Sunday, 23 November 2008

Oh My God! I think I've opened the BROWN door...

Here's an article I wrote for the Theatre Bristol website. It's a personal perspective on something that's been nagging at me for ages. Thanks to for suggesting I spend the time articulating it.

Last week I went to a meeting led by Sustained Theatre, ostensibly to discuss setting up 'regional hubs' for practitioners from "The Sector".

You get what I mean by "The Sector", right?

Apparently, I'm part of "The Sector" because I work in theatre and I have brown skin. Well actually, because I have brown skin. The theatre bit is a given because that is the whole of what Sustained Theatre are dealing with.

Recently, I've been asked to participate in a whole load of "cultural diversity" thinking/action/research. To be honest, I'm not even sure if "cultural diversity" is the correct phrase any longer. Terminology and definition is always a massive stumbling block in this area. It is never clearly resolved, as demonstrated by Sustained Theatre settling on the phrase "The Sector" - a label that is ALWAYS going to sound weak because it needs clarifying every time you use it. If I tell someone that I'm part of The Sector, I can guarantee that they will not assume that I'm a black person who works in theatre. No. They'll probably think I'm part of some sort of cult.

Hold on, I don't even know if I'm allowed to call myself "black". I'm of Sri Lankan descent, so maybe I should call myself "brown", or "Asian"?

Usually I say "I live in Bristol, but originally I'm from the north".

But that's specific to me, it's not the condition of my ethnicity. The thing is, my ethnicity does not in itself tell you an awful lot about me. And the problem with 'cultural diversity in the arts' debates is that they tend to want to identify 'our' professional needs as a group banded together through ethnicity. And in my experience, that doesn't greatly chime with my professional needs as an individual.

The bigger problem with this approach is that it defines itself outside of other discussions. Integrating with broader, non-ethnic-specific debates (about artist or audience development, for example) is not always considered from the outset, or indeed, at all. Many of the 'Sector needs' identified in a report like Whose Theatre...? are the needs of ALL artists working outside of traditional theatre. If I take Live Art as an example, there are similar problems: around audience development, a lack of understanding of the range of work covered by the notion of 'Live Art', artists' technical skills and training, a lack of published archive, and how work is supported or not by venues (Ekow Eshun's closure of the Live Art programme at the ICA being a case in point).

It seems to me that much research into the needs of "The Sector" starts from an assumption of lack. Perhaps it's a fair assumption that, if diverse ethnicity is under-represented in theatre, then it must be due to something missing, somewhere. But by starting from this position, and by conducting the research outside of the broader context, there is a real danger of duplicating support that is already on offer and thereby setting up an (unintentional) apartheid between support for black artists and support for all other artists. For example, if an aim is to get more black and asian artists' work distributed internationally, then shouldn't the goal be to get more of these artists included in existing, respected platforms such as the British Council showcase at Edinburgh Festival? Is there a danger that by focussing on a diversity-specific showcase like deciBel, we are tacitly stating that we don't need the British Council showcase to consider work by diverse artists?

If ethnically diverse artists are not accessing professional development support that is already on offer, does that mean we should automatically seek to set up alternative support structures for black artists, rather than find ways to help them access the support that's already available?

I'm sure deciBel and the British Council talk to each other, but that's a big assumption on my part as there's no visible partnership on the deciBel website. And without seeing a visible link between diversity-specific support and mainstream support, are we reinforcing the idea that diverse artists cannot access that mainstream and that the mainstream is not interested in them? Bristol no longer has a dedicated Black arts venue, but over the last couple of years, I've personally seen performance work by a huge range of ethnically diverse artists: Yara El-Sherbini, Roza Ilgen, Qasim Riza Shaheen, Hetain Patel, Shi Ker, Harminder Singh Judge, Folake Shoga, Jiva Parthipan, Marcus Young, Edson Burton, Mem Morrison, Leiza McLeod... Most of this list comes from Arnolfini's live art programme, but it also features work I've seen at the Tobacco Factory and Mayfest. These are all high profile professional programmes, but I wonder how many black and asian theatre professionals simply do not look to these programmes because they assume they're not interested in diverse artists or audiences?

I'm not saying that there are no issues specific to non-white theatre professionals (there certainly are - particularly around recognising theatre as a profession and accessing training), but perhaps there needs to be some better assessment of where these issues relate to issues for theatre more broadly, so we can see where the real gaps in support are?

Friday, 7 November 2008

President Obama

This result has to be noted. I mean, check out the size of this crowd!

Even for those weeks on end, when the polls and the pundits were saying it was a dead cert, I just couldn't bring myself to take it for granted that America would elect a black president.

I'm still thrilled by it. It does genuinely feel like something has changed in the world. A massive border has shifted. Aspirations are now not just based on theoretical possibility or 'what if' - this is tangible, actual precedent.

The crowds, the speech, the sheer fact of it is genuinely very inspiring and very moving. I remember the excitement and optimism that came over us when Labour got into government in 1997 - that was amazing. Obama's election is like that, but ten times over and for the whole world.

It will certainly be a moment to hark back to. I think Britain is still a long way from having a non-white Prime Minister. I don't think it's a question of racism so much as one of identity and how we own our Britishness and our entitlement and responsibility towards it. It will be interesting though, to see if Obama's election inspires Black people in this country to truly believe they could aim for Downing Street.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Producer thoughts

So, as I've been mentioning, I got to get official as a film producer earlier this year, working with a professional cast and crew, and even a little budget. All my dreams on VHS is now complete, and the DVDs are being burned. I can't wait for people to see it. I really want to know what people think - both those that were involved, and people who know nothing about it. It sure is a handsome film, with fabulously watchable performances. And I think it's very funny - not a boom-cha gag-fest, but proper 'smile on your face' funny. There's no 'boy loses balloon in playground' dourness about this film. Don't get me wrong, I see PLENTY of flaws in it too, but I'm so far removed from the immediate impact of it now, that I need a few people to remind me what it's like. Fingers crossed, we'll get the DVDs by the end of next week and can start getting them out to everyone.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about the similarities and differences between producing films and producing live art and performance. Funnily enough, I think they're surprisingly similar; it's just the industry contexts have some huge differences. But fundamentally, you work to a project, and each project is different - so even if you answer the questions differently (because of differing contexts, industries, ideas) the basic questions you have to ask are pretty much the same.

Incidentally, when I Google image searched the word "producer", this is the third image that showed up:

Here are some things I've noticed about Producing, culled from 8 years of doing it professionally, more years of talking to people about it and in anticipation of many more years of learning about it:

There's no pattern to making it work. You have to work to each specific project according to its own specific needs.

It's all about collaboration; and collaboration requires effort, trust and respect. Everyone tends to work above and beyond the call of duty - but never take it for granted and always be grateful. Clarify people's roles and responsibilities - never assume that something will just get done. Whether that means making the argument, writing the copy, cashflowing the production, making the coffee, selling the tickets... Either do it yourself, or make sure someone else knows it's their responsibility.

It's about knowing when and where to compromise or not - understanding the role that individual elements play in creating the bigger whole - that includes concept, people, and budgets. Being an artist (and I count producing in that) is all about making decisions.

A good producer spends a lot of time absorbing other people's stress. Producing is not just about fundraising. It's about understanding the creative needs of the project and making sure the artist, writer, director, whoever, is as freed up as possible to focus on doing their job as best as possible - rather than worrying about how they're going to feed the company, or whether they've said the wrong thing to the wrong technician.

Producing is not just about fundraising, but you do have to spend a lot of your time fundraising
. It's hard work, but it's not always boring.

You're responsible for making the project real in the big bad world. That means thinking about the audience.

Choose your projects carefully
- because each one leads to the next. And also because it's bloody hard work, and if you don't know why you're doing it, it's not likely to work out well, nor are you likely to learn anything from it.

Be prepared to fail and keep failing better. Aim high and you'll never be mediocre, even if you crash and burn spectacularly. Never anticipate success or do things 'just because you ought to' - that way lies hubris and mediocrity.

Making good work happen is brilliant. I actually mean that.

Saturday, 18 October 2008


A little while back, when the boyf and I realised we weren't going to be able to afford to go on REAL holiday for a couple of years, we decided we'd buy a couple of guide books instead. And pretend, imagine, or (most optimistically) look forward to visiting those places instead.

We ended up getting Rough Guides to Scandinavia and The Baltic States. I've always been fascinated by that direction. There's still something of the fairy tale about it - particularly as global warming moves snow-covered landscapes ever closer to some sort of magical folk memory.

Weirdly enough, 3 or 4 years later, both me and the boyf got out of the blue opportunities to use each guide book for work. Tim got to go to Finland in 2007 to write about the ANTI festival (lucky bugger). This year, I got to go to Vilnius for the Lithuanian showcase weekend of the Sirenos festival.

Well, the work wasn't all that inspiring, so I won't dwell too much on that. Other than to say that Lithuanians seem to like their theatre firmly rooted in text and black boxes. Part of me came away wishing that we had more well-equipped, fully riggable, comfy seated black box spaces available to new and contemporary theatre makers in Bristol; and part of me was desperately grateful for the fact that - perhaps as a result of limited access to those spaces - when I go to the theatre, I don't expect necessarily to end up sitting in a theatre, being performed at.

Anyway, Vilnius is WEIRD. Vilnius is small and WEIRD. Once of the reasons we were there was because it's European Capital of Culture in 2009, so we were wondering whether there might be potential for artist exchanges between Bristol and Vilnius... It'll be interesting to see what happens when that pressure focuses on that city. As one of our contacts in the city pointed out, it's still so very recently emerged as its own country into 'The West'. The fear is that, if the cultural spotlight is focussed on them before they are ready, they may just disappoint and never be given another look in. Personally, I'm not sure that's how international partnerships work in the arts - I think they always take time. It always takes so long to get the money together for it that it's hard to rush into anything. As I see it, the problem is that if Capital of Culture activity doesn't immediately strike sparks, there is more likelihood that domestically, cultural activity will not be seen as worthy of investment; so activity is not able to sustain long enough for international partnerships to come to fruition.

Some things about Vilnius. List of FIVE:

1) There are hardly any people there. Even on a Saturday afternoon. Even on a Saturday night. I have to keep reminding myself it's a capital city. It feels like two-thirds of the population is out of town. Even the main train station was virtually deserted on a Monday lunchtime. It's actually quite creepy... vaguely catastrophe sci-fi.

2) Pedestrians seem to have priority everywhere. It's amazing. It's like all the drivers actually want to give you right of way. They're not pissed off about it or anything.

3) The food is really not great. Even if you think you like all that hearty, central European dumplings and stew business, this is not the city to go out of your way to eat in.

4) There are no tall buildings in the old city - hardly any buildings taller than a couple of storeys. Until you spot the commercial city on the other side of the river. You can't see it from most of Vilnius, but as you walk down towards the main body of the Vilna, this crazy 80s glass and shiny bombast just bings up from nowhere.

5) Arts Printing House could turn into an amazing venue. They're converting an old communist printing house into a big culture complex for contemporary performance, dance, cinema. It'll be a few years yet, but it's probably the main thing that would take me back to the city.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Things I've Seen In Between (April - August 08)

Jeeeez - was I really intending to write about every performance I see? Here's the latest list of theatre/live art I haven't blogged about:

Tom Marshman - The Invitation
Pacitti Company - Civil
Tim Atack - Astronaut
Bodies In Flight - Model Love (durational)
Tim Crouch/News from Nowhere - England
Tom Marshman & Friends - Hello Sailor (Goodbye Heart)
Mem Morrison - Leftovers
Rosie Dennis - Love Song Dedication & Fraudulent Behavious
Ridiculusmus - Tough Time, Nice Time
Tinned Fingers - When You Cry In Space Your Tears Go Everywhere
The Flaw Set
Search Party - Keep Going The Rhino!
Goat Island - The Lastmaker
Goat Island & Friends - We'd Like Fireworks
Topless Mum by Ron Hutchinson
YPT Urban Arts - Max & Beth
Marcus Young - Pacific Avenue
Leiza McLeod & Iain Morrison - Gimme the Beat Girls (work in progress)
Devon Country by Edson Burton (rehearsed reading)

As ever, some excellent stuff and some bad stuff. It's really reassuring that in each of these listy posts, there's always been at least one amazing show. This time the top gong goes to Tim Crouch/News From Nowhere for being exquisitely constructed and utterly devastating.

Maybe I'm not so cynical after all.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

All My Dreams on VHS

So, we're right into editing All My Dreams on VHS. I got to check out the rushes over the bank holiday weekend and will get to see the first rough assembly this evening (yikes!). It's all a bit bloody exciting.

It's written and directed by Tim Atack, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and O-T Fagbenle, and is produced by George Chan for the BBC Film Lab. For my part, as well as my usual script-editing duties, I'm also line producer on the project.

Version: VHS
George had commissioned Tim to write a low-budget 10min screenplay for the Film Lab a couple of years ago. The result was All My Dreams on VHS. George liked the script but it wasn't feasible to pull the resources together to move it forward at the time. So last year, when Tim was looking for new projects, he asked me if I'd be interested in producing it.

Of course, I said yes, and we went about conceiving it for the low end of the low budget spectrum. We could confidently cut a few costs without going amateur (i.e. there was a lot of stuff we could do between us, without being paid; and we knew people... if you know what I mean), but a small budget would be useful, so we applied to the Digital Shorts scheme in 2006. Well, I say "we". Annoyingly, SW Screen doesn't let Producers apply as part of the creative team, so I wouldn't have got a Producer credit for it if we'd been successful with the funding.

And to clarify, we weren't successful with Digital Shorts... which, it turned out, was a blessing in disguise.

Because, sometime around Christmas last year, George Chan asked Tim if he'd done anything with that script yet.

Version: All My Dreams
The BBC Film Lab was set up by George Chan, Deep Sehgal and David Olusoga, and is basically a labour of love run out of BBC Bristol. It helps BBC staff learn skills in making drama for the screen, by enabling them to actually make films. It's not BBC commissioning, but it does mean access to a whole load of people, with a whole load of knowledge and skills who also want to branch into drama, build up their cvs, or just help out.

This year they wanted to produce a series of 10-15 minute shorts, and were interested in producing AMDOVHS as part of that series.

This, of course, was very exciting.

It was actually even more exciting than I thought it was going to be, because, as well as meaning we could work with a professional crew, it also turned out to mean:

a) A small budget on top of a wealth of in-kind support
b) A Producer who encouraged us to aim high in terms of the scale of the project
c) An official Line Producer credit for me

and importantly,
d) A huge learning curve

It's meant being able to shoot on HD, work with top class actors, a fantastic crew, and a great location. In terms of what I was expecting (and certainly compared to what we were considering before the Film Lab gig came in), we've so far had to make relatively few compromises... But it's not over yet, and with the completion deadline coming much earlier than anticipated, I bain't be counting no chickens...

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Feed my blog!

I haven't blogged in AGES.
Yes, I've been busy... but you know... I've also watched a lot of TV, so no excuses really.

And then I got BLOG FEAR, the official term for which, I believe is "blogstipation".

I'm hoping to relieve my symptoms by going on a course of 'get-boyfriend-to-give-me random-blog-titles' pills. Let's see what happens. Given that summer seems to have taken the year off this year, I've got a lot more time indoors than I anticipated.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Stan's Cafe: Realising dreams in the real world

Last week, I went to a talk by James Yarker, Artistic Director of Stan's Cafe. I've only seen a couple of Stan's Cafe pieces (The Black Maze and Of All The People In All The World) and have loved both of them. Neither of them were theatre pieces, but I still often quote them as key examples of extraordinary ways to work with audiences. The image above is from It's Your Film.

It was a great talk, made thoroughly entertaining by the fact that James never seemed bored by the ideas and experiences he was telling us about. No mean feat considering we made the poor guy keep talking for 3 hours - what with our rapt attention and questions and the like. I mean, from time to time, you could make out the visible panic on his face as he realised just how much script he still had left to get through, but he never seemed bored by the actual things he was saying - the content. Remembering and recounting these stories seemed to be of genuine value and fascination to him, as well as to us. Or maybe he's just a great performer...

Either way, it was an inspiring talk, which focussed broadly on how you can uphold your artistic vision, whilst also sustaining yourself as a professional company. You can read the text from the talk here - it's well worth checking out, particularly if you're involved in making performance.

Was really great to hear someone talking about making work with a real scale of imagination - that's the size of the ideas, not necessarily the size of the shows - and with such thought for how an audience might experience the work (or idea), rather than just how the artist might want to explore the idea. "We dream dreams and must then find ways to realise them in the real world."

Monday, 5 May 2008

I Am STILL Your Worst Nightmare

26 - 27 April 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

Image from Tuning Up by Bill Leslie & Stephen Cornford (photo: Toby Farrow)

Blimey, I think I've only just recovered from last weekend's 'Nightmare'. Nearly 60 pieces showing across the weekend, an open and generous atmosphere, a ridiculously broad range of work in terms of quality (from the truly sublime to the truly, truly awful), and baking sunshine for nearly the entire weekend. Brilliant! What's to argue with?

I'm not going to go into detail about the work because writing even one line about each piece would take a loooooooooong time and would probably suck the living daylights out of what was at heart a playful and fun weekend. Instead, I'm going to recommend checking out Ed Rapley's IASYWN Awards, if you want a flavour of what went down.

As with 2007's I Am Your Worst Nightmare platform, IASYWN marked itself out from most other platform events by deliberately puncturing any notion of it being a showcase. Yes, there is a selection process, but rather than trying to select the 'best' ideas, proposals are selected in terms of practicality and clarity (particularly in terms of how the piece engages with an audience). In fact, the selection is adamantly NOT based on the quality of the conceptual idea. As a curator, it's unbelievably difficult to turn off that quality control gauge, but the pay-off, when an uninspiring proposal turns out to be a thrilling piece of work, is fantastic.

Of course, the selection process is just one of many tactics that IASYWN uses to deflate any competitive urges within the programme. The sheer amount of work, for one. The very limited resources - 10 minute turnarounds, minimal fees. The level playing field: everyone is in the same boat - artists, audiences (particularly given that much of the core audience is made up of artists). The fabulously irreverent compering by the artists formerly known as Spaghetti Club. I think there was a genuine feeling that everyone could respond to work openly and honestly - with questions as well as carefully formulated critique. It felt like the event was genuinely owned by all those who participated, whatever their role.

All in all, it was a great weekend, with some fab stuff, some bad stuff and some proper nuttiness.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Things I've seen in between

Grrr. I can't keep up with all the stuff I've seen. Blogs are prone to lists, so just for the record, here's a list of the rest I've seen so far this year:

Spaghetti Club - 3 Minute Warning
You and Your Work 4 (5 artists - at least, five I can remember...)
Bodies in Flight - Model Love
National Review of Live Art (21 pieces)
Kettle of Fish work in progress
Uninvited Guests - Love Letters Straight from the Heart
Susannah Hewlett - It's Not You
Rogue Theatre - Madame Lucinda's Wonder Show
Reckless Sleepers - The Pilots (work in progress)
Prototype platform (5 artists)

all of which = varying degrees of quality. From one show I walked out of half way through (well, I'd given it an hour!) to the absolutely sublime, floating in space magic choreography of Kris Verdonck's Duet (image below).

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The Special Guests: Nightfall

Saturday 26 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

Nightfall has been a long time in the making and, after seeing a couple of quite different work-in-progress versions, I was looking forward to seeing the finished work. Unfortunately I found it to be a pretty flawed show. A shame, as I do think there's a good idea buried in there... but it needs digging out. The good thing is that I think the company recognise this - I know they made some key changes to the following day's show - and they've got a few weeks to work on it before the main body of the tour.

So what went wrong? Well, let's not start there; let's start with where it worked. That title for starters. "Nightfall" is a gloriously evocative starting point for the audience, as well as the theatre-makers. The fact that the show is scheduled to coincide with nightfall (4.40pm in January in Bristol) makes it all the more exciting... I love it when you can clash the heightened focus of a theatre show with the 'real' world... It becomes totally about the then and there. And this was drawn on in the work, with the performers gatecrashing the outside world at regular intervals and measuring the light levels as the night came down. This worked particularly well at Arnolfini, because the theatre loading doors opened directly onto the busy quayside. Revolutionary, it might not be, but to my mind, there's not much better value for money than watching the unsuspecting public being ambushed by a nice bit of performance (and when I say 'a nice bit of performance', I'm not talking no crusty jugglers).

This action of regularly leaving the space, measuring the falling light levels and announcing (through a megaphone) how the activity outside was changing (or not), was crucial in enriching the work inside the space. Effectively, it gave the work a context. The little things, the pretend things, the text-book fact things that formed the main content of the show, were placed in the same frame as that bigger, inexorable falling into darkness, which enveloped us all as we watched. Dynamically, it was important too, as it cut through the fairly boisterous rhythm of the piece with a slower tempo, a stillness and a greater tension.

Unfortunately they stopped repeating this action halfway through the show - ironically, before night had completely fallen. At this point, he work also shifts to a darker, quieter tone, getting gradually smaller and quieter until it ends.

Hmmm... so going back to what went wrong...

Well, pulling no punches, I'd say it lacked rigour and conviction. The piece started in one place and definitely ended in another, but as an audience member, I didn't feel part of that journey. Of course, this was the premiere performance and I can imagine the company being a bit jittery, but the work is more than just the quality of the performances; and in this case, neither the content nor the structure pulled me in either. For a company that prides itself on being unafraid of the audience, the performances were insular to the point where I struggled even to navigate the relationships between the performers on stage. It was as if the show was broken and then patched together awkwardly; with everyone not just nervous that it might fall apart again, but unsure if it was even back together in the right shape.

But then, that sort of patchwork process is how a lot of devised theatre gets put together - built from fragments of experimentation. The mash-up of presentation styles - radio DJ to kids TV science show to game show to post-party conversation and so on - can work well in terms of reframing ideas and pulling audience focus to different perspectives. But in this case, for me, all it did was reveal a lack of anything behind the surface. They told us things, but seemingly for no reason - or certainly for no dynamic or compelling reason. These facts did not accumulate into a greater understanding of a greater whole. They revealed nothing.

And unfortunately, that was the problem. They seemed to have nothing to say. Even with an hour and a half of our attention and a starting point that could have taken us on any number of journeys, we didn't go anywhere. Not even into darkness.

A radical rework is called for.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Good Shit From Bristol: Live Art Weekender (Part 2)

Saturday 12 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

Blimey, there's nothing like this blogging lark to encourage a bit of verbal spew forth (see Part 1). Here's some thoughts on the studio programme:

Peoples In Pieces: 15 Storms in a Teacup
A nascent version of this piece was made for the I Am Your Worst Nightmare Platform in March 07. For GSFB, they've extended the show (it's about twice as long) and changed the positioning of the audience (effectively performing in the round).

The early version was a real gem. Literally conjuring miniature weather zones with the likes of a whisk and a microwave, it was performed with zippy pace and a wonderful air of hushed magic. Unfortunately, the developed piece failed to retain the taut focus of the original. Its wit disappeared and its magic was lost. I don't think the company had fully grasped the rhythm of the piece this time round. It had no momentum, and its lack of energy undermined even sections that had worked well in its previous incarnation.

For me, the root of the problem lay in changing the physical relationship with the audience. Previously, we were seated slightly back from the action, with the company working like a chain of stage illusionists, keeping the tricks of the trade just far away enough, just dark enough, not to undermine the magic. This time round, the theatrics had gone. We saw the tricks from behind, from the side, from below and above, and sometimes right up close. Effectively, this meant they lost their charm.

I think it also suffered from being extended for the sake of lengthening it. Originally, being limited to 15 minutes forced a precision with the performance which was lacking in the longer version. The whimsy in the text, which was delivered with punch and rhythmic wit in the original version, sounded esoteric and indulgent this time round. Performing in Arnolfini's theatre rather than the Dark Studio also means more stringent H&S regs and they couldn't use the gas camping stove they wanted to. They reference this in the show, but rather than coming across as playfully self-effacing, it sounds a bit sad and apologetic.

From the couple of shows I've seen, I recognise the potential for Peoples In Pieces to develop an unusual and striking visual style. But they need to keep working on where those images sit in the context of a journey for the audience.

Tim Atack: Astronaut
Tim Atack is mainly a musician and mainly a writer, and anyone who's been to any of his gigs will know he's also got a good line in the "yes, I'm looking at you, boy," slightly scary stage stare. You can see his interdisciplinary roots in Astronaut. Deceptively simple, the piece uses recorded sound from different sources (a piano coming through the PA; mocked up transmissions from space hissing out of a tinny dictaphone), coupled with the slow, barely perceptible fade of a spotlight to shift and warp the space around the audience. At the centre, the performer tells a story, which leads to a question for the audience.

A piece which is much more than the sum of its parts, Astronaut unashamedly plays on the sentimental, without being mawkish. There's something very cinematic about it - something in the way it uses light and sound so subtly perhaps? or perhaps in the way it shifts from a group experience to a more individual one, as the light fades to black, the soundtrack increases in volume and the question lingers for us all to answer privately, in the dark... What would you sing?

I'm slightly biased because I did a lot of outside eye work on this show, but (or perhaps for that very reason) I can really appreciate how precisely the piece was constructed in terms of the writing, the timing of the fades, the mix of the sound for the space and particularly (given how prone I know Tim can be to melodramatic hand prancing when he's on stage), the controlled, focussed movements of the performer. If I had one criticism, it would be that the level of the sound from the dictaphone was too low at the end, and we lost the full impact of that eerie, dislocated singing.

There is definitely something akin to a song in the structure of Astronaut, and perhaps it's Tim's skill as a songwriter that has given him the confidence to strip the piece down to its bare essentials and let that central idea resonate so fully. To my mind, one of the most common flaws in live art is that artists are all too ready to explore around the subject, rather than find the heart of it and expose that. As if alluding to the heart of the matter is enough. One of Astronaut's great strengths is that it is so unequivocal about the journey it asks the audience to take, but then lets us run with our imagination as the music soars and the lights fade out.

These Horses: A Piece for Voice and Light Switch
Again I first saw a version of this at I Am Your Worst Nightmare when Emma Bennett performed it as a solo piece. I think it was a little longer this time round and was performed as a duet.

OK, this is one of those pieces that sounds like it's going to be very dry and overly cerebral when you describe it, but its effect is actually more like an absurdist comedy sketch. Basically, it involves Emma and Lucy reading a list of things ("My house", "A hand") whilst either lit or not lit by a desk lamp. See what I mean, it sounds like it might be dangerously dull. But it isn't. It's very funny. It soon becomes obvious that what seems like a list of arbitrary non sequiturs is a very carefully constructed script, with the same phrase taking on all sorts of shifting sense or portent depending on where it's repeated, whether it's said in light or darkness, its pacing or who says it. What emerges is the weird feeling that some sort of broken narrative is hiding deep in there... something involving A Dog, The Dark, and Big Jim On Holiday...

It was performed very well, though I think it would benefit from a little bit more precision. And perhaps matching desk lamps. Sounds very petty, but the piece is all about detail and details out of place, so I do think it's important. I also think I preferred it as a solo piece - but this may be because it seemed more precise as a solo work (no need for matching desk lamps or coordinated switching off of lamps...). Also, I was a big fan of the ecstatic exhalations of "My friend... Jennifer," which were lost from the second version. I can't explain it, but my brain must find something inherently funny about the name Jennifer. Either way, I think it's a strong piece. It needs a little more tightening up, but is close to being a really sharp, funny piece of comedy theatre.

The Licencees: 10 Ways to Die on Stage
First things first, Ed Rapley is an extremely charismatic performer - which is good, because in the hands someone less charismatic, this could be awkward material. There's a lot of stuff which refers to him. I don't know (or care, frankly) if it's all true or not, but in my book, personal anecdote should be used with EXTREME CAUTION in front of an audience. Some people use it well (Kazuko Hohki), but sometimes it comes across as indulgent and alienating (Guy Dartnell's Unsung springs to mind - god, I HATED that show... I don't want to know about when you lost your virginity, you haven't made me even slightly want to get to know you yet... I don't care which songs you used to get dressed up to... are you interested in which songs I used to sing in my bedroom?... do you even care that I'm sat here watching you?... Oh, of course you do, given that you had such a go at the first person who walked out...) Anyway, that's by the by - even if I am still scarred by the experience. Besides, lots of people liked that piece, which just goes to show that there's nowt so queer as folk.

So back to The Licencees... 10 Ways to Die on Stage is a loose collection of what I can best describe as 'challenging moments', which are told, retold, reframed through the piece. These episodes wander unnervingly between slapstick and real physical tension, stitched together by Ed's open, smiling performance. What really drives the piece is the fact that Ed pushes those moments of tension, until they are properly uncomfortable - rubbing a balloon, making it squeak for AGES before it bursts; drinking a glass of saltwater without taking his lips from the glass; climbing a ladder rung by rung, refusing to steady himself with his hands no matter how much he wobbles; standing precariously on top of that ladder till he's practically fallen off, before jumping... He's charming and he makes you root for him, but it's still like watching a magic trick that could go dangerously wrong at any moment.

In terms of content it refuses to move coherently from episode to episode, but rather jumps from one section to the next or back again like a skipping record. Even so, it makes for a satisfying and thrilling experience, because it all lies in the relationship between the performer on stage and the audience. The ratcheting up of tension and release is consistent and effective. It's weird, considering it's such a low key show in so many ways, but it really does feel a bit like a rollercoaster ride.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Good Shit From Bristol: Live Art Weekender (Part 1)

Saturday 12 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

image from Peoples In Pieces: 15 Storms in a Teacup (Good Shit evening programme)

Now this was a great way to start performance-going for 2008. The 8 pieces in the day-long programme worked beautifully together and there was a great vibe throughout the day. The evening programme was absolutely ramjacked and it was great to see so many local artists turn out to support the programme (and each other). I'm writing extended thoughts, so going to break this into two posts.

Here are some thoughts on each of the durational pieces:

Steve Robins: Coinage
Steve called this "a contemplation on the weight of words." As part of his PhD research he's been keeping a journal, in which he wrote 80,000 words last year. This durational performance started with 80.000 pennies piled in 365 dated squares, gridded out on the floor of the Arnolfini foyer - the number of pennies in each square corresponding to the number of words written on each date. The action involved Steve collecting each pile of coins in a rucksack as a reading of each journal entry was played quietly from a CD player in the bag. When the rucksack was as heavy as he could take, Steve carried it up two floors to Arnolfini's Light Studio. In the Light Studio was a video installation of 2-screens, showing images of an arm struggling with the with the weight of a bag of coins, and a projection onto the floor, showing Steve lying naked over the pile of 80,000 pennies. Once he reached the installation, Steve would tip the pennies from the rucksack over the floor projection.

It took him 12 hours to move all the pennies from the foyer to the Light Studio.

I felt it was important to outline the whole action here as I think the detail and the labour of it is really crucial to the effect of the piece. Each detail offered an opportunity to reframe or underline the sheer endurance of the action. These were alternative ways to measure or demonstrate the duration/endurance of this action. There was the literal weight of the pennies (and boy, was that bag heavy after a few handfuls of pennies) and the literal time it took to get all the coins upstairs. There was the looped video of an arm struggling under the weight of a bag of coins - projected large enough to see the muscles spasm and quiver before eventually caving in, but then repeated on and on. Inexorably. There was the intimacy of the journal entries (you had to get quite close to Steve to hear the recording), and then the overriding sense of mundanity that came from hearing so many of them - the words I remember most repeated being: "Went to the gym," and, "here and now." The strain, frustration (boredom, even?) that grew on Steve's face and shoulders as the day went on. The expanse of the task marked out ahead of you in days and words ("you've been doing this for 4 hours and you've only got to 12 March?!?").

I don't know how to sum up the piece more succinctly. For me it was very much about the accumulation - hence all these lists. I found the scale of it really affecting (the sheer number of coins, the fact that the action took place through Arnolfini's full three floors). There's something very humbling and accessible about the use of pennies too. It didn't look like £800. You were more likely to think of a wishing well than a bank account. Steve's amiable persona was helpful too. There was no barrier between him and the audience. In fact, the level of the journal recordings actively invited people to get close to him. As the day wore on, I think he more and more valued the company and conversation of people who asked questions, gave responses or checked he was ok. Once the final bag of coins had been transferred upstairs, Steve collected as many of us as he could to attend his closing gesture - where he lay on the pile of coins, replicating the image projected on the floor. I'm glad he announced it as he really deserved that little round of applause. I can't imagine how lonely it would have been to close the action alone. The value in my experience of it was rooted in being encouraged (and able) to return to Steve throughout the day. In this way, it was never a lonely action - it was never just about the artist undertaking this task.

On a practical note, halfway through the gridding of the floor, they must have run out of white paint marker, as the rest was done in chalk, which disappeared as the coins were collected and the spaces were once more trodden. I know some people though differently, but for me, I liked that the painted dates remained - I think they spoke more of absence and time passed than the vanished squares. As well as being "a contemplation on the weight of words," this was also a piece about time, how time passes, what we accumulate over time and how things change over time. It was an effective, reflective experience and one that I've enjoyed thinking back over again.

Pete Barrett: Enough Rope
Another durational performance which I think benefitted considerably from having returned a few times to Steve Robins' piece, and having got into a mindset of spending time with the work. Pete's work is often about "making life difficult for himself" and his tasks are usually repetitive with more of an air of self-imposed punishment about them, than out and out exhibitionism. Enough Rope involved him elaborately binding his feet with rope and then walking home.

Sat in the beautiful big window in the Arnolfini bookshop, Pete painstaking hobbled each foot using some sort of complex knotting pattern (one of the passers-by suggested he might be "making macrame shoes," when their child asked what that man was doing in the window), before heading out into the streets of Bristol.

I watched for some time when he started and returned 3 or 4 times over the next few hours. Enough Rope was very different to Steve Robins' Coinage, in that Enough Rope had much more of a sense of the artist doing this to themselves. For me, this isn't going to engage me as fully as piece such as Coinage, which calls out to its audience much more wholly. But there's something compelling in the focus with which Pete performs. It's a sort of voyeuristic fascination in watching someone doing something utterly incomprehensible, but with care, skill and conviction.

It's also funny in a weird sort of way. Yes, the craft of it is very watchable, but the absurdity of applying this kind of skill to making rope 'shoes' with which to walk through Bedminster is, faintly ridiculous. Nor does Pete seem po-faced about it. It doesn't feel inappropriate to laugh a little. And as a result, I'd much rather be cheering Pete home through BS3, than applaud anything David Blaine does.

On top of this, as Pete's 'shoes' developed, the knotty balls at the end of his legs began to remind me of this truly gobsmackingly freakish Discovery Channel shock-doc I saw a bit of when I was up at my parents' for Christmas. I won't go into the details cos it was really quite horrific, but in true Discovery Channel style, the documentary was called "Half Man, Half Tree."

Michael David Jones: Define Me
I think the fairest thing to say about this piece is that it was "transitional". As an observer, I'd say Mike Jones' thinking in terms of how he makes work has moved forward hugely over the last year, which is great for a young artist. I think this was much more a piece asking 'could he do this?' and 'what would happen if...?', rather than a finished piece that would make for a really satisfying audience experience. He recognised this though, and Arnolfini's live programme can be a really supportive arena for testing these ideas with a sensitive audience.

A one-one-one piece. Each audience member was given a small envelope and could spend up to 5 minutes in the space. Inside, Mike was lying on a plinth, naked and eyes closed. Inside the envelope was a card which read: "What do you see when you look at my flesh?" and "You may write directly onto my body."

Personally, I was thrown a bit by the tone of the question. I found the word 'flesh' a bit difficult to respond to - I couldn't really see Mike as 'flesh'; he was too much a person, particularly as he was asking the question (even if it was written down). What worked best for me was the privacy of the experience. There wasn't any compulsion to react in a certain way. After a couple of hours, the space was opened as an installation so that people could see what had been written. More than anything, what this revealed was the general lack of meaning in all this text drawn together. Perhaps that's why I'd made a deliberately obscure marking during my own private session (I drew a Sinhalese letter) - I knew what it meant, but Mike didn't know. I didn't think about it consciously at the time, but perhaps the fact that it didn't feel like there was any dialogue/connection between me and the prone MD Jones made me feel like I didn't need him to understand the mark I'd make. Ultimately, I think this probably failed to fully satisfy the expectations of either artist or audience, but was probably useful in terms of the development of Mike's artistic practice.

Shi Ker: Down to Earth
Shi Ker's a Chinese PhD student. The one thing I can say for sure about him, is that he's always bound to go at least that little bit further than most people would. What's great is that there's an openness to humour in what he does. His work sits on some sort of line between extreme body art and slapstick - a bit like Chris Burden's Shoot Piece, where there's the moment he gets shot in the arm, and then the moment he squeals "OW!!". Well, I've not seen Shi Ker get anyone to shoot him yet, but I have seen him eat raw chillies AND drink salt water in the SAME SHOW...

Down To Earth is much more Monty Python (a direct steal in some ways - but I'm all for stealing from the greats). It involves Shi Ker in full climbing gear, tackling the 'sheer face' of quayside between Jury's hotel and Arnolfini, with only a few trees acting as ledges in between.

Like Pete Barrett, Shi Ker performs his task with care and focus. Of course it's funny, but like any well performed theatre it makes you take a little leap into another dimension and the audience cheer his progress from the sidelines. I don't think it's the principle focus of the piece, but with so much time to stare at the cobbles, you notice that the danger in this climb comes from all the broken glass, dog shit, bird shit, fag butts and other shit which liberally peppers the ground. He might have gravity on his side, but it's still an endurance.

And then the finale. Having reached the summit (Arnolfini's main doors), he recoups, kept warm in a foil blanket, chainsmoking like the end of a long hard day. A white stool is set up as a podium, on which he stands, is presented with a bouquet, and then remains, hand placed on heart, whilst a mash up of several national anthems is played on a crappy little stereo (maybe there's no genny on top of Everest?). The genius is that he maintains the perspective the whole way through - the podium is on its side and he is lying on the ground throughout. And he smokes through the whole ceremony.

It was cock-eyed for sure, but importantly (given the context) it was consistent. It was funny, without being flippant about the action. I don't know what it means, in the same way as I don't know what climbing Everest means, but there was something of the spirit of endeavour about it that was joyous, even if it did seem like a bit of a ridiculous thing to do. But then, I wouldn't climb Everest either.

Friday, 18 January 2008


For some reason, I've so far avoided blogging about one of the best things in the world EVER - namely, Doctor Who. OK, so I've snuck in a couple of brief mentions, but now that I've written nearly 7000 words about other stuff, I'm going to bloody indulge myself.
OK, the minor freakout about where to start has subsided and I now have a strategy. I had thought, why not write about each of the Doctor Who stories I'd seen since Christmas? The answer to which is: that would be silly. What with the Christmas special, the DVD box sets Santa so kindly left us, and lots of lovely time off work, there's been LOTS of Doctor Who watched round our gaff over the last few weeks. So instead of everything, I'm going to start at the beginning...

An Unearthly Child
First broadcast 23 November 1963

When I was 11, I read and wrote a report on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine as one of my English homework assignments. My summing up of the book went something along the lines of: "not a bad story, but not very original. The idea of time travel has already been done better by Dr Who", against which my teacher, Dr Wilkinson, wrote in the margin, "HG Wells wrote this years before Dr Who!" Even so, I still got 8/10 for the essay.

Now, I'm not in the habit of remembering my homework marks from 20 years ago, but that one's always stuck with me. I can even remember that I wrote "Dr Who" as opposed to "Doctor Who" as I would now. Of course, as soon as I got the essay back I couldn't believe how stupid I'd been. It had simply never occurred to me that there was a time before Doctor Who existed. It illustrates how embedded into the cultural landscape Doctor Who had become. Even in 1988, when the Classic series was in its death throes, it was impossible to dismiss it. Maybe it was part of that taking it for granted that allowed us to let it get a bit shit in the '80s and limp off our screens with a whimper...

So, given that to some extent I grew up with the impression that Timelords were the first beings to harness the power of time travel, it was fascinating, at last, to watch the first ever episode of Doctor Who. Even though I'd seen numerous documentaries and read lots and lots about the almost clinical design of this new show, it still gave me tingles to see how they introduced it to the 4.4 million people who were watching on 23 November 1963.

Of course, what strikes you first is the opening credits. No matter how many times I see them, there's still something extremely weird about them. Right from the outset, they take you somewhere else. Maybe it's to do with the fact that visually, the howl-around is made out of TV itself? However it works, it sets it up brilliantly. I'd love to know what it was like to see/hear those credits when they were first broadcast... but then again, there's some that say the entire '60s looked and sounded just like that.

And when it starts, it doesn't start all cosy and familiar. It starts creepy and dark. A junkyard. Broken things. Forgotten things. Things without purpose. Things out of place. A police public call box, humming, vaguely... It's properly creepy. In fact, the tone of the first episode is consistently eerie - particularly in the pilot recording (the episode was re-recorded with minor changes - principally lightening the tone of The Doctor's character - for broadcast).

One of the most impressive things about this first episode is how concise it is. 45 years and a whole expanded Whoniverse later, it perhaps seems like a more massive idea than it was at the time, but it was still asking its audience to get their heads around some pretty mindbending concepts in 23 minutes:

a) Aliens that look like humans
b) A space/time ship that looks like a police box.
And of course...
c) The TARDIS - it's bigger on the inside.

Cleverly, the episode focuses its attention on introducing these ideas. Susan's oddness - her alienness - is what stirs the teachers' concern (or curiosity - as the science teacher, Ian Chesterton points out). There's no adventure as such in this first ep - unless you consider getting lost in a junkyard at night with no matches, an adventure. It's the discovery of this portal to adventure that is focus of it. The Doctor asks:

"Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?"

and that's the question. And the fact is, Ian and Barbara have been curious. No matter how pissed off they get subsequently, they got curious about Susan and barged their way into the TARDIS. They didn't not notice, they weren't not warned and they still didn't hang back. And what you get for keeping going into the dark and the fog, is cavemen, Daleks and the TARDIS getting clever about communicating. That's just the first three stories.

A lot of Doctor Who is about intrusion. Consequence. The indelibility of the footprint you leave, no matter how touristy your intentions. Interestingly, it seems to take the line that, no matter how back and forth you dart in time, as a traveller, your memory of events is chronological to your experience of them. To quote Futurama, "You watched it. You can't unwatch it." And then what do you do with that knowledge? If you could go back in time... if you could see the future... if you could go to another world where no-one knew anything about you... ?

And since we haven't yet harnessed the power of time travel (though I heard someone on the radio a couple of months ago, who was attempting time travel via a point of light, lots of mirrors and - I think - a cup of coffee), it's still worth thinking what it might be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension.

If you're interested, there's a detailed breakdown of the episode here. In theory, it's linked to the following three episodes which form a lacklustre runaround involving cavemen and the search for fire, but frankly, it's too dull to bother with in the same breath as the opening episode.
* "Activate... The Device" is one of my favourite Doctor Who quotes. It's from a Peter Davison era story called Earthshock. It's from when the Cybermen had rubbishy voices and sounded a bit like a bunch of posh old men who'd had a bit too much to drink.
"Activate," says the Cyberleader. Pause. What? we say. Activate what? the tension is immense.
"The Device" says the Cyberleader, at length. Ah! we say. The Device.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Hang on, you missed a bit

image: The Performance Reenactment Society

OK, so when it says the last post was written on 10 Nov 2007, what that actually means is that I started writing it on 10 Nov 07, but only finished writing it today (4 Jan 2008 - woo hoo! Happy new year etc etc etc), which doesn't exactly bode well for writing about all the shows I've not yet written about.

It's not quite what I intended, but in accordance with the words of Brian Eno I'm going to, "think of my mistakes as hidden intentions" and attempt to sum up each show I've missed writing about in 100 words or less. Preferably less. Don't all cheer at once. And don't all go on about whether I should be writing 100 words or fewer either.

Goat Island Book Launch event
Friday 26 October 07, Arnolfini, Bristol
So many people come out of the woodwork for Goat Island - like a family or, the cruel amongst you might say, a cult. Their work is wonderful, but so hard to describe. It's esoteric, but not ungraspable. People often read this as wilful obscurity, but I disagree. They never talk around the point. It's just that their point is rarely a tangible thing - more often it's a feeling; a resonance. It was the same in this event. They just read passages from the book, but these are not just passages from the book...
(95 words - hooray!)

Lost Luggage: Brittle Secrets
Friday 2 December, Wickham Theatre, Bristol
I'm not going to dwell on this. It was a very bad show. It was a first collaboration and it would be unfair to judge the company on it - and I know they think that too, and have taken a lot of criticism on board. What really confounded me, was that I could not for the life of me understand how those artists could have made the decisions that created that show. Perhaps no-one fully took on that role, and no real decisions were made, and this is just what they ended up with.
(95 words again - blimey!)

Blind Summit: Low Life
Thursday 8 November, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Hoping to break through my, er, puppet prejudice, I had quite high hopes of this. Well, if you are going to bill the show as Tom Waits meets... Needless to say, I was monumentally disappointed. They were obviously great puppeteers, but as actors they were terrifyingly bad almost talking to camera like Playschool presenters. The writing was bland and made no attempt to delve deep into the stories of these puppet characters, despite the actors introducing each episode on that premise. There was a wonderful section where a crazy-assed film is played out using little blue interchangeable figures, with the puppeteers hidden behind a table. It was the one part of the show which was properly inventive, hugely imaginative and very very funny. The rest of it was pretty mundane and uninspired.
(132 words - baaaaaaaad)

La Pocha Nostra: The New Barbarians Collection
Saturday, 10 November, Arnolfini, Bristol

Now this was one of the most exhilarating, extraordinary performance experiences I've ever had in my life. It was a magnificent rockandroll overload. Like all the best sci-fi, it reveals the here and now in wholly unexpected ways. There's a fabulous review of the show here.
(46 words - acecore!)

The Darkside presents: The Performance Re-enactment Society
Sunday 2 December, Arnolfini, Bristol
Another generous and surprising event in the Darkside series. This was a lovely experiment in turning memory into a tangible, fully archivable (and archived) thing. Working with archivists, costumers, performers and photographers we were able to bring to life a performance moment, as we remembered it. Without labouring the point, it was a playful, but sophisticated way of acknowledging that one of the great things about live performance is its ephemerality. Its legacy is often only in memory, but shouldn't make it any less valid (or valuable) than an object-document. It was also great fun to be encouraged to spend time with a memory, and have that nostalgia indulged. I heard so many great stories from people that I never would have heard because of this. It's put a smile on my face just thinking about it again.
(138 words - oops)

Travelling Light Theatre: The Ugly Duckling
Friday 14 December, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
It had some magical moments and the actor playing the Ugly Duckling was fantastic - all gangly limbs and gurning. I think it suffered from being in space you just can't ignore (those goddammed pillars!) and didn't have the visual scope and magic it should perhaps have aspired to. It was aimed at 2-6 year olds, but I think the younger kids might struggle with it a bit. A lot of fun all the same. Smiles all round!
(78 words)

Franko B in conversation with Jennifer Doyle
Friday 14 November, Arnolfini, Bristol
Franko always has something good to say, but sometimes he needs a bit of wrangling to keep the flow of discussion moving forward. Jennifer Doyle was great at this, without so much of the 'I am not worthy'-ness that sometimes surrounds Franko B - understandably, as he's one of the most extraordinary and generous performers I've ever seen. I always feel it's like he's holding my hand, reassuring me so that I can leap further into the experience than perhaps I would without him. He says some brilliant things tonight - touching on ideas of responsibility, sentimentality, expectation. Even when he's not on form, there's always something inescapably honest about what he says and he's always worth listening to, cos even when he's not on form, he'll still have one or two gems up his sleeve.
(135 words... hmmm... I might come back to this one...)

Blimey - telly next I think. Doctor Who Christmas Special anyone?

images of The Performance Re-enactment Society and New Barbarians Fall Collection. Photos by Carl Newland