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.