Sarah Owen reflects on their Nest Residency

Let me take you back through time – to the evening of 31st October, 2020. Picture the scene: I’m working night shift, and the news comes through on the radio. The country is, once again, going into lockdown, which means I won’t be able to come into work for the next month or so. This was obviously not a good thing for many reasons, and yet I couldn’t help but be relieved at the idea of having several weeks of time at home to do whatever I wanted. Because an idea I’d been playing with had latched onto my brain, and it wasn’t going to let me go until I got it out.

That idea? An electronic concept album called Once Upon Two Times, which I did end up completing over the November lockdown. However, the idea did not let me go. In fact, if anything, it only grew after I completed the album, gradually getting wildly out of hand. Within a few months, I decided that the story had outgrown the original album, and that the format was actually constricting it – it needed to be something bigger, something different.

So, naturally, I decided that I needed to rewrite the entire thing as a stage musical.

This is no simple feat, as I’m sure you can imagine. I’ve never written a script before, but I do have a lot of determination, and once an idea has latched onto me, I find it very difficult to shake. In addition to that, this project very quickly became something that was important to me – as it grew, I realised that the story wasn’t just about what it seemed on the surface – about Time itself – but also something much more personal. It had become a story that wanted to be told. And even though I was very aware I was in well over my head, I was going to do something about telling it.

The most difficult thing, ironically, was time. Or, rather, finding the time to actually sit down and write. As a creative, I can struggle to settle sometimes, flitting around between projects, unless I have a dedicated time and space to focus my attention entirely on one thing. And so, when a good friend of mine suggested applying for an artist residency with Talking Birds, I was immediately excited. A designated time and space to work on this project? And be able to talk to people who are more experienced in performing arts and get advice? It sounded like just what I needed, the first step towards turning this idea into something tangible and real – and so, when my application was successful, I was absolutely ecstatic.

The residency was definitely a first for me – I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. For so long, I’ve been used to working on creative projects in between the things I’m supposed to be doing – keeping these things I enjoy contained within moments of procrastination or snatched seconds of free time. And so, to have my own dedicated space – and a lovely one, at that – where I was not only allowed to work on this project the whole time, but in fact that was what I was specifically there to do…it was almost overwhelming! I was extremely worried I was going to end up floundering or hitting a brick wall, and ending up wasting the whole two weeks. For my very first day, I came up with a plan to try and stave this off – I was going to map out the entire musical, on the wall, with post-it notes. If I was going to have access to a blank wall that was big enough, then I was going to use it! But it was also something visual and practical, which meant that I could step back and see the bigger picture and spot the gaps that needed to be filled. This ended up being incredibly helpful for letting the project solidify into something tangible – because suddenly this wasn’t just something in my head. It was something I could see and touch. That other people could see and touch.

I was off to a good start – and for the first few days, I spent hours poring over the basic elements of the musical. I took the story apart at a base level, figuring out what it was trying to say. It was like archaeology – this thing already existed, and it was up to me to unearth it. I’d just needed the time to scrape away at it until it became clear, and this residency was finally giving me that time. From there, I was able to build on it. I discovered I could break down the main message of the story into four key themes – Identity, Scars, Stories and Choices – which was a really valuable step to take, because then it made me focus on those themes in pretty much everything I did from that point, weaving it into the songs and the dialogue, and even the characterisation. It gave the story a much more solid grounding and made it feel a lot more structured, as well as really helping me flesh it out. The gaps that I had seen on my post-it wall were starting to be disappear. New ideas were coming easily – the whole thing just kept growing. Now that I had defined its edges, the rest was starting to fill itself in.

But then, about part way through the first week, I hit a snag. I wasn’t sure where to go next. I knew I needed to start on the script, but I didn’t know how to start, or whether I was ready. And there was also this strange pressure that I was putting on myself – a sense that because I was here to work on this project, I needed to be working all the time. Each day, I felt, I needed to produce something. To have evidence of the project moving forward, to prove that I was constantly creating. That I couldn’t just sit and ponder things – even though, on some level, I knew that I needed to allow things to settle in my mind.

Luckily, something came to my aid – one of the lovely things about working at Talking Birds is that everyone is encouraged to have lunch at around about the same time, in a shared communal space. It’s a lovely opportunity to talk about what people are working on and express creative woes. In particular, it was great for me since another artist had begun her residency at the same time as me – another autistic artist who, funnily enough, was also working on a project relating to time. We ended up talking a lot over lunch, and poking our heads into each other’s studio spaces to chat for a little while and get a sense of what the other was doing, even though our art forms were very different. We discovered that we were both feeling that same pressure on ourselves – that we constantly had to be creating, constantly working. That there was a sense of time running out, and that if we weren’t using every second of it, then we were doing something wrong. Together, we came to realise that maybe we needed to think about it differently – that this residency, this time, was for us to use as we needed to, how we liked. And if we needed to pause, to stop, to let things figure themselves out for a little while…then that was completely fine. It was part of the process. And once I’d realised that – once I let myself take my foot off the gas, and didn’t pressure myself in the same way – everything began to flow again.

Chatting with more experienced artists over lunch also helped a lot in figuring out how to approach the thing I was most worried about – the script itself. It was frustrating, because by this point, I knew exactly what the story needed to do, and what needed to happen – I had all the post-it notes to prove it! – and I just needed to get it written down. But I didn’t know where to start. I got to the point where I knew I needed to begin working on it, or I never would. I expressed this over lunch, and got a lot of encouragement to start in a place where I felt more confident – that I didn’t need to do anything in a logical or sensible order, just do something that would get me started, and go from there. I ended up deciding to try writing a key scene in prose first, before converting it into a script. This ended up working really well to get me started, and then as I transferred the scene over, I realised that I was changing things as I worked, making it fit the style of a script better. From there, I was able to continue the rest of the scene writing it straight into a script, and the whole thing began to come into its own. I realised what I needed and how I needed to approach it, which enabled me to go all the way back to the beginning and start from the top. I ended up writing out little notes of all the key points of the story – a tip from the composer next door, who was doing the same to work out his new piece – and started working through them one by one. This really helped focus myself because it allowed me to see where I was going – but, at the same time, it was flexible too, because I could switch the order of the key points around as and when I needed.

The residency was also such a brilliant source of inspiration – I suddenly found myself having to explain this strange and weird project to other people! And it was so fascinating to see other people’s responses to it, especially as other artists, which inspired me in turn. I started asking myself questions I hadn’t thought about before – thinking about how the story might look on a stage, and how you could be creative with that in ways I hadn’t considered. It made me think about how costumes and set could be used to tell the story and show the central themes just as much as the words and the music. I knew that, at this point, I didn’t need to know all the fine details about how this thing might eventually look – all those decisions will be made by directors and designers one day, I hope! But it did affect how I approached writing the scenes, changing how I thought about how the story could be told. And, as a result, it made the work I did all the richer.

By the end of the residency, I had completed the first half of Act One – about a quarter of the entire thing. I consider this a huge achievement, much better than I had dared to hope when starting. I’d been so worried that I would be too scared to actually sit down and write – that I would end up wasting time or staring at the walls. But, after learning that sometimes you need to stare at those walls a little while, I managed to put pen to paper (or, rather, fingertips to keys) and start to bring this story to life. To begin the process of turning it into something that, hopefully, will mean as much to other people as it does to me.

[If you are interested in applying for a Nest Residency, you can find more details about the scheme and how to apply here]