A cartoon-like self portrait of the artist.

Overcoming the pressure to achieve during quarantine

There’s a lot of chatter about maximising yourself and your practice during this period of isolation. Nye Russell-Thompson tells us why the pressure to create a ‘Magnum Opus’ can be toxic and how just getting by right now can be enough. 

I’m blue with my tendency to hold myself to impossible – impossible – standards.

It’s my flaw, I guess, to not seek help because I should be capable of handling every situation and task alone. Well, in this new, temporary era of isolation, that expectation is louder than before, and as an artist I’m expected to be at the cutting edge of theatre and writing.

Except…no, I’m not.

That expectation, as I said, is engrained within me, and not a pressure from anyone external. So, what should I do?

I’ve seen an excellent recent article talking about this very subject, so I’m pleased to say I’m not alone in this toxic mindset. That article discussed the pressure, as artists, to develop our ‘magnum opus’ during this period of alone time.

Also, just quickly as an aside, do people legitimately use the term ‘mAgNUm OpuS’ anymore? Chucking latin into artistic practice makes it seem waaaaaay too ethereal, un-relatable, and pretentious as F***.

Because for the past twenty days, I have sat on my bed drinking too much coffee and failing to write anything good. That would be ok if I wasn’t a self-employed theatre maker wanting to make the best of my time.

My name is Nye Russell-Thompson, creator of StammerMouth – an internationally touring theatre company collaborating with freelance professionals to create and perform contemporary shows about the difficult things to talk about.

The difficult thing to talk about here is explaining how my brain works, if it works well at all in this strange time. How the hell I can devise without people physically with me? In this blog, I’m going to be talking through some of my processes while in lockdown. It’ll seem childish, weird and frenetic (some of my best qualities) and very self-critical (probably my worst).

So, my bedroom is my sleepy space and my games space. It has been adapted haphazardly to serve as my creative and professional space too, with my bed currently getting its money’s worth – I have TWO desks in my room. I use approximately NONE of them 100% of the time. My bed is my desk now. It’s comfier than a desk. Desks are rubbish to sleep on.

I’ve committed a lot of time to thinking about what I can make in this time of loneliness, and questions arise like, “what is my unique perspective in this time?” and “shouldn’t all this free time make for my best work?”

Let’s see, shall we? Here we have an early concept for StammerMouth’s next show, currently called IT Hz. This interactive performance will ultimately tackle Intrusive Thoughts, a side-effect of OCD and severe anxiety where an upsetting idea is magnified, because I wanted to know, “why did I think that?” Continuing down this path can lead a person to become convinced they are secretly horrible.

This concept was looking at numbers stations as an allegory for interfering signals which would have become clearer, upsetting and confusing the character, and mess with the format of the “intended” show.

Nye's printed script is a work in progress, so here he has made annotations and corrections drawn all over the page in red pen.
Nye’s annotations on his work-in-progress. Credit: Nye Russell-Thompson.

 

I find marking my work like a furiously overzealous teacher helps me to externalise and project the critical mind, to ask myself the key questions regarding logistics. For instance the use of a loop pedal to transform an innocent sentence into an incriminatory phrase – can I be accurate, smooth, seamless enough to make this good?

I’ve had the best intention to experiment with this and all my thousands of other ideas. I’m desperate to realise them, but devising without a studio is like driving through fog. Script-writing is only a small part of my creative technique and without that space, it’s harder to give it legs, and so the brilliant, amazing, funny, adjective ideas I wrote seem to have become boring, and I’m left cursing to myself “what was I thinking?” Again, the lack of studio space, lighting equipment and PA (oh what I would give for these right now) makes this entirely theoretical – and therefore open to my critical critic voice to punch up and spit on. I’ll never be happy with what I write even if I’m told it’s good. If it has come across as mad, this is the very reason.

This ‘Collaborative Loneliness’ certainly makes it feel as though I have the next best thing. It’s a refocusing period, where my actions feel more confident and I hear artists’ voices louder amongst the relative quiet of the world; risk of failure (my BFF) feels like a guilty pleasure, and the act of making something regardless of its quality is a fun adventure to have whilst not permitted go to the beach.

Seven bottles of cheap red wine after the lockdown was announced (more or less takes us up to now), I have accepted that making something “good” isn’t the aim of my time alone. Instead, I should just aim, pure and simple, to make something, regardless of the quality. And beyond that, beyond this bizarre, scary time, I should aim to U-turn my mindset about my own creative process for my theatrical projects; chuck out that expectation to be good. Stop thinking about what reviewers might say before I’ve started dramaturgical responses to subject ideas. Don’t think, just DO.

Even if this blog was the hottest messiest hot mess you’ve ever read, I’m glad to have expressed it. It is so much H A R D E R to know what’s good when you’re alone. Let’s just make something sh*t, without the worry of pleasing your inner-critic.

I’m sorry, inner-critic. I’m so, so sorry.

FROM THE BLOG