Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Back in London after a few days in Oxfordshire. In between catching up with friends and relations I've had some time to read and begin to put together some of the lectures for next semester's Theatre in Context course. Mostly I've been re looking at Michael Billington's State of the Nation, Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain and Richard Eyre's Changing Stages, to get a sense of the London theatre scene just after the war. Dominic Shellard has a new book out called The Golden Generation and Peter Gill's short, but incisive, Apprenticeship have also helped me get a picture of the years between VE day and 'Look Back in Anger'.
On Tuesday I went hunting the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue and St.Martins Lane, so that I could picture where each production took place. The New (now the Coward) Theatre where Olivier and Richardson's first post-War Old Vic productions blazed - and The Globe (now the Gielgud) where Binkie Beaumont sat in his flat and surveyed his Universe. It's a strange world, The West End.
Met up with friends, Kris and Emma and bought a £10 ticket in the Gods for Avenue Q at the Coward. I knew what I was doing, but still left in shock.
The show is moribund in the extreme, as horrific a nostalgia as an eighties School Disco and regressive to the point of nausea. Cute Muppet puppets turned into neurotic post-college twenty somethings. Sex in the City done by Sesame Street. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition joke is over after the first chorus of the first song - 'It Sucks to be Me' and then we're into tasteful taboo breaking with tracks like 'The Internet is for Porn', 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist' etc etc. You get the game!
I guess this is modern Coward. Populist, reactionary, devoid of the world beyond the fringed curtain and the velvet veil. In its packaged consumerist escapism, it makes me feel deeply sad. If it were a TV programme I'd probably veg out and watch - but why bother to go out and see stuff like this? Why bring couch potato TV to the stage? It's been running for two and a half years.
Kris didn't make it past the interval.
Thursday, 25 December 2008
Sad news of the death of Harold Pinter this afternoon. When artists die it feels as if the world stops for a second and takes a moment to realign. The knowledge that nothing more will come from their imagination, I suppose.
Pinter was truly original. I remember at University him being compared unfavourably with Beckett. The latter, we were boldly told by one academic, would have books published about him for centuries to come; whereas Pinter? A footnote, if that. The comparison and the put down were both unfair. Beckett's struggle was with the air; but whatever the altitude, if the joke is thin, the audience can always disengage. Pinter's plays wrestle with the earth, it's hard for the audience not to get muddied by the experience.
Where he stands masterfully alone as a playwright is in his perfect use of empathic communion - his understanding of our need to talk, regardless of whether we have anything to say. In the world of his plays dialogue is neither about efficient communication nor poetic re imagining. It's simply territorial, an assertion to others that we exist and proof to ourselves that we have not gone mad. In this context the choice to speak openly, to repeat a phrase, to remain silent, or to control your intervention in exchange becomes as poised as a martial art.
Behind it all is the torture of missed connection, of loneliness and a burning desire for a more complex understanding of our capacity for intimacy. It's optimistic to dream of fulfilment and I feel this basic human yearning whenever I see his plays in production.
I never felt Pinter was violent or threatening, just deeply, deeply disappointed to the point of barely suppressed rage. In this spirit he produced a language that smashed through the banal to a new understanding of our dysfunctional social state. He both mirrored and parodied through the cruel reticence of his characters.
In the real world, though, he was a great, unambiguous and angry moral voice, booming loud and clear in opposition to militarism and speaking always in support of those he felt could not be heard. As a wonderful orator his great gift is to make us see the visceral power of words, not as metaphors, but as flashes of lightning, capable, if used sparingly in the correct context, of harnessing and redistributing power - at an anti war rally, a family reunion or a birthday party.
Sunday, 21 December 2008
All out for Christmas now with the last two gigs at Ham House safely out the way. It's time to recharge, eat lots of food, catch up with friends, read, sleep and NOT think too much about the department.
We were two actors down for this last weekend, so David stepped up from Ferdinand to Prospero and Ed picked up Ferdinand. Jade replaced Christine as Gonzalo and we cut the Caliban puppet, which took three actors to manipulate and just gave Lena full range as the actor.
David was given a couple of hours rehearsal with full company on Wednesday and a solo call on Friday, but it was still a big ask to make the jump.
On Saturday he was still finding his feet, but did magnificently until the 'Ye Elves of hills' speech.
He started well enough and got through the first line, but then I saw the confidence slip from his eyes and a look a dread sprawl across his face. as the colour drained from his cheeks. For a moment he was blank... but to his credit he kept talking, plucking words, lines, phrases from anywhere and everywhere
'Ye elves of hills, standing lakes and ... umm groves... and brooks... yes, that's right there are brooks....ummm ....And ummm you ... you ... you demi puppets... you ... ummm ... Azure! Azure!! Azure!!! the green vaulted fires of the pine and ringleted ewe.'
By now, realising that as long as he threw a menacing presence and kept a sense of incantation in his tone he would probably get away with anything, the confidence returned. He was back in his flow, maybe even enjoying himself, as he continued to cast his ludicrous spell over the audience.
'Beware... Beware... the light from yonder balcony... if music be ... thats the question ... magic mushrooms.... think no ummm no no more on this... all is mended.... unto the breach then and if I have to austerely punished you... Farewell. For this rough magic I here abjure....phew! Nearly there. I'll drown my book.'
At the end of the show I've never seen an actor get out of their costume quicker.
Have a wonderful Christmas!
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
There's a couple of days still to go, but I figured it might be good to try and look back over 2008 for the department - it's been a year!
The major development has been the successful launch of the three pathways: Applied Theatre, Theatre Arts and Physical Theatre and despite some teething problems - it's clear that the new structure is proving popular, helping students' focus, from their earliest weeks at University, on the training that they'll need in order to really have a chance of making an impact in the theatre industry. There have been some teething problems and a certain disjointedness, particularly in marrying the lecture/seminar courses to the pathways, but overall it feels like progress.
By introducing warm ups four days a week and giving over two full days to practical work we think we're offering a much more realistic programme to the students. Attendance and punctuality have also improved as self -discipline improves and the culture slowly shifts.
The knock effect has benefited second and third year students, as the three appointments we made in 2008 (Annabel, Ian & Matt) have increased our capacity to create a professional standard of performance practice. There still some gaps. The students don't have sufficient vocal training and this is sometimes apparent in their shows, but the standard is rising.
The appointment of Kieran, Matt C, Tilly & Dave as Graduate assistants has also helped support the practical work and, as recent graduates themselves, they've been able to offer very understanding support to the new crews, particularly during the induction weeks.
It's been a good year for graduate Directors - Andy Brunskill took up an assistant post at The Orange Tree and Stef O'Driscoll's brilliant Yard Gal, which won critics choice in Time Out, is still out there, with a transfer to the Hackney Empire planned for February.
The graduate performers didn't do so badly either Joe Castagna walked straight into a supporting role opposite Joan Rivers in the West End and Rachel Barrett, has just been picked up by a casting agent working for the BBC. Jade Parker, continues to tour internationally with Cancer Tales, whilst finishing her Performance MA at Arts Ed. Sarah Hall also won a converted place at this Drama School.
Elsewhere Ange Anson, head hunted by the Royal Opera House to join their LX crew, decided to postpone employment in favour of an MA at Central. Whilst Stevie Boreham joined Andy at The Orange Tree working as a wardrobe mistress. Beyond the theatre work eight graduates have gone off to complete PGCE courses. The future's bright in their hands.
There's been a lot of work in our own spaces too, with memorable productions in the Spring of Woyzek, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Kasia's Too Loud a Solitude. These were followed this Autumn by Tina's beautiful Day and Night Happen installation for the SMarts festival, Destination GB, created by our in-house Los Banditos company, and the Shakespeare festival, currently running. The building itself has been transformed with a new foyer, retractable seating block and signage. Yesterday work began backstage on showers and an additional dressing room. We're getting there.
Lots of top visitors to the Uni. Old friends, Clean Break, Cardboard Citizens, NIE and The Comedy School - but lots of great actors, directors, designers and critics including: Lucy Pitman Wallace, Ian Redford, Michael Billington, Sean Foley, Marcello Magni, Lyn Darnley, Mervyn Miller, John Retallack, Jon Holloway and Sam Walters have all delivered masterclasses.
Our profile has been rising internationally Kasia and I both spent time in Viterbo University, Wisconsin and an agreement has been signed to enable student exchanges between our institutions from September 2009. Meanwhile Matt is continuing to work on our partnership with Theatre for a Change and the University of Mzuzu, who will host our students in Malawi from 2011.
Matt's other African adventure took him to South Africa to interview the comrades imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island about their favourite passages from the Complete works of Shakespeare, smuggled into the prison. It'll be fascinating to see how this work develops in 2009.
Locally we've also been very active, with a further five TIE shows touring Richmond Schools and a developing partnership with the National Trust, that has led to the Helios project in Spring and the ongoing child friendly version of The Tempest at Ham House. Over 1,000 kids have worked with our students in follow up workshops. Meanwhile the MA Directors ran their showcase at BAC in June.
Next year's already shaping up, with the MA Physical Theatre being launched in September, and the possibility of developing a technical theatre pathway to support the rest of the work. TIE projects are being planned with Hounslow schools, culminating in a Chiswick Park gig in May. The RSC, visiting our friends at Richmond Theatre with The Tempest, will run a teachers INSET with us in March. The third year creative collaborators and directors festivals in February, Kasia's third year advanced acting production in Spring and the MA Directors return to BAC in June. We're also entering new partnerships with DeSales University in Pennsylvania and further research trips to Malawi for both Matt and myself ...
After a little nap ... Bring it on !!!
Monday, 15 December 2008
The premise of the work is to take Shakespeare as a stimulus for thirty minutes of performance - be that through adaption, excerpt or retelling.
The first bill, which will be repeated tomorrow evening featured a clubbed together slapstick version of rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Goneril, Regan plot from King Lear and a sea shanty version of Pericles. Later in the week we'll have a dance piece based on Ophelia's funeral, a cropped version of Hamletmachine and an American short imagining a meeting between Juilet, Portia and Katherine from Taming of the Shrew.
Elsewhere The Times have published this article, which begins to redress the injustice of the tabloid attacks on The Comedy School.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
I was nervous returning to the work, yesterday, especially when the company fell (I think that's the right word) in, fresh, but non too fragrant, from Friday's College Ball. To give them their due, if the students did feel worse for wear, they certainly masked it in performance, giving a sell out audience - we turned twenty away (including some St. Mary's students) - a great show.
Today was Leon and Christine's last shows(they're both unavailable next weekend) and they went out in real style. In fact the whole company continues to do itself proud. When Ham's regular face painter failed to show this morning, Lena and Carolina stepped smartly into the breach and saved the day - knocking out 50 or so tigers, spidermen, butterflies and dragons in just over an hour before they had to go and set up the props and lights.
The show is so popular - all the tickets had gone 45 minutes before curtain this afternoon - that we're looking to meet demand with a second house for the two remaining gigs next weekend. By that point we'll have rehearsed in a new Prospero and Gonzalo.
Thursday, 11 December 2008
We've operated a no extensions policy in the Drama department for a while now. It seems to suit both students and staff and ensures work comes to us early rather than squeaking in on deadline day.
The University have decided now to introduce a form to allow students to apply for extensions - however departmental discretion will continue to operate. Thus, the form is filled out by the student and then sent to administrator Sue, who passes it on the relevant programme director. This Programme director then fills in a form refusing the extension and this is given back, via Sue, to the student. It's a much better system!
Yesterday was another crazy day - but fine relief in the evening at Theatre 503 where my friend Lara is appearing in Barbershopera, which had great critical acclaim in Edinburgh, leading to this run.
I went along with Lara's flatmate Vix, fresh and apparently unscathed from working on Imagine This, and met up with another old friend Matt, who's working as art director on Holby City. In previous lives all of us were part of the Bare and Ragged company that each summer used to flood the Edinburgh fringe with eight to ten shows of varying quality. In the days before we all got sensible-ish jobs, it was riotous good fun.
The show is a blast! Tony and the Guys, one barber shop singer down, for the Eurovision Christmas Barber Shop Contest, draft in an Opera Singer to make up the numbers and overcome their arch rivals, the ruthless -(in accapella singing at any rate)- Swiss.
It's all very silly and very stupid, but so full of giggles and clever fooling that you can't help but leave the auditorium with a huge smile on your face. Irresistible stuff!
Afterwards lots of plaudits for Lara in the bar. We tried not to show it too much, but, she was very good, and we were all very proud of her.
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
In December 1988 I went, as a first year undergraduate, to see David Hare's The Secret Rapture at the National Theatre. I remember a brilliantly made play, which tried to personify through the two protagonists, two distinct psychological states. Marion, a rising government Minister represented all the was flawed in the self-interested culture of Thatcher's late government, whereas Isobel in her liberal goodness represented an alternative humane, generous and compassionate way of being. When Isobel is shot and killed late on in the play, the message is clear - that these two states cannot co-exist and that in a society motivated by greed, the 'goodness' that naturally exists in people dies young.
Twenty years on, the same playwright, in the same theatre returns to the theme with Gethsemane. Meredith, a New Labour, Home Secretary picks up the assured baton of composite political pragmatism and is counter pointed by the ridiculously over virtuous Lori, her wayward daughter's teacher, who has given up the day job - too much paperwork - and begun busking on the District line.
My feeling is that this would have been a radical and exciting play ten years ago - but a dialectical argument between the forces of good and evil feels as outdated as monetarism. It also makes me think that Hare either pedestals or condemns his women characters. It's Shavian. It's moral. It needs complication and contradiction to fire the debate.
The play does give a voice, sometimes unbelievably, to the private machinations of politicians, journalists, party fund raisers and even the noble teacher. I learnt nothing, however, that was shocking, unexpected or revealing about the power structures governing our world. At heart I felt was Hare's sentimental research for a soft socialist utopia that never quite happened - a world where roles were clear, popular culture knew its place and we could say what we mean and relax in each others' company.
Perhaps these are the basic tenants of civilisation, perhaps we need the reminder, perhaps also we need to accept that those in power seek privilege as much as they seek to serve and move to a new debate about what we expect from our public servants.
Monday, 8 December 2008
The Helios project, which we put together in Ham House last June, has won the Walpole award for teaching and learning. I'm well chuffed - particularly as the work had real student ownership. I picked up the award from the Principal, at the feast day lunch, but last year's Drama in the Community students deserve the credit.
The facebook group we set up is still active, so I was able to write and tell them about their success and had some happy responses by closing time this evening. It's a rewarding way to end the year.
After work I went with Matt to the Orange Tree to see Leaving, the Vaclav Havel play, that's been in rep for most of the Autumn. It's most odd and I'm not sure I really got my head round it. Essentially it's a piece which fuses King Lear, The Cherry Orchard and Havel's own musings about leaving office, but I found the humour hard to translate and the pace of the piece seemed too slow to support the witty lines.
Occasionally Havel's disembodied voice comes across the PA system offering advice to the actors or questioning his own intentions - like the director's commentary on a DVD - but after a while this also interrupts what little flow there is.
It's self deprecating autobiography and fine for that, but I'd be more interested in less insular play about the future of the Czech Republic or the psychological effects of retirement, rather than this cerebral pathos.
Sunday, 7 December 2008
Allie, who plays Trinculo has a phobia about balloons, which, until we realised how the very sight of one could make her pathologically violent, had been a source of some amusement for the company.
Today she met a fellow traveller in Elisabeth, one of the house's volunteers assigned to us today on stewarding duty. The two balloon-phobics greeted each other as if twins, separated at birth and were quickly into a discussion as to the root of their problem.
Elisabeth, was a war baby and thinks she learnt in the womb (her mother was caught up in a huge London bombing raid when heavily pregnant and she has been petrified of sudden bangs - or things that can cause sudden bangs- all her life.)The fear is apparently genuine and leads to trauma, angst, fainting and screming fits.
Allie sat nodding her head, looking round with a 'I told you all I wasn't mad' smile of content on her face.
As balloons play a significant part in the production I advised Elisabeth to try and get a transfer to another part of the house, maybe swapping her responsibilities with a different steward. She thanked me and went off to find Sarah, who was co-ordinating the volunteer army. She was back within minutes, white and shaking. We gave her a glass of water and eventually she told us what had happened.
'Sarah,' she'd said 'I wonder if I could not do The Tempest this afternoon?'
'Sure,' Sarah replied 'ummm any reason?'
'Ahhh... I'd rather not say. It would just be for the best if I could do another room!'
'Well, ok' said Sarah, 'Diana who's setting up in the scullery needs a hand. Could you do that'
'Oh thank you...of course, thank you so much.'
And so Elisabeth went off, relieved, to the scullery, where she found Diana struggling to lug in a big, heavy, suitcase.
'Diana? I'm Sarah. I'm a house volunteer, here to help you out, anything you need, just ask me.'
'Oh that's great' said Diana, heading for the corridor 'I could do with an assistant, I do tend to get overrun by the children, sometimes I even run out of resources. I'll get the other bag from the car, but could you open up the case and start setting up'
'Sure,' said Elisabeth, unlocking the case 'by the way... what do you do?'
'Oh' shouted Diana, as Elisabeth lifted the lid and realised her worst nightmare, 'I'm a balloon modeller!!!!'
Saturday, 6 December 2008
The last two days have flown by, but I think the show has has gone up successfully and we can build from here.
Friday ended up being a bitty day as students were juggling their call at Ham with lectures back at College and access to the Hall was shared with the army of volunteers who'd been brought in to dress the Christmas tree and garland the balconies.
Still we got through and even managed a tired dress towards the end of the evening.
Today was wonderful. A beautiful crisp Winter's morning, plenty of business at the House's Christmas market, the punters quickly snapping up the few remaining tickets for the show, ensuring a full house.
We lost two children early on as the loud bangs for The Tempest took them by surprise and their parents had to take them out. It's a tricky one - how do create a calming storm? We've agreed tomorrow to try and limit the noise, by moving Fahad on drums to the upstairs balcony and having Jade, one of the ever skillful puppeters, do a pre-show practice so all the children have a warning of the loud noises to come.
Apart from that it was a great success and the feedback was excellent. The company cleared and we were out by 3pm.
This was an unexpected bonus - (in my mind I'd cleared the day for The Tempest and had, for the first time in a while, time to kill) - so, as it's round the corner, I ended up walking through Richmond park with Carolina, who's been assistant director on the show. For a while we followed a herd of red deer, keeping pace and distance, they're amazing animals. It's the first time off for a few weeks - and a huge weight seemed to lift from my shoulders, escaping to the park for an hour or so was great.
Got back to Twickenham in time to catch the end of the Italian market in Church Street and the open artists' studios on Eel Pie Island. For the first time this Winter I saw the end of term approaching.
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Alistair and Paul did a great job with the get in on Wednesday afternoon whilst the Tempest company ran their final rehearsals back on campus, which meant we were in perfect shape to tech this evening in the Great Hall.
The company have really come together now and we worked with great focus and efficiency in the limited time available to us. As night drew in and the room became lit by candles and torches we really began to feel the potential of the work.
Hester and Angelica,the children who live, with their parents, in the attic flats at the top of the house, came down to see what was going on and it was great to watch them fascinated by the shipwreck and enchanted by Ariel as he swooped in and out of the chandeliers. Acoustically, the hall is so supportive of the verse that the subtlest nuances are now carrying and filling out the story with ever more detail.
The company have been exemplary, punctual, polite and completely focused on the job of relocating, what, because of the visual nature of puppetry, is a complicated and precise show to run.
There's still much to do and we'll be all day tomorrow to make sure we've a real sense of ownership over both our material and the space, in order to be ready for the great imponderable, the audience; but we made excellent progress today.
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Somehow we've arrived in production week for The Tempest. I'm never quite sure how that happens.
We had a solid rehearsal last night and have cut the running time to 35 minutes - which isn't bad seeing as we've a shipwreck, love affair, liberation, several punishments and a reconciliation to get through.
I'm nervous about the limited time we have to tech the show into the house on Thursday afternoon and it's going to take a big effort from the students to adapt our work quickly against the many unknowns the site specific work throws up - exciting as well!
The puppets are beautiful and with each rehearsals the actors engage with them more -they really have a spirit of their own and the puppeteers in the group have had to explore and make friends with them gently and formally. It's quite touching to watch a head movement being manipulated or a look to the audience. It's subtle and focused work.
We are pushed for time and I've know doubt will have to evaluate every show to learn more and more about how a child audience engages - the learning curve over the next week is going to be very steep.
Monday, 1 December 2008
It's been a couple of tough weeks for our friends at The Comedy School. Last Thursday The Sun made them front page news with a reactionary story about the terrorist connections of one of the participants on a education course in Whitemoor prison.
Keith's had to play a pretty straight bat in response - especially as within 24 hours the story had spawned 38 further articles, all wanting quotes and debate. I caught up with him yesterday at The School's annual funny festival and ten days on he's still walking a tightrope.
Behind the story is an attempt to stir up the 'castrate and string 'em up' brigade. It's political mischief making, and Keith is nervous that it's the first shot in a more extensive campaign. (It's been announced this morning that luminous orange jackets are to be issued to those carrying out community service orders - so that we can see them!)
The punishment v rehabilitation debate is a good one to have and I don't think anybody in prison arts or the voluntary sector is scared of it, when it's conducted openly - but the Sun article is skewed to such a dangerous level that it makes it impossible for Keith to do anything other than fend it off.
What. of course, it doesn't say is that Keith is a consultant for the Home Office on Prison art, or that they are one of his major clients. It'd also be interesting to know who gave The Sun the story (Keith doesn't know or ask what crimes participants have committed, trusting in the management of the prison to choose inmates who might benefit for the work); and how much they were paid. Finally, what's with the choice to place a ten year old photo of him, smiling and laughing (at us?) next to a menacing, look you in the eyes, image of Kenneth Noyes, the road rage murderer, who had nothing to do with the workshop programme? There was no need to publish Keith's photo, especially not in this racist juxtaposition.
The festival was wonderful. A great opportunity to take part in practical workshops and talk to casting directors, producers and comedians about their experience and practice. Arnold Brown gave a great history of alternative comedy, Adam Bloom (see image) gave advice on getting started, Ivor Dembina explained how to set up a venue, Mick Barnfather ran a scintillating Clowning workshop and Neil Mullarkey from the Comedy Store players helped develop impro skills.
Sarah Hughes from the BBC ran audition technique workshops, which were fascinating. She suggested that young actors were as frightened of success as they were of failure and that many fall into the trap of being 'an actor' without actually working or seriously looking for work - they last a couple years, bemoaning their luck, and go and do something else. Successful actors deal with the 'what happens if I get the part?' thought and go into every audition believing that as they've been called, they have a shout. From Sarah's point of view, this is true, she's simply too busy to call actors she doesn't believe in.
It was very illuminating day.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Spent most of yesterday working with Hsiu Chin on her PhD. Her thesis is that Taiwanese national identity has been kept alive through the sentimental TV dramas imported from Japan and Korea.
In other words the education reforms pursued by both political parties the KMT - who believe that Taiwan is a bastion representing the true 'anti-communist' China and the DPP who believe in Taiwanese Independence lead to an imposed understanding of Taiwanese-ness, challenged only by the domestic moralities represented through infiltrating TV dramas.
It's a complex and layered argument and I have to admit to fearing the worst whenever national identity is taken as a serious concern. The troubles in the Balkans can be directly linked back to a body of Serbian academics and intellectuals who in the late eighties used literature, song, cultural artifact and poetry to argue the case for a Greater Serbian identity, distinct from the construct of Tito's Yugoslavia - sure the politicians manipulated this scholarship -but academic freedoms took a highly politicised form. It led to genocide.
Reading the work made me realise the links between Taiwan and Serbia - particularly the desire to assert a distinct sense of self after years of apparent occupation and the emmotive pride of maintaining a true flame alive.
Interestingly, as satellites to a larger republic, neither Serbia nor Taiwan seriously argued that they'd been territorially invaded. However, both countries have kept alive a certain consciousness that something of value has been safely protected, within the national border and imagination, in preparation for a future rebirth.
For nations like these the role of stories, poems and dramas take on a huge significance leading to resistance and conflict.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
It's all gone a bit manic! Kasia took a scratch performance of Destination GB, a show she's devising with current and former students up to he Junction in Cambridge on Tuesday, the company rolled home in the early hours of this morning tired, but happy.
Meanwhile back at base, we're racing against time to submit an Education Partnerships in Africa project grant application to the British Council by Friday's 4pm deadline.
After this morning's Drama in the Community session on Myths and Ritual, where we began exploring the campus as a site for stories, memories, re enactments and rituals I rushed into town to meet with Theatre for a Change's director, Patrick Young and Matt, fresh and tanned having flown in from South Africa yesterday, to go through amendments and beef up the proposal.
It was a very good meeting and the future of our collaboration seems positive. The aim is to send our current first year Applied Theatre students to Malawi in Spring 2011 (their final semester with us) to work on projects with students from Mzuzu University, in the north of the country. The work would look at ways in which interactive theatre projects can promote gender assertiveness and sexual health, advocating strategies for young people to protect themselves from the risk of HIV infection.
Already Matt has begun training the St. Mary's students in Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, which form the backbone for this work. Initial workshops where the students refine their facilitation technique will take place Richmond Schools in early December.
We also talked a little about exchanging examples of good practice through e.postcards, and video, creating a joint archive of transformative learning moments. This could be a very exciting way of developing projects prior to our arrival in Africa.
The day ended at the Bush theatre where I went to see I Caught Crabs in Walberswick, which has been brought into town by Suffolk touring company, Eastern Angles. Having won some acclaim at the Edinburgh festival last summer.
It's a sweet play about parent child relationships, neatly told by a cast of five young actors, who touchingly recreate the confusion of teenage life, stuck in a seaside town. There wasn't a load to get excited about in the storytelling... but little to knock either. A writer in search of a better plot, perhaps?
Monday, 24 November 2008
I see a lot of theatre and I enjoy most of it. Every now and then I see something absolutely wonderful and extraordinary. August: Osage openning tomorrow at the National, fits into that category. It's my play of the year!
The Weston family have gathered back in Osage County, Oklahoma on the disappearance of their patriarchal father and are forced to try and support each other through the unfolding tragedy. It's Eugene O'Neill, It's Tennesse Williams, It's The Sopranos.
This is a huge, sweeping play; epic and domestic at once. In common with much great American dramatic literature it deals with the struggle between the controlling power of one generation and the need to reform of the next. As the tectonic plates of family life pull part the skeletons come dancing through the cracks, twisting and turning the plot. There are an awful lot of skeletons in Osage County.
At the centre of this is a great script and a great acting by the Steppenwolf ensemble. Amy Morton who plays Barbara, the eldest daughter, simply gives one of the most towering performances I've ever seen.
The play doesn't have a perceptible state of the nation message, just that wonderful American ability to move the action forward without indulgence or sentiment. The three and a half hours flew by without a dull moment.
The curtain call happened just before eleven to a standing ovation. None of us wanted to go home.
Sunday, 23 November 2008
Escaped form the Rugby overspill on the streets of Twickenham and headed to the Richmond Odeon to see W. Oliver Stone's biopic about George Bush. It's a strange film, far too large in scale to go beyond cliche and over layered with weighted simplification. The cause and effect of this telling makes for an Oedipal epic, rather than a political analysis.
I'm fascinated by biopics, however, and do think they can bring an interpretation to history that is both revealing and meaningful. Alex Jennings played a far more astute Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens, a play which, shockingly, through imagined dialogue, helped me realise how irrelevant the neo-cons found the diplomatic arguments of 'old' Europe. Hare gave us an early analysis of how quickly rumour and revenge become policy and order.
For now though, Peter Morgan is the man for me - his screenplay for The Queen - which might as well be called Tony - provided a fascinating analysis of the mood shift in Britain at the end of the nineties and recognised New Labour's opportunism in using Diana's death to further justify their social democratic mandate. It's a smashing film about celebrity, tradition and democracy.
Morgan's trick is to focus on a specific moment and forensically examine it. Biography tumbles out in response to the significant event. It's the formula that he repeats in Frost/Nixon (which is the next film on my hit list.) It's how we respond that makes us who we are. Not even Presidents can control history.
The final image of W. is a studied metaphor. George, suited in presidential elegance, fielding in the outfield, loses the baseball in the glare of the floodlights. For all his good ole boy Texan, people person, bonhomie, at key moments, 9/11, Katrina, Desert Storm - it's exactly what he did.
It's a salutary counter argument to that tenant of the American dream that anybody can grow up to be President.
Friday, 21 November 2008
The Bfi are running a fantastic Tennessee Williams season, so last night Feda, Aida and I made a return to the deep South to see A Streetcar Named Desire and gaze in awe at the matinee idol performances of Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh on the big screen.
It really is a mountain of a play, a great emotional epic. I can't think that much written in the field of naturalism or poetic-naturalism in the twentieth century can hold a candle to it. The Cherry Orchard? View from a Bridge? Perhaps. But British classics such as Look Back in Anger, Roots, even Roddy Ackland's superb Absolute Hell feel positively urbane and second class in comparison.
I was amazed at Brando's performance - light years ahead of its time and made all the more wonderful by the obvious studio locations, savage cuts from one shot to the next and emotive soundtrack. In every other way the film is nostalgically dated, but Brando is not. And then there is Leigh, whose speed of thought and tone, makes every moment with her on screen spark and fizz. Together they are thunder and lightning.
Even though we knew it was coming we found it hard to take Blanche's final descent into breakdown and ended up watching through our fingers, hands over our faces as she collapsed, regained composure and walked out to the car with the doctor.
Beautiful brutal play, beautiful brooding movie.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
It's been a very good twenty four hours. We spent yesterday afternoon over at Ham House, introducing The Tempest company to the space and talking through the technical logistics of the show with Tina and Alistair. It's great having the chance to work in situ and ideas flow so much faster when you're able to walk actors through the actual space.
We're trying to pay homage a little to the House in the production, which plays with the conceit of Miranda as an old lady, established as Queen of Naples, remembering her past and telling it back to the children in the audience. The play becomes a reconstructed memory, with the children constantly helping Old Miranda to recall the sounds, sights and events of her time on the magical island, through soundscapes and puppets.
The Jacobean House itself then becomes a contemporary royal palace with the pictures on the walls relating to the characters - we've costumed accordingly.
The trip seemed to give this evening's rehearsal and added buzz. Perhaps seeing the space made the show ever more real and brought focus to the company. We worked through several of the more complicated sequences with fresh energy and new understanding. It was a very good session.
This morning Mary (74) and Fiona (59 - today!), from Richmond Poetry Society came in to help the third years with a reminiscence class. We run this as part of our Drama in the Community module each year and each year I find it the most fascinating and heart warming activity.
Our guests were generous and open with their stories and the students seemed to really enjoy listening and asking questions. Stories ranged from evacuation, to attending a Beatles concert, to first husbands, to winkle pickers, to black outs, to visiting America in the sixties, to filling tin baths, to seeing King George VI in Buckingham Palace and Twiggy in Oxford Street. It really was a thrilling hour of unofficial late twentieth century history.
The students then worked on dramatising the stories that they'd found most appealing or significant and played them back to a great deal of laughter. Both Mary and Fiona were moved by the evocative nature of the work and charmed by sensitivity in which their lives were dramatised. A very rewarding way to spend the morning.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
Another day another review uncovered for Yard Gal.
This time in The Spectator (see below)
It's a provocation and a half and although I'm pleased for the girls, who are justly applauded here, I'm also left mildly fuming at the hijack of the play through such a bigoted analysis. I suppose if any publication was going to give me the rise it's The Spectator - but grrrr! ... the arrogance!!!
There is nothing here to suggest that a life of benefit handouts and liberal sympathy might result in a loss of self-esteem and provoke anger, depression, violence. The message I got from the play was that Boo and Marie deserved better, not more of the same.
Where the review is useful is that it makes a debate and gives the show a burning contemporary relevance. Boo and Marie, undoubtedly have vital lives to lead, but whether the excitement of baseline survival is an optimum state for them and their class is crucially open to question.
Monsay, back in Uni now the show's down, read the review with me. We talked about aspiration and she made the very clear point that she'd never understood the teachers who told her to apply herself or - 'She'd end up working in Tesco!' Most of the kids in her class had parents who worked in low pay jobs, so the advice felt patronising and insulting. Dreams of knights in shining armour were also in short supply on the Tottenham estate where she grew up - the aspiration was to have loads of children rather than a fairy tale wedding; so men, or a specific man, didn't necessarily come into the equation.
For all this, the issue goes deeper than mis-understanding. There is an underclass and they are exploited in our society. Low paid jobs offer subsistance living, but that's fine, because when the struggle becomes too much the rich will always sell them credit.
In terms of creating a genuinely socially mobile society we'll only really make waves if we can create a system of education that offers alternatives and provides mechanisms by which opportunities can be taken. This isn't social engineering - it's cohesion.
Blast of real life
Wednesday, 12th November 2008 Yard Gal - Oval House
Last week I saw a little-known play, Yard Gal, which I’m pretty sure is a classic. Written ten years ago by Rebecca Prichard and revived with scintillating and furious energy by Stef O’Driscoll, the play follows the lives of two drug–whore teenagers, Boo and Marie, living in the badlands of Hackney.
The girls exist in a boozed-up whirl of crappy nightclubs, tainted coke and rough sex with strangers. An early scene gives the flavour. Marie fellates a bent copper in a squad car and when he fails to pay up she exacts revenge with her teeth. ‘Smallest meal I ever ate.’The plot is slender. Boo falls out with a rival gang member, there’s a bust-up, a stabbing and a prison conviction. All fairly predictable. What makes the play special is its political indifference, its assumption not only that the girls’ lives are worth chronicling but that they’re worth living too.
Stephanie di Rubbo and Monsay Whitney inhabit the roles of Boo and Marie with such easy authority, such skin-tight perfection that the play performs that rarest of handsprings and leaps beyond the limits of the theatre and aligns itself with real life.And what a blistering and uneasy light it sheds on our present attitudes to social policy. We have a generation of politicians, social scientists, think-tank wonks and charity hacks all toiling away at a theory of class eugenics which postulates the existence of some mechanism by which the lumpen underclass can be propelled into the ranks of the parmesan-grating bourgeoisie.First, the challenge is bigger than they realise. It’s not about ‘changing the world’, which would be hard enough, it’s about changing human nature, a feat beyond the greatest minds of all time, even those with a 2:2 in sociology. Secondly, the life of the crack–whore in her squat is, to her, not just acceptable but attractive. She has attained a kind of excellence, an insurpassability. No one can sink lower than she has and this gives her a sense of eminence, uniqueness even, in which she’s bound to take pride.
She has proved she can survive conditions most women would find intolerable so she feels battle-hardened, self-reliant and secure. She has no reason to abandon her hard-won criminal expertise or to trade in her life of triumphant adversity for a soft-soap yuppie existence with its merry-go-round of petty demands (setting the alarm-clock, dressing for the office) and its alien index of achievement (graduation certificates, property ownership, romantic fidelity, career status).
What underlies our quest for ‘social mobility’ (code for ‘making chavs eat sushi’) is the assumption that we posh folk have more fulfilling and varied lives than the tower block helots. Not on this evidence. Boo and Marie live lives of Homeric intensity. Every day is a deadly game of chicken played with tainted drugs, psychotic punters, pilled-up pimps and jealous boyfriends. The range and depth of their experiences would leave an Afghan war hero in the shade.After watching this thrilling blast of real life I found myself floating homewards in a euphoric state of wonder and certainty. We should chuck all this social-mobility garbage (which involves posh self-worshipping ghetto-tourists validating their own morality by bribing the underclass to adopt bourgeois gods) and let the crack–whore–chav–scum get on with it.
The problem with being poor is it takes up a lot of your time. The problem with being rich is it takes up a lot of other peoples.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
To the National to see Enda Walsh's critically acclaimed play The Walworth Farce as it comes to the end of its London run.
A few years ago I saw a production of Walsh's Disco Pigs and last year his teenage parable Chatroom won plaudits in the Cottesloe.
I'm still not sure what to make of his work. Here he revisits common themes of power relationships, inter dependency and the struggle to control a collective biography.
Dinny, an Irish exile from Cork, living in a council flat on the Walworth Road has spent the last twenty years bringing up his sons Blake and Sean. Every day he makes them physically enact a farcical version of the events leading up to him leaving their mother and running away across the Irish sea. The only time he lets them out of the flat is to buy the props needed for an accurate and detailed retelling. They are hostage to his version of history.
The tyranny of this kinesthetic form of education is revealed when the private ritual is interrupted by Hayley, a young black checkout girl from Tescos, who realising that Sean, tasked with the morning shop, had picked up the wrong bag, calls round to correct the error. With her friendly demeanour and curious questioning she represents everything the boys, trapped in their father's vision of events, are not.
It's a provocative piece of work and for all the heightened clowning, genuinely disturbing, particularly as Dinny, unsure how to cope with the intrusion into his tightly controlled world by turns enlists, kidnaps and terrorises Hayley, at one point coating her face in white hair cream so that she can authentically take on one of the roles in his story. Meanwhile Blake, lost and confused by the break of routine kidnaps, binds and threatens her with a knife.
In usurping the very idea that biography can be authentically staged, the play jokes on the idea of a theatrical event inevitably being a cathartic therapy or revolution for change. It's a delicious and cheeky dig at the positive power of storytelling. If the teller is both deluded and fixed the damage becomes incalculable. In the fun of the farce this is all preposterously enjoyable and the black humour is positively gothic.
Beyond the laughter is the sinister undertone. We only have to look at the case studies of Joseph Fritzl in Austria and the Fred West in this country to understand how fragile a child's understanding of normality can be, and how easily a sick parent can pervert it. Although moral panic needs some temper, it's also helpful to explore our darkest recesses and our most hideous nightmares.
As stories are powerful... they can also be dangerous. As stories are inspiring they can also be liberating.
Friday, 14 November 2008
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Until Nov 15
Two teenage girls swagger on to an almost bare stage like they’re holding champion staffs. Audience members flinch. One girl clutches her boyfriend as if they’ll be blown away by the maelstrom. But Boo (Stefanie Di Rubbo) and Marie (Monsay Whitney) are armed only with their violent tale of drugs, prostitution, girls gangs and gang bangs, and an unshakeable resolve to tell it.Rebecca Prichard’s ‘Yard Gal’, which won her the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award in 1998, is the story of two best friends who run the daily gauntlet of urban dysfunction, or as Boo puts it ‘chatting shit, getting fucked, getting high and doing crimes’.
Monday, 10 November 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
Saturday, 8 November 2008
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Monday, 3 November 2008
The Evening Standard review for Yard Gal has just come out.
I've reproduced in full here...
Yard Gal is astonishing
By Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard 03.11.08
It is a rare and delightful treat to encounter a production as splendid as this, especially in a lesser known fringe venue. A credit-crunch-friendly £8 buys entry to 21-year-old director Stef O’Driscoll’s revival of Rebecca Prichard’s terrifying look at two teenage girls posturing around the streets of Hackney. From the opening seconds, O’Driscoll’s confidence-packed production has us gripped, as Boo (Stefanie Di Rubbo) and Marie (Monsay Whitney) saunter on and eyeball individual audience members with menacing intent. Thus begins a hurtling 90-minute account of drug taking and dealing, casual prostitution and girl gang etiquette. Di Rubbo and Whitney are charismatic young actors with great futures. They capture with unflagging vocal and physical energy the high spirits and black humour of these lifelong friends, as well as recounting the exploits of fellow “yard gals”, including one who loved fighting so long as it didn’t mess with her hair. All the bounce in the world, however, cannot mask the frighteningly nihilistic lives that Boo and Marie lead. A bigger yard — or transfer to a larger theatre — would be just reward for these astonishing gals.
Well done team!!!!
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
Monday, 27 October 2008
I bumped into John Retallack at the BAC on Saturday. His Company of Angels have spent the last few years pioneering exciting and relevant theatre for a teenage audience and he recommended this show, which he'd just seen.
So I went this evening and got exactly what I was expecting. The piece is astonishingly well directed and the teenage company do a fantastically tight job with passionate investment in their material, but I still left feeling irritated.
The premise is that adolescents aren't understood and that adults either condemn them or fail to recognise them for who they are. So we have an hour here of dares, rituals, excess, occasional vulnerable monologue and confrontation, both through the 'what you looking at' stares from the stage and the assertive territorial shouting. The real problem for me is I don't see the debate.
Teenagers do explore the world, including their sexuality, with daring energy, they do trash things and they can be self-destructive. The body and brain wants to leave childhood, but have nowhere to go. It's a fascinating and exciting time. Intelligent adults do understand this inevitable rebellion and guide with a light touch to enable children to find their own way, but this isn't the same as being submissive towards what can also be an arrogant and anti-social culture.
The show is created by Ontroerend Goed, who work out of Belgium, which may help to explain the shows unapologetic front.
I've often felt relationships between adults and children in the low countries are generally good, guided by liberal tolerance. In my mind it's a society where the storm of teen spirit is recognised as a journey to adulthood. Watching this brave company made we wonder whether in Britain one of the problematic outcomes of denying expressive rights to young people is that many of us never fully reach maturity as adults. Responsibility is not worn easily in the UK and this makes the ground on which teenagers operate a very crowded site of unfulfiled dreams and resentment. Perhaps youth culture is not the problem, but our inability to value confident adults.
I hope in some ways this piece is about demystifying adolescence and will help slow the accelerating demonisation of young people by offering honest autobiography.
Sunday, 26 October 2008
Saturday, 25 October 2008
Up early to buy a new bike and then into town for lunch with Hsiu Chin in Borough Market. I love the market in the Winter, it feels uniquely old London with all the street food smells of roasting and grilling mixing with aromatic coffee and mulled wine. There's no room to move, but everybody is wrapped up, rosy cheeked, good humoured and google eyed at the range of cheeses, breads, meats and confectionery on display.
Hsiu Chin and I used to work together at Goldsmiths before I came to St.Mary's, she's still there. Princess Beatrice has just enrolled at the college, on a History degree, which according to Hsiu Chin has hysterically brought all the professors scuttling disgruntled back from their sabbaticals. No course in the history of the College has ever had such a stellar academic team and Ph.d students need not apply to run seminars for a year or two. Despite that I like the idea that the royal family have come to New Cross - it's about time.
I went on to see The Brothers Size at the Young Vic.
This is a short clip from rehearsals
It's the first play in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brothers/Sisters trilogy, although its action takes place in the immediate aftermath of In the Red and Brown Water - which I was really taken with when I saw it a couple of weeks ago. Here Orgun Size, trying to come to terms with losing Oya, invests all his energy and strength into his car repair business - whilst also trying to support his dreaming brother Oshooi, recently released from Prison and trying hard to keep to the terms of his probation, despite the temptation of the live for moment philosophy, espoused by his former cell mate, the moon like, Elegba.
Tarell's star is rising and I can't think there's more exciting work anywhere in London. The three actors Nyasha Hatendi, Obi Abilli and Nathaniel Martello-White give us ninety minutes of high octane storytelling, fusing narration, live action, chant and Yoruba myth. All underscored by a brilliant percussionist who gently and carefully evoked mood and psychology with the subtlest of poly rhythms.
The play ends with a fantastic singing of Otis Reading's Try a Little Tenderness - which is exactly the same song that Jim Cartwright chose to use as a set piece in his wonderful eighties elegy Road - a play that The Brothers Size has more than a passing resemblance to.
On the way home I stopped off at BAC to see my friends Paka, Kris and Kim perform their scratch performance of Bedtime, which they've been developing for a couple of months.
The piece is only 12 minutes long and only four people at a time get to see it as each member of the audience gets into bed with an actor and is told a bedtime story, before being tucked in and kissed goodnight. The intimacy of the work is touching and the company cleverly make the experience safe, by sharing the rituals of getting ready for bed - turning back the sheets, plumping the pillows, taking off shoes and putting them under the bed etc - with the audience. At the end of along day I would have been happy to stay longer under the duvet.