Saturday, 27 March 2010

Comedy Pirates

Up to The Pirate Castle in Camden tonight to watch Jennie and Emma complete their comedy course with five minute sets in front of a live and critical audience. This is the shake down from a year of work we've been involved in with The Comedy School starting last September with our Freshen Up induction gig. I'm really delighted that two of our students took the plunge in what has to be one of the hardest disciplines to master and boy were they good value!

It was a fantastic night with fifteen young and not so young comedians on the bill. Jen was up third and hit the ground running with a sparkling set about her Liverpool roots and life at Uni. She was the first of the acts to really unite the whole crowd. She's always been a fantastic story teller, but it was wonderful to see her lift her game and reach out to a room of strangers who'd yet to properly settle into the mood of the evening.

Em had to wait a little longer, with her set coming towards the end of the evening. It must have been nerve wracking in the extreme watching act after after come out before you, but she didn't disappoint and although at one moment lost her place she came back fighting with immense charm and a healthy touch of ambivalence, quickly winning over the audience and storming through to the end. A complete triumph.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Nothing Like a Dame.

A busy... but really rewarding day. First up an early morning meeting at Ham House with Dame Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust's affable and interested managing director. Siobhan, Megan and Ed came with me and did a great job explaining what we're up to for the 400th anniversary and why it's important. All in all we got about twenty minutes to talk not just about the present project, but the last three years of the work that we've done together.
Fiona was really taken by our endeavours and asked about the way we might take things further. It was quickly clear that she has no time for grandeur; she likes projects where people just get stuck in.

I think the next stage is to formalise the partnership perhaps by creating a Drama and Heritage or a Re imagining Space module and I'd also like to see us take some of the outreach ideas further. For next year I'd like to create a piece for Ham, but then try and tour it to some other NT venues, asking the students to adapt, re imagine and work the play against the specific conditions of each property or landscape. No equivalent partnership between Heritage and Higher Education is being developed and it's exciting to be at the start of what could be a unique experiment, with support from the top.

Meanwhile across the river in Twickenham Jennie and Jade were appealing for funds from the Council's initiative grant committee. They had an unexpected result - because although our bid was formally rejected - the committee did find a different pot from which we can draw. They returned to campus in triumph.

This evening The Shape of Clouds, a wonderful piece of dance theatre from Drama Soc - created by Laura Watson and Sammie Clayton. It was great to see the students really use their society to explore and hone their skills. Laura and Sammie got nearly everything right and their company were clearly proud and confident in the work. This is a real leap forward and shows that we don't always need hugely ambitious or expensive productions to demonstrate our talent. Here, with tight direction, committed performance, and an intelligence about how to use a space was proof positive that exciting work can flourish at St Mary's with or without tutor involvement.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Junkyard Gods.

It's Level 2 Physical Theatre's turn in the theatre this week with Junkyard Gods a contemporary adaptation of the ancient Icelandic story of Balder, the God of truth and light, killed by his blind brother Hod, under the malevolent influence of the trickster Giant Loki. I caught this afternoon's matinee.

The show was full of playful ideas and the theatre had been turned into a huge playground with trap doors open and a scaffold tower to climb to enable the actors to move freely between the nine different worlds of Norse mythology. Occasionally this resulted in stunning and romantic images - such as Robyn Dixon's Frigg, high on the tower, leaning out over the audience, defying the elements to harm her son as thunder and rain crashed down around her.

Overall though this is a big apocalyptic story - as Odin is hideously aware - Balder's death predicts the end of Ragnarok and it all felt rather underplayed here. Fate, destiny and a sense of oblivion are everywhere in the sagas and myths. The unforgiving granite landscape and six months of darkness every year inspires epic thought and action, but the actors, perhaps awed by the space or material, never really found an appropriate scale for their performances and with the show played for gags, rather than weight, it was hard, in the end, to see them as powerful Gods capable of havoc.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Selection Headaches.

We're only a week away from Easter now which always marks the homeward stretch of the academic year and cranks up the work load a notch or two. The shows come thick and fast - four in the department this week - and suddenly the library is full of students trying desperately to knock off their assignments before the really nice weather kicks in.

I always enjoy this time of year when the timetable all but collapses and projects take over. It feels a bit more real and certainly a lot more fun. Like a mad sprint for the line after leisurely running laps round the track and then suddenly before we know it - it'll be over for this year and we'll be back to planning the next.

We're close to filling up the courses for next year now. Another well attended interview day last Friday and the quality of those auditioned remains refreshingly high, even this late in the process. It's going to be tough to find places for all the people we'd like to take - but it's great to be raising the bar again and those who do come here will only benefit from being surrounded by other high flying students.

We've also almost finished our workshop tour around the local schools looking for young writers to support the 110th Birthday project at Richmond Theatre and again have far too many strong candidates and intelligent applications to know what to reasonably do with. The Heritage Lottery fund are providing the grant support for this project and have stipulated a team of only ten so I've had to swiftly arrange a recall session for the best thirty or so we've met so far and we'll try and whittle down from there.

Meanwhile over at Ham we're getting close to being able to formally structure the 400th event in May - bringing in the various groups and tying up some sort of running order for the parade.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Skin of Our Teeth.

To the newly created Lost Theatre in Stockwell last night to see Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which Matt has been busily directing over the last couple of weeks.

The Lost company has reclaimed an old lecture theatre from Thames Poly and renovated it into a purpose built home with raked auditorium, dressing rooms two rehearsal rooms, an office space and small foyer bar. It's good, solid stuff. A young company dedicated to play making and having a good time doing it.

The play, which I'd never heard of before, was also fascinating. Written in 1942, the year after Pearl Harbour and set in an amalgam of the ice age and twentieth century New Jersey, Wilder mixes allegory and absurdity to highlight the fallacy of America's isolationism and late entry in World War II.

The domestic bliss of the wheel inventing Antrobus family - complete with pet Mammoth and T-Rex - is disturbed by an encroaching glacier moving slowly but steadily from the north. Meanwhile Sabrina, the families maid - played originally by Tallulah Bankhead - chats nonchalantly to the audience about the stupidity of the play; challenging them to switch off, leave, think about other things. Matt had done a smashing job getting tight performances from a talented cast. It's fun, silly, but incredibly engaging and pre-Ionesco and Brecht, fairly revolutionary. It made me wonder whether Hanna and Barbera had seen the original show? The seeds of their genius 1960s animation The Flintstones are all pre-dated here.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Vince and Getting Your Act Together.

The election is beginning to loom. The politicians are spending more time in their constituencies. Our Lib Dem MP Vince Cable came to the College this afternoon. He was given a tour, met SU president Ben, exchanged pleasantries with several of us but seemed to rather flow past the student body.

We're a pretty untapped market of about 3,000 first time voters and although there was a lot of flesh pressing it strikes me as odd that in the build up there isn't a hustings here. Vince is fairly safe in the seat, a high profile and uncorrupted politician with a 9,000 majority and an outside chance of becoming Chancellor in a hung parliament. The Tories seem to think so and are diverting their resources into Zac Goldsmith's battle against Susan Kramer across the river in Richmond. Zac was outside Richmond Station on Thursday, happily chatting to the commuters whilst big wig Oliver Letwin, resplendent in a pea green coat and highly polished black shoes, handed out election literature. I think they'll parachute all the grandees in between now and May 6th.

Back on campus Ben has done a lot in his tenure to bring back a political dimension to the role and I hope his endeavours will result in a larger turnout when the students elect next year's representatives. There's still a long way to go to before students reclaim the levels of active engagement that were prevalent in the eighties, when each major party were represented with a society on campus, but perhaps slowly the tide is changing and perhaps party politics at this level is over.

... And there are rewards, to getting organised. If they could get their act together, a lobby group of three thousand would absolutely have power to elect a local independent councillor to represent Strawberry Hill and have a genuine mandate to effect change. It would certainly be a more challenging and potentially useful role than negotiating with breweries and nightclubs for cheap deals.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Kingston International Youth Festival.

After work I headed over to The Rose Theatre for a drink and a chat with Yel, whose heading up Kingston's International Youth Festival in the summer. It's the second year of the initiative and for the moment the real focus is on building the momentum and raising the cash. She's an impressive force juggling hats, cajoling and dealing with the thousands of problems that hit her Blackberry every day. As part of the fundraising Yel's been involved in a fantastic event in Surbition where the villagers spent the weekend creating a new myth for themselves The Legend of Lefi Ganderson. It couldn't have been more fun.

We were joined for a moment or two by Steve Unwin who as artistic director of the theatre has the unenviable job of keeping the whole show on the road. It's clearly been a struggle to establish an audience and although the presence of Judi Dench, this week, or Peter Brook, whose bringing his show next month provides financial respite; the real challenge is to find a constituency of regular attenders rather than the cultural tourists who'll come in to see a name or reputation. Already there have been some dodgy moments and Yel's festival is partly the result of the council demanding more community involvement in return for a bail out. It's a very positive unintended consequence of failing to pull the crowds and does offer a model of the kind of access that might just sustain the viability of the venue.

I often feel that we're too defensive of the professional theatre and too quick to deride the idea of amateurism. Perhaps the instinct of the latter does in some way threaten the standards set by the former, but I think the theatres of the future are going to have to find ways not just to provide entertainment but also the resources and opportunities for play, participation and involvement. Perhaps rather than seeing education as a lever for grant applications the theatres of the future will begin to organise the parties, the social events and the shared stories of the places they represent as see this as an integral part of their function, making themselves, in the process, as familiar and as welcoming as the local pub. The economics may make this a welcome necessity.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The White Guard.

Off to the National to see a wonderful adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard directed beautifully by Howard Davies. The show is in preview at the moment and opens next week. I think it's bound to get excellent notices.

Set in Kiev, during Russia's post-revolution civil war, a small band of the pro-Tsarist White Guard, supported by German forces, prepare to defend the city in the name of old Russia from advancing Ukrainian nationalists.
The world is moving fast however and the Germans, busy fighting on several fronts, withdraw, leaving the city and the soldiers unprotected. Faced with defeat and farcical internal divisions, they regroup, lie low and wait for the advancing Bolsheviks' to at least deliver them a united country. It's the lesser of two evils.

There are great central performances from Justine Mitchell as Lena Turbin, the rock solid sister, of two of the men, and Conleth Hill as the slippery, but life affirming, aide-de-camp Shervinsky, who, in a scene of great intellectual banter and relentless pursuit, seduces Lena with his smooth song and promises of adventure. Huzzah!!!

There's fine support from Richard Henders and Daniel Flynn as the brothers Turbin, Pip Carter as the ungainly poet Larionovich, Kevin Doyle as Lena's cowardly husband Talberg and Paul Higgins as the volatile Captain Myslaevsky.

The play in true Russian tradition juxtaposes the passions of daily life, the regret, the torment and the desire against the rolling and inevitable force of history. The brilliance is in making the epic trivial and trivial epic. As the Red Army approach, the former royalists salute change and accept that the only thing to rely on is the future. Heroism may be dead but survival is so much better for the soul bringing, as it does, the promise of love, the certainty of companionship and the hope for a brighter day.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Experience Architects and Utopia.

A really interesting Creative Thinking session with Level 2 this afternoon looking at the way in which we, as a department, create experience both for ourselves as a community and also for the audiences, guests and visitors who we host.

It was good after a term of looking carefully at student entitlement and listening to a series of dissatisfactions to switch tack for an afternoon and begin to explore responsibility and vision. Sometimes I wonder at what level staff and students engage with work. Do they see themselves as individuals focused on their job or degree? Is the ownership broader? Do we work as pathway companies or year groups? Or is it possible to feel part of a department?

As often happens the reactionary part of the debate frames our own identity in opposition to something else and it seems to me that the narrower the parameter in which we think, the more parochial and tribal we risk becoming. I get a little depressed when I hear year groups complaining about each other or pathways belittling each other's work. It seems self-destructive and a little cowardly in so much as it avoids the bigger picture of how to improve and expand the quality of the work throughout the department.

This afternoon though, working in cross pathway groups, the students had half an hour to design their ideal department. Freed from space, time and budget restrictions, the ideas were refreshing and wonderful - Drama domes, tree houses, community allotments, jam rooms to make music in, a huge programme of community interaction, trampolines etc etc. The exercise really reinforced the idea that for good work to take place the envionment in which we work must offer the opportunity fo positive encounters, whether it be with each other, with the texts we look at or the ideas that we have.

In the discussions afterwards there was a clear sense of belief in the concept of a department as well as a desire to engage with its construction and maintenance. The next question is how to successfully harness the energy, ideas and momentum. The starting point might be to make sure we're all more or less on the same side?

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Hunger of Age.

I went over to Goldsmiths on Saturday to teach an introductory workshop on Augusto Boal to the continuing education students. It always interesting to go and have a look at other institutions and perhaps pick up some new ideas. Over the last few years a handful of those enrolled on this foundation course have ended up joining us at Strawberry Hill.

I really enjoyed working with the students, all of whom, for diverse reasons are returning to education and are hungry to learn. There was a real sense of being given a second chance and not having time to waste. It made for an intense and proactive session - a small group, full of questions and ideas, stayed behind afterwards and we happily overran by almost an hour. The course is clearly both important and liberating for them.

I think Drama programmes benefit from having mature students in tow. They often remind school leavers of the importance of education and bring a sense of confidence to debate and discussion. The risk is that they adopt a position of authority, of mistaking life experience for wisdom, but most returners just seem determined to wring every ounce of information and knowledge out of the lecturers and encourage their peers to do the same.

It made me realise that St Mary's is a very young University - perhaps the vocational and dynamic nature our core business: Education, Drama and Sport make this inevitable - we could do with more balance. The post-recession rise in unemployment, might also mean that there is a genuine need to offer exciting possibilities for retraining and new adventures for those who want or need to change direction. I think a return to education programme could really help us create diverse and dynamic pathway groups and perhaps protect us a little from complacency.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Catching up!

The week has flown by with the first Level 2 productions of 2010 going on in the theatre - a really impressive effort from the Theatre Arts team with particularly outstanding performances from Bianca Barrett and Chantal Koning.

Elsewhere things are moving forward. The police have been in contact to confirm that they'll continue to support the development of the TIE piece we performed at the community safety day last week. This is great news and means a bit of useful pocket money for the hard working students involved. By the end of the week we were starting to get enquiries from interested schools and hopefully we'll be able to put together a mini tour from April onwards.

We've also started the first recruiting workshops for Richmond Theatre's 110 project with two workshops at Waldegrave School last Monday. The year 9 and 10 students we met were great and really responsive to the work. The idea is to scout for ten young researchers from the borough over the next month or so and then begin to collect interviews and stories from mid-April, to shape into the final play, which we'd like to start rehearsing from early June. We could have recruited an entire team from this school, but with only one or two places on the team available for each visit, the selection process is clearly going to be very tough. Still we came away uplifted and sensing that if we cast well we could end up working with some really talented young people

On Wednesday I caught up with Stef, for the first time since returning from Bosnia (she's been busy transferring her production of Yard Gal into the Deptford Albany.) She's begun working the Sarajevo Marlboro' stories with the Youth Arts students at The Oval House - in the hope of creating an initial scratched draft. She also has had a very positive meeting with Sean Holmes at the Lyric, Hammersmith and there maybe some possibilities for developing the work there.

Last night a meeting with Jorge and Gary to touch base on the progress of the 400th Birthday project. A shape for the day is beginning to emerge and the need now is to make sure as ideas, promises and new proposals come on board that Level 3 hold it together and keep all the communication channels open. Jayne led a really good power point presentation though which helped reassure both the house and me that things are on track and gearing up for a really well managed and executed event on May 23rd.
We ended the week with another interview day as we try to put in place the pathway companies for 2010. There were some really interesting candidates today and we've been able to make several offers, which meant a very positive week ended on the highest of notes with us looking optimistically towards the future.