Friday, 14 September 2018

Some words on Rose Bruford when accepting an Honorary Fellowship

First of all can I congratulate the students who have worked so hard, their families who have offered support and the staff who have nurtured them during their time at Rose Bruford. Well done you.

While I was preparing this I looked up Rose Elisabeth Bruford and was interested to learn that after she graduated, Rose then “followed her parents wishes never to work in the theatre”. I hope that following their graduations the graduates today will be sitting down with their parents ready to heed any similar advice.

While Rose Bruford sort of followed her parents wishes you might have noticed she didn’t really not go into the theatre. She taught. According to the ever reliable wikipedia she taught at 43 different schools between 1925 and 1949. And for 7 of those years the country was at war. She built a drama course at the Royal Academy of Music. She taught mime at RADA. And principally she taught teachers of drama. That was before she founded the institution we are sitting in today. She was an Evangelist. She preached theatre and spoken word. I can relate to that.

As we all know theatre can be an expensive, brash and alienating experience. We’ve all got our theatre horror stories - I could ask you to turn to your neighbour and share your theatre scars but I’ve only got three minutes. Actually, when you break it down theatre has healing properties.

Whether it’s in a ancient tribe or a modern city, a special space is made where people meet. That’s nice. A story is shared. There might be special light or special clothes. The people listen and perhaps laugh or cry or gasp together. They support the story teller. And then they leave. And it’s gone. For theatre is made from the attention given by people. Around the fire, or at the national theatre it’s the same - If the audience turn their backs on the stage there is no theatre. Theatre isn’t an art, it’s an act of giving.

It asks the best of us. Team work. Creativity. And care... any good team will be a caring and supportive group. And from anyone watching - a run through, or a performance (or indeed a short speech from a nervous man) it asks for attention and presence.

I believe these values are what drove Rose’s evangelism. And I believe they are much needed in our hectic, screen centred, lives today. And from my work I know these values are appreciated by people of all ages, and from all walks of life.

I see people thrive in the supportive spaces that theatre offers. Children who have been excruciatingly shy, even selectively mute telling and enacting their story - Because they want to contribute to the fun. Survivors of aerial bombing - both in Hiroshima and London who want to contribute their experiences - Because they want the story never to be forgotten. Audiences leaning in to support an actor as they weave their tale - Because they want it to be magic.

Theatre builds connections and community. It nurtures us.

So I hope you thrive in the making of your art. And that through the pressures that come with it you can enjoy, and evangelise about, the ideals it aspires to.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The civic role of artists and arts organisations

I've been reading the report on the inquiry into the civic role of arts organisations (phase 1). It's an interesting and timely provocation with lots of good thinking. They invited responses and this is mine.

I have found the inquiry into the civic role of arts organisations a stimulating process which has gathered focus and momentum as it has progressed. Any initiative which helps foreground the useful, but often invisible work that arts organisations do, is to be welcomed and I welcome the chance to comment on the first phase report.  

Firstly three points on the report thus far. 

THE METAPHORS (Arts organisations as Colleges, Town Halls, Parks, Temples and Home)
The metaphors used to describe organisations are interesting and yes, we can relate them to our practice. However they suggest iconic buildings or physical places. Our (London Bubble’s) distribution model is less centralised. More importantly the work arts organisations do is largely ephemeral.

(Can I refer you to the Peckham Experiment, an inspirational arts and health initiative conducted between 1926 and 1950. This was a hybrid blending surgery, arts centre, sports centre and college, built on a membership model).  

At one point the report suggests “our interest is arts organisations in receipt of public funding working with local communities to co-produce problems these communities identify”. We would question the use of the work ‘problems’. It’s only one word but casts the community as problem, the arts organisation as solution and the work as ‘instrumental’. We would argue that artists and arts organisations should see themselves as part of the community, participants as well as artist-facilitators, with a useful skill set. Sometimes that can be used to solve a problem. Sometimes it can be used to co-create, even celebrate, with no set agenda. The work of Welfare State International comes to mind. Perhaps ‘problems’ could be replaced by ‘opportunities’.  

Moving forwards:

Reading that the first civic institutions were a Victorian response to the drunkenness amongst the large number of workers who had flocked to the towns because of industrialisation made me wonder (in equally generalised terms) about the present day - what are the arts responding to now? In our work with children, young adults and elders, we are observing three, possibly related, trends. Increasing numbers of young children who struggle to communicate, increasing numbers of teenagers and young adults managing mental health issues and increasing numbers of older people who live with loneliness. Our response is to base our practice on building a sense of connection through care and creativity. Are we dealing with a sense of disconnection similar to that experienced by the dislocated Victorian worker? Is the present day problem caused by the new industrial revolution and the impact of digital communication on community? Should this define our ‘civic role’?

Bubble is a small organisation whose work is based on participation and relational practice.  The characteristics listed as principles for consultation we aspire to. (And we would argue that larger organisations sometimes adopt these, rather than truly holding them in their heart). Perhaps there is something to be learned from the Dunbar number* here. To truly foster relationships you have to value them for what they are and question any transaction which places material gain before social gain. Smaller organisation who are part of their community are more likely to foster these principles but they are also more likely to have a lower profile and smaller voice. So any initiative that helps us network, develop capacity and build stability we would welcome. 

The report pays a number of compliments to small and medium scale arts organisations and those who work within them - particularly leaders. It suggests the leaders have developed the organisation. But I sometimes wonder if it is also the organisation that makes the leader. Arts organisations are a wonderfully developmental environment which expect leaders be creative, passionate, open and reflective - and to bring these qualities out of staff and participants/audiences. This creative environment and training ground could be cast a civic asset that reaches beyond the creative sector. 

Jonathan Petherbridge
Creative Director,
London Bubble.

*The theory of Dunbar's Number posits that 150 is the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Ten years ago.

It was exactly ten years ago to the day. In the parlour. The parlour at the Bubble is where ‘confidential’ conversations happen. Appraisals, resignations, announcement of happy events, tears, honesty, brilliant ideas.

November 15th 2007. Four of our Board members had been up town to meet with officers of the Arts Council. They returned and took the two co-chief executives to the parlour. I was one.

They had been informed there was to be a recommendation that funding to the London Bubble would be cut…as of March 31st 2008…in four months. This funding plus another linked grant and the box office they generated amounted to 81% of our turnover.

We were numb, in shock. The trustees were faced with closing the company. They were potentially liable for any outstanding debts. All 10 staff would be made redundant. The summer shows and projects would be no more. If I had any emotions they were a mixture of anger, fear and shame. 

The letter confirming the recommendation arrived the week before Christmas. By that time our feelings had been channelled into campaigning. In mid January the committee would meet. The festive season turned into a mustering of support.

Alliances were made with other threatened companies. Representations were made by audience members and MP’s. One young girl got into an exchange of letters with the director of the arts council. We tried to remain level headed and to allow our audience to speak for us. As a result we learned.

We didn’t reverse the recommendation. (I think if we’d gone with the idea of having our petition delivered by postmen running down the Thames in Zorb Bubble balls, it would have tipped the balance, but we didn’t).  

Fast forward ten years. Last Saturday I was able to present a position paper to our board and staff at our away day. It explained how we are delivering more theatre now than we were before the cut. How we have 5 legs to our stool rather than the one, how we attract…..

But no. That’s for another time. 

For now, let me just raise a small glass to out supporters. To those who funded us to develop our projects. To my great colleagues and the brave trustees who chose not to take the company into administration. And to my predecessors who created the Bubble and its reputation. 

Oh… and to luck. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

A letter to Hofesh Shechter

Dear Hofesh,

You don’t know me. I’m a fan of yours. I’m also a theatre director. 

I think your work is quite wonderful but I want to question your use of lighting. 

Last night I attended Grand Finale. The choreography, music and staging I found rich with purpose. The skill of the dancers I find breathtaking. The balance of anger and joy moves me - as it has done in your previous work.

What I wonder is if the same amount of thought has gone into the decision process surrounding the lighting. The lighting is in a way skilful - quite spare, hardly any colour. It is almost entirely back, top and side light. Hardly any light is thrown from the vantage point of the audience. This means we aren’t allowed to see the dancers faces. There is also much use of black out - not just to change the set or tempo, but to discomfort us (I think).

The outcome of all of this is twofold. Firstly the audience cannot connect with the dancers as humans. They are shapes, we see no facial expression. Secondly the lighting makes the performance seem beautiful.

I question if this is how you intend your work to land.

Everything else about your work melds rage with skill. It is often emotionally ambiguous. Why then dress the piece so beautifully?  

I think you believe in what I might shorthand as ‘community’. On your website you describe your company as a ‘tribe’ of dancers. Why not allow the audience to see how your tribe are working? Why not  let the audience see the front of the performers and connect as fellow humans to  their rage and grace?  

Last night I remembered times when I, as a director had lit shows and made them ‘beautiful’. At that point the process presents a technological opportunity to frame what we have made and we get carried away with what is possible. This morning I watched some footage on your website of the rehearsals of Grand Finale - naturally lit, or lit quite brightly for filming, and I preferred it. 

I sat there last night wondering how the piece would have impacted on us if it had been staged in working light. I do wonder if it actually would have been more powerful.

Best wishes, and keep up the good work,

Jonathan Petherbridge. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

PRIMARY 11 - Sensory Interviews

By Georgia Clark

The project is at an exciting stage now as we look to gather more material which will grow into a performance later this year. With a couple more sessions to go before Easter, after which we will meet every week until we break for summer, we turned our attention this week to the process of ‘foraging’, or gathering material through interviews and research.

To prepare for the session’s main activity, where we would consider the role of the senses in triggering and finding out about memories and experiences, we warmed up our eyes by focusing on things distant and close, we wrinkled our noses and smelt our skin, we explored the sounds within our bodies when we closed off our ears, we traced our finger tips over our wrists and clothes, and we rolled our tongues in mouths and discerned its edges, sensitising ourselves to the delicate differences in sight, touch, smell, sound and taste.

On five tables around the room lay invitations to explore each sense; the table for Taste held bowls of sweets and snacks, Hearing played waves crashing and a baby bawling, Sight displayed images such as those of a fire burning and electricity sparking, Smell offered the scent of disinfectant and ink and Touch invited our hands to explore an feathers and bark.

In groups of 3 we moved from table to table and contemplated the objects, images and sounds, sampling sweets and handling and smelling old books and scented candles. We did this as an individual exercise, to tune into our own associations and ideas, and then shared some thoughts in our group, before coming back to the big group.

It seemed that there were some commonalities – many people associated the colour yellow with the flying saucer sweets, and were transported to a library by the musty books or the nurses room by the disinfectant – and there were also detailed trains of thought and stories which were particular to individuals.

Smells took people to ‘Covent Garden, an unopened drawer, Nan’s spare room, Chip shop, Garden, kitchen, care home, doctors’, and someone travelled to Indonesia through the picture of rain on a window pane.

‘1p sweets bought from the shop on the walk home from Hummersknott’
‘movement of unsticking it from your teeth’
‘ the ding of the door to the sweetshop’
‘candle: old bathrooms. Toilet roll dolls’

The exercise was designed to explore our thinking about harnessing a more sensual approach to the subject, and how we might use the senses as a way of tapping into deeper and wider memories and experiences when interviewing. The further away from our memories of Primary school that we travel in time, perhaps the more they are encoded in places, smells, patterns and objects. We talked about how smell and memory are close together in the brain, which is why smell can be such a strong trigger for an emotion without our full comprehension as to where the smell came from.

Warmed up by this exercise, we experimented using ‘trigger objects’ – objects chosen specifically because their sensual quality might trigger a story or memory about Primary school. In pairs we used these objects –a piece of chalk (which a younger member of the group commented as being marvellous ‘because it was a whole piece, and whole pieces never survived long at school’), a marker pen, Dettol, show polish, ‘Refresher’ sweets and a pot of ink – as stimulus for questions.

My partner examined a tin of shoe polish and took in its strong turpentine smell. She talked about her memories of her primary shoes being polished, usually by her dad, how it marked a routine, and a conscientiousness around being ‘tidy’ at school. Using the link to school shoes, I asked her if she liked the shoes that she wore to primary school, and she replied that she didn’t dislike them but all the same she was never satisfied with them, they were never quite nice enough.

One person recounted how the ink reminded their partner of “ink pots and dirty fingers” and “a teacher criticising your handwriting because you were left-handed and because of stains. Messy business. You see, the class was not like today. The tables were in rows gazing at the blackboard.” For another, the ink pot marked a transition from primary to secondary school, having nice handwriting and a memory of sitting in a garden to write a story, which was read out in assembly. We considered whether some of these fragments would have been accessed without the physical stimuli, and how it felt to handle an object at the same time as being interviewed. 

We moved on to consider a different object in our pairs and swapped roles; the interviewee became the interviewer. We were reminded that the project isn’t just about looking back, retrospectively, at our memories; it’s about imagination and opinion as well as experience. This time we were asked to create a story in response to the object, venturing questions to the other such as ‘where are you?’, and encouraging a story to slowly emerge. 

These stories were presented back to the group as a freeze frame which was ‘switched on’ at a certain moment and the story teller narrated what was happening; children hiding eating sweets under their bed; pupils deciding between each other whose house they would go to after school; a wound being cleaned up in the nurse’s room. We wondered at the end how much of these stories came from our imagination and how much was related to or adapted from experience, and whether or not there is a difference.

Monday, 5 December 2016

PRIMARY 10 - Bullying

By Charlotte Hulme

We started off this evening’s session with a warm up which involved walking around the room to 'fill the space' and then stopping and completing actions for certain instructions. For example, when Peth shouted ‘TV’ we’d all look up to the same point by the ceiling and stand for just a few seconds with all of our eyes pinpointing the same spot. When Peth shouted the instruction ‘down’ we’d drop down to the ground, again freezing all together in a fixed position. We then changed these instructions so that they related to primary school routines such as ‘playtime’, ‘assembly’ and so on. This put the focus on ‘primary’ from the outset and it was a great way to start the session and get our thinking caps on.

From this, we took time (seeing as we have now had a fair few workshops), to do a feedback session. Each of us wrote down our thoughts on a piece of paper, focusing on three questions in particular: 

1. What we enjoyed 
2. What we thought worked well 
3. What we’d like to work more on

The feedback ranged in its entirety, but the general consensus was that there should be more music and song incorporated or a focus on that as part of primary school. Participants truly enjoyed the activity where we remembered our classrooms and we then had to re-create them and they also felt that the work we have done on developing the relationships between student and teacher has been a great success, amongst many other things. For inspiration we put the mind map that we had worked on in earlier sessions on display on the wall, as well as all of the blog posts documenting the workshops thus far.

Next we began to address the somewhat poignant yet interesting topic of bullying; we focused on a time when we felt, at school, that we were either a bully or had been bullied. In groups we drew on the examples that we had remembered and created freeze frames to animate them.  During the freeze frames the person whose story it was would tell the rest of us their memory whilst the remainder of the group would illustrate it with a freeze frame. We worked on transitions too as we wanted the three or four freeze frames to have fluid transitions between them all, almost as if they told a story; a story that, despite the overarching theme being the same, contrasted completely with the content. Memories ranged from playground bullying and academic competitions, to people singling others out or “telling on you” to the teacher! Again, this evening’s session saw another time where we drew on memories we thought we’d perhaps forgotten and this helped us to work them through more thoroughly. Additionally, some of us found the memories funny on reflection which was amusing. It was funny that what we classed as “bullying” at the time, now seemed so trivial when we looked back on it!

To end the session we had a look at a section of the transcript of an interview that was carried out with a peer learning support mentor, which related to what we had been doing regarding bullying during the workshop. We read the transcript together out loud, each person reading a line at a time. It talked about how this person worked with children who were described as having 'really challenging behaviour', as well as their perspective on how teachers are equipped to respond to challenging behaviour and different learning styles. Reading it out line by line together led us into a small group discussion about this to round the evening off, paving the way for more discussion about the politics of facilitating different learning styles and the challenges that teachers face in doing so.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

PRIMARY 9 - Classroom Layouts

By Charlotte Hulme

An energetic warm up game of Stuck in the Mud got us running around the space as if it were a school playground; one person was ‘it’ and when they tagged someone their body became frozen in motion. To be released, another person had to mimic their posture. We were instantly in our bodies and darting around each other like Primary School children. A new person was chosen to be ‘it’ and when they caught us our facial expressions froze. Grimaces and shrieks solidified on our faces until another person mirrored them and released us to run around again. A final instruction was to freeze and emulate an emotion through our internal intention as well as body language and facial expression. This was more complex and subtle to understand in another and copy and, as well as the addition of another person being ‘it’, the room was soon filled with statues. The game had come to an end but it left us more tuned into the space and each other, ready for the session.

We began the session by each individually drawing a layout of our classroom from either primary or secondary school. This task was surprisingly challenging; despite some only having been at school less than ten or so years ago and some of the younger members of group still at school, it was amusing to note how little we could actually remember!

The drawings ranged from ‘typical’ classroom layout, desks and a blackboard for example, to classrooms with play areas and different sections for contrasting activities! We spoke about our memories of these class rooms and then extended the exercise further by trying to remember where we sat in that classroom and who sat around us (for example a best friend, a group of friends, the position of teacher etc.)

Working from this, we split into three groups and using eight chairs we had to each re-create our classrooms. We each took it in turns in our groups; all of the classrooms differed greatly, with some chairs being placed away from the main area of focus to show exclusion/someone being left out. I used the chairs to resemble a carpet as this is where I can remember sitting in primary school!

From this we began to work with the transitions; our group had to do the activity but in silence. We’d each create our classroom and then we’d place the rest of the group, one by one in their designated spot in the classroom drawn from our memories. It was very effective because the silence really highlighted the action and thus we could see when someone was being bullied or when someone had no friends or when someone was being ignored. For example, one member put four chairs at the front in a line, two at the back and two in the middle, she then preceded to sit us down in the chairs and she sat, excluded, in the middle because her recollection of this particular time of her schooling was that she had no friends. It was a very poignant moment. We extended the exercise further by all only standing when the person whose recreated classroom it was stood up to leave and by keeping the action limited to only the people who were interacting, everyone else froze.

It was interesting to watch how each of the three groups worked differently. Group one for example carried out the same exercise as our group but they had a running commentary throughout. For example the person whose classroom it was would explain where they were, their age, the names of the people surrounding them and a bit of a background story about their time in this classroom. The other group also spoke during their improvisation but what was most interesting was that this group in particular were all of around the same age and in school or had just left school. This, I felt, emphasised what we were seeing; it was perhaps a lot more truthful an account and with their ages, it was a lot more realistic. However there’s also something intriguing about watching adults re-create their school days, humorous at times yet sad too when, again, we draw on memories that we thought we’d forgotten and sometimes they aren’t necessarily fond memories of our school days.

We ended the session by going back to what we did at the end of the last session and working on this in more detail whereby each group was given a typical school-day structure written down from the perspective of a current school student! We kept the same member as last time reading out the structure and we made the improvisation very energetic! 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

PRIMARY 8 - A School Day

By Charlotte Hulme

We began today’s session by exploring the contrast between the position of student and the position of teacher. We created individual freeze frames that we typically associated with a student and a teacher. For example, a student freeze frame might be staring vacantly out of a window, or drawing in a book or throwing something across a classroom. The teacher freeze frame might have been writing on the board or looking sternly at a student, and so on. From this we developed the dichotomy between the two by getting into pairs and doing our freeze frames, slowly transitioning between student and teacher. When one person was the student, the other would take on the position of teacher and visa versa. We did this repetitively and very slowly, which, in turn, highlighted our freeze frames and thus drew attention to what we were trying to illustrate and it also, I felt, showed a growth between starting off a student and then becoming a position of authority/an adult.

Today’s session also proved to be very educational – very fitting to the theme of ‘Primary’; we got into groups of three, one observer, one teacher and one student. The teacher had to teach something to the student that they thought they could clearly demonstrate. In my group, I was the student and my teacher was teaching me how to count to ten in Chinese… to begin with I was panicking… how was I going to get my head around this one?

After a lot of patience on the teachers’ behalf’s we all watched each group, from quadratic equations to dance routines, every one had been taught something or other! We found in our group that singing through one to ten was the best way to learn as, typically, lyrics tend to be easier to memorise! From the teacher’s point of view, we deciphered that patience was key!

Next, we split into two larger groups and each group was given a typical school-day structure written down from the perspective of a current school student! As one person from the group read out the timetable, the rest of us had to act out what was being said, having a different place for each activity, for example assembly would be in one area and dance class somewhere completely contrasting. It was a very humorous task that provided us all with lots of laughs; especially, I think, because when it is read by an adult it almost pokes fun at the school day! We all truly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

PRIMARY 7 - Stuck in the Mud

By Charlotte Hulme

Tonight’s workshop was a mixture of laughter and emotion as we revealed some of our memories to the group about our personal experiences of primary school. Equipped with paper and colouring pens, we set out to draw or write about an experience we had at primary school whereby we were told off by a teacher for doing something ‘naughty’!

It was harder for some to think of an example for this, which was humorous in itself. After some creativity and thought we came together again and each shared our story. From knocking egg plants off structures whilst playing chase, to throwing stones over the school fence to singing too loudly to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie in a Bottle’, the memories being shared differed in their entireties. Despite being humorous, it was clear for some that these recollections of being told off evoked a plethora of emotion, with some feeling as though the teacher was unjust in his/her ways of punishment. I found it particularly interesting that I could draw on a memory straight away because it was something that I have never forgotten, albeit minor in the grand scheme of things, it was interesting to see that things that happen to us a young age remain with us for a long time, into adulthood.

We then split into three groups and one person laid on a big piece of paper and we drew around them. This stencil of a body then represented that of a teacher and we had to label contrasting parts of the body in order to depict the traits a teacher should have. Ideas included ‘patient’, ‘adaptive’, ‘creative’, ‘fair’, ‘calm’ and more, also writing why we thought the teacher should have these attributes! Using this as a stimulus, we took three of our words and made them into freeze frames and the remaining groups had to guess what we were trying to illustrate.

We then took it a step further and did a short improvisation, still in our groups, of a situation whereby a teacher uses two of their attributes in order to resolve a situation or apply their authority. For example, our group played stuck in the mud, one of us got hurt during this and so the teacher had to adapt the game so that we could all join in. This thus illustrated how a teacher should be adaptable and caring.

To end the session, we got into pairs and whilst one person spoke about their memory of being told off in primary school, the other had to act out what the other person was saying. We then swapped roles. I think this is where the poignancy of the stories came out, especially as I was acting out my pair’s story. It enabled us to explore the emotions that the other person must’ve felt at that time.

Despite it being hard to draw on memories from when we were so young, the session allowed us to explore and develop ideas about feelings during primary school and the contrasting emotions we all experience whilst becoming who we are. It was another productive and fun session.

PRIMARY 6 - Teachers

By Charlotte Hulme

For the purpose of introduction, my name is Charlotte Hulme and I have just embarked on the challenge that is final year of university at Brunel in West London. I am doing my degree in English Literature and Theatre and, consequently, I am doing my theatre placement here at London Bubble! So, from now I will be writing blog posts after our intergenerational workshops that run on Thursday evenings, in order to document the work that we do and the creative process!

During the workshop this evening we worked in different ways, using contrasting aspects of school life as the stimuli.

First of all, we split into groups of about four or five and each of the groups had a statistic that they had obtained during the week and brought to the session and this statistic was relative to primary school. In my group, we had the statistic that in China, 21 million children under the age of 10 years old use the web!

Consequently, we had to develop a way to show our audience this by incorporating the theme of ‘primary’. We struggled as a group at first to represent such a vast number without using words! However, we decided to represent this by all being on our phones, bar one participant, who did hop scotch in the middle. We then persisted to walk with our phones so close to our faces that we bumped into her over and over again. The girl doing the hopscotch then read the statistic aloud in a sombre, dissatisfied voice, as if to signify that she was in the minority.

Other statistics incorporated primary school aspects such as popular names, average heights and more. All of these represented in contrasting ways made for a comical yet informative start to the session.

Moving on, we split into groups again. Someone read aloud a script which described a teacher going to work and what she did in the classroom. From this, six specific gestures had to be created, to represent the key parts in the text. These gestures were to represent a teacher who is 1. Upbeat, 2. In control, 3. Make Things Clear, 4. Keeping on top of any challenges, 5. Bouncy Energy, 6. Stern.

The reader would then keep re-reading the text and we had to do our gestures over and over again, each time working on the precision of them. For example, we would keep repeating the same gesture continuously until the speaker started to read again; we would do our gestures every time the reader stopped, and we would freeze in our ending gesture position every time the reader started to read. This conciseness led to the actions becoming well rehearsed and fluid, especially after repeating them several times and working with contrasting speeds; fast, slow and so on.

We then incorporated the journey to school into this practice. The start of the piece of text described the teacher making his/her way to school. We had to make our way to school so that people whose name with ‘A’, for example, would arrive faster than those whose names began letters further down the alphabet. This, in turn, added the believable aspect into the work, as in everyday life we would all, perhaps, take a different route or journey in order to arrive at the same location.

It was a great session where we worked together as a group to explore, more deeply, the ways in which teachers do, themselves, incorporate gestures and (hopefully) enthusiasm, sometimes quite flamboyantly, in order to get a message across to their class full of students. The group consensus was that this practice worked far better without music or verbiage because it put more of an emphasis on the movements, drawing attention to our body language.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

A day in Leeds

It's 10.30am. I've been travelling for five hours and my body is waiting for my mind to arrive at the conference on Older People's Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The person beside me, is questioning whether we mean 'old', or 'older'. Her point is that the word 'older' can only make sense in relationship to something else, so if we want to own our language just say 'old'.

When I arrived, as I signed in I, like all the other delegates, was asked whether I identified as an older person. I paused. The biro of the inquisitor hovered over optional boxes. I considered whether I was ready to be put into that box. Well, yes I thought, I am older than most of the people I encounter, but no, I thought, I don't identify as an older person. And then, as you do, I got irritated with the options, and sort of expressed my dilemma. And instead of a tick, or a cross, words were written. 'He's not sure/doesn't know/doesn't accept the terminology/wants to remain'. That was the first 5 minutes of the day.

What I didn't expect was to meet a load of old/older artists. I had envisaged companies, and project leaders. I hadn't expected to run into Mike Kenny, Alan Dix, Gil Graystone and Alan Lyddiard and that was just the first table I came too. Of course it makes sense - these are old/older emerging artists - this is where we're going to wash up. Flotsam. All a bit wave beaten and rounded off - and we sort of laugh at our history, show our scars and honour each other as fellow travellers - which feels a bit smug until the talking and presentations start.

People cheat at the 10 word intro. If we're serious about doing 10 words - and some of us have been agonising about it all week, then we need a klaxon. People shouldn't be allowed to use 10 words to explain how difficult it is to only use 10 words. And no erring or erming please. There are presentations and provocations. There are pieces of theatre and discussions. Is not paying performers ethically compromising etc, and Kate Organ brings in the Vaughan Williams v Maynard Keynes bifurcation of the Arts - which is not discussed.

I'm surprised how orthodox the reference points are - we see plays, there is a script reading, there is hardly any questioning of process. Even Entelechy's Bed project is presented as a 'piece' with images, interspersed with questions and quotes. The process and the ownership of the project remains unexplained (and unchallenged).

In the afternoon I go to a practical workshop. Alan Lyddiard (Director), Choreographer, Tamara and Composer/Musician, Chris, take us through an accelerated version of their work. We sit in a line on chairs up-stage. We are a exhorted to close our eyes, to breathe, to empty our minds, to connect our energy points from feet to head, then eventually to stand and walk slowly to the front of the stage - thinking 'I am me, I am here, I am fine'. I've got lots of problems with this. First of all I'm experiencing a reflection of myself - older male director, dictating to participants. Secondly, I'm not fine - I am me, I'm just about here, but I'm completely knackered and I don't want to lie. And I don't want this work to be based on a lie.

Anyway I continue, no... I enjoy the exercise - we walk to the front, we change our minds, we return to the chair, we change our minds, we come back forwards we look at our hand, it rises slowly above our shoulder, we look away from it and it falls. Then Alan says we must say, 'I wish' or 'I remember' - we don't have to complete the sentence, but we do have to be me, to be here and be fine. Alan's script is much practised - like me he has done his exercises many times and has a schtick. But I question the emphasis on how we present ourselves confidently. Why can't we present with doubt? With fatigue? With not being fine?

Tammy steps in and we start to learn a simple (ish) sequence. Supplication, search, flight, hiding. As I write this I feel these intentions/gestures are a bit tired - universal perhaps but a bit tired. It's a bit Pina Bausch. Anyway we make a nicely flawed chorus - and Alan asks one or two to step out from time to time, to stand alone and say something to the audience. So while the flock continues to turn and flow, one stands separate and speaks directly to the audience of whatever they choose.

There's a point in the process when it jars with me. Tammy instructs us to be tall, to walk around with pride. I've heard these instructions before - I'm 6, in school, it's music and movement. I hated it then and I hate it now. It's false - don't tell me to motivate my body with an emotional recall I may not want to own/delve into. We are more interesting than that. The music is beautiful - Jarrett-ish, with Meredith Monk type muttered vocals. It allows everything, salves all. Don't know if it's cheating or therapy.

 All of this is related to the show we will see later - 'Anniversary', which has been made by Alan, Tammy and Chris, using these techniques. But there is time for a chat with Alan beforehand, and accompanied by David Slater and Dominic Campbell we chew the cud over chips. I feed back my opinionated notes to Alan and graciously he takes them. This is rare. It is unusual to be able to talk honestly to someone who is making work with a performers from all walks of life, as I do. There are very few places or spaces where we can challenge and discuss our practice. I recently saw a sharing of work between elders and teenagers which was held up as an example of good practice. The audience admired the 'bravery' of the participants and the endeavour - some even stood to applaud. However I felt what had been presented was poor - unfinished exercises, no unifying artistry and sloppy editing. To me the work let participatory performance down - but where are the spaces to talk about this and where are the spaces for existing practitioners to critique participatory methods?

 So to the show. An audience of 'real' people, a healthy house, multi-aged, not your usual suspects. The framing of the piece is non existent to start with - only the fact we're in a theatre lends artifice. But from the beginning there's Chris's music, plus a saxophonist, oh now there's percussion - and here come a signing choir. But within it we have people - humans. Some are experienced professionals - they've done their time with Lindsay Kemp Mime or London Contemporary Dance. Some are from the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Heydays company - one this morning explained to us that before doing Anniversary she had called herself a community performer, now she calls herself a performer. 

The show is light - and very heavy. Downstage are microphones which Wooster Grouplike, are used to address the audience with interpretations of the word anniversary. Some stories are funny, some bittersweet, some raw and painful. Between the stories the company dance/flock/move in patterns/schmooze and grind. We laugh as the oldest lady - a scot in her 90's, picks up and then dumps Namron (ex LCDT). Later this will be reversed - he abandons her - but only after she is lifted and held.

I am very moved by the piece - the choreography, staging, music and choices I find beautiful. There's  a moment five minutes in when two stage hands wander on to balcony above, up-stage they look down at the bare space below and seem to decide it needs something. And they head off to find some set and lighting to give ambience to the party below. Then slowly the theatricality is dripped in - a bank of house lights goes out, some balloons are fed on to the bare stage, then a bit of side-light. Slowly we transition into full theatre - not quite smoke machine stuff, but towards it.

Is this an eloquent explanation of what a theatre kit, like West Yorkshire Playhouse, can do for this work? What their role can be? Not necessarily starting from making theatre, but from catching life then platforming it, framing it, lifting it up for our attention?

It was the exploration of this intersection that I found most useful about the conference - considering
it not just through discussion, but through conversations interwoven with examples of work. But this territory  is different to mainstream theatre. It places new demands, offers new rewards and asks for new consideration. First of all whether we are 'old' or 'older', humans are not always 'fine'. The action of presenting autobiographical stories, whatever they may be, requires a compact of trust not only between the audience and performers, but between the community and the artist (or whatever words work for you). When this compact works, as it clearly does in Anniversary, we see new and brilliant work emerging with humanity sitting at the centre of both content and style. Not hidden or flattened out, but celebrated.

Secondly, this isn't the theatre of pretending or make-believe. This is theatre as a platform - sharing experiences, confirming, celebrating, empathising with humans. But there is more. The performing of the show consolidates the trust - and in performance the trust that has been fluid in rehearsals sets like a jelly, to be eaten with ice cream at a party. 

Anyone who wants to broaden the base of theatre-audiences and theatre-makers should note that through this trust strong relationships are established which ripple outwards to friends families and networks. And they should come along to the next conference, be they old or older.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Happy Birthday Theatr Clwyd

In September 2016, Theatr Clwyd celebrated a 40th birthday and having spent some time there in the early years I was asked to write a few words for their website. Sorry if it's a bit soppy, but it was a strong formative experience for me...

Theatr Clwyd gave me chances that I think are quite rare today. In its first few years I worked as a Director and before that as a Stage Manager when both the new theatre and I were trying to find our identity. I had been employed by the touring, Mold based, Grass Roots Theatre company (remember the Quality of Life Experiment anyone?) and was taken on a visit to the unfinished building. I remember the traps under the studio, as yet uncovered, and the fantastic grid system above. A well equipped black box. And that was before we saw the main house.

Working as a deputy stage manager on the book for George Roman I got to observe a director and actors working at first hand, then got to tour Sean Cavanagh's complex sets to narrower and shallower stage spaces. Encountering the ever interesting politics of the Welsh Arts scene.

After a couple of years George took me on as an assistant director. With two houses, touring projects and an occasional outreach offer there were plenty of opportunities. And, with a company numbering between 12 and 20 actors, there were also plenty of performers with time on their hands. At the same time I think the concept of 'marketing' was entering theatre (up until then it had been publicity). Roger Tomlinson was pioneering the subscription season, so cross casting was important and......(suddenly my stomach has turned over as I remember George going on holiday leaving me with the task of cross casting pieces of Shakespeare and Shaw).

Michael Hucks, Martin Harris and I were the beneficiaries of this theatre-making bounty. We had actors, technicians, space, cutting edge technology and time to experiment. Elsewhere Roger Tomlinson has written about Hitch Hikers. What he doesn't mention is it started life as a 3 part show - running over 3 evenings and coming in at 5 hours. Hugh Price, Paul Kondras, Adrian Ord, and many others took on ridiculous challenges for this epic - cutting a Morris minor in half and blowing it apart with an inflatable Bug Blatter Beast of Traal; placing a Vogon space ship above the audience and pumping compressed air and smoke down on to their heads; dangling 3 actors above the stage for a whole scene without damage; streaming a scene apparently live from the car park; commissioning not only a complete score but cartoon animations to be projected onto the front cloth during the ridiculously over-complicated scene changes. And then asking us to tour it UK wide.Douglas Adams was bemused.

But my fondest memories are of the Mystery Cycle productions (the Nativity and the Passion) - not just for the shows, but for the process. We were inspired by the way the original Guilds had each taken on different scenes, and in a fit of experimentation we decided to do away with specialism and challenge all the departments to take on a different role. As a result the carpenters took on the design, the wardrobe lit the show and I ended up in the band playing a baritone horn for the first and only time in my life. This was my first experiment with promenade theatre, and at the first performance the audience just leant against the wall of the studio and refused to move. We sorted it by the second show, and that was the point - we were afforded the space to try things out, take risks, fail, adjust, learn.

Arden of Faversham, Absurd Person Singular, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Catch 22, pantomimes featuring The Snurge - it's a long and particular list.

But while this might sound like a rosy spectacled reminiscence, I think there are a few lessons. The menu offered to the audience was eclectic. The semi-ensemble system not only offered young actors (and directors) an 'apprenticeship', it allowed the local population to get to know the actors over time. It challenged those actors to take on a range of roles and it brought those actors into the community.

And out of this period came Theatre Camel - Roger Delves Broughton, Andy Whitfield, Roger Blake, Sally Greenwood, Sue Elliot, Jon Strickland, Leader Hawkins, Paul Kondras and I formed the company and started to tour big shows to small theatres around Wales. Gormenghast and Gone With the Wind to name but two. All had met at Theatre Clwyd learned some craft, made mistakes and delivered some good theatre.
I spent ten happy, mad and seminal years at Theatre Clwyd and, as I wipe away something which seems to have got in my eye, I wish and hope that young theatre makers today get the opportunities to think big and learn on the job, as we did.

Happy Birthday TC and all who sail in her.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

PRIMARY 5 - Preparing for Interviews

By Georgia Clark

Someone had mentioned in one of our earlier workshops exploring the theme of ‘Primary Schools’ that they remembered ‘drawing a house and a tree and a sunshine repeatedly’ at primary school. We began this week’s session, the last of the summer ‘prepping’ workshops, with a group activity exploring this.

‘Was there something that you drew or wrote often when you were at Primary School?’

A3 sheets of drawing paper were lain out on the tables tempting our childhood doodles; horses, paradise scenes and Thunderbirds 2 were some of the images that adorned a line of rope strung up to accommodate our remembered drawings. We listened in as each person explained the story behind their drawing, rekindling the supportive dynamic of attending to and being curious about each memory that had been enjoyed in previous sessions.

Some of the drawings revealed stories of activities shared with siblings, begging the question of whether or not these drawings were actually done at Primary school. To alter the direction slightly, we talked about specific memories of drawing and creating done in the classroom.

Memories of art lessons echoed around, one where a primary school art teacher asked the children to copy paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe sticks in my mind, and we wondered aloud about the intention and purpose of these activities: Why did the teachers ask us to do this? Some answers were ventured; it’s about finding different ways for people to express themselves; to develop craft and motor skills. We collectively mused and considered our memories from new angles, seeing if we could intuit different meanings.

With a dynamic change in energy we were all up and working in partners to ‘sculpt’ each other into different shapes. At first we did this by physically moving the other’s limbs with our hands, and then we did it without touching the other person but using the same motion, as if a force field separated your hands and their body but carried the intention. We stepped back after each round to admire the room’s diverse statues.

This was a warm up for the next exercise – ‘strike a playground pose’ - bodies frozen running, playing, roaming and chatting animated the room. We broke up into four smaller groups and brought the still shots to life to create a short sketch. After watching these back in a group we were directed in replaying our sketches at the same time, so that they overlapped with each other, creating the first group sketch of the summer. A frisbee was being flung around in one corner of the room as someone fell over in another and play sword fighting traversed the space. We performed this several times, the instructions varying; ‘this time, do it as if your over acting at being a child’, ‘this time, like you’re actually an adult’, ‘make everything seem as if it’s the most important thing in the world this time.’

It was our first piece of theatre as a group; a taste of what a performance might look like once all the elements of our investigation have simmered together, infused with nuances of how our primary school persists in each of us, as well as how they are experienced today; the recipe concocted out of the rich ingredients collected in this ‘foraging’ process.

A short break was welcome after our exertions in the playground; we re-joined after five minutes to meet the next task of offering up ideas and thoughts which would inform some preliminary interviews and meetings on the subject. We began by considering in small groups what each of the following would want children to be by the end of primary school, some of the responses are in italics:

Industry - good production worker, good with hands, compliant, literate, numerate
Government - respect for other people, pass Key Stage 2
Secondary schools - good behaviour, confident, well-balanced, inquisitive
Our children - happy, able to cope, to be a child and have fun
‘Us’ - ready for secondary school, critical thinker, caring for others, have encountered diversity and difference

This would be the final workshop of the summer, they will resume in September and in the meantime myself and perhaps some others will carry out some interviews, or ‘meetings’, with people that have worked in primary schools and with those that went to primary school locally or abroad, to scope out what these meetings might look like and harness some material to play with in September. I was grateful that a final task would harvest the groups’ ideas of what they would like to ask people if they were the interviewers…

Some questions for a teacher, governor, retired teacher, dinner lady, caretaker or current student:

How do you deal with trouble?
What made you choose a career in teaching?
What is your favourite subject and why?
How many keys have you got?
What food do the children hate most?
What do you think of the exclusion policy for primary school students?

And with that the final prepping workshop drew to a close. It’s been a great summer - join us next term!