Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A change is as good as a................

This year I have started co-leading Singing it Back, a choir I met organising the Ham House singing event and founded by Mary Bourne. Mary approached me during the Summer and asked if I'd be interested in co-leading the choir with her in order to share material, and learn material more rapidly and with more help. This was a real joy to be asked and I started getting very excited right away about the work I could do as well as the arrangements I could write and the new people I would meet (a very important point for any project I get involved in)

Last night was our first joint session, made even more scary by the realisation that Mary hadn't told the choir I would be joining them. More than anything I was worried that they would resist change, seeing it as a negative other than a positive. Once one has become accustomed to a certain style it can be difficult to shift. Mary is a strong and capable leader and I didn't want to ruin their sound by my being there.

If something isn't broke we don't need to fix it..........but if we can see a better more productive and successful time ahead surely it's worth tinkering with??

As we go into our first year at St Mary's with the full three years of our new degree programme I am so excited about the prospect of new things and embracing all that is new in the course, the staff and the institution. I understand how difficult those original decisions must have been to make those changes, and really hope that this year we begin to see the fruits of that labour, proving that those choices for change, no matter how difficult, were worth it - they have been long coming and much deserved.

Last night, as I watched the choir go from initial intrigue, into small slightly worried glances and through to acceptance and generosity in such a short space of time I couldn't help being very humbled by their response. Not only had they given themselves to the singing sessions, some having never sang before and others feeling very vulnerable in this musical world, but also accepted and welcomed change quickly, happily and appreciating Mary's offer to them and trusting in her and I. I too hope that we will one day see the benefits of our partnership and Mary's choice to invite a new person and move in a new direction.

I couldn't help thinking our students at St Mary's could learn many valuable lessons from these men and women as we move into the final phase of this first step - our new three year degree programme. I hope that our students will show the same acceptance and generosity of spirit that Singing it Back did last night - grabbing each opportunity that comes their way in the exciting times ahead.

(Some of the choir arrangements I've been working on this Summer are on my website - on the Performance and Coaching page. Have a listen if you like)

Monday, 12 July 2010

St Mary's Summer Siesta

Yet again my blog has been pushed to the far reaches of my capabilities over the past month. As more and more people ask if I am 'enjoying my Summer holiday' the more work I seemed to have. Moving from marking all the students work, to planning for next year almost immediately. However, the excitement is huge and I think this coming year is going to be a good one!

The university is an odd place without the students. After the students leave, there is a slow drip of students knowcking on the door, and phones ringing occassionally, but it's not long before the ebb stops and we are left here alone. It is then that we can take just a tiny time to look back and feel happy and proud of what we've done. But this is short lived as we run straight into a Summer of planning, researching and consolidating.

It feels right that we're now moving into our three year new degree programme. The students who came out of the old degree are by no means behind, but to see the full three years in situ will be fascinating. My year is production heavy, with lots of really creative projects to get my teeth into, as well as fashion fantastic learning opportunities out of. Political Cabaret, Acting Showcases, Theatre Arts shows, as well as music composition, singing and continued Vocal development.

And how do I feel at the end of my first year here?? Knackered, frankly and more than a little overwhelmed. But safe in the knowledge I am in the right place and I made the right decision for me and Ben a year ago.

The only problem is the heat. I'd trade all this in for a few months of rain!!!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Ham House's Birthday Celebrations!

Well, the day came, we saw it and we definitely conquered!

Last weekend saw the culmination of our efforts over the last 5 months. Expectations were high, and the worries of the past half year came to a head. Early views of the work at Ham Common, the brilliant puppets the students had made, as well as tech runs and leafleting gave us an early indication of how good the event would be. But still there was niggeling doubt. Would anyone show up??? And if they did, would they get rained on?

Saturday saw the students playing an early game of 'zip, zap, boing' much to the amusement of all around the grounds before settling in for a long and hard days work.

As Sunday came I suddenly realised I too had to 'step up to the plate' and do some work too, and it felt different. Being at Ham House alone and without students around for support. Looking at my last blog, discussing my attractions to working alone, it was odd to suddenly feel very lonely.

Luckily Ben was on hand, keeping me calm and cool in the 30 degree heat. My mum was even roped in at one point to sort flags for the choirs. It wasn't long before Lee and Brad turned up to rganise the speakers, Benedict and his band arrived to perfom with Ben and I was given a radio to be in constant communication with Gary, Jorge and the Ham House staff.

From around 2pm the whole event started to roll and nothing could stop it. Van after van arrived with equipment for the front and back of the house. Choir after choir arrived in their droves, wearing pastels and following their leaders. In a matter of days they went from wanting bring gazebos for the rain to worrying about how the heat may effect their voices! Oh well.

By the time I got to the warm up at 5.30 I was absolutely exhausted, but hearing all 400 people singing at once and leading them was truly inspirational and I remembered why I loved doing this job and why singing is so important.

As they began to scatter around the grounds and I heard the first strains of singing in the air I had a little cry to myself - we'd finally made it, we were finally here, and it sounded great.....................

...................Also I was Geordie in 30 degree heat and I hadn't eaten all day.

Community events are special. They bring people together, and they also make people the best they can be. I'm so honoured to have been part of this event and I hope to be in many more here at St Mary's.

I hope our students see the potential in these events for real social change and true empowerment for its participants. And for those students for whom this was their last event at St Mary's, I hope they were as inspired by it as I was. I truly hope this experience leads them to creating community events of their own.

Friday, 16 April 2010

General Politics at the General Election

Did anyone see the live debate between the three party leaders last night on ITV1?

As Mark and I rushed back from distributing leaflets around Ham with our bag of Chinese takeaway and sack full of excitement for the nights events, I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed by the outcome. I don't know what I was expecting exactly - I have watched the American versions in the past and do not wish to recreate the great lashings of Drama they seem to add to every shot and angle. Although at times last night, as the camera slowly zoomed in on a wistful and idealisitc facial expression of Cameron, Brown or Clegg I couldn't help expecting 'Land of Hope and Glory' to slowly fade in behind.

There was much of what was said I was expecting - a constant 'boys club' tussle by Gordon Brown and David Cameron which was unnecessary and did nothing to endear them to a disenchanted and disengaged public.

Altogether I think Brown did a good job in a very difficult role. He not only has to look towards the future, but come out of a really difficult time for the country and say 'we're still the ones who can get you through this'. He was constantly being questioned last night about his past 13 years with the party and 'why haven't you done these things before', but political parties, much like the public need that fresh boost in confidence and outlook in order to continue to grow.

Nick Clegg has been heralded by everyone as a clear winner in the debate, and he did show a new type of politician. His body language, speech and 'front foot' approach showed a man who had nothing to lose and, true or not, a man who had nothing to hide. I hope last nights events give the Liberal Democrats a real push in their votes in the coming election. Including the questioners names at the end of the show may have demonstrated some of the saccharine stickiness I found the American version guilty of, but it showed a shrewd man with very good oratory skill. I must admit, I loved it.

The biggest surprise was Cameron, the 'golden boy' of the group who began very shakily and preceeded to look like a deer trapped in the headlights throughout. His constant pushing of the Labour 'National Insurance' issue seemed misplaced and a little forced into debate, without having judged his audiences reaction. He didn't seem to have a rapport with anybody, looking away from others eyes and looking more than nervous where Brown and Clegg hit their stride.

I can draw no huge conclusion, but I am so happy this live debate has now been woven into the fabric of general elections to come. Any thoughts gratefully recieved.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Easter - the metaphorical finshing line in the race of this term

So, Easter is upon us. I can't say I am itching to get back to work as I sit in my pyjamas and contemplate the day.

This has been a long term and everyone, staff and students have been crawling to Easter. The work grows in intensity in these last few months culminating in performances and assessment preparation. The students are expected to take a lot in in a short amount of time. The results are exciting, innovative and extremely educational, but Easter works as a time for consolidation. Giving the mind and body a rest to fully realise the amount we have all learnt since Christmas.

So, what have I learned?? Well, I have quickly learnt that I don't feel like the 'new girl' anymore. I have adapted to my new life at St Mary's with alarming pace. The speed of the work means you always move forward or risk being left behind. Christmas seems like an age ago, when I still felt naive and in awe of the place. Now I feel settled, with a task and goal and have already gone about achieveing lots of it.

This term has seen my directorial debut at St Mary's of Arabian Nights and this was generally succesful. In the aftermath it has meant I have closer links with he third year students, which has proven very beneficial and means I feel more ingratiatied. Third Years are now coming to me for advice about Careers and courses which has been great.

There have also been a range of performances I have seen or been part of. 3 Birds Alighting on a Field and Junkyard Gods as well as Drama Society shows 4:48 Psychosis and The Shape of Clouds. I didn't get to see Psychosis due to work commitments but heard good things about the show, and was very impressed by the Physical Theatre Piece created by Laura Watson and her team. The Drama Society has seen a real flourish this term and continues to grow.

Careers wise we have had a real interest in Careers events and opportunities at St Mary's. This began with a Creative Industries Forum in conjunction with Media, and this included people form all areas of production. Most relevantly included 'Break a Leg' Arts Management which the 3rd years who attended now have good links with.

The discussion with Sarah Esdaile, professional director was a refreshing and interesting look at the world of the Arts and the students who attended got a lot from the event. I'm hoping to organise even more of these over the coming term and hope to see attendance grow.

After Easter, the Ham House 400th birthday project will begin to take over my life and I will be subsumed in a World of community choirs and logistics. No doubt there will be much more to write about in the coming term!

Happy Easter!!!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Katya Kabanova - 'Go Compare' should be ashamed of themselves.

I think everyone should go to the opera.

A bold statement I know, but one which I completely believe in.

Do I think it's everyone's cup of tea? No.
Do I think it's the best style of theatre there is? Definitely not.

So why?

Because Opera is the greatest demonstration of resonance there ever was.

Not often do you see a show where the lead actors aren't mic'd up to high heaven. There mouths moving in front of you and the sound coming from somewhere behind you. There is nothing more infuriating as a Voice Coach but to see technology being relied on more and more heavily.

So, last night Ben and I went to the English National Opera Coliseum in Charing Cross to see the opera Katya Kabanova. The story itself is a little basic; a typical love triangle story which won't have you confused or misguided. Some of the characters seem a little superflous but all go towards stretching a story that could be told easily in half an hour into a 1hr 45 minute epic. But the music that Janacek wrote for the piece takes centre stage. Beautiful, enchanting and moving in the extreme.

As the orchestra swim through the reams of manuscript you can't help but be impressed as the singers voices soar across the audience, leaving your body resonating in sympathy and the hairs stading up on your neck. When I have my singing lessons with Val (Valerie Reid, ENO Mezzo) I am always blown away and left a little inadequate by the sheer power she can achieve by vibration and resonance alone. The feeling and empathy she has with the music is perfectly placed; this attention to sound was reiterated time after time last night, and I was left speechless.

I was also struck by how timeless the story is. Although written many years ago, the staging and interpretation left us with something we could all relate too. Like a good piece of Shakespeare the pieces never lose their relevance. And David Alden's production giave a modern representation of a classis love story.

If you haven't been to the opera, don't think it's for you, don't listen to classical music, I urge you to buy a £5 ticket in the gods and go. It will leave you with a lasting impression.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

My Musical Masterplan

I have always written music. As a child it was making up tunes in my head which I painstakingly repeated and rehearsed infront of anyone who would listen. As I grew older, and began the piano lessons I had pestered my mum about for what seemed like forever I started to realise that if you layer those tunes on top of each other they can work quite well. Phrases such as 'key', 'chord' and 'note' became everyday parlance. I was more than a little smug.

As I grew older I found learning music difficult. Not doing music, just learning it. The endless white pages and black dots seemed to become very boring all of a sudden and lost their earlier mystery. I began to dabble in other sorts of music, music that didn't require paper or worry about harmony, but made me feel free and excited and full of life.

I still regret not keeping up with my music lessons in such a strong way. My singing thirst for knowledge has remained, thank goodness, which means I now run choirs and teach an elite group for private singing lessons, as well as continuing to study myself.

Last night I was anxious. I was nervous and almost a little bit sick. For the first time I was going to allow someone to come and look at my musical arrangements. Songs which I have written or arranged, but have never shown. The inadequacy of my putting pen to paper on show for everyone to see. But this was no ordinary person. I contacted Karen Wimhurst who has written music for the Royal Shakespeare Company and is currently working at the Royal Opera House. When she arrived I felt like a small child again at my first piano lesson.

We went through arrangement after arrangement, Karen pulling each one apart ruthlessly with her Classical Music training, discussing the key of a piece, the dynamic, the arcitecture. It was fascinating stuff and continued to highlight what I knew to be true - I'm much better at practicing music, performing it and being spontaneous than committing notes to a score. The process makes me feel inadequate and more than a little bit rubbish.

Karen is helping me because I want to write musical scores for Theatre, with the hope of writing soundscapes and music for the shows here at St Mary's. Every show having a score of music written specifically for it, and working closely with Director and cast to make sure it's perfect.

At the moment, this seems a million miles away as I sit with my head in a sight reading book. But will hopefully become a reality. I'll let you know how I progress.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Welcome to the House of Fun!

This term has been a real eye opener at St Mary's. After Arabian Nights and being totally absorbed in that project I finally look up and look around me, only to find everyone is beavering away at something. These projects vary hugely in size and style, but it really is a different place to be as we move into our second term.

For the third year, deadlines are looming, as well as the prospect of going out into the 'real world' and starting to forge a career for themselves. I remember this time well from my own university experience and how nerve wracking the thought of going out into the wilderness was. But I also remember the feeling of anticipated freedom, wanting to move on and feeling I had out grown my university bubble (which is as it should be).

Working on the Ham House 400th Birthday project (have I mentioned this in my blogs yet??) with the 3rd year students has been interesting so far. Contacting and visiting choirs around the area for the best part of 3 months. I feel priveleged to be able to share in their work with them and be included in the time they share. The students who have accompanied me to these sessions also seem to have enjoyed the experience as well as gaining an insight into the world of Community Projects. We are working hard, moving forward and making new friends which can only be a good thing.

The procession also seems to be moving ever onward (no joke intended) and community groups are being contacted left, right and predictably centre. Some are what you would expect at a National Trust event, and some are further afield.

As the event looms ever closer I've thought a lot about the recipe for a good community project, and what I see as being important aspects of the work. I've done a lot of this work before and they have all been strikingly different, however there are always common themes. The biggest of all things being a sense of 'fun'. Can we truly be creative if we're not enjoying ourselves? Embracing our silly sides? Experimenting with the line between childlike and childish?

Albert Einstein once said 'Play is the highest form of research' and I can't think of a more fitting model for how all of our work should be undertaken - particularly in Drama. Fun brings an energy with it, a naughtiness, a cheekiness, even a cockiness that can only be beneficial to your projects and this will be the driving force for our work between now and May.

So Happy Birthday Ham House! May your party be cheeky, crazy and even a little bit bizarre. But most of all FUN, for everyone involved!

Monday, 22 February 2010

St Mary's in Ham-ony

Since starting at St Mary's (which seems like forever ago now) I have had a lot of requests for singing lessons or group choir sessions, and finally I've been able to do something towards that. The Wednesday singing workshops have been running this term and have been great fun! Music is so important to me, particularly singing and this has been a great way to get my fill. Since Arabian Nights has finished I have found myself steeped in music and singing at every turn and I love it!

I have been arranging a lot of music for the singing workshops as I've gone along, and I've really enjoyed the range. The Flying Pickets, Survivors Eye of the Tiger, Paul Simon and Britney Spears, as well as some classic gospel and acapella songs. Theres been a rich tapestry and the students seem to have been enjoying it. What's great is there willingness to try new things and sing new songs, which is the blessing in any choir.

But the singing workshops have only been the beginning of this musical marathon I find myself running. Since November I have been looking for Community Choirs in the local area to take part in an event organised for Ham House's 400th birthday. Since then the event has grown even bigger with the inclusion of a community groups procession organised by our 3rd Year St Mary's Drama in the Community Students. So far they've been very impressive in there work ethic as well as the results and I'm enjoying working with my singing team - Zoe, Ed and Rachel.

Only last week Zoe and I visited a choir in the Vineyard Church in Richmond, lead by Ruth Fenton. After an hour and a half of singing it was clear how much people enjoy the singing they do and gain so much from it. Not only the singing, but the sense of community and cohesion it brings. It's a social gathering as much as anything else. But also an amazing amount of talent, choir leaders and participants. People who give so much of their time for the love of what they do, and this is what will make the event at Ham House such a success.

It has lead me to learn even more about myself however, and this has been really interesting. I've worked on my own for so long, and taken charge of every aspect of a project that it's been strange having other people to work with again. I am enjoying it and the whole team are working very hard, but I've never had a support team, a sounding board, a work partner. Throughout all my directing I've never had an assistant, not because I am amazingly good, I've just never felt good enough to ask anyone.

When working on your own you make mistakes, but it's easy to cover them up. If you want to have a week off you can, as long as you work twice as hard the week after. At every point you know exactly what has been done and what needs to be done. To give some of the responsibility has been liberating beyond measure, but does take a certain outlook to make it work.

All I can say is it's been good so far - harmony has been achieved throughout - musically and communicatively. Long may the music at St Mary's continue............

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

One Thousand and One Nights (since my last blog)

Ok. So I appreciate that not making a virtual contirbution since before Christmas is positively an age in the blogosphere, but sooooo much has happened. As a treat I will endeavour to make this as interesting and fun as I can.

This week saw the opening of 'Arabian Nights', and also sees the beginning of me trying to reclaim my life back on a social level. Most of my blog tardiness can be denoted to the show, with an intense rehearsal schedule, technical meetings and talking about the show endlessly to anyone who will listen. But to anyone who came to see the show last night I hope they thought it was worth it?? The students did their best performance yet and I hope that they continue their good run into tonights proceedings.

But I am not writing this blog in order to discuss the finer points of the production but more to talk about what I have learnt about myself throughout this time. The results have been more than startling and I have kept mental notes of these transitions as they happen.

I have directed before; student shows, amateur shows and with professional companies and every time I have the same sense of dread and foreboding when going into a project. Of course the usual excitement is also present, sprinkled with enthusiasm, but still this inner feeling remains. Directing a play is like flying a plane and the engine cutting out. Once started you can't stop, you must just keep going and hope that you land on a cotton wool factory - and hope to goodness you don't land on a bomb factory. And, much like all plane crashes (oh yes, this extended metaphor still has life in it) you don't know where you're going to land until you're really near the ground. It never fails to surprise me the momentum at which a production moves along, and you have to make sure that you're going with it or be left behind.

As an actor I have worked with directors who have let the play go too far without them, and when they try to sneak back in they find it impossible. I have also worked with directors that are so 'on top' of what's going on it's hard to get any creative fulfilment as one of the performers. But saying 'I will not be like those directors' proves as futile as saying 'I will not grow up to be my mother' - we both have the same face, sarcastic repertoire and an anal fascination with cleanliness. But more importantly she was my female role maodel and showed me what it is to be a woman; in the same way that all the past directors I have worked with have taught me about how to direct.

I caught myself working with this group of actors sometimes and knowing that if I did it again I would try something different. But overarching all this uncertainty was a deep rooted belief that everything was going to be ok. The play was good, the music and live musicians was great, the students are being challeenged and I was working on a show that truly reflected what working with me as a director is like - slap-dash and random but also with discipline and fun.

As I watched the show I felt like the last few months have melted away and all I have left are new skills as a director, new ideas as an educator and a show which I, and my students can be proud of. I hope anyone who comes to see it this week agrees.