Monday, November 19, 2012

100 things: Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park

I loved this suggestion immediately (thanks, Amber!) when it was made, so I don't know why it's taken me so long to get round to it. Finding out about them just before I went made it even better. They're Grade I listed, the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, and pre-dated On the Origin of Species by six years. It's easy to find them quaint and somewhat amusing now (especially the one which has its head in a bush because no one knew what its face looked like) but they're really not only fun to go and look at but also an incredible piece of history. This and loads more info all on Wikipedia...

 The park also includes this model of geographical strata including a seam of coal. And here are some of the dinosaurs...

 I think my favourite bit were these, the dinosaurs they thought had shells somewhat like turtles - that's been proved incorrect. I liked the signage which gives information about what was thought at the time as well as illustrations of what is now thought to be the case - which of course, may also be already outdated.

As we walked around it was pointed out to me that this sudden desire to see these dinosaurs just at this moment might be no coincidence, and really just be withdrawal symptoms from being away from the Natural History Museum...  No. I'm sure not.

Before leaving we also did the maze - London's largest. I'm sure I've heard from somewhere that you should always turn left in a classical maze to find the centre. We tried it, and it worked. Sort of. Plenty of dead ends later. We decided this still counted, as we followed the dead ends and turned left again. Thinking about it, that might work for any maze, as you'd have to eventually follow all the kinks and turns around... I'm sure someone on the internet knows.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

100 things: Greenwich Foot Tunnel

There is something quite peculiar about walking underneath a river - much more so than driving or travelling on the tube. I'm not totally sure I knew much about the Thames foot tunnels - I think there are only two in use, at Greenwich and Woolwich - before I looked up a cycling route to Canary Wharf from my flat in SE London the other day, and saw that Google showed it going straight across the river from the Cutty Sark to the Isle of Dogs where I was fairly sure there wasn't a bridge. I've been under it a couple of times since (hence the night and day time photos). Lots of commuting cyclists use it, a large percentage admirably kitted out in reflective jackets, proper cycling clothes, multiple flashing lights, bullet proof helmets etc (only a slight exaggeration) absolutely putting me to shame. I won't go into details of what I count as bike equipment at the moment, I would only get shouted at. The tunnel and lifts are open 24 hours a day and especially at peak hours it feels pretty busy and perfectly safe, though I'm not sure I'd feel totally comfortable walking through on my own at quiet times.

Also definitely worth a visit if you live anywhere near there on either side of the bank is the Old Fire Station near Island Gardens DLR station. I, like a complete snob, assumed there wouldn't be much in the way of decent eateries in that area and was proved completely wrong when we discovered this wonderful Mediterranean bistro with decorations made of reclaimed picture frames and a wine bottles ceiling light. We had a selection of tapas, which came beautifully presented, reasonable portions for the small cost, and everything tasted delicious and was perfectly cooked. Our waitress was new but we were introduced to her by the manager, who checked we didn't mind being her test case, and kept an eye on us throughout the evening. All the staff were perfectly charming - highly recommended and not too expensive.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Days Three to Five

I've just realised this post has been sitting as a draft here for ... weeks? So I'm publishing it - even if very behind hand. I still haven't figured out the Daniel Bye thing either. I have an envelope in a box (I've just moved house) with £20 it and 'The Price of Everything' written on the front. I'll have a brain wave soon.

Ok: no one cares anymore, I know. It's all over. The Paralympics have started (I'm so behind, I haven't watched the Opening Ceremony yet either). However, it really feels wrong to have blogged about less than half my Fringe days so here is what I am to be a whistlestop tour (but knowing me won't be) through the rest of it.

Monday, Day Three

I started with Thin Ice at the Pleasance Courtyard, which was generally a well produced nicely performed piece about polar exploration. I enjoyed it; but when I've been telling people about what I saw in Edinburgh I've totally forgotten about it. I thought the animation wasn't always quite well done enough; like the early days of CGI when it was easy and inexpensive enough for people to start using it in the natural course of things but not quite good enough not to notice it was being used. Like the scene on the Titanic where you pull away from the ship and can see the Captain walking along and he's clearly an animated figure. Thin Ice wasn't trying to pretend its falling whales were real, that's not what I mean, but it wasn't well done enough to be seamless with the play and yet was used as you might use any other available means of creating set/props/costumes rather than being central to the production. I hope that makes sense, I'm not sure it does.

I then went to the Fruitmarket Gallery to see the Dieter Roth exhibitions which I'd seen reviewed in the Guardian, part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Very contemporary and definitely more than the sum of its parts. My notes about it say "shame, waste, discarded materials of our lives, what we keep, what we value, a record not of us but what we produce, private boundaries".

I was feeling rather weak that day so progressed along to Oink for a hog roast sandwich which was pretty good but could have done with some crackling, not offered. I ate it in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, visited the National Museum of Scotland to admire the beautiful hidden roof gardens, then walked to the Pleasance Dome and promptly fell asleep until I was woken up by my phone ringing.

Refreshed (I am a firm believer in day time naps) I went into Translunar Paradise which I really liked and would highly recommend: a beautiful show about loss and bereavement, with three performers, mask work, and musical accompaniment. I did lose the story a couple of times midway, but in general the movement and expression was outstanding and not emotionally simplistic - bereavement is angry, frustrated, complicated as well as sad.

In the evening I met up with friends and we considered trying to see an evening comedy show but nothing stood out. I was surprised throughout at how many shows seemed to be scheduled in sort of the same afternoon/early evening slot: it felt more difficult than in some years to see everything I wanted to and I didn't, in the end.

Tuesday, Day Four

My last full day at the Fringe was mostly a Northern Stage at St Stephen's day. I started with Daniel Bye's The Price of Everything, the short version of which I just missed out on at The Campsite in Ipswich. For the price of my ticket - £10ish? - I came out with a glass of milk in my belly, £20 in my bag, not to spend on myself, and a task - that's an interesting question about whether I got value! It didn't disappoint, he's a clever man that Dan, not just asking about the value of objects but what difference the context makes too. What's the value of a random gift to a stranger - and why do we feel differently about that to things we do for or give to someone we know?

Having by then figured out that the best way to find the right bus in Edinburgh was not to struggle with local apps, maps or timetables but simply to Google map it, after a simple but good salami sandwich from the St Stephens cafe I managed to speed across town for Stellar Quines's The List. I couldn't see it at any other time but it was well worth it. Harrowing to watch - awakening all my nightmares about the devastating consequences of putting something off - but stunningly acted and with a lovely simplistic set which worked really well in the intimate setting of the old wooden anatomy lecture theatre at Summerhall.

Then back to Northern Stage where for a lot of the rest of the day I just hung out, with the help of beers - a great venue, and brilliant laid back cafe/bar. Oh the Humanity and Other Good Intentions was very high quality stuff with a fantastic floating stage and I absolutely loved RashDash's Ugly Sisters - blackly funny, inappropriate in a good way, and perhaps celebrity culture isn't anything new to make a play about but they did it well. A masterclass too in how to add low level audience participation into your play, involving them in a not entirely comfortable way without actually humiliating anyone. I'm not into confrontational audience involvement much, I feel it's very rarely justified, and I think lots of people misjudge it, but this was perfectly pitched. Fantastic music, with Not Now Bernard, and physicality, too - again physical theatre is too often just thrown in there.

Wednesday, Day Five

As I had to leave on Wednesday afternoon, this was my final day at the Fringe, and just left me time for a last minute lucky ticket to Bullet Catch before heading to the ITC Nuts and Bolts talk on setting up a theatre company, in case I could pick up any tips. Bullet Catch is a show about magic which is also partly a magic show. Magic rather annoys me on the whole, and I know I'm not alone with that. If I see fabulous things half the interest is knowing how it's done and I don't much like being tricked. So there was that disadvantage (and although one trick is given away in Bullet Catch it's a fairly obvious one anyway). I was in fact gulled into believing more of the main event than I probably should have which also made me feel quite unsure about being complicit in it: I almost left, which is probably overdramatic but then, that shows the effectiveness of the performance. I did really enjoy it, in the end, especially the more theatrical bits, and Rob Drummond is a very compelling actor.

And then Nuts and Bolts was useful, though scary the number of people out there trying to make it... as someone has asked me since, why do we all think we have the right? Or don't we but we just want to try anyway? The Edinburgh Fringe definitely, this year, said to me that it is very much worth at least having a go.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Sunday, Day Two

 So attempting to move on a bit through my Edinburgh experience (after all, I left on Wednesday): Sunday was relatively sedate. I got up later than I should but made it, just (see below) to Summerhall for Rime.

This might make me sound old (it makes me feel old) but I'm not sure how else to put it: Square Peg are young, good looking, enthusiastic, incredibly skilled and make it seem almost easy. Their acrobatic, dance and aerial skills are amazing and the piece was produced to a high standard, with fantastic sound both live and recorded. I guess my reservation was that it just was a little bit too slick and pretty. For example that mock Victorian look with tan and brown shades, knickerbockers, shirts and corsets is nice to look at but feels clichéd. It was very clear how talented they were but I didn't quite believe them. And particularly when - and this is just me being pedantic - they used granny knots to tie the sails when any sailor would use a reef. I'm interested actually - is this a circus rigging thing? It was consistent, at least.

Still. It was incredible to watch, they gave me an apple (see my previous post, I'm easily bribed), and to have a window open might not have been a deliberate part of what was going on but worked brilliantly - before I realised it gave me goose bumps as I felt the breeze on my neck as a storm gathered in the play. Maybe we should think about sensation effects more often as well as sound and lighting.

After Rime I popped back to the Hunt and Darton Cafe, in residence on St Mary's Street for the Festival, where I had an absolutely fantastic roast beef sandwich (complete with parsnips, stuffing and gravy - I was unsure, but it was good! - and managed to earn my copy of Forest Fringe's Paper Stages by giving time to an artist/waitress who was asking punters for helpful advice on her career. She seemed pretty sorted actually, but then I know that feeling of still wanting to be told what to do. My only complaint at Hunt and Darton was that the admittedly charming mismatched crockery was completely impractical - my tiny coffee mug had a curved in rim that made drinking from it tricky and my knife did not match up to the sandwich!

I didn't see any more shows on Sunday but very much enjoyed returning for a bit of a look around Summerhall. There are incredible spaces, with many original features from the venue's past life as the vetinary school, and exhibitions, including Figure Studies which are Muybridge-esque films, slowing down of the movement of people so that every movement and ripple of the skin can be observed in fine detail. I also attended the deliberately provocatively titled "Taking On The Boys" talk from Stellar Quines which was really interesting both on women's presence in the industry and their attitude to each other. The basic message was that only 30% of creative theatre roles in Scotland are filled by women, so it's clear that gender is still an issue, but also that people feel quite passionately, and often differently, about it. I'm looking forward to reading the full report from the research they have had carried out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edinburgh 2012: Saturday, Day One

Due to my otherwise excellent accommodation not having wifi (it does have internet, just not wireless, and the owner of the accommodation (my uncle, but not the same uncle as the caravan uncle) quite often seems to want to plug into it (how dare he. In his own house)), and the preponderance of late nights (keeping up with this sentence?) I'm rather behind on blogging about Edinburgh. Not that anyone is waiting with breathless anticipation, but I did intend to write something. I've been keeping notes. So, even though it's Tuesday, here's what happened on Saturday.

I arrived at Waverley and exited the station only to see Daniel Bye stroll past. I hadn't only arrived in Edinburgh, I'd definitely arrived at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I'd not booked much before arriving so had to sort that out fairly quickly, and started with This Hour Only and The Lonely One in quick succession at the Underbelly, Cowgate, before heading off to the nabakov Arts Club where due to my lack of sleep the night before I really didn't last the distance and probably missed out on all the best bits.

This Hour Only was well performed and mostly well written.  It's about a new prostitute giving her first session, which coincides with a young man's first visit, bought for him by his friends for his 21st birthday. The story as it unfolds feels fairly unlikely but then the script makes a point of how unusual as prostitute and customer they both are. It was sweet, and there was some clever rhyming which felt too clever when it was too obvious but really worked the rest of the time. I enjoyed it.

The Lonely One was less successful for me, but that might well have been because the tiredness really caught up with me then and, I have to admit it (and I was in the second row and am pretty sure at least one of the performers would have clocked it: sorry!) I fell asleep more than once. There were lots of experimental techniques; shadow puppetry, mobile lighting, etc; which all felt interesting as concepts but didn't always deliver. The tension, from my admittedly somewhat limited viewpoint, felt as though it was built up over too long a period. Good performances, though, and believable characters. I don't think I can really judge something where I wasn't fully with it, through no fault of the show.

The nabakov Arts Club was fun while I was there and I wished I was more awake and there with a friend or two, to get drunk with and stay out till all hours. It started late (I heard someone from the venue talking about how they had 86 performers. I sympathise), but that was ok because half an hour isn't much in the scheme of 6 hours. Briefly I wasn't at all sure what was going on where and would have welcomed a programme but once I'd got my head round the layout a bit and identified the right rooms that was ok. I heard great music from Interplay Leeds (who are performing This Land: The Story of Woody Guthrie) and got a brilliant fridge sticker which is definitely going on my fridge when I have a fridge. The One Hour Plays did a ten minute play, made in an hour with the collaboration of the audience, which had no tigers in it sadly (though one was promised) but did have a flamenco dancer and was amusing. Then I lasted through some good poetry and comedy in a room that had appalling acoustics and not very sensible layout for getting anyone to shut up and listen, and went home, missing John Osborne, Molly Naylor and Kate Tempest: very foolish I expect but I think I might have gone to sleep again and it really is rude. Once in a day is a misfortune but twice is carelessness… etc.

Day One summary of achievements & highlights

  • Walking down Royal Mile (hideous)
  • Only taking one flyer while walking down Royal Mile (I think I have a "don't flyer me" look on my face. Or avoidance of look)
  • Accepting a bribe for the one flyer I did take (a sweet. I felt like I needed it)
  • Falling asleep in a show
  • Having blisters and onset of shin splints by the time I did get home and having to walk like a ballet dancer for the last few hundred yards (toe first)

Friday, August 3, 2012

First day as a full time freelancer

It's been a very scary thought in the build up, and may well get scary again in the future as at the moment I'm feeling slightly in holiday mode with trips to the Edinburgh Fringe and to France (the latter the genuine holiday) lined up. It might feel more real in September. Today, though, I've felt very able to cope with the idea that from now on I'm employing myself.

It's perhaps because I've had all the nice sides of it today. I started at ten thirty after leisurely eating my breakfast and making real coffee. I had the back door open with the sun shining outside and at one point went for a stroll to pick blackberries. I cooked myself pasta with artichoke hearts and basil and a big glug of olive oil for lunch. I felt motivated, productive, and so able to finish at four o'clock to go for a bike ride and an icecream, knowing I'd got as much done as is sometimes possible in an 8 hour day.

I know from having done it two days a week for the last ten months that it's not always like this. Sometimes it's hard to get into gear when you're at home on your own, and I was lucky that I had people I could email when I had questions I wanted to ask someone. When I'm not earning enough and working away at things that might never get funding and never happen, that's going to be hard. Worrying about paying the rent will be even harder.

For now, I'm not going to stress, but I might do a little planning. I'm going to think about ways I might support myself better and keep myself motivated. I'm going to do some talking to some wise people and appreciate my avenues for advice. I'm going to try and keep getting up in good time, having leisurely breakfasts, and making sure I get out of the house and having exercise on a regular basis. I'm going to try and schedule work time and personal time and not blur the boundaries too much. Most of all, though, I'm going to enjoy it while it feels good, and cross other bridges when I get to them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A question of perspective?

I went to the Hayward Gallery on Monday after finishing work. It's not going to make it into my 100 things to love because it's a bit too obvious a choice, but on the other hand I've never been there before. It feels a little too inaccessible and concrete, somehow, though I've admired all the artworks outside for years. Do they have to do that because other people don't walk in either?

The irony is that when I got there, I discovered that the exhibition currently on display is Invisible. It's a bit like the "What's the password" joke or the one about "The storage is in Ware" "Where?" "Ware" that came up at work recently. The subtitle is Art about the Unseen. All very modern and when I walked in to practically empty walls and pieces about thoughts and gazes it was all a bit too much like nonsense. Some of it funny nonsense, like the man who'd forgotten to bring a piece of artwork to an exhibition so put in a police report for his invisible art which had been stolen. Other nonsense verging too close to the pretentious.

Once I'd wandered around a bit though, there was also some fantastic stuff. Or stuff I really liked, anyway, and that makes it fantastic in my book. Some of it was there, some was mementos from stuff which had been fantastic before.

I started to warm up with the piece of a platform which had been an installation by Chris Burden called White Light/White Heat where the artist lay unseen above the gallery for every day of the exhibition. I quite liked Bethan Huws's "...from New York to San Francisco to..." - that sometimes there would be an actor in the gallery, behaving like a member of the general public, so you'd never know they weren't just another visitor.

I found "The Ghost of James Lee Byars" quite scary - you enter a room through a curtain, thinking it'll be one of those shadowy exhibition rooms with a film in or something and actually it's seriously dark, so dark you can't see where the wall is, and only, eventually, a faint chink of light where the opposite exit is. You have to walk through it to get to the rest of the exhibition (though you can get help) and I, like I suspect many other people, crashed through pretty quickly. I swear I could hear someone breathing, though when I lifted the curtain and let the light fall through there was no one else there. James Lee Byars was the artist and was originally alive when this was first exhibited, but no longer.

Then back to the funny again - I loved Carsten Höller's "The Invisible" - one of a series of fantastical cars invented as competitors for the "New World Race". This one, on spot four (which they had laid out on the floor) was so advanced it was invisible. I also found the realisation I was in a drawing quite lovely - Lai Chih Sheng's "Life-Size Drawing" where every edge and line in the room (though presumably not the oher exhibits) had been drawn over in pencil. Less successful, I thought, was Tom Friedman's Untitled (A Curse) which was meant to be a spherical patch of air over a pedestal which had been cursed by a witch.

The one I found the most disturbing, even more than "The Ghost...", was Teresa Margolles's "Air". I almost wish I hadn't read the display outside first, to see if unknowing it'd have had the same affect, though I guess they have to warn people. Earlier in the exhibition there'd been a room with aircon making a point about atmosphere but this one was cooling systems using water, and the water had been used to wash bodies in a mortuary. I was fine about reading this, but went in and suddenly went crawly all over. Not because it was distasteful particularly (though it does feel a bit icky) but with the sensation of desperately sad souls. Why this felt meaningful when Tom Friedman's didn't... I guess is half the point.

Ceal Floyer's plumb line, marking the centre of the gallery space (randomly on the edge of a staircase) is worth a mention if only because she's a distant cousin but then I finished with an invisible maze - I didn't find out who this was by. You pick up kinesthetic headphones (I've made that term up. They vibrate rather than making noise) from a rather beautiful display, and sit them just above your ears. There is a map of the day's maze which you have to walk through, with the headphones vibrating every time you hit a "wall". I kept finding dead ends where there shouldn't have been dead ends and gave up.

If there is a meaning in that then it's worrying, but the exhibition is definitely worth something which may not be a look.

Monday, July 23, 2012

camping with a vengeance

Since I've started freelancing I've been trying to create my own luck by being open to opportunity, as I'm sure Oliver Burkeman once suggested. Nearly two months ago now, at the beginning of June, I helped out Field Trip with the first outing of The Campsite, a new venue which is "dedicated to supporting unfeasible ideas and impractical performance work". Commissioned for its first outing and supported brilliantly by the folk at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, as part of the Pulse Fringe Festival 2012,  The Campsite transformed a scrubby, gravelled piece of disused land into a space full of innovative theatre, performance poetry, music, film, and participatory experiences, mostly for audiences of 1 to 6 people.

My involvement with the project came about like tripping over someone's guy rope, getting your knees muddy, but discovering that this tent has wonderful things and people inside, and being welcomed in for a beer. (I imagine, because this has never actually happened to me while camping. Yet). To continue the metaphor, while you're there you do end up having to help pump up the airbed, but there is pizza, coffee and a never ending supply of pastries and you have a wonderful if knackering time - and actually, a lot of that isn't a metaphor.

The guy rope, in real life, was a plea from Laura and Tom, the directors of Field Trip, on Twitter, for someone to help them pick up a caravan. They're friends of a friend (Nick White-White, who plays Frolly like a grown up and is also a theatre maker); I have a car with a tow bar, wasn't doing anything that weekend and offered to help. Several weeks later Field Trip had ended up buying my uncle and aunt's caravan (who have been enthusiastic in theory but somewhat bemused and possibly sceptical about how theatre in a caravan actually works) and I was sat in an office in Southwark with Tom. On one side was a splendid view of the London Eye, on the other, a completely bewildering wall full of names, times, and vans. 

 Most of what I did at that point was sit there and make reassuring noises. Tom seemed to find it vaguely comforting. And two weeks later there was a real live venue with an awful lot of artists, over 500 theatrical experiences, and nearly 14 hours of theatre, all over just a day and a half.

The Campsite had a mix of timed performances, most inside vans but some across the whole site. Then we also had durational performances which were very short so audience members could queue. It was sometimes difficult to know how to pace the issuing of tickets and to predict who might turn up when. I mention this because I found it really interesting just afterwards to read Hide & Seek's blog about Sandpit, which has a similar way of working but was trialling a drop in only version of Sandpit in June because:
'...there’s a problem with this system, which is: not everyone can turn up at 6:30. Not everyone knows which games they want to play, based on a 20-word description in a programme. Some people come at 8 and the games they’re interested in are all booked out; some people don’t even know what’s going on, they just wander past and have a look and want to get involved.' - Holly, Hide & Seek
The best bits were when people weren't that worried about seeing a particular artist or even knowing what they were signing up for, but found themselves surprised, shocked, amused and charmed in quick succession by a series of small scale personal encounters and then settled down with a drink, hot or cold, in a comfy campchair and watched Charlie Carroll's Campfire Sessions or the unforgettable special version of Ghostbusters. More detail and snippets of everything that happened can be found on The Campsite's Tumblr site here.

 The moral of this story for me is that it's definitely a good idea not to be so careful you don't have happy accidents. The caravan, now christened Margaret (aka the Princess, of course) is back in its new home at the Albany Theatre, Deptford, in a tiny nettled corner between a container and the wall, full of camping chairs, signage, and other bits and pieces. The vans have gone off to their respective parts of the UK. And recently I was back staring at that wall, as we planned what might come next.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Playing at the Playhouse

Motivational Bananas from Best in the World
There has been so much to write about, and yet so little time for blogging recently. I need to limber up those muscles so this is a tribute to Oxford Playhouse for the excellence of its current programming.

I had a week off from my main job last week and although I did of course spend quite a lot of time catching up on freelance work, I also felt the need to get out of London for a bit. Quite a while ago I saw that Hugh Hughes was planning to tell some stories in a pub in Oxford on Wednesday evening and, as he's one of my very favourite theatre performers, this seemed an excellent excuse to visit and do some work with my friend and current collaborator who lives not too far off. I then spotted that the very lovely Annie Rigby who was one of the nicest, most approachable people I'd met at Devoted and Disgruntled, had her latest production with Unfolding Theatre on the next night. Then, I realised that Northern Stage's resurrection of Close the Coalhouse Door was also on, for which I'd seen great reviews and which interested me for its accessible community values and political message, and that I could fit that in as well. It seemed way to good to be true.

And that, in a nutshell, was potentially the problem. Normally at this point I get into a fit of excitement and anticipation, then I go and see the work and am sometimes just a bit, sometimes desperately disappointed. I'm generally a harsh critic and as much as I love theatre, I often don't enjoy individual shows that much. I find it too easy to pick holes, hard to just go with the flow but disappointed when it leaves me cold.  I find more traditional plays dull, or that innovative formats get in the way of the real heart of a piece. I'm probably a bit too driven by "buzz" in what I choose, which should help to pick some of the best things but also makes it that much more dangerous that the actuality won't live up to the hype. So... here I was, two days, three plays, three different venues, and a whole heap too much expectation...

I started at 6pm on Wednesday evening at the Angel and Greyhound, Oxford, on my own in the end though I'm not necessarily so bothered about that when seeing theatre. The thing I particularly like about the work of Hoi Polloi is the way they create magic without really (sort of but not in any obtrusive way) asking you to pretend. If you're in a theatre then you're really in a theatre, and we were really in a pub. The person talking has come to tell a story, not act one out - or if so, only for demonstration purposes. I'm sure there is a technical term for this, which I don't know, but I like it. In this case Hugh said hello, told us what was going to happen, used our pint glasses and his mobile phone as props, and in 15 minutes took the 5 of us sat round a pub table on a journey back into his childhood in Anglesea. I'm not allowed to say what happened in the story (we took an oath of secrecy) but it wasn't romanticised or indulgent, yet it was beautiful. I loved it.

Next, I trekked back across town (I'd not planned very well and ended up crossing Oxford several times that day) to the Playhouse for Close the Coalhouse Door. This piece is a collaboration between Northern Stage and Live Theatre, oganisations I don't know well but whose commitment both to excellence but also local relevance I really respect. Close... is about mining history in the North East, the hideous conditions, rich industrialist control and gradual improvement of conditions for pitmen and their families. Originally staged in 1968 when there was a lot more hope than there is now, the collapse of the industry since should have made it all the more bleak, but in fact it's funny and entertaining, though unashamedly left wing. Probably my only criticism is quite how firmly they rammed home the sarcastic message at the end ("of course none of this happens now"). Again, as with Hoi Polloi, there is an openness about the form, with the audience being told from the beginning that we are watching a play. Within this, we have a family in 1978, acting out the history (the bedtime stories of the grandfather) whilst the present day drama of the choices of the sons of the families also unfolds: to stay and work in the pit or escape to university. Actually, that's my other criticism - whilst the female characters in this piece are strong, there are only two of them out of nine. Limited by the original play, of course, but I hope modern political theatre somehow manages to revisit the past without always insisting that the male perspective is the only interesting one. In any case, much music on imaginative instruments (guitars, ukeleles, knitting needles on scaffolding), bad jokes and serious history made the more than two and half hours duration fly by (especially with two intervals included for our refreshment). It felt incongruous in Oxford, and I'd have rather have seen it in a more intimate venue up North, but fantastic stuff all the same. I hope we take notice, though I worry we don't... that's a whole different discussion on the efficacy of political theatre.

All that put me in good shape for a working day with Tailormade Productions the next day, especially when coffee and buttered toast for breakfast was followed by homemade houmous, jacket potatoes and pickles for lunch, and my desk had a view of the garden and the sounds of birdsong.

On Thursday evening we headed back in to town for Best in the World in the Burton Taylor Studio, a tiny and sympathetic space just around the corner from the theatre. This piece comes from director Annie Rigby's genuine love of darts but observation that the greatest dart players are still really very ordinary if not sometimes highly flawed men. Here there was even less of what you might call traditional "acting". The play, performed by a solo actor, ultimately tells us all that we can all be "the best in the world", demonstrating this through information about darts players and other sportsmen and women, including an absolutely jaw dropping demonstration with a tape measure of how far Jonathan Edwards, not an obvious triple jumper because of his shorter stature, actually managed to hop step and jump. We were invited to celebrate our own achievements and to support other audience members, and it was funny, engaging and as energising as the motivational bananas given to us on the way in.

So there you go. Three fantastic pieces of theatre in a row, though very different, and if that wasn't enough, the amazing Coelocanth by Ben Moor on tonight and tomorrow - a piece I saw years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe which I also absolutely loved. I hope I get to see something else by Ben Moor soon; but I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Oxford Playhouse.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

100 things: randomly loving London

My pursuit of lesser known London delights has been sadly neglected of late. In fact I'm starting to feel it: I'm getting out a lot but mainly of course to go and sit in a darkened room and watch (or occasionally participate in) people doing things which aren't quite real. Or which are real but symbolise not quite real things. This isn't supposed to be a post about the nature of theatre but it's a bit of a cover up itself. This isn't one of 100 things to love about London, but it is a bunch of slightly random images from the last month or two, surprisingly few of which have been taken on the way to and from arts related events, and which are really just to remind myself that I'm still here, and how much else is.

Hot chuzzos and chocolate from the food market behind Royal Festival Hall, at a rare sunny moment.

The boat on the roof...

...and the skate park underneath.

 The pickled coelacanth at the Natural History Museum.

Ducks by Kew Bridge Station (you can just see them if you look closely, up the top of the bank. Ducks are really bad at responding to direction I can tell you.)

Cranes on a building site in front of the Gherkin - also slightly hard to make out.

Street sign.

View of the river in East London, with Canary Wharf and what I insist on still calling the Dome...

...and back to West London, with boats sailing on the river at low tide near Kew Bridge.

I'll try and do more soon. Promise.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Opening up the shop

A Guardian Careers article today about networking made reference to a piece of research by a man called Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management near Chicago. It's a piece of research on Broadway musicals which I read about some years ago and which has really stuck in my head ever since. Now it's come up in the press again just as I'm trying to write a blog piece about collaboration.

Essentially, the conclusion of the research was that the ideal team to create a successful Broadway musical (measured on both critical response and commercial success) is made up of both people who know each other well and have worked together before and people who are new. The success of the team had more effect than the individuals involved. The networks of people who work together on such projects are small, which can be beneficial (presumably as you are not reinventing the wheel on working practices and knowing who does what well) but only up to a point: keeping a totally closed shop means that you are not allowing in new ways of working or challenges to your assumptions. This reduces the potential for creativity and innovation, as you're less likely to come up with something that hasn't been done before.

I've been to quite a few networking events in the last couple of months and the theme of bringing people together, collaboration, strength in numbers, space to share and get feedback, seems huge in the theatre world at the moment, both for small and larger companies. It's not all cosy: there are varying and I suspect often individually mixed motivations. Some are selfish, some are driven by necessity, some are genuinely about wanting to share and collaborate. Individual artists and small companies feel they need funding, support, space, feedback and some of their administrative burdens eased. But for me this shows that both large and small organisations should also be looking at how they keep introducing new voices into their creative process as well as just the practical reasons for collaboration.

I don't find networking easy, and much of the advice - back to the Guardian Careers article, and another producer's blog I'm enjoying, What Producers Do - says don't "cold" network, start with the people you know. It's right that not to feel sleazy and to make the most valuable connections there needs to be some kind of meaningful connection rather than just being out there to get what you can from people. However, for a start, what if you don't know many people in the industry? To be fair, both those sources talk then about what Guardian Careers calls "weak ties" - the friends of friends and the acquaintances. But even then, if you're focusing on those you know and their networks, you may be limiting the possibilities hugely by widening the numbers but not widening the type of people you meet: like attracts like. It's important to make the effort to reach out, too.

Deep in the tectonic plates of my own personal theatre sphere, things are creaking, and there is that slight humming in the air which makes it feel as though progress, though hard to see perhaps, is being made again after the set back earlier this year. There are two projects I'm hoping to make happen with one of my very good friends. Our relationship started as a work colleagues, moved to friendship, and now is beginning to encompass both again. One project is a multi-media theatre piece, the other a development project for emerging artists. We had a meeting about the latter last night and though it's ambitious, it feels coherent and, just about, possible.

Definitely part of the strength of our relationship is our shared understanding. We can be totally honest about what's working and what isn't, and I find her an absolutely invaluable collaborator. I'm better at making things happen than coming up with ideas, and I really struggle with devising projects on my own. I've learnt the hard way that sitting trying to write a project proposal by myself, even in the draft stages, whether my idea or someone else's, just doesn't get me anywhere. It's partly because I get bogged down in my own head and find it hard to gain clarity without talking things through; it's also because I can only get so far with the more creative elements of a project and need someone artistic to be contributing. One reason why I'm definitely a producer not a director!

Still, we both also definitely recognise that we'll need to bring other people in and also that what we do is made richer by the fact that we both also work on other projects and with other teams. It's one reason why the freelance role does suit creatives even though income and work is then potentially less reliable: you need to be able to get inspiration from lots of different sources, experience different approaches and working methods and therefore keep being able to question and challenge yourself.

So, to cut a long story short, this is part of what one of our projects is aiming to achieve. We'd like to open up access to the industry to those who don't already have the money, resources or connections to get ahead and who therefore may be far less likely to be able to succeed however much individual talent they possess. We'd also like to offer the chance for more experienced established artists to shake up and refresh their practice by working with someone new who might have different ideas, not just creatively but practically. We'd like to bring together people from different art forms and allow ideas to start from and go to different places. I'm really excited about it. If I make it happen, though, it won't be on my own.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

100 things: Brentford Bees

Finally, I got to go and see a football match at Griffin Park. I attended my first ever game of football here, aged eight. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to the football since (including that one, and this one) but it's been an important part of the experiencing the culture of different cities I've lived in,  so when I came back I felt very strongly I wanted to go back.

I enjoy watching football. Especially in the smaller teams there is a great buzz in the air and the chants often make me laugh. It's an easy sport to watch without being an expert, too - I have no idea about the off side rule and of course there are many such subtleties, but anyone can admire a good tackle and tell not only whether the ball's gone into the net or not, but roughly how well a team is playing from how much they seem in control, and how often they get the ball near the goal.

I saw the Bees in luxury, too, which was a rare treat - excellent seats and private bar and food beforehand, all thanks to my kind friend Natalie who sorted me out my ticket. Yes, as many people have told me, it's the prawn sandwich brigade (or shepherd's pie, actually) but it was nice and she and her family are very long term supporters of the club: they're definitely the real deal.

Unfortunately they lost: my run of previously only supporting the winning team in even the most unlikely circumstances (I have no idea what happened when I was eight but Perth Glory, Plymouth Argyle and Manchester City all won in style when I was there to see them) has been finally broken. 0-2 to Sheffield United but still Sheffield needed the points and the Bees are probably better consolidating rather than being promoted this season... I'm told.

Playing the game

Of course when I went to see a football game on Saturday I couldn't just sit there and enjoy the match. For half the time, when not "yes"-ing and "ohh"-ing and "what was THAT?"-ing I was musing on the differences and similarities between spectator sports and theatre, and whether it would be possible to create something that is both (if WWE, previously known as WWF, hasn't done that already) and what it might teach both sides.

The thing I love about football is the engagement with what's going on, the noise, the atmosphere, and the chanting. People care about their teams, and are passionate about what's happening on the pitch. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was probably much more like this. It's partly the competitive element. You're rooting for a team. You're also allowed to interact and make a noise so you can get much more fired up. It's a natural human instinct to express yourself when you're feeling involved in what's going on around you. That's an interesting question for theatre, in fact. I've heard that you can make yourself feel happier by smiling more so that might well work in reverse too. If you act as though you're not involved in something (apart from being allowed to laugh, I suppose) do you naturally then feel less involved?

The competitive element could easily be recreated. To still be a sport, it would need to be a genuinely open outcome: you couldn't know till the end who wins (and in fact this is where WWE plonks itself firmly on the side of being entertainment, as outcomes are pre-arranged). Quite a challenge for a company, but then Cartoon de Salvo, for example, manage to improvise so it's perfectly possible. It would probably be a bad idea to bring in real life loyalties, particularly because you might want to subvert them by the end, so better probably to put some thought into how you can recreate that and whip up the supporters during the play - always making sure it's with their consent. You could issue team clothing (perhaps avoiding deliberate football references like scarves and making it something more unlikely like pompoms or flowers), teach the audience chants, sit them in different areas. Even better you could ask them to choose a side. Ideally the theatre would be in the round so that it doesn't end up feeling like panto but is a space which is common to both activities.

You'd have to decide which sport. How fit would your players need to be? And how good would you aim for? It would be easy to think the acting comes first but watching skill at work is an important part of the enjoyment of sport too. How would it fit into a smaller space - or could you use clever camera angles and screens to zoom in on the action in a larger one? We use theatres for snooker, so it's all doable.

One problem would be keeping the enthusiasm going while still managing to impart the story, and how to manage the elements which are performance and pre-rehearsed in a way which keeps the game a real game. Football perhaps isn't the best model for this part; you could do it but the possibilities would be more limited. Using something like tennis for inspiration could be more helpful - everyone knows you have to be silent when play starts and the umpire tells you to be quiet if you're cheering and shouting for too long. There are conventions in the world of sport just as in theatre about when it's ok to respond and how to behave. Audiences can learn what your conventions are as long as you give clear cues. Another quite different useful model I was thinking of was the I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue game Mornington Crescent (SPOILER: the game consists of naming tube stations. You win by saying "Mornington Crescent". The performance element of the game consists of pretending that there are very complicated rules governing play. In some episodes, the players have even been asked to explain what they are doing as they do it, and they always allude to the move they're making. In fact there are no rules, and anyone can say Mornington Crescent at any point)

Mornington Crescent may not be competitive enough to count as a game, but it's not really of a different nature; it just takes the conventions and also the unwritten rules and the elements of performance in a game or sport to an extreme. The things that happen when footballers score a goal; giving back the ball to the other side if your team has had injury time: things which don't advantage a player or a team but are an important part of events. In a theatre piece you could build in elaborate rules of sportsmanship, of celebration, breaks between play, and plenty of the mini-dramas between the players which happen in sport, just heightened: the player who is always feigning injury, the friends across teams; those who desperately need to win and those who are giving up. There is plenty of room for story and imagination.

So finally, why? What would be the point? For me this afternoon it was clear: I think the two types of event would bring a lot to each other. As I've already said, sport engages a crowd in a way which theatre often doesn't. Even in participatory theatre I often feel a company are only pretending to ask me to be involved, and the storyline flows on. There is something real about nobody knowing who's going to win. Sport is hugely profitable, popular, and many sporting events are attended by vast numbers of the population with millions more watching on TV. There is also often (though not always) an equality too which theatre lacks: in football the players are from all backgrounds and countries: they may earn a lot but I think it's fair to say that anyone has a fairly equal chance if they've got talent. And what theatre could contribute to this is the challenge: using this passion and vigour to question what's going on in the world. Why do we support one team or country or ideology over another? Are we making informed choices or allowing random twists of fate to put us on sides? What can happen if we become too blindly loyal? How do we feel when we are winners or losers? Not too heavy or preachy a way - that'd ruin the fun of the game. But hoping that people go home reflecting.

Maybe it's been done already. It'd probably never catch on, on a vast scale. But it's going down on my list of projects I'd like to try some day. Theatre as sport, and sport as theatre. A new audience perhaps, a new way of working. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

not only plan but also believe

"To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe." Anatole France
I met Chris Grady yesterday for one of his arts surgeries: free mentoring sessions for people working in the arts, he does them once a month in the Lyttleton Bar at the National Theatre. What a great idea, for a start, and fantastic that they are openly offered: lots of people mentor but sometimes you need to already have a certain level of knowledge and an "in" to get a chance to benefit from it.

If I'm really honest with myself, I probably didn't really need my session. I'm not in any way saying it wasn't useful, interesting and potentially very helpful, it was both of the former and I expect prove to be the latter. But I'm sure I'm not the only one of Chris's mentees for whom most of the difficulties are in my head rather than in actuality. In actuality, I am in a pretty good position to be doing what I'm doing. I am aware of and grateful for this. I've got a range of experience, good part time work, somewhere to live and connections (maybe not quite as many as if I'd stayed in the same place, or studied theatre at university, but still quite a few as Chris made me realise).

I also do have the right skills. I've not been so confident in myself lately, and though the reason why is a long story, some of it's got to do with needing to work out my place within the industry. For a while I've been struggling with the fact that if you're not an artist, frustrated or otherwise - and I'm definitely not - the only other place to go has sometimes seemed to be being an administrator, and the thought of doing that for the rest of my career doesn't inspire me. It's not because it's a dreadful job but because I just don't think I'm suited to that either. I love a good spreadsheet, like things to be organised and am a bit of a perfectionist but I always catch the train at the very last minute, forget things, and get bored with admin tasks. We didn't discuss this specifically, but still, meeting Chris helped me to realise that these are not the only two options. It's difficult to define a creative process because it's different for everyone, but mine definitely works best when collaborating with artists to make projects out of ideas. I can also do, and enjoy, the talking about projects, the fundraising, the budgets, knowing the landscape, seeing the gaps, and working out of how things should and can happen. Chris helped me believe that maybe being a creative producer (a much overused and abused term but probably still the best one) is actually something I can say I am.

So all that is remaining, really, is the self belief, and my main feeling walking away from the meeting was that I need to get over that. Most of us have doubts but over the last year or so I've let mine get the better of me. I need to move on now. I'm not one of those types who just believes "I can" until I actually have, but as Chris reminded me, I've got too much experience to get away with thinking everything should be happening overnight, I know these things take time. I've got the required slightly reckless courage, I need to balance determination with patience and just get on with it.

Hopefully, then, at some point, I'll be able to actually start writing here about what's going on rather than what I'm thinking about it. It is starting. After earlier set-backs the director I'm working with and I have two really strong ideas which we're ready to at least start trying to get to a stage where we can make them happen, that early bit of investing time and resources into getting ideas to a fundable state of course always being the hardest as I've said before. I'm excited about both of them. One is a piece of immersive theatre (ha! Not so original these days but the form definitely suits the story), the other the project I had a session on at Devoted and Disgruntled, the notes from which I've posted up on this blog. 

The best piece of advice Chris gave me yesterday is an old adage but one I'd forgotten: not to worry about difficulties until you've got to them: not crossing bridges, etc. Projects can feel impossibly intimidating but you can break that down into things which are doable and things which are harder, and the order in which they need to happen, get on with the bits which are achievable, and tackle the difficult bits when they come up, by which time they may not feel so insurperable after all. Maybe I did need the session after all. Thank you Chris. Watch this space.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Devoted and Disgruntled

Last weekend I went to the annual Devoted and Disgruntled. The theme is "what are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts" but lots of the conversations seemed to be more on the topic "what's wrong with theatre and the performing arts". Mine included. Ah well. I enjoyed it, mostly, and met some lovely and interesting people, though I didn't feel much more part of what was going on than I do at any of these things. I was talking about this to someone else in theatre the other day and we both agreed we'll never be the type who feels "one of the group". The interesting thing about it is that it's run in Open Space, a format with minimal management, only a structure which aims to allow those who come to set the agenda. Sessions are therefore called and attended only if people are interested, and sessions can be serious conversations or a walk round the block, or lemon jousting (you need two wooden spoons and a lemon). I heard lots of devotion to the event itself as well as to theatre but also some disgruntlement about it, some of which I shared, but I also appreciate the convener Phelim's response, as he reported on one of his own sessions: "I feel strongly that adding stuff from the top down was not the way and that the great thing about OS was it was a process that teaches itself"

I called a session on a project which I know to be very ambitious, and hardly anyone turned up, which in Devoted and Disgruntled land means either it's a rubbish idea, or it's an ok idea but everyone has something more interesting/important to do, or you're a misunderstood genius. I quite like the latter interpretation, personally. My notes are below, though they're also on the website which is worth a visit if you want to read up on a wide variety of conversations had by theatre makers at the event.

I want (to make?) a project which pays people to make connections and come up with ideas


 Not many people came to my session and I still can’t decide whether that means it’s a bad idea, not needed, too good to be true (I did choose Utopia as my location) or whether I just worded it badly. Certainly there feels like there is a lot of context I struggled to get into my punchy title. I probably could have (there have been other conversations about what we can and can’t do this weekend) but didn’t manage to.

My idea came from several observations verging together about which I also still haven’t quite decided whether they come together meaningfully or not.
  • Trying to make work independently for the first time aged 32 feels difficult. Lots of schemes which help people are for those under 25 or under 30. I think my experience of working for organizations for the last 10 years is helpful but I don’t think it makes it SO much easier that I don’t still need (want?) help! And there are others for whom this will be so much more true 
  • Even development funding needs a strong idea – a creative idea and an idea of key people you want to work with. This takes time, energy and often money, and until you have an established organization this usually means doing this unpaid 
  • An article in the Guardian about how many old Etonian actors there are 
  • Feels to me like there is a gap between being encouraged to get involved in the arts as a young person and being able to move into employment. Audiences and workforces in mainstream theatre are not getting bigger or more diverse. I don’t think anything will change until we genuinely empower people from more diverse (culturally/socio-economically and otherwise?) backgrounds and that means giving equal employment opportunities. If people can’t afford to do the frequently unpaid schemes which are on offer and they need to get experience to get paid jobs then that is very exclusionary – equally if they can’t afford to give the time energy and money to coming up with ideas they’ll struggle to get started independently 
My idea is to have an intensive scheme that brings people together maybe for just a week to have time to work on ideas and have time to work practically with other people, and help them get to a place where they have experience and maybe ideas to move forward on. Mentoring could also be involved.

This would have an emphasis on process over product though I was imagining some form of sharing.

There doesn’t seem to be such a scheme (though China Plate? does seem to operate a scheme slightly similar for devising companies to have paid time with new writers) so I want to try and make one. Ideally I’d like this to help people from a variety of disciplines – producers, actors, directors, designers, writers, other artists. Everyone should be paid but as equally as possible.

My questions
  • Who owns the idea afterwards if you bring different people together 
  • What’s the role of the producers in that space? 
  • Who gets involved / who really needs it / how do you make sure those people are the ones who get involved 
  • Will anyone fund it? (I reckon it could be done for £25k (or smaller and cheaper) if space and some other venue-type support was in-kind) 
  • Who decides who takes part – do I have the expertise/experience to choose? 

As already mentioned, one piece of feedback was the lack of people at my session.

 I spoke to three people, one other producer and two artists. Both artists agreed this would be useful and that they have ideas which they need help to get off the ground. This seemed to be partly about them needing a producer (and a producer that doesn’t need to be paid until the idea has mileage) and partly about a desire to collaborate and work ideas through.

Won’t be able to note whole conversations but these were key things for me:

Dan and I talked about how it would be important for it not to be too restrictive with too many conditions or caveats. We said both that there must be loads of empty spaces around but also that space really seems to be at a premium (I have seen various possibilities for space during DandD so that’s been interesting)

Zoe mentioned lots of things that would be helpful that I hadn’t even thought of (as I had a practical workshop style thing in mind) eg phone, computer, wifi, conversations, planning and strategy sessions, advice on what makes a show workable etc as well as practically trying out ideas.

This was good because it slightly answered my question as to what the producers might do in that space without becoming glorified stage managers. I felt strongly they should be involved (ha, of course, as I'm a producer!) as that feels like an important relationship to allow people to create as well as artist to artist relationships.

 I also realised during discussions that ideas can take a long time to develop and maybe my thought that ideas could be come up with during the session is overambitious. Aliki and I talked about how lots of artists will have an idea but they may be unformed and not in a state that’s fundable. Maybe I should be looking for artists who have ideas they want to bring in to explore.

 Another thought that came out was not to have to know answers was positive – to have a space for trials, where a sharing was the ideal end result but not necessarily performance, not audience focused and that the possibility of no sharing at all was an option.

I was also assuming a theatre venue was the space I was looking for but other spaces could be a possibility especially if a performance (even a scratch one) is not going to be a necessary end result of the project. Even scratch performances are quite formal in a sense if they’re in a theatre space so maybe more beneficial not to be.


I’ve been interested in who leads with an idea and I went to some sessions about post-dramatic drama and design-led theatre which all questioned who can lead a process. I’d be interested in having people come in with ideas who are not directors.

 Piloting would be a good idea and this could be possible in a much smaller way than I was originally thinking I’d want to pilot. Maybe one group made up of one artist with an idea and others in a venue which has very close links to a diverse community and could bring in emerging artists (of any age) to see how the week itself works and what’s useful before looking at the wider format of applications etc.

In fact not having applications per se in an open way but referrals might get the “right people” – or even better a mix, not to ghettoise?

Might be useful to bring in some established artists who might not need the project so much but benefit from reinvigoration of practice from working with new people or having a test space for an idea (or working on someone else’s idea) and again meet less ghettoisation, more useful for emerging artists to meet a mix of people. Would it then be even more important that everyone gets paid and everyone gets paid the same?

Seth Honnor (hope he doesn’t mind me quoting) said creative practice is a constant tension between openness and quality and though I need to think about that a bit more, I think that’s a good context in which to set the above – have some known quality and some unknown openness (which doesn’t mean either isn’t risky but to different degrees?)

Again possibilities for space came from other sessions eg the Theatre Lab session about people in Streatham Hill who have space and want to encourage use of it for artistic collaboration and no-one came to that session either – interesting!

And that was it - if you're interested, let me know!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

rescue magic

Deleted my previous post, by mistake, from the Blogger app yesterday. Though I'd worked out I could get back the text through Google cached search, it also had great comments on it and was scared they were gone for good. Thankfully then found this genius tip for retrieving deleted posts. Yes, it's a bit worrying that deleted posts stay on the system with no official way of seeing they're there or having access to them, but right now I'm just thankful!

My notes from Devoted and Disgruntled I hope coming soon, but I typed them up on the laptop at the venue at the end of the session tonight so will have to get the text tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The uses and abuses of volunteers

I can't stop thinking about a Guardian stage blog post on the current proliferation of old Etonian actors, commenting that acting is an expensive business and hard for those without much money to get into. I'm not ashamed exactly but definitely uneasy myself about the fact that I'm able to try and start producing in relative comfort because my long suffering parents can afford to let me move back home for a while - and I'm nearly ten years into my career. It's far too hard to make a living in theatre when you're starting out, whether you'd like to have your own company or work for somebody else.

There has been an awful lot of fuss about the legalities recently, particularly of internships with work-like conditions, but the reason why people are still offering these and long term placements is because mostly, for the charitable arts organisations, they're not illegal. There is very clear guidance on Business Link, but in essence, charities and statutory organisations are allowed to hire "volunteer workers" (as well as and distinct from "volunteers" who can be used by any organisation) who have work-like conditions and contracts but are unpaid. This is a specific exception to National Minimum Wage rules to allow people who genuinely want to give their time to a good cause for free to do so. Unpaid volunteering shouldn't be banned because it allows people who want to freely give their time - if they're retired for example - to do so without needing to be paid the minumum wage. Charities might need to contract these people or insist on other work-like conditions, if, for example, they are running a shop and need to be there at a certain time, or are trusted with certain responsibilities.

This isn't legal for commercial arts organisations, of course, and many abuse the system, but equally, even when it's legal it doesn't mean it's always right. To be a charity, what you do doesn't need to be educational (as I saw someone quoted as misguidedly saying at the State of the Arts conference) but it does need to be for the benefit of the public. I'd take this to mean that charitable arts organisations also have a particular responsibility to conduct their business ethically and fairly.

Many volunteers in the arts aren't volunteering because they want to help a good cause. They want work, and they can't get it without experience, so they are left with no choice: work for free or don't work in theatre. That rules out many. In the article mentioned above, Theo Bosanquet says "it does seem that the politics preached by much of theatreland – those of inclusion, of fairness, of equality – are rarely reflected behind the scenes, where the old hierarchies persist." We denigrate "McJobs" in our culture - do we really think paid work is so much less dignified than unpaid exploitation? And that's just the "fairness".

The actors might all be old-Etonians, or similar: so are many of the audience members. Huge and important efforts are being made by theatre companies to engage children, particularly, with the arts, to diversify audiences and to ensure that what we're doing is accessible to as many people as possible. Much of this work is wasted if the move from youth involvement as an amateur participant to paid work is impossible for many of those who want to take the next step. Theatre is still too elistist, and for change to happen, it needs to be empowered from within. That means changing the workforce. It feels to me that the lack of paid opportunities for those at the beginning of their career is a key factor in the stagnation of audience engagement. If you're always working with the same people, it's always going to be an uphill struggle to get a wider, more diverse audience. No matter how much you try and make them comfortable or get them involved, participants, audience members and volunteers, from their relatively unempowered standpoint, are unlikely to change arts organisations.

Of course not all voluntary positions are exploitative. Many are excellent examples of good volunteering practice: where timescales are flexible, can be combined with other work, offer mentoring and learning experiences, appeal to those who do have the right motivations. Also, even where they're not, it's difficult, I know. Money is not flowing, budgets are tight and many arts organisations are left in a situation where they offer voluntary opportunities or none at all. The Future Jobs fund, which enabled many to take on young employees, has disappeared. However, I don't think we can abdicate responsibility. We've got to be aware of what we're doing. Someone once said to me that by 18 or 19, it's too late anyway. A paid job or not doesn't matter - the kind of young people that can't afford to work for free have lost their opportunities to engage with the arts long before that. I hope that's not true. I certainly don't think we can use that as an excuse. I've worked with volunteers in the past, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for ones I'm not totally sure I can justify, and I expect I will again. Yet I can't stop thinking about that blog post. I want to try and do something about it. There must be something we can do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner...?

I've been wondering recently what makes a true Londoner. Born within sound of Bow Bells? Grew up at an address with a cool London points of the compass postcode? Lived here for 10, 15, 20 years? Instinctively think that Britain is far more diverse than it is because that's how it is here (and know that's a good thing)? Never visit the major tourist attractions except when someone visits from out of town? Never smile at anyone on the tube and don't say good morning or afternoon to people going in the opposite direction when out for a stroll?

I'm mainly wondering because I'm not always sure that I feel like one anymore, though I was once, born and bred. I'm living in the same house now in Chiswick that I was first brought home to from the old West London Hospital. My parents are not Londoners, their families respectively being from the West Country and Scotland, but I grew up as a proud city girl, despite hardly ever venturing anywhere near the centre and being disgracefully ignorant of the geography of central London until I got my first 'proper' job in Covent Garden when I was about 23. I went travelling for a year after university and stayed in some amazing cities including Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong and Moscow, but coming home knew that of all the places I'd been, I still loved my home town the best.

I moved out four years ago slightly on a whim, chasing a certain kind of job which didn't really exist in London, and feeling vaguely that since I was going to spend the rest of my life here, it'd be interesting to live somewhere else for a year or two before coming back for good. I was aware that you see life from a certain perspective in the capital and wanted to shake that up for myself a bit. Most of my friends, particularly those who also grew up here, were sceptical. "Why on earth would you want to live anywhere else" was the question at first and then later "So when are you coming back?"

My eventual return, though unsurprising to them, has been, to be honest, more born from practical considerations than anything else: I had no particular urge to come back other than missing friends and family. Having very mixed feelings about it was why I started this blog. Transport and rent costs have gone up about 40% since I left 4 years ago; I miss walking in the countryside, breathing clean air, seeing for miles, feeling the reality of what's under all our concrete; I don't like the restrictive inconveniences of having to share my space with millions of other people, such as difficulties parking, the hideousness of public transport at rush hour, how long it takes to get to work, how difficult it is to walk at any speed in Central London because of all the other people. On the other hand, nowhere in the UK is as diverse, cosmopolitan, and exciting. There are a myriad of things to do and discover, people to see and meet, and choices: the choice in London is incredible.

So: I know when it's quicker to walk than to take the tube, and that it often is in the centre of town. I know that you can find green spaces here as well as buildings. I don't think much of travelling an hour for a night out with friends or of getting two night buses to get home again. I call it my home 'town'. I walk through busy streets and fall in love with the city all over again. On the other hand, I'm not as slick with my Oystercard as I used to be. I see on the tube map that Tottenham Court Road isn't on the Northern Line and for a moment I can't quite remember if that's how it's always been - or not. I've chatted to people on the train. And, most of all, I can imagine moving back out again; quite possibly sooner rather than later.

I think that's what really makes a Londoner: not being able to understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else. We - they? - love their city, deeply, passionately. We - they - see its flaws but as though London is a relative and so, despite the fact it often infuriates us, can't be criticised by anyone else in our hearing. Friends, especially those who've grown up here and still live here, look at me as though I've committed an act of betrayal when I complain about our city. Somehow, inside, I look at myself that way too. To be honest, I'm not sure where that leaves me.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

100 things: Pump House Gallery

Meanwhile, I've still not managed to make any special trips out to see anything else in London, but I did go for a meeting at the very special Pump House Gallery the other day in Battersea Park. I forgot to take a photo of it; by the time I remembered I was half way out of the park and it was too cold to go back. I got this shot of the lake at dusk instead!

The gallery is in a tiny building overlooking the lake, some way into the park. There is some interesting history about it on their website; it used to house a pump used to circulate water around the lake and the artificial waterfalls. It now has four floors inside and is still small but perfectly formed, comprising a permanent gallery space but housing changing exhibitions. What I liked was that although the exhibition wasn't enormous the current one is very good and not at all obvious. It's titled Art, Performance & Activism in Contemporary Japan and included work from various artists and in various formats. My favourite I think was a photo about age, with a younger woman's face being cradled by the hands of older women. Definitely worth a visit.