Shamelessly in Love with Shakespeare

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!


Nearly 450 years ago a boy was born in an English village.  No stars aligned to signal the birth of a literary saviour, he was not showered with privilege or power, his family was not terribly remarkable.  The boy’s parents lived in a small town surrounded by farm land and populated with simple people who spent their days in largely manual labour.  As the ordinary boy grew, he filled his life with ordinary pursuits: he attended the same school as everyone else in the village, he learned a trade and he went to church.

Somewhere along the line, the ordinary boy learned how to write—and he ceased to be ordinary.  What this boy put down on paper was inventive, imaginative and immortal.  There seemed to be nothing special about him, but his grasp of the best and worst of humanity appeared almost supernatural in its ability to see into our…

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Love’s Labour’s Art

A few years ago, I unofficially mentored a small group of my performing arts students who formed a band—a quite good band calling themselves Captain Backfire.

‘Get some good promotional photos,’ I suggested.  They were good looking lads.  ‘Business cards.’  They already had a website.  ‘A memorable tagline that will summarise what you’re about.’  Funk the Blues—because they were a blues-funk fusion band.

‘When and where is your next gig,’ I asked.

They answered.

‘How much you getting paid for that?’

‘Erm…’ they mumbled.

‘WHAT!’ I bellowed.

‘But there’s a cover charge at the door,’ protested the lead singer.

‘And who gets that?’


‘How many people do you think will come to that pub to see your band?’

‘Hundred,’ they underestimated.

‘What’s the cover charge?’


‘How much is a pint?’

‘Three pound.’

‘How much you reckon your “hundred fans” will drink?’


‘Do the math.’  They did the math.  ‘Your work is making the pub that much money and you will see none of it.’

‘But we’re having fun,’ argued the lead guitarist.

I don’t doubt you are, dear lead guitarist, but that is not the point. You are offering a service and you should be paid for it.  Can the pub landlord play guitar?  No.  He can’t fix his own plumbing either, so he pays a professional.  Even if that plumber really enjoys fixing drains, you still pay her.  You always pay the plumber.  You pay the piper too…and the drummer and the singer and the guitarist.   It’s bad enough our little performing arts department has to fight flute and spotlight to be recognised as a proper subject area without our leading stars disrespecting what they do as well!

I like to think their ears still ring from that little tirade of mine.  It was delivered with a high-level of technical projection.  I am after-all a drama teacher.  Incidentally, two members of the now defunct Captain Backfire play together in an even better band called Hunting Bears (music available for download, check out the website for gigs near you).

I delivered a similar lecture to our school’s art teacher with whom I frequently car-share.  He had agreed to take photographs for the restaurant where his daughter worked.  When I asked how much they were paying him he shrugged.  I nearly drove off the A1 in my indignation.

Recently Yorkshire-based writer and God of Well-Chosen Words (that is my title for him not a self-proclaimed moniker) Matt Haig gave his own lecture in a blog post entitled: “The Writer and Money.”  In the post, Mr. Haig vents about writer’s who write for money.  The heart of the argument, though I encourage you to read his post in full, is that writing and money do not mix.  His main irritation seems to come from writers who write just to make money and to debunk the assumption that writing is a “winning lottery ticket”, a phrase I recall him using in a previous, gloriously vocabularied tirade.

Writing – good writing – comes from a deep place. It comes from somewhere far inside us. It is a passion, and the etymological root of passion is to suffer. We head into the dark and mine our minds for jewels we never knew were there. Money belongs to the opposite space. It belongs to the material world, the world of surfaces, the unpoetic world of brash that surrounds us.” 

I told you he was the God of Well-Chosen Words.  And several other writers had some well-chosen words for him—many of them unduly harsh.  The harshest comments, I am sorry to say, were from my fellow Americans.  The Passive Voice blog posted select quotations from the original blog.  I was slightly amused/horrified by the lengthy debate over “dressing gowns” but mostly I was disgusted by the amount of vitriol inspired by Matt Haig’s perceived attack on taking money for art.

For me, making money from my art is not about finding a winning lottery ticket or becoming the next JK Rowling.  I’m not that naïve.  As someone with a theatre background, I know that for every Kate Winslet, there are hundreds of equally talented actresses who work union rates and are glad to get it.  That is the nature of the profession and I make it my business to demystify the glamour of acting for any student serious about pursuing a performance career.  My university professor Judy Hart told our graduate acting class (probably every acting class she teaches): “If there is any other job—ANY other job—you could do and be happy, then do it, but if this is what you have to do then go into with your eyes open and your head screwed on straight.”  Those might not have been her exact words but the sentiment is accurate.

Art is work!  For some it might be a hobby or a necessary creative outlet for coping with stress, but for most of the artists I know it is a trade.  If you’re a cake decorator and someone you aren’t related to or under threat of blackmail from requires a cake, you except them to pay you for it.  For ingredients, time and most of all expertise.  You pay lawyers, mechanics, doctors because you cannot do what they do.  Not everyone can make a sculpture or play an instrument or write a poem.  They might be able to shape clay, warble in the shower or put words on paper but that is like calling yourself a pilot because you found the UP button.

Earning money from my art is about respecting the work of all artists.  We cannot escape the fact that we live and work in a capitalist society.  Financial earnings don’t just symbolise the worth of our work, they are a material indication of how highly our work is esteemed.  How can I, a creative artist and teacher of the arts, disrespect art by not acknowledging that it is a job people get paid to do.

“A Still Glass of Calm”

sam view“Most people found Ollie odd, but Tyra found him soothing. His emotional climate was a still glass of calm that revealed nothing of the water beneath it: perhaps torrential rapids, perhaps sparkling shallows, perhaps just depth after depth of unmoving pond. The surface visual made it impossible to tell. Tyra basked comfortably in his reserved aura where she could tune down her emotional radar. Dear Ollie.”

Many of the characters in A Circle of Lost Sisters are inspired either by people I knew as a teenager or by young people I have taught over the past decade.  Some, like Holly, are an amalgamation of several different girls.  Rowan is about 30% my high school girlfriend, 40% my former student and only 20% my own imagination (the remaining 10% of her is made up of narrativia…a biological substance which occurs naturally when an invented character starts to think for herself).  Of all these different factual/fictional hybrids, the one who has been least diluted is Oliver Ford.

samOllie is based entirely on a past Drama student of mine called Sam.  One lesson was enough for me to appreciate Sam’s talent.  All he had to do was tune a guitar  behind the dialogue of two other actors.  Trust me, no one listened to a word of that dialogue because we were all in pieces over his physical comedy and straight-faced delivery.  Other teachers struggled to see Sam’s potential.  Though brilliant in maths and science, he was often accused of laziness or labelled an under-achiever.  I found this baffling because he worked so hard in Drama, always rehearsing and researching.  We soon discovered Sam wasn’t lazy, he was  (and still is) heartachingly, engagingly, endearingly aspergic.

So brilliant at dead pan comedy because he so seldom cracks a facial expression of any kind.  Bewildered by emotional confrontations  but able to recreate from memory scaled diagrams of complicated set designs seen once in live performances.  Sam changed my understanding of what autism means–when he wasn’t making me laugh my ribs sore.  In return, I stole his voice, mannerisms, ticks, tells and  appearance to construct a character whose still eye perfectly balances Tyra’s emotional hurricane.

Happy Autism Awareness Month, Sam/Ollie.

Extract from A Circle of Lost Sisters featuring Tyra Baley and Oliver Ford.


Tyra, as usual, was lost in thought as she wandered home.  I saw Trey Lee die today.  Why did a ghost kill Trey Lee?  Why would Miss Hirst allow it if she could prevent it?           

‘Tyra?’  The deep male voice made her jump.  Just beyond the school gate stood Ollie Ford, a bit closer than normal personal space generally allowed but Ollie was not very good at judging socially-acceptable distance.

‘Hey, Olls.  I thought everyone went home.’  The rest of the school had been empty of student life when Tyra left.  Only the swarming insects of investigation remained.

‘I waited for you.’

Ollie’s grey eyes stared at a point somewhere over her head as he flicked dark blonde fringe away from his face several times.  Ollie wasn’t very good at eye contact either.  He didn’t like large groups of people unless he knew them well, like The Circle Freaks, but he struggled with one-on-one situations too…unless he was following a clear script like the “argument” with Rhiannon.  Tyra waited patiently in case a further explanation for his presence was forthcoming though she did not actually expect it to be and, as usual, Tyra sensed nothing solid of his mood to help her decipher his actions.

‘Why did you wait?’ she asked.

‘Rhini said you were there.’  He focused vaguely on Tyra’s left shoulder.  ‘You found Trey’s body.’  He flicked his hair a few more times.  This was Ollie’s nervous behaviour: excessive fringe flicking.

‘That’s right.’

‘She said how horrible that must have been for you and how upset you must be because of it,’ he changed focus to her right shoulder and blinked several times at it.  This was more nervous Ollie behaviour.  Flicking and blinking?  What’s got Ollie so rattled?

‘Aye, it was pretty upsetting.’

‘Did you have to talk to a lot of people about it?’  Blink.  Flick.  Blink.

‘I did.’

‘Was that horrible too?’  He blinked rapidly at her forehead but kept a steady head this time, allowing his ashy blonde fringe to fall around his ashy grey eyes.

‘Yeah it was.’  There was a long pause with much fluttering and flipping.

‘I can walk you home if you want.’

He finally met her eyes then.  She could see her own surprised and rather baffled browns reflected in his calm greys.  There was a great deal more rapid blinking.

‘Thank you, Ollie.  That’s very thoughtful.’  Well, well, well…maybe my friends are not totally self-involved…at least…not all of them.

Oliver Ford walked Tyra Baley home.  He talked non-stop about the weather and Trey Lee and the chemical processes behind forensic investigation procedures and, once she got used to all the blinking it was the most relaxing part of her week.  Tyra had absolutely no idea how to feel about that.