Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
I’m Oliver Sykes. I’m a Children’s Author, Writer/Performer and Theatre Producer. My debut children’s book, Alfie’s First Fight, came out in spring 2022. My second children’s book, Fishing For Rainbows, will come out on National Single Parents’ Day (21 March 2023), and I have a collection of children’s poetry called We Are Family coming out in autumn 2024.
I’m also about to embark on a 50-date national tour of my debut one-man show, Alfie’s First Fight, for children aged 5+ and their families – which I have booked and manage.
What does your job involve? What happens on a typical day?
When I’m writing, I’m WRITING. I usually carve out six hours from 6 am-12 pm each weekday (weekends are family time). I’m usually sat at my lovely desk on a comfy chair surrounded by lots of pens and felt-tips, coloured post-it notes, flip-chart paper and my trusty MacBook Pro! Throughout the day, I loosely schedule walks and tea-breaks, as that’s when I get my best ideas!
From 12 pm onwards, I’m usually ‘producing’, which can involve anything from answering emails, posting on social media, initiating projects, writing promotional material (like this!), doing afternoon school visits, running workshops and masterclasses, mentoring artists, tour booking, budgeting, booking hotels, the list goes on and on and on.
I really enjoy turning my children’s stories into theatre shows. Luckily for me, my audiences are really enjoying my theatre shows too. This year, I’ll be travelling up and down the country to 50 of my favourite venues to perform my one-man show, Alfie’s First Fight. Sometimes, I’ll perform the show to 50-60 people at an amateur boxing club or a library and sometimes I’ll perform the show to 250+ people in a theatre, so my days are really varied.
What’s great about what you do?
There are so many amazing things! But I particularly love the writing process! From scribbling down little notes to crystallising the message of a story, from creating characters to planning story arcs – I find the whole process of discovering a story absolutely fascinating.
Once I have a finished manuscript (which can take a LONG time!), I love the process of then turning a story into a published book, collaborating with editors, illustrators and designers, working with them to bring an artistic vision to life is very, very special.
I also love doing school visits and readings, talking on panels and performing live. But ultimately, THE DREAM COME TRUE for me is giving kids from similar backgrounds to mine opportunities to actually see themselves and their experiences represented on the page and on the stage, because it opens up whole new worlds of possibility. I love doing free shows and to date I have gifted 6,000 books to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What are the toughest parts of your job?
Making sure I don’t burn myself out is probably the toughest part of my job. I’m a very ambitious person. I always strive for excellence in my work. Delivering creative projects often involves collaborating with upwards of 20 organisations and artists all at one time. And I’m often working on multiple projects at once i.e. writing a book, managing the Production of a book, booking a tour, touring a show, etc.
To combat burn out, I exercise regularly (dog walking everyday, going out running, and I try to spend two evenings a week training at the local amateur boxing club). I also carve out time to spend with my family, and most importantly, when I’m feeling under pressure, I ask for help!
What are the highlights of your career to date?
As Lead Artist & Producer for Stories Of Care (a writing and outreach organisation based in Manchester, founded by Sophie Willan), I spent two years supporting an exceptional group of new and exciting young writers from low-income, single-parent and care-experienced backgrounds to tell their first short story for children. Watching this cohort of young people bond together and grow together was a real honour.
Launching my debut children’s book, Alfie’s First Fight, at Manchester Library was also a very special day. In the afternoon, I performed a free theatre show for three school groups (who absolutely loved it!), and then I went for a family meal, before coming back to the library to launch the book in the evening. The free-evening event was hosted by the amazing Ric Michael, and included inspiring keynote talks from Sophie Willan and Stacey Copeland, as well as an interview with myself and Illustrator, Ian Morris. It was so much fun!
What's been the biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
In 2017, having spent six years working fifty-to-sixty hour weeks as a Theatre Producer, I was well-and-truly burnt out. I was working as a freelance producer at the time, and I was struggling to get out of bed, let alone keep on top of my work. Soon, I had to move out of my lovely, homely flat in Salford into a grubby little studio apartment in Whalley Range – because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent. It was at this point that I decided to ask for help. I signed up for Counselling on the NHS and I saw a Counsellor within a week. I went to counselling two-times a week for over a year, and I still go now. The best piece of advice I was given was to return to boxing training – I was advised to start going to Moss Side Fire Station Boxing Club (which I did) and it soon became the safe haven from which I started to re-build my life. It re-taught me the importance of resilience, discipline, courage and community.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
From a very young age, I was always involved in the arts. I was a member of the local am-dram club and I performed in lots of school plays. I studied English Literature and Drama and Theatre Studies at College. Then, I went on to read Theatre Studies at Lancaster University, where I graduated with a first class degree.
At the time, I thought I was flying high, but it was only after I graduated that I realised I was in big trouble. Getting a first class degree didn’t alleviate financial barriers (like I was told it would). It didn’t help with the limited pathways into the arts or the inequality and social exclusion that exists in the industry. I’d tried my best, I’d succeeded, and yet, I was still stuck.
Without a job, I was forced to move back home. For six months, I was on the dole, but eventually I managed to get a job working as a factory operative on a production line making brakes for cars. It was loud, repetitive and mind-numbingly boring, but I stuck at it, and a year later, an opportunity came my way. It was a paid-internship working as a Trainee Producer at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, funded by the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursary Scheme. A talent development initiative, which created new, paid, entry-level roles in the arts for graduates. I applied, got an interview, got selected, and that was that. A sweet escape!
Have you noticed any changes in the industry in recent times? If so, what?
It’s getting harder for everybody involved in the arts and, of course, every industry across the UK and beyond. One thing I’ve noticed is that many independent artists are choosing to develop their producing skills, which I think shows real initiative and ambition.
How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career?
My background, being raised on the breadline by a single-parent dad, has had a profound impact on my artistic career. The stories I choose to tell now all explore the experiences and challenges that children from low-income, single parent backgrounds face.
Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl is my favourite children’s book of all time. Reading this book was a key moment in my childhood and my education as it was the first time I felt like I saw myself represented in a book: a young motherless child being raised by his single-parent dad. Seeing myself on the page made me realise I could write and tell stories too – children like me could even be the main character – and it empowered me to start writing and telling stories of my own!
It’s also given me the desire to support others. As an author, I want to provide comforting and relatable stories for children and young people, but as an artist and activist, I want to do so much more. I want to empower children and young people with the confidence, the tools and the courage to stand up, tell their own stories and make a difference about the causes they believe in.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa
Do you have any advice for young people interested in your field?
- Look after yourself.
- Care for others, and they will care for you too.
- Give back!
- Collaboration and partnership-working is the future!
- If you treat your career like a race or a competition, you’ll never be satisfied. Instead, treat it like a leisurely stroll – don’t forget to stop, explore and admire the view.
- If you want to be a writer, explore your childhood – it’s an treasure trove!
- Have fun!
Where can people find you and your work online?
The best place to find out more about me, purchase books and buy tickets to my live shows is my website: www.oliver-sykes.com