Saturday, 6 July 2013

Exeter Respect Festival

The first weekend in June and it was time for the Exeter Respect Festival held in Belmont Park (which as ever was completely transformed into a miniature version of the summer rock festivals which just - to everyone's surprise - packs up shop at 6 o'clock). It was very impressive how, despite all the funding cuts, everyone pulled out a stop to put on as big a community show as ever, and it really does feel more like a 'festival' than just a community event. This time, the person who used to be in charge of the cabaret programme was no longer involved, and so it was up to us to find acts to fill the whole weekend! After a lot of hard work and many kind offers from talented folks, we had a packed line up covering most artforms, with which we were mighty pleased.
   On Saturday we had the ever-wonderful Kimwei, (whom I believe was booked for 3 different venues during the Festival, and so had to be careful to not clash with herself!) who did a fantastic set with her usual professionalism and assured and gifted playing and voice. What a way to start the festivities! We had a Taking the Mic Festival Special, with Exeter's premiere open mike showcase coming out to play from its home at the Phoenix Arts Centre, hosted by the warm, wise and witty poets, slam champ Tim King and actress Morwenna Griffiths, the latter dazzling in pink. We were treated to sets from the sizzling Clive Pig, the delightful Jackie Juno, excellent sets from James Turner and Solomon Doornails (aka Chris Gower) amongst others, and they were kind enough to have asked us to perform as part of it too! So despite hosting the venue and doing some storytelling, we actually got to do some spoken word too! I did some performance poetry and Deor aka Matthew Hammond the Stand Up Philosopher did again his incredibly moving tribute / funeral oration to his Father, who had so recently passed away. Kind folks said how moving it was, and one guy how it had reminded him of his own dad.
   The day ended with a truly stomping set by the phenomenal Val Crowe, and those of us who hadn't seen her perform before were staggered as to how come we'd managed to miss her so far? She was instantly booked as the guest performer for the June Taking the Mic, and I was immensely sorry to miss her (as it clashed with Glastonbury). Her deft and sultry voice and thundering guitar are of rock god proportions and not to be missed! She looked the part too in DMs and pink hair and there were video cameras going aplenty.

   On Sunday we were lucky enough to have the amazing Dave Sawyer with his exquisite and haunting Sanzachord (an instrument of his own design as he is a fantastic visual artist, much concerned with sound and who often combines the two to make extraordinary aural objet). He mixed thrilling solo improvisations with harmonies in accompaniment to the word of James Turner (author of the 'Forgeries' poetry collection) which they perform as the duo 'Sanzastanza' and it was spellbinding as always.
   Next we had the brilliant Substance and Shadow Theatre performing teaser extracts from their new play 'Skin Deep' all about ska, punk, skins and reggae music subcultures of the 1980's. It looked absolutely gripping, as they gave us a flavour of four of the characters with adroit skill, leaving everyone wanting to know more! It was absolutely wonderful to host such a talented theatre company (the day before their first performance for the Ignite Festival of Theatre), and with such a great play too. We've played a previous play of theirs on the 'Phonic Drama Show' and I have to say it was our favourite so far! They deal fearlessly and humourously with heavy topics such as sexual identity crises and social unrest, but with care, empathy, insight and aplomb. Rosie and Mitch Mullin are terrific writers and all four of the cast were fine actors - Superb!
   Then we had the Sidewalk Anthem, comprised of the really lovely Julie Yount and very fine singer Stuart Wills. Julie's voice is so sweet and classic, just a perfect distillation of the folk/pop singer genre that I was amazed to find that Stuart's voice was melodious (and beautiful) enough to compliment perfectly! Two such great singers in one band! So that (to my surprise) whichever of them started singing (and together they were amazing!) I knew after hearing a few bars that we were all in for a real treat. The day ended with Linda Dumchen doing some lilting cover versions to bring our festival cabaret to a fitting close.

   It was so hard - so soon after Matthew's Father's funeral - to get one's head into such a different space. On Friday, we put up the tipi three times - and three times it fell down, once into a rose bush! Unheard of - but we were so tired that I couldn't even read the instructions, and so all the mistakes were ones we've never made before - not tying the rope round the poles, not tying the lift pole to the canvas...! Doh! And the idea of hosting a cabaret for a whole weekend after so many heavy conversations and all that grief - well, it can be imagined how unappealing the entire weekend was to us beforehand. So we were doubly grateful to all our acts for being just so amazing, and lifting us out of ourselves by their talent and energy! Special thanks must go to the incredible Kimwei (her sound system was excellent to borrow!), Tim and Morwenna, the former again and Gabrielle for all their help and TLC with tea and homebaked biscuits when it was all over! And Julie and housemate Iggy for unexpected kindly help at the end too. Thanks folks, we really couldn't have done it without you!

The Roving Theatre Poetry Festival

In May (and I had no intention of leaving it so long to update this blog!) playwright and former artist-in-residence at the Globe Theatre Peter Oswald and his company, came to the Bike Shed Theatre for a fortnight to take up a residency there, with his extraordinary new verse play 'Lucifer Saved', prefaced by poetry performances by various talented poets, and a number of Poetry Nights, including with performances by his award winning other half, the well known poet Alice Oswald. I was lucky enough to be asked to perform as part of one of the Poetry Nights, and to my delight, Peter Oswald actually performed a verse version of the story of Egil's poem The Head Ransom, adapted from the C12th Egilsaga! It was wonderful to hear, not least as the story and the poem are still not nearly as well known as they should be. Richard Thomas of Symmetry Pebbles magazine did an amusing and thoughtful set, and slam champion Aisling Fahey gave a warm, witty, heartfelt and very mature set provoking both laughter and the occasional tear. It was really delightful to perform alongside such company. Huge thanks to all of them and especially Peter Oswald and Simon Williams.

   What was also so lovely was simply the fact that the festival was a perfect fit - I have been trying (in various forms, before settling on a storytelling theatre as it seemed that gave people an easier handle on it for booking purposes) to combine poetry and theatre from not long after I left college! But when I touted 'The Poetry Theatre' I was still surrounded by obstacles, and so never really gave it its fullest chance to shine. That said, there were some interesting gigs - I'll not forget performing 'The Secret Garden', a set of glorious garden related poetry (and three of my own involving nature) in a constructed 'bower of bliss' to open a garden sculpture exhibition at Ilminster House arts centre in Somerset! A beautiful building, and it was tremendous fun to do (if nerve-wracking trying to build a garden arch etc. indoors when I had so little experience of such things!). Since then companies such as Live Canon and The Lion's Part have done similar things to acclaim. And I have woven poetry into various shows which we've done - but who knows, perhaps 'The Poetry Theatre's time is yet to come?

Monday, 4 February 2013

The 'Standing Up for Freedom' Show

I have always loved Philosophy. Even while finishing my 'A' Levels, and asked what I planned to study, I replied that (while English and Drama seemed on the cards) I was much tempted by Philosophy, much to my drama teacher's horror! (In the end I did Writing and Philosophy.) But a full show tracing the evolution of a single concept? The history of the very idea of 'freedom'? Now that, I thought, would be really something! And so it was. Last night, in the Northcott Theatre Bar, on an intimate stage, played in and out by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos, Matthew Hammond the Stand Up Philosopher presented his new full length show 'Standing Up for Freedom' - and it was frankly brilliant. Cicero, Kant, Marx, Socrates, Neitzsche, Foucault, and Thomas More's Utopia all featured, along with Hegel, Rousseau and Deleuze. From Kant's paradoxical speech making us wonder if he is the most radical or reactionary? To Neitzsche's hilarious skit on the Kant, from Marx's impassioned critique of how industrialized society was/has evolved, to Alcibiades' spilling the beans on love, we were treated to a rip roaring rollercoaster ride through Western thought and the whole idea of freedom - individual freedom, freedom within a state, freedom given by others or freedom lent by perspective, the many faceted crystal of it all was explored and polished up to shine anew in a scintillating, and sometimes extraordinary new light. Having laughed at Rousseau's dandyism or Hegel's quirky snuff-taking, been foxed by Foucault's twist at the end or swept up on a desire to see Utopia, we then ended with the Trial of Socrates, that key moment in the founding of Western philosophy - and it was as moving, funny, poignant, eye-opening, devastating and beautiful as Plato himself could have wished. We roared our lines (as the audience played the people of both Konigsberg and Athens) and delivered the sentance, and then it was time for the music to play out...and as the Stand Up Philosopher took his bows, there were a few questions from the floor, and then it was time to get drinks and folks bought books (and my Philosopher's Oracle Boxes too!), we caught up with lovely friends who had come, and of course mingled with the rest of the audience, who did not at all appear to think that an hour and a half of philosophy was too much! People said how well it worked having the unifying narrative of tracing one idea, how it was better to engage with than only as short pieces on a mixed bill (excellent though they are), asked when and where they could see him perform again, sounded enthusiastic about the idea of further shows on different themes...all in all, it was a very successful evening, Matthew performing really well, with well-timed changes of jacket and hat, and some great (but not distracting) props, leaving folks wanting more... The lighting was very good, the back of the stage in red, a spotlight to the fore, and all around a purple wash alternating with dark blue, the Theatre Bar a deliciously intimate setting (packed!), with circular tables all candlelit. It definitely proved that philosophy and theatre mix well, that knowledge, and ideas can be presented as performance art, that ideas, in the right hands, CAN be brought truly alive, and without compromising their meanings.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Castle of Dreams & Nightmares

After months of planning, preparations and sundry site visits, the interactive performance with enchanted garden installations which were our Halloween Tours for English Heritage at Old Wardour Castle are over. Done and dusted - and after all the stress and last-minute hassles, the gruelling nature of setting up and performing when it was around 3 degrees C on Saturday and colder in the night! and wet on Sunday, and all the rest, on Monday we woke to the rest of the packing. To talk of anti-climax would be understatement. Tuesday and (despite being tired and strangely averse to getting cold) finally the exhilaration came. Thrilled to the core, it washed over me at last. Strange as it may seem, beforehand (with everything to arrange, sort, co-ordinate and generally worry about) was not a helpful time for excitement. During it, as I kept walking across the courtyard lit up with shadowy creatures,
or went up the main staircase and to the upper hall with its lighting and shadow-tableau, it's prisoners at the grilles, or through the Grotto covered in unicorns/nightmares and goblin-faces, or across the lawn with its beautiful gobos and lit by the near-full moon, I had moments where I knew it was an amazing thing to be doing, a wondrous thing to have been commissioned to create...but of course, I had no time, or very little, to stop and admire. Hence the startling lack of good images of key vistas and moments, (or indeed the performances themselves). I was aware that Narcissus the Nightmare (most beautiful of the company's unicorns, and the one that's most wearable) on his stand at the topmost alcove of the Grotto's dry waterfall, with an organza cascade falling below him to level after level and lit by our finest colour-changing outdoor spotlight, and all around the glory of the structure of Joseph and Josiah Lane of Tisbury's magnificent rockwork Grotto of 1792, the viridian dappling of the gobo light on the lawn stretching away before the scene...was both astounding and (in my view at least) returning the Grotto folly and C18th garden to something of its original purpose. But still, I could not give myself to elation until (conversely) it was all over, and fully accomplished. On Tuesday it came - the realization fully that it was one of the projects that I had most wished to do, that we had been given a large enough canvas to test ourselves and had shown what we could do. The kind of exhilaration and thrill that rarely accompany a task. It was the kind of thing one is in this line of work for. Those moments that somehow vindicate one's artistic vision. 'The Castle of Dreams & Nightmares' comprised them both! The gods of Old Wardour Castle were with us that night, it seemed. Huge thanks to our amazing team, Mandy Rodgers (fabric master!) and Lewis Reford (tech supremo!), Andi Branston for turning up on Sunday to help take all the stuff back to Devon despite everything he'd just had to cope with, and all the English Heritage team who made us feel so welcome - Sally, Greg and company, and to Charlie for booking us. And lastly...Old Wardour itself. To quote the script - 'The only hexagonal castle in the country, Ladies and Gentlemen - and that is NO coincidence!'

Monday, 22 October 2012

Halloween Tours at Old Wardour Castle

Haven't meant to neglect the blog, but we have been so busy putting together preparations for the Halloween Tours at Old Wardour Castle for English Heritage! There's a lot of variation in this job, and this project is no exception! For four (!) tours a night for two nights (the weekend before Halloween) at four different sites throughout the Castle and Gardens, Widsith & Deor Storytelling Theatre will be presenting 'The Castle of Dreams & Nightmares'! Which will be an interactive performance tour with arty dream and nightmare themed installations, enchanted garden lighting, sound, special effects, sculptures (some life size), figures and masks, with storytelling and poetry woven into the plot, in magnificent historic surroundings. Old Wardour is one of the most atmospheric ruins in the country, and is Britain's only hexagonal castle. It is Mediaeval, but surrounded by a delightful C18th landscape including one of the finest Grottoes still extant, and a charming Banqueting House. It also overlooks a lake and is backed by glorious woodland.
   It has been months in preparation, and (despite all the writing of scripts, rehearsing, site visits, making maps of entrances, exits, passages and alcoves, making things/creatures/figures, buying and fitting of lighting of all kinds, spotlights, floodlights, fairylights, single small spots, lanterns, oil lamps, torches...! delivering stuff there, carting it all the over the site, making props lists etc.) of course there are always last minute issues. We thought that two of the core Collective members were definitely coming - but the sister of one has just passed away, sadly, and the funeral is the day before. We thought that another associate might have been coming, but conversely, his partner is about to deliver a baby. We had of course planned the whole thing so that (if we were to have no other cast or help at all) we could just about manage everything ourselves, at a push. However, we definitely have two members of the Collective coming, which is great, although again, one of them is without her vehicle! Which complicates camping and transport co-ordination.
   On the good side, we have been given permission to use the Banqueting House as our 'green room'! And when we have gone to try out the lights and visuals there, it has all looked rather amazing. So, while on the one hand one should only be excited, one is actually stressed, and will be relieved most of all, once it's all over, it is well to remember that elation (especially when something takes a lot of preparation and hard work) often comes afterward. If you manage to enjoy yourself while there, that will be a bonus! There has been so much 'lugging' and journeying involved in all this! But we have had moments of inspiration when putting the finishing touches to the Shadow Lord (all 6ft of him!) or putting together Dr. Cecelia Davenport's (one of our characters) study or Julius de Winter's (our other main character) props, or the moments when one of the figures' lights will come on that should take people's breath away, that has all made it quite an experience already. We have really had a chance to stretch ourselves with the special effects in a location that is finally a big enough canvas to encompass something of the full range of our ideas, and that has been (if stressful as things must have a work-like-clockwork element) rather wonderful in a way. We have got a lot out of the project already (despite swearing and lifting heavy and unwieldy things, packing and unpacking a lunatic number of times a crazy amount of stuff) due to those eureka! moments. Those times when you think 'that's perfect there!' or 'that will really work' or 'that fits exactly' whether a visual, a light, an effect or something included in the 'plot'.
    When we went around Kensington Palace earlier in the year and thought 'these visuals, these interactive performers! This is SO what we would have done ourselves!' I loved it completely, my only wish was that some promoter would give us that kind of huge canvas and a budget to see what we would do with it. Well here it is - a Medieval Castle with an C18th Grotto and many ways this is what the ongoing project that is Widsith & Deor productions has been lying in wait for... It's a very strange feeling. I am too cynical, or rather, too much of an experienced weather&event foot-soldier, hence too hard-bitten if you like, from all the mud-spattered, break-even, "wtf" events which we have done to feel exhilarated. But if this comes off, as I hope and think it might, then... Watch this space!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Beautiful Days - onward and upward

After a hectic summer including Dorchester Play Day right after the Beautiful Days, we are gearing up for a Halloween event at Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire - a lot of work! The festival was good, despite the worst lot of rain we'd seen there. It just dried up enough to get off site without tractors on the Monday! The workshops went down a storm, we were packed to the rafters as usual. I was especially pleased to hold my all-ability workshop host corner, where the very unconfident or small can make headdresses or mobiles and the older or more ambitious can make dreamcatchers, whilst those in between can design themselves some wings! And of course with Deor's leather workshop running alongside, we can kit people out completely! Wings, headdress, leather wristbands, a dreamcatcher round your neck (depending on size), leather head band, you name it, the possibilities are endless! I was stupidly delighted when a participant (parent, child or teenager) made an especially good mobile, as they are my own design. It was great to catch up with Andi and Mandy of the Collective, and really good to work with Lewis at last who stepped in to the breach at the first Beautiful Days commission, when we were doubled booked and had to go to the Sunrise OffGrid instead. We also ended up doing an hour and a half of storytelling each day as one storyteller had had to drop out! So it was just us and Kulchalee to hold the fort each day! Lastly we were put on in the Majical Youth big top, but as well as being a mudbath, the sound system gave up (I don't know whose it was) as did the back up, so we were left yelling across an empty acoustic - exhausting for the voice, so all in all we worked hard. But being with the Collective who are always such good fun, and a bottle of Pimms (thanks to the ever-wonderful Deor!) got me through!

   Then on the Wednesday afterward, we were lucky enough to have Mandy with us to help out at Dorset Play Day - rammed as usual, and Carol the organizer complimented me on being 'so patient'! As she came in while I was showing three different participants of varying skill how to make dreamcatchers, while cutting fabric for a much smaller headdress-maker. It was very kind of her - although what I was going for was super-efficient and keeping-one's-head rather than patient! No one was being unreasonable, just all-at-the-same-time! Mandy was great to have with us and was amazing at folding up the huge and unwieldy tipi pvc flooring into a square! I was much impressed. And we all had supper at the Imperial, a beautiful pub with a Brunel conservatory near Exeter St. David's railway station. And then we would have been off to another festival...but as they hadn't paid us from last year! 'A Sussex Peepshow' the diary of travelling Punch & Judy performer, Walter Wilkinson in the 1930's sums up the life of the travelling player perfectly...

Monday, 27 August 2012

Science Day

Following on from the previous post; We did Science Day in North Devon in June as usual, but this time at Bideford College instead of the lovely lawn at Tapeley Park. But it did mean protection from the weather! And it was good to see that the smaller tipi which Deor devised himself could be put up in an indoor environment with high enough ceilings to great effect. It was a busy day, folks loved the storytelling and masks. We sold nothing at all, but then it was the wrong kind of crowd as different people seemed to come to those who come to Tapeley Park, despite the event always being under the auspices of the school. It was sad too as the charming Yolande who has kindly booked the Collective year after year for workshops in writing and colours of the rainbow, writing and soundscapes, junk carnivals and Science Day itself in schools and at the Park in N.Devon many times, (and indeed bought, read and liked 'Porlock the Warlock'!) is leaving Bideford College for Jersey. She will be sorely missed, and I and the whole Collective would like to thank her for all her support and her belief in the Collective and in Widsith & Deor.