Tag Archives: Bristol Old Vic

The Magic Elves at Bristol Old Vic

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

The world of the magic shoe shop is a surreal and vivid one where the characters are wacky the tunes are uplifting and the dance is so infectious that even the queen gets her groove on.

Harbouring some energetic dance moves and a secret ambition to be a top DJ the shoemaker is responsible for the shop and the customer order book yet unable to make shoes. He is pursued by the dastardly Mr Numbers who is intent on closing the shop unless the debt to him is paid. Happily, unbeknown to the shoemaker the shop is inhabited by jukebox dwelling elves with the ability to magic objects into brand new and beautiful custom made shoes using the power of music, movement and play. Through a variety of often spangley footwear creations the elves and the shoemaker transform the lives of the customers, culminating in a massive dance party finale as the enthusiastic audience are invited onto the stage to throw their own imaginative shapes on the dance floor.

The magic shoe shop is often one of bling, sparkle and spectacle complete with glitter, baubles and silver jumpsuits but has the simplicity of play at its heart. This is no better demonstrated than in the opening five minutes as the children in fits of giggles watched whilst through ease of mime and movement a simple plastic sheet was repeatedly transformed into a number of comedy scenarios. This captured the imaginations of the young audience from the outset, who seemed as if quite convinced that this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. With a combination of disco, pop, rock, rave and dance floor anthems that only the grown ups will remember, the attention of the small people was held throughout and the kids were always eager to participate whether this be through cheering, dancing, clapping or bravely blowing a raspberry at the dastardly Mr Numbers.

Despite being a few years above the recommend audience age range for this production I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s often easy to disregard children’s’ theatre as being just for youngsters but this is a show that appeals to the fun and the silly in all of us. Its previously been said that children’s theatre is important not just for its direct entertainment or educational qualities but for its ability to remind us of the value of children and of their experience of the world. After a joyful morning with the magic elves this has been reiterated to me and it was inspiring to watch the bravery of the audience engaging wholeheartedly, dancing unselfconsciously, and making immediate sense of a sometimes surreal story or environment.

The Magic Elves is a show that fizzes with vivacity and life and is an energetic tribute to the power of dance, gibberish and disco. Celebrating play, creation and the merits of good footwear it’s sure to get bodies moving and feet tapping all over Bristol this Christmas. Party on.

The Magic Elves is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 3rd January. Find out more here #MagicElves

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‘Minotaur’ at Bristol Old Vic

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

The Minotaur is a ferocious yet tortured beast that roams the depths of the labyrinth appeased only by the singing of his half sister Ariadne and by the deaths of 14 children sent to him by the King of Athens each year. Theseus is a hero on a journey of adventure and self-discovery – intent on moral good, saving the children and killing the Minotaur.

The young audience were immersed in the action from the outset with the appearance of the Minotaur eliciting excited squeals and squirms from the children as it snuffled its way around the studio. As the drama unfolded the audience became further embroiled in the plot with most being very keen to take a place on the stage and the production successfully kept its audience entertained throughout. The action was accompanied by a spine tingling composition of live music and vocals, providing a bold and sometimes haunting atmosphere which contrasted well with the too few comedy moments, some hilarious cartoonish scenes and clownish antics.

The world of the Minotaur is simply and effectively set with the actors working together to quickly and convincingly transform the space, taking the audience seamlessly from inside the lower labyrinth to the palaces of the upper world, journeying through forests and across seas.

The play is a retelling of an ancient myth, however the story also offers some opportunity to draw parallels with events and contexts in more contemporary society. Theseus as a young man on a journey to find his place in the world perhaps speaks to us positively of young people growing up in changing and sometimes challenging times today. The Kings demonstrate differing political intents and the weaknesses or darker side of political leadership or institutional leaders. King Aegeus complete with dressing gown and paper cracker crown is a memorable picture of an often weak, bewildered and lonely old man longing for the return of his son. Through Ariadne we are perhaps shown the consequences of imprisonment and the bitterness and regret of the imprisoned, however it is the characters inability to remedy or influence her own situation (her imprisonment and freedom are determined solely by the men around her) that perhaps provides the most significant lesson.

The Minotaur is a lively, intrepid and substantial piece of storytelling. It’s a show that will capture the imagination of audiences of all ages and is showing at Bristol Old Vic until the 9th of April.

Culmination – a Mayfest journey from audience to stage and how to fall off a precipice

‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.  

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Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over.  At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly.  I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.

To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long.  Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.

These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.

However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?

I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:

Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.

I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space.  I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances  around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds  around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.

I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.

Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response.  It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.

A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals.  This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities.  For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?

You can’t stop the passion

Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate.  I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity  in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.

Changing direction and starting again

There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of  ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’  new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago.  Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.

Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.

The show

The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people.   Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.

I hope you can come to see it.

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‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s   ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com to reserve your seats.

The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.

Out of the tick box and into the grey…move over darlings we’re 50 shades of gay – celebrating LGBT month, diversity, sexuality and pondering the consequences of silence.

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Lucy Meadows a primary school teacher from Lancashire underwent gender transition in the latter half of last year. Regardless of the fact that she was supported by her employer, she was the subject of vigorous press interest after a letter written by the headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s C of E primary school in Accrington just before Christmas was leaked to the media. Her case had been the subject of great press attention most notably from Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn who authored the since been edited  but none the less still vile article which personally attacks Ms Meadows citing ‘’He’s not only in the wrong body … he’s in the wrong job” in an attempt to suggest that LGBT are a poor example to children.

On the 19th of March Lucy Meadows was found dead after an apparent suicide, three months after starting to live and work as a woman. Lucy was 32 years old when she died.

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I really don’t enjoy having to define my sexuality to other people.  Why?  because I’ve often found it hard to define myself. I hated having to tick a box, to say I was definitely this or that when I had an idea that sexuality like many other things in life could fluctuate. That it changed over the life course.  I could never find the manual that would specifically tell me what was exactly heterosexual or bi-sexual or lesbian. If I kissed a girl or was intimate did it mean I was a lesbian? Or bi-sexual? or experimental? or drunk? How many would it take to fulfil any of these categories? How recent would they need to be? Would it make a difference if it was love or just sex? And why the need for definitions anyway – isn’t being happy in your relationship the measure? Then I got to thinking about male partners. If I went out with a guy who wore eyeliner, nail varnish and tights would I be fooling myself because he was actually gay? Or maybe he was just experimental? Or simply had a deep appreciation for quality cosmetics and hosiery? Was there something wrong with me if I decided I was not uncomfortable with this anyhow? Surely a lot of our underlying views on sexuality and gender are every much socially constructed anyway? Right?

I thought I was alone with this and didn’t really make any efforts to define myself or think about it until recently a few things made me change my mind.  I watched this brilliant video by artist and photographer Tillett Wright whose work to photograph the gay community in New York ran into problems when she found that many others like herself found it hard to define precisely her changing sexual and gender identity, as she experienced tendencies for girls and boys and has lived as both a girl and a boy. Her TED talk sets out some great evidence as to why many of us are actually ‘50 shades of gay’ or situated somewhere on this huge spectrum which is complex and changing.

Soon after, during February it was LGBT month in Bristol and being a person who loves to hear stories I toddled along to Mshed – who were presenting a ‘groundbreaking exhibition by Outstories Bristol, revealing the hidden histories of Bristol’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities through images, artworks, oral history and memorabilia’ from this I learnt the terrific struggle that those in the LGBT community in Bristol had previously had, the stories were warm and human but also illustrated the persecution and exclusion that many people had to face even as recently as 15-20 years ago. Ujima radio also had a feature during the run up to the LGBT month where I met prolific Bristolian transgender sci-fi writer Cheryl Morgan who discussed her experiences as well as her favourite books.

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However the most affecting experience and the one that will stay in my mind was in fact a theatrical one. Except that the stories being performed were real stories. Not fictional.  Tom Marshman is an artist based in Bristol. He actively encourages a dialogue with audiences and participants aiming to create a safe space to share their thoughts and experiences. The results give very evocative authentic glimpses into everyday things. His recently performed work ‘Move over darling’ was made ‘through a process of engagement with participants from Bristol and the surrounding area. The performance had a direct relationship to participants’ personal accounts. The project allows an under-represented community to tell their social history which is often ignored due to political or social constraints and legislation. This enables this community to tell their story that has been previously unavailable to them and explore the diversity of their community The project aims to locate this work within the Bristol area’s familiar and everyday locations helps to transform and create multi-layered signifiers [emotional and historic] of building and places to the participants. For example bars where liaisons took place. Courts cases for acts of ‘indecency’ and pilgrimages to Greenham Common’

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The experience started with a gesture and a selection of small objects  on the staircase at Bristol Old Vic then took us on a journey around the streets breathing life back into the old city as  buildings seem to once again glow with the vibrancy and richness of human experience from days gone by. The storytelling was  warm, engaging, full of strength, vulnerability, sincerity and sherry infused elegance whilst revealing how the social context has changed for the older LGBT community, how prejudice and ignorance was experienced and also the impact of HIV and the sadness of loss.

At the final location The Milk Bar we were transported through time and space through a number of now seemingly blurred stories, music from different eras, a song, as we heard tales of love, laughter, sexual experiences, secrets and confessions. Previously invisible triumphs, struggles and experiences of the older LGBT community were made visible through the performance. A lampshade stands at the end of a bar, tables that seemed to float, the sound of a hammer struck 5 times, a flying brick, a song, a face turned away from a wall. Denim.

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The stories certainly opened my eyes and mind to the experiences of the older LGBT community. It also illustrated how art and performance is a great medium for overcoming preconceptions and general lack of awareness about certain social issues. Given all of these experiences collectively I felt that I was perhaps less afraid than I was to approach the issue of LGBT culture and identity or even to think about the context.  To give consideration to different or new experiences and gain an appreciation of multiplicities and complexities. To honour the bravery of those who had shared such experiences and were often subject to negative treatment throughout their lives. To gain an understanding, or as Tillet Wright suggests to ‘spark empathy’.

So I could have skipped over the whole sexuality issue. Just ignored it on principle, but seeing such articles in the press from journalists such as those involved in the tragic case of Lucy Meadows and thinking about the evidence I’ve heard through the performance I changed my mind. I now think that anyone, no matter how ‘grey’ they think they may be – if they could they should say so.  Only by broadening out the tick boxes, abolishing the categories and revealing the true honesty and depth of human experience we will be able to begin to make moves towards a truly equal society. By taking away the certainty and letting go of definitions and preconceptions we will be able to make sexuality and gender a place for play, discovery, union, celebration and ultimately a better understanding of ourselves and others regardless of pursuit or persuasion.  With the case of Lucy Meadows in mind, it becomes essential we ask the question – who is responsible for equality? But the implications of the answer is even greater – because we all are.

‘I could have been better’ by Idiot Child at Bristol Old Vic

(photo credit: Matt Collins – Crush Images)

Some stuff happened….

Then I went to see Idiot Child’s ‘I could have been better’ at Bristol Old Vic.

I wasn’t going to write on my blog anymore. A bit like Jimmy Whiteaker. I had a little strop and called the world a wanker.

But while I was there, in the audience, I made something. I made a plane. A paper plane. It was green. I launched it toward the stage. It flew, then my plane was picked out amongst all the other planes, and then the plane became words, and the words became meaningful to someone or someone’s somebody or something. And this person kept them close to their heart.

So I thought maybe I should find a way to give this writing thing another go. Because maybe even if it’s only a few people, or even one person… You can make a meaningful difference, to someone, or someone’s somebody or something, out there in the gloom.

(Photo credit: Matt Collins – Crush images)

I decide to see the play firstly because of the striking photography which became such an attraction to me I had to then buy a ticket.  I do frequent Bristol South Swimming Pool in Bedminster (a very fine establishment – you should try it) although I’ve never had a penchant for water wings especially.

The play, performed solo by James Whiteaker tells the story of  Jimmy a likeable 30 year old railway worker resigned to a life on the platform where people don’t listen to his announcements and he spends his time as an outside observer of everyday life.  Determined to follow in the footsteps of his all time idol Duncan Goodhew, we witness events in the build up and outcome of the local over 10’s swimming competition, as Jimmy in spite of the lack of a posh swimming kit, magazine exposure or other benefits, uses the situation to his advantage and enters the event in the absence of an upper age limit. Jimmy’s character you cannot dislike, he is reassuringly presented to us ‘flaws and all’ and is vulnerable, idealistic, athletic, romantic with a love for the classic yoghurt drink ‘yop’ and ambition enough to pop out the end of his verruca socks, as well as being childish and disconnected at times.

Jimmy combines comedy, storytelling,  video projection and an all too short moment of a capella as well as some stunning movement embodying the dichotomy of the desire to love versus the desire to fight – with love ultimately winning through.  Also thought provoking were the intriguing hand conversation and now infamous ‘hand dance’ which I was grateful enough to have the best view of.

The storytelling is supported by a brilliant set  – the highlight being an almost floating model swimming pool made of liquorice allsorts (you should go just on this basis alone) as well as video projection and other hanging/suspended items.

(Free floating..photo credit: Bristol Old Vic)

The audience were delighted to take part in the paper plane activity and not one person seemed to hesitate or delay over this at all. I did have one breakthrough moment as someone in the audience declined to volunteer for a different action and Jimmy suggested ‘What about the person next to you?  – this made me think about a number of things.

The final tableaux is a powerful  one and it’s easy to think that the story of Jimmy is all dark, a tale of failure and of broken dreams, but look more closely and you will find that it is a heart warming, funny and often honest commentary about messing up and admitting your truths. For me, ultimately the message of ‘I could have been better’ is this:

It is only at the point of spectacular failure that our journey really begins.

(Bristol Parkway rail station September 5th)

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Idiot Child are Jimmy Whiteaker and Anna Harpin  and ‘I could have been better’ is showing at Bristol Old Vic until 13th October . You can book tickets here:

http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/icould.html

I’d go and see it if I were you…

On vulnerability, sharing and the healing power of storytelling – Performing ‘Only Us’ at Bristol Old Vic

About ‘Only Us’

Not everyone is an only child, but everyone has felt lonely…’

‘Only Us’ was performed in June at Bristol Old Vic, and was a series of autobiographical stories about growing up, living in Bristol, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.

Writer and performer Adam Peck first took his one-man show, Only, to a variety of far flung corners of Bristol, from schools to pubs to community spaces and ‘Only Us’ combined Adam’s own life story with the stories of the people he met on his travels; a melting pot of Bristolians, but people all united by the same issues – friendship, family and the search for fulfilment.’

I was one of those Bristolians, and here is a story about my experience of storytelling.

Standing up and sharing your story – from audience to stage

When I first told people about the prospect of participating in ‘Only Us’ I had to get used to receiving a mixed reaction. Some people thought it was a great idea, some were horrified at the prospect of standing up as ‘myself’ whereas others simply couldn’t see where the ‘story’ or the ‘drama’ of the performance could possibly be. I think people were perhaps a little frightened of coming to watch something that felt like it could be unpredictable, or different, or too close to real life but I guess as we said in the show, the people that came were the right people, and whatever happened was the only thing that could have. . and this was ok. As the process got underway I soon began to realise ‘the show’ aspect of the experience was potentially the least important (for me anyhow).

My motivations for participating were threefold – I’d dreamt of being a performer since I was small, but gave up on it as life unfolded, and the opportunity to work with a professional writing and directing team and be on stage at the world renowned Bristol Old Vic was just too good to miss. More than that, it was like some kind of little miracle, it was in short more than I could ever have dreamed was possible.  Secondly, I wanted to share my story. I guess at the time I didn’t know why, but when I first saw Adam’s show ‘Only’ during 2011 I came away thinking that it was beautiful, celebratory and ‘yeah, I want to do that’ but also ‘yeah, maybe I could do that’.  As I stated in my previous  Blogpost  I saw the work as a piece that celebrated the intimacy of everyday life, it was poignant, meaningful and often funny ‘warts and all’ storytelling. I didn’t really have any expectations as to how things would unfold over the short time we had to put things together, but after some deliberation, once I had committed to the process I felt like I was up for any challenge.

Writing, reviewing and re-writing the past – the healing powers of storytelling

The most frequent question I’ve been asked since taking part in the show have usually centred on the writing process. As an audience member it’s natural to question in this kind of performance what was real and what was fictional. The story I told was my story and the writing experience felt for me 100% collaborative, and the weird things is I found the process itself quite restorative. It’s an interesting feeling to hand your life story over to someone you don’t really know to read and discuss. I think for me a great deal of learning (about myself) came through these early rehearsals. Initially I really struggled with getting started on writing the story which is unusual for me, it took me three attempts before I finally had something which was my story, not the story of someone else or a list of contextual factors but things which were about me. My contribution was then crafted by Adam to meet the other requirements of the show, however at no point did I feel anything was compromised or missed, that my wishes were always respected and anything that was cut was done so because in hindsight I could see I was hanging onto certain events which were not important or relevant to my story or anyone else’s. In fact, this act of cutting or taking away the text that wasn’t necessary, was for me, quite powerful, as was seeing my story from someone’s else’s perspective.

My story, our stories, your story – performing ‘Only Us’

Another key aspect of this performance was meeting the other storytellers. Having worked on our own stories we were then brought together to rehearse as a family and it was a fantastic experience to meet and learn about the other performers. All of our stories were different and in some ways they seemed quite unusual but we soon came to realise via our rehearsal process and from feedback via audience members that actually there were a great deal of similarities across our range of life experiences. I think this was a key thing about the show that appealed to people. It’s easy in our individualised society to believe that the things that affect us, or worry us or when we experience certain events, we do so in isolation. In fact it seemed that once people began to engage in discussion around the topics that the show brought up most people could relate to something about the stories.

Getting audience feedback was for me just one of the best things about doing the show – people tended to respond to things differently – it was really interesting for me to get an idea of what audience members enjoyed or felt like they related to – it was often different to what I would have expected. The experience of being involved in the production was great learning for me as an artist – I learnt lots about the writing process, and appreciated the need to look after myself as a performer both physically and emotionally, particularly when dealing with content that was quite emotionally charged night after night (I want to say the importance of ‘keeping good psychic hygiene’ but realise that’s a term I’ve probably just invented).  The show was, in parts emotional, and whilst the aftermath and closure that the experience brought me was significant, overall I have to say that it was empowering to be able to stand on stage and deliver my story and reveal that emotion to an audience. As a person that has had to consistently battle to suppress her heightened sensitivities and emotions all her life, (to an extent where they have proved disruptive to my everyday existence) the relief of putting them on to the stage was nothing short of immense. Then to have people come and thank me at the end for sharing things they felt they could never possibly share was just brilliant. At last! Somewhere where emotion and expression was a positive thing! Huzahh!!

The aftermath of show week was quite significant and for me was probably the hardest part of the experience. Working autobiographically and with experiences and memories from the past is an extremely delicate process and I myself underestimated the impact this would have on me. I re-engaged with old feelings about past events across my life course (both positive and negative) and perhaps more significantly had the opportunity through performance to engage with both my parents at the same time. This was something that had not occurred for many years and is something that I would not get the opportunity to ever do in real life. It’s fair to say I was in a very strange place for at least a week afterwards. The most difficult thing was the lack of people who knew about the experience or had shared in it. I found it hard to go into work like nothing had changed, because I felt like I’d been on this huge journey and something very significant had. This being said I have benefitted from psychotherapy for a number of years now, I was in touch with my own therapist about the process and she came to watch it herself and thought it was fantastic. Although she did question what sort of support was provided alongside the development of the show, we both were of the opinion that it was something that I could manage effectively – and we were both right.   It’s fair to say if I was given the opportunity again I would jump at it straight away.

‘Only Us’ – So what? On sharing, vulnerability and the importance of participatory theatre

So looking back at the experience now the question I find myself asking is – So what? What difference has the experience made? Was it important and what (if anything) did it change?

On a personal level the process and performance gave me a lot of emotional closure around significant past events, enabled me to ‘let go’ of things I had been holding on to, as well as proving to some extent my ability as a performer (which I had doubted). Given my age, background and lack of experience it’s unlikely that I would have ever had the opportunity to learn these skills or take part in this kind of performance otherwise let alone perform at Bristol Old Vic, which for me was a huge huge privilege. More importantly whilst many people recoil in horror at the thought of sharing our ‘real’ selves (including the darker moments of both our personalities and our experiences) I’ve actually found it hugely empowering on a wider level. By standing up and sharing our stories, our authentic selves, our struggles, our triumphs and our insecurities we empower others to do the same. By coming to terms with our own speckled truth, we then in turn find it easier to show compassion to others. Despite our differences, and regardless in the vast ways we attempt to satisfy them, our needs are often really all quite fundamental – love, family, connection.

So for me this process was important, for me this process  changed things for the better, I can’t measure mental health improvements or growth in my own emotional intelligence, awareness, level of consciousness or overall sense of wellbeing, and I can’t say exactly how these improvements were made. I can’t say exactly why it happened, and I can’t really prove this difference to you.

So I guess for now you will just have to take my word for it.

I made some great friends in the other performers involved in this production and I’ve tried to understand if things were different for them afterwards too. Some of them have reported positive differences, a sense of lightness, a growth in confidence, a sense of letting go. Others had made some life changing decisions. Changed jobs or are preparing to move away. Some have simply just been on better terms with themselves or their families, or vowed to act or think differently about things in the future.

I don’t have formulae for how to repeat such an experiment, and I would hesitate to even think you could repeat this again with exactly the same results. My burgeoning interest around this topic has led me to believe that often for theatre makers this kind of performance is viewed as box ticking exercise or more hassle than its worth. From my observations I’d argue that yes – its risky, its delicate, its potentially more time consuming and its potentially plagued with difficulties.

But it works.

For the people around me who couldn’t  really understand the journey that was ‘Only Us’ as far as they know – well it was just some play I was in…     and perhaps for some theatre makers well, participatory theatre – maybe it is just seen as a box ticking exercise…

But for those that were involved in ‘Only Us’?

It was so much more than that.

(I would like to sincerly thank  everyone involved in making this production and giving me this oportunity and also thank everyone who came to watch it)

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As an aside…. I’ve posted this before but I feel it adds a bit of weight to my storytelling argument, and given by someone whose story is perhaps in some ways similar  to my own… Enjoy..

Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow – What does amateur mean? Widening participation in theatre

Today I attended the ‘Devoted and Disgruntled road show – an open space event at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, part of a national roadshow which asked the question ‘what are we going to do about theatre’.

http://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com/about/

I was pretty nervous, but even so, somehow ended up facilitating a session along with the nice Mr Spurgeon from Bristol Old Vic. I loved loved loved the ‘Open Space’ philosophy and will talk about that further… we are all contributing to a collaborative report available here: http://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com/reports/ so read away on our discussions!! I could probably do more thinking around this but as I was writing my notes up – thought I would copy them here too! here are my notes from today.. off to bed now more to follow after tomorrows session! inspiring and exciting!!

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Greetings!!

I got first involved in theatre via participatory projects/interventions which means I’m now really interested in theatre projects which encourage similar participation or engagement from those in the community who may not have had experienced this kind of performance before. I believe this can be really beneficial in a number of ways and I suggested this topic as I hoped to have a broad discussion around some key opportunities/challenges which I think is what emerged. Joe and I decided on a joint session as there was some crossover in our questions.   Joe’s report is also available – I’m working from an audio recording (cheating a bit) which is why mine is quite detailed. Here are some of the big questions/discussions we captured today. Thank you to our lovely group for all their contributions

Perceptions of amateur Vs perceptions of ‘professional’ what’s the meaning, significance and is the distinction necessary?  

The group started off with consideration of what these two labels mean.

Typical perceptions/assumptions of ‘Amateur’ (companies, groups, individuals)

  • Does it for love
  • Lower standard
  • Part time/hobbyist
  • More control over their own productions
  • Pay less for script rights
  • Less need to evidence impact/spend
  • Not commercial
  • Not formally trained
  • A status
  • An attitude
  • A perception

Typical perceptions/assumptions of ‘Professional’

  • Does it for money (earning a living)
  • Formally trained in accordance with industry and other expectations
  • High standard of production, greater expectation
  • Funded/commercial /need to make profit
  • Full time
  • A status
  • An attitude
  • A perception

Conflicts and considerations:

As we know there are many grey areas, crossovers, contradictions and exceptions to the above, and that reality may not always reflect assumptions.  Key points which were made were in response to his were:

There are blurred boundaries around notions/definitions of: amateur, community, non-professional, professional, participation, participatory theatre.

Everyone starts off as an amateur. Nobody talks about ‘amateur’ painters. Yet most commonly viewed as professional once you are being paid.

Participatory performance or those using volunteers – what are the issues around this ‘taking work’ from ‘professional’ performers – work is scarce and inequality issues around pay across the arts abound.  Challenges of delivering mixed economy shows. Value and equality systems tough.

What do we mean by ‘participation’? Some artists want control over their work, and it is defined by the artist – participation can blur the boundaries. There is a clear need to communicate ‘Why’ volunteers or community members are used in a professional production, and what is expected – Should not be just a box ticking exercise in order to demonstrate benefits – a need to evidence and research properly that benefits are really happening.  Again, depends on meaning of participation itself. Evidencing impact can be challenging and expensive – how to measure – bums on seats? What happens if there are no seats?

Politics can often see art as a liberal past time – a hobby not a profession, there is often a need to demonstrate that a project is professional and worthy of financing.

Money is often the key factor in determining a ‘professional’ production – a need to examine how art and theatre are valued more widely in society. Culturally taught to value art financially – need to reassess this. Is it sometimes easier not to have money in terms of freedom of creativity? Theatres want bums on seats, arts orgs want grants… where is the audience in this? Amateur sector more closely connected to audience wants? Charles Handy – understanding voluntary organisations book.. Anyone who works for free is getting paid but just not in money. A need to work out a different exchange.

Should we move beyond ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ and let projects be defined by who is paying to see them? If the audience is paying does it matter? What about students/graduates – they make work – why are they only ‘professional’ on graduation?  What’s the difference between an ‘emerging artist’ and an ‘artist’? Qualified or non-qualified – what is the role of ‘the expert’ no always related to qualifications.

Reaching out and connecting

The internet recognises that you don’t need a certificate and that internet as audience knows that something of huge quality can punch through the glass ceiling of control and patronage. Now you can use the internet to platform things and reach wider audiences directly. You can make things happen with technology as you can hear other voices which think similarly. Set free a ‘whisper’ which snowballs – strong links between internet and democracy – flash mob as performance art.

Is there an economic benefit in cross-pollinating professionals/non-professionals?

Need to ‘bill’ yourself as an artist to others. Social media has changed the ways in which his is possible – now a need to be self-defining – more empowering for artists.

Need to always engage with ‘the amateur or non-professional’ as this could be a voice that needs airing. Few opportunities for adults in relation to opportunities provided for younger people. The benefits or art and drama are often cited for children – why does this stop as they grow? Need to examine audiences/opportunities for engagement across the life course.

The need to give opportunities to build and develop audiences – this can be done through participatory projects – Do we need more in the South West? How do we give people these opportunities? How do we give people who want to connect connection opportunities? More important to find people who had never even considered theatre/art ? How do we find those people?

Need to re-think not ‘participation’ but ‘theatre’ taking performance out of the building, re-imaging it to make it more attractive to a wider audience. Need to acknowledge how art is perceived by many (negatively) and finding something which is ‘big’ enough but also powerful enough and relevant enough to appeal..or at least hard to ignore.. i.e royal deluxe puppet. Is about how you go about interrupting people’s realities in a joyful careful way. Theatre is an art form and a building. Need to find something capable of striking awe into everyday individuals. Interrupting realities in a joyful way – France is very good at this.

Pop up performance across the city. Refurbishment of old Vic was a great opportunity to push theatre out to other places. Forced different patterns of movement in the city by artists and audiences.  Not much money involved – even so it was done by professionals.

There is a need to increase participation in theatre by audiences but also a need to integrate different disciplines into the art world. Use art and theatre to communicate the ‘key messages’ or challenges of our time. Also a need to make the ‘language’ more accessible and conversation less introspective. Break down barriers and increase understanding. Example – relationship between art and science.

Its all about values and aims.. ‘know your ‘WHY’

Art gives a different perspective on life – it encourages meaning making, and can reveal the true creative potential of individuals. There is also an economic argument for this. If the purpose of art is to reflect life then need to attract performers/creative’s from a wider remit. As artists it’s our role to be constantly looking about how you make the story engaging. Its about re-knowing – when art tells you something that you already sort of knew. It turns your head sideways.. it was always there but the work has managed to explain it to you or relocated it for you.

Its necessary to embrace future-facing work –peak oil etc – a need to communicate key messages to wide audiences..   how to turn people around to face these big challenges through art in a way that doesn’t make It seem impossible… when really its easier to be down the pub.

It’s about communicating the elephant in the room but also knowing why as an individual and as an artist, you do what it is you do.