Monday, 27 November 2017

20.17 Blog #36: Save Charles Hutchinson

It was announced last week that Charles Hutchinson, Arts Editor for York Press, is under threat from redundancy.  You can read up for more context here.  This blog is about the local issue of Charles’ valuable position within the York scene, but I hope it resonates with all local communities that feed into and support one another.

I have old clippings from the very first shows I was in as a Youth Theatre member where Charles reviewed the shows.  Part of the struggle of Youth Theatre is to get noticed by press, nationally and locally.  It is simply not recognised as a ‘proper’ artform by the gate-keepers of the culture, whether the staff of magazines and newspapers themselves or even, sadly, the Marketing Department of theatre buildings.  But Charles would come and review Youth Theatre, and continues to do so.  It is amazing to say to a young cast we have a reviewer in, and their work will be treated fairly by someone in the paper for all their family to see.  There cannot be many reviewers for local papers up and down this country who will readily come and watch, review and champion Youth Theatre.  This is one of Charles’s many mighty traits.

Charles must have reviewed every theatre company in this city at some point, giving them time and space in his columns.  York has a wide art scene, and Charles could quite easily focus on the larger theatres.  But he also visits the pub shows and the site-specific works when he can.

What does this all matter?  It shows that someone with power cares about your work.  That someone in a privileged position can give you space in the local paper, and a platform.  Actually there’s a lot of kindness and generosity in how Charles navigates the scene.

Of course, I have issues with the chap.  We’ve been trying to drag him down to Say Owt gigs for years (even though he always does a lovely preview for us).  We argued about his call to chop out the Porter in Macbeth (the only working class character!).  And I’ll be perfectly honest, I know some people across the network take issue with certain elements of Charles’ reviews or approaches.  But there is no denying he’s always up for a lovely healthy debate and natter, whether about theatre or Elvis Costello.  He’s amicable and approachable around when you bump into him, always up for a chuckle and puts his heart into the scene.  And it sets a great example for cross-promotion, watching each other’s back and valuing our art.

It’s not just the fact we need an Arts Editor for the main paper in the city, but that we need them to be a chummy and committed person like Charles.

I write this because I hope Charles can remain as long as he feels he can best serve York, and that the role of Arts Editor will still exist as a vital lynchpin of such a cultural hub.

Friday, 17 November 2017

20.17 Blog #35: Anarcho-Autosuggestion (and a Westeros wall map)

This week I watched Tim Crouch’s TEDx talk on The Art of Autosuggestion.  If ever you’re feeling bored, just watch some TEDx talks.  You’ll feel much smarter and, more importantly, more productive for your time.

Tim’s always been an influence on me as a writer and performer, ever since I saw his ground-breaking show The Author back in Edinburgh Fringe many years ago, and I love his magical I, Shakespeare plays.

In the video (which you can watch below) Tim talks about Emile Coure and how “our actions spring not from our will, but from our imagination.”  If we can control our subconscious, we can change the way we perceive the world which means we change the world.  Not only essential for mental health, but also for theatre-making.

A theatre company that highly influence me is Third Angel, who have various styles and use various technologies.  But they always acknowledge the presence of the audience in some way.  Alex Kelly beings their show 600 People with a list of welcomes, with appropriate responses.   I recently say Mobile by PaperBirds which not only acknowledged the audience, but welcomed them into the mobile home space, and thus the story.  Though I often struggle with immersive theatre where I am meant to specifically play a role, I do enjoy theatre where the audience are recognised.

This is entirely the spoken word and performance poetry form.  A performer faces an audience, often dictated by the performance space and microphone.  Sometimes the audience are cast, sometimes they are encouraged to interact more, sometimes the poem is not addressed to them but nevertheless it’s hard to ignore a group of people sat.  In theatre terms, there are no 4th walls.  There aren’t even 3 normal ones.

So this means any story, location or character presented in the poem exists solely in the audiences minds.  Unless props are used, which rarely are, the audience rely on the words and the poet’s hypnotic delivery.

“Let the imagination in” Tim says.

The subconscious re-writes what we’re shown.  Or indeed, told.  We don’t need to believe Hamlet exists in front of us, we just need to place an autosuggestion within our subconscious.  When Hannah Davies tells her story of finding all manner of objects in her son’s pockets we don’t need to actually see them.  That would ruin the magic, and the power, of our own imaginations.  All she needs to do is implant the suggestion of the gun-shaped twig and the bubblegum wrapper.  We shape the twig.  We taste the gum.

Theatre sometimes does everything for the audience.  It lays out the world on a plate.  But when I first read Lord of The Rings, I had no reference point for a map.  I had to construct it myself.  When George R. R. Martin was writing his Song of Ice & Fire series, there was no map.  Book-lovers pieced it together.  Now my wall has a huge map of Westeros and Essos, but at one point that world existed only in the heads.  Maybe this is why I get grumpy about how quickly characters in the show can seemingly teleport from place-to-place.

In my show, Whatever Happened To Vandal Raptor?, I did question:  Why not just cast the show with 4 actors, rather than multi-role them?  Was this my nervousness around working with others?  My ego at not letting others say my words and my story?

I wanted to implant the suggestion of these characters.  They are as tangible as you want them to be.  They appear through me, but moulded and formed by the receivers:  the audience.

The 4 characters in many ways represent 4 different aspects of not only post-punk life but parts of me.  Enthusiastic but stretched, tired and cynical, confident but rudderless, hypocritical and spineless.  And in this spectrum, the audience are invited to find parts of themselves, either on one end in the raging passionate Hog character or the timid, but still present, Bert.  The idea of these characters exists, and those ideas are made real inside the audience’s minds.

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone” – Marcel Duchamp quoted by Tim in his talk.

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them”- the prologue of Henry V

See not a punk, but think of a punk.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

20.17 Blog #34: Zoetrope, mental health and Youth Theatre

I remember reading a book about Mindfulness.  One Mindfulness exercise is to focus on breathing, to slow down, take time to fall into a rhythm, break the tension and be meditative in order to not get overwhelmed with negative thoughts.  If the thoughts get too over-powering, just pull yourself back to the breathing.

The instructions about focusing on breath, being aware of your whole body and checking for tension and stress all seemed familiar to me.  Doing the exercises unlocked a little memory in the back of my head:  I had, at one point, laid on the floor and moreorless done this exercise before.  It wasn’t called Mindfulness, it wasn’t presented as something for mental health either.

It was a Youth Theatre session, back when I was around 16-18.  It was preparing for a run of a show, or possibly for an intensive rehearsal.  Or maybe even at the end of a long rehearsal.  It was about calming down, finding a focus and making sure mentally, as well as physically, we were in tune with ourselves.  It’s something I have used with my youth theatre groups over the years as a practitioner.

I don’t remember ever hearing the term ‘mental health’ when I was a teenager at school.  I knew people got depressed.  But not the nuance, nor the universality that everyone if affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives.  I remember being aware there was a number you could ring at my University if you needed someone to talk to.  I never did, but I really appreciated its existence.  It seems so clich├ęd to say, but these days young people today are so much more clued up to mental health issues.

On Saturday I went to see Zoetrope, a West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre production written by Rebecca Manley and directed by Gemma Woffindon.  A Zoetrope is device which, pre-dating cinema, creates the illusion of movement with a sequence of phases of motion.  A spectrum.  And the characters in the play represented a spectrum of mental health, all denoted by a colour of the rainbow.  These characters were accessible and well-defined, but not stereotypes or caricatures.  They were masterfully portrayed by the young cast who each embraced something unique and tangible about these 7 young people dealing with anger issues, an eating disorder, depression, self-harm, voices and alcoholism to name but a few.  The pace of the show meant we were never overwhelmed, except at key moments when the revolving stage showed intense situations, both within a characters minds and outside in the social world.

The rest of the cast provided the chorus of parents, doctors, nurses, support workers, solicitors and school friends that influenced the lives of these characters.  The power of a tight ensemble presented a clockwork world of formality, with one well-choreographed burst of energy in the middle of the show at a frantic house party.

Plenty of warm moments of humour and camaraderie were balanced with dark, almost hopeless, undertones making a rewarding 67 minutes of strong youth theatre, with a heart-stoppingly powerful penultimate scene followed.

I know that schools are also talking about mental health, and that it’s becoming much more mainstream to talk about these issues, rather than hide them away.  And it’s incredibly stirring that this is being presented through the diverse genre that is youth theatre.