Bit Between The Teeth

Last week I went to the theatre with a group of students. Nothing unusual in that of course. However, it was one of those occasions where my expectations were wildly off the mark. As I have said previously, it is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong and when I book tickets for my students, I always try to book a range of performances – something to challenge, something from a world theatre perspective, some dance theatre and something to entertain. I think its important that my students understand that theatre is a ‘broad church’ and my want to book a piece that is a little ‘lighter’, shall we say, is part of encouraging life long learning.

Rob-Drummond-Volunteer-opening-520x327My ‘lighter’ choice this year was a piece called Bullet Catch, a solo performance by Rob Drummond, was described thus:

A stunt so dangerous Houdini refused to attempt it, the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 12 illusionists, assistants and spectators since its conception in 1613. Drawing help from his daring live audience, modern-day marvel (William Wonder) presents a unique theatrical magic show featuring storytelling, mind reading, levitation, games of chance and, if you are brave enough to stay for it, the most notorious finale in show business.

You can see why I might book it. However, this description barely touches on what the piece is really about or the depth of the intellectual and visceral responses it provokes. What I actually ended up seeing was one of the most engaging pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time and one that has caused endless discussion between teaching colleagues and students from all grades. The piece plays with theatrical form in such a way that it leaves you with endless questions about what you have just witnessed. It is about illusion and reality. It is about free will, trust and connections. To use a modern idiom, it messes with your head. One critic said

it is…..painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.

It is beautifully and cleverly manipulative of the audience and dramatic tension – you are never sure what is truth, as it plays with content and form. All in all it is deeply unsettling and the better for it as a piece of contemporary theatre – not surprisingly it won a Total Theatre Award when first performed.

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Bullet Catch has played in the UK, America, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and now, Hong Kong. The critics have been almost universal in their praise and I think largely so because of the fierce intelligence that is clearly behind the theatre making. It is as much an exploration of dramatic form and how theatre ‘works’  as it is the telling of a story. It plays with your suspension of disbelief in an almost cruel way – although in hindsight and after considerable thought I am astounded at the deftness with which Drummond (as writer, performer and co-director) has done this.

A review of one of its original performances by Lyn Garnder for The Guardian gave the piece a highly praised 4 star rating:

“This isn’t magic; it’s a conversation,” says Rob Drummond in this remarkable, multilayered and utterly gripping show inspired by the infamous bullet-catch trick. It’s remarkable for several reasons, not least for the levels of tension it invokes as it heads towards a climax in which Drummond persuades a member of the audience to shoot him.

I’m giving nothing away by telling you this is a piece that plays, with swaggering confidence, with the nature of truth and illusion, invoking Harry Houdini and claiming to be inspired by the real-life case of William Henderson – apparently killed while undertaking the trick in 1912 in front of 2,000 people. Was it an accident or did something more sinister take place when a labourer with no history of violence was grabbed from the audience and invited to pull the trigger?

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It is also remarkable because while it revels in sleight of hand and celebrates the magic of theatre, it is also painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.

Drummond is both measured and infinitely vulnerable and, in a way that reminds me of theatremaker Tim Crouch, he introduces an element of dangerous uncertainty into the show by inviting a member of the audience to play a major role. “It couldn’t have happened any other way,” are almost his final words, but Drummond marries form and content to prove that it’s a lie.

One of my graduating students was appalled that we were actually being asked to wait to watch another human being shot at, which was a view expressed by Sarah Hemming in her review of the show for The Financial Times. Hemming describes the magic trick itself  as:

……a launch-pad for a gripping, terrifying inquiry into free will

At the very end, Drummond and his co-opted member of the audience re-enact the Bullet Catch and this is where Drummond works yet more of his real magic – that of absolute psychological (and theatrical) manipulation. We know that it is just a trick, an illusion about to be acted out in front of us – it couldn’t possibly be anything else in a risk-averse 21st Century. Yet when the audience are offered the opportunity to leave before it takes place, some do. Of course there are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Like my student, the prospect of one man holding a gun and aiming at another is just wrong on many levels. Equally, despite the fact we know that it is fiction, we cannot quite manage to suspend our disbelief and the anxiety is just too much.

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9478c756-cd60-4928-90fd-b4971df84a1b-460x276I am still not clear if I have been able to give a full enough description about why I feel this piece is a unique theatrical event, but  if it tours near you I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending you going to see it – even if you have to leave before the end.

Grand Designs #2

When I started Reading Room it was based solely here, on WordPress. Slowly it spread to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, which became a source of material. Recently I added Tumblr in an attempt to reach my students in another way, but unwittingly I tapped into another fascinating source.  There are some great Tumblrs that curate theatre designs by the hundreds and I’m going to share a few today – for inspiration more than anything else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne Tumblr I follow is yeahtheatresetsandprops who posts regularly and has a great and varied selection of set designs from Europe and the US. The above design is by Troy Hourie for The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Peter Weiss’ play, Marat/Sade. The one below is from the brand new American PsychoThe Musical which has just opened at The Donmar in London, starring Matt Smith – he of Dr Who fame (with rave reviews, I should add). The design is by Es Devlin and has garnered equally great plaudits as Smith has for his performance in the show.

tumblr_mxrld3nrC81qlpqbyo3_1280Another I follow is Everything Scenic who posts some lovely designs and videos too. One beautiful design that struck me is this one, for Sunday in the Park with George, by David Farley.

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Another is for a rather wet version of Metamorphosis (Ovid, rather than Kafka), designed by Daniel Ostling at the Arena Stage in Washington DC.

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Everything Scenic also posts some unedited video, straight from the stage manager, like this one that shows the stage machinery used in Billy Elliot, the musical. 


Another Tumblr I follow is the bizarrely named Glut and Decadencewho also posts some great photo sets of scenic design. These are for a production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for Theatre For A New Audience (New York) directed by Julie Taymor (of Lion King fame) and designed by Es Devlin:

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Just Epic

A quick post today, just to share a few collected video resources about Bertolt Brecht and his theatre.

The first set is from a BBC documentary made 25 years ago, but still a useful source of all things Brechtian. Sadly the whole documentary is no longer available. The final fourth clip is from the same documentary, but from a different source and shows Helene Weigel (Brecht’s second wife and acclaimed actresses of the period) explaining Epic theatre.

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The second set come from the National Theatre in the UK and were filmed when they were mounting a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage:

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The next is an interesting and eclectic small film called The Brecht Document which details Brecht’s and is composed of what its writer/director Warren Leming calls “fragments” from a two-year stay in Berlin,Germany which he made in 1986/87. The final couple of minutes are from The Jewish Wife (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich), one of Brecht’s most haunting texts.

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This one is Eric Bentley, the eminent critic, playwright and translator on the life of – and his work with – the legendary Brecht.

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And finally, and perhaps most extraordinarily, a recording of Brecht’s testimony to, and questioning by, the House Com­mit­tee on Un-​Ame­ri­can Ac­tivi­tes (The McCarthy witch hunts), hours before he returned to Germany.

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He’s Behind You

Something quite strange happens to British theatre at this time of the year. Up and down the country they get taken over by men dressed as women, women dressed as boys, people in animal costumes (quite often a horse or a cow), custard pies and all playing to packed houses. From the land that gave Shakespeare to the world and is still exporting the finest theatre around the globe, what is all this about?

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Princess Elizabeth as the ‘Principal Boy’ in pantomime

Well, its Pantomime, a peculiarly British theatre form that is a good few centuries old and is very much part of the cultural landscape – theatre for everyone.  Only this week, photographs emerged of the current queen appearing as the ‘principal boy’ in pantomimes, taken between 1942 and 1944. As a child I fondly remember been taken to the theatre every Christmas, on a family outing, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grand-parents and cousins, to see the local pantomime. With an older, more jaundiced eye, I have tended to frown at the tradition, as not being ‘real’ theatre, but it remains unarguably popular. Last year, the largest producer of the seasonal offering had in excess of 30 shows going on across the country, with a take of £25 million. So what exactly is it, in terms of form and what is its history? According to Professor Jane Moody, from the University of York, in her article It’s Behind You – A look into the history of pantomime

The story of pantomime is a tale of dragons and serpents. It features men dressed as women, and women masquerading as young men. Pantomime presents a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over adversity after danger and virtual despair. It has its roots in ancient Greece, and via Italy and France, insinuates itself into Britain. Pantomime’s unique fusion of eccentricity, ambiguity and absurdity has much to tell us about [British] national identity.

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According to writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, pantomime is the only art form ever invented in England. It’s a splendid witticism, albeit untrue. Pantomime has become quintessentially British: as British as Earl Grey tea or a good Indian curry.

Pantomime’s history is a story of border crossings, as plots and performers slip across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Panto season

By complete coincidence, given my post last week, pantomime has its roots in Commedia dell’arte, which spread across Europe in the 16th Century, from Italy to France, and by the middle of the 17th century began to be popular in England. Soon after, the Commedia characters started to appear in english plays and on english stages. The history of Pantomime is well documented, and one of the best and accessible is from the Victoria and Albert Museum which covers the tradition in good detail:

  1. Early Pantomime – The transformation from Commedia to Pantomime
  2. Pantomime Acts – Which explains all about the Pantomime Dame, The Principal Boy and the animal impersonations.
  3. The Origin of Popular Pantomime Stories
  4. Victorian Pantomime – The development of the form and the introduction of ‘stars’ into the lead roles.

Accompanying the lecture below by Professor Jane Moody, which looks at the history of pantomime – part lecture and part performance – there is also the article mentioned above, It’s Behind You, which deals in another historical aspects.

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If you want a sound-bite (slightly patronising) outline, watch this one:

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But it will come as no surprise, that despite its continuing popularity, the tradition is changing and some claim, beyond recognition. Has the Christmas pantomime had its day? written by Gillian Orr in The Independent and Curtain falls on traditional panto – oh yes it does! written Jasper Copping in The Telegraph both discuss what has changed and why. But despite this, the audiences still roll in. My own nephews, who have to be torn away from their computers, tablets, phones usually kicking and screaming, still love to go to the ‘Panto’ and are duly taken by my sister, with grandparents in tow.

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The current copy of Timeout London lists a total of 24, yes 24, Pantomimes happening across the city alone this year – and these are just the professional ones. Thousands of amateur groups get in on the act too – a nationwide outbreak of cross-dressing, if you will.

Having said that Pantomime is peculiarly british, they do take place elsewhere in the english speaking world, usually where the British used to rule – Canada and Australia being good examples. Even in Hong Kong, we have a traditional Pantomime performed every year by the The Hong Kong Players. I have to say though, I do find this a colonial hangover, an anachronism, and for me, somewhat embarrassing.

You Spin Me Right, Right Round

Before you read what I’m writing about today, take a minute to watch this video:

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I often write about theatre and technology, but this is something else.  This amazing piece of mechanics creates illusion in a very different way. The following article, written by Nina Caplin in The Telegraph explains it all.

Inside the Olivier’s drum revolve

It’s the mechanical beast that allows the Olivier’s actors to be spun round invisibly – and to rise miraculously from the depths. But what’s it like being in the drum revolve’s jaws?

After World War II, when a National Theatre finally became more than an excellent idea that nobody wanted to pay for, the architect Denys Lasdun was appointed to design the new theatre on the South Bank. The company, under Laurence Olivier, was up and running by 1963 but their purpose-built home took rather longer, and the most revolutionary (in every sense) part of it took longer still. The Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve is an extraordinary, five-storey, computer-operated double lift contraption that enables the stage to be lowered through the floor and spun around.

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

And, because it’s split into two, operators can swap one half for the other without, in theory, the audience suspecting a thing. It is complicated, expensive and mechanically flawed, but it speaks of the kind of dramatic ambition a national theatre should have – and when it is cleverly used, the results can be amazing. The clever usage took a while, though. The entire building is wrapped around the drum’s contraption, or as Di Willmott, production manager on 2011’s Emperor & Galilean, puts it, “the whole mechanism is inside a big baked bean tin”. The two semicircular elevators, known as Red and Blue, weigh 25 tonnes each, plus 25 tonnes of counterweight. It must have been a brave actor prepared to rise up from the basement to the Olivier stage on a 100-foot lift operated by a 1970s computer.

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre's drum revolve

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre’s drum revolve

And in fact, even though the National Theatre building opened in 1976, it was 1988, and Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, directed by Howard Davies with a set by William Dudley, that – in the words of then-Director of the NT Richard Eyre – made sense of the Olivier revolve for the first time. Shortly after it opened, Eyre met with Lasdun and told him that despite admiring the NT building and getting a thrill out its public spaces, he found the Olivier a difficult theatre to present plays in, “Which,” said Eyre, “I suppose is a bit like saying that you have a watering can that doesn’t hold water.” Lasdun called him a barbarian. Willmott took me backstage, during Emperor & Galilean, to see the beast in its lair. We descended seemingly endless steps, in the dark (well, Willmott had a torch), to find a lone man – show operator Simon Nott – shifting a series of levers in front of a screen. The raising and lowering and rotating is his job; everything must be in just the right place, so that doors line up for actors to enter and leave and scenery to be wheeled in or out. Everything should happen quietly, although until recently that wasn’t the case: ‘When it starts going around,’ said Nott, ‘you can’t hear yourself think.’ The metal tracks of the revolve weren’t quite perfectly round, and loud music was required to drown out the noise of its motion. But that, Sacha Milroy tells me now, has been fixed. Milroy was Production Manager on His Dark Materials, the vastly ambitious adaptation of Philip Pullman’s vastly ambitious trilogy; she is now, perhaps not coincidentally, PM of the entire theatre.

The National Theatre's drum revolve stage in action

The National Theatre’s drum revolve stage in action

Backstage, I stood at the base of the incredible golden gates from the Emperor and Galilean set and craned up. It’s all right this way, Willmott said, but the other way round is harder: ‘The first time you look down and see the floor 100ft away it’s very frightening. But now I’ve done it hundreds of times.’ Ben Wright, an actor in His Dark Materials, described feeling daunted by its size, but added: ‘It’s a great feeling when it’s moving, you’re going up 20ft into air then back down again.’ His co-star, Inika Leigh-Wright, was less robust: ‘You can hear everything going on above you and it sounds 20 times louder than it actually is and it’s quite scary.’

The view from inside the National Theatre's drum revolve

The view from inside the National Theatre’s drum revolve

As the actors floated up and down during that show, more prosaic work went on below: Milroy describes the 6-metre space that they lowered, re-dressed, exchanging furniture and snapping panels on and off, then raised as an entirely different room; critics talked of witches and bears on the stage’s upper regions and Oxford colleges rising from its lower depths. Even those who didn’t love the show marvelled at the design. As well they might: with the exception of Vienna’s Burgtheater, there is nothing like the drum revolve in Europe. So, why isn’t it used – and talked about – more? Partly, because it’s so expensive: ‘It eats money,’ says Milroy, ‘and it’s hard to get your head around – it’s quite cumbersome, so you need to understand the nuances and use it in a subtle way.’ Not easy with a contraption that weighs 100 tonnes. ‘An awful lot of designers are quite terrified of the logistics and the complications,’ says Milroy – and in fact Giles Cadle, who designed His Dark Materials, worked on the show for two years.

The drum revolve in action during 'War Horse'

The drum revolve in action during ‘War Horse’

Something About Judy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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

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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.

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Scene Changes

artworks-000059233832-ig6cjh-t200x200So my first share, from the mountains of material coming out of the National Theatre, is a series of podcasts called Scene Changes. These are for those theatre geeks and techies out there (including myself) and look at some of the developments and changes in theatre, both off and on stage, over the past 50 years.

The first one is about the building itself – the theatre – and how the architecture of theatre spaces has evolved and changed, embracing technology as it has been developed.  It is not something that we think about too often – sadly, new theatre buildings are rare – but this gives a great insight into the process:

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The second looks at the role of the sound designer, how technology has advanced the industry, and how it adapts to other onstage developments:

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There will be lots more of these to come and I will post them as they become available.

Living Nightmare

Horror of horrors, a few days ago the biggest gathering of ‘living statues’ (those people who paint themselves silver and standstill for hours in public places) took place in the UK. This was a PR stunt to celebrate the opening of a new public square in London. In modern cities, this should be celebrated. It’s a rare thing when we create open space in a thriving metropolis. Earlier this year, riots broke out in Turkey when the authorities threatened to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul. Gezi Park was one of the last open spaces in the Beyoğlu district of the city and people fought to stop a shopping mall being built on it.

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My point I hear you ask? Well, Saatchi, the PR company behind the opening of the new Kings Cross Square (Kings Cross Station of Harry Potter fame) decided that this would be a good way of celebrating the ‘public art’ aspect of the new space. Really, really? Is that all they could think of? In a city that prides itself on the quality of its culture and artistic credentials, this is all they could do? You might have gathered I am no fan of these silver people who seem to inhabit cities across the globe. In fact I have voiced this here before in my post Hands Up and if I had been confronted by all these ‘statues’ on my daily commute to work I would have surely been arrested for physical abuse. They are a distraction, nothing more. There is no skill involved here!

However, I did raise a smile when I read this in The Atlantic, by Fergus O’Sullivan. A very French way of dealing with a problem. I applaud it!

Nighttime Revelers in Paris Get Shushed By a Bunch of Silent Clowns

Perhaps we’ve been getting this nighttime noise thing all wrong. Cities don’t need more police on the streets or tougher licensing laws to keep nightlife manageable. What they really need is a bunch of silent clowns to hush people with their fingers as they creep by on stilts. This is the approach being tried by Paris’ Pierrots de la Nuits, at least.

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Patrolling the city since March last year, this group of mute, sad-faced, black and white-clad mediators stalk the city’s busy bar strips on weekend nights, gently encouraging people to drink, smoke and chat at a lower volume. Usually never uttering a word (though followed by leaflet-distributing “mediatisers”), the Pierrots work under a slogan not easy to translate snappily: “Create atmosphere without turning up the volume.” Their leader explained their intentions to Le Bonbon Nuit magazine thus:

We want to offer a moment of poetry, of dreaming…many emotions happen, at times even people come to cry in our arms. The only condition is that our artists are silent: mimes, actors, breathers of poetry, circus artists or stilt-walkers

Behind the artistic gloss, of course, the Pierrots have a serious task. The group’s 40-odd performers have actually been funded by Paris’s City Hall following a city-wide forum on Paris by night in 2010. With the smoking ban pushing more people out of doors and residents associations in its gentrified core getting more vocal about noise control, Paris (like many European cities) has been dealing with both louder streets than ever and the closure of bars and clubs under pressure.

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Given their official associations, some have seen the Pierrots as quasi-official enforcers, killjoys and even “false pacifists” according to one interviewee in Le Monde. The group claim, however, that their interventions are not about stopping people going out at all, but preventing yet more bars being shut down by the city due to noise complaints.

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Looking at this video [below] of the Pierrots on patrol, they come across as charming and gentle. They also seem to be effective, as performers claim that people who interact with them do indeed tend to lower their voices a few decibels. Of course, this airy, artsy approach to crowd control might strike some people as just too damn French for its own good (though it was actually inspired by similar efforts in Barcelona), but their relative success nonetheless speaks well of French restraint. Sadly, I fear that any performers trying something similar in a British city would end up getting glassed sooner or later. And while many people claim to find mimes annoying, watching a man trying to an escape from an imaginary box in spooky make-up is a hell of a lot less tiresome than seeing him in regular clothes screaming about how wasted he is.

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For those of you reading this in Hong Kong, I was wondering how this would go down in Lan Kwai Fong on a Saturday evening?

The Theatre of War

I was interested to read yesterday that the world-renowned Sydney Theatre Company  is to collaborate with the Australian Defence Force in a new verbatim play that will bring the stories of servicemen and women to the stage in the centenary year of the start of the first world war. What is even more interesting is that it was the military itself that approached the company with the idea. The new work will be based on the real experiences of Australian defence personnel who were wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. The process is underway and 20 soldiers are currently telling their stories through workshops. Daniel Keene will write the play, which will be preformed by both professional actors and ex-soldiers.

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Interestingly, Keene says that the project is not verbatim theatre (see the Q and A below), but all the news reports and the company’s own artistic director says it is.

Q & A: Daniel Keene (from the SCT Website)

What interested you about The Long Way Home as a project?

Firstly, it seemed a unique way to make theatre. Making theatre is what I’ve done for a very long time, and it’s something that I enjoy enormously. The Long Way Home presented a very particular set of circumstances, the most intriguing of which was the fact that I would be starting with no idea of what the final outcome would be. danielkeene200pxEverything depends on what the soldiers are willing to offer me. They are the ones who will determine what the play/show will be about. My job is to shape the material they offer into something that is theatrically effective.

Another reason I was interested in the project is that I think it’s important for the public to hear the stories that these soldiers have to tell. The ADF have been on multiple deployments over the last 20 years. They represent Australia, they act in our name. But does the public actually know what they’ve been doing or what they have achieved? More importantly, I think it’s critical that service men and women tell their own stories, the good and the bad, stories about their successes and their failures, and that the public’s understanding of the ADF isn’t limited to Government pronouncements and PR.

And I guess finally, deciding to participate in the project was a moral decision. The men and women involved have sacrificed an enormous amount in the service of their country. Whether or not you agree with the Australian government’s decision to become involved in a conflict such as the one in Iraq, the people involved in this project have given the best of themselves. And some of them have paid a very high price. It felt right to be able to offer something in return.

The production is based on first-hand accounts from soldiers. How do you fit into that as the playwright?

From the outset, both Stephen Rayne and myself have been clear that we did not want to make a piece of reportage, nor anything like a documentary. This will not be a piece of Verbatim Theatre. It isn’t question of the men and women involved in this project simply repeating their stories, but of creating a piece of theatre out of those stories; we want to escape the merely anecdotal. In doing that, perhaps by working together we can assign a larger meaning to those stories, illuminate their context, explore their cultural and emotional significance. This notion of creationis part of the healing process for the men and women involved in the project. As I’ve said, we want to get beyond the anecdotal and head someway towards the creation of meaning. I’m right now discovering how I fit in to that process. My job right now is to listen carefully, to pay attention to detail, and to resolve to be as truthful to what I hear as possible.

Is this process of writing familiar or is it new ground?

I’ve done a two projects a somewhat similar to this, both in France. They both took place in Marseilles, and they both concerned people living (to put it bluntly) at the very bottom of the food-chain. Some were living on the street. Many of them were immigrants and refugees from North Africa. I wrote two plays based on these people’s experiences, which they then performed, with the help of a small group of professional actors. I know that it was a liberating experience for the people involved. What I remember most of all is how exhausting it was for me! But it was an amazing experience.

Being in the midst of a creative development with the soldiers right now, has there been anything particularly striking or surprising about their stories so far?

We are only just beginning, and stories are only just now emerging, but what is already striking is the openness and the willingness of the soldiers to take part in this process. There is a lot of vulnerability in the room, but there is also a lot of courage.