Tag Archives: theatre

The rewards of rural touring

Originally written for the February House Theatre Guest Blog.

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

Fol Espoir developed Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain in collaboration with Steeple Aston Village Hall

As well as being a freelance director I run Fol Espoir – a theatre company that tours to regional arts centres and rural networks across the UK. Small-scale touring is not exactly the glamorous end of the arts industry. On tour, we normally play a new venue every night – which means lots of driving, get-ins and a different bed every night. If we’re performing in rural venues like village halls, we’ll also be setting up our own lights and sound, getting lost in back-country lanes, and trying to perform on a stage that might have no cross-over, no wings, and a storage cupboard masquerading as the dressing room.

Despite these challenges, touring Fol Espoir’s work to far-flung communities is of deep importance to me. I grew up on a small island where my only access to theatre was the few companies that braved the overnight ferry. Those shows are embedded deep in my understanding of what theatre is, and I still have vivid memories of them today. As an adult I also want to make Fol Espoir’s work accessible to as many people as possible – wherever they might happen to live.

It helps that small scale touring, particularly to rural venues, is one of the most rewarding ways I know to present work. When we take over a village hall, we’re doing more than providing a night of live entertainment; we’re giving everyone in the area an excuse to come together, socialise and strengthen the ties that make their community strong. We’re also made to feel incredibly valued. In regular theatres you can often feel like one more act on a busy schedule. When we play a village hall we’ll might be the only professional act in that area for a while – the audience understand the effort we have made to bring them our work, and the organisers (nearly always volunteers) ply us with pre-show coffee and post-show beer, cook us dinner, help us find local accommodation and get incredibly excited when we host the evening’s raffle. There’s an event-like quality to the evening, nearly always a big turnout, and the joyful atmosphere you get when everyone knows everybody else. These perks make up for all the hard work, and the impact we’re having on local communities is clear.

We booked our first tour off a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is probably still the most direct route into small-scale and rural touring. If you are braving your fortunes (and bank balance) at Edinburgh, preparation is everything. Research what venues are likely to be interested in your work (for example by checking out the tour schedules of similar theatre companies to yourself), email programmers well in advance of August, and understand that there’s not much money in touring at this level, so cast-sizes need to be small. If Edinburgh’s not for you, there are many other ways to get started – for example by developing a relationship with a regional venue, or applying for local scratch nights, emerging artist schemes, mentoring programmes or writer’s groups.

To find out more about rural touring, I’d recommend the National Rural Touring Forum‘s website – especially their introduction pack Rural Touring In a Nutshell. Until 14th February you can also apply to be part of their 2016 New Directions Showcase – where companies perform small excerpts of their shows for rural promoters. Bear in mind that not all shows are going to work in a rural setting – village audiences encompass a huge range of ages, and are mostly up for a ‘good night out’ where they can socialise, have fun, and be entertained. That’s not to say more challenging work doesn’t tour to villages, but it’s undoubtedly a tricker sell. If you think your works comes under that category, it might be worth chatting to the NRTF about which rural schemes will be interested – like conventional theatres, each scheme has its own programming flavour. Having an interval in your show is also a big bonus, as is a willingness to deal with the sometimes lengthy booking process that most rural networks operate.

The past few years have not been kind to the arts, but since 2013 Fol Espoir has completed two tours that took in over thirty venues each, and our November 2016 tour of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is already fully programmed. In other words, there is still hope. While it may not be glamorous or easy, small-scale touring is still alive, and comes with rewards of its own.

More about Fol Espoir at http://www.folespoir.co.uk

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A few gross generalisations about British versus German theatre

Vienna

Tales from Vienna Wood at the Deutsches Theater, directed by Michael Thalheimer

This year I made two trips to watch theatre in Germany, mainly in Berlin. Both trips were fascinating and exciting, and this post attempts to describe some of the differences I noticed between the UK and German theatre cultures. Two caveats should be borne in mind:

1. This post is based on about twenty productions seen over four weeks, so not exactly a large sample size. Also I don’t speak German, so am inherently biased towards shows with surtitles, or shows based on well known plays. When I did get to more radical offerings (eg my two trips to the Volksbuhne) I had NO idea what was going on. Which was kind of interesting in itself, but didn’t exactly allow me judge the work on a deep level.

2. This post could be taken as a massive criticism of British theatre. As I’ll discuss at the end, there are lots that I think we do well – especially when it comes to popular entertainment. I also think that there is a growing desire to do things differently here. What I realised in Berlin was just how conservative our mainstream theatre scene is. The nearest analogy I can think of is to English football twenty years ago, when everyone was stuck in 4-4-2. Or British food thirty years ago, when everything revolved around meat and two veg.

Photos of all the shows from my most recent trip are at www.pinterest.com/johnhcwalton/december-berlin-trip.

– A unique live event
Brits love plays, Germans love theatre; it’s a subtle difference, but a crucial one. Whereas in Britain we place a huge emphasis on literary merit, German theatre makers take as much inspiration from dance, music, philosophy and the visual arts. In England, we ‘serve the text’. In Germany, the text inspires a live event that is unique and artistically valuable in its own right. It’s not that the text isn’t important in Germany, it’s just that it’s considered one element of the many that make up a live performance.

– Hard work
British theatre has a gentle relationship to the audience that tends to emphasise narrative, comedy, sentimentality and an emotional connectivity between character and audience. Germany theatre is not relaxing, and it’s rarely ‘fun’; there is a mistrust of narrative, and the work is often frustrating and exhausting. As an audience member you’re expected to work, to make up you own mind about the playwright and the director’s intentions.

– Diversity
Directors in Germany have very individual approaches, and the result is an incredible diversity of theatrical styles. If you want absurdist pop, go see Rene Pollesch; psychological realism, head to Stephan Kimmig; something that straddles the line between genius and egotistical anarchy, check out Frank Carstof; perhaps you like your theatre hard, unsentimental and suffused with echoes of Greek tragedy? then Michael Thalheimer might be the director for you. The list goes on. In England we disparagingly refer to this as “director’s theatre”, but why should the writer be the only creative force in theatre? Why shouldn’t we go to the theatre to see the artistry of a great director? Yes, sometimes the ego of an untalented director destroys, but when it works, great directors are brilliant artists in their own right, exploding the text onto the stage with a kind of delirious brilliance.

– Bold acting choices
In the UK there’s an emphasis on making subtle, nuanced acting choices. In comparison, I love how bold German actors are – when they play something, they really GO for it: when they are desperate, their is genuine panic on their faces, when they are cruel, they can be pitiless. Yes, they all seem a bit nuts and spend a lot of time naked and shouting, but it’s incredibly exciting to watch.

– Contemporaneity
There’s something incredibly urgent about German theatre. Like Britain, much of the new writing is highly political. Unlike Britain the priority of revivals is not to revel in literary triumphs of the past, but to interrogate life as we live and construct it today. Dialogue is modernized, plots adapted to the present day, time-specific references updated and contemporary texts interpolated. The idea of doing a piece in period costume is practically anathema. In contrast, critics in the UK pounce on any director that takes a more conceptual approach or dares to meddle with centuries-old texts. What we’re left with are often little more than museum pieces.

– Aesthetics and atmosphere
German theatre is deeply atmospheric and stunningly beautiful. Yes there’s more money for set and costumes, but equally I think there’s a much more romantic notion of theatre-making that cherishes considerations of aesthetics, mood and mystery.

[Side note: Apparently there are two broad types of designers in Germany. Those that work closely with the director to achieve a unified vision, and those that talk very little with the director, and just hand over a design with a kind of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude. I kind of love this, because it exemplifies a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach.]

– Rationalism vs complexity
In Britain we get annoyed when we don’t understand something quickly (just look at the near-ubiquity of audioguides in art galleries). In theatre, this often results in a demand for easily comprehensible narratives in which complex situations are reduced to opposing sides of a dramatic conflict. German theatre tends towards the messy, complex, incomprehensible and mysterious – but is that not a truer reflection of life?

– A culture of risk
I recently watched the BBC’s ‘On Stage’ series about regional theatres across the UK. On the whole, I found it immensely depressing. With huge funding cuts, our theatres are limping on with enough subsidy to survive, but little capacity to take risks; commercial models are celebrated, and subconsciously we’re all chasing the West End transfer that might save our finances. In Germany, generous subsidies and limited opportunities for commercial exploitation have created a theatre culture that rewards risk. You might say, ‘lucky German theatres with their big subsidies’, but compared to many other countries, we do still subsidise the arts generously. We just seem to spend to spend huge amounts of it on stale versions of an ever-diminishing repertoire…

– The grass is greener?
It’s easy to be excited by the novelty of wildly different work, but I’ll admit that after two weeks in Berlin I was gagging for a bit of Alan Ayckbourn. German theatre is aggressively intellectual, highly conceptual and hard work on the audience. What’s more, the industry seems to be horrendously dominated by white, middle-class, male directors; there’s little ethnic diversity amongst actors; and the theatre buildings themselves can often feel bare and underused – temples of high art as opposed to all-round community resources.

As my own work shows, sometimes I just want to laugh, relax, have fun, enjoy a good story and forget about how difficult everyday life can be. British theatre excels at this. What’s more, at its best, British theatre can be insightful, beautiful AND entertaining at the same time. I just think it’s a shame that we relegate risky, difficult work to the fringe, or occasional imports at the Barbican. The Schaubuhne this month premiered new productions by two of the UK’s finest directors – Katie Mitchell and Simon McBurney. Those productions will make their way here eventually, but it’s a sad reflection on our cultural ambitions that their talent, and the inspiration they might give, is slowly being drained overseas.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Freddie Machin

Dean Clough Mill

 

Arriving at Halifax in the car, one foggy day in September, we were faced with an imposing set of Victorian built Mills, set cheek by jowl beside a spaghetti junction of 60s roadways and flyovers and the ancient Yorkshire countryside – a fascinating and beautiful picture of what was once the industrial north.

The Mills were in fact our destination – Dean Clough, a converted wool Mill in the centre of Halifax, where we would be staying for the night before our show at the Square Chapel Arts Centre.

Now entirely re-developed, the site houses a complex of shops, restaurants, art galleries, our Travelodge for the night, and a cookery school; whilst still managing to maintain the grandeur of the original buildings.

Obsessed with composition and intent on entering the burgeoning scene of street photography I have recently bought a new camera. Street photography attempts to capture those fleeting, illuminating flashes of interaction between people that happen all around us, all the time, in the blink of an eye. I would argue that the right snap at the right moment could tell as much story, as much biography as any painstaking recreation.

With some time to spare as we pulled up and always in pursuit of another elusive vignette, I asked Matt (Llewellyn-Smith – stage manager extraordinaire) to help distract a group of men whilst I took their picture.

On the journey from Grantham that morning we had heard a radio programme about a woman with one prosthetic arm, which she had managed to keep hidden from almost everyone she met for many years. On one occasion, it wasn’t until the run of a show she was dancing in had ended that her fellow chorus members discovered that she only had one arm.

We decided to adopt some of her distraction techniques. Matt and I chatted as we drew level with the group, paused in the correct place and both pointed rather awkwardly at something off in the distance as I surreptitiously snapped.

Then one of them called over to us – “what are you looking for?” “oh, erm…” Assuming we’d been caught in the act we stumbled over our words and managed to mutter “somewhere to eat?”

Matt led the conversation as I took a few more shots from waist height. As it turned out, my three middle-aged subjects were jovial and welcoming and the five of us quickly fell into conversation.

We spoke about the Mill itself, about what we were up to and about how they decided who got to sit on the only deck chair they had between them. We mentioned that we had played Stamford the night before when one of the crew disappeared, momentarily returning with a dusty copy of ‘Villages of Rutland’. “It’s the smallest county in Britain for half the year – except when the tide is in on the Isle of Wight” they laughed. I asked them for a photo, and to my surprise, they agreed.

The group directed us in the opposite direction, towards ‘E’ Mill (the different Mills are distinguished by a different letter), the main building off to the left of us, where David Hockney had once painted a wall and sold it for £25,000. But despite the Hockneys and the original blueprints and photographs of this incredible building, the work we were told specifically to look out for was one made of Lego.

Matt and I left the workers to their tea, paid the parking and laughed as we pored over my photographs. In my opinion the best shots are definitely those taken covertly. Unposed photographs capture the live energy of intention and action, by comparison those that are posed look rigid and staid and surely serve only posterity.

An hour or so later I was working my way around the photography gallery inside ‘E’ Mill when two of the three workmen from earlier appeared from an internal staircase, hulking a step ladder. “Have you seen it?” they asked. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wasn’t even sure that they weren’t having us on earlier.

But sure enough, around the corner, standing at least a metre and a half in height and around five in depth stood a massive Lego reconstruction of the entire Mill.

Not quite the whole thing”, they corrected me. The ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay, where we had met earlier and the oldest building on the site (built in 1841) had not yet been constructed. My friends’ hands hovered in the air at the end of the structure, indicating where it will be when they’ve finished it. And they will – Jeff pointed to a window half way along the Lego building “that’s where they are now – in that pokey little office, working on it.”

Jeff proceeded to walk me round the Lego exhibit pointing out which lights were in the wrong place and which gutters were missing. They had to admit though, that apart from a few misplaced wheelie bins it was very accurate.

Having chatted over all matters of the Dean Clough Mill as we stood, it was clear that having worked here for a combined period of over 50 years, they were extremely proud of the site and their time-honoured place within it.

On the way back to the café, Jeff pointed out a postcard in the gift shop depicting the ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay – their spot – and then very persistently challenged one of the passing curating staff about the whereabouts of what turned out to be a portrait of Jeff.

Evidently Jeff was no stranger to portraiture. A previous artist exhibiting in the gallery had taken Jeff as his subject and it was a source of great disappointment to us both that it now resides with the artist and not here at the Mill for all to see.

Jeff said that he gets a lot of photographers taking pictures of him, “because you don’t see many people in overalls anymore” he said. He is no longer one of a whole gang of workers maintaining this building but one of three. Just like the Mill itself, Jeff has become an artefact, a memory of a time gone by.

But he is incredibly proud to still be a working cog in this redeveloped wheel; this new era for Dean Clough, and the requests of artists to capture and record him flatter and excite him.

And so he should be, by putting a subject in a frame and hanging it on the wall, the artist shows the subject admiration, acknowledgement and respect. They are focussing the looker’s attention on this image alone and saying ‘look here, you might not have seen it in this way before, you might have overlooked this.’ Jeff got such a kick from the Lego and his portrait and the photograph of ‘A’ Mill that maybe posed and re-constructed artworks do have their place. Maybe I’ll ask next time, before I shoot.

Dashing discoveries.

By John Walton

A bookstore hidden down a curving Edinburgh backstreet, its rough wooden shelves crammed with history, classical passion and beautiful early editions; an antiquarian owner practically covered with his own thin layer of dust. I was holding a worn book with yellowing pages, a navy hardback cover, and a look of having been once loved.

Back on tour with Potted Potter, the photo of a young man I had glimpsed in the Cabinet War Rooms was constantly on my mind. Who was he? What was he doing in a cavalry officer’s uniform? And why wasn’t he fat, middle-aged and balding? I needed to find out more. I was not only curious, I sniffed a story.

The book in my hands was ‘My Early Life’, Churchill’s description of his youthful days from first memories to nascent parliamentary success. Limping home from my gruelling schedule (two incredibly high-energy shows a day, every day, for a month – don’t let anyone tell you acting is an easy life) I plunged into a hot bath and began reading; immediately I was hooked. As a child I had adored the adventure stories of Dan Dare, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Willard Price. Here was someone living that life for real, ricocheting around the world in a blur of action, high society and hilarity. One moment he was fleeing from his governess, next he was rioting in a music-hall; finally, he escaped from the South African Boers and became an international celebrity. Audacious tales were strewn with huge personalities: Winston’s father Randolph, a maverick politician who ultimately destroyed his own career; his mother Jennie, a glamorous New York socialite and unparalleled beauty; Mrs Everest, Winston’s nanny and closest friend. Alongside these principals was a roster of fascinating and often hilarious supporting characters: Prime Ministers, Princes, workers, clergymen, Dickensian teachers and my favourite, Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.

"Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer."

“Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.”

Reading ‘My Early Life’ was like discovering a different world, one so often suppressed by our country’s collective embarrassment over the colonial era. In the young Winston you could see the tenacity, bravery and leadership that would echo and reverberate into the future; at this point though his destiny was anything but certain. There was tender honesty, the tragically unreciprocated adoration Winston had for his father, the young man’s constant money problems and the impetuousness that would often be his own undoing. Written by Churchill decades later, the entire book also had a fascinating tint: the dying rays of what Churchill himself called a ‘vanished age’. The aristocracy’s grip on power was diminishing, the labour movement growing, and by the book’s end mechanised guns were swiftly bringing an end to the gentlemanly pursuit of war. Yet this was still a time where British officers played party games on the way to battle and fretted about smuggling champagne to the front lines.

As I suspected, the book was ripe for adaptation. Moreover, it’s central character was an intoxicating storyteller pumped full of bravery, arrogance, wit and sheer bloody-mindedness. I knew immediately that there could be only one actor on-stage. At the time, I imagined that might be myself. I re-read the book, this time making notes at the top of every page, eventually constructing an intricate timeline of his early life. Then I sat down at my sitting room table and took a notepad, ready to begin writing. Nothing. Nothing came out at all. I sat for a bit longer. Still nothing. I had assumed that writing a play would be easy: string together the bits of the story you want to tell and fill the gaps in-between. How wrong I was. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, and quickly, the rest of the world took over. A translating project took over my creative juices, and for the next two years, the project would be relegated to a constant niggle in the back of my head. Until, that is, I stumbled across Freddie Machin…

An Actor Prepares

 by Freddie Machin
 
The rejection I could cope with, the perseverance I could muster but no-one tells you that when you get that elusive and long longed for acting job, it might not be as fulfilling as you first thought.
 
Drama school was an incredibly invigorating and challenging three years for me. Characterised by a huge variety of material, contrasting approaches to drama and inspiring tutors and directors from the professional world. But what followed was less interesting. The professional life of an actor is rarely defined by a sustained foray into new theatrical worlds, new perspectives and ideologies. In fact (at least at the early stages) it seemed to me that what plays most on an actors mind (when they are working) is getting the show on.
 
This was my experience at least. The opposition of the Actor’s Studio style intensive character creation and the oft-quoted Lawrence Olivier approach of “why not try acting, darling” was the subject of much discourse at school and was now no longer a matter for debate. The general message was: we have three weeks before we open and you need to know where to stand.
Very quickly, following graduation from Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Theatre I could feel my highly valued discipline waning. The actors I worked with in the real world smoked and didn’t bother with warm ups. The Alexander technique was sniffed at and as for phonetics – completely obsolete.
 
My acting career flourished but my ideals about art were being gradually deflated and eroded and I wasn’t being pushed hard enough. I like to have tough challenges set me and to know when I must complete them by. My perspective on the acting process, which had comforted me so much whilst training – “take whatever works, and if it doesn’t work don’t worry about it” was now starting to feel like an excuse for inactivity. Surely having a process is not optional? Acting is not just something you do. I don’t believe in talent, I would argue, I believe in the 10,000 hours principle – that geniuses are made on the path to Carnegie Hall – by practice, baby, practice. Commitment, sweat and passion.
 
I stumbled upon a fantastic opportunity as an actor-writer with Action Transport Theatre and began writing. They gave me the time, the focus and the license to write. But most importantly they set me a tough challenge and they gave me a deadline. I realised that is what I had been hankering after. Writing a play, I would suggest, is less subjective than performing in one. It is much easier to fake it or fluke it on stage than when you are being committed to ink. Stories follow certain structures which can be adhered to or not, but beware that the audience will have an innate expectation of the resolution of your story and you need to know how to sculpt that. You can’t simply say the words – you must create them.
 
Maybe I was too serious in the early days, about art, about acting, about society – maybe I’m too serious now. Maybe I was too easily deterred. Or maybe I was wrong. But it was writing for the stage that re-invigorated me. Using my keen dramatic sense, honed at drama school I embarked on a new craft: playwrighting. Banging words together on the page, crashing characters together in new locations re-inspired me and gave me back my mojo for acting too. I was eager for more and greater challenges. Enter John Walton, stage left.