Thursday, 27 October 2011

Thinking Creatively in the Natural History Museum

I am ashamed to say that my frist visit to the Natural History Museum only happened this year! In a Summer Holiday jaunt with my brother Kieron I ventured to South Kensington to the museum tha I had heard so much about. So impressed was I of the building, information and people that I decided to use this as the focal point of my Creative Thinking lectures - how could the Natural History Museum inspire you to create theatre?

So last Thursday I visited again, this time with 60 level 2 Drama students and one agenda - to look at the Natural History Museum as a venue for performance and explore its vast array of influences and information for theatrical endeavour.

By taking the students out of the university and letting them 'run free' already their creativity was doubled. They immediately started to look at things as a catalyst for ideas, development and theatre. But much more importantly, tey learned something. By being in that space and being surrounded by the museums many facts the students broadened their knowledge about dinosaurs, anatomy, the Earth, space, animals, evolution and biology.

In the Creative Thinking lectures I've been writing and delivering one main theme has come pushing through every time - in order to create good theatre you have to know about everything else!! No good theatre can be created just about the workings of theatre. It needs conflict and relationships, as well as a host of knowledge so that you can create the world of that play, that scenario or character. We have to develop our minds in so many ways - understand relationships, emotions and lifestyles, as well as be interested int he world around us, allow it to inspire and guide us. Without that what does theatre become?

I look forward to reading the students pitches for their pieces of theatre at the Natural History Museum, and maybe even a few we can pass onto the museum for their perusal too. Either way by getting the students out of the classroom and into another environment they have learnt and developed creatively already.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Little Voice, Little Audience

This weekend I saw Hull Truck's production of Jim Cartwright's infamous play, 'Little Voice'. The play was first performed by Hull Truck, starring Jane Horrocks in the lead role, and has since been made into a film of the same name starring, Horrocks, Ewan McGregor and Brenda Blethyn.

The production was nicely set, and had real energy from the beginning. Little Voice here was played by Lauren Hood, who's singing voice was truly wonderful and showed the range of emotion and character in those she was impersonating, whereas the rest of the performance was also an impersonation, this time of Jane Horrocks, but lacking the sparkle Horrocks added to the role.

Mari Hoff, the mother, was here played by Helen Sheals. The performance overall was sketchy in parts, particularly in moments of humour where laughs were expected but seldom came.

This lack of guffaw cannot be solely attributed to the performers, however, but rather that awkward feeling you have when you are one of only a handful of people. For a Saturday matinee of a show like this one could expect a packed house, filled to the gills with families, theatre goers and enthusiasts who had seen and loved the film. However, this show at the Rose told a different story. As I sat on my lone cushion in the pit of the theatre, I couldn't help but feel very isolated, as the remaining dozen of the audience sat 3 meters behind me and the action happened three meters in front. Inadvertantly my squirming had become part of the show.

My concern is who is going to the Rose Theatre? If the audience they were hoping to capture were people who enjoyed some light entertainment on a Saturday afternoon, they haven't succeeded. But then, does 'Little Voice' have anything to say the people of Richmond and Kingston in 2011?

My visit to the Rose this weekend left me thinking more about the theatre I was in rather than the show I watched. The audience numbers both saddened and angered me - not only because of this show but every subsequent ill-attended piece of theatre I've seen there. I was saddened that another theatrical resource isn't reaching out to the community it resides in - and angered for the same reason. Do the Rose know who their audeinces are? What they want? And what the're prepared to pay for? There are some serious questions to be asked, otherwise the future of this tehatre could be in jeopardy.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Running Headlong into the next Decade

Mark and I heralded the new term, and a new theatrical season by going to Decade, a show marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This Headlong show, in association with the National Theatre was a site specific piece in St Catherine's Dock (as a brief sideline, this as part of London I'd never been to before and was given a swift but very knowledgable tour by Mark. Well worth a visit).

I had no idea what to expect, and as we entered the seemingly non-theatrical, stark office building I had no idea what to expect. As we joined the cue into an American airport, complete with fear inducing metal detectors and burly American officials I was no nearer an explanation.

The show was set in the 103rd floor of the Twin Towers North tower. Once inside you were taken to your table for breakfast, surrounded by American waitresses and waiters, offered drinks, given menus and treated to a view over New York.

What followed was a bringing together of new writing about 9/11 and it's legacy 10 years on (writers such as Alecky Blythe and Mike Bartlett are amongst the 20) along with physical theatre sequences, songs, monologues and audience interaction and participation. The space was used to it's full, truly exploring the site specific nature of the place and exploiting it's glass corridors and stairways.

Specific mention should be made for two specific pieces, both featuring Tobias Menzies who was shining throughout. The first, a monologue (we presume by Alecky Blythe, although the pieces are not attributed to their writers) where a British worker from the tower firstly discusses how they narrowly missed the event by simply swapping shifts - but also a much deeper story of possible conspiracy surrounding the explosions and a suspicious security bypass in the days before 9/11. The beauty of this has to be given to the performance by Menzies, simple and direct - direct enough so you acknowledge his beliefs, but the emotion behind the story was palpable.

The second, a scene within the editorial offices of the Daily Mail really captured the media's position - cowardly, obnoxious and and emotionally devoid. Again, Tobias Menzies gives a sterling performance as a Piers Morgan type figure, and like Piers Morgan the audience revel in hating him.

The downsides - the show clocks in at around 3 and a half hours! (although it has since been shortened by half an hour). Although the inclusion of the writers material is, of course, important, one couldn't help but yearn for Rupert Goold to be a little more ruthless with his
pencil. Some scenes seemed small and inconsequential in comparison to others and, although showing a different perspective, seemed more style over substance. By adding the more physical aspects of the show too, which were not always necessary and rarely perfected, you started to resent the performance making later, more substantial pieces almost impossible to make an impact.

Putting all this aside, I've found this blog very difficult to write. I don't want to be negative about this show, because to be negative would suggest I felt something. I actually left the space feeling surprisingly apathetic towards the show. The subject matter is so emotive and personal to everyone, that the show didn't seem to measure up to the reality of the situation and how the event has affected our lives. I think I'm still unsure what the show was trying to say, and whether including the work of so many writers was the right way to do it.

I believe the show has been edited since the first night and I'd be interested in seeing this again and where the axe may have fallen.

Monday, 1 August 2011

London Road

Last week Ben and I went to the National to see London Road, spurred on by great reviews, both in the press and from friends as well as a fascination with how the play was constructed.

In 2006 5 women were murdered in Ipswich which lead to a large media furore and investigation. But as the culprit was found the media never told the tale of the remaining residents of London Road, the street where Steve Wright, the killer, was found and possibly lured his victims.

The play meets the residents of London Road as they hold their first AGM since the murders and they discuss rebuilding their lives and breathing new life into the now infamous area. The determination of the characters is obvious as they discuss community quizzes and garden flower shows.

Alecky Blythe, famous for writing plays such as The Girlfriend Experience and Come Out Eli uses verbatim theatre as her usual modus operandi where they actors retell real accounts from people involved in the situation - usually representing that person totally. This is a slight departure as she teamed up with Adam Cork, a composer, who took the words from the recordings to make verbatim songs. The inflection and melody of the local accent creates the tune throughout and in the few places where the recordings are played the melody is obvious. The result is a new form of verbatim theatre, not only acknowledging what the people say as being important, but also how they say it.

Both Ben and I found the music impressive for different reasons. As a musician Ben could appreciate the complexity of the music, and how the seemingly inconsequential conversations between people could become strong themes and unlikely anthems. I was impressed by the delivery, particularly as the 11 members of the cast played over 50 people between them, all with their own slight variation on the accent.

A show highlight was two young girls in a cafe explaining how you see any man on the streets and 'you automatically think it could be him'. Not only did this really capture the mood of the women involved but also created a sense of a busy, bustling community keen to move on with their lives and leave the tragedy behind them.

But, I can't say either of us were particularly impressed by the play. The heightened form of the music and the effects that has on the style of the performance didn't seem to match the scale of the happenings in the 'story'. The stories of those involved in the surrounding area seemed to pale in comparison to the events of the killings that we had all witnessed on the television and in the media in 2007. The story of the sex workers who, obviously scared and vulnerable, began to change their lives around as a result was incredibly powerful and very moving, but did seem to be overshadowed in the production by the lives of others on the street.

This is a definite must see, if only because this will be the first time you've seen anything quite like it. I'm going to look out for more work by Adam Cork, he's obviously an incredibly talented composer and I look forward to seeing what else he can do.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Well and truly 'Beached' - Lee Hall and Opera North

Today saw the fallout between Northern Playwright Lee Hall and Opera North.

Opera North have been working as part of a two year 'residency' with Bridlington community groups. Part of the project was an opera composed by Harvey Brough with a libretto written by Lee Hall, known for writing 'Billy Elliot' and 'Cooking with Elvis'. Today, with two weeks before the performance, involving children from local schools, Lee Hall wrote an article in the Guardian documenting his disgust that the opera; 'Beached', was being cancelled as the LEA's involved wanted to change homosexual references in the text.

From further investigation it seems the homosexual references include a character saying 'I'm queer' and 'I prefer a lad to a lass' (that's Geordie for boy and girl, for my Southern counterparts). Lee Hall was asked to change the references but refused, also making it clear that during these parts of the text the children, to whom the LEA are attached, are not on stage during this exchange between two male characters. Lee has also created a large media interest, obviously beginning with the Guardian but following on to be daytime talk show TV fodder and a facebook page that has recruited 100's of members by the hour.

There has been a lot said about the whole affair, Opera North are now onto their third statement in regards to the situation. They have claimed that it is not about "personality or personal opinion, it's about education policy over which Opera North have no control."

It seems however, they have slightly missed the point. Opera North are so scared of being deemed homophobic or discriminatory, they haven't realised the majority of the rising uproar is in their refusal to support Lee Hall in his decision, and defend the writers prerogative to write about issues as they see fit.

In a personal aside, why employ Lee Hall if this type of language or subject matter is going to cause issues? It seems Opera North employed Lee Hall as a 'Northern' man, not a man who discusses sexuality, life, death and everything inbetween. But as we know these definitions can only lead to trouble. Lee Hall's play Billy Elliot deals with a huge range of political, sexual and prejudice issues, with down-to-earth, 'real' dialogue - and that is what he does best. Billy Elliot is now used as a discussion point for school children across the country who, through creating their own productions are discussing the varied and important themes throughout. Surely this is the way forward? Surely this production of 'Beached' could have done the same - given children an education in a topic through the form of art and Drama, isn't this what we want?

On a final note, I went to see Benjamin Britten's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at the ENO last month, a production oozing with sexual intrigue, exploration, with references to paedophilia in a cast that were as a young as 9 or 10. Not only is the opera a masterpiece, it's also continuously explored in relation to Britten's sexuality and how he uses it in his music. Could we get away with more then? Is it just a matter of timing? There seems to be obvious parallels in this work. Maybe in hundreds of years time Hall's original libretto will be performed to packed houses of people who find his sexuality 'charming'...........?

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Two Boys

Last night Trevor, Ben and I went to the ENO to see their production of 'Two Boys', a new commission from the ENO, written by Nico Muhly, a ridiculously talented Canadian 30 year old composer and libretto by Craig Lucas.

The story is not the stuff of Carmen, but is filled with Drama and intrigue from the beginning. We open to a detective looking through the case notes of a stabbing incident. The victim is not yet revealed but the suspect is 16 year old Brian (Nicky Spence). A boy who not only lives in this life but also a virtual world on the computer, filled with 'real people' and situations. Spending a lot of time on his computer chatting to 'mindful16', a girl called Rebecca who takes an interest in Brian and he becomes quickly besotted.

As far as proof goes, it's pretty watertight. CCTV footage shows Brian leading the boy into a desolate shopping centre, then leaving alone and screaming for help. It all seems lost for Brian. However, he is adamant he is not the only person involved - gradually we hear about Peter the Gardner, a Secret Agent and a young computer hacker. Obviously this falls on deaf ears, the detective Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley) seeing this as a young boys imaginary world to detract from the seriousness of the crime - that is until she finds the transcripts of conversations between Brian and all his seemingly not so imaginary friends. As the piece progresses we discover with the detective the real reason behind Brian's actions.......(dramatic pause)

The story is wonderful and incredibly dramatic. The structure of the piece overall teases the story from the stage piece by piece and leads to an incredibly interesting conclusion. Musically this is the same, the choral sections particularly are stunning, and give an impression of fluidity and complexity parallel to that happening in the story which you don't come to expect from opera ensembles.

If you have never been to the Opera, I'll be honest, having people singing does take some getting used to. Particularly in the more contemporary operas where people are as likely to be singing about buying a pint of milk as singing the huge dramatic arias synonymous with the artform. And as a total opera covert and lover, I must also admit I often find myself thinking, 'this would be a great play'.

But why wouldn't opera want to tackle modern issues? And can the expression of the story through song give us a new meaning or perspective on these issues? Theatre is meant to be a tool for change and awareness, as well as entertainment and event. The form of opera seems to be changing too. As the action happens around the music, there can be large sections where performers have to silently 'act' because they're not due back in for another 14 bars. But 'Two Boys' had less of that fill, and much more speed in delivery which fitted with the fast paced world of technological communications.

Overall, a wonderful evening at the theatre and another success for the ENO. Obviously well done to Val Reid as well who not only sang beautifully her portrayal of Anne's mother showed real interest and characterisation.

A great show. I would recommend to anyone and everyone.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Singing is Good for You - Fact!!

This week I went to Nordoff Robbins in Gospel Oak to a Research Seminar about singing and well-being. Speaking at the seminar was Dr Stephen Clift and his Phd student Rita Munro from the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Helath based at Canterbury Christchurch University.

Stephen Clift was discussing his 'network' prject, which created choirs for people with mental health NHS service users, workers and supporters. These choirs showed a marked improvement in the health of the participants, as well as movement from being clinically diagnosed, to less severe forms of their conditions. The project, in partnership with NHS Kent, started in 2007 and has been thriving ever since.

The original group that was set up, 'The Mustard Seed Singers' visited mental health care homes and wards to perform and share their experiences, as well as give invaluable support to potential new singing groups.

Rita Munro, was very interesting. She has no background in music at all, claiming to even find spontaneous acts of singing very difficult, but was a student in behavioural science and psychology and decided to look at the effects of singing on the participants from a purely scientific viewpoint e.g. saliva swabs, hormonal change etc. Her talk was incredibly interesting, particulrly in hearing about her difficulty in getting the samples from the participants, and her movement in understanding of how creative endeavour affects people. Looking at the five points of well-being, outlined by the government recently, these include;

Connect - with people around you.
Be Active - walk, run, cycle, dance, sing......
Take Notice - savour the moment
Keep Learning - makes you more confident and can be fun
Give - do something nice for a friend or a stranger

The singing sessions that took part engaged in all fo these activites, as well as show scientific evidence of improved well-being as a result of their singing.

At the moment I am looking into reader and non-reader choirs, looking at the attributes of 'Kinesensic learning', a phrase coined by Arthur Lessac, and whether the health and well-being benefits are different depending on the type of singer you are. I'll keep you updated.

For more info abotu Sindey De Haan please see -

The ONLY Choir That Rocks......................?

(Yes yes, I haven't written a blog in ages, apologies and all that..............)

Last week saw a documentary called 'The Choir that Rocks' on ITV's, chronicling the last 5 months of a choir phenomoena that is moving across the nation, 'Rock Choir'. This first episode saw Caroline Redman Lusher discussing how from humble beginnings starting as a budding popstar to running a local choir in Farnham Surrey, she decided built up a singing empire where evryone wears the same t-shirts, sings the same songs and choir leaders aren't paid if they're late. Obviously all underscored with inspirational ballads and stabbed throughout with colossal threatening events e.g. will the Yorkshire choir get more than 9 members, will Caroline sign and pay to hire Wembley and will there be a chance that Caroline won't get to sing on one of the following episodes?

I'll be honest, as someone who's run choirs for a long time, there's a lot I like about Rock Choir. The participants were obviously getting a lot from the experience, and who am I to take that away from them.

But I have a great sense of unease about it, and am slowly finding myself disliking the brand more and more. I can't explain to you how much I detest people wearing matching t-shirts, or singing to backing tracks or being rallied along by American corporate style enthusiasm (You will enjoy this, and if you don't there's something wrong with YOU).

This franchise model has already proven successful financially. 'Stagecoach', the weekend Drama group for young people has gone from strength. But why do they all have to be this 'brand'?? And can the quality of the work ever be good if it's all standardised?

I have many issues with what I saw in the Rock Choir documentary, the biggest of which being an assumption that if you were looking for a choir there was black or white - Rock Choir or the Choral Society of Wherever which sing boring classical repertoire and everyone's 100 and you have to read music (I know, I a choir. How bizarre).

Well my first response is there are thriving choral societies who have been established and successful for many years giving pleasure and interest to all involved. They may not wear matching t-shirts, or sing songs that Caroline RL likes, but I don't think they particularly care.

Secondly, if this is black and white, what about the grey? What about the hunders or thousands of local community choirs who sing up to date repertoire, don't sight read, don't audition. These choirs have been running for many years bringing a singing culture to many places that didn't have one or couldn't afford one. However, for the sake of this documentary have been conveniently forgotten so Caroline can look like a one woman crusade in the fight for creative expression for the masses. Why can't we be filling Wembley with ALL types of choir, celebrating their own unique style and embracing their difference. Why call something 'inclusive', when you're creating events which are 'exclusive'?

We're beginning to create the Tesco's of Creativity, companies who have an entirely different view of how we should express ourselves, what we should want to buy and how we should buy it. As always the 'local shops' suffer. But remember, although some of the local shops vegetables may be a little oddly shaped, they always taste better........