Final seasonal thoughts (may contain mild expletives)

So yesterday I popped into my daughter’s school to see a Christmas show performed by Alive and Kicking Theatre Company. Three actors, three flats for scenery, some music, one puppet, a story and a happy ending. A roomful of delighted, transported little children (and grown ups too). I’ve been luck to work with John Mee – one of the core company of Alive and Kicking (though not in this show) – an inspirational drama teacher and practitioner who has been opening up potential in children and students for decades.

Two thoughts: first this is the kind of theatre happening all around the country, and all over the world. And that has happened since the first homo something-or-other told a story somewhere in Africa. It is the first theatre that many experience. I don’t think I’d be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for some formative children’s theatre experiences with Simpson Primary School, Milton Keynes (for the people who made the live action Punch and Judy show in about 1978, thanks I was traumatised for years…) It is the most important theatre we have, the simplest and sometimes the best. We should treasure it.

Second – my daughter’s school is quite mixed. They are doing a project at the moment looking at all the places around the world that the children are connected to – Katarina contributes Serbia and Greece. When one of the actors asked for ideas or volunteers the hands that shot up were of all different hues. In the light of recent kerfuffle about whether theatre is in some sub-set of humanity’s DNA, can I just say that all those children were equally entranced – there wasn’t anyone sitting around going ‘sorry not in my DNA’. Besides which that notion of racial determination by DNA is utter bollocks – and scary bollocks at that (Africa has the greatest genetic diversity on the planet it being the cradle of humanity and all that). However, looking around the theatre (and film and TV) world as it currently stands I know that some of those children have a greater chance of becoming actors or writers or artists than others. That some who would want to go into the arts may not see themselves on stage so never consider it, they may not see the stories that reflect their lives, they may be told it is not for them, they may not have the money. I really want by the time these children are making those decisions in 10-15 years time that this is NOT the case, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background or what you look like, anyone with the ability and commitment can make a career in the arts. But it is up to all of us now to make that happen.

Seasons greetings everyone.

How to survive in theatre part 2

An important addition to the last blog (see How to survive in theatre part 1): when considering what obstacles you have it is important to remember that YOU are never the obstacle. The other commitments you have – be they children, or work, or illness – these are not the things that are the obstacles, they are the things that make you, you. The obstacle is what isn’t currently enabling you to create with those other commitments. So your obstacle isn’t having children, it’s lack of flexible, affordable childcare. However these things can be difficult, painful or even tedious they all become part of us and therefore part of our creative life. Look at how Alex Andreou has written about caring for his mother or how Hillary Frank turned recovery from traumatic birth and many, many sleepless nights into a successful podcast. It is difficult to see now how the HOURS I have spent toilet training my children will come in useful, but it is all useful, somehow.

These things that make us are things to be proud of. As the very brilliant and very much missed Stella Young reminds us disabled bodies are to be proud of. It is not the disability that is the obstacle, it is the way society is set up. So imagine that every funded organisation in the country was given a significant sum of money, £50,000 or something, to be spent on access needs of disabled artists and ONLY on the access needs of disabled artists. If not spent it would have to be given back. Suddenly we would get a lot more disabled actors, writers, directors in our organisations – and a boost to the ones who do it already. Drama schools would look for students to meet the demand, there would be more disabled artists filtering through to TV and film. Hmmmm this actually sounds like a very good idea. How about it ACE National?

How we conceive of our problems, our obstacles, is the first vital, important step in how we learn to work with them or go past them. The inestimable, incomparable Stella Duffy has written about the language of cancer, about for many living with the disease, talking about ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ (particularly ‘losing the fight’) is inaccurate and unhelpful. For some people this might be helpful. For others it is better for the obstacle to be located not in the disease but in the incomprehension of the medical professional, the lack of appropriate drugs, or financial support for sick freelancers. Even if this doesn’t solve the problem at least it doesn’t feel like the problem is you.

Which is not to say there aren’t things that we don’t need to work on in ourselves – whether that is more confidence in selling our work, the art of form filling or making ourselves take some calm creative time. But there are things about ourselves we can change, and there are things we can’t or don’t want to, and all of it, all of it goes into what we make and do.

Play Date 3 – How to survive in theatre (part 1)

Our third and, at least for the moment, final Play Date was at the beginning of the December. ‘How to survive in theatre’ is a topic that could take a lifetime and I’m sure it is one to which we will return again. But here is a first go in exploring some of the questions, and possible answers, around this. As part of a living demonstration I brought one of my children with me and set her the task of explaining herself and the world to some aliens who were going to come at the end of the session…(nb this did not end well – never make promises of aliens you can’t then produce).

First thing to say that this was a discussion shaped and lead by the 8 of us (9 including 5 year old Katarina) in the room. It felt very much like a session where we were all able to help each other. So if someone had a question about filling in an Arts Council form then there were one or two others with experience of that who could help. Even to one brilliant person (Thanks Carolyn) taking Katarina to the loo while I finished off some point or other.

If there is one thing that is worth taking way from this session and this blog, is that we are stronger and better together. Peer support, whether that is meeting up with fellow creative friend, getting together in small groups like this or larger groups like upcoming D&D, is vital for surviving in theatre. Of course, there are some people who do without it – but they’re probably miserable anyway. It is easier as well to do this outside ‘networking’ events which are often uncomfortable pressured environments when your inner voice is screaming ‘make contacts NOW’ while you juggle too warm wine or orange juice. So find people you like and who you find a connection with, get together to share problems and work out solutions. Finding supportive peers can be the tricky part which is why D&D, the wonderful Theatre in the Mill and, um, sessions like these are important.

Second, especially as nobody in this session had been in Play Date 1 we went over some of the same exercises. In particular, working out what it is that you want. This seems to me to be at the heart of surviving in theatre; not least because it is so easy to be seduced by what you are supposed to want – be that ‘a big show’, fame or fortune. These are the things that are impossible to control. The things you can define for yourself are who do u]you want to be, what do you want to make, for whom do you want to make it? Then look at the obstacles that are in your way – both internal and external. So an external obstacle might be funders and promoters not coming to see your work. An internal obstacle might be not feeling you’re good at selling yourself or your work. Identifying these as obstacles means that you can deal with them as obstacles – which will have solutions. It is easy to internalise them as failings, which is when it starts getting dispiriting and demotivating. The solution to the above obstacle might be investing a bit of money in a really good video trailer or promotional DVD of your show (you can get them done for as little as £50 ask me for contacts). Or applying for one of the showcase opportunities in your area. In the North our brilliant regional venues have come together to produce this invaluable guide to their programming policy and opportunities. Of course, you need to know about people who make trailers, and the programming guide to start with. Which is why being connected in person and through social media is so important.

Answering the question of what you want – what you make and for whom – is crucial because it defines what makes you, you. What is unique about your work that no one else can do. It is also about what audiences do you reach. Your audience is your most valuable asset. Everyone, funders, promoters, venues, are all after audiences. If you demonstrate how your work reaches those audiences then you become valuable. If they are not interested in your audience, or the way you engage with them, then find someone else who is. There ALWAYS will be somewhere else that is. Don’t fixate on the larger organisations; they’re great but not the solution to everything. Will your audience be more likely to come to local pub, cafe, park, community centre? Can you go to them? Posit your relationship with funders, venues, producers not as adversarial – you want their resources they want the best work – but collaborative: you are all working to make something, bring people together, create some kind of a difference. And you will meet people who have no interest in collaboration, who are just unpleasant and adversarial. They exist in every walk of life. Leave them to it and get on with what you want to do.

We also talked a bit about trying to find the time and the energy for making work, and finding all the things you need to make work, when you have other commitments. This might be family, it might be other dependents that you care for, it might be because you have illness or condition that takes your time, energy and money, it might be just that you have no money – and that takes all your time and energy. It might be many or all of those things. It is important to say that sometimes this does suck. And it is too hard to do by yourself. Which is why you might need the right kind of space, support, and yes, money to help you. If you can’t see it then ask for it – use the comments here, or email me. I’m gathering ideas and input in order to create an organisation precisely to support people. Sometimes it is also about being clear and then being disciplined, about what you need to do. So if you are expanding all your energy on setting up projects that cost you a lot of time but give you very little financial return, then you need to make yourself carve out time for work that pays better for time/resources put in (this is my note to self!)

Balancing family, work, self, commitments – these are hard things. You will never have enough time. You will probably never have enough money. Decide for yourself what it is that you want, what is driving you, what makes it worth it. Identify what your obstacles are. See if you can find the people and places who can overcome them. And if that doesn’t exist yet- let’s make it together.

Compass Live Art Festival review – now with added cute kid pics

Compass – a Live Art Odyssey in Leeds

Compass – a Live Art Festival in Leeds has been running for a few years now. Lead by Annie Lloyd it in some way goes to plugging the gap left by the loss of the much loved, much missed Leeds Met Studio. This year it ran over 11 days with around 20 different performances and events (if I’ve counted correctly). Unfortunately, there was no way I could get to all of it so to get something of a feel for what’s going on I and my intrepid co-critic (Katarina aged 5 minus 5 days) set off to see as much as we could on Saturday 22nd November.

Co-critics commence their odyssey.

Co-critics commence their odyssey.

The adventure started at home. Forced Entertainment, long term friends and collaborators with Annie, were performing and live streaming Quizoola from Sheffield that day. So I had it on the tablet as we went about normal Saturday morning chaos. If you’ve not watched a Forced Ents show in the company of small children I thoroughly recommend it – it’s even more entertaining than twitter. This brought out to me just how much of my normal home life resembles Quizoola (all quotes taken from my imperfect memory)

Scene: the bathroom. Me attempting to get dressed. Toma (aged 3yrs 8 months) wanders in.

Tim Etchells: What did Goldilocks do in the bear’s house?

Toma: When Goldilocks went into the house what did her blue do?

Jovan (also 3yrs 8 months) through the door: What does DNA do?

You see?

Leaving home and Quizoola behind, Katarina and I caught the bus into town. Our first appointment was with Quarantine’s ‘Between Us We Know Everything’ which was in residence in the outdoor section of Leeds Market. As well as a Live Art tour our odyssey was also a tour of the different shopping experiences of Leeds. The Market, if you’ve not experienced is literally and metaphorically the heart of Leeds. Bounded about now by high end developments, ‘the largest covered market in Europe’ is an oasis of cheap fruit and veg, hairdressers, white goods and every culture and cuisine known to Leeds. The outdoors part, known as the ‘Tatters Market’ is where we found Quarantine’s black van and three slightly chilly knowledge gatherers. It is a very simple deal – they record you saying something that you know. The recording then goes on the website www.betweenusweknoweverything.com if you want to look for Katarina and me – she talked about Saturn and I did how to say hello in 5 different languages. This is a very similar concept to Slung Low’s Emporium of Knowledge but without the boiled sweets and natty waistcoats (though we did get free chocolate fingers). It is a lovely idea and Quarantine are a very welcoming and engaging crowd. Maybe one day they should get together with Slung Low and create an uber library of everything. Or cancel each other out in a Leeds-Manchester matter/anti-matter clash.

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On then to Munro House and Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks – a sound and light installation in the part of the building that houses the very hip Cafe 164 and Colours May Vary art and bookshop. This felt like the most consciously ‘arty’ of the experiences – in the most consciously arty of the environments. You enter into a completely blacked off space with only different patterns of dimly lit bulbs against total dark. In this you hear recordings of people recalling performances, or performative experiences. Definitely one I enjoyed more than Katarina (she’s not so keen on the dark but liked the flicker light bulb). We stayed in long enough to hear the title story of a couple watching New Year’s Eve fireworks across the city. As the voice described being surrounded by a free display of neighbourhood fireworks there was a shared snort of recognition from myself and another couple in there (having just come out of firework season): A nice communal moment in an otherwise very individual experience.

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From there we walked the short distance over to Selina Thompson’s ‘Pat it and Prick It and Mark it with B’ at the Corn Exchange. When I arrived in Leeds the Corn Exchange was filled with independent shops selling goth clothes, Nirvana hoodies and skull jewellery. Every Saturday the goth kids gathered on the steps and just hung out. Then the independent shops (and kids) got cleared out and the whole thing taken up market. Since when it has seen the coming and going of various posh shops and restaurants. This Saturday it was filled up with a crafty, arty fair and stuffed to the gunnels with a pre-pre- Xmas shopping crowd, including a woman posing with a very sleepy owl. We wove our way through the shopping hordes looking for the live art which we found tucked away in a little vault on the bottom floor. I was looking forward to this:  Thompson’s ‘It Burns It All Clean’, based on job centre experience, was my favourite piece of Transform 14. In ‘Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B’ Thompson and her able assistants make a dress out of cake, constructing it around her. Entering the little, floodlit vault, the air is thick with icing sugar dust – you breath in sweet. Co-critic Katarina has never seen quite so much cake – and thoroughly approved of being given a taste of the dress material. We were invited, as is everyone, to help build the dress, placing cake ‘bricks’ mortared together with jam on a wire frame. This is a great, and very sticky, sensual experience as everything, feet, hands, clothes, nostrils, tongues become coated in layers of sugar and jam.

Thompson, her body and her relationship to it and food are very much part of her art. She is big and beautiful, with full round glorious curves. Surrounding this gorgeous physicality with layers of fat and sugar and colour and curls suggests all the joy and pleasure of consuming. Placed within the confection of the Corn Exchange in the midst of heightened shopping frenzy, it asks us to consider the point when celebration of consuming becomes self-harm. The title traces the relation of sweet, cake, bodies and love back to childhood. When does pinching a baby’s adorable chubby cheeks become anxiety about eating too much? When and how do we pass on that anxiety? ‘Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B’ is a brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent piece about the pleasures and pains of consuming. And besides it is dress made of cake.  How can you not love it.

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Cake made us late for our next appointment so we dashed across town to Merrion Centre to Sylvia Reimat’s Imagine Us. Unfortunately we managed to miss most of this and arrived only at the end where a lady in bright red jacket and shoes and a bear’s head waltzed in the natural courtyard between Morrisons and the old cinema. The Merrion centre is one of the oldest and least glitzy of Leeds shopping centres. The shops (with several empty spaces) are at the cheaper end, there were far fewer people and less money around. What was joyous was that in this far less arty crowd several people happily and spontaneously joined in the dance. So did we – Katarina because she’ll dance anytime, anywhere (you can when you’re 5) me because I enjoy it too. There was a text too playing on a screen above our heads but I’m afraid I missed most of that. Still it was a special moment- several of us, no connection to each other, dancing with a bear in the Merrion Centre. For the record Katarina said afterwards dancing with the bear was her favourite piece despite then falling over and having to be revived with a sandwich from Morrisons.

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Lastly, we went over to the Trinity Centre to have a go at Invisible Flock’s If You Go Away – Chapter One. This is a work in progress of an interactive experience using your phone or tablet. The Trinity Centre is (currently) the newest and shiniest of Leeds’ shopping ‘destinations’. I have to say in the couple of years it’s been open this is the third time I’ve been in, and the second time for a performance. The other time I went to find the Apple Store and spent 5 minutes cursing I couldn’t find it before realising I was standing right in front of it…

You start ‘If You Go Away’ in the very swanky Everyman cinema. You get given a device and headphones (if like me you are too antediluvian to have adequate version of either). The tiny text (maybe have a larger text format as well?) leads you outside to a tiny booth. On your device a vinyl record spins. Inside the booth there is a record player which doesn’t spin. This bothered co-critic Katarina a lot. It then shows you a faint map and little glowing point which takes you through the (unbelievably crowded) shopping centre to some quiet benches outside Trinity church. Text comes up about characters sitting on the bench, who they are and what they see. My problem was that there is so much you have to do to access this – swipe, tap, twist and turn that I entirely lost what I was being told – it is also a very distracting environment which means any story has to work harder to latch onto your attention. I think if it had been goal orientated ie if there was a mystery to solve or a treasure to find we would have been more motivated to navigate our way through. As it was the story was hard to engage with – too many tiny snippets of information – and not really connecting you with or enclosing you from your surroundings. This is fairly new use of the technology and an early draft of the concept with very interesting potential. As it was I’m afraid we gave up (co-critic Katarina was quite tired with all the walking) after a couple of stops on the journey but would probably go back for more if I have a device that worked!

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As we were going around, I was struck by how much performance there was going on in Leeds. There were buskers, young music students, aging rockers and Roma accordionists; there was a hula hooping lady in white who had Katarina captivated for ages, a Brazilian style drum and dance troop, a rock choir. That was in addition to the performance of market traders, students in fundraising duck outfits and the usual performative display of Leeds citizens out for a good shop. (Alan Read has a very good, if dense, book on Theatre and Everyday Life). Compass doesn’t so much bring performance to the shopping experience as bring a different, valuable, layer to that which is already there. All these layers are complementary not antithetical. In other words, there’s room for arts and shopping.

Though that was the end of the odyssey it wasn’t quite the end of the festival. On the Sunday I came back for Forced Entertainment’s ‘That Night Follows Day’ at Howard Assembly Rooms, performed by 16 children and young people aged 8 to 14. I really wanted to bring my co-critic to this too but it said suitable for ages 16 plus so I didn’t, though actually she would have loved it.

Written by Tim Etchells, this was a rehearsed reading of a text already produced with and by Flemish theatre company Victoria. The text is Etchell’s created after workshops with the original young performers. It is not a surprise to see in the influence of the Flemish company which is very honest and direct in its engagement with young performers and audiences, and challenging for adults and young people alike. Like so much of Etchell’s work it uses a repeated trope as formal and structural device to examine and engage with a topic – in this case the relationship and language between adults and children.  The children address us, the adult audience, each line starting with the word ‘You…’ listing the actions, instructions, lies, hypocrisies, half-truths and manipulations that go from adult to child.

‘You feed us. You wash us. You dress us. You sing to us. You watch us when we are sleeping. You explain to us the different causes of illness and the different causes of war. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.’

Like all of Forced Entertainment shows, listening is a personal experience as you relate what you are seeing/hearing to your own life. In my case this meant checking off the statements against what I do: ‘You teach us words like…prestidigitation and somnambulism’ yup, done that. The cast start out speaking as a chorus, then split into smaller groups, pairs and individuals. The young people are brilliant performers in the way children are as a natural part of their communication. There was a great eye roll and flounce from one young man – I recognised that move. They mimic and mock the intonation of parents and teachers. It is powerful and moving because this is us adults watching the children’s perception and imitation of us. Their most angry moment comes in an extended section of ‘You say no not now. You say no, maybe later. You say no, when you’re older. You say no. You say no. You say no.’ Yes I do that and that and that. There was palpable shock on our row at the use of ‘fucking’ admittedly by older company member. And I have to say I loved the gleeful use of ‘arsehole’ and ‘motherfucker’ by one boy – remind me of this when I’m correctly my kids’ language.  In its simplicity it is the deepest, most profound and purest piece you’ll ever encounter on the relationship between adults and children. And all power to the fabulous 16 young performers who clearly owned their words and performance. It ended on a note of hope and love: ’You tell us it is all going to be alright.’ Grown-ups trying their best to be good enough, create a world safe enough for their kids. And the kids appreciating the effort. We have all been there.

Just a final thought. This was very much a ‘text based’ piece – the text, with the choice of statements, choice of words, is at the heart of the performance. Yes, who is performing and their choices made a big difference but the import of the performance is in the text. Yet if I was to say ‘text based’ performance Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment are not what would first spring to mind. Maybe a reminder to rethink those labels.

Play Date 2 – diversity or how to get to the stories we want to tell

So couple of weeks ago or so I met up with 8 delightful writers and theatre makers for the second of our three Play Dates at Theatre in the Mill. The focus of this session was diversity – stemming from dual frustrations that I felt: that questions of diversity get left to an after thought rather than at the core of what and how we make, develop and programme; and that discussions of diversity became reductionist. Complex, multi-faceted artists reduced to their most obvious ‘protected characteristic’.

So for this session we were carrying on the journey of discovering who we are, what work we want to make and how to make it. We started with exercise of working in pairs to discuss:

1. 3 words that we’d use to describe ourselves

2. 3 words to describe how others see us

3. 3 ‘guilty pleasures’ or if you don’t believe pleasure should be guilty 3 favourite things

As well as a bit of an ice breaker, and fun exercise in working together, it was a great stimulus to conversations about identity, changing identity and how that impacts us and our work. Also generated an AMAZING recipe for a fish finger butty. Sorry you really had to be there.

We then moved on to working on stories – the story of us, the stories we want to tell, the stories about us. I invited everyone to pick a story, one about themselves, one they’re working on or one they make up now and break it into different events or parts of the story, sometimes also called story ‘beats’. We had quite a discussion on story beats – what they were and how many you need. They can be as big or as little as you like:

Girl gets mean stepmother and step sisters

Girl goes to ball

Girl runs away from ball, loses slipper

Girl fits slipper

Girl marries prince

Or

Girl wakes in morning

Girl opens window

Girl hears invitation arrive etc etc

They can be external events – what happens in the plot. Or they can be internal – what is happening within or between the characters. They can be scene by scene (most common), act by act, even line by line if you want to send yourself crazy. As ever, this doesn’t create the piece for you, but it does help you to understand and see what it is you are creating. Each beat of the story was written on a separate piece of paper and I asked everyone to lie them out on the floor. Brilliantly, not only was each story totally individual, each person laid out their story in their own way. This exercise created new stories, envisioned new pathways to the future, sorted out the structure for one piece and the back story for another.

My take away message from this session was first about how much easier it is and more fun working together than individually. And then, again, how completely individual we all are – and how our work comes from and reflects that individuality. More thoughts on that to come but don’t have time now to expand.

This Wednesday 3rd Dec is the last Play Date session at Theatre in the Mill where we’ll look at how the work actually goes on and how to survive while doing it. And just as an added illustration I’ve been attempting to write this perched on my bed while poorly son with ear infection plays amateur Transformers videos on youtube. Which is of course not at ALL distracting.

‘Reckless abandon in the room’- interview with Rash Dash

Here is the interview with Rash Dash that I did for Exeunt. With a few additions in italics! Keen Play Nerders will spot that know what work you want to do and how you want to do it is becoming a bit of a theme.

If you have seen Rash Dash in performance – say in their most recent piece Oh I Can’t Be Bothered – you will know Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan as big, bold, fierce and fantastical performers. Their work is characterised by physicality that is skilful but not slick. They press their bodies against each other, throw themselves into a frenzy of dance, hold, pull, push and tumble through their performances. They sprang into many people’s consciousness with ‘The Ugly Sisters’ – the ‘punk princesses of late night theatre’ according to Maddy Costa in The Guardian.  Somewhere on the continuum between Frantic’s elegant choreography and Kneehigh’s have a go anarchy, they have a physical language that is wholly their own, raucous, sexy, aggressive and strong.

When I meet them on a chilly early Thursday morning in West Yorkshire Playhouse foyer, along with Rash Dash producer Charlotte Bennett, they look nothing like the feral creatures of the stage, but smaller, colder, pale and tired. This is the result of an overnight trip up from London where they are in the middle of their Soho run, coming up to Leeds to honour long standing commitment to perform the show as part of Furnace Festival, run a workshop next day and back down. A bit of a nuts schedule but indicative of their lives at the moment when it seems just about everyone wants a piece of Rash Dash. However exhausting, they were determined to bring the show back to the Playhouse where they are Associate Company and to the city which, despite now living in London, they still call home.

Abbi: ‘We met at the University of Hull but when everyone graduated we knew we were going to start this company together but we didn’t want to stay in the city when all of our friends had left because all you feel is bereft! So we decided to move across to Leeds and this is where we began. Before we were based at the Playhouse we spent a lot of time at the Hub, we were really inspired by Slung Low and the really amazing community they’ve built around themselves.’

Leeds really needs another space and more support for development and production of new and small scale work. I’m planning to do something about this…

We share the common Leeds gripe about lack of spaces in the city for small scale work, with the noble exception of the Hub. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered is the first show that Rash Dash have made with just Abbi and Helen since leaving University, no director, no live music, just them in a room making stuff up.

Helen: ‘With this show we had no idea what it was going to be about until we started in a rehearsal room together, writing streams of consciousness and finding themes that were connecting.’

What it became about was two best friends, Bea and Dee, who are trying to work out what they want to do with their lives in terms of their relationships.

Helen again: ‘One of them has a boyfriend and thinks she’s going to get married and the other is single, and very happy being single, and she suggests that maybe they should be together, not in a sexual way, but as best friends living together. So it’s questioning monogamy and why we choose that as the only route.’

Abbi: ‘It’s been something we’ve been talking about on and off over a few years because we did live together for while and that was really lovely and now we don’t live together and that’s also fine… we are both 27 and everyone starts to pair off and talk about getting married and about when they’re going to have kids…and it kind of took me by surprise when all of these conversations started happening…I haven’t grown up thinking that [you get married and have kids] but I’ve started asking more questions about monogamy since.’

Really?! Is this a thing currently? I can’t remember me or my contemporaries really worrying about who we were going to settle down with at 27 – that didn’t kick in for a good 5 – 10 years later. Not sure whether that’s because the culture has moved on or we were particularly unthinking/irresponsible. Having said that there is a load of us now exhausted with small children in our early 40s so maybe current 27 year olds have the right idea?? 

‘All our shows are quite personal in that way. They start off with us wondering about something in our own lives and it feels like that’s the real kick starter for how we care enough to do all of the hard, difficult work it takes to make a show.’

Though in no way should Abbi and Helen be confused with their stage counterparts of Bea and Dee, yet in some way talking to them is a bit like talking to a long term couple. In our encounter Abbi does most of the talking but they constantly look to each other, nodding and laughing, as if the answers come shared between them. It would be simplistic to identify them with their work, yet their work is entwined with them. Up to this point, their shows such as the Fringe First winning ‘Another Someone’ and the aptly named ‘Scary Gorgeous’ centre on themselves, their passions, fears and confusions as 20-something women.  As they say, their work has to come from a very personal and deeply felt place.

Abbi: ‘Making work really costs you…it should be difficult and you should have to think a lot and very deeply about your own life. If you’re making something that is really going to affect the people in the audience then it is going to affect you too’

Helen: ‘It’s such a hard process to make a piece of theatre you have to be really invested in the ideas’

Abbi: ‘When you watch a Rash Dash show you are watching the people who are performing and the people who are making so there is a huge amount of responsibility and accountability for the things we are saying. The words are coming out of our mouths and we have made them and we mean them.’

Listening to them, it strikes me how clear they are about their practice; however visceral and immediate the work, it is based on thorough and reflective understanding of their process. With the larger projects they are embarking on, both co-authored with Alice Birch, they talk about the specific skills and attitudes they need from fellow performers and collaborators. They don’t choreograph but set up improvisations to find material that is then refined and refined. The material is made with and for the specific body and voice of that performer. For both of these larger scale works, one on women and war, the other on pornography, they will be working with directors, as yet unconfirmed. They talk about the need for someone to ‘hold the room’, the need to scale up the cast and images they work with in order to match the size of the ideas.

Their current popularity with audiences, critics and producers comes with its own pressures and pitfalls, temptations to compromise their work and their process in order to fit other agendas. Reflecting on their current position as ‘being on the edge of where it’s happening’ Abbi quotes Bill Drummond’s advice to artists: Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking out because that’s your job.

Abbi: [We want to] really make sure we are imagining everything we are capable of imagining and not just make a show on big stages…We don’t want to constrain our imaginations to what’s already possible, the models that already exist, but actually try to imagine new ways of making work and let them evolve out of the process.’

Helen: ‘Although Alice is writing the words, Rash Dash as much a part of the authorship as she is…that feels like an important thing that we keep pushing at that, not just settle into the traditional model of commissioning a playwright because that’s the way everyone else does it.’ (YES!)

Absolutely endorse this! I am very much NOT against writers, or writers’ rights. Quite the opposite. I think it is only to the advantage of writers and all artists if many different models of working are available. And those are properly reflected in commissioning agreements and development processes. 

Along with this admirable clarity about who they are and sticking to their metaphorical guns there is a palpable passion and hunger for the work, even at 10.30am on a wet Thursday morning when they’ve been up all night. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered came about because they saw that the two large projects they were working on were not going to happen this year, mired as large projects often are in tedious logistics of money, venues and scheduling. As Abbi pithily put it ‘I was desperate to make something and I’m going to go mad if I don’t’.

And this show seems to have come as a welcome relief from some of the constraints of being a sensible, grown up company; made fast in small pockets of time snatched between other work, with licence to be as spontaneous as they want. If it’s not working, they say, we just go off and write a song.

Abbi: ‘We did a lot of talking about what our process is. Once we found the groove for making this show, I had a really good time making it, going back it being like we were in Uni’

Helen: ‘I think the honesty has been really good. It’s not useful to be really honest when you’re in a room with lots of people because you’ve just got to get on with it.’

Abbi ‘I can’t think of things I am uncomfortable doing in front of you…it doesn’t feel like taking a risk any more… there is a kind of reckless abandon in the room with just the two of us…It’s felt really wild this process and I feel I can just throw myself at stuff and people might think that was weird but they wouldn’t judge me for it. It’s an unjudgmental beautiful process.

Reckless abandon feels like the right Rash Dash phrase. Reckless but not unthinking. Formidable in their conviction but still vulnerable in their openness and honesty. Having the power that comes from knowing the ideas they’re aiming for, their own way of saying them and the guts to stick at it.

In addition we had a great discussion about taking Oh I Can’t Be Bothered to a festival in Finland; how open and accepting the Finns were (by our British standards) and swapped stories about conducting meetings, Finnish style, in a sauna. Sadly not enough room for those stories here. 

Play Date 1: getting to what you want

Welcome (back) to Play Nerd. Apologies it has been a bit quiet here for a bit – it has been busy over in the non-digital work, what with plays to get on and children to get through half term and Halloween (and accompanying sugar highs!)

A few weeks ago I met up with 10 talented, interesting and enthusiastic people over at Theatre in the Mill for the first of what I am calling Play Dates. These are opportunities to get together and explore what work you want to make and how you are going to make it. That can be skills and craft based questions such as how story structure works, how to go about devising a new piece, to more business type questions of where the money comes from, and how to survive as a freelance. I share what knowledge and experience I have from working both at West Yorkshire Playhouse on new plays and new work, but also now as a freelance myself. It is also a chance to meet others who may be interested in same things as you. The next date is coming up on 19th November at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford. Do join us (it is FREE). The focus is on diversity in theatre – what is that, how to get it, and the session is suitable for everyone. If you’re interested in reading a bit about what happened last time see below.

We looked at some writing and some starting to devise exercises – and the fastest introduction to structure you’ve ever seen (more on that in next week’s Play Date). But we started off by working through some questions looking at what we want, both from the session but also from our (working) lives.

These questions come from analysing characters in plays. They are useful for understanding a character you are working on as an actor, devisor, director or writer. They can also be useful for understanding and articulating something about ourselves. Use however you wish.

Question 1: What do you want?

A character’s want is a known objective – what are they/you aiming for? This is not the dreaded ‘where do you want to be in 5 years time?’ interview question. I defy ANYONE to know what they will be doing in 5 years time. We don’t know who we will be in 5 years time. But I can say what I want right now. This is about what we want to do or be. Not what we want others to give us for that. So ‘I want to be making new work as an actor’ is a want. ‘I want to be a rich and famous Hollywood actor’ isn’t (that’s a fantasy albeit one that comes true for a few). This is about asking yourself what it is you want to be doing now. It can be quite short term – I want to finish this play; about your way of working – I want to be devising work with other artists; bigger and ambitious – I want to found a new theatre. Your answer has to be honest – this is what is going to be driving you and your work and there’s no point putting all this effort into something that quite frankly isn’t you. If your answer is ‘I want to be left alone to work on my poetry’ then that is right for you. And your answer has to be as precise and accurate as possible. The more you can define what you are aiming for, the more clarity you bring to starting to achieve it. So ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music’, ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music, with young people’, ‘I want to be making theatre that brings together drama and music, with young people on a large scale.’ The more you know about what you want, the more you know about what you don’t want as well. So if your heart is in site specific, outdoor, devised work you’re not wasting quality time trying to get on in small scale, studio, domestic dramas.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to know what it is you want – so the process is about finding that out – trying a few ideas out, refining the possible wants until you find the one/s that are right for you.

And of course these wants change. On a micro level they probably change pretty often (right now I really want a cup of tea). On a macro level they probably don’t change so often but still evolve as you do. This evolution doesn’t mean that what you started with was wrong. It was right for that moment.

I’m increasingly convinced that the most powerful tool that we have as artists, as people, is knowing what we want and being able to clearly articulate that to ourselves and others.

Question 2. What do you need?

Not from others (we’ll get on to that). A character’s need is related to a problem or lack that they have at the beginning of the story. Also sometimes known as the ‘fatal flaw’. Think MacBeth’s ambition or Hamlet’s deathwish. Not that we are being that negative! If a wish is something you want to do in the external world, a need is something that has to happen to you – whether that is overcoming a fear, or realising your strengths. Looking at your need can be about looking at something you have to work on in yourself – raising your self confidence, or improving your ability to ask for what you want. It is also thinking about what is absolutely important to you – love, security, job satisfaction, family.

Again this is dynamic – it will change as we change and life happens. The things I would have answered at 22 are very different from 42 and will be different at 62.

In plays the plot is driven by the interplay between the protagonist’s wants and needs. In the drama that is the way we perceive our own lives, the wants and needs of our protagonist-egos drive the decisions we make. These questions allow us to understand, evaluate and consider these choices a little more. The question about need asks how we want to be changing ourselves – what is it that we value most at this moment.

Question 3. What is stopping us (external)? What is stopping us (internal)?

Also known in play terminology as what are our obstacles? What is getting in the way of achieving what you want and need? In some self help theories – the only obstacles are internal. I.e. if only you believe in yourself enough anything is possible. This is COMPLETE and UTTER NONSENSE. External obstacles are very real – people who make the decisions don’t get my work, I didn’t get the funding, I don’t have the right contacts, commissioners only want one kind of work from me. Naming and understanding these obstacles is the first step to dealing with them. Sometimes it is about getting around that obstacle – I didn’t get this funding but I have found the money from elsewhere. Sometimes it is an obstacle that won’t be moved – this venue won’t programme me. In which case it changes what you are doing, not necessarily for the worse, not necessarily for the better – so I will make a new space to show my work. What obstacles can’t do is completely stop you. Only you can give up – though you may have to change direction a few times.

The reality of external obstacles doesn’t mean that internal obstacles don’t exist. This question asks what we need to do differently ourselves – do we need to get better at asking for help, stop procrastinating and commit to a project (that’s a favorite of mine). Again in this life-drama of ours, the path we take is determined by what the internal and external obstacles we meet and how we deal with them. Of course, this will all depend on who you are and what your wants, needs, strengths and weaknesses are. It may be that your want is to never fill in another funding application in your life. Which leads us neatly on to…

Question 4. What have I got to offer? And what do others have to offer me?

We all have talents, experiences, skills and knowledge to offer others. My nearly 5 year old can offer energy, entertainment and pearls of wisdom I don’t have. But I am better than her on an ACE strategic touring bid (but probably not for long…) This is a great question to finish up with – go through all the things that you have to offer. So for me – I know I’m good with structure and with words. I’m very good and interested in organisation. I can’t act for toffee. So I know someone else can offer me their acting skills. This is looking at practically what you have, and defining what you would like to get from others, in order to achieve what you want to do.

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.

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.