Sunday, 30 May 2010

In Praise of Petersham Nurseries.

It's been crazy, busy for a few weeks with term coming to an end, but this morning suddenly for the first time in ages it felt as if everything were under control and that Summer was on its way.

One of the hidden joys of working at St Mary's is its Arcadian location. Today I stayed local starting with a glorious cycle ride round the low lying perimeter of Richmond Park, where the deer are about to fawn, ending up in the shaded, rag taggle greenhouses of Petersham Nurseries for a late brunch of fresh mint tea and beetroot cake. Here, under vines, with a couple of hours of Sunday broadsheets to wade through, it felt like the academic year, with a long, slow outtake of breath, had come to an end; allowing some space for the new thoughts and ideas which will undoubtedly come bang on the door as we move forward through the next few months.

There are still many uncertainties, the cuts to Universities have yet to filter through to us and we all await with interest the appointment of the new principal. It's clear that at any minute the calm might be shattered and new initiatives, working practices, expectations dropped on us from above. It'd be foolish to expect things to stay as they are, and we must be prepared to ride the waves rather than be engulfed by them but Drama St Mary's has developed a long way in a short time and we're very proud of the way our ever remarkable students are responding to the offer we're now making them. Whatever happens we need to stay true to the idea of being a practical, creative course aimed as much at the makers and doers as at the thinkers and theorists.

A department has to evolve, sometimes in a controlled manner, sometimes in reaction to events - but either way, sitting sipping tea and wiping crumbs, on a Sunday morning at the centre of the universe, I'm full of confidence that the future is bright.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Three Theatres & The Special Magic of August Wilson.

Started early this morning with another session at Richmond Theatre, where work on our 110th anniversary verbatim piece is beginning to shape up. We've decided to call the play Tender Souls - which says something both the young authors working on it and the interviewees - it also has an echo of the Alexander Pope quote painted high above the proscenium arch.

We were given a backstage tour led by Colin, whose worked as a stage manager and archivist at the theatre for half a century. He took us into the nook and crannies and gave us some great stories. We've several interviews collated now and the hard job of transcribing needs to begin. August is going to fast approach I can feel it coming round the corner at great speed.

Light planning is going on elsewhere and after our morning session I rushed over to The Rose in Kingston to catch Northern Broadsides production of The Canterbury Tales, a show I'm thinking of working on with Level 2 Drama St Mary's Applied Theatre next year. The plan is to tour the work to a number of National Trust venues this time next year and the big advantage of The Tales is that we could rehearse fifteen and then chose eight or nine to play each night - making for a really adaptable site specific show.

The production at The Rose reminded me just how wonderfully bloody rude and joyful the stories are. Northern Broadsides clearly relished a roll in the bawdy banter, and obviously had as much fun performing the work as we did watching it. If we can replicate as close an ensemble next year it'll be a hysterically fun filled few months.

Straight after I headed up to town to see August Wilson's amazingly beautiful Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Young Vic. The play, set in Pittsburgh in 1911, is the second chapter in Wilson's ten work series which cumulatively tells the story of the Afro-American experience through the twentieth century. It's an incredible body of literature - which I'd like to find the time to read as a whole. It would be a fantastic project for a theatre company to take them on as an ensemble, as the RSC did with the histories. It also made me wonder whether any writer could target with such unswerving accuracy and lack of sentimentality, a similar arching story of British working class life from the Edwardians to Blair?

Wilson knew that drama can be as direct and effective as a bullet and this hugely important and humane play transports you on a fast track back a century and places you, without apology, in the heart of a black community, coming to terms with the meaning of emancipation and struggling for a new place in the brave new, expansionist world of twentieth century America. There is no invitation, no introduction, just an impassioned desire to tell the story.

Days like today make me realise how important the theatre is. I don't think it's too much to say that without it we'd understand very little indeed.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


A couple of days after the show and the dust begins to settle. On Monday night the Level 3 students were given a final farewell by the department with drinks in the Dolche Vita. They've had a roller coaster three years as the last cohort on the old degree to go through - but they'll leave us all with memories of some fantastic times. It's a tough job market they're moving into, but I think they're ready.

We're beginning to understand what the birthday celebration meant. Gary phoned to tell us that over 4,000 people had come through Ham house during the day. Emails and cards of congratulations have been flooding in and it seems everybody had a great time. The sad thing is that not only is it over so quickly, but within 48 hours all the students have left Uni. It's been quite a steep comedown for us all.

I can't help thinking back to a cold morning in Cantabria last December when Jennie, Zoe, Hannah and Charlotte, working with Spiral, were given an hour to come up with the shape of their perfect celebration to present back to the larger group. It's amazing how the seed of that initial, back of an envelope, brainstorm, planted back in Winter, took root in Spring and grew into a spectacular event remarkably similar to that seemingly impossible dream.

Four students, four hundred years, four thousand people...

Monday, 24 May 2010

Happy Birthday Ham House!

Yesterday was wonderful. A fantastic day when all of our ideas and plans came together in a glorious gathering. Once again the sun beat down and over the course of a long, hot afternoon we celebrated both the house's 400th birthday and also many of the diverse communities that go to make Ham a very special part of South West London.

Once again the students played a blinder, hosting each of the groups who came to perform or demonstrate their activity - bands, laughter yogis, stilt walkers, bell ringers, free runners, dirt bike riders, martial artists and even the hard nosed Morris dancers who had to be tactfully coaxed out of The New Inn in order to perform. It all built up to Ben and Jennie's superb children's story How Happy Birthday was Lost and Found, which segued neatly into the procession and the march on the house, where twenty local choirs were strategically dotted around the gardens singing their hearts out. By the time we set off we'd gathered over 500 and radioing ahead we learnt that a further 2,500 were waiting for us to arrive.

The procession itself was a brilliant rag taggle affair with flags waving, horns honking, bubbles blowing, chants, whistles and drums. With some of the choirs encouraged to do encores we had to hold up before crossing Sandy Lane. Worried that we'd lost momentum Chantelle improvised a call and response with a megaphone. It was a smart move and kept everybody in great and noisy spirits

Slowly we made our way down Melancholy Walk to the South Gates which were only ever opened for great ceremonial occasions. There we were greeted by the Euphonix choir who led us through the Wilderness and onto the beautiful lawns at the back of the property.

The band struck up and together we all sang Never Forget, Our House and Happy Birthday before leaving the slightly drunk, sun struck Morris men to play in front of the biggest audience of their lives! Whilst we, not before time, hit the BBQ and the beer tent. Nobody could stop smiling.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Cooking Ham.

We've decamped onto Ham Common for the weekend in preparation for the big 400th birthday party on Sunday. The weather is on our side and the sun is making red necks of us all.

The project hasn't always been easy and there have been several moments of resistance from the company on the way through. It's inevitable that level 3 students should want an increasing degree of control over project management, but with up to twenty four visions jostling for space at our production meetings at times we've had to walk an incredibly narrow diplomatic tightrope to get here.

Now the work goes up another gear and everybody seems fully focused on getting things done. We've set up a creative site with six gazebos under the shade of the trees producing the final touches to the show puppets and the banner which we'll fly from the upper floors of the house. The Common is an amazing social space filled with life from dawn to dusk. Dog walkers, toddlers with their parents feeding the birds on the pond, sun bathers and book readers, joggers, family picnics, impromptu jumpers for goalposts football matches, a cricket practice and then later loads of teenagers in small flirtatious groups communicating to each other via biked messengers. Many of the visitors came over to see what we were up to and help us with the making. Many of the children rushed off to recruit friends. Slowly the momentum builds...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Redhill Reminiscence.

Spent the morning at the Acorn care home in Redhill, where Sharmilla has been working with the residents on a reminiscence project for the last few months. It was a fascinating morning.

My first revelation was how much care is now put into care. The home is full of activity and the residents have plenty of options about how to pass the day. Some were writing, some painting, another group were reading the newspapers together and debating. I spoke to the head of dementia who told me that theatre has a really important role in stimulating memory and in allowing residents the imaginative opportunity to play and pretend. A box of hats is constantly emptied and staff have to retrieve them from the private rooms at the end of the day.

Sharmilla's show had a full house and most enjoyed it - joining in with the songs and smiling as they saw their pasts rejuvenated in front of their eyes.

One resident became agitated and shouted at the actors to leave. In the end her interventions became so loud, that a carer took her out of the room. With her shouting that the play made fools of all of them. It really showed the students how in control of the material - particularly the personal material - you have to be to avoid causing upset and hurt. Perhaps we should have stopped and let her explain what we'd got so wrong. I felt very uncomfortable about just taking her away and sad we didn't have a chance to talk to her afterwards.

At then end I asked Eileen, who was sitting next to me, whether she'd contributed any of the memories. As a sixteen year old she'd worked fitting up and repairing Wellington bombers. I asked her if she ever got to fly them.

'Oh yes,' she said 'I'd always go up on the test flights after the maintenance had finished, to prove that the planes were safe. It made me laugh all these brave men who'd run the bombing raids but were too scared to trust the work of a sixteen year old. I had to show them that I knew what I was doing!'

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

North North West to Rosehill.

I've had a really interesting two days in Cumbria, where I work as an external examiner. It's really useful to get to see how another institution works and to share some ideas about how to create excellent provision for Drama students whether they're in Carlisle or Strawberry Hill.

Yesterday was a real treat as course leader Richard Milburn took me down the coast to see an enthusiastic team of event managing foundation students transfer a Level 3 show from the campus to the picturesque Rosehill Theatre in Whitehaven, where Cumbria University are beginning to develop an exciting partnership.

The theatre itself is set high above the town, with gorgeous views over the Solway firth. It was opened by silk magnet and socialite Sir Nicholas Sekers, who as a lover and patron of the arts managed intriguingly to entice the best and biggest names of early sixties to travel north and perform in the tiny, but lavish, Messel designed auditorium. There are extraordinary photographs of John Gielgud, Benjamin Brittan, John Betjeman, Jacqueline Du Pre, Peggy Ashcroft, Yehudi Menuhin and so on and on. As the angry young men began to swagger in the metropolis, some of the fading old things clearly found favour and a place to recharge here in Whitehaven.

The students performed a really tight and entertaining double bill, of observational character based comedy, which they're getting ready to take to the Edinburgh festival in August. Both the writing and acting was very impressive.

On the journey back to Carlisle Richard and I talked about bringing up some Drama St Mary's students to work alongside some of the Cumbria team, developing a community work for the venue. On a sunny day, surrounded by the most magnificent countryside it's a tantalising prospect.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Sing When You're Thining.

A very busy, but ultimately, rewarding weekend. Saturday morning was spent at Richmond Theatre going through the first of the recorded interviews brought in by the team, including chief executive Karin Gartzke, who'd gave us some smashing stories about the way in which the theatre works hard to ensure actors feel at home when they come here on tour. The interview did reveal how clever we're going to have to be to persuade our interviewees to divert from their pre-arranged stories and offer something unique. Karin, of course is an expert at promoting the theatre and her staff, but we need to keep going beyond that to find the personal, the touching and the meaningful. It's a good start, however.

Afterwards I drove over to Didcot, where Lara's Barbershopera show, started their national tour at The Cornerhouse. They've added some material since I last saw the work back in January, but it's still a brilliantly tight and funny show. Afterwards in the bar we talked about bringing it into St Mary's for induction week which would not only be a great coup but also a brilliant way to welcome a new cohort.

On Sunday most of Oxfordshire came up to town to watch Oxford United take on York City in the conference play off final at Wembley. It's only our second appearance at the famous stadium. The first, which I went to as a scruffy haired fifteen year old, was in 1986, when we beat QPR 3 -0 in the Milk Cup Final. Today, as back then, thousands of fans in yellow and blue filled the stands. The day was full of nostalgia and childish anticipation as, for the second time in a quarter of a century, United rose to the occasion, playing with verve and panache to record a spectacular and rewarding 3-1 victory. We're back in the league after a torturous four year exile and for an hour or two I was a teenager again!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Back to the Future?

The last of the RSC lectures at Westminster Abbey yesterday, focusing on the end of the War of the Roses. As Shakespeare tells it, the reviled, usurper, hunch back Richard III was killed by the forces of the new pretender, the handsome, media friendly, Henry, who won the day on Bosworth field only when the wavering troops under the command of Lord Stanley joined his side. Henry then sealed the deal by marrying Elizabeth of York, uniting the white rose of her family with the Lancastrian red of his. As all good Tudor propagandists know it was the birth of a new and glorious dynasty. A coalition of all the talents.

I came to town early and was drawn immediately to college green outside the Houses of Parliament where politicians, the public and the media were mingling freely, briefing, speculating and commentating on the fluctuating events of the afternoon. Nobody was quite sure what was going on, but the mood was one of expectation and excitement. Radio 5 were broadcasting live and we crowded around their tent to try and catch the latest rumours and hear first hand the evolving power shift.

By the time I made my way into the Abbey it seemed clear that the Liberals had come close to a deal with the Tories. By the time I'd come out, having placed a red rose on Henry and Elizabeth's tomb in the Lady Chapel, the last great architectural monument of the medieval age, the world had changed. Once again we crowded around the Five Live tent as Gordon made his way to the Palace to offer his resignation. It was over.

Half an hour later, in the fading light, Cameron stood grinning wildly on the steps of Number 10. Although we'd known this to be the probable outcome I still felt a shiver of dread as I watched on a research assistant's laptop. The Hackney MP Diane Abbott, who was standing next to me, frowned, shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Ex minister, Ed Balls, protected by minders, scowled and tried to look magnanimous. Nobody could quite believe the Liberals had signed up. Surely the Tories will simply eat them up and spit them out? As Cameron turned and went inside it started to snow. A new winter of discontent or was it simply hell freezing over?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Box Hill and a Stylish Dream

A Sunday of watching Level 2 work. Firstly out to the gorgeous Box Hill to see the Applied Theatre's site specific show. The team have had rotten weather all weekend, including a washed out matinee on Saturday but - despite the unseasonal weather - seemed in good spirits.

We could have done with a bigger and younger audience for this afternoon, it's hard to release your participatory inner child in a group of self-conscious adults, but I still enjoyed the work and could see how a kids audience might have a wonderful time. The story was simple and playful.

Back on campus to see a stylish Dream by the Theatre Arts students in the theatre. The stunning design referenced both Peter Brook and Adrian Noble's notable RSC productions, but also drew on the Disney and Dream works to create a safe and childlike environment for the players and audience to share. It was intimate, cosy, light and underscored constantly with soothing music.

The acting was uniformly good, but I was particularly impressed with Sarah Marr's carefully nuanced Helena and Claire Austin's revelatory Hermia. In everyway it was a reassuring production.

Friday, 7 May 2010

My Mate Fancies You.

It was the most exciting election night I can remember and even now as the dust tries to settle nobody can really predict what's going to happen. The numbers just don't really add up for any party and I suppose there's an argument for saying all three lost.

The Lib Dem vote collapsed in the final week, firmly establishing them as the third party. Despite the TV debates and Nick Clegg's impressive personal performance throughout the campaign they actually lost seats.

The Tories, who for so long looked the inevitable victors, couldn't squeeze past the winning post and although all the Shires swung firmly back behind them after a thirteen year sabbatical. London, Scotland and much of the North remained fairly loyal to Labour.

Labour in the end will be relieved still to be in the game. The losses were great, but they haven't been cut out of the picture in the way Major's Conservative Party were in Blair's 1997 landslide.

I was glued to the TV for over fifteen hours watching the leaders sway rather than swagger their way into Friday; returning to London by plane, train and limousine whilst I stayed firmly on the sofa.

There were some sad moments. Michael Foster, whose campaign I worked on in the optimism of 1997, lost his Hastings seat after doing so much to rejuvenate the town and local economy and in Richmond Park a decisive swing towards the Tories saw Zac Goldsmith replace Susan Kramer as my own MP (see pic).

By 2pm it became clear that despite a disappointing night Nick Clegg's 57 MPs carried the balance of power and suddenly both Brown and Cameron were flirting. I think the Liberals have more in common with Labour than they do with the Conservative party, but Clegg stuck by a commitment he'd made during the election to talk to the party with the most seats first. So off into conclave the Tories and Liberals went leaving the Labour party twiddling their thumbs and hoping the seduction fails. I felt a bit jilted. It's the heart crushing nausea, confused emotion and wounded pride of watching someone you quite fancy get off with a bad boy who you know's going to screw them over.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


On the last night of the New Labour project went with Vix to the Royal Court to see Posh, a brilliant dissection of the dark heart of Toryism. The Riot club, a group of privileged Oxford undergraduates, book a dining room in a country pub to eat, drink, summon up the ghosts of their patriarchs and finally smash up the room in an orgy of destruction and anger. All modeled without apology on the infamous Bullingdon club, a happy home for David Cameron and Boris Johnson during their student days.

Some critics have attacked the play for it's unremitting and exaggerated attack on Conservative values, but if Laura Wade does return to a class war based approach to examining the forces driving the current Tory party, then she also unswervingly picks apart the genetic premise of hierarchy, nobility and entitlement that certainly guides many in the party. This is a forensic look at the DNA.

The cast revel in the exploration, each of the ten young men provide a subtle shade of blue. One views the world as an army officer, one as a cavalier varsity fencing champion, one as a classical poet, another, of Greek parentage, tries to buy his way into favour. All are nostalgic for the solid rules of the feudal societies and imperial riches of their ancestors and once fuelled by several crates of red wine they let vent to their demasculated spleens, railing against the mediocrity and inclusivity of modern Britain. The whole is summed up in a vitriolic speech, delivered brilliantly by Leo Bill, at the end of the first act in which his contempt for the poor is given full tally ho rein.

The play does wake you up to the latent threat of Conservatism. Fired up we fell out into Sloane Square and headed quickly to the pub, hoping it's not too late to stop tomorrow's tide coming in.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Love The Sinner.

Tuesday night to the National to see the first preview of Drew Pautz's new play Love the Sinner. As might have been expected it was a bit of a clunky run - with a couple of technical bumps, some uncertainty over cues and a few of the actors still developing their inner monologues. Despite this there's a decent play bubbling away under the surface and if they can get a handful of smooth runs under their belts it should take off and earn some supportive reviews.

The play addresses some key moral challenges facing modern Christianity - most relevantly the opposition from many African leaders to the increasingly liberal European approach to sexual morality. Drama St Mary's friend, Ian Redford plays Stephen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a compassionate intellectual trying to hold the church together. His hard negotiations in a sweaty African hotel suite are unwittingly undermined when conference volunteer Michael, played by Jonathan Cullen, has a brief sexual encounter with porter Joseph (Fiston Barek) leading Joseph to follow his client back to England in an attempt to seek asylum; disrupting every aspect of Michael's carefully constructed respectable family and managerial orientated middle class world.

The final scene sees the three of them, accompanied by Daniel, a theological fixer, played with weasel like opportunism by Scott Handy, sitting on the tiny plastic Sunday school chairs, in the crypt of Michael's parish church, where Daniel is hiding out, trying to thrash out both a personal and political solution to the problem.

There's a heart felt call for the church to get real and face up with greater rigour to some of the real challenges to human rights that the current doctrine seems to embrace. It's an important provocation.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Tales From Ockenden.

Sunday evening and off to Woking to see The Vision a community play for the town written and directed by Rib, who'd led the oral history training last week. Emily, who graduated from St Mary's last summer and Level 1 student Karen were also working on the show.

The play was based on the life and philantrophic acts of former school teacher Joyce Pearce who, shortly after the second world war, began to receive refugees from Germany to her home at Ockenden. From humble beginnings Joyce's venture helped support thousands of displaced people during the second half of the twentieth century an became an international concern with branches in many of the world's poorest regions. As well as documenting the growth of Joyce's project the play also challenged the anti-immigration rhetoric of our times and called for a subtler understanding of asylum.

It's all fruitful material for a community play - a local hero, a contemporary issue and parts for as many people as want to join in all held together with an excellently arranged soundtrack. As with the best of this work the feeling of ownership and pride emanating from the inter generational cast was palpable. The camaraderie needed to support this kind of work carries most of the value. Once you've made friends and created something positive with other people it's very difficult to dismiss them.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Oh What A Lovely War!

Spent all of yesterday at Richmond Theatre pushing on with the 110th Anniversary project. The young writers began to plan their initial interviews and we talked loosely about the way we might structure the piece. I was pleased to see how much had been learnt from last weeks Oral History training, but equally it was good to see some independence in the way they now want to approach the job in hand.

The ghost of Frank Matcham, the architect behind the sumptuous design of this, and hundreds of other turn of the century theatres, was proposed as a narrator figure to hold the various interviews together. It's too early to fix anything down, but it was certainly a strong opener.
In the afternoon we went to see Northern Stage's excellent touring version of Oh What A Lovely War! I'd forgotten what a pioneering play it is and what a fearless and innovative company Theatre Workshop were. They created a completely new way of approaching documentary drama and re affirmed the right for the theatre to be theatrical rather than stuck within the parameters of social realism.

Afterwards Gary Kitching - who'd played the charismatic MC - generously came into the auditorium to meet us and talk about the way in which the company had researched the first world war in preparation for the show and how their findings had influenced the work. It's great that possibilities are opening up rather than closing down - now it's up to us to gather the material.