Tag Archives: performance

The Play’s The Thing

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Cast of Tumbling After from left to right: Steven Laverty, Marietta Melrose, Kate Goodfellow, Robert Boulton

Hello, gorgeous reader!  I hope that you’re keeping warm this chilly Tuesday.

I am delighted to announce that in August I will be returning to that fabulous world of sleepless nights, excellent shows and a bajillion flyers, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  (For more information about my 2014 excursion, click here.)  This time I will be pottering up the road to Scotland with the fabulous Kate Goodfellow, producer and performer extraordinaire.

My history with Kate is a classic example of how life can take you by surprise.  Kate and I met through a mutual friend, who is herself a flipping fantastic performer (quite literally, in terms of her physical theatre training), and hit it off immediately.  We have similar senses of humour, a like-minded attitude towards theatre and a mutual appreciation of red wine.  As a result, Kate has asked me to direct her devised show Tumbling After, a story about two couples living next door to one another.

The thing about devised work – particularly when it centres around romantic relationships – is that it requires an entirely different set of skills to rehearsing a straight play.  With a normal production you have clear instructions in the form of stage directions, lines of dialogue which have been written to shape the actors’ performance and a concrete context for everyone to work within.  When you devise a show, you have starting points and end goals: stimuli in the form of images and pieces of writing, music that informs the tone of the performance, and an idea of how the story will probably play out.  I say “probably”, because when a group of people devise they are basically being encouraged to go with whatever feels natural in the rehearsals, and that can take the whole performance off in unpredictable directions.

This is, to put it mildly, a bit scary.  As a director I am very excited about the challenge of shaping a performance from scratch, but I’m also keenly aware that this is going to take a lot of work.  In terms of administration, marketing and rehearsal schedules, Kate and I are Fringe aficionados who are completely comfortable with the production’s demands, but in terms of working with the actors to create something completely unique, this is uncharted territory for all of us.

The reason why (despite the various times throughout my Drama degree when devising was asked of us bright-eyed young students) this project is so much more daunting and exciting than anything I’ve done before is that it requires a level of emotional honesty about something that we all talk about, but very rarely publicise: our love lives.

Relationships are hard.  Falling in love is exciting, but staying there takes effort.  The people we form attachments to shape, make and break us, which is something that most of us seem to accept.  For instance, a person with ongoing commitment issues may trace their problem back to an earlier, failed relationship, while someone who finds it difficult to trust their partner might attribute this difficulty to a previous infidelity committed by somebody else.  We all allow our past relationships to give us attributes and attitudes, whether or not they are good for us.  The emotional hangovers of our love lives are difficult enough to deal with, and now myself and four actors are going to try and make that premise into a show.  Crikey.

The trick when it comes to putting real life into theatre is to take what you need, but nothing else.  Over the course of this rehearsal process I will be asking the actors (and the movement director – and myself, actually) to be as honest as possible about how their own romantic histories will shape the characters and the narrative of the play.  This is not because Kate and I like to make people cry – that’s a separate issue – but because we know that putting two relationships onstage means nothing if the characters don’t come across as genuine, and their problems are not rooted in something that the actors already understand.

The play, clichéd as the notion may be, really is the thing.  I am very excited about working with such brilliant actors and a stellar movement director (who is, in fact, the person who introduced me to Kate in the first place – her name is Liz Williams, and she’s headed for great things), because I know that this is exactly the right group of people to make a scary, brilliant, challenging and emotionally demanding project with.

Plus, you know, there’ll probably be red wine somewhere down the line.

For more information about Tumbling After and all the nonsense we’re getting up to in rehearsals, like the company Facebook page.  More information soon!

Have a truly sublime Tuesday.

Play It (Again), Sam

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Hello, and welcome to Monday!  How’s everything going with you?  Did you have a nice weekend?

Today is a big day for me, because this afternoon myself and a lovely bunch of actors will start rehearsing for our Edinburgh Fringe performance of Chris is Dead.  We performed the same piece last summer at the Camden Fringe and had a brilliant time, so we’re all very excited about working on it again.

The thing about returning to a project or repeating an activity is that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves (and the project) to do well.  If things went badly the first time, we are determined to learn from our mistakes, but if things went well then we are wary of changing anything for fear that we lose the winning ingredient.  The elements of the production that have changed since the first incarnation of Chris is Dead are largely good things: this time we have an excellent time slot, a very central venue and some nice reviews to put on our fliers.  These are all great advantages, but in a way that makes us feel more aware of the pressure to do well.

I would love for this play to do well, but I’d also really like us to enjoy ourselves.  There’s no point in spending a huge amount of time, money and energy on something if you’re not actively going to enjoy it.  I think that it would be good for all of us to remember that it’s impossible to repeat things exactly, but that it is possible to enjoy them to a similar degree.  When you think about it, that’s the perfect combination, isn’t it?

This isn’t specific to theatre, of course: people who are wary of new relationships due to previous misfortunes may find a little voice in the back of their minds saying “why bother?  It’ll be exactly like last time.”  Someone moving house might secretly be determined that their new place will never be as good as the old, no matter how much nicer the actual building is, and someone who risked a rail replacement bus service once knows never, ever to do it again if they can possibly avoid it.

Comparisons between things in life are inevitable, but they add a layer of pressure and stress that we just don’t need.  Enjoying experiences and making the most out of every moment is a big enough challenge, so perhaps we ought to concentrate on that instead of worrying about predecessors, precedents or prerequisites.  Let’s just get rid of all the “pre”s, in fact.

So, disregarding everything that past experience tells you, get out there and have a brilliant Monday.  It could be the best day of the week.

Fight or Flight (or Flail)

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Hello, lovely reader!  How are you?  Yeah, I think I’m coming down with something too.  Do you want some Lemsip?

Last night was the Empty Photo Theatre performance Date Night, and I would like to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to everyone who came, was in it or has listened to me wittering about it recently.  Also, thank you to everyone who has contacted me to say nice things about it.  You are far too kind.

For absolutely no good reason, today I am thinking about our instinctive responses to stressful situations.  In physical terms, the fight or flight response is pretty fascinating: did you know, for example, that under stress our digestion and immune systems shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions?  Me neither.  I’m so glad that we’ve evolved to be able to deal with a sabre-toothed tiger.  Our bodies are weird and wonderful.

Our brains are weird and wonderful too, but in a different way: our emotional instincts tend to mirror our physical ones, and when an emotionally or just cognitively stressful situation occurs, we tend to either confront it or flee screaming in terror (metaphorically, of course.  In reality we tend to smile politely and change the topic of conversation).   Most people would respond very differently depending on different situations: for example, the person who would calmly walk away from a bicker with their friend might pull a machete on their partner in the event of infidelity.

Having said that, there are some people who tend to respond pretty much the same way to most things, and we know about this because we have terms for them.  For instance, the people who would usually favour a flight response to emotional problems are referred to as “emotionally unavailable”.  (I love that phrase.  It makes it sound like we’re doing a nativity play, and the emotionally unavailable people are the innkeepers shouting “NO ROOM AT THE INN, I DON’T LIKE TO FEEL THINGS!” before slamming the door on an awkward conversation.)  Bizarrely, people who would rather fight in response to emotional issues tend to be drawn to those who would not, and the consequences are usually frustrating and confusing.  I know lots of outspoken, heart-on-sleeve kind of people (myself included) who are attracted to fairly stiff-upper-lip types, and that has yet to end well for any of us.

Weirdly, I think that that’s probably for the best.  People who would run away from confrontation need the argumentative types, and people who are easily upset need to spend time with those who are slightly less fragile.  No one has yet worked out a sure fire method of dealing with emotional stress, so we need to try to learn from each other.  If we balance out fight and flight we usually end up with a flail, and although that doesn’t sound very effective, at least you won’t be doing it alone.

Have a supreme Thursday.

Autobiography is Irrelevant

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Hello, lovely reader!  How’s everything going with you?  Did you get that essay/presentation/murder trial sorted out in the end?  Oh good, glad to hear it.

Last night I went to the Etcetera Theatre in Camden to see a play called Leaves of Glass.  While it was hardly light-hearted mid-week viewing, it was a very powerful and incredibly well-written play.  The story featured disturbingly empathetic ideas of dishonesty within families in order to keep the peace, and papering over bad memories in order to enjoy the present.  It was so riveting that I didn’t notice almost two hours slip by without an interval (and an audience always notices stuff like that).  I love it when you see a play, or film, or read a book that completely takes over your head space for a few days.  Even if it’s because it’s disturbed your inner well-being a bit, it’s good to really digest stuff like that.  It means it was good.

One of the first comments I heard when I left the theatre was a woman walking in front of us who turned to someone and said “God, d’you think it was autobiographical?”  Strap yourselves in, kids, I’m going in for a rant:

1) If it were autobiographical, would that make any difference to the quality of the play?  Would you enjoy a well-written, energetically performed and cleverly directed play any less because you found out that these things did or didn’t happen in real life?  Theatre is ABOUT life: the whole point of theatre is to show us something that could actually happen.  That’s why we have political plays.

2) It’s really none of your business.  If the playwright has been through any of the things that the characters have then s/he should not have to go into detail about it to gratify your morbid curiosity.  Also, you just watched a whole bloody play about it; how much more detail do you really want?  Wise up, as my friend Carly would say.

(I’m not really cross, by the way.  I know I sound it, but I’ve actually got a very nice day planned, so I’m pretty chipper.  Sorry for ranting.)

I love it when people see elements of themselves in my plays, because it means that I’ve managed to write characters who are sympathetic (and more importantly, empathetic).  But that’s about having a good experience as an audience member and relating to the piece, not trying to look behind the curtain and undermine the story.

Playwrights get very annoyed when people try to detect people they know (or themselves) in their work, because it implies that we don’t have the imagination to come up with our own characters.  Sure, we take inspiration from our real lives and the people in it, but we’re not writing Made in Chelsea here.  Give us a break.   If you switch your brain off to stop worrying about whether your friend’s play is about you or someone you know, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

By the way, I know that in my blogs and articles I talk directly about my friends and family all the time.  I’ve named Carly in this one, for example.  Oh look at that, I did it again.  (Hi Carly!)  But this is real life, not a story I made up.  I don’t have to use my imagination to tell you about annoying my vegetarian friend on an Underground train.  (Sorry – read this blog if that reference baffled you.)

Have an amazing day.  Go to that slightly posh place near the office for lunch; you deserve a mid-week treat.

The Hard Logic

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Good morning, dear reader!  It’s a bit chilly today, so I hope you’ve got your scarf, gloves, etc.

Last  night some friends and I went to the Finborough Theatre to see a play called The Hard Man.  The producer is a friend of ours whose work we wanted to support, but actually it was well-worth seeing in its own right.  The story is based on the life of Jimmy Boyle, a notorious gang leader who was convicted for murder in Glasgow in 1967.  I’m not sure if this is what we were supposed to get out of it, but for me it came out as somewhere in the middle of Trainspotting, Brighton Rock and The Shawshank Redemption.  I won’t go into too much narrative detail after that baffling three-way comparison, but the performances were brilliant and the production as a whole was very compelling.

The crux of the play’s message was that people are the product of their environments.  This wasn’t so much an attempt to absolve the characters of responsibility, but an indication that there is always logic at play rather than a conscious decision to become “evil”.  If you were born into a hard life in Glasgow, you responded in kind.  If you didn’t have a father, you did what you needed to to bring money in.  If someone hit you, you hit back.  There was inevitability at play rather than a tragic downfall of the imperfect hero: in the writing and the performances, there was no tangible plea for the audience to understand or sympathise, it was just: “Here we are.  This is what we started with, so this is what we had to do.”  It was logic, not bad luck.

That may just be my opinion, and I hope that my producer friend will forgive me if I’ve interpreted the play all wrong, but it definitely struck a chord with me.  Perhaps there is an inevitability and logic to our lives, sometimes so small that we don’t even notice it.  For example, everyone in my family went to university, so I did too.  I wanted to go, but it never even occurred to me to do anything else, when of course there are hundreds of other options to take.  I loved my university, and I don’t regret my decision in any way, but it’s just a curious thought: did I apply to university on autopilot because of my environment?  What might I have done differently if no one in my family were university-educated?

The things that we believe, think, say and do are all a factor of who we are now, and who we are now is the result of years and weeks and minuscule moments that have shaped our lives.  I don’t know how many moments in your life you can point to and say “That split second changed my life”, but in a way it doesn’t matter, because they all did.  The question is what to do about it now that you are here.

In the arts sector in particular, people have found that the years, weeks and moments have led them to a place where there is no money and no certainty.  It’s all very well to say either (or both) of the following two things:

1) “We didn’t get into this business for the certainty of it; art is all about the precarious and unknown!”

2) “It’s not fair.  Why shouldn’t we be able to make theatre?  It was just dumb luck that our generation started out in the middle of a recession.”

But saying these things is not going to get your play produced or your your novel published.  Saying those words is just repeating what we all know already, so don’t waste your time.  We are where we are, and there’s nothing we can do to go back in time and stop the recession, so we will just have to use it.  I’m not saying that making theatre is going to pull this country out of its financial canyon (although you never know), but the fact is that people who want to paint, write, act, direct, dance and every other artistic discipline under the sun have to take what the world gives them and use it to make their work better.  You can’t fix it, so use it.

The recession is not going to go away just because we don’t like it, and arts funding is not going to magically increase just because we want it to.  Those might be nice side effects of our work in the future, but for now we should be looking at the world around us, accepting what we cannot change and using it to our advantage.  On a very basic, impetuous level, we should take every opportunity to defy the asshats who lost our money by becoming stronger, better and more active artists.  Think about the logic: if the country’s wealth hadn’t been so skew-whiff in the sixties, John McGrath would never have formed 7:84 Theatre Company.

I think what I’m trying to say is that we should be ruthless and realistic when it comes to facing the odds.  Even if they are stacked so highly against us that they’re starting to wobble a bit, we should always, always be looking at situations as opportunities to become better artists.

I got on my soapbox a bit there, didn’t I?  I’ll clamber down now and make us some coffee.  D’you take sugar?

What is it About Adaptations?

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Hello, reader!  Got any exciting plans for your weekend?

Last night I went to see Headlong’s production of 1984 at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.  The performances were excellent, the design was incredibly inventive and the concept was inspired.  I won’t say anymore in case you’re planning to see it for yourself, and I really think that you should go if you get the chance.

It’s difficult to make an excellent adaptation of a novel like 1984 for two reasons: firstly, the concept of the novel itself is pretty complex, and pinning down the issues of mind control, sanity, truth and fiction are hard to do off the page.  Secondly, the novel is a well-loved and respected work that many people feel strongly about.  If Headlong had got it wrong, they would have been unpersoned by the critics.

An adaptation of any beloved work of fiction runs the same risk.  The Harry Potter films came under massive fire (just from my social circle) for being completely unfaithful to the books, and reducing cleverly constructed plot lines to unsteady, baffling narrative turns.  There were also many debates about the casting: Emma Watson was too posh (and WAY too fond of acting with her eyebrows), Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t likeable enough, and Dobby was an atrocity.

People are already up in arms about the potential casting of Harry Styles in a movie adaptation of Wicked, but I wonder how many of them know that the musical stage production is already an adaptation of a novel.  The novel is completely different in tone to the musical, and when I read it for the first time I wondered who on earth would read this dark, disturbing story and think “Well, that’s got singing and dancing written all over it.”  Don’t get me wrong: I saw the musical a few years ago and loved it, but in my head it isn’t an adaptation of the novel in the traditional sense.  It’s just too different.

And this is the interesting thing: what is it about adaptations that provokes such strong reactions in us?  When we read a book we get a unique picture in our minds of the characters, the settings and the story, which have been guided by the author but not prescribed.  When we see an adaptation of a novel on screen or stage,the directors have had to try and compile every reader’s mental picture into a universal picture that cannot possibly match up to everyone’s expectations.

Is it better to take a well-known story and try to match it exactly to its original medium, like William Goldman managed with his adaptation of the The Princess Bride?  (Although he had a significant advantage, given that he was adapting his own novel.)  Or is it best to recognise that one medium cannot possibly imitate another – which is why they all exist, in fact – and that an adaptation has to be a kind of translation of a piece in order to make it work?  Wicked in its original essence would not make a good musical; it’s too depressing (but brilliant, by the way).  It needed to be translated into the kind of story that works in the West End with big sets and even bigger smiles, and it is a good show.  It’s just not a faithful adaptation.

I think that part of the issue is the cashmere-wearing, cigar-smoking, bling-adorned elephant in the room: we can all see that making successful novels and plays into films is about making money, not about making the piece accessible to more people.  It’s the reason that The Hobbit is being strangled to death by a painfully laboured and ridiculously patch-worked adaptation into three epically long films.  Shame on you, Peter Jackson.  Shame on you.

In general, I do approve of adaptations.  I like seeing other people’s ideas of a well-known story shown in new ways, and I enjoy the possibilities of a translation from medium to medium.  I just wish that the motive was always the exploration of worlds, not the expansion of wallets.

Have the most awesome of Fridays.

A Kick in the Right Direction

Hello, reader!  How are you?

When Mario and I were in Paris, we saw this sign outside Notre Dame:

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We were surprised and amused to discover that, even in the beautiful capital of France, people needed to know how to cycle to London.  (We realised later that it probably had something to do with the Tour de France, but at the time it seemed very random.)  Cycling to the city of drizzle and pigeons seemed like a mammoth task from our location in the sunshine outside a famous cathedral, and yet it would appear that people wanted to do it.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with two friends of mine who are of the creative ilk.  One of them in particular is a woman of many talents: she designs vintage dresses, she is a director and actor, and she is full of ideas for exciting performance projects.  Like most people who want to make stuff, she is hindered by the usual concerns: time, money, finding a rehearsal space, money, finding the right actors, and did I mention money?  Not only is there not a lot of it about, but funding applications are about as easy to navigate as an underground labyrinth when you don’t have a torch (or a very good sense of direction).

Red tape gets in the way of a lot of projects.  I am assured that when this friend of mine rules the world, there will be no more red tape: it will all be pink, blue and possibly green.  (I also put in a request for it to be sparkly, which is under consideration.)  With many creative projects, the best way forward is make a good to do list.  Breaking things down into manageable steps is a good way to get cracking on making stuff happen.  For example, I am taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe with Empty Photo Theatre this summer, and the tasks that that project will involve make for a hell of a to do list – four A4 pages, in fact.  But looking at the individual jobs in a list helps me not to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the entire project, and I’m also very lucky to have excellent friends and colleagues to support me.

The same sort of idea applies to writing.  I remember someone telling me once that the best way to check whether the story you want to tell is a good one is to break it down into shorter and shorter synopses until you can sum it up in one sentence.  I tend to do that the other way around: I try to come up with a one-sentence summary for a script idea, and then flesh it out until I have the entire storyline set down.  The process is different, but the purpose is the same: writing an entire play is much less worrying when I know exactly what’s going to happen.

When my red tape-hindered friend and I were discussing her ideas yesterday, we managed to break them down into small steps that she felt more positive about being able to achieve.  I would imagine that any project can be broken down and made less daunting in this way, even a Presidential election campaign, or cycling from Paris to London.

The main thing about starting a huge project is to make sure that somebody who is rooting for you is there to give you a kick in the right direction.  A problem shared may or may not be a problem halved, but an idea shared is definitely an idea started.  By the way, if your dream is to cycle from Paris to London, the kick in the right direction is probably best left metaphorical.

Enjoy your Thursday!