Creatives in profile: interview with Katie Arnstein

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Katie Arnstein is an actor, writer and musician from the Midlands. Her two solo shows have both won Show of the Week at VAULT Festival, with her most recent show, Sexy Lamp winning The Pick of Pleasance Award.

Sexy Lamp is a show inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. In the era of the #MeToo movement, it is in many way a defining show of our times (and, as such, we – along with many others – have been raving about it in our reviews).

Ahead of a summer touring Sexy Lamp, which includes a run through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was a genuine pleasure to catch-up with Arnstein and talk about her show and everything else besides (including her constant fear of frogs).

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

ARNSTEIN

My name is Katie Arnstein, I am a 28 year old actor, writer and musician originally from the Midlands. I am the daughter of  two now-retired teachers, Jane and Tim, and I have two sisters, Grace and Lil. I’m a vegan but am fun in other ways.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest play, Sexy Lamp, you speak about how your love of acting can be traced back to watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Has acting always been your first love, and what have been some of the defining moments that have brought you on your journey so far?

ARNSTEIN

I am told that when I was very young I wanted to be a face painter but after seeing the Wizard of Oz I wanted to be Dorothy. I loved acting but didn’t know how to do it as a job until I met the careers advisor at school who said “You can train to be an actor, you know?” and I was like “AWESOME. How?”. I got in to a regional drama school and moved to London in 2012 to begin my glittering career*

*career decidedly not glittery.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from acting, what else are you particularly passionate about?

ARNSTEIN

Equal rights, large cups of tea and Bruce Springsteen.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ARNSTEIN

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jess Phillips, Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm, my sisters and my oldest friend Laura Higgs.

 INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists and actors today?

ARNSTEIN

How hard it is financially. How hard it is getting your foot in the door. The lack of diversity within the arts.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your journey in putting together your show, Sexy Lamp? Why do you feel it’s been important to put this show on now, and could you have put it on to the same effect when you first arrived in London, in 2012?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp is the second solo show I have written. It follows Bicycles and Fish, which I have been touring on and off since 2017. I wrote Sexy Lamp in December, 2018 up until the day of the first show on the 6th of February 2019. I had surgery at the start of December so spent the month sitting down and trying to write. I wrote the opening song and a number of real life accounts of my experiences and then tried to piece them together. It was like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle.

There is absolutely no way I could have put the show on in 2012, I didn’t believe I could write until 2016. In 2012 I was waiting for the call from the National Theatre or Spielberg. Reader, that call never came.

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

INTERVIEWER

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a move within the acting industry towards putting strong, female characters front and centre of stories – think Thelma and Louise, or Alien, for instance. So it’s not unsurprising when many people voice incredulity, really, that we still haven’t moved on much from then, in many ways – and there are still far too many films and theatre productions that don’t pass either the Bechtel Test or the Sexy Lamp test. Why is that, do you think? And what can be done about it?

ARNSTEIN

We need more female voices in every area of the industry; but particularly when it comes to making the decisions of what gets made. We also need to vote with our time and money. We need to seek out and support female and non-binary work. It has been a boys club for the whole time. Thelma and Louise and Alien are exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to films. I hope to see a change and have every film or show pass these incredibly simple tests addressing gender balance.

INTERVIEWER

Writers often speak of having certain habits or processes they follow strictly when writing their first, second and subsequent drafts. Are there any strict rules or rituals you stick to when crafting your shows?

ARNSTEIN

I try and do youtube Yoga with Adriene in the morning. I always start the day with a big cup of tea and breakfast. When the show is coming up I sleep with the script under my pillow and I always have a notebook and pen with me. My friend Dan Goldman will hear the script throughout its many drafts and note it for me. Also, for Sexy Lamp, the wonderful Ellen Havard directed and was key in creating the show as it is now. I always buy a Big Issue on the day of the show. My process also includes huge panic and crying. I am trying to work on this…

INTERVIEWER

Your shows blend performance and almost memoir-like driven narrative with music and song. How do you see the relationship between the various different artistic aspects of your show? Do you prefer writing song lyrics to a script, or vice versa?

ARNSTEIN

I began writing songs when I was 21 and only thought about writing dialog when I entered a scratch night at Redbridge drama centre at the end of 2016. It takes me a while to get a song I like the sound of; but once I get there I can write a song in about an hour, it is just a bit hit and miss until then. The script took longer but I am trying to keep practicing.

INTERVIEWER

Why the ukulele, and what are your biggest musical influences?

ARNSTEIN

My Dad bought me my use for my 21st birthday. I was leaving drama school and wanted to start writing songs and can’t play the piano well enough so the ukulele was a brilliant gift. It’s portable and easy to get started on.

Influences wise, I have my dad’s taste in music. I am particularly interested in great lyricists, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, etc. The Kinks are a very important band to me as they make the everyday appear magic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write or act?

ARNSTEIN

I imagine I’m talking to friends which might sound cringe but I hope not. I try to write in a conversational, accessible and gentle way. I want it to feel like you have sat down with a pal you haven’t seen in a while and you’re just catching up. I also try a write a couple of jokes that my parents will like and a couple that my friends will like, then build it up from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as an actor and writer?

ARNSTEIN

I feel I have a responsibility to be truthful and raise awareness of issues surrounding sexism and the everyday struggles that women are faced with. I hope I contribute to the conversation.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, is the sexiest type of lamp or lighting?

ARNSTEIN

Since showing Sexy Lamp at VAULT festival I have had many images of sexy lamps and lighting sent to me. It is an unexpected perk and it has OPENED MY EYES I can tell you.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your creative projects?

ARNSTEIN

I have a few more shows of Sexy Lamp and my first show Bicycles and Fish before taking Sexy Lamp to the Pleasance this summer for the Edinburgh Festival. I will start writing a third show I think, although every time I begin it is such a scary feeling I am putting it off. I am also looking to collaborate with other people and theatre companies to keep learning and developing.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring writers and actors?

ARNSTEIN

  1. Write a to do list everyday with clear achievable goals.
  2. Be brave.
  3. Believe you can do it.
  4. Get a small and brilliant team around you to help you.
  5. Keep a notebook with you at all times.
  6. Find your individuality and that will be your strength.
  7. See as much as you can.
  8. Be kind. (It is not necessary but it helps)

Quick fire round!

 INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ARNSTEIN

I have just had my mind blown by Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both by Sally Rooney.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARNSTEIN

I suppose critically acclaimed? But then I’ve seen The Room about 20 times.. so I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

I have followed a woman called Karima Francis for over 13 years and I think she is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

 I think R Kelly is still being played and we need to shut that right down.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ARNSTEIN

Anna Seward, she was a writer, poet, botanist and feminist from my home town of Lichfield and even though we have many statues of men there is nothing that celebrates her.

INTERVIEWER

If the acting industry didn’t exist – what would you do?

ARNSTEIN

I would like to enter pub quizzes for money and see if it could sustain me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARNSTEIN

Me and my brilliant pal Simon just did American Boy at karaoke and it was wicked. I don’t know if that counts.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ARNSTEIN

When I was at primary school I had my dress tucked into my pants when I was taking the register out to the office and my teacher got the whole class to tell me in unison. It was a harsh move from them.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp won the Pleasance Pick of Vault Festival and that is remarkable. I am proud of my sisters, Grace and Lil everyday.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ARNSTEIN

Don’t worry so much, please. AND DON’T WEAR STILETTOS FOR SCHOOL WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARNSTEIN

She dreamt it then did it.

Check out Sexy Lamp for yourselves

Follow Katie Arnstein on Twitter @KatieArnstein and on Instagram (also @KatieArnstein). Ahead of her run at the Pleasance Baby Grand Theatre in Edinburgh for the whole of the Fringe Festival, you can catch her at one of her upcoming shows (information on which is available through Arnstein’s website).

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Books for the future: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang donates manuscript to the ‘Future Library’ project

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The Nordmanka forest, outside Oslo, where the trees of the Future Library are growing. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

In a forest just outside Oslo, one thousand trees have been planted to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

This is part of the ground-breaking Future Library project – and each year, everyone is welcome to join in and participate in a handover ceremony with that year’s author.

The Man Booker International prize winning South Korean novelist Han Kang is the author contributing a manuscript for the Future Library project in 2019. She will hand over her writing on Saturday, 25th May in an intimate ceremony within the Nordmarka Forest, Oslo. Visitors can join Han Kang walking through the trees to a clearing filled with one thousand four-year-old spruce saplings: the Future Library forest.

Future Library is a public artwork by Scottish artist Katie Paterson that will unfold over a century in the city of Oslo, Norway. Han Kang is the fifth writer to participate in Future Library. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood was the first author to contribute, followed by British novelist David Mitchell, Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón, and Turkish author Elif Shafak.

An unknown future

Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hope of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Following the forest ceremony, Han Kang will give a public talk at the Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Speaking ahead of the ceremony, Kang said:

“I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Ultimately Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

No more “fast food thinking”

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

“Gripping and thoughtful”, new UK movie, ‘Sink’ set for DVD release

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Sink “gives a vibrant voice to protagonists who have otherwise lost their language and their power” (read our review of Sink here on Nothing in the Rulebook). 

Sink, the debut feature-length film from writer, director and actor Mark Gillis will be released on May 27th, following a cinema run that drew critical acclaim from The Guardian, The Independent, Empire and (of course) Nothing in the Rulebook, among others.

The movie tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Battling the disruption and instability of working Zero Hours contracts, Micky is ultimately driven to do something completely out of character to try and keep his family together. What thereafter follows, thanks in no small part to the incredible performances of the cast, particularly Martin Herdman in the lead role, is a gripping and thoughtful story that stays with you long after the credits roll – providing a stirring critique of the world we live in.

Having been compared by reviewers with the Oscar-winning film I, Daniel Blake, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a political aspect to this film. Indeed, in a a recent original, in-depth interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, director Gillis said:

“There is a political angle and that kicked off my wanting to tell the story. I live in the area where the film is set and there are pockets of people leading very challenged lives. There are also the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, looming up seemingly at the end of the road.  So you have people whose lives have been changed beyond recognition living in the shadow of the institutions directly responsible. They committed crimes on an industrial scale, yet nobody has been prosecuted. It made me question where we are with that; if people who benefitted so hugely from the system can do that with impunity, can we condemn somebody for doing whatever’s necessary to stay afloat?”

Having shown at film festivals across the UK, as well as in New York, the DVD release of Sink has been hotly anticipated.

To whet your appetites even further, check out the trailer below:

Book review: ‘Built on Sand’, by Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton’s Built on Sand is described on its own cover as a novel, but those looking for a clear protagonist and a consistent story will be disappointed. They are the only ones, however. The book is challenging and demands concentration from readers, but is written beautifully; no barriers crop up as a result of the language. Though I found the fragmented stories unsettling at first, unsure which characters would appear again later, a few chapters in I felt confident in Scraton’s hands. I didn’t need to know what would be relevant later because I believed Scraton did. To me, the book read not like a novel but a mosaic of fictional stories, memory and memoir, arranged together to create something impressive when you take a step back.

To say the stories are ‘set’ in Berlin downplays the presence of the city in the book. Scraton’s narrator is unnamed, the domestic dramas reduced to background noise. What would usually be the backdrop or context of a novel is brought forward as the focus of the book. We hear about forests, lakes and S-Bahn stations as main events. The narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend, the death of his flatmate, his friendships with other Berliners emerge throughout the book, but always within the context of something else – a trip to a lake, a village, a protest march. This could have been a mistake and made the book very dry, where it not for the fact that the backdrop is so incredibly interesting.

The detail in the stories does not read like research but knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. Scraton has built his life in Berlin and now even gives guided tours of the city. This experience seems to have informed his writing, as he dispenses information with confidence and then walks on. He tackles the big subjects – the historical persecution of Jews, the rise of the Nazis, the trains to the death camps, the invasion of the Red Army, the massacres, the unrest, the Wall – but embeds them within the context of everyday life, a city still moving.

Take the character of Annika, for example. A mapmaker, she attempts to trace the steps of Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-century Jewish philosopher, who first arrived in the city through the Rosenthal Gate, the only entrance Jews (and cattle) were permitted to use. The Gate is no longer standing, so Annika has to guess where she thinks it would be. Her imaginary Gate stands not far from her own apartment and the cemetery where Mendelssohn was eventually buried. Later, next to the burial site, the Gestapo turned an old people’s home into a collection point for the Jews of the neighbourhood. They were then transported to Grunewald station, loaded onto cattle trucks and deported to extermination camps. ‘Having removed the living, the Gestapo returned with the dead,’ Scraton writes. The burial ground where Mendelssohn was laid to rest became a mass grave for three thousand murdered Jews and three thousand victims of bombing raids. All a short walk from Annika’s apartment where, years later, she makes her maps.

It’s heavy stuff, which is possibly why Scraton has written the novel in fragments. Stories about genocide and murder are interspersed with stories of old friends, of secret bowling alleys in pubs, of art and life. One particular section has an almost Brothers Grimm feeling, as we return to mapmaker Annika, who has moved to the forest with her family and becomes entranced by a mysterious neighbour. Scraton seems to say all these stories are ‘true’, even the fictional ones, and that they coexist, occupying the same space, the same city, built on shifting sand.

This tension reverberates throughout the book. The narrator describes a father trying to explain the significance of the holocaust to his young daughter at the Platform 17 memorial, ‘But we were struggling to comprehend it ourselves.’ After visiting the memorial, the narrator and his girlfriend go swimming. Scraton writes:

‘Despite starting the morning at Platform 17 and all the stories that lingered there beside the rusting railway tracks, this moment that came after, on the lake and in the sunshine, feeling K’s body against mine as we sat there, was to be one of my happiest Berlin memories’.

It is uncomfortable and jarring, but true. Moving on isn’t a choice, a decision made by a committee; Scraton implies it is inevitable, that new lives are built on top of memory, not by denying their existence.

The book is about people(s) and crowds, rather than individuals and it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who, which backstory relates to which person. There is very little physical description, not much to help make connections. This said, there are still some good character moments. Towards the end of the book, we meet museum guide Frau Grautoff. Despite the sombre nature of the exhibition, she’s perky and enthusiastic, keeps telling the narrator that, regardless of whether they’re maps, cranes, birds or exhibits, she could ‘look at them for hours.’ There’s a painful argument between Annika and her partner, with him trying to provoke her into an emotional response and her disappointing him repeatedly. It’s a book about collectives, migration, armies and populations, but there are moments when Scraton swoops down and picks out something personal. It’s effective and moving, but for some readers, might not be enough.

Closure is not an option here. We get hints of domestic unrest from the narrator, but not enough to get a sense of resolution from the ending. However, the book is all about shifting sands. Closure demands a moment of stasis, a moment to get your bearings, for calm reflection. Berlin is constantly moving and in Built on Sand, the reader works to keep up.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

“Groundbreaking” app to predict whether a book can be crowdfunded successfully

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Award-winning publishing company Unbound has launched a “groundbreaking” app to predict crowdfunding revenue as well as the length of time required to fund a project.

Unbound, who have carved out a space in the literary market for bringing together traditional publishing and crowdfunding, have already successfully brought over 300 books to market. The company now hopes the new app, developed by their own head of data science and astrophysics, Dr Noelia Jiménez Martínez, will help improve their commissioning decisions and increase profitability.

Having recently launched their own Crowdcube campaign to help expand the publishing house, the new app could play a key role in attracting new investors.

The app uses data from more than 200,000 pledge transactions on its platform, as well as authors’ online engagement, to predict revenues. It is now being used by the company’s commissioning team, with 80% accuracy.

Unbound books

Already featured among Nothing in the Rulebook’s list of fabulous independent and alternative book publishers, Unbound has been making waves ever since it first emerged onto the literary scene.

Based out of a converted warehouse in London, the expert team behind the company have over 300 years of expertise in publishing and connecting people around creative projects.

They’ve got a wonderful catalogue of books they’ve already published (including ones shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize). But of course, the real thrust of Unbound comes from discovering new authors and ideas, and liberating (read: crowdfunding) them.

There are some exceptional projects currently out there – all of which are worthy of support. To give you a flavour of the variety of excellent books on offer, we’ve compiled a short list:

  • The ‘Advanced Rhyming Dictionary‘, from Adam ‘Shuffle T’ Woollard – a revolutionary rhyming dictionary and workbook for multisyllabic rhymes.
  • Keeping On’, by James Kennedy – part memoir, part exposé of the music world’s murky underbelly and part collection of life lessons gained from many years of ‘trying’ but ultimately having to learn to live with defeat.
  • Crow Court‘ by Andy Charman – a novel of short stories set in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, in the 19th century.
  • Blackwatertown‘ by Paul Waters – think LA Confidential meets The Guard set in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the troubles.
  • Never So Perfect‘ by Sobia Quazi – a domestic noir, psychological thriller set in London amongst an elite set of British Asian society.

There are also books about Brexit, deepwater diving, and illustrated satirical books about dogs (of the philosophical variety).

So, what are you waiting for? Go get funding them, eh!

Theatre review: ‘Sexy Lamp’, by Katie Arnstein

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

Funny, conversational, moving and devastatingly honest, ‘Sexy Lamp’ is the new story and performance from Katie Arnstein, who previously won awards for her debut show Bicycles and Fish.

The show starts as arguably too few shows do, with the solo performer Arnstein wearing a lampshade on her head, listening to Seth McFarlane’s sexist song ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ (which McFarlane performed at the 2013 Oscars). This is a nod to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, from which the show takes its name, and which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test.

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Katie Arnstein delivers a 5-star performance in a 5-star show. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

Complete with charming, informal conversation, pitch-perfect impressions, and (very good) ukulele songs, Arnstein delivers a show that is thoroughly inspired by – and part of – the ongoing #MeToo movement. ‘Sexy Lamp’ charts her journey from a seven-year-old inspired by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, to a woman inspired by a desire to put right the fact that Garland was put on addictive, appetite suppressing drugs by Oz’s producers, while being paid less than all the other principal actors except Toto the Dog.

The writing is sharp and fresh, and the work as a whole is inquisitive, analytical, contemplative; significant. It’s also deeply personal, giving it the sense of a performative memoir and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Indeed, in her personal account of her story working in the industry she clearly loves, Arnstein presents us with scenes and experiences that far too many women will be able to recognise as having seen or experienced themselves.

This isn’t ever about sharing sympathy (despite the abundance of empathy on display here). Rather, this play is in many ways a rebellion against what has come before and a rallying cry against the old, sexist, world-order. There are revelations against certain companies that will make your jaw drop (not least because of the matter-of-fact tone of delivery that juxtaposes the enormity of the content you’re hearing). There are lessons to be learned in standing up against your useless agent who never gets you a gig, and the empowerment that comes from realising you are able to use the word “no”. Perhaps most poignantly, there is a beautiful example of the power of solidarity that exists between people as the show reaches its conclusion – that provides a case study in how to stop perverts and harassers in their tracks, and lifts the whole scale of the performance to an extremely moving end.

You might have come for the lamps; but you’ll stay for the luminescence of the performance, and you’ll come away enlightened.

Creatives in profile: interview with Mark Gillis

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Mark Gillis has been combining writing, performing and directing since his university days (where he studied Biochemistry). As an actor, he has worked extensively in the theatre, most recently playing Agrippa in Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington (Chichester). As a member of the RSC he performed in As You Like It, Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida during seasons at Stratford and The Barbican. He played Mark in the Irish premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and F***ing. He co-founded and was artistic director of the touring production company LPC, with whom he produced and directed several European tours of modern classic plays such as Waiting for Godot, The Caretaker, The Importance of Being Ernest and GB Shaw’s The White Lady. And he has appeared in several television and film roles including: Silent Witness, The Bill, Emmerdale, Grange Hill, Eastenders, Holby, The Brittas Empire, Absolute Hell, Prick, Jean Moulin, Either/Or, Going Home and An Ideal Husband. Most recently he plays Mr. Hogg Diggins in the Channel 4 comedy Lee & Dean.

There’s a lot of creative stuff to talk about here, but we’re here today to talk primarily about his debut movie, Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Produced by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (who says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it), Sink has received glowing reviews (including one from us, of course), following its screenings at cinemas across the UK.

But what does it take to produce a movie independently, particularly in a current climate that so clearly favours the established corporate behemoths over individual creatives? It was a pleasure to catch up with Gillis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

GILLIS

I live in Brockley, South East London (the film was shot here and in nearby New Cross/Deptford). I’m an actor who has been writing seriously for about 10 years. I have also directed in the theatre and have made short films. Sink is my first feature as writer/director.

INTERVIEWER

Is film making your first love, or do you have another passion?

GILLIS

I suppose most of my work has been as an actor in the theatre so that would be an equal passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

GILLIS

Donald Glover

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through how the process of taking your debut movie, Sink, from spec-script to fully-fledged film reality?

GILLIS

It was never really a spec-script in that sense. I’d had the typical experience of scripts being developed (unpaid) and getting very close to being made, then failing because the money didn’t match the cast (in both directions). When I was writing Sink, I realised we could make it very cheaply; I knew exactly who I wanted to cast (I’ve worked as an actor with all of them), I knew who’s flat we could borrow, etc., etc.. So I decided we’d just go ahead and make it ourselves. We did a crowd-funder and various small investors came in. We made it for £35K, which is nothing for a feature; BUT that was only possible with EVERYONE working for deferred fees and profit share. Everybody on the film from investor to runner was party to the same financial framework.

Of course, it’s all very well making your film, but at the end of the process you’re back at the brick wall; the first thing distributors ask is “who’s your lead actor.” Without a star name the vast majority won’t watch the film. So it’s very tough. We got lucky – a well known producer saw the film and badgered her distributor to watch it. They picked us up for a limited theatrical release which meant we could get Press reviews (virtually impossible if you haven’t got a distributor who is part of the Film Distributors Association who run the week of release screenings). So although all films are a collaborative process, this one REALLY was, in effect everyone working on the film was an investor in it, literally; they will only get paid once the film shows a profit. That’s a very humbling fact for me.

INTERVIEWER

In Sink, we follow the lives of those who have been dispossessed by the processes of modern capitalism. There’s a clear political angle to the film; yet for all that, it’s also intensely human, and character-driven. As a screenwriter and director, how do you tread the line between potentially competing focuses; the political and the human?

GILLIS

There is a political angle and that kicked off my wanting to tell the story. I live in the area where the film is set and there are pockets of people leading very challenged lives. There are also the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, looming up seemingly at the end of the road.  So you have people whose lives have been changed beyond recognition living in the shadow of the institutions directly responsible. They committed crimes on an industrial scale, yet nobody has been prosecuted. It made me question where we are with that; if people who benefitted so hugely from the system can do that with impunity, can we condemn somebody for doing whatever’s necessary to stay afloat? It also made me angry enough to want to write something! But if that’s all there is, there’s no point writing a screenplay. Write an essay or an article. There has to be a story and for that there must be characters.

At the start I was intrigued by these three generations of men; Micky, his father and his son.  Principally it was the way the relationship to work had changed over those three generations; Micky was once a skilled worker who can now find only menial, zero hours jobs; his father has only ever known skilled manual work and his son has never really had a relationship to work. That’s a massive change in working class men’s lives and a theme I was eager to explore. Then it’s a question of whittling away until you find the core story and that was Micky’s.

If scenes are trying to force in a particular political idea, they will immediately stick out (and ultimately be cut out during the edit). Every scene must move the story forward in some way, while planting enough of the politics that the guiding themes are catered for.

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Three generations of men: Micky (left, played by Martin Herdman, leads his father and son through their local neighbourhood)

INTERVIEWER

What is your personal take on the current political climate, and how does it affect the stories we tell?

GILLIS

I really hope we are not in as bad a state as I think we might be in. I think the current ease with which the fundamental structures of democracy are being dismantled is terrifying. I am trying to have some sense of hope but the precedents for these early warning signs are so clear, I feel we’re sleepwalking into autocracy. It seems all the requirements are in place. If we don’t want that to happen, I guess it’s down to us to speak up.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel the characters in Sink would react to the unfurling narrative around the Brexit process?

GILLIS

It’s so weird for me, because Sink was written and shot before the referendum was even tabled. SO much has changed. I’m a remainer.  I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to decide whether to make Micky a leaver or not. I’m still not sure how he would have voted. It would have been up to me to decide whether I make the character I created reach the decision I want him to, or whether I would be entirely true to what HE would have done. And I’m still not sure which way round that would have been. I do know that an awful lot of people who have felt entirely left behind after 30 odd years of neo-liberalism voted Brexit. Perhaps Micky was one of them. But that makes me a bit upset.

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A Brexit voter? Sink was written and shot before the EU referendum in the UK, so we’ll perhaps never know which way Micky would have voted.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in film making, what are your thoughts and feelings on the movie industry. And how would you advise aspiring film makers to break out onto the scene?

GILLIS

Obviously we live in the age of the huge franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, some of them are great movies. What we might be losing is the middle ground; it’s either massive budgets that only the studios can bring together, or the tiny (in film terms) budgets that are somehow drawn together by financial jiggery pokery based around tax credits. Or people making films themselves on no budgets. It seems to me this isn’t a sustainable business model.

Outside the public funding bodies (and even with their involvement) each film has to start afresh to raise its finance. Add to that the current surge in high end TV which has lead to crew shortages and therefore higher rates, it’s difficult to see where the film industry can be heading. And yet, films still get made. I don’t know an answer. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

As to what advice to give, I think the most important thing is spending time getting the script right. However you get the film together, it will be the script that brings people on board or makes them pass. It’s getting the right people in to the project that will get the film made. It all starts and ends with the script.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a film maker?

GILLIS

I think there is an ethical responsibility not to create work that simply reinforces a negative. By the same token (in an equal and opposite way) there is an ethical responsibility to create work that examines the negative – that pulls it apart and provides a new viewpoint on it.

But it’s not for the film maker to dictate how that work must be received. There has to be room for the “wrong” view to be taken – otherwise you haven’t created something truthful.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of screenwriting, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

GILLIS

What happens next.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write and direct?

GILLIS

I really try not to.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

GILLIS

The focussing and entrapment of energy

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘director’ mean to you?

GILLIS

Depends which director you’re talking about.

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. What role do you think movies have to play in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

GILLIS

It’s strange isn’t it, that we head more and more towards finding truth in stories; in made up events. And yet, that is where truth is found. I’m very interested in the effect that Reality TV has had on our psychology. Even the title is a lie. It isn’t reality, everybody knows what they’re doing because there’s a camera there and they know they can watch it later. So we’ve spent 20 odd years saying that a fabricated reality is the truth. It’s kind of delicious (if it wasn’t so disgusting) that a “star” of the genre becomes the most powerful man in the world. Trump has spent his life lying – his whole ego is based on a lie that he was responsible for creating the financial success he’s had (multi-million dollar bankruptcies notwithstanding), instead of being gifted it on birth.

Can movies be a bulwark against lies? Absolutely. They can tell the truth because they are set free from the constraints of the market place (hang on, weren’t we just saying that the film industry can’t work because it’s not a sustainable business model?). They can show what humanity can be at a time when real life is coughing up its dregs. There’s an enormous role for movies (for ALL storytelling), I think now more than at any point in my lifetime.  Stories could pull us back from the brink. Will anyone listen though?

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

GILLIS

I have two other screenplays, one about a man discovering how his own acceptance of being gay has been affected by events from a previous generation and a story about a charity that goes rogue to be able to carry out its real work. I’m also working on a couple of TV ideas because that’s all anyone wants to hear about.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

GILLIS

He made his own way back.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for screenwriters?

GILLIS

I know it’s a hoary old cliché but just keep writing. And then keep re-writing. Find readers you trust, listen to them and be willing to really start again if necessary. There are all sorts of gut wrenching machinations that come from giving up what you’ve sweated blood over. But sometimes it can be an amazing release.

  • Watch the trailer for Sink here below: 

The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

Will Eaves’s novel ‘Murmur’ – inspired by real-life tragedy of Alan Turing – wins £30,000 literature prize

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The novelist and poet Will Eaves has won the 2019 Wellcome book prize for his fictionalised take on the chemical castration of mathematician Alan Turing.

‘Murmur’ (read our review here), published by CB Editions, was hailed as “a future classic” by judges of the £30,000 prize. It is Eaves’s fifth novel and the third published by the independent printing press run by Charles Boyle. The book has been picking up critical acclaim since it was published – winning the Republic of Consciousness award earlier in 2019 and being shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize and James Tait and Folio awards.

Taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.

Formally audacious, daring in its intellectual inquiry and unwaveringly humane, Will Eaves’s new novel is a rare achievement that explores everything from love, society, mathematics, memory and consciousness itself.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Eaves said of his novel:

“I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.”

The judges of the Wellcome Prize, awarded to pieces of exceptional scientific writing, were left stunned by the impact of the novel. The judges called it an “extraordinary contemplation of consciousness” and “a feverish meditation on love, state-sanctioned homophobia and knowledge, alongside an exploration of sexuality, identity and artificial intelligence”.

Chair of judges, the novelist Elif Shafak, called Murmur “hugely impressive”, adding that it “will grip you in the very first pages, break your heart halfway through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings, and their endless capacity for resilience”.

“Every sentence, each character … is well-thought, beautifully written and yet there is a quiet modesty all the way through that is impossible not to admire,” said Shafak. “Whether he intended this or not, Will Eaves has given us a future classic and for this, we are grateful to him.”

Given the subject matter, the skill of the writer and the breadth of the novel’s scope, it is perhaps no surprise that Murmur is already being hailed as a groundbreaking piece of fiction that will influence readers for years to come. As Nothing in the Rulebook‘s own Professor Wu noted: “Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into an incredible world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence, written all the while with skill, care, and attention. What’s not to love?”