After A Break, More Rogues

A big thank you to the lovely folk who came to see my show at Alphabetti Theatre and at Acklam Library recently – here are some of their mug shots for your viewing pleasure. I’m glad so many people are made happy by simple, achievable things, but I am a little concerned for the person who said ‘watching neighbours’ made him happy – I think he meant the Australian soap opera….

Penultimate show of this year’s tour is 7.30pm, 30th September as part of Jabberwocky Market Festival in Darlington – tickets here!

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Rogues Gallery!

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!

The last Teesside show is tonight at ARC, Stockton – 5.30pm, pay what you decide, buy a book for a tenner. More coming next month in Newcastle and Hexham.

I Think Of All The Young Women To Come

Me at my lovely hotel
Me at my lovely hotel

One of the first things that happened to me when I went to boarding school, aged sixteen, was a mysterious summons to interview by the boys of the Upper Sixth. One by one, the new girls like me were taken to some common room or other, and were solemnly quizzed by complete strangers on such arcane matters as whether we preferred ‘pork’ or ‘beef’, and how short we kept our fingernails. There was an atmosphere of barely suppressed sniggering, a definite sense that we were being judged on the basis of our sexual orientation and availability, but in a code to which we had no access. None of us refused to go. None, that I know of, refused to answer the questions. We swapped notes once we were back in our own boarding house, all of us admitting to bewilderment, but none of us sharing the lingering sense of shame, that we had been subtley violated, made to perform for male amusement, manipulated into trying to ‘get it right’ in a game where we could never know or change the rules.

Welcome to patriarchy.

Nearly thirty years later, I find myself by some random chance hired by a private school several orders of magnitude more expensive, prestigious and intimidating than the one I attended. My job is to perform my show, The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, to their sixth form , and to have a convivial dinner with the students of the Lit Soc beforehand. I speak to intelligent girls, one a scholarship student who like me was state educated until receiving a bursary to attend this vast Palladian edifice. She feels a teensy bit stunned into submission – I sympathise. I speak to a quiet, thoughtful girl who would like to write about gender politics, but is too afraid to put herself and her thoughts out there for the trolls to piss on. When I ask her if there are feminist issues to be explored at her school, she replies that the opinions of female students ‘aren’t really taken seriously’.

Hello patriarchy, you again.

I start to perform my show, amid the impeccable acoustics of the rococo Music Room, but I am distracted by the (impeccably amplified) snickering of three boys in the front row. (The front row is pretty much all boys, I have watched the girls filter in and take their seats further back.) I try to ignore them, and the rising sense of inadequacy, self-conciousness and failure that their reaction is provoking in me. It can’t be done. In an instant flash of anger so strong it is virtually an out-of-body experience, I halt mid-sentence, spin on my heel and advance forcefully on them, tell them exactly what I think of being disrespected in this way, then seamlessly return to my performance. From the mulish shock on their faces, I imagine that perhaps women don’t generally speak to them like that.

Oh patriarchy, you don’t get it, do you?

The heart of the show talks about young women and their vulnerability to attack, rape, manipulation. Usually I end the short segment by saying “and I think of all the young women to come”. This time, for the first time, I get to say “and I think of you”, looking directly at these young, bright, well-bred young women, who are in receipt of such a privileged education, but whose native fierceness has been, and is being, trained out of them. A few of them are looking at me with faces close to rapture, eyes shining, listening to my one little story about finding myself. At the end, I am surrounded by girls wanting to ask questions, and I have never felt so useful and proud in my life. May they one day rule the world.

Demeter In Winter

Have I really not been in touch since November? So sorry, been a bit distracted, got a new spoken word show on the go…

GOTH In WinterThe initial idea was pitched to Radio 3 for their Verb New Voices commission last year – I got down to the final three, but wasn’t selected in the end. So I’ve been mulling over how to take a short radio piece and turn it into an hour spoken word show. Still not quite sure, but research and development has so far thrown me into the on-coming traffic of FAR TOO MANY IDEAS, to the point where I’m deliriously uncertain what I’m even writing about any more – the impact of the built environment of mental health? Greenham Common and feminist approaches to creative non-violent protest? Greek myths about spring? Rape culture? Yes, probably/possibly/definitely/maybe…

Lucky me, I was given a week at Caedmon Hall in Gateshead, and a most welcome wee pot of money, by NEADN in order to be confused in a more productive manner, with the helpful input of director Matt Cummins and composer Ed Carter. This is the first time I’ve had the luxury of a residency at this early point in a project’s development, so I wan’t really sure what to do with it. Let’s face it, this is only my second show, and the first one was autobiographical so I kind of knew how it was going to end, which seems like a bit of a cheat in hindsight. Anyway, if you’re massively curious about what goes on during a residency, here’s what I managed: in five days

  1. ‘Found’ DeDe’s posture and way of moving through experiment and rehearsal
  2. ‘Found’ DeDe’s voice through performing a poem in her body – learned the poem by heart
  3. Wrote a short scene between DeDe and her daughter and had a good old think about how that might be performed
  4. Researched Greenham Common protests and wrote a ‘found’ poem using first-person accounts of demonstrations
  5. Wrote a ‘found’ piece using The Handbook Of Urban Survival and started blocking out possible ways of performing it
  6. Took walks around Gateshead guided by local residents, looking at areas that were meaningful to them, places that ‘worked’, places where they felt uncomfortable, discussed the impact of their environment on them
  7. Took solo walks as DeDe and documented it with photos and notes towards further poems
  8. Took lots of video footage towards a possible future filmpoem/AV aspect to the performance
  9. Spent a day taking field recordings and learning how to make simple, layered soundscapes to accompany poems
  10. Recorded two poems and made two different sketches of the same poem with different combinations of field recordings
  11. Was videoed doing an interview about the residency
  12. Met with GIFT to chat about possible audio-tour presentations of the show as it progresses

You can keep up with the explosion of my head via the Pinterest board for this project, where I am randomly scrap-booking images and preoccupations as they assault me.

Review – North East Rising by Rowan McCabe

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.

Rowan McCabe
Rowan McCabe

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.

North East Rising can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 21 October and at ARC, Stockton on 23 October

Fringe Review 5 – 6 – All Days Become One Day

I’m home, I’ve slept for twelve hours, I’ve failed to keep a daily blog. But here’s the round-up of what I saw on Friday and Saturday.

After my final show on Friday I took my only trip out to the Stafford Centre in New Town to see Hannah Chutzpah’s ‘Asking Nicely’, a show about permission delivered from a feminist perspective, which sounds like it might be short on laughs but which is actually full of light-touch humour and bubbly poems. This is a show that falls into a model I have decided to unilaterally declare as ‘the poetic lecture’. Basically, a poet takes some of their existing work (and maybe writes some new stuff too, ratios may vary) and links the poems together with a unifying theme, often one that links to their own lived experience. Tina Sederholm’s The Good Delusion, Rose Condo’s The Geography Of Me, and Sophia Blackwell’s Becoming Wonder Woman would all fall under this heading. The best ones are marked by several common features – clarity and coherence of the overall structure, non-threatening audience participation activities, effective use of props. Of the ones I’ve seen, Hannah’s has been most obviously set up as a pseudo-lecture, with white lab coat and all, and I really rather liked that. I also really liked her hand-drawn A2 sketchpad illustrations! And I’ve found myself looking around for any instances in my own behaviour where I seek permission, so it’s made me think. Belter.

So, whizz back up towards Cowgate, filling a stray half-hour with a dip into a real lecture from the Sceptics Society about de-bunking psychics and alternative therapists, part of the science and rationalism strand within the PBH Free Fringe. Very enjoyable, and funny, it was a bit unnerving to see so little difference between this and some other stand-up shows! Hmmm. (Starts thinking about lecture formats for next year’s Fringe…)

Then on to see ‘Shame’ by John Berkavich at Underbelly. Berkavitch has no need of little me reviewing the show, there are plenty of reviews to be read here, and all you have to do is mention his name to get an immediate gush of how fantastic the show is. It is, it’s bloody impressive, slick, super-high-tech in comparison to nearly all other spoken word shows (it’s not Free Fringe, obvs), massively entertaining and ultra-cool the way he uses his breakdance team of three as Greek chorus/living stage set. I particularly liked the way they transformed into a cappuccino machine at one point, a bicycle at another. So what is this mean little corner of me that wants to break it down? Mini-meanie-me. I’m just going to say it – take away the dancers and the tech, and this is a show with good but not amazing writing, well-delivered but sometimes with an unlikeable and confrontational tone, using a cut-up flash-back narrative structure that is now standard in contemporary theatre, dealing with an emotional subject in a fairly glib and superficial way, using anecdotal examples that are uniformly predictable. Phew. And now I wait for the gods to strike me down. Don’t worry, my opinion has as much weight as thistledown.

That was Friday.

Saturday started off as a shitty, shitty, upsetting day for me for various reasons that I won’t bore you with. However, I made two excellent decisions – firstly to drop in on the Scottish National Gallery for their Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition ’25 Years of Contemporary Scottish Art’, and secondly to go to ‘Talk About Something You Like’ by Byron Vincent at the Pleasance. Sitting in a room for an hour laughing till I piggy-snorted at stories of someone else’s enduring mental health issues proved a real tonic. This show has all the real bravery (ugh, horrid word), the genuine honesty and vulnerability that Berkavich claims at the end of Shame, but I don’t believe Berkavitch for a second. So he was a bit of a shit. He’s not lying in front of me re-enacting his failed suicide attempt, breaking my heart and still fucking making me laugh. ‘Talk About Something You Like’ takes its title from a set of hilariously inappropriate ‘top tips’ for patients incarcerated in a secure mental hospital, where our hero spent time after being sectioned. Vincent’s trademark talent is for gallows humour delivered in swooping, hyperbolic, surreal similes – seriously, he’s so very good at it. And yes, it’s all true, so you have to laugh or else you’ll cry. Fuck it, do both.

A Nicholson Street saunter took me up to Kingshall to see Fringe First award-winning play ‘Confirmation’ by Chris Thorpe, sometime partner in crime with the spoken word loveliness that is Hannah Jane Walker. It’s about confirmation bias, the human tendency to see the world in ways which reinforce our prejudices, assumptions and received beliefs. Chris seeks out someone who is ideologically as far away from his own belief system as possible – a neo-Nazi, but an intelligent one – and the two of them talk, exposing both the unbridgeable rifts between their world views and also the surprisingly extensive areas of overlap. For a more in-depth look at the piece, including Chris’ own thoughts, please go here, and then for god’s sake SEE THE SHOW. Really. It’s mind-blowingly good. I’m still finding it popping up in my head for another little chew-over. Please go.

And that was all I could manager before the BBC Slam final, where I got to the last bout but lost out to worthy opponent David Lee Morgan, whose show ‘Pornography & Heartbreak’ I’ve already mentioned on a an earlier blog.

Things I didn’t see and should have done, and now feel very guilty about – ‘Be Kind To Yourself’ by Tim Clare, ‘What The Fuck Is This’ and ‘Crap Time Lord’ both by Richard Tyrone Jones, and probably a metric fuckton more. But enough. It’s good to be home. Godspeed to the manics still up there doing the full run, you have more stamina than me, mateys.

 

Fringe review 3 – I Felt I Had Earned The Curry

Well that was a strange old day of shows missed and shows abandoned. Having delivered a command performance-slash-dress rehearsal to Sophia Walker in the basement of Forest Cafe, I proceeded to loiter on the wind tunnel that is the Royal Mile in a vain attempt to thrust my flapping flyers into the hands of Swedish tourists just looking for shelter. I then arrived at my venue ten minutes too late to exit flyer Tina’s show, and just in time to miss ‘Yeti’ by Gary From Leeds due to the pressing need to change into performance clothes, warm up, go and do last minute flyering, warm up again and do my first show.

I then went to see ‘Raj Rage’ by Charmian Hughes, which had the exciting premise of a personal pilgrimage to India following the footsteps of her great-grandmother, who escaped the Indian Mutiny and left behind letters containing a species of eye-witness account. Ten minutes into the show and we were still listening to tepid jokes about middle-aged women’s mandatory pixie haircuts and the tribulations of travelling with a friend only to be mistaken for lesbians. When the ancestor appeared it was via the theatrical device of a faintly Victorian looking headband, which was donned before the action continued with no alteration of delivery or language whatsoever. Are these letters real? Was Hughes’ forebear simply an incredibly dull correspondent with no epistolary panache? A thousand words of this painted no picture at all. I left, sadly before the human banana sacrifice promised in the blurb.

I then perched at the back of the Banshee’s torture chamber to sneak a peek at Rob Auton’s ‘Face Show’, which follows the now-familiar Auton format of drawing us in with endearingly awkward whimsy before nearly losing us in a slightly unravelled middle section and then finally approaching what he’s actually talking about via an extended emotional crescendo. In this case, he literally draws us in, as in, draws faces for a while. It’s charming and a bit funny. There’s some energetic facial workouts. It’s absurd and a bit funny. There are a lot of baffled silences. He makes them longer, until they’re a bit more funny. There’s something about mice and aliens, but I was getting a bit tired at that point and had to have a little sit down. Auton is a genuinely lovely and unique performer, and to watch him is to walk a tightrope between confused, bemused laughter and delighted, surprised laughter. Whatever he talks about – the wonderfully poignant interconnectedness of all humanity for example – he talks about from the bottom of his strangely vulnerable heart, often all but breaking mine. I wouldn’t bill him as comedy, though. Not sure it’s spoken word either. It’s Rob.

A swift spell at JibbaJabba ensued, with sets by Jim Higo, Mandy Maxwell and a rather inspired open mic bit from a guy selling his services as a hit-man exterminator of stray helium balloons. Then back across Waverley Bridge to the Banshee for Stand Up Tragedy. An opening set form comedic storyteller John Harding was genuinely funny – it takes some tightly-managed delivery to tell a tale of explosive diarrhoea without being off-puttingly crass. But the next three acts left me and my companions cold, so we absconded in favour of curry, running the gauntlet of Niddry Street after the watershed, when all the people outside venues are suddenly aggressively flyering for shows called ‘Yank Me’, “Phone Whore’ and ‘Sex With Children’.

And now it’s tomorrow already, and I must get some sleep before seeing Jack Dean’s ‘Threnody For The Sky Children’, which may well have just beaten my ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ for the coveted ‘Most Pretentious Title’ award at this year’s Fringe…

Fringe Review 2 – Rain Didn’t Stop Play

Arrived yesterday, train pelting through a black cloudburst over Dunbar. The hems of hurricanes are soggy places.

Had a great time with Matt MacDonald at his showcase, taking it in turns with him, Jenni Pascoe, Mixy and Robin Cairns to be talented, funny and profound. We were incredible. You’ll have to take my word for it, as there were only 3 witnesses in the audience and 2 of them have gone home now.

The rest of the afternoon was spent settling into my digs and repeatedly pacing the main drag from Cowgate to Tolcross, past where all the lovely bookshops live. Managed to catch Sophia Walker’s other show, last year’s smash ‘Around The World In 8 Mistakes’, which was fab the first time and is now even better – the emotional texture more defined, better use of pace and vocal changes, lots of physical storytelling. It’s an autobiographical piece about the many countries Walker has lived in, and the reasons behind each move. England, America, Belgium, El Salvador, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda…take a guess which one wasn’t a mistake? Nope, you’re wrong. At times sobering, at many points laugh-out-loud funny, this is is still up there as a must-see show.

Finally I dragged my knackered self out to see Jess Holly Bates’ ‘Real Fake White Dirt’, and man, am I glad I did. I almost don’t want to tell you about it because it was her last show of the run and you’ll only be pissed off you didn’t make it. Bates is from New Zealand, and her show is a stunning exploration of cultural appropriation, continual colonialism and white identity. This sounds heavy, the kind of thing you might hear in an academic lecture, and a very funny mock lecture does form part of the text. But this is not a heavy show, it is fleet-footed, intelligent, full of strangely beautiful poetry that slaloms effortlessly around obvious exposition and grabs you right in your non-rational cognition. Bates plays words, phrases, associations like a jazz legend plays scales, using tangents and ellipses to convey a sparkling, energetic map of mental and emotional connections. More than that, she is in complete control of her presence as a performer, altering body and voice clearly and cleanly with breath-taking swiftness and definition. And she’s bloody funny. Amazing stuff, a masterclass in what spoken word could and should be.

Headline set at Material Magazine launch, December 2013

I feel I have neglected all my *millions* of followers on this blog – my time and mind have both been consumed by blogging for my show (at http://www.themooncannotbestolen.wordpress.com). I’m also slightly hamstrung by my own petty ambitions to enter poems into magazines and competitions – all those nasty editors and judges only want clean poems, unsullied by prior publication on blogs. So just to apologise, here’s a whole twenty minutes of me in performance. Joy 🙂