Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Walk Along the Avenue.

On Friday afternoon the Drama in the Community students went for our first reccie of the tree lined Ham Avenue, the mile long stretch leading out of the South gates of the house up to the common which we hope to use for our procession. It's a glorious route regal, direct and majestic, designed I suppose to give the scrambling servants enough time, wherever they were in the house, to get into position to greet their masters and mistresses as they returned from a hunt in Richmond Park.

The magnificent gates at the end of the walk are surprisingly narrow, but wide enough to funnel three people through at a time, exploding into the wilderness at the back of the gardens. The arrival and entrance into the grounds needs to be big, baroque, theatrical. Heralds? Trumpets? Cherubs scattering gold leaf to bless the procession?

Our wandering sparked some excited ideas and conversations and I hope began to make some of the abstract plans more tangible to the students. Technicians Tina and Paul joined us and their enthusiasm for the possibilities of the work was incredibly reassuring.

For all the opportunities this project offers I'm sensing a little reticence from some of the group and the truth is we don't really have a lot of time for it. We always set the bar really high for these projects and they need the synergy of a committed team to get everything done. Last spring in Chiswick Park although only twenty students were officially part of the assessment by the time we put the show on we had a company of over a hundred with representatives from every path and year group - all there because they could see the fun and value of the show. If you don't have the desire to create a celebration then I don't think the project is for you (and there are alternative assessments possible.) I worry that unless everybody jumps on board very quickly we'll be carrying some disgruntled passengers, bogged down in a negative self-sabotaging resistance.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Fair Cops.

Tony and Phil from Twickenham constabulary popped on today for a coffee and a chat. We talked them through the work we're doing for Community safety day in February and they helped us bring some authenticity to the 'stop and search' scenes.

Broadly our work was in the right place. Underage drinking and tagging, which are both portrayed in the play are big issues and most of the 'pulls' on teenagers in the borough come as a result of petty criminal damage or anti social behaviour resulting from alcohol abuse.

One scene we will have to change is where our protagonist James is caught spraying on a disused building. In our version the police confiscate his can, search him and send him on his way. The reality is he'd be arressted on the spot. A subtle correction to our storyline to focus more on police suspicion rather than hard evidence will not only get rid of this inaccuracy but also complicate the debate about the range and use of police power. It's a welcome adjustment.

I've asked if the actors can go out on the beat next week and watch first hand what goes on. Both Tony and Phil were very happy to look into it and I'm hopeful this'll happen.

Later in the afternoon I get a call from the University's health and safety officer asking why the police were on site.

"Any criminal activity by students or staff must be reported to me!" I was told rather grandly. I wasn't too sorry to have to disappoint.

It'd taken her a while to trace where the invitation to the police had come from, which had given plenty of time for the rumours to fly about. Some students in my afternoon lecture seemed generally surprised to see me there as they'd heard that I'd been arrested in a college raid earlier in the day.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Four Hundred Beach Balls. Millions of Possibilities!

Further meetings and logistics around the Ham House project - which grows by the day. A very good meeting with Gary and Jorge, where we not only began to really see a shape for the actual day emerge, but also managed to cut away at some of the Trust's safer certainties that in effect would undermine the participatory or celebratory nature of the event.

We've agreed to keep the spoken word to a minimum. No speeches. No celebrities and no formality. VIPs welcome, but only if they muck in. The atmosphere has to be nearer a rock concert than a lecture presentation. Despite it being a 400th anniversary Music, noise and colour are more important than a history lesson. There's an ongoing debate about a cake -which I'm against unless you can have one big enough to feed all 3,000 people with - but that's a bridge to cross in the future.

Instead we began to look at some of the spectacle. Can we use the back of the house as a canvass to drop material or banners down? How do we use the flag pole? Can we incorporate the Drama of the gates that lead into South Avenue.

One lovely idea was to have 400 beach balls bouncing about in the crowd during the singalong. Easy, fun and cheap!

In my mind the project is about celebrating the communities that surround the house. It's a perfect opportunity for community action and our work to begin with is to find, encourage and co-ordinate these groups so that many small actions come together to form an impressive whole. One inspiration is the way Jeremy Deller worked (on a much larger scale) with the people of Manchester last summer for the procession down Deansgate. Here's a YouTube clip to give a flavour.


Sunday, 24 January 2010


Busy weekend. On Staurday morning a small group of us went over to Ham where we were given the opportunity to have a look round the builds and sets for Pixar/Disney's John Carter of Mars, the earth bound scenes of which are is being filmed there over the next few weeks. It's the biggest project the house has ever taken on. Andrew Stanton who was the creative force behind Wall*E last year, is directing. It'll be both Pixar and his first live action feature. The release date is 2012.

The attention to detail is breathtaking, especially in the set dressing, where every tiny detail had been considered and created. The pay off for the National Trust of all this disruption is of course major income generation. It also strangely enables refurbishment to happen. Gary gets part of the grounds re turfed in exchange for allowing the crane and trucks to churn up the lawn.

In the afternoon I worked with first years Emma, Matt, Andy and Katie, to begin putting together a short forum play which we've commissioned to do for a community safety day at Twickenham stadium in February. It was a fun afternoon of devising, improvising and complicating.

The police, who are organising the event, want to draw attention to the link between alcohol abuse, criminal damage and the new stop and search powers they have - which means if you're caught underage with alcohol on you, you can be taken home and your parents given an on the spot £80 fine.
Towards the end of the session we were beginning to find the nuances to the story which will make it work. The easiest and worst thing we could do is turn it into a reactionary or self righteous morality play. Far better to encourage responsibility than abstinence. By the end of rehearsal we'd found something.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Applied Theatre Futures.

It's been a day of meetings and scheduling for some of the Applied Theatre projects coming up - really useful but ultimately a bit daunting. First up a draft look at the Richmond 110 project. Eleanor and I spent some time revising the initial model which seemed to me to focus too much on scriptwriting and not enough on gathering material. The meeting gave me a chance persuade the creative team at the theatre to think about the development of the work as a series of dynamic waves rather than the building block approach of first research, followed by interview, leading to script. We'll have to keep leaping forward and pulling back in order to uncover the best shape and material.

The danger is that if we close the door on any single part of the process we'll miss some very profound or beautiful observations. I'm all for leaving the structure to the last minute and recognise that progress is a layered rather than a linear concept. Eleanor seemed happy enough with this.

This afternoon I met each of the Drama in Community sub teams for initial briefings and setting parameters. It's hard to define roles when we're not sure of the scale of the participation, but I think everybody left motivated and geared up for action.

Finally Stef came round to talk about Sarajevo. She's been interviewed in The Stage this week and given the work a brief mention. She's also been making overtures to Sean Holmes at the Lyric, Hammersmith to see whether there'd be any interest there in developing the project. I worked briefly with Sean about ten years ago and I think Stef and him see things in similar ways, so I'm pleased the contact's been made. It could be another stepping stone for her.

I'm aware that there's only so long we can spend on it as a hobby and without some additional support or funding we'll quickly run aground. For now though we're trying to arrange a series of meetings with Bosnian theatre groups in the hope of finding some allies as we take the piece forward.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ham is Starting to Happen.

We've started to put together the working teams for the Ham house birthday celebrations in May. The project is potentially huge and we're going to have to be right on our game to make it happen. Zoe, Jennie, Charlotte and Hannah explained some of the work we'd undertaken in Spain and the group quickly began to see and buy into the possibilities of the procession as a way of gathering and managing the 3,000 participants.

Patsy's already made great progress in identifying the choirs who will support the final singing of Happy Birthday - but our job will be to create not just the procession into the space, but equally to try and find small forms of entertainment to keep everybody alive and happy in the build up. The whole event has to be fun, light and full of joy.

We quickly negotiated roles - design, fundraising, events co-ordination, house liaison, press and publicity. We also added two new roles this year -Siobhan will take on internal liaison (to make sure that everybody within St Mary's gets to hear about the event and is offered the opportunity to get involved) and Claudia will film the process - in the hope of making a short documentary of the preparations and the event itself.

It's time to hit the go button.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Turning a Theatre Inside Out.

Eleanor at Richmond Theatre phoned this morning to offer me the playwriting facilitator job for their 110 anniversary celebrations in the Autumn. I'm dead chuffed and looking forward to starting the work.

The idea is to spend the next few months identifying local schools and youth groups to recruit a core team of young researchers and performers. They'll be trained by the oral history society and also have privileged access to the V & A Theatre collection and their archivists.

The fun comes as we identify interviewees and begin to gather the material ready to shape it up over the Summer.

As with all work of this kind it's impossible to predict the outcome - but I'd like us to really explore the form as well as the content. I don't think it'll be enough just to present a celebratory pageant focused on the building itself. The work needs to risk being more personal than that.

I think the stories we have look for are where a night out in Richmond linked to something significant in the interviewees life. I wonder if anybody proposed after a show, or conversely left their lover. I expect, although I'd love this assumption to be overturn through the work, that most theatregoers see the theatre as a comfortable, reliable old friend - but I'm also convinced it must have, in the moment, changed lives, inspired brave deeds and occasionally upset its patrons. To capture these moments will be to celebrate the textural richness of the theatre on the green.

We might also interview the staff - technicians, stage door keepers, box office, cleaners administrators etc. who work hard to get other people's stories on stage, but who will undoubtedly have great and mischievous secrets to share - provided we approach them in the right way. It's a great opportunity to turn the theatre inside out and understand how and why it works.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Richmond Park Reborn.

Suddenly the Sun is out, the thaw has come and Richmond is green once again. It's a bit of a relief after tip toeing about trying hard not to fall over for the past three weeks. I went for a long walk in the park which was crammed full of joggers, dog walkers cyclists and motorists leisurely touring the perimeter road. Normally the park feels like an empty rural wilderness today though the mood was social, a celebration of freedom and escape. Snowdrops and spring around the corner.

It's a brilliant place, a huge lung for South West London with amazing views eastwards to the dome of St Paul's and the tower block sprawl of central London, eleven miles away. Stomping about I realise that I've not really explored much of it yet.

The only thing missing were the deer who seemed to have gone into hiding. Maybe they've read the notices warning about the annual cull that takes place over the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Tiger Hunting.

Everybody's back in on Monday and so I've spent the day tidying up the lectures I'm going to be delivering. I've done a bit of work on revamping Level 1's Ways of Seeing course which we ran for the first time last year as an introduction to aesthetics and argument and I'm now developing the follow up Level 2 Creative Thinking course which hopefully will feed some of our discoveries back into the students own work.

It's hard to find a satisfying way to teach creativity. Is it about sensory engagement with the world, learning to see more? Or is it about re organising conventional ideas so that they take on a new look? Is it a diplomatic, pragmatic or inclusive concept, a way of problem solving? Or is it about finding an individual position or niche and holding out for the unique?

My instinct is that creativity carries risk and is feral, ungoverned by rules or tight definition. It's also probably relative - a pin striped suit might be the creative choice in a bohemian community. Above all it seems just to be a momentum, a strategy to avoid getting stuck in a rut. A restless tiger?

Whatever creativity is - it's clearly in demand as much now in education and business as in its traditional realms of science and the arts.

As the definition of creativity broadens its shape begins to shift away from the responsive and poetic towards something more vital, dynamic and necessary. The only places where creative thought is not welcome is where fixed orthodoxy has dominion and those places and people, dangerous as they are, seem to be increasingly isolated. Maybe there's hope in that.

Friday, 15 January 2010


We had our first audition day for next year's intake. Time doesn't half move fast. We saw about thirty in all. By the time September comes round we'll have all three year groups for the new degree up and running. There were some really good applicants and the work was really impressive. Little by little I think we're raising the standards and bringing in more and more students who are really hungry to work. The really pleasing aspect of this is that success breeds success and we all raise our game.

More committed students mean lecturers wasting less time wasted chasing up the absent, the late and the apathetic and more time focusing on creating meaningful and exciting possibilities. Happy students, secure that they're on the right course, demand less support and more stimulation. For these reasons I always think interviews are a two way process. We might really like a student, but if they can't see how they would fit then there is little point in them making the three year investment to come to us. The day has to cut through charm and persuasion on both sides and be check for both of us.

In the evening I went over to The Oval House where lots of our former and current students are working on the 33% London festival - a celebration of the creative output of the 33% of Londoners who are under 25.

The evening started with a series of short vignettes by young writers in site specific locations around the building. Stef (whose co-produced the whole event), Tuan and Kieran had all directed bits, as we were led through the spaces in groups of ten. The range of work was really impressive from absurdism to naturalistic exchanges, from the comic to the menacing everything carried an important call for attention.

Afterwards we were taken into the main house for There is Nothing There - a composite work of four short plays each focusing on growing up. The best was Wish You Were Here by Steve Hevey. Set in a suburban sitting room, three lads try to make sense of their evening. Rob, whose house it is is baby sitting for his little brother and has just managed to get him to sleep. Kadeem has come round and wants to get a party started. A third character trapped inbetween these opposed positions of freedom and responsibility tries hard to mediate the tension. Hevey's kept the situation simple, but his writing shows a neat line in tight dialogue and sensitivity to balancing the conflicts between his three characters. A bright future I think.

The Oval has been good to St Mary's students offering the opportunity to extend their performance, writing and directing skills, whilst honouring their work with proper mentoring and exposure. For developing artists it's so important not to feel subservient to tradition or style. You've got to be free to tell your own stories in your own way.


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Cancer Tales

Trevor is putting together a film of Cancer Tales, the verbatim play he's been working on with writer Nell Dunn over the last few years. The piece has over it's long development been really well received by critics and audience, not just as a fascinating piece of theatre, but also as a brilliant health education tool regularly used at conferences and in training sessions to explore issues of empathy and disclosure.

I've got a small part playing a post office worker in remission which I filmed today in the medical centre playing opposite RSC stalwart Sonia Ritter. It's the first acting I've done for nearly ten years and although I'll probably only be on screen for two minutes tops I really enjoyed it.

It's interesting watching Trevor take verbatim and transfer it onto film. Although the form has had an explosion in theatres over the last decade there are very few precedents for capturing the work in this way. I guess one reason is that film is already a brilliant medium for documentary and so perhaps it feels unnecessary to put testimony through the conduit of an actor. Apart from The Laramie Project which I think is a really successful fusion of interview and cinematic action there is little to go on.

Trevor has been watching Alan Bennett's Talking Heads work for inspiration and much of the text is delivered straight to camera, which, as with Bennett's work, disarms the viewer and brings a wonderful intimacy exactly right for the vulnerability of the stories offered.

When Nell first started work on the play she was clear that although nearly everybody has been affected by cancer, if not by direct experience then through a family member or a friend, it remains a taboo subject. Many cancer patients as well as being naturally being scared, are ashamed or embarrassed and very few of us know what to say in the face of the disease. The play, and hopefully the film, offers a realistic hope that sharing our stories might offer some dignity and respect to sufferers and carers alike and give the great gift of tenderly letting us know we are never alone.

Monday, 11 January 2010


To the Trafalgar Studios to see Lara in Barbershopera - which has been extended into ninety minutes of wonderful high octane nonsense since it's Edinburgh success last summer.

It really is very silly stuff indeed. A Catalonia Matador inherits his Father's Norfolk barbershop and walks headlong into Shavingham a village held in the grip of lift and shape hairdresser Trevor Sorbet. The beautifully sung four part harmonies quickly unravel to reveal back stories and a revenge tragedy as complicated as anything from the Golden Age. Culminating in a competitive 'cut off' and a heroic return to shear and kill a herd of stampeding mad cows.

The work is dense with clever word play, gags and surprises which demonstrates how far the company have come since their first promising show a year ago.

What I most love about the work is it's freedom, irreverence and complete commitment to giving the audience their money's worth. No sense of doubt or apology, just confident, bold and joyful play.

If The 39 Steps can pack the West End for a couple of years, then this highly original and better crafted show surely deserves a future, cult following and a longer run. They've got a winning and truly entertaining formula, now they just need to find an audience in need of a really good night out.

Friday, 8 January 2010


First week back, full of planning. We looked at timetabling next year into blocks - so that modules would be delivered intensely over short periods of time, followed by longer periods of reflection and a chance to focus on academic writing. This model would replicate more closely the theatre with students being given calls rather than lessons, but the fear is that the extended down time might alienate or demotivate students. We've put it on hold for a year until all three years of the degree are running - but I think the idea is very good.

The snows came on Tuesday and University along with many other institutions seemed to go into an excited siege resulting in us all working from home. Secretly most of us love the bad weather, and tackle it with the same degree of ingenious strategic planning that we'd use to see off a fascist invader. Cat litter strewed the pavements, snowmen appeared by the side of the roads, Tesco ran out of bread within 18 hours and Teddington Lock began to resemble the Bering sea, trapping small craft in a vice of ice. As if in sympathy with our plight, the English cricket team dug in and dug deep and with one wicket left, saw off the last seventeen balls to scrape a jubilant draw in South Africa. It couldn't have been more satisfying we'd bowled them all out for 45 and 54 by the second morning. As ever defeat of Dunkirk like proportions turned can be turned, with a straight back, into glorious triumph.

As a nation we're so much better at stopping others than we are at solving things for ourselves. I guess there's just deep mischievous joy in everything grinding to a halt.