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.