Thoughts about things I've done and news about what I'm going to do.

What my thoughts look like after editing/second-guessing.

An irregularly updated blog (mostly) about theatre.

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  • It feels like, in recent months, there's been an increasing amount of discussion about the intersection of theatre and video games (though this could be an illusion simply created by my reading the Guardian's culture section more often). From my perspective, often the commentary is flawed, doing video games a huge disservice whilst further confusing areas of theatre that are already a messy tangle of definitions. 

     

    The articles I've seen about theatre productions influenced by video games all seem to treat the term 'video games' as if it means one singular thing, rather than a medium featuring instances vastly differing in form, style and content. In a recent interview, David Rosenberg (co-creator of The Roof, which draws its structure and design from platformers) is quoted as saying "there aren't many video games where you get rewarded for altruism or empathy". Admittedly, a lot of big-name, AAA games (to name the obvious, GTA V) might fit this description; that there's a genre of games called first-person shooters also supports a distorted view of games as having primarily violent content. But this is an *incredibly* limited view of video games.  

     

    Loneliness, Passage, The Killer and Papers Please are all games designed to engage the player's emotions and empathy (Loneliness is able to make you empathise with a single white pixel) and the latter two constantly force you to consider the morality of your actions. They may not be the first titles to spring to mind when 'video games' are mentioned, but they are all fascinating and powerful examples of the emotional engagement you can offer a player - which, after all, is surely one of the reasons some theatre-makers are interested in working with gaming conventions. 

     

    Rosenberg's comment might be more justified if 'video games' is taken to mean simply 'platformer' (the kind of game The Roof draws most heavily upon) - though even if you dig deep enough into platformers, you find Braid, an incredibly thoughtful game that provokes questions about player motivation and behaviour. Interestingly, whilst The Roof drew primarily from platformer games (I've no idea whether one of the costumes was a deliberate reference to Silent Hill's Pyramid Head or not), it's logo and set incorporated the pixelated silhouette of the Space Invaders alien, a completely type of game with no visible bearing on the content or form of the show itself.

     

    There also seems to be a simplication or generalisation made about theatre productions at the same time. I've already harped on about how 'immersive' and 'interactive' aren't the same thing; it seems that often, simply being one or the other results in shows being branded as similar to video games. But there needs to be more detail here: just being immersive or interactive doesn't mean a production emulates video games (for instance, there's the  interactive I Wish I Was Lonely, or the Donmar's Julius Caesar, the staging of which was often described as immersive). 

     

    Now to the inevitable (as this wouldn't be a piece of writing about video games and theatre without a reference to Punchdrunk, and it wouldn't be a blog post of mine without a reference to Secret Cinema): The Drowned Man is the leading go-to example of theatre reflecting video games and arguably the main reason this kind of performance has been discussed more over recent months. To borrow from a Guardian strapline, I think video game-esque theatre is reasonably defined as being "performances in which the viewer becomes a player". Gone Home (an interactive story adventure game) is the game I find TDM to most resemble, since audience agency in TDM largely stretches to where you go and what information you gather. There are still, to my mind, stumbling blocks in likening an audience's experience of TDM to gameplay: you're not part of the world of Temple Studios, you can't interact with other people and you can't affect events - your environment does not respond to or acknowledge your presence

     

    Secret Cinema's productions do allow the audience greater agency - you have a clear role, you can interact with other people, and you can affect small-scale events. Your agency is still, however, limited. The overall narrative of each night is fixed and unchanged by audience members - and whilst some games do actually have endings that are fixed/beyond the player's control, usually this is intended as a subversion of gamers' typical autonomy and so presupposes open endings (and they still effectively maintain the illusion of control and influence). Whilst the audience's role is closer to that of a player, theatrical conventions still dominate over gaming ones. 

     

    I can only think of a couple of shows I'm aware of where the audience's choices affect the actual content and ending of the performance (discounting improv - maybe there's interesting comparisons to be drawn there, but I definitely won't be attempting to draw them now): Choose Your Own Documentary and The Situation Room, though I'm sure there are others. Again, though, this does not necessarily mean you're putting the audience in the role of 'player' - The Situation Room comes closer to this, whilst CYOD feels far less like gameplay, utilising group votes and a structure inspired by 'choose-your-own-adventure' books. 

     

    This may seem like an unnecessary exercise in interrogating definitions (and maybe spending three years studying Philosophy has given me a slight predisposition towards such exercises...) but I genuinely think that when talking about how theatre relates to another entertainment medium, we have to be clear in our discussions. Not just because it can result in labelling productions with misleading definitions (and potentially disappoint or confuse audiences). But because if we treat video games as one homogenous lump and don't interrogate precisely which shows cast the audience as players (and the conventions that enable this casting), we'll fail to exploit (or even see) the full range of opportunities that video games offer in creating original, engaging and exciting work.

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    Ultimately, this post is about serendipitous moments in theatrical productions, the factors that allow them to happen, and precisely why they're wonderful. But it's also about two fond memories of shows, one recent and one not-so-recent. 

     

    I'm currently working as part of the front of house team for Secret Cinema #21, the initial queuing and performance for which happens outside in a public space. Consequently, I've ended up chatting to various locals curious about what's going on, and seen many others stop by to watch the outdoors action. Those who live in the area often wander through the clusters of 1930s-clad audience and cast, past the signs to fictional places and around the rather beautiful vintage car that weaves in and out of the action.*

     

    The place where all this happens is also an area where children often play, so as it gets towards the evening there are usually kids who see this all slowly come together. At yesterday's show, a young girl (around six years old) and her mother were sat right in amongst the action, the girl appearing endlessly fascinated by what was unfolding around her. After the pair had been sat for around fifteen minutes, the show's vintage car pulled up to offer them a ride; they circled the action five times and all the while the little girl was peering out of the window excitedly.

     

    On the scale of world events, it's not huge. It's two people riding in the backseat of a car. But there was something great about the fact that this show creates a very particular world, yet can be open enough to the people who surround it to let them in and give them their own unique and unexpected experience. Furthermore, that tiny romantic bit of my heart (the sunlight-deprived nugget I hide beneath all the layers of lead and flint) enjoys the possibility that a whistle-stop car ride through the 1930s that happened purely by chance might be one of that girl's first experiences of theatre.

     

    This all reminded me of what is one of my fondest memories of working on a show (I'll try to keep unnecessary sentimentality to a minimum though, that nugget's had enough sunlight for one day). It was during a rehearsal for 59 Minutes to Save Christmas: Slung Low's adventure set in the foyers of the Barbican, which exposed Professor Meanwood's plot to destroy Christmas and invited the audience to undo it. For various reasons (and in keeping with many of the company's shows) the cast were miked and the audience wore receivers and headphones, the upshot being that anyone who just happened to be in the foyers might spot a tank-mounted Christmas tree or snowflake-covered golf buggy, but they'd have no way of knowing precisely what was going on.

     

    Whilst rehearsing a runthrough in the foyers, we noticed about fifteen minutes in that a young boy had started following us. Despite not being able to hear what was being said (and seeing a stripped-back version of the show as well), he ran when we ran, crept when we crept, and even joined in with the customary Royal Christmas Brigade's salutes. After realising how much he was already participating, I went with him to find his mum, getting her permission for him to follow the rest of the rehearsal as a full-blown audience member. As we returned to the rehearsal, I gave him some headphones and tuned his receiver to the right channel and - the expression on his face was priceless. Suddenly, he could hear all the music accompanying our songs and soundtracking our action; he could hear the voices of the characters he'd been following and - more importantly - they spoke to him. He couldn't hear the Barbican anymore, just the sounds of our show. He saw a performance that was just for him. 

     

    That's honestly one of my best memories of working in theatre. The thought that this boy could stumble upon a performance and (even without sound) it could capture his curiosity so much that he would follow it around and ultimately be invited to join in in what was happening, is wonderful. That he could receive a totally unexpected welcome into a show in response to his curiosity and commitment is fucking fantastic. 

     

    I'm consistently torn between what 'kind' of theatre I want to make, especially whilst filling in multiple applications that ask me to expand on my 'practice' and encourage me to try and reflect what, at heart, is important to me. (I know it's entirely possible to straddle forms, but there's a persistent worry that I won't/can't develop my skills to a high standard or gain any forward momentum as a director/writer/theatre-maker unless I apply myself purely to some discrete section of the straight theatre-live art spectrum. But I know that's hardly a tragic dilemma so, don't worry, I'm not going to try and drag this post through a last-minute detour into misery-lit.)

     

    Of course, the kind of moments I've mentioned can't be 'made'. The whole point is that they're serendipitous, a chance that's been seized. But the environment in which they're able to occur, the space in which there's room for them to happen, can be created. Things both of the above shows have in common is that, with each, members of the public would approach the company (during performances of #21 and rehearsals of 59 Minutes to Save Christmas) to ask what was taking place, fascinated by what they were seeing. What makes those two moments stick out for me is that they weren't planned or contrived, but it just so happened that a piece of theatre became a part of someone's day. Those shows were/are part of the landscape, in the best sense of that term, making theatre something that was/is an ever-present part of those spaces and therefore, to at least a tiny extent, part of the lives of anyone who wanders through them. 

     

    That probably sounds like it's getting a little grandiose for an analysis of a girl riding in a car and a boy watching a rehearsal. My romantic side isn't my most eloquent or measured one, so it's probably time to muffle it under lead and flint again. But I'd like to think, for all my being torn between different forms, at some point I'll make something that allows those kind of moments to happen. 

     

    ...

     

    *Retro-active spoiler alert: it's a film set in a world that has cars. Sorry to blow the secret wide open like that. 

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    Having been talking to the company for a little while now, I'm finally able to announce that I'm joining the Filthy Lucre team as dramatic director for their upcoming immersive music nights! The company specialise in themed performances which move from orchestral pieces, to gig-style performance, to clubnights; they work with incredible musicians, composers and other artists, and I'm incredibly excited that I get to help develop these unique shows with them.

    Also, I'm directing a short piece for an upcoming showcase at Central School of Speech and Drama - a fantastic, unusual script darting between the natural- and unaturalistic. It's the work of one of their brilliant MA students, featuring actors from the school, with all involved really eager to experiment and push what can be done with the script.

    I'll post more details of the performances soon, closer to the date.

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    The following thoughts are pretty much all borne from a single comment made during a discussion about audience engagement at D&D9: TV programmes give you the opportunity to revisit characters and relationships week after week, developing a progressively stronger connection to the content and programme in general. Where, in theatre, do you get such a chance to return again and again to follow the development of an individual or group? 

     

    As it happened, a possible answer to that question was a show on that very weekend: The Annual 50 Hour Improvathon. I'd been to the first 'episode' the previous evening and, following that comment, decided to return to the Park Theatre and see how things had changed in the intervening 24 hours.

     

    The Improvathon's setting of a futuristic space liner aided some quite extreme developments: a humble hitchhiker had become the illegitimate captain of the ship and gained several lovers; the rightful captain's imaginary friend had been kidnapped by her mortal nemesis and was currently under his mind control; a religious zealot had abandoned his family and religion after becoming host to a parasitic, sentient beard. They'd been busy.

     

    I won't pretend that my natural curiosity to see how things had progressed was the only thing that drew me back to the show (opportunities to see such skilled long-form improv are few and far between, and the first episode was incredibly funny) - but it was a major factor. The thought that throughout the weekend the characters were still active, storylines still unfolding, and I was missing out on it all, was a pretty powerful one.*

     

    I'm struggling to think of any other time I've felt that way about a production (maybe, at a push, Quizoola, though that was more a curiosity about how the tone and content of the piece had developed, rather than characters and narrative). Director/writer/cast/style/genre - those have all been selling points for me in the past, but never a genuine curiosity about the characters. Of course, this is because I've never ha the chance to get to know characters before a performance (and the Improvathon had the luxury of a 50-hour timespan in which I could leave and return whenever I fancied).

     

    Why are we not encouraged to care about characters more prior to a performance? I'm inclined to think that whenever a show's content (as opposed to its creative team) is pushed, the focus is on the questions the play investigates, the scenario it explores or the concept it exploits, never the characters it features. I remember once reading a promotional pamphlet for Bioshock I found on the tube, which went into detail about the primary characters - introducing you to them, drawing you into their lives. Now, no theatrical production is ever going to have the publicity budget of Bioshock, but it still seems there's an opportunity to engage audiences at a more emotional level by starting the character's journey before the production run.**

     

    What was fascinating about the Improvathon (among other things) was being able to see how the actor's decisions shaped their characters - how a seemingly small line or action would grow into a defining aspect of them. Whilst there are plays that do this to some extent (the artful development of characters and their relationships is what I love about Chekhov), maybe the Improvathon felt that bit more engaging, that slightly more involving, because these characters were being built almost entirely from scratch - they started the weekend with names, positions, basic backgrounds, but very little about them had been decided upon before they met an audience.

     

    For those who don't know the Improvathon, there's something I should probably clarify here - it doesn't involve Whose Line Is It Anyway-style audience suggestions. The audience aren't actively shaping the characters by defining elements of them, they're simply watching them develop. That seems important to mention because the interest didn't lie in necessarily having a say (though I can imagine scenarios/productions where that would be great) and didn't rely on any 'interactive' element to the show. 

     

    As with so much of what I say/write, this is largely about what, rather than how - not all shows can run for a whole weekend, not all characters are suited to pre-production introductions, not all productions can accommodate for characters being built from scratch; I'm not trying to offer a practical plan of action. But I think it's an important and interesting subject to consider nonetheless - and there are other ways of exploring ongoing development of individuals and relationships in theatre (I'm faintly aware of a triptych that Frantic Assembly created which featured the same characters at different points in their lives. I think). 

     

    Here's hoping I don't have to wait a year for the next Improvathon to come round before I feel that invested in a group of characters again. 

     

     

    *Whilst many plays show us characters during different a weeks, months or even years of their lives, I genuinely think it made a difference here, where things played out closer to real-time, rather than simply skipping over years during an act break. 

    ** I know some companies create fake Twitter accounts for characters, but all too often the extent to which these are hastily-constructed publicity tools, rather than a genuine insight into a constantly-growing character, is pretty transparent.

     

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    A few shows I've seen recently (and some I've seen not-so-recently) have left me thinking about how certain elements of performances or theatres dictate our behaviour and psychological responses during a show. I've never studied psychology so what follows isn't some academic analysis bolstered by rigorously tested theory, it's just some observations and thoughts on the basis of particular performances I've seen.

     

    I think 'theatre etiquette' (the general rules governing your behaviour as an audience member) can be split into explicit rules (turn off your mobile phone; don't heckle the actors; if it's a panto, say certain things at certain points) and ones that are so ingrained as to be unconscious (clap once the show's ended; don't take your shoes off mid-show; face the stage). Of course, these are all rules that audience members can break, or that shows can challenge, but I think it's fair to say they're characteristic of a typical theatregoing experience.

     

    The show that got me thinking about how certain conditions in a theatre (or during a performance) can determine our psychological or behavioural responses was Happy Days - in particular, its 'curtain call'. The Young Vic production doesn't have a typical curtain call - one actor remains buried up to their neck, the other stretched across the stage face down, as a new lighting state covers the stage for around five seconds. Then off. Then back on again. Then off. Then on again. (I think the on/off cue was repeated about seven times when I saw the show - I've no idea if it's a set number, or if it varies depending on the audience; I'm inclined to suspect the former.)

     

    What started as appreciative but relatively gentle applause tenatively grew with each off/on of the lights, ending with many audience members on their feet, clapping wildly. I'm tempted to think that the applause wouldn't have reached this level had the 'curtain call' not been structured this way (this is by no means a criticism of the production - thought I'll confess to a problem with 'getting' Beckett). There was a sense of the audience playing up to each new moment of light - each new 'on' state required something new from us, surely? The lighting hadn't remained the same (the state being returned to was the same, but the change in its being on then off was change enough), so it didn't make sense for our applause to be the same. Perhaps, with a new, albeit brief, window for applause, we had a chance to express something we hadn't expressed in the previous window? Maybe, by interrupting our applause (the clapping did soon bridge the dark gaps between the lit periods, but there was still a psychological difference), we had the chance for quick reflection on the show, prompting altered applause the next time round? Or, not knowing how long this cycle would last and whether its duration depended on us at all, we needed to alter what we had done before, in case a specific reaction was required of us?

     

    A director I've worked with, who tends to stage productions with the audience lit by the same state as the actors, once mentioned a tour where audiences seemed reluctant to clap at the end of the play (which was - I think - a well-known Shakespeare, where the ending's fairly recognisable). Initially worried that audiences hadn't enjoyed the performances, the company soon realised it was because the audience weren't receiving the cue of the house lights coming up/a curtain call lighting state being adopted (since the house lights had been up throughout the show). The audience were so used to an end of a play being telegraphed in a particular way, that the absence of that psychological trigger was quite disorientating.

     

    Another recent show which, in my opinion, seems to disrupt typical 'theatre etiquette' is I Wish I Was Lonely, a show about our relationship with our phones and constant connectedness to each other. Of course, there's the request that audience members keep their phones on during the show, with the performance being paused whenever someone received a call. But there was something else about the show I found far more striking than this - the seating.


    I Wish I Was Lonely was performed in a largeish room, with chairs scattered around the space - not falling into rows, not all looking in the same direction, in no particular order or pattern other than being spread fairly evenly around the room. One audience member commented, as everyone found somewhere to sit, that the chairs (plastic and metal folding ones) reminded them of school assemblies.

     

    Though a completely throwaway comment, it made me think: how much time do we spend, from a relatively early age, made to sit in ordered rows, facing the same direction, evenly spread apart, and instructed to be quiet, watch, and listen? To clap politely at telegraphed moments, to only speak if you've raised your hand and been given permission, to sit up (or, at the very least, not slump forward or look bored) - to, essentially, behave. When you consider how much of our early lives are taken up by school assemblies, classes and (for some) religious sermons - all scenarios which are echoed in certain ways by particular theatrical venues or performances - it's easy to wonder how many elements of shows go totally unquestioned whilst cueing us into certain ingrained behaviours or states. Scattering chairs rather than ordering them makes a genuine difference - yet, previous to seeing I Wish I Was Lonely, I probably wouldn't have even considered it as a seating option.

     

    Of course, it's not an option in many venues and - consequently - for many shows. You can't uproot the Almeida's seating in order to make it more haphazard (much less do so for each separate production staged there, just in case people get used to one disordered state and develop an equally fixed attitude towards that particular set-up). What you can do, however, is invite everyone to take their shoes off, just as what happens to the hope at the end of the evening did. It's a seemingly small thing to do, but has quite an impact - kicking your shoes off is something you do at home, or at a friends house, not something to be done in a public space, not in a theatre. I'd dare say it makes you sit differently in your seat, makes your entire body behave differently and therefore changes how you feel - more relaxed, more informal. Not sit-up-straight-and-listen-because-you'll-be-tested-later, but get-comfortable-because-I-want-to-share-something-and-I'd-like-you-to-receive-it.

     

    There's not really a definitive end point I'm reaching with this post. Unless we can count 'there are so many variables in how a show can be staged, each one massively affecting the audience's behaviour and response, and it's worth noting that what we take as the fixed conditions for a show probably aren't fixed, but just very deeply ingrained into our idea of how things are done'. I think we'll just count that as an end point, so we can finish this up.

     

     

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    There’s a lot of things I’ve wanted to write about over the past few months, with real-world activities and events largely getting in the way. But now that I'm catching up with some quality time with my laptop, I'm attempting to put thoughts into words (and, y'know, ideally sentences) again.

     

    First up, because it seems to permeate almost everything I want to write about, is the notion of ‘community’ in theatre (for the purposes of this particular blog post, I’m going to (try and) use it to mean a group of people with a shared identity, goal or value that unites them*). The kind of identity, goal or value I’m thinking of has to be stronger than, say, ‘the group of people sitting next to each other this evening/who want to watch a show/and think theatre’s worth watching.’

     

    This’ll likely split into a few posts, so I’m going to start by focusing on Future/Secret Cinema’s work (which constitutes the overwhelming majority of my experience of immersive and interactive theatre – therefore, this could be expanded to cover various immersive or interactive productions, but definitely not all. For instance, I wouldn’t consider The Drowned Man’s audience a community - hopefully the contents of this post will suggest why).

     

    In the vast majority of FC’s shows, the audience – by virtue of being given individual, interrelated roles within the context of a film – form a community. For instance, in The Shawshank Redemption, they were the inmates of Oakhampton Prison. Shawshank is the FC show that, in my opinion, had the strongest sense of an audience community (I believe this is a signficant reason for its immense popularity) – something largely cultivated by the audience, and some cast members, having a shared enemy: the guards, warden and parole officers who worked at the prison. This shared enemy was crucial in building the incredibly moving climax to the show: the 400-strong audience, on lockdown following Tommy’s death, defied the guards’ calls for silence by singing a hymn to honour the deceased inmate. For a couple of minutes, everyone was united in their determination to defend the memory of a member of their community.

     

    Of course, a 400-strong group was more complex than a simple, singular community – there were individual gangs, each formed over the course of the evening. Saturday Night Fever operated with an explicit gang system, audience members told to wear colour-coded clothing to match their given gang, with people taught secret handshakes and suchlike as they were inducted into their groups. (Again, a rivalry with other gangs was established, further cementing each group's bonds.)

     

    There’s arguably a critical mass when it comes to forming a community over the course of a few hours (and with a certain level of resources and company members available). Brazil was a show that often had 1,200 audience members per performance. Audience members were actually encouraged to interact on a purpose-built social networking site before the show (their level of activity/number of connections on the side directly affected the role and entrance they were given for the show), but with such a large group, there were no events like Shawshank’s climax that included everyone equally (and surely equal opportunity to be involved is an essential part of building a strong community). Due to the venue, there was in fact no one place for the audience to watch the film from (instead certain small screening rooms and different floors from which a large projection was visible) – something a friend commented on as making the act of watching the film feel less of a social, group activity itself.

     

    There were still various smaller communities – people trained together to form terrorist groups (under the guidance of nuns), others staged protests together, a wedding (in which everyone present would have some kind of role) was performed every night. But there was less of a sense of everyone being linked to everyone else there.

     

    A final show worth mentioning is Secret Music presents Laura Marling – FC’s first show (to my knowledge) that didn’t use a pre-existing story that offered the audience a shared reference point. The entire show was an original piece, inspired by the album Once I Was An Eagle, with the audience as guests in a hotel (granted, a community link about as strong as ‘people who happen to be sat near each other’). But various elements to the show ended up fostering a sense of community, without any grand, audience-wide acts to explicitly demonstrate it. Mobile phones were confiscated (you lost your friend? Ask a person if they’ve seen them, or embrace just meeting new people for the evening), people were told to bring gifts to give a stranger, love letters were passed around, individuals were sent to a wishing well with instructions to make a wish for someone else. Everything was geared towards engaging with the people around you, being alert to your surroundings and thinking about others, creating an atmosphere that really felt like being part of a very open and welcoming community. (Coincidentally, Laura Marling was staged in the same venue as Shawshank, with a similar audience size.)

     

    Now, of course a lot of the above is inextricably linked to the fact these are immersive and interactive productions, with each show’s venue playing a significant part in how a community can be formed**. These shows are free to do things other kinds of productions aren’t. But there are a lot of similarly immersive or interactive productions (definitions I don’t take to be synonymous - I swear I've gone into this in a previous blog post, but can't find the relevant one to link to right now) that don’t exploit what I think of as one of the best things about this form. Bringing together hundreds of strangers (okay, hundreds of strangers who share an interest in immersive/interactive theatre – though FC does often draw people via film, and therefore a slightly less self-selecting group) and, within a few hours, making them into a kind of community*** is a brilliant thing to do and, as one of the strangers, a great thing to experience. I don't want to be overly sentimental, but it does make the world feel a hell of a lot smaller and a whole lot more welcoming, if only briefly.

     

    In short, I can’t help thinking that trying to make a community out of audience members is one of the great things that immersive and/or interactive shows are in a perfect position to do, and is an element of that form that is always worth exploiting.

     

    *Yes, this is likely an inadequate definition – it might be possible to think of the audience of Kaleider’s Money as a community, but whilst they have a shared goal of spending money, it’s their conflicting values that arguably fuels the show and provides its drama (and might even lead a member of the community to try and block any money-spending attempts). But I’m just aiming for it to hold up for this post.

     

    **I know I’ve only talked about FC’s shows here, but there are many other companies who – in my opinion – make immersive or interactive work that results in the formation of communities. One possible example might be the American and Russian audience groups in Oskar Mike’s The Situation Room.

     

    ***I’m not sold on my use of the word ‘make’ here. I don’t know if shows can make people into communities, or if it’s a case of treating them as a community and it follows on from there…but this is already quite long (and it’s getting late).

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    It's been a while since I've written anything, but hopefully there'll be a few new posts over the coming week. Because it's the easiest/quickest one to write, I'm kicking off with what's hopefully the final purge of my Sherlock-rage...

     

    There are a lot of things I've said about Sherlock series three. And plenty more that I could say (the portrayal of women might pop-up in a later post...), but there is one thing I am particularly concerned about: the danger of Moriarty being turned into a Dalek.

     

    (If you are someone who cares about Sherlock that has somehow managed to not yet see the end of series three, stop reading now. Or keep reading, I can't tell you how to live your life. But you have been warned.)

     

    The final moment of series three suggests that Moriarty, who we saw commit suicide in The Reichenbach Fall, is alive. I've tried to cling onto 'suggests' (other possibilities: Sherlock somehow engineering the broadcast in order to avoid exile, or a different antagonist using Moriarty's image in order to get Sherlock's undivided attention) but, having read interviews with Andrew Scott in which the gist is 'it's always been open for Moriarty to return to the show', the flickering light of hope that was 'suggests' has been snuffed out (not that the concept of being snuffed out seems to bear any weight in the Sherlock universe anymore).

     

    It's not that I don't adore the character of Moriarty, or think that Scott absolutely knocks it out of the park in the role. It's precisely because I love Moriarty that I don't want the character to return. His suicide was central to his brilliance. Moriarty is staggeringly dangerous because it's impossible to have leverage over him - he will sacrifice anything and everything in order to undo Sherlock. His suicide was also an example of why he's such a perfect counterpoint to Sherlock - Holmes has the cerebral realm so wrapped up that he can only be matched by an antagonist who's prepared to do something that no amount of thinking can undo.

     

    I also felt that Moriarty's suicide reflected well on the show's creators, demonstrating that they cared more about telling the best story possible, even if that meant killing off an immensely popular and well crafted character. Better to commit to Moriarty's fantastically unhinged determination fully than dilute it in order to keep the character available for future episodes (they can surely develop equally engaging antagonists for future episodes anyway...).

     

    Moriarty's survival negates all of the above. What was a glorious crystallisation of a character's dangerous and uncontrollable nature has been shown to be merely a trick.

     

    So, to the somewhat odd title of this blog. Steven Moffat is the co-creator of Sherlock, and has been a writer for Doctor Who since its revival (becoming lead writer in 2009). Doctor Who's a show that I do occasionally find scary (or, at the very least, incredibly unsettling), but I have never, ever been frightened by the Daleks. For me, they're a race (literally) wheeled out whenever it needs to be telegraphed that the Doctor is facing his Biggest Challenge Yet™. They're a byword for danger; symbols of terror rather than genuine provokers of fear.

     

    (Maybe this is due to me never having the seven-years-old-watching-Doctor-Who-from-behind-the-sofa experience. My general attitude is that whilst the Daleks' threat may have been effectively demonstrated in the original series of the show, they've been reduced to a shortcut in the revival.)

     

    The mere image of Moriarty at the end of series three is enough to revoke Sherlock's exile, because dealing with him is such a Big Challenge™. None of series three's antagonists seemed to gain the momentum Moriarty achieved (maybe Magnussen could have, if he hadn't been killed - or has he? Who knows if he'll actually stay dead.), none of them had such a strong dynamic with Sherlock, and so the series ends with Sherlock's greatest rival to date being brought back into the fold. Somewhat like the Daleks.

     

    Sherlock series two did, admittedly, also feature a surprise ending: Sherlock wasn't dead. (Anyone noticing a pattern?) But the entire episode - and indeed some elements from earlier in Sherlock - was about Sherlock and Moriarty facing off, with the faked death being a necessary move from Sherlock in their ongoing chess game. That ending was earnt by what had gone before it. However, nothing had been building to the return of Moriarty, which consequently felt like a cheap, manipulative trick to ensure the audience's continued interest in the programme - a move purely engineered to keep us watching. A motivation directly opposed to the kind of fearless storytelling that resulted in Moriarty's (apparent) suicide.

     

    Moriarty's return (and the manner of it) risks reducing a compelling, unpredictable and brilliantly realised character into a mere plot device, an image meant to intimidate and signify danger of huge proportions without delivering on that promise. Even with the content of series four being a mystery, any threat Moriarty could pose in the future has already been muted by the fact that precisely what made him so dangerous - his sheer recklessness and willingness to do absolutely anything to destroy Sherlock - has been eliminated by the mere fact he's alive.

     

    As much as I love the character of Moriarty, and Scott's wonderful performance, I’d rather never see him again than have him turn into a Dalek.

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    SPARK blog # 3 21 January 2014 | Comments (0)

    “She was half burnt when she first came on.” – George Bernard Shaw on Elisabeth Bergner as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan.

     

    The second week of rehearsals for SPARK proved to be much less lively than the first (though the third, which has already involved far more on-the-spot-sprinting than I’m built for, is shaping up to be more energetic than both combined). Rather than games of slaps, balancing exercises, and scenes where miniature milkshakes were catapulted around the room, the focus shifted to Holly and I facing each other and maintaining eye contact for much longer than would normally be socially acceptable as Holly slowly made her way through the script.

     

    It’s definitely felt like this week has involved a lot more discussion – something that I think’s largely due to the fact we’ve moved from the first half of the play to the second. There are two major differences between the halves, with the second being much stranger than the first and also dealing more directly with some of the play's themes.

     

    As the narrative becomes less realistic, rehearsals have focused more and more on Leo’s emotional reactions to events – essentially, the weirder things get, the harder Holly has to work to make sure that Leo’s responses to events still read as genuine and sympathetic. Plus, as some fairly dark themes are dealt with more intensely, we’ve also had to talk through a lot of complex subjects and detailed ideas. (However, as I said in a previous SPARK-related blog, one reason I seem to draw from a slightly bizarre combination of inspirations is to avoid looking at dark themes in purely dark ways. So at one point, whilst talking about one of the bleakest possible subjects I can imagine, I found myself giving a general analysis of why the ending of The Human Centipede’s story has a particularly strong impact.)

     

    Anyway, back on topic. I may as well finally acknowledge the quote I’ve included above. I’ve always found the fact that an actor knows what’s going to happen to them, but a character doesn’t, a difficult gap to deal with effectively (which is possibly why I love improvisation, which closes the gap significantly - if not completely). It can be a matter of small details – the actor who knows the taps are broken initially turns them with much more effort than the character who thinks they’re working does – or much greater ones – the actor who knows their proposal will be accepted doesn’t work as hard as the character whose success isn’t guaranteed.

     

    With so much information coming through this week – both due to getting to a more eventful segment of the script and to our conversations, half an eye was always on avoiding the trap of being ‘half-burnt’. The most effective – but also most time-consuming – approach was to simply go through certain scenes line by line, agreeing on precisely what Leo did and didn’t know (and, consequently, what she might be expecting). But, particularly on a show where I’m both writer and director, it’s still something I’m having to work hard at keeping in mind. Something that makes it harder is the play’s gothic source – a genre which often foreshadows future events and suggests when things are about to go wrong. Possibly one of the main challenges we face in the next couple of weeks of rehearsal is avoiding a ‘half-burnt’ state, whilst still staying true to the tone of the play throughout. But it’ll definitely be an interesting challenge to take on.

     

    SPARK at Vault Festival 2014

     

                  

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    SPARK blog #2 10 January 2014 | Comments (0)

    After several months spent scaling a lot of steep learning curves whilst working on SPARK (I assume you scale a learning curve but, then again, I may well be doing it wrong) rehearsals for the show finally started this week, which is pleasantly familiar ground. It’s the first time I’ve been the director in a rehearsal room for a few months, and I’ve adored it. Even though only we’ve only had a couple of rehearsals so far, there’s already a recurring theme coming through – me making things as difficult as possible for Holly, who’s performing the piece.

     

    I don’t mean difficult in the sense of getting her to rehearse in an uninsulated railway arch throughout January whilst contending with the sound of trains passing overhead (the show’s venue is an empty tunnel beneath railway lines, so as rehearsal spaces go, it’s actually pretty ideal). I mean difficult in the sense of doing whatever comes to mind to make it increasingly hard for her to remember her lines or say them – whether that’s pushing her sense of balance to the limit  or playing slaps with her during scenes.*

     

    Different exercises do have slightly different impacts – they might start drawing out frustration, or laughter, or extreme focus. But they have two significant features: they take some control away from the actor whilst forcing them to divide their attention between acting and another task.

     

    I always enjoy watching the results of giving an actor something unpredictable to contend with – a kind of random-condition-generator so that they can’t fully plan what they do and have to respond to what’s happening right now. The resultant performances always seem (to me, at least) to be more sincere – behaviour as a genuine reaction to something rather than something pre-mediated, exhaustively constructed and set.

     

    Then there’s the idea of having to perform a certain task whilst acting – and the task has to be one that requires genuine concentration and effort (otherwise it’s still easy to autopilot through some routine). Sometimes I’ve used this to break up particular speech rhythms or to remove some element of self-consciousness – and, again, to make it impossible to go on autopilot  (or, more often, to mess things around before autopiloting can even start).

     

    Of course this is just one part of rehearsals, but it’s one I always find useful. Strangely, the other recurring theme in rehearsals so far is removing distractions or tasks (including speaking) and giving Holly as much time as necessary to think her way through scenes, free from pressure or anything unpredictable. (I've been pleasantly surprised discovering how enjoyable it can be simply watching someone think.)

     

    I won’t get into that though – to be honest, I’m already feeling tired and I genuinely have to do some work on making a rain-producing umbrella this evening. Of course.

     

    *During the scenes, I’m the one slapping and she has to try and avoid getting slapped. But, to make sure it's fair, she’s always allowed a few free slaps on me afterwards.

     

     

    SPARK at the Vault Festival 2014

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    SPARK blog #1 07 January 2014 | Comments (0)

    (Let's just say my creative energy's being taken up by the show, so I can't think of a more original title.) 

     

    Despite having been working on SPARK since August, this is my first post about it. Once reason might be that New Year’s has left me feeling particularly motivated. A more likely reason is that the work I’ve done so far (securing venues, arranging insurance, researching the most competitive prices for sand…) hasn’t been that fascinating. But rehearsals are now starting in earnest, and I’m getting genuinely excited.

     

    So far, I’ve had a couple of meetings with Holly, the actress who’s playing the sole role of Leo in SPARK. This has been text-based prep work, such as the relatively standard lists of facts and questions (though I do really enjoy discovering little details about a character – like the fact that Leo has no strong feelings either way about pigeons. It might be an odd detail, but it’s the odd details that, for me, bring characters closer to real people).

     

    However, there was some other prep work we went through – lists of how Leo might feel throughout the play, and consequently, the reaction she might be looking for from the audience. These reactions ranged from the very general – comfort her – to the highly specific – buy her a pet. (We’re not entirely expecting audience members to do that.) The lists are partly due to SPARK being a solo show – there’s no one for Leo to interact with onstage, so the focus is very much on Leo’s relationship with the audience.

     

    It was particularly interesting drawing up the ‘desired audience response’ lists, as it basically expanding on an approach I’m a big fan of, but in a very explicit way. A few years ago I assisted a director who would often talk about the fact that we were telling a story (saying ‘theatre is storytelling’ might sound painfully obvious to some, but I’ve often seen shows where any number of things seem to get in the way of simply telling a story as well as possible – whether it’s an awkwardly imposed concept or the desire to crowbar in an actor’s impressive acrobatic skills). Staying mindful of telling a story appeals to me both for its simplicity, and for the fact that focusing on the act of storytelling means you have to think about who you’re telling the story to. Of course, the response a character’s looking for from the audience may differ from the response the actor or director are looking for – but I’m so excited to work on a piece where the main relationship that we’re thinking about and exploring isn’t one between two characters, but between the character and the audience.

     

    Each audience member’s relationship to Leo is something we’re building on in a number of ways in the show and I’m really interested to see how that pans out in performance. But that’s all I’ll say for now – I’ll leave you with a photo from this morning’s rehearsal, where Holly was having a showdown with a tiny rubber shaped like a milkshake. I’ll explain why sometime soon, I promise.

     

     

     

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