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The necessity for stillness – four life-changing days in January

On my way home after receiving the Kenneth Tynan Award last year, I was thinking about what I should spend the award money on. It’s not a massive sum but it’s large enough to do something significant to mark the wonderful and humbling thing that being given an award by peers is. Should I buy a piece of jewelry? Or all those books written by my colleagues I have not had the time to get, let alone read? A gadget?

On the flight, I was thinking back over the era represented by the award: twelve years of non-stop full on dramaturging; of being in the lucky position of full time employment in my chosen profession, of around 30 productions, ten young writers programmes, eight script writing festivals, six writers labs, seven Pick n Mix Festivals, hundreds of dramaturgical meetings with writers, directors, performers, composers, choreographers and sonic artists. Twelve years of constantly being in other people’s heads and fictional worlds. Twelve years of talking about doing write ups of my processes, projects and my way of working, but never actually having the time to do so. There was always a script to read, a report to write or a workshop to deliver.

When I was told I had received the award, I was asked to write a Dramaturgy Paper. It would be presented next to Dramaturgy Papers by some of the finest writers, dramaturgs, academics and journalists we have in the country. I was terrified. I realised that in all those twelve years of strategising and creating opportunities for writers and artists, supporting people’s creative processes, finding the meanings and story moments that eluded us, I had not actually spent much time thinking my own thoughts. When I did have time, it was always in snippets or cut short by something or someone. The paper meant I had to write something and the deadline was tight. I decided to tackle the difference between what a dramaturg and a director does and as part of it, I tried to describe the place I normally put myself in, in a process; that of tuning into everything that happens in the rehearsal room, to everyone contributing, to what happens outside the room, to the ideas, references, practices relevant to the project. A never settled weathervane: listening and reflecting back, sieving information from outside and inside the room, trying not to be locked into a particular view point or position during the explorative part of the process.

I realised that if you spend your life doing that, you never really stay in the same place yourself to let your thoughts take root. I discovered that, for me, committing my thoughts in writing had become an unfamiliar experience. It might be that this is a problem of a regional dramaturg whose workload is bordering on the ridiculous and who flits from project to project year in, year out, or maybe it’s just me.

Reflecting on all this, and why writing the paper had felt like such a momentous task, made me realise that the most precious thing I could give myself was time to think, read and write. To reflect on my practice and to think new thoughts. I booked myself into the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Monaghan, Ireland. Annaghmakerrig is partly funded by the Arts Councils in the Republic and in Northern Ireland and is available to artists to come and work. The rooms and cottages are amazing, the grounds fabulous to wander through. There is a dance studio, music room, several artists’ studios and the most supportive team to look after you and make sure you can really focus on your work. The one thing you have to do is to turn up for dinner at the big candle lit table at 7pm. Writers, artists and musicians appear from all the nooks and crannies and gather around the table full of nourishing food, chat and connection. It’s a true gift.

All previous times I have been to Annaghmakerrig it has been to facilitate residencies, looking after artists, dramaturging ideas, processes and projects like a weathervane in the perfect storm. So, to be there on my own for four whole days with no demands on my time apart from my own wishes was one of the most important things I have ever done for myself. These four days of stillness changed my brain; it restored my equilibrium and it opened up many exciting avenues for the future.

It was the best way to spend the money and mark a junction in my career. It was an important lesson to myself and I feel that this experience, together with the warm glow of receiving the award, will stay with me for the rest of my career. And to all other weathervanes out there, take time! Just take it.

PS. Look at me now! Writing blogs and everything! :)

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