On one hand August is all about Streetcar. How could it not be? The opportunity to observe a top flight director, actors and production team at the Royal Exchange, doing battle with what is arguably Tennessee Williams’ greatest play, is an amazing one for an emerging director. Understandably a lot of the month is spent living, breathing and at several points literally dreaming about A Streetcar Named Desire. For anyone who missed them the first time round, my blogs about all this for The Royal Exchange can be found here:
On the other hand, quite a lot else also happens in August. Before launching into that though, I have to admit a fairly glaring sin of omission from last month’s blog. Although I don’t claim my reasons for blogging are wholly altruistic, I do genuinely hope that when the twelve months is up, this blog will stand as a useful record for other artists considering making Manchester their artistic home. With that in mind, I feel duty bound to point out that during most of July, while I was off in the U.S. of A, the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival was in full swing. Having completely missed it I can’t offer any great insights but despite that, it is a thing – and if you are a theatre maker – a thing worth noting. So there we are. Omission rectified.
Moving on. A few days before Streetcar rehearsals start I’m already at the Royal Exchange. To see the stunning work of Mark Storror – Little Sister. I am new to Mark’s work. I don’t like to read much about an artist or a show before seeing it. I prefer to just experience it first-hand, and read about it after. On this occasion, this turns out to be particularly useful. As the strikingly beautiful visual images and sounds begin to wash over me, I am seduced into a constantly unfolding flow. Occasionally, my directorial self is slightly jarred as I notice seemingly unprofessional actions by the odd actor – a head turns and watches, broadcasting a cue that doesn’t arrive, an unintended uncertain quality to another actor’s movement – and the brief moments have gone, collapsing back into a series of incredible, powerful vignette moments that blend seamlessly one into another.
It is only in the very closing section of the piece, as more and more characters are interwoven and appear on stage, that it slowly dawns on me: most of these people are not professional actors, they are not even actors. They are just ordinary people. As the piece closes on an incredible, poignant image and the post show Q and A begins, I discover that this is the whole point. Mark’s process is all about patiently working over a long term period with a mixture of professional actors and people with significant mental health issues, to collaborate and create amazing, beautiful work, situated somewhere in the boundary between theatre and live art. His process neither patronises the participants nor ignores their challenges and struggles. It’s extremely inspiring. Check him out!
A few days later and I get an email from the Octagon Theatre’s Associate Producer. Would I Like to present and pitch Joy Unspeakable for touring to a consortium of twenty northern venues? Gulp. Now I know the right answer to this is supposed to be, “Yes, see how I am grabbing your hand off your very arm etc.” but the conscientious bit of me (which is quite a big bit, and not always in a good way) feels the need to find out a bit more first. Taking a site-specific show on tour is no mean feat, also I don’t actually have a full show yet and not to mention the minor detail that as far as staff capacity goes, er…I am the team. Deborah Dickinson is ever patient and happily meets me for a cuppa to thrash things out. Turns out I can pitch for R & D and as this is my planned next step, I am obviously delighted at the opportunity. We’d better get rehearsing again! The pitch is in three weeks.
Before that though I get to see Fevered Sleep’s show Men and Girls Dance, at the Lowry. The show carries the the strapline, “A new dance piece celebrating the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together and to dance together.” Five adult male professional dancers move and dance with nine, 8-10 year old girls, recruited from the Salford area, who dance only for pleasure. Clearly, presenting this piece in a society awash with internet porn, actual paedophilia and now a culture of fear surrounding potential paedophilia, entails a long list of potential pitfalls. Men and Girls Dance navigates this minefield with elegance, care and skill and manages to create a piece that is at once a light, gentle, playful celebration of healthy, free relationships between children and adults and a powerful act of resistance in the face of what they make you realise is a rapidly closing space in modern, Western culture. For an in depth study of this powerful piece please check out this link.
Both these two shows, as well as separate artist development meetings that I have with Claire Symonds – Theatre Programmer and Producer at The Lowry and Matthew Xia – Associate Director at the Royal Exchange, get me really reflecting on some big questions about the kind of artist I am and want to be. This is good, and challenging. Developing as an artist is not just about the practical steps forward – the connections, the opportunities – but also digging deeper into the core of what it is I want to create, why, and how?
In both Mark Storror and Fevered Sleep’s work what I love and celebrate is their commitment to ordinary people and their implicit belief that beautiful, excellent quality, performance based art can be created with the participation of untrained performers who bring to the creative process the simple beauty of being human. That is not to undermine the importance of the artistic craft, skill and inspiration that the professional artists also bring to the work to enable it to come to birth. What I enjoy is the work that is produced at the intersection of these two elements. It speaks of a commitment to process (to giving things the time they need to emerge) and the exchange and transformation that arises in this space, as well as a commitment to values of accessibility, inclusion and anti-elitism in the arts. It also creates work that carries a quality of humility that is very attractive in a relentlessly noisy and competitive 21st century. At the same time, there is another part of me that also loves the cut and thrust of aggressive debate, the honesty and precision of intellectual ruthlessness, the world of big ideas, played out on big, national stages that speak directly into our national, cultural life with a loud and insistent voice. Go figure. I have spent my life so far embodying direct opposites – why change the habit of a lifetime? I’m not quite sure what this looks like when it comes to articulating the identify of a theatre company but I’ll get there….eventually. I just have to keep following my nose.
Back to practicality. Tonight I’m heading to the locally famous King’s Arms Pub Theatre in Salford. A bastion of fringe theatre performance in the Manchester theatre-making scene and monthly host to the Manchester Acting and Directing Partnership (ADP). ADP’s main project is Scripts Aloud, where, in their own words, “Brand new plays (are) performed every month with script in hand. An evening where professional writers, directors and actors collaborate and perform new works to a live audience.” Unusually tonight is a reading of a full length play – Thorn by Tim Keogh. Normally they present four fifteen minute pieces a night. Each play is prepared for presentation via a short one-off rehearsal the day before.
I find the King’s Arms easily enough. It’s a buzzing, noisy, welcoming atmosphere and feels a bit like being at Edinburgh Festival. It’s also a full house with sixty and we all cram our bums into the seats of the small, upstairs performance space. The play is an imaginative exploration of the Salford-born singer Morrissey’s teenage years. Nice. Artistically, the writing has some great moments and some not so great moments, and that is the point. It’s a space to try things out in front of a home crowd, with a view to making them better. If I’m truly honest, that’s what I’m a little disappointed about. Admittedly I do have to leave early to get the last train home but from what I see, while the feedback session rightly praises and encourages the many good things about this developing play. It feels like that’s where it stops. Of course we all want to hear that we are brilliant all the time but when we are developing, that’s often just not true. It doesn’t seem helpful to me to not also find useful ways to feed back what doesn’t work, as well as what does. To me that is at least equally valuable and also more respectful, in that you pay someone the compliment of taking their work seriously. A few days later I see some concerned debate on this very topic on the ADP Facebook page and am encouraged to see the response is to reaffirm the importance of constructive criticism. This is a relief as ADP have clearly made a big contribution to Manchester theatre-making in just twelve short months and I’m looking forward to getting to them better. I guess we all have off days.
I’m just hoping I don’t find myself having one in two weeks time at the pitch. Wish me luck folks!