An Incomplete Manifesto…

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the Bush Theatre’s RADAR Festival “Signals from the new writing world” for one of the platform events titled: “The process is god: new ways to develop new plays”. And last night I joined academic James Wilson, poet and writer Sabrina Mahfouz, Head of Programme & Audiences at Warwick Arts Centre Matt Burman, co-artistic director of Theatre Ad Infinitum George Mann and Literary Manager and Dramaturg at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Suzanne Bell. Smart and talented people all so do check out those links if you have ten minutes.

The premise we were asked to respond to was:
A new generation of artist that defies definition is knocking at our doors; how are we inspired to imagine a new way of theatre making and how can literary departments adapt to new ways of developing new plays?

I was (very flatteringly) asked by a lot of people there last night if I could post the “Manifesto” online, so following are my notes. As is always the way I went off piste from the notes a bit, particularly at the beginning but Theatre Voice recorded the event and will apparently be publishing the audio at some stage. Will update links here when they do.

I’m not claiming that there’s anything particularly ‘radical’ or new in the following, though it will of course be new to some people hearing/reading these things for the first time. And saying this stuff is easy. Actually doing these things and pursuing them, consistently, as ideals throughout everything we do is the difficult part. So the real value (for me) in re-stating them is to remind myself so they continue to be more than just words.

Notes from RADAR 2012 – Monday 12th November 2012


I’m Jon and I’m one of the founder members and the artistic director of Unlimited who are the co-producers with The Bush of Money: the Game Show which is on here in February next year.

We’re a group of artists who, when we make work as Unlimited, create new plays, stories, adventures, experiences through collaborative processes. The work we make together is always co-authored with equal partnership in the creative process and in collaboration with an ever expanding pool of associate artists, scientists, technologists and educators.

And the process, to us, is the most important part of what we do. We’re fascinated not only with the ‘artistic’ processes by which we create that work but also the social and political processes of how we create the most brilliant environment possible to work in.

There’s a designer, Bruce Mau, who’s most famous for a manifesto he wrote in 1998 that contains 43 ‘laws’ for achieving good and meaningful design, titled “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth“. And I like it, mostly.

No 35 is…
Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable.

And inspired by that and the opportunity of this event I’ve had a go at writing my own Incomplete Manifesto for How To Imagine New Ways for Making New Plays.

Some of the following are principles that we already apply in our own processes and some are ambitions that we strive towards. I’d like to emphasise that these are our preferences for process. There are, of course, many ways of doing things and I’m not closed to those or wanting to impose my preferences on anyone who doesn’t like or agree with them… but they are pretty good ones. I think.

In the spirit of Mau’s No 35 about imitation, my No 1 is the same as Mau’s No 1 – because I wholeheartedly agree with it and it is immaculately expressed.

1. Process is more important than outcome.
When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.

2. Start
Just start. Begin. Come together. Do something. Go somewhere. Don’t talk too much. If you talk for more than an hour before you actually then do something, you’ll start talking yourself out of doing anything.

My wife, who is a brilliant woman and accomplished occupational psychologist, told me that the next 13 points in my incomplete manifesto were good and useful but a bit boring and that it didn’t feel like I really got into my stride until No 16. Also, it was much more than ten minutes so I’m going to skip straight to no 16 via 2b

 2b. Always listen to your wife

16. Have fun…
After all the work you’ve put in to achieving all of the above (boring stuff that we’re skipping over here), you might as well. It is more… well, fun.

 17. (Retreat and) Eat Together
If you can, go away, live together – even for a short while. At the very least eat together. Break bread. And ideally cook your own meals and take it in turns to do that. It is the oldest and most intimate way of being together. Apart from sex, and that may not always be the most appropriate way of being together in your process.

 18. Be serious, but not too much…
Take your work seriously, be rigorous. But try not to take yourself too seriously. More often than not, no-one’s dying in the process of making new plays. Of course, if they are, get serious.

 19. Change the world
We used to say “We’re not trying to change the world”. One of our early collaborators asked us “Why not?”. Good question. Worth a try, at least…

 20. Let Go…
…of “your” ideas. Pass them on, invite development. The longer you hold on to them, the less they’ll grow and the more defensive you’ll become of them. Pass them on as a gift and entrust them to your partners in the process. They will look after them in the same way you will theirs.

21. Be a gang
Stand shoulder to shoulder with your partners, colleagues, collaborators – in public at least. Rigorous conversations, disagreements and even arguments are to be embraced in the process. But when you need to, to the outside world who are not yet part of your process, stand up with and stand by the people you’ve chosen to travel with.

22. Difficult, Not Bad
About 12 years ago when there were still 6 of us in Unlimited, in a company meeting that had collapsed into an argument and had started getting personal, Chris said “Just because this is difficult, doesn’t mean it has to be bad”. This was a wise thing to say and a great piece of advice. Making things is difficult. That’s OK. Don’t let the process become bad because of that difficulty.

23. Relax. Don’t Do It…
Have patience. Don’t panic. Take a break. Go for a walk. Listen to music. It’ll come.

 24. Audiences 1
Be clear about who you are making work for. Be specific. Allow the knowledge of who you are making the work for to infect the process and the work you make.

 25. Audiences 2
Remember that your audiences can be a beautiful part of your process and its outcomes, if you want and choose for them to be. Make your work with audiences as well as for them.

 26. Audiences 3
<left blank to insert your own thought/s about audiences and how they might affect your process>

27. Iterate
Show your process workings regularly and invite people (your collaborating partners, family, friends, lovers, audiences …) in to experience them. It’s the best way to set a goal/target, test your process and find out what’s working and what’s not. Reward those people for their generosity in joining you in the process – invite them to actively take part, enjoy each other’s company, feed them, water them, listen to them.

28. Listen
Really listen. Be sincerely open to the potential for change and that someone you’ve never met or don’t like might have insight that you don’t (or can’t).

29. Fail (like a scientist)
Scientists love to fail. Only when we fail, when our assumptions or hypotheses are proved wrong, can we learn anything new. Everyone knows this these days but still, few of us are happy to genuinely put ourselves in a position where we might. But by iterating often, the failure is only momentary and full of learning.

30. Iterate again…
Keep showing your workings!

31. Don’t…
…be ambitious. Be inquisitive. That needs to be attributed to the director Katie Mitchell. It’s a good one.

32. Do…
…explore “other” ways of telling your story. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into imagining, dreaming, structuring, creating, producing our stories and it seems… a shame, to only tell that story with an audience in its “theatre” form? For example, in the process of writing the script for the stage version of a new show we’re making with Northern Stage in Newcastle we’re also, concurrently, writing a version to be read and listened to and interacted with on digital tablets and mobile devices.

33. Formalise
Write the detail of your processes into contracts. It’s always easy to let some of your more “idealistic” elements drop away because of time or money or fear. If… every Thursday during rehearsals you want to invite everyone in the building you’re working in for a home made bun and a chat, write it down, sign the document, cook a bun, share it.

34. There is Always the Potential for Transformation
This is my favourite. If you get to rehearsals on a Thursday and you find that you’re rubbish at making buns and actually this is counter-productive, that’s OK. Make sausage rolls instead. Or buy some carrots. Or whatever. The important thing is to embrace the potential for transformation and not be annoyed by it.

35. The best thing about a plan is…
… that you’ve always got something to come back to when you’ve deviated from the plan and can’t remember where you started.

36. Money
Find it. Work with it. Don’t be scared of it. Don’t trust it but also don’t make assumptions about it. Have a sincere, meaningful conversation with it. Make positive choices about it.

37. Fuck The System
When the existing systems and structures don’t allow or support you to achieve the thing that you want to achieve, fuck them. Create your own, find the people who will support you, go around or over or under or through the walls, be brilliant, do it.

38. Thankyou
Always say thank you and tell people when they’ve been brilliant.

Thank you. For listening. For inviting me to be here and to say these words. You’ve been brilliant.

I’d sincerely love to develop this as a conversation with any of you here today. Maybe we can do that in the bar now?

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