2017 started, as new years in Britain often do, with high levels of enthusiastic planning, coupled with copious quantities of driving rain. In my case this delightful cocktail was also spiced with a tinge of absentmindedness and somewhat poor attention to detail, all of which led to the circumstance of me trudging in leaking trainers, through the grey backstreets of Kings Cross in the hammering rain, having paid Richard Branson (him again) a fifth of my monthly salary for the privilege of a train ticket to London. This is in order to hand deliver my application to the Arvon playwrights mentoring scheme by hand and meet their 5pm deadline. For several weeks after this I labour under the misplaced idea that if it has been this hard just to deliver the application, surely justice demands that I will get a place. Unfortunately, this romantic notion was cooked up by my subconscious to shield me from recognising my own bad planning and turns out to be total rubbish. I don’t get a place. Welcome to life. Accept it and move on.
I’m getting better at this rejection stuff. That said, my bruised ego is still very happy to receive some genuinely positive feedback on my current script for Joy Unspeakable from Tom Hodson of From the Mill Theatre Company who is running a script development workshop as part of PUSH 2017 at HOME. Approaching the meeting somewhat braced for impact, I am uplifted to be told that as he read some of the best sections of the script, he felt a twinge of jealousy and wished he had written it. This is a very kind compliment and although inspiring jealousy is obviously not my aim in life, in this particular context, his comments give me a glimmer of sunshine in the January gloom. Time to celebrate by seeing a show!
Cardboard Citizens, who I originally trained with in Forum Theatre, and later as a Joker (yes, that is an actual thing), is one of my favourite companies. Comprised of a number of my theatrical heros and heroines, I love pretty much everything they stand for. Forum Theatre, for the uninitiated, is a particular theatrical form, developed by the Brazilian theatre-maker Augusto Boal to try and bring together the storytelling power of theatre with social and political change in the actual, real world, as opposed to the theatrical world of ‘what if’. Not that the world of ‘what if’ doesn’t have a very valuable change-creating role of its own, but Forum Theatre goes a step further by getting audience members to actively test out new ideas for social and political change by trying out their ideas on stage, in the shoes of the protagonist whose story of oppression they have just observed. It might sound a bit scary but it’s a lot of fun and very effective!
Cardboard Citizens’ latest Forum play Cathy, their third nationally touring work, has been created to commemorate the 50 years since director Ken Loach’s groundbreaking film Cathy Come Home and to agitate for more and better action to tackle the persistent problem of homelessness. I go to see it in St. Helen’s Library, a bit of a trek but worth it, and am joined for the roadtrip by Pegeen Murphy, a developing actor and writer who I’ve never met before but who took up the offer of a spare ticket that I posted on the Royal Exchange’s Open Exchange Network site. The St. Helen’s audience is on it when it comes to local knowledge of homelessness and ideas for how to tackle it. Looking round at this group of around fifty mainly older but a few younger folk, in a library building that, like many, has been fighting local authority cuts but which remains open, I get that same feeling in my stomach that I always get when I meet unassuming, ordinary folk with a social conscience gathered together in some, often architecturally unimpressive building (not true in this case) to try and bring about positive change. Or, when I watch feeder marches streaming into one great mass of bodies at a demonstration and I think, “Come on! We can do this!” Maybe it’s this act of coming together communally which is so much part of why I love theatre as a medium? In a new departure, for this show and tour, Cardboard Citizens is also venturing into the realm of Legislative Theatre and the end of the night is spent gathering suggestions to put forward to peers in the House of Lords in the form of the Cathy Laws which aim to prevent homelessness, something they have subsequently presented, see here.
Continuing on the social change track, Spring brings with it my first meeting with the irrepressible Amit Sharma, who has recently joined the Artistic Team at the Royal Exchange as Associate Director. A director with the groundbreaking Graeae theatre company, Amit’s specialist knowledge, over and above his expertise in theatre directing, is in making theatre with and for D/deaf and disabled actors and creatives, as well as advocating for disability rights within the theatre industry, and no doubt more widely. Along with about twenty other Open Exchange members, I attend his Making Your Work Accessible workshop. Having participated in and facilitated many workshops that address different forms of injustice I love Amit’s approach. He simultaneously creates a genuinely non-judgemental atmosphere in which we can be ignorant-with-a-view-to-learning and also communicates his passion and the urgent necessity for all of us to examine our attitudes and behaviours around disability.
Helpfully, rather than just reaming off a tickbox list of ‘things you must do to be inclusive’, after we have all created our names in sign language and learned the difference between British Sign Language (BSL) and Sign Supported English (SSE), Amit explores some of the tools that can be used to help make work accessible to folk with a range of disabilities, including but not limited to: pre-show audio preambles, integrated signing, a signer separate from the performance, audio description, creative captioning, improving buildings’ physical accessibility and touch tours. He situates these alongside a discussion of some of the genuine tensions involved in making work with and for D/deaf and disabled performers and audiences, that is both inclusive and dramatically satisfying. He also talks though some of the strengths and weaknesses of different models of disability: the medical, charity and social models. There is a lot to consider and what is so helpful about Amit’s approach is that he encourages us away from a monolithic culture of tick box accessibility to a more humanised one which accepts that given the complexity, we can never be experts and that we should instead aim to be facilitators by simply asking the question of our performers and audiences: what do you need to make this show accessible to you? Graeae’s current show The House of Bernarda Alba is in the main house at the Royal Exchange at the moment and a few days after the workshop I go to see it.
It is quite a phenomenal experience as a professional cast of D/deaf and disabled actors interweave integrated BSL, audio description and captioning (displayed at every angle of the in-the-round space) into a compelling evocation of female power and desire in a new translation of Lorca’s original by Jo Clifford. After quite a bit of discussion in Amit’s workshop about the most effective order in which to offer different bits of information in a preamble in order to paint a clear picture, I make sure to listen to the show’s preamble, available on headphones just outside the performance space. It is really fascinating and as I listen, my imagination truly begins to grapple with the experience of blindness and what that might be like. I begin to get a small inkling of just how much further I, and maybe we, all have to go to create a truly inclusive society in this area.
In between various meetings with other local theatre-makers, a new designer, some more Animikii physical theatre workshops and yet more applications to different development opportunities; I find myself back at the Royal Exchange again as they play host to You the Audience Symposium, a whole day event, dedicated to exploring the role and significance of the audience. The event is also the launchpad for the Royal Exchange’s new Audience Manifesto, a document developed via extensive conversation, including a sleepover, with the audience of the theatre, 2000 of which cast votes into order to create the manifesto priorities. It is an extremely, some might say overly, jam-packed day, with contributions from a whole host of interesting and thought-provoking folk including the Artistic Directors of various Greater Manchester theatres, academic researchers, theatre critics, theatre companies, performance artists and via the Audience Manifesto, the audience of the Royal Exchange – or at least a good chunk of it.
The ideas and provocations kicking around are too many and various to comprehensively cover but some of the stand out moments for me were Amber Massie-Blomfield, the Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre expressing that, “Theatre is a symbol and an expression of the idea that being together is better than being alone and sharing space is the beginning of kindness”, Alan Lane of Slung Low saying that, “If subsidised theatres are not values based, the market will eat them alive and without values, we’re just coffee shops waiting to be taken over”, theatre critic Maddy Costa saying, “We don’t need to ‘figure out’ how to have the conversation in which opposites come together, we just need to do it” and my favourite contribution of the day which came from Ruth Ibegbuna, CEO of Reclaim, a youth leadership and social change organisation that amplifies the voices of working class young people. She quoted one of the young people she works with who was replying to some well-meaning scheme’s attempt to “reach” the “hard to reach” young people of Moss Side (i.e. them) by saying, in all innocence and with no cynicism, “…but we’re not hard to reach, you just get on the number 85 bus” which I think kind of sums up the whole issue around theatre audiences and inclusion extremely accurately and concisely.
The latter part of Spring involves a ton more meetings and a lot of shows. I meet up with a local writer/director in Bolton to check out some potentially free rehearsal space in a disused old office underneath a solicitor’s building via some kind of rig-up with a local collective of visual artists called neo:artists who are, it turns out, internationally renowned for their print-making. It’s damp and a bit grotty with carpet covering the floor (not great for physical work because of the burns) but it’s a space and it’s free so I don’t turn my nose up. Meanwhile, ADP continue their relentless pace of production and I get along to one of their standard four-plays-in-a-night gigs at the Kings Arms called Are You Sitting Comfortably? which aims to give a platform to some of the more challenging or uncomfortable texts they’ve received. It’s actually a cracker of a night with some really good pieces by Sean Mason and Joshua Lee. Then it’s off to see Romeo and Juliet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, mainly because my friend Kash is part of the artistic team but also because I’ve never been to the venue before. The play, directed by Amy Leach, is fantastic, all day-glo rave party and fast paced. The venue, well, apparently it’s due a renovation. The programme and no doubt the team there is great but the physical building is a wierd looking construction that resembles a leisure centre with strange angles. I keep expecting Gordon Brittas to appear round a corner folding his hands at me! Sorry WYP.
REVEAL is back, three months earlier this year to ensure students on the Performing Arts course at Bolton University can fully benefit from the programme but after high hopes and a well marked up programme, due to clashes with my rota at the Lowry and one show cancellation, I only actually make it to one show, Til Death Do Us Part by Gracefool Collective, an innovative and partially interactive dance piece staged in Bolton Parish Church. This is followed swiftly by a social enterprise workshop run by Bolton Business Ventures. It’s a useful workshop and I glean several new tidbits of information but the biggest bonus of the day is all the awesome people I meet. Ordinary folk, gritting it out to help make their corner of the world a better place. My favourite connection of the day is with a guy called Steve who helps run an organisation in Bolton called Headspace, which provides high quality arts training for artists who also happen to have mental health issues. I ask him what inspires him to do this and without missing a beat he replies, “Oh, I went crazy”. Lols, Steve is my new BFF.
Speaking of BFF’s, that random spare ticket to see Cathy I offered out turned out to be a stroke of genius as Pegeen, the random taker of the ticket, turned out to be an awesome girl who shares both my sense of humour and my enjoyment of setting the world to rights in raised voices. Plus her parents appear to have been stalwarts of Bolton’s Socialist/Communist scene in the ’80’s (crikey!) as well as accomplished writers/actors, so what’s not to love?! Pegeen, who is also a mum of three, is currently exploring acting via Jim Cartwright’s classes in Chorley, yes that right folks, Chorley, of Peter Kay’s Chorley FM fame, or possibly infamy depending on who you talk to. Jim Cartwight, for those who don’t know, is a highly successful, Farnworth born playwright whose first full length play Road premiered at the Royal Court in 1986, and can once again currently be seen there until Sept 9th. Having decided, along with other vocal champions such as Judy Dench and Ian McKellen that the issue of class barriers to the acting profession has gone too far, he has set up his own acting classes in Chorley and Manchester. Pegeen invites me to her class’ showcase, the Cartwright Cabaret, in the Robert Powell theatre at the University of Salford. The front of house arrangements are joyously low key with Jim Cartwright greeting and ushering folk into the auditorium with the demeanour of an enthusiastic bon viveur who can’t wait to crack open the bar. It’s a fabulous evening which, using various excerpts from Jim’s plays, really effectively showcases the skills and talents of the various actors he has been developing. As you would expect, there is a broad range, both of types of people and levels of skill but from the greatest to the least, everyone is supported to shine! Pegeen by the way, is great.
I seem to be on a class related roll at the moment as a few days after this I am meeting up with writer Kim Wiltshire having been suggested to her by the Royal Exchange as a potential director for a play she is working on called The Value of Nothing which will go on a tour of traditionally working class venues ending up at the TUC conference in the Autumn. I’ve read the script to date (it doesn’t currently have an ending), and we meet for coffee to chat further. We end up yakking for about three hours – fuelled by excessive coffee! This is the first time I’ve had this kind of ‘chat with the writer’ and it is an interesting experience that helps me to get a little clearer for myself about where the boundary between the writer and director really is. If you devise your own work, this is obviously bit more of a muddy area and if I want to direct New Writing in the future, which, among other things, I do, I need to get proficient at negotiating this very particular creative relationship. Not that it doesn’t go well, it does, but as there is quite a long road ahead still: another director for Kim to meet, ACE applications, tour planning and all that sort of bunkum, for now we just leave things open and wait to see how it all pans out.
Next stop, London. I’m on a mission. I’ve got a few days back in the belly of the dirty ol’ beast that is our nation’s capital to raid the Directory of Social Change’s funding database and leave with as many Trust Funder options as I can, go to a two day workshop for emerging directors at the Young Vic and meet up with Esther Baker, Artistic Director of Synergy Theatre Project, a company that makes work across theatre and the criminal justice system and who first advised me on pursuing a career in theatre six years ago at Riverside Studios, when it was just the tiniest seed of a dream. The DSC raid goes fairly well even if I do come out with Bez-like eyeballs and am £10 quid down on my photocopying budget. The Young Vic workshop is mega. We have the genuine privilege of workshops with some fantastic directors: Gbolahan Obisesan who fries our brains with post-dramatic theatre, Jonathan O’Boyle, currently AD on the phenomenally successful West-End show An American in Paris, which coincidentally I am currently selling tickets for back at the Quay Tickets ranch, who helpfully takes us step-by-step through the rehearsal process for a musical theatre show, and from whom I learn the enjoyable new term sitzprobe, from the German, meaning ‘seated trial’ or ‘sitting test, which describes the process where after potentially many weeks of rehearsing separately, the singers first hear the orchestra and vice versa. Max Webster, who is currently Associate Director down the road at the Old Vic, takes us through a very invigorating session on the Lecoq Seven Levels of Tension, and last but definitely not least Caroline Steinbeis, who is German and who among many other interesting things, imparts the general concept that German theatre exists to educate where as British theatre exists to entertain. Interesting. Obviously she doesn’t intend this as a blanket statement of truth, more of a guide to the underlying culture of the industry. It’s an interesting observation and one I will start trying to test out. Berlin anyone? Before I leave London I also to make it down to the Synergy HQ in London Bridge (which is rather smart by the way). Esther is once again super helpful and sends me off home with some characteristically straight-talking advice and an offer of continued support.
Spring comes into land with yet more meetings and shows. This is not just for for the lols. Most of the meetings are in some way pre-production for a Research and Development (R & D) period for Joy Unspeakable in July, that I am working towards step-by-step. Into this category fall meetings with Videobox TV who I hope will film it, my new friend James Monaghan – previously of Sheepknuckle and sometime of Quarantine and now my go-to discussion partner/provocateur for all things postmodern theatre, Julie Hill the actor in Joy Unspeakable, a producer at Little Mighty, Bolton CAMHS, Headspace (with my new BFF Steve) and the ever fabulous folk at the Octagon Theatre. Either that, or they are in relation to potential future projects, into which category fall meetings with Rachel McMurray of local, theatre company Fine Comb Theatre, Darren Armstrong who runs the awesome Be Strong Project in Bolton and filmmaker David Whitney. Actually, to be fair this last one is just for the lols as he was in the year above me at school and I thought it would be fun! I see some fantastic theatre including the National Theatre’s great version of Jane Eyre at the Lowry and their recent Verbatim response to the Brexit vote, My Country A Work in Progress at HOME, which I personally think is phenomenal and give a solo standing ovation to without caring, How My Light is Spent at the Royal Exchange Studio directed by Liz Stephenson who I nearly got to Assistant Direct for at Theatre By the Lake in Keswick but didn’t because it was going to clash with my R & D dates, and the Northern classic Spring and Port Wine by Bill Naughton at Oldham Coliseum. This last makes absolutely no apologies for being a straightforward, highly naturalistic, pros-arch show and after the many weird and wonderful shows I’ve seen in the past wee while, it is truly enjoyable to see such a plain and simple show, a genuine Good Night Out. One of my favourite parts of the evening is when, a full ten minutes after the start of the second half, whole groups of people are still coming back into the auditorium from the bar! To coin and bastardise Tony Wilson’s classic Mancunian phrase, “This is Oldham, we do things (very) differently here.”
And that about wraps up Spring folks! Thanks for reading and keeping connected.
Please click here for the Summer blog.