Theatre Blogs


(Co-)Writing and Directing Beneath the Albion Sky

Beneath the Albion Sky is the first piece of work that I have ever written (in this case co-written with Corinne) and then directed.

I must admit that there was a bit of fear in directing the show. Not least because I had written some of the words and maybe some of them were really precious to me and I hadn’t realised yet but also because I had lovingly crafted this script with Corinne. Now, Corinne is precious about certain lines and words. In some cases really rather precious. Far more than I am. Whereas I don’t have favourite lines to things I write I know that she does and that she did have special lines in Albion.  I knew that if I (or Andy) screwed up this line up, she would be disappointed. We would be getting one of her ‘It’s fine’ retorts that is so loaded with (potentially imagined by me) bile, hate and contempt that all you would be able to is say how sorry you are a million times over until you feel at least half way close to forgiveness. ‘It’s fine’ she would say… Over and over again.

But that’s enough about the fear of butchering the favourite line of Corinne Furness and my over the top imagination of how she might react. I had another fear in directing this piece in that I had written a bit of it myself. What if I shoehorned my writerly vision in to the piece at the expense of it? What if I couldn’t accept another reading of my words? What if any sort of ability I have to direct simply fades away as soon as we move from a line of Corinne’s to a line of mine? These were just some of the fears.

But it turns out – I was absolutely fine. I’m not being egotistical and saying that the directing is super awesome (you will have to come to The Yard, The Wardrobe or The BikeShed and decide that for yourself) but that I didn’t have a problem with directing something I wrote. I was delighted to find that I could take my writing hat off, put my directing hat on and just approach the play that was in front of me. Before I knew it, I was cutting lines, changing bits and seeing the play a-new. By the end of it all, I honestly couldn’t remember if I had written certain lines or if Corinne had.

I remember, back during my BA, Howard Barker came in to one of our Playwriting sessions. I was very excited (as I think Howard Barker is brilliant) and one of the things he said (amongst others) really stuck with me. He said something along the lines of ‘It is important to direct one’s own work because then you understand it better. You understand how it, and drama, work’. I can’t remember if that is exactly what he said but I remember the sentiment. I also remember the fear. I thought to myself ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I can’t direct’, ‘I’d end up blocking myself’, ‘Don’t try it you silly boy’ etc. Well, I finally had a go (admittedly with a piece I half wrote) and it was really rewarding.

I’m definitely going to try and direct my own work again (some, not all – let’s not be silly) and I would recommend that other people give it a try too.

Just please don’t blame me if, for you, it is the disaster we all fear. But I reckon there is a good chance it won’t be.

Charlie of WBN

 


Trio of firsts for Charlie of WBN

Despite the fact that things in WBN Towers are frightfully busy I have been trying to see as much theatre as possible.

As such, I have been fortunate enough to see three shows recently from three companies that I have always wanted to see and have always respected (until now, from afar). It has been a while since I saw each show but they have stuck with me in different ways.

First up was Unlimited Theatre’s show MONEY the game show (which I saw at the Bush). I have always wanted to see a piece by Unlimited (especially because Corinne is always going on about a show she saw of their’s in Leeds). This one did not disappoint. I think the main thing that has stuck with me is how satisfying it can be to see Money on stage… and on this occasion I actually mean in production values and literally. Firstly, the set made me feel like I genuinely was an audience member of a dodgy game show on Channel 5 (sorry C5). This really added to the fun and games that we as an audience took part in. This made the story (and our implication in the end) all the more satisfying and thought provoking. Money well spent methinks. The thing that trumped the production values however was the ACTUAL MONEY on stage. Ten thousand shiny pound coins, stacked on stage. Thrown around as if they were worthless, almost as if a pound coin only has value because we believe it has…
I do wonder if this will be the last show I ever see where a bouncer is required for insurance reasons as well. Nothing like a heavy in the room to add to the gravitas of the situation. The stats and figures the show gave towards the end might also be one of the most haunting things I have seen in a theatre… that’s numbers for you.

The second show I want to talk about is Fevered SleepsAbove Me The Wide Blue Sky. I recently had the good fortune of doing a workshop with Kaite O’Reilly on Alternative Dramaturgies (she has a splendid blog if you aren’t aware of it) and one of the many things I found interesting from the workshop was how she spoke about work: the rhythm of it, the repetitions, the movement, the sound – far more in terms of qualities of music than maybe I would myself. It was in this mindset that I really engaged with Above Me The Wide Blue Sky. Like how my mind might wander at a concert, my mind wandered during this show. I found myself reflecting on its themes, looking for the repetitions, trying to find patterns and rhythms. My mind would drift and suddenly snap back at an image envoked by the performer that clearly struck something in my brain.
I think when we go to the theatre (especially in the 21st Century with the way TV has wired us up) we have expectations to be engaged, constantly stimulated and that we are going to be ‘active’ throughout a whole show as it take us on a (narrative) journey. It was refreshing to see a show that did not do this, but instead worked in the same way a classical concert might. It allowed the mind to wander – and that was okay, not some fatal flaw in its dramaturgy. The ‘feel’ of this show has stuck with me far more than anything else – a feel of calmness but also loss. A lament for nature. This show has affected me more as if it were a song, which I find myself humming every so often.

The final production I find myself writing about is dreamthinkspeak’s In the Beginning Was The End. I do love a bit of promenade site specific. Wandering around a building and delving underground – in a space I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That was satisfying in its self. But this show really provided some powerful images, and the level of detail achieved for such a big project was really impressive. The main image that stuck with me was all the Customer Service workers shedding their clothes, and looking down from atop a spiral staircase at the audience looking up. This worked on so many levels for me. Firstly, there was the cycle of the workers leaving work, shedding their clothes and always going back – always going back to work. That repetition that necessity wouldn’t let them escape. But then there was the audience reactions themselves and how they fed in to it. After all, was had naked people. In front of us. Thus student girls were laughing and pointing at male bits, student guys were either being blokey or looking embarrassed. And that was just the student crowd. You had every audience reaction you could expect and, whilst the audience were looking up at them, gathered around a spiral staircase, the naked performers are looking down. Aware of this reaction and looking all the more sad for it. And then they go back to work, repeat the same process and wait for the next set of wandering audience to react in the same predictable manner. I watched this happen a couple of times.
I reckon I’m going to struggle to find another image this year quite so powerful and though provoking, without a single word being uttered.

Charlie of WBN


On Why It’s Time To Listen (or a love letter to theatre bloggers) 14

I’m going to write down a date. Friday the 10th of September 2010. One day everyone who has ever written – or read – a theatre blog might want to remember it. The day that the Royal Opera House not so much poked themselves in the eye as repeatedly bludgeoned themselves with a heavy instrument (an instrument which, in the subsequent health and safety report, they spelt incorrectly). The wonderful irony to the whole thing being that whilst the storm was raging the ROH’s Head of Digital Marketing, Rachel Coldicutt, was at The Media Festival Arts talking about the importance of open data. It is indeed all in the timing.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account (or analysis) of the events because you can read them first hand on Intermezzo’s blog, with the legal view here and the marketing view here. I also feel it needs pointing out that there were two distinct issues that got tangled up on Friday, issues which should be separated out:

1. The specific case and what it shows about theatre bloggers, blogging and theatres.
2. The perception of the ROH within the arts community (which is bundled up with the issue of funding and the level of fear that is – justly – prevalent in much of the arts community about what the Autumn funding cuts will look like).
I’ve lots to say on the latter subject but, for today at least, I’m going to stick firmly to the former.

Theatre blogging is a niche pursuit. But then going to sit in a darkened auditorium and watch people speak – or in the case of opera, sing – someone else’s words multiple times a month (or some times a week) is also a niche pursuit. The internet, in all its multifaceted joy, allows a niche to flourish. Like attracts like (or compels like). It not only cements tendencies (that of reading about theatre, of continuing going, of knowing more than you could ever keep in your head), it also allows tendencies to grow. Knowing there is a community of people out there doing the same thing – theatre-going is a tribe as much as anyone else. Of course not all repeat theatre goers blog but, in 2010 with the ease of google, I’d be surprised to find a repeat theatre-goer (who wasn’t directly involved in the industry*) who had never read a theatre blog. These people – the people whose names might otherwise be simply one in a marketing database – should be hugely valued (and respected). And if not now, then when? As we get ready to batten down the hatches and weather the oncoming storm Theatres should be respecting these people more than ever.

Theatre blogging, like all individual blogging, is massively democratic. A “name” will only get you so far. But you can make yourself a name within the community. There are many, many ways to do this – most are a niche within a niche, either because of their predilection to certain types of theatre or because of their locality – but what unites theatre bloggers is their dedication (have you tried going to see multiple shows and then coming home and writing them – without being paid to do so? It’s bloody hard work when, frankly, you’d rather be in bed). Every single one of them, even the most world weary or caustically brilliant (you know who I’m looking at), love of what they write. They want theatres to succeed, they want the next show they see to be the best thing they have ever seen, they want to share their excitement (or, as it may be, disappointment).

Recently the Guardian Theatre Blog made me want to put my fist through my computer. From the moment I saw the title of the article – Five stars in their eyes: can you trust unpaid theatre critics? – I knew it was most likely going to result in my feeling the need to jab a knitting needle in my eye. Theatre bloggers, with their wordpress and blogspot accounts, are unpaid. Some might occasionally get free tickets but by and large they pay for the privilege of sitting in a theatre’s seat (or standing as the case may be) and then come home and write about it for free. I was genuinely pained when I saw that the article had caused Jake Orr, who founded the – excuse me for the expletive – fucking important A Younger Theatre, say that he was “somewhat down heartened and questioning the value of what [he writes]”. No one comes out as a fully formed theatre critic. What you need is dedication, some degree of writing flair, a willingness to see a lot of theatre, the knowledge you can always learn (or re-learn) and a whole bundle of passion. Theatre bloggers in the UK have these characteristics in abundance. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be writing about theatre and people wouldn’t be reading them. For me a critic is only as good as my relationship with them. Through my reading – whether I visit their blog in a vaguely stalker-ish manner on a hourly basis or whether I drop in and out according to interest in what they’re reviewing – I know their biases, I know their specialisms, I know where I stand in relation to them. This is what matters. That they also entertain, inform and (sometimes) provoke me is all part of the package.

What blogs create – something which Twitter’s popularity amongst the art-prone has intensified and broadened** – is a web of community. Forget six degrees of separation, I’d decrease it to one degree for the online arts enthusiasts. What role you play in this community can be as diverse as any real-life community might be (whether you see yourself as the Mayor in waiting, the person drawing graffiti on the bridges or occasional tourist who wants to see the major attractions). Words spread (with some voices, as in any community, being louder). In the offline world I’m often asked about shows people should see and I clocked recently that my default response is to fall back on what the “buzz” is on the theatre blogs. Theatre bloggers are word-of-mouth amongst friends magnified – because anyone who can access the internet can be their “friend”. If you under estimate the scale of this community and its ability to communicate – well, then you end up with the Royal Opera House on Friday.

As Intermezzo says on her latest post on the subject theatre blogging is here to stay. I first blogged about theatre-going in 2001, I first bought a theatre ticket directly because of something I’d read on a blog back in April 2007 (when I didn’t even live in London) because of this. It’s laughable that it’s 2010 and many of our major arts institutions haven’t realised that blogging exists as more than a vague concept (or something that someone in their marketing department does in a half-arsed, vaguely inept manner). The theatre companies who have embraced social media (and embrace means more than just being there with your twitter account RTs of positive comments and Facebook page of official photos) are largely the ones without buildings (there is a notable exception up in Stratford). When you’re filling spaces with hundreds of seats every night it’s easy to forget the individual theatre goer sitting in E23 up in the Amphitheatre. When every person you engage with your work matters – as it does for many small and medium sized companies – you don’t forget the individual. That ticket sale – those future ticket sales – matter. That’s why these companies understand that “social” goes both ways.

Having been a long time blog reader I’m happy to say that theatre blogging in the UK is more exciting than it has ever been. It’s also expanding at a faster rate than I’ve ever seen before. Am I surprised that Friday happened? Absolutely not. Maybe the ROH is lucky that it happened now and not six (or twelve months) later, just as the Tricycle is lucky that this happened in 2008. It’s time, however, not just for (if an organisation is lucky) having one person in a marketing department who knows what a theatre blogger is. All it takes is a clear policy, a lightness of touch, and the humility to remember that these people buy tickets to your shows.

Remember that love I mentioned earlier? That love is for your industry, your venue, your show. Embrace it, don’t stamp all over it in steel-capped boots. Why shouldn’t press photos be available to bloggers as long as they’re properly credited? Given that you have charged them money for your product why shouldn’t bloggers review show whilst they’re in previews? Talk to us. We’re bloggers, we love a conversation. But – and here’s the big lesson – bloggers will not bend to you. Five years ago, maybe, but not now. This community – it’s too big and vocal, for that. You need to adapt and respond to us, not the other way around. Change, innovate, blaze a trail. You might even learn something.

*I’m constantly shocked when people inside the industry can’t name a theatre blogger.

**Not every tweeter blogs but I’d guess 97% of bloggers tweet.


Blog Round Up: 4th September 2009

In another life I, as the half of Blogging By Numbers that wears flowery dresses and cries at rubbish films, write a weekly column for WhatsOnStage which rounds up ‘the best’ of what has been going on in theatrey-bloggery in the previous week. Any such round up (inevitably) can only act as a starting point but it’s something of a representation of what I’ve been reading and enjoying. Plus, I try to step off of the beaten path a bit and I’m rabidly keen to find new UK theatre bloggers (we are, it pains me somewhat, completely outnumbered by our US counterparts when it comes to blogs which are more discursive than review based) – though I would quite probably include Parabasis every week if I could, not least because he has great hair.

You can read my Friday 4th September column here and if you know of any  wonderful theatrey blogs (or indeed write one) that might not be on my radar feel free to let me know.