Sunday, 29 June 2008

Tempest at The Oval

On Friday night a gang of us went over to The Oval House to see their Youth Theatre's production of The Tempest. Jenny, Mitch, Kieran and Stef, four of our graduate students were involved and several more of this flourishing company are going to join us in the Autumn. It's Stef mostly, I think, who's been the driving force in creating links between young actors.

I'd seen the company's brilliant Bald Soprano earlier in the year and really enjoyed the fearlessness and ambition of the production. The Tempest, if I'm honest, didn't quite match up, but this was mainly a problem of direction, some odd casting and a frenetic pace that didn't allow any sense of the shape or the music of the play to emerge. It was a neat touch to have Sycorax feeding Caliban his lines and Prospero's final speech was cut, to allow a final image of Caliban reclaiming his Island - but these moments seemed isolated and out of sync with the speed run nature of the production.

Still the company has a good feel and camaraderie and if it can find the right direction for the actors then they are capable of radical and exciting work.

Friday, 27 June 2008

The Emperor's New Kilt

It's been a week of meetings. Mostly for information giving, with thoughts now turned towards September and the new academic year.

Richmond borough has a strong forum for teachers and educators. It gives The Orange Tree, Richmond Theatre and, increasingly, ourselves an opportunity to talk to the local schools and colleges about future projects - this means the education and outreach work from all three creative institutions is created in dialogue rather than offered as an imposed product. Of course our programming offers stimulus for work, but it's the teachers who are genuinely working the chalk face and are in the best position to feedback, suggest the themes and timings for project work and lead the partnerships.

Last night's meet was at Richmond Theatre and was followed by a smashing show The Emperor's Kilt devised by Wee Stories and produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, which was inventive, playful, irreverent, political but also moving, beautiful and rhythmic. I went with Louise, our administrator, and two of her children Emily and Jamie, who were both completely knocked out by the show. I think this is great children's theatre where the gap between artist and educator is, as it should be, completely erased.

Earlier in the day we had a workshop with Andy Cannon, who is one of Wee Stories directors. He really pushed the Dorothy Heathcote notion that a drama lesson, whatever its content, should be a theatrical event in its own right and that a good teacher was simply a good friend who could tell you or show you something that perhaps you knew already, but needed reminding of.... It's a great definition isn't it?

Thursday, 26 June 2008


Came across another Drama blogger yesterday morning. Sandy, who's about to graduate, but has been spending most of the last month building sets for the MA Directors in the theatre, has one called Until Further Notice, which reads really well. In particular he's found a genuine voice for it, which made me wonder if Drama St. Mary's was perhaps still searching for the right tone?

We had lunch together and we talked a little of the notion of audience, who you write for, what you write for, what motivates you to write and the need for a personal touch (which perhaps is what's missing here thus far.) He got into blogging through his brother and has a much more sophisticated grasp of its social networking potential than I have at the moment. I suspect it's a useful tool, not just for publicity, but also to encourage a more immediate debate amongst the students about both the work of the department and the theatre world in general...

We used facebook on the Helios project to pass information, rehearsal schedules, jpegs, evaluations etc. to each other and I'm looking to use blogs as a form of portfolio next year, perhaps piloting with the Drama in the Community students. If students found their voice and their audience early in the module it might help take some pressure off at the end of term. I know several grades were compromised by last minutism this year, with portfolios being knocked out in the last 48 hours, rather than developing organically over time. Would blogs that layered and commented on each other be better?

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

MA Directors at BAC

The MA shows are now in full swing at Battersea Arts Centre.

Each of the directors get a small budget, rehearsal space and a slot and have to put up a piece of work. For the entrepreneurs in the group it's a liberating experience and really gives you a hands on experience of working with budgets, actors, venue and production team. It's a bit of an adventure to work out how to manage your time and resources

Some of the graduate and undergraduate students stay on to support the work, taking on technical or stage management duties - which offers them another opportunity to be out and about calling shows in professional venues.

The pick of this years work looks like being Peter Darney's production of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing which opens tomorrow.

Elsewhere in the department Kasia has gone back into rehearsals devising a show which, through stroytelling, is exploring the effects of migration on Poland and England. She's working with five of the graduates on the project. They had a week's exploration in Poland earlier in the month and are now focusing on making the work ready for shows in London and Cambridge in the Autumn.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Cracking Night at The Cock

A small group of us went over to The Cock Tavern in Kilburn last night to see recent graduate Rachel Barrett's debut as a stand up comedian.

Rachel delivered some crackingly funny work on her Storytelling module last year as a result we put her in touch with Keith Palmer at The Comedy School up in Camden. He's been working with her over the last six weeks to develop a five minute set.

It's a ballsy thing to do to stand up in front of a hundred strong crowd and deliver your material, but Rachel was magnificent, even recovering with calmness and finesse when she momentarily lost her way. I spoke to Keith afterwards and he told me what a fantastic journey he thought Rach had gone on, overcoming all her nerves and doubts to really command the stage. Next step for her is to build up some gigs and develop some material with a look towards going to Edinburgh in 2009. Meanwhile I'm going to try and bring The Comedy School into SMUC to deliver some workshops.

It was a great vibe in the pub all evening and after the comics had worked their magic a jazz funk band played us into the early hours. Didn't get home til ... well just didn't!

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Major Barbara

Finally caught up with Major Barbara at the National Theatre. It's coming to the end of its run and there is a sense of settled assurance in the playing. I'd go a long way to see Simon Russell Beale and even further to see Claire Higgins on stage. Can't help feeling a little that it's unfair on the other actors. They're both so brilliant, so in tune with the audience and having so much fun (it was a matinee) that you fear for the evenness of the production.

Once again Nick Hytner, who is one of only a handful of directors to really tame the vast Olivier stage, brought an almost operatic touch to the work making visual links between Shaw's understanding of the arms trade and our own continued compromised involvement in the Middle East. The final image of Russell Beale sorting out his ledger whilst a soundtrack of bombs and screams increased in volume wasn't subtle, but it made it point.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Bromley Overspill

Last night Molly Mullen, head of education at Richmond Theatre and a visiting lecturer here at St.Mary's and I, went over to The Churchill in Bromley to see Metamorphosis '08 a new writing initiative pioneered by our friends at the theatre, Liam and Julia.

Julia, with brilliant support from Liam, has been at the forefront of championing educational programming within the commercial sector. It's pioneering work particularly as even (or perhaps specifically) within the subsidised theatre several managements still feel that education exists to tick funding boxes rather than because it's an important function of a vibrant building.

In recent years Julia's been passionate about developing and supporting new writing. Year on year she's been raising the bar in persuading ATG to use it's professional resources in serious support of this work.

Of the two pieces last night Overspill by Ali Taylor was the real deal. Set in Bromley the play was a poetic homage to the town in the Under Milk Wood tradition; a piece of fast paced, shared, and occasionally disputed, storytelling by three lads out on a Friday night. It felt like exactly the kind of work a regional playhouse should be doing and, although many in the audience were culturally a million miles away from the characters on stage, for an hour or so the pseudo-West End profile of the theatre melted away and it became a community venue watching itself with interest, curiosity and no little pride.

Guardian Coverage

The Guardian are doing some great coverage on the Tfac work. Another article appeared last week focused on the sex workers whose testimonies formed the basis for a wonderful morning of interactive theatre outside the police station in Mchessi on the final Saturday of our stay.
We're moving on with our partnership plans which will involve the British Council and the University of Muzuzu in the North of the country.
Patrick Young, Tfac's director, and Matt have begun talking about virtual exchanges of good practice and ideas between our students and trainee teachers in Malawi. This might involve blogs, podcasts, virtual postcards.
Here's the article.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Return to Ham House

We've been building a brilliant partnership with Ham House over the river in Petersham.

The third year Drama in the Community students wrote, designed, produced and performed a wonderful promenade performance piece for primary schools last month. The audience accompanied the heroine Isis on an epic quest around the grounds in an hour and a half of delightful participatory fun.

As a thank you for creating the show we were all given volunteer passes by Gary, who works for the National Trust as property manager, which means lots of free exploring for a year. He'd really enjoyed the way we'd 're imagined the space,' which is a lovely way of considering our work.

Today Tilly, who played the Kingfisher narrator in the play, and who is keen to develop new projects with the Trust, and I returned to the house to begin putting in place some ideas for next year.

Jorge, the events manager, gave us a brilliant private tour around the state rooms and then Pam and Alan, two of the bonefida volunteers gave us a fascinating look 'backstage' at the servants' quarters.

Alan read some diary entries of Doug Beasley, a junior footman, who came to the house in the 1930's. His stories were fascinating and both of us immediately saw their dramatic potential in situ.

We've also agreed to tell ghost stories in the great hall for six days in the run up to Christmas - which will be a great project for next years third years.

I'm really pleased about this link. It's great to be able to offer students projects in real situations, it brings an additional focus to the work and takes it beyond a scramble for the grade.

Sunday, 15 June 2008


Went to the Almeida to see their production of Rosmersholm, which has had some stuinning reviews. They do a good deal on tickets as well and it was only £6 to get in ... so can't complain about that.

The evening was odd though and I felt a bit disengaged and I couldn't decide if it was the production or the theatre itself I was resisiting (quite a bit of faux Islington Mwwwaaaahhhing!!! going on in the foyer.)

The director Anthony Page had clearly looked to restrain the emotion of the piece and at first I found it very hard to hear what was being said. The low key delivery also served to highlight the blocked choreography with the actors springing backwards and forwards from stage right window to stage left doorway as if on elastic.

I always enjoy Ibsen, however, and think of him as a noble anarchist, rather than the social reformer he's sometimes portrayed as. He had no idea how to change the world, just knew it needed changing.

Helen McCrory, as Rebecca West was brilliant at the two most telling moments of the playand the excellent Paul Sullivan brought the stillness, to his cameo as radical journalist Peder Mortensgaard, that was needed for us to want to lean in and listen.
It was, I suspect, just the trick.

Friday, 13 June 2008


Went to the subterranean vaults of Southwark Playhouse last night to see Matt's production of subUrbia.

All of the staff at St.Mary's are encouraged to continue our professional practice by picking up industry work as and when we can. I think it's really an essential part of keeping our own practice fresh and I hope this in turns benefits the students. We kind of have to know what we're talking about, becuase we're doing it beyond the Uni.

subUrbia's a strange piece written by the performance poet Eric Bogosian and transposed smartly in this version from his native Massachusetts to Norfolk.

In essence it's a light satire on being twentysomething and desiring the comfort of companionship whilst similtaneously wanting to be seen as a unique risk taking, misunderstood bohemian. In Bogosian's world this uncomfortable mix comically breaks down into dysfunction and childishness. The writing works best when the pathos is at its most explicit.

For all the playful fun the ending is top heavy and full of moral recrimination, which felt unnecessary, given the light touch given to the earlier scenes. A sledgehammer to crack a nut?

Matt did a top job though particularly as he was parachuted in to the project late and with more time running in the space I'm sure the actors will find their mark.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

New Recruits

With the students gone this week has really been focused on driving through the marking, ready for the exam boards next week and a little planning for next year.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we interviewed for new staff. The department is growing and from September we're introducing three new pathways: Drama and Applied Theatre, Drama and Physical theatre and Drama and Theatre Arts. Each course will offer a rigorous practical training, combined with a focus on the context in which work is made... but we need more teachers.

In the end we made two exciting new appointments both of whose work I've seen and admired. Theatre Director Annabelle Arden, who was a founder of Complicite is joining us as Senior Lecturer and the actor Ian Hughes, who I first saw play the Fool to Robert Stephens Lear for the RSC, in the early nineties is joining us as an acting tutor.

During his presentation to the Drama staff Ian talked about that production and playing alongside one of the most exceptional stage actors of the late twentieth century. Some nights apparently Stephens was so brilliant that Ian forgot to act and just played. I think I must have caught one of those nights because I can still remember spinning out of the theatre into the Stratford night knowing that I'd just seen acting at its most brilliant.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Saving Grace

My friend Sarah, who works for ITN, called to see if I'd seen the piece on Grace Mathanya in yesterday's Guardian.

Matthew Hahn and myself were lucky enough to work with Grace when we spent some time with Theatre for a Change in Malawi, last April, looking at how interactive drama techniques can support behaviour change and gender assertiveness and provide a key to HIV Prevention.

We're currently developing a partnership with the company in the hope that Tfac trained practitioners might pick up St.Mary's qualifications and that our Applied Theatre students will be able to work on placement, picking up a Theatre for Development module, in Lilongwe.

Grace works as a links officer for Tfac, connecting the companies facilitators with focus groups in some of the city's poorest communities after rehearsals one day she showed the garden that a group of women from her township had created to grow onions, sweet garlic and other vegetables. The drama workshops had brought them together and enabled them to take practical steps to the help maintain the nutritional stability required to ensure the anti-viral drugs wroked effectively.

It's great to see her inspiring story in print.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Last Train to Nibroc

Went to see Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton over at The Orange Tree.

I didn't know anything about this play or writer, but was really charmed the show.

It was directed by Katie Henry, who graduated form our MA in Directing the year before I joined St.Mary's - and she did a brilliant job, coaxing performances of gentle humour from her two actors who expertly mined beautiful and subtle rhythms from the text.

Andy Brunskill, one of our third year undergraduates, has just been picked up by Sam Walters to work as a trainee director at the theatre for the forthcoming year. If Katie's work is anything to go on it's a great place to hone your craft. We're dead proud of him.

Friday, 6 June 2008

TIE in Strathmore School

I've just come back from Strathmore Special Needs school in Petersham, where our second year Theatre in Education students have been working for the last few weeks. We've been building up contacts and working partnerships with many of the schools in Richmond and it's always enjoyable to go and see the students working with the children.

It's the first time I've been to Strathmore and I'm delighted to hear from their team that the project's gone well, with our students really prepared to take on board the advice and guidance of the specialist teachers over there ... (The first workshop session was apparently a bit of a nightmare, but to everybodies credit and perseverance things have really turned around.)

The theme of the work has been the Cinderella story and today, in the final session, the children help the fairy godmother, played by workshop leader Emily to prepare for her wedding to the handsome Prince. This includes playing percussion instruments, waving flags, throwing confetti and dancing. It's a highly effective and direct way into an hour of multi sensory play and a very rewarding way to end the year.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

End of Term

The third years have just left... I can still hear the final callings of their strawberry and champagne party echo across St.Mary's lawns. They've been a very good year and many of them are already lined up with jobs in the profession as assistant directors and technicians. Others are off to Drama school to top up their degree with further training and a couple are off to complete PGCE teacher training courses. A few are going to have a crack at forming their own companies.

Today though they seem just happy to have finished the long all night slog of final essays and projects. We're going to miss them.