Jul 11, 2008
For a variety of reasons Arcades is going to take a little holiday for a few months.
It may be back come the Autumn, though possibly in a slightly different form.
In the meantime if you're interested, I'll be blogging regularly at the blog for Forest Fringe, the venue I've been programming for Edinburgh.
Jul 2, 2008
I first saw Gemma and James from Action Hero at I Am Still Your Worst Nightmare, a weekend-long live art spectacular at the Arnolfini in Bristol. The whole event was great in its openness; with a completely uncurated collection of work things swung from the brilliant to the kind of awfulness that takes you to a very sad place inside. Action Hero (along with Ed Rapley and Emma Bennett from These Horses) were probably the best thing about the whole weekend.
For their short piece they did a recreation of Evel Knievel's 1969 Caesar's Palace jump that left him in a coma for over three weeks. It was a simple and beautiful idea, playing lovingly with the difference in scale between the theirs and the original jump while retaining some really tangible trace of the original's sense of euphoria and fear. Here we all were staring at a guy on pedalling towards a ramp on a little red bicycle and yet, there was real pause, a real breath held, an authentic moment of danger. The really beautiful thing about the piece however was its loving attention to detail; it wasn't just a good idea. It was done so thoughtfully, borrowing text from a number of sources to create something that already at this early stage was already subtly questioning and undermining the collective excitement that it so effortlessly generated.
Anyway, it was a beautiful piece and I was super excited when we agreed to have them come do the next stage of development at Forest Fringe. In the meantime I also got the chance to see a version of possibly their most popular show A Western, which has toured across the country. It's a wonderful little show; a show that demonstrates that the act of playing (because they are always playing at being in a Western, covering themselves in Ketchup, riding on another little bike) can be as meaningful as doing anything for real. What struck me this time however was that both pieces were slightly in love with and slightly nervous of this kind of deeply Midwestern American mythology that seemed so familiar to me.
I grew up listening to my parents record collection, getting lost in the world of a collection of denim-wearing, guitar twanging lovesick bearded men roaming dusty open roads in big American cars and staring out at an ocean I'd never even seen. The Eagles and the Allman Brothers (and everything from Steven Spielgberg to Perry Mason Investigates) were the nearest I came to a cultural heritage. Despite my resolutely, awkward, humdrum Britishness there's part of me that feels in some weird way American. But a kind of imagined, mythic American.
And this is another reason I love the Action Hero - that they seem too to have this strange pull. They wear their Englishness on their sleeves and yet there's a longing for freeway pancake houses and lonely towns called things like Splitwater Falls and the faded yellow colour of any American TV show from the 70s. It's strange and its sad and its familiar and I think they tap into something really meaningful for a whole generation of suburban English kids who's parents were big fans of Christopher Cross or who spent their childhood watching movies like and Capricorn One and Earthquake, a beautiful, bizarre film that coincidentally features its own desperate daredevil hero.
And Summer it definitely now is with Wimbledon bringing out the quaintly middle-class hat wearer in all of us and the Edinburgh Festival drawing mighty close. As you may know I'm co-running a venue this year called Forest Fringe with my delightful Canadian friend Debbie Pearson (and it was Canada Day yesterday so up the cannucks once more).
We've pretty much managed to haul the programme over the finish line now and the whole thing is up on the venue's beautiful new website. We also have a blog which I thought it worth me starting to try and write a bit for so with that in mind I've decided to revive the idea of the company profiles I did for Aurora Nova last year to give people a better idea of who some of the people that will be performing at Forest are. So hopefully I'll start writing those over the course of the next couple of weeks and they'll start appearing here.
For the purpose of trying to focus more on this (and on Exposures in Dublin in September) I've also (rather terrifyingly) finished working for BAC and am now 100% freelance (or 100% unemployed if you wanted to look at things more bleakly). It's been a completely lovely (and relatively life-changing) year working for them and I'm sure I'll probably continue to do things with them so BAC-relate will continue to be kept to a minimum round here for fear of appearing biased.
There's also another article by me up at the Guardian where I'm rather scathing about a night I went to a little while ago at the Southwark playhouse. At the time I was left completely incensed by the entire experience but now (about a week later when the post finally bobbed to the surface at the Guardian) I'm feeling a lot more torn. Is it really necessary to be so vicious about something, especially if it's not a review? Probably not is the answer and its just childish petulance on my part to write such things and the comments have pretty much born this out.
But then other the other hand I did receive an email from a writer saying that he agreed with me and that it was about time that someone blew the whistle on their particular brand of superficial and relatively smug political engagement.
Since I've been writing this quite a few people have said to me that they think its brave/foolhardly/downright stupid and childish and self important (delete as appropriate) to write so much publicly about theatre when at the same time trying to make it. And there is a part of me that every time one of these articles goes up does sink a little thinking that possibly that's another several column inches down in the grave I'm so tirelessly digging for myself. But at a time when people won't stop going on about the importance of peer review, surely we should be able to take a bit of criticism from each other? Of course I guess the difficulty comes in the arena of the internet where those personal criticisms swim dangerously close to what feels like solid statement-of-fact reviewing, especially on the Guardian Blog.
I've seen bloody and fascinating arguments that have flown back and forth between people such as Chris Goode, Simon Kane, David Eldridge, Tassos Stevens and myself and I think that bruised and bemused though we may have been by them we're all probably better for it. But for the most part those conversations have remained in areas that are decidedly more personal than the Guardian Theatre Blog and perhaps that's where I overstepped the mark this time.
Either way, this whole episode combined with Helen Smith's description of me as passionate-to-the-point-of-appearing-angry has left me thinking that perhaps I should try and adopt a somewhat mellower tone from now on. We'll see how that works out.
In the meantime please do go have a read of this utterly lovely review of Checkpoint, the game I created for the Hide + Seek Festival at the South Bank centre. It was a glorious day and I hope there are many more like it soon.
Jun 24, 2008
First off I'm hugely excited about Infinite Lives at the North Wall in Oxford on July 10. It's written by Chris Goode and features the Jon Spooner and is (apparently) a charmingly filthy/beautiful story about quitting a job to write gay sci-fi. Lovely.
Before that you should definitely head down to SHUNT on Friday for The Last Dance, a beautiful installation by Abigail Conway involving dozens of people dancing to their favourite songs in the long, dark corridor by the entrance. Mass participation and end-of-the-night school disco classics - what's not to love? My five choices, by the by, were:
Nothing Matters When We're Dancing - Magnetic Fields
Everything I do (I do it for you) - Bryan Adams
Massive Nights - The Hold Steady
Naked as we Came - Iron and Wine
Freefalling - Tom Petty
Don't ask me why.
And on the subject of mass participation events I was pleased to discover that Anthony Gormley's plan to have someone standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square 24 hours a day for 100 days has been accepted in the latest round proposals. Apparently the incumbents (who will each stand for an hour) will be chosen randomly by Internet lottery. And frankly I think its lovely - the juxtaposition of something so delicate and uncontrollable and ridiculous with the icon symbols of power and History around it will be truly fascinating.
And also if you happen to be around on Saturday there's a couple of outdoor events that I'm involved in as part of the Hide and Seek Festival on the South Bank. First off I'm running a game called Checkpoint (which I've already scribbled a bit about) at 1pm and although its all filled up feel free to come down and have a look at what's going on. And then why not get an ice cream have a gentle stroll and then come back for MPT at 6pm, a marvellous vague event involving freezing, moving and a number of other tantalising activities (if you're intrigued you should email email@example.com).
Beyond that you should all have already gone to see ...Sisters at the Gate and if not, then by god, go now. More on that when I have some time, which, alas, is not right now...
In the meantime all I can offer you is this from the delightfully sunny Cut Copy - who's album In Ghost Colours is a glorious burst of buoyant synthesised goodness that I can't recommend highly enough:
Jun 18, 2008
Here are the audio tracks for The Last Walk of Carlow Man, a show I created for the Carlow Arts festival in Southern Ireland:
Here I slept while over me time rumbled onAs I explained in the earlier post, each audience member would have all four of these tracks on an MP3 player, which would then (unbeknown to them) be electronically shuffled to produce an entirely different order for each person.
John Tyndall's Blue Sky
I don't need no cryogenics
We're going to write this town like a book
They would then all walk together through the streets of the town, possibly catching glimpses of the figure they were listening to, traces of him left across the city. As they went they would make their own connections between what they were hearing and what they were seeing, writing their own relationship between the two, constructing their own history.
At the end of the show the audience gathered at a hill in the centre of the town, where there was a small wrapped present that they opened to reveal a tiny figure made of mud in a glass jar and a note that said:
So this is it. This is me. This is all that's left of me.
Carefully show this jar to everyone, then shake it up and scatter the remains back into the ground. Back into Carlow.
And that is the End.
Jun 15, 2008
The opening scene (and indeed the whole first half of the movie) have such a knowing assuredness to them you can’t help but be carried along, from the self-deprecatingly silly reference to the first movie in the cross fade from the Paramount logo to a gofer mound through to the perfectly judged introduction of cinema’s favourite archaeologist himself. And then suddenly with a confident jolt in perspective we're skipping lightly past a panorama of 50s America; from area 51, the Manhattan Project, the house of un-American activities and the paranoia-laden infancy of the Cold War in the shadow of WWII. While Spielberg is scrawling Sunday Afternoon adventure cartoons on the landscape of 20st century America he is literally and figuratively in his element. He is his generation’s greatest moviemaker; playfulness without showiness, cleverness without smugness, entertainment without condescension.
Where all this goes to when they get on a plane to South America I don’t know. Perhaps there was a mix up at the airport as it seems by the time they arrived all they had with them were the brainlessly bombastic CGI stunts of The Mummy movies and a beardy John Hurt pretending to be possessed.
All of which is fundamentally beside the point. The whole thing was fine, efficient, great even in places. But something about it left me feeling decidedly, well, sad.
Up to this point it’s probably noticeable that I’ve been talking exclusively about Movies rather than films. For me the two are not the same thing. A movie is a very specific kind of film. The product of a Hollywood system forged in the burgeoning USA of the early 20th century. The Movie is a curiously self-referential thing; isolationist, parasitical, reliant on limited set of genres and conventions (the Western, the War Movie, the Period Movie, The Biopic, the Rom-Com, the Blockbuster), its lifeblood is borrowing, appropriation, referencing, playing with itself, as such its as much about structures and themes as it is about characterisation or the telling of a good story. The movie is about escapism, but not in the sense of disappearing into the world of the movie, it’s about disappearing into the world of Movies. It’s no surprise that the studios themselves became tourist attractions, theme parks; they are the promised land, the thrilling heart of this self-quoting, meta-filmic dreamworld.
The best movie moments are always for me those that revel in this. Like Singing in the Rain, a movie made in order to use the best of MGM’s back catalogue and set within the movie world, where characters float across the studio from set to set. Like the end of Back to the Future II, located within the end of the original film, the stars frantically rushing around earlier versions of themselves. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, simultaneously driven by and undermining the conventions of the Western and the Detective movie respectively.
And like the movies they inhabit movie stars are not just actors (some of the best are not really actors at all) they are Stars. Their presence transcends their performance in any particular movie. When you see them on screen the character they play is always knowingly transparent, the Star showing through, their face and their voice imbued with the accumulated memory of every movie you’ve previously seen them in. It’s pretty much a cliché these days to point out that in a Cary Grant film the character is always Cary Grant, the creation of a mysterious man called Archie from Bristol. Similarly the reason Henry Fonda is so devastating as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West is because when you seem him massacring an innocent family, its not just an attractive blue-eyed psychopath that’s killing those children, its Abraham Lincoln , it’s Wyatt Earp, it’s frigging Henry Fonda.
But I think it goes even further than this. I grew up with The Movies. I used to sit with my mum and dad nearly every Sunday evening, watching a movie. Movies are a series of interruptions that punctuate my everyday existence, that mark it. They are both something to remember and a way of remembering. Unlike Prufrock I have undoubtedly measured out my life in Tom Hanks films.
Take Jurassic Park for example, I remember the cinema in Cambridge, I remember it was Elizabeth Dale’s birthday party, I remember the fake coloured footprints that covered the floor and walls of the restaurant we ate in before hand. I remember the front cover of the video we bought later. I remember the first time I went to Universal Studios, being filled with wonder by a giant animatronic triceratops and hearing that familiar soundtrack pumping out of speakers hidden deep in the giant green ferns. Because of the omnipresence of the Movies, because it always sought to exist beyond the limits of any two hours of screen time, that particular film has come to have a presence in my life, to exist as a series of memories and feelings and places; it has come to be a part of my childhood.
And so when I see the Stars of that film, reappearing essentially as themselves in some new movie, I am always carried back to Jurassic Park and to the childhood I associate with it. Like Proust’s little Madeline dipped in tea, the tired lines on Sam Neil’s permanently weary face will always remind me of Elizabeth Dale’s Birthday party, of my front room when I was seven, of the smell of the humid Florida air. I could never dislike a Sam Neill movie however bad it is because they will always have Sam Neill in and Sam Neill makes me think of happy things; and that, fundamentally is the logic of the Star system.
Anyway, back to Harrison Ford. By this logic it should surely be a nice thing to experience the familiar rush of memory on hearing the opening bars of Indiana Jones. Like Jurassic Park it holds many similarly fond childhood memories.
And besides this is a film that consciously wallows in nostalgia. Not merely the nostalgia for the earlier films in the series, but the nostalgia on which those films were founded, for a kind of Sunday Afternoon adventure serial and a wholesome boys action comic that had long since disappeared. Even nostalgia for a kind of filmmaking that was already dying out, and nostalgia for an America before Vietnam and Watergate and everything that has followed. This movie wants you to think fondly of earlier times.
And yet, there was something about this coming back together of all the old elements, the music, the settings, the costume, the stars (and it was in fact the presence of Karen Allen that really got to me), that only made it crushingly apparent that regardless of the circumstances that past could not be recaptured, that time was forever lost.
Although for Proust a single taste can bring the past flooding back, if the entire scene (the table, the house, his aging mother) had been reconfigured, it only would have led to an overwhelming sadness. Only in the fleetingness of these memories can they be sustained, once they are recreated they are destroyed. And looking into the aging faces of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, was for me like the idea of my parents forever trying to recreate the same joyous holidays we once had, going to the same places, wearing the same clothes, doing the same things. It is futile and hopeless and just plain sad.
So rather than that give me a glimpse of Indiana Jones’ smile glimpsed some terrible new Harrison Ford film, or a few bars of John William’s score misheard in some other piece of music, that for me is the best way to remember Indiana Jones.
As the constitution of a proper place, scientific writing ceaselessly reduces time, that fugitive element, to the normality of an observable and readable system. In this way, surprises are averted. Proper maintenance of the place eliminates these criminal tricks.But they return, not only surreptitiously and silently in this scientific activity itself and not only in daily practises which, though they no longer have a discourse, are nonetheless extant, but also in rambling wily everyday stories.(Michel de Certeau, The Practise of Everyday Life)
We’re going to write this town like a bookTo tell our own story
To make our own history
Cos we’ve had enough of theirs.
The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.Which brings us (eventually) to The Last Walk of Carlow Man, a show commissioned from me by Eigse, an arts festival in the small Irish town of Carlow, about an hours drive south of Dublin. At the point at which I was asked to do a show I had no idea what to do, something as terrifying as it is exciting.
Right from the get-go I didn’t want there to be any specific linear relationship between what the audience was hearing and what they were seeing. I didn’t want him to be commenting specifically on what he was seeing, as is essentially the purpose of a historical audio guide. I wanted the audience to be given the freedom to make their own connections. I wanted them to forge their own history, through the relationship between the rambling stories they were listening to and the landscape they were walking through. And then halfway through the process, around the time I started writing some ridiculous article for the Guardian about how brilliant the shuffle function on an ipod is, I suddenly stumbled upon a way to make this sense of personal ownership even more foregrounded. The rambling monologue would be divided into a series of sections, all of which could be fitted together in any order, so that by simply turning on the shuffle function on the MP3 player each audience member would have a totally unique experience of the show, their own story, that they could fit to the world around them. These half true half fictional stories of the past would be entirely detached from historical fact, given to the audience to write back over the town as they saw it; to create their own map of the town and of the past.
So that was the idea, and if you’ve managed to make it this far you’re hopefully wondering how it worked out. Well, it’s Saturday [n.b. at least it was when I wrote this] and I have one night left, after a week in my own head I’m dreaming of getting back to London. I need the grime and the irritatingly knowing irony of someone who’s able to wear horrid plastic sunglasses indoors and know they get can get away with it because they’re so damn pretty. I need its thrilling messiness and the careless conversation of people I care about. I need cinemas and book shops and theatres, not necessarily to go to them but just to be reassured that they’re there. Suffice to say, I’m about ready to go home.
In terms of the show I think probably in the haste of having to put together the little installations hidden along the route in just a few days I relied too heavily on the kind of lazy whimsy that has been site-specific theatre’s stock-in-trade since time began; mysterious figures moving slowly and enigmatically in the distance, birthday candles and red balloons and party hats and little notes pinned in incongruous places. As far the text however, I was generally pretty pleased. It’s been a while since I’ve actually tried to write something quite so self-contained and complete and, well, playlike and I think it went ok. Chris, who performed it, was able to get something that felt relatively authentic out of my lame attempts at some kind of Irishness and with only that audio track and my mix tape of possible musical ideas, Stephen Dobbie created a beautiful, perfectly judged musical score that, as so often, turned the whole thing into something a little magical.
I’ve uploaded the four tracks and I'll put them up here later, so please do go and have a listen and if (for any reason) you might want a transcript let me know and I’m happy to send you one over.
So generally I’m happy. A good week, which, Irish border control notwithstanding, should leave me with a whole bunch of MP3 players to continue to experiment with. So, as always, watch this space.
Jun 6, 2008
Look around you
Here it was
On this spot
Here it happened
Here’s where it went down
Here’s where we they did the deed
Here’s where the west was won
This is it
Or was it over there?
No it was here
This is definitely the place
Down here’s where they hid the body
And here’s where he told her he loved her
Here’s where they said goodbye
Here’s where it first began
That’s where it finally ended
Here’s where they built that fucking awful statue
Here’s where they built that fort that burnt down
Here’s where there was a lake
And the town they named after a lake
Here’s where he found out
Here’s where they chained him up
Here’s where they strung him up and 20, 000 watched them
Here’s where they ran to
Here it is
Here’s where the war started
Over there’s where the peace was signed
In that corner the saviour was born
Down that street the massacre happened
In that alleyway he was conceived on a dark night but they were just kids and they didn’t know any better
That street there ran with blood for two days
Ran with blood
Rivers of it
And Here’s where the fire started
Here’s where the soldiers hid
Here’s where the prisoners hid
Here’s where the children hid
Here’s where there be monsters
Here’s where I dropped my hat
Here’s where they stole my hat
Here’s where I spilt my drink
Over there’s where I realised I’d left something at home and would have to go back and get it even though I didn’t have time
Here’s where I killed him
Here’s where I saved her
Here is definitely where it happened
This is definitely the place
They haven’t put a plaque up yet
But they will do
They will do
Jun 5, 2008
The largest of these images is interestingly a camera surrounded by stars. What could the designers be trying to tell us? Is this the first inclings of the Fringe's inevitable moment of anagnorisis? A realisation that it has bartered away any sense of integrity in its fame-thirsty scramble for bigger sponsors, bigger stars and higher prices, fostering a fetid atmosphere of hype and self-promotion that values the disposable and the gimmicky over the difficult and delicate, the flash and the glib and the loud over the small and the thoughtful and the quiet? Is this the moment at which the Fringe catches a glimpse of itself in the mirrored face of one its Scotsman sponsored awards and sees in a moment of excruitating sadness (like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, like Ricky Gervais in the Christmas special of Extras) what it has truly become?
There are 2,088 shows this year, only slightly higher than last year's 2,050
I also want to just quickly comment on this from the New Director Jon Morgan:
Because it's not programmed and not curated, performers can say what they like. It's democratic and so you get a much better reflection of what's going on in the world and what issues are preoccupying performers. So in that sense, it's a litmus test of what's happening in the world.There's little that's truly democratic about the fringe.
The fringe is the kind of democracy that you buy into. It's creative freedom available only to those who can afford their place in a venue, a hostel, the venue programme and the fringe programme along with trifling little things like props, costumes, publicity and, well, actors. And while it may avoid what Morgan seems to be suggesting are the dangerous whims of artistic directors or programmers, it doesn't replace them with a Utopia of creative freedom but with the laws of the market; if you can buy your place you're in. And its a rare kind of performer or artist who can ride the crest of this particular late capitalist wave.
It's actually a very narrow band of voices that you'll find at the festival (even narrower following the departure of Aurora Nova). And you can almost guarantee that large percentage of the most exciting will be funded through either by a regional producing house or by the Arts Council or an international equivalent; as important a form of selection as any directorial curation.
And this is all before you take into account that the Edinburgh model is certainly conducive to only a very limited spectrum of theatrical forms and styles. That being crammed into a small sweaty black box space, having to perform for at least a week consistently to get a spot, that being on at 3 in the afternoon and being watched by an audience who are cramming you in between Paul Merton's Impro All Stars and Appalling Acts of Genocide: The Musical, that all of this might inhibit a whole panoply of voices in Morgan's Democracy from wanting to ride this particular train.
And certainly what I've seen in programming for the Forest are the extraordinary number of companies who would never dream of going to Edinburgh, especially those that have been once and been burnt badly.
What the presence of an artistic director allows you to do is to select and support work from a far broader spectrum of potential companies and artists than that dictated by Edinburgh's big fat bottom line. It allows you to give companies the space and circumstances they need to have their voices heard. It's fighting against the survival of the fittest, against he who shouts the loudest wins; because who says that the fittest or the loudest have the most to say?
Curation gives a leg up, and a platform and a microphone to those that need it. And that may not be the kind of morally bankrupt libertarian notion of democracy that we all seem inured to, but I think in the arts at least that's a good thing.
And at their launch the fringe did manage to find two young (you guessed it) women to clad stupidly and make do stupid things, so not much has really changed after all.
May 23, 2008
May 20, 2008
Pull open the small wooden doors into the grand hall and the first thing that strikes you is the bigness.
The Grand Hall is vast
This feeling only grows as you step echoingly out into its emptiness. You pull away from the safety of the low ceilinged entrance into the full hugeness of the main hall, cast adrift in an ocean of space.
The Grand Hall is really fucking vast.
It is shiny wooden floorboads racing off into the distance. It is arches rearing up into the sky. It is a crane your neck your neck up up upwards vaulted ceiling. It is a pipe organ stolen from the gods. It is door after door after door after door. It is window after window after window. It is dizzying. Vertigo-inducing. It is symphonic.
It is vulgar in its bigness. Bigness is all it seems to strive for. Look closer and it is tattered and sad around the edges. Cracked panes of glass. Peeling paint. Smashed ceiling panels revealing the gaping blackness of the attic above. Discarded wires and microphones and out of date sound equipment litter its corners. It is not quite nice enough to be grand or regal or majestic, not quite derelict enough to be eerie or resonant or atmospheric. It is more cumbersome than it is colossal. More sad than melancholic. More injured than ruined. It is the girl with the hunched shoulders forced to play netball against her will. It is Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history, with his glasses, and his hand-made shoes and his quiet, lonely smile staring out from an old black and white photo.
The Grand Hall is almost apologetically big. Cumbersome. And though we are dwarfed by it, tiny and child-like and insignificant, you can’t help but have a tenderness towards this gentle giant. This fragile, elephantine creature.
These are some of the things I remember:
I have seen the severed arm of a polystyrene angel bathed in dusty white light in front of a lighting rig hanging in the darkness
I have watched an army of tiny well dressed children jumping up and down in front of row upon row upon row of empty chairs
I have seen cycled across its squeaking, whirring floor in great glorious circles in an otherwise empty building
I have stood at its centre, staring out at nothing, listening to music
Here are some things I’d like to see:
A ladder made of white bed sheets dropping gently to the ground from one of the holes in high, high up in the ceiling
Two people standing at opposite ends of the hall, in almost total darkness, watching each other, listening quietly to the same piece of music played on headphones
A giant game of tag
A bed to lie on in the middle of the empty hall and listen to the story of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history
May 19, 2008
How fucking romantic. All the stars are out. Twinkling, twinkling, twinkling. Fluttering about.
Stephen Merritt’s low drawl is a bruised apple wrapped in a thick hard layer of treacly sarcasm. At its heart it’s soft and wounded and desperate for love.
Rosie Dennis stands in an empty spotlight in a shiny green top. She moves, not in time to the music but with it. She is hard and definite and sharp and precise, but this jagged physicality is only the outward display of something gentler, something softer, something hearbreakingly familiar.
Someone once did a study that showed that the things we are most disturbed by are the things most like ourselves. Zombies, aliens, robots, ghosts - things that are like us but not quite us. Things ever so slightly estranged. Unreal.
This is I think why Rosie Dennis unique style is so utterly engaging. Her movements are so familiar. The ticks, the shakes, the tension, the moments of sudden release, like someone on the verge of a suffocating panic attack, like Ian Curtis on the verge of a seizure, like anyone swallowing their anger and their pain and their frustration and carrying on with what they were doing. The same could be said of her words, a looping, repetitive anxious chatter, she stutters through words and sentences with an all-too-familiar mixture of fear and confidence; so very sure you want to say something, not sure exactly how to say it, not sure if anyone will want to listen. Words get repeated, fragments of sentences appear and reappear; the whole thing feels like a sea of half explained ideas, washing relentlessly against the shore.
All of this everyday anxiety, uncertainty, tension, sadness is caught mid flight - wrapped in the rigid confines of Rosie’s unerringly exact performance. All that loose, messy, human chaos replicated delicately and precisely. Despite the crystallized beauty of her carefully constructed movements and her finely crafted text, we can see through this polished exterior to the soft, tender, bruised emotions at its heart. It is our own sadness, our own yearnings, our own loves, just made ever so slightly estranged. Unreal.
This show, like Hitting a Brick Wall (the other part of this double bill) is a show that presents its heartbreaking, life-affirming honesty with a care and a thoughtfulness and a distance that is almost irresistible.
I don’t remember what exactly Rosie sang at the end of this show, her own song, her own love song dedication, I just remember that in its tender, trusting, openness (a little bit beautiful, a little bit rubbish, but totally brutally open) it felt like anything I’ve ever done for someone I truly love.
I am writing regarding the vote in the commons on the human fertilisation and embryology bill tomorrow. I'd urge you to support the opinion of the British Medical Association, The royal college of obstetrics and gynaecology, the royal college of nurses and the commons own Science and technology committee by voting against any reduction in the week limit for late-term abortions.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries has led a horribly dishonest campaign, supported by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, that has distorted facts, made baseless appeals to emotion and outright lied in order to convince people of the need for a reduction. As numerous articles (including one in the Guardian today) and online at websites such as bloggerheads and rhetorically speaking have demonstrated, this campaign has utterly failed to come up with any decent reason for a reduction of any length and is led and funded by people who's interest in a reduction to 20 or 22 weeks is fundamentally undermined by their support of greater reductions (some who support the abolition of abortion altogether).
This minority campaign cannot be allowed to succeed, for the sake of women's right to choose and to demonstrate that this kind of malicious, dishonest lobbying will not prosper. I hope that you will be in parliament to vote against reduction in the 24 week limit.
[If you agree please do the same and email your MP. It takes no more than a couple of minutes.]
May 16, 2008
[once again, this a show from BAC's BURST festival and I work at BAC. So approach me with due caution, like an untrustworthy llama.]
I came to this show with a nervous trepidation, prepared to be sat anxiously bored, longing to love it but ultimately failing.
This is a show about aging. This is a show about growing old, about being old. This is a show made by old people. And I like being young.
I like being young and naive and hopeful and filled with nervous energy. I like being lost in daydreams of the future. I like to be child. I like to pretend. I like fall in love too often and too easily. I like to play run or jump or dance to the point of exhilarating, euphoric exhaustion. I like to imagine that I still have most of my life to lead. And behind all of this there’s probably a crushingly, suffocating fear that one day I’ll die and it’ll be all over. And the thought of being old, of knowing that you’ve had your shot at most things, that you’re body won’t move like that again, that you’re not going to be a footballer or a 400 metre runner or an Oscar winning director, that terrifies me.
And so I’ve generally tried to avoid thinking about being old. I’ve never watched Harold and Maud. I’ve imagined that one day I’ll undergo some evolution into someone who is old and happy and suddenly nothing will please me more than a good book and the remembering all the things I once did. And so I try to imagine old people are like another species, The Elderly.
All of which was the baggage I trawled behind me as I took my seat meekly in the audience for Und.
And initially things looked like they were panning out as grimly anticipated. There was a man, an old man, with a face set into a cartoon grimmace, a caricature of a person (an Elderly, in its natural habitat), walking slowly, solemnly in a square across the bare stage. But then something changed. In a moment of spectacular, staggering beauty he began to skip. His face never moved a muscle and yet everything was different. Now that same grimmace was the knowing disguise of an entirely different person, no longer a hollow vision of An Old Person, but someone.
In a moment of marvellous (and long, long overdue) epiphany I suddenly realised that in 20, 30, 40 years time I will exactly as I do now. I am still, fundamentally, the same anxious, passionate, arrogant person I was 20 years ago, sitting in Class 2 longing for the teacher to ask me a question. I will always be that person. When I am 60 I will want to skip and fall in love too easily and become a rock star and I’ll still think I’m right about everything and I’ll still be hugely daunted by anyone who seems righter than me. One day I’ll wake up and it’ll be my sixtieth birthday and I’ll wonder how the hell I got here. And it’ll be terrifying and wonderful in equal measure.
That’s what this show is full of. People like me. Proud people, fragile people, funny people, sexy people. People full of wit and joy and life, moving across a bare stage, looking us in the eye and being who they are.
Like Jerome Bel, the beauty of it comes from their everydayness. From a simplicity, a transparency, that allows us to gaze out at a group of people not unlike ourselves, doing something we could do, marvelling at the sameness of all of us. At the delicacy and grace and wit that we are all able to conjure.
On the day of the first day of the show we also had a Tea Dance here. A lot of the cast from Und went along. One of the women from the show was asked if she was going to be there and she responded with a look of horror and asked why would she want to come all the way to England to hang out with a bunch of old people. That’ll be me. For better or for worse that’s who I’ll always be.
May 15, 2008
Astronaut (Tim Atack)
This show begins in darkness. A thick velvety darkness, comforting and suffocating in equal measure; its the kind of darkness you can get lost in. That’s what space looks like from the moon. The whiteness of the dusty surface meaning the stars aren’t visible and so everything is enveloped in an unending blanket of utter blackness, punctured only by a tiny blue and white marble hanging in the emptiness like some kind of marvellous, absurd jewel.
This is the landscape of Tim Atack’s fragile, gentle little show. This hinterland of staggeringly beautiful emptiness. A place that’s only ever been occupied by a handful of lonely Americans.
With a precise simplicity Astronaut delicately summons this twilight zone precariously balanced between life and death. Without any sense of bombast or drama (aware that the stories are big enough already) Tim asks one simple question - if you were stranded out there, waiting less than half an hour to die in a place further away than anyone has ever died before, cut off from anybody else, what would you do? What would you sing? It’s a question as simple, beautiful and profound as its telling.
I suppose though, as someone pointed out to me, the one flaw with this show is one I didn’t even really think about at the time. That, as the show itself points out, there were always two men on the moon, and the question of how you would die when someone else was around is a very different one, and perhaps not the one Tim is interested in. And though that incongruity does undermine slightly the transparent simplicity of the set-up, this is nonetheless a completely beguiling little show.
Like Rotozaza’s Etiquette, one of the nicest things you can do with this show is simply watch people participating. Sit in the lobby and you can watch person after person (at regular 5 minute intervals) wheeled back into the lobby, hands tied in front of them, melting in the seat of their wheelchair. They get up woozily, smiling with swooning embarassment; trying to hold on to the memory of what’s just happened, trying not to let it all slip away.
In almost all of them, there’s definitely a reluctance for this show to end. I certainly did’t want to leave its bizarre, beautiful world and the person I went with came out and wanted to go buy a ticket to go straight back in again.
I don’t think this reaction is simply because there is something completely wonderful about being blindfolded and wheeled through a series of tantalisingly intimate, sensous encounters; being thrown against a wall, having your face stroked by a stranger, the smell of cinnamon and the sound of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. All of this is almost relentlessly lovely but I think there’s something darker to it too. At the heart of all this touching and talking and tasting is a heartbreaking sadness that you don’t want to have to confront.
Throughout every delicate embrace and every whispered laugh and every longing gaze, you are aware you are but another anonymous figure in a relentless conveyor belt - something that is made startling apparent in the show’s cinematically majestic final image. We are consumers, desperately longing for an intimacy we can’t have - falling through space, reaching out for a hand to hold as we go. And so despite falling for the voice whispering questions to you as you lie together, legs tangled, on a bed, a niggling thorn somewhere at the back of your head tells you that there is terrible hollow sadness to this encounter.
And yet perhaps in our awareness of this fact something else is created. You know there is a falseness to this intimacy, and they know you know. And so for a few minutes you can escape from everything else and indulge in this wonderful lie. At that point it becomes something other than theatre, something other than therapy, something that’s just gloriously, deliriously other. And maybe that’s a good description of almost all the best theatre.
May 6, 2008
It started like this: the other day London had an election you might have heard about - a big one they say, the biggest yet - and I didn't vote. I read the papers and the blogs, I joined in vigorously with various people venting their incredulity that Johnson (don't mention the B word) might win, I admired the clever advertising on the tube, I grew increasingly, despairingly, hopelessly frustrated by the poisonous partisan bullshit and hyperbole churned out on an industrial scale by the Evening Standard papers and clustered bombed into Greater London... and yet when it came to it I did nothing. I didn't even register - I didn't even look into it to see how hard it would be (the answer I would imagine being 'not very, you lazy little turd').
Now I could try and justify this in a series of ways: I could talk about a feeling of despair, of a sense of futility in the fact that both sides had once essentially chosen to field the only politician they have left with what might have once been considered character, in the shameless hope that some superficial appeal to personality might conceal the negligible differences between them. I could mention my unease at the crass, unthinking response of so many people on the left to even the idea of Boris Johnson becoming Mayor (fuelled by uncontextualised quotes, exaggerated claims of wrongdoing and naked class prejudice); which is not to say that I am by any means his biggest fan (his stance on gay marriage is frankly archaic) but merely that it makes me hugely uncomfortable when people adopt any attitude based almost entirely on wilful ignorance and instinctive dislike of plummy toffs.
I wish also that I could talk about red devils and shallow blue seas. About having nothing but contempt for Cameron's more New Labour than New Labour style with a spot of shameless playing to the old right galleries. About my seething, incredulous anger at the contempt, the shambolic, two-faced, I-did-what-I-thought-was-right arrogance of a New Labour government willing at every stage to directly contradict themselves, to avoid any responsibility for their actions, to cannibalise any last vestiges of respect for their own ideals or the people who elected them in the hope of squeezing a few more votes out of middle England and a few more pounds out of a handful of people who are wealthy beyond any conceivable sense of human decency. I wish I could talk about my frustration that regardless of the depths that they are willing to sink to, the shamefacedness with which they will change their spots in front of our eyes, the number of poorly armoured British soldiers wandering around sandy parts of the world being shot at, they know that a sizeable chunk of the British population will vote for them anyway because they're not the tories - what do you think the tories are? The Nazgul? Margaret Thatcher's cabinet from the 1980s just waiting to unzip their costumes and tear the miners a new arsehole? And how could either situation be worse than the 'labour' government that we have now; a government that takes money from the working single mothers, that conjoins itself like some enfeebled twin to the most right-wing government the US has seen in the last 50 years, that tightens drug laws against legal and medical advice to 'send a message', that forces the serious fraud office to drop investigations because it might upset Saudi Arabia.
I could talk about all this and more but if I'm brutally, crushingly honest this is reasoned despair is much of a muchness. In the end I didn't vote because I was apathetic, self-involved and had seemingly more important things on my mind. Now from all of the above you'd think (hell, I'd think) I'm someone who gives a damn. I can spend 8 weeks completing an almost endless series of funding applications but I can't even rouse myself to type 'voter registration UK' into google when I sit in front of a computer for 10 hours a day.
As I consumed the results flying in all this began to gnaw away at me slightly. What is it that I'm doing exactly? Beyond an almost sociopathic level of personal ambition what is it all for? (earnest questions I know but it's now 2 in the morning and, unlike Bill Hicks, I can't guarantee there will be dick jokes ensuing to break up all the well-meaning introspection. Sorry)
Politics was a subject not discussed in our house. At university I treated anyone who wanted to go into student politics in much the same way you might treat someone if you'd just found out they watched the film Saw II 17 times. I was all for the kind of cynical posturing that comes from almost having understood everyone from Walter Benjamin to Judith Butler but at the end of the day I was all delicate sneer and no trousers. And certainly I know more now. More about a lot of things. I'm sure I can certainly talk a good outrage but always without really doing much about it.
Which is where we've got to with all the opening talk about messages and signposts.
First up I recently went to see Laurie Anderson's Homeland. I was all kinds of things during this show. I was bored. I was tired. I was transfixed. I was impressed. I was heartbroken. It is a show fizzing with so much honesty and life and scale and ambition and wit and power it can barely contain it; it's like an overfilled sack, ideas escaping all the time, leaking out into the crowded rows of the auditorium faster than you can get a hold of them. Yet there was one thing that stuck. That hit me like bowling ball square in my gut. At one point, in a heavily synthesised 'male' voice that shivered frustration and cynicism and hope and despair she said (something along the lines of):
Remember that scene in the old movie, in the saloon. Someone runs in, the doors swinging behind them; everything stop, the barman stops polishing, the poker plays pause mid hand. And he shouts 'There's trouble at the mine!' And everyone leaves. Everyone rushes out to help. Well, there's trouble at the mine! There's trouble at the mine!Now obviously my butchering of her words is doing her no favours (in fact there's probably a crack team of libel lawyers assembling in the driveway as we speak) but there was something in that cry (in its pleading, hopelessly desperation) and the wall of stillness that greeted it that skewered me. It was like watching someone run into a brick wall in the hope that eventually it might fall down. It was every shot we've seen of an Iraqi mother screaming into the face of a soldier who doesn't understand her. It was over a million people marching on London against the war. It was everyone that didn't. It was the six people who continue to sit with Brian Haw in Parliament Square. It was Kitty Genovese. It was every time I've lied to someone who's asked me for change because I don't want to just tell them I don't want to give them anything. It was, in short, an accusation that went through me like a carving knife; I felt filleted.
And then tonight, while I'm still carrying the memory of that around like an open wound, I watched Taking Liberties. Now it's not necessarily a great film. Or even a really good one. But you should all absolutely watch it. As a simple, effective summation of the liberties poached from us over the last 10 years its utterly effective. What's equally effective however are the various figures who litter the film. The young sisters arrested on a disused runway at an airport in the midlands. The women who visit people under house arrest. The jurors from the scandalously false ricin plot trial who still visit and talk with one of those people who's life was ruined by being accused of involvement. The handful of protesters in Brighton picketing a US arms manufacturer every Wednesday. Mark Thomas and his motley crew of solo protesters... it goes on.
These are the people. This is what its going to take to achieve anywhere near what we need to. Not necessarily through their means but through their attitude. Through a courageous, relentless, meaningful sense of agency. Not through writing posts about conceptual protests on one's sparsely read website.
For me, I think the realisation is that its all about joining the dots. It's about channelling everything that I have come to start truly believing in over the last few years into the work that I am creating in some meaningful sense. That doesn't mean creating pieces of verbatim drama or choreographed protests. I still believe absolutely in the forms I want theatre to take. But I think its about finding ways for those forms to convey myself more fully - morally, politically, emotionally. For them to feel like they mean something valuable, that they are doing something valuable. It's about forgoing any sense of work/life balance, because the two should be kind of the same thing.
It also means I'm going to get off my ass and start voting. And start protesting the things I think deserve protesting. And it also means doing some other things, that I shall endeavour to start doing.
In short this is somewhat of a long overdue epiphany, mainly about focus. About what I believe in and what I intend to do about that. All of which was clarified rather neatly (all too neatly really and I'm not at all proud that this has any part to play in anything I'm boldly daring to call an epiphany) by the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the ever-brilliant Bradley Whitford says this:
I just stood in Jack's office and said, "Screw friendship, screw honor, screw patriotism." That's how I talked about myself. And then I added, "We just lost the franchise." That's how I talked about Matt, who would stand in front of a train for any of us, including you while you're screwing Luke. He's been threatened by the Network, compromised by me, brow-beaten by you, heart-broken by Wes, and he's still standing up. Why am I quitting? Cause they're gonna start shooting at him and I'm gonna be standing next to him when they do. You're a talented girl, have a good show this week.And what struck me about this was not Aaron Sorkin's unending ability to be able phone in an empassioned, barnstorming morality speech in his sleep. It was that I'd like to create theatre or at least do something that might put me in a situation where I am given the choice to stand up for something I believe in. That what I do might be meaningful enough (and courageous enough) that I might be given the opportunity to prove honorable. Today I found myself almost threatening to quit over which desk I had in the office and there is absolutely zero honorable about that.
I want to be doing something that I feel really means something. To create work that, like Homeland, genuinely tries to say everything that I think. That isn't just nice or clever or a good idea. Because I don't want theatre to be an occupation; I want my theatre to be a politics, a way of living, a version of myself existing out in the world that deserves standing up for. But more than this, I want to actually live in a way that is a part of the same thing; that is an extension of the morals or the politics that I espouse and the theatre that I make. And as worthy as all that may sound, I really mean it. And hopefully from now on I can begin to do something about it.
Apr 9, 2008
It was on the rolling stones side. It was Dylan's enemy. It was the name of a computer company who's mid 90s television jingle is at present stampeding round my head causing untold damage to better memories.
Time, they say, travels like an arrow - in my case that arrow is definitely fired from a high-powered crossbow held in the delicate hands of an 8 year old South African girl killing her first warthog while her father looks on admiringly. Which is as much as to say that I have been alarmingly busy.
Our show (and the plural in that is now consecrated by a beautifully designed website (not by us I hasten to add)) in Brighton is now but a few weeks away. Everything is looking good - the response to the hours spent trawling from shop to shop asking people if they wanted to be involved were largely life-affirmingly enthusiastic with the one magnificent exception of a huge, leather jacketed guy who owned a punk clothing store who let me natter my nervous introduction before cutting me in two with a resigned sigh and the line 'to be honest mate, I fucking hate the Brighton festival'. Can't say fairer than that. Apparently someone wants to interview us in a bath, which I'm not entirely sure about - festival or no festival that's the kind of try-hard wackiness I'm not sure I can get on board with.
Meanwhile I've been working on a couple of smaller things in London. Monday we did a Scratch of a new idea at BAC that involved the audience writing each other letters. In some ways its an extension of some of the reasoning behind using disposable cameras in the Brighton show - the fascination with finding ways to render the experience of the show lingeringly incomplete. To leave a thin thread of inbetween time trailing off into your real life; a letter from a stranger landing on your door almost after you've forgotten the whole experience. I wrote some text for it so I'll stick that up a bit later.
I'm also heading down to SHUNT Vaults next Wednesday for the Hide+Seek Sandpit. I'm creating a game that came about from the thought of how I could create a show that took advantage of the narrow footbridge linking the South Bank and Embankment and the memory that brought plopping to the surface of visiting the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin at the age of about 15. Despite not have eaten for about a week through a potent combination of staggering cheapness and horror at the youth hostel gunk served up each night (food that rightly deserved the to be described rather terrifyingly as ambiguous), I remember being completely mesmerised by the little private museum - bowled over by the life-affirming, creative brilliance of the ways in which people found of smuggling themselves and others from one side of the divided city to the other. Disguised as car seats, in home-made hand-gliders, in tunnels built over months of relentless work - this all to me feels like a kind of art or theatre more profound and meaningful than most of the stale and self important political theatre I've sat through. So anyway, do come along next Wednesday - it should be fun at the very least, involving various fragments of an installation being dismantled and smuggled across the artfully lit interior of SHUNT to be reassembled elsewhere, avoiding accusing eyes of an army of checkpoint guards out to stop you.
I've also been continuing to work on the Forest Fringe for August (we have a few very exciting companies lined up to do very exciting things now but are always looking for anyone else that has a good idea) and a show for the Carlow Arts Festival in May about a 5000 year old bog man on his birthday. In between that I managed to spend a fascinating day with Chris Goode and various other delightful people exploring ideas of space - at which it occurred to me that one of the strangest things about the internet is the fact that we seem to remain so utterly inept at describing, mangling metaphors in our attempts to stretch them over the top of something too large and indescribable to be contained by them. You know when people will quite contentedly talk about surfing the web (or is it net) that we're still struggling with a language for this thing we call the internet. (Meanwhile the internet (or teh internets) has quietly began creating its own language.)
I've also had the chance to see some (though not enough) theatre as well so, very quickly... Random by Debbie Tucker Green was sadly somewhat of a disappointment after the staggeringly brilliant Generations, it started beautifully - a simply-delivered joyously dissonant assortment of characters all voiced by a single actress - but quickly seemed to slide towards something much more linear and much less interesting as the tragedy of the narrative overwhelmed the excitement of its telling.
On the other hand, Mel Wilson's new show* (her last being another one of my absolute favourite things last year) is in some ways already in its very early stages even more brilliant and exciting than Simple Girl. Like that earlier show, Enter the Dame revels in the discordance between a strange, almost romantic, almost dreamlike (and in this case kind of dystopian) otherness and the delicate, honest and utterly mundane details of our own everyday existence. Like few other people Mel seems aware of what's possible in combining the rich, literary beauty of good writing with a kind of messy, fragmented and authentic liveness; no one can describe squeezing up against a packet of frozen scampi to let someone pass you in the narrow aisle of a supermarket with the rich, alluring beauty that Mel does. But in Enter the Dame she seems to go further (or at least be trying to) than the last show - inviting the audience themselves to exist in this mesmerising liminal space between desperately romatic and the utterly mundane. Set out as an intimate circle of tables and chairs, the lighting turns us into evocative half-lit shadows in a smokey bar; there's also some lovely moments of participation that can undoubtedly be explored more as the show develops. All in all a lovely, lovely piece that I can't wait to see again.
So yes, it's all been a little, well, deliriously busy - but in a good way, and accompanied by a soundtrack of effortlessly brilliant pop from a band called the Wave Pictures who are my new favourite thing. A divinely simple three-piece, they sing songs full of delicate beautiful stories that meander their way under your skin before whiplashing back into a fiercely churning chorus or an magnificently delivered punchline. They're like Sunday afternoon as a thirteen year old in music-form, or the band Hanson after they've been locked in a basement with Morrissey for five years. They are in short utterly wonderful and as they're on tour at the moment I urge you to go find them - or for those in London wait till May when I've persuaded BAC to give them a free gig in the cafe, which I have to say I am looking forward to like little else.
So that's about it for now - more soon though. I promise.
[*probably at this stage I need what I think is this sites very first disclaimer in that Mel's show was a scratch at BAC which, I think most people seem to know, is where I work]
Mar 31, 2008
Just when you thought that your ability to be staggered by the absurdity of humanity had been destroyed by life in London something comes along and...
[ Coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker] said that he and the jury - plus one Diana fan who sat through all the proceedings with the words "Diana" and "Dodi" painted on his face - were the only ones to hear every word of evidence.
Mar 8, 2008
For eleven months of the year Edinburgh is a quiet place to live – for a capital city its almost suspiciously tranquil (as long as you avoid the half a mile of hen nights and gell-haired, liquored up Ben Shermanators that shuffle and stumble along the Cowgate into the Grassmaket, braying loudly and urinating at will, much as their bovine predecessors did before them). Even in the summer I remember only long days spent lying on the meadows and easy strolls along the bracingly beautiful crags, gazing out over a mess of roof tops, the castle floating off in the distance.
Come August however, things change. Quiet student union rooms accustomed only to well-organised fantasy wargaming and the occasional illicit sex act are suddenly bristling with chairs and wires and staff in gaudy matching t-shirts hastily taping everything to the floor. Churches that are almost conspicuously empty for the rest of the year suddenly find themselves plastered with sponsorship signs and MDF black boards. The royal mile wakes up one morning to find a series of grotesque plastic columns have been grafted to its cobbles, already being bandaged with brightly coloured posters by early-bird students filled with hope and a blind belief in the power of traditional advertising. Birds fly south, Scots fly north. The Festival has begun.
Every year the BBC and the national newspapers, in between shots of the same relentlessly irritating gold-covered man holding his bloody stupid bicycle, trip over each to point out the obvious misnomer in the title Edinburgh Fringe Festival – that 61 years and several thousand productions of John Godber’s Bouncers after it first strutted scruffily into the city there is very little that is fringe about this festival. It is, it grandly declares, the Largest Arts Festival in the world.
However, no one as yet however seems to have demonstrated that this is a good thing, and it feels to me at least that every year the emphasis falls more on the ‘festival’ and less on the ‘arts’.
Walking through the streets of the city during August, you can’t help but wonder if Edinburgh (the city, its festival) has lost its soul – or at least has misplaced it and rather rashly replaced it with a giant upside-down purple cow filled with C-list celebrities and gymnastic routines. And its all just so, well, relentless – a miniature Las Vegas, a month long New Year’s Eve party, a panic-eyed, half-exhausted reveller rasping out into the night ‘everybody, EV’RYBODY! Can’t you see how mega this is? CAN’T YOU SEE HOW MUCH FUN WE’RE HAVING!?!1!’
You just want to sit the whole thing down and give it a blanket and a hot drink.
And almost inevitably such an environment only benefits certain kinds of shows. As Chris Goode has remarked – the shows of his that have proved most successful at Edinburgh have been those that offer some form of immediate clossure – or at least who’s challenge to the audience is to some degree finalised by the time they leave the sweaty little room they’ve just been sharing for an hour. Open-ended, inconclusive, awkward, subtle and delicate rarely do well at the festival – they can be difficult to get excited about at the best of times and Edinburgh is all about people getting excited.
In Edinburgh an hour is all you get – once they’ve stepped blinking into the streets of Edinburgh you’ve lost them; emotionally and physically the audience is on to the next thing. It’s the theatre equivalent of speed dating – breathless and thrilling but littered with awkward pauses, faces already forgotten, opportunities missed and conversations left incomplete.
All too frequently wonderful theatre can and does drown in this turbulent sea, while other more superficially interesting shows are carried along on a wave of hyperbole and spat out like Jonah safely at the other end – tours booked, careers made.
And drowning in Edinburgh can be expensive business. Edinburgh is sustained on the backs of broken artists paying extortionate amounts for everything from accommodation, to transport, to food, to having their meagre 30 words printed in the Biblically huge Fringe Programme. Meanwhile their supermarket venues, with all the morals and integrity of PT Barnum, blackmail them for space in their own brochures, screw them for every minute they spend in their poorly equipped studio space, ignore them for a month and then virtually disappear off the face of the planet when it comes to paying up. Virtually no one I know hasn’t at some stage been burnt by the festival, and many have sworn they would never go back.
And yet, and yet…
There is something there. Just in the almost tangible presence of that much hope and excitement and unashamed enthusiasm – it hangs in the air, chokes the city like a sugary, intoxicating fog. Bars spill over with people talking about shows, about theatre, unselfconsciously and drunkenly talking about what they believe in. The place is full of people genuinely open to experimentation – people positively thrilling at the opportunity to try something new, something different. I love the fact that you can’t walk five metres without finding someone who really wants to tell you all about their show – someone who fiercely, wonderfully believes in what they are doing. I love that the entire city feels like some kind of carnivalesque playground – bracing itself gamely (and with just enough of an undercurrent of cynicism) for anything that might come along.
I love what Edinburgh can do for a good idea. I love that Ian Shuttleworth and Lyn Gardner and a raft of over-excited promoters will just up and see something solely on the basis that it sounds quite good, because why the hell not its just 3 minutes away and I’ve got a break now before 4.48 Psychosis and who actually needs dinner anyway? I know how much this has meant for my fledgling career and I'm sure plenty of others. A few years ago Stewart Lee wrote a wonderful little column on a show he’d happened to see by a guy no one had heard of called Will Adamsdale that was only supposed to be on for 10 days and it ended up winning the Perrier. There’s still something to Edinburgh, something worth treasuring, something worth fighting for.
All of which was already swilling around somewhere in my head when a friend of mine, a playwright called Deborah Pearson, asked me to co-programme the Forest Fringe with her. And for the reasons described above I absolutely leapt at the chance.
The Forest Fringe is an offshoot of a place called The Forest Café, a volunteer-run not-for-profit haven near Bristo Square. The Forest is a scribbly, messy, wonderfully original space, filled with bizarre drawings and earnest flyers, always full of people just relaxing and reading a good book; the whole place smells of organic humus and second hand sofas. It is, frankly, lovely.
Alongside a small stage in the café it has a gallery and upstairs a beautiful old church hall, all old wood and optimism. Last year Deborah was asked to programme this upstairs space during the festival; not as part of it, or even as an official venue as they had no theatre licence, but just to provide a place that was, philosophically and theatrically, an alternative to the Underbelly and the rest. Brilliantly she chose not to charge anyone to perform at the venue but just simply asked them to give some time to help staff for other shows. It was undoubtedly a huge success – Lyn Gardner described it as ‘a magnet for young artists wanting to try things out’ – I had the chance to do Exposures there for all of £40 spent on disposable cameras and brown envelopes – it got me two commissions and a lovely write up on the Guardian website. Now we’re back, with a theatre licence this time, new black out curtains, a full head of steam and renewed confidence that we’re not the only ones seeking somewhere with a slightly different mentality.
To me the place is an incredible chance to create a new model for how an Edinburgh venue can function. One that embraces the things I believe are really good about the festival and tries to avoid those elements that make it faintly unbearable.
We’re not going to be part of the official fringe. We’re not going to charge artists anything to perform. All shows are going to be ‘pay what you can’. We’re going to have to a wonderful mix of established fringe veterans and younger artists who’ve never performed at the venue before. No one is going to have more than a couple of performances. Everyone is going to have ample rehearsal time. Everyone is going to be asked to give some of their time back to the place, either by staffing the bar or Front of House or by mentoring a younger artist – just spending a couple of hours watching their show and then talking to them about it.
We want to create a venue that cherishes the idea that you can go up to Edinburgh with barely more than a good idea. A place that doesn’t bleed you dry; that doesn’t demand three weeks of performances on the off chance that the Guardian will like your show. A place that genuinely encourages risk and play and experimentation. A place surrounded by about the most open, excited and enormous prospective audience you’ll ever have, by national critics and venue directors; a place that realises this and says, if you come up with something good they will come – so why the hell not.
We want to foster a different kind of Edinburgh experience, for audience and performers. The best thing about the Forest is that it’s there all year round, staffed by the same people, still smelling of humus and sofa. The place is like a quiet bubble of calm. We want it to become an island, a retreat from the crowds; a place of reflection and community. We want you to go and see a show upstairs and then come and sit in the café and have a bit of a think. We want to see artists sitting down and talking with each other. We want interested people with nowhere else to go to come and hang out for a bit, for faces to become familiar – for an audience to become a community.
We have a church hall, a café, some black-out curtains and a couple of lanterns and we’re going to change the world. And if you’ve actually managed to make it this far through this post and have agreed with more than about 55% then I want you to join us.
At the moment we’re beginning to confirm our line-up and I want to hear from anyone who might be interested – in performing or just in helping out. If you’re already doing a show at another venue and fancy the chance to try something else out. If you have a beautiful little show and absolutely no money. Anything really.
Let me know.
Just leave a comment or drop me an email to andy (dot) t (dot) field (at) gmail (dot) com. And please do spread the word.