Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Worst Mistake



The worst mistake is to play the character….

That’s what Philippe Gaulier said when I asked him about the different ways that performers block themselves from clowning. Well, what he actually said was “the best”, but we all think he meant “the worst.” The stuff of performance is very hard to transmit in words anyway, let alone when the speaker and hearer don’t share a native language. When I write about what I think he said, there’s a lot of guesswork.

Not all actors can be clowns, I guess he said. Some are happy to play a ridiculous character, but they can’t bear to be ridiculous. To clown you have to find a part of yourself underneath the social persona- or maybe the conscious mind- that other people find funny. You have to enjoy having this hidden part of your self laughed at. Then you can build on it, refine it, magnify it. But you can’t fake it; the worst mistake is to play the character.

I saw people do what he told them, in the little, excruciating and valuable time we each had alone under his forensic gaze and everyone’s judgment, and snap into focus on the stage. I did it myself. Goaded to anger and told to be angry, I let loose a stream of Greek invective. He had others speak in their native language too-is an older physical identity tied to native language? I knew I was funny then, when everybody laughed as I cursed Gaulier and them with real anger. “You are not boring,” he said “but this charming character you play is very boring. Anger is good for your clown.” But you can’t spend all your time on stage in a towering rage, right? Wrath is so monolithic, so ponderous, and clowns are anything but ponderous; they’re all about the pleasure of the game. How can you use anger to find the game?

We devised a show when I was an undergraduate in which I played an almost-suave and vaguely sinister androgynous comp√®re in a bowler hat. Whenever the hat fell off or was removed, I’d fly into a rage or howl in despair. It worked, it was funny. It worked in another way too. It gave me something to do with all the anger I’d accumulated over a then six-year relationship with an angry, controlling man. When that relationship ended, and I started studying clown, I was determined not to go there. Anger was too easy to get a laugh out of; too uncomfortable psychologically after so many years of being defined by it, one way or another.

And I tried, I really tried, to find something else, in workshop after workshop. But I learned something watching others, and it must be true of me, too. The red nose is a magnifying glass; it can only show what’s there. Censoring anger, all I found I could show was sadness, and shame. Clowns are shameless, of course. They live too much in the present for regrets, and the closest they get to acknowledging error is a rueful sort of “better luck next time” attitude to their mistakes. And despite the ‘crying clown’ clich√©, they’re never mournful. A clown can howl with a toddler’s unrestrained sobs, but is easily distracted from them and never, ever goes around feeling sorry for herself. In workshop after workshop, I failed to get a laugh.

Group games and pair-work on complicity aside, clown exercises are just various ways of framing the injunction: Get out there and be funny for us-and don’t pretend. Many clown teachers use unkindness as a technique. I know there’s a whole philosophy about it, but I haven’t read up on it, I can only tell you my experience. In that experience, that cruelty mostly consists of telling you you’re not funny, brutally and often. The teacher’s words are only an expression of the audience’s restless silence, a magnifying glass, just like the nose. Brutal words were not new to me, I endured them, braced myself to endure them in every exercise, and with every exercise, I got less funny. There’s nothing funny about stoically enduring abuse. Maybe what that means is that my stoicism, and other attempts to be anything but angry is “ playing the character”. It’s not funny because it’s not the truth; the truth is I’m angry.

All of the people who teach clowning in this way tell you that it’s a technique, that they don’t enjoy being cruel to students. Many of these teachers will also tell you that the cruelest of all is Philippe Gaulier. I don’t buy it. Philippe is relentless in his critique, inspiring the audience to join him in extreme condemnations of your failure to be funny. He clearly enjoys the game of being extravagantly unkind, enjoys getting to kick all the sacred cows of social convention too, but I don’t think he was enjoying our suffering. I’ve met at least one clown teacher who clearly did.

There’s something childlike about a clown’s ignorant and unselfconscious enthusiasm for everything. That’s where I’m trying to get; to the joy of the game. I don’t know how I can get there through anger. I can’t pretend to be angry, that’s playing the character again, a boring angry character instead of my boring charming one. But how can you wear your real anger as a pair of clown shoes, how do you teach it new tricks? I don’t get it intellectually, and I don’t get it in my actor’s body. It just doesn’t make sense; but it seems there’s no denying it:

I am ridiculous when I am angry.

* * *

I’ve been very angry about a lot of things in the last few years. I’ve felt angry as a woman, as a citizen, as a human being, as a participant in online discussions, as an actor. Studying theatre at university, in my thirties, I became enraged by the assumption that only deliberate formal experimentation was artistically valid. A lot of people who work in or teach experimental theatre seem to look down on plays and acting, treating both narrative and pretense with contempt. I’m told this works both ways (both forms of prejudice are silly) but as someone who tried to learn to be an actor through courses beguiled by different modes of performance, it’s my own experience that makes me angry. I love narrative, I love pretending (and watching others pretend) and I got very short schrift for saying so. I find this infuriating both aesthetically and personally. Most of the time, I manage to keep a lid on that fury.

Recently, I was invited to be part of a discussion group about theatre convened by someone I have great respect for, full of people I like and admire, people I am humbled to be counted among. I was never asked to hang out with the cool kids when I was a teenager, but if I had been, I think it would have felt a little like this.

This week, in one of my first posts to that group, I unloaded all my suppressed fury on one member, whose only crime had been to dislike some texts I was working with and tell me so. You know how when some people post online they attach all the bitterness they’ve ever had around the subject, and lob it at anyone who disagrees with them? My ex did something similar in his frequent abusive episodes, he bundled up years of anger generated elsewhere, and threw it at me. Well, that’s what I did in this discussion group. It wasn’t as bad as what the ex used to do, or as the kind of stuff you get when you admit to being a feminist online, but it was in the same territory. I got invited to the cool kids' clubhouse, where I got drunk, punched one of them, and threw up on the floor. So much for keeping a lid on it.

I’m writing this to apologize, but also to understand. I can’t pretend to not be angry. When I do, when I play that character, what Gaulier called my “charming character” I am boring, it seems. I try to keep a lid on it, then it explodes like a faulty pressure cooker, making a mess and hurting people. How do you take all that steam and turn it into an engine instead, to take you and others to different places? How do you turn your anger into clown shoes and take it for a walk?

I don’t know, but after a week’s worth of Gaulier’s clown workshops I know there's only one place I can start:

I am ridiculous when I am angry.




Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Finishing The Seam

Image by beanphoto

Working on Lancaster Theatre Uncut has been an absolute joy, even as we lurched from one crisis to another. We didn’t have much with which to make it happen. Besides the play texts, all we had was ourselves, what little time and other resources we could steal from our lives, whatever space we could borrow. Maybe that’s the essence, what theatre’s always made of; people, space, time. In our case the last two were in very short supply, but people made up the difference. So very many people stepped in to make Saturday’s event. From Hannah Price and her team down in London, the writers who donated their work, the people here in Lancaster who gave their time, their effort, their skills. For each person listed in our programme as part of the production, there were anywhere from two to a dozen of their friends and family members without whom the event would have been lesser, or not have happened at all. And that’s without going into the thanks page.

Time was what we had the least of. We held auditions a month ago, with extracts from the seven plays then available. In any ordinary rehearsal process of course, a month is plenty of time. Only we weren’t rehearsing every day. We were lucky to spend two hours together a week on any given play. Of course people put in time on their own, got others to stand in for rehearsals, and by considerable effort, it held together. Still, there were losses. The worst was that our schedule didn’t allow us to incorporate the eighth play, David Greig’s Fragile, into our event. This is a pity for all sorts of reasons. One of our first and most crucial recruits to the cause, Daragh Carville, was eager to direct it, sight unseen. I’ve understood from various reviews, and from Kieran Hurley, who performed it in Glasgow, that it’s not only excellent, but occupies a formal territory I’m personally fascinated by. But we were short of time and short of actors. We couldn’t do it, that was clear. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it and find out what we’ve missed.

It’s been a case of mucking in all along, never more so than on the Saturday itself. We had access to the Storey’s auditorium from 1 PM. The plan had been to quickly tech through the transitions between plays and the few light and sound cues, then go for a full dress rehearsal. This plan didn’t survive contact with reality. It was 1:20 before we were all assembled, un-stacking the modular stage, setting it up at one end of the auditorium, and unfolding the chairs. We were blessed that Emma Geraghty, a Lancaster University undergraduate who was already acting in two of the plays turned out to know her way around a lighting desk. Even with LitFest director Andy Darby, and Emma, and fellow undergraduate actor Leo, and Adrian, partner to one of our directors, all helping out with tech; even with all the rest of us doing what we could, it was after 2 by the time we were ready to start. There was no way to cram in a tech and a dress, we’d be lucky to finish a full tech run in time. I don’t know what we would have done without all the other directors and some of the actors thinking of all the things I’d forgotten to think about. I don’t know what we’d have done without Angela, smoothing the way and doing everything else. As it was, we finished teching just 40 minutes before we opened the house doors.

Some of the plays had had less than 5 hours rehearsal with a full cast. The reasons varied: Housekeeping, Lucy Kirkwood’s absurdist 3-hander had lost its protagonist. Twice. The final replacement had taken on the part only a week before, and we’d been so certain that he couldn’t learn the lines in time that we’d put it in the programme. He proved us wrong. That whole company, the least theatrically experienced of all of us, did director Tim Austin and the rest of us proud. Everybody did. I’m going to write the kind of thing here that gets theatre people mocked for being “luvvies”. I don’t care. Love was what these shows were made of, that and a shoestring. Knowing you can rely on people, to do what’s needed and more…well, it inspires love. But if trust was a product of our working together, it was also a requirement. After all the desperate scrambling for performers and recruiting of amateurs, we had to can someone in the last week. It was so late in the process that she’s in our publicity photo. Crazy as it sounds, it was an entirely pragmatic decision; better no-one at all than someone you can’t rely on. Come to think of it, the fact that she managed to show up to the photo shoot but failed to attend rehearsals speaks for itself. Director Keely Hawkins came up with an ingenious solution involving stylization and a pair of dictaphones, and in the end we had a better show for it.

I’m not in a position to give you a review, I’m much too close. I can tell you that it went remarkably well, with none of the disasters I was dreading, and that the audience was enthusiastic. I can tell you that it worked, as a production and as a call for political action. The audience was palpably fired up. Back in February, we were all pretty clear about why were doing this; why we were protesting, and why in the form of theatre. By Saturday night, it had all become about the how. We had our hands so full with the how of putting these plays together that we almost forgot what they were, and why we were doing it. To put it another way, making Lancaster Theatre Uncut inspired so much love that we misplaced the anger which sparked it. And then the house lights dimmed, and we started. When we spoke to audience, in the plays themselves and afterwards, in the bar, we remembered, because they reminded us.

Adam Gregory, who was in that audience, wrote that it was “like a rallying call for a minor revolution” and of course he’s right, that was the whole point. But there’s something else in his post that will stay with me from that night. I looked out into the house, and saw strangers and nodding acquaintances, teachers and parents from my son’s school, shopkeepers, neighbours, friends, people I knew from work- some of these categories are overlapping. I felt, for the first time since I moved from the large, hot, dry and bustling southern European city in which I was born to this small, damp, quiet town in the north of England, that I was at home. As much as our anger, it was our love we were asserting, our sense of this place and the people we share it with. Against the fraud of the Big Mac Society we set the reality of this small community and many others like it. Theirs is made of greed and lies, ours of love and people; that’s why we’re going to win.

This piece was commissioned by exeunt magazine

Monday, 14 March 2011

The continuing adventures of Lancaster Theatre Uncut


This time last week, everything seemed to be coming together for the Lancaster group of Theatre Uncut volunteers. We had a great venue in a central location, a good friend and ally in LitFest, a network of supporters lending us everything from clown costumes to hospital beds and volunteering to ferry bits of set for us, usher on the night of the 19th, help publicize the event. We’d acquired an excellent and cheaply printable poster from The Secret Surface just for the asking, and Angela was back from a family wedding and able to apply her considerable administrative skills to my slapdash if energetic attempts to manage the event. We’d lost three directors and two actors to paying work and the demands of postgraduate study, but we’d managed to replace them by asking almost everyone we knew and howling our (make that my) despair on social networks.

One actor we found by such a convoluted, 21st century set of connections that I can’t resist telling you about it. My friend Emma is the bar manager at Manchester’s greenroom. She saw my facebook post announcing that we needed a young man to play Bill in Lucy Kirkwood’s Housekeeping. Because, of course, it had to be one of the parts in the Theatre Uncut plays whose age and sex were specified that we suddenly had to recast. Within 20 minutes, Emma had given me an email address. If you know greenroom, you know that most of the people whose work can be seen there describe themselves as performers or theatremakers, not actors, so even this first step in the sequence was reasonably unlikely. I wrote to the guy, who replied that he’d love to do it, but he was broke and living in Manchester. He couldn’t afford the train fare, and knowing the purpose and circumstances of the show, didn’t want to ask us for expenses. Quite right, too, we couldn’t have paid them. He suggested, though, that we contact his agent, who by chance is based in Lancaster, for an alternative. It felt very strange writing to an agent to offer his clients unpaid work, but to my surprise, that too, worked out, and a couple of days later I finished making arrangements to have the venue especially opened for a Housekeeping rehearsal on Sunday afternoon, and went to read my son a bedtime story. I returned from my nightly exercise in vocal characterization and 1-on-1 performance to an email from Tim, who’s directing Housekeeping. Our newly recast Bill had found a paying gig for that weekend and left us.

I’d already done despair earlier in the week, so I went for swivel-eyed optimism instead. That, and accosting friends and badgering them to play the part. Tim and I decided that it no longer mattered that whoever played Bill be as young as the script required, or as male. Anyone who could read the lines and speak them audibly would be welcome, and I was on the verge of breaking out the spirit gum and the false mustaches and playing him myself, when Anthony turned up. A cartoonist and illustrator by trade, he’s acted in shorts for the DIY film-makers group in town, which is how we heard about him. Cunningly, I offered him the part without mentioning that it was the lead, and he accepted. The email I received on sending him the script began “Yikes!”, but to his great credit, he’s made no attempt to back out. He’s also never acted on stage before, nor had to learn anything like this many lines, so though Sunday’s rehearsal went very well, we think it’s likely he’ll go on if not quite script in hand, then with one easily available.

Some of the other plays have had their ups and downs, though none have been quite so close to being cancelled. I’ve not had much to do with Things That Make No Sense, but I gather it’s been going smoothly ever since we had to replace the director and one of the cast. I sat in on one rehearsal for A Bigger Banner, and especially enjoyed watching director Jayne Davis come up with low-tech staging solutions for the time-travel effect that its central device. I’d only come by to bring them a dress from 1950, borrowed from the Vintage Shop, and ended up staying for two hours to enjoy the fun. The dress was a perfect fit, and matched the gloves Jayne had brought, and Keely loves it and looks so good in it that’s she’s buying it after the show, for the princely sum of 8 pounds.

I’ve had more to do with Whiff Whaff. The director, playwright Daragh Carville, has never directed before, and asked me to sit in on rehearsals, I think because he felt he needed help. He doesn’t, but I haven’t told him so because I’m enjoying observing the process too much. The play is satirical, and the characters could easily be played for cheap laughs, but he’s bringing out the subtleties in the text, turning them before my eyes from monsters into people whose monstrous opinions, fiercely as they are held, have cost them dear. Myself, I’m directing all the monologues. Open Heart Surgery is a spare, affecting parable. Nickie , who’s performing it, is a physics student with a lot more political conviction than acting experience, but she has the good sense not to overplay it and a beautifully expressive face; it should cut straight home. I’m also directing HI VIS, easily my favourite of the texts. Back in the distant reaches of February, when I first started trying to get people involved in this, I received an email from actor Christine Mackie, saying she’d like to join us. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but that email nixed anyone else’s chance of getting cast in HI VIS. I’d seen her in Sabbat, here at The Duke’s Theatre, and I knew she’d do it justice, and more. It’s a wonderful text, rich, complex, and heartbreaking; working on it with Chris is sheer delight. As for the Anders Lustgarten piece, which I’m performing, it’s a barnstorming rabble-rouser of a polemic, not a character monologue. There’s a glorious, compelling rhythm to delivering it, a heady pleasure, and as I walk around town, I have to stop myself addressing it at passers-by. It flows well and is easy to learn, so I’m only a little worried that, thanks to my hectic schedule, I’m still six paragraphs short of knowing the whole thing.

So all’s well with Lancaster Theatre Uncut again. Except for the inquiry we received on Friday from the police, asking what sort of protest this was exactly, and how many people we were expecting to attend. The director of LitFest and I think it’s a misunderstanding, and he was ringing them today to explain that it’s a performance, not a protest, and that a risk assessment’s been carried out. It’s the end of the working day, and he hasn’t called to say we’ve been shut down, so that’s probably okay too.

This piece was commissioned by exeunt magazine

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Making it happen: Lancaster Theatre Uncut




When I heard that seven new plays had been written in protest against cuts to the public services, to be performed at Southwark Playhouse, I thought it was a wonderful idea. Then I learned that the plays were also donated by their writers for performance on the 19th March all around the UK; it became obvious that we should do them here, in Lancaster. There are a surprising number of theatre folk here, students from both our universities included, so it wasn’t implausible that we’d be able to cast 7 plays. More to the point, it’s already obvious that Lancaster, like many places in the North, is going to suffer a lot from the cuts. There’s anger here, and anxiety, surely someone would want to channel that into a theatrical protest.

Someone other than me, obviously, though maybe there might be a part in one of the plays suitable for a foreign woman, and of course I’d help in any other way I could. I don’t vote in national elections, what right do I have to start something like this? Besides, I’ve never been especially organized, I don’t have a producer’s tact or persistence. Someone should do it, though; that’s what I kept saying, and people kept agreeing. Before I knew it, I had called auditions.

The youth theatre where I work let us use their space for auditions without charge. A playwright friend emailed all the theatre people he knew to tell them about it. Another friend who teaches at Lancaster University told students and friends about it. I imitated the Theatre Uncut logo by taking a picture of a pair of scissors on a red placemat, and used it to put posters up around town, asking people to come audition. I talked to the largest of the local anti-cuts groups, started to get emails from actors. We set up a facebook group. LitFest very kindly gave us the use of the performance space at The Storey Institute for the evening of the 19th.

Unlocking the youth theatre for auditions, an optimistic number of script extracts in hand, I had no idea how many people were going to show up. I don’t even mean actors. I was in love with a monologue by Clara Brennan but knew I couldn’t act it, was desperate to direct it. Another monologue, more political polemic than work of fiction, I reckoned I could perform without a director. That left 5 plays without directors, and only a handful of promises to consider directing to go around.

In the end, the auditions went better than I could have hoped for. A student director eagerly snapped up one play. I persuaded 3 actors, one of whom was also a dramaturg, and the playwright to try their hands at directing, despite demurrals. Exactly the right number of people showed up to fill each part. Before splitting off into little groups to work on the texts we stood in a circle, talking about why we were there. Many were worried about their jobs, some about their children’s education, or their own. Many were indignant at the simple injustice of paying for a disaster they never caused while those who had caused it reaped ever-greater rewards. Many were theatre folk of some skill and experience, some were theatre students, others had never done any theatre before. The atmosphere was passionate, welcoming, everybody seemed so willing to give what time they had, to rub along together in the best way we could find, to make it happen. We left with every play cast, first rehearsals agreed on, even some set and costume needs accounted for.

Of course it was never going to be that easy. It’s one thing to want to do something like this, to believe in it, another thing to actually find the time. Work, parenting, education, health, all take priority. As they should, of course, but still it was a blow when people started measuring their eagerness against the reality of their time. One, then another, then two more had to withdraw or limit their participation. Proof, as if we needed it, of the limits of volunteerism; the implausibility of “The Big Society”. So the begging emails went out again, the facebook postings, the tweets. It was touch and go for a while, but as I write this, we’ve just recast the last part. We’re a good mix, I think. About half of us are theatre professionals, the rest amateurs and students. Rehearsals have started, in people’s houses, in a shop after closing time, at our venue, in a community centre. I’ve sat in on some of them, and they’re going excitingly well. I’ve ended up directing two very different plays, both of which I love. I’ve even managed to set up an eventbrite page; we’re not charging an entry fee, but we need to know how many people are coming. I’m beginning to believe there’ll be a lot. I’m also starting to think that I’ve spent too much time organizing and not enough learning the 4 page monologue I volunteered to perform….

This piece was commissioned by exeunt magazine

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

13 Ideas I Want To Kill

This was my first attempt at some creative disruption of the State of the Arts Conference, though nowhere near my last. It was all part of the State of the Arts Flash Conference.

13 Ideas I Want To Kill

1. The artist (a word I hate) as lone oracle, dispensing their unique vision to those perceptive enough to appreciate it.

2. That fantasy equals escapism, and only overt social commentary is valid.

3. That we must reflect on our own culture, and not seek to understand different times and places.

4. That creation happens in the mind, not the body.

5. Self-expression.

6. That art is difficult, intellectual, different from anything else people do for pleasure.

7. That institutions are necessarily restrictive, and freelancing liberating.

8. That composition is more creative than execution.

9. Branding.

10. That the making of experiences is usefully comparable to the making of objects.

11. That what you do matters more than how you do it.

12. That concept matters more than skill and that the skills of artists are any different from the skills of cooks, or builders, or engineers.

13. The artist as entrepreneur.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

13 Ideas I Want To Kill

This is my first attempt at some creative disruption of the State of the Arts Conference tomorrow, but almost certainly not my last. It's all part of the State of the Arts Flash Conference, and you can be part of it too.



13 Ideas I Want To Kill

1. The artist (a word I hate) as lone oracle, dispensing their unique vision to those perceptive enough to appreciate it.

2. That fantasy equals escapism, and only overt social commentary is valid.

3. That we must reflect on our own culture, and not seek to understand different times and places.

4. That creation happens in the mind, not the body.

5. Self-expression.

6. That art is difficult, intellectual, different from anything else people do for pleasure.

7. That institutions are necessarily restrictive, and freelancing liberating.

8. That composition is more creative than execution.

9. Branding.

10. That the making of experiences is usefully comparable to the making of objects.

11. That what you do matters more than how you do it.

12. That concept matters more than skill and that the skills of artists are any different from the skills of cooks, or builders, or engineers.

13. The artist as entrepreneur.


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A One Minute Manifesto On The Politics Of Proximity



Among the uncountable joys of the Open Space event Devoted and Disgruntled 6 were the One Minute Manifestos curated by Lucy Ellinson. I'll link to the rest of them when I can, but here is mine. It's a condensation of something far more complex and nuanced, and inevitably oversimplifies. Please take it for what it is, a one minute manifesto:

Theatre is a democratic art form; democracy is a theatrical form of government. They developed in the same place and pretty much the same time, they’re products of the same world view. If the rise of the mass media has been bad for theatre, it’s been bad for democracy, too. Increasingly, the social digital media are proving to be good for democracy; they’re proving it on the streets of Cairo even as I speak. It’s tempting to believe that they could be equally good for theatre.

But it’s not Twitter and Facebook that have Mubarak trembling in his presidential palace, though they’ve helped to spread and coordinate what has; it’s the Egyptian people, in their thousands, united by the same impulse.

Digital networks are fragile, and they don’t belong to us. The more we use them the more complicit we are with the corporations that control them, and the more vulnerable we are to these corporations. They can help us connect, but they can also cut us off.

Long before oppressive regimes started restricting the social media, they were reading the Riot Act. People gathering together for a common purpose are the most powerful force in history. When so many of our interactions are mediated and mined for profit, what could be more radical than connections that cannot be commodified? What could be more radical than meeting together, in the same place, and paying attention to each other?