Monday, 28 February 2011

Posion Into Medicine

We held a soiree to raise awareness about the work that's ongoing between ourselves and Theatre for a Change. Matt delivered a paper and some of the Level 3 Applied Theatre students performed excerpts from Poison Into Medicine, the verbatim play about AIDS/HIV which they're taking to Malawi at the end of next month.

We had several key guests from The Terence Higgins Trust, Save the Children as well as support from a number of faith charities. The Strawberry Hill Overseas Concern Charity gave us a cheque for £2,000 towards the purchase of MADSOC - the community venue in Lilongwe which we hope will provide a base for Tfac's ongoing activities.

In the Q & A there was quite a lot of hinted suggestions that our work might find opposition in a Catholic institution and also amongst faith groups within Africa itself. Is one of our aims agitation? It's not, but neither is it adherence to any formal doctrine.

As with all our work in this field the debate needs to be performed rather than intellectually argued. The whole purpose of the forum is to allow an exploration of action - to understand the physical and emotional consequences both of intervention and non intervention. In Malawi this is directly linked to issues of gender assertiveness and HIV prevention. The projects are driven by a belief that local solutions are the only ones that can sustain. The only ideology is pragmatism and the understanding that an open and rehearsed debate will offer the right solutions to enable a community to thrive.

Bradford to Bath

Sunday was the second day of our West country adventure and an early morning cycle ride along the Kennet and Avon from picturesque Bradford the nine or so miles along the soggy towpath to Bath, chucking up mud behind us as we went. It was a lovely ride up and out over the Avoncliff aqueduct, along to Dundas Basin and then a final loop approach to the Bath lock flight and a swoop into the town itself, just in time as the morning's blue skies darkened and the rain began to fall.

We locked up our bikes and headed off for refreshment at the impressive teashop emporium which is hidden underground in a vaulted basement near the city centre. The menu was mind boggling, offering pages of exotic taste and flavour combinations from all four corners of the globe. It seem churlish to ask for a coffee.

Time rushed by and we soon found ourselves needing to return. Unfortunately despite the surveillance cameras trained on the bike racks where we'd locked up somebody had liberated my front tyre, leaving a sorry looking frame chained to the post. The situation got worse when we realised that buses were replacing the normal train services back to Bradford, and there was no way of getting the bikes on board. In the end we had to relock them, catch a bus to pick up the car, return to Bath, chuck the bikes in the back and head home to London. An odd image of Beau Brummel laughing manically on a unicycle going round my head.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Sun Pictures of Lacock Abbey

Down the M4 with Eleanor for a look round the National Trust's Lacock Abbey and village. It's a strange and enchanting place, most recently used as a location on the Harry Potter films.

The Abbey itself is a quirky mix of styles and periods. A calming cloister, Georgian rooms and most interestingly some displays commemorating the work of the pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. The earliest calotype negative of an Oriel window was created here in 1835. Odd to think the first captured photograph was of something see through - both a tangible thing and a view.

Fox Talbot was also the first photographer to publish his photos in book form - a six installment series of pamphlets entitled The Pencil of Nature. He added this explanatory description to the introduction.

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

How amazing those initial discoveries must have been. Perhaps made even more so by the descriptions which accompany each image, which often explain in practical detail the role of the photograph as inventory. Was this science? Was this art? In the end Fox Talbot simply passed on the baton.

The chief object of the present work is to place on record some of the early beginnings of a new art, before the period, which we trust is approaching, of its being brought to maturity by the aid of British talent.

We went for a walk round the village spookily unspoilt by modern progress and sought refreshment in a perfectly preserved tea rooms. Fixed in time, as still and framed as anything captured on camera.

Friday, 25 February 2011


Off with Keith and the Level 3 Applied Theatre students to HMP Send this evening to watch Pimlico Opera's production of Sugar - a specially adapted musical version of the film Some Like It Hot, performed in the main by the inmates.

The company have been working with prisons for nearly twenty years, designing projects that explore the role of the arts in rehabilitation and encouraging further debate on how prisons might better serve society. Behind the reforming work is the strong belief that the journey that leads most people to end up in prison begins with failures in the education system and with other government agencies. One in three children brought up in care ends up in Prison.
The kind of communal endeavour that these projects provide helps create the transforming experiences that are needed to enable individuals to gain the self-esteem that can help them break free from cycles of crime.

It was an amazing set up. A huge performance marquee, seating 400, on waste ground at the back of the prison complex, full rig and sound system and all the anticipation of a first night heavy in the air. We took about half an hour to be checked in and leaving our mobile phones in lockers made our way to our seats.

The show itself was really good, but the most moving moment came at the end when, during the prolonged curtain call, the actors scoured the audience to find the family and friends who'd come out to support them. Some cried, some whistled, some mimed messages of love or apology, precious moments before being gently shepherded off stage by the warders and counted back to their cells.

First night elation. As we were escorted back to the car park, the lights were going out in the cell blocks. It made me wonder how many of them would sleep and where you go to celebrate when you're locked up for the night?

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Corpus Christi

We had a very good meeting to start to plan for the 750th anniversary of Corpus Christi in 2014. It's clear that St Mary's is going to play a leading role in the celebrations.

The event has a neat tie in for Drama as the early Mystery Cycles in York, Wakefield and Chester were all written to be performed as part of the feast days.

I've suggested an ambitious project to re stage all seventy or so of the distinct stories covered in the plays, perhaps finding seventy different community, faith or school groups within Richmond borough to host a play each. We'd then co-ordinate and create a three day event/ promenade which will begin with the Creation plays on day 1, Nativity on day 2 and the Passion on day 3, perhaps even culminating with the crucifixion of Christ high in Richmond Park, the London skyline in the background.

We'd provide support, training and an overview of the work.

The first part of the process will be to re read and edit the plays before we find interested groups and begin to allocate plays to them. If we can get the buy in and create a sense of momentum. It could be a wonderful event.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Relay from the Lakes.

The weekend hasn't really gone very well. We headed in chill winds up to Crosby beach on Friday night to see the Anthony Gormley statues stock still, watching the shipping entering the Mersey channel, before motoring onwards up to Borrowdale for overnight accommodation. We were met by a rather haughty and laconic receptionist who tossed his head back informed us we'd missed supper and led us to our room.

'It looks as though the weather's changing,' he sneered, before bowing '...and not for the better.'

We were up early on Saturday morning, and after a full breakfast and a warning to 'stay off the high ground' from our host headed along Stonethwaite Beck and began the slow climb up towards Lining Crag. To begin with everything was fresh and beautiful. Snow had fallen overnight and quickly we found ourselves losing our feet and occasionally the path as we continued our adventure. Towards the summit it became almost impossible to see the path forward and with no compass and all discernible landmarks hidden beneath a white carpet we abandoned our attempt to reach Grasmere and turned back.

A little disappointed we picked up the car and instead drove to the village for a cup of tea and a look round the church before heading, as evening fell, towards Patterdale. A hundred metres from the summit of the Kirkstone Pass disaster struck as the clutch failed leaving us stranded, hand break on, in the darkness. The AA took a couple of hours to reach us, but we weren't short of company as every motorist stopped to offer help, a lift, a blanket. The concern was all rather heart warming.

We were towed into Patterdale and an overnight stop in a gorgeous guest house at the foot of Ullswater where Ian, our host, seemed very surprised that we should be trying to do the Coast to Coast so early in the season. Enthusiasm and ambition had clearly got the better of us.

Sunday morning was spent trying to work out a way home - eventually after realising that with the parts having to be trundled over from Carlisle there wasn't much chance of getting the car fixed until Tuesday at the earliest - we phoned the AA again and began the long relay journey home on the back of a truck.

Our first mechanic was an impressively tall, bearded, almost old testament figure who took us in near silence to Tebay services where we were unhooked and made to wait for Craig who arrived from Skipton to take us on the next leg.

'The rules are simple,' he explained. 'We each have a 64 mile circular radius from our home which we can cover. I'm from Burnley so this is as far north as I go. Officially I could take you down to Keele - but I'm ending my shift. So I'll drop you off in Preston.'

When we got to Lancashire we were met by Geoff, from Runcorn, who reiterated the rules and explained he'd get us as far as Hilton Park, do a couple of jobs in Wolverhampton and head for home.

Geoff clearly enjoys his job and once he'd established that we were fairly friendly stuck his ipod on and shuffled through a selection of nineties rave anthems.

'If you get through the first winter when you're lying under a car in the hard shoulder with lorries zooming past at 70 miles an hour throwing up petrol polluted slush in your face then you'll probably stick it out.'

The mood changed at Hilton Park. The mechanic who met us was as nervous and conspiratorial as Geoff had been open and chatty. He'd recently given up smoking and was clearly struggling. Best not reveal his name. Best not reveal his football allegiance. Best not say how far he'd take us. Night had fallen and we ghosted along the M6, through the centre of Birmingham, whilst our host whispered an impressively detailed nostalgic account of the old industries whose factories and warehouses have now been transformed into hotels and shopping centres.

'Dunlop, Spitfire, almost everything we think of as important was once made here.'

He dropped us at Coventry, wished us luck, and slipped away into the night.

Finally we were given a full ride home by chirpy Phil, who fortunately lived in Luton, and could therefore comfortably carry us down the M1 and back home. We got in fourteen hours after we set off.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Liverpool Underground.

I've got a couple of days break at the end of reading week so I've headed up north to do a bit more of the coast to coast walk that Eleanor and I started last October. Today was a drive up to Liverpool, where she's been scouring archives maritime archives for her research, and a chance of an afternoon explore.

I don't really know the city very well at all, but it seems to me quite unique. The sloping rope walks down from the University and Cathedrals to the Mersey offering a faded memento of the mighty enterprises on which the docks were built - coffee, sugar, slaves. The sound of seagulls, the ever present mystery of the Liver bird gracing the tall buildings, motif ed on the street signs and painted into the stained glass of Victorian windows. The absurd taken for real, the ludic for lyric and everywhere a sharp sense of being on the edge of things. One moment laughter, the next tears. Does anywhere wear its sense of good humoured resilience more proudly than Liverpool?

We headed off to the weird and wonderful subterranean Williamson tunnels in Edge Hill and were given the last guided tour of the day by John, an eccentric mountain climber and retired geography teacher who's been clearing out debris and rubbish from the folly for the last twenty five years. The tunnels stretch for miles and only a tiny section has up to now been reclaimed.

Nobody's quite sure why they were initially built. The most persuasive theory is that Joseph Williamson who made his money in tobacco, believed in the dignity of labour and philantrophically set up the project to provide employment for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. Another theory is that he was part of a fanatical religious set and was preparing a vast underground city for the people of Liverpool to retreat into come Armageddon. Whatever the reason when he died in 1840 work immediately stopped.

What will become of them? Hard to tell. John leads a tiny band of volunteers who fund raise to keep the clearance going through the tours, an occasional jumble sale and the running of a small kitchen selling waggon wheels and cups of tea to the police station on the other side of the street. Whatever Williamson's reasons for starting to dig into the soft sandstone I'm sure he'd be proud of the persistent determination of the local enthusiasts who are keeping alive his mysterious legacy. They've clearly inherited his spirit of exploration.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Youth Crime Conference.

A really good day at Twickenham Stadium performing our forum play to local schools. As last year the work was received really well. Andy, Michael, Emma, Katie and Sophie played brilliantly and it was very clear even the toughest group of year 10s were quickly engaged and enjoying the interactions.

Having the police in the room with us whilst we work is a real added bonus - particularly as Katie, who jokered everything on her own this year allowing me the opportunity to stand aside and watch what was happening, soon found a way of involving them in debate with the teenagers. In turn the police seemed to soften and one or two were even encouraged up onto stage to demonstrate how they would handle a difficult situation or conversation. Great charm. Great good humour.

It made me realise that often the police simply get the tone wrong when dealing with young people. As I walked round some of the other workshops I was aware that a 'mock matey' language and sense of 'being on the level' were proving in many cases to alienate the groups rather than encourage them. It's a tough call because ultimately the law is the law and there's little room for a questioning of that authority, skepticism or genuine debate in these interactions, but occasionally there's the implicit belief that schools and parents have let kids down and that it's only the 'straight talking' police who can communicate, which rather than providing a forum, comes across as either another form of 'talking down' or as a patronising 'I understand where you're coming from' concession to anti-social behaviour. The key must be to listen very carefully in order to explain procedure and pratice in challenging Socratic rather than victimising didactic terms.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Interview Day.

We're slowly beginning to fill up the courses for next year. This year has seen an unprecedented rise in applications - primarily because the introduction of tuition fees next year has meant very few students seem to be prepared to take a gap year, but also a result of the 200,000 students who failed to gain places in HE last year and are reapplying. The bad news for sixth formers is that competition this year is intense. The good news for us is that we should be able to put together a talented cohort for entry in September.

The fees issue is a bit of an elephant in the room. Most institutions are about to declare and it seems most will set high rather than run the risk of either being seen as a second tiered University or of losing money per capita. How potential students will respond is hard to guess . I think the ambition and cache of going to University is deeply ingrained in our culture - it'll take a counter revolution before academically able eighteen year olds decide it's not worth the money. Despite the huge debt It'll still probably be seen as safer to go.

The fall off will be amongst students from less academic backgrounds who will see no incentive in a £27,000 bill. A further challenge to our Utopian dreams of an inclusive HE culture may come from employers offering their own training courses at a fraction of the cost. Either way some clear hierarchies are about to be opened up.

A big question for us is whether we fix fees on a course by course basis or whether we go for a St Mary's fee. Either way every registrar in the country will be holding their breath next Autumn when the first UCAS forms trickle in.

Once again the standard today was very high and although the gender balance remains problematic (we receive four times as many applications from women as we do from men) things are shaping up well. For now we're in a time of plenty.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The King's Speech.

Caught up with The King's Speech at the cinema in Kingston this evening. It's received a lot of hype and is clearly on course to clean up at the Oscars, so I was keen to see it for myself.

In the main I really enjoyed it, particularly the central performances from Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, but occasionally I felt as if background events were being conveniently rewritten to enable an American audience a clean and unambiguous narrative of British history in the years building up to World War II.

The most obvious and potentially ludicrous imposition is the role accorded to Winston Churchill, played with cartoon accuracy by Tim Spall, as a firm friend and adviser to King George. Spall positively twinkles at the already fully formed thought of taking on Hitler and leading Britain to glorious victory. Whilst this might have been true in 1945, I'm not sure that in 1939 the Royal family weren't initially firmly in support of Neville Chamberlain's plans for appeasement - indeed Chamberlain appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with their Highnesses on his return form Munich. Then, on his resignation, they, along with most of the establishment, backed Halifax to take on the role of Prime Minister. I'm also not so sure Churchill didn't tacitly support Edward VIII during the abdication crisis. I guess heroism is inevitably defined by those who win.

In the broad sweep of cinematic narrative I'm not sure this matters very much and I'm certain in the main doesn't detract from the charm and humanity of the movie but the exaggeration wasn't necessary and the reliance on hindsight rather detracted from the, on the whole, fascinating documentary elements of the film. Elegant it may be, accurate it's not.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Oh What A Lovely War!

Off to see the dress rehearsal for the Level 2 Theatre Arts production of Oh What A Lovely War! in the theatre. Patsy has directed the show and updated the central premise, replacing Joan Littlewood's Edwardian Pierrot pre-show with a group of stage technicians preparing backstage for a professional production of the work. This play within a play device provides the audience with an intriguing double take as, to begin with, the various members of the crew egg each other on to parody the invisible actors in a backstage cod, which quickly gathers a life of its own. The ever present need to prepare the space for the real production provides a terrific sense of urgency to the scenes and helps to underline the montage, episodic structure of the original play. It's slightly preposterous as an idea but ever so cleverly realised here.

Tina has also done a wonderful job with the design, re imagining backstage tools as essential costumes and props and this playful invention brings a real sense of delight to the evening.

For all of the hard work and smart direction tonight's run felt a little tentative. With the theatre stripped back and bare, the playing space suddenly seems large and the actors occasionally lost. It surprised me a little as they all seemed on top of the work. Perhaps they're tired? Perhaps they need more time in the space? Perhaps they just need reminding that each performance of work requires fresh investment? Whatever the reason tonight was underplayed. I hope they can find the boost tomorrow. The ideas are great, I just hope the students can do them justice.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Blustery Bushey Park

Spent the morning putting together the final version of Jog On! The forum theatre play that we're putting on for community safety day at Twickenham Stadium next week.
The students are doing a really good job with the work and I'm really pleased with how its shaping up. Most of the work has been focusing on improvising new scenarios for the characters, expanding out in ever increasing circles from the universe which we've created. Much of this work is then dropped - which is a sign that we've got the fundamentals spot on. Nothing is wasted, however, as all these improvisations go to strengthen and deepen the actors understanding of the roles and relationships in the play as performed and, as is the nature of forum, you never know when a member of the audience will take you into a new situation. The more we as a company understand what might be around ever corner the more likely that we'll offer an honest development to the story once the audience become involved.

Eleanor met me after work and we headed off to Bushey Park on our bikes for a blustery picnic. Although I've been here for five years I've not really explored this part of Teddington before, apart from driving down the central avenue to Hampton Court, and hadn't really understood how large the place actually is. We cycled round through the many small gardens, fenced woods and copses until eventually the wind dropped and the sun came out. It felt as if spring might not be too far away.