Saturday, 14 August 2010

Reviewer vs Director... A Cross Over?

I did something the other day after seeing a show which I think could be conceived as a cross-over from reviewer to director. After seeing a show (which shall not be named) for reviewing purposes, I felt so strongly about it I felt I had to say something. This led to me having a conversation with the director / playwright / choreographer / performer and letting her know exactly what I thought before I wrote it. This was partly because of the infuriating word count that ThreeWeeks limit their reviewers with and partly because I really want this before mentioned director / playwright / choreographer / performer to go on and achieve success with her work; after all she is very talented.

I was apprehensive giving my notes, particularly as she was just 19! Firstly this made me feel incredibly under-achieved and secondly I simply didn't want to hurt her feelings. In actual fact, she probably dealt with the situation in a far more professional and mature way than I did; she shook my hand, introduced herself and listened intently as I gave my advice. It even seemed to have an impact on her and to my relief I was not the first reviewer to let her know what was so obviously wrong with the piece; The Scotsman had advised the exact same thing.

All in all, this may be the case of a reviewer critiquing the show in person rather than in word and not actually my director self coming out at all. Either way I was glad I could expand on what would have been a short and unexplained snapshot of a review, and I think maybe she was too.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Reviewer vs Director

Reviewing amateur shows for The Stage at Edinburgh can be painful. Having directed myself, it is often heartbreaking leaving a performance knowing that you will be giving it a terrible review when all you want to do is give directorial feedback. Of course in some instances this means picking them up, giving them a good old shake and yelling at them to change their ways or stop charging money, but at other times there are just the few elements that show potential and need that extra guidance. Hopefully, they will read my review and therefore find out what exactly I thought went wrong, but not in enough detail. I am by no means suggesting that I am any better than these companies, or that I am necessarily right with my initial opinions but it would be nice to go outside of the 250 word limit and speak to these people in a language that needn't be witty or entertaining, but instead direct and straight to the point. I do believe that a reviewer should not write a word that they couldn't say in a face-to-face meeting, it is simply a shame that there are not more of these meetings had. I welcome any one of the companies suffering the effects of my written word to get in contact for further feedback as they certainly deserve to hear it unedited. What concerns me is that some will not listen; to me, or anyone else who criticises their work. I feel like Simon Cowell telling a young X-Factor contestant warbling through a Mariah Carey hit that they can't sing; it is harsh, but ultimately true.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

I've Arrived... It's Edinburgh 2010

Fifteen hours of bumpy bum-numbing mini-bus ride and I have finally arrived in Edinburgh. Five hours later I am awake again to beautiful views of the city (and so they should be considering the four flights of stairs I had to lug my case up) and after a pancake breakfast I am out on the cobbles sellotaping posters to shop windows and enjoying being able to walk the Royal Mile with limited harassment. Working every night and most days for the month with Anomic Multi-Media Theatre Company, reviewing and blogging should be the last thing I can think about, but I am gearing myself up for the innovative and the unexpected, the terrible and the down-right strange; reviewing is my ticket to adventuring the new. Having perused the extraordinarily large program of events I am oddly relieved that I do not have to pick what to see; it is rather an exciting prospect to have no clue what you could be sent to next. I am eager to get out there, be caught up in the rush between shows, be stimulated by performance and be inspired to do what I love; write. It may be stressful, sleep-deprived and character testing, but working three jobs at Edinburgh couldn't be more exhilarating. Here's to Edinburgh 2010.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Island Crossing, Victoria Gardens REVIEW

I attended the site-specific performance Island Crossing in Victoria Gardens, Brighton on 10th July 2010; a contemporary piece which involved 50 young performers inhabiting a large square of grass interrupted by two trees. Choreographed by Charlie Morrissey, in collaboration with Carrie Whitaker and Jason Keenan-Smith, Island Crossing explored the dynamics of a city through the concept of people passing, transitioning and interacting; an artistic segment of Brighton and Hove. Clever choreography moved bodies organically and naturally through the space to create stimulating stage pictures. The innovation of these images proved talent and an eye for detail are key in structuring such art work which was beautifully complimented by the humble nature of the young performers. What worked most brilliantly in terms of site-specificity was the landscape of the trees and the way in which they informed the piece. The sense of rhythm and tempo provided by the enveloping music was set against the natural noises of passing cars and seagulls overhead which further flattered the perception of the performance. Immaculately timed and very professionally delivered, these members of various youth dance groups including T21, Brighton Hove Young Collective and Hampshire Youth Dance Company, did impressively well in producing such a mature performance as Island Crossing.

Dancing In The Streets: South East Prove They Can Dance Big

Saturday 10th July 2010: Brighton and Hove

My day began as a witness (and part participant I must admit) to the Bollywood and Samba / Carnival workshops held at the Lighthouse in the morning. Just over 20 people arrived to learn from the expert Bollywood dancer Charlotte Jalley, who has featured in many Bollywood films whilst mastering a very patient and clear instructing technique. As a dance new to many of the participants, what Charlotte said was true; “If you’ve got a big cheeky grin then the rest doesn’t really matter” and the last thing the room lacked was cheeky grins. ‘Guaranteed to make you laugh’, this workshop did not disappoint and encouraged many of the class to stay on an extra hour for the next workshop: Samba / Carnival led by Rosaria Gracia. Rosaria taught not only the exotic rhythms of this sensual Afro-Brazilian dance, but also threw in lessons about the history of its origins, making for an enlightening and educational hour. Having taught across the world, Rosaria has a wonderful understanding of people and the way in which Samba can bring out one’s sensuality. One participant who had attended both workshops described the dance expressions of the different cultures ‘uplifting’. The vibrant atmosphere and the buzz as the workshops came to an end said it all; these people wanted more.

Following the workshops I spent lunch time in central Brighton helping to organise the three flash mobs which occurred, known as Little South East Dance Goes LARGE... Thirty people apparently spontaneously dancing the exact phrase of choreography to ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge was a spectacle to anyone walking past and in many instances brought people to an abrupt halt. Attendees of the morning workshops joined us, as well as children and youth workers from workshops during the week in which the phrase had been taught. The atmosphere was electric and I for one had a fantastic time. The audience that had gathered were eventually asked to learn the dance, which a few did, and then it was performed again with a bigger group of people. It was a shame that more people did not have the confidence to come up and learn but the flash mob certainly got people talking about South East Dance and worked as a wonderful attraction to promote the free performance that afternoon in Victoria Gardens. The fun-loving and vibrant atmosphere made it an exciting event to be a part of and succeeded in bringing together different areas of the community.

A Day Dancing With Brighton’s Community; One Not Easily Forgotten

Tuesday 6th July 2010: Brighton and Hove

As a young journalist volunteering as part of Big Dance South East I was invited to witness the free workshops taking place across Brighton and Hove between 1 – 10 July in the run up to the main dance event on 10 July. These workshops; free to the community, funded through the government and lead by professionals in the dance world are an opportunity for those who would otherwise miss out on the joy and exhilaration that dance can provide. My role was to investigate the nature of the workshops and the impact they had on various sectors of Brighton’s population; what influence does dance have on the community? To my delight, the answer was resoundingly positive; excitement and encouragement was at full flow in the areas touched by South East Dance. It was only a shame more people could not have been reached.

The first part of my day was spent in the company of the over 80’s residing in Muriel House Residential Home in West Hove. To my surprise I entered to a full house, as not only were the occupants of Muriel House present but Sandlers House Residential Home from across the road had eagerly joined the group, as well as one individual who had travelled from across town on a bus to take part. I had been told that the group had been given a choice of workshops including ballroom and sequence dancing, but the dance of choice for this vibrant bunch was line-dancing. An energetic and engaging routine ensured laughter filled the room, and whilst there were only around 7 out of the 30 people dancing, the keen supporters lining the outskirts of the dance arena made for a social and warm gathering; a strong atmosphere of community and togetherness if only for that short hour. It cannot be voiced strongly enough how important sessions such as these are in getting the residents out of their individual flats and together in fun activity. The group are lucky to have Nina as their scheme manager; her colourful character reflected in her purple dress and her jolly laugh bouncing off the walls was enough to keep anyone smiling. It was she who had organised this event with Big Dance South East and whilst this was one of the few workshops currently available to the group, with the reaction we received from the participants there is promise that these wonderful members of our older generation will carry on dancing; River dance is next, or so I’m told.

I was then taken on to a far younger group of people aged 8-11 who were to learn Street Dance with Anneli Smith in the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bevendean, Brighton. The small group of 6 girls was made up of three youth groups from across the Bevendean area, although the participants knew each other from school. The girls were shy in talking to me but confident in their dancing as they took on the steps with focus and dedication producing an outstanding level of dance by the end of just one hour. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was astonished at the talent the group possessed. Although there were a couple of participants clearly less keen on the routine and more interested in kart wheeling across the space, the majority reported that they would love to do a similar class again, particularly as not many had been offered such opportunities in the arts before. It was refreshing to see children genuinely interested in something for a full hour. For Anneli to keep their attention for so long was an impressive feat; one not easily achieved, but well worthwhile.

My final stop was with the teenagers of Brighton Youth Centre for a ‘Glee’ workshop with Hayley Coppard. Here we had a group of 7 girls aged 11-16 strutting their stuff to Lady Ga Ga’s ‘Bad Romance’ in the style of ‘Glee’ i.e. Musical Theatre. Originally a hip hop dancer, Hayley used her own technique of hip hop blended with a musical theatre approach to give the girls an amusing and energetic routine with plenty of charisma and attitude. Many of the girls had been involved with rehearsals for school productions all day so unfortunately the energy levels were low but this did not take away their enjoyment. The group had been established from three youth theatre groups originating from the Brighton Youth Centre so the teenagers were used to attending such classes, although not at this high a level. Hayley, who has been teaching youth groups for the last 2 years and dancing for the last 8, not only got the girls giving it everything they had, but even got the youth workers up and involved making for a very engaging and therapeutic hour of honest fun. Every one of the girls who participated agreed that they would do the class again, however it was clear something was troubling them in saying this. Upon further probing it was difficult to hear how they could not afford to go to dancing lessons, reinforcing the importance of what Big Dance South East does in its community work.

Watching all these varying participants of the community engage in dance workshops of all genres was rewarding but most significantly it was a clear illustration of how vital dance and the arts are within communities. It cannot be underestimated what Big Dance South East provides for people who would otherwise be ignorant of the pleasures and thrills dance can bring and I for one was deeply honoured to be even the smallest part of it.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

EVERYTHING MUST GO Or the Voluntary Attempt to Overcome Unnecessary Obstacles

A Piece I wrote last September after seeing Everything Must Go in Edinburgh. It seems fitting to re-publish here as the show is now touring and deserves the attention...

The enthralling Kristin Fredricksson takes her audience on a journey through a personal, yet marvellously entertaining tribute to her father.

Graduating from Kent this year, Kristin has gone on to take her brilliant show created for her MA in Practice as Research to Edinburgh and has returned with outstanding five star reviews and widely acknowledged critical acclaim. Winning the Total Theatre award for Devised Performance and The Arches Brick Award, Edinburgh has opened up the opportunity to tour with Everything Must Go, journeying Kristin to The Barbican in London, The Theatre Royal in Bath and The Arches in Glasgow, as well as other upcoming venues across Britain next June. It is decidedly a performance not to be missed.

Within an installation format, representative of ‘her dad’s house’, the piece itself is a theatrical approach to documenting her father’s life, as Kristin describes; “I curate my dad’s art”. The structure and content of the piece is both reflective of her father’s personality and of the disruption one feels when they lose someone close to them. It is also a further experiment for Kristin about the blurring of the line between art and theatre. This is an installation that moves.
A highly eccentric character, Karl Fredricksson experienced life from an interesting and heart-warming perspective. From training for the Olympics to dressing up in drag, from inspiring a following of school boys as a teacher to his obsession with money saving schemes, there is no doubt that Karl’s life was anything except extra-ordinary. His attempts to pick up women through ‘facial dances’ and ‘lady lifting’ are hilarious conceptions and his ‘newspaper stealing shoes’ are equally as fascinating. His daughter relates to us through a montage of cinema, puppetry, costume, physical theatre and props just how varied and inconceivably remarkable his attitude to life was, and the effect left no audience member with a dry eye. When Kristin originally performed the show in the Aphra theatre on campus in June this year, her father would join her dancing on stage to bring his life story into the present. Witnessing the same scene as Kristin danced across the stage with a life size ‘Karl’ puppet whilst the footage from June was screened behind her was heart wrenching as you realise that he had since, sadly passed away. I asked Kristin how she had felt about continuing with the piece once her father was gone and she explained how for the first few performances in Edinburgh she had felt detached, leading her to create an almost ‘emotional warm-up’ before the show began. However, whilst the piece relies on Kristin’s emotional attachment to the character of Karl, do not be tempted to believe that the aim for Kristin was to dismantle her audience and leave them in a state of emotional despair; the piece is as unsentimental as they come. Kristin uses humour and careful structures of pace and rhythm to eliminate the feeling that she is provoking the audience to break down in tears. The tears come as a consequence of an enlightening experience of one man’s life, very simply laid before us through various techniques of storytelling. For this is what Kristin is doing; she is telling her dad’s story, which in itself is a beautiful thing.

Kristin is exhilarating to watch; we witness her bounce on a trampoline, hurdle across the stage, tap dance, dress up as her father and lip sync with a hanging basket on her head. Her energy is similar to that of a little girl; she is a comedic, likeable character and when we come to the end of our meeting with her we recognise that the same uplifting spirit we can see in Karl has lived on in his daughter. I wondered how scripted the performance was, as I felt I was just watching Kristin be herself on stage. To my surprise she answered that the entirety of the piece was scripted, and yet she delivers it so naturally and profoundly that it is difficult to believe this is not the first time these words are being spoken. In fact, Kristin as herself is thoroughly more subdued than we witness on stage; there is a distance between herself and her character.

Kristin has worked in theatre since she graduated with a degree in History of Art from University of Cambridge in 1994. Her previous work has been mainly based outside the UK in places such as France, Portugal and Japan; making it broad in its style and format. Training with Jacques Lecoq in the 1990s has given her a dance / acrobatics background, which has lead to work with puppets and consequently with props. The base of Everything Must Go is the props used which not only aid the performance, but actually enable it. Kristin described to me how often rehearsals would be long periods of time spent by herself with various items from her father’s house; a rather lonely process. The props were used as inspiration, which then lead to improvisation and eventually resulted in a piece of theatre that used basic house hold props in a brilliantly imaginative way.

This enticingly strange man is a joy to get to know, as is his daughter, so by the end of the show you feel you have made and lost a friend all in the same hour. An attachment to Karl is incredibly difficult to get away from or ever forget (not least because of the many cardboard cut outs of him that litter the stage by the end of the performance). This show is a must-see, so book your tickets soon to witness it in its full glory next month:

2 May 4pm, The Junction, Cambridge 01223 511 511
5 May 7.45pm, The Castle, Wellingborough 01933 270 007
10 May 9pm, The Pavilion, Brighton
3-15 May 8pm, Tobacco Factory Bristol 0117 902 0344
18-19 May 7.30pm, The Arches, Glasgow 0141 565 1000
21 May 7.30pm The Carriageworks, Leeds 0113 224 3801
26-30 May 5pm, Ruhrfestspiele, Reckinghausen, Germany +49 (2361) 9218-0
3 June 7.30pm, Theatre Royal Margate 01227 787 787
5 June 7.30pm, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 01473 295 900
11-12 June 8pm The Ustinov, Bath 01225 448 844
16-26 June 7.45pm, Barbican Centre, London 020 7638 8891
30 June 7.30pm, West End Centre, Aldershot 01252 330 040

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

An Attempt at a Book Review...

My apologies for not having blogged for nearly a whole month! I can't quite believe it myself, or indeed believe how busy I have been to justify this terrible lack of enthusiasm towards writing. And for shame, it is not because I have been busy writing elsewhere.

It occurred to me on the train to work the other day that perhaps I could branch out from theatre reviewing. As I know next to nothing about art, except from whether it is aesthetically pleasing, and love too many of the crappy films slated by critics, I decided to try my hand at a book review. This is typical of me - to turn something I love into work, but whenever I finish a book, if the book is good, I always feel a wave of sadness wash over me in the knowledge that it is over. This way, I get to tell people about it, so here it goes...

'One Day' by David Nicholls

David Nicholls, best known for 'Starter for Ten', has created a cleverly structured and all round interesting concept with 'One Day'. The story follows Emma and Dexter, two friends who meet after graduation and spend the next twenty years in each other's company. We meet the pair, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes apart, on one day of each year from 1988 until 2008 until the story comes to its natural end. In this respect the story doesn't drag, nor does it cut short where you wished it would continue; the framework within which Nicholls writes is a wonderful technique for providing the audience with a unavoidable connection to these characters.

The characters themselves, more casually referred to by each other as Em and Dex, couldn't be more different, and yet compliment each other so brilliantly. The depth in which these characters are created is ingenious in drawing the reader in; one feels at various moments throughout that you can relate to Em, Dex or both, in their quest to fulfill life expectations. In Emma's case, these are self-inflicted aspirations to 'change the world'; fighting for what is right which includes not paying for a hair cut and wearing dodgy NHS glasses. For Dexter, whilst he feels the pressure of his parent's expectations, he goes through life grasping at success for being 'cool'; fame and money drives his life and often the wrong way. The pair are perfect for each other and yet fail to see it for the majority of the novel. There is a certain (sexual) frustration to this for both characters and reader, which is only aided by the often disruptive nature of the book; the cliff hangers are infuriating at times and often left unresolved- one craves the knowledge of the 364 days that bridge each chapter. Nevertheless, one does get a full sense of a life lived and at least Nicholls stays true to his structure, choosing the same day every year, no matter how menial and dull that day is for one of the characters.

The significance of such a magnificently crafted book is most felt when reaching the end. I certainly felt greatly upset by the story coming to a close, whilst finding myself questioning my own life in relation to the circumstances explored. Nicholls writes so true to life with such a natural flare that I found myself easily absorbed by the story from beginning to end; I eagerly await his next masterpiece.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Reviewing Peers

It is an issue for me, whether or not to review my peers if I am given the choice and in most circumstances I have turned down the opportunity. This problem has been in the back of my mind since I recently (for the first time I hasten to add) told my editor that I could not review my good friend's production of Arturu Ui for the unsubstantiated fear that if it were not successful I would be unable to set aside my allegiances and give an honest report. It is my belief that when reviewing, one should not be influenced by the relationship they have with the people involved in what is being reviewed, loyalty should remain with reader; this is the critic's job. However at this point in my career I have not yet had the ability to separate the two.

After a pleasant evening spent at a double bill dress-rehearsal performance, both written, directed and created by friends of mine, I have decided to confront my fear and write a fair and honest response to each show:

'Until She Showed Me Otherwise'

The night begins with a relaxed atmosphere as Lisa Ellis welcomes us into the intimate space she has created in order to perform a one woman show in which she engages us with stories of lesbian and bi-sexual women. As a lesbian herself, Lisa has a strong connection to the verbatim material and she shows a passion and respect for the women she embodies as well as revealing her own personal 'coming out' story. Her persona is one which is comparatively a cross between the carefully constructed persona of Lian Aramis in 'Swimming to Spalding' and Kristin Fredricksson's relaxed amicability in 'Everything Must Go'. There are also elements which strongly resemble the form of 'The Vagina Monologues' and work magnificently.

Ellis' characters and the stories they tell are intriguing and yet heart-breaking; Ellis has an ability to draw the audience in, at times using us, without expectation or pressure, to read out individual stories of women which are capable of inducing shock and dis-belief. It is an eye-opening experience for anyone who refuses to accept that there are still problems in the acceptance of gay women in our society today. The effect is one similar to DV8's 'To Be Straight With You'; you leave the theatre feeling ignorant of the issues still plaguing the gay community and at times, this realisation brings a tear to your eye.

Some of the less effective elements of the piece includes the total ignorance of the elaborate set behind Ellis (constructed mainly for the second part of the double bill, 'Toast') to the point where one forgets that it is even there, and the placement of an onstage dramaturg. The dramaturg, Gemma Williams, becomes more of a distraction than a help, as she is used to dress Ellis in the various costume pieces and to occasionally clear up after her. It seems to be a case of anything Williams can do, Ellis could do better, which begs the question; why is she there?

The show itself, however, is strong, engaging and full of impact. Ellis raises issues that need to be raised without preaching or running her audience into the ground with overly-emotional lesbian horror stories. There is a careful balance of humour and integrity which keeps the audience amused and involved.


The second half of the show, although presented in a very separate format with different directors, continues along the theme of homosexuality, exploring the relationship between gay men and straight women. Through a text created part from Verbatim material and part from cast improvisations, the play introduces the space as a wake for Dixie Spartan; a drag queen who has seemingly left his best friend Maggie in the lurch by not acknowledging her in a letter he has written before he died. The dedication to delving deeper than the label 'fag hag' makes this piece interesting in it's new perspective, however some plot holes diminish the impact of this by diverting the audience's attention to what is not justified by the end.

The cast are superb in their very natural characterisation of Dixie's friends and one by one they make their own arena of debate on the subject through beautifully delivered monologues created from the Verbatim material. Unfortunately, at times, it is rather too obvious what has been improvised and what is other peoples' words; there is a missing connection between the two which creates a barrier between the humour of duologue's and the more serious nature of the monologues. The audience interaction is plausible and does not intimidate the audience, rather one feels a part of the celebration for Dixie, who is present throughout, mounted on the stage surrounded by glittering trees, shoes and over sized apples. It is a shame that this arena is not used by the other characters as instead we are diverted around the space to various tables at which they sit.

Whilst there are flaws at this stage of the rehearsal process, with development and attention to the finer details, this play, with it's fantastic array of colourful characters (in particular Dixie) and superbly fabulous set, has the potential to be thought-provoking whilst remaining thoroughly entertaining.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The day flies by... when you're with Ian Rickson

Today I had the pleasure of spending a full 6 hours with the inspirational Ian Rickson. This was my fourth and final session with the former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre and I must say I was sad to say goodbye. One might expect the reputation Rickson has earned to have had some effect on the man's ego, yet his calming presence and gentle voice put me at ease immediately; he is neither patronising or self-absorbed, nor did I get the impression he was killing time to get the work day over and paid for.

As a former teacher I believe that this is the most positive influence on his work as a director. He clearly has an understanding of people, he is an excellent listener and extremely patient. Here is where the key to his success lies; he is a people person and undeniably has a passion for what he does. Furthermore, his investment in people obviously informs his character work which is detailed, precise and well thought-through.

The workshop itself was a balanced melange of script work and textual exercises (surrounding a new play by Joe Penhall) injected with ball games which saw us all laugh and relax around each other. Throughout, Rickson maintained a level of respect and admiration without demanding either. It is refreshing to meet such a big name in the theatre industry without feeling at all intimidated by their career history. In fact, this pressure was non-existent, rather I felt that this was how all workshops should be; fun and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rickson has a way of meeting everyone in the room's needs. I was impressed that he remembered all of our names from last year and took the time to listen and get to know each of us individually in a one to one tutorial.

His advice to me seemed to be rooted in a real belief that I could actually achieve my dream of becoming a theatre critic. What a wonderful feeling to be complimented by Ian Rickson! My time with him today and the advice he gave me has reaffirmed my self-belief and boosted my confidence in what I do. If I can perform well in an Ian Rickson workshop and be pointedly thanked for my contribution, why could I not convince any editor of my capabilities? Hard work and passion is all I need, he said. I have both, I just need to demonstrate them to the right people now.

Friday, 5 March 2010

How far is too far?

Smoking Bans. I can understand them in certain circumstances. Nobody wants to be coughing down a mouthful of smoke with their dinner. Nobody wants to wake up after a night out and realise that that smell is coming from the clothes you wore the previous night. And nobody wants to pay good money to see a film, or a performance only to be stuck in that space breathing second-hand smoke from an audience dotted with smokers. But what happens when it comes to the arts? How far is too far when it comes to smoking on stage?

These questions have arisen in my mind due to being presented with the issue myself. 'Pornography' requires cigarettes to be smoked; it is written in the script on a number of occasions and to my fellow directors and I, fake cigarettes will just not cut it. We want the visceral effect of the smoke, the smell of it drifting downstage, the sight of smoke rising up to the rig and the sound of a performer inhaling a long drag. The atmosphere someone smoking creates is irreplaceable. Yet, to achieve this effect, we must first gain the permission of the Council, then the University and finally, if we do break down these authorities and are allowed to smoke on stage, a complaint from an audience member could see us facing a fine! Is it just me, or is this ludicrous?

It was not so long ago that people smoked on public transport and only recently was our country made completely smoke free, yet attitudes to smoking and smokers have changed to such a dramatic effect that it instigates outrage. What used to be a part of a culture, has now been eliminated for health and safety reasons. Health and Safety regulations may be in place to protect, yet most times they seem to restrict and limit artistic vision. What is surprising is that these rules are even more imposing at University. Particularly one such as ours which ironically pushes us towards the contemporary, the experimentational and the original. However we are stifled by these boundaries and the endless paperwork that has to be done just to smoke on stage. When did society get so uptight to the point where art is suffering? A line needs to be drawn at some point, the question is where? However, until it is realised that it is more practical to use discretion in these matters, art will continue to struggle against such rules and we will continue to go through the many motions to ensure that our artistic vision is not compromised.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Future of Theatre Criticism...

A few days ago I attended 'Leading London Theatre Critics In The Spotlight' at Royal Holloway University. This event was, for me, an exciting one. Lyn Gardner, Mark Shenton, Ian Shuttleworth and Kate Bassett in one room? I entered the dark studio with an anticipation rivalling that of a child on their first day of school; I was ready to be inspired. I was not disappointed, particularly with Lyn Gardner. Her contribution as a theatre critic to the theatre world is not only insightful, but it is admirable. Unlike other London critics, she ventures outside the big city to support regional theatres and shows which do not boast the likes of Jude Law of Keira Knightley. Although this is not to diminish the respectability of the other critics. It is the sad truth of the situation that under the pressures of the recession, theatre critics are not provided with the expenses to travel out of the city. Worse news still, with no money in the newspaper business and the rise of free blogging sites such as this, why is there a need to pay struggling theatre critics when there are so many online going unpaid?

Now this is not the first time I have heard all of this. In fact, this is the third time I have been warned off my career path, and even though this time it is by the top end theatre critics who even worry about keeping their jobs, I am not going to give up before I have even begun. This could be a terrible mistake that sees me near enough wasting a year of my life with no income or means of supporting myself, but who knows? I could just get lucky.

What worries me more in fact is how the lack of 'expert' theatre critics will affect the reception of theatre and performance. With The Times employing in-house staff such as culture columnist Libby Purves to replace Benedict Nightingale as the new drama critic (a position that comes around once in a blue moon) to cut costs, it is difficult to see how, at age 60, she can even find the working years left in her to fill his almighty boots. It takes years of experience, preferably some notion of what it is like to work in the theatre world, and a great interest in performance to be heard and respected by someone like myself, a mere student. I listen to the experts because they are exactly that. They know more about it than me, they have been around longer, seen many more shows and written tens of thousands of words in their time. They know what they are doing. Who do I listen to if all the experts die out?

What is of even further concern is how contemporary theatre will be affected. It is my belief that there will always be some instances where contemporary performance is better understood or appreciated by someone who has experience with new styles of theatre; someone who can contextualise a company with other works they have produced; someone who understands what the whole point of a piece is. It is true that in some cases contemporary theatre fails, and this can be determined by most audience members, with or without the background knowledge, but do we want to risk not going to see a new and exciting piece of theatre because the reviewer (through no fault of their own) just didn't get it? Even the critics who have been around a while have got it wrong from time to time so what chance does anyone else have? My theories are yet to proved, but I know that if the reviews of an ignorant, inexperienced critic become detrimental to the progress of contemporary theatre, the editor will have a lot of people to answer to. Lets just hope Livvy Purves does justice to her new title.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

It's all coming together!

We now have our cast for our production of Simon Stephen's Pornography and I couldn't be more excited!

There were problems with auditioning this year. The situation is that usually all Masters student directors hold group workshop auditions and from these we call back the people we are interested in. Of course this means that people may be called back for more than one production and inevitably some of these auditionees will be sought after in casting. We call this discussion 'The Big Fight' which took place last night for nearly two and a half hours, including a cooling off period to alleviate the tension in the room.

The problem this year was the lack of auditionees. I remember auditioning myself in first, second and third year for the fourth year directors auditions because back then they were considered a big deal and I wasn't the only one to think so; there were always plenty of people to pick and choose from. So I am wondering, what happened this year? Why are the students, particularly in a university with a strong drama department seemingly uninterested in performing? I have considered the possibility of this being a generation thing, perhaps the younger years are becoming more complacent in getting involved with extra-curricular activities. Or, perhaps the drama society are becoming increasingly popular and casting potential fourth year cast members. Whatever the reason is, it means that no one sat in that room last night was able to cast everyone they wanted to.

Luckily we came out of the whole process well off. We have a talented and dedicated ensemble of performers who are perfect for their roles and extremely good physically. By melding character with physical theatre we set ourselves a task and a half. Not only did we have to find talented actors, but ones which were also interested or had experience in physical theatre as well as looking right for the part. But as I have said previously, I am sure that we have a winning team in our hands, along with brilliant designers and an on-the-ball dramaturg to ensure that we do not let Stephens' writing down. Rehearsals begin tomorrow when finally we will be able to hear the script come to life - it is moments like this that remind me why I love what I do and why it is worth all the hard work and stress.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Break-Through!

Whilst I try my hardest to convince what I call 'non-theatre people' to go to the theatre, I rarely succeed, or when I do, the performance itself undoes all my good work through being an utter disappointment.

But... last night... a break-through!

My partner is one of these 'non-theatre people' and has always been highly critical of theatre. Me being me refuse to accept the fact that he quite simply does not like it, particularly as it is often on my mind and therefore often on the agenda for some aspect of our conversations. So to begin with I shall tell you the story of how it takes one woman a year and a half to convert one man into a theatre goer and why this has led me to blog about it.

I began by taking him to see DV8's To Be Straight With You at The Barbican. Big mistake. This was me taking him by the hand, leading him to the deepest end of the pool, climbing a ladder to the top diving board and telling him to jump. This led to a dry spell of around a year, bar him coming to watch me in performance, or my own theatre creations. So what could I do? He didn't want to come to anything with me and to be honest I didn't really want to torture him. DV8 were far from disappointing, in fact, the production blew me away, yet somehow left him firmly in the camp of 'non-theatre people'. Actually I think my taking him to this performance made him more stubborn not to be a part of the theatre world.

So back to the break-through...

Firstly, there was the pantomime to which he went with his little brother and sister. That went smoothly enough. Next, there was Oliver! A step up from pantomime, more talent involved and at least a good strong Dickensian storyline to follow. And now... Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he tells me on the phone last night! Now I do not pretend that he is anywhere near the stage where I would say he loves theatre. The reason he wants to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is because of his love of Adrian Lester, and not because of his performance in Peter Brook's Hamlet, or indeed anything to do with his theatre career, but because he plays Mickey Stone in the BBC's Hustle. So I have some work to do. But oh, how relieved I am that he is finally taking some sort of interest!

What this has got me thinking is, why didn't To Be Straight With You communicate? Is it true that you need some knowledge or at least appreciation of contemporary theatre to understand the forms of what is on stage? Indeed, my parents did not fully understand the modes of performance used for a production of Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp I was part of last May. Is this because they haven't studied for a theatre degree? This led me to re-read a feature I wrote in January last year about the McMaster's Report and how it aims to get new bums on theatre seats. I have copied and pasted the article below for your contemplation. I personally think that many of the points I raise are still relevant and have still not been adequately addressed. How can we get people interested in theatre and performance?

Where have our young audience gone?

And what has the McMaster’s report achieved in the last year to bring them back?

Over one year on since Sir Brian McMaster’s report on arts funding was ‘widely welcomed’ into the arts world and it seems his propositions are still waiting to be fully realised. Hailed as ‘one of the most important cultural policy documents to emerge in Britain for years’, one has to wonder how serious arts representatives are in tackling the problems of the art world, in particular that of attracting the ‘it’s not for me’ audience;

“One of the biggest barriers to audience engagement is the notion held by many that the arts are simply not for them. The ‘it’s not for me’ syndrome is endemic and conspires to exclude people from experiences that could transform their lives” (McMaster Report)

Of all the issues raised by McMaster in his report, it is upsetting to discover that few have jumped on the bandwagon of drawing in larger audiences; a problem which I believe to be the most crucial in determining the future of theatre as a continuing important element of British culture.

“I think the stereotypical British culture... yeah, theatre is probably a part of it, but the stereotypical British culture is really not relevant to people living in Britain today”

Theatre goers are a dying breed; theatre itself is losing its cultural and certainly political meaning to many, and has been lost entirely to a great deal of the younger generation. Through the advice made by Brian McMaster, the Arts Council need to focus on bringing these young audiences in to the theatre world.

“Because I’m not immersed in the theatre culture, I have no idea when things that I would enjoy are being produced”

There does seem to be one saviour in the midst of Arts Council bureaucrats that most in the profession have become accustomed to, in the form of Andy Burnham. The successor of James Purnell (the culture secretary who took the initiative to commission McMaster in the first place), Burnham has proved to bring a broader viewpoint to Brownite reforms, for, as Norman Lebrecht points out, he is the first culture secretary to resist becoming a part of ‘metropolitan cliques’ from within the containment of London. Last month, Burnham’s £2.5 million scheme, first unveiled in December came into play. The plan was to make available 618,000 seats for 18 - 26 year olds free of charge for two years across the UK in a total of 99 theatres, building on other cheap ticket schemes by the RSC and The National. This follows on from McMaster’s proposal to make theatre free for one week of the year, and if all goes to plan, the scheme will continue until 2011. But whilst free tickets are all well and good for Drama students in their masses, what about those who do not factor theatre trips into their lifestyle, it is doubtful that they will make use of the tickets, no matter if they are free, despite Burnham commenting that “It’s about young people broadening their horizons and opening up to new experiences”. At least this is what one initially assumes, but let us never forget, to assume is to make an ass out of you and me. I conducted some research into the matter, consulting a number of British students of whom I considered to be part of the ‘it’s not for me’ audience, wishing to know where they stood. Is it all downhill from here, or do they want to be recruited back into the new and enticing land of theatre McMaster has dreamt up in his report, which claims to be no longer associated with the pretentious old-hat British culture that some interviewees admitted to ‘heartily sneering at’? Yes they do, it seems, but the issue is that most don’t understand theatre, so they ignore it. Good education is vital in reviving enthusiasm amongst young people for the theatre, as Ed Balls acknowledges with his statement that “participating in cultural activities can have a huge impact on a child’s development”. Nicholas Hytner has recognised in his running of The National, a growing and ‘powerful hunger’, which has developed amongst those adults who did not receive a great amount of cultural education, for a ‘deeper and wider experience’.

“If theatre was more heavily marketed and they maybe put on shows that were unique and individual, and pressed that point, then maybe that would draw in bigger audiences. Maybe I might even show up”

McMaster argues that art does not need to dumb down, rather raise its level of excellence to draw in the crowds, but in order for this to happen surely the audience will need some level of theatrical awareness? As McMaster states, “It is vital that young people are given the chance to experience culture within and outside school” and this is where the Shakespeare School Festivals and The National Youth Theatre can be commended for their work with children outside school from all walks of life. Whilst in school, Burnham has again stepped in to try and make improvements in British schools with regards to Arts and Culture. However, Arts-in-schools ideas and apprenticeship schemes have tended to fail with their dependence on a thriving economy, an obstacle of money that the arts world has become used to facing. Despite these trying times however, in the last year Mr Brown has prioritised the arts more than his predecessors, perhaps because according to official statistics, in the last ten years, the 7.3 per cent of UK GDP that is representative of creative industries has grown twice as fast as the rest of the economy. It is a shame that the same cannot happen as it did in 2002, when £25 million was handed out by the government to try and revive regional theatres. As Magnus Linklater points out, the handout produced bigger audiences that arrived at more ambitious productions which had the freedom to experiment with new work. It seems the answer is, as always, money. One area that McMaster picks up on and thoroughly intrigues me is the lack of advertisement, particularly through broadcasting. Almost all of my interviewees stated that they didn’t go to the theatre simply because they didn’t know what was on, where and when. They look to the West-End musicals when they think of theatre, which is seen as expensive and often lacking in the sort of depth they would hope for in a theatre experience. As Mark Ravenhill argues, we live in a culture, particularly at this time of economic crisis, when people would rather make use of their TV licence than go out to the theatre. Ravenhill goes on to argue that “Good arts programming in the media is crucial in cultivating discriminating and demanding audiences”. It would make the theatre much more accessible to those who want to experience it but don’t want to have to go looking for it. Unless you are a part of the theatre world, it seems to be hard work to find out where to go, what show is good at the moment and what it is about. Even after all this, if their first experience is not a good one, who is to say they will ever brave it again?

McMaster claims that “The best person to communicate with audiences is the artist”, indicating an end to the traditional hands-off approach to arts funding. Peer review would encourage excellence in the arts, allowing a broader range of judgement and diminishing personal grudges against an artist’s work. This new level of excellence would aim to bring in new and bigger audiences and would ensure that the funding is going towards what the audience wants rather than the artist’s ego or established name. One would not gamble money on the mediocre, so why should the Arts council?

So what do the younger generation want from theatre? From the evidence I have gathered, one can feel assured that McMaster’s theories of what the audience want are right, as supported by the Arts Council’s inquiry into public value and the arts in England, which proved a desire for a “focus on the quality of artistic experience”. The younger generation want a theatre that appeals to them, something relevant, diverse and educating. In short, it has to mean something to them. There is plenty of theatre out there that would appeal (had they known about it), with new and innovative ideas coming through from DV8, Complicite and Katie Mitchell, with their use of multi-media theatre. As Hytner argues, the use of technology broadens means of communication about complex ideas tremendously and gives the opportunity ‘to build bridges between artist and audience’. Not only this, but it reflects the technological world that the younger generation now live in, it is what they understand and can relate to. In any case, theatre has always been on some level a reflection of the world within which it exists. Therefore, the content material should be topical and relevant.

Interactive theatre with audience participation is another creative path to making theatre accessible. One young lady, who has asked not to be named, suggested that more theatre should be brought out on the streets, if not on television, as a taster for the show, where it is able to intrigue and capture its audience. An advertising deal met with a food company executive of a local town would not only boost takings for the theatre, but help out a fellow business in this time of recession, harking back to a sense of community once warmly felt in this country. Obviously this is concerned with regional theatre, that suffers more with audience numbers than the West End, however if these regional theatre’s could find more creative ways to advertise what they are doing then it would help diminish a need for government subsidy and allow any money that is received to continue in good advertising.

The McMaster Report favours innovation, risk-taking, diversity, relevance, excellence and controversial material over that which merely ticks boxes and lies within the constraints of political correctness. It argues, and rightly so, that “culture is for everyone; that it has the power to change people’s lives, regardless of class, education or ethnicity” and so last year was celebrated as a catalyst for British theatre being “on the brink of a ‘new Renaissance’”. Yet still the Arts Council seems to be up to its old “book keeping tricks”. This failure to comply with the report, teamed with the exam-driven state school system and a huge lack of advertising is steering possible audience candidates away from the theatre. I do not propose that every member of the ‘It’s not for me’ younger generation will, upon witnessing what McMaster describes as excellent theatre , instantly fall in love with what they see.

Of course many people prefer the cinema or television. Rather, I hope that with the right education and background knowledge, most young people will at least be given the opportunity to experience what is (or should be) considered to be a significant constituent of not just traditional, but modern British culture and be able to make that decision for themselves.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Gardzienice Workshop Round 2

Seeing as the Gardzienice workshop lead by Paul Allain I attended yesterday left such a physical imprint on my body to the point where I have felt like a woman 50 years my senior all day, I thought it only fitting to blog my thoughts on it.

Firstly I should explain that there was a Gardzienice Workshop Round 1 which involved a very embarrassing incident involving my foot jumping on to a certain area of a man's body where one's foot should never find itself, let alone with the added impact of a jump. This red-faced moment was further heightened by an audience of around 16 people.

Gardzienice Round 2 was no less embarrassing as I found myself bumping boobs with many a member of my peers, which later turned into a bumping of the groins. Such a sight was a class of people apparently humping each other that I found it incredibly difficult to restrain the laughter that was bubbling in my belly, particularly when the noises started. Letting the natural voice flow with each bump of bosoms or groin led to a sound reminiscent of an animal mating season echoing through the studio and left me wondering whether the members of Gardzienice that invented this exercise were at all missing the sex that is banned from their tight knit group.

Jokes aside, the work of Gardzienice and the training they go through is unbelievably refreshing and liberating. By the end of the workshop I felt a connection to the people I had shared these exercises with. One can imagine that several years of living, eating, working and literally breathing with a group of people can create a beautiful ensemble, which was clear from the video footage we were shown after. Despite the language barrier, the consistent energy and focus of these people seemed effortless, and the sense of ensemble was powerfully poignant and entrancing. However, one has to consider the dedication of these performers; they have given up their lives to their director, Staniewski and this makes me question the contemporary theatre we encounter in Britain today.

It is true that Britain has, is and will produce powerful theatre, but it seems that Eastern European theatre reaches a point of transformation in the performers that can only be achieved through a strong ensemble. Indeed, Alan Lyddiard in his visit last week described how he spends long periods of time with the same actors, developing long standing relationships between groups of people. He tries to work with people that he 'loves' and is resistant to the 'jobbing actor'.

This, for me, presents three problems in British Theatre:
1. What hope do 'jobbing actors' have of becoming involved in an ensemble when they are so many other actors out there?
2. Do these British actors necessarily have the stamina for such an ensemble as Staniewski creates as we live in such a different culture to that of Poland? With most of what we have served to us on a plate, there is no need for one to work so hard in a theatre ensemble when better money can be earned acting in a commercial. This in turn begs the question; do British people lack the passion needed for a true ensemble? Or is the passion that is so obvious in the work of the Gardzienice ensemble based on the lack of options that are so readily available to us?
3. Lyddiard has surely worked hard through his life and deserves what funding he gets, but with cuts in arts funding, what chance is there of other ensemble companies being so lucky as to take 3 years to produce a performance?

The fact is, that in British theatre we have a very short rehearsal period of 4 -8 weeks, the funding simply isn't available for everyone to develop these 'community' ensembles (especially when finding a base for these companies to occupy is difficult and expensive) and long rehearsal periods just aren't practical when you need to pay the rent.

Finally this relates to my own production. We have 5-6 weeks to produce a play with no characters, an open text and a set which looks like it probably will involve several TV screens, some clever gauze and complicated lighting states. The time limit is constraining, particularly in relation to bonding our cast in some sort of ensemble so in this respect the Gardzienice exercises will be invaluable. But it does make me wonder; what hope do we have of creating something as poetic and compelling as Staniewski does, even if he has only produced 7 productions in 32 years.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

So this is a blog...

Let me start by saying why I have not started blogging until now....
a) I never really understood it
b) What I did understand of it seemed to me very vain and self-indulgent and
c) I had no wish to broadcast on the Internet my thoughts and feelings on any topic because, to be quite honest, I never thought anyone would be interested in what I have to say.

I have since come to realise that...
a) This is really quite easy, I love writing and this gives me an excuse to
b) Everyone is vain and self-indulgent in one way or another and
c) If I am to become this very serious, very intellectual and incredibly witty theatre journalist that I aspire to be, I should try to make people interested in what I have to say, and actually, blogging is a good way to that.

So this is my blog, although I have never really been very good at sticking to the point I wish to outline my aims in writing this blog. Firstly it is a 'stepping stone to writing on performance' (hence the title) and gets me noticed, even if it is only by five of my friends that can actually be bothered to read what I say. Secondly, I will use it as a arena to discuss theatre and performance, what I have recently seen, read or done theatre-wise, including my current project which involves me co-directing Pornography by Simon Stephens this March. Don't get your hopes up, it's not that kind of play.

Lastly, I will use this blog to document my success in finding an actual paid (at least expenses) job in the big wide world of journalism after I graduate in July. First stepping stone is getting work for Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. It would have been the NSDF but some clever sod that arranges a STUDENT festival has decided to put the bloody thing when STUDENTS are still at University. But let's forget about that, instead I will focus on sending further emails to editors who are clearly not interested, ringing people who never put you through to the right person and organising my portfolio so that it looks some kind of good.

Now, I realise that I do sound quite bitter and negative about my future progress in establishing a writing career of some sort, but please believe that I am semi-positive about the next few months, especially as I now have this blog for venting purposes. So to any readers (or am I being too presumptuous?) please hang on in there and hopefully I will get to a point where I will actually have something of interest to write about theatre!