George Mann, participant on Inclusive Cultures and the Co-Artistic Director of Ad-Infinitum, on making goals, getting stuck and starting again.
I started trying to write a blog - but I got stuck. I don’t have any special knowledge or revelations to share. I love writing, but it’s not what I feel confident doing for public consumption. I’ve felt quite privileged to be part of the Inclusive Cultures cohort – so I didn’t want to mess everything up with a blog! Something was stuck, and I couldn’t unstick the stuck-ness - so I just scrapped it. Here I am trying again.
I’ll try starting with ...a bit of context?
The company I co-run, Ad Infinitum, is a diverse-led theatre making and touring company based in Bristol. The work we do is for everyone, but we focus on making work with, by and for underrepresented artists and audiences - and have done so for over 14 years. I’m firmly committed to diversity, equity and inclusivity, and as someone who identifies as gay and from a working class background, I have a personal understanding of the importance of breaking down the barriers that keep minoritised people in the margins. But it’s just one lived experience - I couldn’t possibly represent the LGBTQ+ community and all its complexities, for example - neither can my messy background be a ‘typical’ example of what it means to have a working class upbringing. Equally - just because I am sometimes described as ‘diverse’ or as coming from a ‘protected characteristic’ that doesn’t mean I can know the lived experience of someone who identifies as Deaf, disabled, black or trans. Which leads me to the reason I wanted to be part of this initiative. We want our organisation to go further, to have an inclusive culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging, ownership, and is represented at all levels of the organisation…
But what next? How do we make that leap? How does our organisation resolve the tension - the gulf between the now, and the imagined destination?
I’m stuck again. Let’s go back to the start.
I started with a list of shiny goals that would help make the culture at Ad Infinitum more inclusive - specifically for our Deaf and disabled colleagues. I was dead set on striving to understand, self-educate, do my best to be an ally and fight for positive change. After all, allyship has been a key part of the fight for the LGBTQ+ rights movement, which has been changing hearts, minds and eventually laws for decades and succeeded in making life in the UK better for many in our community. So, I was frustrated when I found myself stagnating in inaction, filled with fear and doubt - a bit like when I started writing this blog. What had seemed so clear and straightforward suddenly became a mountain I didn’t know how to climb.
Imposter syndrome? Probably. But also - I was getting hung up on the ‘goal’. The mountain top I thought I needed to climb, the dizzying heights of the “amazing” achievement I was supposed to reach for.
It was a relief, deleting everything I had written. I guess it wasn’t just the pressure of having to impart knowledge, share revelations and so on... it was the - ‘What did you achieve? Tell us what it’s like from the mountain top!’ - pressure as well. I took a deep breath and then looked once more at the blank page on my laptop. Then I started again; it’s a process.
I’m trying not to subscribe to that culture of achievement. Not that I’m better than anyone who does. It’s just I realised it’s not helping me at all. Success, achievement, goal, aim - whatever you want to call it - is the problem for me, the thing that was blocking me being the best ally I could be, the change I wanted to see. I was seeing everything through the lens of a destination I needed to reach, otherwise ...I have failed. This world of bigger, better, unending growth and - let’s just call it what it is - capitalism that frames journeys as being all about the destination - was completely blocking me.
And that’s where I came unstuck. I realised (rather than intellectually understood - you know, the way someone explains something to you, and you understand it perfectly, but you don’t necessarily know, or realise what it means, what it's like, how it feels - that kind of experience-based realisation) I’m not heading for a destination, trying to get a t-shirt, or certificate - I’m on a journey.
Writing that has made me think of... my Mum. She always says, ‘a lesson is repeated until learned’. Something about the way I’ve been learning with Inclusive Cultures has brought me back to that phrase.
That might be a bit of a leap, let me try and explain, please bear with...
What pops into my head is a celebrity endorsed French Teacher who’s superduper pedagogical method enables a knowledge of the language - usually achieved with months or years of conventional study - to be achieved in just a matter of weeks. Sounds amazing, right?
In 2004, before heading out to France to study a course on theatre making taught in French, I realised (and panicked) that I didn’t know more than Bonjour! So, this magical learning method really appealed to me: I bought all of the teacher's CDs (remember those?) even though I couldn’t really afford them. Money well spent, I thought.
The first day of my theatre making course I couldn’t understand or grasp more than a word or two of what the teacher was saying - my heart started racing - suddenly the entire class lay on the floor, and I had no idea why. As I broke out in a sweat of failure and panic, a woman I was studying with grabbed my hand, pulled me down to the floor with her and offered to translate. I was no longer alone; we’d started a friendship. But it also made me see I was beginning a long journey, which was really challenging, sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying, a lot of hard work, and involved change. My focus shifted from a frantic “I need to have learned French already!” to immersing myself in a process. Within 8-12 months I began speaking and understanding, then my fluency gradually improved, and so did my confidence.
There is no quick-fix-answer or method to learning another language - you have to go through a profound learning process - and it takes time. And it’s never just ‘a language’ - it’s a culture, a way of life, a new perspective, a way of thinking, you see the world differently and it’s ...well I thought it was beautiful.
19 years away from that younger French-learning self the lesson is repeating: my moment of being stuck isn’t a failure, or a roadblock - it’s a valuable opportunity for me to embrace a journey without a clear end. I mean, thinking about it, we don’t want to ‘achieve’ an inclusive culture and then for it to be over, finished, let’s all move on - right? We want it to continue, evolve, adapt, change…
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK pops into my mind again. It’s a journey that is by no means over: transphobia is an issue we need to overcome, conversion therapy still hasn’t been outlawed in our ‘progressive’ nation, and then if you look beyond our borders there are some terrifying realities for our LGBTQ+ siblings to try and survive in at the moment - the fight goes on. It’s a process. A journey. And it can be a difficult, painful one. It’s also rewarding though, you constantly learn, there’s disruption, change, difficult, necessary, joyful change, frustration when you get stuck, elation when you understand why: you are collaborating with a diverse mix of people to learn and create a new culture, way of life, perspective, a way of thinking, you see the world differently when you’re open to others and it’s ...well I think it’s beautiful.
You won’t be surprised to find out (spoiler alert) that our journey is by no means over. The shiny goals I set for myself and for our organisation have not all been reached, they’ve changed. They’re still changing.
Our Trustee recruitment process needed more time to reach the right people, for us to create genuine relationships, to listen - we couldn’t ‘achieve’ a new board by September as planned (as I write it’s October 2021) but we’re all more confident that we’re on the right path. The plans we had for a new diverse and inclusive associate programme need to change to a collaborative plan led by our Deaf and disabled colleagues. We will all create a programme in which everyone feels a sense of ownership, is invested in, and committed to.
Another, perhaps final, thought just arrived. Vulnerability. I don’t think it’s possible to go on a journey without feeling vulnerable. The destination - I now realise this as I type - is a mirage, an attempt to control: “this is where I will arrive”. But an adventure, a risk-taking, daring adventure, the ones we all know from storybooks and films and theatre and art - they never turn out the way you think they will. They’re full of surprises, obstacles, difficulties to overcome, and the people on those journeys are never the same at the end. They transform as a result of the journey - it’s never easy. These stories might end, but the lives of the characters continue. The story is never really over.
Getting a place on Inclusive Cultures, I now see, meant having a guide with us on our journey, it meant a safe space in which to feel supported as we enter that necessary state of vulnerability - as we are disrupted, impacted, influenced, and changed by the adventure.
So for that, I feel very grateful. It’s something I’m going to continue asking - how can we all be there for, support, and create safe spaces for the great many adventures that need to take place in order to move from where we all are now, towards an inclusive society?
George Mann is co-artistic director of Ad Infinitum. A practitioner, actor, writer and director, George trained for two years at the École Internationale de Théatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris (2004-2006) after graduating from Royal Holloway University of London in 2004. George founded Ad Infinitum in 2007, writing, directing and performing in the company’s debut, Behind the Mirror. George co-wrote and continues to perform Odyssey, a sell-out hit that has continued to tour the globe since 2009. He received The Stage Best Solo Performer Award for his one-man performance of Homer’s classic tale, co-written and directed by Nir Paldi. In 2011, George wrote, directed and continues to perform in Translunar Paradise, which has picked up nine awards to date and has toured the world including a 3-month tour of Brazil. In 2014 George wrote, directed and performs live vocals in Light. The play London Premiered and sold out at Barbican as part of the 2015 London International Mime Festival and returned to London a further 3 times to run at Battersea Arts Centre 2015-17. George co-directed and co-devised the Children’s Christmas show, Town Hall Cherubs at Battersea Arts Centre Dec 2015, which was nominated for two Off West End Awards. George won the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic’s Quercus Trust Award in December 2014 becoming Associate Director at Bristol Old Vic 2015-17. His critically acclaimed main stage directorial work at Bristol Old Vic includes: Pink Mist, written by Owen Sheers, which transferred to Bush Theatre London in 2016; and Medea, a new version written by Chino Odimba incorporating Euripides’ text in a translation by Robin Robertson.