The Overcoat

For one month only. A superb offering from theatre company Gecko who have put on-line, for the month of May, the full recording of their acclaimed production The Overcoat. Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol and described as an exceptional and spellbinding work of art on its first outing 6 years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, it has played across the world.

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In addition to the production video, Gecko have also released a 20 minute video of extracts from the performance with a commentary from the company and show director Amit Lahav.

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This release of this material is a gift for anyone interested in collaborative theatre practice, but especially so for IB Theatre Arts students and the Collaborative Project. As a company Gecko willingly share their creative processes and there is an outline of their working practice here in their Student Resource Pack. In addition there are a further series of useful short interviews with Lahav about various aspects of the company’s work on their YouTube Channel.

By way of a post script, Gecko’s latest show Missing was in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre in London when it was badly damaged by fire in early March, destroying the whole show – props, sets, lights, costume – totally. Undeterred, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, together with a performance of an ‘unplugged’ version of the show to raise funds to replace all that was lost. Gecko’s popularity is such that their fund-raising target was reached in a matter of days and the show will shortly be off on tour around the world including dates in Mexico, Brazil and Hong Kong later in the year.

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Exchanges On Acting

Untitled_FotorOne of things that I enjoy about keeping Theatre Room is the fact that I am constantly surprised by what I stumble upon in my research. There are always things out there that I haven’t seen before and today I want to share a recent find. The Oslo International Acting Festival took place in 2012 and 2013, organised by The Academy of Theatre, Oslo National Academy of The Arts and The Norwegian Actors’ Center, with a view to exploring the nature and future of the art of acting globally. As I write I can’t find any information about whether the festival will continue in the future but the videos (posted on a YouTube channel) from the two festivals so far are a goldmine for theatre students. At the 2012 festival the theme was techniques and methods and explored the work of Constantin Stanislavski, Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Michael Chekov and Bertolt Brecht amongst others. I’ve posted the discussion about Brechtian technique below:

The 2013 festival had audience as it’s focus, with talks and discussions including one led by The Wooster Group’s Richard Schechner and another by Gisella Mendoza, a South American practitioner of Theatre of The Oppressed, posted below:

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A great and interesting resource.

More Frantic Moves

A week or so ago I shared the video Frantic Assembly Masterclass: Building Blocks for DevisingToday, here is the second one from the company, Learning to Flythis time led by artistic director Scott Graham. Again, an excellent resource which presents a series of exercises and techniques used to create spectacular lifts.

Incidentally, DV8 Physical Theatre have launched a media portal as part of their online offering.  It includes excerpts of their productions as well as what are called instructional videos about the making and rehearsal of their work. There is a charge (by way of becoming a paying DV8 Member) for viewing the majority of the material, which seems a bit of shame given the generosity of other companies when sharing their working process and methodology.

A Human Earthquake

7e0981b0-3b29-4d4f-851f-5dd61a7bbc32-2060x1236In celebration of his 90th birthday, theatre critic Michael Billington has written Still centre stage at 90: Peter Brook, human earthquake of modern theatre for The Guardian. A super article that looks back at a career that has spanned 70 years, and shows no sign of slowing down.

The record books insist that Peter Brook will be 90 on Saturday. Personally, I find it hard to believe. I last bumped into Brook about 18 months ago at a new play about Kashmir at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I casually asked if he was staying in London for long. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve got to be back in Paris to rehearse tomorrow morning.”

There was something in the urgency of his tone that confirmed Brook is a director who lives totally in the present and who regards all theatre as a work-in-progress.

Brook himself hates looking back over his career: not so long ago he told me with horror of a letter he had received from a West End producer asking him to restage his famous white-box 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience.

But, even if Brook is immersed in the here-and-now, the rest of us are entitled to put his 70-year-long career in perspective….(continue reading)

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Frantic Moves

A very simple first share today, marking the 300th post on Theatre Room.  The first of two videos from Frantic Assembly about their working and devising methods.  Absolute gold and a great insight into a company widely recognised in their field as makers of innovative collaborative physical theatre. IB Theatre Arts students take note – your CP on a plate.

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I have posted this before, but here is their excellent Frantic Assembly Resource Pack  too.

Lacking Definition

3.190241Like anything else, the academic and theoretical study of theatre-making is always bound by a shared lexicon. However definitions sometimes lead us astray. Take Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt for instance.  When John Willett published his seminal english language Brecht on Theatre in 1964, he translated Verfremdungseffekt as the alienation effect, which for many years led to a mis-interpretation of what Brecht actually meant. Subsequently it has been re-translated as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation or distancing effect, the latter having become generally accepted as nearer Brecht’s original intent. Another would be the definition of the role of the Dramaturge, which differs almost from theatre to theatre, let alone country to country. In this case, it has recently been removed as an area of study from the International Baccalaureate’s Theatre Arts course simply because there is no one internationally accepted standard definition.

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Currently one area of performance that is struggling to find a standard definition is Immersive Theatre, which continues to grow in popularity around the world. In an article for Everything Theatre published a few weeks ago, Marni Appleton asks the question What even is immersive theatre?

Traditional theatre is making room for a different type of performance. More and more often, audiences are invited to throw themselves headfirst into a show rather than simply sit back and watch. But what does this mean? With everything from laptops to restaurants being described as ‘immersive’…… what we should expect from this type of theatre.

Punchdrunk are widely considered to be the pioneers of immersive theatre, having been at it since 2000. There is no such thing as a typical Punchdrunk show; projects range from interactive audio-tours to secret collaborations with musicians, so it is not always easy to identify the common ‘immersive thread’. Their most recent, large-scale UK show, The Drowned Man, was like being inside a dream. The venue started life as an abandoned postal sorting office, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The award-winning design transformed the space and no detail was overlooked: drawers were filled; real trees were brought in for the forests; authentic smells and textures were sourced, all of which heightened the senses and gave audience members very surreal experiences. The space could be treated as one giant art installation – it was possible to get a sense of the narrative without crossing paths with a single performer – or you could chase one of the many characters across four floors. The choice was yours. There is so much in a Punchdrunk show that you can never discover everything in a single visit; just one of the reasons Punchdrunk enjoys repeat visitors and dedicated fans, who love the fact there is always something new to be found.

Performances in The Drowned Man were mostly physical, set to an impressive (and loud) cinematic score, so opportunities to converse with the characters were thin on the ground. If you were very lucky, you might be selected for a sought-after ‘one on one’ experience, where a character would draw you into a room and interact with you alone. But aside from this, audience interaction with performers was fairly minimal. There were no opportunities to influence their journeys or the direction of the story; the next scene always continued as scripted.

Does this affect whether or not the show is immersive? David Frias-Robles, co-founder of the theatre company Myriad & Co thinks so. For him, audiences have to be able to change or influence the narrative of the show, for it to be considered immersive. ‘Of course there has to be a basic structure,’ he says. ‘But there also has to be some form of choice for the audience.’

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David has worked extensively in immersive theatre. As well as establishing Myriad & Co, he has worked as actor and director on a range of projects including The Backstage Tour, shows with Secret Cinema and epoch’s The Factory, soon to be seen at VAULT Festival. One of David’s recent projects, Canvas City saw Canvas Bar in Old Street transformed into a 1930s speakeasy. Audience members came to the bar dressed in clothes from the era and were encouraged to adopt their own persona. As the night unfolded, the lines between performer and audience became blurred. There were three crucial, pre-planned moments, but in between those, audience members were able to aid and influence each character’s journey.

The only drinks available on the night were a selection of whisky-based cocktails served in tiny jars. This added to the authentic feel of the night, which was surprisingly effective, considering very little of the bar had been changed. For David, it is these details that are crucial. His idea of an immersive show is one where the audience is in costume, where a narrative has been built up before the performance itself, and where every single detail that might betray the experience as a performance has been eliminated. While this is almost impossible to achieve, the best immersive theatre, he says, comes very close.

Coney is one of the companies producing ‘audience-led’ theatre. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days used the audience as the cast in shows that were part-game, part-improvisation and partly structured. There are a number of experiences that operate in a similar way, such as Heist by differencEngine and the recent New Atlantis by LAStheatre. But if everyone is playing and no one is watching, do these events still count as theatre? And if they are, this begs the question of live action role-play, murder mysteries and other similar games. Do these come under the umbrella of immersive theatre too?

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With audience-led, fully participatory work at one end of the immersive spectrum, there are also supposedly immersive shows that sit right down at the other end of the spectrum. The word ‘immersive’ is often used in relation to shows that simply have non-traditional aspects or some immersive elements. The Roof at the National Theatre was a non-traditional performance staged in a car park, which made clever use of audio by giving each audience member a fancy pair of headphones. However, there was no interaction with the characters and there wasn’t even anywhere to go; viewers simply stood and watched the show instead of sitting down. Whilst this may have been different and exciting for immersive novices, it would have been a disappointment to anyone wanting to get properly stuck in. Many would argue that this was not representative of the genre.

While immersive theatre is difficult to define precisely, it is certainly enjoying a boom at the moment. Is it just a phase? Perhaps. But this writer hopes not. Immersive shows are pushing and breaking down the boundaries of theatre and attracting new audiences – many who aren’t regular theatregoers. As audiences, we should expect the unexpected from this type of show, but what does that mean in practical terms? Great theatre is often risky, and immersive shows are no exception. But throw yourself into the experience, and it might just be a revelation.

In a short, but instructive piece on its website, arts venue The Space in East London, attempted to answer the same question as Appleton:

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Many people go to the theatre to lose themselves in the production, to forget their everyday worries and troubles and be transported into another world. However, no kind of theatre transports an audience quite like immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the audience are not merely passive bystanders. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and they are in the middle of the action.

In an immersive theatre production, the audience in some way plays a role, whether that is the role of witness or the role of an actual character. They may be allowed to roam and explore the performance space as the performance happens around them, allowing them to decide what they see and what they skip. They might be herded from room to room so they see the key scenes. They might even be invited to become a more active part of the performance. The lines between performer and audience and between performance and life are blurred. The audience is placed within the environment of the story and therefore play witness front and centre to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium.

However, this lack of separation can cause anxiety. If an audience member is not expecting to become part of the performance or is uncomfortable with that idea, it can be very off-putting so there must be some form of consent between the performer and the audience. Whether that’s the conscious decision to take a performer’s outstretched hand or knowing that one has the safety net of being able to back away from the performance, there must still exist some form of separation and boundaries between performance and audience for the benefit of everyone involved.

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The origins of immersive theatre go all the way back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century. Call-and-response, when a leader puts out a call and an audience calls back a pre-ordained response, has long been a concept in music, adding a participatory element. In the centuries that followed, things like murder mystery theatres and haunted houses also put their intended audience into an environment and allowed them choice in how they viewed the story. Even traditional proscenium theatre started to adapt some immersive or interactive elements. In 1985, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, required that the audience vote on who killed the titular character, spurring one of seven possible endings.

Well-known UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk are known as pioneers of the form of immersive theatre. While they have been producing immersive and promenade theatre since 2000 in the UK, they and immersive theatre as a genre meteorically shot to worldwide fame after Sleep No More, their 1930’s film noir adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was unanimously well-received in New York.

Since the success of Sleep No More, countless immersive productions have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, these include Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a techno-rock musical adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Then She Fell, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a mental hospital. London’s immersive theatre scene has recently featured an all-night production of Macbeth in a block of flats; Leviathan, a production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the audience stands in for the crew of the ship chasing after the famed whale; and The Drowned Man, a combination of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust set in a 1960’s movie studio and produced by Punchdrunk.

No doubt the debate will continue long and loud as the form evolves.

A Collective Visionary

croppedimage254254-1927-The-Animals-and-Children-took-to-the-streets-Nick-FlintoffOne of the most innovative and ground-breaking companies I have had the pleasure of seeing in the last few years is 1927. A UK based company, with a global touring reputation, their work is a combination of animation, live performance, theatre and music. They performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival two years ago, on a tour supported by the British Council,  playing to sold out houses with their piece, Animals And Children Took To The Streets. The fusing of live performance and animation is highly original and they do it to great effect. Their new show, Golum, is currently playing in London and again has been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. Following this run, having had it’s premier in Austria at the Salzburg Festival, they are of to Taipei and then Paris.

The reason I mention them today is that I have just listened to an interview with one of the company’s founders, Suzanne Andrade, on Theatre Voice and would recommend it to any theatre maker, but especially to those working in collaborative creation.

You really don’t need to have seen Golum to understand the interview as the focus is really about the truly collaborative process that the company uses to create new work.  In fact I would go as far as using the word inspirational to describe what they do.

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There are also a couple of super articles about their work here and here, both well worth a read.

All Mouth

As the Hong Kong International Arts Festival kicks off this week with a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays in the shape of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby I thought I would share an interview with celebrated British actress Juliet Stevenson about her current role of Winnie in one of Beckett’s more accessible plays, Happy Days. Stevenson was interviewed by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice in January this year.

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This particular show is a revival of a critically acclaimed production for Stevenson, as these reviews are testament to in The Telegraph and The Guardian. She has spoken extensively about playing Winnie and getting to grips with Beckett, one of them being an interview with Paul Taylor in The Independent.  The productions of Happy days and Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby have brought about a rash of writing in the UK with regard to Becket and his work. One of them, Up to their necks: The singular joys of appearing in Samuel Beckettwritten by Holly Williams for The Independent is great read, as is What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days written by Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson for The Guardian. Natalie Abrahami, director of Happy Days, spoke in January to the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week. This is the excerpt from that programme that carries her interview as part of a panel discussion about memory:

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The production of Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby which we will have the joy of seeing here this week, is the original London production starring Lisa Dwan, on its way from playing internationally in New York and Perth.

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Again, the reviews have been universally superb; The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent all throw superlatives at the production and Lisa Dwan in particular. Dwan wrote a piece published in The Guardian Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth in which, not surprisingly, she talks about playing ‘the mouth’. You can see an excerpt of her in action here

One review spoke of the piece as being a ….deeply sobering and equally intoxicating experience…[and a] harrowing and beautiful production.  I can’t wait.

A Heavy Wei-ght

Shen WeiDriving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview

Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:

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Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:

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You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:

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Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Folding which particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.

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Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.

Is The Playwright Dead?

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Today, I have stumbled across an astonishingly fascinating series of video recordings and I am compelled to share them straight away. They come from Humanitas, a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which brings together leading practitioners and scholars to explore major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. In one of the strands, Drama Studies, the visiting professors so far have been actor Vanessa Redgrave, director Greg Doran, playwright Athol Fugard and will be joined this year by another playwright, David Edgar. All of them are giants in their respective fields. Fugard speaks in three videos; firstly about the defining moments in his life and work, then about staging his plays and finally about his playwrighting process. In his first video Doran gives a practical masterclass looking at what clues Shakespeare puts into the verse for the actor and in the second, another, masterclass, this time on how Shakespeare spins rhetoric for the actor. However, my favorite, are the series given by Redgrave, doyen of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic as well as prominent social activist. Click on the image below to take you to the first of a series of four lectures and panel discussions, entitled, not surprisingly, Theatre and Politics.

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The 2015 series, with David Edgar, promises to be equally interesting and provocative as he explores contemporary playwrighting from a number of perspectives. In an article in The Guardian born out of his appointment as Humanitas Visiting Professor, entitled Is the playwright dead?, he is quoted talking about the anti-writer trend that he considers to be prevalent in current collaborative theatre making. This notion will form the basis for his first lecture and the article itself, my next blog post.