Monday, 30 April 2012

Embedded II

The last couple of weeks, it feels like it's been a really exciting time to be writing about theatre again. Since writing Embedded:

Dan Bye wrote a response: Embedded Criticism: some Arguments, an Offer and a Dare.

Then Jake Orr wrote Melanie Wilson's Autobiographer Reconsidered.

Then Maddy Costa, wrote A Space of Dignity, Horizontality and Love, introducing...

...the new website Dialogue, Maddy and Jake's love child.

Then Catherine Love, inspired by Jake's Autobiographer Reconsidered, wrote Reviewing Reviewed: An Attempt to be Honest.

Megan Vaughn wrote a manifesto.

There was a nice namecheck for embedded at Exeunt

This morning, Culturebot, wrote up much of the above along with detailing their own processes over in the United States.

And there's definitely something of this new spirit detectable in Matt Trueman's staggeringly good review of Chris Goode's 9.

There also seemed to be rogue moments of embedded-ness in-the-wild (I'm using 'wild' here in its original sense of *actual “proper” journalism*). First up, Herald critic Neil Cooper wrote about actually *performing* in a show at the Traverse, and then young FT journalist and critic, Richard Dennis (a colleague of mine from NSDF), wrote an article which made extensive use of, well, basically all his university friends who are now working in theatre, for a feature about Young People's schemes in theatres.

Both Dennis and Cooper's pieces (I've only just noticed they're called Dennis & Cooper. Emphatically not to be confused with Dennis Cooper) demonstrate some of what I think I might have been getting at in my initial piece. What the pieces do is either get involved in something, making available a unique perspective on the experience of performing (Cooper), or, by mining that most in-depth of knowledges – the experience of living through your close friends' successes and set-backs – for insights into how the theatre industry treats young people (Dennis).

I should also firmly underline before continuing that much of what I wrote in Embedded was directly informed by pieces by *proper* critics.

Particularly, Charles Spencer's thoughtful piece about going too far, (at least, I remember it as thoughtful, am now going to find the link and read it again...)


and Lyn Gardner and Michael Billington's blogs on whether critics and performers can be friends – “No” and “Yes” respectively (both definitely worth a read in the light of the current climate).

Also, Irving Wardle's discussion of the subject and also his description of attending rehearsals with the RSC in his (essential) book Theatre Criticism (actually, I've not read that in a while, but it strikes me I've probably unconsciously strip-mined that chapter/section, both as an ethical guide and as a concept).

But it's also been informed by a load of other stuff: thinking about the critics I've met and the various relationships they adopted toward performers, writers, directors, etc.; thinking about the points or places where the “traditional” (British) models of criticism collapse. Lots of things...

To be honest, I've been thinking about what I meant by the first piece, what I really wanted to say with it, and the possible drawbacks/counter-arguments to what I did say ever since I wrote it.

And doubtless at some point in the future I'll probably adopt some of those counter-positions against my original ideas. Because I'm like that. But also, because I think that's a good way to be. There's no point just finding a position and sticking to it without constantly interrogating and reappraising it.

I certainly hope I'm not still saying the same things I was saying five years ago, although this piece and this piece (scroll down to "My Famous Friends") from soon after I started Postcards... in 2007 do seem to reveal some similar preoccupations about seeing work made by friends. Although I'm interested by the differences of my perspective then with my perspective now.

Perhaps the thought that struck me most forcibly, though, was the fact that I essentially came to criticism though an “embedded” organisation: Noises Off, the idiosyncratic, photocopied daily magazine/fanzine/reviewspaper of the National Student Drama Festival. I must have written about my time at/debt to/love of Noises Off hundreds of times on this blog, but I'd never really stopped to consider its specific character before.

In short, Noises Off is a magazine that, for all the time I've known it (1997 – present), has at once practised and supported what could be defined as the “core values” of theatre criticism (perhaps best set out in Wardle's Theatre Criticism), and at the same time explored different models of writing about performance – all the while being funded solely by the the Festival about which it is writing. And yet with complete editorial freedom.

What's also interesting to me is that Noises Off can be *a training* as much as it is a magazine. The rigours of having to turn out daily reviews, the desire to make those reviews, or comment pieces as attention-grabbing and readable as possible – but perhaps most usefully of all for a critic starting out – actually getting to see people *reading* what you've written. And being able to discuss it with them immediately.

Obviously that doesn't happen to critics in real life very often. But, in a funny way, it's the thing that has always made reviewing for Noises Off feel far more important, engaged and engaging than almost anything I ever wrote that might have had a larger readership (ok, my review of Rupert Goold's King Lear might be an exception).

At NSDF, conversely, you could believe that your review was part of a conversation, not because that's the theory but because it was an observable actuality. You would file your copy (and then hang about the Noises Off office (Noffice) helping with layout, proofreading and stapling all through the night), and then in a discussion the next day some affronted or delighted company member would be sitting in the auditorium of the Stephen Joseph Theatre jabbing at your article in their already dog-earred copy of that day's copy with a livid or joyful finger, depending on what you'd written.

As I've remarked before, Noises Off *invented* “User Generated Content” in 1965 and hasn't changed much since. Which is perhaps why I found the early days of the British theatre blogosphere so exciting (and I'm definitely going over old ground I've written about before here). It felt in 2006 and 2007 was like a *virtual* version of that atmosphere; you wrote an blog, and then someone else, who you might not have ever met, possibly on the other side of the world, x2, or across the Atlantic, would write something about what you'd written.

This even had an advantage over NSDF in that it *wasn't* spatially or temporarily specific. Someone thousands of miles away could pick up on your point weeks later. Obviously, this also feeds into the conversation about the advantages of everyone being in the same place at the same time versus the possibilities of a “global” “community” made possible by the internet.

Anyway, I'm moving slightly away from the “embeddedness” point. Part of what was exciting about the early years of the theatre blogosphere was that playwrights like David Eldridge, Chris Goode, Fin Kennedy and Bens Yeoh & Musgrave also wrote blogs. So not only were “critics” able to open up their practice a bit more, and muse publicly on things wot thry thought, bu there was also the possibility of a written dialogue. Perhaps this is one of the starting points of “horizontality”.

Tomorrow, I'd like to open this discussion further, by looking at some already running models and examples of the sorts of “embeddedness” or “horizontality” of which I might, in part, be thinking.

[Edit: I *say* tomorrow, but frankly, I should write a couple of reviews first...]

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Trailer Park

(Digital & Theatre iii)

What's been interesting to me this week, both on Twitter and across various blogs, is a) the ongoing rumbly (and still largely-unfocussed/wide-ranging) discussion about Theatre and The Internet, and b) the number of trailers for theatre I've seen this week. Perhaps it was ever thus, and I'm only noticing it now, because I've become more conscious of them as *a thing* now that I've just written something about it, but it really does feel like, since feeling irritable about that Observer piece last Sunday, I've seen more trailers in one week than I ever remember doing before...

So, before getting on with finishing all those outstanding pieces I'm actually *meant* to be writing, I've knocked up some sort of hit parade of recent theatre trailers and had a bit of a think about them (that said, the following are arranged more thematically/in the order I'd like to talk about them than in ascending order of greatness).

First up is the Lyric Hammersmith's trailer for the international co-production of Simon Stephens's new play Three Kingdoms:

I like it. Not unreservedly, but I do like it. But perhaps part of the reason I like it is simply because I'm looking forward to it anyway and this provides something to which those shivers of anticipation can be attached. That said, I've been looking forward to Three Kingdoms since I saw its German trailer sometime last year:

 It strikes me as interesting, the different grammars, the almost different shows that seem to be suggested by the two trailers. I kind of wish they'd kept that bit of Wicked Game in the English version, although I do think the German trailer's decision to faux-black and white everything – and without turning the contrast up at all – does the film no favours.

However, to put all this in some sort of local context, I think the Three Kingdoms trailer is infinitely superior to – picking an example at random after searching Lyric Hammersmith on YouTube – this trailer for Mogadishu - which with no additional information, could be a (fairly nothingy) advert for anything. While the trailer for director Sebastian Nübling's production of P*rnografie (also Simon Stephens), has been my go-to example of why I think YouTube trailers for productions are a good idea since 2008.

That trailer isn't the Lyric's only online promotional video for Three Kingdoms. They've also put out a longer video featuring clips from the show and interviews with both Simon Stephens and Lyric artistic director Sean Holmes:

If anything, this approach strikes me as more successful. Part of me wants to say 'because it feels more “native”', although I'm not sure that's true. But I like the explain-y quality of it – Stephens's stab at describing Nübling's way of working as a director (from 3:00) is likely to be better, and almost certainly more informed, than anything written after press night, for example. Moreover, it's incredibly useful for a potential audience: they get told something about this potentially unfamiliar way in which the director (coming from well within the German school of Regietheater or “director's theatre”) comes at a text. It's not told as a warning or to scare the horses, it's simply someone explaining very lucidly and engagingly why they think something is great. And I think that's a pretty good approach.

Interestingly, it's also the approach that the Donmar Warehouse have taken with their new trailer for their revival of the Robert Holman play Making Noise Quietly:

Indeed, this is even more interesting, as it doesn't feature *anyone* who is actually involved in the production. Instead, Hannah Price (who apparently made the film, according to Facebook – and I can't find any other credits), simply films and intercuts interviews with five playwrights who all really love Robert Holman's work: Ben Musgrave, David Eldridge, Duncan Macmillan, Sam Ellis and (again!) Simon Stephens (Mark Shenton provides a nice bit of background reading on Holman's influence here).

I'm wondering if this is going to become a new sort of MO for trailer-makers. I suppose *the interview* per se, is already a bit of a perennial favourite, along with the much-derided *Rehearsal Footage*, although this strategy of interviewing enthusiastic "experts", or even, in the best sense of the word, amateurs, seems relatively new to me and strikes me as a highly profitable line of inquiry.

I don't have as much of an animus against rehearsal footage as some, but rehearsal footage is, in general, about the least interesting thing you can put in a trailer (although, interestingly, Hannah Price again, gets round that in her previous Donmar trailer for The Recruiting Officer by concentrating on the live musicians featured in the show. They're really good, and, unlike people practising acting, transfer brilliantly to video. When backed up with a little interview with Donmar AD and show director Josie Rourke and then given a bit of voice-over context and shown playing in front of the assembled cast, you end up with the first thing that (belatedly) makes me actually quite want to see the show).

There is a cultural difficulty for Britain regarding trailers wanting to do anything else, though. Have a look at the trailer for Thomas Ostermeier's production of William Shakespeare's Maß für Maß (No, really. This one really is really, really good. Watch it):

To the best of my recollection, this was posted online a good couple of weeks before a single public performance had taken place. And not a rehearsal shot in sight. Now, obviously this isn't an option available to most British theatres. It is, however, probably the best preview trailer I've seen. It gives you an immediate, thrilling, almost visceral sense of what the production looks like – and it looks great.

It is videos like this that made me think the approach recently adopted by Rupert Goold and Headlong here might be the best domestic alternative – perhaps at least until a show is up and running. Although, here again we run into the difficulty of the differences between the German rep. system and Britain's usual one solid run. Measure for Measure opened last September or October and can next be seen on May 30th.

Slightly off the subject of actual trailers, but closely related to the Domar's big old advert for Robert Holman, is the Royal Court's fascinating What Plays To Read – Young Writers' Toolkit 5:

I have to confess, I'm not a huge fan of Largo Films's 13-second intro – curiously reminiscent of that late-night advert for gay chatlines featuring Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy – which sits curiously at odds with Royal Court literary manager Chris Campbell's admirably chunky knitwear in the first shot. There are other things to grumble about too: the lighting fluctuates annoyingly; no one's name (or job) is mentioned, so you've got no idea where they're coming from necessarily (I mean, I know who Chris Campbell and Leo Butler are, but how many non-combatant members of Joe Public do?). On the plus side, it has got Doctor Who rather adorably singing the praises of Simon Stephens like he was, well, Simon Stephens talking about Robert Holman. It's also nice to see (if surprising) to see so many people opt for Caryl Churchill's last good play, Far Away.

Dislike of slightly flashy production values is also my main problem with the Globe's 30 second Globe to Globe season trailer:

Well, that and the fact that it's just too damn fast – apart from the final 5 seconds (1/6th of the total), which are just logos. But it gets the point across. And it looks like it's been made for maybe cinemas or TV rather than a leisurely watch on YouTube (does anyone else even do that?)

However, the Globe more than redeems itself since it also has a dedicated YouTube channel and some of the individual shows also have their own individual trailers. More may appear as th season progresses. At the moment, easily the best is the one for Juba Arabic from South Sudan's production of Cymbeline:

Filmed in situ in South Sudan, the short film brings alive not only the possibility of the play, but also the company, their country, and that country's situation. And, yes, it made me more interested (a lot more interested) in seeing the play.

For my money, though, in a lot of ways, perhaps the most effective trailer appearing on YouTube last week was the new one for the Uninvited Guests' Make Better Please:

 It maybe takes a (tiny) bit of time to warm up, but then it feels like a) it really lets rip, and, b) gives you (perhaps – I haven't seen the actual show) a really good impression of what it might be like to see the show – or at least what the show is like.

Obviously, the *actual* best trailer currently on YouTube isn't for theatre at all, however...

- Fin

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Media Studies

(Digital & Theatre ii)
“Woo/Woah, it's a video!”

Such was the initial spread of opinion that greeted the release of the theatre company Headlong's new video Falling Headlong.

One of the drawbacks of being completely immersed in writing up every single edition of Forest Fringe at The Gate was that I started having less and a less time to write anything else. Especially if I was also going to do any reading, and/or hanging out, either on Twitter or in real life.

When Falling Headlong (FH) came out, I had a nice discuss of it on Twitter while writing up that day's FF piece, but didn't quite find the time to write a proper article on the subject. At the same time being painfully/acutely aware that I'd already left one article on the subject of videos and performance hanging from the previous week.

In the interim, four notable additions to the discussion have turned up (as well as this interesting side-issue at the Guardian). First, “digital native” Jake Orr wrote a wide-ranging-but-brisk overview of Digital and Theatre, including a consideration of the new Headlong video. In turn, Orr tweeted a link to Chris Unitt's very technical, focussed notes on the Headlong video itself. Then on Sunday the Observer waded into the fray, albeit in the least informed or interesting way imaginable. I've already commented on the Observer piece itself in general terms, but it does seem worth asking, if only in the spirit of constructive inquiry, what on earth possessed them to approach the story that way (almost redolent of the Daily Mail, with its tone of: “Decrepit Artform Grooms Youngsters Online!”)

Then Mark Shenton, *blogging* for The Stage, added a somewhat alarmist contribution of his own.

In a lot of ways, Shenton's piece offers an interesting counter-balance to my recent article “Embedded”. In his piece, Shenton worries about the potential passing of the current cosy relationship between PRs and arts journalists, or critics. In short, he seems concerned that anyone might begin to think about depriving him of his status as a gate-keeper. His piece reminds me that, no matter how tendentious my claims regarding the value of “embeddedness” felt, there is already an argument that theatre critics are already pretty cosied up to the theatres from whom they claim distance.

Witness Shenton's dire predictions: “If the PR machinery excludes journalists in the game and goes straight to whom (they think) are the audience [sic], they’ll preach only to the already converted (i.e interested enough in their work enough to follow them on Twitter and Facebook), and lose the wider audience that journalism reaches” he grumbles. This strikes me as quite a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet and social media works.

He goes on to issue a slightly passive-aggressive-sounding threat: “once journalists are excluded, we’re simply not going to be interested in following where others have already led, so the story is dead to us.” (“You're dead to me, Headlong”!)

Given how quickly a story can now spread online, or on Twitter, I wonder if even this concern is already far behind the times. “In the long run, too, it all contributes to the death of conventional journalism.” He continues. “If we’re not needed, we won’t be here anymore — and once we’re not, there won’t be any need for PRs either to serve us, either.”

All of which would be a terrible pity if “conventional journalism” wasn't so frequently the worst thing you could possibly imagine.

(it's possibly also worth remembering that Shenton, as the theatre critic for the Sunday Express and *a blogger* for The Stage already sits completely outside “conventional journalism” thanks to the Express proprietor Richard Desmond's decision to put all his papers outside the remit of the Press Complaints Commission, making them, what? Racist comics, I suppose.)

More importantly, don't his objections sound a bit like someone angrily slamming the door of an empty stable? I don't read Shenton regularly, so I'm happy to stand corrected, but to the best of my knowledge, he didn't write a thing about, for example, the Forest Fringe season at the Gate. Why? Presumably because he didn't think his readers would be interested. And, on balance, that was probably a fair enough assessment. Shenton tends to write about musicals, the West End, Broadway, very mainstream theatre and cabaret performed by the stars of West End musicals and Broadway. Anyone following him in the hope of a heads-up on the cutting edge of the avant garde is likely to be disappointed.

All this which a nonsense of his claim that the regurgitation of press releases will necessarily reach a wider audience, much less Headlong's most likely audience, thanks to their being written up by a “conventional journalist”. Lots of press releases get ignored. Loads. I don't know how many papers wrote up Headlong's last season press release – probably a reasonable number given that it included the eminently *newsy* Decade – the 9/11 10th anniversary show, but this is still missing the point and arguing the toss about something that isn't even strictly relevant.

After all, all Headlong have *actually done* is release a video online. It *obviously* *wasn't* a “Press Release”. Nor, as many have subsequently commented, was it trying to be. It didn't contain anything like enough information for a start. Let's be honest, they were trying something new. They were trying something *a bit different*. No, I know – before everyone gets all antsy – I know online video trailers aren't new. FFS, I wrote an article about them in 2008. I'm I'm pretty sure even that wasn't the first article on the subject. (At this point, I should retrospectively give a heads-up to Lyn Gardner's admirably brisk, no-nonsense Theatre Round-Up piece on this subject, and thank her for also linking to that article).

Falling Headlong *wasn't* a “trailer”, per se. It was more of a season *teaser*. I saw it more as, on one hand, a kind of Company mood board, and, on the other, a kind of statement of intent – a way of giving people an oblique picture of who Headlong think they are as a company, and, even more interestingly, a kind of idea of how they see their forthcoming season fitting together.

I don't suppose it even began to cross their minds that they were effecting a massive job-endangering paradigm shift by simply slinging their video online drawing attention to it on FB and Twitter,and hoping that a load of their followers would retweet and *Share* it, thereby also bringing it to the attention of those people's Friends or Followers, who might not necessarily follow Headlong (precisely the opposite of preaching to the converted, in fact. And, moreover, making much more of an offer of something to share than a small, dry re-write of a press release).

We're all aware that, thanks to wide range of factors, arts coverage in the British mainstream media is pretty tiny, and theatre's share of this perhaps tinier than some. There's less money for it now than possibly ever before. It is now perhaps read (at least as hard-copy) by fewer people than ever before – to the point where it's starting to feel slightly silly to still call some newspapers “mainstream”.

No wonder theatres and theatre companies are starting to look into as many new and different ways as possible to circumnavigate the potentially crippling reliance on Britain's mainstream media for *any* attention or publicity at all. It's also worth noting in passing that even a straight-up great review or bad review doesn't necessarily hold much sway. Look at the continued success of the universally panned We Will Rock You as compared to the more-or-less universally lauded stage version of The King's Speech from which the public stayed away in droves and which is soon to close – the news of which is doubtless prompting another round of those intensely boring “Is the West End in Crisis?” articles, which do sometimes appear to be the only sort of arts coverage that newspapers are capable of printing.

One thing Shenton's article did usefully make me wonder, was whether the angle of the Observer's piece was informed by the same annoyance at feeling “bypassed”. As if – because Headlong had dared to put out a video that anyone could watch, rather than a press release, exclusive to all newspapers – they had asked a fatally under-informed staff writer to knock up a piece snidely condemning the matter out of pique.

But what do Shenton and The Observer think they're achieving with articles like these?

Is Shenton seriously suggesting that it will be Headlong releasing season trailers on YouTube rather than the Philistinism of his proprietor coupled with a worse recession than the 1930s that most puts his job in jeopardy. Moreover, would Shenton have actually covered the fact that Headlong had announced their new season on his Stage blog at anything like this length if their PR had just sent him a press release? And how many Sunday Express readers are Headlong really targeting? (doubtless, they'd say “well, all of them, obviously” - but, come on, it's the Sunday Express. It's barely better than the in-house newsletter of the EDL. And how many bigots actually like New Writing and the slightly art-house end of theatre anyway?) 

Similarly, does the Observer think articles like that are going to encourage Headlong to want them to cover their future projects, if that's the level of informed professionalism they can expect?

My real question, though, is: If the default position of “conventional journalism” toward theatre is apparently either alarmism, cynicism or outright hostility, and that's when it bothers to cover theatre at all, then what exactly does theatre have to lose if “conventional journalism” does die out?

(for the record, I'm not half as convinced that *the mainstream media* is going to fall over – certainly some newspapers are changing their business models fairly rapidly, but as someone I recently read, or heard on the radio, said: “it's like the death of vinyl, or even the current ructions facing the music industry – they haven't actually stopped music...” [paraphrased as well as unattributed! Terrible! I should write arts features for the Observer...]).

Moreover, I find this sense of possible change in the air much more something to be excited about than something to dread. I prefer the future (hell, it's already some people's present) where rather than having to endure one ludicrously under-informed bit of sneering at (in this case) Headlong's expense, or a facile write-up of a press release – cherry-picking and partial reporting by an already pressed-for-time arts correspondent, which will put as many people off as it switches on – there will be (is) an engaged community of theatregoers who will have multiple alternate sources to turn to for coverage, insightful comment, and perhaps where they'll be able to simply *follow* PRs, theatre companies, other like-minded souls on Twitter, or what-have-you.

They will, in fact, be made aware in a single day of a vastly greater amount of stuff, being written about better, by informed people who actually care, than they ever got from reading a newspaper.

Cynicism and churnalism won't really cut it any more. If the Observer's piece is indicative of what we can look forward to from the “professionals” now staffing the paper for which Kenneth Tynan used to write, FFS, then I see absolutely no reason why the intelligent reader won't declare the term “professional” a vastly unhelful distinction and go off in search of an amateur who actually knows what they're talking about. 

Anyway, enough of the polemic; here's the video:

And now I need to get back on the reviewing horse. Next up, in no particular order are still: NSK symposium, Laibach at Tate Modern, last nigfht of Forest Fringe, Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar and then some reflections on the Forest Fringe experience and maybe a few more thoughts about the whole “embedded” thing.

Writing more about “Embedded” feels like a particularly urgent thing at the moment, not least because, given the stuff coming out of the Leveson Inquiry this week, it feels like maybe the worst time imaginable for a “journalist” (of any description) to start beating a drum for a cosier relationship with those about whom they write.

That's not what I meant. That's not it at all...

[and, now, because I've taken so long to get around to posting this, Matt Trueman has well and truly gazumped me, and with much more élan and less bad temper, with his excellent new Noises Off round-up on online critics writing about online issues (including the Headlong trailer)]

Friday, 20 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 11

Deborah Pearson - The Future

[Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street]

Sam Halmarack and Miserablites

Well, here's an interesting problem. I'm back in the small dressing room of the Gate Theatre about to write up Deborah Pearson's show The Future, having already written most of my Sam Halmarack review last night, so, if I type quickly, I can have the review of tonight's show up online before it's even finished.

Happily, this conundrum so neatly reflects the way that Pearson's piece works it's worth doing just as a form-follows-function postmodern joke...

The Future is, then, is Pearson sitting down on the stage of, in this instance, the Gate and telling us what's going to happen starting twenty minutes in the future.

It starts with her telling us the final three lines of her show. She then describes how we're going to clap. Even if some of us were bored. She then gently outlines Dan's show 30 Cecil Street, which, being a co-founder and -director of Forest Fringe, she'll have already seen last year, so no great act of clairvoyance there.

She then moves to describing the interval. And, oddly, I'm in this bit (I presume me). She says: “I will say hello to a friend who is blogging about tonight, and we will skirt round that subject”. She's wrong, actually. I really liked the piece and will have already written the review and I will tell her so. But, in a funny way, that will now be partly to do with the way that the show does feel like a bet with the future.

She mentions Andy Field giving her a big hug and mocking her new haircut. I'm sure he'll also go out of his way not to do so now.

It's after this bit that the show starts to get more, well, more sustainable. Because so far, while speculative, everything she's described has a pretty sound basis, if not in *fact* then in *likelihood*.

Beyond the interval, however, Pearson tells us that she has to leave because she's doubled booked herself – she's telling us essentially that she already failed in the past to properly order the future.

She has to go somewhere else.

Where and what is left ambiguous for a while. She goes down to the Circle Line platform of Notting Hill Gate station and waits for an East Bound train.

(I'm interested to note that I am now writing about these events in the ast, since she has now told *us* about them, even though, even as I am writing *now* these events remain in the future.)

She tells us about how she feels dead when she's underground and thinks about whether she always feels that way. And wonders whether, conversely, she feels *more alive* the higher up she is. She wonders if this is why she cries most at films on aeroplanes.

It transpires she is going to the wedding of an ex-boyfriend from when she was 19. Her fiancé is his Best Man.

Now, this is the bit where I have no idea whether it's true or not.

If it is all completely true, then to my mind this show either a ) has a very short shelf life indeed, b) will never be “true” again, or c) will involve an awful lot of work before any future showings, where Pearson will have to describe whatever she's *actually* likely to be doing after each and every time she performs it.

I've no idea if it's true or not, but I like the fact that something that's already doing something unlikely – i.e. purporting to describe the future – still has the ability to make me worry about “truth”. That's very odd and very clever.

It's also a canny way of being able to describe the way people perhaps live. Like we can already anticipate so much of the future, just by knowing what our plans are, where we're going, how our friends behave. But there's interesting slippage too. At one point Pearson tells us she's never been to the place that the reception is being held. Later she describes the pictures of “Hollywood stars on the walls”. I only noticed that example just now when thinking about this section of the show.

As well as possibly telling us something about Pearson and her relationships, the piece also does a pretty damn good job of making us (well, me) think about the weddings of friends, the way that the past acts on the present, and also how little we really do know about the future.

I should also record in passing that Pearson is a lovely, engaging presence on stage, and has a gorgeous soft Canadian (it is Canadian, right?) accent...

And I'm out of time...

[I sit out Dan Canham again to write the all of the above. They're now clapping next door, so I'm going to post this now. The below was written after seeing last night's show of Sam Halmarack and Miserablites this afternoon. I hope it still describes what I'm now about to watch...]

So, how best to write about Sam Halmarack and Miserablites?

(It's possibly worth noting that it's the first piece that has also made me want to write a “proper” review so they can use it commercially and stick it on the back of flyers and stuff... I might yet do that too)

This is their programme blurb:

“Sam Halmarack and Miserablites are the bombastic pioneers of interactive stadium pop. Get ready for handclapping anthems and electro music to move and inspire. With songs and stories and a little help from you we will all come together to offer a unique take on what it means to be redeemed by music.”

Anything more I say about the show will start letting the cat out of the proverbial bag.

On the other hand, it's pretty much impossible to write analysis of a secret.


So, the shtick here is that it's a one-man character comedy show about what happens when Sam Halmarack's band don't turn up.

From this fairly unremarkable premise, performer Sam Halmarack (it's also his real name) manages to wring a show of incredible intelligence, poignancy and wit.

There's also a reason I don't write about comedy very often. In fairness to this show, it feels slightly “reductive” to label it as “comedy”. At the same time, that seems to suggest that “comedy” isn't capable of *saying something* or *being poignant*, when plainly it can. The reason I don't write about comedy, however, is that serious analysis applied to comedy looks *even more preposterous* than a lot of people think it already is when applied to stuff that seems to invite it.

But anyway.

What I think is brilliant about this show is the number of levels it operates at. Firstly, there's the totally available primary level in which we gradually learn how quite a lonely guy has been let down by people. At this level, is a bit like, say, The Office (Halmarack is probably a bit sick of being compared to Mackenzie Crook, but, well, let's say there's a passing resemblance that gets emphasised by the character he's playing here): a comedy of disappointment, almost an invitation to find someone else's heartbreak funny. So, y'know, The Office. Or Chekhov.

The second level, however, is perhaps the one that interested me more, since as well as this character comedy, SHM also presents a *really good* analysis of pop music's uninterrogated totalitarian leanings. Ok, that's maybe overselling it slightly, and one could definitely argue that this is just another level of the character-comedy – the central character's tragic lack of awareness that he's writing songs that basically rely heavily on Nietzsche and Triumph of the Will. And I suppose it also stems from having seen Laibach last weekend (review still forthcoming).

Although Halmarack's strategy is the exact opposite to Laibach's – rather than taking extant material and dressing it up with uniforms and German, what Halmarack does is to dress up new songs with eighties synths and a Shoreditch hipster/twat uniform and let the lyrics speak for themselves.

As a result, the third level is the most interesting – the fact that undernearth all this, I also strangely found it very moving indeed. Which I wasn't expecting.

Yes, part of this comes from the character's pathos – and the fact the character is, at times, unsympathetic is clever and interesting; like The Office in you're being made to feel sorry for someone who is at the same time alienating you – but another part of it comes from the problematic songs themselves. Since, along with pointing to pop's long history of questionable sentiments, at the same time the songs also do an incredible job of articulating what Britain feels like at the moment.

This is Austerity Britain – The Musical! It is every bit as much a show about the poor being oppressed as it is about a guy trying to get his music heard. The central, heartbreaking question of the night is “When do you give up?” And, it's own little way, even with the difficulty and the crunchy textures, it makes a pretty strong case for “never”.

It's also perhaps significant that this is the first show that invites the whole audience onto the stage.

It's interesting to note that this also has the effect of making it feel like the most “Forest Fringe”y show of the whole fortnight. (I acknowledge that since I've already argued that FF shouldn't be solely defined by its erstwhile Edinburgh home, what I really mean here is “It's most like shows at Forest in Edinburgh used to be”).

The effect this has on the show, however, is to transform this lone artist and his “character comedy” into something which we really are *all in together*. And I think it's this fact, the fact that Halmarack actually *needs us* to take part for the piece to work, that adds to this ultimate aticulation of resistance.

Since I'm being ludicrously honest in these reviews, I should probably also admit/confess I didn't get on stage. I sat in the stalls and watched. But as I've often noted, I'm not a big joiner. Come the revolution I'll probably be sitting at the side of one of the barricades writing about it.

[Will tidy up this second review tomorrow]

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 10

Augusto Corrieri – In place of a show

[Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street]

[Sam Halmarack and Miserablites]

I'm writing this straight after watching Augusto Corrieri's In place of a show, in place of watching Dan Canham's 30 Cecil Street for the third time this week. I imagine I will watch it tomorrow or on Saturday however.

Part of the reason for not watching tonight, is my desire to get as much down about In place of a show while it's still fresh in my mind.

Which is an odd decision, since on many levels, it is the sort of piece that I might benefit from spending some time with before writing about it.

In place of a show is a performance lecture. A genre, the more of which I see, the more I think is one of the best ideas ever. And Corrieri's is one of the best of a Best Idea I've seen.

Its basic question is about empty theatres. Its contention – similar to Chris Goode's (aptly titled for this week) the Forest and the Field, (aptly, written up under that link by star-of-a-couple-of-nights-ago Tassos Stevens), and, in a different way, to Alex Kelly and Annie Lloyd's The Dust Archive – is that an empty theatre is never empty. There are lights, and chairs, and a stage. And memories. Etc. etc. (his full description, which includes a chandelier, took me right back to Berlin and the Volksbühne).

Corrieri goes on to suggest that even if you were to remove all these elements, you would still have an empty room. A room with walls which keep out the outside. A theatre, he suggests, is a building with a door. And he tells us that he is interested in that journey between inside and outside.

Corrieri is researching a PhD and to this end, he found himself at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Northern Italy – Europe's first purpose-built indoor theatre. He describes the space, noting its ceiling, painted to look like a sky, and its walls, painted to look like (then contemporary) street scenes. He notes the orchestra pit and the auditorium shaped like the standard Roman amphitheatre.

He goes into the theatre and sits, experiencing an “empty theatre”. For the first ten minutes he is all alone. Then some people turn up. The theatre is, after all, a tourist attraction as well as a site of academic interest. He describes the other people. Wittily.

And then a swallow flies across the space's painted sky.

[now writing at 15.51 the next day after spending way too much time on Twitter, of which more later]

This swallow gradually takes over the piece. Symbolising an element of “outside” *inside*.

Corrieri thinks his way round the possible meanings, symbolisms and paradigm shifts that this bird effects. He quotes John Berger writing on a similar incident in an opera house in [Vienna?], and notes the superstition that if a bird is killed on the stage of an opera house, then the building will burn to the ground. He notes that this very theatre that Berger is describing already burnt to the ground in 1951, although he does not know, he wryly notes, whether the death of a bird was involved.

As well as being fiercely intelligent stuff, what's lovely about Corrieri's piece is also his performance of it. He's got a really lovely way of talking that sounds at once precise, but also slightly amused by this precision. Although he remains straight-faced throughout, and the thing really is an academic lecture, it also feels brilliantly, enjoyably wry about its academic-ness. Actually, along with the sudden appearance of the bird, it does seem to share a certain amount of common ground with Emma Bennett's Bird Talk from the previous night – at least in its ability to make what could be quite a difficult form (her: modernist poetry, him: the academic lecture) into something incredibly *watchable* and listenable.

The piece also now has a coda, which I really can't decide whether to reveal or not. I think, on balance, I shouldn't, at least not while the piece still has a performance life, as it really does lift the piece from mere brilliance to something pretty much sublime. It's a real-life final twist in the tale that is so perfect that you'd think it was made-up (I made a conscious choice to ask afterwards and it isn't). But it's real life pretty much imitating a short story by Italo Calvino or Paul Auster, or perhaps Jorge Luis Borges in a way that makes you giggle at how brilliant the world can sometimes be.

I really hope a lot more people get to see it at some point in the future.

[after In place of a show there was then last night's performance of 30 Cecil Street, during which I wrote some of the above]

Then, after the interval, was Sam Halmarack and Miserablites.

Which is playing again tonight.

And I'm very tempted to leave writing it up until tomorrow, just because I knew literally nothing about it going into the show, and that does feel like the ideal way to experience it.

I do urge anyone who's around tonight to come and see it, though. That much I will say.

Although I don't even really want to burden it by raising people's expectations.

It was, for me, a highlight of a fortnight of highlights.

It's also quite a different show to a lot of the other shows of the last fortnight.

So, yes. I'll start writing about it now, but will post that review as part of tomorrow's write-up of tonight.

But seriously, it's still quite early, if you can get along to the Gate tonight, just do it.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 9

Emma Bennett – Bird Talk

Alex Kelly and Annie Lloyd – The Dust Archive

Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street

Nice varied programme. Three artists. Still out quite early. Nice. Let's talk about the work, shall we?

Apparently Emma Bennett has something of a cult following. Possibly because she's primarily based in Bristol, and hadn't appeared at Forest Fringe before, I'd been previously oblivious. Which is frustrating because, on the strength of this performance, she really does seem to be Very Good Indeed and I want to see more*.

Bird Talk is, what? I think I'd like to categorise it as a performance of a poem. But it has an intrinsic element of video incorporated into it. And, arguably, it is performed “in character”.

Overall, it most reminded me of Chris Goode's An Introduction to Speed Reading (and also Hippo World Guest Book), but that's slightly misleading. While, it shares with both an illustration of a hurtling toward entropy, it is performed, initially at least, far more gently.

There is a basic set-up, which is that Bennett (or, “Bennett”) is delivering an slideshow-illustrated lecture on how to recognise different sorts of birds. However, the slides – well, it's a film or something more akin to a powerpoint presentation really, but there's a retro- quality to the pictures used, giving the impression that they *should* be slides *really* – the slides aren't behaving themselves. Controlled by an unseen force, they switch back and forth, then jamming, holding on one particular image for too long. Often this is a long shot of a bird table.

“Bennett”, meanwhile, tries to deliver the appropriate bit of text which should be matched to each image. At first, while the slides are behaving in a reasonably orderly fashion, this is easy enough, but gradually, as slides flicker in and out of vision, sometimes with alarming rapidity, her spoken text becomes fractured and fragmentary.

Of course, since Bennett will have edited this film together herself – and I'd be interested to know whether she did this to illustrate the text, or wrote the text to accompany the film – this impression is of course completely misleading, but it's odd how effective as an impression it is. Instead of automatically thinking of the piece as *a text*, it does actually take some active remembering to do so. Which I liked a lot.

If it owes something to difficult modernist poetry it also feels like it owes a slight debt to someone like Anna Russell or Joyce Grenfell. Well, no. That's over-selling it somewhat, but Emma Bennett, as befitting someone who sounds like two Austen heroines at once, or rather “Emma Bennett” the character in this piece, does have a delivery style that owes more to Blue Peter than something more confrontational. In the context of this piece, and generally, this is A Good Thing.

It also, I think, allows Bennett to get an awful long way on charm charm and amusement alone.

I do sometimes wonder if it's entirely helpful to British, well, to British anything really, that we're so apparently addicted to charm and laughter. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm as British as the next person, and I fall for it every time, but I do sometimes wonder if it doesn't wrong-foot a few things. Because, while Bennett's piece emphatically *was* both funny and charming, I'm not sure everyone needed to laugh *quite* so much. And it felt like maybe a few members of the audience we deliberately laughing in preference to actually thinking or receiving the piece differently. None of which is a criticism of Bennett – nor the audience really. I should probably be a whole lot less intolerant and judgemental about such things.

(it's worth noting 30 Cecil Streetalso got a few laughs last night, while I don't remember it getting any on Monday).

Another interesting aspect of Bennett's piece – and this is far and away the most tendentious bit of analysis I've offered all week – is the possible detection of a sexualised undercurrent. On one hand, I think it's probably only my age and addiction to appalling wordplay that makes me wonder if the “Bird” in the title could also be the sixties slang version of “woman”. But then there's some of Bennett's odd phrasings, emphasis on “rumps” and birds' legs. And the recurrent motif “get some action on the table” every time the picture of the bird table repeatedly flashes up. And, given what a thorough bit of writing this seems to be, I find it hard to imagine it's a complete coincidence.

Towards the end, as the slides/images have broken down, not only sentence structure, but even individual words, angrier fragments can be heard. From the cooing tone of appreciation of the birds' “cute little legs”, the commentary becomes “fucking little legs”. And as the words break down yet further, the sound of disorganisation turns to panic and a large birds face staring directly into the camera briefly flashes up a number of times.

I think once probably isn't enough times to see this intricate little piece enough to fully appreciate what it might be up to, but once is certainly enough to make me want to search out more of Bennett's work and see more of it.

Next up, and off in a totally different direction, Alex Kelly (already seen at FT@TG what now seems like aeons ago on the first night) and Annie Lloyd basically presented the book they've made about the now-defunct Studio Theatre at Leeds Met Uni., The Dust Archive.

Now, I don't know what watching this was like for anyone else, but since I was at Leeds University proper between 1996 and 1999, and it was there that I first got into theatre at all, the Leeds Met. Studio was one of the most vital theatres I ever went to.

The thing that was special about the Leeds Met Studio Theatre was that it programmed touring productions by all the important small-scale alternative theatre companies, as well as giving space to home-grown companies to develop work and to local companies to put on shows. While the University theatre gave me a grounding in usually quite standard student productions of classics from Shakespeare to Pinter; the Theatre Studies department put on student-acted productions of obscure bits of early Howard Brenton (I surely must be one of only about fifty people in this country who's seen a revival of Sore Throats) or Wole Soyinka; and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, then under the doleful iron heel of Jude Kelly, put on mostly rubbish. And Northern Broadsides; it was the Met Studio Theatre where I got to see really early stuff by Imitating the Dog and Third Angel and Unlimited Theatre and even my first Forced Entertainment show – which I *so* didn't even faintly begin to understand at the time.

But, as a consequence of all the above, my experience of what was essentially not really a performance lecture, or even an actual lecture, so much as a bit of a talk with some video and some anecdotes.

In a way, I'd quite like to see it worked up into an *actual* performance – with perhaps *more*, and more varied documentary materials. But also perhaps a bit more context on the artists who are being talked about – at one stage there was a list of the sorts of people they were talking about, and I'm pretty sure the look that the two girls in the row in front of me exchanged was basically saying “Who? Nope, I've not heard of any of these people, have you?”

At the same time, for me, it was a lovely wander down MemoryStraße. And, actually, quite a jolt to think that it was 13 years ago when I first saw Chris Thorpe's Static at the Met Studio, and probably a year or two before that when I first saw Unlimited doing No Brave World (which I think was also the first professional show I ever reviewed. For Leeds University Theatre Group's newsletter. Dear God). Or seeing John Donnelly's second play Personal Matters there, being done by Tony Singh's company Conspiracy Theatre before it went to BAC, or indeed, seeing John in Conspiracy's production of Caryl Churchill's Thyestes. Even odder that I'm still seeing these people only last week and still in the context of, well, a small black box slightly outside the mainstream.

So, yes; a lot of personal memories, possibly crowding out what I was actually watching and listening to. And yet, I think this piece would have legs for anyone who has any history of going to a specific venue – perhaps most of all if it was to see any of those artists associated with this one.

Another really interesting effect of the piece was the effect that its proximity to the final piece of the evening, 30 Cecil Street, had on the latter.

Returning to it last night after first seeing it on Monday, it was fascinating to see the piece go from effectively being framed as “the second thing about Limerick/Ireland” on the night, to “the next thing about theatres that have closed”.

As a pairing, I felt that The Dust Archive did a lot more for 30 Cecil Street than the bleakness of Hammer and Bell.

The piece opens with Canham switching on a reel-to-reel tape player (although the actual sound comes from the theatre's sound system, and probably an MP3 plugged into the sound-desk, but...). He then marks out the floor with masking tape. The resonance between this and the floorplans on every page of The Dust Archive was so strong that you almost wish they'd had it as a motif as well. Or you wanted them to get Canham to do it during their piece too.

All the while that he's marking out the floor, an interview with someone (two people, actually) who was obviously very connected to the Theatre Royal which stands/stood at the titular address in Limerick. There's an older man and a younger woman. The older man talks about the place being turned into a club, or a venue for bands. He remembers fights. The girl doesn't remember any fights.

The memories continue until they are interrupted by music. Lyrical, orchestral music at first. Canham, seated in a chair, begins to twitch and move in time with the music. Then he's out of the chair, the music switching around him as his body seems to be physically buffeted by the changes of style and pace. There's house music, and then suddenly there's old fashion dancing music: waltzes, hot jazz, whatever music it is that people used to tap dance to...

Then there's a section where Canham is dancing only to the sound of recorded footfalls on a bigger, more echoing, more hollow stage. We suppose it is him dancing on the stage of this old abandoned theatre in Limerick. This is perhaps the most successful moment of the piece – there is a satisfying level of technical skill watching someone dance so precisely – their feet hitting the ground exactly in time with the beat of the recorded dancer. The quality of the sound recording is also lovely. These echoing footsteps are an effective way of evoking the larger space in the smaller one.

Gradually these footsteps too fade away and the voices return as Canham leaves the stage and a spotlight fades on the reel-to-reel tape machine as the voices reflect “it takes a long time to build up a scene, and a very short time to kill it.” “Or a town,” the other voice reflects. “And they've have a bloody good go at this one”.

*happily, we *can* all see a bit more Emma Bennett as she has a Vimeo channel. Yay.

post-script: also, something about the qualities of retro-looking images and increasingly fractured delivery in Bird Talk also reminded me of this short “KFC commercial” made by Peter Serafinowicz (definitely worth two minutes of your time):

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 8

Tassos Stevens – Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits)

Dan Canham –
30 Cecil Street (not reviewed here)

In what appears to be my mad rush to break all the rules of theatre criticism in a fortnight, my confession for today's Forest Fringe review is twofold. Firstly, I read other reviews of the show. Second, Tassos and I had a bit of a chat about the show over a drink afterwards. And, third, I left at the interval. As you'll notice, leaving at the interval doesn't actually mean anything, since afterwards it was another performance of Dan Canham's 30 Cecil Street, which I'd watched the night before.

So this is just a review of Tassos Stevens's Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits). And, if it starts to feel like the word count is slightly smaller than usual, you can bet your ass I'm going to be using that full title throughout...

As it happens, I'd read Maddy Costa's brilliant review of Jimmy Stewart... before Christmas, when I just assumed I probably wouldn't ever get round to seeing it. But then I read it again today, and I also read Miriam Gillinson's excellent account of last night's show, and went back and had a re-read of Matt Trueman's review of the thing at BAC.

There is actually a reason for this beyond sheer impish perversity.

Something I've found incredibly liberating about reviewing all these Forest Fringe shows at the Gate is the fact that I've been pretty much the only one doing it. Ok, it's true, Diana Damian has written a couple up brilliantly for Exeunt, and Lyn Gardner came to the first one, as previously discussed - and now Miriam saw last night's. But I'm the only person who's doing nearly the whole lot.

And I have to say, it's made me feel a whole lot more inclined to write, and indeed feel some responsibility for writing these reviews. Precisely because, if I don't write it, then some of those nights will never get written up. And I think there's been stuff too good to get lost, and an overall sense of trajectory which is incredibly valuable and important as well.

Ok, this would be a separate blog if I had time, but I don't think I do so... Another element of why I'm finding this fortnight a more conducive and congenial way of writing, as well as the “embedded” thing, is that being the only person writing about a show makes the whole thing feel a lot less competitive and a whole lot less *fighty*.

I'm sure I'll get that urge back at some point sooner or later, but it does feel quite relaxing not writing in a way that feels subconsciously like you're largely writing only to contradict someone else's opinion, and in some way mentally bludgeon their opinion to death by way of superior argument, better understanding, and cleverer insights. But even that is better than just discovering you've knocked up a differently worded part of an overwhelming consensus.

It may or may not even be significant that knowing there are already at least three other really very well-written reviews of Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) is why this is the first review I haven't managed to write/finish/post the day after I saw the show.

And, if I keep waffling on about reviewing it, and therefore not actually reviewing it, that is likely to remain the case, and will doubtless push last night (Wednesday)'s review over to tomorrow and everything will go wrong. Etc.

It's almost tempting, given the existence of those other reviews, to try to include only things that no one else has said yet, but frankly, that would be harder than simply writing up the whole thing, and you kind of need to describe the whole *as you see it* to put your take on it out there anyway.

So, Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits)...

Well, it's essentially a story. Apparently exactly 57 minutes long. The story posits the theory that James Stewart – yes, *that* James Stewart, the actor famous for Rear Window and It's a Wonderful Life and Harvey – is in fact from Mars. And, Mork and Mindy-style, finds himself on Earth, reporting back to a mysterious controlling agency on Mars about life here. There's some neatly observed stuff about how long it takes sound to travel to Mars (eight minutes and 20? seconds), and so whenever Stewart receives a phone call, he knows that he's going to have to wait 16 minutes for a reply to what he replies.

The story itself concerns Stewart's attempts to understand and define the human emotion love. A process which Stewart begins to undertake, in the 80s, by listening to a lot of radio. Stevens rattles through a section in which the lyrics from many 80s pop songs are held up as attempted working definitions of love, with Stewart analysing them, and wanting to know what love is as fervently as Foreigner.

From here, Stewart leaves his flat (was that a Rear Window reference I missed?) and goes off into town and wanders around. He meets a rabbit. Not a giant pink one, like in Harvey (which I haven't seen, but clearly need to – and doubtless there are hundreds more references that are lost on me, although I think I did ok on the pop lyrics round), but one which Stevens describes as “looking exactly like the rabbit you've just imagined” [paraphrase - I don't take notes].

There's quite a lot of that sort of thing – drawing our attention to the level of collaborative agency we have in the making of this piece with our imaginations. Stevens also uses a “synaesthetic soundtrack”, to wit, an A3 pad with the sounds he wants us to hear written down. This starts off as quite normal descriptions of sounds, gradually becoming more impressionistic, surreal and specific. Oddly, it reminded me most of Simon Stephens's “impossible” stage directions between the individual sections of P*rnography - “Images of hell. They are silent”. Except these ones tend to be kinder, more pleasant sonic pictures.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me, though, about Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) was how much of it I Just. Didn't. Get.

Now, let me put this in context. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed watching the piece. I thought it had a lot of interesting, or funny, or humane things to say. It was a nicely made piece of work. And it seemed quite clever, if perhaps a bit more whimsical at times that I might opt for if I got to pick how whimsical everything was. And I thought at the end, I'd pretty much *got it*.

Thing is, I'd gone to see the show with someone who studied anthropology, and she immediately starting telling me how interesting it was that Stevens had used all this stuff that I Had Never Even Heard Of.

For instance, there's the Oliver Sacks book An Anthropologist on Mars about the autistic anthropologist Temple Grandin. Who also invented the Hugging Machine, several of which feature at one point in the story. I thought these were just a whimsical invention on Stevens's part. There was also his mention of the indeterminacy of translation. Apparently that's a real thing too. Coined by this guy.

All this post-fact information was interesting to me on many levels. First, I was interested that I'd been perfectly able to enjoy the show while plainly not really knowing the half of it. Second, I was interested that it hadn't really been flagged up in the show as something that it was *possible to know*. Third, I wondered what bearing receiving all this information retrospectively was having on what I could now think about the show. Was some of the whimsy that I'd detected, actually *Not Whimsy At All*? I mean, the hugging machines weren't and they were about as whimsical as it got.

So my understanding of that scene went from thinking of it as, well, something quite Douglas Adams-y to something quite different. (although, along with Ben Moor and Daniel Kitson, I'd still include Adams as one of the writers of whose work this piece quite reminded me – all compliments, to my mind, btw).

I've known Tassos for a while (*everyone* knows Tassos, right?) and I guess I knew he was pretty damn clever, but to suddenly have to reset your coodinates on a piece you've just watched quite so sharply is an interesting sensation.

And perhaps mentioning all the above, I've just done the same to a few people who also saw the show, but didn't have the conversation with an anthropologist and with Tassos himself (who has a doctorate in psychology, I learnt), and share my total lack of general knowledge about science and the social sciences.

I dunno, maybe I've been living under an arty rock for too long, and everyone else knows all this stuff, but it was news to me. It also made me want to know, if I kept on asking, how much else within the show also directly referenced stuf I'd never heard of.

And, at the same time, always this constant knowledge that *Not Knowing* at the time, hadn't stopped me enjoying the show, and, possibly, had the footnotes/references been included in it, the thought that perhaps I'd have enjoyed it less, but maybe at the same time, been able to map a more informed course through it.

It was good way to reflect on what part personal knowledge plays in how one ultimately *understands* or receives a piece of theatre.

So that was interesting.
But kind of not actually *about* the show itself.

So, the show – well, it has a lot of clever ideas in it. It is pleasingly witty, and also enjoys putting some really terrible jokes out there too (one pun on paws/pause is particularly excellent/terrible). And it's distressingly tender and comforting.

I say distressing, since I sat in the theatre reflecting inwardly to myself that it was strage that I honestly found watching a show about love somehow more unsettling than Chris Thorpe's pieces about violence, extremism, terrorism and horrific accidents. Which was an interesting reaction, but possibly not one inherent in the piece itself.

So, there we go. Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) is very good, and also prompted me to think about, and end up writing about, a lot of things that *weren't* actually in the show at all. Or were, but I didn't know it at the time.

Which felt like quite a new experience for something that clearly so much a part of a very familiar artform. Which I liked a lot.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 7

Christina Gangos – Hammer to Bell

Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street

Little Bulb Theatre

Having banged on about “embeddedness” at some length yesterday, it's perhaps worth noting that I didn't know a single person who presented work last night (Night 7) of Forest Fringe at the Gate (FF@TG).

Week two of FF@TG is being curated by the dancer and theatre-maker Dan Canham. He is performing his big Edinburgh Fringe hit 30 Cecil Street every night, and has lined up an intriguing supporting programme of both Forest Fringe artists and other artists.

Last night's line-up was admirably eclectic: essentially a film, a dance and a band. No actual “theatre” dramatic or postdramatic anywhere to be seen. Which was interesting. It also sort of presents another issue. I'm quite happy spouting my opinions on theatre/performance, largely onn the basis that I've seen quite a lot of it and reckon I've got a reasonably good grasp of the coordinates. I'm very far from an expert on documentary films, contemporary dance or any sort of music, so apologies in advance to all those reviewed below; there are people more qualified to assess your work than I.

Still, this is part of the fun of this fortnight of Forest Fringe, we're all trying new stuff out. Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be trying out writing about stuff that I don't know how to write about... :-)

Interestingly, last night' programme was, in many ways, a lot more oblique than more or less anything shown in the first week (with the possible exception of #TORYCORE™)

First up, was Christina Gangos's 45 minute documentary film Hammer to Bell. You might think a documentary film would be the exact opposite of oblique, seeking to explain its subject and itself as fully as possible. That would be the other sort of documentary film. Hammer to Bell is in fact far closer to the actual possible meaning of the words “documentary film”.

Instead of having an overt thesis or narrative, Hammer... simply pointed a camera at a series of vignettes and, well, *documented* them. The result is remarkably attractive and stylish. The subject of the film is the Irish town of Limerick and some of its inhabitants.

It's interesting that the less overt editorialising there is – there's no voiceover, no one explaining what's going on, or why we're being shown *this* scene, not something else – the more I found myself thinking about it. How much more material had been shot but not used? Were the folk shown in the film typical of the people of Limerick, or had they been picked for being especially idiosyncratic? What were their relationships to the film-maker? Was the film trying to show us what Limerick is *really like*, or demonstrating its capacity for almost Lynch-like oddness?

In a way, though, by the end, it didn't feel as if these questions were especially pressing. The film had a more ambient, meandering quality than that.

What's most striking about the film is that the camera basically never moves. In a couple of scenes, it may very slowly pan up slightly, but normally it is completely fixed. Which makes for a really interesting effect. It's reminiscent of the early documentary films of Peter Greenaway, but also of the way that we watch theatre. It is odd enough to sit in a venue where you're accustomed to have living performers in the same room as you and watch a film. It is even odder when that film turns out to have a few unexpected theatrical properties.

Perhaps it was because I was watching in a theatre context, but oddly, another reference point I'd use to explain the film, or rather, something that the film suggested to me, was a really vivid picture of the sort of worlds created by Samuel Beckett. In one scene, the first, but returned to several times over the course of the film, a man sits absolutely motionless in a chair watching a printing machine running. It is only when he moves, that you're sure that you're not just watching a film of a still photo. Elsewhere, a man sits on his sofa playing with his dog, while his wife sits next to him, apparently completely oblivious to both him and the camera just knitting silently and intently.

The other major/useful aesthetic touchstone is the photographs of Nan Goldin. If you imagine this, magically animate with such thick Irish accents that the (Irish) film-maker has felt the need to subtitle them, then you'll have a pretty good idea of what Hammer and Bell looks like.

Dan Canham's 30 Cecil Street is also about Limerick (neat bit of curating, that). Specifically, about the Limerick Athenaeum or Theatre Royal which could be found at the titular address. The building has been closed now for 14 years. Apart from on the flyer for the show, we are never shown the building. Instead, Canham mixes recorded sound with dance to conjure the building, its history and its present.

Unlike Thorpe last week, Canham is performing 30 Cecil Street every night this week, which theoretically means that I can watch and review it six different times, and try not to say the same thing twice (while also not contradicting previous reviews). This strikes me as quite an interesting challenge – although I apologise to Canham in advance that I'm using his piece as an exercise.

As such, I think I'll say relatively little about this first viewing, since I was pretty tired last night and probably – partly because I knew I'd be seeing it again – didn't concentrate as hard as I could/should have done.

One thing I did notice, however, which partially re-affirmed my preference for live performance over films (and if you're anything like me, you do sometimes find yourself wondering if you really *do* prefer performance, or whether it's just something you've fallen into by mistake). But, here, with all other things being equal (the seats, the room, the audience) it was incredible just how much more engaging watching a live person was, compared with making yourself concentrate on a film.

Perhaps it wasn't an entirely equal contest since the film was *very* static and oblique, while 30 Cecil Street is overtly eye-catching and crowd-pleasing.

The last item on the bill was the company Little Bulb Theatre.

Like most people, I suspect, I first saw Little Bulb in 2008 doing their reputation-making show Crocosmia in a terrible little venue on the Royal Mile. It was amazingly playful-yet-sad and as far as I remember, was a critical and commercial smash hit on the Fringe.

Since then, for some reason I've largely managed to miss their work. I say “for some reason”, but that's a bit disingenuous. Actually, I have seen them as house-band at Forest Fringe (the actual one in Edinburgh), and very enjoyable they were too, in a late-night, couple-of-drinks-first kinda way, but “for some reason” I never felt particularly compelled to go and catch their next couple of shows. Actually, I suppose *that reason* was the way that subsequent shows were raved about. Not the fact that they were being raved about, that's fine, if a bit tiresome, but more the manner in which they were raved about. Nothing anyone said made them sound like they'd be especially appealing to me. But mostly I was just in a big old grump with Edinburgh and didn't fancy enjoying myself. I wanted to watch depressing, dark, analytical things with hard edges and straight lines, not cosy pastoral, rural, fluff (like I say, I didn't actually see it, but that was how everyone who told me about it made it sound).

So, I suppose it was with a small amount of trepidation that I wandered back into the Gate after Little Bulb had set up their instruments. I'd so loved the apparent turn-around (as I perceived it) of FF from purveyors of hand-made, home-knitted twee to something much more hardcore, and I didn't really want to see that continuum broken.

Actually, as it happens, I needn't have worried. Granted what Little Bulb did do last night was a world away from Chris Thorpe's fictions or Lucy Ellinson's #TORYCORE™, but it did a) seem to have a bit more style than I'd previously given Little Bulb credit for, and b) also reminded me that I do actually have the capacity to be charmed.

Their new shtick is doing the Parisian Gypsy Jazz scene of the 1930s. Last night they only played music, but apparently these songs (really rather fine) come from their new show, which is apparently based on Orpheus in the Underworld. And the music of Django Reinhardt. Which sounds quite fun. They also won me over by having pretty much all the inter-song banter in French. Actual French. Not piss-taking Franglais but an actual foreign language. Good. British theatre needs a lot more foreign languages in it.

[sorry for abrupt ending. Need to leave for tonight's show. Will round off and polish tomorrow, when hopefully I'll be feeling a bit more lucid and lively...]

Monday, 16 April 2012


Strangely, this is a piece I've been quite interested in writing for a while now, but my fortnight at FF@TG seems to have made it feel a bit more focussed than hitherto.

The idea of “embedded critics” seems to have gained something a momentum recently. Perhaps the most interesting session (to me) at this year's Devoted and Disgruntled was the one called by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr on this very subject. Their basic question was: “What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?” with the sub-question “Do we want to maintain a distance between the people who write about theatre and the people who make it?” (full report here).

Only a couple of days after D&D, I went to Kurdistan with ATC and their touring production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's Golden Dragon (my first report on this is published in the paper version of The Stage this week – doesn't seem to be online yet). Being in Iraq and a journalist, jokes about my being “embedded” abounded.

And it is an interesting position for “a critic” to find themselves in. Indeed, the question of “embeddedness” is one that goes to the very heart of what we think a critic is *for*. Or what a critic's job is/should be.

I've written before about the slightly funny, symbiotic relationship between critics and theatre. Obviously there is a school of thought which holds that the critic is essentially a parasite, feeding off a host body and is incapable of surviving without it.

As a basic model, I think I prefer those birds that apparently hop into the mouths of crocodiles and pick bits of food from between their teeth. On occasion it's probably quite annoying for the crocodile and they might think, “Look, for God's sake, you can't kill these things that you're eating, so why the hell should I let you pick at my leftovers”. And probably those birds *could* go off and eat something else, but mostly the crocodile benefits from have the bits picked from between their teeth. It improves their mouth just as much as it apparently sustains the bird.

Is that too much metaphor? (I do hope I haven't misremembered those birds – I think learnt about them when I was three and haven't really thought about them since)

Anyway, my point is, critics aren't a cancer on theatre. Our survival and reproduction does not entail the death of theatre. We essentially have a vested interest in theatre's survival.

Beyond which, as I also said before, I think I've pretty much given up being a “proper” critic. There are a bunch of reasons for this, which I might or might go into at some length at some point, either in the future or indeed in this essay, but, for the time being, let's just say that I'm more interested in experimenting with new models of how to write about theatre (/performance)

I'm not going to say that the “old model” is broken, nor am I going to claim that I'm trying to *fix* it. I think (star-ratings aside) *normal* criticism, or “the old model” has its uses. And I think some mainstream critics are very good at doing it. I have to admit that, actually, I think a lot of my reasons for trying to find a different way of *doing criticism* are as much down to the bad-fit that I am for proper criticism as anything deeper or more philosophical.

Anyway, I seem to have got off the point slightly.

So, “embeddedness”. Is it desirable? What are the problems? What are the benefits?

Obviously, there's an initial massive, potential problem with the “embedded” critic. And that is the problem of readers' trust. At root, before knowing anything about theatre, before being able to write, before even having anything like “good taste”, the one thing a critic needs is the trust of his or her readers. Mostly, I get the impression that our critics do ok on that score. We might think, in various cases, that their taste is lousy and their writing is abysmal, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone ever really question whether a critic was telling the truth. The only one I'd question is sometimes Quentin Letts, who, I'd say, sometimes looks like he's second-guessing or rehearsing a political position more than actually saying what he really thought. I mean, it's possible that he really does think like that, in which case, God help him. But I think it's far more likely that he knows what he's expected to say and says that.

If a critic is “embedded” then there's the possibility that that relationship of trust is shaken slightly. The reader might conclude, in the words of Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?”

I want to have a bit of a look at this assumption. And also at what it means for criticism.

Because, I think on one level, there's something in it. I don't think that the reader would be right to *mistrust* the “embedded” critic, and I don't think that the “embedded” critic is any the less truthful. But on the other hand, the relationship between them and the artist is plainly going to be different.

At various papers, there's an informal policy that if one critic writes an interview or feature about a company/director/actor to preview their forthcoming production, then it should be the/an- other critic who reviews it.

This stems from the somewhat puritanical conviction that a) the work should speak for itself, and b) it contaminates the critic's, I dunno, purity of mind, if they've had the director explain to them what they're driving at already.

I can see two answers to this. On one hand, yes, if someone's told you what they're going to do before you see them do it, or try to do it, then, well, you'll know what they're trying to do as you watch it happen. This is a different experience to working it out yourself from seeing them do it. Lyn Gardner has gone further and written about how she doesn't even read programme notes before watching a show.

As I've written before, this is certainly one approach, and I can see its value.

On the other hand, firstly, it is very culturally specific. I've now gotten over my surprise that German critics read the texts of plays they're going to see, before they see the productions. Of course, that approach is partly informed by the way that German directors treat texts, but I think it also bespeaks a certain thoroughness and rigour that Germany's theatre has that we don't.

That said, the not-knowing-what's-coming approach *does* fit the way a lot of mainstream British theatre operates. And there is an advantage to being made to jump in your seat, laugh, and squirm in the same way as the rest of the audience is.

At the same time, other members of the audience might read the director's programme notes before the show starts – theoretically giving them potentially more insight into the show than the critic who has denied themselves that opportunity.

There's also Tassos Stevens's maxim that states: “The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it” (he's written a fuller account of that idea here).

In one way, that very maxim, and the thought process behind it, ensures that the critic's experience of a piece of theatre is always going to be different to that of a regular audience member. As The Reduced Michael Billington blog brilliantly skewered it some years ago: “critics are uniquely equipped to see through all of the PR and marketing that surrounds plays. They do this by going to theatres on special nights set aside for them, where they are met by the play's publicist, handed a handy press pack put together by the marketing department and given free drinks at the interval which come from the play's marketing budget. How could an ordinary member of the public possibly see through the marketing, which, from the theatre's point of view, I am a part of?”

As such, one sort of “embeddedness” could just be framed as an extreme version of reading the programme notes before watching the script.

Actually, it strikes me I haven't really discussed what I even mean by “embeddedness”.

Maddy and Jake's original D&D discussion seemed to focus on being present in the rehearsal room, doubtless informed in part by Maddy's involvement in Chris Goode's Open House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year, and Jake's subsequent attendance of (and upon) various companies' rehearsals.

I haven't done, or been doing that exactly. Granted, I did sit in on one run-though of The Golden Dragon in Suleimanyah, but since all but one of that company had already spent at least a month touring India with the production, that was far more of a run-through of a play (which I'd already seen in Edinburgh last year anyway) for the benefit of the one actor who'd just joined. As such, there was very little of the actual creative process on display – not so much of the emotional nakedness that one imagines might go on at the very start of a rehearsal process.

What I did do in Iraq/Kurdistan was spend six or seven days travelling about with the company, eating with them, sitting in the mini-bus with them, and, hell, experiencing a totally new country with them. Which obviously changes my perspective on those actors, and that director, stage-manager and producer. Apart from anything else, it humanises them. It strikes me that in the usual run of things, theatre criticism sometimes kind of requires you to forget the humanity of those about whom you're writing.

Or at least, it's helpful if you don't think about it too much.

Because, after all, you're writing about the art. About the achievement, or otherwise, not actually about the *people* who have made it.

But of course, it was made by people.

It's a bit obvious to suggest that if critics were to consider their subjects as *people*, then they might be a bit nicer. Or more polite. Or might put things differently. But I think that's simplistic. I like to think that I'd be able to say everything I've ever written to the face of the people about whom I'd written it. Even if a couple of times actually doing so might have earned me a slap.

I think there are about four reviews I've written where I've probably gone too far (for the record, they are: Sex Idiot, Behud, Off The Endz and Berlin). Interestingly, they're also amongst the reviews that people have told me they've enjoyed reading most often. Because people do love a good pasting at someone else's expense.

In my defence, I do still stand by those reviews and maintain that they are still accurate records of just how cross some pieces of theatre have made me in my time. Also, for the record, Bryony Kimmings and I are now friends on Facebook and hung out a whole bunch in Edinburgh last year. And she's a really nice person. And I still don't think I'm ever going to like Sex Idiot (although, I do partly blame the way that it was framed at the Pulse Festival for the extent of the violence of expression in that review. That and the fact I might have subconsciously been feeling more removed than usual from considering UK artists as people, since I wrote the review after I'd returned to Berlin). But, if I saw it now, I'd have a lot more information at my disposal, as well as having met her in real life. It kind of goes without saying that I'd write the review differently. I'd still write it honestly, but there are a lot of different ways of saying the same thing, aren't there?

So, does that mean I've been compromised?

I'd say not.

There is an interesting maxim in theatre criticism that your first duty is to your reader. Having had a bit of a think about this, I've concluded that I disagree. I reckon one's first duty is to one's own humanity (which, I agree, is a sickeningly pompous way to put it). But, I don't think it's healthy to lose sight of how cruel one could be being simply because a lot of people enjoy reading critics being cruel.

That said, there's every chance I'll forget these noble sentiments next time I see something that I *really* hate, and realise that some bastard has just stolen three hours of my life to bore me to tears with their crappily performed, sexist/racist/homophobic/solipsistic rubbish, but, in the main, I don't think it's unhealthy to sometimes be reminded that you're writing about people. And people who are mostly acting out of good faith.

Another aspect of “embeddedness” that I think worth addressing is whether, if a critic gets “embedded” in some way or other, it will make them view the work more favourably.

Well, here's a thing. I reckon a critic's actual *opinion* of a piece is frequently the least important part of a review. Yes, some people treat reviews as some kind of consumer guide. I suspect many of them might be the same sort of people who grumble if they suspect a critic isn't “being objective”. They're the people who prize the star-rating. And, having taken into account what I've said only a couple of paragraphs earlier about respecting the humanity of others, I still think those people are the wreckers of civilisation.

Ok, it is useful to know if something is good or not. But unless you're actually the person who's reviewed the show – or you have the magical good fortune to have a critic with whose taste yours corresponds exactly – the good/not-good question just boils down to that most mysterious of things; one's taste.

What *should* be useful in criticism, is the expertise of the critic. Their insights and ability to cast light on a work; to describe what that work is doing;how it does it; etc.

Of course, all this involves value judgements too, but judgements that are a good deal less crass than the false binaries of good or bad. And it takes *words* to *explain* them. You can't just explain a plot, or a set of synaptic responses, or a philosophy, or a design with a number of stars out of five.

If you accept this as a view of criticism, then it makes the idea of whether a critic is embedded or not suddenly seem a lot less relevant. I guess, in part, that's why I'm interested in this as a possible new direction for writing about theatre.

Which brings us pretty much up to the present, which, as of this sentence, finds me sitting in the small ante-office of the Gate Theatre, sat next to Forest Fringe co-director Andy Field, writing a piece justifying why I believe this state of affairs is in any way acceptable. And why, moreover, I think it's *useful* and perhaps even *better*, than if I just turn up at half seven and scamper off as soon as the show finishes.

There are a couple of other elements which I haven't mentioned yet. These could usefully be filed under the headings: “Festivals” and “Friends”.

I remember while I was taking part in the Festivals In Transition Mobile Lab. one of the elements that we spent a bit of time thinking about was that of the position of the critic at an (international) theatre festival. The vast majority of those festivals that we visited, as well as the Neue Stücke aus Europa festival in Wiesbaden, were distinguished by the closeness of the festival communities that quickly grew up within them – much more like the National Student Drama Festival here, than either the Edinburgh Fringe writ large or even the Edinburgh International Festival. And, as such, we did a bit of thinking about whether one writes any differently as part of a community rather than as an individual voice, more or less lost and anonymous in a metropolis as vast as London.

I don't think we concluded at the time that we thought we did, or would write any differently. And, hell, you only have to read my attempted evisceration of Superamas's Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End, to see what we meant (and that review, fwiw, was written at a festival in Rakvere, Estonia, a town where the festival existed in more-or-less total isolation from the rest of the town, with performers, audience and critics all eating and drinking together in a little arty bubble).

Actually, I think the impetus for the spirit in which I'm approaching my FF@TG has a lot more to do with the spirit of Forest Fringe itself. And the fact that some of the pieces are first scratches – which is a different sort of review again.

And then we come to the issue of writing about friends' work. Last week at Forest Fringe, I did know quite a few of the people performing, through various channels. I was at university with Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson (and indeed playwright John Donnelly, who came along on Tuesday night). Indeed, the first thing I ever directed as a student was a short play by John in which Lucy took the lead role. I've also known Andy Field for an aeon since he reviewed for CultureWars while I was still theatre editor there. I've known Ira Brand since I saw Tinned Fingers at NSDF '08, and subsequently recommended them to Andy for the first publicised season of Forest Fringe in Edinburgh, at which they were a huge hit, and their relationship with Forest has since blossomed. And, hell, I've Chris Haydon for long enough for him to have stolen my made-up surname to be his made-up surname. Actually, and perhaps most relevantly to this argument, I shared a flat with him in Edinburgh the year that, while reviewing for the Scotsman, he effectively *discovered* the TEAM, five-starred them, got them awarded a Fringe First and, I guess, put in motion the chain of events that led to their storming hit Mission Drift last summer.

You'll notice that both Field and Haydon (Christopher) also used to work as critics, before they hopped over the fence.

Which perhaps explains another element of how and why I feel that this experiment in being almost a “critic-in-residence” for this fortnight makes sense. And I think, why I've been allowed by both theatre and resident/guest-company to do it. These are entities led by people who also understand first-hand the value of writing about theatre.