Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Forest And The Field

Chris Goode is a friend and brilliant theatre-maker. He's articulacy par excellence about what matters, and if you don't know his blog Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, you really should. Although a post is typically long enough to demand to be settled down with its own hot drink before reading. Last month I was present at The Forest and the Field, an essay gently transformed into an almost one-man performance at CPT. It's not really a manifesto - Chris is too damn sensitive for that - but you could call it a treatise. I'd promised to write some thoughts in exchange for a ticket - not really a review, I'm too damn late for that - but you could call it a ragged response to at least a few of his points. For the record, the performance was an exquisite encounter, Chris eloquent and beaming bear-like, support from Sebastien Lawson and Helen Kirkpatrick amongst others

You might want to look at an earlier essay version here, not just to brush up on your definitions of liminality but also because it's a typically beautiful piece of writing.

There is no such thing as an empty space

Peter Brook's famous evocation:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged

Chris gave this a proper kicking. About time that someone did. I've got nothing against Brook per se, but the excruciating reverential attitude borne towards him as the Yoda of British theatre.

Brook's empty space is a playspace, a liminal zone that can exist anywhere - it's the space cleared in the imagination of its audience. But a theatre is not an empty space, it can only exist in a place. A place that has an architecture, a social animation, a history, a location in a bigger place, in an economy, in an ecology etc. All of these matter. For Chris, it is crucial to ground the liminality of the theatre in a real place that reminds us of where we are and how we got there.

All meaningful play is pretending something is as if it is something else at the same time as being that which it really is. This is true whether of places, objects or people. Or back to Chris: Theatre is not just to ask what if but also what is.

I heartily agree but chuck in further observations. Here's an over-quoted maxim of mine first of all: the experience for the audience of the event of theatre begins when they first hear about it and ends only when they stop thinking and talking about it. Their expectations and perceived relationship to the event of theatre are crucial.

For first-timers, it's impossible to ignore the place and reality of the event. There's a brilliant study by Matthew Reason that I discovered a few years ago. Reason took a group of teenagers to see Othello at the Lyceum in Edinburgh (I think), most of the group had never been to the theatre before. Afterwards, he used discourse analysis to recollect their experience; whatever they talk about to reconstruct the experience will be the primary. Most of this was not about the play itself but about being in a posh, plush building of gold, glass and velvet, surrounded by a sea of older people, with the host of best behaviours this implied. It was only the kids that had been 4 or 5 times that saw beyond the theatre and into Othello. You get habituated to the event of theatre before you really see the play.

Habituation is a psychological term. It's a learned relief of attention from what is habitual and predictable to leave it ready for the surprising and new. The implication is that Brook's empty space is only possible after attention has been numbed to competing perceptions of the place and the people, the event that surrounds you. Hardly desirable even for a hypothetical.

[I think a lot of the hoo-ha around immersive work, including my own, is because its event is unusual and fresh. But an audience will start habituating to that as well. Which doesn't mean that it's over, as this frustratingly facile piece on the Guardian blog argued. Just that it needs to be good.]

Sebastien demonstrated an exercise Chris uses with actors to challenge their own habituation to a space, where he attends to the history of the place as is present in its scratches in floor and walls, and then moves as if to have made those marks in the first place. A real scratch performance. It's mesmerising but remains opaque; I wonder how much beyond the initial kick it helps the audience truly attend to the place they are in, how relevant this is to their own relationship with the place, performance, each other.

When making something for Coney that happens in the real world, the first phase is observation. Or the more adventurous term: reconnaissance. You need to see how a place really is, how it is animated by people, its architecture, its history even. Before then looking for affordances of the place for the play you are making or the story you are telling. Often - always? - whatever you need is present. When making the adventure led by Rabbit on Valentine's night in 2006 along the Thames, we spent a while talking through ludicrous mechanisms by which someone on one bank of the river at night could connect with someone on the opposite bank, from fireworks to floating grapefruit. We needed to go to the river at night to see what was actually there: lights reflecting on water. All needed was a torch to shine. When you spot the dot of light across the water answering your torch, as it makes itself known amongst all the present lights by starting to dance with yours, it's truly moving, magic. A little piece of that magic rubs off onto every other light you see later that night.

Chris has famously made pieces that happen in the homes of the audience. The Tempest happened in Edinburgh flats in 2000, and ended with the audience discovering a paper boat floating in their own washing-up after the company had vanished. I had that We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg in my own place. Chris drew his own outline in salt on the living-room floor. It stayed there for 11 days before I accidentally kicked his head in and finally hoovered it up. There's an extraordinary interplay between performance and place when it's your home.

Journeys in the real world

The playspace is the island of mythology and Shakespeare, the forest of folklore, where you go to get lost and be transformed through a story. It's the what-happens-next place, the liminal shop of horrors and delights, what if. It's the Forest in Chris' title.

For Field: he is quoting John Berger's essay of same title, describing the attention that an open field affords, how the eye of the audience moves from detail to detail, attending to all that is present, what is.

It reminds me of the most wonderful mishap in a performance of Rabbit: [self]assembly at BAC a few years ago: a group of audience inside the old bar of the theatre by a window looking out onto the outside world, waiting for an unspecified signal. Facing them is a block of council flats, balconies and gardens. They are looking at this field and discussing what might possibly be the signal. In one of the gardens there happens to be a light, which goes on the blink and starts to flash. They quickly agree that this must be it and so take their cue to act, a head start on the planned cue (which rather stalely was a ringing phone). But it was just a light that has decided to suddenly go on the blink.

Chris talked about time spent wandering through woodlands, how the forest clears raggedly into fields and back into clearings into woods. This makes him think of an archipelago of islands, many bounded liminal places and the voyage between them. I think it's all in the journey, and am just as happy to settle for the time being on his original inspiration of a walk through woods and fields. It's the messiness of the boundaries, not being able to tell precisely where one starts and the other stops, that gives a heightened attention to all that is, both what is and what if. Audiences can become consumed by the uncertainty of what is in the fiction and what is real, and incorporate real moments of serendipity into their experience. One on Valentine's night talked afterwards about meeting a busker who was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on a banjo and being *almost* certain that something so unusual must have been part of the fiction. It's the *almost* that's key.

Living in a liminal world (and I am a post-liminal girl)

For Chris, we're living in a liminal world, where - and my memory is crude of this only clunkiness in Chris' rhetoric - virtual spaces online afford the potential of fluid identity, where we are immersed in what if in the flux of social, economic, political structures. Theatre is a place of dissidence and opposition, queerness in its original precise sense (nowt as queer as folk). Therefore the radical political emphasis should be on non-liminality in theatre, the what is rather than the what if, the event of really gathering people to attend together live.

I both applaud this and I disagree, (both) wholeheartedly. Most people are pretty adroit at keeping grounded in a virtual world - for all the talk say of teens as digital natives, it's also true that 90% of their communities of friends on say Facebook are exactly the same as their communities of real live friends, and they adopt different communications for who and what matters. It's not a liminal forest out there for most people, rather a journey into and out of pockets of liminality and groundedness and occasional uncertainty.

I'm therefore fascinated by work that can connect to people wherever and whenever they are, can accompany them on this journey and guide them into places of acute transformation and resonance, events that necessarily happen across duration and location to be discovered. The Gold-Bug spanned 6 months. By the end, there was a community of players who had transformed into real-life friends.

And finally: Theatre that is more like...

The theatre industry casts envious eyes at the experiences and media that are getting attention, especially from the young and trendy. Chris observes that this results in a spate of theatre that is trying to be more like ....... and insert your own choice of: clubbing; a gig; videogames; etc. For better or worse. When it's for worse, it's usually it's because the superficial is imported and grafted onto theatre, not the deeper essence of what each medium is really about. Chris gagged that someone somewhere is probably trying to make Theatre That Is More Like Twitter, which provokes knowing laughter because Twitter is shorthand for fashionable fatuity.

I was wondering what theatre that is more like twitter would be if it could indeed be any good. I am on it - although not especially active or connected or mobile - and so tweeted the following:

Thought experiment, please answer and RT: #whattoyouisgreatabouttwitter

This was a not especially well-constructed request in tweetspeak to answer the question 'what to you is great about twitter' and then retweet (repeat) the question. Tweeted once by myself and then answered and echoed by 8 others, some by friends within minutes, the last a complete stranger 3 days later, before fading into the background noise.

• met people I now work with, new artists, new collaborators, had new conversations, learnt new stuff, twitter stuff for ya
• finding & meeting new people
• News and info equivalent to thousands of sites and blogs in seconds.
• Answer: Dipping into a stream of learning
• Discover + spread information, community fueled innovation, open API => vibrant ecosystem
• A: speed of discovery/answers to Qs/spreading stuff.
• Answer: thought experiments.
• Present people all the time, friend-filtered info, instant, fun, new great people

I'd say that the perceived fatuity of Twitter is represented as the brevity of the 140-character tweet, a constraint which is utterly necessary for the speed of collective thinking through reading and writing, coupled with people talking when they don't have much to talk about, the downside of a conversation always being 'on'.

Looking at these now, I reckon that a theatre that is more like twitter would resemble a distributed Devoted and Disgruntled - open-space conversations happening near-simultaneously in different connected places across the world. I'd like to imagine in rooms with windows looking into and out from the world.

Glove already thrown down to Chris to come up with his own.

Oh, and -
The primary affordance in digital is talking to people, connecting live and playing with people wherever they are in the event. The essence of liveness is responsivity. Live is not necessarily about being in the same time same place, although of course there's a different quality of live experience when you are. Just in case you're wondering.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Jimmy Stewart...

A premature announcement but what the hell. I'm collaborating in a theatre with the brilliant Nick Ryan, me and he as Ryan Stevens. I'm writing and performing a text, we're going to play around with it and some music, after - get this, pop kids! - rehearsal. There are two scratch performances at BAC on 9th and 10th March. It's called -

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

Probably going to take us the first half of the show just to unpack the title. Here are some clues.

There are many many exciting things happening early next year, more on those soon. But mostly because this is a project motivated entirely by kicks (and love), I'm really made up. And enjoying the writing process, which is just as well as I need to draft it sharpish.

Weather is the great equaliser

To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons. It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.

This is from Gotham Handbook, an instructional piece set by Paul Auster for Sophie Calle. As part of a mission to make lovely conversation with strangers, Auster suggested talking about the weather and justified it so.

This quote chimed, not just because we're in Groundhog Snow Day.

Seen in the most excellent Calle exhibition currently at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Playing The Ashes

A few weeks ago, I spoke at Playful 09. When Toby Barnes talked to me about speaking, he asked me to propose something that interested me rather than something I was working on. I immediately answered 'The Ashes', having just been to the Oval for Day 3 of England v Australia, Test Match Cricket.

Here's pretty much the talk I gave - I hope - posted on request of Toby, and a few cricket-loving friends. Thanks to Playful for having me, and the incredibly generous response of you who were in the audience.


Hello. I'm Tassos Stevens, one of the Runners of Coney. I don't have any slides but I have written my talk. Coney makes live interactive crossplatform play, taking whatever form and event to best make stories and play for, by and with its playing audience. Coney describes itself as agency of adventure and play, founded on principles of adventure - everything should feel as exciting an adventure, loveliness - we must take care of our playing audiences, reciprocity - you get back at least what you put in, and total potential engagement. These principles apply both to our work and to Coney itself. Currently amongst others, Coney is running A Small Town Anywhere, a theatre piece for no performers but a playing audience, in a sell-out run at Battersea Arts Centre.

I wanted to mention this at the top because I may come back to it in the coda to this presentation.

But I'm here to talk about something else. Something that is an extraordinarily compelling event of story and play, with unique architecture and qualities that enable a fluid engagement for its many constituencies of playing audience. It has been running now for 117 years. It's Test Match Cricket. England versus Australia, the greatest rivalry. The Ashes.

Cricket. Hope you don't have to be a fan to appreciate this. I'm not planning to get very crickety. Myself, I'm not even a particularly hardcore fan, I'm more immersed according to our traditional power-law pyramid.

Now cricket itself is of course a sport. Like all sports it embeds the most compelling question in storytelling, the question that we as narrative-machines are always asking ourselves whether we like it or not: what happens next. In sport, more than life, more than art. Sport is live and indeterminate, while we may feel confident in predicting what will happen next, we can never know for certain - whether that's in a match or in a single moment. But like art, the set of possible things that might happen next is focused in our immediate imaginative grasp, we know immediately that it's win or lose, hit or miss. And we know what that means in the outcome of the match. And that's compelling. If you don't believe me, try walking past someone in a park who is about to catch a ball and try not to pause to see if they catch it or drop it.

And it's not unusual for us story-players to be making eyes at sport as participation narratives, there have been a couple of good stabs looking at football. But it's the distinctive features of cricket, especially Test Match Cricket, that make this I hope an interesting comparison. And ultimately I am here to talk about the making of story and play by us audiences during the Ashes rather than the play of the teams themselves.

First, about cricket.

All sports have simple mechanics at their heart. Football: kick the ball into the other team's goal and score. Tennis: two players hit a ball at each other with a bat until one of them misses - score. Cricket's heart is a little more complex because the two teams are acting differently. One team is batting, the other is bowling, And then they swap. When you're batting you score points called runs by hitting the ball away from your wicket and running. You lose lives called wickets if the ball hits your wicket, or if it's caught, or... and then there are a few more complicated ways. But you can tell the simple mechanic because it's how kids will play it on the street. Kids will play cricket with anything. I once as a grown-up spent a long time in a rehearsal room playing cricket with a ball made out of masking tape, a plank of wood as a bat and a chair as a wicket. And the simple mechanic is almost always what the highest points of drama in the game hinge upon.

In Test Match Cricket, one side bats until they have lost all their wickets in their innings, then the other side bats, then they both repeat. And the one that scores the most runs in total over their two innings wins the match. But if the side that would lose on runs hasn't lost all its wickets, it's a draw. Simple. Ish.

There are 11 players in a team. But at any given moment, it distils down into a gladiatorial contest: one player is bowling and one player is batting. And bowlers keep changing, and batsmen get out and keep changing. So the two players who face off against each other are endlessly shifting, ball by ball. Players have different strengths and weaknesses, a good batsman is not often a good bowler, and vice-versa. The endless combinations of who versus who, makes for a set of very human narratives that collectively can become epic. But still all striving towards one ultimate outcome: who will win the Ashes.

Test Cricket is long. A match can last for up to five days. Who wins The Ashes is decided over a series of 6 matches, over 2 months. And then the whole series repeats 2 years later. It's almost impossible for any spectator to be at every single day of every single match across a whole series, unless you're a commentator. Or a player. Hard even to watch it on television without taking a holiday for that express purpose. But you don't have to. It is an ambient narrative that can percolate in the background of the rest of your life, always tempting but only occasionally demanding your full attention. No mistake that the archetypal medium for cricket is actually the radio: Test Match Special. Radio is an imaginative and ambient medium. You can do other things while it is on. And the most popular live format for cricket online is the Over by Over commentary, the best example for me being The Guardian's. A journalist is watching the game, usually on telly in the office. Every over they write a short paragraph about what happened and update it. They also include the emails from spectators they like the most. It's a live blog, and a conversation between host journalist and audience who come and go as they please, while the live event that is the focus goes on in the background.

Cricket is a punctuated sport, rather than continuous. Football is continuous in play, for 90 minutes - other than the half-time interval - and the ideal game would have the players are always keeping the ball in play, minimising the time it is out of play. In cricket, there are intervals for lunch and tea in any one day. There are nights off before the next day. But even moment by moment, ball by ball, the ball is in play as it is bowled, the action happens, and then there is a punctuation before the next action, the next ball. It's a comma rather than a full stop, but it still gives us time to breath, and to imagine what will happen next. And to talk to our fellow spectators, to make stories about what we imagine will happen next. Or just to talk to each other. Test Match Special is as famous for its commentary about the cake the commentators are eating as it is about the cricket. It's in the space between the game that the play really happens.

For here is the primary beauty of Test Cricket as a sport: it is intricately indeterminate. We don't know for certain what will happen next. We can only imagine what will happen next. We don't even know who's winning for certain, let alone who will win the game. In cricket, we spectators don't deal in certainties, only in probabilities. We are probably winning this match, but Dot Dot Dot. And in the space between then we tell each other stories about what we think will happen next, while anticipating the moment that play returns again so briefly.

Indeterminacy is true of any sport. But not to the same degree. You always know in football who is winning, so if nothing else happens in a game after a team goes 1-0 up, they will certainly win. So if a side like AC Milan goes 3-0 up at half-time in the European Cup Final, then they are winning, you as a spectator can be 99% certain that they will win the game. Which makes any subsequent comeback little short of miraculous.

In cricket, we don't actually know who is winning. Because you have to take turns to score runs and take wickets. So England score 435 runs in their first innings. Are they winning? Probably. But Australia bat, and they score 60 runs before losing their first wicket, nearly 300 before losing their second, so Australia are winning? Well here at 299 for two, they might score 600. Then they'll be winning. Probably. We imagine Australia winning as the outcome and as the game progresses it grinds inexorably towards that outcome. But it only takes one ball to get a wicket. And usually when one wicket comes, the batsmen are suddenly more vulnerable. So more wickets might come, and the game's imagined outcome will suddenly shift. A game that can play for days with only one result imaginable can suddenly turn around in minutes.

As it happens Australia score 674 runs in their second innings, a lead of 239.

But in cricket, it's not enough to score the runs, you need to take the wickets too. All the wickets. Australia on the final day are bowling at England who are on a pitiful 20 for two. Australia need to take eight wickets. England, 239 runs down, are trying to survive, not to lose all their wickets, in which case they will draw. But only 70 runs on the board and they are 5 wickets down. Their best batsmen have all gone. And wickets keep falling. Until our last remaining good batsman goes and Australia only need one wicket to win and facing them are two batsmen for England, one of whom is really not much better than me. Monty Panesar, a brilliant bowler, can't really bat, certainly can't catch. It could almost be me up there. He's got a better beard than me though. But he can't bat. And for 70 balls he has to keep out an Australian bowling attack baying for victory. It's almost certainly Australia's match. And. Monty survives. Miraculously. It's a draw. If you're told, it was a draw, you imagine that as unexciting. But there were 70 balls, 70 actions when the match could be lost in a second, where you imagined it would be lost, but were hoping it wouldn't, 70 nails and still the coffin couldn't be shut. And it's a man who's big and beardy like me up there.

Indeterminacy. Every bowl is different. You can bowl fast or slow, make the ball swing in the air one way or the other, make the ball spin as it hits the ground one way or the other. Different bowlers have different skills, different batsmen have different vulnerabilities.

Indeterminacy. The pitch matters. It's a variable. This isn't flat and green like a pingpong table. It's flattish and greenish like grass. It gets wet and then it dries, it gets trodden on, it cracks, the ball moves more and more unpredictably as the match progresses, so that when the game is being decided, it's usually harder and harder for the batsmen to survive and not lose their wickets.

Indeterminacy. This is the only game whose result can be swung by an Act of God. The weather is a crucial factor. If it rains, then play stops until the rain stops. The book that collected the Guardian Over by Over for the 2005 Ashes series was titled after an audience question on the morning of the final match of the series, in which England needed to avoid defeat to win the Ashes. That question: Is It Cowardly To Pray For Rain.

Indeterminacy and Punctuation and Ambience. The three key qualities of the Ashes.

And also tribalism, of the gentle kind. Tribalism is good because it gives you a common identity, your tribe and the opposition, a common focus and competitive goal, all of which mean you can start playing with your fellow spectators straight away. All sports share this, and I reckon that a football fan could start a conversation with strangers in a bar anywhere in the world (except the USA maybe). But football tribalism is often hot, intense, as befits a game where you are shouting for 90 minutes. This is disengaging for many, and can often spill into ugly abuse and violence from the hardcore. Cricket tribalism is often much gentler. It's much harder to get uglier, at least outside of the India-Pakistan furnaces which are fuelled by the hostility between those two nations.

That the Ashes' tribalism is gentler is partly due to those three key qualities. But also some innate ridiculousness. The trophy is a ceremonial urn containing the ashes of a bail burnt from the wicket in that first series in 1882, when Australia first beat England, and the Times published an obituary to English cricket.

It's tiny. How ridiculous.

This is a sport which stops for tea, where the result can be determined by the weather and whose commentators are obsessed with cake. How patently and beautifully ridiculous.

Still, there is a rivalry. There is an obsession for each side in beating the other, beyond any other rivalry. For Australia it's perhaps the casting-off of the Empire. For England in recent times, Australia were inexorable, winning all series between 1985 and 2005, becoming for English fans a bit like a different Empire, the all-conquering villain of Star Wars.

And this rivalry in a punctuated sport facilitates a certain kind of play in between balls, verbals between players designed to unsettle concentration or just score points: sledging. Some of my favourite examples. Australia's Glenn McGrath to Eddo Brandes (of Zimbabwe, but this sledge has spread virally into the Ashes too): Mate, why are you so fat? Brandes' riposte: Because every time I sleep with your wife, she gives me a biscuit. Paul Nixon, an England wicketkeeper and supreme sledger, to Andrew Symonds, perhaps not the brightest button in the Australian eleven: You should concentrate on when you're breathing in, and when you're breathing out. Symonds was flummoxed and got out. Players like the spinning god Shane Warne can use the crowd itself to unsettle batsmen - Warne's showmanship rallied the focus and anticipation of the stadium for just what kind of ball he'd bowl next, rattling the batsman's nerves. And spectators can sledge players. I was at the Oval in this Ashes series on the Saturday for the intense pleasure of England's batting led by Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann smearing the Australian attack over the ground. Australia's Mitchell Johnson was bowling, badly. In turn, his fellow pacemen Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle were fielding at the boundary about 6 metres away from me in the second row. A well-timed 'why aren't you bowling, mate?' I hoped was enough to amplify what they themselves were probably thinking as Johnson got battered. I kid myself that this contributed to themselves both getting hammered when they bowled. That's the play.

So. The Ashes. Indeterminacy. Punctuation. Ambience. Tribalism Lite. All facilitating the play of us spectators.

Quickly about A Small Town Anywhere, as the promised coda. It's not cricket but it does feel very much like sport. Up to 30 people take a role, hat and badge as a citizen to enter a Town. Through their own play, gossiping through conversation and correspondence using the working postal service, a story unfolds. There are events external to the Town which demand their response and the voice of the Town Crier as a narrator guiding them through a week, but ultimately it's down to them, and every night it is different, unpredictable, alive. We're behind a wall, monitoring it imperfectly through CCTV, mikes, spyholes and especially reading every letter as it passes through our sorting office. We're then responding as best we can in writing and posting them letters, the riffs and inflexions of the Town Crier, the lights, sounds and the spinning clock. We have some influence, but no control. It makes me feel like a football manager on the touchline. We know the range of possible results and outcomes of the whole or any given moment, but the play is so emergent we have no direct control, only limited influence. It's incredibly exciting though.


Writing this up afterwards, I cannot honestly remember how I finished the talk other than in nervous sweat to be done in time. Maybe this was it. Thanks to everyone again for such generously positive responses afterwards.

My friend Andy had teased me that surely this was just an opportunity for me to wheel out my cricket-bore story, that my granddad took me when I was 12 to one of the most gobsmacking days in the history of Test Cricket: 1981, Headingley, Day 4, when England were so staring down the barrrel that they were 500-1 against to win, until Ian Botham and Graham Dilley hit out in hope and glee to push towards what became the most improbable victory. There, Andy, I got it in now. I think my granddad would have been a tad bemused but happy to see me giving this talk in this context. Thanks to him for awakening this passion in me for a beautiful sport, in the most excellent day I ever spent with him.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Frog; Saucepan

Thanks to Neillie for this most peculiar snapshot from another world, and musings on reality musicals. Posting this to remind me to keep musing. An extraordinary advert in the middle. This was made only 16 years before I was born.

Monday 19 October 2009

A Small Town Anywhere

I mean to write more about this, I do. But right now prompted to correct an otherwise lovely Guardian article.

For the record, A Small Town Anywhere was co-created by the six of myself, Tom Bowtell, Gary Campbell, Annette Mees, Ben Pacey and Melanie Wilson. Many many other brilliant people involved but we are the co-authors (along with each and every playing audience).

Friday 9 October 2009

Sunday 27 September 2009

Challenge and Response

This is a promised response to Matt Trueman, whose blog is well worth tracking. He wrote at length about Rotozaza's autoteatro, and observed how he felt "performative elements of our participation overpower our role as audience". I thought he'd meant one thing - how the thrill of immersion can sometimes drown a more reflective experience. But it turned out in his comment he actually meant another: how the sometime self-consciousness of audience play can undermine the intentions of the piece and the capacity to look and listen as audience to what the piece offers.

You can read Matt's original post here. I'm responding in relative depth here because it's provoking thinking that might be useful as we return to making A Small Town Anywhere, tomorrow...

But this is a draft, I don't think I've nailed what I want to say just yet.


The autoteatro of Rotozaza is evolving from an earlier practice they revealingly dubbed TOCAR: Theatre of Command and Response. It's giving instructions to unrehearsed performers, whether they are performers in front of an audience - as in Doublethink or Bloke, in which I was once that unrehearsed performer - or whether they are autoteatro's audience as performers - as in Etiquette or GuruGuru (which I've shamefully not experienced yet).

-- btw before I go any further, don't read any of this as being negative of Rotozaza's work; I haven't always agreed with everything I've seen, but I'd back Doublethink and Etiquette as miniature masterpieces and they remain a crucial company --

The avowed intention in TOCAR was to give beat-by-beat live instructions that gave no space to the performer but to carry them out as well as you could as soon as you could. It's a liberating - although exhausting - experience because you carry far less responsibility for your performance. It rarely gave you space to reflect or to exercise any creativity (or agency) in your response. The audience watching you might be moved by your effort in striving to complete the instructions as much as the overall constructed effect of the piece of which you might be mostly unaware. And you largely lose your sense of self in the process.

Game-based performance often does something quite different. In the orthodox game-design camp (that often dominates Hide & Seek), it gives objectives to its players. Pursue this goal, follow this set of rules, achieve the win. Objective is an analogous term to that of your Stanislavskian actor. The good game usually presents you with an obstacle to your objective - whether a dynamic between two contrasting mechanics or a competing player. Sometimes there might be different ways for you to achieve your objective, that give space for player creativity. The focus on the objective often drives players into a very lean-forward high-flow engagement such that they again can lose a sense of self in the game.

Starting to get lost in terminology now. The challenge is an objective that gives the minimum necessary specification of how you should achieve it, and plenty of space for players to get creative in how they do that. A game like Noah's Lark by Coney - which I mean to write about soon - rewards that creativity in game-points. But creativity is implicitly rewarding - it's fun. Andy Field's game Checkpoint challenges its smuggling players to get awkward and clumsy contraband past guards, and leaves it to them to find the ways to do that. The art here is in the specification that the game puts into the challenge - over-specify and you kill the creativity and therefore the fun, under-specify and you end up with responses that aren't supported by the rest of the piece or simply bewildered players.

The ask: literally that. Ask something of your playing audiences to help them colour in your framework, or to give the piece something that it then incorporates. Whether it's a list of ideal dinner guests asked for The Feast as Matt reported, the skeleton in your closet that the Small Town Historian might ask of you should you engage with him in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, or perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the suggestions from the audience that improvisers like the Comedy Store Players take to make funny (or not). There's a similar art in specification for the ask, which can be explicit or implicit in the atmosphere or world of the piece. There also should be a responsiveness to the audience's initial answer that can transform it deftly into something the piece can properly incorporate without diluting the audience's investment - if you tell the Historian that you are expecting the child of Le Publican, he might remind you that the paternity could yet be questioned, keeping the spirit of your suggestion but giving more space for interesting storylines to emerge.

The space that opens up the consciously creative response for a playing audience is also that which opens up a sense of one's self in the game/play. Which opens up into self-consciousness when that becomes performative, in a room with other people. This sense of self in the playspace is not necessarily problematic - it's also what enables reflection. Nor indeed must it be pervasive, it's easy enough to make space for playing audiences to get accustomed to it and retune to listen to the piece. Or punctuate so that the transitions in and out of the liminal space enable a more reflective response.

Matt's main gripe seems to be against players who are working against the game/play. I'd say it's not always their responsibility. The piece itself must foster and encourage the kinds and specificities of response from its audiences. Which could be an improviser thanking an audience for the umpteenth suggestion of "toilet" and taking another. In the case of The Feast, I suspect that as we'd deliberately left the piece quite light to make the feasting itself easy, there wasn't enough meat to harness the audience to its central themes - not that I mind getting that list of suggestions. I reckon that sometimes what seems like a 'griefer' response is because the player rebels against the imposition of the format, real or perceived. I did Internal earlier this year at Burst at BAC. As interesting and provoking as the piece was, it left me feeling slightly cheapened by its manipulation and I wouldn't have begrudged anyone who strove to assert their self. And in what sounds to me like the world's most misconceived piece of theatre ever - Badac's The Factory - I was only cheering the critics who rebelled.

The challenge for us making this kind of work is how to allow a range of active responses which might be inspired, might be self-conscious, might even be rebelling. Without ever losing the beauty that comes in a group of people playing together. Baby, bathwater.

Scratch Manifesto

I was challenged in a cold-call from BAC on Friday. In the Scratch Festival themed on Democracy, they had persuaded Martin Linton, MP for Battersea, to accept a challenge and wanted me to do the same. Namely that we'd each be given 24 hours to prepare a 5-minute manifesto. Martin as an artist, me as a politician; it happened last night. Martin was great, underlining his unsung role in the setting up of BAC, and more recently in saving it. I liked what I wrote, so I'm posting it here with the caveat that yes, it's a manifesto so it's got a lot of rhetoric. But also some rabbits.


The Manifesto I Sign Up To

In the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson underlines the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness matters.

The manifesto I sign up to drops wealth as a measure and goal for the nation; instead of Gross National Product, rather embraces Gross National Happiness. Just as they have - for real - in the kingdom of Bhutan.

Not the happy-clappy happiness but something deeper-rooted. That comes from agency and responsibility and connectedness. Community.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln declared government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. But here it's withering. The connection and agency that people feel to party politics is diffused and diminished, dominated by personal interest.

The manifesto I sign up to radically transforms democracy into a living community.

Councillors - at the local level - and MPs - at the national level - are no longer the decision-makers. Rather they are elected best to facilitate the debate of the issues and assemble gatherings of people - in council chambers like this one. It's democracy for the day, like jury service, new people gathered every day to decide matters brought to them. New votes every day, but every day the people are present.

At national level, cabinet is elected by MPs every quarter. You only get to do it once.

The office of Prime Minister and the Monarch are both abolished and replaced by rabbits. A pair of rabbits. It's in the nature of rabbits that it's difficult to keep track of precisely which pair of rabbits is which. But actually, crucially, any pair will do.

The House of Lords is abolished and replaced by two chambers with veto power.

One chamber is full of eight-year-olds, who will veto any proposal that is not clear, not fair or not fun. Or appears to be upsetting the rabbits.

The other chamber is full of eighty-year-olds who veto not on behalf of their own elder generation but on behalf of all future generations yet to come. So we do right by the past and the future.

Everyone is responsible. We take the consequences of our actions and discover our own passions. So I have some proposals that are rabble-rousing. And rabbit-rousing, not that they need much encouragement.

For every extra zero on the end of a banker's bonus, an extra digit of their PIN is released to the general public.

The headquarters of every energy and resource-burning corporation, together with the house of their CEO, is forcibly relocated to low-lying islands in the Indian ocean, better to focus their minds on melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

And on a lighter note, borrowing a trick from Google, 20% of our time in work or in school is for us to pursue whatever we find interesting, without worry of results, and to share what we find with everyone, better to dream our future together.

The Manifesto I sign up to abolishes income tax and instead creates The Club of the Common Good. It's a bit like a Christmas Club. There's a means-tested tax for everyone to pay their bit together for the things we can't afford to buy properly individually. Education. Health. Art, even.

You benefit more individually the more you do for the Common Good, - recycling, gardening, loft insulation, even feeding back on scratch performances.

But every time you do something for your own individual good, it's taxed and hypothecated for the Club of the Common Good.

Private school fees? Great. You just bought textbooks for your local state school.
Filling up your car? Good work. You just helped make train tickets cheaper.
Plastic bag? Brilliant. You just subsidised a local allotment.

And everyone is themselves challenged to come up with new ideas and rules for the Common Good. And rewarded with an opportunity to pet the rabbits.

Happiness is also born of reflectiveness.

We're in this together. That's what politics is about, fundamentally. People here in the first chamber of the manifesto I sign up to, please look at each other. Take a moment to say hello not just to your friends but those on the other side of the room. Imagine windows here, here and here through which the world is looking in, and you can see the world: past, present and future.

We're in this together. Us and the rabbits.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Manchester, so much to...

Just returning from a trip to a vibrant Manchester. I spoke on Friday morning at the International Talent Campus in the Festival, an inspiring group of artists and producers who were properly international. I was speaking about my work and technology - which is why I get invited out sometimes. Even though most pleasingly the talk converged on how technology is a bit of a red herring, rather it's all about communication and how people do that. I can't wait to follow up some conversations in some very different places.

Had a bunch of meetings and catch-ups with friends from Manchester - Leach, Stambo, alas an absent Thorpe - as well as a London visiting posse.

And saw some very interesting work.

End Of The Road was the Young at Heart chorus collaborating with No Theatre. Beautifully old people singing songs from the heart. That's the basic bullet-proof appeal and - even though anything critically bullet-proof worries me - it sustained, even if the theatrical and musical framing of the experience didn't really flow for me. But it only took the most thrown-away invitation to dance from one of the on-stage geezers to get everyone in a packed concert hall joyfully up on their feet.Link

Prima Donna was an opera by Rufus Wainwright, staged with colourful vim by Daniel Kramer. I don't have much confidence in my operatic sensibility to judge the piece properly. But I was really moved by the final aria sung beautifully by Janis Kelly and apparently - not knowing Wainwright so well either - this was the closest the composition was his voice, indeed he's even singing it here. The rest felt like brilliant pastiche, and the storytelling clever but oddly ramshackle.


It Felt Like A Kiss was the talk of the festival. Literally. Everywhere people could be overheard nattering about the thrill of the chase of the last sequence. It delighted me and it bothered me, and inevitably I'm writing more about it. Great to see Felix/Punchdrunk tackling a different event model from masked free-roaming, and getting his Japanese scare-house obsession into public. It's a brilliant funpalace he's made here. Great to wander inside and discover an Adam Curtis film. His montages dredge streams of cultural unconsciousness - I can't help thinking of Ozymandias in Watchmen - to gather argument. If you know Curtis' work - and if you don't then find The Power Of Nightmares, The Century Of The Self etc on google video - then there's nothing especially new but on screen it's always a good provocation. As Lyn Gardner says, plenty more political food for thought than a David Hare play, although.. no... I won't go there.

But but but. To be placed as an active player within this filmscape fundamentally changes the function and quality of the polemic. When it's interacting with you, Curtis' red-hot rhetoric feels as blunt as a poker. We're given a survey in a holding pen and the questions - do you believe in freedom? would you commit an act of violence to achieve positive social change? - just beg so many questions back in this context.

Says Curtis in one of his Helvetica captions: When you start to tell a story, you have to know how it ends. Hmm. Really? And doesn't that change when you and your audience are a part of the story?

There's no sense of hope here, even of change, just a studied futility. We don't get meaningful agency, a chance of transformation, we just get to run, as - yes - "the dark forces that were veiled by the American dream" come to get us. Somewhat of a ghost-train for the cognoscenti. Not this so much as 'he chased me; I felt like a quiche'. (ok, I'm begging for a punch with that one.)

Sure, I had a total blast in as close to L4D as is surely legal, and the best bits of the scary act were all about how my group of strangers suddenly started playing together resourcefully for survival. But then that solidarity is forcefully winnowed by a Skinnerian maze and spat out into the car park. You're left talking about the thrill of the chase. And not much else.

I've always argued pedantically that laughing at a Bush joke lets you off the hook of thinking anything else more probing. Getting spooked by a spook is perhaps just the same. However, undeniably brilliantly constructed the ride.

Sunday 5 July 2009

The story of La Postmistress

I spoke at Shift Happens in York last week with Tim about A Small Town Anywhere. With her permission, I'd focused on the journey through the piece made by Lyn Gardner, who'd come as a civilian rather than Guardian critic to the last scratch. Small Town is a piece in a theatre for no performers but a playing audience (excepting the floating voice of Melanie Wilson). In a nutshell, it's about community, inspired by a film called Le Corbeau. There's opportunity in advance of going to the theatre to interact with a Historian and write your own history into the Town. I won't go into full detail here, but the skeleton in Lyn's closet was particularly juicy and as La Postmistress, she needed to be as deft as she was in deflecting gossip and accusation, which she did partly by claiming that the gossip was misplaced and was really about La Schoolmistress.

Lyn told me after our Shift Happened that two months after her time in the Town, she'd been sitting down in Sadlers Wells when she was spotted by La Schoolmistress on the opposite side of the auditorium. 'There's the witch!' was her cry, before rushing over for a joyful confrontation.

Touching wood as I write, Small Town will be a co-production with BAC in the autumn in its 'theatrical release'.

The Pursuit of Happiness

I've been working recently with Paul Bennun, doing research commissioned by C4 Education to map the ballpark of happiness and mental health in teenagers. Quite a big map then... and we only had 5 weeks from a standing start. The final week and write-up gave me PhD flashbacks. The research was planned to feed proposals to C4 from the independent production community (and unfortunately can't be made public). It was an extremely rewarding and interesting process. My current favourite kernel is from a study described in Out Of The Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens. They followed 60-odd people who'd been sectioned in a US institute as teenagers. They'd all come from troubled backgrounds, and after release most of them continued to have difficult lives. But a few of them turned things around, and the research focused on why, what made them resilient. They all told good stories about their lives. Good stories in that they'd faced up to challenges, found new opportunities and relationships, taken action to make things better. But also they told their stories well to sharpen these same advantages. I'm fascinated by the resonance with (what I understand of) narrative improvisation and how to tell all stories well, action not gossip, be the hero, remain open and responsive to the present moment, etc.

I did a Peachy Coochy recently for Tipping Point about climate change. I pulled in some nuggets of happiness psychology, looking at time and procrastination, and how they might impact on why we find it hard to do the right things against impending climate change. Genuinely interesting (for me at least...) There is more to pursue here.

By the by, learnt a neat neverending game from a group of Exeter teens: Jazzhands. Yell Jazzhands and do the move. Everyone else follows suit. Whoever's last, loses. Repeat on whim.


Here are some of the things I've been involved in making recently. Only some.

Spoiler alert. It's a little game about games. Three players each listen simultaneously to mp3'd instructions and act accordingly. All they know is that only one of them will win after 12 minutes, they don't know how. The instructions are mostly interrogating how they might win, for instance asking them to talk about that for a minute, then go and find a stranger to ask them who'd win if they were playing each other, and report back that answer to the others. It's placed on top of the old safety-bomb mechanic, so they are constantly clocking each other. At the end, each player has to declare to HQ whom they think should win and why. HQ then declares the winner - according to a rule which is kept secret - without explanation. It's a frippery, but very pleasing, not least for the music courtesy of Tom Haines of the London Snorkelling Team, track called The French Horse.

That the rule at the end remains secret is a little contentious. It was kept secret partly because anyone finding out before they played would spoil the delicate tension that comes from all three not knowing. And also to generate precisely the frustration it does for any players who like their rulesets transparent and their goals clear. It fails currently in not acknowledging this, but that's a quick reedit away. To be honest, I made the piece in the first case as an engine to test the format and was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked to then try and finish it.

Doffing a cap of course to Rotozaza's Etiquette - don't miss btw if you ever get the chance, it's an exceptional piece. But this still quite distinct. Ant of Rotozaza was always most interested in giving total instruction to their audience as unrehearsed performer, moment by moment. I rather wanted this to be a series of challenges that gave space for the playing audience to fill in themselves. Not better, just different. Hoping to be doing some more of these with Tom soon.

Earpiece playtested through the Hide & Seek Sandpit and ended up in the original games festival Come Out & Play in New York City. I wasn't there, but it was quite thrilling to imagine it happening in Times Square, apparently in the hubbub of Puerto Rico day. I'm waiting on photos.

The Following
Another game that ended up in Come Out & Play. This one was co-devised by a group of us from Coney in its online walled garden: Steve Mills and myself in London, Chris Till and Tara Gladden who find themselves currently in New York. We wanted to make a chasing game, but one that required wits more than speed or stamina for gasping fat kids (like me). Players are in two teams, the Followed and the Following, whose members leave alternately, Followed then Following. Each is using text-messaged instructions to find a Secret Basekeeper within a time limit, and the Following get more points per successful member. But the Followed are always one step ahead in the instructions. The focus is on the thrill of tailing and trying to shake your tail. After devising online, we playtested with a gang of Coney followers, then it did Manhattan... and then it played a Sandpit, where it reappears on 1 August: a really great developmental sequence. It's brilliant to hear the adventures of players afterwards. The last time, one Followed blagged her way into a restaurant kitchen, through which she was chased Hollywood-stylee. She describes her experience here.

The Fetch
A little piece for Glue's Scratch Interact, rustled together in a few hours working with Billy Bliss, who's not just a brilliant actor but also in possession of the best name ever stagebound. It was a one-on-one walkabout into a simple spooky story. In the time we had, I mostly wanted to help Billy achieve a conversational intimacy and complete responsiveness to his companion - which he did, every time, riffing effortlessly without ever falling off the narrative thread.

Annette Mees and I were introduced on Skype by BAC to Hey Fan, an artist in Beijing, as part of a British Council showcase. We carried on the conversation and ended up devising a little piece together called Hutong, with much helpful development comment from very many in Coney in the online walled garden. Hutong is a district in Beijing. It also means 'neighbourhood' in Chinese. We drew a red rectangle on a map so that it encompassed the perimeter of Beijing's Hutong. Fan walked this following directions and instructions as he went, documenting his journey. This rectangle can then be drawn by anyone else at any scale and placed on a map of their choosing for them to document their own journey. The instructions are here, Fan's journey is here and others in Edinburgh, Dublin and London are here. We haven't made it very public yet, but this is a nudge to me to do so. You can do one too if you like.

A bigger piece, this: a freeze-plus that transformed the Parisian suburb and spa town of Enghien-les-Bains. It was a collaboration with body>data>space and commissioned by Enghien's Centre Des Arts. I couldn't make it out with the Coney team in the end due to Happiness but by all accounts it went brilliantly. Photos accumulating on the Facebook event page here.


Many other bigger things happening that I can't talk about yet.


Here's a random volume of some of the stuff I've seen and played over the last 6 months. Only some, the stuff I most immediately remembered. I'll catch up on others as and when.

Tim Crouch's elegant masterwork. I wrote about this for Kultureflash here. KF doesn't really publish criticisms as much as recommendations - if you don't like it, you don't write it up, but I do occasionally err on the side of generosity. Not for this one. Crouchy's a genius.

Another KF write-up. This one straight up too although I got to bundle in my criticism. A pleasure to meet super-smart Chris Haydon afterwards and only an hour into conversation realised he is also Chris Wilkinson.

Yes, I'm biased, given that it was made by Gemma Brockis with her brother Darrell, and written for him to perform in a bricked cell at Shunt. But still. It grew into an exquisitely disturbing miniature, a reworking of the bit of the Medea myth where she chops up her brother to delay pursuing fleets. It felt like a conjuring, and D's performance as 'the body of the message' was mesmerising.

As You Like It
This at the Globe for my mum's birthday, as my folks had never been. I love the Globe. I relish standing in the Pit and feeling the energy of the audience complete the circuitboard of the performance. I took part in a workshop by John Wright there years ago, about how the architecture of the Globe space is a scaffolding for playing a soliloquoy: if you simply play the audience, communicate the speech to every part of the space, keeping it live, then that point of focus will carry you through the verse. Shakespeare *was* site-responsive. This was a very good production of a play I (shamefully) didn't know at all. Exemplary clowning from Dominic Rowan's Touchstone and Tim McMullan's Jacques, lightly tripping the melancholtastic, and Naomi Frederick and Jack Laskey's lovers were vibrant. I haven't always had much time for director Thea Sharrock - discretion tips me quiet - but she did good work here.

Where We Live And What We Live For
This was a Burst treat. I picked it at random with time to kill. Simon Bowes performs with his father, aka the Kings Of England. Beautifully restrained, poetic and moving presentation of a life. It reminded me of the very best of a smith (which is very good indeed). I'm aiming to catch its Forest performance on 28th August, which happens to be Mr Bowes' 75th birthday.

Mari Me Archie
I've been a fan of Melanie Wilson since I first saw her stand up - literally, she stood up extraordinarily in butoh time in an otherwise mixed show at the Lion in 2000. I've worked with her a lot since, and her voice floats around the space as the Small Town Crier in A Small Town Anywhere. This solo piece also in Burst was her first scratching with binaural sound. It's a little audio-guided meander through the BAC building and an inner space, where you're intermittently connected with another presence. It's quite brilliant AND still hints at better to come.

Rotating In A Room Of Images
Again in Burst, artists Lundahl and Seitl take an audience one at a time into a room that does exactly as per title. You wear an earphone, the room fades to black, and as the light rises, it has rotated. And again. And someone appears. And disappears. And leads you onward, with the voice of a spooky girl in your ear. Rigorous and sumptuous, a real dreamscape.

Tunnel 228
Hmmm. Even before I saw this, I'd weighed in with comments on Matt Trueman's blog for the Guardian. There was some exceptional art - in particular Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's Killing Machine cut itself into my imagination extremely. But the world the curation evoked just blew the super out of ficial - oh, the humanity! and here's the fat controller. The interaction design is sometimes problematic; as Alex Fleetwood tweeted, a queue for a one-on-one? Afterwards, I'm bewildered by the hype and consequent lack of properly critical dialogue around Punchdrunk. They are brilliant in some ways, and then not, and then in between, like any artist. Can't we be challenging their work as well as celebrating? Also. Shunt's sustained curation of interesting art in the underground railway arches of the Lounge has received a fraction of the attention of the folly (in the rich man's sense) of 228 and deserves far more for its consistent development of artists and their exposure to huge numbers of constantly diverse audiences way beyond the normal theatre/art crowd. Again, sure, I'm biased, but you can wipe that bias away and it's still true.

Parse The Parcel
Simon Katan is a brilliant game-designer. His background in music slants him quite distinctively. This gem of a mechanic had two teams sitting opposite each other, some of us holding parcels of different shapes. Facing each team is a sequence of shapes that we must assemble, passing parcels to each other while the music plays, each team trying to make their sequence first.

'Ere I Am, JH

Here is me resolving to return to more regular blogging, less of a ghost in the machine. I've started some coaching with the excellent Mark McGuinness as part of the Method Cultural Leadership Programme, and one of my resolutions out of the first session was to rediscover a little more space for thinking and reflection aloud. For which this blog was always intended.

The last few months have been exponentially busy, which is why I fell behind. I'll write about some of the things I've made, as well as seen/played. And then get back to some thinking.

Friday 1 May 2009


I've been remiss at posting here. I have a stack of thoughts and reports waiting.

But just to quickly flag up I am making a small piece called Earpiece in the Sandpit tomorrow (with music from the deliriously brilliant London Snorkelling Team) and another small piece The Fetch in the Scratch Interact on Wednesday. In a fortnight I'm remote collaborating with marvellous Paul Clarke in Overlap at BAC/Mayfest.

3 pieces in a fortnight? It's been a bit like that the last few months - and that's just the little things - hence my blogger silence. But I promise to post more soon, more to myself than on the off-chance that anyone is missing me.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

The Moon, The Moon

Here's a link to a little online theatrical piece I've helped make recently. Click the image.

It's theatrical because it is part of the online advance for The Moon, The Moon, a new piece by old muckers Unlimited Theatre, and if you go to see the show, which I recommend, you might enjoy a pleasurable shudder of recognition at one moment.

And it's also theatrical because if you choose to follow it through, it will lead you wherever you are into a little private performance. No longer than five minutes. We worked very closely with Unlimited to wrangle it into a shape where not only is it simple and playable (and we hope at least a little bit beautiful) but it also resonates in form and tone and look with the play and its themes. I hate some online-games-to-promote-theatre that are basically a ridiculous flash game, the way you play them being completely disconnected from the rest of the work. We wanted this to be...well... something.

Hope you like it. But also appreciate any posted comments, as critical as you like, right here.

Generous comment from Chris Wilkinson on the Guardian Blog. Anyone thinking from reading that I made this by myself (ha!) please check my comment there.

Sunday 1 March 2009

The best flashmob in the world?

Click the picture if you've not seen the BBC clip.

Brilliant. Anyone can make their own Morph, and together they embody just what was great about his work. It's so perfectly authentic a tribute.

Friday 30 January 2009

Stuff seen and played

Not so much. I'm mostly lost in 24 DVD seasons when I am not working. My last DVD compulsion, The West Wing, felt like eating dark chocolates, I'll just have one more... Whereas 24 is like an MSG-packed Chinese buffet, guzzling adrenalin-drenched narrative set-pieces, but I don't feel full yet...


Last week I went to Scratch Interact, a night of treats curated very properly by the lovely Glue Theatre in the in-between spaces of Southwark Playhouse.

Glue's opener delivered a box that wriggled out a man who then - having failed beautifully to gather attention from the pre-show crowd - managed to get presents and sweets from many.

Deborah Pearson's Break Up With Me invited you into a toilet cubicle with her to do just that, however you chose, delicately responsive to its own conceptual knots, beautifully poised.

'The Minuting Hill Carnival', a minute version of Notting Hill's, refereed by a representative of the Honourable Society of Faster Craftswomen, who before she sold me a nugget of jerk chicken on a cocktail stick, made a joyful band of us playing tiny instruments. Gorgeous how just as much glee came from playing it tiny, it was the play that counted. Lovely and messy.

Emer O'Connor
then delivered a piece of storytelling, at first staged and delivered to the back walls. Perfectly good performance but not at all responsive to us or the space, and her volume inevitably causing alarm to the theatre staff worried about the 'main show'. As soon as we moved in closer so she was actually performing to us in the space with her, it suddenly came alive. Which raises very interesting points for me about liveness and scalability.

Emily Smallwood
took a pair of us into the disabled toilet. One was sat down on a white towel and asked to listen through headphones to a recording of a story. The lights were then turned off. The other then shared an embrace with her in the corner. Then the lights back on, one was asked to record a story while the other listened, very close. This piece worried me and it's still with me. I loved her assurance in the disjuncture of these elements, the light and darkness, the very living intimacy of the exchanges and near brutality in heightened awareness of the other people in the room. Fantastic sensibility.

Sam and Chris from Glue then led a lively round-table discussion for the good number of us present. But there should be more of us. This night is quarterly and make sure you make (something for) the next one.


I found and played Gravitation by Jason Rohrer. Both he and his work are fascinating. There's a granularity and bumpiness I really like together with a breathtaking fluidity of concept and mechanic.

I really want to play Between. I need a live partner. If anyone wants to play it with me, drop me a line at theconeydoctor splat gmail and let's sort out a session.

Screaming nostalgia

Late on a Friday night, the foxes screaming outside, inside my head screaming receipts. I'm blogging everywhere else for distraction so I might as well do it here too.

In homage to the foxes, this sprang to mind.

Proper nostalgia. I saw them in '89, beautiful screaming. It stayed inside me to force its way out to open The Bound Man, which I directed in '97 first in college, my ticket to run away from academe into the theatre. When it hit BAC we reconfigured the opening with the help of two classes of 8-year-olds, asking them to imagine the forest of this dark fairy tale and then - yes - to imagine the tree that was them, and then to use the piles of art materials to make their tree however they liked in the middle of the forest in their imagination. Those 60-odd pictures becoming then an installation of a forest that the audience walked through to enter the space. And we recorded the kids singing Caribou in a round, after helping them through a text analysis of the lyrics so we all knew what we were singing. They nailed it.

They came to see the show in a special performance. It's true that all you need to do as a director then is watch them watching it, and mark very precisely the moments when you see them engage and disengage, heat and cool, that precision tells you when it's working and when it's not. But in the Q&A afterwards they mostly wanted to know how the stage punch worked, if it was a real gun, why that boy was wearing a dress.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Rehearsal photograph

from The Boston Globe

The Obamathon

I love Stoke Newington International Airport. Last night, a party which completed the celebration from the Election All-Nighter, with DJ's remixing the Big Man's speech, drink and revelry and little performances.

And so many people, I guess that we all recognise this is a moment where we want to remember where we were and who we were with. Or at least, we hope that we will want to remember.

Lovely to think about friends who were there in DC, especially those who worked on the campaign in small ways, how happy they are.

Beautiful big pictures here. Thanks to AP for the tweet.

Stuff seen and played and not

Mind Out - Station House Opera @ BAC
An aeon since I saw this. Andrew Haydon nailed it with 'Buster Keaton meets post-dramatic theatre'. It beautifully played out the possibilities of its device of one player voicing the thoughts of another player. Which could be read exactly as one giving instructions to another. But the brilliance of its slapstick was that you never necessarily knew which of the other four players was going to respond to an instruction, continually surprising.

Hansel & Gretel @ Northern Stage

A Christmas show directed by my friend Erica Whyman and written by another friend Stephen Sharkey. The set-up took a good while of the first half but amply paid off through the second. I loved the deftness in writing and performance with which the relationships of the fairy-tale family were made real. Sometimes I wanted it to be more graphic, to have more fun with itself, and to not be afraid of telling us the obvious. But beauteous still.

Akhe - Plug'n'Play @ Shunt
Contrary to a few, I thought this deceptively brilliant. On the surface, like Jackass versus Take Hart (RIP Tony) performed by Russian lunatics with gleeful abandon. But the sensitivity they had to each other and the event, coupled to the abandon that various elements were flung together and clambered up on and set light, the revel in deconstruction of the sacred, the pisstake of selling the artwork they made but deadly conviction to wring every pound out of us... and the electric buzz of a packed crowd at Shunt. Of course it is less dangerous than it looks, that's partly because there's great care taken to make sure that's so. And the understanding that we don't want real jeopardy, we want jeopardy that is as if it is real.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour @ National

I've written about this for Kultureflash, which publishes recommendations rather than reviews. The stuff I missed out there for space reasons. Stoppard's text didn't always withstand its treatment, but I preferred the treatment anyway. Back in 2001 as a kind of laying to rest of his Walking Orchestra obsession, Tom Morris made Othello Music, with no text but a cast of three improvising actor-musicians: Othello on saxophone, Desdemona on flute, Iago on percussion. It was beautiful. And it's great to see him now finally get the full train set.

Not seen much really in the last 6 weeks, missed a lot of the Christmas shows I wanted to see (Cinderella @ Lyric, Devil Deep Blue @ BAC).

Nor played much either. Worth mentioning the just-announced Earth 2100 - which will be a very interesting compare and contrast with Superstruct. Similar premise, bigger budget, entirely casual making and viewing, missing the combinatorial play and its complexity... better or no, it'll be different.

Been stupidly busy with the scratch of A Small Town Anywhere and its aftermath.

Also rapid prototyping of and through organisational development: exciting stuff on the way.

And working on some other projects of other people that I should probably stay discreet about for now.

Tuesday 20 January 2009


Testing testing 1 2 3...

Been a while since I've had a chance to be here. I broke my finger with a rather hubristic slip down stone-cold sober steps straight after New Year, ending up in surgery under general 24 hours later. It's still fun to watch people wince as I explain how the knuckle spun round to 9 o'clock and the finger was one centimetre shorter than it should be. It's mended pretty quickly thanks to one of those sublime healthcare experiences that only the NHS can provide - from the Registrar's gruff one-liner 'ok, we're going to fix this' through to a follow-up clinic appointment where I was whizzed round four careful and caring doctors and nurses, out of cast into splint in less than 90 minutes... and it was free at point-of-access.

At Devoted & Disgruntled formed a new club with Julian Crouch, the Brotherhood of Big Bearded Men with Limb Injuries. J broke his fibula while dancing on a stage in Seattle. He had a cast put on, crutches supplied, cast taken off to put on a new contraption, crutches removed, all within 24 hours and the American healthcare system charged him big bucks for each of those steps.

Devoted & Disgruntled? It's theatre's open space expression of community, run with passionate gentleness by Phelim and others from Improbable. The annual gatherings have always been my favourites for the way it gives space to recharge and reconnect with what you're about, and the joyful noise of diverse concerns jostling for attention. In advance quite a few people I know who I'd thought should be there expressed a jadedness that it's too often wailing for an entitlement to make a living in theatre. Which is hardly fair given last year's domination by the big freeze from the Arts Council, or the year prior threatened axe to BAC (why no BAC staff present this time?)

Anyway. This was my favourite by a mile. It radiated a calm and resourcefulness. Most sessions about funding were about how to do without it. Plenty of interesting/new people. A brilliant campaign to take over disused branches of Woolie's and turn them into theatres (keeping the pick'n'mix). And Gary's note that we don't stop there but take down Tescos too. I convened a couple of sessions that were incredibly fruitful for me - one to make a piece of Imaginary (i.e. unmakable) Theatre that ended up with something that might actually get made, one about Fun, when things are fun and when they are more than just that.

In comparison with the open-space type events I've been involved with in TV and games and the in-between, the theatre ones are more fun and the people play nicer.

Right. Time to watch history. Happy new president, everyone.