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I work in theatre, and so often see shows out of a sense of obligation: I know one of the actors, I should probably see [a certain writer’s work] live at least once, etc. After a while, if you see enough theatre, you start seeing the same devices over and over. I made a decision to see less and started planning to pass my tickets on to friends.

Then I saw 2 productions in 3 days that changed how I felt. Not, in fact, so much because of the productions themselves, although both were great, but because of how the productions treated the audiences.

The Pitchfork Disney

Tom Rhys Harries

The first was The Pitchfork Disney at the Shoreditch Town Hall. I didn’t know the play beforehand, but have since learned that it’s considered to be a seminal work of ’90’s in yer face British theatre. My sister offered to get us tickets for my birthday, and I was intrigued to see it despite my resolution, because of a) the venue (the basement of a town hall), and b) the fact that it was sold out (my sister had to ask the director for house tickets).

I made sure to get there early as the seats were unallocated, and my sister and I found ourselves on a chair and a chest in the middle of a long sitting room that was the setting of the play. When one character pushed another up against the wall they did so right next to me, and brushed my leg. When another in a latex mask stood on a chair and screamed a lullaby I could have reached out and touched him. We weren’t watching 2 people stuck in an apartment together, we were stuck in the apartment with them.

The Pitchfork Disney

I’d been to immersive theatre productions before (e.g. Punchdrunk), but the storytelling and acting always took second place to the design (could anyone have worked out that The Drowned Man was based on Woyzeck if they hadn’t been told beforehand?). In this case, however, there was great writing (Philip Ridley) performed by great actors (e.g. Tom Rhys Harries) directed by a great director (Jamie Lloyd), as well as great design (Soutra Gilmour).

Roman Tragedies

An even bigger shock came 2 days later when I attended Toneelgroep Amsterdam‘s 6-hour adaptation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra at the Barbican, entitled Roman Tragedies. I’d seen previous work by the company and director (Ivo van Hove, who directed David Bowie’s Lazarus, among other things), but nothing prepared me for this.

View from the stage

We sat in our allocated seats to begin with, but at the end of the first half hour some muzak came on and a friendly Dutch voice informed us that we were now free to wander around the theatre, including onto the stage, where there was a bar and café and lots of sofas. There was even an info desk where you could charge your phone and pick up a time sheet which listed exactly when all of the characters die, so that you didn’t accidentally miss a good bit because you were getting a drink. The action was being live-streamed and screened on TV’s dotted about and above the stage, with English subtitles, so that a piece of action might be happening to your left but shown in close up in front of you:

(And before you object that I wasn’t supposed to be filming the thing, Jude Law was on stage and took a snap of Julius Caesar when he died, and he’s in a production with the same theatre company later this year!)

We were encouraged to keep our phones on but on silent, so that we could send out tweets about the show, some of which would get displayed above the stage. When I got slightly bored about 3½ hours in, I started trying to come up with funny tweets to amuse myself and hopefully get a reaction from the audience if they were displayed. (I started off with an Asterix reference and tweeted, These Romans are crazy, and then when several characters had died in the same place on the stage I wrote, That piece of carpet is a death trap.) One of the actors, playing Mark Anthony, liked one of my tweets in the middle of the show:

Split screen

Hans Kesting

What was the effect of all of this? The first is that I didn’t feel so much like an audience member but more like a collaborator, as if we were all working together to pull off this implausible 6-hour feat. If audience members were sitting on some part of the stage where some actors were about to perform, the actors would gently explain that they needed that bit for the next scene. I saw a cameraman joke with an audience member in between shots. And how often is it that an actress makes a dramatic exit and you get hit by the smell of her perfume on the way out?

The second is that I wasn’t bothered by distractions. Usually I get incensed if someone gets out their phone to check the time during a play and disrupts the darkness with a glaring rectangle. But because the production permitted phones and used so many screens anyway I instantly relaxed, in a way that I never had during a play or concert. And you know what? When something genuinely moving happened, everyone shut up. And why wouldn’t we? We’d paid for high-quality drama. The production treated us like adults and we behaved as such.

Back to the real world

The production gave me more clarity about the whole theatregoing experience when I went back to the reality of regular theatre productions. One incident came to mind from a couple of months before, when I was having a drink with an actor friend who was in a show with an American TV star. We could see the theatre from the bar, and there was a queue of mostly teenage girls waiting in the freezing January air to meet their idol. My friend commented: They’re not going to see him. He’ll go out the back exit and straight to yoga. Why not spend 15 minutes saying hello to people who spent £75 and half an hour in the cold to meet you? It made me reflect on how segregated the theatrical experience is: the audience goes in one entrance and the actors go in another, they’re separated by a barrier during the performance, and afterwards they go out through their separate exits, as if the theatre is an elite world which the audience only get to look at.

Then, 2 days after my Roman Tragedies experience I was at a mediocre but nevertheless highly-acclaimed West-End production of a classic that I knew wasn’t selling well, because I was able to get free tickets, and before the show started a member of the audience took out their phone to take a picture of the stage. An usher ran over to them angrily: “No pictures of the set! No pictures of the set!” Really? What did the management think was going to happen? That someone would see a low-quality iPhone snap of the stage and say, I don’t need to see this 2-hour classic drama, I know what the set looks like? The production was actively policing people who were trying to give free marketing to a show that wasn’t selling. Insanity.

Conclusion

Hitchcock was famously quoted as saying all actors are cattle, which he corrected: I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle. Leaving aside the question of whether or not actors should be treated like cattle, I think that most theatre audiences are treated like cattle. So a message to all producers:

Don’t treat audiences like cattle. Treat them like collaborators and they will sell your show for you.

Cat rat race cartoon

I was recently exhibiting symptoms of stress – waking up early after anxiety dreams, not enjoying things I usually enjoy – despite everything being great on paper, and reasoned that London might be part of the problem. (My reasoning was probably partially inspired by Paul Graham’s great article, Cities and Ambition – I concluded that the message London sends out is, you should be part of the Establishment). So I sent out a group email to friends asking them for recommendations as to cheap places to get away to in Europe. Their responses were sufficiently useful and entertaining that I felt I should compile them into a blog post, so here they are.

But first, my original 4 a.m. email, entitled Getting the **** out of London:

Hello better-travelled friends,

I’m coming to the conclusion that London is driving me crazy (I know what you’re thinking: I’ve always been crazy), and am looking to make a few short trips to Europe in the next few months with a view to finding somewhere I could spend a longer period of time in the future. Any recommendations for locations very welcome, e.g. a friend recently went to Lisbon and is waxing lyrical about how chilled it was, but it wasn’t particularly on my radar beforehand.

The criteria are:

a) A cultural antidote to London, i.e. where people aren’t rushing to get somewhere because they’re in competition with each other because house prices are through their own roofs.

2) Cheap to get to and to stay in. So Iceland sounds lovely but if you want a coffee they literally saw your leg off as payment. Literally. Not ideal.

Bear in mind that if I do spend an extended period of time somewhere I’m likely to try to learn some of the language, so please think twice before sending me to, e.g., Hungary. Köszönöm.

I have a passive income, now, and a shit ton of writing to do (I’m rewriting the entire score for my show), and feel that I’d get more and better work done somewhere less busy. I suspect I’d also sleep better, rather than do unhelpful things like go to bed at 23:30, wake up an hour later, not be able to get back to sleep, and so write deranged emails to friends.

Yours insomniacly,

Benedict

P.S. Also single and totally sick of dating, so if anyone knows a woman with a nice big house who’s really good at back massages that would be even better. Own teeth optional. [Ed.: You might be thinking this is a bit much to ask, overlooking the own teeth bit, but someone texted offering exactly this, and the lady has a piano.]

Here are the responses I got, in the order that I got them:

It was fun reducing friends to a nationality and a profession (if I had include myself I’d put international serial genius). For context, I should say that I and most of my friends are in their 30’s, but a couple of people on the list are in their 20’s or 40’s.

Lebanese construction company CEO

From what I gather Lisbon is the place to go, its chill, warm, cheap, charming, laid back, and young.

I have not been yet and plan on going very soon. I recently spent a month as a quasi-monk in an ashram in India, it was a transformative experience.. away from all the madness 🙂

Do let me know what you end up doing.

Lots of love from [beautiful village overlooking Beirut]

English computer person

To be honest, I’ve never really understood what it is this guy does, but I think it involves The Cloud. At any rate, he gets paid a lot for talking to people and gets to work from wherever he wants as a freelancer, which he makes the most of.

I’m going to suggest Kraków, though it maybe trips up on the language front, not to mention the winter weather front(s), and somewhere in Spain, though I haven’t decided where yet. Maybe Toledo or Valencia or Seville.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Later:

I can also recommend Cadiz and Santiago, though it might not have enough to hold your interest for months. I should disclose that my relationship with Spain has recently improved, so I could well be overshooting and over-recommending it on the basis of my earlier low opinion. I took a trip to Barcelona in winter with a depressed friend in 2004, and didn’t really enjoy any of it, and I spent a decade imagining Spain as little more than an oversized beach littered with arrogant and ignorant British tourists indulging on the very finest the Costa del Sol could offer them. [Ed.: This description reminds me of the excellent film Sexy Beast.] And that’s not to mention the abomination that is one half of the island of Ibiza.

And it turns out to be nothing much like that. I’ve visited Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Cadiz, Santiago, Seville and Valencia in the last year and found them all to be warm, charming and relaxed. I prefer Barcelona over Madrid, but both are perhaps bigger than you would want, so I would suggest one of the medium-sized cities would strike a good balance between supporting enough interesting culture, diversity and food (and this is important, as cheese, bread and cured meat get tedious after a while), without being too overwhelmingly London-like.

I also started learning Spanish on Duolingo, and was 7% fluent in a week. [Ed.: Check out the Twitter feed, Shit Duo Says.] That’s 1% of fluency a day. In a hundred days you could be entirely fluent, and if anyone disagreed about that, you could show them the figure on the phone app. But the language is pretty easy if you know some French.

Anyway, I hope that helps. I’m hoping to spend more time in Spain this summer.

When I later asked for permission to publish his thoughts, he wrote:

I might have been more verbosely rude about British tourists if I’d known it was going anonymously into a blog!

Dutch private equity person

Mother lives in France somewhere.

Lisbon is lovely, go there
I like France, Lyon, Bordeaux, etc
South of Italy, i.e. Puglia and Tuscany
Copenhagen
Stockholm in summer
Madrid
Bruge and Ghent

Tuscany makes me think of this sketch from The Armando Iannucci Shows. I’m worried that all my references are comedies featuring cockney thugs. Another one.

Hungarian counsellor/interior designer

Fluent in Hungarian, German, Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, and maybe some other languages.

Hmmmm, if you so carefully excluded the Budapest suggestion (which is cheap, absolutely beautiful, in the very middle of europe and sooo easy to get to by air, danube or any means on land, and has a decent cultural and music scene, lovely people and amazing food….just saying) then i would say northern italy (especially Bologna – soo underrated!!!!!!! – or Milano) or my favourite place in the world, florence. For Florence, i would strongly recommend a back-up plan for the summer tourist season. Anyway, Italy is unbeatable ( seriously, just forget Spain, Greece and Portugal….real art and life is Italy!). My other european fav is Munich; whilst coffe prices arent icelandic it is an expansive city (e.g. property, still quite a bit cheaper than london though). Hamburg is quite cool. [Ed.: I have an ex who lives in Hamburg, so maybe not.] I dont like Berlin, but its a polarising place. Stay away from bratislava (its tiny and dead boring after a day) and i find prague maddeningly touristy and Vienna awfully pretentious and burgeoise (dont even get me started on switzerland….literally everything, including pizza-delivery closes at 6 pm). As far as Spain or the Netherlands go, i am the wrong person to talk to, can bear it for a week, but dont like it, brhhhhh, really-really don’t like it. Nobody honestly likes Brussels [ed.: true], and other belgian towns tend to be tiny. Salzburg is nice but small, very desirable if you can ski…. My mother fell in love with Madrid and we usually like the same things (god only knows how she picked my father…), but i have never been. I personally wasnt mad about Lisbon or Barcelona (people always suggest Barcelona, especially the English [ed.: this is borne out by the rest of this article], guess they like the name). If you can pick up a light Balkan beat, Split is amazing (Dubrovnik again is too much of a tourist facade only). I guess St Petersburg (lovely) and Moscow (no big improvement in terms of pace of life compared to london, but well, my 2nd hometown and i love it…and the music…) is out due to visa issues.
Your faithful comrade in insomnia,
[Y]

German artist

Good morning! A conversation better had in person I feel but hey! It’s 6am and I woke up with a nightmare about [redacted for comic effect] so answering your email seems propitious. The following are my thoughts on the subject which I have naturally had on my own account and are therefore to be taken with the proviso that I am of course German.

Less urban locations or smaller less metropolitan cities are significantly less expensive for all things and if the goal is peace to work and there is no necessity to find immediate high quality employment I would consider the possibility of a beautiful small town such as Cadiz or another place on the Spanish or Portuguese coast such as the algarve. I have visited Lisbon three times last year so fair to say I did like it, however it is not an easy place to make friends [ed.: especially if you’re German], people tend to have friends from childhood and stick with them and at our age they are usually married with children. [The German artist is 3 years older than me and I resent being put into the same age bracket as her.] But this aside there’s always foreigners to meet and over time one will make friends. This problem is to a greater or lesser extend the case wherever you go. So this will be somewhat mitigated by going to Berlin or even Munich but the latter is expensive for housing. Berlin offers the benefits of an easy going life style with close countryside and all the urban pleasures with cheap rents and a whole cohort of recent arrivals to befriend. German women also have the hots for a nice English accent so that might stand you in good stead. [Ed.: Noted.] Stranger places are available such as east Brandenburg and parts of Saxony where you can buy a house and grounds for 10K. But you would certainly require a car and a high degree of tolerance. [Ed.: I have neither.] Other cities I have enjoyed are of course Barcelona and more recently Bilbao which is a stunningly beautiful place with all the culture you could want and a recently collapsed housing market making renting affordable. The Spanish people there appeared warm open and helpful and I don’t imagine making friends there would prove difficult. You are also very close to the beach and some beautiful countryside. Cantabria nearby has more cows per head of population than any other place in Central Europe. [Ed.: I’m sold.] So there, that’s my contribution. Though I would say that spring is coming and you’re bound to feel better about things soon…

English artist/photographer

Hey Sir!

That’s a really wonderful and incredibly understandable email type message.

I think Lisbon will be very much worth exploring ( even though I’ve never been ). But also……. I just came back from Torino ( Turin ) and it was bloomin very very great. Also!!!!!!! I just realised that they have a massive secret palace, [ed.: maybe not so secret now that I’ve published this blog post] in the Center of town, which is set up permanently as a club just for writers to write in all day ( I shit you not ). My good friend [Mr. X] runs the entire cultural world over there and could set you up with every kind of good thing. I’m not joking it is really worth checking out.

Also, I can connect you to a whole host of incredible ancient beautiful villas and castles, just outside of Torino.

It is a good thing.

Let me know if you would like me to put you in touch.

( below is an iPhone snap of a spare castle of a friend of [X’s] that we visited )

Castle in Torino

I wrote back, saying that this all sounded great.

Hey,

But, actually, it is true, they have allocated a whole big chunk of a proper palace, just for writers to write in.

It used to be for artists, but they kicked them all out and now allocate it to writers. Because they, more often, tend to be far better human beings.

Its very glorious and right in the middle of town.

As another English artist friend commented when I read him the email, Gosh a spare castle, always good just in case the first one breaks.

German interior designer/gallerist

WhatsApp conversation.

ID:

Benedict love

Just read your email

Didn’t I tell you about my plan this year, to find my second place outside of London

Here’s the list of places I want to visit so far:

Argentario, Tuscany
Lanzarote
Sardegna
San Remo
Alassio
Genova
Andalusia
Napoli
Amalfi coast
Lisbon
Olhao
Zahara de los Atunes

Also discussed Puglia with [Lebanese consultant and Italian banker]

I’ll try to go on short trips to these places this year. Feel free to come along

Much love from Berlin

me:

No, you didn’t mention it! Zwei Dumme…

That’s quite a long list. I’ll Google them one by one.

Hadn’t even heard of Olhao.

ID:

I’ve just asked around and that’s what people tell me

me:

My friend [German artist], who you met at my party, said that I’d be more likely to make friends in Berlin than in Lisbon, and that German women have the hots for guys with English accents [ed.: told you I’d noted it], but I’m guessing Berlin is not the best place to unplug.

ID:

It’s also not warm

Think of old age

It’s either Southern Europe or Florida

me:

Fuck Florida.

Scottish big data consultant

… of Chinese descent who has a Croatian boyfriend (that should narrow it down).

Zagreb is lovely. Way before I met the boy I went there and thought it was the perfect place to stay for a few months and write. Croatian is hard but lots of people speak English.

Edinburgh/Glasgow – biased but I love Scotland. So good on many levels and v not London. [Ed.: No-one else suggested Scotland. Just saying’.]

Tallinn – gorgeous, affordable, hipster, English.

And totally agree on Lisbon – amazing.

Spanish psychiatrist

Barcelona

In explanation of his short answer, he and his partner have just had a baby and he’s taken over his partner’s work in addition to his own, as his partner’s another Spanish psychiatrist. I believe their baby is also a Spanish psychiatrist.

English academic

Lives in Edinburgh, and has never lived in London, in fact, so is semi-disqualified from having an opinion. The fact that he’s an academic makes him fully disqualified. Note that he doesn’t recommend Edinburgh, Scottish big data consultant.

Sorry to hear that you’re out of sorts. (In terms of recommendations I’d probably opt for Barcelona, or perhaps a Greek island at this time of year.)

Dutch finance person

Yes I second Lisbon – amazing, nice weather, great food and not expensive.
Of course I also have to recommend Amsterdam – v easy to get to (tons of flights!), everyone speaks great English.. you’ve been right?‎ [Ed.: Wrong.] For prolonged stay you could even consider Haarlem, small town nearby which is supposed to be cute + cheaper than Amsterdam (but don’t know it that well)

Bosnian big data consultant

By text:

A friend of mine in Sarajevo lives in a 3 bedroom flat by herself. And she also has a piano and takes piano lessons. She also sent me a photo of a baby goat this morning from her parents’ cottage [Ed.: Baby goat!]

Baby goat

She says you’re welcome to stay at hers in Sarajevo 😊

This is her instagram – probably easiest to connect that way if you fancy a host with a piano and baby goats in Sarajevo. [Ed.: Yes and yes.]

Chinese-Malaysian consultant

She studied in Boston and last year abandoned London to move back there where she recently bought a house.

Oh dear. What happened?

As you know, you are always welcome in Boston. But it probably fails your cheap to get to criteria. Though I’d argue you need to consider total cost of getaway.

In Europe, it depends on the season. Summer is inordinately expensive everywhere, so a cottage in English countryside (or perhaps Irish?). [Ed.: My parents are Irish, which is probably why she suggested this. However, food prices in rural Ireland are higher than they are in Central London.] I personally think staycations are underrated. Devon is beautiful, and you can often find bed and breakfasts at reasonable cost. [Ed.: The English artist also suggested Devon in conversation, where he’s from.] Otherwise Eastern Europe is not a bad option – most people do speak English there, still relatively cheap, and lots of cheap flights. Coast of Croatia, e.g. Pula, Roving, etc on the istrian peninsula. Bulgaria on the Black Sea, I’m personally fond of ex Yugoslavia, so Belgrade, and I hear Ljubljana in Slovenia is beautiful.

In the shoulder seasons, more classic locations are cheap, e.g. Majorca. Portugal (Lisbon, Porto) are really nice. Mainland Greece (avoiding expensive islands also cool – meteora was a favourite – you can go visit the Byzantine monasteries when you get bored of writing. Cyprus I hear is like Greece but cheaper, and also on an island. I also loved the Dalaman coast in turkey, and it’s really cheap there. You may be able to find some kind of school or summer camp where you teach English for a small length of time and write the rest. [Ed.: I can’t be bothered to teach English.] Also good for vegetarians (Eastern Europe not so much…). [Ed.: Good point. I’d forgotten about this.]

But really, your best bet is to come visit me :). Spring is beautiful here.

Boston is full of Americans.

German innovation consultant

Amalfi coast

Rome … ?

English cycling consultant

Yes, that is a thing. Also an ex-finance guy and chair of a charity. Fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian.

When you’ve cracked the code please let me know !

I tease myself with thoughts of Tuscan / provencal escape from time to time , imaging an apartment in Avignon or Florence and the fields of lavender / vines etc in clear sight

I’d be tempted by the warmer climates , but that’s obv a personal thing . Some German cities my sources tell me are just the ticket – actually been to Hamburg a couple of times recently and if you were born there you’d probably stay . [Ed.: Ex.] Which has generally been my view that lucky those born outside london who have somewhere to return with affordable houses and not daft commutes & no need for a city of londons size

Madrid is an obvious one to try , a little chilly for my taste long term but I gather they have heating so I guess one shouldn’t overly worry . Other northern places like Bergen seem to be full of smiling types [Ed.: Not sure if this is meant to be a good or bad thing.]

Spain is jolly but they do like to fry their food rather

And generally I’d stick with europe , rule of law, basic functioning infrastructure, that sort of thing

V interested to know which cities win the poll !

I wrote saying that I was considering publishing the responses in a blog post.

You should !

I have a good friend in Copenhagen, Danish, she’s gone back there after 10 years in london and predictably is bored misses london etc

Actually one more I suspect up there is Amsterdam. Shilly akschentsh but otherwise not a bad spot [Ed.: I still associate the Dutch language with this TV clip.]

When I remembered I’d met the Danish friend:

She is slumming it in an absolutely stunning apartment in Copenhagen, vast, beautiful, right in the centre, for the price of a london cupboard

Lebanese consultant and Italian banker

Goldman Sachs/McKinsey couple. Not as terrible as that makes them sound. From a conversation in the back of a taxi:

Palermo and Catania. … Catania is falling apart but has great energy.

When I told them I was going to Barcelona:

Don’t go to Barcelona. It has great culture and nightlife but is very money-driven, like London.

And when I mentioned the idea of rural areas being more rooted in tradition that cities:

Apparently inland Sardinia is like that.

Derek Sivers

Derek is a writer, founder of CD Baby, and veteran traveller. He wrote the article on Iceland linked to in my email. I sent him this blog post and these were his thoughts:

Depending on whether you feel your life needs more variety or has enough variety already, it might be interesting to find one town somewhere that you return to regularly and stay at the same AirBNB. I think we often look for novelty but forget about the benefits of having another place that feels like an alternate home – and getting to know it well. Because cities tend to homogenize, a small town would be a better contrast to your London life. Like imagine flying to Faro Portugal, and catching a train to the far west or far east Algarves, and making that your regular getaway.

Final, unscientific tally

Western Mediterranean

Italy

Spain

Portugal

  • Lisbon (about 8 up-votes, and 1 down-vote, and 1 neutral, although a couple of people hadn’t actually been there and this is all skewed by me mentioning it in my email)
  • The Algarve (incl. Olhão) (3 votes)
  • Porto

France

Northern Europe

Holland

Belgium

Denmark

Sweden

Norway

  • Bergen (if you like smiley people)

Central Europe

Germany

Austria

Hungary

Poland

The -ia’s

Croatia

Russia

Bosnia

Bulgaria

Estonia

Serbia

Slovenia

Eastern Mediterranean

Greece

Cyprus

Turkey

English-speaking places, and Glasgow

Scotland

England

Ireland?

Closing thoughts

In summary, Italy and Spain got the most votes, followed by Germany and (to my surprise, at least) Croatia. Portugal and France didn’t do that badly either. Barcelona and Berlin win prizes for being most controversial cities. I’ve been to both but that makes me want to explore them more. Some places never really passed the inclusion criteria (e.g. Moscow is miles away and costs a bomb), but others sound like they might be pleasant discoveries (e.g. Tallinn).

So what am I going to do with this information? Well, I had to say yes to the (no longer) secret palace in the centre of Turin which is a set up as a club for writers, and I also said yes to a friend who invited me to join her on a trip to Barcelona for Easter. Apart from that, I’m now even more intrigued by Lisbon, I feel like I could spend a summer travelling through Spain, and I have a new list of Eastern European cities to check off. Plus that baby goat is really cute.

I also got some insight into why I was feeling so bad when I sent that email when I went on a walk with a friend the other day. There are the obvious global problems with London – Brexit means that the economy is tanking, and rising inequality means that creatives are getting priced out of the capital – but there’s also the personal issue that I was in a long-term relationship in my 20’s and am now single. We were both working towards goals, as a couple, actually achieved all of them, but they didn’t turn out the way we expected, of course, and now I’m reflecting that a large part of what makes a city liveable is hope. I need to hang around more young people.

Why I don’t drink

Cat whisky

You might have found this article because you met me at a party, made the mistake of asking me why I don’t drink, I told you to Google the question with my name if you wanted to know the answer, and you actually did what I said because you have that much time on your hands. If so, I can now tell you that you had something in your teeth but I didn’t say so at the time because it was the only thing about you that was vaguely interesting. You might remember that I made a convincing-sounding reason to get away – I was lying, I actually escaped to the bathroom so that I could watch red panda videos on my phone with the sound down.

The problem with your boring question, Why don’t you drink? is that it’s the wrong question. The right question would be for me to ask, Why do you drink?. After all, if I took cocaine and you didn’t, you’d probably feel that the onus would be on me to justify why I took the drug rather than on you to justify why you didn’t. Alcohol and cocaine are both drugs, it just so happens that alcohol is socially acceptable while cocaine isn’t, even though you’re much more likely to run over a toddler under the influence of alcohol than you are under the influence of cocaine. Social acceptability is a terrible guide to what’s a good idea and what isn’t: not that long ago slavery, racism, and women not having the vote were socially acceptable while homosexuality wasn’t. Drink that.

And then there’s this graph from The Economist:

Economist drugs graph

But fine, let me answer the question of why I’ve chosen the less socially common option, aside from giving the more general answer that I’m an adult who can think for myself. The best way I explain why I don’t drink is by invoking the concept of nootropics. Nootropics are drugs that enhance mental performance. They sound pretty amazing except that they invariably have terrible side effects, e.g. make you feel more mentally alert one day at the expense of you being able to get out of bed the next. But imagine if I said that there was a nootropic drug that gave you greater mental clarity, greater energy, boosted your mood, allowed you to live longer, had no side effects, and was free. To me, that nootropic is not drinking. It’s great, you should try it. I’ll even give you a free sample. DO IT.

Look, I used to drink, I love the taste of G&T’s, red wine, spirits, cocktails, etc. I get it. It’s just that, for me, the benefits of drinking aren’t worth the considerable costs. If you don’t think there are considerable costs to you drinking you probably haven’t tried not drinking. And once you’ve tried not drinking and realised what the costs are you should probably ask yourself why you do drink.

Okay, let’s finish by debunking 2 stupid arguments in favour of drinking that I hear a lot:

1) But drinking in moderation’s actually good for you. People who drink in moderation have lower stress levels.

a) Show me the data, and

b) even if it were true, drinking in moderation most of the time almost always leads to drinking in excess sometimes. A friend of mine put forward the moderation argument to me once, I gave that response, and she then rapidly segued into an anecdote about how she’d nearly died the previous week because she’d gotten into a drinking contest at work. And she’s in her 30’s, working for a blue chip company, charging thousands of pounds an hour, i.e. not demographically irresponsible. Although she is married to an Italian.

2) But antioxidants.

Yeah, but your mum. The antioxidant theory has been widely debunked. Yes, antioxidants in the body are a good thing, but eating something doesn’t guarantee more of it in the body. Digestion is not that simple. Eating fat doesn’t produce more fat in the body, whereas eating sugar does. (And if that’s news to you then you really don’t know anything about nutrition.) Plus, even if red wine (red wine only, people) did contain antioxidants that the body was somehow able to internalise, which it doesn’t, the costs of drinking red wine would still outweigh the benefits. One moment you’re getting a slight boost from consuming a few more antioxidants and the next you’re in hospital with renal failure, wishing you’d watched more red panda videos.

Any others? But alcohol helps me relax. You’re an alcoholic. But alcohol tastes good. So does your mum. But I’m an alcoholic. Okay, you win. Just put me in your will.

Chicken crossing the road

I had a reading of my show a few weeks ago, which is about a tailor who joins in the Prague Uprising of 1848, and one of the actors asked a devastating question:

Why does Jaroslav join the revolution? Why? He seems to have a comfortable life. Why not just stay at home?

It was devastating because I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, it fits the protagonist’s character that he joined in the revolution — he’s politically-conscious, impulsive, and lives in an unjust society — but that doesn’t quite explain why he’d risk life and limb to join a revolution when his own position in society is pretty comfortable.

It made me realise that I’d done a good job of being able to answer the clichéd actor’s question, What’s my motivation?, in that it was clear that the characters did what they did to get what they want, but that I obviously hadn’t done a good enough job of working out why the characters want what they want — what I’ll call the motivation behind the motivation.

I’d done a better job for some characters more than others. For instance, if I kept on asking Why? of Epstein’s motivation I could answer the question easily:

What does Epstein want?

To get paid.

Why?

Because he wants to pay off his debts.

Why?

Because he doesn’t want to go bust.

Why?

Because he wants to be able to support his family.

Why?

Because he loves them, and wants to provide them with security, which he never had growing up.

Why?

Because his parents emigrated from Russia.

Why?

Because of anti-Semitism.

The fact that I kept on being able to answer the Why? questions so easily for that character probably explains why I find him so easy to write.

And it might seem like overkill — surely I could have stopped at Because he wants to pay off his debts, because doesn’t everyone want to pay off their debts? But being able to answer the Why? questions to such depth is useful because it allowed me to put in a throwaway joke when Epstein’s getting out of a dress the protagonist made him wear (it’s a very silly play in many ways): I can’t believe my parents emigrated from Russia for this. It adds depth and tragedy to a comic moment, making it funnier and giving the feeling of the play existing in a complete universe rather than a hermetically-sealed box.

(Of course, just because I know the answers to these questions doesn’t mean that I have to put that information in the script. I just think it’s important for me to know the answers. If a character feels inferior because their parents were peasants whereas their girlfriend’s were middle class, it affects how they ask for a cup of tea.)

So for the latest redraft I’ve kept on asking Why? for every character in every scene, and already answering those questions is solving structural problems.

Keep on asking Why?.

Afternote

This has caused me to spot another parallel between playwriting and composing:

Sometimes people say to me, I think I’m really musical, I hear symphonies in my head, and they probably are musically-inclined, but I want to say, Really? How many different notes are in the 2nd chord? Can you hum the bass under the 3rd phrase?. These questions are hard to answer. A large part of the process of becoming a composer is training yourself to imagine in high-definition.

With each significant rewrite of my show I feel like I become a better writer, and part of that process is training myself to imagine in higher resolution. I can picture the farce in my head. Really? How would the protagonist persuade his girlfriend to get a cake? How would he phrase it? Why would she comply?

I’m a cat in a dog show

Bengal cat

I saw a newspaper headline today announcing that, for the first time in the competition’s history, a cat was going to compete in the Westminster Dog Show.

Now, I didn’t read the article because I really don’t care about the Westminster Dog Show, or any dog show, for that matter. I also don’t see the point in a cat competing in one. It’s a cat. A dog’s show’s a dog show. I don’t think I need to labour this point. The cat’s clearly going to lose. What appealed to me about the headline is that I’d finally found a good analogy for my experience of life.

I’m surrounded by dogs, jumping through hoops, in competition with each other for some prize that their owner’s going to get rather than them. Most of the dogs are going to lose, and all that the winner’s going to get is further enslavement. But at least dogs don’t have to think.

I’m not going to win the competition because I’m a cat and this is a dog show, and a cat can’t win a dog show because it’s not a dog. I’m not going to jump through the hoops because why bother? I didn’t ask to be in this fucking show anyway and I don’t like dog biscuits. My lack of cooperation is going to piss off both my deluded trainer and the idiot audience who gave up valuable time and money to watch this fiasco.

But there will be one or two people in the audience who are cat people, and for those people it really doesn’t matter what I do because I’m going to win in their eyes by virtue of being a cat, so all I have to do is be myself. Miaow.

Life with a cat

Tigris

Some time in the middle of the night.

Woken up by the sound of my cat crashing around the house.

A few minutes later.

Same.

A few minutes later.

Woken up by my cat miaowing loudly to announce that she’s dumped a dead animal by my bed. I kick her out of my room.

A few minutes later.

Woken up by the sound of bones crunching outside my door.

A few minutes later.

Woken up by the sound of my cat throwing up.

Time to get up.

I repeatedly hit the snooze button, knowing that when I step out of my room I’ll encounter the site of a massacre and a failed dinner party.

On why writers are nuts

writer

girlfriend: Hey, it’s Friday night! Let’s go out and catch up with some friends.

writer: No, I don’t want to talk to people, I want to make imaginary people talk to each other.

girlfriend: But the conversations with friends will be unpredictable and exciting, and you might learn something from them.

writer: No, I want to control all the conversations, and only learn about myself.

Go through the cat flap

My cat is currently standing outside next to a new cat flap that she hasn’t yet worked out she can open by herself. I wonder how often we don’t go through doors because we think we think that they’re locked.

Clockwork mouse

I could just let that title stand but I should probably elaborate.

There are many aspects to playwriting, of course, and this is just one of them, but it’s an important one, to do with character. It’s a rule I came up with when writing my first play, that I still find useful to follow:

You have a bunch of clockwork mice. You know how they all behave – maybe some go faster than others, maybe one of them veers to the left, maybe one goes round in circles – and you want them to collide in an interesting way. So you wind them up and put them on a table. YOU CANNOT TOUCH THE MICE ONCE THEY ARE ON THE TABLE.

And that is how playwriting works. You have a bunch of characters and you know how they’ll behave, because that’s what character is: a predisposition to behave in a certain way. You want them to collide in an interesting way in order to create drama, so you put them in a certain situation. The point is, once a bunch of characters are in a situation you have no control over what happens: the characters will just act the way they would in that situation. So if you don’t like the way a scene is playing out you can either change the characters (make one a little more assertive, or paranoid, or whatever) or change the situation (make one of them arrive earlier, put a bomb under the table, whatever). You cannot change the trajectory of a character once they are in a scene. That’s called acting out of character. And that is the Clockwork Mice Rule. You can always tell when a writer breaks the Clockwork Mice Rule because suddenly the scene feels implausible, even if the audience can’t work out why.

Don’t touch the mice once they’re on the table.

Art and money

Van Gogh iPhone

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, I’ve only ever sold one painting, therefore I’m as good as van Gogh.

Stupid logic, but it seems to be quite widespread. Hell, I haven’t even sold one painting so I must be even better than Van Gogh. It’s the dangerous Myth of the Starving Artist.

There are plenty of examples. Critics thought Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was the ravings of a lunatic. They thought Anna Karenina was just a load of words and Citizen Kane was bullshit. (Okay, I made those up. Beethoven’s 9th, Anna Karenina, and Citizen Kane actually all got rave reviews when they came out, in spite of our attraction to triumph-over-Philistines narratives.) This is the related Misunderstood Artist Fallacy:

Beethoven was misunderstood in his time, I’m misunderstood in my time, therefore I’m as good as Beethoven.

Except in this case the logical fallacy is taking place a step earlier, because the problem of most starving artists is not that they’re misunderstood in their time but that they’re actually only too well understood, as the mediocre egomaniacs that they are.

Because the truth is (trigger warning) that while capitalism is not a perfect system, money is still a pretty good indicator of value. And that is why – and this is the thing that I’ve never seen written before – good artists tend to make their money back. I’m not arguing for crass commercialism here, but I don’t need to appeal to crass commercialism to prove my point.

Take Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It took Beethoven a while to write it, and someone had to pay for his time while he did it. It took a lot of musicians to perform it and didn’t get many performances on its first run, so the whole escapade probably lost money. But Beethoven’s 9th Symphony made a shit ton of money after his death, in record sales, subsequent live performances, licensing rights, and sheet music sales.

Same with Schubert. He never made much money while he was alive (although he actually made more than people think), but his work generated a ton of revenue after his death. If only he hadn’t died at 33.

People who subscribe to the Myth of the Starving Artist or Misunderstood Artist Fallacy should instead ask themselves this:

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but one of his paintings sold for $100 million 100 years after his death. I’ve only sold one painting during my lifetime, but will one of my paintings sell for $100 million 100 years after my death?