Archive for the ‘theatre royal stratford east’ Tag
Wow, where did that come from? One minute I’m walking along with three charming lunch companions, the next minute the rain and hail is so intense I can’t even see across the street to the Audio-Visual District HQ in an old market building, open to the air. As previously reported, it’s Spring here and seemingly that means extreme shifts of weather. This time yesterday I was sunbathing on a stone seat – now I’ve ducked into a cosy but lively café, the Decata, with thunder and lightening punctuating the background music in here.
Lunch was very enjoyable in a German-owned place which gave me the chance to switch from my Spantaliano to Deutschpagnol. My three companions were a young TV presenter-producer who fronts a show in Venuezuela, a fella from Colombia who loves punk (Pistols Tshirt yesterday, Clash today) and a translator-scriptwriter. They filled me in on the harsh realities of the closed economy here (pretty much the opposite of London and what makes it tick – advantage of being an island, where trading is second nature) and I felt their frustration at how it hemmed in their creativity, natural entrepreneurialism and energy.
This morning I went back to Mediamorfosis to listen to a session on multiplatform history by Alvaro Liuzzi. His project on the Malvinas conflict 30 years on was particularly interesting. Veterans joined in the Twitter narration by publishing extracts from their long-forgotten war diaries. A journalist found an undeveloped Kodak disposible on the islands and used the project to help track down the soldiers who showed up in the developed photos.
Next up was Robert Pratten of Conducttr, an East Ham man who talked through the very interesting and well integrated Twitter game he developed for Canal Plus in Spain for Game of Thrones. He had some keen observations on patterns around transmedia which were great food for thought. He, like me, places great emphasis on the centrality of the audience.
Damian Kirzner who organised Mediamorfosis is the long lost twin of my friend Jim Dwyer in Dublin. I’m going to make a point of engineering an opportunity for them to meet face to face. Damian pressed his two teenage sons into service as well as his good lady wife making the whole thing a delightful family affair, lovingly crafted. The two boys couldn’t have been more solicitous in taking care of dad’s Brit mate.
The storm has somewhat bollocksed my planned flaneur activities for the afternoon so I’ll sit here Hemingway-like on the trusty Air (in my head a portable Halda) and rethink…
The solution was meat.
Two and a half days in Argentina and no red meat. I had to do something about it. I headed across town with Robert and a taxi load of super-friendly Argentine women from Mediamorfosis to the Teatro Picadero where, beside a newly and beautifully restored theatre, warmly lit throughout, was steak. Not the stake of stakeholders and other arts jargon from subsidised theatre. Steak as in the two truckloads of cows I spotted on Day 1 coming in from the airport. We had dinner hosted by Marina Marchesotti, boss of the Picadero, along with people from the British Council, the Picadero and Direct TV from LA. Red wine flowed. A pile of meat duly arrived. The evening flowed happily.
A couple of things that have cemented themselves in my head today:
- Argentines do a single kiss – consistently (no European double, even men do it much of the time on other men)
- Argentines commonly have Italian names
- Apart from the grumpy taxi driver on Day 2, everyone here is genuinely friendly and warmly welcoming.
This year’s The Story annual one day conference/gathering, brainchild of my former Channel 4 colleague Matt Locke, launched during his time at C4, was the fifth. I’ve been to all but one, last year’s when I ended up being abroad on the day and passing on my ticket to a colleague, producer Jorg Tittel. The bitter-sweet hand-over took place at the Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall where Jorg and his wife’s (Alex Helfrecht) excellent production of The Sun Also Rises was playing. I can remember that because it is a conference I actually care about and missing it is bothersome.
It was interesting coming into this year’s model off the back of my story-writing sabbatical. What for me turned out to be the highlight and emotional core of The Story 2014 was a direct result of that sabbatical work. One of the chapters of my book, When Sparks Fly, is centred on Joan Littlewood. I began writing that chapter on the stage of the Theatre Royal Stratford East – it was lunchtime, no-one was about, I had my laptop on me and an hour to spare before the event I was attending resumed – it had to be done. Theatre Royal Stratford East was Joan’s theatre, this year is her centenary and the event was a big gathering to help realise a vision of Joan’s she ultimately couldn’t pull off in her lifetime, the Fun Palace. The baton of her dream has been picked up by Stella Duffy who filled The Story slot just before the midday break. Having heard about her plan back in October to realise the dream in this centenary year by catalysing local events across the nation and beyond which bring Art and Science to regular people in an entertaining, fun way, I thought Stella’s story would add to The Story in this particular year and hooked her up with Matt. She had helped me get going on my Littlewood/Theatre chapter and between that chat and the Theatre Royal Stratford East event my instinct was that she would fit right in to the proud heritage of The Story speakers just so.
As it turned out, her slot was more than I could have dreamed. She used her three decades experience of improvisational theatre to create a spontaneous and focused energy of extraordinary impact. She picked up on the contribution just before hers, Kenyatta Cheese on the history of the animated GIF and its role in digital storytelling, an account which used Disney’s Snow White as the vehicle for its narrative, and started by getting six volunteers out of the audience (rarely have I seen people move so fast to get up on stage and help, including Matt’s twin brother and his old BBC friend Tony Ageh, a subsequent speaker) and used them in place of a white board as a living graph-cum-tableau to illustrate the dynamics of a classic (Dionysian) story structure – the one underlying Snow White and, as Stella livelily demonstrated, the New Testament. You can see this coup de theatre here.
She went on to explain the background of the Fun Palace as conceived by Littlewood and architect Cedric Price. She, perhaps somewhat controversially, pulled up one of Price’s drawings and suggested it had formed an important ‘inspiration’ for Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre. And then she explained how we all (and you all) and everyone can get involved. Everything you need to know to make a Fun Palace in your neighbourhood on the weekend of Joan’s 100th birthday you can find here. (And by the way, they need a media sponsor so if you can help please get in touch with Stella or her partner Sarah Jane Rawlings).
What made this perfectly judged performance all the more remarkable is that Stella has been having full-on breast cancer treatment recently and this was her first post-operative outing. She had to high-tail it off the stage to go straight to the hospital to have her dressing changed. A true inspiration capping a brilliant morning of all manner of story-telling.
Meg Pickard, ex-Guardian Head of Digital Engagement, presided, geeing up the already up-for-it crowd. The house charity, Ministry of Stories, set up by Nick Hornby, Ben Payne and Lucy Macnab, was showcased by Ben, demoing in a couple of videos the impact this imaginative literacy and story-telling project is having on the children and supporting adults involved. I walked past their Monster Shop in Hoxton Street just last weekend when out in flaneur mode with Enfant Terrible No. 1 and enjoyed how the display of MoS goodies like Fang Floss, some kind of monster snot, and Bah Humbugs fitted into the Hoxton context.
First up of this year’s featured speakers was the engaging Bryony Kimmings. She explained the genesis of her Catherine Bennett project, a fun music project based on a manufactured popstar, played by Bryony as shaped by her 9 year-old niece, Taylor. Bryony mentioned a Stamford study which centred on asking kids what type of person they wanted to be when they grew up. For years the answer “Kind” came top of the list every year until a certain point in the 90s(?) when Kind dropped to 16th and “Famous” took top spot. Catherine Bennett, pop star and paleontologist, is designed as an antidote to the fame-seeking and twerking inflicted upon children today. The Miley Cyrus debate hit half way through the process of creating CB, emphasising its timeliness, a process which led to the creation of a stage play for kids, one for adults and a touring workshop for schools which we saw video of. I was charmed.
Next up was Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth who gave us insights into their film ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ featuring Nick Cave. The dynamic duo met at Goldsmiths in 1992 and discovered they hated the same things. Then they discovered they hated the same things as Cave and a music documentary with a difference was born. Made by Film4 and the always interesting Pulse, they set out to make the antidote to rock docs by resetting the expectations of the audience (they covered nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-something days or so just in the title sequence) and embracing the myth of their subject who plays his mythologised self pretty well. Self-mythologising is the subject of Chapter 2 of my book – centred on another UK music industry stalwart, Tony Wilson. Although they slipped into art jargon easily with art-school-bingo words like “practice” and “strategy” punctuating their commentary, Jane and Iain clearly communicated the kind of truth they were after, the emotional truth. A key sequence at the heart of the film features psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader who was in my year at uni and marked himself out by hanging out with Jacques Derrida in the holidays while I as a lowest-of-the-low runner was driving film gear around London to promo shoots for Simply Red, Duran Duran and the like. He grilled Cave for ten hours until Nick “just couldn’t be bothered to lie any more”. This interrogation brought out Cave’s greatest fear – losing his memory – and memory proved the key to the film as Iain and Jane created a Nick Cave archive in the basement of Brighton Town Hall to help get to a truth beyond the mementoes and facts. As Jane memorably said:
“the truth just doesn’t matter – we should create, imagine and lie – it’s good for us”.
Illustrator Kyle Bean really pumped my nads with a talk entitled Materials & Messages. He specialises in tactile illustration – in other words,to fulfil mainly magazine/press illustration commissions he makes things from everyday materials and photographs them to create his 2D output. These range from a mobile phone Russian doll to a jelly hand-grenade, all best grasped by having a look at his portfolio here. He often uses word-play and combining pairs of concepts to prompt his creative approach. For a recent article on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden he combines a USB stick with a sports whistle to get the point across concisely and with impact. He has a real spareness which reminds me of a graphic artist well represented on the walls of my home. The other night I went round for dinner to the home of Naomi Games, daughter of graphic designer and poster supremo Abram Games who was a mentor for my mum when she was at London College of Printing. Abram had a ruthlessly spare style with nothing wasted in all his work, from the Festival of Britain logo to his famous ATS poster.
The afternoon also brought a rich mix of pleasures.
Foley Artist Barnaby Smyth illustrated his cinematic art (sound effects) with a scene from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie which he worked on. He then did a live demo (for which we all closed our eyes, no peeking), memorably using tearing celery to create the sound of a corpse being ripped apart by dogs. TTSS was made at DeLane Lea which reminded me of my introduction to moving picture media as a child at DeLane Lea in Dean Street, watching Hungarian TV puppet shows for kids being dubbed into English by Louis Elman, as recalled here.
The Editor of Wired US, Bill Wasick, flew in to tell us a bit about the stuff of his recent book to do with why things go viral. He sat on the edge of the stage like a nice teacher with patches on the elbows of his proverbial corduroy jacket. He had very attractive yellow and white slides I’m going to copy. And he invented flash mobs.
Tony Ageh of the BBC Archive, iPlayer, City Limits et al, went a step further and brought a chair on stage to do a full-on Ronnie Corbett routine which went down a treat. He reflected on his career and the theme of Lists which seems to weave through it, all in a warm, understated way. His anecdote about how the iPlayer was thought up was a cracker. He concluded with a heart-felt plea for iPlayer to move on from being the first bit of BBC technology ever to carry BBC content only. Imagine, he conjoured up, a radio which only played BBC programes. It should never happen. It’s not what the BBC was put on Earth to do.
And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, novelist Meg Rossoff, who wrote her first novel aged 46, managed to wrangle a divergent shaggy horse story to illustrate the passage from the conscious mind to the unconscious in writers which develops with practice and helps bring dream into everyday life, thereby enabling her – and she encourages others – to “write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place”. Makes a lot of sense of William Burroughs, with whom my book opens, who spent decades consistently taking the trip into that deep, dark place…
Gruff Rhys provided a music interlude with a journey story which roved from his native North Wales across the frontiers of America in a delightfully absurd meander.
Armagh non-poet Philip Larkin brought this to my life, for which thanks. He’s a big fan of Vine and has a good sense of how to deploy those 6 moving seconds for comedy.
Lisa Salem told us a bit about her Walk LA with Me project which was interesting though felt like it could use the lightness of touch of an old school flaneur.
And the day was brought to a heavy-weight end by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger telling us a story about a man called Edward Snowden, a character called Glen Greenwald and a big baddie called NSA which frankly was so fanciful and absurd I reckon he should try his hand at non-fiction 😉
So, bottom line, there aren’t many better ways to spend a Friday.
Here’s an old Friday called The Story 2012 for anyone who wants a yardstick to make a comparison. Thanks to Matt Locke and the Storythings team for a top day.
Day 80 was just a couple of hours really. It was the day after Boxing Day so didn’t count 100% as a working day. I carried on pulling the research material together into the first draft of the Joan Littlewood chapter. Then I had an urge, mid flow, to try to write the emblematic scene which opens each chapter, designed to capture the essence of the protagonist. In this case I opted for a scene from the performance of The Hostage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958. It’s based on my interview with actor Murray Melvin. It’s actually the bit of the interview where my recorder crapped up on me for the one and only time so far but luckily I wrote down the main points on the Central Line home from Stratford – just as well as I’d already forgotten the finer details which surprised me. Even though it’s only been a couple of months I forgot which play it is associated with and what Behan actually said. The first draft I wrote from memory. Then thought to check my record and now I’m fixing it this morning (Day 81).
The point of the scene is that Brendan Behan regularly attended the production and had a habit of interrupting from the auditorium much to the delight of the audience. This meant the actors were put on edge which is something Littlewood liked as it kept the play fresh and alive during the run and underlined the participative nature of her theatre in that the audience, the actors, the writer and her as director all had significant contributions to make to make the play the best thing it could be.
The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
Two meetings with Philips with one L. Firstly with Philip Dodd, formerly of Sight & Sound and the ICA, now a regular arts & ideas broadcaster on BBC Radio as well as a pioneer of British business & culture in China. He reads an awful lot of books so his guidance with this one was invaluable, some higher level perspectives to help avoid specific bear traps. We met where Fitzrovia meets Bloomsbury, the literary territory both Philips call home.
A midday interval in the grounds of UCL writing en plein air. Have Air will travel.
Then a long interview session with the second Philip – Philip Hedley, formerly artistic director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East in the wake of Joan Littlewood’s regime, joining as Assistant Director at the tail-end of that era around 1973. Philip talked with insight as the afternoon sun faded outside his art deco apartment building, the room darkened and his face became silhouetted. At the end of day 41 I was watching Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View which makes an art form of silhouettes in architectural frames.
Philip and I had begun chatting outdoors at the cafe opposite, his regular, in the cul de sac where GLO Productions was when I was setting out on my career. A fella called Gordon ran it til it went bankrupt; Tim Pope directed promos for them, produced by Lisa Bryer who went on to produce the likes of Film4’s The Last Kind of Scotland. I haven’t been in that streetette since the day of the winding-up meeting in the late 80s. A short stretch of the long and winding road…
The room we were subsequently talking in, home to Philip H for some 40 years, once housed a hastily convened meeting called by Joan to address the future of the Theatre Royal as Joan & Gerry’s time there was closing. Unusually she was taking the minutes herself. At the meeting she had strongly advocated the collective direction of TRSE, adamant that no leader was needed to succeed her. In the minutes she wrote that everyone turned their eyes to Philip when the issue of leadership surfaced but Philip made no response. The gap between her perception or recollection and Philip’s was Joan’s dramatic imagination, her romanticisation and theatricalisation of life which fuelled her creativity and characterises her autobiography, Joan’s Book, in which she recounts events in ways many struggle to recognise. As someone who ‘founded her life on the rock of change’ (a phrase she used to Philip in his five hour job interview for the Stratford gig) I suspect a book would be anathema, too fixed and rigid and not forward looking or moving…
I’m writing this post in the grounds of University College London (of which one of my forebears was a founder – I found out earlier this year whilst researching my family tree online) – opposite Birkbeck College where my dad got his PhD (having arrived in London from Leipzig in 1938). It’s a nice spot to write, with its air of bookishness and naively optimistic youth.
Day 40 was centred at BAFTA where I am No. 26 member of the Interactive branch. I don’t really use it often enough as a pied-a-terre. Maybe because it’s so close to Hatchards (est. 1797) which always costs me money. I went in there for a browse between meetings and came away with a signed copy of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. As I looked around the enticing book displays, the sheer volume of material published, the wonderful variety of subjects, I oscillated between: I can do this – No I can’t – I can do this…
My first meeting was a last minute addition through Alfie Dennen (who I’ll interview for the contemporary/digital strand of the book) with a TV producer from CCTV in China. I gave him a few ideas to help with a series he’s doing on European cities (London, Paris, Berlin).
As he was leaving he got to meet my interviewee who had just returned from a long stint in China as voice coach for Nicholas Cage on his current movie. Gaye Brown acted under Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as touring with Oh What a Lovely War around Britain. She was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as well as in some classic TV from On The Buses to The Goodies. She also worked in The Establishment, Peter Cook’s club in Soho, alongside Jason Monet, grandson of Claude and the person my youngest brother was named after. She’s the first person other than my mum (who was at art school with him) I’ve ever heard mention that name.
Chatting to Gaye was a delight – story after charming story of acting in the 60s and 70s in particular, and of hanging out in London during that era, all framed by a rich mix of a life.
The rest of the afternoon involved reverting back to the Advertising world and tapping away on Paul Arden as the autumn sun raked along Piccadilly.
Headed East for the afternoon to meet actor Murray Melvin who was a key player in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE). He was in the original and West End cast of Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 and played the hostage in Behan’s The Hostage. He started working with Joan in the late 50s when he was an office worker and untrained in acting beyond some am dram. He was born in Kentish Town (as was ArkAngel Productions) and he grew up in Hampstead High Street, when it was a very different place from what it is now. Joan spotted something in him and took him on. He now pays that back by maintaining and building her archive at TRSE and has done assiduously for 22 years. After the interview he was going to see the latest production so he can give his notes which the director appreciates, plenty of wisdom to tap into there.
Murray brought me up to his room, a rich red den containing Joan’s library which he has rescued (it’s around a quarter of what it once was) and housed in specially made shelves also in TRSE red, that traditional theatrical red that goes with gilt. He emphasised that she was a voracious reader of broad range. The volume that jumped out at me was Alvin Toffler’s FutureShock which for me screams 70s – my mum had the US paperback edition on recommendation from some hippy-type, it may have been Pete, the lifeguard at the Thatched Barn swimming pool with the cool earring. That’s why she also has Trout Mask Replica among her records.
We spoke for just under an hour in a free-flowing way (though hitting all the points/questions in my notes) about many aspects of Joan’s work from her attitude to community to her process of collaborative creation, from Brendan Behan to Shelagh Delaney, from her take on Ego to her relationship with Gerry Raffles, from the influence of European theatre to the fact you never touched her, she maintained a block of space around her. I hope to publish the interview in the online archive for this book.
On the way home I received an email from Toni Arden, wife of Paul, which opened up another interesting vista…
I’m on the Tube heading for home from Stratford. I’ve just been interviewing actor Murray Melvin at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he worked with Joan Littlewood.
It was the first outing for my LiveScribe smart-pen as recommended by Jemima Kiss of The Guardian for interview recording. It performed fine but I ballsed up the last bit (5 mins) because of a technical mistake (you need to restart record mode when you change pages in the smart-notebook (it ain’t that smart).
So I want to capture that last bit for posterity while it’s fresh in my mind as it was about Brendan Behan. Murray played the hostage in the original TRSE production of the eponymous play.
Most importantly he poopooed the notion that Joan wrote any of Behan’s stuff.
Behan habitually attended performances of The Hostage in Stratford and would get up mid-show in the auditorium to interject. For example, after a song: “I’ve written an extra verse for you.” The audience loved the disruption. So did Joan as it kept the actors on their toes and the performance fresh and alive. And the new verse would be even better than what was already in the script.
Murray felt Joan loved the “destructive” nature of Behan’s character. In the same way that she was drawn to the destructive energy of the teenage boys hanging out in front of the Theatre with her encouragement.
Murray emphasised that Behan was from a family of storytellers. He would regale the company with stories, prompted by Joan. “Tell us the one about…” He’d go on for three hours then notice the time. The bar’s open, he’s off. Then Joan would ask the assembled actors: “What did he say about your character?” and scribble down furiously the collective memory of what had been said. From that she’d spot the moments of real brilliance and extract from the 3 hours 3 minutes of pure gold.
A theatrical day. Started with a performance in front of 20-year old University of Syracuse students illustrating the principles of multiplatform TV creation. Went smoothly though the fella who was sitting for some reason with his red trackie bottoms round his ankles, mercifully with running shorts on underneath, did distract me momentarily. Otherwise a friendly and respectful class. That warmed me up for a trip to E8 to a quiet back road off Kingsland Road in Dalston to immerse myself in the thespian world of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.
I went to interview two women who worked closely with Joan at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) in the 60s and 70s. When I arrived a Stratford native who had been part of the army of kids who gathered around the Theatre with Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles’ encouragement, keeping them engaged and as much as possible away from trouble, was sitting having a quiet cup of tea with the interviewee who was kindly hosting. Her job revolved around the community outreach work which kept the Theatre and company in close touch with day-to-day reality and relevance. The 45 year old connection between him and her was clearly still strong and affectionate. She could recall the name of every child in every photo from back then.
A long table had been carefully arranged for me with documentation from Joan’s activities extending from just after the War til the 70s – photographs, clippings, letters, programmes. A bottle of water and a glass was left thoughtfully by the chair. It took me two hours, fuelled on the coffee and chocolate biscuits that kindly followed, to get as far as 1963 where I parked up tantalisingly at the cliff-hanger of Oh What a Lovely War. The two things that most stood out for me was the material on Brendan Behan, which for all the tragedy of the drink and the pantomime Irish stuff, drew attention to what a wit he was, a worthy compatriot of Wilde; and a photo album of Great War photographs which served as research/source material for Oh What a Lovely War. It ranged from prints of Haig and the high command via aircraft and newly emerged tanks to nurses and troops in wrecked churches – no idea where Joan acquired these from but it was no ordinary collection. Detailed research and a documentary sensibility were critical to the evolution of the landmark show. I’m going back for Round 2 in this extraordinary archive in a few days, accompanied by Adrian Dunbar who has recently been playing Behan on stage in New York.
The double interview – the two women specifically requested to be interviewed together as they enjoy the fact they have slightly different perspectives on TRSE and naturally fall into a bantery double act – was illuminating and free flowing. They both preferred not to be recorded (which surprised me, I’d have expected the opposite in the interests of accuracy) so we had a not over-structured chat from which the complex character of Littlewood emerged strongly if not clearly. She evidently had at least as many contradictions, ambiguities and complexities as the rest of us, probably many more to match what the second interviewee described unequivocally as her genius. Our host made it clear that the total focus Joan had on her theatre work, that her genius, was only possible because her partner/lover Gerry in particular (and her colleagues to some extent) dealt with all the everyday demands and realities – cooking, shopping, paying the bills and rent, transport, the lot. A gender reversal perhaps but a common dynamic – behind many if not every creative genius lies a person who cares and supports in a quotidian, quiet way.
The thing that most struck me during the afternoon was a photograph by the door in. It showed Joan working hard on a patch of waste ground by the Theatre which they were preparing to squat as a venue for kids and community activities. An army of urchins were lending hands. Over Joan’s shoulder is a beautiful dark-haired teenage girl. Radiating energy she is marshalling the younger children. This was my host back in the late 60s. Despite her youth, she’d already made a name for herself racing scooters and setting speed records. She still has 30 scooters out back of her tardis-like house. For all her energy and friendliness, her edge and integrity, I’d never have guessed from her outward appearance when I first met her on stage at the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago that such stories lie behind her. I am constantly amazed and shaken out of my assumptions by the stories of ‘everyday’ people.