This week I will be on a panel for the launch of YAYBrum - the Year of Arts for Young People in this fair city, it turns out. I'm sure it will be great. I agreed in a rushed cornering, in a corridor of a university building, in response to some pretty chipper students I teach asking if I would do it.
On Thursday they sent through the title of the panel discussion: The Value of the Arts.
Pretty broad. I mean, there is a lot of potential starting points with this, right? And probably a lot more content than 30 minutes can handle. It got me thinking: what's at the heart of this? If I only got one sentence what would I say?
Last summer I started talking to Bryony Kimmings about Cancer. I've known Bryony loosely through the 'scene' (blurgh) for probably over a decade now. I knew she was doing some research about cancer. For a show. The corners of my brain had picked up on it, on faceache and Twitter, the way it does with anything cancer based. Which means it comes up most days. On most radio stations, to chanels, social media networks. Gets itself about does cancer.
I've known cancer pretty well over the last couple of years. I was diagnosed with Bowel cancer in July 2014. The same day they told my mum they'd found a tumour in her ear.
for me: major surgery. 9 Months of chemotherapy. A genetic condition identified. For mum a more complex set of operations, and a series of difficult words: spreading, inoperable, tumours, scar tissue, terminal, neck, bowel, stomach, liver. She died on October 6th 2015.
when I first started talking to Bryony about cancer, I framed it in my own head as a favour to her, that she needed people to talk about it, for the work, a useful contribution to the process they were going through to work out how to make a musical about cancer. No easy task.
Sure, I felt good about the idea of giving something back, of doing something useful. In honesty a little bit flattered and shy, sort of chuffed that I might have this story that carried some worth for others. But it was definitely for her. For the work.
Bryony came to Birmingham, we sat in my dinning room, with the dog hovering around, unsure of the new person in the house, and we talked for hours. Or rather I talked lots, she listened. We laughed. We ate some fruit, and shared a few secrets. We got to know each other a little beyond the our-worlds-crossover-surface-level-thing that was inevitably there before.
Later in the autumn I went to London, to rehearsals at the National theatre Studio, where Bryony, along with the inspirational Brian Lobel, musical genius Tom Parkinson and the team from Compliciate were building, or beginning to build, to explore, beginning to explore, The Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer.
I wasn't the only person in the room that day who'd done the cancer dance. A dance that I don't think ever really finishes. I was surrounded by other people who'd been there. Not there, in my story. Because that's not possible. Everyone's experience of cancer - or any other major illness for that matter - is different. it's their own. But there were links, connections, similarities, cross-over experiences, things that made us all feel angry. Or sad. Or scared. The only other place you really find this is on the chemo ward - when you're in the thick of it, or in group therapy contexts. Now, I've got no issue with group therapy, but I am confident it wouldn't work for me, I'd find it too heavy handed. To explicitly about the issue. Too public. This felt different. It had a sense of purpose beyond myself attached.
I cried that day. Stood in front of an audience. In the sharing. In front of people who are pretty senior in the industry I work in.
On my way home, I realised I'd crossed some kind of line. I wasn't doing Bryony a 'favour' at all. I was doing this for myself. I was finding a way to process some of the stuff that had gone down in the last couple of years. You see for me, I'm a doer (clues in the career path). To process stuff I have to do, I have to see it, do it, then I can reflect on it. I can start to make sense of the world. To make sense of my own experiences.
so when Bryony contacted me in January, soon after the news went public that The Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer would play the National Theatre for a 6 week run in Autumn 2016, to see if I could get to London and get in a room with some actors, I cleared my diary and jumped at it. Not to 'help Bryony' (although hopefully it did!), but for me. Because it helps me. And I will continue to be some kind of part of this, for as long as thy keep asking me to be.
Over the years I have been part of various teams, projects, processes, organisations, who create participatory work. Targeting older people, younger people, children in care, LGBTQ communities, South Asian women, women in prison. The list goes on.
Together we've designed projects that make impact on people. Improve people's well being. Increase their self-esteem, their confidence, give them new skills. Help them make sense of their life, and the world around them.
I've crossed a line. I've become the participant. From producer to participant. Happened when I wasn't even looking. Never have I felt so acutely aware of what art can do.
So when I sit on that panel next week, I will talk from firsthand experience. That art can help make dents into that age-old question: 'what is the meaning of life?' That it can help make sense of the crazy world around us, and what we are within it. That art can play it back, through so many different lens, that it can process it, churn it up and reimagine it, until it can all make some kind of sense again.
Art can be there to catch you when you're falling. If you let it.
The Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer is being created by Bryony Kimmings, Brian Lobel and Tom Parkinson. Produced by Complicite, supported by the Wellcome Trust and the National theatre, it will be on in Autumn 2016. Check Bryony's website for more info.
YAYBrum is the Year of Arts for Young People, funded by Birmingham City Council and the Old REP, working with Beatfreaks, MAIACreatives and Southside Producers. Checkout Southside Producers on Twitter for more info @SSProducers