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Exploring Visibility

This last week I visited 6 shows in 5 days across 3 countries which explored the world of visibility. The first at the Lyceum in Edinburgh gave me the chance to see Barbershop Chronicles which I had missed in all its earlier acclaimed iterations. This energised company are on tour and I think heading to Broadway – they helped make a traditional theatre audience aware of the stories of Ghanaian heritage flowing from the barbershops of West Africa to the vibrant community of Peckham. It was great to see a younger audience and to hear the whoops of joyful recognition as some of the more stereotypical characters in family life were depicted on stage. 

The next night we were at the Traverse Theatre to see Still No Idea by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence which offers us the chance to try to understand the side-lining of disabled actors and disabled characters in storytelling.  Unless the story is about disability it appears that their lives are invisible or unrepresented.  The final challenge to us was to go home, read a play, listen to a radio drama, read a book and just imagine that the lead character is disabled. Is it so difficult for that person to be blind, in a wheelchair, D/deaf or living with a more hidden disability? Families with disabled members exist and go about their normal family lives with little of their dialogue being about disability. But when an actor is cast to be a non-disabled character with a standard storyline in a soap, experience shows that writers fail to deliver them a character journey and they become, once again, invisible on the screen.  Lisa and Rachael have created a powerful, deeply funny, challenging and welcome show with Lee Simpson.  It will make me think differently – and that’s the power of good theatre.

Next night I was in London to catch up with the Maiden Speech Theatre Festival founded by Lexi Clare to showcase the writing, directing, and performing talent of fellow graduates of Mountview. 50 creatives, 17 new shows plus 11 events/scratch nights at the Actors Centre now till 16th November.  In its 3rd year it is a fabulous showcase of work which “offers fresh perspectives on identity, gender and sexuality through a myriad of stories and styles”. I was there to see the first sharing of a piece by Hannah Cound and Amy Le Rossignol entitled Asper-Girl exploring with music, spoons and sketch comedy the normal world of someone with autism. I am so pleased to have been there because this felt like the perfect place for the early sharing of a new work seeking to make more visible the world that Hannah and many others live with. I hope to see the work again very soon at a Festival near me. 

After seeing one work I bumped into the Associate Producer of the festival, Kayla Feldman, and was really pleased to be able to stay for her piece “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” performed by Anna North with Lexi Clare.  Here they explored the terrifying thought world of someone with Pure O a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Kayla’s writing is powerful, deeply painful to witness and she was blessed by Anna’s intense physicality in bringing to our attention this condition.  The company wanted me to stay for the final show of the night and the post show discussion Brains on Stage, but this piece was too powerful and went too deep for me to take another show in the night.  I am sure this will move forward into a full production run and be an important work to shine a light on Pure O.

Four plays giving me insights into different worlds – and that’s the power of theatre. And next Kath and I went to Shook by Samuel Bailey at Southwark Playhouse, a stunning debut piece selected by Papatango and finely directed by co-founder George Turvey. All I wanted by the end of the play was for the law to change and young men (and women) in care and young offenders institutions to be allowed the tenderness of a hug, the support of a caring system, and ways whereby humanity can enter the grey world of anger and boredom, boredom and violence in which they live. Stunning nuanced performances from Josef Davies, Josh Finan and Ivan Oyik as three young men in care and a heartbreaking reflection from the outside world with Andrea Hall as their visiting teacher helping them understand how to look after for their own children when they are released. This is a play which should be seen by every decision maker & politician who can make a difference. It is powerful and necessary theatre. ,   

And finally last week Kath and I went quickly to Belfast to see Conor Mitchell’s new opera Abomination which uses as its total libretto the public declarations and interview answers by DUP politician Iris Robinson on the subject of the abomination which is the homosexual or lesbian. Mitchell shines a very very bright light on the rhetoric and fundamental biblical beliefs (in my view deep distortions) perpetuated by individuals in power. Rebecca Caine, the musical theatre and opera supremo and long time collaborator with Conor plays the central role being interviewed by the wonderful actor Tony Flynn as Stephen Nolan.  The 13 piece orchestra is conducted by Tom Brady and it, together with the chorus of voices as the DUP members, provide a brilliantly overpowering and emotional driver for this piece.  In the making for a year this work could not have been better placed to hit the zeitgeist and form a central production in conjunction with the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

The Lyric Belfast was packed to the gunnels with a wonderfully diverse audience – regular theatregoers, new opera lovers, supporters of political theatre, queer theatregoers, and a smattering of national and international arts practitioners there to see how Conor’s work and his whole growing canon and creativity can be brought to a wider global attention. It is hard to think back to just 14 years ago when Conor and Kath first wrote a piece for young people and then went on to collaborate with the young Gary McCann and Heather Young on the premier of Goblin Market.  Everyone knew of Conor’s exceptional talent as a composer even then. Now his Belfast Ensemble is being (too slowly but steadily) recognised with financial and creative support to allow him to shine bright.    This opera offers me, a not too politically aware English man, a visceral musical mainline into the awful struggles which have led to some changes in the law in the last few weeks. 

So 6 pieces of necessary theatre exploring untold stories, the West African life in London, the challenges of invisibility for some actors & disabled stories, autism, Pure O, young offenders in need of one hell of a hug, and the abomination of some political thought for present day understanding of what it is to be human and loving and equal in society.  I wish I had had time to see the final piece offered to us in Belfast – Singalong Calamity Jane – which might have been a perfect release for some pretty emotional and deep pieces. Sadly we had to head back to Edinburgh and prepare for a working week.

Reflecting on my work after the week – So much of my surgery work is with emerging and re-fashioned creative makers who are exploring new ideas and ways to make themselves, their work, and special issues more visible. It is a privilege to work with them to see who is the next person they could/should talk to who can help the steps they need to take or the amplification they need for their stories. In the midst of this theatre and opera fest I spent time with a series of surgeries. We covered HipHop, Cyprus, refugees, gender identity, grief, the civil rights movement and the life of a junior doctor in the NHS. Plus the bringing to life of an iconic pop character for a West End show.  In each case, I hope, I will be around to see the ideas and creative playing come together with the necessary investment and funding to bring these shows to the stage and make them visible to a hungry public.

Theatre is about making visible the stories which can change lives, enrich society, and make a difference. It is also about giving joy and helping people remember that they are allowed to wallow in storytelling be that through the Broadway Musical or through Pantomimes which are, as I write, slowly taking shape across the UK.  Oh yes they are.

Breaking The Code and changing the world

My daughter and I have just taken a quick trip to Salisbury Playhouse to see their new production of Hugh Whitemore’s play on the life, work and death of Alan Turing “Breaking The Code”. Originally starring Derek Jacobi when I saw it in 1986 before he later repeated the role in a television version in 1996.  Benedict Cummerbach later played the legendary mathematician and code breaker in a rather more Hollywood reading in The Imitation Game. Last night’s packed first preview rightly clapped to the rafters Edward Bennett’s portrayal of this gentle, considered, world changing, number loving, homosexual as he is caught up first in world events in World War 2 and then in illegal honesty in the early 50s.

The production was directed by Christian Durham and designed by James Button with Chris Davey and Michael Scott creating powerful supporting lighting and sound designs. It was a really classy conception supported by a fine cast of highly experienced players. It is a wonderfully crafted play which avoids preaching or digging too hard. In just telling us the story it becomes even more extraordinary that such amazing things came from this man’s brain and teamwork, and that such pain could be perpetrated in the name of the law.  If you don’t know the story, don’t research, just go and allow it to unfold.

The theatre was immensely welcoming. It was great to see the cast unwinding after their first preview and know that, with the two tweek rehearsal sessions, some good sleep for everyone, and one more Preview they will be ready for a fully standing ovation on Tuesday.

So pleased to see the play again. So pleased to see it with my daughter through her Stonewall perspective on how much has changed for homosexuals in England (to stay with the period word) but how so much has still to be done by those who fight for equality with the LGBTQ+ community.   It is fitting that Alan Turing will grace the £50 banknote from 2021, but don’t wait till then to see Edward Bennett’s performance because this run finishes on 26th October.  I do hope some other theatres and managements see it and decide to give it a longer life.

Congratulations to the whole company and to Gareth Machin and Sebastian Warrack for programming this play as part of a fascinating a rich Autumn season.

Tri-tastic weekend

I had a real, albeit solo, weekend this weekend – a chance to think about me and to spend time understanding how the experiences of others resonates or differs from my own life and my own path.  And I finished it off lying in the warm and wonderful Turkish warm room at the Arlington Baths, just dreaming a bit. 

I began with Saturday at the annual Bi-Tastic Conference held in Scotland which brings together third sector groups and individuals who identify or work with LGBTQI and particularly Bi folk.  I went last year and was pleased to be back as I begin to see familiar faces and hear deeper stories.  Discussions around being bi-enough resonated a lot and gave me opportunities to think about being hidden, staying quiet, and also the need for people who can to open up the discussion. I wear my bicolour band happily and whilst most people have no idea what it is, it does allow some conversations with people who want to talk about their experiences.  Travelling internationally the band is anonymous enough not to be too confronting, and I make a point of hiding my hand behind my back when photographed with any students or younger delegates from countries where sexuality is officially hidden.

After finishing off (I hope) my annual 18/19 accounts paperwork and getting it off, I then had some time on Sunday to begin dipping into the new podcast by my old school friend Nicholas McInerny entitled Rainbow Dads. He has brought together 6 people who are all dads, and who all came out much later in life to their families. Nicholas is famous, of course, for his award-winning series How to Have a Perfect Marriage

I have written the following short reflection on his site “I’ve just taken an hour to listen to Nicholas McInerny‘s powerful first Episode of Rainbow Dads. Here he talks with a number of men who grew up in the 60-80s about hiding their true identity. One describes it as burying their real body in a coffin underground, others about locking rooms in their human house. This is disturbing and fascinating. I hope that it could be useful to parents of any teenage children now, boys or girls, mothers or fathers, especially any where the child is at boarding school or may not be talking about themselves and their authentic truth. I hope Anna and your colleagues at Stonewall will find it useful. I was at school with Nicholas, but on a different journey. Lots to talk to him about. I look forward to taking time to listen to each episode. Congrats to you, your five colleagues and to Richard Shannon for producing this. I told some of the delegates at BiTastic! 2019 yesterday and am connecting in Bi and Beyond Edinburgh and Stonewall Scotland too”

I feel the 1hr programme has massive amounts of useful reflections for any parent to listen to – not necessarily an LGBT parent, or someone wondering about their own teenager’s path, but just a parent who wants to do their best to help ensure that fewer and fewer people end up telling these kind of stories of loneliness and isolation when they are older and dads themselves.  I will settle down to another one tonight I hope. 

As I finished my listen, the sounds of flights of Geese burst overhead and I thought how lucky we are to live in this part of Scotland with its welcoming pub across the road (which I spent far too long in last night with friends)

With Nicholas and his guests thoughtfully still in my mind,  I hopped in the car to the Sunday night sauna/swim gathering for naturist folk in Glasgow. The Arlington Baths are beautiful and the team there are most welcoming. My first time. I got 20 lengths in and then tested out the sauna and steam rooms before ending up in the room shown in the picture, just unwinding and thanking my lucky stars that I now live the idyllic spot I do with all that Glasgow and Edinburgh has to offer on my doorstep.

Now back to work for the week from home and into London, and then another treat – popping down to Salisbury to see the opening performance of Breaking The Code directed by Christian Durham. And then, at last, welcoming back my workshopped-ful wife back from 5 weeks in France. Can’t wait.

11 plays published with the help of 32 actors and directors

Stagescripts 11@11

Well we made it. From an initial open submission of plays in November 2018, each of which had been previously professionally produced but not published; through the eyes of 25 professional readers; down to a longlist; onward to a list of 11 works by 11 writers; these gathered into a published script compilation entitled 11@11; and last night 22 actors and 11 directors brought the works to life in celebration.

We had bumps along the way and a couple of big setbacks. Firstly the trade press and major message amplifiers completely ignored us. No paper or blogger or trade writer felt this good news story was worthy of note. So we were on our own with just Facebook and Twitter and our mates to help.  [Honourable exception, the lovely folk at Brockley Jack shared it with some of their alum writers, and the Writers’ Guild gave mention in their newsletter].  Next time, if there is a next time, let’s hope I can do a better job of persuading the arts media that Stagescripts are doing something necessary.

And then the Arts Council turned a funding application down which would have allowed us to work with Theatre503 and engage (pay) actors to bring all the plays to life in a weekend of staged readings.  Thank goodness Steven Levy and Charing Cross Theatre stepped in to offer their Players Bar to us for free, and we had enormous goodwill from a team of directors and actors who volunteered their services for free to be part of a rollercoaster night of sharing.   Next time, if there is a next time, I hope the energy generated last night can help to tip us into the “yes” pile for ACE support.

Yesterday there was a moment when I was standing in the middle of a room with 8 directors rehearsing 8 different plays simultaneously in huddled intensity. By 6pm all 11 companies of actors were ready and the audience was gathered, we were missing just one actor who arrived for their 4pm rehearsal at 7pm (but hey the amazing director and cast had already prepared to double cast his role with an understudy from another company if needed, but our original actor was rehearsed during a 15 minute interval and delivered his role powerfully…the show must go on)

Our directors got me out of a couple of pickles of my own making – sending the actors one script and the director another, and casting one person to play a role which didn’t exist in the extract, and not casting one that did. Again by the magic of collective problem solving the audience won’t have noticed a thing.

When I used to produce the Vivian Ellis Prize at the Palladium or Drury Lane we had 8 companies of actors, 8 directors, 8 MDs, a week of rehearsal and a budget to pay them. We even had a casting director helping.  Last night was done by a wing and a prayer and a favour or thirty. Agents were great as we sought the more specific casting types – “now where can I find a 19yr old Albanian actor in London who is free on Tuesday?” or a 50yr old black French actor and a 40yr old Mandarin speaking Chinese actor.  The wonderful Billboard agency went one step further, asking for the whole casting breakdown and then doing me a full proposal of actors – not surprisingly 4 of the 22 actors came from Billboard and shone on the night in each of their roles.  Only one agent emailed me curtly “our clients do not work for free”.  Whilst I completely respect an actor telling me, or telling their agent, that this voluntary gig is not for them, I am saddened the actor I wanted to read a script and consider a role probably never saw the enquiry. They may also not have been available on a wet Tues in sept, but at least they’d have seen the play and might have been interested to talk to the writer and director.  In the end we had 3 possible 19yr old Albanian actors. I cast one of them and then invited the others to the show so they could meet the directors and the author, and just do the networking thing. 

On the night I acted as MC and eloquently introduced one play with completely the wrong setting needing the actors to tell me they were doing a different scene, and often offering mangled misreadings of many people’s names. My apologies…its why I work behind the scenes and always got people like the late great Sheridan Morley or Benny Green to read my script as host.  But we came through the evening with a great sense of joy and achievement.

Why did we do it and did it work ?  We believed that there were plays out there which deserved attention from professional, fringe and festival producers and directors.  David Waters wanted to extend the catalogue and have more reason to talk with the professional sector. We knew there are professional directors who crave to find exciting plays to champion, and even better if those plays already have a known track record and are by writers with experience and an abiding passion to tell important stories.  We realised that the “single use plastic…playwright” challenge written about by Paul Miller of the Orange Tree Theatre in the Evening Standard was a perfect complementary rallying cry. And we wanted to find ways to amplify the message and awareness of Stagescripts as an independent publisher overshadowed at times by the global brands and the script/programme publishers.

I think we have created a foundation of energy and goodwill with which to try to seek Arts Council funding and Media/influencer coverage for our work.  I have learned that, however mad and seat of the pants it was last night, the process is welcomed and does bring writers and directors together in a process of re-alighting work.  I was also delighted that the chance process delivered a very diverse spectrum of authorship, topics and meaty roles. That had been an aspiration but we did no adjustment to get to the 11 works – the cream rose to the surface.

And I loved those conversations happening around the room as the directors worked with their casts and authors – what is it like to be black and bisexual today in London, what was the union position for immigrant workers, especially the female workforce. Who was the prisoner in the cells, and what do you do when you are bored and drunk and bored and drunk and an expat living in Spain.  The actor’s task is to make each character sympathetic to the audience, and to get across in a 5 minute extract the essence of their world.  My goodness they delivered last night.

The plays launched were Thank you by Catrin Evans, Hungry Ghosts by Tim Luscombe, The Golden Fucking Years by Adrian McLoughlin, That Was All by Francis Grin, We Are The Lions Mr Manager by Neil Gore, Better Together by David Weir, Battieman Blues by Oscar Watson, Under A Foreign Sky by Paula B Stanic, The Shadow of the Mountain by Felicity Huxley-Miners, Almost Forever But by Robert Farquhar and Citizen George by Brian Weaving. You can download and explore more on the Stagescripts site here

Thank you to everyone. Next time, if there is a next time, we will need a bigger space for the audience and we should/could have some extra discussion with the authors on stage to enrich the night.  Will we do it again…let me breathe again before opening the portal into the “Grantium” Arts Council website which is not my favourite task.  Oh well, maybe since I’m on the train and the wifi is not working, I could re-visit the budget again.

Old Chris’s Schooldays – Part 2 – the lost boys

I have been worrying for the last week about something, and then yet another one of those circular letters arrived. Personally addressed to me and probably hundreds of other ex-pupils of my school it reminded us that “it made me what I am today”, “it gave me everything” and then “we are launching the Bright Futures campaign…to raise £1.5m”.  This at a time when insurers and the school are haggling over compensation to 10-20 people who were abused at the time of their schooling when in the school’s care.

All the focus seems to have been, quite rightly, on the ex-staff who are alive and have been brought to trial by the testimony of the abused. 6 staff have been found guilty.  In my last blog I wondered whether there were other staff still out there, still working with young people who needed to be extracted from the environment where they could continue to abuse.

But my worry today, and I promise to move to more joyful blogs about playwrighting and great shows soon, is wondering about those graduates of the school who were abused whilst they were children but the ex-staff member is now dead. No justice can be brought in a trial, and their names (I suspect) are not in the school’s radar when thinking of compensation and support.

On the radio this morning I heard a military commander talking about their experiences of war, or more particularly the fact that no-one could understand what it was like if you have not been in a battle. He talked of it being indescribable. He then talked about the need for groups where those who have been through it can talk and hear from a point of shared experience.  It struck me that there may be many many now grown-up “boys” and “girls” who have experiences that they cannot and have not shared with the world, and who need the same kind of help as those who are deemed the 10-20 victims of the 6 from Christ’s Hospital who are now in prison.

So I add a third question which I feel I need to ask “What is being done to encourage those who have been abused by those who have now died and never came to trial to seek help, and how can CH financially and practically help these people to live their lives?”   It is a big question. Even the 6 we know about moved around schools. It is a big task to look back at all the deceased staff who have gone through one school – but it is not difficult. The school has a wonderful Blue Book which annually lists every staff member, and most people who die are easily found through tributes on Google.   Someone needs to map the rumours “we all knew about x” and map them against death records, and then see where else they taught.  

I will be delighted if someone in authority reading this blog says “we are doing it” “we have a compensation scheme” “we are contacting every graduated boy and girl that we have records for”   And, if I were in the school’s shoes, I would refocus to this work and stop sending me and hundreds like me stuff about “Bright Futures” when first they need to clear up the dark past.  

I am sorry if this is hard reading. I couldn’t understand when a close artistic friend talked about going to retreats for boarding school survivors. I admired that he was bringing this pain out. But I was a happy chappie having had a great time at school.  As I have said before the rug has been pulled from under my feet. I suggest anyone holding a dark past looks at organisations like https://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk/ and then finds a way to challenge their school, and find fellow sufferers.   I have not been in battle. I cannot understand. I may be making no sense to those who have been battle scarred. Please tell me if this is an unhelpful blog. I can take it down immediately.

Old Chris’s Schooldays

Jennings and Derbyshire – the 1960s bible

I find my old schooldays a bit difficult to understand. 50 years ago this week I moved from my first boarding school near Arundel in Sussex to my new boarding home for another 7 years. I was just 11 years old.  I was an old hand at being away from home, dormitories, dining hall, being inspired by teachers, and avoiding sport.

Until 3 years ago I always described Christ’s Hospital as being the making of me, the happiest of years, a wonderful experience, with almost all my peers having enjoyed the boarding experience. And then the rug was pulled from under my feet as teacher after teacher was accused and found guilty of sexual abuse. I found school friends who had held their own attacks secret for 40+ years.  I watched, and watch, the unfolding story.

This week I had the opportunity to share some of my concerns and to meet with some of those who were survivors/victims of my time at the school. The school has been working with the police to help in the process, and I have been helping one of the victims as he brings questions to the school from many of the other survivors.

It wasn’t like this in Jennings and Derbyshire, or even Hogwarts.  I continue with my colleagues to explore the connections between abusers at our school and those who have been tried and convicted in other schools. I can’t help but believe there are many more connections than may seem obvious, but I’m only using google to see what seems to be hiding in plain site.

Why am I vexed by all this. I was not abused. I had a great time at my school. I learned my trade in theatre producing. I made connections which gave me a first job, and wonderful inspirations for years to come.  But others were abused, and they have buried their pain for so many years.  Of course it is different now with statutory checks on employees, safeguarding codes, safeguarding officers in schools, guidance for pupils. It is a different world.

I have two questions which I keep asking:  “Is there anyone that the school (or we) are aware of who could potentially, still, be in a position to abuse young people?”  and the follow on “What can you (the school), or we, do now to ensure that to the best of your/our abilities they are stopped / put out of harms way”.  I have no proof but enough sense that the answer to question 1 is YES and to question 2 is not / must not be NOTHING.

So for now I offer to my school my determination to keep working on google searching and talking to friends and colleagues in a way which could encourage people to come forward who might be able to do something, say something, or help.

My saddest sense of my old school is to learn that some of the early abuses in my day were reported, at the time, to members of staff. There was a world of silence and disbelief at that time.  For some at the school it was common knowledge at the time and talked about. I suspect there are staff and employees of the school still alive who knew at the time and said nothing. They must be questioning their consciences about staying silent and still staying silent.

I am told it is not possible or right for the school to approach retired staff and their families to encourage them to come forward with any information they may have. I am told that is impractical because the database is not there, and “disproportionate”.  But if there is a chance that there is an adult out there who is still in a position of influence over underage boys and girls who might have been an abuser or groomer in the past, then I hope against hope that one or their adult colleagues, ex-workmates, partners or friends will come forward and stop another young person from being abused.

Who could forgive themselves if, in 10 or 20 years time, another round of historic sex abuse cases come forward revealing another group of young people who were aged 11 to 16 in 2019 and are now damaged and hiding their memories of time at school this year.

I am sure my colleagues and I are the least popular Miss Marples talked about in the Board Room and staff management rooms of my old school.  But I think we are needed at the moment.  In writing this first I typed “I cannot bring myself, at the moment, to say the name of the school which has as its charge to “never forget the great benefits you have received”. Sadly they pale when compared to the pain inflicted over 50 years to some of my friends.” A commentator has suggested that I should name Christ’s Hospital in order that younger students from more recent times can know that we are trying to make a difference.

Post script – I have become more aware in the last few days of the pain which has been felt in the last few years as the revelations have come out from staff who taught me and whom I hold in great regard. The pain to them realising they have lived in a lie just as much as we have, and the pain on their family is also great. Those abusers have caused so much pain.

EdFringe Roundup – Blog 3

Over the first weekend I was supporting Musical Theatre Review running around catching a dozen new musicals which could be in line for the annual Musical Theatre Award. Head to for all the posted reviews by the various guest assessors in this early round.  Some of the work will go forward to Fiona Orr’s panel of judges for 2019 and, in time, there will be a shortlist of work which is highly recommended for many different reasons. I am so glad that the Awards we started in 2008 still offer new writers and new companies an assurance that they will be assessed and, where appropriate, celebrated.

For the last week I seem to have been seeing too many shows to have time to write about them, so I thought I’d offer a roundup of Week 1 focussing on some of those non musical works which I am enjoying talking about in queues and whenever I get asked. In alphabetical order…

Ariadna (C Aquila / Roman Lodge 11:55) – Alyona Ageeva’s PosleSlov  I caught up with this Russian company having seen Some Body last year   A company using the naked and draped human form to explore Greek myths through stylised tight repetitive forms which haunt you to add meaning, but still you into acceptance. It is partly distancing and partly engrossing. Go and explore one of the works and I’d love to hear what dance specialists think

Canary and the Crow ( Summerhall 19:50) – Middle Child   Daniel Ward, a charismatic storyteller, leads this company in a piece of theatre blending gig style, sounding, song, character creation and in the round atmospheric realisation to give us his story of growing up black in a white world, the privilege of the private/public school system, and connect into finding his path to being on stage and sharing the poem of The Canary and the Crow which has flown with him through life. It is angry and inspiring, challenging and uplifting. It is powerful musically driven theatre.

Conspiracy (Underbelly Cowgate 16:45) – Barrel Organ.  My first time seeing the work of the Barrel Organ collective of creative artists and I love a good conspiracy. Here I loved being taken into what felt like a well researched exploration of one iconic picture and the world from which it came, although it may all be made up around a lunchtime sandwich. The three artists challenge each other in a dangerous and rather joyful way and we touch on JFK, Princess Diana, Moon Landings, Area 51, JFK and 9/11 to enrich the core exploration.  So pleased to follow the producing career of Ellie Claughton and her Assistant Grace Dickson as they work on this as one of three companies they present at EdFringe and tour nationally.

Einstein ( Pleasance Cortyard 14:00) – Pip Utton   This is a gentle hour with a genius and a man so in love with science and his own ambition to uncover and invent that he has to reveal to us his deep flaws as a husband and father.  Pip is a deeply experienced monologue creator, engaging with us, guiding us through the science and life of the man. It is fitting that he is also presenting his show on Adolph Hitler which, if you have never seen it, is an unforgettable piece of theatre.

Moonbird (Pleasance Courtyard 10:30) – Handprint Theatre  I was so pleased to be part of a small but delighted audience for this bilingual completely enchanting piece of storytelling offered in BSL sign and spoken/written English. The small children in the front row relished the warmth of the welcome into the Handprint world, and the older children in the audience like me enjoyed the inner complexity of helping us understand what it is to be separated from one of our senses and the need to listen with all our available skills and from our hearts    You don’t need a child to see this company – but I will look forward to being in a buzzing full house at a school performance sometime.

Red Hour Glass (Storytelling Centre 18:00) – Alan Bissett   I am late to the party, this is my first chance to see one of Alan Bissett’s shows and I will catch up.  I just wonder how the chat went around a beer which led to Alan become a house spider and a tarantula, amongst others, in a research lab.  I am so glad this 2012 hit has returned to the festival, and I look forward to exploring more of his rich characterisations and warm storytelling.

Who Cares   (Summerhall 18:20) – Lung Theatre Company  This is necessary theatre at its best. Lung bring together many testimonies from young people who are carers for parents and siblings and fashion it into a piece of drama which hits hard and hits deep. Today they also launched a petition to seek changes from the Government which would support and require local authorities to do more for the thousands of young carers who are slipping through societies safety nets.  Do try and grab a ticket or just check out the production and their work for a future booking to your theatre, festival AND please sign the petition

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/268610

Aliens, Zero-waste and self-care – EdFringe Blog 2

Greenhouse at Dynamic Earth / concept

The city of Edinburgh is packed with hundreds and thousands of tourists, performers and audiences for every manner of amazing free and paid, fringe and “official” work out there. I’m starting my week of reviewing for the Musical Theatre Review and so can’t use this blog to give my opinions on shows. But I can explore the spirit of the fringe as I am sniffing it out this year.

I must celebrate and champion you to head down to Dynamic Earth where a pop-up zero-waste theatre company are offering 7 shows a day in their zero-tec cosy theatre space.  You won’t find a flyer or poster anywhere for Boxed In Theatre and their Greenhouse space and so it is up to us to help them spread the word and help you to get to and other pages to buy their tickets.  When I visited to see a dress rehearsal of one show, the appreciative home crowd of friends and fellow company members were in a theatre which was being built around us. A sense of magic was being created and I hope the sun will shine on them.  They are also offering an innovative way to flyer on the high street – they tell me they will be there with buckets picking up unwanted flyers from the street whilst talking to customers about their shows. That is the way to engage and inspire.

Quick tips for myself (and others) this festival as I spend most of each day/eve moving from show to show.  Remember my keep-cup. It is a perfect cool water holder, and there are plenty of outlets now with jugs of water on the counter. Keep it filled up and no waste and good hydration.  Remember to eat. Make sandwiches or take in a salad. Carry an apple or two. Avoid spending £5-15 a day on just grabbing something from a take-away.   Keep some time in your diary just to sit down and enjoy watching the world go by. Pack a novel so you can read something completely different. Enjoy turning your phone off.  Keep writing blogs.

I have about 50 shows to see in between the workshops I’m running for Fringe Central and the work I’m doing in week 3 for the International Festival. When I have that schedule I may be able to fit in some more of my long list of “wish I could” shows. There are 45 of them still on the list.   So there will be some shows I just champion because of the skill of the flyer person to capture my imagination: 

“Do you believe in aliens?” is a great opening line. “Yes” says I. So I am the proud owner of a flyer for Portents by why this sky theatre company playing Bedlam at 15:30 until 15th August. I will probably not get there, but I have the flyer so, if you do or do not believe in aliens, maybe worth a look at this Arts Council England supported production in one of my favourite venues.

So yesterday was bagpipes, gospel, broadway, silly, deeply moving, powerful, Scottish, English, American, historical, contemporary and in the main presented by artists completely committed to giving us an experience which will move us through their storytelling.  Today will be another patch of delights, I hope.  I am always looking to be moved and to know that I needed to be in that theatre with that storyteller because it has changed me or delighted me in a very special way. I always enter a space hopeful.

From Russia with laughs -EdFringe 2019 / blog 1

Catching up for a gentle drink with my daughter at the Sekforde Arms in Clerkenwell last night we were corralled into an EdFringe preview by host Milo Edwards. I was tempted by the Russian comedian Ivan Yavits given my work with Perm. It was free and there was space.

There were three comedians on the bill opening with Ivan who was warm, welcoming, and played off the 50/50 Russian and English audience. I’d enjoy checking out The Russian Comedy Experience if I could find a slot in my diary.

The second comedian is also taking a show to Edinburgh but chose to use the Preview as an opportunity to try out new material, working away with his notepad to decide what he might use in the next show. So I can’t tell you anything about Luke McQueen: Bad except he did have one of the best oneliners (for his next show) in the evening. I won’t spoil it for you for 2020.

The headline act was Milo Edwards who is “famous in Russia” and definitely had the whole audience in deep belly laugh stitches. Anyone who has ever been to Russia, worked with Russians, or just loves to explore the differences between cultures should have a great time, and learn stuff.  We got most of his EdFringe 2019 show, Pindos, and I look forward to following him and his reviews. https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/pindos

Check them out. I will definitely be recommending it to my visiting Russian producers when they come for a scouting week.  No flyers there or biog material. I guess comedians don’t do that, but it is so so helpful if you expect us to shout about your shows without waiting to get back to the desk and googling you.  I even had to heckle each comedian just to get them to tell me when and where they were playing in Edinburgh.

Shame the bar was closed when we came out of the theatre space – surely that’s one of the ways a pub makes money. Hey ho. Got us home more quickly and saved us a round or two.

The invisibility cloak

This is a follow-up to my “Being Seen” blog of May 2019, and my annual suggestion blog on visibility. May I celebrate those who are preparing to arrive in Edinburgh for the Festival Fringe in the next few days.  So often I hear “I hate networking” or, as we are mid-festival, “no-one is noticing me”. So here is my quick suggestions of when, & when not , to wear the invisibility cloak.

There’s a balance between being a network master, an interesting person/show to be discovered, and a megaphone or over-pushy self-defeating champion of yourself and your show.  The magic is to think NOW exactly who are the right people who could/should know about and enjoy your show, and to get yourself in their shoes, walk their paths, and meet them on their ground.

Some quick suggestions:

  1. Do a quick character map of your ideal audience member – age, interests, reason for being in Edinburgh, where they might hang out, what artforms, shows and artform hubs they may be attracted to.
  2. Check Fringe Central programme and find any events where there are likely to be useful people to listen to, meet, talk with about your show.
  3. Have a suitable arsenal of material on-line, in your pocket, ready to pin-up, ready to share.  I’d have business cards if you can, with the show details. I’d have A6 flyers ready with email address and website info.

Now you know who you are looking for, where they might be, and you have material for them if you meet them.  Just re-check your (a) list above – it may be a mix of paying public, friends, student colleagues, promoters, press, die-hard lovers of your kind of artform, and people who love to see stuff at your time of day.

Some of those people may be walking the Royal Mile on the off chance that you will hand them a flyer – but that is the equivalent of “broadcast” marketing (see pic above). For every 1 perfect audience member you could be seeing a 100 or 1000 people pass you by enjoying the jugglers and looking for haggis or kilts.

  • Be forensic in where you look for your ideal (a) list audience. Think about their habits. Where are they 2hrs before your show, where are they the same time as your show 2 days before. Maybe, just maybe, the perfect person hasn’t booked a show yet at your time.
  • Be generous with each other and find another company who could shout out for you to the same perfect audience that has just enjoyed their amazing show, and then do the same for them.
  • Find the queues or groups of people doing what you think your kind of people might do, and sit/stand and chat to them. Don’t thrust a flyer in their hand. Ask “what kind of shows do you like?” “what have you seen, you’ve enjoyed?” – get a tiny conversation started.  Then, only then, tell them about your show…if they seem likely people.
  • Time your flyering, split your company (or get a friend from somewhere if you are a solo artist) and go have these conversations.

My sense is that on-line promotion is good for your show, and doing some digital networking is important, but that die-hard audiences are out on the street and in the theatres seeing stuff. They are not checking their mobiles for the latest twitter posts. Having said that….

  • Think when your audience might be home checking their emails and facebook. Maybe early morning, maybe late night.  Focus on what feels the right time and play with different times.
  • Who do you know who could “amplify” your “narrow-cast” focussed message to the right people. Who could champion your show to other like-minded folk.
  • And remember your audience who see the show today are potentially champions and amplifiers to future audiences. GIVE THEM A PROGRAMME as they leave the space. A small A6 piece of paper with the names of everyone involved in the show, an email address, website, and any hashtags you want to share.  They might take a moment to tell their facebook friends about the shows they saw – but only if they know the names and champion the facts/team/info.  Help them to help you.

And remember that Edinburgh Fringe audiences churn through the City every 2-3 days. It is a tiny minority of us who dedicate the month to seeing stuff. “And another hundred people just got off of the train”.  Well probably 1000 plus, and some of them may be your next tranche of perfect audience.

  • Never give up. What worked two days ago, and brought in new audience today, has to be repeated day after day after day.  Try new things, new times to find audiences, new places to target, new shows to buddy with.  You will probably never find the winning formula, but cumulatively you will make a difference.
  • Never say “oh its too late for that idea this year”. If it’s a good idea, find a way of trying it today or tomorrow at the latest.
  • Set yourself some realistic small achievable targets for each day. “I want two new people I don’t know to see the show tomorrow”.  Start small and feel some success along the way. [Now is not the time to worry about 40% capacity overall if you are playing to 10% now. Aim for 15% within 2-3 days. Don’t be overwhelmed by targets]

You can’t/shouldn’t rely on the venue or your flyering agent or your PR company or your best mate at home to solve your audiences challenges. You can reach out to all of them and re-visit and re-talk through your challenges at the moment. But YOU have to grab the initiative. The venue and the Fringe office are used to having these conversations. They can sometimes help to crack through with something – an idea, a piggyback opportunity, a contact, or just a cuppa.  And your best mate at home just might hop on a train, come up and help, sleep on your floor or in your bath. Or they might do a couple of hours online championing from their laptop at home.

My last blog talked of taking up space, being noticed. If you have brought your best work then there are people out there who want to find you. Don’t be invisible to them – they are still looking for the unexpected joyful surprise. 

Sometimes the invisibility cloak can be great. Do lots of listening to audiences as they mill around before the show in your queue, and as they walk out.  Go chat to people in other foyers of other theatres – you can’t flyer there, but you can chat to people.

Maybe you can get someone in the queue (that best mate or a friend from another show) to ask each member of the audience (i) why are they coming to see this show (ii) how did they hear about it and (iii) what else are they seeing.  Get your mate to do tiny thumbnail sketches of each person, or check them against your character map (a) list. Are you getting unexpected people in the audience ?  Why ? Go by your gut, but then talk to them ?

It is exhausting. It is exhilarating. You may get rained on or sun-kissed. 6 months ago you wrote 40 words of copy for a festival which seemed far far away. Now you are in the midst of the greatest circus on earth.  Take care of yourselves. Find a quiet garden, a wonderful view, a great walk, the perfect quiet teashop, or a single painting or museum exhibit you can sit and be calm with. Do yoga, meditate, eat fruit. Whatever it takes to keep up the joy.

[Written in a primary school in the Finnish village of Fiskars (see above) where the tech/dress for “Honey” by Tove Appelgren is in preparation in a Scottish premiere version with Sarah McCardie and translated/directed by Julian Garner. It heads to EdFringe on Monday as part of the Start to Finnish season to play Zoo Playground 16:30 (17:30) daily.  I am listening to the Spanish/Manchester sound designer creating and inputting sound cues. I can’t wait to watch this afternoon having read an early draft by Julian. “Honey, single mother…eleven disfunctional characters: one body” to edit their 40 words