A Call For Action

ConstitutionFor those of us that teach and learn in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the academic year is soon to be upon us. I always quite like this period, as you tend to find yourself  developing new curriculum materials for the forthcoming year. This week I have been researching and writing materials for different kinds of documentary theatre, most specifically verbatim theatre and Living Newspapersand it is the latter I want to write about today.

Now my knowledge of Living Newspapers was not huge.  I knew that the form first emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, where it was used to present news and Bolshevik propaganda to the illiterate masses. Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky are connected with the genre, as are Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. The form included using lantern slides (projections), songs, newspaper readings, and film segments – so, very ‘multimedia’ for the time.  During my research however, I was intrigued to come across the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which in certain sources, is mistakenly claimed to be the originator of Living Newspapers. FTP was part of a government funded arts program established in the US in the 1930s,  which wrote and presented a number of Living Newspapers on social issues of the day. You can see some of the scripts here.  The Manual For Federal Theatre Project makes fascinating reading. Not surprisingly, the political ideology behind the Living Newspaper was controversial and the FPT was disbanded in 1939. However, as noted by Alexis Soloski in an article for The Guardian, the Federal Theatre Project

….codified the genre, drawing on techniques first introduced by Bolshevik artists and the Italian futurists. A series of documentary plays with an activist bent, Living Newspapers used theatrical techniques to render complicated social and political issues relevant and intelligible. Playwrights researched various topics – poverty, the invasion of Ethiopia, venereal disease – and then invented a narrative and characters to dramatise them. Low ticket prices made them accessible to a popular audience. Living Newspapers weren’t subtle – for better or worse. They simplified complicated issues and felt no particular compunction to represent all sides of an argument. Some of the scripts are quite preachy and end with a call for action, such as joining a union or being tested for syphilis.

It seems there are few companies currently engaged in creating Living Newspapers. One exception is C & T Theatre Company, who run a project for young people, called, not surprisingly, Living Newspaper They have created a series of ‘5 Rules’ – Be Funny, Be Direct, Juxtapose, Agitate and Let the Facts Speak For Themselves – with accompanying videos that tell you how to create effective Living Newspapers:

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C &T have a global reach, having created Living Newspapers in Japan about passive smoking, in Australia about Climate Change and  lead workshops in Gambia about how to create online Living Newspapers using mobile phones.

Essentially all documentary theatre is political by nature, being a call for social action. In the U.S. The Civilians Investigative Theatre is leader in the field. In the UK, Common Wealth Theatre are a force to be reckoned with too.  The difference with the Living Newspaper form is that it is meant to agitate, to call for direct action with a view to bringing about change in a very visceral way. 

I think I’m off now to make my own, featuring a certain Donald Trump!

Vive La Revolution, People!

Brook Of The Century

220px-Peter_BrookI have a backlog of bits and pieces I’ve been meaning to share so here goes the first. Veteran theatre maker Peter Brook is still going strong at the age of 91. As the UK’s most influential theatre director of the 20th Century (despite being based in France for many years) Brook’s contribution to theatre is almost unmeasurable. In an article for The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish comments that detailing his long-lasting contribution [to the stage] is a daunting task. He goes on to say:

In a career that has stretched across an unrivalled seven decades, he has washed up fresh ideas on our shores, and helped sweep away much of our theatre’s conventionality, insularity and clutter. Scores of books have been written about him. But one single phrase goes to the heart of explaining the transformation he has helped to bring about: “the empty space”, the title of the slim volume he produced in 1968 that has remained a manifesto of sorts for successive generations of theatre-makers.

Will I be alive for the opening night?’ was written earlier this year, prior to the opening of his latest work, Battlefield, which had since toured globally, including a celebrated showing here in Hong Kong.

Brook’s career and influence is such that he features in Theatre and Performance Collection at the Victorian and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. As part of this collection, the museum have produced an excellent resource pack,  which explores why Brook and his collaborators approached particular plays and themes when they did. Click this link, Peter Brook Resource Book, to download a copy.

The Wonder Of Will

tumblr_inline_nzi1m2GTrM1sxteos_500There have been thousands of programmes, documentaries, scholarly articles, performances and events broadcast, written and produced over the last couple of months to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Looking across the global media, new and old, it seems that in almost every country, English speaking or not, William Shakespeare and his work has been celebrated.

Amongst all of these, the ones that have really caught my attention have been those that have explored the relevancy of the Bard in a modern ever-changing world.  In particular, today, I want to share a 2 programme series broadcast by the BBC. In the first episode, presented by Nikki Bedi, Shakespeare In India  explores how the cannon  remains relevant in the sub-continent. It looks at how much of the work resonates with the politics, culture and social norms of today and how Shakespeare has faired in a post-colonial world.  The programme also touches on Parsi Theatre, which was new to me.

The second episode, Shakespeare in South Africa is even more interesting. Presented by writer Nadia Davids, it explores how Shakespeare is being performed as a way of discussing race, violence against women, and the current political crisis around President Zuma.  What particularly struck a chord with me however, is the discussion of Shakespeare as part of the debate about decolonising education.

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Misbehaving Beautifully

As the academic term comes to a close, I have been pondering the fact that nearly all my students, no matter what grade, have recently been working in some kind of collaborative physical theatre form. We teach and use Viewpoints in a lot of our work, even if the students don’t realise it, with Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s now seminal publication, The Viewpoints Bookbeing a well thumbed tome on our bookshelves.

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In addition, I have spent this week at an International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) Festival in Taiwan, where the students were exploring the language of theatre. Almost all the work they created communicated through bodies in space and again it struck me that spoken narrative played a secondary role in the stories they were telling.

All this has prompted me to share this video from a TEDGlobal event. In it, choreographer Wayne McGregor demonstrates how he  communicates ideas to an audience, building his work in a seemingly simple way. It revolves around the concept of physical thinking which particularly resonates with me as a theatre maker. Give the video a watch for sure, but don’t miss out on the discussion that follows in the comment section afterwards. Together they make for a great way into thinking about physical representation and storytelling on stage.

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Power To The People

I have been intrigued by an article in The Independent, by Emily Jupp, about the latest offering from immersive theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train. Founded in 2004, the company has been at the cutting edge of the immersive theatre form, winning awards for their work which relies heavily on significant groups of volunteer performers. Jupp writes the article having experienced being one of those volunteers.

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You Me Bum Bum Train: The latest journey into challenging immersive theatre

As a volunteer at the immersive theatre production of You Me Bum Bum Train, I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve fixed two sewing machines, I’ve lugged furniture around, I’ve painted walls and I’ve felt incredibly capable and resourceful while doing them. Tackling things outside your comfort zone is at the heart of the You Me Bum Bum Train experience, where an audience member, or “Passenger”, is thrown into the heart of the action.

From tonight, Passengers will arrive at the old Foyles bookshop building in London where the new YMBBT show takes place, and be hurtled from one short scene to the next, in each of which they have to improvise their part while the rest of the cast react. The Passenger has no idea what is going on behind each door and the YMBBT team would like to keep it that way. They don’t even have publicity photos. Instead, the founders strike silly poses against surreal backdrops – see right. So I can’t reveal what’s happening this year. But previous scenes have involved discovering you’re the head of MI5 and making a world-changing decision or having to operate a forklift truck without any guidance.

In each scene the audience member is the focus of attention and the cast of volunteers – who aren’t professional actors but who often have skills or experience relating to the context of the scene – interact with that Passenger. Each scene is timed and during the one I was cast in we had about two minutes before resetting and then running the scene again with the next Passenger. There are about 70 Passengers passing through in one night, so it’s frantic.

Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd founded You Me Bum Bum Train at art school in Brighton in 2004. It was held in the basement of an office block. “I found it very depressing trying to find something that meant something to me at art school,” says Bond. “A lot of art is very egocentric but what I love about this is there is no one leader and it’s not a production where every scene is rigidly fixed, so it’s accessible for everyone. No volunteer ever gets turned away.”

YMBBT has grown to huge proportions. It was awarded the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust prize for its show in 2012 at the Barbican in London and an Olivier award for outstanding achievement. Stephen Fry, Dominic West, Jude Law and Sir Ian McKellen are just some of the show’s celebrity fans, but there aren’t many detailed reviews or articles about the experience. That’s because secrecy is key.

“If a Passenger has been forewarned then they always say they regret knowing about it,” says Bond. “In the early days, people would just find a flyer in a pub saying You Me Bum Bum Train, a time and a location and nothing else.”

In a recent show, one Passenger had been told by his friend that they were going to see Billy Elliot and had no idea what would happen. “He had to take a break from the show because he was shaking and he just wasn’t prepared for what was going on, but he said it was amazing, he just felt overwhelmed.”

“A lot of the shy people say if they knew what they were going to do they would never have taken part but they get a huge confidence boost from realising they can.”

The show is run on a shoestring budget; props are scavenged from websites like Freecycle and car boot sales. It’s amazing how detailed and realistic they are considering they started with a building site three months ago. In one of the scenes I rehearsed for, the scene director suddenly stopped talking to examine the ceiling. “It still needs cornicing. It won’t look right without it,” he said. The cornicing was added the next day.

YMBBT receives a grant from the Arts Council to help with running costs, and Bond and Morgan pay themselves a small wage (Bond is on working tax credits), but the army of volunteers are all unpaid, aside from being given meals. “It would be nice if Bum Bum could give back more,” says Bond. “We have a fantasy of treat chutes going through to every floor with snacks and vending machines and making it more Willy Wonka for all the volunteers, but we haven’t been able to yet.”

They’ve been criticised for not paying, but the production couldn’t happen any other way, Lloyd and Bond worked out that a ticket (£48.50 for this production) would cost around £2,000 if they paid their volunteers minimum wage and broke even on the running costs.

The best bit about the volunteer experience is that people from all walks of life and all ages get involved. “It makes people more open-minded because it is such an open-door policy and you meet people from different backgrounds,” says Bond. “We had a lawyer who asked to volunteer and afterwards she became a human rights lawyer instead of a commercial lawyer because of the experience.”

The bonding element has even produced some Bum Bum marriages over the years, says Bond. “A bit like going to war, it brings people together, and they achieve things that are really huge.”

The criticisms leveled at Lloyd and Bond go back a number of years, some of which from 2012 you can read here in The Guardian and The Stage. I think it raises an interesting issue for immersive theatre, which by it’s nature often require very large casts indeed. Also, if you audience are expected to become characters in the story, as is often the case, why not invite non-professional actors to be part of the permanent cast?

In a not unconnected story from The Guardian in September a German theatre company, Schauspielhaus Bochum  asked their audience to pack into a refrigerated truck to give them a glimpse into the hardships experienced by the migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe from war zones. 63315453-65e3-413c-9251-a124cfca5b1d-2060x1236

The event was billed as a memorial to the 71 people, four of them children, who were found dead inside an abandoned lorry in Austria. About 200 people took part in the event, entering a 7.5 tonne refrigerated truck similar in size to the one found in Austria.

Next to it on the ground was a rectangle marked out to measure 2.5 metres by six metres which represented the size of the original truck’s interior.

Seventy-one volunteers first tried to stand inside the rectangle before trying to cram inside the lorry. When they did the truck’s doors could not be closed.

“The lorry was completely full, the people were squeezed right up against each other,” explained Olaf Kroek, the theatre’s artistic adviser.

“This action is not disrespectful,” he said. “What is disrespectful is the political reality in Europe that people suffering so greatly hand over thousands of euros and must take such unsafe routes while for the rest of us Europeans it is so easy … to travel in the other direction.”

Both pieces pay testament to the ever-changing nature of theatre as an art form and in an increasingly digital world, it should come as no surprise that audiences are demanding, and expecting, their theatre experiences to be more visceral, more real.

The Space In Between

With apologies to all my regular readers, Theatre Room has been on an extended summer break.  During that time I have been storing up a host of the all things theatre to share and I’m going to start with an article published last week in UK’s The Stage. Written by Lee Anderson, How dramaturgy is finding its place in British theatre explores the growing role of the dramaturg in the UK. As I have written here before, dramaturgy is a difficult beast to define, not least because it takes many forms. As Anderson quite rightly explains, in the UK, the adoption of the role of the dramaturg has been sluggish, simply because the playwright dominates. The article itself gives a good definition of the role and purpose of the dramaturg in the theatre making process.

Dramaturgy is a tough nut to crack. Despite occupying a vital role in countries such as Germany and across continental Europe, we in the UK have struggled to pin down a precise definition for the dramaturg. Because of the playwright’s pre-eminent position within our own theatre culture, the tendency has been to conflate the dramaturg with the literary manager. Meanwhile, the dramaturg of German theatre tradition has long fulfilled the role as a creative curator; collaborating closely with a director or specific theatre to conceptualise a season of work.

But with a new generation of theatremakers now inspired by practices from abroad, these artists are now shaking things up on British stages. Influenced by new models of working and reinvigorated by bold aesthetic choices, directors and playwrights in the UK are challenging traditional ways of working and adopting a fresh, internationalist approach to their work. As the landscape begins to shift, so too is our understanding of the dramaturg’s role within it.

One of the reasons the dramaturg has remained difficult to define is to do with the fluidity of the term itself. There are no hard and fast rules for mapping the precise function of dramaturgy. As a practice, its principles are based on adaptability and versatility.

Duska Radosavljevic, lecturer in European and British theatre studies at Kent University, and author of Theatre Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century, considers the dramaturg’s role to be above all else a relational one; not anchored to any specific criteria, but responsive to the demands of the process. “The dramaturg’s job is often determined by the kind of relationship they have with any given collaborator,” she explains, “so in terms of methodology or models of working, they don’t always apply in the same way from one process to the next.” In other words, it is far from being an exact science. In the absence of an all-encompassing definition, it is easy to see how the dramaturg has remained such a puzzling concept for many.

Joel Horwood worked as dramaturg on Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts

Joel Horwood worked as dramaturg on Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts

When the Lyric Hammersmith’s artistic director Sean Holmes launched Secret Theatre, playwright Joel Horwood came on board as associate dramaturg. Born out of the Lyric’s earlier production of Simon Stephens/Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, Secret Theatre was created with the intention of building on this production’s cross-cultural experiment and forming a permanent ensemble of actors committed to making work outside the hierarchic parameters of more traditional theatre. For Horwood, his role as associate dramaturg involved being “whatever the director needs me to be, while at the same time, maintaining my own creative voice. It wasn’t strict or formal and I think if it had been then we couldn’t have made the work we did. A traditional set-up might not have led to something so instinctual.”

Joel Horwood,  dramaturg

Joel Horwood, dramaturg

The dramaturg thrives in the space between the creative and critical disciplines, scrutinising the decision-making process while generating his or her own creative ideas to stimulate the devising process itself. “I think I gave myself the task during the creation of Show 5 of being ‘logic police’,” explains Horwood. “I just wanted every moment to be clearly thought through, to really expose and clarify the themes and to be entirely and utterly rigorous.” When it came to Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – Horwood adopted a more active role and provided instrumental support for the overall devising practice – both in structuring much of the action in collaboration with Holmes and contributing ideas and stimulus for the actors to work with: “The really fun stuff in making this show was in the details of the process, rewriting and reimagining Shakespeare, for example. I would reimagine an ‘impossible’ scene from a Shakespeare play as a ‘task’ for the company and then give the company that ‘task’ to perform. So, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene became: tell us about your first kiss while someone else in the cast falls passionately in love with you.”

It is a model of working that draws consciously on European dramaturgical practice – combining conceptual inventiveness with critical rigour. It is this critical impulse that is essential to the dramaturg’s practice. While the principle elements that define British and European models of dramaturgy show significant cultural differences, it is this analytical function that underpins both disciplines. Whether it is scrutinising the decision-making process, acting as a spur to the director or playwright’s vision or helping to build a conceptual framework for a given production, the dramaturg is often something of a pathfinder. As dramaturg for Robert Icke’s Oresteia for the Almeida Theatre’s Greeks season, Radosavljevic describes her role as akin to that of an interrogator – whose task it was to test the conceptual rigour of Icke’s bold reimagining of Aeschylus text: “Sometimes the ideas became modified as a result of my questions. It was very important for me to have some ambiguities ironed out and I often questioned what the thinking was behind particular decisions.”

It is a function of the role that Rob Drummer believes is central to his own process as associate dramaturg of the Bush Theatre: “It’s about trying to ask as many questions as possible, as early as possible, about the story of that play, the gesture of the play and the central question of that play. It’s about giving the writer a sounding board. To give the writer a point of resistance – something to react against. It’s about guiding a text to an audience.”

Traditionally, the dramaturg’s role in our own theatre culture has been inextricably connected with the development of new writing. Unlike the Regietheatre tradition of modern German theatre, in which an emphasis on reconceptualising classic texts has resulted in a director-based dramaturgy, the British theatre dramaturg has focused ostensibly on artist – namely, playwright – development. It is a model that prioritises critical development above creative intervention.

For Drummer, whose day-to-day job involves managing the 18 new plays currently under commission, it is a process that relies on building a relationship with individual artists and establishing a dialogue with playwrights in particular: “We build a development process that has several dramaturgical stages. This could include a single day of working with the playwright, talking through notes on a script or it could include work with actors and directors. It could include several workshop weeks. All of that work is activated through my relationship with those writers.”

Duska Radosavljevic

Duska Radosavljevic

Nevertheless, even within a culture that locates the playwright at the centre of its activity, the influence of theatre practices from abroad have continued to influence artists and playwrights: “We’re finding that more and more playwrights in this country are increasingly exposed to theatre from around the world,” says Drummer. “They’re exposed to new and interesting ways of telling stories. We want to harness that and experiment with how we can push our theatre, our artists and our audiences.” This commitment to expanding the boundaries of what is theatrically possible has resulted in a programme as diverse as it is eclectic. Recent works such as Caroline Horton’s bouffon-inspired Islands and American playwright Marco Ramirez’s The Royale testify to the dramaturg’s role as an advocate – supporting the work of artists and curating a season of work.

Despite a range of approaches, the dramaturg remains something of an unsung hero. In Radosavljevic’s words, the dramaturg occupies an “invisible role”, operating beneath the radar of the creative process they are serving. And yet the dramaturg’s liminal status remains his or her greatest asset, whether as conceptual curator, creative pathfinder or critical provocateur.

Ten Collaborative Commandments

Over the course of the last twenty years collaborative, devised theatre has gone mainstream and is now an accepted part of our cultural landscape.  It has its roots in the 1960’s with figures such as Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood often recognised as contributing to its emergence as a legitimate way of making theatre. In the intervening years and through the work of companies such as Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, Australian Performing Group, People Show, Teatro Campesino, Théâtre de Complicité, Legs on the Wall, Forced Entertainment and Third Angel, to name but a few, collaborative theatre continued to thrive globally. Today, companies like Coney, Lundahl and Seitl, Ontroerend Goed and Look Left Look Right are creating new, immersive, collaborative work for a much wider audience, with Punchdrunk being the commercial daddy of them all.

443ee612-5993-4fe3-ab4a-328dcb2f5a1b-680x1020For me, though, devising remains a way of truly learning the art of theatre making and it is not surprising that most theatre and drama examination courses have an assessable element to them that requires students to collaborate, devise and create new work. It allows student theatre makers to respond to what is of interest to them in whatever style and form they think most appropriate, and this is its power – the power of immediacy. In a recent article published in The GuardianNathan Curry and Kat Joyce from theatre company Tangled Feet talk about the strengths of devised work, their process and how it allows them to respond much more quickly to a subject than perhaps a more traditional playwright can. The full article is here, but is an extract:

Devising offers a swift way of responding to a turbulent political situation. We are currently in rehearsals and able to react immediately to new information emerging from research and conversations with healthcare professionals.

The devising process is a lot like doing a jigsaw with a blindfold on. Early on, there is a lot of playing, testing and failing and a huge amount of material left on the rehearsal room floor. The second half of the rehearsals have become about fitting everything together in a shape that is dramaturgically strong and creates a journey for the audience with well-crafted character arcs – often the biggest challenge for devised work. Our design team are in the room reacting to discoveries we are making and throwing new ideas at us to explore.

What is so rewarding is that a group of artists reacting to each other and riffing through new thoughts enables beautiful and surprising theatrical discoveries. With sound, design, choreography, aerial work and script all evolving alongside each other, it can often feel chaotic: but sometimes the most powerful moments come into focus through some sort of alchemy.

Just for interest, here is an example of Tangled Feet’s work.  A piece called Push, which, to quote the company, is a funny, irreverent and insightful look at the relationships between new mothers and their offspring, and the expectations of society around them. Performed in the very outdoor spaces that parents inhabit, Push tells stories that everyone can recognise.

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To finish with, I would like to share these this tips for collaborative devising by John Walton, artistic director of theatre company Fol Espoirpublished in The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network.

Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration

Be passionate about your source material

It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.

If you don’t care, why should an audience?

Do your research

The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.

Get your material out there as soon as possible

Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.

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Unite the whole company around a common purpose

Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.

Keep an open mind

Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.

The importance of story is relative

Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.

Always look for counterpoints

If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.

Everyone works differently

Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.

Don’t be precious

Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.

Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves

Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.

I think these might become my Ten Commandments for all collaborative work from now on. On a final note, John Walton writes a great blog, in which he details the rehearsals of all his new work in great and interesting detail which you can read here , and if you want a good wide read about the history of devised, collaborative work, Devising Performance, A Critical History by Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling is worth a go.

TEDx Rated Stages

TEDx-1024x1024I’ve got a great mixed bag of talks to share today from various TED× events around the world and all of them worth a listen when you have a spare ten minutes or so. Most people are familiar with TED talks, but theatre makers are rarely given a platform. However, the independently, locally organised TED× events often have theatre professionals exploring their craft for a wider audience.

The first comes from TED× Stormont, in Northern Ireland where Tom Bowtell, from interactive theatre makers Coney, discusses the powerful potential of offering theatre audiences opportunity to have a say over how the story ends, by inviting them to participate in the creation of the theatrical experience. Entitled Can Theatre Actually Change Anything? it is a super little presentation.

The next two come from TED× events held in Sydney, Australia in 2011 and 2014. In What is theatre capable of? theatre director Simon Stone deconstructs some of the common visual and audio tricks of modern theatre while in Know More About Theatre, You Uncultured Oafs theatre ensemble post attempt to answer, amongst other questions, What is theatre? and What makes good theatre? Very entertaining!

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In the next one, The Architecture of Acting, actor Stephen Lang talks to a TED× audience at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania about how he created his one man play, Beyond Glory.

In The Essence of Acting, actor Mirjana Joković talks beautifully about what lies at the heart of the craft.

I have quite a few others to share, but I am going to finish with a wonderfully insightful talk from theatre director John Wright, one of the co-founders of Trestle. Entitled Rediscovering playfulness in acting and given at TED× Square Mile (London), Wright talks about how we love our (dead) gurus in actor training, the constraints they place upon us and why play should be at the centre of our creative processes.

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Need A Stage Coach?

Today I want to share a series of articles about playwriting that I have recently stumbled across. They are published under creative commons on the website The Conversationwhich sources its writing from the academic and research communities in the US, Australia and the UK, and is a real find in itself.

Across a number of articles, collectively called On Playwriting Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, writes about the history of the play, what makes a play ‘work’ and how playwriting has evolved. Meyrick is writing for the Australian edition of The Conversation so the articles have an antipodean leaning, but are relevent where ever you are reading this. I am sharing the first one here with links to the subsequent ones at the end.  Definitely worth a read.

Need a stage coach? Why some plays work and others don’t

We all know whether a given play, film or TV drama “works” or not, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint why. This is the first of four articles in which I will try and cast playwriting in a broader light than is usually the case.

Ordinarily playwriting is a matter for “tips” or for critical review – best-practice advice from the producers’ perspective or final judgement from the consumers’.

This kind of talk is useful. But it rarely penetrates to the core of the subject or articulates the significant values it embodies. It often lacks a historical dimension and/ or is insufficient in its technical grasp.

Playwriting is a technology. Just as electric lighting or computer projection are technologies, so is the use of the written word as a means of shaping dramatic “moments”.

In the first millennium BCE the ancient Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, Levantine linear, itself taken from Iron Age Proto-Canaanite. They introduced vowel signs and reversed the flow of inscription, running their sentences – like the one you’re reading now – from left to right.

This reformed approach became the basis for all subsequent European alphabets. The term for the act of writing – γραμμός(in Latin scribio) – expanded to refer to its correlate products. The word “script” retains shades of this complex history, even in the digital era. As if letters had a mysterious agency, like the inventors of runes believed, containing within them the charge of our disruptive imaginations.

Sydney, April 17, 2002. (lt-rt) Amanda Muggleton and William Zappa in a scene from the new David Williamson play 'Soulmates' at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 'Soulmates' takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) NO ARCHIVING

David Williamson’s play ‘Soulmates’ which takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation

Socrates thought γραμμός dangerous and argued for its suppression. But by the 5th century BCE writing was a ubiquitous part of Mediterranean life, handy for all sorts of religious, commercial and philosophical purposes (we know Socrates’ opinions because his pupil, Plato, wrote them down).

In Athens it was used to record the work of victors in annual play competitions, that their achievements might be remembered and there would be no dispute about who had won.

Play it again

At what point did the Greeks realise what had been performed once could be performed again? That the technology of playwriting allowed the past to return in sensory immediacy? No doubt there was some sort of proto-drama before this but writing supercharged the art-form with the force of an emergent literary expertise.

Has this innovation ever been surpassed?

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Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King c. 1896.

When we pick up a copy of Medea or Oedipus The King we engage in an act of a time travel that shoots us back to thoughts and feelings first faced 2,500 years ago. Many things about ancient Greece are unknown to us or unintelligible. But when an actor cries out αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, δύστανος ἐγώ (“woe, woe is me, whither am I born?”) history collapses in an ardent transmigration of souls.

The introduction of written language into live performance was more than an addition to its existing skillset of dance, music and the choral ode. It was a radical escalation of its presence and power, forging a new representation of human experience. Theatre became dramatic, even as the written word took on viral life, via the acting conventions that sprang up around the technology of playwriting.

This was not really a shift from an oral to a written culture, since the spoken word was still the focus of the poet’s craft. It was a new balance between elements such that language could be harnessed as a capital resource.

Every time a drama is presented we engage in the same miraculous inter-temporal act.

What was dead lives again, and will continue to live long after we are dead. Every play contains an infinity of response, freed simply by the desire of artists and audiences to engage with it.

The basics

In all developed countries today drama is a major mode of expression. On stage and screen, it irradiates our lives with its tropes and techniques. The Greeks infused playwriting with basic parameters. These may not be universal but they are certainly robust.

Not every drama has “a story” in the way Aristotle insisted was needed. All display qualities of narrative tension. Not every drama has “characters” in the classical sense or “dialogue” in a conventional one. All contain points of emotional accrual and communicate using language-like means, be this visual image, acoustic vibration or choreographic gesture.

The technology of playwriting changes not only the formal possibilities of theatre but also its social function.

Theatre goes from “being something”, a social ritual, to “saying something”, a creative act. It becomes an intervention, a source of critical knowledge.

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Kill The Messenger

It also becomes a threat. After Euripides wrote The Trojan Women, with its implied criticism of Athenian warmongering, he was exiled to Salamis.

The history of playwriting is punctuated with repression, punishment and overt control by political authorities looking at it with baleful eyes. It is good to remember that stage censorship in Australia stopped only in the 1970s and the laws pertaining to it have never been officially revoked.

In my next article I will look at Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), an American play. After this, I will examine Duncan Graham’s Cut, an Australian play written in 2011. An old play and a new one.

My perspective will be dramaturgical rather than literary. I will look at what makes these plays “work”; or under what circumstances they will “work”.

In my final article, I will take the insights of this comparative exercise into a historical overview of Australian stage drama.

Why do this?

First, because it is always interesting to know how things tick, and plays are more like car engines than one might imagine.

It’s a craft. You learn it. You do it. You learn it some more. Given talent and application, eventually you do it well. But writing drama is a hard road. Even the best playwrights have produced very few masterpieces.

Second, because Australia is a country that has under-achieved in this art form.

Given our wealth, diversity and level of education, we have not produced the substantial body of dramatic work one might expect. Our film industry is sporadic. Our television drama is forever collapsing into soap. Our memorable stage plays are few.

In 1968, the editor of Oz Magazine, Richard Walsh wrote:

If, as we are continually being told, the Muses are currently undergoing a Renaissance in Australia, Drama appears at this stage to be the last of the famous nontuplets to be delivered and with the lowest birthweight.

Despite the achievements of Australian film, television and theatre since the 1960s, Walsh’s words still ring uncomfortably true.

As a dramaturge and director I have been working with playwrights for more than 30 years. I have commissioned and developed drama for both small companies and large, have advised agencies on their support for new plays, and worked with writers of very different stylistic hue.

I add to this a knowledge of past Australian drama drawn from my job as a theatre historian, from examining the plays others artists have chosen to stage.

John McCallum in his wonderful book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century says plays are “the bones and stones of our theatre”. Whether as historical trace, repertoire choice, adaptation object, or aspirational project, the written play is a major component in stage, screen and television drama. I call it “the device that turns information into experience”.

Contemporary Australia needs a better grasp of playwriting so that playwriting can better represent contemporary Australia. Over the next few weeks I hope to show both how this can be done, and why it is so important.

Here you can read Part 2, We can’t get those two hours back – drama works as time unfoldsPart 3,  Playwriting doesn’t get better or worse – but it does evolve and Part 4,  Australian plays: how to persuade a nation to question its own soul? 

The meaning of life is that it stops

META-articleLargeMany writers find their work adapted for the stage, but perhaps one of the most recreated and reimagined is Franz Kafka. Similarly, there are few writers who have had their name turned into an adjective and, with the coining of kafkaesque, he is one of them. Born in the Czech Republic, but writing in german, Kafka is arguably one of the most intriguing and revered writers of the 20th Century.

Kafka on line, a one stop shop for all things Kafka, says the writer

…….is renowned for his visionary and profoundly enigmatic stories that often present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation.

I think it is these universal themes that draw theatre makers and audiences alike. Metamorphosis, especially, has been adapted for the stage many times, perhaps most famously by Steven Berkoff, who also staged The Trial  and his lesser known work, The Penal Colony.

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Currently there is a series of programmes on BBC radio, In the Shadow of Kafkawhich explore his life, works and on-going influence. Amongst these is an adaptation of The Trial, by playwright Mark Ravenhill, called The Process (also embedded below) and well worth a listen.

Along with Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis, Josef K from The Trial is probably one of the most famous literary (and theatrical) characters of the last century, and both warrant their own programmes as part of the BBC series. The former is also being read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch over 4 episodes.

The most stunning adaptation of Metamorphosis I have had the pleasure of seeing is by VesturPort Theatre Company from Iceland, performed here in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and which has toured world-wide to critical acclaim. A fabulous piece of physical theatre and stunningly designed.

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For me as a theatre maker, Kafka require risks to be taken both in staging and in interpretation and VesturPort do just this.

Finally, I should say that the title of this post is a quote from the man himself rather than a Sunday afternoon existential reflection of my own.