Monday, 31 January 2011

Two in The Bush

With Chris White, who runs our MA Theatre Directing, to The Bush tonight to try and get into John Donnelly's new play The Knowledge, part of a season of plays looking at the current state of education and the first sign that writers are beginning to engage with some of the themes emerging from the Coalition Britain. It's playing in rep with Little Platoons, Steve Waters take on the 'free schools.'

Unfortunately we didn't book in advance and were just pipped in the queue for returns. So we spent our ticket money on the texts and retreated into the pub to catch up. Chris is always good value and full of sense both about theatre and education. He's an eternal optimist, full of new schemes and approaches which made it a delightful evening.

I flicked through the plays on the way home. They seemed really interesting, which made me sorry to have missed the show. I suspect the next few years are going to be a ripe time for a re-emergence of the state of the nation play and that these might come thick and fast as The Big Society bumps and grinds its way forward. After the years of plenty, the theatre is once again in the firing line, with cuts bound to take severe effect in the very near future. New writing will, as it's always done, provide a prism through which to construct a political defence. The early years of New Labour provided a boon time for writers who wanted to conduct a visceral analysis into the alienation of our consumer culture. As the new broom of spending cuts sweeps through the public services the response may be a more direct attack on those who are compiling the legislation.

It could be an exciting time.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Preparation for the Police.

We're back in rehearsals for Community Safety Day at Twickenham Stadium in February, adapting the forum play we wrote last year looking at issues around stop and search.

Andy, Katie and Emma are repeating their roles with Michael and Sophie joining the cast. The play went down well last year, but we haven't really looked at it since and of course nobody bothered to script it, so most of the early rehearsals have been trying to remember exactly what we did right last time out. Slowly we began to piece it back together and find new lines and ideas that keep the whole thing fresh. Interestingly it's the new actors who are keener to keep to the original work; whereas the older hands want time to explore and rework sections. The real issue is tone; our audience are all 13 and 14 years old. It's important to keep the characters recognisable, the jokes fast and the learning light. We're well placed to do it, but mustn't become complacent.

The police have requested that we focus on 'joint enterprise' - the idea that if you are with somebody as they commit a crime you're also deemed to have committed the crime. The law's pretty clear and unforgiving on this point. With that in mind James, our protagonist, is much more a bystander to the main events rather than a perpetrator under duress. We've added a new scene to give the audience a sense of James' home life. It might be a bit of a red herring in the initial play, but does give us an opportunity to touch on parental expectations and attitudes towards the law in the discussions afterwards.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Apocalypse No!

Off to the Trafalgar Studios to see Lara in the latest Barbershopera extravaganza Apocalypse No! As ever it's crazy, fast paced, silly, slightly out of control and extremely entertaining, good fun. The Wizard of Oz meets Monty Python.

This time God summons four dastardly horsemen to unleash total destruction on the world, but unfortunately Beth, a primary teacher, fighting OFSTED and the merger of her village school with a more results driven techno-college, is mistaken for Death and becomes accidentally coerced into helping Famine, Plague and War to fulfil their mission.

Time spent with Beth, of course, is a deeply humanising experience for the harbingers and they reveal their true colours. War is a bit of a wuss, Famine likes nothing more than a good meal whilst Plague has an almost OCD about cleanliness and won't touch a thing without his marigolds.

Through a breathtaking hour and a half of trials, tribulations and four part harmonies Beth eventually even manages to persuade God, quite literally a holy cow, that goodness does exist amongst the humans, saving both the planet and extra curricular activities in the process. Warmer hearts all round.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Letters to a Young Person

The Level 3 students have started their Prison Theatre module with Keith. It's the first time we've run it and it's already producing some interesting debates and ideas. Last week Glyn Banks, a criminologist, came in to give a talk and this week Chris Streeks, a former prisoner, who's spent most of his adult life inside, came to talk about the criminal justice system from a prisoners point of view.

Chris's journey is a remarkable one, he became involved in drama classes, managed to get a scholarship to RADA and now works as both an actor and an spokesman for the Prison Reform Trust. Theatre literally gave him the opportunity to escape and imagine a different way of living. He's got a career, a mortgage, a publishing deal, a family and is looking forward to a bright future.

Most importantly he's clearly relishing every moment of his freedom and is absolutely committed to helping young people who find themselves faced with the same dangers and heading down the same road as he did as a teenager. The thing that makes him most proud is that he is now a tax payer - a net giver rather than taker. He repeated this four or five times during his talk each time fixing his audience in the eye. At first it seemed a surprising criteria by which to judge your success, but it was clear listening that he's had to shrug off a burden of low expectations and deprecations to arrive where he is now. It was an inspiring afternoon affirming the value of well timed initiatives and the power of education to lift disaffected people out of trapped lives.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Seasons Greetings.

Off to the National with Eleanor on Tuesday to see a disappointing version of Alan Ayckbourn's Seasons Greetings. Hard to put a finger on what exactly was wrong with it - it's a wonderfully painful cringe of a script, a perfect cast and a beautifully designed set - but something seemed to be amiss.

Perhaps it's the wrong combination of director and material? Marianne Elliot has done some really cracking and inventive work in the Olivier over the last few years, which has elevated her into the pantheon of rare directors, able to make sense of that space. Here faced with a revival of a more recent play in the proscenium arch of the Lyttelton, the direction seemed almost too reverential, with a Chekhovian attention to nuance bringing an over complicated humanity to the characters rather than allowing their monstrous pettiness its full rein in two clear dimensions. Maybe it's just the sheer scale of the set, which slows up exits, entrances and often destroys any sense of surprise? Hard to get a laugh when you see it coming twenty seconds in advance.

The result is we're asked to look at the play from an almost sociological perspective, seeing from afar how the actions of one character affect the others. This works well in Shakespeare and Brecht, but seems very out of place in a in a visceral dark comedy designed to make us squirm in our seats. Ayckbourn is a great writer but we have to be up close and personal in order that we sense our own convoluted desires and pretensions in the twisted cartoon psychology of characters desperate to pretend they have common understanding and the ability to hold it together.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Applied Theatre Shows.

Friday was an evening of Applied Theatre work. Firstly the Level 2 students performed the greatest hits from last semester's three political cabaret shows. It was an interesting evening with more staff - including the Principal - showing up. The work felt slightly more edgy than before and the audience less willing to embrace some of the more dangerous material, perhaps most of the audience had seen the work previously, perhaps the new guests changed the dynamic? There was a lot unease at anything which scorned the royal wedding.

Either way it's hard to redo work that was created in response to specific events or moments and occasionally the team struggled to dredge up the sense of urgency and importance that had initially infused the sketches. It's still a fine body of material and a real tribute to the students, both as writers and performers, that they've managed to create a sustainable body of fresh and original work over a three month period. At their best they've been fearless, forthright and subversive, suggestive of a new way forward for the student voice. It's been a very successful module.

On to Studio 3 where the level 3 students performed their verbatim show taken from interviews conducted on the streets of Twickenham. There were some neat observations and studied character work. Overall though it's a work in progress thin on material, a collage of parodied voices rather than a nuanced or themed exploration of what is to live and work here. Still it was enjoyable enough for its own sake and hinted at a larger, more textured work in the future.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Central Cinderella.

Off with Tina to Central School of Speech and Drama this evening to see their MA Musical Theatre students' pantomime. Tina's brother Tony has been supervising and together with the company created a new version of Cinderella performed in four quarters. I'm wondering whether it wouldn't be a bad assignment to bring into Applied Theatre as an introduction to popular theatre. The work tonight was blissfully engaging, fun filled and unapologetic. Unsurprisingly the students seemed to love the licence.

The most impressive part of the evening was how proud everybody was to be associated with both the production and the institution. We were greeted warmly by the front of house who kept attentive to us whilst we waited to go in, before being shown with calm, confident smiles to our seats. There was no sense of competition or precociousness, just a genuine desire to put the audience at the heart of the evening.
We still haven't quite got this aspect of our work right at St Mary's where the foyer is a crush on show nights, the audience are not allowed access to the auditorium until the last moment and commands are barked out over loud speakers or through unnecessary mics.

I'm equally unsure that our present policy, of selling tickets a week in advance by 'mugging' people as they enter the refectory rather than through a sensibly run box office, serves us well. It does provide publicity beyond the print material that circulates around but I'm not sure it wins us many friends outside of the department and perhaps it even occasionally antagonises other members of the college community? I wonder whether a longer game, publicising a season of work in advance and having tickets available for all our work at once, might help us to establish the theatre as an essential part of the University's cultural life and make us seem less ragged and unorganised?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Back to Work.

It's been a rude awakening to the year. Patsy and I have been putting together some rough proposals for a funding grant to try and secure the next three years of project work between St Mary's and the National Trust. We thought the deadline was March 1st and that with purposeful endeavour we might be able to put a competitive submission to the Arts and Humanities Funding Council together. Unfortunately the deadline has been shifted to January 28th which seems a daunting prospect in terms of collating the information needed, but with the Principal keen for us to push ahead there seems nothing for it other than to get our heads down and plough forward.

We're working with Natalie, a frighteningly smart intern just up from Oxford, who's more or less been put in charge of making sure we stick to the many mini deadlines over the next three weeks. We have a 9am briefing with her every morning to keep everything on track.

In some ways there's a sense of exhilaration about this new way of working and I suspect offers a glimpse of a more research focused future for the college, where we have to invest some time generating income in order to secure our work. I think just being a good teacher with a focus on the development of your students is probably no longer enough. The not unwelcome pressure is also to research and publish. For all the inconvenience and anxiety of having to respond quickly to the change of deadline I do feel that I'm on a huge new learning curve; the world is changing and it's probably wise to try and ride the first waves.

The challenge for St Mary's will be to keep a sense of its pastoral community. It's always felt as familiar as a village post office, but there are some external economic threats that need to be recognised and faced. Can we keep the easy way in which we relate to each other and students whilst developing a reputation for high class scholarship and research? Or does one priority necessarily diminish the other? The cosy days of coffee breaks and speculations might be pushed to one side in favour of impact assessments and publication deadlines. If we can do this whilst maintaining a commitment to treating each student as a unique individual then it might not be a bad thing. This is a very special place in which to learn. I'm hope adding rigour to our academic endeavours will not threaten that.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Minack Morning.

Tuesday 4th January 2011

Last day in Cornwall and with Eleanor beginning her research in the museum I headed into Penzance this morning to pick up supplies for the journey back and ended up escaping from a squally shower in a low sofa coffee house with a newspaper as my thoughts began to turn towards the new semester. The main focus of which is The Canterbury Tales.

Back in Porthcurno I picked Eleanor up for lunch and we climbed the cliff up from the beach to the Minack Theatre - my second visit in under twelve months. Once agian I tried to find out how we'd get a touring show down here, but it seems a fairly closed shop for now. It's such a beautiful place high above the sparkling sea and it'd be marvellous to bring a company down for a week one summer. Eleanor had found some old playbills and programmes from the entertainments performed on the cabling ships to pass the time. It'd be amazing to find the scripts or even the stories of the men who wrote and performed them. Starting point for a show in the theatre?

This evening we waded across the dark and boggy fields, getting lost once or twice - led astray no doubt by the local knockers - to Treen and a warm meal by the fire in The Logan Rock Inn. It was a cosy way to end the festive season. Back to St Mary's tomorrow.

Lamorna Cove

Monday 3rd January 2011.

Up early to catch the low tide walk out to St Michael's Mount in Penzance bay. It's another National Trust property and the perfect fantasy location for stories of pirates, smugglers, lost and founds, monarchs and shipwrecks. It's no wonder that Trevor Nunn chose the location to film his version of Twelfth Night a decade or so ago.

The site was pretty much closed up for Winter and only a few hardy wrapped up travellers had made their way across the blustery causeway. Still it's a beautiful place full of possibilities and ideas. Another venue to dream of.

We headed back through the town and had lunch in a little harbour side cafe in Newlyn before another walk through Mousehole and out over the clifftops for a couple of miles to the seclusion of Lamorna Cove, where you can sit on the sea wall and watch the waves lap below. On the way we met an amazing robin redbreast who, affronted at our trespass into his territory, by turns puffed out his chest, dived bombed and hopped after us to make sure we were on our way. His brave antics delayed us and we arrived to find the coffee shop closing up and the sun beginning to dip. So back to the welcome lights of our now beloved Mousehole for fish and chips we went, hugging tight to the path in the darkness.

Gwennap Head.

Sunday 2nd January 2011.

Today we headed West out of Porthcurno to the lighthouse lookout station on Gwennap Head which commands an almost 270 degree sweep out over the channel and Atlantic. Gulls, gannets, skuas and petrels swoop and call from the dizzying height and on a clear day the rising shape of the Sicily Isles shimmers on the horizon. At breakfast Chris told us how welcome visitors are to the volunteers who sit in the station watching these waters on six hour shifts so we thought it was worth a knock on the door.

We were warmly greeted by Robert who, having spent the fifties and sixties as one of the first trans Atlantic pilots on passenger planes was seeing out his retirement monitoring the progress of shipping as it passes in and out of British waters. Today he was particularly concerned with a French trawler that had come north and was cutting dangerously across some of the busier lanes.

The little lookout was a fascinating throwback. A radar swept a green a line of green light across a box TV screen, whilst a crackly radio transmitted the Falmouth coastguard's conversations with the vessels. Every movement was recorded in half hour intervals with a thin line marker pen on on a wipe clean map. Robert was very proud of his work and clearly felt the station had a huge role to play benevolently watching over the smaller fishing craft and providing an early warning system to stop smugglers from landing their cargoes on shore.

We made a donation for the upkeep of the station and then headed north via Sennen Cove for a pint at the Tinner's Arms in Zennor, a quick walk round an icy St.Ives and late evening curry back in Penzance.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Walk to Mousehole

Eleanor and I have come down to Cornwall for New Year. Well really it's so she can do some research in the Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno and I've opportunistically tagged along to grab a couple of days holiday before the new semester kicks in. We're staying at Rockridge House a wonderful B&B run by the charming and informative Chris in the village, under the cliff from the Minack Theatre and out of mobile telephone reception range, which can't half cause a problem when you want to call friends and family to wish them a happy New Year.
Porthcurno itself has a fascinating history. From 1870 it was the hub of a submarine cabling industry that pioneered the first trans Atlantic telegraph links which for the first time enabled messages to be sent out to New York, as well as through a series of satellite stations to India and other parts of the empire. Even now signs on the beach warn bathers of the cables that lie barely submerged in the shallow waters of the bay.

Yesterday we spent the day knocking off the cobwebs with a long walk to Mousehole clambering along the clifftops past Logan's Rock, ducking into the seclusion of Penberth Cove before cutting inland at Boscawen to take in the Merry Maidens and a final descent into the village itself as night fell.

For many years Mousehole has put on a huge light display to commemorate Tom Bawcock's Eve on December 23rd the night when, local legend has it, brave Tom, a sixteenth century fisherman, sailed out in tumultous storms to bring in a catch and save the starving village.
The illuminations are still up, providing a warm welcome as we approached tired, hungry and ready for a thirst quenching pint and a portion of fish pie in the Ship Inn overlooking the sparkling harbour.