Monthly Archives: September 2009


A few days ago Mark Shenton blogged about the response of a ‘Creative’ (ouch, yes that term doesn’t roll off of my tongue either) to critics reviewing Previews.  In some ways it is just a tale of bad communication between various departments, as well as that desire I know so well just to keep on tweaking and changing and well, only one more thing, just one more… Which is fairly standard. But it did get me thinking about Previews and the paying public – specifically the paying public who then go home and write a blog which I (and others) may read.

After all – lots of theatre blogger write reviews having seen what is technically a ‘preview’ performance. It’s inevitable – previews are when tickets are at their cheapest so it’s somewhat obvious that people who go to the theatre lots (and are thus the ones who know about the different ticket pricing) will go during previews. And unlike the critic being given the free seat and the paid column and thus an embargo on reviews, they can go home and write their review whenever they like. It’s their perogative and long may it continue.

Maybe some would say – does it matter what bloggers say? Well for some people no, just as much as for some people it doesn’t matter what Michael Billington says, and of course their quotes don’t look quite as good at the front of the theatre (let it be noted – I will whoop with joy the first time I see the West End Whingers quoted). But I – and I am sure many other people like me – get a feel for the shows through these people. If a show was generally being rubbished amongst the plethora of bloggers I read then I, quite probably, would give it a miss (unless it was reaching To Close to the Sun proportions of cult fame and then, hey, I want to know what I’m missing). Equally if a show that hadn’t initially sent me running for the Box Office queue generates some blogger buzz then the chances are I’ll make the effort to see these people. I went to see Attempts on Her Life on the strength of this review. And that production would make my list of ‘Productions which changed the way I see theatre’. In a way that you feel you know a bit about the person when reading good theatre critics in print, it’s the same with the best of the theatre review bloggers. Only they’re more likely to let you know where you should sit or who the cutest member of the cast is. And I like all that. That’s part of  the experience of going to the theatre.

But does it matter that they’re reviewing a preview? In the days when I was a Duty Manager in a producing theatre in the North we had a big preview sign we would stick in front of the doors to the auditorium. It was big and bulky and utterly unmissable. And on the nights it was out I would get asked ‘What does ‘Preview’ mean?’ at least nine or ten times.  I’d come out with the standard – changes are still being made to production etc etc but it remained that the person asking wasn’t aware they were booking for a Preview. So for them this was the production full stop. And why shouldn’t it be? Discounted though they may be preview tickets are not free (or even close to being free) and paying audience means – I want the technical bits to happen on time, I want the actors to know their lines and cues, I want this show, quite simply, to work. Okay, we can say we’ve put signs up about previews, and that it’s in the glossy brochure but it doesn’t really matter. Paying customer here, not test audience. Maybe, if you’re a producing theatre like the one I was in, this might be the first time this audience member has ever been to your theatre. This might be the one chance you get to make an impression on them.

I know time changes shows, things bed down, new ways open up. It was one of my great delights of last year that I saw the RSC’s production of Hamlet on its final Preview, again towards the end of its run in Stratford and then again during its final week in London. I didn’t blog my thoughts on my first viewing – but it would have been safe to say that I agreed with a friend who wrote at the time: “there is nothing to offend (well maybe the cuts), but there isn’t as yet anything which makes you hold your breath”. By the final time I saw the production I still had some reservations but the cast had become such an ensemble, absolutely attuned to their roles that it made me gloriously happy to have seen part of the journey.

One of the lovely (and some times terrible) things about the time I spent ushering was seeing a production develop and change and grow. During that time I did see shows change during previews but I never saw a bad production transform into a great one (or indeed even turn into a solid one). Of course some things get slicker and tighter but really it’s the performances within productions and the audiences who watch them which change over time. And what is a show if not everything which it is in its final performance? So, ideally we’d send the critics in then (the RSC almost achieved this this week) – but what use would that be for anything bar the scrapbooks belonging to actors and directors? Plus who can legislate for those odd evenings where everything just comes together; the evenings that pull me back to theatre  just in the slight hope I may have one again. And – yes, another and – a good production is a good production is a good production. Even during a midweek matinee.

So Press Night, really, is just an arbitary date in as much as performances are never quite the same and, at least for those involved I would suspect, rarely – if ever – the finished product.

Blog Round Up: 22nd September

Lots of link love today:

Over on Troubled Diva there’s a write-up on spending an hour on the plinth. Though I found myself dancing in my living room there was something really a little special watching the live stream and seeing the comments on twitter feeling as it did that I too (though I do not know Mike) was part of the event. I have, however, been singing ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ for the best part of the last week.

Lily Allen started a blog opposing illegal file sharing and, though I’m not entirely confident about it, it might actually open up some sort of debate about the whole issue.

And I shared my obsession with the Royal Opera House‘s Twitter Opera with the readers of Whatsonstage before theatre bloggers got all serious on me.

Performer as Performance

Back at the start of September, Corinne and I found ourselves in Shunt Vaults as the über blogger part of Write By Numbers has already attested to. We specifically went to see a piece by some friends of ours (by the company Made in China) and it was exhilarating and relieving that their piece was by far the best thing we saw in the Vaults (exhilarating, because it is always pleasing to see friends doing so well, and relieving, as you don’t have the conundrum of ‘to lie or not to lie’ if they are not doing so well).

What really got me thinking about this piece however, are the demands and lengths the incredible performer went to achieve her performance: Cycling non stop on an exercise for 25 minutes whilst delivering a monologue. And every few minutes giving bursts of acceleration as the performer peddles as fast as they can.  And in said bursts they complete tasks. And not simple things like, not dying of cardiac arrest, but tasks like applying make-up. Changing clothes. Necking a WHOLE bottle of champagne (I’m being serious). Eating a whole packet of chocolate digestives (if shoving them into your mouth all at once can be considered eating). All of which was done whilst riding an exercise bike extremely fast (I felt the need to reiterate that point). In the lulls of speed the performer had to concentrate on the small matter of delivering their monologue.

Suffice to say, all of the above was highly impressive. So much so that I can honestly say the virtuosity, the sheer ability, the commitment – however you wish to quantify – of the performer is what made this performance for me. The content was funny, well written and meaningful but it was the lengths the performer went to that made the performance. In fact, as my title suggests, the performer WAS the performance. Why is it that seeing someone push themselves to what we perceive as their physical and mental limits so enrapturing? Is it that we are really fascinated in seeing people: Struggle? Sweat? Suffer? Fail?

When I have my writer head on, stretching the boundaries and pushing the envelope of what performers can do doesn’t often occur in my thinking. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever considered writing a stage direction that reads something like: and the actor does double back flips around the stage for forty minutes (which isn’t to say that this was the case with this piece, as it was clearly devised etc, but just except my hyperbole for the time being). Such practice may not have necessarily occurred in the writer segment of my brain before, but it most certainly will do now. At least as an option.


Write By Numbers

Reasons For Listing: Your List 1

As with many ideas in the last year I was on a train somewhere in London when I dreamt up Reasons For Listing. It certainly didn’t come out fully formed – Charlie would give it the working title which has firmly stuck a week or so later – and I wasn’t sure exactly how all the pieces slotted together. But I knew then I wanted to write about an adult with Autism (and not the Savant-style Autism that apears in many fictional portrayals) and I wanted the piece to be in some way interactive. That the experience of Autism should be a catalyst for an interactive piece seemed oddly right in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate but which instinctively felt right.

The plot fell together quickly and I soon began to get a feel for who Joseph, Reasons For Listing‘s protagonist, was (and indeed is for, really, we are still getting to know each other). My starting point – intensely personal and spotted with the kind of fears that if I thought about them too hard would prevent me from sleeping – was there but no loner visible.  Reasons For Listing is about a young man who has Asperger’s Syndrome but it’s also about growing up, striking out on your own and puzzling out the world around you. Which, at some point, every one of us has to do (for some it is, quite simply, a bit later or a bit harder than for others).

It’s a cliche to say that a picture paints a thousand words. I’m a playwright so I wouldn’t dismiss words so easily. But what might a photograph express? If we were to choose them what might it say about us? Living alone for the first time Joseph begins to create a photographic list of everything which makes him happy. And those pictures told a story too; there’s something about the photos that I realised he would choose that elevated him from casual labels. Because we’re all a lot more complex than a throw-away sentence describing some aspect of who we are.

As it stands I have a draft of Reasons For Listing which is labelled 0.75. In the next few weeks it’s going into the hands of both Charlie and a willing actor and it will undoubtedly see itself anew again at that point. But before we get there there’s the vital part of Reasons For Listing that requires your contribution:

If you were to take a photograph of something which makes you happy what would it be?

The idea is that Joseph’s story will never quite be the same in any two performances, changed as it is by the photos that people submit. For there is Joseph’s list of things that make him happy and then there are the lists those who he comes into contact with (or, equally pertinently, who come into contact with him). And that includes you.

We’ve written up all the details here and the only limit to what can be submitted it your imagination. Equally, if you want to submit more than one photograph please feel free.

So, what makes you happy?

Happy Birthday

This is undoubtedly unfashionably early but tomorrow is the half of Write By Numbers who cries whilst watching Arsenal’s birthday. Charlie very rarely knows exactly how old he is, though he is always quick to point out that whatever his actual age he is still young enough to claim a Young Person’s Railcard. Ouch.

Even given this it would be remiss of me not to wish him Happy Birthday. Given that the London Post Office has swallowed his birthday present (give me back my flippin’ post!) I would say I’d buy him a beer tomorrow night – but he still owes me a muffin so that might have to wait…

Lattitude and Flippin' Pint Glasses

[With thanks to @cat_elliott for the photo of Charlie and I at Latitude 2009. Most importantly this is quite possibly the only photograph in existence of me holding a pint glass].

The Road Map

There was a moment, just a moment, yesterday when Charlie and I looked at each other with something approaching terror after four hours of a planning meeting. For that meeting has (albeit with some room for manoeuvre/ collapse/ either one of us getting distracted by pretty sparkly things) set the aims of Write By Numbers for the next 12 to 18 months. There’s a lot in there that’s fantastically exciting. And there’s also a lot that means (as we knew when we started upon this adventure) that leisure time is going to be at a premium in the Whitworth/ Furness households.

All of which meant that I had to have another coffee and Charlie had to curl up into the foetal position for a brief moment or two. Then we recovered our sanity (almost) and went on our ways (in my case to fly across South London in rush hour to rescue my locked-out flatmate; it’s a glamorous life).

Whatever the next year brings (for this blog is to be the story of our company as much as it is about our ideas, and our rants and our quite puzzling obsessions) I’m booking a day in this time next year to see you all in a bar somewhere and raise my glass to crazy, fantastic, scary, liberating schemes.

And maybe, just maybe, making some art along the way…