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Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Valuation of Despair

Despair is vital to the artistic process.  I like despair, in small quantities.  The small quantities element is important.  Laughter is the same.  You should encourage laughter, but not too much.  Take the rehearsals - I do like to encourage laughter in a rehearsal room, a little banter, a few double entendres and then good natured verbal abuse.  Nothing gets a rehearsal room going than reminding everyone that they're barely adequate.
I, of course, joke.  For the most part the rehearsal room runs on a fair amount of waffle from me, some actual running of the material and then carefully judged judgements - based not on the quality of the work I've just seen, more judgements chosen by how much the person on the other end can cope with.  Push the cast... push... push... oh, are those tears in their eyes?  Pull back!  Pull back!
Again, some exaggeration there.
Keeping a rehearsal room moving forward is the key.  Keep the work from bogging down, make sure everyone feels like they've got just that little bit better at their job by the end of the session, but not letting the room go too far.  You mustn't have too much fun.  The odd rehearsal will descend into hysterics, nothing will get done and everyone will go home feeling elated but also just that little bit dirty.  Dramatically soiled.
If the whole rehearsal schedule runs the way of laughter then you're in danger of sucking all the magic of the play into yourselves, like fun hogging self satisfied lumps of smugness.  When the audience arrives they feel they've missed the party, the in jokes are isolating, the fun has killed the fun.
That said, whenever I'm directing or writing I tend not to feel in the least bit like having fun.  It is an active chore to keep everyone ticking over, keeping it light, when deep down every minute of the process is a knife in my soul.  All directors and writers know this feeling - it's partly built out of the despair of inadequacy (nothing I can stage will ever reach the heights I dream of, boo-hoo, woe is me) but also because you have to appear cheerful on a semi-professional basis, so any problems you have with the cast, the team or the universe have to be stuffed down into a deep dark hole for the duration of the work.  'Ha ha, we're doing that scene I hate again, God why do I bother with this worthless existence, pass the valium.'  Again, some exaggeration.
Why then do I continue to work during these patches of despair?  Well, because much of my best work is done during periods of immense emotional turmoil.  I had to direct a play I really didn't like this year.  I really didn't like the play, I really wanted to do anything other than direct the play, I really wanted to be doing anything else in the universe rather than sit through another run of this dull interminable second rate text which seems to have bewitched the cast into telling me every rehearsal that it's the best play ever written, and I've been ordered to pretend I like the play so can't say what I really think, and you know what?  EVERYONE LOVED IT!  Typical.
The last show, The Natural History of Trolls, went through a few dips like that during the writing.  I worked on it for several weeks hating the damned thing; it wasn't going to work I convinced myself.  As the show got closer I got more and more stressed about the text, finding it remarkably difficult to learn the lines (another good sign that the text isn't well written) and then, on the first night, it all came together beautifully.  I got to sit and watch about 1/3 of the show and sense how it was coming across.
Blow me, the show worked.  People liked it.  Because it was good.  Because I was just being paranoid.  I remember this little trials as I prepare the return of Trolls later in the year, to Suffolk and London.  It's a revival show now - it's about doing the text well, not about hueing words at the coal face of drama.  Which brings me back to the fun at rehearsing it during the run at the New Wimbledon.  If you'd like to have a little look at the process of rehearsing Trolls have a little look at my vlog.  It's an old one, but worth watching if you missed it.  Look at my Wallace and Gromit hands.
So, in conclusion, for artists out there who are wrestling with a text / production that is stabbing you repeatedly through the heart, don't worry: despair can be good.  But you do need to fight the despair and work through the project till you come out the other side.  Sometimes the work you're doing is actually quite good.  Except when your paranoia isn't actually paranoia, when they are actually out to get you and everything you've produced is really rubbish.  Then you just have to take it on the chin and become an accountant, like all the other failures.

The Natural History of Trolls will next appear at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury on Sunday 20th November at 7.30pm.  Tickets are £7 and available now from the Quay Box Office: 01787 374 745
It returns to London for two weeks during the run of Storyteller, at the Barons Court Theatre from Tuesday 29th November.  Tickets will be available shortly.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

I was standing in the bar the other night...

I don't get out much, it must be acknowledged, but the other night I was at a very nice party and taking the opportunity to ask people: "do you know any ghost stories?"  Mostly the answer was a no.  I would then move onto question number two: "do you believe in ghosts?"  One reply was very much to the point.  Upon asking whether they believed in ghosts they said something like this (I had been drinking so I paraphrase what I remember):
"I don't believe in ghosts, but I don't not believe in them."
This I feel covers a fair number of popular beliefs - but covers the supernatural rather well.  People don't really believe in ghosts but they can't deny that some peoples accounts of ghosts can't be explained.  There might be some logical reason behind the noises and the figures and these might not, quite, be nonsense spooky magic stuff.
The more I delve into real genuine peoples accounts of ghosts, the more I hear the don't but do.  Something doesn't make sense, even if we disagree about the limits of that lack of sense.
I was on the phone today with a lovely woman who told me all about a poltergeist that haunted, not so much her house as her family (as poltergeists are supposed to do).  I cannot say what it was happened to her family, (though I am sceptical about some of the theories expounded about it by some of the people who had spoken to her) but I cannot say it didn't happen.  This gap between real accounts and the ghost story is where I think my Ghost Story show will go.  My stories will be made up, but I will bookend them with accounts.  As I said in my last blog, real accounts do not make great entertainment.  Of interest, yes.  Important, yes.  Riveting for 90 minutes... less so.  So the real will be there to add source to the unreal, to lend the seed of doubt into our world of certainties.
And if someone comes up to me in a bar and asks me: "Do you believe in ghosts?" I have a ready made newly stolen reply.  Thank you party.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Blog I WAS going to write.

There is a mountain of difference between accounts of hauntings and ghost stories.  The first, a haunting, is a questionable account of something going bang in the night which is brief, uninformative and often downright dull.  I'm sure the experience of having a figure in white wander through your three piece suite at three o'clock in the morning is very exciting to the participant, but a great story it does not make.
Ghost stories, on the other hand, are a very different kettle of spectral fish.  They have to develop a narrative, a sense of character, a sense of atmosphere and, most importantly, are largely made up.  An account of a 'real' haunting, depending on your belief in such things, runs the risk of biting you on the bum.  If you talk about a 'real' ghost out of turn and he might start haunting your toilet in revenge, which might be a boon for the terminally constipated.
Account of hauntings are almost always brief.  Something happens.  It's a bit weird.  It happens randomly and sometimes never does it again.  This makes for very dull listening.
"There was the tale of the haunting of an old pub.  Footsteps could be heard in the cellar - where no one was.  The end."  Repeat till audience wants to slit their wrists.
So the professional storyteller does not write about 'real' ghosts.  S/he makes it up.  S/he looks for some other story to tell which the haunting can stir up.  S/he mixes up random effects of hauntings and gives them purpose.  Direction.  Malice.  And then proceeds to attempt to scare the living daylights out of people - or, in my case, leave them with a tantalised thrill of fear, as well as other effects peculiar to my particular style.
There's a strong connection between the problems writing a ghost story and the problems writing soap opera.  The Soap is a flawed and self destructive format - trying to achieve two almost completely incompatible effects at the same time.  1. To reflect real life. 2. To be interesting.  Real life, like accounts of hauntings, tends towards the repetitive, the dull, the tedious - but this has to be simulated in a dramatic format that must grip week in, week out.  So the real life stories get junked and melodrama starts to pile in.  In ghost stories this happens when the hauntings go too far and stop being scary because they've become silly.  Luckily for ghost stories they tend to be short.  Soaps have to have a cull and start again every ten years or so, and even then can't get away from melodrama.  Only The Archers managed, until recently, to balance the dull with the interesting - but radio can get away with such things.
But I digress: though I said I was going to make up my ghost stories, I am out on the hunt for other peoples - your own experiences or a tall tale as told.  I have a few good stories I was told in a pub once; I was assured that they were totally genuine, which means they were made up.  So drop me a line - - and anything interesting will be posted on the blog and may end up in the show, in a suitably altered, but credited, fashion.
I write much of this because of a conversation I had on a bus.  I was telling someone that I was doing ghost stories and that it was going to be a bit of fun.  I then sat back bemused as I was attacked for making light of a real spirit world that exists all around us.  My only response to that is simple - I reserve the right to make fun of anyone or anything, and the spirit world  - real or imaginary - is just as much a target.  We can't have ghosts taking themselves seriously - they might get above themselves.
It's not as if they pay taxes or anything.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Not the blog I was going to write.

I was going to write something nice and fluffy this week, something about ghost stories and how dull they can be, the challenge to write something exciting.  This long weekend has rather changed that.  Following the riots I've been thinking about a response.  I did, briefly, consider writing a piece of theatre about it.  I decided not.  Partly because I don't believe writing in heat produces good work, partly because in some ways I have already written about it and mostly because I just don't see any point.

The danger with producing a piece of theatre based on events is politics (both small p and big) get in the way of story.  I wrote a very bad piece of theatre based on current events a little under ten years ago.  It was exploitative, inaccurate and deeply shaming and I will never do that again.  A few years after that I watched a documentary which galvanised me to write about terrorism - but I had learnt my lesson and didn't write about it straight away.  I went away, thought, let the emotions cool, and looked for a story to write which would act as a prism for the issues raised.  The story and the prism came from me, the background came from a possible future, the piece was Fantasy Terrorist League.  It wasn't directly about terrorism, it was about the dangers of the response to terrorism and it was an effective line to follow.  Well, it won an award anyway.  And been the most consistent loss making piece of theatre I have ever written.

I have no story to write which I feel acts as a prism for the events of today - no effective prism anyway.  Watching the streets of London, Birmingham et al on television I saw something very familiar.  In the brief period I spent working in schools I kept seeing the image of teachers and students locked in a screaming match, I kept seeing an underclass who didn't understand, didn't want to understand, who were self obsessed in ways that terrified me.  All I could see was a scream.  I didn't write a play about this, I couldn't see what words I could use.  
I kept seeing that same scream on the streets of London, I kept seeing the same running battle between the teachers and students, police and youths, and I still couldn't see what else to write.

And then I remembered that I have already written about the events of this weekend.  A scene from Shoes That Angels Fear To Wear which we staged last year, but I wrote three or so years ago, lept up at me.  It's a scene in the middle of the play - after a brief moment of magic, of flying high over the streets of London - the characters of the play fall to the earth and into a fairly brutal real world.  One character is chased through the streets, is beaten by a mob and has rubbish thrown over him, all egged on by a teenage girl.  Whilst he is beaten the girl attempts to justify their actions to the audience, but drifts off into other subjects and ends up by talking about the possibility of going on holiday.

I think I saw clips similar to this on YouTube somewhere.

Normal Storytelling service will resume next week, when I have the will to write something to the purpose.
Stay safe.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Vlogs of the Trolls

I've been taking a little break from blogging for the last few weeks as not a lot has been happening.  I've been writing a bit, planning a bit and generally faffing around.  Normal service resumes next week, but first I've finally managed to edit together the video footage of the last two vlogs - which cover the weeks up to the run of The Natural History of Trolls at the New Wimbledon, as well as footage of rehearsals as they went on.
So these following are from the past - the show they will discuss as future haven't happened yet.

Vlog 13a: Two weeks or so prior to curtain up at the New Wimbledon...

Vlog 14: Footage from Day One and Day Two rehearsals from the New Wimbledon itself.  The footage isn't brilliantly shot, it was something of an after thought, but it does give an idea of what it's like to be directed by me.  It doesn't give any real impression of what the show is like, what anyones performance was like or what the space was like, as it's from the rehearsals and it is very dark.

So, next week I'll beginning blogging about the next Storyteller show, Ghost Stories.  There's quite a lot to say about that one... not sure where to begin.