Tuesday, 18 September 2012

edinburgh 2012, day two: dialogue st stephen's, best in the world, once in a house on fire, oh the humanity, me and mr c, the ugly sisters, paper stages, letter of last resort, good with people

[I feel more than a bit stupid publishing this. It's taken me a month to assemble. In retrospect, this is a massively self-indulgent idea. Also, it's embarrassingly long. Just to put you all off before you even start.]

6.43am, Thursday 16 August 2012. Bedroom door opens. Five year old. “Mummy, I need a poo.” I really should have gone to bed before 1.48am.

10.35am The cafe at St Stephen's has been rearranged so everyone coming to Dialogue's first live outing can sit in a circle. Disadvantages to this: when people start arriving to watch shows in the Northern Stage programme, the circle looks closed, as though they're not welcome in the conversation. Lesson one.

In the room are: Erica Whyman, artistic director of Northern Stage. Daniel Bye, Alexander Kelly, Chris Thorpe, Lucy Ellinson, Gary Kitchner, Helen and Abbi of Rash Dash, Annie Rigby, possibly Francesca Waite, all of whom are in or have directed work in the Northern Stage programme. Clare Duffy of Unlimited, here at Lucy's invitation; Amy Belson (press officer) and Joanna Hawkins (marketing officer) from Soho Theatre, and, briefly, BAC's David Jubb. Jake Orr, Honour Bayes, Matt Trueman, Dan Hutton, Catherine Love, Andrew Haydon and me, all of us at different stages of writing about theatre. Jake marvels later that we managed to create a space where a student (Dan), a theatre-writer in her very early 20s (Catherine), and the newly appointed assistant director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (Erica) could sit side by side as equals. Lesson two.

Something Jake and I talked about in organising Dialogue St Stephens was informality, wanting it to feel like a party where everyone is excited and talking but it's not just talking, there are performances, poetry – there are makers here, after all. None the less, even I'm surprised when Jake gets us started with a piece he's written called Who Am I?, celebrating the freedom in identity confusion, in piling label upon label on to yourself to create a plural not singular being.
I'm many things. I'm 24. I'm male. I'm a white middle class male. I'm gay. I'm a writer. I'm a foolish writer. I'm a blogger-come-writer-come-reviewer-come-critic. I'm a facilitator. I'm a maker. I'm a dreamer. I'm nothing. I'm confused. I'm bemused.
Dan Bye, who has less than half an hour with us, steers us next, into the topic of preparation: performers have a preparation ritual, but what do theatre-writers do to limber up for a night of reviewing? Do you address any assumptions about the work? Do you read the text in advance? What about the programme notes? Catherine talks about subjectivity, the lie that critics can be more objective if they don't expose themselves to publicity material. Jake brings up youth: not having a back catalogue of previous productions with which to compare a work. Annie talks about the effect of positive reviews – or, as Andrew clarifies, star ratings – and how they make audiences expectant in an aggressive way. Erica wishes the critics doling out star ratings were more specific about their expertise – especially when the demands on makers to demonstrate expertise are so stringent. Taste comes up, its effect on how people watch a show, and how rarely it's owned up to. Annie expresses a desire for properly critical engagement, reviews that give useful feedback – dramaturgical notes, Andrew suggests. Erica wishes feedback and negative criticism could happen in dialogue rather than print. Alex wonders where you have that conversation, and how to avoid a response to a review looking like sour grapes. It feels as though we're filling the room with bricks, cement, sand, water – but no one knows what exactly we're building or how to begin. Lesson three.

Next, a game. Annie had suggested in advance that she write a list of 10 things artists don't say to critics, and wondered whether we might compile a response. Her list is:
  1. So, did you like it?
  2. I know you've got a word limit, but now we're here together it would be great to talk about that sentence you wrote.
  3. So you say, “Just email me. Just send me a press release.” But you never reply. And I'm left not knowing whether you haven't read it, or you're not interested, or I wrote the wrong thing.
  4. Can we make some space to talk about what you got right and wrong? Like, if you could rewrite one review, what would it be?
  5. I'm giving your review 3 stars. Don't be disheartened. 3 stars is a good review.
  6. It's not a play. Get over it.
  7. It's a real problem that you never come north. It's not just that we want the coverage. It's more about getting some decent quality criticism.
  8. What made you want to be a critic?
  9. Some of us are making real financial and emotional sacrifices to make our work. Do you see this? Is it useful to know?
  10. How long do you spend writing a review? And how soon after a show do you write it? Are you happy with this?
A lot of this makes everyone laugh, but 9 and 10 make the writers in the room squirm. Especially 10: spending three hours on a review is such a meagre return for patient, time-consuming work spent making a show.

In return, my five things critics don't say to artists (I know, I flaked, I'm sorry):
  1. I fell asleep.
  2. I missed that key speech/ laughy bit/ image because I was too busy thinking about what I need to buy from Sainsbury's tomorrow.
  3. My head was too full of other stuff when I wrote about your show, so what I wrote could have been written just from the blurb/press release.
  4. Unlike the director, I have some really good, clear ideas for how to direct this show.
  5. It's not you, it's me.
Of those, I am personally guilty of 1, 2 and 5. And I really don't mean 5 to sound flip, even though it does. On those miserable evenings when everything happening in a theatre seems to be rotten, it's so easy to blame the makers, rather than your own palate – and to forget that someone else in the room might be having the time of their life.

I'm generally loathe to talk about star ratings, yet it's me that turns the conversation in that direction. Annie and Alex are talking about the frustration of wanting critics to see their work, and the belief that critics generate audiences, which raises some questions for me. Who are the useful people to come into the show? Does it stop at the broadsheets? Does it filter down to Andrew and Matt? Catherine and Dan? Is the thing that makes a review useful the star rating?

It's a wriggly writhing can of worms, one I've seen opened during at least four Devoted and Disgruntled sessions, to little positive effect. As a writer for a broadsheet, I know that the answer to Alex's question, “What would happen if critics refused to put star ratings on reviews?”, is: “Editors would put them on for you.” Of the people in the room, only Matt says he likes the system, because he considers stars “a tool for nuance”. I think they're a tool, too: a sledgehammer.
A star is a luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity.
Let's just leave them to be that.
That's Lucy. She argues that everyone loses out in the star system – even critics, because the stars override the actual writing. She also points out that if it's hard to be nuanced in a 200-word review, how is it possible to be nuanced in a 140-character tweet? The general feeling is that tweeting about theatre is irresponsible, unless to give an uncomplicated thumbs-up.

The discussion comes to the boil when Chris tells a story about a major theatre looking for a new artistic director, and two people who applied for that job. Both had had work reviewed in the run-up to the shortlist being drawn up, and the feeling among people connected to the building (if not the shortlist process) was that x, whose show had been given four stars, was in with a better chance than y, whose show had been given three – even though the work was very different. To prove that even the artist mindset has been infected by the star system, Chris asks the makers in the room: when you see a poster with a quote from a review, but no star rating, what do you think? The unanimous answer: three stars.

At this point, it becomes useful to have the Soho press/marketing team in the room (lesson four): for them, stars are the easiest way to get audiences through the door. Most people are lazy, says Amy. If a show has four stars, they come. If it has three, it's more of a challenge.

To which Lucy posits a let's-make-the-future alternative: what if theatres stopped using the stars for advertising, and instead of giving prominence to what broadsheet reviews say in publicity material, gave prominence to what bloggers say? How long would it take to shift the way audiences choose to see shows?

It's a big conversation, an unfinished conversation. A conversation full of holes: I'm acutely aware of St Stephen's audience members listening but not joining in, of the silence of Rash Dash, Gary and others in the space. There's a lot to digest before the Dialogue residency at BAC starts, a lot to learn for our next live outing (September 22, details here), but also from what Alex says about feedback to work in progress, and how the most useful thing about Scratch culture is not what gets said or written about the piece, but the voice in the maker's own head that gauges how the material is coming across to the audience.

Alex closes the session with his favourite piece of parenting advice: think about the adults you want your children to be, and be that person. As general rules for life go, that's pretty acute.

12.45pm Best in the World. In the library: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and a pile of self-help/motivational books. On the TV: darts champions through the ages. Research: an interview with Jonathan Edwards, who holds the triple jump world record. And memory: Ian Charleson's performance as Hamlet, weeks before his Aids-hastened death, in which he gave himself so utterly to the part that the lines between truth and fiction, person and performance, became blurred. The same could be said for Alex Elliott: “I'm going to be myself,” he tells us early on, “and I invite you to do the same.” But what does it mean to “be yourself”? Every self is a performance, modulated for an audience, be it a close friend or a bunch of strangers, the people from work or the parent who sees beneath the mask.

A few months ago, when Best in the World was at BAC, I didn't bother going, because I thought it wouldn't be my cup of tea. Wrongness. It's delightful on so many levels. Elliott is gorgeous to watch: generous, honest, funny, encouraging. He invites us to think about insecurity, inferiority complexes, the urge to brush off compliments, and offers an alternative: the possibility of a self-appreciation free of egoism. For a brief, glorious moment, we celebrate our own achievements, the moments of quiet heroism we never give ourselves credit for. (I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that, on the day I was there, most people talked about saving someone's life, whereas I drew attention to “the nights I stay up late writing about theatre”.) Our relationship with Elliott becomes almost that of preternaturally calm, attentive children and wise, gentle parent; essentially what he's telling us is to do your best, and it's not the winning but the taking part that counts, and practise makes perfect, all that soft-cushion support stuff that you find so excruciating when you're a teenager, then secretly long to hear in the big bad world.

It's a disjointed show, I heard a voice whisper in my head while I was watching it. Although every story and idea was connected thematically, the leaps between the different elements felt erratic. And something goes awry in the relationship with the audience: we participate gladly in the making of paper darts, and volunteer willingly to throw real ones, but when a party breaks out on stage everyone remains rooted in their seat, not wanting to commit a faux pas by joining in. This is so much a show about taking care of each other, being aware of each other, as individuals and as a group, an “audience”, that the fear of exposure feels out of place.

But those were quibbles, and so is this, which I mention only because it relates to a philosophical question floating around my family. Elliott talks at length about the circumstances of his father's death, which coincided with a particularly life-enhancing, challenging and absorbing job in Spain, and his decision not to attend the funeral. It's absorbing because you can't quite work out how Elliott feels, so tangled is the mixture of guilt, defiance, sorrow and gratitude. What I couldn't understand is why he didn't seem to regret not spending time with his father as he declined. As my mum says, frequently: what's the point in waiting to see someone until they're dead?

2.40pm Once in a House on Fire.

Chris Thorpe is just behind me in the queue to get in. The one thing I remember about his assessment of the morning's Dialogue session is him saying it was the beginning of something, and not some fucking Fugazi thing either. I love it when people talk punk rock.

After the euphoria of Best in the World, I found it difficult to settle into Once in a House on Fire. It's a slow-burn piece, adapted (by Sarah McDonald Hughes, a writer I don't know) from a memoir (by Andrea Ashworth, ditto) detailing a childhood experience of domestic violence, and set in a world that, despite the pitch-perfect soundtrack rooting it in late-1970s/early 1980s Manchester, feels very distant. Part of me suspects I'm betraying my poncy southerner soul in saying that: from what my friend Anne-Marie has told me about her childhood Mancunian home, it looked a fair bit like the one on stage (violence not included). But part of me thinks she might have felt a distance from the story, too, because Ashworth's youth was too appalling and unnatural for anything else. You can't know what it is to grow up scanning the heavens for the soul of your dead father, watching your mother's successive husbands and lovers beat her, hear her described as a masochist before you understand what the word means, never knowing when the blows will land on you instead, unless you've experienced something of that yourself.

You can, however, empathise, yet there is something so matter-of-fact about this piece that even empathy is kept at arm's length. The three women on stage, especially Andrea and her sister, project a profound self-sufficiency: they don't look beyond the family, let alone to the audience, for anything. Every punch is absorbed and life carries on, and that, too, is alarming. It wasn't until about 10 minutes before the end that I started thinking about my mum, and her experience of being beaten as a child by her mother, the coping mechanisms she had to construct for herself, the nightmares she still has, the impossibility of me knowing, really knowing, anything about what she went through. At the moment when Andrea escapes to university, my heart became so full of my mum, I could barely swallow.


6pm An unexpected chat with Melanie Wilson about Autobiographer: about the different women I know who felt profoundly affected by it, and those who weren't; the difference between responding to a show and reviewing it; the impossibility of a critic speaking for everyone in an audience. Autobiographer was a pivotal moment for me this year; getting to talk to the woman who made it feels magical. It's at this point I realise just how much I love this space that Northern Stage have made. It feels like a community, but one in which I belong. One in which I'm not afraid to talk to people: Northern Stage performers, other artists just visiting, other women on their own in the cafe. I don't do this in London. I sit quietly in a world of my own. At Northern Stage, that world of my own surrounds me.

6.40pm Oh, the Humanity and Other Good Intentions. I feel a little anxious going into this, and not just because exhaustion is starting to strike. I vividly remember seeing an earlier Will Eno play, Thom Pain (based on nothing) at Soho in 2004, and feeling two things in frequent oscillation: that the writing kept slipping away from me, or rather I kept drifting away from it, unable to grasp its content, its import – except in the moments when I was gripped by the writing as if by a vice, which squeezed so hard I felt physically sick. Five minutes into Oh, the Humanity, I felt that vice again, and revelled in its familiarity. And this time I knew: pay attention. Eno's voice is so light, so urbane and casual, his writing can seem throwaway. In fact, every word counts.

I might come back to this coruscating/excoriating collection of vignettes after seeing them again in London (five days before seeing the revival of Thom Pain at the Print Room: oh, the anticipation!), but some things it's necessary to say now:

One: Lucy Ellinson is phenomenal. Utterly, mind-blowingly, brilliant. She plays four women, and gives each one a slightly different American accent, an accent that manages to convey the woman's social class, her self-confidence and her ability to cope with the more-or-less horrific vagaries of day-to-day life; while at the same time maintaining enough of her (Lucy's) own idiosyncratic inflections that each accent feels not imposed but inhabited. Not only that, but she speaks with such subtlety that you don't realise how sharp and savage lines are until blood seeps from the wound they make. In Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently, she plays a humble office worker at an airline unexpectedly charged with apologising publicly to the families of people who died in a freak plane accident, who, for one brief, excruciating moment, swerves from the point to talk about the attempt to resolve her feelings about her father in a series of failed relationships with men whose weight upon her body was scant consolation. Words cascade from her mouth before her brain has even registered that it's forming sentences, but then she recognises how outrageously inappropriate she's being and a look of pained bewilderment flashes across her face that is as agonising to witness as it is exquisite.

Two: one of the women Lucy plays describes herself as “very ingoing”. Suddenly I know what I am.

Three: I didn't realise how much I wanted to see actors on stage pretend that two chairs are a car, fail to get the engine started, and announce that the problem is “they're chairs”, until I see it here.

Four: having established that the car is in fact chairs, the couple realise a man is staring at them. He introduces himself thus: “I am the beauty of things.” I melt. Perfect.

8.15pm Me and Mr C. There's barely 15 minutes between the end of Humanity and the beginning of Me, so it's a blessing that Gary Kitchner's show is so cheery and conversational to start. The first 25 minutes whizz by with him gathering resources from the audience: a horrible job; an experience of being called something ugly by an employer (I show him the scar from the day a former boss called me a stupid little cunt); stuff we have in our fridges; a kind and wise volunteer from the audience to assist him on stage (today, a chap called Ed). The tone is light and bantering, a bit like being at a stand-up gig, and the absence of the fourth wall just feels so right.

The lengthy introduction is so enjoyable that it's almost a disappointment when the show “proper” begins. It's a condition of the character: Me is humble, bumbling, scrabbles for words, and so does Gary when inserting our material into the shell of his script. But the show's energy and focus dissipate in the character's fuzz of hesitation. Still, two things are effective: the poignancy of Me's relationship with the silent ventriloquist dummy Mr C; and the scenes in which Me attempts to deliver stand-up and we, the real audience, pretending to be an audience, crush him with our heckling. It's all done at Gary's instigation, but the brutality of it is horrible. I couldn't do it, couldn't bring myself to take part. But if everyone had done the same as me, we would have broken the “real” show – and that would have been worse, wouldn't it?

9.30pm Lucy Ellinson and I agree that our heads are much too full. After she heads to the pub I chat to yet another woman on her own; she works in Cornwall, and gives me a flyer for Mayday Mayday, which I seem to miss everywhere it plays. In return I tell her excitedly about the Hunt and Darton cafe and Paper Stages. Ingoing me is startled by how outgoing I'm being.

10pm The Ugly Sisters. I take a seat next to another woman on her own, who leans over and asks if I know a man called x, naming my husband. They went to school together, and although she and I haven't met, she recognises me from Facebook. It's a mark of how excited I am by The Ugly Sisters that this doesn't send me screaming from the room. And I am excited: because I missed Rash Dash in Edinburgh last year, but heard lots of good things about them; because there's a band on stage playing lurching chords and punk-thump drums; because Helen and Abbi have back-combed their hair and look petulant and wild. The shy, silent women huddled on the sofa this morning have transformed themselves into pussy-riot-grrrls, Bikini Kill's Rebel Girls, snarling antidotes to every prissy image of princesses and prom queens that young women are expected to aspire to. And I love them I love them I love them. I love the way they collage music, heart-pulse music, music that throbs and stalks and croons and howls, with a magpie's horde of gilded pop culture, TV talent contests and trash romances, junk fashion and junkie aesthetics. I love the way they give their story chapters, and give their ugly sisters petulant beauty, and make the affirmation of a mother's love the one thing a young woman really needs. I love their anger, humour, honesty, rawness, tenderness towards each other. Yes, I want them to be telling another story about women, finding the new stories, the untold stories, not falling back on the same old fairy stories. But there is a long and brilliant tradition of feminist fairy-tale revisioning, and with The Ugly Sisters Rash Dash gloriously take their place on it.
Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.


1.15am The perfect end to a perfect day: reading Paper Stages in bed. It's not so much reading as hovering like a hummingbird in its vicinity, occasionally pecking at this phrase or that: there are playlets here to perform in public spaces and/or share with other people, journeys to take, phone calls to make. But when I reach Andy Field's Incidental Plays it's much harder to turn the page. The romance of them is irresistible.
Kiss Chase
Two people aimlessly chasing each other through the streets of the city
They switch roles almost imperceptibly
Ducking between cars
Across parks
Down narrow alleyways
Weaving through packed crowds of people
[Which didn't at the time, but now that I'm typing it out, makes me think of a lyric from this:]

HTTP 404 – File Not Found
People stood on opposite sides of a pelican crossing
Seemingly incapable of stepping out into the road
They gaze at each other longingly
As the lights turn from green to red
An indeterminate number of times
And as I close the book and turn off the light, love swells through me, for everyone who made Paper Stages, and everyone at Hunt and Darton, and everyone I have spoken to today.

6.45am Friday 17 August 2012. Bedroom door opens. Five year old. “Mummy, I think I need a poo.”

10.30am I have a ticket for Blink but have to return it to give me more time to rewrite Project 9. I knew at the time of the interviews that the organisation-producer-artist relationship I was exploring was incredibly vulnerable, and I've been remiss in squirrelling away the writing and not sharing it more. It's taught me to be more thoughtful, towards others, and their need for more and better communication, and particularly as a writer: I've extrapolated unnecessarily, for dramatic effect. It's taught me that while traditional journalism skills are useful here, they can also be damaging, in the ease with which they disregard human feeling and sensitivities. Above all, it's taught me to keep probing, keep asking questions, no matter how much more work it creates.

12.30pm Letter of Last Resort/Good With People, the Traverse. I bought my ticket for this days ago, thinking it a must-see: the reviews of David Greig's Letter from the Bomb season at the Tricycle made it sound brilliant, and I twice missed David Harrower's A Slow Air (in Edinburgh 2011 and earlier this year at the Tricycle) so felt the need to catch up with him. But by the time I arrive at the Traverse my enthusiasm has gone. As recognised the night before, at this fringe I'm not in a place of fourth-wall theatre; my brain is elsewhere. So Letter of Last Resort is very good, playful and sharp, restlessly circling, informative, challenging – but I'm just not gripped by it. The young American women next to me love it, despite the perplexing references to Radio 4 and the Archers. And Good With People is tense, tricksy, sneakily political, but it feels like a small piece in a big space, big enough for me not to share it. I curse myself for not having the perspicacity to book in advance for Bullet Catch instead.

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