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!