Thursday, 12 March 2020

6 Months Of Being Self Employed

Last year I finally made the decision to become self employed, after years of working towards my goal of being a freelance writer. I was apprehensive, with it being something I'd been thinking about doing for around a year, but it finally felt like the right time to make the move. For me it wasn't so much of a financial risk as I'm on ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) due to being unable to work traditional hours in a traditional environment outside of my house. However, this did add it's own added complications as there are a lot of rules about working on ESA. I was anxious but I'd turned down a lot of paid work previous to becoming self employed and that was really limiting my ability to make progress as a writer. So, what have these first 6 months been like?

There was a lot of paperwork at the beginning, I had to register as self employed with HMRC and also inform the DWP that I intended to start permitted work. I can work up to 16 hours a week and earn up to £131.50 a week on ESA, and for me I'm not working or earning anywhere near that so I thankfully had no issues when informing the DWP of my intentions. There were a lot of questions on the forms I had to fill out that really did not relate to me as a self employed freelance writer however, so I sent a letter alongside the form explaining the nature of my work and that seemed to clear up any queries and blank spaces. Once all the paperwork was done all I had to do was start finding work!

Over the past 6 months I have predominately worked as a freelance writer, writing for online and print publications as well as writing a short piece for a book. I have also done sponsored posts for my blog, been paid for a quote given for another book and gained one photography job, so work has varied quite a bit! Most of my working hours are spent brainstorming and pitching pieces right now, on average I've gotten paid work around two times a month. I'm definitely finding that I need to try and widen the topics I write about to gain more freelance writing work.

Of course I have discovered the joy that is having to chase up invoices, I'd say so far I've had to chase up around 75% of my invoices, it's something I expected but it doesn't make it any easier to deal with! I'm lucky that I live at home and don't rely solely on my freelance work to pay my bills, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be a freelancer full time, there really is so much uncertainty.

I was asked a few questions on Twitter and Instagram about being self employed and a freelance writer and how that relates to my disability, so hopefully I've covered everything!

How do you pitch and how long does it take you to write a pitch?

Over the past few years I've been able to build up a lot of contacts that have really helped me out in these first 6 months. Through my blog I'd already written some pieces for online and print publications and so to get me started I really utilised those contacts where possible. When I have an idea I first work out which is the most appropriate publication for it, where it would fit best. If it's theatre related then this narrows things down quite easily but if it's disability related then there are often a few publications that spring to mind who take on such pieces. If I don't already have a contact there then it's time to get googling and find out who is the most appropriate person to contact. Sometimes places have a dedicated email for freelancers who want to pitch, which makes things easier but also it means you sometimes don't get a response because of the sheer volume of emails they receive. If this isn't the case then I try and hunt down the editors contact information. And then it's on to writing the pitch itself!

If I'm writing a pitch for a publication I've written for previously it doesn't take me quite as long because I don't need to introduce myself, these pitches usually take around 15 minutes to put together. If I'm contacting a publication for the first time however pitches usually take at least 30 minutes. I'll introduce myself, provide some relevant examples of my work and usually go into a little more detail about what I want to write about and why it would work well on their platform. Pitching really is about selling yourself and your piece and explaining why this particular piece would work well for their audience. I would also say to check on a publication's website to see if there have been any recent pieces similar to what you want to write about, if there are then I'd suggest pitching elsewhere unless you have a dramatically different angle!

How do you pace yourself? 

I have always been very bad at pacing, especially when it comes to writing. I've tried so many things over the years but when I'm in the flow of writing I often find it difficult to take a break and then return to the same flow afterwards. I try not to spend more than 30 minutes doing the same thing though, so I'll write for 30 minutes, take a break, and then maybe answer my emails for 30 minutes and take a break. I find this also helps my creativity, I've had writers block quite a bit and switching up what I'm doing and getting out the house has helped that a lot. It really is just about listening to my body though, if I wake up in the morning and I know that sitting at my desk is going to be difficult then I just won't work that day. The beauty of self employment means I don't have to stick to traditional working hours either, I rarely work before 11am and I do most of my work in the afternoon and evening.

How did you get into freelance writing?

I've been writing my blog for over 8 years now and for me that has really been the stepping stone to freelance writing. Starting your own blog really is my number one advice for anyone who wants to be a freelance writer, it gives you your own platform to develop your writing and find out what you're passionate about. At the very start, before I'd had much experience writing for publications, I was able to use my blog posts as examples of my work. In particular, posts such as my one about the plastic straw ban really demonstrated my journalistic skills. Writing for charities is also another way to gain more experience, my first piece of published writing was for a charity magazine. Even now I still write posts for places like Scope, it's unpaid but it keeps me writing and building up my experience, as well as getting my name out there. I've taken as many writing opportunities as I can over the years and that really has got me to where I am now, simply writing my own blog was what got me the opportunity to write an essay for a book. You never know where these things might lead you!

I am so glad that I finally made the decision to become self employed, it's been incredible to be able to spend so much time doing the thing I love most, and getting paid for it. No longer am I having to turn down opportunities, I can finally stop holding back and just go for things!

Monday, 24 February 2020

A Look Inside The Leeds Playhouse | Accessibility & Inclusion | AD

This post is an AD. 

Over these past few years I've experienced both ends of the spectrum when it comes to accessibility in theatres. There's been theatres I can't even get inside, theatres that are doing just enough and then there are those that set the bar higher than I could ever imagine. The theatres that make me feel like any other patron visiting to see a show, places where I don't necessarily need help from staff and don't have to use side entrances down dark side roads. When I find such a theatre I shout about them from the rooftops and that's exactly what I'm doing today after a recent trip to Leeds introduced me to somewhere that has an enthusiastic amount of passion when it comes to access.

The beginnings of the Leeds Playhouse came about in 1970 but the building that stands today was opened in 1990, back then it was called the West Yorkshire Playhouse with them making the decision to revert back to their original name in 2018. From the beginning they have been about more than just putting on shows, always pushing to be a producing theatre that serves it's local community. And often you'll find that an attitude like that is often accompanied by an attitude to open your doors to everyone, and this couldn't be truer when it comes to the Leeds Playhouse. After just over a year of refurbishment work they reopened their doors in October 2019 and I recently visited them to learn more about the astonishing physical work they've done, but also to see the other ways in which they champion accessibility and inclusion, including their upcoming co-production with Ramps On The Moon. 

The £15.8 million refurbishment had a key focus on improving access across the board, as well as creating a new city facing entrance that gives the theatre a contemporary feel to fit in with the rest of the city. The building itself is absolutely stunning and so welcoming. There are now several entrances to the theatre, all of which have step free access. The space inside is light and bright with spaces for the local community to enjoy the building, and having spoken to staff at the theatre about what they are striving to achieve, it sounds like the new space fits that vision a lot better now.

Of course, it's the access I'm interested in though, and the list of what they've achieved is impressive to say the least. There are lifts to all floors, plenty spacious enough for a powerchair user like myself. A total of 8 accessible toilets can be found throughout the building, as well as family cubicles and a Changing Places, something that is somewhat of a rarity to find in a theatre. There are 8 wheelchair spaces in the Quarry Theatre and the Courtyard Theatre, with more available on request, and accessible spaces in the brand new Bramall Rock Void theatre. There are also plenty of transfer seats with removable arms available too, so this is one theatre where booking a wheelchair space shouldn't be difficult! They also have 8 level access parking spaces, braille signs (with service dogs being more than welcome), low counters, hearing loops and more. Wheelchair users can now enter the theatres through the main auditorium doors as well for the first time. The whole space is such a breeze to get around as a wheelchair user!

When it comes to accessible performances they are ticking all the boxes once again too. Where possible all of their own productions have audio described, captioned and British Sign Language interpreted performances and as much as possible, a relaxed performance and dementia friendly performance too. They also try and schedule their show's press nights to be BSL interpreted to make reviewing of their shows more accessible, something that as a disabled theatre reviewer as I was over the moon to hear about. And this is where the second half of this post starts, it was amazing to tour the theatre and learn about the refurbishment but I was itching to get into their rehearsal room to take a peek at their upcoming production of Oliver Twist that is potentially the most accessible and inclusive show I have come across to date.

Oliver Twist is a co-production with Ramps On The Moon, a project that strives to make a positive change in the industry when it comes to the employment of disabled performers and creative teams, as well as encouraging a cultural change to make accessibility a central part of an organisations thinking. The show itself will feature the use of integrated creative sign language, audio description and captioning, and vitally it features disabled performers. In just the few hours I was in rehearsals I was utterly blown away. From a personal perspective it meant a great deal to see actors with such a diversity of disability perform a piece of theatre. I came away from it with a sense of joy and hope, but also a sense of frustration towards the industry because they demonstrated how easy it is to employ disabled actors. How easy it is to have several different BSL interpreters in the room, to describe things for someone who is visually impaired, to choreograph a chase scene with a wheelchair user. Everything worked and happened so flawlessly.

Speaking to Amy Leach, the director, I could see straight away how passionate she is about this production and accessibility in general. It was one of the most refreshing conversations I've ever had. Whilst this production isn't without it's challenges, it also isn't as difficult to put together as people might imagine. I was one of the only people in the room who didn't have at least a basic grasp of BSL, in the show Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Oliver and Bill Sikes are all deaf and so BSL is their dominant language which just works so well, as the idea of a gang having their own language is not a new concept. Everything just works so seamlessly. They have a cast of 13, with 3 BSL interpreters in the room, as well as a BSL consultant to help with visual storytelling and an audio description consultant to make sure visually impaired people always knows what is happening. They even have the most wonderful access dog, Ronny!

Productions like this are about proving to people that access is something that should just be part of the creative process. It's something I've talked about before from the perspective of physical access when seeing a show, when considering a venue for a show or even just a one off concert I'd love for accessibility to be up there with the financial aspect, capacity etc when it comes to choosing somewhere. Ramps On The Moon and the Leeds Playhouse are proving that access isn't about compromise, in fact it is something that can add to your production. Actors and creatives alike often come into the industry to be pushed and stretched, to see what can be achieved and accessibility and inclusion offers that opportunity. Everyone in that rehearsal room was having an immense amount of fun playing around with what worked and didn't work, and there was so much laughter when there were mishaps like one of the visually impaired actors bumping into a wheelchair user. To be in a room where no one is intimidated by the presence of so many disabled people was a joy.

I am so excited to see the progress they've made when the show opens and I implore you to give it a watch. It opens at the Leeds Playhouse this Friday, playing until 21st March, before embarking on a tour across the UK to the 5 other Ramps On The Moon theatres. If you want a glimpse at where theatre should evolve to in the future, this is where it's happening.

Book your tickets to see Oliver Twist at the Leeds Playhouse from Friday 28th February and visit the Ramps On The Moon website to book tickets for Ipswich, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and Stratford. 

Monday, 10 February 2020

Dear Evan Hansen | Review

Show rating: ★★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★★★

Dear Evan Hansen has to be one of the most highly anticipated shows to arrive in the West End, from the first announcements to the cast reveal, all eyes have been on this show. It's connected with people all over the world and despite not getting caught up in the hype, I was still intrigued as to what was drawing everyone into this emotional piece of theatre. It's a stripped back show with celebrated music and a small cast of just 8, but it feels enormous at times. The story follows Evan, a socially awkward teenager attempting to navigate his way through high school. He gets caught up in a lie though, a big lie, and we watch as this all unfolds. Social media plays a big part in this show too and the timing couldn't be more apt with conversations constantly happening about whether social media is a good thing or a bad thing.

I went into the show knowing what it's about but I think you forget until you're sat in the theatre how big the topics they're tackling are. Mental health, bullying, the breakdown of a family. It's hard hitting stuff folded between songs that can lift you up and just as quickly, send you hurtling back down to earth. I'm always hesitant when a shows most well known song comes along so early in the evening but whilst Waving Through A Window is certainly an incredible number, for me it's You Will Be Found, Good For You and Sincerely, Me that steal the show. Sometimes it felt like the stage was just a little too empty and there wasn't quite enough happening for my taste but these songs were scattered throughout the evening perfectly to pick things up.

I felt at times that Evan's social anxieties were perhaps being over acted and used as humour a little too often, sometimes it just wasn't necessary and it's not a show that needs to rely on such things so I was a little surprised by that choice. I'm also definitely someone who prefers a busier stage as well so things did feel a little quiet and empty occasionally due to the simple set. Lighting and sound is used frequently in place of a physical set, with the cast often being aided by just a chair and a laptop. It works, but for me it still felt as though something was missing. I didn't fall head over heels in love with this show but I certainly enjoyed it and in particular I was blown away by the cast.

Photos by Matthew Murphy

Sam Tutty is simply sensational and it's so refreshing to see a West End show being led by such fresh young talent.  Doug Colling shone out during Sincerly, Me as Connor Murphy and Lucy Anderson has the most beautiful voice that cuts through the silence in the audience. Rebecca McKinnis was just as convincing a parent as she was in Everybody's Talking About Jamie too, with So Big/So Small being a really beautiful and still moment amongst the chaos. I had first cover for Alana Beck on, the wonderful Courtney Stapleton who I know from previous shows and what a treat it was to see her perform, her characterisation was spot on and her voice was powerful at every opportunity.

There is so much that this show did well and I was surprised by how much I did enjoy it, but it's not one I'm bursting to see it again and even now I can't quite put my finger on why! I think it's a must watch though, the music really speaks for itself and hits so differently when it's being performed on stage versus listening to the cast recording. I can really see why so many do adore it!

As for the access, this was my first visit to the Noël Coward Theatre and so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I arrived at the entrance to theatre where security were able to radio through to find a member of staff to assist me through a different entrance to the theatre. The member of staff arrived and directed me to a door on the right hand side of the main entrance, which they opened from the inside to greet me. I knew that access to the foyer and seating was via a ramp but without photos (which even I forgot to take), you never really know how steep it was going to be. Now, if you've read my & Juliet review you'll know that I struggled with the steepness of the ramps at the Shaftesbury Theatre, this ramp wasn't quite as steep but it definitely wasn't a calm gradient! A manual wheelchair user and even some electric wheelchair users would certainly need assistance to use it, or just someone stood behind them for reassurance.

Ramp navigated I now had access to the foyer, where I could see the cast board (well, screen) and access the merchandise stand. Once the doors opened I was taken to my seat which was in Box M, the website cites the door to this box as being 68cm wide and I'd say that's pretty accurate so definitely give your wheelchair a measure before booking! It's a long thin box with a large 'window' at the end to view the stage. It's quite unique from other boxes I've sat in as it's positioned towards the back of the Royal Circle, rather than on the side of it and closer to the stage. It was a great view that I really couldn't complain about, especially as the access rate is £23.75 for this seat. I think perhaps whoever is sat closest to the stage might have a slight restriction as I was sharing the box with someone else and they had to lean forward every now and then. 

The standard accessible toilet is modern and spacious, it's right by where I entered the theatre so I'd use it before you pass through the foyer as it's small foyer that gets busy quickly and I had to be guided through the crowd by a member of staff to access the toilet before the show. Upon leaving we decided that if I wasn't in a rush then it was probably best to wait a few minutes before attempting to leave, which was definitely the right decision and made for a stress free exit. All I had to do was navigate the ramp, which was much easier going down, and then I was out! Other than perhaps the ramp I have to say it was quite a stress free visit! I was really impressed by the access rate price and the view from the box in particular. I can definitely see me returning in the future!

I think I can see this being a show I revisit later on in the year, perhaps on my second trip I will fall head over heels in love like others have! For now I appreciate the music and the talented cast, both of which are factors more than big enough for me to recommend a visit. 
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