Fun Palaces – the power of ‘Yes’

So on Wednesday this week I am opening a new play, Conscientious by Adam Z Robinson, at Workshop Theatre in Leeds, before it heads out on tour to Oxford, Hull, Exeter, Bracknell and Bradford. Which you should all see, because…well it’s great really, Rachel – the one woman of the one woman show – is phenomenal and it’s pleasantly spooky, a bit thriller, a bit horror. And a good night out.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. On Saturday this week, because I just don’t have enough to do, I’m involved in Fun Palaces at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Fun Palaces in one of those rare projects that crosses over the disparate parts of my life – the bits being mummy to three small children, standing in church halls with screaming toddlers, digging play doh out of their nostrils, and the bits in other draughty halls with (not so screaming) artists putting plays together. Not really that different from each other.

Fun Palaces is a national festival of arts and science happening 3rd – 5th October. There are over 130 Fun Palaces happening all around UK and the world, on line and in real life. I’ve found I’ve described it differently to people in different parts of my life, to mums on the school run or at toddler group it is a family fun day with lots of activities for all ages to get involved, to arty folk it is the celebration of the vision of Joan Littlewood and Cedic Price with opportunity to catch work with and by companies like Slung Low, Hackspace York and Manic Chord.

As I’m talking about it I realise I’m describing things that have and do happen – so what makes Fun Palaces different? Is it fun day activities for all in arts venues and spaces that don’t usually have them? Is it a range of artists, people, companies and communities coming together to share and show at the same time? Is it a chance for people to try to do something new (I’m doing a science workshop for first time in my life!)? For my daughter it is face painting, robots, tap dancing and cake.

It is ALL of these things and some others we won’t even know until we get there. Two things make me very happy about this Fun Palace at WYP. One: Slung Low will be bringing Emporium of Knowledge (their gorgeous Airstream caravan) and performing outside the Playhouse most of the day. This idea was first talked about when I was pregnant with my (twin) boys. They are now 3 and a half… It has taken Fun Palaces to show how easy it is to make it happen.

And the other…in 1995 when I was a mere 23 I managed a Forum for Theatre Directors where Joan Littlewood was the guest and given a lifetime achievement award. She turned up, got quite drunk and ended her speech throwing her hat off and shouting at the assembled (ego?) of directors to ‘Go out and do it’. There may have been a ‘fucking’ in there too.

Fun Palaces is what happens when you say Yes. Yes I can do this. Yes we will. Yes I don’t know how. Yes it’s insane. Yes it might not work. Yes let’s do it anyway.

See you on Saturday.

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Come Play Nerd with me!

Realising I should really get better at letting people know what I’m up to here is an invitation to all of you lovely people to come join me in conversation about plays, how we make them, with whom and for whom. It’s about creating some space and time for conversations that I’m having all the time over Twitter, email, cups of coffee and in between other important stuff. Whether you’re brand new or been involving in making plays for years come along, meet people, ask questions, explore answers, start a revolution, change the world…Or just find an idea and some collaborators for your next play.

Play Dates

Wednesday 15 October, Wednesday 19 November, Wednesday 3 December

Tickets: Free
Call 01274 233200 or email theatre@bradford.ac.uk (no need to book but it would be ever so lovely if you did)

Part workshop, part discussion, part peer support, Play Dates are free sessions for anyone making theatre, writing theatre or hoping to get into theatre. Lead by Alex Chisholm who has 12 years experience as Literary Manager/Associate Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Alex now runs PlayNerd.org – a space for writers and theatre makers to learn, collaborate and support each other.

Play Date 1

Wednesday 15 October, 4-6pm

Writing or devising: What are the skills and techniques you need? A session for exploring the collaborations and cross-overs for writers and makers; what to do and who to approach.

Play Date 2

Wednesday 19 November, 4-6pm

Diversity: Why is there so much talk when so little happens? How are we actually going to change who makes theatre and what it looks like? How to get out of your (equal opportunity) box.

Contact me on alex@playnerd.org  to discuss access needs

Play Date 3

Wednesday 3 December, 4-6pm

How to survive in theatre: Where does the money come from? Where can I get support? Will I ever have/how do I manage having a family? Feel free to bring children/others with you.

Antigone review

Here’s my review of Pilot’s Antigone written for Exeunt. (With most of original embarrassing typos removed)

Watching Antigone, any version not just this one, is a bit like launching into a box set somewhere into series 3. An awful lot has already happened, histories and relationships are complicated (her mother was also her grandmother), and bloody (her mother killed herself, her father blinded himself, her brothers killed each other). Roy Williams’ version for Pilot Theatre is transposed from ancient Thebes to a contemporary gangland, also called Thebes, where Creo (a powerful, vulpine Mark Monero) rules over a gang of thieves warring against rival gang, the Argives, who were lead by Antigone’s brother, Orrin. Antigone (Savannah Gordon-Liburd) and her sister Esme (Frieda Thiel) work in Creo’s nightclub. The play (sort of) starts with Orrin’s murder by Creo’s soldiers thus pitching Antigone/Tig against Creo, as she tries to bury her brother.

The trouble with retaining some of the history, but not the mythic quality, is that it doesn’t quite add up. Much is made that Antigone and her family are ‘inbreds’ yet there is no sense of how and why her father ended up getting married to his mother; the mention of it raised a laugh on the night I was there. There’s no reason why you can’t play Oedipus for laughs but I don’t think it was the intention here. The gods are referenced throughout the play yet their function and significance were unclear. There was an interesting idea in director Marcus Romer’s notes that the gods are ‘camera observers’, seeing the action through CCTV and social media, who ‘capture and comment’. There is another interesting idea suggest by the soldier chorus at the end that ‘god (singular) is in us’. Neither of these ideas I felt were fully worked through in the production. In some scenes grainy, indistinct live feed video is projected onto the set. This was most effective, and visible, in the scene with Antigone in the celler, capturing and projecting large the image of her in a cage. But who were the observers and what was their moral force or power within the world of the play?

The result is a little bit Game of Thrones (murder! incest! gods! prophecy!) crossed with The Wire, all dark grey urban environment, gang warfare and complex back story. Don’t get me wrong; nothing is more deadly than a traditional, ‘faithful’ version of classical Greek drama. I’ve yawned my way through many a ‘toga and sandals’ production. This version above everything else is not boring. I actually wish Williams’ and Romer had been able to jettison more of the original and make it more their own. So there were points in the dialogue, particularly in an early scene between Tig and Esme where I could still hear the echo of the stichomythia, a form of argument in symmetrical, alternate lines. This sat a bit awkwardly with the naturalism of the language and performance. It’s not there in the beautifully tender and natural scene between Tig and Creo’s son, Eamon (Gamba Cole), which is Williams’ own invention.

This Antigone belongs to Creo much more than to Tig. The framing device, which I have to confess I didn’t really get till I read the script, begins and ends with him. Monero gives a phenomenal performance, arrogant, humorous, desperate, and by the end, broken. He is matched in stature by Doreene Blackstock as Creo’s wife Eunice, a part thankfully expanded by Williams. Antigone herself seems more of a foil for Creo; without the mythic structure, she is thrown back onto psychological realism. This meant Gordon-Liburd playing her at a heightened emotional pitch for most of the piece, which she did with full passion and conviction. It was a relief, however, to get to the quieter, playful scenes with Eamon.  Joanna Scotcher’s design also offers a nod to classical Greek with its unfinished pillars and motorway arch but is essentially a functional and flexible naturalistic space.

Despite these quibbles there is a lot that is good in the production. In particular, towards the end, there is an extraordinary scene between Creo and Eunice, real edge of the seat, hairs on back of the neck stuff, as they tear into each other with the ferocity of grief, the pent up fury and bitterness of long years of marriage.  The soldier chorus, Sean Sagar, Lloyd Thomas and Oliver Wilson, provide quick fire humour, though the business with the riddling picture message (presumably a message from ‘the gods’) was a little lost on me. When I saw it, the cast were occasionally still reaching for those huge turning points between rage and grief, love and despair. But they are fine performances that I am sure will grow and deepen over the course of the run.

The White Whale Review

Originally for the excellent Exeunt.

Rumours of The White Whale of Leeds abounded before the show itself hove into view (sorry for the nautical style…it’s infectious). Hints of the idea in development appeared on social media, then photos and videos, showing people diving balletically, or at least energetically, into the water. Billboards and posters began to appear around town, featuring two oil dark hands gripped a straining rope. More like an action movie than indie play. Hmmm…in-ter-est-ing.

Even if you’re a not a social media type, Slung Low in their beautiful silver Airstream caravan appeared in supermarket car parks and free summer festivals around Leeds to tell people about the show and give away tickets for free. Yes for free, as were all tickets for all performances.

Then opening night comes and immediately social media is awash (sorry) with reactions (mostly summarised by ‘OMG OMG this is the best, best, best thing I ever seen. Go see it NOW) and indistinct photos of tiny little glowing figures, against a mass of dark water. One friend of mine uploaded 40 photos of the show. Considering the whole thing is only 80 minutes long that was impressive.

All of which means by the time it is my turn to find my way down to Leeds Dock, for the very last performance of the run, I already have a relationship with it. I have a mass of images and impressions in my head. None of which tell me what the show is but all of which draws me into pleasurable anticipation of finding out how they all fit together.

Leeds Dock is a strange little sleeve of the Leeds – Liverpool canal running beside the Royal Armouries and surrounded by what the developers undoubtedly called ‘desirable waterside living’ but the rest of Leeds calls ‘that empty bit next to the casino’. It is, however, a natural thrust stage made of water. As we arrive, friendly and confident (and all rather beautiful) people in Slung Low t-shirts and fluorescent jackets hand out the headphones and receivers and explain how to use them. Ah yes, it is a ‘headphone’ show, where the live voices of the actors are mixed with recorded soundtrack and fed direct in to your ears as you watch the action. Smiling and welcoming volunteers show you were to stand and where you can sit if you need to and at the given moment indicate silently it is time to don the headphones and start the show.

The White Whale is a free interpretation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which was based on Melville’s own experience on a whaler. The story of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale, is known of by a great deal more people than have ever read the doorstep sized novel with its extended descriptions of different species of whales and slightly homoerotic accounts of blubber squeezing. James Philips’ text updates the story to a near future when whale oil is a vital source of power, electronic and explosive harpoons are no longer used and men hunt whales the old fashioned way with small boats, sharp blades and brute strength. Having set this up, the script then leaves it there, which is a relief. Nothing is worse in alternative reality pieces than endless exposition about how we got here and why things are different. They are, now move on.

A lone figure in a boat weaves his way from the far distance, an explosive spout of water marks a whale and the Pequod, the whaling ship herself, surges from below the dark water, breaking through the surface like a half remembered dream come fully back to mind (an impressive feat of engineering, I assume from Pete Gunson). What is excellent about Alan Lane’s production, in the simple but beautifully effective design by David Farley, is that none of these things are pretending to be the actual things. We are not pretending that Leeds Dock is the wide ocean, that these water spouts are whales, that a smallish metal box is a whaling ship. But each of these things gives a sense and emotion of the thing it stands for. It seems an obvious point but one that is missed by quite a lot of theatre. The water, fire, smoke and explosions of White Whale are thrilling both for the things that they are, and for the things that they are being in the story.

We are introduced to the crew members, their voices speak intimately into our ears as our eyes take in the epic spectacle. Philips holds back on the introduction of Melville’s central character, and the most famous line ‘Call me Ishmael’. In a clever twist on the original, Ishmael has become a young radicalised man of British Pakistani origin, played with engaging and charismatic intensity by Nima Taleghani. Melville was intensely interested by the symbiotic relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, notably in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and ‘Benito Cereno’. In White Whale it is the drinking, whoring Anglo Saxon crew, particularly the ‘painted savage’ Q (played with swagger and touching humanity by Christopher Brand) that is the ‘other’ to an abstemious Ishmael. I did miss something in re-imagining the originally black cabin boy, Pip, as European: The original Pequod was a multiracial microcosm of the world at the time and Pip’s fate, cast adrift in the ocean until he is sent mad, recalls the many thousands lost on the sea voyage from Africa to Europe. Angus Imrie’s performance as Pip, though, was not to be faulted; a heartbreaking figure of young energy and vulnerability.

Good concept is nothing without great execution, and The White Whale is truly a team effort. For me what held the whole thing together was Heather Fenoughty’s sobbing, soaring music, which underscored the action with emotion. Studded through the play were gorgeously sung shanties and hymns which pulled us into the play just as they pulled the characters together. The sound was, as ever in a Slung Low show, subtly and ingeniously designed by Matt Angove. Ric Mountjoy’s lighting captures both mood and action and managed to blend seamlessly with the civic lit surroundings. Phillips’ script fillets Melville’s baggy narrative for the bare bones of an action adventure with metaphorical edge. And unlike Melville, it wears its poetry and allusion quite lightly: the water filled with whale blood is ‘incarnadine’, they sail on a Homeric ‘wine-dark’ sea. And mention also has to be made of Oliver Senton’s powerfully understated Ahab. If ever there was part made to chew the scenery it was that and he wisely kept it mostly low key, with moments of sudden, explosive violence. Like the others mentioned, Senton is a Slung Low regular. This is a team that has worked together a lot and it shows. Each part works together, responding and adding to the director’s vision. Kudos as well for the enlightened and engaged people and policies at Leeds City Council, which made this production possible through a Leeds Inspired Commission.

The White Whale is a story of obsession:  the mad obsession of one man to take revenge on a whale, obsession with money, with power, with religious grace. It is also the story of one theatre company’s obsession with making the extraordinary happen for everyone in an unloved corner of Leeds.

On writing monologues

I was asked recently for some advice on writing monologues. This, with some additions and redaction, is what I wrote:

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If you have taken part in any kind of writing course or workshop then chances are you have written monologue. Like the nursery slopes of playwriting, monologue warms you up, builds up your writing muscle and gets you ready for the ‘real work’ of dialogue writing.

However, once you have moved on from writing a page or two, you discover writing a whole show as a monologue is much, much harder than it looks. How to keep interest when it is just one person talking for 45 minutes? When other people come into the story, how much dialogue to report? How much description is too much?

It is definitely worth getting to grips with monologue form especially as the way things are going financially nobody is going to be able to afford more than one actor anymore. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my last show Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni and my next, Conscientious By Adam Z Robinson, are both one person shows.

First, get a feel for what kind of monologue you are writing. There are a number of (overlapping) types including:
1. Telling a single story from one person’s point of view
2. Exploring one character or theme through multiple stories
3. Multiple characters played by single actor, linked together by story or theme.
4. The autobiographical monologue where you explore topics or stories about yourself.
No one version is better than others and many writers will go between different forms for different projects. Also one version is not necessarily more ‘traditional’ or more ‘experimental’ than another. George Brant’s Grounded just launching a UK tour is a single story told by one person, as is Tim Crouch’s ‘My Arm’. Though both essentially one person telling their story to an audience in retrospect, they were different in approach: ‘Grounded’ being performed by the supurb Lucy Ellinson from within a gauze box, Tim performing the monologue himself (and apparently ‘about’ himself) with aids of toys and live video. However, they are neither easily characterised in the binary of new/old, traditional/modern. They combine possibly the oldest theatrical technique, one performer telling a story to a group of people, with design and staging which is non-naturalistic and suited to the subject, performer and places it will be performed. Also see if you can Amsterdam by Chanje Kunda touring this Autumn – for different example of monologue coming from performance poetry. (Disclaimer produced by my husband!)
For example of a monologue that contains elements of all versions you should definitely read but if possible see Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities. Chris is hugely talented, multifaceted writer-director-performer and his one person shows are some of my favourite things I have ever watched. (Which is not to say his multi-character and productions of extant work aren’t brilliant as well – in fact we don’t get enough of those. See aforementioned problem of one person plays being cheaper and therefore easier to produce). You should also definitely get hold of a copy of Wound Man and Shirley which I think you will love.
I would also recommend you see if you can Chris Brett Bailey This is How We Die – although possibly not till you’ve finished your monologue as by all accounts it is pretty mind blowing. And having ones mind blown is not always what you want when working on a new piece.
You should also by way of contrast have a read of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Bennett gets bit of a bad press in certain quarters and yes his rather odd ‘caught somewhere in the 1960s’ world can be bizarre. But in his own form of monologue writing he is unsurpassed – telling a story from single character’s point of view so that we are also let into the whole story, including things our protagonists can’t/won’t see. Have a look at some of the better known ones like Chip in the Sugar. But also seek out, if you can, some of the lesser known ones such as The Outside Dog and Playing Sandwiches for more disturbing side to Bennett (though tbh I find most of Bennett pretty disturbing).
When writing a monologue the same questions apply as to multiple character work. What does your central character want? What do they need? What stops them getting it? What do they have to overcome internally and externally? What is their state at the beginning and what is it at the end – how have they changed?
In addition with monologue/storytelling there is what is the tense of the performance. It sounds like you have the character telling past tense stories (what has happened to them) and also a present tense – travelling while telling (the audience) the story. How much is in the past and how much in the present? What is actually happening in the present? Does the telling of the stories to the audience have an effect on the storyteller? It is always important to have something happening with the character in both the present and past strands of a piece.
 Or you could just decide to have the story happening entirely in the past tense. It can be one continuous story told in one piece. Or your storyteller can shift time through it. An example would be your storyteller telling what has happened up to the first turning point, then post the second turning point, then at the end  – looking back from three different vantage points.
Pacing in monologue form is harder to judge than dialogue. It really is worth reading aloud to yourself as you go. You will begin to get a sense of how passages that zip by on the page slow right down when spoken. That doesn’t mean all description is bad – but the description or story telling has to keep taking us somewhere narratively, emotionally or intellectually – what impact is it having? If it feels ‘stuck’ or detail for the sake of detail then move on.
This is multiple interlocking monologues but Chris Thorpe’s There has possibly been an incident is beautiful example of dramatic storytelling and use of detail.
And finally – as with any other form of writing there are no real rules apart from the ones you make for yourself. Keep writing, and re-writing, and find the form that suits you best.
Good luck!