Something About Judy

This week I have been watching my Theatre Arts students give a variety of presentations on theatre traditions originating from their own cultures. Teaching in an international school means that these are always wonderfully varied. What struck me this time however, were the number of students who had identified puppet theatre forms. This got me thinking again about the resurgence of puppetry. I then read this article, by Beccy Smith, in Exeunt. In it she ponders the attraction to a modern audience. Smith, as well as being a dramaturg and writer, runs a company called Touched Theatre who are performing a piece called Blue at the Suspense Festival in London.

What is it about puppets that so captures the contemporary imagination? In recent years life-size horses have stormed the West End, a decidedly larger-than-life elephant has paraded down the Mall and beautifully crafted figures of myriad shapes and sizes have entertained audiences in touring theatres up and down the country. Of course, as an art-form puppetry is not new: forms like Greek Karagoz and Indonesian Wayang Kulik can be traced back to ancient times and even our ‘own’ Mr Punch boasts a fairly impressive lineage from as far back as the writing of Pepys diaries and probably beyond. But a growing interest in puppetry has made itself felt of late and there’s a distinct sense that this oldest of theatrical languages is returning en vogue…..What puppetry draws together in these disparate strands is an emphasis on visual storytelling, on expressing meaning through action and image that I think speaks particularly vividly to contemporary audiences versed in media imagery and embodied theatrical languages.


I started to get especially interested in the connections between puppetry and other performance languages when making a show called Headcase, in 2011 which was collaboration between a dancer and a puppeteer. The show set out to portray the emotional experiences of teenagers experiencing mental heath difficulties which were themselves difficult to articulate by their sufferers but which we found, by working with the young people over a period of time, could be effectively expressed through movement and gesture. We discovered that dancers have an intuitive understanding of puppetry because of the formal qualities they share in portraying feeling and idea through movement and rhythm (we also learned a lot about the age-old connections of puppetry and therapy, but that’s another article).

Puppetry has the exceptional ability to combine within itself the abstract with the specific. Puppet figures, embodied as bug-eyed capering monsters or delicately floating wraiths, present character with engaging immediacy. Puppets can talk – sometimes you can’t shut them up – they can do text from Shakespeare to Beckett though they are decidedly not literate because so much of the meaning they convey is expressed through their material form – how they look, how they move, what they are made of. For puppets subtext is in the body. The pretensions of a hero are punctured by his being made out of sponge; a romantic heroine’s mortality is embedded in the fragile paper of which she’s formed. Puppetry is able to borrow the most powerful elements of a range of art forms – the rich metaphors of of the visual arts, the dynamic expressiveness of dance, the detailed articulacy of poetry. They’re a wonderful theatre mongrel for a post post modern audience versed in Brecht and Lecoq.

And what is most powerful of course is puppetry’s status as shared fantasy. The wiling suspension of disbelief is in-built to this form and central to its magic, its emotional resonance. In making Blue, the new interactive mystery we ail be opening at SUSPENSE, we wanted to test out how close to the audience we could bring our puppets and still invite them to take an imaginative leap. Blue explores working with audiences moving though different spaces on the hunt to discover what has happened to a missing young woman …… and this amplifies the storytelling power of the placement and disclosure of puppets and objects. Whilst our array of suspects characters speak much but reveal little, the memory, metaphor and magic that power the story’s real action express themselves through the puppetry and video that haunt their spaces.

You might argue that the appeal of puppetry to today’s audiences is as a way to step out of some of the grimmer realities of our current realities, to reach for the fantasy and playfulness of childhood, but my feeling is that the artistic riches of the art form empower it as a vehicle through which to plumb the depths and articulate the heights of human experience – a range that’s much in evidence in the lovingly crafted programme at this year’s SUSPENSE.

This Is Your Final Call

This is the most simple, yet greatly informative post for performance students, in so many ways. To quote The Guardian who have published it on their site:

As part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre, last year film-maker Pinny Grylls was granted exclusive access backstage with some of the National’s company. In the documentary she created, The Hour, we watch the all-important 60 minutes before curtain-up as actors including Simon Russell Beale, Ruby Bentall, Ciarán Hinds, Jenny Jules, Rory Keenan and Sophie Thompson warm up, get into costume and character, and embark on the nerve-racking nightly ritual of preparing to go on stage at one of Britain’s busiest and most high-profile theatres.

What makes me smile most is the unspoken hierarchy. It is really worth making the time to watch it. Click the image below for the link:


Specific, Responsive or Sympathetic?

PAI have just listened to this and it is very inspiring in a number of ways. Amongst the panel are Punchdrunk Artistic Director, Felix Barrett and Jenny Sealey who was co-director of the London Paralympic Opening Ceremony and who is Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company (pronounced grey-eye). Creatively, to listen to these 4 people all of whom are responsible for making theatre in non-theatre buildings and in open spaces, it is just so impelling. Even more so, however, is Sealey’s passion for what she does and what she believes in. A real force of nature! Give it a listen, I implore you! And if you aren’t sure of the difference between site-specific, site-responsive and site-sympathetic theatre, you will be by the end.



Breathing Life

Peter Glanville

Peter Glanville

My first post today is a follow-up to an earlier one, On A Wing And A Prayer, about a puppet production of Macbeth and puppetry for adults. Theatre Voice has just interviewed Macbeth’s director Peter Glanville who talks about the show, puppetry in general and its popularity and you can listen to the interview here:

Director Peter Glanville talks puppets and puppetry

It is a worth while listen, as he talks about Bunraku as a puppetry form and why there is a trend for creating puppet theatre for adults. You are left in no doubt that puppetry is a thriving world theatre form that is increasingly being embraced by theatre critics and audiences alike. Long may this continue.


In the interview, reference is made to the Suspense Festival, which Glanville started a few years ago, which focuses on puppetry that is specifically made for adult audiences. This year’s festival is about to open, featuring work from companies from a number of countries, much of which has toured internationally. Check who is performing here and just what a diverse range of puppetry style are being showcased.

Palaces of Fun

I have been collecting material for today’s post for quite a while and following the development of one aspect for most of this year. 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of Joan Littlewood, the celebrated founder of the radical Theatre Workshopand director of the internationally renowned Oh What A Lovely Wara piece that was widely recognised as changing attitudes towards World War I, as this recording from the BBC Witness programme describes.

Another, longer, programme broadcast yesterday, also by the BBC, talks about the creation of the show and is really fascinating.


joanlittlewood460Outside theatre circles, Littlewood is largely remembered for Lovely War but she in fact had an impact on the development of theatre and theatre practice to such an extent that she is credited with being a radical theatrical visionary and one of original figures responsible for the regeneration of the British theatre. Her obituaries in the New York Times and The Guardian paint great pictures of her life and career. However, having had an incredible impact on the development of British theatre, there was one aspect of her work that was never realised – The Fun Palace. An article by writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy in The Guardian explains:

Celebrating Joan Littlewood: it’s time to build her fun palaces

The trailblazing director wanted to create cultural spaces across the UK. In 2014, her centenary year, you can make it happen

In January, at Improbable’s annual Devoted and Disgruntled event, I called one session:“Who wants to do something for Joan Littlewood’s centenary in October 2014, that isn’t another revival of Oh! What a Lovely War?”.

Oh! What a Lovely War, which Joan developed, is brilliant, but with the first world war anniversary next year, there will be many revivals and Joan was more than a director. She was one of the few British directors (before or since) to work fully with an ensemble, from training to performance. She made “immersive” theatre long before immersive was cool. She kick-started improvisation in the UK. She was political, formidable, inspiring, and far ahead of her time.

In 1961, Joan and the architect Cedric Price came up with the idea of thefun palace. Their blueprint says:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

An idea descended from pleasure gardens, the fun palace was designed to link arts and sciences, entertainment and education, in a space welcoming to all – especially children and young people. Joan knew she had not yet discovered a way to welcome those who found buildings and institutions daunting – the fun palace would be about public engagement at its most open and inclusive. Perhaps because they wanted to make links between places such as the zoo and Wembley, via screens and technology that did not yet exist; perhaps it was just too soon. But the councils wouldn’t give the land, the permissions and money did not eventuate.


In the D&D discussion we talked about fun palaces maybe happening anywhere. I tweeted that maybe, and there were dozens of immediate responses. It helped that some were from big buildings like the RSC……. I thought we might make three or four fun palaces for Joan’s centenary.

Today we have 134 venues, companies, schools, universities, museums, arts centres and digital companies engaged, as well as hundreds of independent artists. There are scientists, film-makers, fine artists, walkers, storytellers, a cub scout pack, massive venues and tiny two-person companies, wanting to make their “laboratory of the streets” on 4-5 October 2014.

Sarah-Jane Rawlings and I……. aim to bring it all together with a brilliant, yet-to-be-created website, digital and physical links. We don’t know what your locality wants – but you do. Together we’ll make fun palaces 2014, across the UK and beyond, a step towards the kind of engagement many of us believe in and most of us have yet to achieve. Doing it together, jointly and uniquely, will be a huge shout about the value of cultural engagement, just as 2012 was for sport.

And if we don’t change the world next year, we’ll do it again in 2015 and 2016.

Since then, individuals, groups, theatres, companies, professionals and amateurs from across the world have signed up to take part. Theatre Royal Stratford East, Littlewood’s own theatre,  has become the organising hub and their website is hosting The Fun Palace site. Stella Duffy is an avid tweeter and there is clear excitement from people on there. You can read the Fun Palace 2014 Manifesto here which also gives you the statistics for who is taking part as of this month – 264 and rising.

Untitled_FotorI think this is a great idea and I am looking forward to see how and where it develops over the next year.

A Poke In The Eye

I have just come across the work of a theatre company called Spymonkey. Founded in 1997, it is a pan-european outfit with performers from Spain, Germany and England and, according to the Boston Herald, they produce a

dark, edgy physical comedy rooted ‘somewhere between Monty Python, the Marx Brothers and Samuel Beckett.

Untitled_FotorThey are clearly an international success as their tour schedule shows.  Their current piece is called Oedipussy, an irreverent take on the Sophocles classic, Oedipus Rex. Now this just happens to be one of my favourite Greek plays – I am, in fact, a great fan of ancient Greek theatre – and it normally features in my teaching of exam years at some point. I love telling the narrative to my students and waiting for the wails of disbelief/disgust to start, once things begin to unravel for Oedipus and they, my students, realise what is going to happen next.  Playing with Greek Chorus is a great way into teaching/learning about ensemble technique. If you don’t know the play, or much about Greek theatre in general, there is an exhaustive work-pack here, from the National Theatre of Great Britain.

Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus 2008

Ralph Fiennes as Oedipus 2008

For me, the great thing about Greek Tragedy is the epic nature of the tales and sheer breadth of humanity’s (and the Gods’) frailties laid bare. But I have always thought they were just a stone’s throw away from being riotously funny too, and it would seem that this is what Spymonkey has done with their version. Indeed, one critic commented that there is a brilliant moment at the end of Spymonkey’s spoof, an evening which proves that in every tragedy there is a comedy trying to get out. Another commented that some people will never “get” Spymonkey: their loss. This is not just inventive comedy but an affirmation of all human weakness…


Take a look at this taster for the piece. I should warn you though that sight of grown men wearing nappies/diapers is a tad disturbing.


Finally I have been looking for a reason to post this photograph, trawled from Twitter. It amused me immensely:

Photo 146_Fotor

Post Apocalyptic Homer

My first post today is an article that appeared yesterday on Howlround, written by Jonathan Mandell. In it, Mandell posits that television is having an influence on theatre making. It makes an interesting read, and whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all his points, it certainly gives pause for thought. The play that appears to have prompted this, Mr Burns, A Post Electric Play, does sound fascinating and I will share some more about it at the end of the article.

8 Ways Television Is Influencing Theater

Anne Washburn started watching The Simpsons and writing plays at about the same time, and didn’t think they had anything to do with one another until she wrote Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, running at Playwrights Horizons until October 20.


Her play imagines how survivors of an apocalypse would remember episodes of The Simpsons immediately after the end of civilization, then seven years later and seventy-five years after that. It illustrates what might be the most obvious of the eight ways, I am suggesting, that television is influencing theater.

1. Shared Cultural Experience
“I envy the experience of the Greeks or the Elizabethans,” Washburn says. “That whole audience came in knowing the stories. They could focus on the characters.”

Television comes closest to providing a similar shared culture. “Movies do too,” Washburn says, “but movies are gone so quickly. Because TV shows are around so consistently for so long, they’re more finely woven into our lives.”

The Simpsons has always been a part of some people’s lives. Everybody knows who Homer and Marge are,” adds Washburn.

Avenue Q has had a long successful life by tapping into the affection for Sesame Street; imagining what Muppet-like characters (or, in truth, Muppet-watching children) would be like when they become adults.

“The characters on television shows are so much a part of the culture that people want to write about them,” says Washburn. Even plays or musicals that don’t revolve around a TV show can make allusions to them.

2. Direct Source Material
Sometimes a TV show is directly adapted for the stage. A recent example of this is The Addams Family. But while every movie studio has a department whose job it is to adapt its films for the stage, there is no such job in the TV networks.


“There’s a huge influx of movies being made into musicals, but not too many TV shows made into plays,” says Mark Subias, head of the theater department at United Talent Agency.

It is harder to get the rights to a television show, and easier to make money from one without adapting it for another medium. “Once it goes into syndication, there is so much money to be made, there’s not much motivation,” says Subias.

Still, it may be surprising to discover the television origins of some well-established works of theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, now on Broadway, debuted in 1958 as a musical written specifically for television. Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, currently in a revival on Broadway, began life on March 1, 1953 as an hour-long TV play starring Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint. Foote turned his teleplay into a stage play later that year, and it briefly ran on Broadway sixty years ago.

“Recently Gilligan’s IslandThe Brady Bunch, and Happy Days have been turned into musicals,” says Rebecca Pallor, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. “Although the producers of Happy Days (and no doubt the others) had aspirations of bringing the shows to Broadway, it has not yet happened. I seem to recall an attempt to turn I Dream of Jeannie into a musical as well.”

Even if few television shows currently serve as direct source material for stage shows, it seems clear that this is for reasons other than their popularity. There would surely be an audience for such adaptations, and a nation of TV-watchers can’t help but exert an influence on what does get presented on stage.

3. Forms And Approaches
“We live in a world now where you could argue that long, series television is the state of the art of storytelling,” director Sam Mendes said recently in explaining why he had turned Shakespeare’s history plays into a four-part TV series renamed The Hollow Crown, currently being shown on PBS.

“People have been doing interesting things with forms on television—The Wire, obviously,” says Washburn. “The way people are thinking about the arc of characters is really exciting.”

In my previous HowlRound article, Too Much Theater? The New Marathons, I said that the recent experiments in epic works of theater such as Mike Daisey’s All The Faces of the Moon—29 different monologues over 29 nights—could be influenced by television. As Daisey told me “the work is the size, in time, of a season or more of a TV show. Which allows new ways to listen.”

David Van Asselt, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, also used television as a reference point when talking to me about his brainchild, The Hill Town Plays—five of Lucy Thurber’s plays presented simultaneously in five different theaters in the Village. “With Lucy’s plays, you could see a play a week. We’re not asking any more of an audience than a TV show.”

These theater artists are far from the only ones who see television’s effect on the forms that theater (and not just “epic theater”) is using.

“It’s easy to see the influence television has had on me as a dramatist,” says Jay Stull, a director, literary manager, and the author of The Capables, a play recently produced Off-Broadway about a family of hoarders caught up in the world of reality television. But Stull doesn’t just mean using television as a subject.

“Television has conditioned me to prefer shorter scenes, quicker cuts, and fractured unities, but also to prefer longer stories generally.”

“I’m sure that watching TV changed how I think about dramatic rhythm,” says Washburn.

“I wonder whether characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano—the preponderance of anti-heroes on cable—make theater audiences more accepting of villains,” says playwright Sam Marks. “There are very few characters in my plays who are just ‘good.’”

Similarly, Matthew Maher, who plays Homer Simpson (among other characters) in Mr. Burns, sees a golden age of playwriting develop in just the past few years, because “the audiences of today have been trained to appreciate and develop an appetite for original thinking…and this training has come largely by way of the good shows on TV”—shows, not incidentally, by TV writers like Aaron Sorkin and Elizabeth Meriweather, the creator of the sitcom New Girl, who had their start as playwrights.

Itamar Moses has a mixed view. “I think it’s had some bad influence, in that you’ll see plays that are basically TV shows on stage, with tons of short, naturalistic scenes, in tons of locations for no particular reason.” On the other hand, Moses acknowledges that there are good shows on TV—and indeed, he is one of the growing number of playwrights who write for television.

4. Moonlighting
“If a playwright gets a bad review, he says: ‘I’ll go write for TV,’” says agent Mark Subias. “It’s sort of like a joke.”

In truth, having television as at least a theoretical alternative offers more than psychological support; there is also the money. “Some artists do make a living in the theater, but it’s rare,” says Subias, which is a reason why “I’m always very encouraging of my playwrights writing for television—if they have the temperament and skills (different from playwriting) and the desire.”

And if it doesn’t work out—that too can in a weird way offer support. “One of my writers was hired for a TV show that turned out to be a very stressful, toxic experience,” Subias says. “It made this person realize: ‘I’m a playwright. I need to write for the stage.’”

Itamar Moses, though primarily known as a playwright, has also written for television shows such as Boardwalk Empire. Asked whether his moonlighting has influenced his playwriting, he replies “It’s hard to have perspective on my own work, but I think the answer to this is yes, in two almost contradictory ways: On the one hand, being in a writers’ room makes it really clear how many ways there are to tell a particular story. The number of ideas—good ones—that get tossed around and then thrown out over the course of a day in a writers’ room, let alone a season, is staggering. So I think it probably made me less precious in my playwriting about staying married to my first idea, gave me faith that if I allowed the writers’ room inside my head to kick things around a little more, there might be a better idea on the horizon, and a better one after that.”

He adds,“On the other hand, because the money is so good in TV, with the trade-off being that you’re generally a cog in a larger machine, serving someone else’s vision, working with characters and a world someone else made up, it made me feel even more strongly that, in my playwriting, there was absolutely no reason to ever do anything other than exactly what I wanted to do. If I’m going to be paid almost nothing to make something that, relatively speaking, almost no one is going to see, I might as well execute my own vision.”

5. Departures (Disruptions)
The list is long of theater actors who have left a stage show for a role on TV or the movies. Some leave abruptly, disrupting the show they are in. Some never return to the theater; the stage was their stepping stone. (Pictured here is Sara Ramirez who made a splash in Spamalot on Broadway, winning a Tony for her role as The Lady of the Lake. She hasn’t been back since cast as Dr. Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy).

But even those performers who want to make a career in the theater also have to make a living. “It’s really difficult to cast a play in New York during pilot season, which I think is around February and March,” says Washburn. “All these actors go out to L.A. I hear ‘I’d love to audition for your play, but…’”

The effect is less obvious for playwrights than performers, but, says Washburn, “when you’re writing for television, you’re not writing a play. It remains to be seen whether some of the theater writers who left for TV will come back.”

6. Celebrity Casting
The term “stunt casting” was coined for cameos or “guest appearances”  by celebrities (usually movie stars) in television shows. It is a term almost always used pejoratively when describing the increasing practice of hiring celebrities (usually television or movie stars) to perform in a play or musical.

“If I could get a ‘star’ who’s a terrific actor, that’s a great thing,” says David Van Asselt of Rattlestick. “We’re trying to get audiences. I’m trying to find ways so attention can be brought to a play.”

The problem comes with an expanding definition of celebrity to embrace, that includes, for example, “stars” of reality television, who often have no experience on stage. Such casting is no longer restricted to bit roles; they are often asked to play the leads. Some shows have decided on a strategy to extend their runs by casting a succession of performers hired not for their talent, but because their names will attract publicity and lure in their fans.

“The great pleasure of theater for me is to see really good acting in action,” Washburn says. “Theater acting is a hard discipline; the more you do it, the better you are. People understand that stunt casting is an economic thing. But it does change the experience.”

7. Video Projections
Just this year, the Drama Desk Awards added a new category, Outstanding Projection Design, acknowledging the increasing use of videos on stage.


The winner was Peter Nigrini for Here Lies Love, the musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that was presented at the Public Theater in a theater set up to resemble a disco. But videos were used for more than just pulsating music video images. Videographers trailed the characters, projecting live close-ups on screens, as if they were news cameramen filming the characters making speeches or holding press conferences.

Wendall K. Harrington was given credit as “multi-image producer” for They’re Playing Our Song way back in 1979—the first of thirty six Broadway shows for which she has served as projection designer. Three years ago, she launched a new concentration in projection design at the Yale School of Drama.

“I explain to my classes that every playwright and director alive today grew up in the age of cinema and television,” Harrington says. “There is so much projection because they have been conditioned to think in these terms: Theater directors want scenes to ‘dissolve’ into each other; they’d like a ‘close up’—these are cinematic and TV terms. It would be hard now to write a play like Long Days Journey into Night—four hours in one room seems unthinkable.”

Videos on stage allow the kind of close-ups that were one of the advantages that television and movies had over the theater, and that audiences have come to expect, if not demand. But theater has taken the TV technology and turned it into something else. One example occurred in the Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, which included three video monitors with a live feed. To present the three witches, the three monitors showed Cumming from three different angles.

“The larger issue,” Harrington asks, “is whether the increasing use of video projections is affecting the quality of theater. Stay tuned for that.”

8. Theater As Anti-Television
A director once told Theresa Rebeck, playwright and television writer, “that since realism is done so well by television and feature films, the theater must explore something else.”

In her book Free Fire Zone, Rebeck makes it clear that she thinks the unnamed director is a fool (for one thing, she doesn’t think TV does realism well). Nonetheless, the director’s comment reflects what may be the greatest influence that television has had on theater—the push it has given theater artists to create something that will drag TV watchers out of their home and turn them into theatergoers.

“I can’t tell you how many theater mission statements I’ve read that say: We want to tell stories that can only be told through theater, that you can’t see on television,” Washburn says.

“How good TV has become at doing a certain kind of character-driven long-form storytelling really throws down a gauntlet for playwrights,” Itamar Moses says, “and challenges them to answer the question, with their work: What canonly theater do? What can’t we getanywhere else? And there’s no one answer to that, but it challenges every playwright to try to come up with theirs.”

Now for some more about Mr. Burns, A Post Electric PlayFirstly, the reviews are really good and it is clear that it is quite unique in a number of ways. Have a read here and here.


Playwrights Horizons has lots of other stuff worth having a read of, watch and listen to. Click the image below to get there:



You can hear more from Anne Washburn here on the origin of the play, its unique development process, and how “The Simpsons” came to represent the high culture of the future.

National Express

Today is a mixed bag of the gems that are coming out of The National Theatre in the UK as party of its 50th anniversary celebrations.

Firstly another in the Scene Changes discussions, this one about lighting design and the role of the lighting designer. Again really interesting and gives you a great idea about the profession and how technology has advanced theatre lighting. Featured on this panel are lighting designers Paule Constable (War Horse, The Light Princess), Richard Pibrow (Three Sisters), Natasha Chivers (Sunday in the Park with George) and Paul Pyant (The Wind in the Willows). Something I didn’t know was that the job of the lighting designer came from the US and until then, the director had been in charge of lighting a show.


Secondly, the second part of the radio documentary, The Road to the National Theatre – Whose National Theatre, from BBC Radio 4. The first part is in my post National Debt


National AppAnd finally from the Apple App Store which charts the history of the theatre through its productions from 1963 to today. It includes interactive timelines, production materials, costume designs, technical images, annotated scripts, video interviews and so on. Really informative and you could spend a good afternoon working your way through it. A useful resource. Click the image on the left for more information.


Theatre, Technology and Chocolate

Recently a well-respected theatre critic wrote that:

Technology is the lifeblood of the Wooster Group company, whose members frequently make clear their scepticism about, and in one case “allergy” to, the theatre.

1hamlet_wooster_group_czernia I have tried and tried with them but their allure has finally evaded me. They have become the Jake and Dinos Chapman of the stage, scrawling across well-known big works.

I have kept this quote floating around as I  wanted to respond, but wasn’t quite sure how. I have seen a couple of their shows and I know what the critic is getting at – their interpretation of The Emperor Jones left me a little cold, not to say perplexed. Not an easy one to stage at the best of times with its mix of realism and expressionism, but I found it hard to find meaning in what they produced.

All this is a bit of a digression really from what I wanted to write about today, but you will see why. Those of you that follow Theatre Room regularly will know I love the use of technology in performance. The opportunities it affords for enhancing meaning, for making meaning and layering meaning are immense and was why I was fascinated by the discussion between the designers in my post, Making Space

However, the embracing of technology by theatre works on so many fronts and I thought it would be good to share the impact it has had on a show I have been following on social media – which is a great place to start.

So I am writing about a play that I have not seen and will not be able to see – It is happening thousands of miles away – yet I feel I have a very clear understanding of it and why it is being performed, even what it will look and sound like thanks to Twitter. Two of the three producing companies are tech-savvy, multi-platfrom theatre companies who have been tweeting through the development and rehearsal processes as well as during the run. Through these I have seen images of rehearsal, learned of problems faced and solved, seen costuming fittings, technical explorations and so on. Of course this also acts as promotion and I am sure is one of the reasons for the play being a sell out before it began its run. In addition, the majority of the cast are drawn the local community and Twitter has allowed them to be part of the process in a different and inclusive way.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the play yet. I will, but not just yet.

Secondly, they have produced a beautiful filmed and edited trailer for the play. A ‘trailer’ for a piece of live theatre was  unheard a few years ago.  Trailers were for cinema, not theatre. Of course the internet has changed all this, but, I would argue, more so YouTube. This allows for free promotion to a much larger audience, and an audience that goes beyond the place where it is being performed.

Thirdly, there is the use of technology in the performance itself, which is promenade and takes the audience on a journey through an historic city centre. Not only are they using a range of filmed and projected sequences and images, the audience members have a set of headphones allowing them to hear live and recorded dialogue, music and sounds to accompany the live action. It has been described as

theatre as you have never seen, or heard it before…….theatre on an epic, cinematic scale…..

Finally, (and great news for me) they are live-streaming a performance on Thursday so I can watch – I can watch 2 continents away – and of course they have made a trailer for this too and I will watch the performance on their own live streaming channel.

BC_web_bannerOK. The play is called Blood and Chocolate and uses the City of York (UK) as its backdrop to tell a story inspired by the employers and workers of the Chocolate factories in York during the First World War, their sense of duty towards their beliefs, each other and their commitment to defending their homeland.  It is produced by three companies – York Theatre Royal, Slung Low and Pilot Theatre with a cast of just under 200 actors, professional and from the local area.


The reviews of the piece are uniformly good and very praiseworthy – read for yourself here and here.

The webstream trailer below give you a clearer idea of what the show looks and feels like.


This video, from a local news report, give you a further idea of how technology has been embraced in the production..


So theatre on a grand scale, and brought to local and world-wide audiences through technology. The reviews tell you it has been successful. All of this has left me wondering about the Woosters and their employment of technology in telling stories, if the stories they are telling are obsfucated by its use?

The other point is how technology, in all its guises, is changing every aspect of theatre making and how exciting that really is. I wonder what comes next?

If you are interested in catching the webcast of Blood and Chocolate, it starts at 6.30pm UK time and you can see it here.

Tickets ‘Booked’

I have always been curious about the modality of theatre and as a consequence, on the look out for new ideas, new forms. Recently I came across Paper Stageswhich has just begun its second season, if you can call it that. To quote the website

Paper Stages is a festival of performance contained within the pages of a beautifully designed book, with each page containing a completely new work by a different artist. Collectively these artists invite you to perform their creations in various locations around the city, from side streets and parks to your own home.


Makes sense? Well, read the following blog from The Guardian, written by Maddy Costa, and things may become a little clearer.

Paper Stages takes the show from stage to page

Does a performance space have to be built of bricks and mortar, or could it be made from pen and ink? Paper Stages reinvents the form – and function – of a play.

Theatre may be ephemeral, but it leaves traces everywhere. We know what the Greeks who lived more than 2000 years ago watched on stage, and how they watched it, through written records, broken architecture and a precious few play texts that survived. We know very little about William Shakespeare, but we know his writing, because his colleagues and friends had the wit to publish it. Contemporary playwrights know they’ve made it when the publisher Methuen compiles their first anthology. And yet, the traces of theatre found in play texts are misleading, because they present living, breathing work as literature. Our notion of what theatre is and can be has exploded over the past 50 years, but have the published impressions of it kept pace?

If you consider Paper Stages, the answer is yes. These slim, neat books – there have been two so far – represent the work of some of Britain’s most exciting experimental theatre-makers. But rather than publish the scripts of their shows (where such things exist) or descriptions of what took place, they contain ideas for actions, interventions and small performances, to be carried out by the reader. As the introduction puts it, Paper Stages is not a book, but “a festival waiting patiently for you to assemble it”.

The project is the brainchild of Forest Fringe, a group led by theatre-makers Deborah Pearson and Andy Field. It was founded in 2007 to create an alternative, free festival at the heart of the Edinburgh fringe. In 2012, the dilapidated church hall they used as a venue was requisitioned, so the pair changed tack and asked everyone they hoped to work with to contribute to a book. Available in an Edinburgh cafe for the price of one hour of voluntary work, it offered a radically different way to engage with theatre amid the hubbub of the fringe: it was quiet, contemplative, and created its own economy that expressed non-capitalist values.


With the second book, which launched at the Arnolfini, in Bristol, in September and can again be acquired through voluntary work and at events to be staged around the country, Paper Stages is becoming central to the ways in which Pearson and Field are reimagining how theatre can be made and performed. As Field says, it invites “a community of artists with an enthusiasm for making performance in unlikely contexts to treat its pages as a context for performance, in much the same way as they do empty car parks, old warehouses and dusty church halls”. And it begins to answer the question of “how else we might think about publishing, if not as a means of documenting the work we’ve already made”.

Some of the works in Paper Stages offer clear instructions for what the reader/performer should do. Action Hero’s House Music, for instance, is the score for a symphony in which you are the musician and your instruments are a Hoover, a microwave and an electric toothbrush.Victoria Melody’s untitled piece invites you to borrow a dog and spend an afternoon living the way it does: take a meandering walk, communicate with strangers, stop to check out the scenery. Others are more abstract: a beautiful photographic work by Georgie Grace asks you to “know nothing about your life” and “forget who you are”, while Cody Lee Barbour’s piece is a richly textured prose poem that contains no guidance whatsoever for the reader.

It feels not just like a revolution in how theatre can be published, but also a reconsideration of what audience participation might mean. As Annie Rigby – whose contribution is a dance piece to be performed during a washing machine cycle – puts it: “One of the most fascinating things about making theatre is the unpredictability of how it unfolds for each audience member – what memories are sparked, what connections are made, what is taken away. Paper Stages makes even more space for theatre’s wonderful unpredictability.” What is particularly touching is what it tells audiences about their relationship with theatre. Most participatory work reinforces, however unintentionally, the notion that theatre is something made by other people. In Paper Stages, the instructions give the impression that theatre is something you can make, yourself, in your own front room.

For me, I’m not sure. Is this theatre or not? I like the idea and its inventiveness, I like the altruism that drives it, but I’m not convinced.

If you would like to read more you can, here, in an interview with Andy Fields for Exeunt Magazine. The same magazine even attempted to review some of the ‘plays’ from the original Paper Stages, last year. Have a read here and see what you think.