Working from home

For a decade now I’ve been trying to make work happen in my home town yet now that I’ve started to concentrate on the ‘performer’ again, rather than the facilitator and producer, I find I am leaving, yet again, to show my work. This year I shall be in Bristol, North Devon and Exeter, at least it’s the South West but, still no space (and by that I mean bricks and mortar) for an alternative theatre scene in Plymouth, my home town and, sorry Bristol, but the real South West.

When we first started to exchange ideas for ‘making something happen’ in the city in which we lived, we were influenced by our backgrounds as performers, theatre makers and culture seekers in other cities across the world. What we found to be lacking in Plymouth were opportunities for the talented emergent and established artists of the city and region to develop their work, work together (or even discover each other‘s existence), and to have their work showcased locally. How could the city’s cultural community grow and flourish if so many of its artists left, or felt the need to make work elsewhere, once it reached a certain level of development? 

The Hidden City Handbook by Rachel Aspinwall, Ruth Mitchell & Phil Smith

These words were written in 2008 and six years on it seems there is still a need to make a vibrant theatre community in Plymouth, even more so since a new generation of theatre students have arrived in the city. Frustratingly many have attempted the challenge only to give up and leave for more cultural places and communities. Up the line in Bristol there are a handful of performer collectives, working from spaces that have been given to them, possibly by a sympathetic council officer who understands their needs. Plymouth?

Regular readers, I apologize for the almost identical grumblings here, which are similar to a past post. Previously I was going on about a freelance community and slowly but surely we are coming out of our corners and making ourselves known to one another. Now we need space to make or, be visible enough so that the new Plymouth Theatre Scene are on the radar and those keyholders will offer to open the door.

BUT hope is in sight, not just because there are people who want to make this happen but a new theatre space is being built on the University campus with two studio theatres and space to experiment. I am keeping my fingers well and truly crossed that it will open its doors to the established theatre makers in Plymouth, so that we can start to be visible and create a cultural buzz but, just as importantly, so that it will make theatre and performance students stay and be part of an emerging scene. Students learn just as much, or more, by watching other work and doing. It’s taken its time but there could be a light… watch this space.

Kindertransport, the author’s guide to the play

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A lovely thing dropped onto the doormat a couple of days ago from Nick Hern Books; I received a copy of Kindertransport the author’s guide to the play. This is because I was interviewed by author Diane Samuels for her chapter on Helga, the part I played in 1993 when Kindertransport won the Verity Bargate award for the Soho Theatre. The play has enjoyed huge success around the world since and is now studied at A, AS and GCSE levels in the U.K. What is fascinating for me is to hear from all the other actors who played the other parts and their thoughts on their characters, but also the ones who’ve shared the part of Helga, with me, over the years. Even more enlightening for me is the part that Diane shares with us from her second draft, a monologue that Helga delivered at the beginning of the play, that subsequently got cut. She didn’t want the emotions that the speech delivers to be spoken but to be embodied within the scene, believing that what remains unspoken is far more powerful and colours the subtext.

Diane first found out about the kindertransport in 1989 and, having grown up in a Jewish community in Liverpool couldn’t understand why she had never heard of it before. At the end of 1938 after a series of attacks on Jewish property and arrests by the Nazis it was arranged that a small amount of under sixteens would be allowed refuge in England, and so ten thousand children were transported to England for safe keeping. The play looks at one young girl, her arrival in England and what subsequently happens to her and her family and how she denies her roots as she grows up. Samuels says ‘[i]f you think you know what memory means, then the play asks you to think again, to feel, see, hear, touch where memory hides and reveals itself, to realise that the value of what you do and do not remember might not lie in the past but in how it connects you to what is fully alive, or solidly frozen, within you right now, as present as ever’ (Samuels 2014:9). This book looks at the context and background to the play, using oral histories of those who came to England as children as well as the creative processes from all the different productions. This is an ultimate guide for the play, not by a notable academic but by the person who has lived with it for over 20 years and perfect for anyone studying or indeed performing it.

Kindertransport, the author’s guide to the play by Diane Samuels is published by Nick Hern Books.

There is also a version of Kindertransport produced by Hall and Childs currently touring, rather timely!

Applications

I want to make it clear that this is in no way a post about how to fill in application forms, it may read like that at times and for that, I apologise but I am really no expert. As a freelance practitioner it’s difficult enough trying to timetable the pies your creative fingers are stuck in around a working week which, we all know, resembles nothing like a normal 9 to 5. Finding time to prep a workshop, research another twenty minutes of a performance, re jig the CV to fit the different applications, print off and be off the page for a play reading can all be put on hold when an application deadline looms. My run up to Christmas though was somewhat frantic because of five application deadlines. Alright, to be honest the deadlines were not all pre 25th December, in fact only one was prior to festivities, three were for January and one (a big one) for February. But, I knew that if I didn’t make a start on them it would be difficult to pick them up after the break and re focus. I also knew that I needed a worked up proposal ready beforehand, a master text that I could cut and paste from, otherwise time gets wasted. So, as I said, this is not a handy set of tips and certainly one size does not fit all but if I’m prepped it’s so much easier… for me.

Having said that, online forms are a law unto themselves and I had to start by trying to work out what part of my proposal I could use for the box that said ‘explain your performance in 120 words’ – I seemed to have a lot more than that on the master pages. Once I’d decided on my cut down version and written it up in the box on page two of the form I clicked the ‘save’ button so I could come back to it at a later point. And yes you got it, I returned to the form to find it had only saved page one, the page about myself, the stuff I know by heart, that I can recount in my sleep, not the page with the box I had rejigged to fit the word count. On top of that I hadn’t saved a record of what I’d picked out of my ‘master text’ no back up, so there I was back to square one, starting all over again in the time when I should be doing one of my other jobs.

It seems no form is the same either, each having quirks of its own. If I was doing an all female version of Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum, (my own all girl school actually put this on when I was in sixth form) I would be able to sum it up in one sentence because, it is a published play, a recognisable playwright and a straightforward concept. But if you are trying out new ideas, playing with form or, with the relationship between yourself and the audience, then it can be something that’s difficult to pitch precisely, and that can also prove hard for the online form. Also, creating a sentence that sums the piece up for marketing purposes can be bloody hard when you’re not in marketing, I wouldn’t be surprised if before long we have to create a tweet for our tag lines. Actually mine ended up being shorter than 140 characters so I reckon a tweet would be a breeze!!!

We know we only have one shot at this, once you’ve clicked ‘send’ you start to mildly panic and your self confidence slides to zero as you start to think about what you’ve sent and whether it sounds alright. You doubt your ability to talk about your own work, you picture someone reading your pitch stifling a laugh…..but then…… you get the email saying you’ve been shortlisted and your confidence rises it all seems worthwhile, until that is you have to do it all over again. The other application form is the one where you just fill in the basic information and then it’s a lottery whether you get picked out, or not. I have differing opinions about this process in its outcome but, it makes the process a lot easier. Now I’ve found the application where you press ‘click to apply’ and an empty email appears. Now that’s what I call a perfect application form!

Solo performance and autobiography

When I finished making my performance earlier this year and wrote a thesis on the dramaturgical process, I questioned whether solo performance had an autobiographical element at its core. Of course not all solo performance is about someone’s lived experience, a lot of solo shows have performers taking on the part of someone else. But, unlike an actor who is given a part and takes that role on board creating a character from the text, a solo performer, in most cases, is instrumental in choosing the person they want to portray. Therefore there must be something attracting the performer to the subject matter in order to take it on and what is it that attracts them? This week Simon Callow brought Inside Wagner’s Head to the Theatre Royal yet he did not spend 90 minutes being Wagner, instead, he let us into the world of Wagner as Callow. He told us the story of Wagner’s life where on occasion he would embody the composer. You may say then that Inside Wagner’s Head has no sense of autobiography at its core, but I would assume that Callow wanted to make the performance because of his absolute love for the music of Wagner. He admires the man for his commitment to art, not for his somewhat unsavory antisemitic views. The very fact that he tells us the story as Callow opens himself up to show us his interest and respect for the subject. Through his research, which created his script, there was dialogue that may have been taken, verbatim, from the archive. In Autobiography and Performance (2008) Deirdre Heddon suggests that by taking words verbatim ‘from people’s reflections on events connected with their own lives’ (2008:127) those words become their autobiographies. Callow is himself (auto) recounting the biographical story of another which is, according to Heddon, one of the ‘multiplicity of ways in which the [auto/biographical] relationship is structured in performance’ (2008:126).

Getting feedback

‘… a person should learn how to accept any kind of feedback, analyze it in the most positive manner possible, and use it to further impact future decision making’      Folkman, Joseph R. (2006) The Power of Feedback. 1st ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

A really busy week mulling over, listening and throwing ideas into a pot started with a trip to Exeter to be part of an evaluation into a site specific event that happened at the end of summer. This City’s Centre was a multi disciplined, cross form piece that took us up into a building looking out over the centre of Exeter, whilst at the same time live streaming views from people’s windows across the same city. Five artists told us stories past and present and facilitated participatory  journeys into a cardboard city built up in front of us. I love this kind of work and I can turn a blind eye to little defects or mistakes especially when work is happening live that would normally be recorded and edited to perfection. So it was lovely to be able to re-visit it (and good to have a time lapse to process more clearly) with creatives, crew and audience members. When you have made work it’s important to get the feedback but this time it was just as interesting for an audience member to hear from another audience’s point of view what they saw and took from the performance. A really valuable exercise for me and good to tap into another creative stream in Devon.

A coffee midweek with other members of theatre collective ripple to talk further about the first thoughts of a potential piece that would need feedback from the start. By taking an audience on a silent journey and asking them what story they see emerging. Can’t say much more but a scratch outing is on the cards somewhere. The problem here is we all have other work and projects on and when away from each other our ripple ideas get pushed aside and yet when in a room together we run away with ourselves and our ideas. We need the luxury of time and resources to continue them, yes that old chestnut.

Hannah Silva’s The Disappearance of Sadie Jones came to Peninsula Arts this week and although I was late to arrive it was really good to see it in a different space to its first outing at the Bike Shed in Exeter. As theatre spaces go they are at opposite ends, one a small (50 seater) room with bare brick walls and old red velvet seats, which gives it an air of vintage mish mash -in a good way, against black staged openness  leading out to a swathe of very comfortable seating that rises up on a rake. Sadie Jones deals with big issues it has great lighting and set so it can work and mold into most venues, even a small room in a Leicester pub. It was good to see it work in two very different places. Silva has written about how difficult it is to get theatre critics to review shows and admitting that there is a wealth of online reviewers out there now wrote a blog to show her feedback from along the tour. We need to receive feedback it is most important, not because of vanity, because every person views a show differently and you need to hear those voices in order to move the work on.  As Silva herself  said ‘ audience members help us to see the work fresh, to see it from many perspectives, to witness that it is continuing to be written, every night’ (http://hannahsilva.wordpress.com/). The Disappearance of Sadie Jones plays the Pleasance, London next week and I recommend it to anyone who can make it.

At the end of the week I attended the first scratch night to happen in the new space, the Lab at the Theatre Royal. As with most scratch nights various performers show a small snippet of work in progress, or present an idea and the audience feedback. Again invaluable as part of the process. If you consider businesses and organisations trial new products or ideas at an early stage then it is exactly the same thing; it gives you an impetus to carry on, a thumbs up that you are on the right track. There was a real mix of work with song, dance, first readings and performance, each completely different. Every company or artist had asked a question of the audience and we had a feedback form to return at the end. It was exciting to see this get off the ground,  it is something that has been needed in this city for a long while, it was also satisfying to see that the performers were not all emerging but all at different stages of their careers. It gave me confidence that there is a community out there, that this is the kind of event to bring them together and to feel that there is support for freelance work. Speaking to friends afterwards it was also noted that it was really important that the work had happened at the Theatre Royal, it felt right that that organisation is supporting this work. The university have a monthly scratch night for students, the Barbican have their weekend scratch festival In the Flesh and now the Theatre Royal have a monthly scratch too, curated by New Model Theatre. After my rant the other week I am slowly starting to feel more confident that this can be the start of a visible creative presence.

Apart from the theatre related outings discussed above I also went with teenage son to hear the Trio of Men play the songs of Beck at the Bbar. A completely different experience made all the more enjoyable by a shared interest with teenage son, who chatted to the musicians in the break to ask questions about his ukelele and other more eclectic instruments that they were using. One of the highlights being audience participation on penny whistles which brought out the inner child in most of us. The best feedback I received was on the way back to our car when teenage son said ‘well that was really enjoyable’, wow, now that is praise indeed.

Solid Air

‘I idolise Drake, yet I cannot think of him without thinking of John Martyn, and vice versa, even though their individual styles were very different’.                                                             Mike Fornatale, Shindig Magazine, 1 November 2013 http://www.johnmartyn.com/

As a script reader for the Theatre Royal, Plymouth one of the most intensely satisfying moments is when you see a performance of a play realised on stage that you suggested for performance. The process, starting on my lap with a notepad and a cup of tea and then the journey it takes to get it produced, can be very precarious. Of the readers Solid Air could have been given to could have been someone who may not have seen the same possibilities or who didn’t have a particular interest in the subject matter. The process of reading a play is always subjective, except, despite whether the subject matter is something you are familiar with or have a liking for, the main matter is whether the writing is good enough; whether the dialogue comes off the page and transports you somewhere and you can visualise it onstage.

I first heard the music of John Martyn when I was at drama school, I was completely taken in by his turn of phrase and his voice that sounded like it hadn’t had a nights sleep in quite some time. Solid Air takes place on a night in 1973 where Martyn quite literally ‘plays’ all night. Hired to play at an Oxford student ball he brings along his friend Nick Drake, who he has written the song Solid Air for. Drake, according to Martyn, had had a nervous breakdown and the song was/is Martyn’s response.

When I first left drama school I worked at the old Leeds Playhouse and working behind the bar was a guy who talked about seeing Martyn at Leeds University; a gig which became a legendary ‘live’ album. That barman was Marc Almond, who not long after became a huge musician himself – did that ‘Live at Leeds’ gig inspire him?

This play speaks to a generation today just as much as mine who saw Martyn first hand, I saw him for *free* outside the old G.L.C building on the South bank. Many singer songwriters today (including Paul Weller, Keane & Beck,) are influenced by the music of John Martyn and Nick Drake, who has achieved cult status. Drake died a year later in 1974 (with an overdose of antidepressants; it is not known whether it was an accident or suicide) and it was after this that his music became fully recognised. Solid Air brings to life that relationship, that breakdown and that unfulfillment in a series of four scenes each bookended with live playing of Martyn’s songs, which only make one want to go back and hear them all again. It is also a great marketing tool for Drake’s songs, none of which we hear, but screams out that we should.

Expanded Narratives

I went along to the Expanded Narrative symposium at the weekend; with papers placed into four different titles, Story, Performance, Games and Sound it highlighted a common theme throughout, we just want to tell stories; we are all trying to create ‘narratives’ through different forms that ‘expand’ the storytelling experience. Poetry, for instance, is ‘ideally suited to harnessing new technologies’ (Dr Lytton Smith, University of Hertfordshire). The form, having line breaks lends itself to being broken up and re-arranged and works perfectly on Twitter. Sited work can use audiences to interact with rather than just receive and Misha Myers (Falmouth University) uses real and imaginary worlds and stories in her work. She engages with many diverse groups who co-author the work and is currently working alongside farmers in India to help promote the farming industry through computer gaming.

Mobile phones have sensors built into them making them perfect receptors for sound walks or locative narratives (both needing to be experienced within a specified site). This is a technological form that both games makers and performance makers have jumped onto as the technology has become more refined. Here James Brocklehurst, lecturer in Communication Arts at Plymouth University talked us through the design process and visual media involved in creating a locative narrative app.

From Jane Grants’s ‘Soft Moon‘ where ancient records of astrophysics create other worlds in the universe and give us insights into our own world at the same time, to Dr Chris Speed’s idea of the future where objects will interact with us, illustrate the age old desire to create stories. We looked at performances without actors, where the audience create the story (Small Town by Coney), and mobile phone games developed by Michael Straeubig because, he believes, we’ve forgotten what it means to play. Finally I participated in the performance of The Unbuilt Room by Seth Kriebel, where a group of six people explore a place through memory and imagination. The audience are given certain rules, we are told where we are, and we decide whether we want to go North, South, East or West (sometimes we don’t have all those choices), we then have to keep a memory of our route working as a group together. We do not know what our story is when we start but narratives emerge as we play. Billed as a performance it was also very much a game the audience played, my only criticism being that at twenty minutes it was too short.

These scenarios certainly illustrated the aim of the symposium reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of Expanded Narrative, as they say…

‘The reader, relocated, becomes a player, co-author or participant. How can we design, develop and experience locative sound, participatory theatre, pervasive and mobile games, flash fiction and works yet to be defined? Through the consideration of these questions, the symposium aims to promote knowledge exchange and collaboration between practitioners from the arts, academia and the creative industries’.

http://www.expandednarrative.org/symposium/

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Site generic ?

I am moving forward with my last performance, which was a site specific piece for the vestry of a synagogue, and contemplating performing it in another venue, in order to decide whether it works in a site other than the one it was made for. I have already taken it to the Jewish Museum in London where I pretty much gave the performance as a presentation complete with power point in order to allow the audience to visualize the space. I have yet to perform it as my original draft, which was as a coffee morning complete with coffee and cakes. Performing in a kosher building came with rules I had to honor and I was not allowed to take homemade cakes into the building, therefore I had to have a plan B.  I will have to be very particular about what space I use and then I will need to decide how I am going to talk about the performance. When I performed it in the vestry it was certainly site-specific but looking at the different mutations of this genre it starts to get quite complicated. In Mapping the Terrain Fiona Wilkie asked ‘What do performance makers mean by site? how specific is site-specific?’ In her questionnaire to various theatre companies she concluded that ‘the only generalisation that can be drawn from the attempts within the questionnaire to define site-specific performance is that it is concerned with issues of place and the real spaces of performance’ (New Theatre Quarterly, 70:148). Most companies would recognise that by performing site-specific work you can reach audiences who, for one reason or another, do not engage with theatrical performances within a theatre building. My reason for performing in the vestry was to not only transmit some local social history through performance, but to start a cultural conversation with the owners of the site, the people who came to see it and myself. Now, I want to see if I can keep that conversation going.

Site specific – site sensitive – site determined – site orientated – site referenced – site conscious – site responsive – site related – site inspired – site generic.

The above are all terms that have been used within the genre of sited work. For my performance in the Jewish Museum I decided on site generic, but was I right? Site generic is a term that means a performance that can be taken to a series of like sites but the Jewish Museum did not have a vestry so why did I use it? I deliberated for a long time. When I first visited the vestry I was surprised at the term vestry as I associated it with a Christian church, plus other Jews I spoke to said they did not have a vestry at their synagogue. So I researched and noted that other spaces, functioning as the vestry at the Plymouth synagogue did, were indeed called other names – community hall being one of them. I then looked at what the room was used for and, although each synagogue will have its varied uses, there will be a nucleus of similar events that are common to all. Meetings, coffee after the services, social events etc, so if you take each building and find the space that encompasses these things then we have a like space, do we not? In the museum the event space I was performing in was used for many things, readings, meetings, social events and, it was directly alongside the cafe so coffee was readily available. Some might say this is tenuous  and if I take this piece to another space it will be interesting to witness the outcome and, maybe, I will have to use another description. Of course the one thing that related the vestry and the museum was their cultural connection, so I could have used the term, site-related.  Now, in the future I may be using a non Jewish space so, even though I will be able to perform my piece as I originally intended to, I will not be in a space that has that cultural relationship. So what does that mean? Site-inspired or site-determined? or maybe a new term altogether.

Wilkie, Fiona (2002) ‘Mapping the Terrain: a Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain’ New Theatre Quarterly. 70, p140-60.

Where’s the freelance community?

Down here in Plymouth we have the award winning Drum that programmes and co-produces with some of the hottest theatre companies around. And The Theatre Royal with its huge production and learning centre TR2 can offer companies time and space to rehearse and perform premieres of their work, hence we see the latest from Complicite, Frantic, Hofesh and Matthew Bourne way before anyone else. The people of the South West like their theatre, dance and musicals so you would think that amongst all this there would be a thriving freelance fraternity.

WRONG… In the decade that I have lived down here I have produced two shows that have played the Drum and I was extremely lucky to do that. I was fed up of constantly leaving my home city to make work and in 2008 I tried to do something about it. I co-produced an arts festival with the intention of using local professional writers, artists, technicians and directors, in the vain hope that once a community was established as being here, and of a standard that other cities seem to have on their doorsteps, then more opportunities would develop amongst a freelance sector and the organisations that can offer the work.

YET… five years later there are no opportunities for freelancers in this city. The Theatre Royal hoovers up any funding by the nature of its reputation, kudos and therefore, power. On top of that we have a council who seem apathetic to cultural offerings and have very little money to put into events other than those which have the reliability of regular funding behind them. In fact the job of arts officer seems to have all but disappeared from the council website, there is no visibility of any arts awards or pots of funding. Where five years ago I was able to co create something that needed substantial funding behind it, today I would be hard pressed to find match funding from this city council.

SO how do we start again and sustain a vibrant artistic community? We have lots to offer in the way of training from higher education courses at two universities and a college, to classes and workshops run by the Creative Learning department of the Theatre Royal and the Barbican Theatre – who have a long reputation for excellent work with young people. These establishments are currently offering opportunities for ’emerging’ artists but seem oblivious  to the wealth of people who have emerged, plied their trade (elsewhere) and have a wide range of talent between them to offer up. And once those ’emerging’ practitioners have been well and truly primed for the creative industries, where are the opportunities for them? Yet again another generation will have to leave and go elsewhere for the jobs.

Over the last couple of years practitioners who lived down here have moved away to more vibrant cities with cultural offers for freelancers. The ones who remain here are those who have no choice but to stay because their partner’s work is here, or have other family commitments. Some have had to leave their freelance status and take up teaching work, or have left the profession altogether.

At a recent open spacer, that the council initiated after Plymouth failed to get to round two of the city of culture bid, there were plenty of suggestions to create a vibrant cultural community. Maybe its time for the large institutions to open their doors to the freelancers so that there can be a conversation about culture beyond the corridors  of the main organisations and, for the council to listen to the feedback. At the end of November New Model Theatre will host the first scratch night in the new space at the Theatre Royal, the Lab. But we could be doing so much more, where are the lunchtime play readings, the experimental festivals, the work in progress. Its a myth that local actors, writers, designers etc are not as good as those from the bigger cities, but we need to share our work in order to mature as artists.

Location, location, location…

University of Plymouth, Professors, and Doctors among this new batch including my supervisor and internal examiner

NSCD Library

We’ve added a number of new books on place, space, performance art and walking to the library collections w/c 07/10/13:

One place after another: site-specific art and locational identity
Miwon Kwon

709.0407 KWO
Main Book Collection

Site-specific art emerged in the late 1960s in reaction to the growing commodification of art and the prevailing ideals of art’s autonomy and universality. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as site-specific art intersected with land art, process art, performance art, conceptual art, installation art, institutional critique, community-based art, and public art, its creators insisted on the inseparability of the work and its context. In recent years, however, the presumption of unrepeatability and immobility encapsulated in Richard Serra’s famous dictum “to remove the work is to destroy the work” is being challenged by new models of site specificity and changes in institutional and market forces.

One Place after Another offers a critical history of site-specific…

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