Grasping the Nettle…

IMAG0561As part of the New Year energy flurry, partly hastened by the sound of ‘time’s winged chariot’, I have resolved to be more pro-active! This is not a ‘New Year resolution’ – I’ve given up making those: no, this is much more about a commitment to myself to take more risks.

Sadly, it took the death of a close friend and collaborator late last year to focus my energy. Joss Bennathan – with whom I had worked as Associate Director as part of Present Moment Theatre’s commitment to taking classic plays (Shakespeare, Marlowe & the like) and making them accessible to contemporary audiences, was a huge presence.

Many people who worked with him felt it!

I learnt a lot working with Joss: he gave me many opportunities &, in his way, has left me with a challenge! Part of this will be to complete a project which he began: “Shakespeare & Beyond” – to introduce rehearsal room techniques to English teachers, and empower them to use them in their own work, in the classroom, with young people.

This is an extension of Present Moment Theatre Lab, which ran in 2013 & 2014. We took young people from outer East London boroughs and rehearsed professionally supported Shakespeare plays during their summer holiday, which then toured to their secondary schools at the beginning of the new academic year. It raised their aspirations, and achievements, and gave over 2000 young people an opportunity to see Shakespeare performed in their own school, by their peers, who were able to breathe life into the characters because they understood what they were saying, and could communicate with an audience!

Participating teachers from both years of the project will come together to share new schemes of work, based on the rehearsal room process: using many of the skills our young actors in training learn when working on classic texts. Hopefully this will encourage them to approach Shakespeare, & his contemporaries, as “plays” – stories to be told, theatre to be made – rather than as dry words from a literary canon.

So, that’s part of the challenge! The next one is to make more of my own work – collaboratively: with writers, with actors, musicians, sound artists…..and others.

To stop talking & thinking about ‘grasping the nettle’ – & DO it!

Watch this space….the journey starts here….

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Chaste – Made in Cheapside

It seems that history does indeed repeat itself!

Latest project is journeying through the City of London in 1613, in the company of East 15’s Cert. H.E students, well, 13 of them anyway. We’re exploring Thomas Middleton’s city comedy “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside” – comic, innuendo-filled, and fast-paced. Certainly a challenge trying to work out some of the obtuse references, but we’ve been delving into the society of the time and what made the area, and its inhabitants, tick.

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The map shows the area of Cheapside from about 1560. It was, as it still is, a highly commercial area. A thriving market place, full of sexual intrigue and double dealing. The haunt of knights, gentlemen, and scholars where gold, and maids, were bought and sold!

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This is an image of the ‘Cheapside Hoard’: a collection of jewellery and precious metals and stones discovered in the cellar of a building being demolished c.1912. It is thought to have been the contents of a Jacobean goldsmith’s shop, possibly hidden during the Great Fire. It is currently being prepared for an exhibition at the Museum of London in October 2013.

As we’ve been working on the world of the play, it seems increasingly reminiscent of a slice of life from the period. During this time, theatre & theatre makers were moving away from plays about history, kings and princes, tempests and twins, and towards plays which reflected the life of the ‘citizens’ and changing society: a kind of “reality theatre” perhaps.

To try to make this world more accessible to a 21st century audience we’ve reflected this in the contemporary setting. Hence “Made in Cheapside”! It seems fitting that the young actors, exploring the use of heightened language and creating characters, have a clear frame of reference within the growing legion of reality TV programmes – with real people in situations which have been created for our “entertainment”.

Citizens of Chelsea & Essex be warned – the Yellowhammers and Touchwood Brothers will give you a run for your money!

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Who knows where the time goes…?

Well, considering I was going to keep a log of the process and progress of the East 15 World Performance students Applied & Political Theatre devised piece, I failed dismally – only in the keeping a log & updating on here, I hasten to add.

The project created a tight, slick piece of political theatre: THE LAST RESORT. It explored tourism – quite fitting since the course is based in Southend-on-Sea – but went beneath the surface. Ultimately the piece used untold stories of people caught up in other aspects of the world of commercial hospitality: migrant workers in hotels, smaller family businesses caught in the stranglehold of organised crime & global hotel chains, and sexual slavery.

Based on careful research into people’s stories, both at home & abroad, with the stylised theatricality of Brecht, using techniques explored or pioneered by Brecht, Boal, & Joan Littlewood, drawing from Indian & Balinese dance, Noh theatre, shadow puppetry and world musical influences, the students created a piece that was accessible, thought provoking, and entertaining. 

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Sometimes the irony of rehearsing such a provocative piece in the function room of Southend’s Conservative Club became all too apparent!

Plaudits were received from the audience members – which included staff, current & past students at East 15, cast family members, other members of the creative industries and local residents. I am very proud of the results, and the work they enabled me to do with the creative energies of designer, Laura Trevail, who never failed to challenge me as to my reasons for making certain choices, and telling me it was fine not to know the answers to her questions!

The lighting plot, & the technical rehearsal, were the smoothest & calmest I have known – I used what I started to learn years ago, sat beside Susie McKenna (Associate Director of Hackney Empire, & writer/director of their amazing contemporary pantos which maintain a real sense of the tradition), and witnessed her deft metaphorical handling of scrollers, gobos & parcans. I never forget how much we learn by watching others do their work so expertly.

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The empty space of East 15’s Clifftown Theatre was transformed into a bustling hotel, complete with a Concierge who controlled the action within this world using his reception bell, or becoming the puppet master manipulating workers and manager alike.

 So now the journey is over – it wasn’t without its challenges, but as I’ve said to many, I was lucky – for most of the time it didn’t feel like work. The cast became a supportive ensemble, devising scenes & creating the central pieces which contributed to the comic, satirical moments, those which symbolised ritual & initiation, and those which elicited an emotional response & realisation within those who witnessed it. It was my job to support, shape & hone their creativity – but hey, isn’t that what a director is meant to do?

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Thanks, Rough Riders – may your journey onwards contain more special moments…

As for me – I’m now back working in a primary school 2 days a week until Christmas! I’m working with 5-8 year olds, using drama skills to build their confidence, improve teamwork & behaviour. Ironically, it’s in a school I did a workshop in years ago when working for Haringey Shed but Mr. Gove has now designated it as an “ACADEMY”, so it’s had a lick of paint!

Now, Mr. Gove – would that be the same bloke who is trying to tell us that creativity has no place in the classroom, and has effectively tried to iron out drama from the ‘improved’ National Primary Curriculum, and has taken creative subjects out of the EBAC……???

Perhaps, ultimately, everything does come back to politics…..

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Latest project…

East 15 Acting School, BA World Performance – 3rd year Applied & Political Theatre module

Visiting director

Supporting & directing final year students in their devised project with a global political theme, exploring performance styles developed by Brecht & Boal, but with more than a passing nod to satire’s roots in Greek Theatre, and the communal theatre experience of the Passion play.

The students have been split into 2 groups of 16 – my company have been dubbed “Rough Riders”! I hope the journey won’t be too arduous!

They have already approached the work with maturity and enthusiasm. They express differing views, but celebrate that difference – it all links to the diverse performance styles they will apply to this piece of theatre. They will draw on traditions of mask and dance from Bali, and music & percussion from Indonesia, Africa and South America. Together they will be engaged in creating a strong thought-provoking narrative which will encourage the audience’s active involvement. The aim is to raise awareness and give voice to groups who may be disenfranchised or silenced.

It seems like everything has come full circle – in 2006/7 I began my own journey, following the M.A Theatre Director’s programme which now runs as part of East 15 Acting School’s postgraduate programme.

Wish us luck – I’ll keep you posted….

 

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