Thursday, 30 June 2011

Eastern Promise.

On Wednesday I headed for the Far East. I'm talking to the Hong Kong Communication Art Centre about possibilities for partnership work with Drama St Mary's. In the first instance we're looking to run our final year as a top up for their Performing Arts 2 year programme - but if we can successfully negotiate that, then there may be more opportunities for staff and student exchange or placement. Over time it could mean we have a well resourced regional hub in South East Asia.

The flight itself wasn't nearly as gruelling as feared and after a fairly sound sleep I woke just as we broke cloud cover and began to descend over the South China Sea - hundreds of tree clad islands, trawling boats and in the far distance the skyscrapers of Hong Kong city. Thirty years ago the plane would have landed in the bay itself, swooping low over the built up residential zones in Kowloon; but now touch down is several miles West on reclaimed land north of Lantau.

Face pressed close to the bus window for the half hour journey into town, startlingly large suspension bridges, impossibly narrow towerblocks densely packed, more going up at every junction, huge ocean liners ploughing through the deep water channels between the islands. Frenetic activity, everywhere.

The eight hour time differential made it quite late by the time I arrived at the hotel just off Nathan Road, but I couldn't resist taking a midnight stroll, to get my bearings and soak up a little of the vibrant atmosphere of the Golden Mile.

I headed towards Victoria harbour, where the Star Ferry provides cheap passage for the thousands of commuters, who daily cross the narrow strait to Hong Kong itself. Turned the corner and suddenly a glittering skyline came into view, flashes of reflected neon tumbling across the water, the sky lit up as bright as day. Only here, from the other side of the bay, do you realise how rapidly the mountains behind the shoreline rise, narrowing the available land and enforcing the vertical. The engineering needed to accommodate the millions of people and thousands of businesses here is very impressive indeed.

Despite the late hour and the humidity, the promenade was crowded with revellers and tourists. I followed it along past the old colonial clock tour and onto the rather kitsch Avenue of the Stars which celebrates, through Hollywood style handprints and pavement stars, Hong Kong's film industry.

It's hard to imagine that it's only 170 years since a naval party first hoisted the British flag over what was then a sleepy fishing village and began the process of colonisation that has, in turn, led to the creation of this tiger city. There's so much I want to find out. It's going to be a fascinating few days.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Future Thoughts and a Visit to The Space.

Off the train and back to the day job with a full day of planning with Trevor, Patsy and Kasia in preparation for next year.

It's a fascinating time for Drama St Mary's. The first graduates from the new degree have just gone through with really impressive results. 76% gained either a first or a 2:1 - compared to 54% across the institution as a whole and although we did lose a handful on the way, everybody who stuck the course has ended up with a BA. It's a really good platform from which to build.

Of course good results don't stand for much if they don't help graduates into employment or further study - but the Applied Theatre work in Malawi, the Theatre Arts show case and the really impressive work done by the Level 3 Physical Theatre cohort give us real cause for optimism. There are agents sniffing round and several of the year group have already secured work for next year, often with companies or directors that they've worked with on the way through.

So far so good, but we know that the £8,000 fees give us a real challenge in terms of trying to attract students. It's a heavy investment and we've got to try and make sure that our offer provides something approaching value for money.

Much of the day was spent looking at whether we could move from a four day to a five day week for the students, in order to provide further training opportunities. We are still hamstrung a little by space. Indeed next year the occasionally used Langdon Centre in Teddington has been hired to full time in order to accommodate the curriculum and whereas elsewhere in the University the debate rages about how to design workloads that recognise the students need to take on part time work, we'd prefer to push ahead with a concentrated and extensive programme of work.

For me the few problems we had last year can all be resolved if we pay more attention to the tutorial system we set up this time last year. These are scheduled once a week at 9am and haven't been well attended. We weren't sharp enough in chasing those who didn't make it in and so an opportunity to really communicate new initiatives, advertise ongoing work and nip grievance in the bud, was lost.

Drama is a unusual subject in the academy. Firstly it's vocational and needs a great deal of contact time not just to transmit knowledge and discuss ideas, but primarily to set in place the good physical habits needed to be creative. Secondly, because it's about collaboration, it's imprecise. However near to perfection you personally take your craft, you'll be reliant on colleagues who bring their own experience, flaws and contradictions to the work. Even at its most remarkable it's always a compromise. It's why I think as a unit the 300 or so of us in Drama St Mary's are stronger than any pathway group, cast or individual. We've got to be prouder of each others work, accept the odd duff piece of work and build some momentum to move forward confidently.

In the evening I went over to the Isle of Dogs with Eleanor to meet Adam Hemming, who's agreed to take on the facilitation of her public engagement project. Adam weekly runs a drop in community drama group from his theatre The Space on West Ferry Road.

I don't know this venue at all. It's a converted Victorian church that at one point in its history must have welcomed the ship builders from the local yards into their congregation. It had a brilliant vibe, open, accomodating, with a friendly coffee shop/ bar and a real sense that the community own and support it.

The group do a huge range of activities and have just finished doing a full scale production. Adam thought the project would offer them a chance to do something in a minor key, explore the heritage of the area, whilst also giving him the chance to help develop some ensemble skills with his company.

He's only got six weeks to put something together, but was sure that he could use the resources, documents and old photos that Eleanor furnished him with, to create a small scale showcase on the Great Eastern launch site. It was a very positive meeting.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Winding Up the Wind.

A gorgeous day in middle England and for the first time in a fortnight no need to rush into action. Tina, Anami, Kate B, Nick and Nick's wife Natalie decided to drive out to Whitwell to have a lazy late breakfast by the water's edge and to reflect on the last few days. It had a very end of term feel. Tomorrow we all go home.

Most accounts from last night suggest a triumphant although all of us were so deeply involved that it's hard to know. It certainly felt like a strong piece of work.

We headed back to Oakham to pack and tidy the house before an excited call from Chris to say that sunny weather and word of mouth meant the site was filling up quick sent us scurrying over to soak up the atmosphere and to begin the slow process of building into the show. There were smiles all over the site; lots of handshakes, hugs and a real sense of achievement. It's odd that our second night, traditionally anti-climactic, is also our fond farewell to the county and each other.

The only worry was that with almost no wind tonight, that we might lose some of the exhilaration of the sail boats swashbuckling arrival? Given everything that could have gone wrong, it was a pedantic concern.

In the end things worked like clockwork. We had nearly 2000 in the crowd - including Eleanor and her parents who came up especially to see the work. With a satisfying sense of the poetic, the mass, straining for the best view, forced the VIPs to move forward themselves and so yesterday's gap was effectively filled.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I was less connected with the work tonight. It's been a great journey and a fantastic chance to work with some very, very talented people - but my head is already moving forward. It's a strange truth that, for a director, the pinnacle of your work comes before the show opens. Once it's running there is little you can do.

And so When the Wind Blows comes to an end. Lots friendly thanks from the cast, the drummers and the choirs. We headed back to Broccoli Bottom for a party before drifting home to catch a few hours sleep. I'm on the first London bound train in the morning.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Border Security and a Beautiful Evening.

Overnight storms had taken out one of the tents on the Normanton site, meaning much of the morning was spent watching a team of technicians wrestle to put get it standing again. As the hours went by the weather began to change and the sun threatened to shine. Perhaps things were going to go our way?

There was a fair amount of nervous tension and so after an early morning run through of duties and responsibilities we dismissed the actors and gave them an afternoon off to relax back at Broccoli Bottom.

Towards the afternoon a VIP tent was set up at the top of the slope looking down into the playing area - blocking many of our exits and entrances. A group of stewards from the Lions club were briefed not to allow any audience to sit between the tent and the staging area in order that an unrestricted view might be achieved. The problem was off course that all of the design and directorial decisions had been made assuming the audience would be right up to the edge of the space. Two weeks of work sabotaged by the desire to protect privilege. It seemed so out of keeping with the generous spirit of the project.

Representations were made but the organisers held firm. Compromises were suggested, but still they held firm. Subversion was considered, but eventually, with our irritation revealed, we had to give in and rush back to the young actors to tell them to break free from the agreed staging and inhabit the newly created gap. It was a destabilising risk, but a critical part of story telling is to decide where you want your audience to be when they hear it. The newly created empty space completely undermined the impact of what we'd created.

The stewards, were as good as their word, enthusiastically patrolling the space, challenging anybody who even thought about taking up position in this tempting vantage point. After watching one of them tell a young family, replete with picnic gear and a buggy, three times where they couldn't sit. I suggested they might like to take a more positive role in finding somewhere where they could. It was so hostile. A really unnecessary gulf.

By six we were in auto pilot. Companies checked off, props and costumes collected, instruments tuned and after a couple of thank you speeches Peter lifted his baton, the orchestra struck up its first notes and the ball rolled.

I spent most of it sitting with young Marcus, who despite never having rehearsed in the space, remembered his part perfectly. Elsewhere I watched from a distance as the teams of actors made cue after cue, working really hard to ensure the show. And then before I'd even really realised it'd started it was over. The final moment of crescendo as the Belle made its way to the horizon, Hannah completed her story and the sixty sailing boats performed their our synchronised dance on the water was beautiful. Tired and relieved I had to fight back the tears.


Friday, 24 June 2011

Arrival of The Fleet.

Rehearsals moved from land to water today - which meant Fernando and me had a quiet day mainly spent watching the boats on the reservoir try and co-ordinate their tacking under Karen's radio instructions.

There are three main components to this. First of all the Rutland Belle, which once rigged with the osprey, is hidden behind the church. Its appearance into view could, provided we don't spoil the surprise, produce a wonderful moment of spectacle. Secondly we have three green goddesses disguised as silver fish, which will accompany the Belle and finally the sixty or so boats belonging to Sailability - a para sailing club which will be released from a holding dock and provide the grand and triumphant finale.

The pre-show routine for tomorrow is beginning to take shape. Space is now fully allocated, jobs fixed and timings agreed. We're still slightly stretched and are occasionally having to fend off well meaning offers of help from parents and other local supporters keen to take on responsibility for the shows well being. It's a difficult issue with community shows like this. It only works if everybody feels a part of things - but equally there has to a real sense of control from the professional team. The craft is in making very good decisions about other peoples skills and capabilities in order to harness the potential of the collective group. Get it wrong and you're in real show threatening trouble; get it right and the work grows beyond anybodies wildest dreams.

The weather was very difficult today - but in many ways this was a blessing in disguise. If we can make things work in the wind and rain then we should find even the half hearted late June climate, predicted for the weekend, relatively easy to manage. Towards the end of the evening Peter Ashworth, in charge of the young sailors, warned that we might have to abort the ending. We hit fast forward and watched from the shore as the boats rapidly filled the bay, making impressive use of the prevailing wind. It was magic.

The arrival of the flotilla marks the final layer of our show. There's Nick's score, Chris's script - read ever more sensitively by Hannah Gordon, who's been with us over the last couple of days, our land based choreography, the wonderful Sengalese drumming and now the boats. Each of these five elements has been conceived and rehearsed mostly in glorious isolation. Occasionally paths have crossed, but mostly the connections have been made through intelligence and facilitated accident. Even now less than a day away from our first performance we're still spotting the possibilities and making tweaks. It's been a marvellous way to work.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sightlines Into the Past.

Most of the day was spent working on the Spanish section of the show. The Senegalese work is so reliant on the students that we can only now tweak in theory, giving careful instructions to El Glayu and Drama St Mary's and hope that they'll communicate in the runs. It's a bit of a Chinese whisper way of directing - but for now it's all we can do.

As for the Asturian horse I'm still worried that we've spent so much time diligently working the blue silk - so that we can unravel and clear to within a bar of the score - that we've rather neglected the beauty of the puppet and are under playing its importance. In the story the horse stands for a symbol of our common humanity. Some of the oldest cave paintings in Europe are found in the Asturias. The Tito Bustillo cave is a major tourist attraction and it's here that our horse was originally drawn a mind bending 20,000 years ago. The accuracy, detail and sense of life in the painting connects us immediately to our ancestors in the most direct way imaginable. The image could have been made yesterday. It seems important as we've released him from the preservation of darkness to meet the osprey that we understand his demands. He is as fresh and full of vigour as when first created. There's a psychology and back story that we're not tuned into just yet.

We ran, with a skeleton cast and crew, on site early this morning and she rather gets lost behind the material. We've also blocked her far to close to Harry's osprey and it all becomes a bit of a blur.

One of the real difficulties is explaining to the puppeteers just how much animation is needed to raise the horse. There is a sense that because they're hidden they're somehow meant to work as technicians - efficient and precise rather than as character actors - full of spontaneity, energy and awareness of the audience. There is no room for diffidence.

It's becoming increasingly apparent how much energy the actors are going to need for the twenty minutes or so they're on stage. Not just in terms of playing to the huge crowd we're anticipating but also to get from one side of the space to an other. Occasionally we're asking them to make 400 metre runs in less than a couple of minutes in order to be in place for another entrance. Hard to nail this in a stop start tech.

By this evening we'd found a way for the horse to make a playful circle of the audience prior to his encounter with the osprey. El Glayu had also begun to warm up and suddenly the horse came alive, full of personality, pride and a sense of himself.


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Moving Onto Site.

We spent the full day on the event site grabbing any opportunity to walk through, time and finalise the scenes in advance of tonight's tech. Being by the reservoir offered opportunities to flesh out some of the key moments and to really understand whether we'd done enough to tell the story visually.

Tina was everywhere, keen eyes looking at ways in we might use flashes of colour - be they on the tropical birds wings or through mass ranks of yellow processional flags - to guide the audience's focus across the space. Every addition, of course, brings fresh logistical problems and at times there was a tension between what I felt we could achieve and the desire to populate the space with banner carrying actors. Charo and Fernando have already been drafted in to lead the crucial process of removing the osprey head from the Belle and bringing it solemnly to land and we're simply down on numbers. Through patient negotiation and moments of rare compromise, however, we did make some progress.

Meanwhile in the near distance Kate, Anami and Stu worked steadily and diligently setting the huge osprey that will sit proudly on the spit in front of Normanton church. The opening chords of the music will wake him at the very start of the show, prompting him to flex his magnificent wings and twist his head to survey the Rutland sky. It's clearly painstaking work, but back on land we get an impending sense that something truely wonderful is taking shape.

At 4pm the children began to arrive. Not just the drummers and performers; but also 300 primary school children who were quickly marshaled into their choir positions. It soon became apparent that the focus of the tech would be musical and so in the end Fernando and I had to take our company to the other end of the site so that we could teach and run our sequences. The two hours flew by and I felt we were working dangerously fast and not giving the young performers any chance to consolidate the direction through repetition. The Drama St Mary's crew were magnificent, however, willingly taking on spade loads of responsibility, encouraging here, correcting there, always vigilant in checking who was grasping the work and who was struggling. By the time the parents came to do the pick up we had at least covered all the ground, even if we hadn't had an opportunity to secure the blocking. One more crack tomorrow night and then a troubling 48 hours before the first show.


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Finding the Ritual Journey.

We beginning to move from improvisation to fixing routines and rituals. A great deal rides on the way the Drama St Marys and El Glayu actors work. They've got to be faultless, confident and in complete control so that we can ask the Uppingham actors and Casterton drummers to take a lead from them. El Glayu are working really hard, but are slightly reluctant to take on the responsibility for setting a consistent standard. I'm relying on them to set the scale of performance and to fuel the show with energy. The younger students will respond, but they've got to have a steer. For Soph, Becks, Vicks and Emma, fresh from The Canterbury Tales it's a familiar demand.

The weather didn't help today. Squally showers disrupted us and we never seemed to get a clear ten minutes before we had to dash for cover in one of the barns. Still little by little we began to convince ourselves that with care, focus and attention we would be able to create something moving and memorable that hints at the pain of leaving home, the resilience of a determined journey and the diplomacy of arrival in a strange land. I'd argue that all stories follow this same path leading from a known past, through a challenging present and onwards towards an uncertain but exciting future; textured sporadically with set back, trial, tribulation and ultimately some form of understanding. Our scenic interpretation is now beginning to parallel the narrated story of the transformation of the Gwash valley into a reservoir and the sung Osprey narratives both of each birds annual journey and the return of the species to Rutland after 140 year exile. The layers of the spectacle are beginning to settle.

There are still a few gaps - but a think we might be able to work with Harry and his wings to fill these. I'm not sure yet we've paid enough attention to showing off the puppets themselves and I'd like to honour the craftsmanship of the designers and makers by simply demonstrating the virtuosity of their creations, to the largest possible audience.


Monday, 20 June 2011

Canvassing Ideas.

Things have changed gear as we start to move operations away from Broccoli Bottom down to the Normanton site. Overnight Fernando, my co-director in this final run in, arrived with his family from Spain and late this morning Emma, Becks, Soph and Vicks trundled into the farm having driven most of the way up from London with a flat tyre.

First job was to get them housed and settled at a camp site a couple of miles down the road. Karen had provided a couple of tents - but no instructions - and so after an hour's, fairly weak willed, struggle the technicians were called in to try and make sense of the poles, canvass and pegs. It made building thirty foot, animate mechanical ospreys look a walk in the park. Eventually both tents were up... just and although one did collapse later in the day it was possible to start rehearsals knowing that they'd have somewhere to sleep at nightfall.

Meanwhile back on the event site the heavy stuff was brought in. Three huge oyster shaped marquees to house the 300 strong choir, the band and an orchestra were, in contrast to our feeble efforts, assembled embarrassingly quickly to form a structure that, from across the bay looks like the Sydney Opera house. Then the impressive sound system was brought in.

We stayed on the farm and began work on the Spanish section; which breaks down into three sections: the unravelling of the forty metre long blue silk, the arrival of Kasper's horse and finally the dance of the Asturian fishermen, who all have boats on their heads.

Much of our time was spent playing with the material, running it up and down the length of the drive, seeing how fast we could introduce it and remove it from the playing space. Tina oversaw our work and worried that we wouldn't find things so easy exposed on the shore on a windy day.

Fernando took a lead in operations, whilst I tried to do the maths. It's clear that with ospreys, tropical birds, horses, silk and fishing boats to cast we simply haven't got enough participants and that doubling up is fast becoming an inevitability. We'll have to be meticulous about this, particualrly as with no stage management team to speak off anything discarded by performers has to be tidied quickly out of the audiences way. It looks as though every performer will have a sequence of four or five jobs to do. The problem is each sequence will be slightly different and we don't have enough time in the space to rehearse each individually. My notebook rapidly filled with diagrams, maps, speculative timings and cue notes. There's going to have to a huge amount of trust and quite a lot of intuitive casting. Those who turn up on Wednesday looking responsible will quickly find themselves promoted to team leaders. We just don't have huge margins for error.

As evening feel we took our expanded company for a drive round to Whitwell to see the Belle and then continued round onto the site itself, where Sharon gave us a quick guided tour and issued us with security passes. It'd good to start projecting our work into the space. Went to bed still doing the sums in my head. Can we make it work or do we need to trim?


Sunday, 19 June 2011

Opening Doors to Shakespeare.

A day off and so I headed West to Stratford upon Avon for a father's day meal, a lovely afternoon walk around Mary Arden's farm house in Wilmcote and a quick look round the new RSC theatre, topped out last year.

Watching a show in Stratford has always had something magical about it, particularly on hot summer evenings when the audience seem to float home across the Bancroft Gardens in a balmy dream, mesmerised by heroic stories, musical heraldry and the poetry itself. The old art deco theatre felt well suited to its situation, perched on the banks of the Avon. Peaceful, restful, unshowy in itself, but swelling with the history of remarkable performances and the anticipation of more to come. I was keen to see how the new build would work. Could it suggest buried treasures in the same way?

The most striking difference is in how welcoming the new theatre is. Glass fronted with many doors opening up into a spacious foyer which, mirroring the aesthetic principles of artistic director Michael Boyd's productions, soars and carries the eye upwards to embrace the full height of the building. The Elizabethans understood their world on this plane: heaven, earth and hell every bit as clearly as we, trained in tableaux, the printed text and fixed image read from left to right.

An even more vertiginous experience can be had by going up the viewing tower which, adjacent to the main house, gives theatre goers an opportunity to look beyond the rooftops of the town to the fields and hills of Warwickshire. The shape of the land has little changed since Shakespeare's own deer rustling, romantic youth.

Some critics have questioned the wisdom of a second thrust stage in Stratford and the lack of a proscenium arch does make a very clear statement about the way plays will be staged here in the future, but early reports suggest that both actors and audiences are revelling in their mutual proximity.

For the first time I'm going to be teaching a Shakespeare module at Drama St Mary's from September to a group of nearly 100 and so I'm beginning to explore ways in which we can supplement a weekly lecture with more interactive approaches to the plays. One thing I'm sure of is that learning by heart and publicly reciting the text gives students a chance to marvel and enjoy the particular muscularity of the language, so I'm going to call for scenes to be be memorised and performed each week. If the class buy into that we can work as co-educators using the performed excerpts as the basis for our lessons, rewinding them, adapting them, focusing in on key moments, phrases or metaphors. I don't think it's enough to just read a synopsis of the play as homework. I want to bring students much closer to Shakespeare's words so they can begin to sense how much they belong to them. There are riches behind comprehension for those who make the investment.

In a similar way perhaps the new thrust theatre will help to further democratise Shakespeare by asserting a relationship between the stage and auditorium. Will this offer a helping hand to those who struggle to commune with the plays? I hope so.


Saturday, 18 June 2011

How to Gain the Trust of Strangers.

A quiet day at Broccoli Bottom. The designers and technicians using the continued good weather to push on with construction work. Anami, Kate B, Tina and I went round to Whitwell to chat to Matt who runs the Rutland Belle and arrange the logistics of strapping the huge Osprey onto the top deck. It's going to be a tight call as the boat is set to run its regular timetable of sailings throughout next weekend. It'll be all hands to the pump to get things sorted and hidden out of sight behind the church before the audience arrive.

Next stop was the sailing club in Edith Weston where Stu and Kate R have been turning three of the green goddess boats into glimmering silver fish which will accompany the Belle as it makes its way across the reservoir. The rigging takes about an hour to do and there have been a few trials over the last week, but today for the first time things were looking really good.

Rutland at the weekend has a slightly different complexion and, on a sunny day like today, the water really comes into its own with hundreds of cyclists, bird watchers, walkers, sailors and fishermen descending to take advantage of it. Driving around the perimeter it's easy to see why so many of the locals we've met tell us that they never want to leave. Very few people outside of the county seem to know about its existence and in many ways it feels like a world apart; bountiful, rural and rich. The Rutlanders, fiercely protective of their independence and proud of their title as England's smallest county, want to keep it that way.

Back at base a slightly new narrative for the Senegal scene is emerging. For the last couple of days the work has been watched from a distance by Marcus, a inquisitive eight year old, who's staying on the farm with his parents, whilst they look for a house in the area. He's been fascinated by the puppets and rehearsals and inched closer and closer to the action. This afternoon his curiosity was rewarded when we asked if he'd like to be in the show. He wisely told us he'd have to ask his Mum and rushed off to do exactly that.

Within minutes of gaining consent Tina was measuring him up and he'll play a baby tropical bird who, in contrast to the colourful threats made by the adults, will gently approach the visiting Osprey and encourage friendship. His success, carefully achieved, will be the cue for the other birds to accept the new arrival. Diene will end the scene with a dance of his own. We'll rehearse all this on Tuesday but only after he's finished school, changed out of his uniform and had his tea.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Osprey Training.

More guests arrive in Rutland. Antonio and Charo, two trainee theatre directors from Madrid arrived to assist the work. They're very bright, positive and full of ideas.

We spent much of the morning sketching out possible entrances and exits and walking through some timings. The central protagonist of the whole show is really the music and our staging has to be precise in order to run to the timings Nick's created in the score. Essentially we have about twenty minutes of action to cover, representing the Osprey's arrival in, firstly Senegal, and then, on his return, in Asturias, before reconnecting the head onto the body of the boat which will set off again around the back of Normanton church pulling the audience's focus onto and reanimating the giant Osprey structure that Kate and Anami have now begun to turn their attention to. We've got the tropical birds to play with for the first section; Kaspar's horse, metres of blue silk and about forty Asturian fishing boat hats for the second.

The problem with precise planning is not knowing quite the number of participants. Everybody has signed up, but until we arrive at the tech next Wednesday we're all unsure as to whether we'll have enough to manage all of the different elements. There's also no crew on the show, so guarding, clearing and setting props, costumes and puppets all needs to be built into our thoughts at this stage.

This evening a reception, surrounded by horseshoes, in Rutland castle to mark the opening of the festival and to welcome the company. It was a low key affair, some wine and nibbles - lovingly themed only in Rutland's traditional colours of green and orange.

Local MP Alan Duncan, carrying a Union Jack umbrella, paid a fleeting visit, the festival's organiser made an impassioned appeal to raise an audience and finally the High Sheriff of the county, replete in knickerbockers and ceremonial sword, made a short speech in which he reminded the Spaniards that one of his duties was to muster men to repel invading armies and that one of his predecessors had done exactly that to prepare for the Armada. Fortunately the Asturians saw the funny side and politely laughed along.

So the first week draws to a close. There's still a slight feeling that we're groping around in the dark and I guess it won't be until the middle of next week that we'll really begin to see whether our ideas and creations have worked. For tonight we were happy to relax with a glass, a couple of speared gherkins and a bowl of cheesy wotsits.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

First Past The Post.

There was a sense of excitement this morning as Kaspar, Sophie and Stu, who've secretly been beavering away in an out house to create an Austrian horse out of wire and mesh, unveiled their creation. We all gathered in the yard in anticipation as the technicians took up their places inside the body of the puppet and then to gasps of amazement and a round of applause out she trotted.

Essentially it'll take four actors to manipulate the horse. Two at the front carrying the weight of the neck, one at the back and a fourth swishing the tail which detaches and dances its own gigs of delight.

Tina watched carefully, for all the world like a championship trainer overseeing the gallops, and then began to issue instructions to test the versatility of the structure. Could it bend to graze? Could it flick flies from its mane? Could it canter? Every second seemed to offer up new possibilities. Eventually it retired so that further work could be done ironing out a few of the minor clunks, but Kasper seemed very pleased with this first outing.

Elsewhere a very serious discussion was taking place about how we manage the osprey's arrival from water to land. At the minute the giant puppet is strapped onto the back of the Rutand Belle, a pleasure craft that throughout the summer ferries sightseers from Whitwell over to Normanton church. The plan is that as the boat docks the giant osprey head will detach, be carried onto land and put onto Harry (who's going to play the bird on land.) At the moment this manoeuvre takes several minutes and involve pins, clips, bungee ties and stabilising mop handles. Anami and Kate took me through the process after lunch. I think the way round the problem may have accidentally been discovered on Monday when, faced with a very public construction job, we forged a ritual to cover our uncertainty. If we work with Diene, Mohamed and the casterton drummers, I sense we could turn a logistical problem into something quite moving and wonderful.

It was back to Uppingham this afternoon and a second opportunity to play with the tropical bird wings. Each one has nine operators and the more we explore the more the it becomes apparent that flashes of colour, dispersion and return to formation, chaos and then order, provide the most visually interesting sequences. A narrative of suspicion, threat and finally acceptance also began to emerge. A cautious welcome to Senegal followed by a riotous display of welcome.


Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Senegalese Drumming

Much of the afternoon was spent over in Great Casterton where Diene and Mohamed were leading the first of their drumming workshops with a group of year 10 students.

For the most part the action of the show is determined, in terms of length, by Nick's score, which similtaneously tells the story of the flooding of the Gwash valley in the seventies to create Rutland water and the annual flight of the ospery as it journeys from it its breeding grounds here south via Spain to West Africa.

However, there is one scene, set in Senegal, where the ospery encounters four tropical birds which Nick hasn't written for enabling us to shape a different soundtrack using the drums. The work we did yesterday has already offered some suggestions of the way in which these puppets might move and today was a chance for Diene and Mohamed to lay down some basic techniques and sequences with the Casterton gang that might accompany the dance we'll put together next week.

Already there is a nervous sense that we don't really have enough time with each of these groups. Tomorrow Chris will come out here to consolidate the work done today and I'll return to Uppingham to run the second and final workshop with the operators. Then we'll all meet up for the tech next Wednesday at the event site. The big concern I have is that working in a drama studio is quite different from being thrown into a huge event and thrilling as it's sure to be do we have enough time to get our performers comfortably adjusted to the outdoor site?

However, the workshop today was excellent and the students really focused and commited. By the end of the two hours they'd eight or nine different rythm patterns under their belts which can be improvised and jazzed around with.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bucolic Bliss at Broccoli Bottom.

After yesterday's baptism of fire today was really the first time we've had to talk about how we're going to approach the next fortnight and settle into some work. We've hired out Broccoli Bottom, an old farm converted into a series of B&B cottages in Manton, on the south side of Rutland water and it's here - looked after by our hosts Sally and Colin - that we'll meet, rehearse and make things.

The set up is really conducive to creative industry. Tina has set up a sewing machine filled design room. Production Manager Sharon holds meetings, makes calls and deals from a kitchen, whilst out the back, by the stables a team of international puppet makers and sculptors Anami, Kate, Casper and Sophie work industriously on ospreys, fish, horses and tropical birds. The rest of us work in and out of the melee, contributing where we can and making rounds of coffee. My major role beyond directing, is as the designated driver of the minibus, which means any breaks from planning choreography or observing the way in which the wonderful mechanical inventions are coming together is spent running errands or pick ups.

Drama St Mary's is really well represented. Apart from Tina and myself, second year Karen has the daunting task of stage managing the event, whilst third year Stu is here working as a technician and scenic designer. Next week Canterbury Tale veterans Emma, Sophie, Vicki and Becks will join Harry, who's here already as members of the performance company.

Half of the creative team, including El Glayu and the Senegalese boys are living on site; whilst the rest of us are staying in a grand Georgian house over in Oakham

For all the productivity there's a sense that none of us is really sure where we are headed. Chris has been living here for the last nine months negotiating, developing and setting up the component pieces of the show and now it's up to us to pull these pieces together into a memorable and fantastic weekend. The main job at this stage is to try and see what kind of shape the thing might have. My tactic, until I'm slightly clearer about how to effect my scenes, is to buzz between everybody picking up intelligence and passing it on as I go.

We spent the afternoon at Uppingham Community College bringing El Glayu together with a dedicated team of year 10 students to experiment with the way in which the bird wings might move around the space. In essence it's chorus and ensemble work as the component parts of each wing break away and reform in a myriad of different shapes and configurations. At times the group reminded me of Roman legionnaires wielding their shields in battle formation. Although nothing was fixed it was a positive session in terms of establishing a performance vocabulary.

In the evening a few of us headed over to the Methodist chapel back in town to watch a choir rehearsal run by the extraordinarily charismatic Peter Davis, head of music at Oakham. Peter's been working with children from every primary school in Rutland teaching them the eight songs that make up Nick Bicat's score, which has been especially commissioned for the show. Tonight was the turn adult group and for an hour he put them energetically through their places; voices soaring and swaying as he pounded the piano hard and insisted on the precision of each note. Everybody was exhausted by the end. It was a lovely way to end the day.


Monday, 13 June 2011

Starting as We Mean to Go On.

We're straight in at the deep end. Chris had arranged a fifteen minute slot to perform an excerpt from the show at the newly opened Cube theatre in Corby this afternoon in front of a group of influential funders. All good except of course as we've only just gathered there is no show whatsoever.

A 9am briefing to quickly see what might be possible. We've got the sleepy El Glayu company, two Senegalese drummer, Diene and Mohamed, who are here to teach workshops in local schools later in the week, a prototype mechanical structure of what promises to be an incredibly impressive osprey puppet progressing under the watchful design of technicians Anami and Kate B, a huge red bird's head constructed by Tina and Kate R and twenty year 10 students who've been putting together some tropical bird wings in workshops over the past few weeks.

Visually it's the osprey that's really impressive and once we arrive at the venue we quickly begin to devise a ritual that enables us to move it piece by piece from the wing onto the stage. Its bulk though means that it takes five of us, ten minutes to carry and set the counterweight system that have been devised to keep it stable. The drummers quickly understand the solemnity of what we are trying to achieve, however, and begin to improvise a swelling underscore, filled with anticipation, whilst El Glayu lead the students in a freer processional dance around the stage, diverting the eye and giving protection to the assembling centrepiece. It's done in a blur.

Of course none of us have any idea whether the overall effect looks any good. Kate, Anami, Caro, Alessandro and myself put on some fetching green vests and sun hats and construct the osprey, feigning military precision and pretending all the while we know what we were doing; whilst Diene dances frenetically in front of the bird and the year ten students swoop and shimmy their wings in anarchic confusion. Against worst fears it seems to come off and the funders clap appreciatively. Proof positive perhaps that we live in an age of visual spectacle. Amazing to think most of us had only met for the first time this morning.


Sunday, 12 June 2011

York in the Rain.

Out of Patterdale early and back to reclaim the car in Keswick and a journey back South. We headed East at first over the Pennines to hit the A1 and head down to York for a whistle stop look round. Unfortunately it was bucketing down with rain so we found ourselves running through the streets, up the Shambles, and into Stonegate to see the carved chained red devil and grab a posh cup of tea in Betty's.

By late afternoon the weather had cleared enough for us to walk the walls back to Micklegate, where the heads of traitors were displayed, and make our way back towards the Motorway.

I'd like to spend some more time in York, perhaps if the Corpus Christi project takes off next year I'll have an opportunity to spend some more time this way, trying to trace the route of their cycle. As a town it seems to retain a slightly sceptical view of the renaissance and deep in it's heart you sense it's never quite forgiven the usurping Tudors. This is white boar country, waiting for the medieval period to be freed from the accusation of being a dark age.

Dropped Eleanor at Leicester station and headed back into Rutland, where I'm spending the next couple of weeks working on When the Wind Blows with Chris, Tina and an exciting team of technicians and actors, including El Glayu, an Asturian group, who also arrived today. Just enough time for introductions before turning into bed. Work starts tomorrow.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Sky Walking.

The dorm began to stir from about 5am this morning as the serious walkers methodically checked their gear, laying out each item on the floor in front of them before packing them away in a solemn ritual. Grasmere itself isn't really a place to hang about in of a morning, most of the shopkeepers focus on being ready for the tourists who flood in on coach trips after 10am and seem indifferent to the needs of any rambler looking for a breakfast cuppa before then.

So off we set around the foot of Helm Crag, across the busy A591 before starting the two hour ascent around Great Tongue up to Grisdale Pass. It was a warm day and the way fairly unrelenting. Towards the top we refilled our water bottles from the cascading waterfalls, but it was still a relief to reach the pass and see the calm waters of Grisedale Tarn below us.

The day was still young and the weather good so we decided rather than take the direct route along the beck into Patterdale that we'd zigzag our way up Dollywaggon Pike and detour round Nethermost in order to approach Helvellyn from the South.

We paused for a moment by the worn poem carved into the Brothers Parting stone, the place where Wordsworth last saw his dearly loved brother John, who was returning South to captain the ill fated East Indiaman ship the Earl of Abergavenny. Sadly it was John's last visit to the Lakes. His ship sank some years later off the Dorset coast en route for Bengal and China. Here though I imagined all was bonhomie and farewells as John, whistling, headed down the valley to catch the stage coach at Penrith, whilst William having watched him hurry out of sight turned on his heels and set out back down the valley to Dove Cottage and the ever waiting Dorothy.

It took a further hour to reach the summit, finding a path over the slate and rock of an almost lunar landscape, but we were rewarded by great views and a cup of coffee provided by an entrepreneurial backpacker who'd lugged a giant urn and and catering tin of Nescafe up earlier in the day. We stayed for a short while but when we began to sense the weather closing in decided it wise to begin our descent.

When I made this journey this time last year I froze when it came to conquering striding edge, but this time, aided by Eleanor's conviction that all would be well I made a determined attempt to try and scramble back down. The first bit, sheer and terrifying, felt unnaturally risky but ,despite the odd moment of paralysing self doubt, I began to find a steady momentum and clinging tightly to whatever rock seemed firm enough to take my weight found a way to lower myself onto more reasonable ledges. After about half an hour the ridge broadened again and the last hour of the day was spent heading gleefully across Birkhouse Moor and into Patterdale as the sun set.


Friday, 10 June 2011

Greenup Gap.

Up early to take the open top bus along Derwent Water from Keswick down to Rosthwaite to pick up the path Eleanor and I had to abort on our last visit in February, when the snow began to fall. We set off along the familiar path up the side of Greenup Gill towards Lining Crag and apart from a short squall of a shower made good progress in bright sunshine to the top.

Unlike the varied terrain of the first couple of legs of the Coast to Coast today's adventure was a fairly straight forward up and down affair taking the walker through the Greenup Gap one of the few passing places in an intimidating line of hill fells that run from north to south, barring a direct eastbound journey.

We stopped for a well earned breather at the summit and looked back down into the beautiful Borrowdale valley from where we'd come before turning and trudging on a further half a mile to overtop the edge and catch a first glimpse of Grasmere peering out from behind Gibson Knott and Helm Crag. Rather than continue on a ridge walk over these fells we decided to descend into the valley and follow the sparkling run of Far Easedale Gill as it gurgled and bounced its way towards the village.

Feeling satisfied with the day's walk we checked ourselves into the busy youth hostel at Butharlyp Howe and, after a brief detour to the pub, settled in for the night. It quickly became apparent how amateur we are in the grand scheme of fell walking as scores of walkers descended throughout the evening each with a more hearty tale to tell than the last. The most impressive was a chap in his fifties who was determined to do seventy miles in three days and seemed slightly disappointed having conquered everything between Penrith and here in one day, that he hadn't set himself a more vigorous challenge. Shy in the face of such endurance I made my excuses and tucked myself in for the night.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Silver Sea.

Back up north for a very smooth exam board at Cumbria. I'm particularly impressed with their moves towards using technology as the primary form of communication between staff and students. Staff now post everything from assignments to reminders, to additional reading lists online and the expectation is that students will regularly check the relevant pages.

We're beginning to explore a similar system at St Mary's and from September all our documentation will be published on simmsCAPital, a portal designed to enable an almost encyclopedic amount of information about procedures and module content to be available at the click of a switch. This is a slight change in culture and the real trick to making it work is to persuade all staff to engage. It might also signify the demise of facebook groups - which for the last couple of years have provided an all too public way for staff and students to talk to each other.

Board over we headed out West for a drive around the Bowness peninsula. It was a gorgeous afternoon, the sea glittering silver as we drove for several miles without passing another car. Scotland across the Solway firth to the north, curving round westward as we hit higher ground. Eventually we headed inland and South to have a look at Wordsworth's birthplace at Cockermouth and then East via Bassenthwaite Lake to our overnight stop in Keswick. More of the Coast to Coast in the morning.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Isle of Dogs.

Off on an early morning bike ride along the South Bank over Tower Bridge, though Wapping to The Isle of Dogs for a rekkie in preparation for a public engagement project that Eleanor has some funding for and hopes to carry out over the summer.

It's a thrilling ride through the troubled, and occasionally seedy, history of the river downstream of St Katherine's dock, hidden, in the main from the eyes of the tourists, but everywhere hints of a former world populated by opportunistic pirates, sophisticated smugglers, shrewd brothel keepers and hard nosed dockers. It's a little known part of London, ripe for stories and adventures. It's here the sadistic Judge Jeffreys took lunch whilst watching the men he'd condemned earlier in the day hang in Execution Dock.

We headed for the launch site of the Great Eastern, quiet and modestly hidden away in a small green park, traversed by modern flats on either side. Hard to imagine the leviathan of the deep slowly being assembled here over a period of three and a half years. Its here that the icon picture of the ship's designer Brunel was taken in front of chain links. Some of these links lie undisturbable on the waterfront footpath. Harder still at this distance to hear the army of workers, who migrated from all over the British Isles at the thought of contracted employment, riveting, welding and tarring the hull. Still at low tide more of the launch site because visible through the watery shallows of the foreshore and the scale of the project starts to be understood.

There's something very attractive and increasingly reputable about counter factual history - the art of imagining how the world would be if alternative decisions had been made, or events unfolded. The Gothic steamship dreams that centred on this knuckle of land in the mid-nineteenth century seems ripe for such exploration. The ambition behind the Great Eastern was huge but sadly, beyond being launched in the first place, the ship's achievements are disappointing and the history of trans Atlantic travel took a slightly different route.

We headed round to Island Gardens and the site of the old ferry to Greenwich, made defunct by the foot tunnel which opened in 1902 to enable workers South of the river to populate the ever expanding docklands, before continuing up passed Mudchute to the Docklands Museum to pick up some further reading and then back to The Grapes on Narrow Street to piece together some of our findings. It has the potential to be really exciting work.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

London Road. A Life Belt for Verbatim Theatre?

Back to the National this evening to see London Road, Alecky Blythe's new verbatim musical based on the shocked testimonies of the residents of the Ipswich street where, in 2006, six sex workers were murdered by local man Stephen Wright. The premise for the work has divided opinion with some cultural critics seeing the play as a cynical exploitation, others have applauded it as groundbreaking.

I fall into the latter camp, whilst recognising that the field of verbatim theatre, like any form of documentary art does, by implication, feed off and edit the nuanced experiences of individual lives. In this case the sense of unease is exaggerated by the fact that this account of a relatively recent serial killing is set to music.

Counter intuitively then it's a surprise that the brilliance of London Road comes through Adam Cork's beautiful score, that immaculately captures the rhythms and colloquial complexities of the Suffolk dialect. Through the use of repetition and overlay Cork has discovered a poignant new language that dramatically reveals the characters underlying fears, anxieties and curiosity about the tragedy unfolding in their midst. Far from being a reductive exercise in pigeon holing stock characters the delicate attention that his musicianship brings to the linguistics of the text enable us to hear each of the sixty or so voices that make up this sound scape as clear and unique.

Verbatim as a form was in need of a boost. What began as a form of tribunal or theatre journalism, always overtly political, occasionally campaigning, had in many ways evolved into a lazy shorthand for play making. A democratic formula that anybody could replicate to create a library of opinion on a particular subject. To be frank it was becoming tiresome.

London Road though marks a serious stage of evolution for the verbatim play. It's a work of abundant theatrically recognising that the genuine uniqueness of the form comes through the forensic way it can examine how things are said. The deliberate musicality reminds us that tenor, tone and rhythm carry their own truths which can contradict or puncture the literal meaning of reported text. It's a very important work.