Monday, 21 September 2020

The Re-Marking, 5 (From the woods to the river)

For some reason hitting dates and marking moments can be important to me - not only does it bring an excuse, it allows the seasonal reminders to come into play. And in the same way I left Bubble exactly 30 years after starting, so I have chosen to start this last blog at the same time and day of the week as we met up in Oxleas Woods. Midday, Sunday 3rd August 2020.

Then, as today, the sun was shining and up around the cafe on the hill people were doing Sunday - longer dog walks, the proper breakfast, maybe a newspaper. 

At the bottom of the hill Dan was not alone - Clive Llewellyn, actor of this parish and his partner Janet were waiting. Sandy, Wilf and Carlotta - arrive with their coffees. Andrew Stern - a Greenwich resident, activist and connector, with fellow participants Judith and her daughter Danielle who have brought their inter-generational relationship to our inter-generational projects. Then Sam and Lukas, friend and actor Tanya. Pip, May - and yep, Nao Ngai - who first worked with the company as a technician many years ago and has lit shows and provided support, connections (and Japanese late night picnics) over the years. Then another Tania, - Tania Peach, production manager, another Greenwich-ite who made early outdoor shows possible. 

And Oxleas was the venue people who wanted the hard core promenade experience, came to. These are ancient woods, dense, hilly and wild. Every year that we did a show here I would come and plan the route. Every year I would get lost. Occasionally the stage manager leading the audience would get lost. There’s a lot of old magic here. 

Before we set off we have a task. Jools Voce - artist, performer, workshop facilitator, writer and thinker (who I should have mentioned at Canada Water because she was a key artist on the Great Outdoors) cannot be with us in person but has sent a series of tasks for us to undertake.

We follow the instructions and listen to Jools’s words…

Jools has written seven - postcards. We read them at the next stops facing in the directions asked. They explain her and her families connection to the woods, of her brother being a park keeper. They describe her work-journey with the company from participating performer to director, they explain the need for good boots, they talk about the show Jools made and performed here, about the fact she and Amanda called me Aslan and they talk about the community of theatre making and how it touched her and others. She nails it. 

We need to visit some of the performance sites. We set off into the woods past the outdoor gym and up on to the plain to talk about the various images we remember from scenes which we performed here. Then to a clearing on the edge of the woods where we are joined by Ken and Farhana - who has written various scripts for the company, and a tall man on a bike Mr Nick Khan - who gave many fine performances with Bubble in summer and Christmas shows and who is yet another local!

As ever Oxleas offers us a variety of environments. We stop and enjoy Jools’ words and remember bits and pieces of projects but the power of the woods rules. The overhanging branches break the sunlight, the leaves gel the rays and coloured light bathes our eyes. The wind moves the grass and strokes our faces. The different surfaces of the paths play into our muscles in subtly changing ways. There are smells and sounds too - it’s all very primal and I’m having a bit of a moment.

Up tp Sevendroog Castle and finally out of the edge of the woods and overlooking London - well the South Circular/Shooters Hill but. We cross Woolwich Common and talk briefly to a woman who is trying to collect the litter that has been left. She works up to and along a invisible borderline - her aim seems to be to keep a certain zone clean while the adjacent zones remain covered in detritus. 

We cut across Charlton Park - the grass is baked hard here and meet up with Iris - company archivist, supporter and participant. She has been in quarantine but we are passing her house and she will join the caravan for a stretch. We wind through Maryon Park or is it Maryon Wilson Park? There are two, and Andrew tries to explain the difference to me - but it won’t stick, why give two different patches of greenery the same name? We visited one or the other just the once. There was a spectacular electrical storm, the show was abandoned, but that night some of the inhabitants of the park decided to de-construct our set and seating. They left the pieces laid out on the damp grass like an airfix kit - attach piece A to component B, proceed to part C..etc.

I had announced at the start that the theme of the day was to be images - and yes we have conjured up memories - henges made of fridge freezers, singing sirens, fighting lovers, flaming arrows. But images of rain, interrupted shows and the sodden crew are just as strong. Water pouring off the roof of the beer tent. Steam rising from the damp rugs left out to dry the following day. 

It’s a bit of a schlep now to our next stop, Greenwich Park. The procession gets strung out. I worry that we might be pushing it but people are chatting away - Farhana and I talk scripts and writing projects and Ken and I talk about failing eyesight and hospital appointments. Sandy and Nao have their photograph taken.

At Greenwich, near the bandstand we are met by the Ogras - Shipra, producer, critical friend and key bubble saver, her family Arun, Aya and Zooni. She brings love and a much appreciated tub of Samosas. I pass round cherries - cherries have been on offer on every one of these walks. 

Down into Greenwich we go past the trees and bowls of Greenwich park, past the vistas and statues to meet Theresa and Richard - Theresa worked as administrative director for Bubble, cooked many meals but no books. She too is a stalwart of the extended company. 

And Lily is there - musician, writer and the MD on our last big show, Primary in which she dusted off and tamed the Marimba. Lily, Sam, Tanya and Wilf are of the same generation and all as children watched bubble shows. It gives me much pleasure that in the last few years each has helped make theatre with us as a professional artist - both in, and out of, doors. 

Down to the Cutty Sark. Memories of dancing cup cakes in Urban Dreams and then right on cue Tommy joins us. Once a member of the youth theatre, now a member of the Board - his first show was Urban Dreams which his mother Leslie wrangled him into. And now Eva turns up, and I ask her to try and wrangle Danielle and her mother Judith into the Mayflower project. As we stride past the artificial slopes of the Laban Centre she drops into step beside them. By Deptford they are on onboard. 

Nearing 11 miles on the clock now we decide to give the Albany a miss and head for the Dog and Bell. We stop by the adventure playground to take a pic of the surviving team. It’s been re-named the Richard McVicar playground and Mac, as he was know, was another friend of the company. I’m hoping Nicole Charles might join us. Another who grew up with Bubble, in her late teenage phase she pulled together a project on street arts. With Macs help Nicole interviewed the young people of Deptford who used the playground, and then made a show which was performed here - I remember her mic in hand, pulling in the audience. 

Then it’s 2000 and high on the walkways of the playground, the monstrous Humbaba is slain by Gilgamesh and Enkidu as three goddesses in tall purple wigs incant to the mortals below. They looked like a cross between the Supremes and Marge Simpson. Nicole was one of the trio.

Nicole comes to Deptford but can’t find us. In the pub friends come and go, Angie Bain turns up - she too has been looking for us, searching the streets of Greenwich without luck. But she’s here now. Then Tania Peach drops in with her daughter, Katie - another young artist making her way in the world.

I enjoy the London Pride as Nick Goode, another Bubble alumni, plays fiddle with the band in the garden. 

There’s been 27 friends today and just the one dog. The endeavour has worked - it has eclipsed recent events and exorcised some ghosts. It’s been a slice. 

There will be one or two more Re-Markings coming up, but in the meantime...



To all who came and made it.

To Dan for advice on flaneuring and pics.

To Sandy for ordnance surveying and yarns.

To Fran for natural history and pics.

To Pip for proof reading and love.

Peth 21.9.2020.

The Re-Markings, 4 (Dodgy Southwark).

Southwark is the home of Bubble. Over the years we have drenched the borough in theatre. My list shows 16 places where we have made significant performance pieces - and that’s before we get round to the schools, the sheltered housing units, the youth settings and the businesses. Yep, drenched is the right word. Has it made a difference? That’s for another day.

We’re going to visit 8 of those venues and along the way I want to big up the practitioners whose ideas we nicked. And it’s just as well we’re just doing the eight, as this particular 9.5 miles will be undertaken on what is officially ‘London’s hottest day on record’. It gets to 37.8 degree Centigrade - which is a neat 100 degrees Fahrenheit - well that was actually measured at Heathrow. But believe me when we gather at The Scoop, even though we’re beside the cooling waters of the Thames, it’s frigging toasty. 

We gather at 3pm. According to the records, at ten to three it was a mere 37C (with a 15 mph wind and a visibility of 16 km, so what are we complaining about?) Dan is waiting - he has a hat today, very sensible. Some arrivers are expected - my son Wilf, the chair of trustees Simon H, councillor Damian, Dame of the parish Simon T, choreographer/quizzist Maggie, participant Ken - who clearly can’t get enough of this, and Pip. But two are unexpected - Martin, who started with Bubble as a young theatre maker but has been a company member for the last few intergen shows. Then a strange man in beard, baseball hat and sunglasses, who I do not recognise… until… of course. Andy Serkis - actor, saxophonist, Gollum and now motion capture guru/big cheese director. I am touched - Andy and my (and Pip’s) working relationship goes back to about 1986 - when he was just out of uni and I was cutting my directorial teeth in Lancaster. He worked with Bubble in the tent, in a good production of Threepenny Opera back in 1990. It’s great to have him along - that’s until I ask him to get behind a camera - but more of that later. 

The Scoop was the site of the Bubble pancake race - notorious, dangerous, cold and wet (sometimes), hated by (most) staff, loved by participants, a bit ridiculous. An annual event of egg finding, flour gathering and pancake tossing which brought a bit of messiness to this semi-public, privatised space. It was also the site of Forty Walls and Ten Doors - a community piece which filled the Scoop with people and moving walls. 

We head for Bermondsey - along the river with Mr Hughes taking short cuts and dropping in bits of local history. We dodge through estates and across the squares of South London. It’s hot. Is that a London plane or a cactus I see through the heat haze? 

We arrive at Kintore Way and sit on the grass across from Kintore nursery. I want to talk about Vivian Gussin Paley as it was in the reception here class, that I first properly tried out her story gathering, story enactment technique. Vivan is a hero of mine. She brought simple theatre making into a kindergarten setting in Chicago, reflected on and recorded what she was doing, then wrote beautifully and succinctly about the serious business of children’s play. I was lucky to visit and observe her working, then to adapt one of her books for the stage. I was also fortunate to meet some the children at Kintore. 

There are two I remember. A girl who wouldn’t take up the offer to tell a story - and who the teachers believed didn’t speak English. And a boy who did accept the challenge. In week 1 his story was ‘my brother and I watch TV’. That was it. Week 2, when I asked him if he wanted to develop his story he extended it to ‘my brother and I watch a cop show on the tv’. Week 3 he took no prompting - ‘my brother and I watch a cop show on the tv and the baddies come out of the tv and chase us’. OK, that’s interesting. But  in week 4 ‘my brother and I watch a cop show on the tv and the baddies come out of the tv and chase us and we chase them back into the tv and fight them’.  

While the boy was playing with concepts of narrative a la Vonnegut/Beckett, the girl was building up to opening her story telling account. When she did start she told a beautiful extended story, (in English) about her grandmother, a swimming pool and the gobblers (aka sharks). 

As we sat on the scorched grass and vultures circled above, I explained Bubble sort of had a Grandmother - Vivian, and a Grandfather, who I would talk about later. I read from a letter Vivian had sent, then we set off for the Biscuit Factory and Southwark College to remember custard cream making (From Docks to Desktops) and then foraging for testimony about schools deploying a little kit of smells and textures to prompt (Primary).  

These and our next two stops - Dilston Grove and the Swedish Church were all animated by projects researched and performed by intergenerational teams of (mainly) Southwark residents. Artfully designed by Pip and skillfully scripted by Simon Startin, these were prime examples of what I call Vernacular Theatre - made from local materials, by local people, for local purpose.

At the Swedish Church I pass round a picture of Len Hatch - ex Docker, contributor, critic and the inspiration for from Docks to Desktops. We read from the play - it’s a piece taken from an interviews with Barry Albyn, undertaker. 

‘When I was a kid and I walked along Tanner Street, all I could smell was the hide, the leather. As I walked up Bermondsey Street there were other smells, because you had where they made mink, which were quite vile smells, then you walked further up and you had the perfume factory. Then you’d get to Pearce Duff’s and you had the custard stewing, you know. Then you’d get to the Blue and have Edwards or Spa bakery with that lovely bread smell, then you’d get to where the biscuits were being baked, coconut on a Thursday, Bournville on a Friday, you know. So everything in this area is summed up with smells. There are new smells now. There’s the Mogul I can smell, with the lovely spices as you go past. There is the Turkish bakery at the back of the shop opposite. The smells are still there. The smells are just different. And the people are just different’. 

Arriving at Canada Water square we step over the bleached bones of commuters who have succumbed to dehydration and are joined by Marigold - producer and maker of intergenerational projects, Lucy Bradshaw - Bubble’s senior co-ordinator and intergen performer and Marva - who not only has been a stalwart of almost all of our pantomimes but appeared, with her daughter, Georgia in a project performed here, in this very square. 

A bespoke piece inspired by the water fowl on the lake to one side and the tube and bus station on the other. Made for the expansive square with about 90 performers, a live music score, Wellington boots and a lot of plastic rain ponchos. 

On we go - across the lovely Russia Docks Woodland, where I announce ‘Bubble did precisely nothing’ - but no, someone corrects mem we did a bugs and slugs project here. There’s a lovely rolling conversation going on now, artists, friends, family talking about what happened, what is happening now, what might happen soon, it’s getting slightly cooler. A camel train lopes past, merchants with silks, perfumes, spices. Aromas of the desert are carried on the mistral. 

Then I get us lost - the only time on the Re-Markings so far. But on this long hot walk it really isn’t the time to add another half mile to the itinerary, but I do. 

Finally we locate the Pump House. This is where the ‘Grandfather’, Augusto Boal comes into the picture. He came to Bubble back in the early 1990’s to teach and talk about his practice of Forum Theatre - one of his Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. Andy, Simon Thomson and I all attended those early workshops some of which took place here. The learning impacted on all three of us and informed the work we have made since. There’s a short passage I want to share from one of Boal’s books…

‘The theatrical profession, which belongs to a few, should not hide the existence and permanence of the theatrical vocation, which belongs to all. Theatre is a vocation for all human beings: it is the true nature of humanity’.

It’s time for a team photograph. Luckily we have an Oscar winning film-maker in our midst so I entrust Mr Serkis with the task. Unfortunately it seems he was suffering from heat exhaustion and his sweaty finger slipped on the focus button. 

Several pounds lighter we drag ourselves along the riverside path to our final destination. Cath is there to meet us very sorry that she was unable to partake in the hike but she has many many good reasons. 

While The Ship has never been a Bubble performance venue it has played an important part in the story. The pub sits opposite Bubble HQ. When I arrived in 1989 it was known as the office and too much time was spent there solving the problems of the current project and discussing the the ways of the world. Times and licensees changed but it is still the go-to place for after work wound-licking/plot-making/sorrow-drowning and re-marking marking.

It’s an appropriate terminus. Today - the 31st July 2020 - is contractually my last day as Creative Director with London Bubble. But as we sit there slaking our thirst and resting our aching limbs that slips my mind.

The Re-Markings, 3 (The North!)

8.5 miles. 10 people. 2 dogs.

Dan is sitting on the bench outside Waterlow Park cafe. Of course he is. It’s a greyish afternoon at the top of Highgate Hill, rain threatens and it’s a Monday. Monday 27th July 2020. To my surprise and pleasure participant and ex-vicar (I believe) Ken, phoned earlier to let me know he is coming. Apparently Lucy at Bubble HQ has passed on details to some of the group members. Pip, May and I are slightly early but here’s Jimmy, and Guler, and Lianne - I did not know they were coming! Sandy arrives - he wasn’t coming either, but he’s here. Cath, Charter of the Mayflower. And now Michael Breakey - a survivor of the first walk. Then Pip’s brother and loyal audience member Chris with his dog Tobi. Two dogs. 

Two dogs is appropriate, for Waterlow is the park where Nick Khan, playing Tweedledee, or was it dum, was attacked by…. I’m a couple of sentences into my explanation when up strides Mr Folorunsho. Charlie F, who himself played Tweedledum - or was it dee? And of course Charlie, has written a poem for the occasion - which he now gives.

A wee little story not long to last

But in Alice at Waterlow we had the twin scene task 

Mr Khan was giving his Tweedledee blast

When golden Labrador ran fleetingly past

Hated the sword, shield and acting master class

And barked proper loud for the crowd, lots of laughs!

Ran Dee down as Labbie seemed pretty aghast

And soon she reached him, bit him straight on the arse..

Least when the checked him he’d had his Tetanaas!!

Which he wrote on the tube on the way to the walk, apparently. This is all true and lovely but not quite as I remember it - we drop down the slope to the scene of the crime as it starts to rain gently. My version - there were two labradors. The boys were dressed as boy scouts replete with caps - and apparently dogs don’t like men in hats. Nick fended off the dog with his wheelbarrow. The dog attached itself to his buttock. He did a complete 360 with the dog swinging off the ground securely attached. I’m afraid I was helpless with laughter. Nick was in shock. 

A letter we received later from an audience member included three bullet points of feedback - the second reads “Really sorry the dog attacked Mr Tweedle (dum? dee?) - (sic). I hope he’s feeling better. Security needs to be better, they would watch the people not the play. But it was still a shame.

(The third bullet point reads “No sex and violence in the play. Although I guess you did this to make the show accessible to tiny children, you didn’t have to”… and goes on to argue for the inclusion of adult content in kids shows). Well the dog attack was pretty violent.

It’s appropriate the Chris and Pip are here. Our children played together many times in Waterlow, as Chris lived nearby - and still does. We have memories of the older boys on a toboggan - and then when young Sam got his turn, the unforgettable image of him losing control of the sledge as it gathered momentum down the hill, and him disappearing over the edge and down, what I knew was, an almost vertical drop to the footpath below. - I was helpless with laughter then too. This is the place Pip last saw her Mum in London - she was taken to the Whittington at the bottom of the hill. This is the place I got the phone call my Dad had been taken into hospital - I flew from the rehearsal to his bedside and almost as soon as I arrived he said his goodbye as best he could, closed his eyes, then made a slow, gradual and graceful stop - stillness - death, we call it.

And the place had and has much life - we got big joyful mixed audiences here, all ages. And lots of dogs. 

Out the bottom of the park we go and down to Parliament Hill fields. Charlie will only go as far as he can manage - he is walking with a stick but quite determined to participate and I am honoured. Charlie is big man of the theatre - he is known by all and knows everyone. He is passionate about story, performance and the politics surrounding our business. We first worked together back in my second Bubble season. He has done Carpet Tales, Pantomimes and Parks. He has been a board member and officiated at Linda Dobell’s funeral. Oh and now he writes poems it seems.

We are aiming for the original Bubble HQ - or the Roxy as it was known, where the company was first set up in 1972. When we get there it is gone. The site replaced by newly built maisonettes. Nevertheless there is an air of excitement and Charlie dubs it ‘The Source’.  I read an extract from Tony Rowlands’s history of the first 12 years of Bubble - Castles in Park (available on the company’s website and well worth a read).

“It is hoped the Itinerant Theatre Company will play for a week or more in each Borough in order to involve the whole community in the company’s activities. A possible programme could consist of: a main musical extravaganza; a late-night play; a children’s play, plus specially arranged workshops and school playground ‘events’; two short revue pieces which would be incorporated into a variety show….and a rehearsed reading of ‘The Cherry Orchard’, ‘The Wild Duck’ or a new play.” 

Which was taken from the Greater London Arts Magazine the year before the company was formed. 

A team photograph is taken and a suspicious woman comes out to water her plants and see what all the fuss is about.

Charlie (that’s him in the hat at the back) leaves us here after Jimmy lets him in on the secret that a secret bus runs from here, southwards, and across the river back to the land of normality. 

The rest of us trudge on, past the Roundhouse (and memories of a time before Bubble) through the hell that is Camden Town today and then, just before we start along the long stretch beside Kings Pancras, we come to Old St Pancras Church - which rings a bell for both Pip and me.

We stop in the churchyard and I impart all I know about the Hardy Tree (which takes all of 15 seconds) and Pip imparts all she knows about Mary Wollstonecraft whose tomb is also here (Pip takes about 30 seconds but I’d argue she speaks slower). 

For those that want to know, Mary Wollstencraft - philosopher, writer, feminist - wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She died at just 38, 11 days after giving birth to Mary Shelley. As a young architect Hardy had to oversee the moving of graves and their contents to allow the adjacent railway line to be widened. He decided to lay the headstones around an ash tree - see image below.

Erudite and informed we stride on past the aforementioned railway line and Eurostar terminal, then across the Euston Road. 

We are tired and the conversation has turned to which pubs might be open - including one that is normally run by Cath’s friend, but it’s her day off apparently.

But before the pub we must visit the Cochrane. This is where we did pantomime, and where Breakey worked with Central St Martins. I witter on about the seats - for some reason the auditorium has a slight undulation and the seats were made of different heights so everyone could see. That’s until someone took all the seats out, and then put the rows back in the wrong place so latterly you might find yourself sitting in a low seat at the bottom of the undulation behind a tall seat up the slope in front of you!. Well I find it interesting.

But Breakey has a present for me (the first of two I will receive this evening). He explains something I wasn’t aware of. Apparently he tried to smuggle an image of me into each of the pantos - for morale purposes you understand. And he has a tin of Bubble beans for me. With an image of a younger, svelte looking Peth, adorning the front. This is beautifully made. The ingredients list on the label reads

  • Methane 10 cubic metres
  • Farts 160
  • Runny poos 2.5
  • Burps 17
  • Uncomfortable silences 4
  • Furtive glances 24

Panto. When the whole team makes merry.

When we get to the pub there’s just the hardcore left. We have a good drink and Cath gives me a book - ‘This Land is their Land’ - David Silverman’s recently published book about the history of the Wampanoag people and their relationship to the Mayflower. Not only is this a lovely gift with a lovely inscription, it’s thoughtful and pertinent to the project we’re currently developing. The content is spot on, it’s exactly what we need to bring the next project to fruition. 

The Re-Markings, 2 (Lovely Lewisham).

Sunday 26th July. 11am. Pip (my partner), May (our dog) and I, descend the slope of Sydenham Wells Park to find Dan enjoying the morning sunshine. Sandy and Fran, who live quite locally, bounce up. Then Ian Mac with his bike - once a ‘participant’ now a jobbing actor. Then friend of the company and local Twitterist Jane and her husband, another ‘participant’ (I prefer non-vocational artist/actor, but that’s a bit of a mouthful) Eammon. Down the slope comes Simon Startin who has written many of the scripts for shows that graced this park. A good group.

I want to re-visit the stream-side site we always used but on arriving we find the largish playing space - where Sirens of Titan bounced on space hoppers and the rattle stealing crow from Alice was simulated by a huge sheet being passed over the audience - from back to front (please enjoy Saul’s rendering of the moment below)

But this  largish, useful and lovely playing space now has what looks like a sizeable Christmas tree in the middle of it.

This is quite common in my experience - a number of clearings or greens where scenes were once played have since gained flower beds or saplings - and in my more paranoid moments I do wonder if this is a deliberated action to stamp out outdoor theatre. 

Through the stinging nettles of the nature reserve we go - am I the only one sporting shorts? And down to the wonderful weeping willows, just as Jane Nash and Dan (the second), find us - and Amanda scampers across from the playground where her two children whose father she first met at the Bubble Adult Group - are demanding her attention.

These willows spread their branches wide and drop a curtain of leaves around us, as they have actors and audiences before. 

Reflecting that last week’s walk might have felt a bit weird to the walkers, I’ve prepared a few words and a few bits of pieces to share along the way. Under the willows I read the following.

A word on the intention behind the Re-Markings

We’re re-visiting.

They say you should never go back.

But these walks are a deliberate disobeying of that advice.

The park shows and pantomimes drew an audience of all ages.

In the parks and woods the story took them on a journey.

And the walk, the promenade, emphasised that story.

Physicalised, imprinted, (weathered-in) the story.

It was strong.

Silly and seasonal and serious and skilful.

An egg running away into the distance

A dog sniffing a Gilgamesh

Mechanicals clogging

Cup cakes dancing

Bishops protesting

All witnessed by children, elders, babies, dogs, stragglers, sprinters.

Lit trees.

Wrapped trees.

Beautiful trees.

Maybe music.

Children leaning in.

Actors in flow.

If that theatre is unusual now, we must leave examples and tips, and hope it will be made again.

So this walk - these walks - are partly a tribute, a thank-you, to the writers, actors, designers, technicians, administrators, makers, funders and audience members who made that theatre. Thank you.


they are also intended to leave a sign

(In the hope that others might gather the generations)

To awaken images

(In the hope that other might play)

So please help me amplify reverberations.

Help me scratch and scour some markings. 

And on we go. 

This is the Lewisham Re-Marking. This is my home borough - the place we live and which has nurtured us and our two sons. The younger one - Sam, now a small child of 26 - arrives now, with partner Lukas. Sam - and his brother, Wilf - grew up with the company. They had the fortune to attend rehearsals, to watch the craft of wonderful actors, to participate and more recently to work with the Bubble as artists in their own right. These walks are for them, and Pip, too. 

The Bubble is based in neighbouring Southwark but has worked in many Lewisham venues animating at least twelve of the boroughs outdoor spaces. We won’t mark all of them but if we get a wiggle on we can visit at least eight. 

Through Sydenham woods we go. Stopping for Fran to tell us about the rare Corky-fruited-water-dropwort - a species she and other volunteers helped to save for Sydenham. Then on to the Horniman Museum Gardens where we are joined by Sophie Russel (aka Richard the third) and her husband Dennis, Charters of the Mayflower Keitha and Jane and people take on coffee and pastries and enormous burgers from the Sunday morning market - there isn’t time for this!

I take the group to an out of the way patch at the bottom of a quite severe incline and talk about slopes and wheels. Slopes because they allow better vantage points for audiences. Wheels because in promenade getting scenery and kit around the park places a good wheel at a premium. The problem is wheels and slopes don’t always go together happily. 

So stories of near misses - Titania’s bed/bower on wheels running on hyper-active fairy power, only just stopping short of the audience. The Morris van at the end of the Crock of Gold, piloted by Rachel ‘I’ve just passed my driving test’ Essex, would it start? Would it stop? But chiefly images of Mojisola Abebayo’s Oberon mixing a potion on the arched belly of Jan Knightley’s Puck - with a stream of water from his mouth supplied when she twisted his ear. For the Dream is actually the only show we played in Horniman Gardens. 

So onwards… to Dulwich Park - where Rachel ‘I passed my driving test over 15 years ago now’ Essex is waiting for us, and we will meet up with Charlotte Medcalfe - actor, musician, gardener, who lives locally and has just received a text that we are walking her manor.

In Dulwich we talk about bushes and I read a show report from Metamorphoses in which Nao Ngai has detailed the destruction wrought by a fox and the disturbance of a lone clapper, defined by Nao as ‘a person who claps when no one is clapping’. Amusing I think. Sophie and Rachel interject and give the actors side - working in costumes that have been wee’d on by a fox is not pleasant, turning your ankle running from scene to scene is not pleasant. The lack of sympathy I had shown when Sophie did this and I joked ‘are we going to have to shoot you’ wasn’t amusing. Like all directors I’d remembering the images, the moments, the impressive bodywork of a show - not the engine under the bonnet, the sweat, the risks taken by actors and crew. 

We walk the mile or so to the Ivy House at the top of Peckham Rye. After a couple of cold drinks we set off over the railway tracks and climbing to Hilly Fields - more slopes up at the top of which we find Lucy B and her mum, waiting patiently. They escort us down to Ladywell Fields. People peel off - we’ve been walking in the hot sun for the best part of five hours. But this is good, this is draining some of the past from my stomach and legs, treading the aches and the images into the pavements and paths. 

There are just the three of us left. Sandy, Fran and I, who walk more slowly alongside the Ravensbourne River which was released from cement banks back in 2008 and allowed to snake across the park creating a flood plain and access to the water.

When the restoration was completed Bubble were commissioned to celebrate the river and, working with local artists, we created a sort of park-walk-performance-experience. Rivers and People is one of my favourite projects - children at the beginning playing in pyjamas and dressing gowns, elders at the end sitting silently in pyjamas and larger dressing gowns. In between flocks of paper-reading commuters, formation dog walking, film of park users projected on to the railway arches, chandeliers made from discarded plastic bottles twinkling in trees, soundscapes of beetles, a roller-blading dragon, librarians perched in trees dressed as victorian writers, quoits of books and a storyteller sharing the long lost legend of the Ladywell Naiad. 

At the start audience members had been invited to jot down a wish, bottle it and launch the bottle into the river. Downstream they spotted the Naiad herself - sitting on the river, reading the wishes made by the audience. Maureen - muttering to herself, reading and throwing away the requests. 

But here I go again, remembering the external image. 

It was only later that Maureen - in her 70’s then - had told me that her feet, dangling in the celebrated river as the September night fell, had virtually frozen. 

The Re-Markings, 1 (Valentines to Three Mills).

Sunday morning. A greyish day. July 19th. I’m standing at the top of the steps outside one of the many entrances to Gants Hill Underground Station. This is where we will meet. 

Adrian Jackson arrives first then, in need of refreshment, sets off to find the Bagel shop which I mentioned as an incentive in my invitation but which has inconveniently moved across the roundabout. Dan Copeland arrives and follows Adrian back down and across. Then Sandy and Fran. While I wait for them to bagel up I reflect that at least someone has turned up. So what have we got? - a previous associate director who developed work with Augusto Boal, an actor who illuminated our outdoor work with presence and clarity, a once Chair of the Board and ex theatre writer (Sandy) and someone who worked with London local authorities before devoting her time to looking after green spaces (Fran). That’s a fair representation of the alliances that Bubble relied on when making promenade shows. 

A text lands. Eric MacLennan - actor, artist and another good friend - he is waiting just inside Valentines Park. Clutching bagels and coffee we set off to meet him. 

From 1993 to 2007 Valentines was the park where Bubble opened its summer season. From the last tent season in 1993, via the change to promenading in 1994, from community cast shows through to the ACE withdrawal of funding in 2007, the Bubble would be resident in this Ilford green space for at least a week before setting off to circle some of the rest of outer London. We started our season here and we will start the walks here.

Eric greets us with his customary warmth and we set off across Valentines to the tree. 

Promenade shows mark outdoor spaces like dogs mark lampposts. Watching a scene played out below trees or by water creates a memory that is fusion of nature, story and performance. Or is this just me - it might well be as Adrian doesn’t remember anything about this place despite having directed a show here. 

Back on the trail like dogs we catch the scent of previous visits. Baucis and Philemon played in the sandpit there. Mosquitos bit the Lidell family in their boat on that lake there. Pericles’s stage started to tilt as it took to the seas, there. 

And we arrive at the tree.  

Trees become the theme of this walk. They provide a backdrop, shelter, focus, lighting grid, making for quick changes - and points of suspension. From this tree we dangled a victorian chaise longue. In it reclined a caterpillar smoking a hookah. Courtest of designer Keith Khan, caterpillar Linda dobell and flying by Tim Anger. The tree - a wonderful mature fir, looked down over many scenes over the years, but for some reason it's Linda as the caterpillar that is caught in my memory. 

We stride off, past where base camp sat and on towards Forest Gate. Not only is the conversation good the task of linking up bits of London that you may not know, and certainly didn’t know connected, is strangely satisfying. Eric and Adrian leave us at Wanstead Flats - a vast expanse that the council claims as part of Epping Forest - we were not convinced. Michael Breakey - designer, maker, teacher, performer - joins us at West Ham Park. We’ve done four miles now - have I misjudged the task? Sandy talks to an ice cream man, then to a caterer and then joins one of the four cricket teams who seem to be playing on the same cricket pitch, 8 batsmen and 8 bowlers working alongside each other, but in the field can there really be 38 fielders or are they playing for more than one team?

Pausing only to stage a photo shoot on the wrong Abbey Road zebra crossing...

…we find the Greenway - a new path on top of an underground sewer that takes us to our destination, Three Mills Island in Bow. 

This was a venue we only played a few times but it represents some of the less lush spaces Bubble animated. Here the trees are in their infancy. The grassed area is flat and perfectly circular. There are no undulations to offer sight lines, no bushes to hide props in, nothing to obscure one scene from another. But the local authority were happy we came and delivered part of their cultural plan - and that was our remit.

We part. I leave Dan at the bus stop and walk on to Mile End station. The streets are quiet - this is late lockdown remember. There’s a Fullers pub open but I resist the call of a pint of Pride and find that the Bow Road seems to be a bit longer than I remember it. 

So has the first one worked? For me, yes - something has been shed, perhaps left in the locations we visited. And some emotional connection has been tested, some memory that perhaps I didn’t fully believe has been checked. The tree was still there - perhaps a bit bored now - but it was a witness, and it testified.

The Re-Markings. An introduction.

On July 31st 2020 I stepped away from my role as Creative Director of London Bubble Theatre Company. I was appointed to the role in July 1989. So that’s just over thirty years. Some people think I started the company. This is not true, four Directors preceded me, and the founder, Glen Walford, did two stints.

I was 66 (and still am at the time of writing). I knew I was coming to the end of my tenure so had some time to think about the impact. Should I adopt the brace position or visualise a soft landing?

I had a memory of interviewing the founder of Welfare State, John Fox just before the last performance of the last piece he made with the company. His departure was not a happy one. I remember vividly his rage and I made a note to myself at the time that I wanted to leave in a more settled state, with my affairs in order and my mind at peace. 

But…leaving a theatre company is tricky. Other artists can easily continue their practice - writers, painters, composers, they can continue to create alone. Theatre-makers need people - especially Directors. It’s difficult to continue to create without first assembling a company. 

It is also personally disturbing. You are leaving friends - the people you have made theatre with are essential to a directors craft but they are not inanimate pens or brushes, they are fellow travellers, artists in their own right - co-creators and critical friends. So the loss is both professional and social.

To an actor this will sound pathetic. Actors make and unmake relationships within ensembles and casts regularly - I stand in awe at their ability to commit emotionally knowing the relationship will end. To a writer or designer, who stand once removed from a company, it will also sound like whining - my partner, Pip Nash, is a designer and I know how brutal the relationship to a show and company can be. 

However some roles in the arts, like Artistic/Creative Directors or Conductors, rely on ongoing relationships that may last for a number of years, and when this emotional labour is no longer required the change process needs thinking about. 

In the long term I intend to conduct some interviews with long serving directors and reflect on what they say - partly for therapeutic reasons, partly to question the idea that Directors should change roles every 5 years - which has become orthodoxy. (An orthodoxy no-one mentioned to Pina Bausch).

But in the short term I had to do something for myself - and perhaps for the artist-friends who I had worked with at Bubble. After looking over my artistic record - a list of shows and venues, many of which had slipped into the swamp areas of my mind - I was struck by the geographical spread of the work. Not only 60+ shows, but 60+ different places. From that came the idea to re-visit some of the locations, to weave them into walks and invite artist-friends. Simply to say - we did that, here. And it was good. 

I called the walks the Re-Markings. 

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.