How I made the most of my 2020 (And why it was better than 2019)
I shall start this blog but saying something a little controversial. In the grand scheme of things 2020 was really not all that bad for me, at least if I put financial matters aside for one moment. In fact in many ways I had the best year I had creatively in a very long time.
(Persecution, some of the cast during its first read through - One of our most daring achievements of 2020 was putting this script online, read here for the first time)
I do not wish to sound trite or demean people's hardships when I make that statement. I've already seen first hand just how God-awful 2020 was for everyone and it has been an extremely challenging year for most of us, and for some, it's outcomes have been completely devastating. Many people have lost businesses, homes, or worse, a loved one. Friends had film premieres canceled, others their weddings, several people I know lost one or both parents this year. If that weren't enough, almost everyone I know is now in a ton of debt and while a few people have booked some nice jobs for 2021, many people in my industry, those who work in film, theatre, music, and other forms of creative entertainment have no idea when their next job will be and the fallback jobs - bar and club work, aren't there for them either. Those of us who teached, had to learn to try and do so online and do it quickly, but of course people didn't have any money to pay for anything. Many have been unable to access government grants and most were not put on the furlough schemes. It's been an especially hard time for renters and many of my friends have abandoned London altogether and gone back to live with family elsewhere and if I my parents were still around, I probably would have followed suit. While some landlords have been great and gone out of their way to look after or assist their tenants with halving their rents to affordable levels, most are simply letting them get into an ever greater level of debt. I've always been very proud of the fact that I've never been someone to get behind on payments or owe loads of money. If anything, in the past I have probably been overly generous when I shouldn't have been, but some lessons you just have to learn the hard way. In that respect, yes, 2020 has been absolutely awful and I too lost a good friend, Alan Tomkins, whom I had hoped to have a little more time with, but suddenly, he was gone. He did more to help me get one film project made than all its Producers combined. He was a really decent and honest man, who cared passionately about the same things I did and knew their value all too well. His death was a real blow, but even that could not make 2020 worse for me than 2019.
The thing is, the twelve months leading up to 2020 for me, or 2019, I can honestly say, was my worst year in living memory. Yes, looking back on that year there were a few highs - my massive birthday party for one where I reconnected with several friends from my past, some of whom I hadn't seen since secondary school, there were a few I didn't remember at all, but I just blagged it and pretended and a good time was had by all.That in itself wasn't a big deal and was at worst frustrating from time to time as it was weird to be reminded that this huge part of my memory was basically still missing and probably gone forever. The workshop I did for Agent Elaine Eaglestone was another highlight of 2019. It was such a joy to do because her actors were all so keen and eager and I found some real talent there, some of whom I have collaborated with since. There was a trip to Normandy with Uncle Tony, and just before that we interviewed the aforementioned great Alan Tomkins at Pinewood. Those were all nice moments, but by the end of 2019 with all the bad shit that had transpired, I felt like a battered housewife and really didn't remember them. Going into 2019 my life was still in something of a complete state of disarray after a film project that I worked so tirelessly to achieve got into the hands of the wrong people and even though I finally got the rights back to that property, the betrayals had cut very deep and made me, perhaps rightly, extremely distrustful of people. The disaster that subsequently befell it would go onto permeate every element of my life, offsetting not just my career goals, but my friendships and my most dearest of relationships. It profoundly affected my mental health, and my physical health, in ways I wasn't even fully aware of at the time, which would have huge ramifications later on. All of this led to an extremely serious respiratory illness in 2018 and high blood pressure, which meant I spent much of that year in and out of the Doctors & hospital and to top it all I was the victim of a serious physical assault in December, the trauma of which meant I went into 2019 already feeling very physically and mentally fragile. As a result I also still had memory retention issues from my brain abscess back in 2005, (something which was highlighted more recently when someone from my Art College days contacted me, of whom I had literally no memory of at all.)
In 2019 it wasn't long before in a single week a combination of different colliding negative forces and life events truly broke me. There was a couple of big life-changing jobs that didn't happen, and I attended a mini-reunion of sorts with my peers in a different line of work at someone's leaving party. I know they didn't realise it at the time but one of them said something to me which left me feeling disconnected from that world and even more depressed. I just wasn't one of the gang anymore and perhaps maybe I never was in the first place. All these combined with almost extremely tragic results. Ultimately, I was extremely lucky. Everything that I worked so hard to overcome and build, now all fell apart very quickly. I felt like I was getting left behind by my friends, and while I knew absolutely loads of people, I had very few I could depend on or really talk to and those that I could call on I felt like a constant burden to. As the failure of my previous project had been so public, I completely lost all my confidence. I hated going to industry premieres or networking-type events of any kind, and after a while I flatly refused to attend one unless a friend went with me because I would get anxious and talk too much by way of compensation. Worse still, there were a few actors (whom I had considered friends) whose careers I had gone out of my way to bat for and tried really hard to get them paid work, who would now barely even speak to me, (unless they wanted something) and when they did it was behind my back and the comments were often extremely unpleasant. You expect this kind of crap in this industry but when it happens with people you thought weren't actually like that, it doesn't hurt you any less. Now I keep my expectations of people very low and look at the world a different way, and perhaps that's a good thing too.
As a result of all this and other things, I spent much of 2019 in therapy or at support groups and although my work ethic didn't change and I still tried, relentlessly, to create chances for a better future, my life, felt at times, that it was hanging by a thread, and so it proved one night that year. I'm not trying to overplay my woe fiddle here, but I'm just trying to give context as to why when compared to 2019, 2020 for me at least, felt a little bit easier.
(Picture above - one of the few highs of 2019, workshopping Borderlands scenes in the garden with my good friend Daniella D)
Setting up The Outcasts last summer (with Dickon 'Helicopter' Tolson) and writing the play BORDERLANDS, the companies first production towards the end of 2019, was a much-needed band-aid for me at the time and something I really stuck my teeth into. Although the whole experience was very rewarding, in some ways, my life felt as though it had come full circle right back to where I had started in the mid-1990s, once more putting on little shows, in little theatres. Don't get me wrong it felt good to be doing something with a tight company of people, all of who got on tremendously well with and alongside one of my closest friends to boot but this positive initiative alone was not going to change my life circumstances. I was more determined than ever, to move forward, especially after what those awful people that I had foolishly allowed into my life, had taken from me. They stole the most valuable thing we all have from me - TIME. Running The Outcasts acting classes themselves with Dickon, was the perfect duo teacher combo. We both have completely different skill sets and that makes for fun, informative and interesting classes for those who took part and in a very short time we would see the students progress really quickly. At the end of the weekly class, a small group of us would always go down to The George & Vulture where I would always get a 241 Pizza and a glass of wine, giving the spare pizza to whoever was in the class who I knew couldn't afford one.
(The picture below was the pub crowd after one of our last classes of 2019)
Taking The Outcasts forward for 2020 two-stage productions were planned and we continued our Monday night acting classes in Old Street and were beginning to build our numbers and our reputation, as a safe space where people could come and build their skill sets, focusing on the core elements of acting and most important of all, with no favouritism or cliques, all of which was positively discouraged. We choose who worked with whom and always made sure everyone had equal time. We weren't really covering our costs yet, but it felt like we were on our way. Plus my other persistent efforts with other projects had begun to pay off, there was a promise of funding for not one, but two of these (I had learned not to get excited a long time ago when people tell me they can find funding) I was also working on not one, but two new plays, one of which was with Stephen Hart, an HIV Activist, and blogger who was now a regular at The Outcasts. After we met I suggested to him about writing an epic LGBT play covering the lives of several people over two decades in London and we started working on that together. Most writers like working alone, I do that so much anyway, I actually love collaborating on certain projects, and we got on really well and started to flesh out the plot & characters and did several writing sessions together at the end of 2019 and continued to do so going into 2020. Stephen had something very important in common with me. We both wanted to change our lives for the better and we were not procrastinators.
(Below - January 2020 - Actor/Activist Stephen Hart and I work out the timeline and characters for our LGBT panoramic view of two decades in London)
So come the end of 2019 and with an utterly dreadful Christmas behind me where I had never felt more alone, there was a sense of optimism as I looked towards the new year. I was alive for one thing, which was nearly not the case in 2019, and although I was nowhere near 100 percent, perhaps big positive changes were on the horizon for me after all? In the interim, while waiting to see what 2020 had in store for me, I would remain as proactive as circumstances would allow and keep working away on whatever else I could to offset the constant gnawing feeling I would occasionally have about the way my life had turned out, which at times would still do its best to overwhelm me.
But I already had a sense of what was coming for all of us in early January of this year. Maybe it's because I keep my eye on world events, or maybe because I knew just how far China has reached in terms of world business interests. Having heard about Covid in December and following its course avidly, it really wasn't rocket science to know this thing was going to hit Europe really hard and soon. By the time I saw the news about what was happening in Italy, I had made arrangements well in advance to stock up on bog roll, rice, cooking oils, pesto, and pasta way before the supermarkets went mad. Just as well, as I was about to be told to self-isolate for 8 weeks.
Then we had barely got into February of this year when I had to miss our class because I was extremely ill. I had chest infections before, but this was something else and it just didn't stop and I didn't want to put anyone else at risk so I went into quarantine. Three Doctors over the phone diagnosed me with Covid and whatever I had, I was out for the count and it knocked the wind right out of me. (Hot honey, lemon, and fresh organic ginger was literally a lifesaver!) By March it was very evident that not only would our acting classes not be resuming any time soon but the funding for both the film projects once again became illusive. Where before the Brexit vote had made people reluctant to spend their money from their wallet before, now Covid slammed it firmly shut. As it turned out, this was probably for the best, because if we had been further along with Paratrooper for example and then it was all cancelled, that would have been an even bigger disaster. The theatre that was to host both shows for The Outcasts closed its doors and we're still none the wiser even now, as to when they may open again. But then in March, although still I was still a little poorly to say the least, I decided to get people together on Skype and do a table read of one of the films in question. We couldn't shoot the script, but why not hear it read aloud and see what needed fixing? This was a productive way to spend my time, between attacking the chapters of my second novel, the completion of which was already dreadfully overdue, all while nursing myself back to strength. Drawing from a mix of Outcast acting class regulars and other actors I knew, we soon had a cast of 26 people doing a read-through via Skype of Behind Closed Doors, the dark drama script I had written in the summer of 2019 (it's not an easy read) I sat at my computer wrapped up like a sausage armed with a hot cup of ginger and stood ready! This online reading was so popular everyone wanted to know if they could do something else the following week and so it grew until Skype was no longer working adequately for our needs, and for a while, I was most grateful to an actress friend who let us use her ZOOM account to host some sessions until we could afford to get our own. At one point I wrote a television pilot for the novel, Diamonds in the Sky, I had written some years earlier. It was so loved by the cast they said 'We're reading the next episode next week, right?' 'Erm yes, of course...' I replied, knowing full I hadn't written another single line yet. It was a good motivator and I set myself the task of writing the next one and the next... Within 6 weeks I had written all ten one-hour episodes and most of them were read twice, each time by a cast of twenty plus. This was a superb way for me to get scripts into shape and spot typos, but also to just improve and tweak them substantially. By April a couple of the regular actors had confided in me that these weekly script readings were something of a lifesaver for their own mental health and pleaded with me that we kept them going. No further motivation was required after that and I was digging out older scripts that needed a re-write, while also writing new ones. It was very evident by virtue of the number of personal phone calls I was taking, where good friends of mine, were really not doing okay, that more needed to be done. I hate to say this but in 2020 I talked no less than five people out of killing themselves during phone calls or conversations online and two of these were people I barely even knew. I'm glad they're not only all still here but grateful they felt they could open up to me. My old skills as a counsellor were certainly put to good use in 2020. So I spoke with Dickon and we decided in lieu of no acting class and until we could work out how we were going to format an actual acting class on zoom, we would do a table read a week (sometimes two and even three in the summer) Soon more and more actors joined and before the end of the year over 100 different thespians had taken part in different script readings and I also did all I could to make them as fun as possible, by adding sound effects and pictures, even music to the process.
(Below - A typical Outcasts table read on a Monday night during lockdown)
Not only was I pulling out older scripts for people to perform but I was writing an average of one new screenplay, play, or episode, a week. I was continually inspired by the fact that everyone appeared to be getting so much out of it, so I just kept going. It was only as we went into the Autumn that I really stopped for a moment to take stock of just how much I personally had achieved as a result. I wasn't any better off financially, but I now had a huge amount of projects to pitch. The total number of new scripts I had written actually came to a grand total of thirty by December, which was not too shabby by anyone's imagination and most of those went through two or three re-writes as a result of the table readings we did online. This process was not only great for me as a writer but tremendously beneficial for my own mental and physical well being (Well, apart from the Covid belly...) I mean my output was just tremendous and there wasn't a single script I thought was weak either, in fact, quite the contrary, many of them were among the best work I had ever done.
(The limited edition Outcasts Hoody we had made up with all of the productions we did table reads for in 2020, design inspired by the SAMCRO cuts from one of my fave shows of all time, Sons of Anarchy)
Then we took things even further than that. I soon realised that ZOOM itself could be quite effective as a medium of performance, so we did just that and streamed a five-part drama, based on a script I had written back in 2004 about Colin Stagg, called Persecution. With a cast of 60 actors, we rehearsed via ZOOM and performed it live through youtube, using all kinds of techniques to pass production props from person to person etc. It went down very well and I would like to think it gave everyone involved a much-needed sense of purpose again. Over the summer I was also asked to do an interview with The Three Lions (Jess Collett, Tolu Stedford, and Ki Belllllooooooooo) a production trio I had met the year before, who were both talented and lovely people, always a good combo. This interview actually was listened to by some actors in America who I've been wanting to work with for ages. So that led to some interesting conversations. Then I also re-connected online with an actor whom I met at The Park Theatre in 2019. (my favourite Theatre in London) When we had met, we'd had a long discussion about our favourite television shows and discovered we had exactly the same taste and so we had said we should do something together. So over the summer, the two of us worked together on a pilot screenplay for a television drama series in which he would play the lead. We agreed on the concept we wanted from the outset and then I came up with the backstory and characters and then we both molded it together from there, constantly testing out different ideas with each other until we had the tone and feel of the thing just right. It was very much a collaboration and a great experience and perhaps a huge turning point for me mentally, as it gave me hope, that something good would await me in 2021. As we went into winter, despite the fact, the world appeared to be going insane outside my door, I was just relentless with my approach to work and writing. Not only did I write over thirty scripts, but my second novel (400 pages) was completed on Christmas Eve, although, sadly not in time for a pre-Christmas release which was a shame. I still need to work out how to get the bloody thing up on Amazon again because of course, I cannot remember how I did any of it last time. I think the other thing that motivated me was the fact that I knew on the other side of all this I was going to need to effect massive change or there was a very real possibility of being homeless if I couldn't make things happen and bloody soon. My life has to profoundly change and not just in small steps either. I'm also not getting any younger, so if something is going to happen - it has really has to be NOW and to be honest, I think I have honed my skill set and paid my dues. I was more determined than ever to make that happen for me, despite the fact that in the current climate of trends, as an average joe white guy, I didn't seem to tick any of the funding boxes, grant applications or internships that the production teams or theatres were looking for. I also wasn't from the upper class creative establishment either, so I didn't have the connections of the top tier agent network, which was a self-sustaining 360 business circle that appeared impossible to break into. There were other people doing great things outside of that, like the amazing Tri-Force network who are great but I know I am not what they're looking for. I entered more script writing competitions and applied for more writing positions with production companies in 2020 than in any other year previously. To be honest, I knew that I was unlikely to be chosen for any of them but thought I would still give it my best shot. Sadly in the case of one such initiative, the way my application was handled proved to me that it had not even been read and was just lost in the process. These days everyone wants a video of you talking and it's the worst thing for me. I hate having to do them. I mean, why does a writing competition need to see a 2-minute video from me for my script to qualify for the next round? Shouldn't the quality of the writing stand on its own merit? The answer is pretty simple. People want the whole package. It's because these days, everyone is thinking about how to promote the social media of every element of every creative aspect of well, everything and frankly I am not what they're looking for in that department. And that's okay, I am not going to begrudge people getting chances and opportunities they never could have got ten or twenty years ago. I will just have to do what they did back then, work three times as hard to get to where I want to be. Because if there's one thing I've learned about this industry, it's this - most of the time if you want to make something happen and get anywhere, the only person you can depend on to achieve that for you, is yourself.
On a final note to round off my thoughts on 2020, I would like to profoundly thank all the actors who participated in The Outcasts Creative projects, be they our table reads, online workshops, or our first on-line production in 2020. You kept the beating heart of this man, very much alive. One day soon, we shall be back down The George & Vulture for a wine and a pizza, with some of us even meeting in person for the very first time and hold our glasses aloft and toast 'We are - The Outcasts... almost home.'
Lance Nielsen December 2020
Postscript - it would appear 2020 had one last kick on the balls for me. Merely hours after posting this I read that friend and work colleague Mark Talbot Butler had passed away. He was an extremely talented editor and just an amazing guy. He will be sorely missed.