Saturday, 31 July 2010

Callow Cuts and Mo

Everybody back in to the theatre this morning for a final read through before we take the Tender Souls script to press. We're trying to glide along like a swan, but whilst I'm in one room with Eleanor and the writers trying to smooth out the last of the technical clunks. Creative Learning Manager Jane are upstairs in the office proofing and trying to second guess how the overall work might be received. I had a little wobble when I thought we might be about to try and get approval for the play from some of those represented - which risked taking the whole delicate thing to a compromise committee and there's a little bit of poker being played over trims and cuts, which I'm not always helpful over - but in general we're all moving in the same direction and I think very happy with how the script looks.

A few of us took a break from negotiations to slip into the circle and see Simon Callow, who the writers had interviewed in the week, perform his one man show. The Man from Stratford.

I found it difficult and rather dated as a concept. Simon uses two hours make links between Shakespeare's plays and his biography (told - of course - as Seven Ages.) It was more a readers digest lecture than an theatrical event and for all Simon's personal charisma and the occasional firework I couldn't help thinking it all rather fusty, academic and obvious. It's off to the Edinburgh festival now, where I'm sure it'll make pots of money.

Wonderful news this evening as St.Mary's Mo Farrah won the 5,000 metres at the European Championship in Barcelona to add to the 10,000 metres he one earlier in the week. He's still an outsider for Olympic glory in two years time, but his star seems to be rising at the right moment. We're all very proud of him.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Time Present and Time Past.

Straight off the plane and back into Tender Souls with a final day of edits and rewrites. We worked with Harriet on the ending of the play and Katie on her Lady Scott Hopkins interview and I think made some good ground. The weight feels good now and the writing balanced, mixing some smart comedy with moments of poignancy and nostalgia.

In the three days I've been away Eleanor has managed to squeeze out some more money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable us a fifth actor, which really takes the pressure off in terms of casting and enables everything to flow smoothly. All five now have confirmed. David Burt will play Frank Matcham, Emily Butterfield will play Jo, who guides the time travel whilst Fran Maston, Moira Hunt and Ian Midlane will all play five or six additional roles.

I'm delighted with the strength of the company and all of them seem excited by the project and the sections of the script that they've seen. I'm hoping in particular that we've got the casting for Matcham and Jo right - if they can find a rapport it'll make the show. The young writers are very impressed with Ian, whose appeared as a Slitheen in the Sarah Jane Adventures. It's lost on me.

The marketing team at Richmond have also played a blinder, with newspaper coverage and their own blog . We're beginning to get a good house for next week.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Where Do We Go?

The Spiral team continues to build. Today we were joined by Yel - who flew in fresh from successfully organising Kingston's International Youth Theatre Festival and Mariana, a former TV presenter from Bulgaria who gave up working in the media to organise similar festivals in the North West of her country. They immediately set to work.

The idea of framing became prevalent this morning. Many of the images of places we'd like to go to but can't, have been finished and I spent the morning taking photos of each artist holding their work up. A picture of a picture. Some of the participants who didn't want or felt nervous about drawing brought along their own images. Photographs from distant lands, food that they can't buy in Spain and most movingly, people they've lost.

The children and a few of the adults then headed off to the cultural centre to make brightly coloured frames in which to display the photos. Whilst I headed back to the swimming pool where the bathers were queueing up to answer the questions sent over from the Bronx. They were taking their job seriously and a few debates were breaking out on the fringes - mostly trying to figure out what had prompted the questions in the first place.

As a team we'd had a brief discussion this morning about how and when we would intervene. I thought it was vital that we stay politically neutral, even in the face of racist or tribal comments. Others felt we couldn't afford such liberalism and should bring ourselves into the debate immediately. It's a tricky issue. None of us would be involved if we weren't interested at a fundamental level in social cohesion - but it's a deceit if we go into this project knowing the result of the work in advance. We have to trust our sensibility and the material produced. In the end both 'beaches' seemed to want to engage and unpick the prejudices rather than react negatively to them.

I'm coming home tomorrow sadly leaving the project at a fascinating moment.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Ludic Lido and The Bronx.

It's been a crazy couple of days. I flew out to Zaragoza via Madrid on Monday and straight into Spiral's hectic world of activity. We're working in Marta's home town of Cascante in the very south of Navarre exploring ways to create an inter cultural dialogue between immigrants, who make up 14% of the town's population and the Spanish families, many of whom have been in Cascante for generations. The tongue tying working title is 'What have you always wanted to know about me, but have been too afraid to ask?'

The concept is fairly straight forward, but already a couple of days in the results are extraordinary.

We've created two 'beaches' in the town - one in the barrio where most of the recent immigrants to Cascante live (affectionately called the Bronx) and another in the grounds of Termoludico, an expensive swimming pool complex on the edge of the town where, in the 40 degree heat, the Spanish pay to sun and swim. It's a site of cultural and economic apartheid; the immigrants use a free lake a mile and a half out of town.

In the Bronx Carol and Arabic scholar Juan are encouraging immigrant families, drawn mainly from Nigeria, Morocco and Ecuador to ask questions about their neighbours, writing them out on large parcel tags. A similar process is being led by Marta and Victor at the pool where questions about the new arrivals are being collated. Tomorrow the questions will be swapped over and answers sought.

Meanwhile in the Casa Cultural Chris and Carlos are helping volunteers from both communities to build large translucent lanterns and frames - the aim is to present the the results of the project in some form of lit installation amongst the trees of the park on Saturday night. The how and what of this is still being explored.

Towards the end of today we were realising, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the children of the town on both beaches were asking the questions - Why do Spanish women speak so loudly? How hard is it to get hold of he food that you normally eat in you country? Does everybody like bullfighting? Do you dream about the place you left? Are there wild elephants in your town? Whereas often the adults questions carried a hint of accusation - What do you feel about the murder of a young Spanish boy by immigrants, just to get his mobile? (a recent case in an adjoining town.) Why don't you learn Spanish? Why when we've been here for 800 years and given so much to your culture do you hate Arabs? What do you think there is for you here? Why do you cross the street to avoid us?

We've begun to examine the notion that immigration is a universal. Even if we have not had or chosen to leave our geographical home - all of us have experienced exile through growing up. I cannot go back to my childhood. It is a time long closed to me and all its wonders are, now, fond memories rather than living realities. With this in mind we've started to ask respondents - not just to ask questions, but to draw images of a place that they would like to go to - but can't. I'm not sure any of us know exactly where the work will land, but it's fascinating to gather the material.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Problems with Time Travel.

Things are moving very fast on Tender Souls at Richmond Theatre now, but there's a great sense of momentum and a real belief that the project is going to be a success. The laptop has become a constant companion and the script is being refined, edited and reshaped hourly as project manager Eleanor and me meet the young writers individually whenever we can to make sure everybody is happy with the work. It's come round very quickly after months of interviewing, transcribing, workshopping, imagining reading aloud and discussing each others offerings but for all the pitfalls and negotiations the process has been remarkably frustration free. Some of the writing is excellent.

We put out a call for actors on Tuesday via the agencies and became a bit overwhelmed when over three hundred were put up. I spent most of Wednesday filtering through and called fifteen to a brief interview and read of some of the script sections on Thursday at the National. We've now got a cracking cast, who all seem absolutely committed to honouring the writers' work. I think they'll be fun to be around as well. In turn we're now able to tell the writers to up their game and redraft in confidence that the actors will serve the work with intelligence and wit. It's a strong build.

Today we read through the work sitting on the stage. It was a good feeling and a relief to know we've too much rather than too little material.
We still have a couple of structural problems to overcome, not least how to time travel over the 110 years of Richmond Theatre's history. Do we use a tardis? Do we have a mystery man? Is it a new iphone application? or can a narrator just announce the date? For every solution another ten or fifteen problems arise, but slowly and carefully I can feel the ten voices beginning to settle into one play.

Off to Spain on Monday to take a little distracting break on Spiral project before heading back, hopefully renewed, into rehearsals. It's very exciting.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Plenty in the Land of Hard Times.

Up to Camden for a catch up and some future thinking with Keith at The Comedy School. We've been working together for three years now and the partnership is developing all the time. We started off by talking about the uncertainties caused by the forthcoming funding cuts. Keith compared it to knowing that their was a crazy axe murderer wandering around the house but not being sure when or who he's going to attack. Both of us are sceptical of David Cameron's Big Society, which for all the touchy feel good language actually just serves as an excuse to phase out nearly all funding to supportive services. Keith's already feeling the pinch in some areas as contracts with local boroughs and the police, for whom he's delivered a great deal of crime prevention work, have all but dried up - putting on hold the TIE tours. The Home Office are also almost certain to withdraw work. The solution has been to run more courses and begin to explore the corporate sector - where budgets are still being spent. It's not quite where his heart is, but he's finding that a lot of people are still prepared to pay for the lessons The Comedy School can provide and he's optimistic about the future.

The loss of revenue for local initiatives opens up possibilities. Keith is working with us on the Prison Arts module, which will run for the first time next year for Level 3 and suggested that we focus on creating a crime prevention conference for 200-300 local school children organised and run by the Applied Theatre students. It could be based as Drama St Mary's and co-hosted by The Comedy School, helping them to keep work alive that would otherwise perish. If set up well, it could prove to be a regular event. On route the students will have sessions with ex-offenders, criminologists, local magistrates and Prison governors, as well as plan and run a series of activities for the day. This seems a secure path and offers a chance to look at strategies for rehabilitation, but doesn't exclusively focus on that. It's the kind of partnership model we're increasingly going to look towards as we focus on giving our students the right tools and guidance for finding a job in the creative industries.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Henry IV.

Had a fantastic day of escapism at The Globe watching both parts of Henry IV. They're wonderful plays, beautifully constructed and the young ensemble company did them full justice in a superb riot of fun and frolic keeping us on our toes for the full six hours.

Roger Allam plays Falstaff sharp, completely aware from very early on of his own boasts and contradictions. Full of guile, he rolls with Prince Hal and Poins as an object of knowing self-deprecation. His passions are calculated strengths rather than uncontrollable weaknesses and his love of life permeates every decision, line, glance and burp. This is a philosophical Falstaff - a man who could have been something else, an earl or duke or one of the many dull, but titled gentry hanging like wall paper about the Plantagenet court - instead he chose pleasure, affection and fond love, all the while knowing poverty, disappointment and ridicule to be the consequence. Terrifying it maybe but better to drink yourself to death in good young company than pursue peerage, pomp, nobility and status for its own end.

Whilst this sage approach perhaps weakens the emotional impact of Falstaff's ultimate rejection - making it inevitable, even to him himself - it does win huge amounts of sympathy early on. Life is a beautiful illusion and not to be watered down by the petty or the mean. A cup of sack, a song and warm friends are all that is required. Anything else distorts the reverie.

Jamie Parker is a fantastic Hal - a touch of Cameron in the Bullingdon club - mixed with a genuine warmth at occasionally being the butt of the joke. A wide eyed Prince, revelling as much in the packed Globe audience as in the companionship of the Boar's Head. Despite the japes, this is a self-confident Hal, at heart fully aware of his moral responsibility. We'd fight for him, because we'd drink with him. We'd drink with him because he'd fight with us. His coming of age, is simply an ordering of his behaviour rather than an epiphany and, because his own sense of remorse dies in the instance he inherits the throne, his cruel actions at the end of the play leave him untouched. Sentiment and memory are not for him, making the rejection seem a huge relief rather than a burden to bear.

How wonderful to fall out of the theatre into a balmy Southwark night, full up after a day at the playhouse, see the lights of London glint on the dirty ebbing Thames and watch the Friday night revellers drink, dance, flirt and fight. It's all is as it ever was.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Wizards and Apprentices.

To Westminster Cathedral for the graduation, which is the highlight of the academic year and always an occasion of mixed emotions as we finally have to say goodbye to our third year graduates. It's an impressive venue, even more so when every seat is filled with proud parents and friends. Most of the academics chose to process, looking like a strange collection of wizards recently escaped from a Harry Potter film set and then the three hundred or so undergraduates take it in alphabetical turns to receive their degree from Principal Naylor, officiating at his eighteenth and final ceremony.

This year was extra special as it's the first time we've had our own degree awarding powers, rather than as a subsidiary of the University of Surrey and the Sarum blue robes chosen for St. Mary's looked immaculate. Most of the girls wore impossibly vertical heels, leaving them towering above the suited and booted, well scrubbed boys as one by one they tottered and swaggered onto the platform for their moment in the sun.

And so the final cohort on the old Drama degree passed through St. Mary's and went off to make their mark in the world, whilst the wizards hung up their robes and headed round the corner to the inner sanctum of The Cardinal pub for the first beer of the summer recess.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Twenty Five Years On.

It's the twenty fifth anniversary of Live Aid today. I remember it so clearly not just as a great concert but as a seminal and epic act of unity. For my generation I think July 13th 1985 marked a clear moment when the politics of compassion, in what was a fairly lean decade, rose to the top of the agenda and brought us all together.

I was fourteen and remember running home to record the whole sixteen hours on Betamax video. I still have them sitting with my DVDs. Useless, but sacred. It was a teenage right of passage. So many highlights. Elvis Costello singing All You Need is Love with the lyrics scrawled on his hand. Freddie Mercury controlling the crowd with Radio Gaga, Bono going walkabout, Bob Geldof stopping mid line on The Lesson Today is how to Die and then swearing live on the telly, The Cars video of Drive, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner... etc. etc. We'd heard of Woodstock, of protest songs, of guitars being set alight, we'd been impressed by the resistance. Live Aid was front foot, however. It was a different response to events.

We bought the records, T-shirts and donated our money, but beyond that began to realise that we had possibilities, that we could do things, that we could change the world. It was an amazing feeling. We'd seen the pictures of the Ethiopian famine - but hadn't understood the power we had to end it. I grew up a lot during that concert.

Live Aid gave us optimism. It celebrated being young and implicitly suggested that we concentrate our energy, loyalty, and compassion on global issues. It put my life on a fast forward and the euphoria and momentum of that day seemed to roll on and on, making the second half of the decade seem ripe for non violent revolutions, a brief period of exhilaration before the Gulf war brought us crashing back to earth. The Berlin Wall came down, Thatcher fell, Mandela was released and we felt part of it, influential, responsible, progressive. Sadly it couldn't last and the bullish belief that poverty could be conquered slipped slowly down the agenda. It flared again, albeit briefly, five years ago when huge swathes of developing world debt was cancelled - but is now, once again, losing currency in a world obsessed with the fight against terrorism and market vulnerability.

Live Aid has a living legacy, however. It raised everybodies consciousness and put international development centre stage in our political lives. Quite simply nothing was the same again and so much has been achieved on the back of it. It was the most significant and inspirational day of the nineteen eighties.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Life Game.

Off to the Lyric this evening to see Improbable Theatre's Life Game show. It's a format borrowed from Keith Johnstone's Theatre Sports where a member of the audience is interviewed and a team of improvisers restage scenes from their life. At its best its rip roaring funny, bringing into focus a quirky mixture of poignant moments and farce - I guess the key ingredients in any life.

Tonight's show was hard work, however. Brenda, the subject, was fairly uncomfortable about the public nature of the interview and not very keen to reveal much information about her past. For a while it was a fascinating, if occasionally squirmy, clash between theatre practitioners, confident, used and perhaps even compelled to tell stories and a modest woman in her fifties neither seeking nor impressed by the limelight. Despite encouragement Brenda seemed intimidated and knocked most questions back with yes or no answers.

Slowly, subtly the actors won her confidence and softly began to find some very moving opportunities to celebrate Brenda's life. A simple scene of Brenda looking into the eyes of her first daughter and telling her all the things she hoped she would become, a bicycle ride to Heysham beach with her future husband and a car journey to France with the whole family singing Abba songs to pass the time, began to diffuse the threat of ridicule. It the end I think she was very moved by the tribute the show paid her.

So much work in the theatre now relies on interview, personal research and the retelling of anecdote. More than anything else this kind of work reveals why the art form must be honourable, social and collaborative. Theatre above all else nurtures, shares and makes significant the magical moments of seemingly impossible happiness than run throughout each of our lives. Moments that often we're too caught up in to understand at the time.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Sucker Punch.

To the Royal Court for the matinee of Sucker Punch the new play by ever engaging Roy Williams. Set in a North London boxing gym in the eighties the play charts the training and progress of two black teenagers who Leon and Troy as they rise from wasters to world champions. Eventually fighting each other in a high profile winner takes all bout. The structure allows Williams a clever metaphor with which to look at the progress of black political consciousness throughout the decade (the Brixton riots, Broadwater farm and attitudes to mixed race relationships are all a glove touch away); whilst also giving a reflection on the rise of the Black British athletes and the role sport played in legitimising the acceptance of second and third generation immigrants as British citizens.

Of course it wouldn't be Williams if this journey wasn't analysed and the motives of both Leon and Troy are regularly checked. Leon rises to the top by following to the letter the advice of his white trainer Charlie Maggs - even down to giving up Becky, Charlie's teenage daughter, as a condition to staying part of the gym. Meanwhile Troy thinks he can escape the power trips and compromising deals by heading to the States, only to find himself completely at the mercy of Ray, his intimidating, jive talking, promoter who sees his protege as a cash cow rather than an iconic fighter and role model. Williams is clear that financial imperative rather than a desire for acceptance and equality drove the championing of black sportsmen and women in the Thatcher years and wonders whether a real debate was side lined in the process. Autonomy remained an illusion.

Sucker Punch is packed with ideas all supported by an excellent production, set within the atmospheric confines of the ring. A particular word for the fight choreography by Leon Baugh who mixed genuine parries and jabs with with moments of James Brown footwork, varying the speed of the action from slow motion to hyper reality with fluid brilliance.

Nobody is questioning the past and future of the black British experience with as much imagination and punch as Williams. It's important and intelligent work aimed at politicising the audience by providing a flavour and critique of hard fought former battles.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Education and Convenience.

Spent the day with the teaching and learning committee at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, drawing up the Universities strategy for the coming year. There's some nervousness about e-learning - its possibilities and its application. I suppose I'm on the skeptic wing of the debate, wanting to be sure that whatever systems we subscribe to works for both staff and students and doesn't simply serve as a replacement for activities and exchanges that work well face to face. At the risk of sounding like a miserable dinosaur I think there is a social dimension that we risk losing.

I'm interested in pod casts, wiki and blogs, but dislike the assumption that a lecture is a fixed (or fixable) product that can be replicated and bought into at a time convenient to the student - isn't that how a book works?

To my mind lectures, even to 100 people, are personal exchanges and alongside seminars are still a vital part to student experience at HE level. A lecture may not be improvised, but the effectiveness of its delivery can only be judged in the moment. A recording simply cannot respond to delight, boredom, laughter, dismay, anger or incomprehension - all of which take subtle shades in the theatre.

I also worry about the ease with which we all desire ease. Whilst I'm a champion of accessibility I'm not convinced that education should be always immediately palatable (and it's dangerous to mix the two things up.) Study, reading, imagining and reflecting are acts of pure subversion. In combination, they can be dynamite. An education helps you question assumption as well as challenge behaviour, ambition and ritual. All of this is fairly combative but, if students can maintain dedication and honesty, the process will ultimately defeat any fear that stops them from living life to the full. When you're trapped, confused, angry, or bitter the ability to imagine something else, something other, is the only real chance you have to find happiness. Isn't that what education is for? There's no specific formula and it's hard to live well but it's a cracking prize isn't it? If we always prioritise efficiency, these epic battles will never be fought. Our students will cash in their curiosity early and become content, but dull adults.

The web has been brilliant for democratising knowledge but so much of the new technology is being sold to institutions on the grounds that it's familiar to the students and so, if we engage, we'll improve their productivity. Maybe? It feels lazy like Prozac.

Monday, 5 July 2010


Alongside the play that's being written to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Richmond Theatre a group of local volunteers are also curating an accompanying exhibition at the museum. I went to meet a few of them this afternoon and sat in on their meeting to listen to their plans.

They had some fascinating findings, especially about the early days of the theatre which Ian, one of the team, kindly forwarded on to me this evening. It'll really help as it's very difficult to find interviewees from before the war.

The space the group are working in is relatively small, but like the theatre itself curves round and is designed to embrace. The main body of the story - over which there is, as with the play, still some debate - will be told on six panels leading the visitor from left to right. In the cabinets key artefacts, programmes and literature have been chosen and sourced from theatre collections all over London.

Curation is a really interesting job and I was really struck that the problems the group had were similar to those of a writer. Most of the focus is on what to leave out rather than what to include and different members of the group have a different sense of what the priorities are - should design dictate content or content design? How do you evolve both simultaneously? How do you keep decisions open for as long as possible whilst still feeling that progress is being made? How important is elegance? Consistency? Impact? Clarity? ... and most importantly can you achieve the priorities you chose?

Some of the oral histories we've recorded on our travels might also filter into the exhibition, whether through listening posts or verbatim quotes on the walls. Things are begin to discover their shape.

I can't wait to see the results.

Friday, 2 July 2010

White Washing Walpole.

The Strawberry Hill Trust allowed a small group of us to put on hard hats go and have a nosy around the building site that is the Walpole House this morning. There's huge amounts of work to do prior to the opening in September, but it's clear that it's going to be a spectacular restoration. On the outside the sandstone walls have been painted a dazzling white, the gilded weather vanes have been replaced and plans for Walpole's decedent flower garden are being laid. Inside all is power tools, tinny radios, hammering and sawing as a team of builders push forward with the plans.

The most wonderful discovery was the scagliola fire place designed by Robert Adam and inspired by Edward the Confessor's tomb. It's in the round room and although still under wraps is fully restored to former glory. We were allowed to lift the blankets and enjoy the shimmering inlay and vivid colours in a way that's not been seen for 250 hundred years.

Afterwards Matt and I had a meeting with Lizzy and Claire, the newly appointed education team, about possible links for Drama St Mary's students. We agreed that six of the Level 3 Applied Theatre students should be seconded to the Trust for a year and work alongside the department to create four events at the house over the next twelve months. They'll meet the team here once a week for orientation and then use the house and its history as inspiration to create some dramatic interventions that will, in turn, introduce the little gothic castle to new audiences. I hope it'll be an imaginative and fruitful partnership. With jobs at a premium the opportunity to work this closely with and learn from a creative learning department isn't to be sniffed at.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Sarajevo Marlboro' Retold.

Off to The Oval House this evening to see Stef's work on Sarajevo Marlboro' that she's been quietly work shopping, adapting and bringing to the boil with the Youth Arts company there.

I was strangely nervous about it - after all my own Sarajevo research has been a bit on the back burner since February and the first draft of the verbatim play I put together at that time lies buried deep in my computer. I needn't have worried about Stef however, she did a marvellous job tackling both her company and the material with real honesty - interspersing the stories with scenes where the actors comment openly on their own difficulties with the history, the politics, the accent and their approach towards a world that seems so far away from their own experience. This device immediately excused any need for authenticity or re-enactment and allowed the actors the chance to tackle the work without apology on their own terms. It was all played out in the big empty space of the main house with Joe Sacco inspired cartoons adorning the walls.

At their strongest the company simply told stories with delicate care and weight. Allowing each one space to breathe. There were astonishingly sensitive moments. They were less solid when they tried to over complicate or layer the language and poignancy with performance tricks and expressive movement.

Still it was lovely to be back in touch with Sarajevo and watching this brave attempt to make sense of Bosnia with young actors from South London, certainly gives me a kick up the bum. It's time to pull up the play and at least let Stef read it.