What Really Worked In The JMK
I have been through a lot of application processes. Lots and lots. Anything from Arts Council England to small local funds to whatever the hell that awful, awful, godsawful self-glorifying—
But I digress.
The point is: I am not all too experienced as a director, but I am an experienced applicant. Also someone who, as a director, often is involved in running application processes. So here’s what the JMK got right:
1. Balance work to risk/reward
At some point I want to write this out into an equation, but basically:
The amount of work for an application should reflect both the likelihood of getting the reward, and the scale of said reward.
i.e. one should be willing to do more work if you’ve got a good chance of getting a big national contract than a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting a random unpaid gig that will get you nowhere.
The JMK nailed this.
Round 1: just three questions amounting to a production pitch and a C.V. Yes, I had to read a play, but what that meant was I got to read a number of really good plays, and the process after that was open enough that I could fairly rapidly get that done.
Time: about four hours reading, time idle dreaming, two to four hours writing. All over about a month (although I left it late).
Round 2: Workshop & design pitch for 20-ish longlisted directors. A one-day workshop for the longlisted candidates, largely training and support to try and help people get some development out of the process, followed by an (explicitly requested) one-meeting development process with the designer to make an additional page about the outcome of that process, and two pages of visual references.
Time: about six hours at the workshop, three-four hours design meeting, idle dreaming, three to four hours writing. All over about two weeks.
Round 3: one more designer meeting, then a 45-minute interview-and-presentation for each of the 8 shortlisted candidates.
Time: about two hours design meeting, idle dreaming, 45 minute interview. All over about two weeks.
Final round: a workshop with actors, lasting about three hours. I didn’t get to this final stage; around four people did. All over about a week.
All in all, I hope you can see that at each stage, the amount of work went up, but in proportion with the chance of possible reward. Indeed, from Round 2 onwards, each person involved already had a reward of being longlisted or shortlisted.
By the JMK being clear about how much work was wanted at each stage, it meant I didn’t obliged to slaughter myself with sleepless nights in order to compete with those who had the time to manage four days’ work on their Round 2 pitch.
Throughout, I had a slightly-more-than-full-time set of jobs (not artsy ones, but jobs). It was still possible to manage the obligations of the JMK Award on my journeys into work, odd days off, and so on. Admittedly, I’m lucky that I do not have caregiving responsibilities etc., but the incremental approach outlined above was way better for me than, say, a five-day application-writing process for The Funder That Does Not Fund.
2. Feedback, Support, and a Useful Process
An obvious one that people always come back to, but: from Round 2 onwards, there was feedback for what you’d submitted before (always useful, but especially to focus what you were putting in to the next round).
That’s a common one; I think what’s rather wonderful here was that at every stage, an active offer was made to reach out for support or with further questions when needed, and it was always answered.
Often that’s available, but people don’t say it out loud (from the backend, I’ve definitely heard people admit that that’s in the hope of not having too much extra work). Having an open and honest account of what was available really helped level the playing field, rather than tilting it against those who’d feel a bit awkward asking for help.
And for those who don’t: I’m sorry, but while it is certainly arguable that people should be more confident asking for help, right now, facts-on-the-ground, some people aren’t who are perfectly good applicants.
In the underpinning of all of that was an obvious desire to make the entire process a useful one; a chance to learn more about how to prepare a show for production and be able to practice doing so. In contrast to, say, funding applications which are often a chance to learn more about asking someone for money.
A really intangible one, this, but: I felt like everyone at the JMK believed in what they were doing, and more especially that what they were doing was wanting to support directors (and designers). What that meant was that there’s a sense of good faith: even when I didn’t get the Award, I did believe that it was going to be given out by people whose judgement I trusted.
And along the way, that I believed I could just do what I wanted to do, rather than contort my directing to try and guess what the shadows wanted.
It’s an impossible one to exactly define, but I suspect it’s because it was manifested throughout and informed all of their actions.
What Could Be Better?
Just because I think it’s always a good question to ask:
1. Some of the interview questions were indicated in advance. I’ve not been through such a process myself, but having heard some people talk about having all their questions indicated in advance (other than those in response to the presentation), that does sound like it helps preparation rather than assessing ability to roughly answer on the fly.
I’d want to be clear: the supportive environment of the interview meant that I didn’t feel I had to, which is both rare and wonderful. When I needed clarification, it was freely given.
2. Mode of Assessment. The early rounds of the JMK Award were done through reading and writing (and, if memory serves, video submissions were an option). I know at least one of the past winners has been dyslexic, and access arrangements were always on offer, which was good to see.
From a resource standpoint, practical work is a nightmare to do. But equally, I’d have been pleased to see a chance to show what I’m like a rehearsal room sooner, even if just for a quarter-hour. The feeling of people in a room together is odd, and difficult to quantify, but one that does, I think, make up a large part of what a director is.
Again, to be clear: I think a lot of the interview questions helped focus on that, and it was covered. But I did miss the chance to show what I can do and be in a room.
But overwhelmingly, the best process I’ve been in, where I always knew what was being assessed, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Indiana Lown-Collins’ production of The Solid Life of Sugar Water after the whole process is done.
Especial congratulations to her for a winning speech that made me feel, wholeheartedly, that while I was upset not to get it, it's because the person who did get it was absolutely the sort of creative who deserved to get it.