Ava is a theatre writer & essayist from London. Who says that most of her best material is born on a yoga mat, ’cause when someone tells her not to think about anything her rebel brain does the opposite.’
I can’t even remember what we were talking about, because it doesn’t matter. You know those great friendships where you can just say things without any fear of how it’ll land? It’s one of those. I just remember a somewhat fiery back and forth, jabbing at each other, seeing who’d be the first to crack, and laugh, and get the next round of drinks. Me, it turns out. I must have said something about how I knew best, and how I didn’t need him to agree ‘cause I could be brilliant all on my own, and my friend Paul laughed, and came straight back (joking, of course. My friends aren’t horrible) with “Babe, I created you”.
And yeah, he did, actually. They all did.
The concept of a hero was always a conflicted one for me, purely because something about the old fairytale cliche of the woman (although fairytales never call them women, do they? They’re always princesses or girls. Weird) waiting for her prince never sat right. It’s a position of weakness, isn’t it, even if it’s meant with the best of intentions? By classifying somebody a hero, you’re placing them on a pedestal, and yourself beneath them. The more I think about it, though, as I get older and realise that fairytales are about as relevant to every day life as the idea that men are the superior sex, the more I’ve realised that my rejection of ‘heroes’ as a notion doesn’t for a second mean I haven’t been shaped, and encouraged, and yeah, created by the people around me almost my entire life.
As a theatre writer, I’ve always said that anyone who has ever read a part in one of my scripts will be in those words somewhere forever. Maybe I’ll steal their inflection and use it in the stage directions for the next draft. Maybe they’ll replace a word and it’ll sound better, so I’ll pretend that’s what I meant in the first place. Maybe, as has happened, they’ll question something I thought I was sure of and open up a whole world. Writing is stealing, in that sense, and I think life is too. As my work has grown because of the people who have been a part of it, so have I. Just a sequence of tiny sporadic moments that you maybe don’t even acknowledge at the time can be pretty transformative. We take little pieces of wisdom, or tiny pearls of advice, and in what we choose to do with those offerings, we sometimes find magic.
When my youngest sister was born, my mum’s friend Judith sent a feminist postcard. I tell you that only to emphasise the fact that I was always surrounded by cool people. Every time I have a somewhat deep conversation with my Dad, he says “never stop running or writing” (he thinks I run more than I do. He used to say singing. I stopped singing. He adapted). This encouragement was so commonplace for me growing up that it wasn’t until I started working in theatre that I had to stop and consider that maybe in some situations it… wasn’t. There are some worlds where you don’t automatically get to hang with the good guys. Sometimes you have to look for your people if you want to find them.
I’ve learned it’s almost essential to find them.
I don’t need to reiterate here that there will be people who want to see you fail. You all know. You’ve all been there. In competitive industries, especially as women, people will pretend to be your friend when things are going well because they want a good story for when it all goes wrong. It’s horrendous. Let’s stop talking about it.
I was going to say that those awful people make it all the sweeter when you meet the good ones. The ones who, if they’re up on a pedestal, will pull you up there with them. The ones who encourage you, and are your public cheerleaders, and say “have you met my friend?” to people they think can help you. I was going to say that, but then I realised that diminishes how wonderful the good ones are. They’re not great in comparison. They’re just great.
I’ve learned so many things from my personal “sheros”. The people who have carried me through, and kept me going, and taken chances on me in every way from letting me give them advice to letting me write their shows.
There’s this one friend of mine who I’m pretty sure has a direct line to a part of my brain I don’t always know how to access. I’ll say something about myself I’m sure is original and revelatory, and he has a habit of saying “yeah, obviously”, like it was always apparent I’d figure out whatever had been bugging me, and work through it. It’s a quiet sort of encouragement; an affirmation that is silent until the very moment I need to hear it. A Shero can have a quiet strength. It isn’t about being the one who shouts the loudest.
There’s this performer I have admired since the very first day I decided I wanted to work in theatre. She takes no prisoners, and says what she means, and only praises work she really believes in. She told me once that she was amazed at the way I held my own in a room with other writers both much older and much more experienced than me. That meant the world. What meant more is that I know she said it to other people too, when I wasn’t listening. Encouragement isn’t about saying things for attention. It’s about championing the people and works you believe in. Among the many things I learned from her, I hold tight to that one.
Sometimes it’s about being tough, and not letting the people you love go easy on themselves. Last year I was wallowing and wanted someone to give me a cuddle and a glass of wine and tell me everything was going to be ok. Instead, another Shero, bored of listening to my lament, said “You’re great at this. Now shut up, put your power lipstick on, and go and show them what you’re made of”. He knew that sometimes, when it comes down to fight or flight, the fighter needs a push.
Shero’s aren’t sent to save us. Having them on your side doesn’t mean you get to coast, just letting them carry you. These are the people who make us want to fight; who inspire us to be our best; who promise us we’ve got this, if only we keep working hard, and somehow having them believe that makes it true. They’re an alternative to an idol: far more interesting, far more flawed, far more human. Who wants the prince on the white horse anyway, when everyone knows the most interesting character in any fairytale is the witch?
It’s a fact that as women, it’s harder to be taken seriously. We may be breaking glass ceilings these days, but a lot of the time that means fighting through the shards that fell on us when our male counterparts beat us to it. That said, my femininity, and my identity as a creative woman, has always been my strongest suit, even when people were telling me it was my fatal flaw. That’s because I know to put on my power lipstick when I need a little bit of fight, and that I’m good at what I do, and that I can walk in to a room with giants and hold my own. The postcard that says “it’s really great being a girl” is, I think, still on my parents bathroom wall 23 years later.
Whatever happens I know I’ve got this, because if I have any success as an artist with a blank page, it is in huge part because when I was a blank page, these people were the artists.