Digital Theatre

One of things that has frustrated theatre teachers and students for years is a problem of visual resources. Plays are are rarely recorded in their original form – i.e. using the stage and the set on which they were performed.  If they were, it was a single camera shot that meant most of the subtly of performance and dramatic tension was lost. The alternative was to film a version using the same actors but in a host of different locations, in essence turning from a piece of theatre into a movie – again not much use for students of live performance.

CaptureHowever, in the last couple of years this has begun to change, thankfully. Digital Theatre is a resource that is growing rapidly, capturing British theatre in its original form. This company are building their range of productions and they can be accessed in a variety of ways at quite low cost – sadly not much in life is free.

This is a trailer for their recording of Abi Morgan & Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong, and you get a real sense of the theatricality they have managed to capture.

They also have a daily blog, THE JOURNAL – A Global Culture Mix which whilst not always having a theatre focus, does share some interesting bits and pieces. This week they have started to use guest editors on the journal, and their first is Michael Attenborough, a very well respected director. Take a look!

If anyone of you know of any other similar online services, I would really like to know and share. Please leave a comment if you do.

The Artists Are Revolting

My post today is for arts students, teachers, educators and professionals everywhere. As the economic recession in the West sees funding for the arts slashed, as political dogmatism sees arts education removed from national curricula and as some societies continue to fail to understand the relevance of arts in their culture I was delighted to read this in the Huffington Post, written by Bruce E. Whitacre. A real call to arms!

I reproduce the article here in full.

Theater Education Programs Are in Demand for Workforce Creativity

Imagine a group comprised of accountants, tech executives, actors, corporate CEOs, playwrights and theater directors engaged in an urgent conversation. These rather divergent personalities are all discussing the state of theater education in America and its impact on our country’s economy, culture and future. They all agree that our nation’s future workforce can’t afford a curtain call on creativity.

Recently, IBM surveyed global CEOs and found that they view creativity as the most important leadership competency for the future. But what are we doing as a country to secure this vital resource? A significant number of young people today, when they enter the workforce, will never have been exposed to the valuable skills that come with arts education and specifically the theater experience — thinking on one’s feet; effectively communicating; practicing and rehearsing; writing; and collaborating as a team. This is a missed opportunity. According to the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, in its groundbreaking report “Reinvesting in Arts Education,” arts education is a particularly powerful tool in reaching students who are otherwise turned off by standard school subjects.

??????????????????????Yet, some surveys on arts participation report that fewer than half of adults have participated in arts lessons or classes in schools – a decline from about 65 percent in the 1980s. In fact, government and arts education groups, as well as theaters themselves, have documented a nationwide decline in arts education of upwards of 40 percent. Most of the young people at risk of losing access to arts education come from disadvantaged communities.

The good news is that this meaningful conversation happening at the intersection of the corporate and arts community has yielded much more than just talk and good will. It has in fact led to a nationwide campaign called Impact Creativity, launched with a $250,000 grant from Ernst & Young and its CEO Jim Turley, to sustain and grow theater education programs serving more than half a million disadvantaged youth across the country. Ernst & Young employees have even recorded testimonials about theater education which can be viewed on the Impact Creativity website.

As a former accountant turned theater director and playwright turned non-profit executive, the synergy that feeds Impact Creativity and its otherwise disparate participants makes perfect sense to me. Over the course of the last 10 years, as executive director of the National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF), an association of 19 of the nation’s leading regional theaters, I have been engaging a broad cross-section of individuals across the country with a passion for theater education to explain the challenging circumstances around ensuring that all young people receive meaningful and beneficial arts education.

A perfect storm of state and local budget crises, the lingering recovery in philanthropy, and policy challenges in schools such as a hyper-focus on testing, as well as a resistance by local schools to spend precious resources on field trips to theaters, are keeping thousands of kids from seeing live theater even at greatly reduced prices, or even for free in many cases.

It is clear that challenging times are bringing out new solutions. Through the umbrella of the Impact Creativity campaign and the 19 NCTF theaters, we are able to hold a truly national conversation among the theaters themselves, prospective donors, and advocates about how to strengthen education offerings and challenge the status quo. We are working to address the issue of fragmentation in arts education which can make the entire sector increasingly vulnerable. Programs can benefit from a sharing of best practices across various theaters, assessments of nationwide education trends and using new technological tools.

In traveling around the country to visit with NCTF theaters, I have the amazing privilege of seeing inventive programs that take theater and young people to surprising places. The Illinois Institute of Technology, for example, uses the Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) production of A Christmas Carol as part of its STEM curriculum to teach physics through stage mechanics and special effects in the show. In Rhode Island, Trinity Repertory Company has one of the country’s most dynamic and robust acting programs for children on the autism spectrum which uses theater based techniques to develop children’s voices and movements ultimately boosting their self-confidence, self-awareness and creativity. Hartford Stage, in partnership with Wells Fargo, has brought to life the bank’s financial literary curriculum through performance-based theater exercises and improvisational activities for middle school students. And at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, young women from diverse backgrounds are participating in the Y-We Speak program to create an original theater piece based on their life experiences empowering them with leadership skills.

These programs have shown me that enriching the nation’s youth through drama is inextricably linked to preparing a robust creative workforce of tomorrow. Strengthening this link, with partners in the arts and the corporate community, remains critical to the social, cultural and economic fabric of our communities. Impact Creativity will be at the nexus of these conversations in the year ahead. Join us.

And there is more. New findings from the Adobe State of Create Study suggest a global creativity gap in the world’s largest economies: US, UK, Germany, France and Japan. Click the graphic below to read the headlines of their report


Even the BBC are running a series on the value of the arts to our economies and in our societies. Click the image below for their video report and article, Putting a price on the value of art:


A World Feast

The phrase ‘global village’ sprung to mind when I read what I am going to share with you today – on a number of levels. The Young Vic and Royal Court theatres in London have collaborated to produce a new musical, Feast, that spans 300 years, takes in five countries – and needed 10 writers in an ambitious attempt to dramatise the culture and belief system of Yoruba.

Feast, at the Young Vic.








A piece truly worthy of the title of world theatre – not only in its content but how it was created and by whom. I reproduce here, in full, an article by Maddy Costa that appeared in The Guardian this week that tells the fascinating story of Feast‘s conception and development.

Feast: the Young Vic goes Yoruba

There’s a party going on. Damon Albarn is busy improvising on a thumb piano. Sola Akingbola, the drummer from Jamiroquai, is playing a shuffle on a shekere (a large maraca strung with beads). And Cuban dancer Yanet Fuentes is shivering her hips to the rhythm. In the middle of it all sits theatre director Rufus Norris – the man responsible for harnessing this hubbub and putting it on stage.

These are the rehearsals for Feast, a new play tracing the spread of the Yoruba belief system and culture from its home in Nigeria to Cuba, Brazil, the US and UK. Since he began directing in the late 1990s, Norris has sought out difficult projects – among them London Road, a jagged musical dealing with the aftermath of serial killings in Ipswich; and Dr Dee, Albarn’s first opera, about a 16th-century alchemist. (The two have remained friends, hence Albarn’s open ticket to this rehearsal room in a London warehouse, even though he’s not in this show.)

Feast is no exception. It has five writers, who live in four continents, and a cast of 13. The story covers 300 years of Yoruba experience, taking in slavery, liberation, family and social politics. But Feast isn’t a history lesson, says Norris, and if it’s going to feel authentic to the Yoruba belief system – in which everything from a table to a sheet of plastic has its own spirit – “you can’t just have a load of blah-blah on stage”. Which is one reason why, right now, he’s gently arguing with his choreographer, George Cespedes, about the actors’ intricate dance moves. Norris thinks they will liven up the staging; Cespedes, who is used to having more rehearsal before curtain-up, is getting worried about the time.


Feast was dreamed up by Elyse Dodgson, who runs the international department at London’s Royal Court, which is co-producing the show with the Young Vic. In the mid-2000s, Dodgson happened to be working simultaneously with playwrights in Nigeria and Latin America, and was struck by how the orishas, or spirits, of Yoruba belief had travelled across the Atlantic with the men and women who were transported as slaves, and fused with Catholicism to form the basis of local religions: santeria in Cuba, candomblé in Brazil. “It’s such an amazing story of survival,” says Dodgson – the trouble was how to tell it. It took two years of workshops, involving as many as 10 playwrights, to reach the form Feast is in now. Those workshops, writer Gbolahan Obisesan admits, were a tussle, as he and his fellow writers struggled to “agree on something that links all of us together”.

Norris insisted from the beginning that he didn’t want the show to feel like a string of vignettes, so Feast coalesced around four figures drawn from Yoruba cosmology: Yemoja, the mother goddess; Oshun, goddess of love; Oya, the spirit of change; and Eshu, the trickster, who causes chaos wherever he goes. These are reincarnated across the show, taking the form of sisters separated by slave traders, civil-rights protesters in 1960s America, and athletes in modern London vociferously debating whether black people should have white lovers or white bosses. Each of the five writers – American Tanya Barfield, Cuban Yunior García Aguilera, Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde, Brazilian Marcos Barbosa, and Obisesan, who moved to the UK from Nigeria in 1990, when he was nine – is responsible for the segments set in their own country.

Clearly this hasn’t been the simplest of ways to work (just trying to interview the five writers proves almost impossible). Why not settle on a single voice? Babatunde speaks for all of them when he says: “The dynamics of the story of Nigerian diaspora can only properly be reflected by the changing tones of each section.” Barfield adds that, given the hybrid nature of much Yoruba culture, there was no other way: “It’s rare to have the structure and the theme [of a play] work so much in tandem. The weaving of the stories mirrors the weaving of belief systems.”

Norris suggests a more down-to-earth reason: “There are details in the Cuba scene that nobody who wasn’t from there would come up with. Similarly, nobody can really write the Nigerian scene unless they have a deep understanding of the women there.”

Strikingly, the five writers met only once, in London last spring, but discovered links between them both expected and unforeseen. Babatunde knew the orishas had travelled to Latin America with slavery, but hadn’t realised how openly they are worshipped in Brazil and Cuba. For his part, Aguilera knew that orishas inform a lot of day-to-day Cuban rituals (such as the deliberate spilling of the first drop of rum from a bottle, to appease the spirits), yet it wasn’t until he was in London that he attended his first santeria ceremony.

The writers found connections in their different upbringings, too. “When you step out of the household [in Nigeria],” says Obisesan, “you’re not just a representation of yourself as a human being, you represent the whole family, the house you were brought up in. You represent your ancestors.” That’s something Barfield was surprised to recognise from her Oregon childhood: “Many black Americans have no knowledge of our ancestors whatsoever, yet the belief system of ancestral heritage is fundamental to the black community.” And although she was brought up Christian, the Yoruba belief in pervasive spirits did feel familiar: “The idea of God being everywhere is very much a part of African-American belief.”

This notion of pervasive spirits was key to Norris’s staging of the Wole Soyinka play Death and the King’s Horseman at the National Theatre in 2009: the audience could see that the props and furniture were “alive” because they were given life by puppeteers, but the white colonial characters couldn’t. Norris lived in Nigeria for the first three years of his life, while his father taught in a university there; to him, belief in spirits makes perfect sense. “It’s not romantic. There’s an energy to things, and the people there have a deep understanding of that.” He remembers reading an interview with a Yoruba priest who, at the suggestion that his beliefs were mere superstition, replied along the lines of: “If somebody is blind, you cannot talk to them about sight. You can’t see it; I can. I’ll just have to allow you to remain in ignorance.” Such resilience helps to explain the tenacity of Yoruba culture, he suggests: the way it survived slavery, its permeation into other lands.

For all his belief in Feast, Norris is anxious about putting it on stage. Not only do multi-authored plays tend not to go down well with critics, but this is the latest production from World Stages London, a collaboration between eight London theatres whose work last year – including outdoor community piece Babel, pan-European play Three Kingdoms and Bollywood musical Wah! Wah! Girls – received mixed reviews. “If I’m honest, I’m bracing myself,” says Norris. “But this is a celebration of an amazing culture – you can’t deliver that in a lecture form. And our theatre needs to open up.”

And with that, he goes back to the Latin dancers, the uplifting rhythms, the vibrant story of saints and survivors.

A ruling for common sense

I’ll start today’s post with an apology to my regular readers. My Christmas holiday from blogging somehow extended through January too. However, I now have a backlog of things to share so be prepared.






Regular readers will know I have been following the story of David Cecil, a British theatre producer, who had been jailed in Uganda for staging a play about homosexuality. The start of 2013 finally saw this injustice put right, when Cecil was released (on a legal technicality).






You can read the full story here.

It is somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, given why he was released, but at least David Cecil is now a free man.