Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Avenue Q and the Coming End

Back in London after a few days in Oxfordshire. In between catching up with friends and relations I've had some time to read and begin to put together some of the lectures for next semester's Theatre in Context course. Mostly I've been re looking at Michael Billington's State of the Nation, Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain and Richard Eyre's Changing Stages, to get a sense of the London theatre scene just after the war. Dominic Shellard has a new book out called The Golden Generation and Peter Gill's short, but incisive, Apprenticeship have also helped me get a picture of the years between VE day and 'Look Back in Anger'.

On Tuesday I went hunting the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue and St.Martins Lane, so that I could picture where each production took place. The New (now the Coward) Theatre where Olivier and Richardson's first post-War Old Vic productions blazed - and The Globe (now the Gielgud) where Binkie Beaumont sat in his flat and surveyed his Universe. It's a strange world, The West End.

Met up with friends, Kris and Emma and bought a £10 ticket in the Gods for Avenue Q at the Coward. I knew what I was doing, but still left in shock.

The show is moribund in the extreme, as horrific a nostalgia as an eighties School Disco and regressive to the point of nausea. Cute Muppet puppets turned into neurotic post-college twenty somethings. Sex in the City done by Sesame Street. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition joke is over after the first chorus of the first song - 'It Sucks to be Me' and then we're into tasteful taboo breaking with tracks like 'The Internet is for Porn', 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist' etc etc. You get the game!

I guess this is modern Coward. Populist, reactionary, devoid of the world beyond the fringed curtain and the velvet veil. In its packaged consumerist escapism, it makes me feel deeply sad. If it were a TV programme I'd probably veg out and watch - but why bother to go out and see stuff like this? Why bring couch potato TV to the stage? It's been running for two and a half years.

Kris didn't make it past the interval.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

The Cruel Reticence of Harold Pinter

Sad news of the death of Harold Pinter this afternoon. When artists die it feels as if the world stops for a second and takes a moment to realign. The knowledge that nothing more will come from their imagination, I suppose.

Pinter was truly original. I remember at University him being compared unfavourably with Beckett. The latter, we were boldly told by one academic, would have books published about him for centuries to come; whereas Pinter? A footnote, if that. The comparison and the put down were both unfair. Beckett's struggle was with the air; but whatever the altitude, if the joke is thin, the audience can always disengage. Pinter's plays wrestle with the earth, it's hard for the audience not to get muddied by the experience.

Where he stands masterfully alone as a playwright is in his perfect use of empathic communion - his understanding of our need to talk, regardless of whether we have anything to say. In the world of his plays dialogue is neither about efficient communication nor poetic re imagining. It's simply territorial, an assertion to others that we exist and proof to ourselves that we have not gone mad. In this context the choice to speak openly, to repeat a phrase, to remain silent, or to control your intervention in exchange becomes as poised as a martial art.

Behind it all is the torture of missed connection, of loneliness and a burning desire for a more complex understanding of our capacity for intimacy. It's optimistic to dream of fulfilment and I feel this basic human yearning whenever I see his plays in production.

I never felt Pinter was violent or threatening, just deeply, deeply disappointed to the point of barely suppressed rage. In this spirit he produced a language that smashed through the banal to a new understanding of our dysfunctional social state. He both mirrored and parodied through the cruel reticence of his characters.

In the real world, though, he was a great, unambiguous and angry moral voice, booming loud and clear in opposition to militarism and speaking always in support of those he felt could not be heard. As a wonderful orator his great gift is to make us see the visceral power of words, not as metaphors, but as flashes of lightning, capable, if used sparingly in the correct context, of harnessing and redistributing power - at an anti war rally, a family reunion or a birthday party.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Shakespeare Mash it Up One Time!

Ho Ho Ho!

All out for Christmas now with the last two gigs at Ham House safely out the way. It's time to recharge, eat lots of food, catch up with friends, read, sleep and NOT think too much about the department.

We were two actors down for this last weekend, so David stepped up from Ferdinand to Prospero and Ed picked up Ferdinand. Jade replaced Christine as Gonzalo and we cut the Caliban puppet, which took three actors to manipulate and just gave Lena full range as the actor.

David was given a couple of hours rehearsal with full company on Wednesday and a solo call on Friday, but it was still a big ask to make the jump.

On Saturday he was still finding his feet, but did magnificently until the 'Ye Elves of hills' speech.

He started well enough and got through the first line, but then I saw the confidence slip from his eyes and a look a dread sprawl across his face. as the colour drained from his cheeks. For a moment he was blank... but to his credit he kept talking, plucking words, lines, phrases from anywhere and everywhere

'Ye elves of hills, standing lakes and ... umm groves... and brooks... yes, that's right there are brooks....ummm ....And ummm you ... you ... you demi puppets... you ... ummm ... Azure! Azure!! Azure!!! the green vaulted fires of the pine and ringleted ewe.'

By now, realising that as long as he threw a menacing presence and kept a sense of incantation in his tone he would probably get away with anything, the confidence returned. He was back in his flow, maybe even enjoying himself, as he continued to cast his ludicrous spell over the audience.

'Beware... Beware... the light from yonder balcony... if music be ... thats the question ... magic mushrooms.... think no ummm no no more on this... all is mended.... unto the breach then and if I have to austerely punished you... Farewell. For this rough magic I here abjure....phew! Nearly there. I'll drown my book.'

At the end of the show I've never seen an actor get out of their costume quicker.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

End of Year Review

There's a couple of days still to go, but I figured it might be good to try and look back over 2008 for the department - it's been a year!

The major development has been the successful launch of the three pathways: Applied Theatre, Theatre Arts and Physical Theatre and despite some teething problems - it's clear that the new structure is proving popular, helping students' focus, from their earliest weeks at University, on the training that they'll need in order to really have a chance of making an impact in the theatre industry. There have been some teething problems and a certain disjointedness, particularly in marrying the lecture/seminar courses to the pathways, but overall it feels like progress.

By introducing warm ups four days a week and giving over two full days to practical work we think we're offering a much more realistic programme to the students. Attendance and punctuality have also improved as self -discipline improves and the culture slowly shifts.

The knock effect has benefited second and third year students, as the three appointments we made in 2008 (Annabel, Ian & Matt) have increased our capacity to create a professional standard of performance practice. There still some gaps. The students don't have sufficient vocal training and this is sometimes apparent in their shows, but the standard is rising.

The appointment of Kieran, Matt C, Tilly & Dave as Graduate assistants has also helped support the practical work and, as recent graduates themselves, they've been able to offer very understanding support to the new crews, particularly during the induction weeks.

It's been a good year for graduate Directors - Andy Brunskill took up an assistant post at The Orange Tree and Stef O'Driscoll's brilliant Yard Gal, which won critics choice in Time Out, is still out there, with a transfer to the Hackney Empire planned for February.

The graduate performers didn't do so badly either Joe Castagna walked straight into a supporting role opposite Joan Rivers in the West End and Rachel Barrett, has just been picked up by a casting agent working for the BBC. Jade Parker, continues to tour internationally with Cancer Tales, whilst finishing her Performance MA at Arts Ed. Sarah Hall also won a converted place at this Drama School.

Elsewhere Ange Anson, head hunted by the Royal Opera House to join their LX crew, decided to postpone employment in favour of an MA at Central. Whilst Stevie Boreham joined Andy at The Orange Tree working as a wardrobe mistress. Beyond the theatre work eight graduates have gone off to complete PGCE courses. The future's bright in their hands.

There's been a lot of work in our own spaces too, with memorable productions in the Spring of Woyzek, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Kasia's Too Loud a Solitude. These were followed this Autumn by Tina's beautiful Day and Night Happen installation for the SMarts festival, Destination GB, created by our in-house Los Banditos company, and the Shakespeare festival, currently running. The building itself has been transformed with a new foyer, retractable seating block and signage. Yesterday work began backstage on showers and an additional dressing room. We're getting there.

Lots of top visitors to the Uni. Old friends, Clean Break, Cardboard Citizens, NIE and The Comedy School - but lots of great actors, directors, designers and critics including: Lucy Pitman Wallace, Ian Redford, Michael Billington, Sean Foley, Marcello Magni, Lyn Darnley, Mervyn Miller, John Retallack, Jon Holloway and Sam Walters have all delivered masterclasses.

Our profile has been rising internationally Kasia and I both spent time in Viterbo University, Wisconsin and an agreement has been signed to enable student exchanges between our institutions from September 2009. Meanwhile Matt is continuing to work on our partnership with Theatre for a Change and the University of Mzuzu, who will host our students in Malawi from 2011.

Matt's other African adventure took him to South Africa to interview the comrades imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island about their favourite passages from the Complete works of Shakespeare, smuggled into the prison. It'll be fascinating to see how this work develops in 2009.

Locally we've also been very active, with a further five TIE shows touring Richmond Schools and a developing partnership with the National Trust, that has led to the Helios project in Spring and the ongoing child friendly version of The Tempest at Ham House. Over 1,000 kids have worked with our students in follow up workshops. Meanwhile the MA Directors ran their showcase at BAC in June.

Next year's already shaping up, with the MA Physical Theatre being launched in September, and the possibility of developing a technical theatre pathway to support the rest of the work. TIE projects are being planned with Hounslow schools, culminating in a Chiswick Park gig in May. The RSC, visiting our friends at Richmond Theatre with The Tempest, will run a teachers INSET with us in March. The third year creative collaborators and directors festivals in February, Kasia's third year advanced acting production in Spring and the MA Directors return to BAC in June. We're also entering new partnerships with DeSales University in Pennsylvania and further research trips to Malawi for both Matt and myself ...

After a little nap ... Bring it on !!!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Festival First Night

The first night of the Shakespeare Festival proper - with three pieces directed by our MA Directors and performed by the second years. It's the first time that student shows have gone into the refurbished theatre.

The premise of the work is to take Shakespeare as a stimulus for thirty minutes of performance - be that through adaption, excerpt or retelling.

The first bill, which will be repeated tomorrow evening featured a clubbed together slapstick version of rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Goneril, Regan plot from King Lear and a sea shanty version of Pericles. Later in the week we'll have a dance piece based on Ophelia's funeral, a cropped version of Hamletmachine and an American short imagining a meeting between Juilet, Portia and Katherine from Taming of the Shrew.

Elsewhere The Times have published this article, which begins to redress the injustice of the tabloid attacks on The Comedy School.

... and I thought we might be winding up!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Turning them Away...

It's been a terrific weekend, back in Ham House. The weather may have lost it's pale glow, replaced by miserable drizzle and soggy foggy chill, but it's still marvellous to be off campus and pulling in a crowd.

I love walking up the long drive to the house in morning mist, gathering with the company for coffee and biscuits in the staff kitchens before heading off to sell the show to the families who've come to these Winter open days

I was nervous returning to the work, yesterday, especially when the company fell (I think that's the right word) in, fresh, but non too fragrant, from Friday's College Ball. To give them their due, if the students did feel worse for wear, they certainly masked it in performance, giving a sell out audience - we turned twenty away (including some St. Mary's students) - a great show.

Today was Leon and Christine's last shows(they're both unavailable next weekend) and they went out in real style. In fact the whole company continues to do itself proud. When Ham's regular face painter failed to show this morning, Lena and Carolina stepped smartly into the breach and saved the day - knocking out 50 or so tigers, spidermen, butterflies and dragons in just over an hour before they had to go and set up the props and lights.

The show is so popular - all the tickets had gone 45 minutes before curtain this afternoon - that we're looking to meet demand with a second house for the two remaining gigs next weekend. By that point we'll have rehearsed in a new Prospero and Gonzalo.

Thursday, 11 December 2008


We've operated a no extensions policy in the Drama department for a while now. It seems to suit both students and staff and ensures work comes to us early rather than squeaking in on deadline day.

The University have decided now to introduce a form to allow students to apply for extensions - however departmental discretion will continue to operate. Thus, the form is filled out by the student and then sent to administrator Sue, who passes it on the relevant programme director. This Programme director then fills in a form refusing the extension and this is given back, via Sue, to the student. It's a much better system!

Yesterday was another crazy day - but fine relief in the evening at Theatre 503 where my friend Lara is appearing in Barbershopera, which had great critical acclaim in Edinburgh, leading to this run.

I went along with Lara's flatmate Vix, fresh and apparently unscathed from working on Imagine This, and met up with another old friend Matt, who's working as art director on Holby City. In previous lives all of us were part of the Bare and Ragged company that each summer used to flood the Edinburgh fringe with eight to ten shows of varying quality. In the days before we all got sensible-ish jobs, it was riotous good fun.

The show is a blast! Tony and the Guys, one barber shop singer down, for the Eurovision Christmas Barber Shop Contest, draft in an Opera Singer to make up the numbers and overcome their arch rivals, the ruthless -(in accapella singing at any rate)- Swiss.

It's all very silly and very stupid, but so full of giggles and clever fooling that you can't help but leave the auditorium with a huge smile on your face. Irresistible stuff!

Afterwards lots of plaudits for Lara in the bar. We tried not to show it too much, but, she was very good, and we were all very proud of her.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


In December 1988 I went, as a first year undergraduate, to see David Hare's The Secret Rapture at the National Theatre. I remember a brilliantly made play, which tried to personify through the two protagonists, two distinct psychological states. Marion, a rising government Minister represented all the was flawed in the self-interested culture of Thatcher's late government, whereas Isobel in her liberal goodness represented an alternative humane, generous and compassionate way of being. When Isobel is shot and killed late on in the play, the message is clear - that these two states cannot co-exist and that in a society motivated by greed, the 'goodness' that naturally exists in people dies young.

Twenty years on, the same playwright, in the same theatre returns to the theme with Gethsemane. Meredith, a New Labour, Home Secretary picks up the assured baton of composite political pragmatism and is counter pointed by the ridiculously over virtuous Lori, her wayward daughter's teacher, who has given up the day job - too much paperwork - and begun busking on the District line.

My feeling is that this would have been a radical and exciting play ten years ago - but a dialectical argument between the forces of good and evil feels as outdated as monetarism. It also makes me think that Hare either pedestals or condemns his women characters. It's Shavian. It's moral. It needs complication and contradiction to fire the debate.

The play does give a voice, sometimes unbelievably, to the private machinations of politicians, journalists, party fund raisers and even the noble teacher. I learnt nothing, however, that was shocking, unexpected or revealing about the power structures governing our world. At heart I felt was Hare's sentimental research for a soft socialist utopia that never quite happened - a world where roles were clear, popular culture knew its place and we could say what we mean and relax in each others' company.

Perhaps these are the basic tenants of civilisation, perhaps we need the reminder, perhaps also we need to accept that those in power seek privilege as much as they seek to serve and move to a new debate about what we expect from our public servants.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Walpole Prize and Leaving

The Helios project, which we put together in Ham House last June, has won the Walpole award for teaching and learning. I'm well chuffed - particularly as the work had real student ownership. I picked up the award from the Principal, at the feast day lunch, but last year's Drama in the Community students deserve the credit.

The facebook group we set up is still active, so I was able to write and tell them about their success and had some happy responses by closing time this evening. It's a rewarding way to end the year.

After work I went with Matt to the Orange Tree to see Leaving, the Vaclav Havel play, that's been in rep for most of the Autumn. It's most odd and I'm not sure I really got my head round it. Essentially it's a piece which fuses King Lear, The Cherry Orchard and Havel's own musings about leaving office, but I found the humour hard to translate and the pace of the piece seemed too slow to support the witty lines.

Occasionally Havel's disembodied voice comes across the PA system offering advice to the actors or questioning his own intentions - like the director's commentary on a DVD - but after a while this also interrupts what little flow there is.

It's self deprecating autobiography and fine for that, but I'd be more interested in less insular play about the future of the Czech Republic or the psychological effects of retirement, rather than this cerebral pathos.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Great Globe Itself.

Allie, who plays Trinculo has a phobia about balloons, which, until we realised how the very sight of one could make her pathologically violent, had been a source of some amusement for the company.

Today she met a fellow traveller in Elisabeth, one of the house's volunteers assigned to us today on stewarding duty. The two balloon-phobics greeted each other as if twins, separated at birth and were quickly into a discussion as to the root of their problem.

Elisabeth, was a war baby and thinks she learnt in the womb (her mother was caught up in a huge London bombing raid when heavily pregnant and she has been petrified of sudden bangs - or things that can cause sudden bangs- all her life.)The fear is apparently genuine and leads to trauma, angst, fainting and screming fits.

Allie sat nodding her head, looking round with a 'I told you all I wasn't mad' smile of content on her face.

As balloons play a significant part in the production I advised Elisabeth to try and get a transfer to another part of the house, maybe swapping her responsibilities with a different steward. She thanked me and went off to find Sarah, who was co-ordinating the volunteer army. She was back within minutes, white and shaking. We gave her a glass of water and eventually she told us what had happened.

'Sarah,' she'd said 'I wonder if I could not do The Tempest this afternoon?'

'Sure,' Sarah replied 'ummm any reason?'

'Ahhh... I'd rather not say. It would just be for the best if I could do another room!'

'Well, ok' said Sarah, 'Diana who's setting up in the scullery needs a hand. Could you do that'

'Oh thank you...of course, thank you so much.'

And so Elisabeth went off, relieved, to the scullery, where she found Diana struggling to lug in a big, heavy, suitcase.

'Diana? I'm Sarah. I'm a house volunteer, here to help you out, anything you need, just ask me.'

'Oh that's great' said Diana, heading for the corridor 'I could do with an assistant, I do tend to get overrun by the children, sometimes I even run out of resources. I'll get the other bag from the car, but could you open up the case and start setting up'

'Sure,' said Elisabeth, unlocking the case 'by the way... what do you do?'

'Oh' shouted Diana, as Elisabeth lifted the lid and realised her worst nightmare, 'I'm a balloon modeller!!!!'

Saturday, 6 December 2008

.. Before you can say come and go!

The last two days have flown by, but I think the show has has gone up successfully and we can build from here.

Friday ended up being a bitty day as students were juggling their call at Ham with lectures back at College and access to the Hall was shared with the army of volunteers who'd been brought in to dress the Christmas tree and garland the balconies.

Still we got through and even managed a tired dress towards the end of the evening.

Today was wonderful. A beautiful crisp Winter's morning, plenty of business at the House's Christmas market, the punters quickly snapping up the few remaining tickets for the show, ensuring a full house.

We lost two children early on as the loud bangs for The Tempest took them by surprise and their parents had to take them out. It's a tricky one - how do create a calming storm? We've agreed tomorrow to try and limit the noise, by moving Fahad on drums to the upstairs balcony and having Jade, one of the ever skillful puppeters, do a pre-show practice so all the children have a warning of the loud noises to come.

Apart from that it was a great success and the feedback was excellent. The company cleared and we were out by 3pm.

This was an unexpected bonus - (in my mind I'd cleared the day for The Tempest and had, for the first time in a while, time to kill) - so, as it's round the corner, I ended up walking through Richmond park with Carolina, who's been assistant director on the show. For a while we followed a herd of red deer, keeping pace and distance, they're amazing animals. It's the first time off for a few weeks - and a huge weight seemed to lift from my shoulders, escaping to the park for an hour or so was great.

Got back to Twickenham in time to catch the end of the Italian market in Church Street and the open artists' studios on Eel Pie Island. For the first time this Winter I saw the end of term approaching.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Shipwrecks and Chandeliers.

Alistair and Paul did a great job with the get in on Wednesday afternoon whilst the Tempest company ran their final rehearsals back on campus, which meant we were in perfect shape to tech this evening in the Great Hall.

The company have really come together now and we worked with great focus and efficiency in the limited time available to us. As night drew in and the room became lit by candles and torches we really began to feel the potential of the work.

Hester and Angelica,the children who live, with their parents, in the attic flats at the top of the house, came down to see what was going on and it was great to watch them fascinated by the shipwreck and enchanted by Ariel as he swooped in and out of the chandeliers. Acoustically, the hall is so supportive of the verse that the subtlest nuances are now carrying and filling out the story with ever more detail.

The company have been exemplary, punctual, polite and completely focused on the job of relocating, what, because of the visual nature of puppetry, is a complicated and precise show to run.

There's still much to do and we'll be all day tomorrow to make sure we've a real sense of ownership over both our material and the space, in order to be ready for the great imponderable, the audience; but we made excellent progress today.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Here it Comes!

Somehow we've arrived in production week for The Tempest. I'm never quite sure how that happens.

We had a solid rehearsal last night and have cut the running time to 35 minutes - which isn't bad seeing as we've a shipwreck, love affair, liberation, several punishments and a reconciliation to get through.

I'm nervous about the limited time we have to tech the show into the house on Thursday afternoon and it's going to take a big effort from the students to adapt our work quickly against the many unknowns the site specific work throws up - exciting as well!

The puppets are beautiful and with each rehearsals the actors engage with them more -they really have a spirit of their own and the puppeteers in the group have had to explore and make friends with them gently and formally. It's quite touching to watch a head movement being manipulated or a look to the audience. It's subtle and focused work.

We are pushed for time and I've know doubt will have to evaluate every show to learn more and more about how a child audience engages - the learning curve over the next week is going to be very steep.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Funny Festival

It's been a couple of tough weeks for our friends at The Comedy School. Last Thursday The Sun made them front page news with a reactionary story about the terrorist connections of one of the participants on a education course in Whitemoor prison.

Keith's had to play a pretty straight bat in response - especially as within 24 hours the story had spawned 38 further articles, all wanting quotes and debate. I caught up with him yesterday at The School's annual funny festival and ten days on he's still walking a tightrope.

Behind the story is an attempt to stir up the 'castrate and string 'em up' brigade. It's political mischief making, and Keith is nervous that it's the first shot in a more extensive campaign. (It's been announced this morning that luminous orange jackets are to be issued to those carrying out community service orders - so that we can see them!)

The punishment v rehabilitation debate is a good one to have and I don't think anybody in prison arts or the voluntary sector is scared of it, when it's conducted openly - but the Sun article is skewed to such a dangerous level that it makes it impossible for Keith to do anything other than fend it off.

What. of course, it doesn't say is that Keith is a consultant for the Home Office on Prison art, or that they are one of his major clients. It'd also be interesting to know who gave The Sun the story (Keith doesn't know or ask what crimes participants have committed, trusting in the management of the prison to choose inmates who might benefit for the work); and how much they were paid. Finally, what's with the choice to place a ten year old photo of him, smiling and laughing (at us?) next to a menacing, look you in the eyes, image of Kenneth Noyes, the road rage murderer, who had nothing to do with the workshop programme? There was no need to publish Keith's photo, especially not in this racist juxtaposition.

The festival was wonderful. A great opportunity to take part in practical workshops and talk to casting directors, producers and comedians about their experience and practice. Arnold Brown gave a great history of alternative comedy, Adam Bloom (see image) gave advice on getting started, Ivor Dembina explained how to set up a venue, Mick Barnfather ran a scintillating Clowning workshop and Neil Mullarkey from the Comedy Store players helped develop impro skills.

Sarah Hughes from the BBC ran audition technique workshops, which were fascinating. She suggested that young actors were as frightened of success as they were of failure and that many fall into the trap of being 'an actor' without actually working or seriously looking for work - they last a couple years, bemoaning their luck, and go and do something else. Successful actors deal with the 'what happens if I get the part?' thought and go into every audition believing that as they've been called, they have a shout. From Sarah's point of view, this is true, she's simply too busy to call actors she doesn't believe in.

It was very illuminating day.