grandchildren loved Dada, how do begin to let them go? Especially since without them, the world feels a little colder, a little crueller and it’s jarring to just push on with your life when you know there’s one less person in it who’d help you unconditionally, who’d treat you as a child in the good and bad ways.
I think one way to do it is through understanding, to consider the ways in which they shaped you and the world you live in, and Dada certainly did a lot of shaping. In fact, it is impossible to consider his life outside the context of history because, throughout that life, it was history he was making.
As Foi mentioned, Dada came to England in 1964. He would’ve been 31 that year, the same age I am now. The difference being of course that I am already here and happy with my place, whereas he arrived in this country, along with thousands of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians, as part of an migration wave that was not always particularly welcome.
But to be an immigrant is to be a person of ferocious hope. Of relentless care. It’s knowing that the singular ambition that drove you across oceans must not destroy community but seek to provide for it. It is to not let the hatred of others define your life. It is to know that taking a step into the dark, the unknown, is necessary in search of the light.
What I found remarkable about Dada was how he excelled at doing all of this. Firmly both a family and a community man, he was never intimidated and always compassionate. I think the fact that old school friends of mine, people I hadn’t heard from in years, got in touch to send their regards speaks to the memorable effect, through that compassion, that he had on all of those that he met on his various journeys – in England, in India, in Kenya, in America.
And for us, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, those journeys undertaken by those responsible for our being in this country are our site of understanding, our foundational myths. They keep you honest, warn you of dangers that are best avoided, remind you of values.
So what dangers did he warn me of? What values did I learn from my Dada’s life? A fair bit. The big and the small.
I learned that knowing people is nice. Helping them is better.
I learned that 3/4s of being good at your job is putting in the effort.
I learned that Johnny Walker Black Label is the finest blend whisky known to man.
I learned that a can of Fosters is an entirely appropriate drink to give a five year old.
I learned that the best thing to spend money on is other people.
I learned that when you shave, always shave with the grain and not against.
I learned that, because of my Dada’s diligence, hard work and adventurous spirit, I could be whatever I wanted to be…as long as it’s a doctor, engineer or lawyer.
I’m kidding about that last part but I know that whilst Dada wasn’t initially thrilled about my choice of career, he took my ambitions seriously if I took them seriously myself. One of my lasting memories of him is from when I went to ask to borrow the money to do my Masters. He looked at me, skeptically, as you would do if your grandchild had just told you he wanted to go to drama school at age twenty four and asked me : “What do you hope to achieve?”
I told him I was proud of the economic legacy he had left in this country and I wanted to do much the same and leave a cultural one. And when I put it in those terms, he folded his arms, nodded and told me he understood, something I never expected to happen. That was the mark of the man – often stubborn, but always just wanting the best both for and from you and I have spent the last decade desperately trying to make him as proud of me as I was of him, and I know that’s the same for all of us grandchildren.
To be honest with you, I had no idea how I was going to finish this speech. I thought maybe it should be with what Dada would’ve wanted for us. His last text message to me, sent when I was at a wedding, said simply: “Enjoy yourself”. That felt about right.
But coincidence can be a funny thing. The other night my friend Meghna was telling me, quite casually about the origin of her father’s name. A name he shares with Dada. She told me that it’s derived from a Sanskrit word meaning: “Victorious” or “the winner in the end” and when I heard that, I knew that the way to finish was to go back to Dada’s beginning.
Because although he may now have left us, we that loved him can let him go knowing he lived a life that honoured the name he was born with and seeing all of you sitting here, reflecting on the legacy he has left behind – friends, children, grandchildren, businesses, incredible stories, a way of life, a country changed – there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, that Jayantibhai Shanabhai Patel is the winner in the end.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a leap-out-of-bed-with-a-head-full-of-story kind of guy. I need to know why I’m writing what I’m writing in order to do it.
Of late, I’ve been a little unsure as to my “why”. My grandfather died recently and I thought I could find my way through grief by leaning into my play for the Bush Theatre which is based on a fictionalised version of my grandparents. However, I’ve just hit a wall and find it impossible to even begin to fictionalise someone whose removal from my reality I’ve not quite dealt with yet. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing next to nothing. I’d come very close to thinking that I might not care about writing anymore.
Then last night, I went to meet my friend Martin and he asked me what I was up to. I talked through some projects and then I hit that Bush play and I felt an urgency to explain everything I wanted to do in it. The thoughts rushed out of me and I realised I had been speaking, with some great deal of enthusiasm, about the form and content for about an hour. I walked home wanting to dig myself into those rewrites again.
Maybe this is a solution to the ennui when it hits you? It’s bad to talk about projects early on, but perhaps when you’re stuck in the doldrums it’s best to reduce our work to the simplest terms of what it is: Telling a story to a friend.
“I’m worried you’ll get lonely.”
But I have never felt lonely. I’ve had surrogate-housemate relationships since I was eighteen.
I lived with eight people at that point when I was a wide-eyed fresher. That become five people when I was nineteen and thought I was a little more discerning when I definitely wasn’t. Four when I was twenty one and had an image in my head of who I wanted to be. A steady constant of two others throughout my twenties as I made that image a reality until I got to just one at aged thirty one. Stephen. He too has now gone.
Though he was relatively late to the party, Stephen had an outsized affect on my life. When I was at the absolute worst of my depression in 2015, the day I felt my feet inching towards the front of a speeding bus, it was Stephen I went to and said that I needed help. Dramatic though it is to say it, I’ve no doubt I would be dead now if not for him.
But it’s not the big things I’ve missed, really.
It’s the knock at the door and a cup of tea when you’ve got a steaming hangover.
It’s living vicariously through a disastrous dating life.
It’s sharing the tiny triumphs when you’re trying to build successful careers.
It’s someone to let you in when you’re locked out.
It’s being asked “pint?” and saying “sure” without having to book a person five years in advance.
It’s been a month since my last housemate left. Looking at his room, now just a room, a room that hasn’t really been empty for nearly eight years, eight seminal years when I was just striking out into the world, I find myself realising that at this point there probably aren’t anymore housemates, not like the ones in your twenties/early thirties. There will be no one to share that next stage of life with.
I finally understand what my grandmother meant.
#1 – What Rogue One attempts to do is almost certainly more interesting if you’re a Star Wars fan and there’s no denying that there is a huge amount of fan service going on in this movie.
Having said that…
#2 – I am a massive Star Wars fan so whatever.
#3 – There are a lot of people I’ve spoken to now who are marginal Star Wars fans who loved Rogue One.
#4- I wanted to keep this spoiler-free but I figure enough people have seen the movie now but, either way, here is your warning of SPOILERS.
Rogue One is both non-essential viewing and a necessary corrective to the Star Wars movie canon. How is that possible? Well, it speaks a little to what I discussed in an earlier blog about alternate narratives. The Star Wars story universe is so large that everyone’s understanding of what it is can be totally different. If you’re just here for the Skywalker & Co monomyth, which is after all what most people understand Star Wars to be, Rogue One won’t do anything for you and that’s A-OK.
But if you want to explore a little deeper, if you want to have a new lens to examine not just these films but the nature of history-making and heroic narratives, especially in times of war, look no further.
To begin, here’s a hot take for you:
The protagonist of Rogue One isn’t Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Jyn is the hydroscopic nuclei around which the misfits of Rogue One form and tumble down, down, down into the core of a nascent war, a mission trajectory that’s shared and unstoppable. It couldn’t happen without her. But the mission isn’t really about her.
The real protagonist is the most consistently underserved ‘character’ in the Star Wars universe.
The real protagonist is the Rebellion itself.
There are a few reviews and indeed comments from friends whose opinions I rate that suggest that the characterisation of the Rogue One team is thin. I agree with that.
It also didn’t bother me at all. Not only that, but I think it’s fine. Not only that but I think that this works in a positive way towards what this spin-off film is trying to achieve that the main movies often suggest but never quite land: Being a Rebel fucking sucks.
I realise this might read a lot like a rabid fan’s lengthy defense of undercooked characters but go with me on this because if nothing else I think Rogue One pulls off one hell of a trick in expanding the Star Wars universe in every direction whilst telling a very contained story.
On a practical level for Disney/Lucasarts, Rogue One had to work within a narrow, well defined channel: Tell a satisfying tale in the same story universe without overwhelming the narratives of the Saga movies (as I have learned the Episodes 1-7 are called). This film is built to be entirely subservient to the grander ones around it. Subsequently Rogue One, whizzbangs aside, exists on a smaller level than the main films. The heroes are minor characters in the world, they’re not Jedi and even the main villain – Director Krennick – saunters around with the fury/frustration mix of an insecure middle manager.
Even the emotional space of Rogue One is smaller. The Saga films operate under the sweeping emotional logic of a grand space opera. The music is more soaring, the language heightened, the jokes broader, the characters more vivid, the colours brighter, the contrast between sides sharper. Black. White. The Dark Side and the Light.
Rogue One, on the other hand, operates in the emotional logic of a war movie. It’s still got jokes, its characters are still occasionally fun and whilst some of the morals veer into the grey, the visuals do so less than you’d think – it’s beautiful film to watch. But there’s little romance to all this. There’s no time for it.
That’s because whilst our characters here are a lot less equipped to deal with them, the stakes are still huge, the enemy just as daunting as in the Saga movies. It’s this disparity that gives Rogue One its weight. It’s why a Death Star targeting a city here feels more daunting and terrifying than Starkiller Base wiping out the entire New Republic in The Force Awakens. This movie is all about the scale of the challenge that director Gareth Edwards twins well with his eye for the awesome (in the original sense of the word). In the Saga movies, the main characters observe people getting fucked by super weapons. In Rogue One, the main characters are the ones that get fucked by super weapons. The Death Star here is an absolute titan, in a way that it’s never felt before, and dealing with it feels like the most urgent thing in the whole damn universe, ahead of absolutely anything else. It’s this imperative that makes Rogue One move at the speed of plot, not the speed of character, something which is anti-thetical to wisdom on good writing. The film, without question, suffers a little for this.
Yet, for me, the aforementioned weight-through-scale is why I still found Rogue One satisfying and why I didn’t miss any greater characterisation. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to my love of Apocalypse Now (a movie, trivia fans, in which Han Solo’s got a cameo and none other than George Lucas was once slated to direct.) Willard not having much about him as a protagonist didn’t bother me and still doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He was a man on a crazy mission with crazy events happening all around him that were out of his control, all in service of taking down a Big Bad. Now of course Apocalypse Now is a totally different style of movie and has a whole different take on warfare. But both movies are about the mission above all else (well, at least, the non-Redux version of Apocalypse Now is and if you’re not a monster that’s what we’re talking about). The relentless drive. It’s in opposition to, say, a Saving Private Ryan, which desperately wants you to care about its characters. The movie isn’t about Private Ryan at all really, it’s an excuse to showcase the valour and humanity of these incredible people. You can tell how important it is to Spielberg. Apocalypse Now and Rogue One have a completely different approach and rarely reach that same level of characterisation.
Having said that, Rogue One’s characters were still clear enough to me to get me through the story. I was never at a loss as to what everyone’s ‘deal’ was. Yes, none of them were particularly special, none of them got a huge amount of space to get to know the others. But each of them had an anchoring point, each of them had a part to play. Rogue One needs more characters to create similar potency to a few in the Saga films. Its wholeness comes from greater numbers, wider skills and greater diversity in a world you already know at least a little about.
This last point matters.
Some have commentated that Rogue One wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if you removed it from its Star Wars context. I believe that’s likely true, but this is to miss the point. The whole raison d’etre of this movie is to reframe that context, and this moves me on to how Rogue One isn’t just fan service but genuinely makes the Star Wars universe richer both in tone and in complexity in a way that the Saga movies cannot without derailing themselves.
There are certainly nods to those in the know. Some made to amuse (too many of these), some made to be a nostalgia nurse, but most fill in tiny gaps of story and lore in a way that is immensely rewarding. There’s the Death Star’s weakness now being a deliberate choice, not a simple flaw. There’s the Jedi being seen in the context of being part of a larger religion. There’s young Jyn having a Stormtrooper doll. I loved this! It’s a little of what I’d hoped for from The Force Awakens. There’s a moment in that movie when Rey talks about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi as a myth. No longer there, but indelible in cultural memory. Yet there’s nothing really in that film that hints at this powerful myth’s place in that world. I remarked at the time “wouldn’t it have been great to have seen something like kids playing as Jedi and getting told off or something so we know what the deal with the wider world is?”. With that one half a second shot of a Stormtrooper doll, you get how deeply rooted the Empire is. It’s not some vague menacing military presence. You feel the Empire’s supposed pervasiveness through this better than almost anything else I’ve seen in the Star Wars movies. It’s beyond great ol’ fleets of Star Destroyers, it’s down to the very toys children play with in that world. As someone who was more delighted than one should be to see a brown human Star Wars figure in a shop (thanks, Riz) there was something in that which seemed to highlight the grip of a dominant force, not just militarily but culturally too.
My favourite nod was a very subtle one, subtle enough to have passed by my co-watcher who is also big on Star Wars. In a section of the fight above Scarif, a hapless Red Squadron X-wing pilot gets it in the neck. They spent a little longer focusing on his demise than others. Why? Because he’s Red Five, the callsign Luke gets given during the Death Star assault in A New Hope.
That’s a funny moment to look back on after watching Rogue One. When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, the beat is ultimately less about saving the Rebels (with whom he really doesn’t have any real investment), and more about him trusting in the Force and thus preparing him for his journey to become a Jedi in the films to follow. His sigh of relief when the torpedo enters the exhaust port feels like it’s saying “oh thank fuck the Force worked after all and I don’t look like a total dickhead for turning off my targetting computer.” He even gets a medal for this demonstration of Boy-Wonder-greatness.
In contrast, you suspect that the history within the Star Wars universe may not remember Jyn and co so well – indeed, it’s impossible for the future films to do so without some sort of unwelcome Late-Stage Lucas Special Edition kind of insertion. To paraphrase the Hamilton mixtape, the Rogue One crew are Luke Skywalker’s ghost writers. Which is a necessary and sobering thing to see, really. Nearly everyone who dies on Scarif won’t get remembered individually. Such is the fate of most people who do important things for the sake of any war, cause or movement. And you don’t actually have to be that interesting a person to do your part, either, even if movies demand it, entertainment demands it, dramatic writing demands it. Reality doesn’t. Not one bit.
Do I think that’s all by design? No, I’m not quite that generous, and there are plenty of bumpy moments and choices in Rogue One, but perhaps it’s because of the moment we’re living in that I feel more able to give a pass to a film that flags how our mythologies, societies and ideology are ultimately collective even if Great Individuals seem to dominate our narratives. There’s such hope in that if you’re in deep despair at what feels like a lack of agency. Thus the events of Rogue One are the sort of mythical moment that can power the relentless emotion behind a whole resistance. You can imagine soldiers on Hoth with tattoos saying “Remember Scarif”.
I’m finishing this post not long after hearing of Carrie Fisher’s death at sixty, which is no age. It’s a stark reminder that all our heroes must die, most of them earlier than we or they would wish. That’s the message of Rogue One – life is routinely devastating, our ends will likely be unsatisfying to us and unresolved to others but on we plough in the hope that through our actions it will be a little less so for those who come after that. The movie literally continues after you’ve gone because you yourself don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Rogue One’s final dream-haunting Vader sequence demonstrates this. Having slammed Luke a little earlier, let me give him his due – it’s this horrifying sequence that drills home the need for young Skywalker to appear into this universe. Vader is unstoppable, a merciless, murderous machine gun in an a field of quivering, tightly-gripped bayonets. Yet, perhaps because of what we’ve seen up to this point, those soldiers who get ripped apart by Vader don’t feel like grunts anymore like they do at the start of A New Hope. Their deaths sting. They feel like the most important aspect of the resistance, ones who will die without people knowing much about them but knowing themselves that someone else will carry on the fight once they go. There’s no doubt the comrade behind the blast door will take the crucial message on and on and on. There’s no doubt another fighter will take up a downed pilot’s callsign. There’s no doubt the narrative of the cause is greater than the narrative of the individual.
Of course it is. That’s how it should be.
They’re all Rebels aren’t they?