Sunday, 10 March 2013

Reflecting back and moving forward

After performing the first 17 minutes of One at First in 3 at Northern Stage on Thursday 7 March I found myself hoping that everyone else thought that went as well as I did. It wasn't perfect - that's not what Scratch is for - but I didn't cough (bloody thing kicked off 10 mins before hand) or throw up (food and drink on stage plus nerves make for a potent cocktail), which was a good start.

I got some laughs in the places I hoped for them but more importantly it felt good to be up there. I like the more live arty moments, the more dark and surreal. I like the fact that a lot of the text plays on more than one level.

Like I said, it wasn't perfect. There is a lot to be learned. I messed up on some audience interaction. I picked on the first person I saw and unfortunately she was someone who works at the venue. She was also clearly uncomfortable and in the moment I didn't do enough to help her. I could almost hear Kate Fox's voice in my ear... It was played too much to the room and was too general when some of it could have been used to really talk to people. Some of that was nerves and all of it can be learned from.

The tapes are clunky but I hope not too distracting. I still believe they are the right thing to have. They tie in to a certain nostalgia. They are imperfect and fit in with the idea that I am in control of my environment; that I have everything I need to populate my world. But I also need to be able to flip that idea and bring the audience in. I don't want to keep making the same point. 

It will be very interesting to read the feedback. To see what people saw, liked, wanted more of and no doubt some of the stuff they didn't. I hope the majority of it is as positive as I felt coming out of the show.

Lots to think about. 

A post show dissection with Ellie Harrison on Friday and I was still feeling good. I'm at a place where I feel I can stop retreading the same ground and move on. This hopefully means I can try something totally new at Transform in April, which would be riskier but more useful to me. I think I am past the making stage and can now look forward to structuring, rehearsing, molding, learning and polishing. It feels like a I am entering a new phase in the project.

Monday, 18 February 2013

An outside eye - working with Ellie Harrison

On Friday 15 February I had a very different, but no less productive, day with Ellie Harrison at The Carriageworks.

Ellie is acting as an outside eye on the show and I find her particularly helpful when it comes to thinking about the ideas and especially about the structure of the piece. We spent a lot of time pouring over the various bits of 'material', written, tried and tested, physical, musical and totally untried to get a sense of what I have. There was a lot.

Ellie asked a lot of probing questions including the hardest of all to answer; "What am I trying to say?"

She told me that I was being too harsh on myself and at the same time not hard enough... And yet, I still think maybe she was going a little easy on me. A lot of the material I have is too similar. It treads a lot of the same ground. We teased out a number of themes that play nicely together and I feel that there could be a strong 30-40 minutes in there. It was one of those days where you spend a lot of time re-arranging pieces of paper into a coherent order of sorts. And we did, for the most part, but there is still a rather large question mark over the end of the piece and consequently over my head.

What am I trying to say that I haven't already said? What is the big finish? Could that possibly be all there is to say?

I need to spend some time running in what I have and seeing if it works off the page as well it does laid out on a floor or in my head. I'm happy to say that the opening section from the very first Scratch seems to be holding strong as a nice foundation.

I'm looking forward to showing the first 20 minutes in a few weeks at First in Three at Northern Stage. I'm pretty sure that is the best test for the material. Especially if I mean what I say in the copy I wrote; I can't do it without an audience.

In the meantime, I have a photo shoot for the publicity image (and my website...) and lots to think about/try. Wish me luck.

No strings attached - workshop with Liz Walker

On Thursday 14 February I travelled to the wintry wilds of Holmfirth to spend the day with Liz Walker from Invisible Thread, in her barn on a very steep hillside.
The best thing about working with Liz, and what I really needed at the time, was that right from the offset she wanted to DO, to try things. I showed her what I had brought: my laptop, notebook, tapes, cassette players, a bouncy ball, some sand and other things we might use. We also had access to the incredible treasure trove of items in Liz's workshop. And so we played, quite unlike I have played so far in this process. I almost felt like a child again.

Obviously Liz's strengths lie in puppetry and visually articulating ideas using objects and a whole host of media. When I first started thinking about making One I had thoughts of invisible friends, sex dolls, substitutes for real relationships that cover the gaps in our lives. I was concerned about inhabiting a space alone and wanted to look into object manipulation to create other characters to play with. But things have changed quite a lot along the way and while I still worry about my ability to fill a stage I am also sure that I don't want to put things in place just to have something to hide behind. I had to finally let go of some ideas that have been with me from the start because they now feel like part of a different show, that I am no longer making. And even though I sort of knew this before I got there, I was adamant that I wanted to at least try them before I gave them up.

RIP Barry the Man(p)illow.

The show is developing a real identity, themes are beginning to emerge and in the end that is what Liz and I focused on. How the space might be defined and structured. What my relation to the space is. How the different elements/props cross the space and if they can cross 'barriers'. Ways of making a physical distinction between what is memory and what is in the present.

While I worry that Liz may have felt her real skills were not being put to use, I had a very positive day and came away feeling that I was moving in the right direction. Her input and constant questioning was incredibly useful in helping me work through some of the decisions I had made. To re-think some and to solidify others. And I would like to thank her for her energy and generosity.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Writer in residence - workshop with Kate Fox

On Friday 1st February I spent a day with Kate Fox. All part of my grand plan to learn from other artists, to bring fresh energy in to the rehearsal room and to explore other processes in the making of One.

Kate has recently turned her writing and comedic talents to making theatre and I was interested to hear how/if her process had changed much as a result.

We spent some time on creating material from stream of consciousness, how applying an attitude (we worked with the seven deadly sins for a while) to a perfectly ordinary situation can create humour. We played with 'it's worse than that' and took ideas to the absolute worst case scenario. Just so you know, if the show bombs and I damage my reputation so badly I can no longer be a theatre maker and I end up as a cancerous prostitute, living in a doorway... I told you so!

Exaggeration is fun and freeing. I really think there may be room for this in the piece in order to soften the blow of the more melancholy aspects of being alone.  

I was also interested in her experience of stand-up and how she felt this enhanced her theatre performances.
We talked a lot about autobiographical material and the risks/fears involved. What we felt we could and couldn't share. I am particularly concerned about revealing personal things about myself that may lead to me being judged, or worse pitied, by the audience thereby tainting the rest of the show.  But I am also aware that for a connection to feel real and for the work to have impact I need to be honest. Kate suggested that if I held anything back the audience would be able to tell.

I think this is where her experience in stand-up comes in. She had strong opinions on the liveness of the live experience and offered a particularly painful example of a performer losing her trust by referring to another audience member's physical appearance making it clear they weren't really looking at or talking about them at all. She couldn't understand why and I can totally understand her dislike of entirely scripted interactions that could be shown to any audience in any location and never change. What she and I both love is a genuine connection, acknowledgement of the current shared space. To quote open space technology, "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened". A little more freedom to be real and responsive. To be truly live takes confidence that you can control your audience. Perhaps that is the gift of the comedian?

We spent some time watching a selection comedians entrances, noticing how most acknowledge the audience directly, often refer to the room or city and make comment about someone in the room. As if to say, "Yes, I am really here. With you."

This has made me very conscious of my audience interactions because as a frequent attender of small studio spaces I know how quickly we can tell when we are being talked at or near rather than to. I don't think I am in danger of making a piece of performance that could happen anywhere and that members of the audience will feel that they might as well have not been there but how much more rich might it feel for them to feel it was specific to them. That their experience, even if part of a tour, was unique. I wonder if I can produce that in my show? I hope so.

I'd really like to thank Kate for her time and generosity, and Annabel at ARC for making it happen.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Still devoted and still disgruntled

What a great, useful, inspiring, passionate, frustrating, intelligent, generous and fruitful weekend. Improbable, as ever, created a welcoming, open space to meet, rub ideas up against each other and see what sticks.

I met some very interesting people, heard some great ideas, heard about other people's projects, thought about my own work and my place in this world. And I feel refreshed. Ready to create. I am looking forward to getting back in to the rehearsal space this week. 

I attended a rich variety of sessions and heard people speaking from the heart and from experience about topics such as the benefits of Scratch, ticket pricing and value, talking about what we do, solo performance making, autobiographical work, getting audiences to act and making/telling stories. I won't go into detail about all the sessions I attended you can read all the reports online here. Warning, there is a lot of passion to be found on those pages.

And once again, if you have the chance to attend a Devoted & Disgruntled/Open Space event you really should.

Friday, 11 January 2013

What a difference a workshop makes.

The other day I took part in a workshop at ARC, Stockton Arts Centre. It was run by physical theatre company Tangled Feet. I'd heard of them but not seen any of their work before. 

I wanted to go because it is ALWAYS fun to do a workshop and to meet new artists (besides I made a belated New Year's Resolution to myself to say yes to as many artistic things as possible). It also fitted with the process of making One, the idea of participating in 'skills labs' with a variety of practitioners. This workshop was an opportunity to play with a company whose work is predominantly physical. As well as an opportunity to learn this was an chance to get out of my own head, lay off the words and use my body for a change. 

In all honesty the exercises we were put through, on the whole, were not new to me but the whole workshop was a real pleasure. The company ethos of total collaboration, that all members regardless of roles have input in to the creation of the work really comes across and they were just a really great, easy-going bunch to be around. And I never felt talked down to. This was sharing, not teaching (note to self: good to remember in case I ever have to run one of these things).

The group were quickly put at ease (I don't think I was the only one to be relieved that the workshop wasn't full of nubile 17 olds but mature artists like myself) and the two hours just flew by. After a short intro to the company, their history and methodology we did some warm up games, a short physical warm up and then we were into some material generation exercises. 

We looked at everyday tasks, at simple interactions and how as an audience we naturally look for meaning and create narrative. How simple, physical movements can be interpreted even without any 'acting' and how groups moving together with simple instructions can start to build pictures. The company talked about how these exercises, and similar, allow them to build a pallet of images from which to create a show.

While none of this was ground-breaking I began to think about the limitations of words and what scope there was in this for a person making work alone. Could I set myself tasks, video them and see if any images leapt out at me? But with no-one else to instruct or react to could I really lose myself in the movement? Could I bring together a group of artists/friends (as Leeds' company Uncanny have done this week in fact) and use them to help me create my own pallet of images? How useful would this be, knowing it would only be me performing it at the end of the day? Would I be in danger of creating something I could never recreate?

I am glad I made the effort to go to Stockton for this short workshop. It was just what I needed to start the year. It was utterly refreshing to a) do rather than think and b) to work visually/physically. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will do my best to take what I can into the rehearsal space with me in a couple of weeks. It's already got me thinking...

Sunday, 6 January 2013

On reflection - a review of 2012

It seems appropriate (and popular) to use the time of year to look back and reflect on the previous year. As things were a little tough in the middle/latter stages of the year for me I have been a little reluctant to do this but looking over my blog posts for 2012 I am reminded that I was involved in a great number of very positive things.
Photograph by Matt Tullett

So, and in no particular order, here are a few of them:

  1. At the beginning of June I was lucky enough to be selected to be one of 24 artists to play and make work over 24 hours at Contact Theatre for 24 Arty People. Contact's offering was so completely generous - opening up their entire building for us to enjoy and offering numerous members of staff to make it easy for us to do whatever we wanted to do. It was utterly joyful and introduced me to new artists and friends.
  2. In May i was selected to go to Northern Stage in Newcastle and pitch for Title Pending. I was thrilled to be invited but quickly realised when I got there that I wasn't ready. There time scale would not work for me and vice versa. However, this was the first test of my ideas for 'One' and as such it was really useful.  It was also a statement to my peers (and myself) that I am a serious, professional theatre maker and that that is the career I intend to pursue.
  3. In June I also discovered I had won one of the Emerge Mentored Commissions to develop 'One' over a year. This was an important first step as it was this injection of cash and support which undoubtedly led to me being able to successfully apply for Arts Council funding over the summer.
  4. October was very tough for me but when I heard about the open call for a community choir to record backing vocals for Hope and Social's new album I knew it was something I should do. I've always loved to sing. It is something I do a lot when I am alone. Also, having watched Gavin's workplace choirs I was convinced by the uplifting power of communal singing. I'd come across Hope and Social when they made Bring The Happy with Invisible Flock. They provided the music for the celebratory, raucous, party of a theatre show in 2011. The day was so open and the band created such a welcoming atmosphere. Everyone was encouraged to bring food to share and the day was full of fun. Not everything we recorded made the final edit sadly but every time I listen to the album I am uplifted, just as I was that day.
  5. I'm a big believer in Devoted & Disgruntled, an event which creates a unique space for everyone with an interest in theatre to talk about anything they think is important. It's a conference without hierarchies. No key speakers. A space where artistic directors sit alongside students, where Guardian critics sit alongside administrators and everyone has a voice. I went to two this year. The annual event in London in February and the roadshow event in Leeds in October. The fact that they weren't great for me is more to do with the head space I was in than any doubts I have about these events. It's all about possibilities and BEING THERE. There aren't many other events that get all of those people in the same room at the same time, so what happens there might be a small shift in opinion or the beginning of a whole new collaboration but it is always worth making the effort for. In fact I am heading to the annual London event later this month so watch this space for a debrief...
  6. In November I went to a fantastic workshop/sharing for Furnace at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Unlimited Theatre were hosting and managed to create a very open and accepting space for play. The group was very mixed and as with Devoted & Disgruntled I was very pleased to see lots of new faces (of all ages). There were early sharings of work in development and a joyfully, unruly attempt to make a group piece of theatre based on a few small rules. The conversations and joy flowed well in to the night as many of us found ourselves dancing til the wee small hours.
  7. 2012 was a fantastic year for 'The Reservation'. Although Ellie and I didn't do a lot of gigs the ones we did were very well accepted and culminated in a fabulous 4 star review from Guardian critic Lyn Gardner. She followed this up with another mention in an article on the therapeutic power of theatre in releasing grief a week later and finally inclusion in an end of year round up. This article named our teeny weeny show alongside the RSC and Stan's Cafe. It's incredible to think that we made such an impression on someone who is so well regarded. I cannot express how proud I am to have made this gently affecting show. 
  8. I started making my first solo show 'One'. On occasion I think I might be mad but mostly I am enjoying constructing something from scratch. playing with ideas and form, enjoying being in front of an audience again. This is something that comes from me. Perhaps this is the ultimate act of egotism but I think it is more than that. It feels like a rite of passage. That after this, whether a roaring success or a crashing failure, I will truly be able to call myself a theatre maker. It's terrifying and glorious. 2012 is where is started and its already changed a lot. 2013 is where it will come to life and I am pretty excited.