Archive for the ‘Theatre Workshop’ Tag

Treasure in Hackney (Day 31)

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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.

brendan behan

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Stage Struck (Day 24)

Joan_Littlewood

It had to be done. Sitting on the stage of the legendary Theatre Royal in Stratford East. MacBook Air close at hand. My theatre chapter notes on me. Half an hour to spare. I began writing my chapter on Theatre starring Joan Littlewood and Joe Papp on the very boards where the Theatre Workshop was set up in East London by Joan and  her partner Gerry Raffles and where ground-breaking shows like Oh What A Lovely War came into the world.

I was there at the kind invitation of Stella Duffy, writer, novelist and performer, whom I first contacted after reading her Guardian blog about her project to revitalise and realise Joan and Cedric Price’s concept of the Fun Palace. She was running an Open Space to bring together all the potential partners in the 2014 project.

During the day I was privileged to meet a number of people who worked at this very theatre with Joan and collaborators both on and off stage including actor Murray Melvin and director Philip Hedley who kindly helped those gathered to understand where Joan and Cedric were coming from with their vision for Fun Palaces where theatre, arts and science could hang out together in the name of Fun and non-boring Learning.

I was energised simply on arriving in Stratford as this was my first time back since the closing sporting events of the Paralympics and was charged with happy memories of ten days volunteering down at London 2012 in the Media Centre/Press Office of the Olympic Park.

The theatre there is uniquely intimate, 450 seats but when you stand on the steeply raked stage every one of them seems within easy reach of your gaze and words. Acting has never really been my thing, I’ve always been happier behind the camera, but if I had to do it that’s a stage I’d like to give it my all from and the black bricks of the unusually deep stage (a depth created by acquiring the adjoining building at some opportunistic juncture) contain some essence of innovation and experiment which had me leave with fantasies of performing.

On my way out I bumped into a fellow Gee (no relation) whose path I’ve crossed on Facebook, partly through the random coincidence that her daughter and my grandmother share the same less than commonplace name. Lisa Gee is a published writer of books and journalism and during our enjoyable outdoor chat beside the Theatre Royal box office (where I took the opportunity to pick up tickets for the 50th anniversary revival of Oh What a Lovely War early next year) she was kind enough to share some insights into the publishing side of things.

Towards the end of the afternoon I had to head West again to attend a technical rehearsal in the bowels of Channel 4 for my Health Freaks commission which involves a live insert into a pre-recorded show which is technically tricky and needs split second timing. It was my first time back in C4 HQ since I started my sabbatical on 1st September. There were the best part of a dozen of us  in the small edit suite ranging from presenter Dr Pixie McKenna through the production manager of the TV show to the colleague making up the on-screen graphics. That ‘cosiness’ drove home how much of a work of collaboration and teamwork this kind of creativity is – a perfect note to end a Joan day (it was her birthday yesterday so the anniversary had been marked on the stage at the start of the day with some red flowers presented by Stella before a projected photo of Joan sitting on bombsite rubble in front of the Theatre Royal)  as Joan, for all her leadership, was a  tireless advocate of creative collaboration and collective creation.

Murray Melvin actor Theatre Royal Stratford view from stage Theatre Royal Stratford

Bright Light (Day 23)

Joe Papp

The more I learn about Joe Papp and the Public Theatre the more interesting the comparison with Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop looks. It will be interesting to have a couple of dual case studies like this for variety though it ups the workload/research significantly. The Art chapter could go down a similar route. That was the focus of the morning’s activity.

Lunchtime was a very extended affair in the style of old school journalism. I met up with a local, Martin Bright, formerly of The New Statesman and The Observer, now running an ambitious social enterprise called Creative Society (set up under the banner New Deal of the Mind, indicating its historic roots in the job creation of the Depression – it creates jobs for the disadvantaged young mainly in the creative industries). He was just back from being interviewed by Vanessa Feltz on London Radio about the Ralph Miliband affair.

I brought Martin up to speed on my writing activities and he made some excellent suggestions for Journalism related people and set-ups. It was fascinating how much what he is doing and what I am writing about overlap or interconnect.

On my return from Maurizio’s cafe I got a bit caught up with a tangent into the colourful world of Charles Bukowski before knuckling back down to a last burst of writing for the week (about Paul Arden). I also began setting up my Advertising interviews.  I went beyond my 5pm deadline and was left wanting to carry on but having to return to domestics, which is a good position to conclude the week. I regularly get to the weekend now disappointed the week is already ending rather than relieved the weekend is upon us.

Though this is a very exciting weekend for me as it sees the coming to light of Was It Something I Said with David Mitchell, Richard Ayoade and Micky Flanagan, a project that has been the best part of two years in the making, in the journey from Quotables, from digital to TV. It’s on at 10pm on Sunday on C4 straight after Homeland, good slot I think. It’s a comedy panel show about stuff people have said and written.

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