I’ve been asked, in the past, by people to mentor them, and have never really understood what it meant. Or rather, what they meant by the term. (I suspect some of them may have thought I held the magic ticket. I don’t.)
I’ve had the odd coffee or email conversation with a few people who’ve asked me to talk with them about making work (books or theatre usually), and that’s fine, but it has never felt, to me, as if it was the real thing.
In the past couple of years I think I’ve worked out what mentoring means to me, and it’s very much related to my Buddhist practice. In my practice we speak about a non-hierarchical relationship between mentor and disciple, how both need to learn from each other, how one doesn’t exist without the other – without the disciple there is no mentor; without the student, there is no teacher.
This is very true, and it’s very much how we talk about our practice, and yet I have often seen my fellow Buddhists placing mentors and teachers on a pedestal. I know I’ve done it myself, even though it’s entirely contradictory to the teaching that we are all the Buddha, that we can all attain enlightenment, and that therefore we are all, utterly, equal. And we are, also, always, utterly human. And human beings often like to place people on pedestals …
In the past few years I have directed a lot more. I started doing so in my 20s, and then mostly left it to write books and perform, and to teach those things on occasion, and have come back to directing in my 40s. Some years ago when I directed my first ‘proper play’ in ages, I made two people my mentors. I didn’t ask them to be mentors, and I didn’t tell them they were my mentors, I just decided they’d be who I asked my directing questions. Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott, who I have worked with in Improbable, were the people I decided to use as mentors. They had no say in this. I suppose they could have ignored the occasional texts or emails I sent asking for advice on this problem or that, but neither of them did. (Really very occasional, I’m not sure anyone also working, also busy, wants to be bothered with ‘how to’ questions too often). They answered in ways brilliantly representative of each of them; Lee often facetiously (at first) giving me a chance to also laugh at a problem I had turned into a catastrophe, Phelim always earnestly, with book recommendations for good measure. They gave suggestions, they helped, they reminded me I did know how to do this, had been doing it for years (as a performer, a writer, a deviser), they reminded me there are no tricks and no magic, that we all just do the work.
And so … in the past year I’ve been working with Emma Deakin (producer of and performer with Shaky Isles) who I’ve directed in two plays, while Emma has been writing her first play. She’s written a gorgeous blog about it here. I’ve also led/run/held/opened the 6-day Chaosbaby R&D time in which 25 performers, writers, directors, designers, musicians, theatre-makers, came together to take the next steps on the Chaosbaby. And I helped Emma find the things in her script that needed work. I helped her in the way my own three editors (Laurence O’Toole, Carole Welsh and Antonia Hodgson) have helped me over the years with books. Not re-writing, not doing the work, but sharing thoughts, observations, offering notes. And I held the space in the Chaosbaby work so that several people could co-direct, so we could share that and pass it between us, so we could find what it is to each bring all of our individual skills to the room – and fully use them. Not, as happens all too often, leaving outside the room the bit of us that is also a director, a writer, a musician, just in case the person with that title (of director, writer, musician) inside the room feels the need to be the only one with those skills. I was able to hold the Chaosbaby space because the people in the room let me, and they also let me share that leadership, that holding – even when one or two of them were worrying ‘we need a leader’! By the end of the 6 days we had many leaders, all of them more skilled and more adept for taking the lead when it was right for them to do so, for being given the chance to lead, and to follow, by those in the room. I was able to help Emma because she asked for my help. I was able to be helped by Lee and Phelim because I asked for their help.
So I see that yes, it might be useful, I guess, for someone to have a coffee with me if all they want to talk about is how hard it is, I’m very good at giving ‘yes it’s hard, and we do it anyway’ pep talks. But what is REALLY useful, is to just do the work. To not wait until we have the qualification or the BA or the MA or the years of assisting or whatever else it is people think they need as a ticket, but just to get on and do it. (And that often includes getting on and doing it long before anyone is paying us!) And then, at a sticky point, at a moment when it’s not working, to have someone we can trust to suggest a good exercise or laugh at us for worrying or point out that editing is not spell check. That’s what I did. That’s what the people whose work I applaud and enjoy did. The student makes the teacher.
Here’s a lovely picture from the Chaosbaby R&D. Mary (mother of 3) and Sasha (17, joined us on ‘work experience’!). Jen Toksvig took it. It says what I’ve just said. Briefly.