Thursday, 28 May 2009

Knowledge Gaps

On one level things in the Drama department are quieter this week. The final essays and portfolios of the year have been submitted and the pro-plussed, bleary eyed, libraried- out students have gone off to celebrate, sleep a little and await the results.

For the lecturers it's an intense period of assessment, reading, moderating and cross checking the work ready for the exam boards towards the end of next week.

There's a lot to do but displacement activity comes in thinking of the future and wondering what kind of changes, amendments and initiatives we can carry forward into next year. It's amazing how much marking a bunch of essays can reveal about how we're doing in terms of equipping students with the knowledge they'll need and it's clear to me that somewhere we've missed a trick. In the main the practical work coming out of the department is good, but there are some problems with the more structured academic writing.

I suspect that we don't pay enough attention to current developments in schools and colleges and rather assume that the students arrive ready and confident at taking notes, researching and structuring their findings into argument. I'm not sure we should.

The generation of students who we are currently recruiting come with a very different skills set to those who were coming into HE even ten years ago. They strike me as the retrieval generation, able very quickly to network, communicate and download information. They read visual information brilliantly and can process hundreds of signifiers simultaneously. Gratification seems quick and necessary. They're not as skeptical as my generation and more open to each other.

The difficulty is that, with some very impressive exceptions, there is less ability in focusing on one thing for a period of time, which makes reading or even looking at something for an extended period, difficult. The formal lecture is a tough call partly, I suspect, because of distrust in any experience which isn't multi sensory. Sometimes a cliche will replace a genuine observation, a fact will be mistaken for an opinion and a belief will stand in as a fact. The categories are blurred and this does pose a threat to our standard expectation of academic study.

The question is should we invest time, energy and resources in training students to develop a disciplined stylistic approach and rigour or offer alternative ways for them to express their ideas.

It could be quite a struggle!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The God of Small Things.

The day after the day after and time to reflect a little more carefully on Community Project. As with all good practice it's the magical moments of connection that offer the greatest meaning and value and wake us all up.

There was a moment in the show where tribeswoman Ebonee enlists the audience to help solve the riddle of the Sphinx - to the increasing frustration of Harpu, who has been looking throughout the quest for an opportunity to prove herself.

'We've done it!' shouts Ebonee once the work is done.

'You mean you've done it!' says Harpu 'It's not fair I said I was going to do this from the very start! And you've ruined it.' With that she stomps off in a sulk. Ebonee goes to follow, but warrior Nailha stops her and says

'Don't worry, she'll sort herself out!' The audience, understanding Naliha's wisdom, turn away and the quest continues without Harpu.

During the second show on Thursday one small boy dissented and refused to continue. He didn't cry. He didn't say anything - he just stood still looking up the path down which Harpu had disappeared. It was a brave act, he stood alone. The rest of the audience moved on; still the boy stayed. His parents encouraged him; still he stayed. I told him Harpu would be okay; still he stayed. Eventually, with the rest of the audience disappearing out of the sight, he was picked up and carried to the next scene - but his eyes remained fixed, searching the park for his lost friend Harpu.

It struck me that for all the conversations we'd had about the best way to script and handle this moment of playground negotiation, we'd never once discussed the possibility that anybody would think going after a hurt friend might be more important than saving Kalku, but still the small boy stood still. He was loyal and he was right.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Edge of Permissible.

... And before you know where you are, it's over!

It was a terrific day and the commitment form everybody involved from 6am call to the final unloading of the van back at St Marys at 11pm was total. On the way we played to close to four hundred - including 250 children - who were all taken on a magical journey through Kalku on a quest for a chest!

Apart from the quality of the work, the most incredible aspect of the project has been the mass Drama St Mary's participation from every year group and every pathway. This community event has brought together students who would not, within the current structure of the department, easily find opportunities to work together. It was great to see that they all, in turn, really relished the chance to host the event, to work with the children and above all have a load of fun doing so. Sometimes students have had to wait around for hours while the focus is on solving a specific problem, but they've all remained good humoured and absolutely willing to take on any job that needs doing. It's been a genuine pleasure to work with this company, at times I've felt a bit humbled by their investment. Weeks like this make me realise how good it is to work here!

I suspect, especially given the reaction of some of the Primary School teachers, that we're on the very edge of permissible, and although we had fifty actors, stewards and technicians all looking out for the safety of the audience, the teachers still seemed very nervous of the potential anarchy of the event. It's a tricky one - my feeling is that although some kids like formal structures and rules for behaviour, most love to run around, to climb onto tree stumps, to have their faces painted, to shout, to cheer, to tell jokes. The show was designed to allow some freedoms for the children, through their active participation - we certainly weren't interested in socialising them into passive bourgeoisie theatre going! The Lords of Misrule, who question everything, are more important than ever in creating exciting theatre for children.

More worrying, but linked to this, was that many of the teachers seemed uninterested in the play. They talked, held impromptu staff meetings and even made negative comments about how disruptive to the SATs taking kids out of school can be. I suppose the woes of a sad Caterpillar pale into insignificance if they don't tick a box. It seems a shame - the show was so full of opportunites to develop discussion and further work back in the classroom.

Molly, who came to the evening show, sensibly suggested that next year we arrange a walk round and briefing with the teachers as part of production week so that they're able to relax and genuinely support the children's participation in the show. This is a much better way to solve the problem than my over reactive response.

Very Tired!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Technical Trip Ups.

We've been on fourteen hour days since the weekend trying to ensure everything is as tight as it can be for Thursday. There's an impressive cross section of students involved now with every pathway and every year group represented somewhere in the numerous technical, stewarding, pre-show and performance roles within the show. It was great to realise that the support team walking the show through last night numbered over forty.

Still lots of obstacles and each time one problem is solved another pops up... most are barely foreseeable - the building contractors losing the key to a padlock to an essential gate, stage braces not quite taking the weight of the twenty foot butterfly as we leverage it up...CRACK..., hay fever, the wind taking the smoke from the foggers back into the the audience's faces, a change of flight path into Heathrow, a impromptu cricket match arranged - meaning water nymphs and wicket keepers sharing the dressing room in the pavilion, an angry swan ... the list is endless, but of course all part of the fun of working in a site specific way.

Without good humour and a bit of making do this kind of work becomes impossible and although we're behind and running out of time a late night planning session with the technicians in the Barmy Arms gave hope that with renewed focus and energy we'll finish the tech quickly tomorrow and get a delayed dress rehearsal in and grab a little sleep before the audience arrive on Thursday morning.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Press Release.

The Shrinking Land of Kalku

How do you stop a water nymph from staring at her reflection?
Why is the Milky Magician so bad at spells?
Will Kenneth, the sad caterpillar ever turn into a butterfly?

And most importantly …

Who has stolen all the jokes from Kalku?

These and other crucial questions are set to be answered next Thursday morning as third year Drama in the community students invite offer an open invitation to join them and two hundred Hounslow Primary School children on an adventurous quest through the magical grounds of Chiswick Park.

The St Mary’s students have spent the last five months trawling Hounslow Primary Schools on a workshop tour designed to gather the ideas, designs, stories and jokes from which to create the show. Next Thursday many of the children will have the opportunity to see their initial plans become reality.

We’d be delighted if you’d join them for this free, unticketed event.

St Mary’s University Drama in the Community students

The Golden Travellers


‘The Shrinking Land of Kalku’

Thursday 21st May 2009 at 11am and 6pm

A Free Promenade Performance for Hounslow Schools and residents in
Chiswick House Gardens.
Please gather at the cricket pavilion at the Staveley Road entrance to Chiswick

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Tiger Lillies and Fisticuffs.

After another positive day of building and experimenting with the huge puppets the students have created for the show I went over to the New Players Theatre under Charing Cross station to see the Tiger Lillies in their late night cabaret.

As a band they're hard to describe a kind of Post-Weill punk castrati three piece on the brink of violence and insanity. Tonight they played songs from Shockheaded Peter, the show they performed ten years ago with Improbable, which shot them to infamy.

I wasn't really on it though and rather slipped through the show, which compared to some of the taboo breaking stuff they've written in the last couple of years, lacked a little bite. At the end there was a fight in the auditorium as a drunk man, who'd talked incessantly through most of the set was challenged by the woman in front of him. It quickly descended to insults and fists, leaving the poor Tiger Lillies, shorn of their manic personas and edgy demeanour, to stand meekly at the front of the stage and ask everybody to buy a CD and go home peacefully.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Plotting in Putney

Went to have supper with Tina, and some of her talented family over in Putney yesterday evening. It was a lovely meal in great company, but also gave us a chance to throw around some thoughts about how we might be involved with the re opening of Strawberry Hill house in eighteen months time.

A chance conversation over lunch a week or so ago made it apparent that Tina and I had both seen the opportunity looming in the future - but had then gone off to work on it in different ways.

Tina began to make artistic plans and her brother Tony set to work creating a working draft for shadows and puppets of Horace Walpole's impenetrable Castle of Otranto. Meanwhile I'd headed straight off to meet the trustees of the project to find out what logistically could be achieved - the When? What? Is there any funding? approach.

It feels as though there might be a fit and possibilities for collaboration. It was interesting to find that Tina's niece Amy, who runs Artburst in East London felt that she worked in a similar way to me in order to get things done; whereas I felt a little fraudulent that I had little creative to bring to the table other than a commitment from the trust to allow us to intervene with project work to support the reopening. Still there was much common ground and it feels as though we could pitch for two projects. Could the ghost of Walpole tell the story of Otranto in the very rooms in which it was written? Could we create a legacy of work that might support the education officer who'll start early next year? I'm also keen to do a larger, more participatory community show in May 2011 with St Mary's students co-ordinating and structuring the work.

The evening ended with us sitting round laughing at short excerpts from Walpole's beautifully poised letters and biography. It could all be very exciting.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Lost Banditos and some Stories

Off with Lost Banditos to Bury St.Edmonds for a pre-Edinburgh try out of Destination GB at West Suffolk College. It's the first time I've seen the show (which has gone through several incarnations) and I really enjoyed it.

The premise is that a group of stupid border guards from the UK, led by a sadistic, Daily Mail reading boss decide to try and up their quotas for catching illegal immigrants by smuggling themselves into Dover on board a lorry. Whether this process will help them to understand the mindset of the immigrants, or whether they intend to arrest themselves, isn't really clear - but things so quickly become preposterous, that it doesn't really matter. On the way across the channel they imagine what dreams and visions of England must accompany genuine asylum seekers on the, at times, treacherous journey.

The set up gives the group ample scope to play and the actors, who've been working as an ensemble for over a year now, relish the chance to exploit nuances, mistakes and moments of mayhem. At times the group over indulge in this game and, brilliant though they can be, it comes at the risk of leaving the audience and the story behind but eventually the narrative is hunted down again and on we go.

Kieran is cracking as the boss - but I sensed at the end he felt he hadn't quite found the key to his final monologue where he needs to switch from being playfully dumb to really baring his vitriolic fangs. It's here, in the last moments of the piece, that the English mask of civility slips and we're left with a ranting fascist, surprising not just the audience but the rest of the cast, who reappear with a cup of post-show tea to listen spellbound. The intention is there and if he can allow himself to become monstrous the whole piece will carry real political weight. It's a hidden flick knife only revealed at the end and all the more dangerous because we've been disarmed through early laughter.

Back on campus this evening Kat, Lucy and Bex had organised a storytelling evening borrowing the talents of second years Jenny, Frank and Sam to raise some money in support of their Drama in the Community Leicester project. It was a well executed and highly enjoyable evening, mixing poignant personal testimony with stories of high adventure and mishap, all told in the ambient atmosphere of the Waldegrave drawing room. Impressive attendance from over a hundred students. It just shows how effective keeping things simple can be.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Shrinking and Expanding.

We're pushing through with The Shrinking Land of Kalku now - not that many days until the show goes up so this weekend has been fairly full on ensuring that we're going to hit all the deadlines and give the audience an fantastic time on the 21st May.

The company spent Friday afternoon in Chiswick Park, exploring routes, finding additional nuances prompted by the space and generally trying to carve out the shape of the work.

There are problems. Firstly we're being a bit compromised by ongoing landscaping work, which was meant to be finished by April 9th, but is running severally behind, and cuts off access to some of the most astonishing features of the park. On Monday we'll go back and beg that some of the closed off areas be opened, if only for the technical rehearsals and the day itself. It'll make a huge difference to our work if this can be made to happen.

Secondly the scale of the show is big and with assessments, other commitments and the general wind down at the end of term I'm concerned that the functioning of the work is relying on students, who are not yet signed up to the project. We are getting great good will from other year groups to steward, operate the huge puppets and play roles as tree tricksters and water nymphs, but there is a lot of quick learning that'll need to be done in the tech week.

Saturday was a hugely successful build day back on campus with everybody on board, sewing, unpicking, painting, gluing, rushing off to Kingston for more material and getting the look of the show spot on. I even managed to spend some time with writer Maria and directors Rosie and Emma clarifying the arc of the story and cutting some of the text.

We've a lot more to do... but it felt like a we'd leapt forward.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Don John

Caught Kneehigh's latest show Don John at the BAC last night and once again had a lovely time in their company.

As with Brief Encounter the work has a tremendous sense of yearning to it and a half wish/ half belief that whatever... and I mean whatever... happens ... everything will turn out alright. Into this utopia swaggers Don John dispensing momentary pleasure and instant heartbreak in equal measure.

The show is clever as well as charming. Set in Wintertime 1978, at the fag end of the last Labour government, it reveals a world of weakened authority, power failures, strikes and the brink of chaos. Avuncular Jim Callaghan turns into free the market, greed is good Thatcher, the choreographed postures of John Travolta are threatened by the spontaneity of the Punk revolution and Don John - with Sid Viscous snakelike androgyny, unstoppable in his drive - crashes and burns in a party dress.

How we long for the safety of the dancehall, the mirror ball, the special magic of a caring touch. How we scrabble in the mire during the uncertain days of change.

Thirty years on and once again a recession threatens to throw us into the immediate gratification of hedonism, the show both shows us the joys of this 'straight' abandon whilst warning us of what we'll lose if we do give in. Pact with the devil anyone?

A moment of heart break and wonder sum up the whole. Alan, kind but unexciting, tells his unfaithful, but remorseful, lover Zerlina,

'I don't care about your secrets, I just want to hear your truths.'
Signed up and onside, we're back in Auden's dicotomy for 'the normal heart' which desires 'not universal love, but to be loved alone!'

Nostalgic, rural and hopeful - what can go wrong if we give in to the moonlight, the girl/boy next door, Barry White and the home brewed cider?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Big Mac and Fries Please

There's a joke. It goes like this. What do you say to a Drama graduate?

I had to give a talk over lunch today to colleagues from across the University which made me unusually nervous, but it did me the chance to advocate Drama both as a discipline and a methodology. I even, towards the end, once the sandwiches had all been eaten, managed to coax people onto their feet to try a couple of non exposing exercises. Once the audience were up and engaged I felt myself hit my straps and sailed through the rest of the lecture. I did feel an enormous responsibility to give our discipline a sound educational context and rigour, but as always it was only once we were democratically sharing the space that I felt the bullshit slip away and was at ease with the work.

It's strange how the orthodoxy of the formal lecture throws me off course, though. I suppose as a teaching strategy it feels cold, pre-determined, over assured and ultimately unchallengeable - but I guess many in the audience are not judging your words, but measuring their own practice against the ideas offered.

As I spoke I became increasingly aware of how close the act of going to the theatre (or even being at a lecture) is to the act of rehearsing. Exploring a character or scene kinesthetically is just a physical realisation of the intellectual act of watching a story played out in front of you. Both are essentially about an imaginative projection into an alternative possibility.

The real job for any of us working in Drama education is to explain why and how these leaps of fancy enrich and benefit our lives, especially as none of us do it for money!

Recently Creativity has become a buzz word in the HE sector - almost as if it were a new invention - and many academics have rushed in to try and give the term definition (or at least demonstrate how and why it could be used as a criteria for funding.) I suspect, however, that creativity is almost a polar opposite to accountability and that the hunt for a fixed parameter will always and necessarily prove elusive. The written word certainly can't contain its three dimensionality. It's a fools gold to try and assess the value of creative acts in a purely quantifiable way - but I guess it's always nice to be noticed.

Ultimately I think our agenda must focus on confronting fear - of others, of ourselves, of fear itself. The arts give us ways to recognise the patterns and rhythms in our lives so that we can reject or endorse them. If we're open and ready a simple truth about our existence might come to us in a flash whilst watching a great actor play King Lear or it might occur as we try to cross stage right rather than stage left.

These are the genuine epiphanys that protect us from fast food atrophy.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Have The Courage to be Happy!

Miserable news this evening that the wonderful theatre director Augusto Boal has died of respiratory failure at his Rio home, the morning after attending a rally organised by the Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed.

Augusto was the most inspirational of teachers. A fearless warrior in every fight for the poor, the dispossessed and the underprivileged, with an incredible optimism in the power of humanity to recognise and readjust itself before disaster strikes. At the heart of everything he did lay the clarion assertion that we should 'have the courage to be happy.' In this he didn't mean the Prozac happiness of an escapist Nirvana or ignorance - but a true happiness based on us all being the best we can be, the happiness of a full awareness and vitality to enable us to work, live, debate together. Whether the obstacle preventing us from achieving this equality of purpose lay in external societal forces (the army, the bureaucrat, the abusive authority) or a trap sprung from our own internal thoughts, his abiding focus was on freeing us all to live large lives, full of joy, beauty and laughter.

Marvellously nothing stopped his belief in us - not poverty, not torture, not exile. His work stands as a gesture of indefatigable generosity.

'I don't know about you, but if I can help somebody, I do!'

Augusto understood that theatre is the most persuasive force on earth, partly because we have the capability to believe in stories, but also partly because it is the most social of art forms, bringing people together and enabling them, for the duration of the event, and sometimes beyond, to 'run the same risks.' This for Augusto was what solidarity meant and simply what theatre is for. In a world flashing lights, grand spectactle and mass consumed entertainments he restored for many of us a faith in the basic humanistic and political nature of the relationship between actors and their audience.

In practical terms his great gift to us as practitioners is the idea that play can genuinely be a democratic rehearsal for revolution, both within ourselves and more importantly the communities we operate in. The idea that we can and should intervene and in so doing reveal our own true humanities, in the process changing thousands of lives for the better.

More than anything though Augusto was a hugely charming, roguish flirt, a twinkling subversive with a lion's mane and a bubbling sense of his own contradictions (he'd laugh himself stupid at this purple prose of tribute.) Often at the start of work he would look at the proposal for the rehearsal or workshop.

'The situation is impossible!' he would say '... so let's try!'

Well played Augusto and thank you!

Friday, 1 May 2009


The executive elections are one of the great events in the University calender. Candidates campaign all day in the lead up, music plays, promises are made and a good time is had by all. From early morning the teams are out in force reinforcing manifestos, chatting, trying to persuade those who've already made their minds up to vote someone else, to put their candidate 2nd or 3rd.

The ballot closes at five and the nervous waiting begins in earnest. At about eight thirty everybody collects in the SU hall and the votes are announced. With no clear favourite, this year was even more exciting and the vote went to four rounds before Ben finally had a clear majority.

Danielle and Adam split the Drama vote and finished 5th and 6th - with just 14 votes between them on the first round. As Danielle was eliminated it was clear that most of her supporters had put Adam second and he leapt into 2nd place overall, where he stayed as first Matty and then Tania fell by the way side. It would have been a similar result for Danielle had she manged to survive the first round. Momentum is hugely important.

So the new SU president is Ben Solomon, who seems a thoroughly reasonable and sensible chap. In many ways he really deserves it for the thoughtfulness and seriousness of his campaign, he judged the electorate brilliantly and mixed some appealing ideas for vamping up the social life of the SU with a clear commitment to inclusive representation. I suspect he'll be very good.