Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Three things that I made when not writing about theatre

This first one isn't really something I've made, at least not in the most literal interpretation of the words. It's a poem by Harry Giles, and he wrote it for me in return for me starting to give him money viaPatreon. I'd been meaning to do so since he emailed me about this “scary money experiment thing” in February 2015: I love him, despite having very little contact with him, and think he's all good things in the world, so of course I want to support him. And yet, it wasn't until January 2016 that I actually made that support financial. I still feel weird that there is now this financial element to our relationship.

At the time, Harry wrote an excellent post laying out his own arguments for and against asking for patronage, which I found really helpful. Like him, I worry that “it’s so clearly all a part of the neoliberalisation of arts funding: the expectation that artists have to become solo entrepreneurs” – and, the correlative of that, the expectation that art is something to be funded by its consumers, and not in common, as a basic provision of healthy civil society. More positively, like him, “I like making it clear that art is not something that just happens, is not something that other people decide to make happen, but rather something that we all have a stake in making happen, and in making happen in more radical ways.”

In an email, I admitted to him that the relationship between giving on Patreon and giving to registered charities confuses me. In a nutshell: “if I give £5 a month to Shelter and that's to help ALL the homeless people in the UK then to give £2 or even £1 a month to a single person so they can make art kind of doesn't add up; but then, I can spend twice as much on a single ticket to go to the theatre as I do on a monthly donation to Unicef which is supposed to be helping ALL the children living in poverty and plight around the world, and I could just as effectively give that ticket money to you in £2 per month donations”. In the event, that's pretty much what I decided to do.

The thing that makes me most uncomfortable with Patreon is exclusivity: the idea that, because I have some funds at my disposal, I can get stuff that other people don't get. That's how capitalism divides people and I want to resist it. But Harry's gift to all new patrons is to write them a poem, on a subject of their choosing. I decided that I was only happy for this to happen if it could be a poem that we made publicly accessible, and he agreed, in an email that also contained a gentle reminder that maybe the key problem of capitalism isn't commerce but exploitation. The word that was stuck in my head at the time was “longing” (it quite often is, to be honest), and this is what it inspired Harry to write. I like to think that his poem reflects the many conversations we've had together about class, and capitalism, and togetherness, and making; that, although it isn't something I've made, it has a specificity rooted in our relationship that means I have, in some way, made it happen – and not just by giving money.


by Harry Giles

There was a world where tokens were exchanged
for food, and when a token met your hand
a spur extended blandly into your palm
to take a sip of blood. This payment kept
the tokens bright enough to check your hair in,
cool enough to glide from purse to purse.

And in this world there were two friends who made
assemblages of wood and steel: stairways,
sunshades, simple things to see through, things
to pause on, things to touch. They worked apart,
and then from time to time they met to look
and say, "This works", and say, "This doesn't work."

One day one friend came with a gift, a question.
They bought some time discussing techniques, and then
they said, "I heard your purse was light. I saw
your building shed was empty and your tools
were sore for oil." And they held out their hand
with sixteen hungry tokens free to take.

Now, both these friends were just the kind of folk
to argue far too hard about the way
things are on other worlds, or could be, or were,
and how to cross between them without snapping
painful laws of space and time. At times,
they held that wood and steel could build a bridge

to where a body could eat without blood.
And so they laughed as they watched the sixteen tokens
pass from palm to palm and felt the prick
and wiped the reddish smears on the handkerchiefs
that all folk carry tucked in their back pocket,
the depth of the dye declaring the force of the flag.


This second one started as a whim but became an act of love. At Devoted and Disgruntled in January, a tall man with sandy hair wearing a checked shirt voiced a request for “someone with sewing skills to help a 6'5” drag queen”. I tweeted in response that I might be about to find my calling, and a couple of hours later I was fixing a date with Robert Beck, aka the Marvellous Miss Mimi Martini, to talk frock-making. Our first meeting was spent sharing images: Rob emailed me a few pictures that had given him some tentative notions (floatiness, a big split up the front for showing off shapely legs); we scanned google for drag queens and Adrian of Hollywood dresses, and flicked through my Schiaparelli paper-dolls book (pause to sigh with pleasure that such a thing exists in the world). By the end we had a few sketches, a vague idea to make a dress with a ribbon of chiffon around it like the pink line twisting through a stick of rock, and a plan to go fabric shopping.

Fabric shopping changed everything. To be honest, it was so exciting that after an hour I had a violent adrenaline crash. Luckily we'd already found Rob's dream fabrics: a hot-pink satin and a chiffon dyed fuchsia at one end and electric blue at the other. To show off that colour shift, we switched patterns to something more like a Greek gown (showing my roots, dears) with chiffon floating around the skirt and rippling over the bust before swooping off the shoulders. It took two fittings to get the pattern right, and a third for tweaks with the actual fabric; there are all sorts of things about it that I wish I'd done better, or differently, or more professionally, but at the same time I recognise that it's one of the most ambitious things I've ever made, and not too bad for it. Here it is on my dressmaker's doll: her figure isn't quite as buxom as Mimi's, but you get the general idea. 


I rarely sew for anyone other than myself, and doing so was just delightful. As in, I genuinely got teary when Mimi's frock started to come together: the magic of sewing never ceases to amaze me. I already have heaps of ideas for other things I'd like to make for her: things I'd never dream of wearing myself, but would love to construct, to bring into being. And I would so love to do this for more people. So if there are any other drag queens out there looking for someone with sewing skills...


This third one I made in the way I make most cakes or puddingy things: somewhat haphazardly, from scratch and imagination and vaguely retained memories of endless reading of recipes. It was for my lovely friends Andrew and Marta, who were coming to my house for dinner before flying off to Poland. I had bought tickets for the double bill at the Yard that night, and so prepared a meal then left my husband to serve it, thinking they were only going away for a couple of weeks on holiday. I found out on my return, at 11.30pm, with everyone heading for bed, that they were leaving at 8am and planned to stay in Poland for several months. Indefinitely even.

I've been feeling a lot lately that I have my priorities all skewed. Going to the theatre as much as I do means I'm almost never home to give my kids a bath, read to them at bedtime, tuck them in with a goodnight kiss. It means that I rarely have proper conversations with my friends, rarely even see them, because I put seeing theatre first. Sometimes that theatre is nourishing, joyful, inspiring; it makes me feel like I'm levitating, like my brain has expanded, that I want to write and write like it's the only thing that matters. Sometimes that theatre is Ophelias Zimmer: technically impressive but gruelling, draining, an act of intellectual violence. Either way, the strongest relationship I have at the moment isn't with a human being, it's with the collective human act of theatre. And I don't know if that's right.

The shows I was seeing at the Yard that night were by people I know and admire and enjoy chatting with; people I would love to call friends, were our encounters less transient, or insecure. It felt important to see their work, to support them in some way, knowing that for each of them it was a leap and a challenge to make this performance. But I feel sad that I sacrificed this other night of friendship for it. I feel sad that so many of the choices I make in life feel like the wrong choice. I'm writing this tonight, having been meaning to write it for three weeks now – I finished Mimi's dress on 7 May, and Harry sent me the poem on 10 May – because at 9.01pm this evening I made the decision not to watch Hannah Nicklin's Equations for aMoving Body at CPT but to come home and work. I've felt a twist of nausea ever since: guilt at not being there for Hannah, not supporting her. She is another person I admire and enjoy chatting with and would love to call a friend; this was my only chance to see the show; the audience was small; it would have been a kindness to stay. I've made the wrong call again, but in the other direction. Sometimes it feels as though the thing I make most productively in my life is worry.

Anyway: Andrew and Marta emailed me from Poland to ask for the recipe for that dessert, and as it came out quite well I thought I'd post it. Apologies to Nigel Slater if it turns out to be one of your recipes that I've unconsciously memorised and am now claiming as my own.

Pistachio and chocolate tart

Stupidly I didn't write down what I did at the time, but I'm pretty sure this was it: first I ground 150g shelled pistachios with 50g caster sugar in a blender, adding some dried orange peel towards the end (in season, I'd use peel grated from a fresh unwaxed orange I think). Pretty sure I picked up the blending nuts with sugar trick from Nigella: it helps to soak up the oil that comes out as they're ground. I then melted 40g butter in a saucepan, and stirred that together with the nut and sugar mixture, a sprinkle of cinnamon and another 50g caster sugar in a bowl until it was all nicely emulsified. I lined a 20cm flan or sandwich tin with greaseproof paper, smoothed over the nut mixture and pressed it down so the surface was flat and the mixture as tight as possible, then baked it for what I think was the equivalent of 15 minutes at about 150C or gas 2 (my oven use is never as simple as that, hence the uncertainty here. Basically: nuts burn easily, and that makes them bitter, so keep things quite gentle). The base has to cool after that for a bit.

Next step is the chocolate ganache topping, which is pretty simple: pour 300ml double cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and warm over a low heat until nearly boiling point, then stir in at least 150g dark chocolate (that's how much I used, but I wanted more – I reckon 250g would be good). I used 72% cocoa solids: you need that darkness to counter the cream. Once that's melted, take the pan off the heat and beat the mixture with a whisk for as long as you can be bothered – the more time you give it, the smoother the mixture will be. Pour that over the nut base, smooth the surface, then leave in the fridge until ready to serve – the chocolate mixture firms up in the cool temperature. We didn't have it with raspberries, but I bet a few on the side would be bloody delicious.

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