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Stephanie Street: Quality work hinges on a happy creative process

The number of GCSE drama students in England has fallen by 4%. Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock Even into adulthood, the thought of exam season can provoke cold sweats. Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
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I was never a fan of the summer term. Even half my life away from the last written tests I took, I still get a cold sweat at the memory of exam season. I’ve hardly chosen a stress-free existence since; there have been many cold sweats over the past 21 years. The sheer terror surrounding a handful of high-stakes press nights made that practical criticism paper seem like a walk in the park.

But there’s something different about putting a play on a stage in front of an audience (of critics or otherwise). While it is a reckoning of sorts, and your work is being laid out for evaluation, it’s not set in stone in the same way as an hour-long essay analysis of the verse and structure of Ozymandias. You can console yourself that even if you had an awful show on press night, there is always tomorrow.

I’ll go so far as to say that that is why I make theatre – because of the absence of an end product. Of course there is always a last show but, in truth, a piece of theatre is never finalised. It is only what it was on any given night in front of one particular audience.

A director I admire enormously said something at the end of our rehearsal process that has stayed with me. Talking about the evolution of a play, he said that it begins life in the writer’s imagination, it then moves on to the next phase of its life in the rehearsal room. Finally it lives out its days in the actors’ dressing rooms. And if we’re lucky the cycle repeats.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to this contrast of product versus process. After my barren start to 2019, I feel fortunate now to be at the beginning of the creative arc on a few projects.

And if I think back to the work I’m proudest of, the creative processes were always, essentially, happy. They were challenging and testing, of course – nothing truly good comes without a bit of a battle – but the best work in my experience arises from processes in which people were valued and cared for.

This ties into a lot of the discourse we have heard at Act for Change. Yes of course, we want excellence in our arts; we also want workplaces in our theatre community to recognise and value every member of their creative teams. To my mind, those things go hand in glove.

This all sounds very idealistic, but what am I talking about in practice? I am setting myself the goal on these upcoming projects to make the working rhythm and environment as accessible as possible.

I want people to come to work not strung out and panicking about real-life responsibilities but to be in a frame of mind to be able to manage all that and work.

It also means following the lead of a couple of brilliant directors I’ve worked with recently and scheduling a way in advance as well as working shorter, leaner days. I want people with caring responsibilities to have time to be with the parents or children they love and be able to come in to work.

Stephanie Street is an actor, writer and co-founder of Act for Change. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/stephanie-street/

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