So tomorrow I take the show to Hexham, one of my favourite venues, to see whether or not a matinee slot of 2pm brings in a good audience. If you’d like a ticket, you can book one here.
I’m very much looking forward to meeting people during the show, but even better than that is meeting them all again afterwards when I look through the results of the ‘sketching a stranger’ portion of the show! It got quite out of hand at ARC last month, we ended up playing two tracks from my Compassion playlist, not just one 🙂
An hour is a fair length of time to listen to spoken word, even when there are films and funny bits. Which is why, halfway through my show, we all take a break to listen to some music from my tracks-donated-by-the-public Compassion playlist while we draw happy stick-people portraits of one another. Oh, and it’s sort of about getting to know strangers so you can feel kindly towards them.
Here are some of the magnificent drawings produced by the compassionate punters of Hartlepool on Tuesday, complete with doodles representing what makes the sitter happy. May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering!
Imelda is my alter-ego. She’s the troll under my Bridge of Sanity, she’s a mostly-dormant sub-routine, she’s development so arrested she has a rap-sheet. Little id-dy creature, she is not me. Except when she rises up from the depths like Godzilla, and eats me whole, with her slappable stupidity in matters of the heart.
She gets her own slot in the new show, because compassion starts at home, and the trouble with that is – who here really likes all of themself? But I don’t want to ‘be’ her when I perform, so I plan to hide under the table while I play a film of her poem. Luckily, I know a very talented film-maker. Laura Degnan and I will be spending a couple of days this month out and about in Hartlepool and beyond, making two of my poems into films for the show. In preparation for this I have bought the following items: a ‘High School Sweeheart’ curly wig in strawberry blonde, a vastly oversized pink floral nightdress, a vastly oversized fleece cape with a sleeping-cat-head hoodie bit, and an enormous chocolate cake. Now, doesn’t that make you want to see the show?!!
After she has her moment in the spotlight, I will be asking the audience for words of kindness. In my opinion, what she needs is not tea-and-sympathy kindness, but some tough love, a little bit like these wonderful words of advice to wibbling narcissists everywhere. As one respondent to my teensy survey has said, when asked about kindness received in their life:
“Several good souls over the years have pointed out and guided me towards the truth of certain key situations in my life. Telling the truth hurts a little (like when you give blood and the staff say “Sharp Scratch!) but it’s best to hear it. Then you can make informed choices, take ownership of your life.”
The Trouble With Compassion will have its first outing as part of Crossing the Tees literature festival, with dates at Hartlepool Library, ARC Stockton, and Middlesbrough’s Rainbow Library.
Of the taxi-using population of Teesside, 92% are kind. Of the remaining 8%, half could learn to be kind, and half are too far gone. I know this because I spent last Saturday in Stockton Library with a flipchart, and a very chatty taxi driver sat down and told me so. I asked him about kindness quite generally, but he spent a good deal of effort quantifying his experience of punters, so I feel I should respect his percentages. I also very much respect his adamant position that judging people too quickly is very wrong – they will always surprise you if you give them time to relax.
I’m genuinely bucked up to think I live and work in an area of 92% kindness, but I’m a little concerned at what constitutes kindness to my compatriots, based on the examples they gave me at Stockton Library. Bearing in mind they might not have wanted to unburden their most profound moments to a random person when they were only there to borrow a Mary Berry cookbook, nevertheless there was a lot of very small kindnesses mentioned. Smiling at people, chatting to neighbours, and above all else holding doors open for people – this is just common courtesy, surely? When did a held door become the acme of tender-heartedness, the definitive gesture of humanity? People say ‘it’s the little things’, but forgive me if I carry on looking for something more than just the absence of rudeness….
You could help me figure out what kindness really looks like, and if it’s different to compassion, by taking my teensy survey.
The show is playing at ARC in Stockton on Thursday 16 June, it’s Pay What You Decide, so a no-risk proposition! Reserve your seat here.
Up next : carrot cake and compassion with Quakers!
Do you remember those wire puzzles? The ones with all the beads at the joints, that you could push through themselves, squeezing and weaving and warping them into spheres and orbitals, bracelets and columns? That’s what it was like watching the characters in Be Brave And Leave For The Unknown at ARC last night.
In the centre of the stage there is a large table, with cunning extra functions – flaps lift, lids uncover holes, objects emerge from the hollow interior. It becomes a piano, a baby bath, a tank, a bar to dance on, a train platform to jump from, a bomb shelter. The actors thread themselves around and under and through it, and around and about one another, in a beautiful cat’s cradle of intention and interplay, constantly making and undoing and re-making their worlds.
Will Dickie plays Chris, a concert pianist with extraordinarily expressive fingers and a bad case of stage fright. Philippa Hambly plays Fleur, a war photographer adrenaline junkie who can’t sit still. We see them meet, fall in love, become a family. Then we see them fall apart under the strain of the worst tragedy that can happen to new parents. The bravery they have had to use on a daily basis to overcome the fears inherent in their professions is not sufficient to see them through – they must discover a different order of courage within themselves as individuals, and as a couple.
For me, what was most interesting was the relative absence of dialogue. This is an incredibly visual piece, made completely effective by coherent lighting and sound design. I recently saw Into Thin Air by Precious Cargo, and had been expecting this kind of physical image-painting, but on that occasion I was disappointed – the play is beautifully written by Allison Davies, but had failed to take life in the bodies of the actors. It occurs to me now, having seen Be Brave, that the key is to leave enough space in the writing for the enactment to happen (if that makes sense). The text of Into Thin Air could exist by itself as a short story, but Be Brave is absolutely a piece of theatre, reliant on the presence of actors, the story entirely expressed through their actions.
Oh, and best ever use of a glass of water. Stunning bit of visual metaphor. It’s on again tonight at ARC, and continues to tour venues in the north east through the REACH programme for new writing for theatre. You should go.
In English we say ‘out of the mouths of babes’, meaning that children often say out loud the unpalatable or indiscreet truths that the adults all know but are trying to ignore. We say it with a hair-ruffling air of indulgence, the implication being that children can get away with statements that would be embarrassing or even dangerous when made by an adult.
On Tuesday evening I went to a workshop on Iranian poetry led by Javaad Alipoor, from theatre company Soroush, and we looked at a poem from the mid-1960s written by iconic female poet Forough Farrokhzad. It was written in the voice of a young girl, and with devastating simplicity it lays out all kinds of unspoken truths like open palms – what it is to be poor and to want things, what it is to mix up desires and needs, what it is to live in fear of police in your own homeland, what it is to put your faith in a messiah. It is wonderfully subversive, all the while wearing the pigtails of innocence. I loved it.
You can read it and find out more about Forugh by clicking here.
Forugh’s brother, the equally iconic poet, broadcaster and singer Fereydoun Farrokhzad, is the subject of Soroush’s new play My Brother’s Country, which comes to ARC Stockton on 23rd and 24th February – but I believe 23rd is sold out already, so you’d better get your Wednesday tickets sharpish! Click here for information and booking. It falls under ARC’s new ‘Pay What You Decide’ initiative, so really have nothing to lose.
I was recently one of ten people selected to write theatre reviews for the North East Artist Development Network, which of course has made me very happy and has also forced me to admit that I know very little about reviewing. So my cunning plan is to do some warm-ups on here.
I’d really like to tell you about ‘North East Rising’ by Rowan McCabe, and I will, I will – but in all fairness, I must declare an interest. I’ve been working with Rowan in my capacity as Apples and Snakes co-ordinator since he started as a performance poet. He’s come up through Scratch Club, had performance mentoring from me, been programmed and commissioned by me on a range of projects and most recently I acted as a freelance mentor helping him edit the text of this show. Fairly obviously, I think he’s good, but then so do all the other people who have supported him to write this first solo pice – Arts Centre Washington, Arts Council, ARC Stockton and the like.
North East Rising is based on a simple observation, that the portrayal of the north east and Geordies in the popular media is unfairly skewed towards negative, vulgar or impoverished stereotypes. It’s grim up north, always has been. What McCabe sets out to do is to use his own experiences as a north-easterner to set out a stall of alternative exemplars, exploring what for him is the true ‘essence of the north east’. He does this through a series of character sketches in poetic form, ranging from poignant to lyrical to comedic, linked loosely together by an imagined walk through Newcastle and beyond, up the Tyne valley. The overall tone is one of relaxed, chatty comedy, as he moves from poem to poem via links that are scripted a little like stand-up routines, and this all works extremely well. He’s an affable presence, the audience is always on his side and happily jumps up to twerk with baked goods for his Stottie Rap! And the final piece, stretching out its fingers towards this new positive ideal of north east community and culture, is truly moving.
If I have any reservations, it’s about the support acts. In keeping with the stand-up nature of his delivery, the show is presented within a cabaret format, with a first half consisting of music from Alix Alexandra (who was sublime) and poetry from Jess Johnson, all hosted by Robbie Lee Hurst. This is a fantastic format, it really makes sense as a structure given the feel of Rowan’s piece, but I was a bit taken aback by Jess’s set. She’s a tremendous actor, incredibly vivid on stage, and I’ve seen her in late-night cabaret settings and laughed until I hurt. But the same material shifted to early-evening theatre struck a different note. Her themes are sex, jealousy, domestic abuse, drug-use, drunken brawling and council estate slaggery – so, many of the negative stereotypes that Rowan’s show is trying so hard to move away from. Her set seems to undermine his in its content, but this could be mitigated if the pieces were delivered with more invitation to empathise, and there’s plenty of space to do that as she’s writing with heart and not to judge or mock. Instead they are spat at us, obscenities lobbed like bricks, angry and confrontational. It’s like being blasted with a flamethrower.
I know there may be tweaks made to the support set for the next three performances, so I really wouldn’t let my responses put you off, not least because you may enjoy Jess’s piece very much, there were plenty of others around me finding it funny. And the main show I wouldn’t have you miss for all the pasties in Greggs.