9 June: Daunting but thrilling
“180. That’s how many possible versions of this show there are.” My stomach twists and I force a laugh. “Wow.”
Eight weeks to go before my new solo show, Age Is a Feeling, premieres at the Edinburgh fringe. The show charts the span of your life, from the day of your 25th birthday through to your death, and in it there are 12 stories about your adult life. But the audience chooses which six stories they’ll hear, and which they won’t. The form reflects a big theme in the show, the unknowability of a human life.
As the performer, I’m daunted by this number, and yet, as the writer I’m thrilled. This is what it’s like – you can’t tell anyone your whole life story, and our own memories recede.
13 June: A terrible mood
Design meeting sent me into a terrible mood. It turns out the design we’ve used in our workshops over the last year – 12 envelopes suspended from a large mobile (each representing one of the stories) along with lots of dried flowers – is no longer feasible. The ceiling at Summerhall, our venue in Edinburgh, is way too high. And the ceiling at the venue we’ll transfer to, Soho Upstairs (at Soho theatre in London), is way too low. The whole concept needs to be rethought within these physical constraints, and the fact that we only have 15 minutes to put up and take down whatever it is.
I want to forgo having any design but my director and dramaturg, Adam Brace, reminds me that we need to visually convey the show’s structure to the audience. Zoë Hurwitz, our designer, takes this in stride, confident we can figure out a way to deal with our 12 envelopes – the only essential scenic element in the show.
We leave the call unresolved.
18 June: Taking it four pages a day
I moved house a week and a half ago. Amid boxes and a kitchen in chaos, I’m putting myself on a “rigorous” memorisation regime. At 36 and with two flare-ups of Graves’ disease in my recent history, I’m determined to keep doing theatre without destroying my health. Managing stress is a big part of this. And getting off-book methodically is part of my plan.
The show’s running time is 70 minutes but I’ve got about an hour and 40 minutes of material to learn because each audience only hears six of the 12 stories. Today is day four of learning approximately four pages a day. I’ll be pacing around my living room, then muttering to myself as I wander through the park.
22 June: Lifeguards have the long view
A design breakthrough. Rather than hang things from the ceiling, I’m going to be surrounded by 12 tall flowers, each topped with an envelope. I’m also going to sit in a tall lifeguard’s chair. This is taken from a small moment in the script and is thematically right: lifeguards have the long view.
3 July: Put to the test on Zoom
Today I read the show over Zoom to a small group of elders in Canada. “Haley! It’s great over here,” one of them said. “The anxiety about ageing happens when you’re young. It fades with time.”
I’ve done loads of research about ageing, death and mortality over the last couple years, but I needed to test the material with people who’d give it to me straight. Two women in their 60s spoke about how so much of their youths were spent living in contrast to their parents and now that they’re long gone, their parents seem to live within them. “I’m stealing that for the show,” I said.
5 July: Scrap the intro
At 3pm I sent the manuscript to my editor, Matt Applewhite, at Nick Hern Books, which is publishing the play, along with apologies for being tardy. I’d spent a week and a half neurotically rewriting the intro. At 8pm, still not sure about it, I read it to a trusted friend who asked if I needed an intro at all. At 10pm, I send Matt another email: “Scrap the intro! Let the show speak for itself.”
8 July: Keeping the hungry ego in check
On my way to a production meeting where we’ll talk about the practicalities of lighting, transporting our lifeguard chair and review the show’s budget.
I thought twice about including this but it’s the truth: all I can think is “I want this show to be a hit.” It’s my third time bringing a solo show to the Edinburgh fringe in nine years. It can be lonely and extremely dispiriting, even with decent sales and good reviews. And I’m struggling to keep my hungry ego in check. How do I keep my eye on making a terrific show and enjoying the experience, and not fretting about whether it will be successful?
Now, I know, how the show is received is out of my control. To calm myself (and quieten my ego), I become the weirdo on the tube, eyes closed, palm on her heart, telling herself to breathe, focus on the work, focus on the parts you can control – getting the script in great shape and honing a performance.
13 July: A chair and a power sander
The chair arrived yesterday, in an intimidatingly shaped box. Stage manager Rose Hockaday, Zoë and I met early to assemble it before rehearsals started. Amazingly, all we had to do was take it out of the box and stand it up. It’s tall and sturdy, but the more time I have on it, the better – I’d hate not to appear nimble and confident on my apparatus. This evening, Zoë, Rose and I attacked the chair with a power sander. A joyous moment, focused on a task together.
15 July: The first preview
The purpose of doing two previews in the middle of our three-week rehearsal process is to check to see if what we’re building is strong. It’s the theatrical version of saying, “Let’s have someone inspect the foundation, wiring and plumbing.” The preview went well. I remembered all my lines; I found new specificity in parts of the performance; I was even met with some tearful hugs from strangers afterwards. But some faulty wiring was revealed. Though we’ve got the set working, it’s not crystal clear that there are 12 stories, and the audience only hears six. I was hoping I could get away with cryptically alluding to this structure, but it’s not reading for the audience.
16 July: The second preview
Today I was more direct. Rewrote and then reworked the beginning of the show with Adam over the phone and came in early to practise on stage. I was more at ease on my big chair. The audience was crystal clear on the show’s structure. For the first time in my career I found myself listening to weeping over laughs. But the show is 10 minutes too long.
19 July: Sweating and editing
40 degrees. Adam, Rose and I convene on Zoom. We skipped travelling to the non-air-conditioned rehearsal studio to sweat in our respective non-air-conditioned homes. Our task is to cut 10 minutes from the show. After six hours, my thighs oozing sweat as a little fan whirs hot air at me, we’ve cut three and a half pages, which to me seems like more than enough (in a solo show a page accounts for about three minutes). And after our production meeting, Adam and I get back on the phone to talk about the final bits he thinks we should address. After a few contentious moments we both admit to being cranky and agree to argue about these last four things when we’re not roasting.
22 July: It’s a revelation to be produced by a theatre
Great day. Blocking the show, making final adjustments to the text before our previews next week. It’s great because I don’t feel like I want to die. Meaning I don’t feel so overwhelmed and frazzled with admin, logistics, producer tasks and being the lead contact person on everything. I self-produced the solo shows I took to the fringe in 2013 and 2016, whereas this time around Soho theatre is producing my show. It’s a revelation to be produced by a theatre. And a tremendous privilege. I can simply focus on the writing and my performance. And the enormous financial burden that artists who self-produce take on, is lifted. What a gift.
26 July: Trying not to jinx it
We made it through a run of the show in our rehearsal studio and treated ourselves to tea and cake on Alfie’s Antiques Rooftop Kitchen, agreeing with trepidation that we’re in “pretty good shape”, none of us wanting to jinx it! “Relaxation is very important at this point,” says Adam, “almost as important as anything else. But remember there will be at least one crisis to deal with. There always is.”
27 July: The third preview
Heart walloped my ribcage waiting to go on stage. I thought, “Well at least my boyfriend’s in the audience tonight, so if I pass out and fall off my chair, he’ll run on stage and pick me up.”
I did not fall off my chair. The show is starting to live under my fingernails. A few more tweaks to the text, and in performance I’ll be seeking more and more ease. On Sunday I’ll be on the train up to Edinburgh … crossing my fingers that whatever “crisis” we’ll face is a small one!