The Stage, Fighting

My first post today is a fascinating and troubling programme broadcast by the BBC last week. In it, the UK-based, Turkish theatre director, Mehmet Ergen travels back to Istanbul to explore the current state of the theatre in the country after the Arab Spring and Gezi Park protests.

Mehmet ErgenA background to Ergen and the programme, call A Tale of Two Theatres, is given here in the publicity from the BBC:

Acclaimed director Mehmet Ergen leads a double life, directing on stages 3000km apart. This programme follows him from London to Istanbul, to learn how much is now at stake for Turkish theatre.

Mehmet is best known to UK theatre audiences as Artistic Director of London’s Arcola Theatre. But his pioneering work in Hackney is only half the story as the programme discovers on a journey to his Turkish homeland, post Gezi Park and post Arab Spring, caught between the Syrian conflict and EU aspirations.

An Istanbul-born former DJ, Mehmet became the toast of London’s theatre scene by creating venues and careers from scratch. In 2000 he transformed a derelict clothing factory in Dalston into a destination venue, twice recognised by the Peter Brook Empty Space Award. Not content to run ‘a powerhouse of new work’ (in the words of theatre critic Susannah Clapp) in his adopted city, he later opened its opposite number back in his hometown.


Tensions have been rising in Turkey between artists and politicians ever since the Prime Minister’s daughter was mocked on stage, allegedly for wearing a headscarf to the Ankara State Theatre in 2011. In 2012, a performance of Chilean play Secret Obscenities was censored by Istanbul’s Mayor Kadir Topbas.

Turkey Artistic FreedomsPrime Minister Erdogan then threatened to withdraw subsidies of up to 140 million
Turkish Lira from approximately 50 venues, employing roughly 1,500 actors, directors and technicians. Although wholesale privatisation has yet to be enacted, theatre companies openly opposed to government tactics during 2013’s Gezi Park protests promptly had their funding withdrawn.

Entrepreneurial ex-pat Mehmet acts as the listener’s guide to this politically charged arts scene, as he negotiates national and cultural borders to stage work that is as unpretentious as it is provocative.

A Tale of Two Theatres:

Somehow the situation in Turkey, which began in 2012, had passed me by and a little further digging only underscores what Ergen has to say. LABKULTUR ran a piece, Ethics of Art or Ethical Art, that is the question! that details the situation nicely, as did the Huffington Post.  You don’t need to speak Turkish to understand the following protest video. Entitled Şehir Tiyatroları Yok Edilemez, which roughly translates as our city theatres won’t be destroyed, is a powerful 24 seconds.


Let’s not forget that this is the same Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, who a couple of weeks ago attempted to block Twitter and Youtube to the whole country as both were hosting evidence of wide-ranging corruption in his government.

In 2012, Erdoğan accused theatre artists of being arrogant, saying They have started to humiliate and look down on us and all conservatives. Clearly theatre in Turkey is doing a great job if it manages to rattle the politicians in this way.

While researching this post I came across artsfreedom, an organisation which gathers international news and knowledge about artistic freedom of expression – or the lack of it. Click the image below to see what they do:

af_Fotorartsfreedom is an extension of Freemuse, a Danish-based organisation that advocates freedom of expression for musicians. Freemuse have started to gather annual statistics that cover artistic freedom of expression violations globally and the ones for 2013 make grim reading. A total number of 199 cases of attacks on artists and violations of their rights have been registered. The cases include 19 artists being killed, 27 newly imprisoned, 9 imprisoned in previous years but still serving time, 8 abducted, 3 attacked, 13 threatened or persecuted, 28 prosecuted, 19 detained, as well as 73 cases of censorship.

Visually it looks like this:

freemuse_FotorThe breakdown by country is here. The artsfreedom newsletter that reflects on these statistics is worth a (depressing) read here.

While artsfreedom works right across all arts, the pieces on their site that relate specifically to theatre are here.

Exits, Pursued By A Bear

When I was a child, we had something called ‘wall charts’ that normally came free with weekend newspapers, and that covered every topic imaginable.  Today’s version of these are ‘info graphics’ and very often still created by the now online print media. Today I have two infographics to share, the first of which has been doing the rounds on social media for a while, but worth a look if you haven’t seen it. A great little aide memoir to all things death in Shakespearian tragedy. Following on from my last post, I’m guessing Kin Jong-Un hasn’t seen it.

BhLC9dlCcAA6eTlCourtesy of Cam Magee and Caitlin S Griffin

The second is one I stumbled across from which is rather amusing in it’s own way:


Moods and Doodles

As a practitioner of theatre I have always created work in pictures first – both with the actors and with the set. A couple of years ago a visual art colleague watching some site-specific work I had created commented, with some surprise, that we clearly both worked in the same way, driven by a visual aesthetic. Obviously this is only one part of the creative process involved in making theatre, but is one I love –  in another life I think I would have liked to be a set designer.

I was intrigued to read, therefore, in an occasional series in The Guardian, an interview by Georgie Bradley with Colin Richmond, a UK-based theatre designer entitled How do I become … a set designer

How do I become … a set designer

Good communication skills, an ability to network and willingness to start out making the tea have got Colin Richmond a long way

Colin Richmond conjured up fantastical uses for pegs when he was a child. His carpenter father would make miniature theatre sets out of leftover wood while Richmond covered pegs in “Borrower”-sized clothes.

'You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,' says Colin Richmond, 'get ideas on paper even if you don't have work.'

‘You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,’ says Colin Richmond, ‘get ideas on paper even if you don’t have work.’

“I loved going to the theatre for a bit of escapism. After I had seen Starlight Express I came home and made a model version of the set from memory,” says Richmond. He also recreated Gotham City at the age of eight.

Richmond, 32, from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland, wanted to be an actor. He had a string of school production credits to his name when he was cast as a member of the Jets in West Side Story, performing with the Ulster Theatre Company. “The set was this massive scaffold structure and I thought it was interesting how an environment changes you as an actor. And it made me realise this was the part of the process that was so appealing to me,” he says.

Richmond then attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama,  where he took a three-year theatre design course. It culminated in a final-year show with all the pressures of a professional production. “It’s a hardcore three years of hardly any days off. It begins with sculpture work and developing the imagination and building up good skills,” he says. “We had a puppetry project to do, which we also performed in to understand the other side of the process. The second and third years are when you specialise in costume or set design.”

After his course, Richmond moved to London to become as an assistant to Bob Crowley, the designer of Mary Poppins and The History Boys, whose main assistant at the time was a friend of Richmond’s head of design at college.

Getting a break through someone you know is common in this line of work, although getting one job does not automatically lead to another. “You have to keep emailing and creating worlds, get ideas and designs on paper even if you’ve not got work. You have to be relentless in knowing who is doing what and where.”

Fresh from college, a designer can expect to be an assistant with tasks including the necessary evils of tea making and photocopying, but perseverance and a bulky portfolio will help you climb the ranks.

Richmond has recently worked on the RSC’s Wendy and Peter Pan, where he designed both the costumes and set. “You’re only contracted up until press night and then you’re free to go.” Walking around the warehouse of a set at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Tinkerbell’s fairy dust is everywhere, Captain Hook’s ship is being recharged in the wings and the plurality of the show’s scenes are inconspicuously layered.

Richmond believes in challenging the audiences: “Letting the audience use their heads to add to the story is a way to give them that escapism or realism. I’ve seen the most overdesigned sets that left nothing to the imagination. However it does depend on the show.”

Frantic sketches and doodles are part of the designer’s work, but a lack of drawing skills won’t set you back. “References, mood boards and montages are equally as effective,” says Richmond. Up until the set is constructed, the concept goes through different model stages, working at a scale 25 times smaller.


Good communication skills are vital for a good set designer. They are always feeding back to the director and therefore need to be able to articulate ideas and have strong people skills. “At the end when it all comes into fruition it makes every part of the process worthwhile. The schedules are exhausting but you’ve got to keep doing more because it doesn’t pay well,” says Richmond. “You’re either a prince or a pauper in this industry.”

One of the great things about how large producing theatres now market themselves is that they are ready to promote all aspects of their production process. As a result the design of a play is often shared, along with other key aspects of the production, as the video above of Richmond’s work on the RSC’s Wendy and Pater Pan shows. Here is another, this time of the work of Bunny Christe, the designer of the UK’s National Theatre production of Emil and The Detectives, adapted from the 1929 novel by Erich Kästner.


How far that little candle throws his beams!

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Portia, The Merchant of Venice.

Sydney Opera House at Night Australia Digital Art By mrmGoogle  ‘worlds famous theatres’ and the subsequent list is a mixture of iconic historic opera houses spanning a number of continents, the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and, not surprisingly, The Sydney Opera House. Now I could take issue on many fronts with what is considered to make a theatre famous, not least of all that none of them appear to take into account what actually goes on in inside. Yes, lots of them are works of art in themselves as this list from Huffington Post shows, but I would posit that were you to show these to most people they wouldn’t be able to tell what they are called or where they are. However, I would think a far great number would be able to tell you what and where this theatre is:


Shakespeare’s Globe was opened in 1997 and if you don’t know the history behind the reconstruction you can read that here. The point I am trying to make that since it opened, and for many reasons, it has become iconic throughout the world both for being the building it is AND for what goes on inside it. I’ve seen a play there and it is a truly unique way of watching theatre.  There is something democratic about the relationship between actor, audience and space – especially if it rains mid-performance. What’s more, as reported in The Stage, last year the theatre had a turnover of more that £21million, made a profit of £3.7 million, played to houses of 96% capacity and had a reach of 1 million people through it’s various ventures. Now that is some going for a theatre that started as one man’s, Sam Wanamaker, vision. It was built by raising money through donation and is less that 20 years old. The quote from The Merchant of Venice could well be said of Wanamaker and his vision, but I really intended it as an opening for the real purpose of today’s post.


In January this year The Globe unveiled another theatre on its site, called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Again built through fundraising, this ‘new’ theatre is another faithful reconstruction, but this time of an indoor, Jacobean theatre, entirely lit by candles. The exterior of the playhouse seems quite innocuous, but the images of the inside are a revelation and the reviews of the the two plays staged in it so far talk with some passion about the theatre-going experience in this new space. There is a great gallery of pictures here, from The Telegraph.


Much has been written about the Playhouse, not least of all the experience of lighting, acting in and watching a play by candlelight. The Jacobeans used candles made from animal fat, but the Globe have gone for pure beeswax, costing up to £500 per show, all of which are lit by hand before each performance. In a great article for The Guardian, Andrew Dixon give a real flavour of the place, New Globe playhouse draws us inside Shakespeare’s inner space

There is a very evocative and informative report from The Voice of Russia radio here which is fascinating, and talks about the experience as going back to storytelling in its most primitive form:

The Globe has produced a good series of videos about the Playhouse and I am going to put them all here, for ease of reference:

I think they tell a marvellous story. The following video is a collection of interviews with audience members on the opening night of The Duchess Malfi, and you get a real sense of what the experience is like:

There is also a really interesting podcast, courtesy of Theatre Voice, with Farah Karim-Cooper who is Head of Research at The Globe in which she explores indoor performance during the Renaissance and at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse:

There is also a lovely piece called Ten Reasons to get excited about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, also by Farah Karim-Cooper, published on Blogging Shakespeare.

If you are a regular reader of Theatre Room you will know my relationship with Shakespeare has it’s tensions, but I can only applaud the people behind this project and how it extends our understanding of the history of performance. I will certainly be booking tickets to see whatever is playing next time I find myself in the UK.

Voices Within

A quick little post from me today. An episode from a BBC World Service programme called  The Why Factor.

Untitled_FotorFrom sub Saharan Africa to the west coast tribes of Canada to the Mardi Gras of Rio, New Orleans and Venice, masks define realities – of religious belief, of healing power, of theatre and entertainment, of concealment and of memorialisation in death. They have been around as long as humanity and they evoke both fascination and fear. Mike Williams traces the power and culture of masks and asks why we have them and what they mean for us.

Click the icon below to listen to the podcast. Not entirely related to theatre but fascinating none-the-less.


A group wearing masks of legendary heroes as they perform a dance in Minhe County of Qinghai Province, north-west China

What Are Words Worth?

A small, but perfectly formed little share today – a video from the National Theatre in the UK about verbatim theatre, from a range of people who make it. Well worth a view


I wrote at length about verbatim theatre last year in a post called Words Are Louder Than Actions which includes a great little how to guide by Alecky Blythe, who opens the video.

Keep Calm And Make Theatre

Today I want to give a shout out to a couple training and learning opportunities that are happening, physically or online, in the coming year.

Patronlogo_FotorTeaching – and learning – theatre in an international context is an immense privilege. Many of you reading Theatre Room, students and teachers, will be doing so in this setting. As a result, it is likely that you have heard of ISTA, the International Schools Theatre Association which is an international arts organisation, a global community of young people, teachers and artists that operates on every continent. ISTA began life in 1978 with just one High School Festival in Europe. Today ISTA holds over 30 annual Festivals and training programmes worldwide,  with a membership of more than 200 schools.

298My own school have been members for many years and it is a vital part of how we promote theatre in our school and connect with theatre makers across the region.  In the last couple of years ISTA has launched a summer training programme for young people (aged 15 to 19), called The Academy, which is a two or four week intensive international summer theatre Festival, held in the south of France. It is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in all things theatre, training and working with professional theatre practitioners from around the world. I’d be there in a flash, but sadly. I’m slightly (ahem) above the upper age limit. Click the image above for more details.


The other opportunity I’d like to mention is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) taking place in March. A MOOC is an online course (usually free) with unlimited participation and open access via the web.  They are becoming an increasingly popular way to take short courses in a globally accessible way.


This MOOC is an introduction to physical actor training, with a focus on biomechanics. It takes place over three weeks with participants expected to commit 4 hours per week. It is being led by an old friend of mine, Jonathan Pitches, who is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds in the UK. Again click the image above for more information.


Future Learnwhich is hosting the above MOOC is also hosting two others in the new year that may be of interest to theatre makers, young and old. Firstly there is Shakespeare’s Hamlet: text, performance, and culturewhere academics from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon introduce aspects of the most famous play ever written – its origins, texts, and history.  The other is Shakespeare and his World which explores Shakespeare, his works and the world he lived in.

Get clicking!

Playing The Fool

I realised this week that I sometimes miss the blatantly obvious when I am writing this blog. Once a week I set aside time to explore the things from Twitter that I have mined during the previous 7 days as well as trawl through the tried and trusted sites, blogs and people who feed Theatre Room. Also, I am often prompted by questions from my students and debates and discussions that happen in the classroom and studio as well as discussions with theatre teaching colleagues.

At the moment, all of my senior students are involved with research projects of one kind or another and I have quietly being doing some background research of my own to support them. And so it was that I came to the realisation above. One of my students, Grace, is exploring Commedia dell’Arte for her Independent  Project and although I know have referred in passing to the tradition, I don’t think I have devoted a post to it. So here it is.

hb_1980.67There are lots of bits and bobs on the internet about Commedia, some more useful than others, but a general Google search will throw all these up. One of the best on-line histories comes from and can be found here. However, the best sources of information still remain (much to my surprise and occasionally to my students’ chagrin) printed texts. The best list of these can be found here, complied by Jonathon Becker on his website Of all of these, there are two that stand out. 254682Firstly there is Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook by John Rudlin which is a bit of a bible, in my opinion. One review on Amazon says It is not an esoteric bible of secret facts which will allow anyone to become a commedia performer.It is an actor’s manual and, if you cannot find adequate live teaching of the form, it is one of the best books you can find to start with. I couldn’t agree more!  The other one I always recommend to students is Playing Commedia by Barry Grantham. It has a section on different types of warm-ups and games specific to 9781854594662_Fotorskills and/or characters and there is another section with a history of each character which is invaluable. There are lots others available, some more practical, some more academic, but these two are my favourites. In fact the number of books still in print says much about the tradition itself – it is alive and flourishing. One company that specialises is Faction of Foolsbased at Gallaudet University in Washington DC.

Commedia is classed by UNESCO as a piece of Intangible World Cultural Heritage and as such there is even a World Commedia dell’Arte Day, 25th February every year. A look at the report produced for the 2013 day shows just how wide-spread (5 continents) Commedia practitioners are.

I want to share a series of videos produced by the National Theatre in the UK, which are a great little resource.






The workshops in the video are led by Didi Hopkins from Commediaworks, a UK based organisation that aims to keep the [Commedia] flame alive and burning bright. To this extent, they worked with Richard Bean, the writer of the internationally successful modern reworking of Carlo Goldoni’s classic The Servant of Two Masters, in the form of One Man, Two Governors.  You can read Goldoni’s original text here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Goldoni is often accused of ‘killing’ Commedia, by writing it down – committing an oral, improvised art, to the page. Hopkins and her partner in Commediaworks, Ninian Kinnier-Wilson, wrote the programme/play bill notes for One Man, Two Governors where they challenged the notion of Goldoni as ‘murderer’.

Did Goldoni Murder Commedia?

When Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters, some say he killed Commedia dell’Arte. Was it alive? What was it? And why was a playwright accused of its murder?

Commedia dell’Arte, or Comedy of the Guild, was the first professional theatre in Europe, appearing in the 1550s in Northern Europe. Actors were paid a fair wage. A round of applause on your exit line meant you often got extra money… and on stage, for the first time, there were women. Before Commedia, Literary Societies, populated with academics, often performed amateur theatre, and there were professional entertainers – jongleurs – but there was no professional theatre. Commedia dell’Arte seems to have been a marriage between the academics and the jongleurs, between ideas and skills, between mind and body, and between high and low class. It was originally known as ‘Commedia all’Improviso’, the players taking the roles of different types found in society, from lowly servants to middle class professionals and lofty aristocrats. These types were clearly defined and contrasted to help the actors with their improvisation: high masters with low servants, lost lovers with knowing maids, cunning servants with stupid masters. As there was no written play, the actors worked from a scenario or running-order pinned up behind the stage, detailing entrances and exits of the players and the main points to be conveyed in the scene.

101203ArlecchinoTraditional themes involved riches and poverty, power and servitude, barrenness and fertility, wisdom and folly, and, of course, life and death – powerful reasons to drive characters through their stories.
There was no central hero in the Commedia dell’Arte, rather each character had a storyline with a beginning, middle and end to their plight, and all these stories were woven together to end, usually with a marriage, in the final scene. As well as socially, the characters were also divided by whether or not they were masked. The masked characters are cyclical and end the story back in their rightful places; the unmasked are linear and go on a journey from one state to finish in another. Both sets of characters have lessons to learn on the way about life, love, justice and society – all topics that would concern their audience.


Commedia actors studied hard for their parts, and learned quantities of text. The unmasked lovers learned love poems and duets; the professionals were familiar with business ideas of the day, the latest interests of the academic societies, and could speak Latin, Greek and Hebrew like their equivalents in the audience. The braggart Captain had speeches of valour and ridiculous long Spanish names. The players of the servants had to practise tumbling and set piece gags, or ‘lazzi’. All this had to be retained and inserted into scenes when appropriate and at the drop of a hat.

Commedia all’Improviso was a literate and visual theatre, speaking the ideas of the Renaissance literary society and using the vulgar visuals of the illiterate lower classes, combining the two to speak to the whole audience. Sound commercial sense! It also meant that the players of the Commedia all’Improviso were truly skilled. Trained to a very high level in their chosen roles, they were more than just actors, they were artisans of the theatre: the Commedia dell’Arte.


So why was Goldoni accused of killing Commedia dell’Arte?

Others, including Molière and Marivaux, had made text plays in the style of Commedia dell’Arte. But by the 1740s the Commedia was old. At its birth two hundred years before, it had sprung to life fully formed and travelled the courts and countryside of Europe, speaking secrets and introducing theatre to many of the countries it visited. It had a purpose. By Goldoni’s time it had forgotten that purpose and was wrapped not in the sharp ideas of the Renaissance but in the fluffy gauze of the Rococo of Watteau and the fairytales of Gozzi. It was not a murder, it was a mercy killing. Commedia was resurrected and brought back to life two centuries later by the Piccolo Teatro of Milan when, in 1947, Giorgio Strehler, Jacques Lecoq and mask-maker Amleto Sartori picked up Goldoni’s script and pieced together, through information and research, a new template for understanding the form, the characters and the rhythms of Commedia dell’Arte. It is a tradition that has influenced theatre, actors and playwrights and its strong imprint can be seen in Restoration comedy, melodrama, music hall, vaudeville, circus, pantomime and in the Zanni of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Mr Bean, and beyond. The work goes on.


Goldoni the playwright is innocent of the murder of Commedia dell’Arte. By writing down what he witnessed in his rich and theatrical Venetian landscape, he helped to preserve it and keep the flame alive. He tried to bring together two traditions of European theatre – the playwrights’ theatre, and Commedia – the actors’ theatre. Viva la Commedia!

If you would like to know more about One Man, Two Govenors, you can download the education pack that accompanies the show here.

What The Butler Saw

JHaynesPortrait2A quick video post from me today.  The first is a documentary from the BBC about the playwright Joe Orton that TheatreVoice has added to its growing video archive, TheatreVoiceTV. 

Orton lived a short but vibrant life and I was reminded of him recently when one of my performing arts students decided to write an investigation of the history of farce in theatre.

If you would like to know more, there is a fantastic website that has masses about Orton, his life and his plays – Joe Orton Online.



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.