Bringing the audience into the cultural conversation

In August 2014 four women came together to research and develop the first draft of a new play The Orchard. It wasn’t even a first draft, it was two monologues for two actors. Although intended to be a dialogue playwright Natalie McGrath wanted to find the voices of the characters, she was finding one easier than the other and so wanted to play with them in a rehearsal room. And we really played, joyfully and democratically, we read the monologues, spliced them apart and slotted them together to begin a conversation between the characters. Once we had created the start of a dialogue we invited a small audience to hear it.
The characters were Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, two women who, one hundred years ago had a huge impact on the rights of women but had opposing ways of achieving their goals. What came out of that work in progress showing was a determination that these voices should still be heard, maybe over the years they had become silent to new generations of women and with a general election coming and 9million women not using their vote in the last election, it was time those voices were heard again.
With funding from Arts Council SW, Exeter City Council and Fawcett, Devon, Dreadnought South West are touring with a roadshow – an imagined meeting and conversation between Emmeline and Millicent as it isn’t documented that they met on their own after Emmeline left the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) to set up her own movement.
What is so fascinating as we dissect their rise to power and their tussle between militant or peaceful methods is how pertinent that central argument is to today’s politics…the impetus to walk for hundreds of miles across a country in protest, or to chain oneself to railings or go on hunger strike whilst in prison in order to have a voice and be considered an equal citizen. As Pankhurst says in The Orchard ‘the world must get used to hearing us speak’ that is an incredible idea to get a twenty first century head around. We think we are used to hearing women’s voices, but are we? Is it a lack of hearing women’s voices in the public realm the reason some women don’t vote, because they think they won’t make a difference?
We have gone off onto the road to ask questions like these and to receive some answers from our audience. Our roadshow will be a scratch performance of the play The Orchard, a script in hand reading which, of course, some people may have a problem with. Is there any benefit from seeing a ‘reading’ when the actors are only engaging with a small percentage of what is required if they were performing a fully rehearsed show. I have seen many performances by theatre makers who read from a script after many weeks of research and preparation, I have seen performances that question the very premise of what is a traditional theatre performance and what isn’t and I think the time for theatrical snobbery is over. This is a different way of engaging with an audience, this performance is followed by a conversation with them but more than a question and answer between us and them, a dialogue about what they saw, how they perceived it and whether it came across in the way we had hoped. Any feedback will then be fed back into creative discussions and these discussions will shape the final draft of the play. This method of gathering an evalued response creates a platform for the voices of the audience and not just female voices.
Last night was our first showing at Krowji in Redruth Cornwall, an artistic hub for creatives across different practices. In a rehearsal room with a log burning stove we performed in traverse for forty minutes and then sat for twice that time whilst every member of the audience returned and every member of the audience responded. They weren’t asked to but volunteered to. I have never witnessed that in other Q&As. The audience considered everything they had seen; the relationship between the two women, the setting of piece -not just in traverse but also why an orchard. They wanted to know where the audience were coming from, they wanted more young people to see it because there was so much to learn…is suffrage still taught in Schools? One history teacher spoke up, we have to obey government guidelines… well I know how Emmeline would respond to that! To perform as part of this process is very emancipating, our voices ARE being heard, as I come to terms with who I am playing the audience are feeding me with their outside eyes and this feels very democratic.
We finished on a point made by a male member of the audience ‘it’s not just a feminist thing, its a human thing’ he said and that seemed to sum up the evening in every way and it makes me very excited to hear how other audiences will respond.

The roadshow continues, as will the blog responses.

For more information click on the image below to enlarge

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

There’s an actor’s nightmare where you dream about being onstage but you don’t know the play you are in or any of your lines. I have had that dream many times in the past, usually when I am stressed about something that is often not related to theatre at all, but obviously, subconsciously, my greatest fear is the nightmare scenario. So then why would I sign up to do a show that I know nothing about and even worse haven’t read the script!!!

Years ago, whilst touring the Roaring Girls Hamlet for the Women’s Theatre Group (now known as Sphinx Theatre Company), one of the cast had to drop out because of illness. This happened very quickly and to avoid cancelling performances a replacement was found over a weekend and for her first performance the actor went on with the book. ‘But where do I move? What’s my motivation?’ she gabbled a couple of hours before she was due onstage. ‘Don’t worry’ we all said, ‘we will move you around, just stick with us’. I can still remember her face as she came offstage, like a rabbit in the headlights, and before you think that was her only initiation into the part, she did receive two weeks of rehearsals, whilst performing each night.

Earlier this year at the Edinburgh Festival a show, Horizontal Collaboration, by David Leddy and his company Fire Exit called for four new actors every time it was shown. The actors walked onstage at the Traverse Theatre and read blind from the text and…I was one of them. We were all in the same boat and the audience knew the set up so, there was a feeling of support both from fellow actors and the paying public. And afterwards, when we had got though it without major hiccups and had actually got the story across, even though we had no idea what was going to happen from line to line, there was a palpable sense of achievement, of getting through it and not fucking up and… a real high.

Which must partly be why I’m going to be doing it all over again… except this time, on my own for a whole hour. I will walk onstage and pick up an envelope, which will contain a script and I will start reading and, hopefully, I will continue and not let my mouth run away with itself.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour will be at the Bike Shed Theatre on Tuesday 11 November as part of the Molino Group’s art : weapon residency

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

By Nassim Soleimanpour

presented by the MolinoGroup, in association with Aurora Nova

Thinking big by thinking small

Something I wrote for the New Theatre in your Neighbourhood blog

New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood

by Maddy Costa and Ruth Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I – Maddy here – travelled to Malvern for an event I called Meet the Neighbourhood: basically a chat in a pub with people who make and see and support theatre work in the local area. The pub was quite out of the way (at least, it felt that way to a non-driver) and the group who came was small but passionate. Michelle Pogmore, who is one of Fuel’s Local Engagement Specialists for Malvern, is a theatre-maker herself, and talked about her desire to galvanise her local community, not least to see more work; she also talked about how difficult it is for emergent or mid-career local makers to form a relationship with a big, commercial venue like Malvern Theatres – which, for me very personally, is my least favourite kind of venue, not at all intimate and strangely inflexible…

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the art of good conversation

I am getting to that point in my life where sometimes I struggle to find the word in a conversation, sometimes a small everyday kind of word that normally you don’t have to even think about. This doesn’t matter when you are with a group of friends, people who know you, who understand because they are experiencing the same thing, or younger people who think ‘oh it’s just Ruth!!!’

But sometimes you need to put your point across concisely, with clarity so that hopefully people will listen. As a performer I believe I think instinctively, I am used to being in a rehearsal situation where I need to be able to jump up and improvise a situation, not to think about it but just see what happens. In terms of my conversations they tend to be similar, I am not strategic and I certainly don’t think before I speak, which I know has got me into a pickle before now. As I talk I have often focused on people mid sentence to see them staring back at me as if I am speaking an alien language. My usual problem is that if I am talking about something I know about or have created, lets say a performance or cultural event idea, then I talk as if the person listening knows about it as well as I do, I forget to come at it from their point of view. For example I have just created a performance about baseball and when talking to the other creatives working on it, who don’t know the game as well as I do,  I expect them to understand  and therefore I have to repeat myself, with explanations along the way.

Last night a few individual theatre makers within Plymouth all came together to talk about the ever growing Plymouth Theatre scene, a term that has grown to acknowledge an alternative to the Arts Council funded large organisations with the big buildings and resources. Here were graduates at the start of their cultural journey alongside actors and theatre makers who have been in the business for a couple of decades as well as those inbetweeners. From our conversation we realized that no matter what step you are at on your journey you would always be learning, and the one thing to keep us all going and to keep an alternative theatre scene was to communicate with each other, to know we are all in one group and that we can help one another. What was vitally important to everyone was to keep the conversation going.

Which brings me to a new ebook by Karl James, he is the director of the Dialogue Project and conversation is his main tool. I heard A Different Kind of Justice on radio 4 recorded by Karl about restorative justice and it was one of the best radio conversations I have heard. He also works in my world, the theatre world, as a co-director for Tim Crouch, (Adler & Gibb, What Happens to Hope at the end of the Evening, The Author) and his recording of children’s conversations created the fabulous Monkey Bars for Chris Goode and Company which we saw play the Theatre Royal (Drum) in 2012.

The book is called Say it and Solve it and it comes at communication from a business point of view; those work conversations that are going to be difficult, that you are not looking forward to, where the stakes are high. Karl creates a toolkit that takes you through the process from the absolute beginning. Checklists of the time and the space, i.e making the time and creating the space, to navigating your way through the conversation. I don’t belong in the business world of the suit and tie, the nine to five, the conversation at the water cooler but I can see how this book could help me find my way through countless different situations. Talking to an Arts Council advisor, talking to the keyholder of the building I want to use for a performance, talking to students who are all going to be the ‘next big thing’ in the arts.                                                  We all need to re-check our conversation techniques and this looks like a great resource. I wonder if it will help me with short term memory loss, I reckon it will have some tips.

For a free download of the first chapter click on this link.

Look out for What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening coming to the Theatre Royal (Drum) next Spring.

Research for my @TheatreWestUK show

Believe it or not this is research for my next show. When you are there, at a baseball game, it is pure theatre. This clip is a mash up of Robert Redford in The Natural and the real life drama of the 1988 Kirk Gibson home run to win the World Series, which features in my new show Homeward Bound.

“Baseball is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of those who have gone before”. Ken Burns, The History of Baseball

Homeward Bound is a solo performance inspired by my son’s love of baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the team he plays with in the South West Baseball League; interwoven with the spectre of my own upbringing in a Northern household with three generations of women.

 Homeward Bound will play the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol 15-26th September 2014 for Theatre West

Plymouth independent theatre makers Forge ahead!

In Arts Professional Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth says that because of the arts funding imbalance between London and the regions ‘[t]he result is a continuous brain drain where talented new artists get a professional introduction in the regions, but are then obliged to head to London, like Dick Whittington, to gain access to the scale of budgets and creative opportunities that are simply unaffordable to regional companies’. This has been the case for as long as I have lived in the South West, around fifteen years. There are over 1,000 graduates in the arts coming out of Plymouth every year, as well as many other emerging performers being educated in their craft through arts organisations in the city. The majority move away, as there is no opportunity for them to make work here and make a small living. I have gone on about this on a couple of occasions here and here but there is a push by a small group of independent theatre makers to change the perception of this and they are making work although up until a few weeks ago they only had a couple of Devon festivals to show the work locally.

So, after the influx of these Plymouth theatre makers at Exeter’s Ignite festival last month the Theatre Royal Plymouth have created a small season called Forge to showcase the work, kicking off with Coffee with Vera. The Lab is the new space for experimental work within the Theatre Royal, created with an Arts Council Capital Grant for investment in theatre buildings. The space can easily seat fifty people and at the moment is adaptable to where the seating can be….except I don’t want to perform Vera in the Lab, it’s still too black boxy for this show. So I have asked if I can use the green room space alongside, a room where the performers can relax and make a drink and that’s exactly why I want to use it. I need to be able to give out tea and coffee and show off my homemade cakes, I need to be able to put my audience into a relaxed frame of mind and even introduce people to one another to start up new friendships because, Vera is a host beyond compare.

‘…via the character of Vera Jockleson, Chair of the Ladies’ Guild and consummate coffee morning hostess – Ruth fuses autobiography and history to create a subtly moving meditation on the nature of identity and heritage’. Belinda Dillon, Exeunt Magazine

Of course the downside is that I wont be able to get as many people into the Green Room so it’s a case of first come etc. It will be interesting to observe how the performance evolves from what was originally a piece of sited performance, and how that evolution progresses as Vera will be venturing out into rural Devon in the Autumn. I will be updating, of course, as this blog is supposed to be all about the research! Now that the Theatre Royal has an experimental space lets hope that funding starts to be distributed more evenly throughout the region therefore giving freelancers more opportunities. To be honest we don’t want a lot we only need a space.

Coffee with Vera is on at the Theatre Royal Plymouth as part of the Forge season on Saturday 5th July at 8pm.

Other shows within Forge are

  • Breakers by Rabblerouse Theatre on July 11/12
  • #BodyProblems by Alexandra Ogando on July 18th
  • Parliament Town by New Model Theatre on July 19th
  • Hardworking People by Junk Shop Theatre on July 25th
  • A Soldiers Sketchbook by Shiona Morton and Bill Wroath on July 26th
  • On Air by Blasted Fiction on Aug 1st
  • Beta 6 hosted by New Model Theatre an evening of work in progress



Stories from our past

I watched Cape Wrath by Third Angel a few weeks ago in a van outside the Theatre Royal Plymouth. A gentle tale where Alex Kelly re-traces his grandfathers footsteps to Cape Wrath on the northern most point of Scotland and I was reminded not just of my own grandmother and her penchant for Bourneville chocolate of an evening, but the need to re-engage with our own past. The re-tracing of Alex’s grandfathers footsteps by coach and foot to the most north-westerly point of mainland Scotland fulfilled a need in him and interested me because of the autobiographical similarity in my own performances and it made me re-evaluate them. What makes us look to our past to make work and does it feed a duel need in us. As Alex raised a glass to his grandfather I wondered why I had drawn on my ancestry for my first solo show and my mother’s and grandmother’s stories for my next show. What is more,there is something about the fact that these stories all happened at a similar time in our lives, my mother and grandmother’s stories happening to them around the age I am now. Do generations of families repeat the same patterns? Do we do this subconsciously, or does life deal us similar cards at certain points in our lives? And, what am I trying to say by sharing these stories with people I wont know? Hopefully, we all relate to these stories on a fundamental level. The dozen or so people who sat on a minibus listening to Alex tell his story had not all taken that route to Cape Wrath but we all understood in our hearts why he was doing it. Some didn’t know Scotland, some had been to the very places he was talking about. Some liked a drop of the hard stiff (but definitely not a blend) and some had family with similar likes to Alex’s. I watched as people nodded in agreement or gasped at a revelation and  I thought how simple family stories can wrap themselves around you, like a cosy blanket.

Watching The Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone by Selma Dimitrijevic for Greyscale also took me back to family memories from twelve years ago. A conversation between mother and daughter that deals in the everyday of life, yet holds clues to things buried deep, becomes devastatingly raw in its simplicity and honesty. Like the mother in the play my mother hid what was truly happening to her in order not to worry anyone…until it was too late. Watching a mirror of my life onstage was cathartic and yet, I didn’t feel alone in the audience. Many people were experiencing the same recall, the fact that the female characters are played by men didn’t change anything.

Both shows were simplicity themselves, devoid of sound, set or props, the acting and the simple storytelling was all that was needed. Everyone has a story inside them and most of those stories have a need to be told, and… those stories WILL contain universal truths. Our stories come from our past, our family and mostly…they have love at their heart.

Everyone an artist

“It makes me wonder: what might the NTiYN commissions look like if it weren’t Fuel making most of the decisions?”
Here in the South West, in Plymouth, we are growing a community of practitioners who come from all walks of life who each bring a different viewpoint of how that accessibility can happen. There isn’t a name yet for this group, we have shared outlooks but agreeing on a name, that is the most difficult of tasks.
I am very much looking forward to the momentum of Fun Palaces and how it adds to the ethos of NTiYN.

New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood

by Maddy Costa

Francois Matarasso has been a source of inspiration pretty much since I became involved in New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. A cultural thinker as generous as he is perspicacious, he frequently alerts me to cultural projects or public activities I might not otherwise encounter, and argues for more genuinely inclusive ways of thinking about, talking about and creating art. As the subtitles to his website and blog so piquantly put it, he writes about art as if people mattered, and thinks about culture as if democracy mattered.

I’ve flagged him up on here before, but his latest post feels particularly provocative for the NTiYN project. It focuses on Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, a programme initiated by Belgian photographer Francois Hers to create an alternative to standard community arts provision: giving people (in Matarasso’s words) “not just access to great art (as selected on their behalf by…

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My performance at Exeter Ignite

Flyer word

Those who follow this blog will know that this performance was created for the Plymouth Synagogue, yet the Exeter synagogue is only a year younger and celebrated its 250th year last year. I have been looking at the links between the two synagogues and myself and will be sharing them within this performative coffee morning. So come along – coffee, cake… and you get to see a hidden treasure within the city centre.

Thoughts on “Word Play: do theatre titles matter?”

This article in the Guardian yesterday rang a few bells with me as I am currently thinking about tweeking my 2013 performance title because

1) it was site-specific and the title refers to the place I and the audience were in, which was a synagogue vestry.

2) I am taking the performance to another synagogue but the new site does not refer to the space as a vestry and this has been pointed out to me.

My quandry is, to keep the title or change it according to the space I am in, the whole title is Coffee with Vera in the Vestry, so it could be shortened to Coffee with Vera or Coffee with Vera in the … (fill in the dots appropriately). Initially the title was Kosher Coffee; I loved this title, it was clean, punchy, had a play on words and alliteration, but, coffee isn’t kosher and I knew that. I was warned off it for many varied reasons, including the site owners possible confusion with the obvious mistake so, I reluctantly changed it but always privately hankered after the first. I selfishly thought it’s my title and I like it, so what if people don’t get the clever wordplay which makes for interesting debate.

I now have two other titles to contend with, one created quickly for a scratch night and, with which an application was applied for. Being successful that title has now gone into the festival mix and will have to stay, I tell myself there’s something to be said for going with first choices. It’s not a title that gets said by a character, which is one of the points the Guardian article is talking about, yet it could easily end up in the text which is still to be written/devised. The third title is still a working title i.e haven’t got one yet, and I am going to take great care with my decision.

If you read the comments that follow the Guardian article the first retorts that this is ‘a silly unnecessary question’ but I couldn’t disagree more; I am still wondering whether 2 of my titles are the right ones and will therefore anguish over the third. As a punter I look at titles and sometimes think ‘ great title, I want to see that’, Daniels Bye’s How to Occupy an Oil Rig for example. A couple of days ago fellow performer Derek and myself took two hours to come up with 250 characters for a brochure copy, that’s basically 2 sentences, our heads were in our hands for most of the second hour. Why is it so hard? The title is the first text that people see before anything else, the first text that people will make an instant decision about and when that is a festival brochure the title of the piece can be a deciding factor whether you play to an extra few people or not. As a play reader, or reader of plays (yes, I get paid) I occasionally wonder why a title has been used, sometimes I can mull it over for more minutes than it’s worth (and believe me on script reader pay you can’t waste minutes) but sometimes it really bugs me, so I don’t want people making a decision before they’ve seen the show on the basis that the title doesn’t warrant a viewing.

Therefore, do I take my title from the text in the play or have a title that is not referred to but gives an overarching theme of the play? This could be one of the hardest decisions I’ve made and certainly, at the moment, the hardest text to write.