theatre

Vlog #6 Theatre Criticism: Reviews, Analyses and Quality

This week, I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about reviews, analyses and quality. Partly, this is an attempt to further outline what I’m attempting to (and not to do) with my YouTube channel.

But, also, with the cutting of Lyn Gardner’s Guardian blog, theatre criticism is going through something of an interesting, transitory stage at the moment.

Finally, the introduction of Arts Council England’s new Quality Metrics has caused some discussion as to how we measure quality in art.

(Theatre Criticism: Reviews, Analyses and Quality | https://youtu.be/rV08Jr3Rfg4)

The Power of Politics and Place on Stage

There were a number of reasons I chose to focus my PhD on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre.

Primarily, as a regional theatre maker myself, I have often felt that being based in the provinces has both supported and restricted my career. On the one hand, if I a piece of my work is put on in Plymouth, its fairly unlikely Rufus Norris is going to walk through the door and suggest it does a couple of week in the Cottesloe.

But by the same measure I am certain that, had I been based in a city with far more theatre artists working in it, many of the things I have been able to make happen with the support of Arts Council England and other organisations in Plymouth would either already have been happening already or at the very least I would have faced far more competition to leverage the resources needed for those projects.

Although it hadn’t crossed my mind at the time — it seemed only natural when writing the pieces — I also have something of a track record in making work which engages with either what we might call the “regional experience”.

Parliament Town by myself (New Model Theatre)

When I wrote Parliament Town (2014), I was certainly driven by a desire to contemplate what the city of Plymouth means or at least meant to a specific character at that time.

While the narratives relayed by the City Museum — and I’m not holding out much hope that this might change when the new History Centre is built — is one of sea-faring colonisers and military lives, I was keen to highlight the cities many flirtations with English radicalism.

Not only was the city a hold-out for Parliamentarianism during the English Revolution — the main focus of Parliament Town — it was also the place from which the Tolpuddle Martyrs were cast off to Australia and the site of their return as well as more recently the birthplace and first constituency of Michael Foot. 

Port by Simon Stephens (National Theatre)

Simon Stephens says of his play Port (2013), set in Stockport, that ‘suggesting that lives of people living in Manchester then, are worthy of drama, was a political gesture’ (National Theatre, 2015).

There is a tendency in our storytelling to assume that anything of note will always take place in one metropolis or other, that if a butterfly flaps its wings in London the breeze will be felt in Birmingham but that the breeze generated by a Brummie butterfly will dissipate somewhere along the proposed path of HS2.

Theatre is a necessarily local act, taking place in a specific place at a specific time and, so it seems to me, has an ability to address the politics and weight of space in a very direct way.

Much of the academic literature that exists on these issues focusses heavily on site-specific work. And yet to suggest that narratives employing regional locales can only be relevant to those with an existing relationship— be it work, residence or touristic—with that place seems only to feed into the neuroses of regional textual inferiority.

As such, I have decided to focus exclusively on auditorium-based work, that which can be lifted from Birmingham and placed into a theatre in Leeds, Hull or Exeter so as to express a story founded in one city to another.

A Line-Up of Regional Theatre in 2017

My last few days, then, have been spent navigating — with various degrees of ease *cough* ATG *cough* — the websites of England’s regional civic theatres in order to seek out productions which seek, in a direct or subtle way, to engage with a specific regional English city.

What has been particularly interesting is how all or nothing the approach of regional theatres to such a pursuit is.

Hull Truck, for example, will mount the third instalment in its ‘Hull Trilogy’ in July 2016, Mighty Atoms. Alongside this two of their community productions Defiance and Our Mutual Friend also have a direct relationship with the city.

Liverpool Royal Court’s 2017 programme also features a number of locally-rooted productions including a Christmas show Scouse of the Rising Sun and, later in the year The Royal and YNWA.

Touched by Stephen Lowe (Nottingham Playhouse)

Nottingham Playhouse, in February will offer up Touched, set in the city during the 100 days between peace in Europe and Japan at the close of the Second World War.

And Bristol Old Vic boasts two productions in their upcoming season, Junkyard and Pink Mist, both of which are set at least partially within the theatre’s own jurisdiction.

It is worth pointing out that this is only a selection of the work I have come across, there are a number of notable examples which I have left out mainly for reasons of space. Due to the focus of my research, I was also not searching for work set in towns, though in many cases the difference between town and city is little more than descriptive terminology.

A Community Speaking to Itself

What also struck was that many theatres’ excursions into their surrounding streets was often carried out exclusively in community work. While it makes sense that, in engaging local people, a focus on narratives of local significance might add social value to the undertaking, it also says something that a similar stance is less likely to be taken in a professional production.

I would hope it would be entirely cynical to pursue a line of thinking that suggests a large-scale, populist, locally-based production with a volunteer cast likely to provide a fair bit of free publicity and advocacy for the show might be as good for a theatre bottom line as for the social cohesion of the local community.

And, while any separation between professional and amateur work in terms of the performance text itself would be false and elitist, it is clear that a professional production is more likely to have a life beyond that within its own city boundaries and thus has a larger chance of being able to share that narrative further.

Finally, does it not reveal the value a theatre sees in the communal identity of its location that some will hire the likes of Vicky McClure to star in a telling of a local narrative or commission Jack Thorne or Bryony Lavery to interpret it for the stage while others will channel such professional talents to work which lacks such site-specific baggage?

Moving Forward

I am really looking forward to gallivanting across the country to catch some of the work which is engaging in the representation of regional civic communities. My endeavours over the past few days have thrown up a long list of really exciting productions.

If anyone knows of any work taking place over the next couple of years which does engage in regional English cities that I might have missed, it would be great to hear about.

Happiness Ltd Development Week

I spent last week at TR2, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s education and production centre, with four actors, Tessa Mason, Liam Salmon, Lois Mackie and Justin Palmer, workshopping my new play Happiness Ltd.

It was a brilliant, inspiring and hugely informative week and I gathered up some reflections on my YouTube channel below.

To wrap up this period of development, supported by Arts Council England, we’re holding a staged reading at The Bike Shed Theatre this coming Monday 9th May at 3pm.  It’s free and open to all so, if you’re in the area, do come along!

(Happiness Ltd | Development Week: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONQY1qsxgqI)

supported by Arts Council England

Happiness Ltd | The Next Step…

I’ve recently heard the brilliant news that Arts Council England will be supporting me in developing my new play, Happiness Ltd from the second draft, where it currently is, through to a completed play!

As part of this, I’m documenting my process through a series of YouTube videos which may or may not be incredibly cheesy.

Check out the first one below and let me know what you think!

(Playwriting Tips with Tom | Introduction: https://youtu.be/VAEoaTeJrZ0)

supported by Arts Council England

Some thoughts on… Are We Not Drawn Onwards To New ErA

Inspired by my current MA studies I’ve decided that, in 2016, I’m going to take a little more time analysing the work that I see (and that which I read) a little more.  I’ve been keen to think further about the inner workings of these performances and what endears me (or otherwise) to them.  For this I’ve borrowed the format of the academic performance analysis – looking to extrapolate the ideas behind a piece rather than just weigh my inexperienced judgement on them.

The following are some thoughts on Ontroerend Goed’s Are We Not Drawn Onward… which I saw at Theatre Royal Plymouth in the latter part of 2015.  It’s a performance which sat with me some time as, having loved much of their previous work, I found this one a little harder to digest.  This is some thoughts on that.

Ontroerend Goed’s Are We Not Drawn Onward To New ErA is, according to director Alexander Devriendt, the second show in a trilogy which started with 2012’s A History of Everything.  While the earlier show dealt in the fact of recorded events, Are We Not Drawn Onward is more speculative, a dream-like pondering on the future of the human race in relation to the lump of rock we find ourselves living on.

But the subject matter here is of secondary importance to the formal experiment which has seems to have guided the making of the piece and is certainly the talking point upon leaving the auditorium.  Devriendt has taken the idea of the palindrome (as present in the title of the show) and implemented it across the performance itself adding an area of mystery to the first half of the show as performers move in a somewhat strange manner and talk in what appears to be gibberish.

Yet, on reaching the midpoint of the show, performer Charlotte De Bruyne steps beyond the proscenium arch and addresses the audience.  As she does, the gibberish which she speaks slowly morphs into something recognisable, eventually becoming English.  A gauze is lowered and projected onto it is a video of all that has gone before in the performance.  The ‘twist’ is that this video is played backwards and suddenly all that was mysterious or confusing before makes sense – actions become reversed and gibberish becomes (slightly imperfect) English.

Viewed at its most basic, Are We Not Drawn Onward is a two act narrative; a story of the human race creating a mess, destroying nature as they attempt to build statues in their own image, before deciding to undo their destructive actions.  Yet this narrative is one which simplifies the reality almost to absurdity – the inference being that all we need to do to save the planet is to decide to take affirmative action to do so.  The terrifying reality of humanity’s destruction of planet Earth is that it is permanent and that the undoing of our impact on the world is far more complex than the initial action.

The formal experiment, the performative palindrome, is also questionable.  The preshow literature claims that the one could feasibly watch this performance either way round yet the fact that the piece involves encoding the performance to video and then showing that video back reveals this to be a falsity.  The other issue is that a palindrome, by definition, should be understandable when read from either direction and, while the physical action is readable in the first half, the dialogue is certainly not.

Are We Not Drawn Onward is a hard watch, not due to the information which is given over (this, as previously discussed, is remarkably simple) but due to the testingly slow pacing of the show.  This snail-like pacing becomes even more difficult to watch during the second half where we are being shown events we have already seen, only backwards.  Once one has watched a golden statue be slowly erected we can already picture what it will look like to slowly take it down.  The only real intrigue remaining – the content of the dialogue – is contained in three or four very short segments which, once we hear them, reveal little more about the situation of the characters on stage.

Ontroerend Goed’s work has always held traces of what might be described as ‘high art’ yet where pieces such as Audience, Fight Night and A History of Everything succeed is in the way they combine these big, complex ideas with playfulness and their energy.  They have also proven themselves masters of walking the line between complexity and pretence; 2013’s All That is Wrong, which consisted of an hour of one performer drawing on a blackboard, managed to maintain a level of youthful curiosity which took the audience through an exploration of the politics of the discovery of identity despite the simple premise.

Postmodernism is most often as much about the telling of a narrative as (if at all) the narrative itself, pitting the performer against the performance.  There is certainly an element of danger in the reversed dialogue of Are We Not Drawn Onwards and the fact that neither the audience or performer will find out how successful these utterances have been for some ten or twenty minutes leaves us with a certain level of suspense.  Yet this idea of a purposeful endangering of the performance should surely be an additional layer to a piece rather than, as here, the entire reason for it.  As impressive as this feat is, it seems a shame that the ideas which lie beneath are so texturally thin.

What Are We Not Drawn Onward shares with A History of Everything is an ability to put ourselves, as individuals and the human race as a whole, into cosmic perspective; reminding us that despite the breadth of human achievement we remain startlingly insignificant.  Perhaps the success of humanity’s apparent custody of Planet Earth does lie in how well we clean up after ourselves but, in the unlikely event that we do, it will rely as much on the logistics of how we undertake that great project as simply levelling the political will to do so.

Happiness Ltd Reading

I’m currently wading through the thick sludge that lies between the first and second draft of any new play.  From initial idea of the-play-currently-known-as Happiness Ltd to first draft, it’s been a fairly slow process – I know I can rush things and I wanted to take my time on this one.  This will be my fourth full length play and the process is in many ways very different to when I sat on the charity shop-bought sofa in my student bedroom writing what would eventually become Static – I have the strange sense that I might finally know what I’m doing for a start.  But in many ways it feels very similar.

For every hour spent beating fresh hell into my keyboard, another seems to be spent drafting emails and having phone calls in the hope of having some way of getting the words into the mouths of actors (there’s also a third hour which is spent playing Playstation but it’s a play about video games so… erm… erm… research!?!?).  Which is why I’m incredibly excited that tomorrow I’m heading into a rehearsal room at Theatre Royal Plymouth with David Prescott, TRP’s Artistic Associate, and a bunch of professional actors for a closed reading of the play.

I have a feeling I might feel a little big-headed sat there listening to four actors read out words I’ve written to a total audience of two yet in any artistic process the safe space in which to iron out flaws is an important one.  It’s essentially a chance for me to hear the dialogue out loud and find out what zings and what is more disagreeable to the ears.  It’s also a chance to share the work with a group of artists who will be able to spend the day focussing on the journey of one character through the play, reporting on whether their journey feels complete and/or their decisions justified.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about sharing the story with a few more people and finding out whether it’s one worth telling, whether it feels exciting, gripping, emotional or at all important.

Playwriting can often be an incredibly literary activity, sat in front of a computer scene impressing words onto digital paper.  Days like tomorrow break that potentially dangerous routine and reignite the performativity in a playtext.  So, if taking this one slightly slower leads to opportunities like this which allow me to improve this play and my practice as a playwright in the future, then I’m really excited to see what that may hold.

The Moment It All Made Sense

Putting together the first ever Plymouth Fringe Festival along with Dan Baker, Matt Hall and Beth Shouler has been an honour. It’s been a chance to meet some amazing artists, invite some we already knew to this lovely city of ours and truly celebrate theatre and live performance in Plymouth.

But, amid all the funding bids and partnership conversations, I’ve often wondered what the function of such a festival is. What does it add to Plymouth’s cultural offer, which already contains a fair bit of theatre, to add a festival on top? We’re certainly not ones for doing things just for the sake of doing them – maybe this was a chance to reach new audiences or new artists, to make theatre more visible in the city or break down barriers to attendance?

I have to admit, in the chaos of tech rehearsals and keeping everything running smoothly, I’ve not had many chances to actually watch shows yet. But yesterday I managed to catch three, all in auditoriums full of faces I didn’t recognise and companies whose work would likely not have come to Plymouth had we not used the festival to prise open more theatre doors for artists.

But the moment I truly got the point of all this hard work was at roughly twenty past midnight as I wandered through an abandoned funfair on Plymouth Hoe, led by the hand of Brantley Rodgers as part of Aminal’s Night. Dream. Sleep. Perhaps it was the quiet where the rest of my week has been almost deafening or the treat of being able to focus on simply being in the world of a show rather than wondering whether I have any responsibilities if the theatre sets on fire mid-performance.

Now, I like being inside, I like early nights and I like sitting on my arse wherever possible. But the festival let me put those preferences aside and try something different. Outside of the context of the festival I might have given NDS a miss and headed home to my Stephen King novel and the last remaining Twirl but something about the energy in the city made me not want to miss out. I’d spent the day giving audience members tips on what to see and it would have felt criminal not to follow the suggestions that had been thrown my way.

And for my new found adventurous spirit I was rewarded with a touching show which provoked a real guttural emotional response and made me view the city I’ve plodded about for twenty two years through different eyes.

It wasn’t necessarily the outdoor nature of the show that hit me but the fact that it would have felt odd in a traditional season of work yet, this week, it felt completely natural. Particularly, it didn’t feel very ‘Plymouth’ and not in a ‘this is a local festival for local people’ way. Like many other shows at the festival I got the overwhelming feeling that our Janner audience, which is still fairly traditional in its preferences, would have been unlikely to take a punt on something so different but this week there’s barely any tickets left for NDS.

This week has been eye opening. During many of the fringe events which have sprouted up over the past eighteen months, the audience has been fairly static with the same supportive faces popping up again and again. Yet, so far at least, this week feels like a breakthrough. Not only are new audiences taking their seats for shows by emerging artists, they’re taking risks on the kind of work they might previously have shied away from. And, as I stared past a lut up Smeaton’s Tower at the lights making their way across the channel, it all made sense.

Defence Against the Dark Arts

To compare things in the present to events in 1984 is a pretty over-subscribed cliche and is obviously simply a useful distraction for our reptilian overlords. Like most of Orwell’s work (and yoga) it’s pretty popular amongst lefties and therefore everyone who works in the arts.

As someone who works with words, its the ideas surrounding Newspeak (the official language of Oceana) which have always fascinated me. The Party realises that, by restricting the language people have at their disposal, you limit their ability to communicate with any specificity. If you erase the language which allows us to declare the difference between a cow and a horse then good luck complaining to the chef about your horsey burger.

And yet, a few years ago, a word started to disappear. In newspapers, in government briefings and on organisation websites, it’s frequency was slowly reduced until it was almost invisible. The word ‘art’ (pronounced a:rt) had been taken out to a field, beaten over the head and buried in a deep grave at a crossroads. Seemingly, no one wanted to talk about art anymore. Over a period of months I’d gone from working in ‘the arts’ to working in the ‘cultural industries’ and from being an artist to being a ‘creative entrepreneur’.

Simply put, we got defensive. As soon as David Cameron limped into office with the help of Nick Clegg, we knew dark days were ahead. Fair enough, if we were going to go for this whole austerity thing, I’d rather we miss out on another production of Hamlet than close a school down and much of the electorate would agree. At the first hurdle though, we agreed to have this debate in their language – they’d brought the ball so we’d play this out by their rules.

At a time when Nigel Farage was gaining popularity by ‘saying it like it is’, we were trying to role-play House of Cards in order to protect what we could. Don’t get me wrong, cultural leaders across the country did this for the best of reasons, and unlike independant artists it’s less acceptable for them to use naughty words at politicians, but it meant we instantly started this fight on the back foot.

At around 6am this morning it was clear that David Cameron wasn’t gonna be needing a removals van and I’m not sure that it takes a genius to work out that the arts might be in for a further beating. We’ve got a fight on our hands again, but this time, lets sound proud of what we do. That starts by not using their language. If we’re gonna head into battle, then let’s dictate the rules ourselves.

WHEN DOES THE VLOG START TOM!?!?

I LOVE research. Ever since my grandad (whose official title was something like King of the Family Historians) took me to the record office to uncover my incredibly dull heritage, I’ve found huge rewards in immersing myself in new worlds. Luckily, research is something which is bold, italicised and highlighted in a playwright’s ‘job’ description.

In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the family history that lit up my day with Grampy but the new world I entered inside that record office. A whole sub-culture of unwritten rules and best practises, specialised language and lingo. Like a less stubbly Indiana Jones, I found something fascinating in entering a world which initially seemed like a foreign country and slowly learning how it worked until I passed the citizenship test (in this, now slightly overstretched, metaphor the citizenship test is the operation of a microfiche reader).

Now, I’m currently writing a play about video games. More specifically about video game developers. Now, I don’t need an excuse to play more games, it’s safe to say I have a fair knowledge (particularly of games which came out around 4 months before whenever you’re reading this as that’s usually when their price drops) and at some point I really want to write a blog about video games as a medium for storytelling. But this play involved going behind the scenes a little and learning a bit of game design.

So, over the past week, alongside actually writing (and trying to beat my high score on Streets of Rage), I’ve been learning to write video games. If it means anything to you, I’ve been using Apple’s SpriteKit and the language Swift to write 2D sprite-based games for iOS and OSX. I’ve currently built one game which involved zombies (I’m a big Walking Dead fan) and another which is essentially Flappy Bird but the bird is the flaming head of Ed Miliband (I was particularly proud of this one).

And now I’ve found myself pretty hooked on the idea of writing a video game (probably more narrative-based than either of the ideas I flirted with above). This is classic me. My girlfriend would probably say I’m having another ‘phase’. She’s probably right.

Another character in my new play has a vlog. I suppose that means I’ll be starting a vlog soon because I simply can’t help myself (also I’m a massive narcisist and want you to know EXACTLY ALL MY THOUGHTS ABOUT STUFF). Look forward to my vlog.