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AYT Review: The Collective Project

20 Dec

Culture by night

12 days, eight shows, one director – The Pensive Federation celebrates its fifth anniversary with a series of showcase pieces that are written, rehearsed and performed in such a short space of time. Two groups of actors are brought onside to perform four shows each, giving 12 days for 48 minutes of material. Of course, an appreciation for the short timeframe can be allowed for each show; nevertheless the material presents a wide range of capabilities from actors and writers alike.

Neil J. Byden’s direction overall is limited, only natural given the attention that must be paid to understanding the numerous characters’ each actor has to portray. A white set with a simple table and chairs presents itself as a blank canvas, with which the audience experiences locations ranging from a tube carriage, to a space capsule, to an abandoned train station at midnight. Each actor gives a credible performance…

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New play ‘Vesting Day’ on at the Southwark Playhouse, 7th September 2014

18 Aug

What’s the most commercial play you’ve ever written? Mine probably isn’t Vesting Day, my latest short play. It looks at the eventual crushing disappointment of the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947. After promising so much, nationalisation wasn’t common ownership, the government would run the pits until closing most down in the 1980s and 1990s. Only to start importing coal from overseas. And Britain remained class-ridden after the 1940s. Some would argue it still is.

The play will be part of the latest Little Pieces of Gold. This wonderful regular showcase holds a special place in my heart. I had a play on with them in late 2011 about the London riots, A Riot of my Own, just a few months after the disturbances occurred. Soon I had an agent and Vesting Day will be the eighth short I’ve had put on since. Not bad when I have also become a father twice over in that time.

So three cheers for Suzette Coon, artistic director of LPOG, who has produced the work of over a hundred playwrights. All the more incredible that it provides a forum for a play like Vesting Day, a serious political piece, hardly a laugh a minute…

So if you’re free, come along… http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/index.php/events/little-pieces-of-gold-showcase/

A great 2013 but now let’s get that full-length play produced in 2014…

13 Jan

2013 was a great year for me in terms of getting short plays out on. I had four in total performed and another published online.

Highlights included taking part in Equal Writes in March, for which Creative Director Mandy Fenton was later recognised with a Writers Guild New Writing Encouragement Award. See: http://writersguild.org.uk/news-a-features/theatre/476-theatre-encouragement-awards-2013

Then towards the end of the year it was great to take part in the Pensive Federation’s Collective Project. See my account of it here: http://pensivefederation.com/2013/12/18/a-different-view-the-playwright-3/

 

My aim in 2014 is to have my full-length play Redoubt accepted for production. I will be blogging about my progress over the year…

cup of tea and a slice of bara brith

28 Oct

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Rural South Wales is enchanting and the countryside vast, leaving the real possibility of not seeing anyone else all day. Rather you are more likely to come across rusting agricultural machinery, which looks like it died and was left to rust where it fell; or an older abandoned farm building, just a one side or so, a spillage of dry stone walling. Even in ruins the magic powers of dry stone walling remain beguiling. How did it ever stay up at all? Cormac McCarthy suggested in The Stonemason simply that it is ‘the weight of the world’ that keeps it together and I can’t think what else it could be.

Later, on route back to England, I am offered a slice of bara brith in a café, a ‘speckled bread’ which I have never heard of. It delightfully comes with a knob of butter on the side, announcing that this is a traditional food, not hung up with the anxieties of contemporary fare, all skinny lattes and panic about saturated fats. Although I am later reassured by a Welsh friend that in itself bara brith very healthy. The butter’s optional.

After going through life never having heard of bara brith I then get to hear it mentioned again that night in Bristol. I am at the Bierkeller Theatre watching a New Writing Showcase where I have a short play on. Heather Lister’s wonderfully lyrical play Threads references this and other cakes as three Welsh woman exchange gossip and provide support to each other, and the title for this post is borrowed from the play.

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I have been involved in half a dozen such events over the last couple of years and it is remarkable that two of them are never the same. This one, inspirationally curated by Amy Bethan Evans (@princesspiece) had a rich variety of form and content. For example, Charlotte Eastleigh’s piece based on Native American folk tales was told in verse and had an ending I found strangely upsetting. Folk tales in all cultures reference similar natural phenomena or objects, in this case the moon, which in the story’s conclusion becomes a place of exile. Who’d want to be trapped on the moon?

The evening began with A Question’s Mark, an initially amusing, but progressively poignant, monologue told by a young woman in the fog of a hangover, fearing pregnancy, or maybe not, and desperate to throw off the shackles of her family. In Done There, Been That US playwright Kathy Rucker presented us with a setting familiar from certain films – two American prisoners reluctantly bonding in a harsh environment. What utterly set this apart from such films was the scenario; one of the prisoners had dementia and the other acted as a de facto carer. It is easy to forget prisoners get old and have the health complaints we all may suffer from. And prison is no place to get sick or old. Illness and aging are great levellers. Regardless of what he had done in his past it was moving to see him now helpless ‘like a baby’ in a such an unforgiving environment, often mistaking the other prisoner for his defence lawyer, despite the fact his case was lost long ago. 

Criminal activity of a different nature also featured in two other plays.  Esme Le Jeune’s wry In the Absence of Grace, saw defacing of public artworks with a heartbreaking purpose – creating a unique memorial. In contrast The HPL was a great comic piece familiar to anyone with contact with a university. Then, out of the blue, an unexpected act of domestic violence occurs. The audience was unprepared and it was difficult to process this. The writing was sharp and the incident stayed with you long afterwards.

Alex Needham’s deliciously angry play The POG was at times far-fetched or, if you’ve been unemployed recently like myself, unfortunately all too realistic. It envisaged the ultimate conclusion of the government’s treatment of the unemployed. As with prisoners, it is easy to dehumanise people who are unemployed, and it is done so with relish by a hateful media. The POG was ultimately a Kafkaesque nightmare hopefully confined to fiction.

I really enjoyed all the plays and it was great meeting Heather and Kathy beforehand, getting to know them a bit before seeing their wonderful plays.

 

My own piece, Cross Country, featured two women who grew up in a small town in southern England, like me. In many ways they were opposites or two contradictory aspects of the same person, fire and ice. This is often explored in drama. I can’t think of many Sam Shephard plays that don’t centre around two brothers who are polar opposites. In Cross Country Sam left on a journey common to many young middle-class people, and not so unfamiliar to those from working-class backgrounds these days, a journey of: university, travelling, a job in the London charity sector, then leading a supposedly exciting cultured life whilst living in cramped conditions and forever moaning about the impenetrable London property market.

The New Writing Platform sought to provide an opportunity for writers to see their plays warts and all. There is always something thrilling about seeing your work done and hearing your words spoken. But also nerve wracking. I could suddenly recognise problems with my static, wordy, overlong script. If I had my time again I would make significant cuts. But the actors and director did a great job with it. Most noticeably there was an extended introductory sequence. My play was about the morning after a heavy night but in RJ Lloyd’s direction the night before is played out at the start of the play in a frenzy of mime and dance. The actors were great, Margot Navaellou and Zoe Cotton as the two friends and Catherine Guy as Ma. It is strange that lines you think are funny being met with stony silence while others bring unexpected laughs. The only sequence that panned out as I had originally envisaged in terms of audience reaction was towards the end when Ma reveals she is a lot more clued up about her daughter’s life and the ambiguity of her ‘good deeds’. This happens whilst Ma inspects the garage door, which she had ordered them to paint that morning:

 

Ma: How you getting on?

Sal: Almost there.

Ma: Jesus, look at that. Sal’s done her side all even and nice. Yours is all splodgy.

Sam: Sorry Ma, I’ve never been much of a painter.

Ma (Shakes head): Just like your father. Useless with his hands. (Smiles) Oh well, I pity all them Africans you built fences for. They must’ve all fallen down by now.

Sam (Laughs): Ma! That dam is now a vital part of the infrastructure of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ma: Rather them than me. (Sighs) But there’s not much money to be made in painting. I’m glad you got the brains. Make some money, keep you away from this god forsaken place. Come on you two, time you got cleaned up. Bathed before the guests arrived.

 

Participating in such events is peculiar in a way, the play itself flies by so quickly and the whole experience is soon over. The showcase played for three nights, a record Mousetrap-style run by my standards, but I could only get to see the first night unfortunately. It was a shame, it would have been great to see how it developed.

And I also didn’t get to see as much of Bristol as I would have liked. But we did manage to walk along the waterfront, which sated our appetite to some extent. I had no idea that the man who ‘discovered’ North America, or rather discovered it after the North Americans, Italian John Cabot, set sail from Bristol. His statue sat brooding in the harbour, contemplating mysterious lands beyond.  

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Then back to London, where a couple of other potential new writing opportunities immediately presented themselves, so I find myself on the merry-go-round once more. I miss Bristol, miss being by the water. And miss Wales of course and our cottage with views of the surrounding countryside dominating the days. The lonely cottage which was enveloped by darkness at night, that kind of total darkness you will only find in the countryside. Both comforting and frightening in equal measure it reminds you how all stories speak to our great fears and need for comfort; of our desire of companionship and primeval fear of the elements, our fear of the dark and unknown.  

 

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Research can save theatre! Would you have said that six months ago?

13 Sep

Fin Kennedy is a dangerous man. I’ve never met him but he’s an arts hero for our time. Who would have thought research could be so important?

Well we can’t really be too harsh on Ed Vaizey. No, he was just doing what politicians in this situation do – refuting any suggestion that they or their party are doing any harm. When confronted about cuts in the arts he replied that Arts Council cuts were having no effect whatsoever on British theatre. However, if evidence was provided that new play development had been harmed he promised to raise it with the Arts Council personally.

Kennedy’s response to this was radical, extraordinary, heroic. What did he do? He, along with Helen Campbell Pickford, conducted a survey, of course. What else would you do?

This may not sound like the most creative response but it’s hard to think of a more effective one. This research, that culminated with the report In Battalions (http://www.scribd.com/doc/126273288/In-Battalions), has given the sector something to rally around. Complaints about funding cannot now simply be dismissed as isolated, anecdotal examples.

I am a great believer in the power of research. For my day job I research the non-profit sector and I also sporadically volunteer as a researcher for the cutting edge Tricycle Theatre in their Creative Learning Team. There has been greater emphasis in recent years in the arts, like other funded activities, on demonstrating impact. Some see this as a tiresome intrusion but as one arts practitioner succinctly put it at a conference a few years ago: ‘If we can’t prove our impact we’re fucked aren’t we?’. But research in the arts sector can also be greatly empowering. Theatre’s relationship with research is a long and complex one. Arguably actors started doing more research, if that’s the right term, since the days of Stanislavski. And of course any writer should have always done a fair amount of research for their work, although many of Shakespeare’s histories have factual inaccuracies (these are usually forgiven).

Then you have a more direct approach, with research itself being presented, or rather moulded into, drama, normally referred to under the umbrella term ‘verbatim theatre’. The Tricycle for many years did its tribunal plays. There are various other plays featuring actors speaking real people’s words, bringing testimonies to life, ranging from wrongly convicted ex-prisoners in Jensen and Blank’s The Exonerated to Look Left Look Right’s accounts of the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire in The Caravan.

But In Battalions is something rather different. It’s using statistics and research ABOUT theatre for campaigning purposes. This can help facilitate change. Earlier this year Mandy Fenton galvanised people around the Equal Writes showcase (http://equalwrites.co.uk/), her call to arms being the chilling statistic from research by Elizabeth Freestone and The Guardian (echoing research by Equity http://www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events/equity-news/equitys-womens-committee-research-into-casting/?preview=true) that currently for every stage role for women there are two roles for men. Oh the power of basic statistics. Theatre has often been used to advocate social change, but sometimes it needs to get its own house in order.

In Battalions showed, amongst over things, that the majority of responding theatres since April 2012 had cancelled at least one production, had produced fewer new plays and had commissioned fewer new writers. And, as someone who researches the funding of the voluntary sector for a living, I was unsurprised to see that many theatres had also experienced multiple funding cuts. This is particularly pertinent when organisations are looking to be sustainable – the golden rule is not to be too reliant on one source of funding. But what can you do when you are being cut on all fronts?

Vaizey’s response to the report was breezy and deaf to subtlety, as you might expect (http://finkennedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/ed-vaizey-responds-to-in-battalions.html). But the battle does not cease here.  Phase 2 of the research is open to experts in their field (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/inbattalionsdelphistudy). Let’s hope it can provoke debate and act as a catalyst in the same way the original report did. 

There’s no success like failure but failure’s no success at all…

29 Jul

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© Georgia Sydeena https://www.facebook.com/GeorgiaSydeenaPhotography

The new writing scene in theatre has been transformed in the last few years. Even five years ago there wasn’t the plethora of new writing showcases, mainly for shorter work, that there is now. Perhaps this is borne out of the situation where there is a massive number of (aspiring) playwrights kicking around with relatively few production spaces for new writing, especially for debut writers. Ditto the multitude of young actors and directors and comparatively few opportunities for them. So the burgeoning DIY movement in theatre sees these actors and directors producing new writing, most commonly a one-off production of short work.

This has a strange impact on aspiring playwrights. Unlike the short story, where there is a market out there for prose writers to be published, albeit not especially lucrative, short work in theatre is rare by established writers. There are honourable exceptions of course. Beckett and Tennessee Williams, who wrote classic short work as well as longer pieces, spring to mind. But does this mean that aspiring writers are writing short pieces only because they are establishing themselves, opposed to respecting the form itself? Are they, in effect, having to enter sprinting competitions when really they should be training for a marathon? I actually believe the short play can have great aesthetic value in itself, opposed to just providing an opportunity for aspiring writers, and it is interesting that there is an increasing number of showcases featuring more established writers, frequently around a particular theme, often a political matter.

I have had five short pieces produced in just over a year. Each one was an amazing experience. I felt I have gotten much better at the form, but have often found it makes it harder to return to writing longer pieces. What’s brilliant about short plays, like short stories, is they can strip a tale down to its essence – no sub-plots, no surplus characters, no aching backside for the audience. But to then have to return to producing the intricately technical waffle-fest of a full-length work is challenging. There is also the amount of time you devote to writing shorter work. I have produced enough material in short-form that would amount to two full-length plays in the last eighteen months. Would my time have been better spent actually writing two full-length plays? And then there is the emotional rollercoaster of shortlists, rejections and, more rarely, acceptance and production.

Recently I was shortlisted for a playwriting competition in London and accepted into the Script This showcase in Lincoln in the same week. The latter produces readings of five extracts from longer work and the audience votes on which play gets further development. This aspect is a real selling point. You get a short piece of work produced and potentially get valuable assistance on the longer play. Alas it wasn’t my week: my shortlisted play in London wasn’t chosen and my other play wasn’t voted for further development in Script This. Yet failure such as this is not too disheartening – competition is high and getting any work on is good. Five shorts in just over a year is not bad. Best not to be too greedy.

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© Pixelglo Photography https://www.facebook.com/PixelgloPhotography

But it is the Script This model I wish to praise here (see: https://www.facebook.com/#!/ScriptThisLincoln?fref=ts). It is rare to see this commitment to help writers with a longer play. Also, the majority of short play showcases are full dress productions. Having a script in hand reading of a work in progress shifts the emphasis from just making a short piece work on the night to letting ideas breathe, letting them grow and, equally as important, seeing what doesn’t work and getting rid of it. The Hampstead Theatre used to have the excellent Start Nights a few years ago which had a similar format; it is hard to think of similar showcases at more established theatres these days.

The night of Script This was laid back, with the audience at tables enjoying their drinks. A discussion followed each short play. This was the bit I dreaded – your work being shot down in public. Yet the environment and comments were constructive.

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© Pixelglo Photography https://www.facebook.com/PixelgloPhotography

My play, Waiting for My Man, follows two young characters, Jay and Dizzy (see photo of Liam Paul Gregory and Hayley Arnold at the top of the post), as Jay tries to scrape some money together to pay off a debt. They live in a small, perennially out of season, out of luck costal town. The play takes place on a crumbling pier, here’s an excerpt:

Dizzy: …that’s why we have to crawl to Declan.

Jay: He’s alright.

Dizzy: No he’s not, he’s a cunt. Making us come here like he’s James Bond or something.

Jay: He never fails to deliver.

Dizzy: Meeting us in this old dump.

Jay: It’s private.

Dizzy: It’s not safe. It’s been condemned.

Jay: You what?

Dizzy (Shouts): It’s a death-trap.

Jay: Really?

Dizzy: Look at it Jay, this pier’s fucked, burnt out.

Jay: It’s always been like this.

Dizzy: Yeah, it has since you come to the home. But you didn’t see the fire.

Jay: Must have been before I was sent to this shitty town.

Dizzy: It was bad enough before the fire. Year after year it gets worse.

Jay: So you’re saying it could fall down?

Dizzy: Listen.

(The pier creaks in the wind. It sounds like it could topple over any minute.)

Jay: Fuck.

The reading was really useful in developing my play. A character who briefly appears, who I worried might be superfluous, worked well. On the other hand there were far too many ‘fucks’. I cringed at the repetitive bombardment. There again, Liam Paul Gregory also performed Hannah Smith’s monologue at the end of the evening entitled ‘Fucked’, which also used the word like it was going out of fashion. So I was in good company.

But now it is back to being deskbound in the normal isolation a writer endures, opposed to working with creative colleagues. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like all writers I just need to stop procrastinating and get on with finishing the next fucking play…

In search of the greenwood…

9 Jul

Two unconnected things I encountered this week wistfully reminded me of mythical, less complicated, times.

Firstly, I saw one of my favourite musicians – Simone Felice (http://www.simonefelice.com/about/). At one point he said how great it was just to have people gathered in one place instead of at home on their phone/the internet. This Luddite attitude perhaps explains why following him is like traipsing after bands in pre-internet days, where fans lovingly made type-written, badly photocopied newsletters. No instant information then. A few years ago Simone Felice left his siblings’ band, the excellent Felice Brothers, and then later formed The Duke and the King, an even better outfit only to seemingly disband it awhile back. There is little on the web as to why or even any acknowledgement they have split up at all. So he just turned up at St Giles church just off Oxford Street with a new, excellent band, and sang some beautiful, mournful songs. Little preview or hype. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. And what a great venue too. But allowing a bar there wouldn’t hurt, would it?

The second, deeper, call of the ancients came from Laurence Scott’s brilliant article on one of my favourite novels (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/05/rereading-maurice-e-m-forster), E. M. Forster’s Maurice. Written before the first world war but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970, the novel follows Maurice’s self-discovery. A gay man in Edwardian England, he memorably, (spoiler alert) goes on to have a happy ending, eloping with his lover into the ether. They disappear into ‘the greenwood’, the wilds of England. As enticing as it is preposterous, this notion has always stayed with me. Could the forests of England really ever have harboured society’s outsiders? Who cares? Forster’s paean ‘to an England where it was still possible to get lost’ remains incredibly appealing, a manifesto for love and a rejection of an oppressive society’s norms, where the only solution is to escape into the shadows…