Wednesday, 30 March 2011


The Arts Council have announced details of their settlement today. There are a few big winners, but hundreds of losers and from the outside it's a fairly strange and unfathomable lottery.

Punchdrunk, many of whose early ideas were workshopped by Drama St Mary's students have received a huge increase of 141%. Other friends of Drama St Mary's Ockham's Razor, Company of Angels and NIE also did well.

Others who've worked with us: Cardboard Citizens, The NYT, Clean Break, BAC, The Orange Tree, Kneehigh have taken a more manageable, but still wounding hit.

Amongst the big casualties were Shared Experience who've lost all their funding as well as The Green Room in Manchester, South Hill Park in Bracknell, The Little Angel Theatre and The Riverside Studios. Unless a philantrophic white knight appears on the horizon it's hard to see how these venues will survive.

If there is any pattern to the funding its that companies that work in spectacle, visual or acrobatic ways seem to be reaping the rewards and that venues and companies more interested in text based or applied work are hunkering down.

In part this is sadly to do with the Olympics. Stratford Circus, a worthy, but fairly unremarkable venue within spitting distance of the Olympic Park has been given a 500% increase. Hard not to conclude it's to enable it to scrub up for 2012. Elsewhere it's flash, ambitious, large scale, athletic, celebratory work that can communicate to tourists for whom English is not necessarily a first language that seems to have persuaded ACE to increase grants. It's art as a harmonious advert for Coca Cola!

I've no wish to begrudge those companies who've done well out of the settlement, but there is a worrying trend here which prioritises devised work that explores theatrical form over centres and companies that support the craft of playwriting. It's a triumph of short term impact over the creation of work which may speak to future generations with poignancy and purpose. It's sad to see that The North West Playwrights Theatre Writing Partnership, The National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) , The National Association for Literature development (NALD) and The Writers in Prisons Network have all lost their grants.

In austere times this has a further recessional effect as companies focused on creating primarily visceral responses in their audience tend to invest in increasingly sophisticated technical wizardry to fulfil their aims and sate their audience. Overall it means fewer, bigger shows which will need to be populist enough to guarantee long runs. It's ever harder for a unique voice to emerge and capture the truth of our times.

Instead brace yourself for the age of the jukebox musical and the meaningless displays of the big top.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Impact Assessment and Applied Theatre.

Recently we've been looking at ways in which we can evaluate and monitor our work. It's always a thorny issue trying to find accurate ways to record the impact of a piece of art on its audience and just as it's difficult to define the right criteria with which to assess student work, so to is it nearly impossible to find a confident and assured way to in which to persuade funders and participants that the project work we carry out has meaning and effect.

These are my notes so far.

a) What is the relationship between impact assessment, which in itself is a performative act, and the working methodology of each specific project? For example the handing out of a questionnaire in itself becomes part of the 'event.' If it isn't intrinsically linked it needs to be carefully staged or cut.

b) Drama (and Applied Theatre particularly) deals mostly with behavioural issues. Empathy with the participant and audience is the key currency which drives the work forward. The emotional engagement of the audience and participants is fundamental to the 'live' reality of the act. How do we sensitively and usefully apply quantitative assessment to this focus? Isn't behaviour change in itself is a contentious issue, suggesting one set of attitudes or beliefs take precedent over another?

c) Additionally Applied Theatre practitioners in the main encourage participants to communicate their stories visually and orally rather than through a written text. This is partially to do with the inclusive, international and democratic nature of presenting something in this way. (In other words even though our interpretations might be different, forged by our experience, culture and education, we all begin by seeing the same thing.) Shouldn't impact assessment materials mirror this and look for non-text centred ways to record evidence?

d) Impact assessment as a provider of evidence to attract money from government funding

bodies presupposes that the project is in tune with government priorities and that the 'art' is in the service of social policy. Often the work is in direct opposition to and seeks to subvert reliance on these primarily neo liberal economic priorities. Do we consent to this model of theatre making?

d) Impact from participation in a Drama project can take a myriad of forms - financial, psychological, physical, social, political, cultural. Each project will have a specific and nuanced impact on each participant. Any capturing of evidence will inevitably 'reduce' the nuanced effects that the event has had on the participants. It leads to the event organisers controlling the narrative of 'what happened' rather than leaving it in the hands of the community. This is particularly difficult in situations where the 'change' is to take a group from dependence on an expert or authority into independence. Student satisfaction surveys, as devised centrally, have this fundamental flaw built in.

e) Some projects are not focused on change or transformation, but rather on consolidating or maintaining a community, a set of behaviours, a tradition or ritual. Often these projects are fun to create and participate in. In their own terms they have no longevity or need for sustainability, but operate as a one off celebration. Do these circumstances make the need for impact assessment obsolete?

f) As a transformative force Applied Theatre is most effective at a local level. It's most important function within St Mary's is to reflect on and influence the student and staff experience here. It could be a positive force for recommending institutional change, curriculum development and as a measure of student satisfaction. Impact assessment, in terms of tangible changes to policy and practice, would be valid and interesting to take part in.

g) Applied Theatre at St Mary's must be seen as an art form rather than as social science. Its imperative is the creation of poetic acts rather than traditional academic research outcomes. Any work which analyses impact should be carried out by social scientists, standing outside of the creation of the work, rather than the creators themselves, who are unlikely to sacrifice their instinctive understanding of a creative truth to the democratic demands of a survey return. At best an impact analysis might identify areas in which Applied Theatre practice might make a difference but it's hard to conceive that it would effect decisions made in a rehearsal room or during a production meeting.

h) In any discussion of Applied Theatre it's important to stress the negative impact of project work. In any circumstances where our approach appears to be destroying relationships, reawakening traumatic experience, reinforcing an oppressive status quo etc. we have a moral imperative to abandon our work. This should be done immediately rather than under protection of an Impact assessment. In as much as we often respond to demand and the demand comes often from a perceived 'problem' it follows that an impact assessment on the level of whether the problem has been dealt with, alleviated, maintained or worsened is useful. In most circumstances the problem will have at least been addressed and from that point of view any impact assessment will suggest a measure of success.

i) Impact has been at the heart of all our practice over the three years of the degree. Our focus as educators has been on ensuring that our students learn the craft skills which will make them effective practitioners in the field. There is a stringent assessment on the impact on our students of our curriculum through external examination, national frameworks and standards. In addition our partnership work with professional companies ensures an ongoing sense of peer review from professional practitioners. Our pedagogic approach has been to allow students to co-devise projects alongside members of staff and visiting lecturers, but in keeping with the notion of community ownership, these educators have facilitated ideas and approaches originating from the students own perspectives. This means each cohort reinvents the wheel. Students have moderated and refined their own practice through the perceived 'success' or 'failure' of the many tiny initiatives that they have personally taken in the creation of this project work. Unlike traditional research projects where the researcher's learning is at the heart of the work, our teaching projects are student centred. The inefficiency of this process is fundamental to developing the empathic understanding necessary to engage in community theatre work.

j) There is humility to Applied Theatre work. We offer our services to community groups and work alongside them in their setting to create projects. James Thompson from Manchester University has pointed out that we are rarely the 'hosts' or the 'experts.' Every project has the inbuilt restraints of i) restricted time and ii) limited knowledge. Often the debate about socially transformative work focuses on the need for legacy. There is a counter argument to suggest that Applied Theatre practitioners should not outstay their welcome or over emphasise their effectiveness. In line with this more work needs to be done on the tone and language of impact assessment tools.

k) Legislative Theatre, as developed by Augusto Boal, is a more direct and arguably effective methodology with which to impact assess decisions taken, in that it has an immediate, undeliberated outcome. Perhaps a performative form of impact assessment drawing on the techniques and traditions of theatre making offers a more cogent and connected approach to understanding the value, meaning and benefits of the craft? I think research in how we could incorporate and adapt some of Boal's ideas into the decision making process at St Mary's might be a valuable move forward. (See f.)


Monday, 28 March 2011

Flags and Fees.

A gorgeous day and a sense of summer. The first year all stayed behind after their Ways of Seeing lecture to help us make banners for The Canterbury Tales procession. We worked outdoors in the courtyard next to Tina's cabin, a area which was paved over for the papal visit last September and that is, only now, with better weather beginning to reveal it's potential as a place for building and making things.

The second year's supervised, Jade set up a radio and in the course of an hour or so we managed to knock out over 100 brightly coloured flags, which we'll be able to distribute to the audience as we lead them in at the back gates of Ham house.

It's times like this morning that makes working at St Mary's so wonderful. There was endeavour, there was production, but most of all there was great good humour, banter and fun.

I still think that as a department of only 300 that it should be possible for Drama St Mary's to cultivate a real sense of interest and support for each others work across both the pathways and the years. In the main we do well, although student and staff support for the various productions is still sporadic rather than guaranteed. Perhaps we just need to join it up a little more at curriculum level. On the level of support an motivation I think it's certainly desirable for all students to understand everything that's going on and be able to reliably advocate the great work that they're a part of.

Whilst we were having fun with scissors, bamboo and glue news came through the University is to charge tuition fees of £8,000 from 2012. High as it seems, it's completely in line with the other declared institutions who are all ignoring the government's suggested £6,000 and backing themselves to recruit at a higher price. The question is, if the accepted wisdom within academia is to set the figures high, and students are not put off applying, then will the promised investment money be available to the Universities?

The if's are big, though. Particularly is industry undercuts the fees with apprenticeship degrees or 'a job at the end or your money back,' type guarantees. For all that can be said in favour of the enlightenment of an academy education it's clearly a huge financial gamble now for students to go to University and in too many cases it's not really possible to glibly suggest it's worth the money. Institutions are going to have to genuinely engage with student aspiration and need in order to keep schools and parents onside. It won't be easy to keep our lecture halls full.


Sunday, 27 March 2011

TUC March.

Up to town early yesterday morning to join the crowds gathered on the Embankment ready to march against the cuts to public sector jobs. It's the biggest demonstration in London since the 2,000,000 strong demonstration against military intervention in Iraq back in 2003.

It was a colourful and eclectic affair mostly organised Union groups marching behind banners, but alongside them were other coalitions, family groups and lots of unaffiliated individuals, all keen to show their opposition.

Eleanor and I tried to find her sister Hannah, who works for Equity, but it the gathering was huge and crushed and it was near impossible to go anywhere but where you ended up. On a sunny day London is a great city for demonstrations and we snaked up to Trafalgar Square and along Piccadilly to Hyde Park. On the final leg things slowed up as the throng stopped to take photographs of the paint bombed, glass shattered Ritz. On the other side of the road Lord Palmerston's former town house had Tories Out scrawled on one of the walls. He would have agreed.

It was fairly late when we got there and most of the speeches were over. A blessing really to have missed Ed Miliband's shameful attempt to see us as the inheritors of both the suffragettes and the civil rights movement. Cheap politics.

Walking back into town we passed Fortnum and Mason, occupied by masked anarchists and members of UK Uncut. The police were moving in slowly to try and clear the shop, whilst on the pavement a huge crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle.

Despite a few sporadic outbreaks of violence is was a fantastically organised day where the real big society had came together to protest against the government perpetrated knife crime.


Thursday, 24 March 2011

Life of Riley.

My friend Kim is in Richmond this week, coming to the end of a lengthy tour in Alan Ayckbourn's newest play Life of Riley. I caught the show on Wednesday and then with Kim for coffee today. Ayckbourn himself has directed the work and stylistically it's a bit of a throwback to the days of regional reps. Simple staging, clear set ups and broad comedy. There are stalwarts in the cast and Kim said at times the rehearsals seemed to just take care of themselves with Sir Alan using anecdote of previous productions and his own early career to explain effects, line readings or business. Lots of nodding and suggestions from the actors most of which seem to have been taken on.

The play itself, though brilliantly crafted, feels tired. Kim plays Colin the doctor husband of the unseen George Riley's former lover Kathryn, played by Lisa Goddard. George is dying of cancer and to take his mind off it he's encouraged to take part in a play performed by the local amateur dramatic society. Here he has a flirtatious affair with Tamsin, the wife of his best friend Jack, which in turn leads Jack to seek out George's former wife Monica to persuade her to temporarily leave her new lover Simeon to come back and nurse her ex-husband. It's clever enough and, with George invisible off stage, each character in turn is given opportunity to reveal their insecurity and loneliness, whilst pretending everything is going swimmingly.

There's a long tradition of this kind of thing in British situation comedy. Where the decent, but cowardly, middle class are exposed for a lack of intellectual and emotional ambition. The aim is to leave us fearful of our own mediocrity and to encourage us to avoid falling into the same indecisive trap. It works best when the writer is merciless - think David Brent in The Office.

Ultimately though Life of Riley doesn't carry enough of a punch. For all the emotional fragility of the situations constructed nothing of importance is either resolved or revealed. Pleasant enough but I left pretty much unaffected.


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Canterbury Tales Catch up.

Work on The Canterbury Tales is beginning, after a slow start, to gather momentum. We've now confirmed the venues and times and routes around the properties. Monday afternoon was spent up in Hackney with the liaison team finalising the Sutton House show and seeing exactly how we can adapt the rehearsal room work into the site itself. Logistically there are many questions to ask and it still feels as if we are inching forward towards the show rather than making leaps and bounds.

The fundraising team have been doing brilliant work and raised nearly £1,000 to supplement our production budget. Their biggest initiative is the SIMMathon which will take place Friday week, and coincide with the elections for the Student Union executive. 104 runners from every sector of the St Mary's - students, academics, security, caterers, support, senior management etc. will each run a lap of the track. Together they'll complete a marathon - we hope in under three and a half hours. It should be a fantastic chance for the University to come together as a community in itself, raise some money and, if we're honest, have a bit of a laugh.

Whilst this has been going on the designers have made great progress with the costumes and are beginning now to tackle some of the technical problems of doing the show in two contrasting venues. How do we create visual effects that will work both in the intimate chamber settings of Sutton, and the gorgeous open garden spaces of Ham?

Rehearsals are also beginning to take shape. The plan has been to get a rough and ready sketch of each of the tales and then try and refine them in more detail for the venues. A small team of students are engaged with rewrites to make each show absolutely specific to its venue. It's taken some time for the cast to trust the playful, bold and unapologetic way in which we they need to perform, but there are signs of breakthroughs, of abandonment and of genuinely confidence in the material. It's beginning to get exciting!


Monday, 21 March 2011

Ferry Cross The Mersey.

Back in Liverpool this weekend for a friend's wedding in the august surroundings of the Atheneaum followed by a Sunday of further flaneuring exploration of the city and its maritime past.

We wandered down Matthew Street through the decrepit cultural quarter past a graffiti covered statue of John Lennon and a string of tourists posing to have their photographs taken outside the Cavern Club before making our way down to the Pierhead and a round trip on the Mersey ferry out over to Seacombe and then down the Wirral to Woodside and Rock Ferry where the Great Eastern was broken up.

Everything from the huge vessel was sold (one of the topmasts is still visible as a flagpole on the Kop at Anfield) and it made me wonder how many ashtrays, copper pipes, ornaments, bits of decking from the great ship must still be sitting on mantelpieces, hidden in lofts or recycled in a hundred different ways all over Merseyside. The traces must be everywhere. Rock Ferry is derelict now. It's beach smoothed over at every tide, its past pretty well hidden. The ferry turned and headed back for the iconic Liver building on the northern bank.

Back on land we went for a walk up to the Adelphi, where Dickens had a parting dinner before his first voyage to America and then via Rodney Street to the crumbling red brick warehouses and factories around Cain's brewery immediately South of the city centre. There's so much wasted space here waiting for development, for better times, for bright ideas. Industrial ruins at the foot of the Anglican cathedral, a city too large for its income.

We followed the shore path back to Disneyland heritage world of Albert Dock before heading, as night fell, back to Lime Street and the train South.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Up to town to catch up with Vixter, who's been working on Kneehigh's newest project The Umbrellas of Cherbourg which opens next week. We sneaked in at the back to grab a preview. In terms of scale and panache this show is the antithesis of The Red Shoes, and demonstrates the vast range of project work which now seems to fall under the company's parapluie.

Based on the sixties movie it's a strange and haunting piece of work, quite unlike anything else in London at present. On one level it's the complete triumph of idea over content as a thrown together mix of song, dance and complex design compete to provide a spectacular telling of a simple tale. On another there is something stylistically elegiac and profoundly beautiful about this story of passion replaced by pragmatism.

The cleverest trick is to have the evening fronted by cabaret hostess and torch chanteuse Meow Meow, who wittily leads us into the show through a series of lessons into French culture and language. Her great humour and playful recognition of our own potential prejudices enables us smooth passage from the fore stage into the sea mist of the harbour town and the light operatic world of the play itself.

From here on in it's uncharted territory. Director Emma Rice focuses on keeping things moving and so the story of young love, unplanned for pregnancy, separation and heart ache are at times lost in artful staging and theatrical bravado. It's had to deny the romanticism of the reunion at the end, however, where, despite recognition of earlier promises, the former lovers charmingly refuse the past and politely carry on their separate trajectories. Meow Meow returns to remind us C'est La Vie! before releasing us from class and sending us out onto Shaftesbury Avenue grateful for the times to come.


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Comedy Store Nostalgia.

The Comedy School held a huge fundraiser at The Comedy Store in Leicester Square last night with the aim of raising £10,000 to support projects that draw attention to the dangers of knife crime. Keith had persuaded a host of top acts to come and perform which made for a fantastic evening, brilliantly compered by Jeff Innocent.

Some of the comedians Arthur Smith, Jo Brand, Neil Mullarky were veterans of the venue's hey day when the alternative scene was finding its feet in opposition as much to the racist misogyny of the traditional circuit as to the policies of Thatcher's government. Others Andi Osho, Rob Grant, Mr Cee all had a moment to pinch themselves that they were here. It's a bit of a Mecca for comedians.

Maybe it was the pre-show soundtrack of Madness, The Beat and The Specials but a wave of nostalgia swept over me. As a teenager watching telly in my room, I was offered, through The Young Ones, Friday Night Live and Spitting Image, brilliant glimpses of how satire and song might provide some form of morale boosting contrast to the depressing orthodoxy of the age. At a time of rising unemployment, attacks on the Unions and the wasted potential of the inner cities this was form of solidarity that seemed hopeful, energised and above all fun.

Tonight, though, the venue paid tribute to the twelve years that Keith has dedicated to using comedy as a tool for education, rehabilitation and prevention. He made his target. It was wonderful to be here.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Heretic.

Off to the Royal Court to see Richard Bean's latest satirical offering The Heretic, featuring a stunning central performance from Juliet Stevenson as Dr Nina Cassell, an earth science professor whose research has led her to dismiss as melodramatic the apocalyptic claims of the climate change lobby.

Bean has a neat line in mixing controversy with well observed humour and a sense of the ridiculous. His early epic sweeps of northern agriculture Harvest, and fishing Under the Whaleback brought to London audiences a elegy for a changing way of life. More recently his work has crudely tried find a populist and provocative way of questioning liberal sensitivity, firstly through the broad brush strokes of England People Very Nice and then more recently by drawing parallels between Irish Republicanism and al-Qaeda in The Big Fellah.

The Heretic is a return to form - discomforting the Court's audience by explicitly pitching environmental extremism against censorship and academic freedom against political expediency. As much as we despair of Cassell's seemingly blinkered research, we also despise the coercive and patronising way in which the institution seeks to silence her.

The script is peppered with wonderful lines and horribly recognisable situations. The HR officer trying to convince Cassell that a written record is needed for a verbal warning. A young student reminding her that 'ridicule has no place in student centred learning environments.'

Bean is still a naughty boy, playing to the gallery and flicking two fingers towards the soft complacency of the liberal intelligentsia. When the writing is as good as this, however, he almost gets away with it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Red Shoes

Kneehigh have brought their ground breaking The Red Shoes back to London for a short run at the BAC. Giving London audiences the chance to catch up with the show that really brought the company to the world's attention almost a decade ago.

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, a drag Queen Lady Lydia narrates the adventures of a young girl who tricks her blind elderly guardian into buying her a pair of red shoes, which make her dance with delight. Joy soon turns to despair, however, when the girl realises that the shoes will neither stop dancing nor will the come off. Great for parties, but not church, first dates or funerals.

In a final act of agony, and to avoid damnation, she visits the butcher who, in a gruesome scene, amputates her feet and replaces them with a pair of clumsy wooden clogs.

Told with childlike brutality, The Red Shoes reminds us all that at the heart of all good theatre is the essential search for a bigger and more beautiful life. A search perhaps for meanings that might sustain us and a sense that beyond the sad, the surreal and the complication of daily existence lies the brave truth that sharing stories, generously, in good company is the most wonderful gift that we can give each other. More than any other company that I can think of Kneehigh, almost with a shrug of their shoulders, provide a Theatre of Solace.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

As Loud As Silence.

The ever wonderful Lost Banditos returned to Drama St Mary's on Friday evening with their new show As Loud As Silence. Kasia has been in Portugal for the last few weeks with the company devising the work and this was it's first play in the UK.

As with the previous Destination GB the work was full of beautiful images and charming moments of surprise and humour.

Set in post-war Ukraine a troop of gypsy musicians, the band of champions, travel the countryside playing wherever they are welcomed. One of them, Pushka, curious to write new songs, goes on a voyage of discovery to learn how to read and write. A journey that leads her to the west, away from all that she's known.

In Paris she falls in love with a German librarian, who slowly helps her to achieve her dreams and when Pushka returns to her village for her grandmother's funeral, the librarian follows, bringing with him a French record producer who wants to record the unique sound of the band and share it with the world.

...and then the story abruptly ends. A narrator, desperate for a fun filled ending, quickly tells us that the communists used the recording to help identify the gypsies and eradicate them. He wonders whether we really want to come to the theatre to hear about that and wouldn't we prefer just to resurrect the band and dance? It's a heart breaking question. Sometimes things are safer kept in the memory.