Thursday, 22 August 2013

Punchdrunk - all mask and no knickers?

A somewhat belated but nonetheless sincere blog entry this time about Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man which has been running in 'Temple Studios' (near Paddington Station) all Summer.

I can honestly say that previous to this I was one of the thousands who have heard many a tale of Punchdrunk's work but never actually experienced any of it. I had watched in delight as dazed and confused Americans left their performance of Sleep No More in 2010 wondering what had just happened to them and debating whether it was really 'theatre' at all. Of course since Punchdrunk this type of immersive theatre is becoming all the more commonplace. Only this year I cajoled Ben into coming to Dream Think Speak's 'In the Beginning was the End' at Somerset House. Some companies have merely taken elements - Headlong's 'Decade' used parts of this genre to lift their programme.

St Mary's has a Punchdrunk connection too. Maxine Doyle, Artistic Director and choreographer, used to work at St Mary's, work shopping some of their early material there. 

To be honest, ignorance is normally bliss. But having even just these small bits of knowledge meant I approached this with some caution. I longed for it not to be a cliched experience - all gimmick and no substance. All mask and no knickers, if you will. 

We arrived and went in, mask donned, bag checked, rules read and intentions to follow them - good.

As we entered the 'temple studios' I certainly wasn't disappointed by the surroundings. Inside this abandoned warehouse I was greeted by a trailer park, forest, saloon bar, a myriad of shops and warehouses as well as the gates inside the film studios. Although poking around someone's home at first seemed out of order, even frightening at times the mask did give you a sense of distance. Urging you to keep looking, prying and exploring.

After 20 minutes of fumbling in the dark there's a sudden rush and thrill of excitement as you see your first character - In my case Mary, a girl hoping for work in the studios who is having an affair with the elusive Dwayne. As she passed I felt compelled to follow, not realising the hundreds of other who were doing the same. I watched as she met Dwayne and began their relationship.

Throughout the show you were constantly being met with choices - who to follow or whether to follow at all. There is a constant sense that you're missing something going on somewhere. When Ben and I lost each other during the show I felt a little saddened to hear all the experiences he had had that I had missed out on. 

As the building became more packed and the various performance strands more compelling the masks did lead to another type of anonymity - people pushing others out of the way, looking for the best seat - the social airs and graces of politeness had seemed to disappear. There were times where I felt for those unable to move quickly or likely to be trampled on by an over-enthusiastic onlooker. But due to the masks and the no talking rule I also seemed incapable to help. Throughout the show I had an internal monologue running through my head about how inconsiderate everyone was and how I could somehow do more.....

So, was it gimmicky?? To be honest, a little. But the gimmicks we're what seemed to make it. I became less and less interested in the choreography, or the artistry or the execution. I became engrossed with why would happen next and making sure I could watch it. The 'drama' of the dance performances were good but dwarfed by comparison to the moments where I and everyone else scuttled about desperate to find the next bit of the action. Was the actual performance any good? Probably. But I can't remember any of it. I do remember being bundled into a lift, being stared out by the gate guard, reading a woman's diary and getting rained on. 

Does it matter? I'm not entirely sure. I certainly don't feel like I went to the theatre, but I don't feel like I saw any either. But maybe that's what it's all about??

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Are You Ready?

I sometimes wish there was some sort of system whereby students could truly see the work and effort that goes into the Teaching and Learning experience for each one of them. 

Being on the Teaching and Learning committee this year has really opened my eyes to what a broad and ever moving student body we have. But also how their expectations are shifting and moving and how we have to jiggle to accommodate. 

'Engagement' 'Retention' and 'Success' were the key players in yesterday's Teaching and Learning committee away day, and these are not just things that we discuss to amuse ourselves. The engagement and sense of belonging for each student is key to our success. And in order to achieve that we have to go beyond merely laying on some events in the students union or occasionally ask 'how's it going?'. We have to be aware of what the university community is now - because it's not just the students on campus, the students away from home, the undergraduate students or the students who have a thriving social life. All of these groups still exist but we are also meeting more students living at home, from non-traditional academic backgrounds, post-graduate students, students completing their courses online and those who merely don't want to identify with their university as anything other than their place of education. And all of these students too have to be 'engaged' somehow - driven to come to university and take part in their education. 

In response? Well, it seems we have to be flexible; offer information repetitively in as many formats as possible and allow the students to see and hear information in their own time and at their convenience. 

I know, it doesn't sound like rocket science. But actually, in the academic world this can mean big cultural shift. Academics working alongside the students and making information accessible, whilst maintaining that university education is about independent learning and study. The student still has to want to find out in the first place. 

But bigger than that, and more important was a real drive that students should be involved in their own systems for engagement - not just having a few nights out or buddy systems (although they're important too) but in being part of the strategy and its implementation and see their work in action. 

This year the Drama department have embarked on a project with the Higher Education Academy to look at initiatives and interventions which aim to improve and sustain retention and success across the university sector - 'engagement' by another name, We have chosen to look particularly at our pre-arrival students looking at how we can engage our new students before they even arrive in September. With our new slogan 'Are You Ready?' - we challenge our freshers and hope that they take the bait. And with our new pre arrival website we give them 'JEIJET'...........

Just enough information in just enough time. 

It may be simple but we hope it's effective and I'll be bringing the findings to this blog - why not take a look......

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Big Singing at Kingston's Big Sing

This Sunday hoards of people joined in Kingston's Market Square at 3.30. A sense of anticipation hung in the air as 4 choir leaders took to their mics and all together............they started to........sing.

Maybe we should rewind a little...........

Months ago I was approached by Kingston Borough Council to discuss this year's Big SIng. The event, an annual event which is now commonplace in cities and towns across the country, is an attempt to bring together the 'already singing' (members of local community choirs and singing groups) and to possibly entice some of the general 'non-singing' public to a day of community singing.

My views on the power of community singing are already well documented (mostly in pub conversations and a few articles) but I have a special place for the Big Sing. Particularly because of the sheer scale of it - after all these years there's still a very excited tingly feeling about large scale singing events. The sound can be electric and there's nothing like it.

So, at 12 noon choirs and general public came together at the Rose Theatre as myself, Mary Bourne (Singing it Back), Max Barley (Thames Youth Choir) and Simon Toyne (Tiffin Boys School) took them through their vocal paces learning two songs - Ke Aronaa traditional South African song arranged by Siphiwo Lubumbo and edited by Tony Backhouse, and Sit Down, the anthemic James classic arranged by myself.

What was so fascinating in the learning was a very lovely clash of musical cultures. Mary and I are very used to one another's leading style, co-leading a weekly choir in Kingston. The choir is non-reader (members don't have sheet music), unaccompanied (no instruments) and always leads to good humoured and very friendly 'banter'. Simon and Max both come from more traditional singing backgrounds, very much rooted in the dots and the technical aspects of the music. It was so wonderful to come together on an event such as this - we learned from each other. By the end Max was throwing his hands in the air to signal each section of the music with great aplomb.

We also seemed to work well together - a bit of light competition between the basses and....well, everyone else. A few jokes to the crowd and gradually coming further away from the mics - trusting the singers and enjoying the sound.

After the rehearsal Kingston was treated to a wide range of pop-up events across the town, and such a singing smorgasbord was on offer. Singing it Back performed in the ever-glamorous rug department of John Lewis, with a great acoustic and wonderful sound.

In the Bentalls Centre shoppers were treated to a musical outburst from Surbiton Escaltor Choral Society - the look of bemused enchantment was a thing to behold as a moving choir slid past. Thames Youth Choir and The Tiffinians also took their leaders Max and Simon to glamorous locations, delighting passers-by. As well as many more in pop-up events cross the town.

As the sun shone, we came to Kingston Market Place to round off a wonderful day. Throughout the day we had drawn people along with our musical caravanserai and there was quite a crowd watching and delighting in the event.

So many lovely comments, some great stories from the day and another affirmation of the importance of community singing. This was a day to be remembered but also to be replicated - it is possible to make something happen, and get people involved.

For more information about singing in Kingston please see the Singing it Back website -

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Links to St Mary's

This week St Mary's posted their press release about our trip to South Africa.

To read the blog please follow this link:

And to find out more about everything that's happening at Drama St Mary's please go to:

Friday, 24 May 2013

Performance Day - Zamukulungisa Primary School - Day 3

Millie Jones writes about her groups 3 day stint at Zamukulungisa Primary School -

It was the day of the performance and I had no idea what to expect. We began by teaching another English lesson and then at 10am all of the students, teachers, and even our bus drivers gathered on the grass to watch the performances. We kicked off by warming the audience up with one of their local songs, the energy was so high and it was clear that the school was excited to see the work we had been doing.

Rhian's group went first, performing an adaptation if Little Red Riding Hood, she narrated in English and D.J kindly agreed to translate. The piece was received well and it was great to see how the group had used ensemble and chorus work as a way to included all of the students whilst also making the piece visually clear to a non-English speaking audience. 

Our group went next and I think they shocked all of us with how well it went. They all spoke loud and really embraced the chance to perform to a large audience. I felt so proud watching them and couldn't help feeling a little ashamed for doubting their pieces viability for performance- they were great and proved me very wrong. 

The rest of the day was a incredible and emotional experience. It was good to finally see the other group's work and their school. The difference in facilities at the two schools was vastly different but they all managed to come together, embracing the chance to share experiences with only the difference in uniforms separating them. 

The journey back to the principles house was quieter than usual with people coming to terms with words that had been shared and the understanding that, at least for now, we had to say goodbye. Although there was a lot of tears, I think we all used our experiences a motivational one rather than something to feel down about... It wasn't long before we were all sharing with each other our plans to return to Africa or another developing country to continue our work in the near future.

My experience at the school has been incredible, and despite the frustrating language barriers and my initial longing to be at the other school, I would not have wanted to be placed anywhere else- I can only hope that the children learnt as much from us as we did from them. 

A huge improvement - Zamukulungisa Primary School - Day 2

Millie Jones writes about her groups 3 day stint at Zamukulungisa Primary School -

Today was much better, having planned lessons that acknowledged the approach to learning that we observed yesterday we were able to work with the children in a way that felt familiar to them whilst allowing opportunity for us incorporate aspects that we believed would be beneficial. Really we wanted the teacher to see how combining drama with other lessons is a great way to keep the children engaged whilst educating them at the same time.

According to the South African 'freestyle' approach to timekeeping we arrived at the school 30 minutes late for our 8am lesson. When we walked into the classroom they were all sitting patiently, waiting for us to begin. We jumped straight into it feeling quietly confident, Chanika was to write down the work on the board, Sophie was to lead and I was to assist. 

Our lesson was pretty repetitive and very simple. Sophie would do an action, for example, she would jump, she then repeated the phrase 'I am jumping' with the class joining in as a whole. Each action required them to actively 'do' something, which appeared to give them great pleasure. Then it was my turn: 'Millie is .....' 

I soon realised that the higher I jumped, or the stupider I laughed, the more engaged the students were. The looks exchanged between the students were a mixture of delight and shock- it was clear this was not the type of lesson they were used to. 

The lesson went extremely well and the 10am break was filled with excitement and discussion that the previous day had lacked. I learnt a lot from our work, aside from refreshing my memory on the technicalities of present progressive tense, I began to really understand to need for repetition. I noticed the teacher yesterday doing it and it was clear that repeating the answer is an integral part of their learning a new language, but it felt like a tool that forced the children to memorise rather than understand. However, it felt today that through the use of active engagement that the students wanted to repeat the tasks and their enjoyment allowed them to subconsciously learn.

After the lesson had ended we were quickly passed to a different teacher who asked us to lead a fitness class. Of course we recruited Caitlin to do this and said we would assist. The class revolved around relay races which were enjoyable but highlighted how unfit we all are- even Caitlin got outrun by some students. After some team appreciation time which included shouting 'Su-per He-roes' for a prolonged amount of time, taking group photos,  and generally just disturbing the rest of the school, it was time to re-group and begin our second and last workshop before tomorrow's performance.. *gulp*. 

We played some warm up games that built upon exercises from yesterday, and although the language barrier was still restricted their comprehension of the tasks they still managed to creat some great work. It was lovely to see that through the use of images language barriers can be broken. One boy wants to be a pilot and so the whole class crated a plane around him; a plane looks like the same no matter what language you speak- it was clear that there was ways in which we could share common ground. 

After a positive start the workshop almost came to a full stop. The heat and the fitness class were beginning to take its toll and the pressure of creating a performance for tomorrow was draining us all. Finally in one last bid to engage the quickly distracted class we asked if anyone had a story they would like to tell us, after some persuading D.J (that's not his real name) began to talk. With her pen at the ready Chanika listened carefully, hoping to make note of anything that we could turn into a performance. 

'There was a young boy and his nan' he said, we were excited, 'one day the boy asked if they could cook each other', excitement quickly turned to confusing but Chanika continued to write. D.J carried on his story which concluded with the boy killing his granny and feeding her to his unsuspecting friends. We were in no position to be fussy, and Chanika still feeling positive powered on encouraging the group to act out the story, the group speaking in their own language and D.J playing the role of translator. 

It actually worked well as a piece of theatre, and so, with no time to spare, we finally had a piece to show for the following day. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013


We still have no real idea what this means.........but we love the dance routine. As soon as the choir sang this we had it swimming in our heads for the whole time we were there. We even tried the dance but......well.......we were rubbish.

The choir were entering a competition the day after we left the school and they were working so hard to get everything just right. The choir leader was an intense man - he rehearsed them all day int he boiling heat and issues a swift slap on the hand if you got the notes wrong or stepped out of line.

It was fascinating to hear the choir singing the same songs over and over. In all the choir leading I've done you're workign towards consistency, making something sound the same every time. Here that was very different. Every rendition was different - sometimes a different form or harmony. Because none of the music is written down they're creating some of the parts purely by listening to melodies and playing with chords.

What was also fascinating was how informal their performances were. Yes they had dance routines, and yes they had costumes - but they were laughing and chatting in the routines and really enjoying the act of singing. I wish I could have bottled up just a little of that enthusiasm, excitement, sponteneity and openness and brought it back with me. I think we could all do with a little of the freedom and confidence they have.

Fascinating to watch and listen too! I hope they won the competition!