Sunday, 19 January 2014

Carnival and BDSM (NSFW)

Ah, we all knew we'd end up here eventually: the carnivalesque. The popular description of pantomime and live art (they both challenge the norms of mundane existence and more formal theatre), the carnivalesque was coined by Bakhtin in a study of Rabelais and His World. Sneaking a peek at medieval carnivals, which he saw as an inversion of the status quo, he spots an anti-authoritarian energy. Having lived in Stalin's Russia, Bakhtin was looking for fun where he could get it. There's an almost rueful nostalgia for the years of Christendom, when a man could have a good laugh at the state and church, at least on special occasions.

The most evocative description of carnival comes in the relationship between its players and spectators. 'Carnival does not know footlights,' he explains. 'Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it.' Between the banishment of official rank, the mockeries of religious ritual and degradation of the spiritual to the gross physical, the carnival insists that everyone joins out. In the words of a later anti-christ: 'I wanna destroy the passer-by.'

I probably shouldn't have been reading the chapters at the back of Richard Schechner's Between Theatre and Anthropology, because he describes a visit to a naughty New York club. Part brothel and part BDSM floor-show. At Belle de Jour, the performers (including the chap who gets nailed in the finale) are mostly audience members or volunteers. The main show is followed by private sessions with the professional cast. While Schechner is discreet about the details of the private sessions, I imagine there is a degree of pro-am sexual activity.

This struck me as the real contemporary carnivalesque. I try to locate it in festivals, but to get that authentic combination of a shattered fourth wall and an upsetting of accepted values, I had to read about a man getting a sharp instrument hammered into his sensitive parts. Looking back at the medieval carnival, it all seems like fun: having a laugh at the priesthood seems very modern and coolly subversive. However, there is no sense of real risk for a contemporary priest-baiter. The thrill of blasphemy comes from a frisson of terror, knowing that something is naughty.

That's probably why I like the Pavilion pantomime. There's always one joke I really shouldn't be enjoying quite so much.

A Bad Metropolitan Novel

A Bad Novel, yesterday
Raymond Williams describes a conversation. An educated French man meets the professor. 'Alas,' he cries. 'France, you know, is a bad bourgeois novel.' The professor replies. 'Ah me, England's the same. And New York is a bad metropolitan novel. Unfortunately, you can't send them back to the library.'
(Drama in a Dramatized Society)

Fortunately, I live in Glasgow: it's an avant-garde production, mixed media and very visual. In a city like this, it is hard to understand why anyone needs to go to the theatre. As I walked to the CCA, a busker was improvising a new tune. The chorus was 'I hate buskers.' Self-reflectivity, much?

Williams point might be that it isn't so much that culture has become more like art or fiction but that the tools used to study art are now transferable. My campaign to turn the whole world into critics might end up with lovers rating each other ('rather derivative of 1970s soft-porn, darling.' 'It was a homage to Russ Meyer, baby.'), or it might just be another attempt to make myself sound important.

But until that day when a trip to buy lunch at Tesco becomes a journey into the semiotics of branding, theatre has a special place. It's not surprising that the language of theatre studies has entered into anthropology: observation and analysis is one thing that any performance, however dull, can teach. And, unlike New York City, it comes to an end.

Religious Ramble: Theatrical Thoughts

At the end of Performance: A Critical Introduction, Marvin Carlson considers the audience, partially as a plea not to dissolve the study of theatre into a broader analysis of performance in daily life. He approvingly quotes Margaret Wilkerson's assertion that 'theatre provides an opportunity for a community to come together and reflect upon itself,' finding that the theatrical event has always been about 'shaping' community - and the fancy-dan live art that I love is particularly aware of this function.

This frees up theatrical criticism from being purely about the art as performed and created, and to consider it as part of a culture's ability to reflect upon itself. In other words, like Tynan said, all theatre has a political dimension. At the least, it brings people together, and suggests a shared interest in certain ideas and activities. The Big Idea, of communitas, becomes crucial: does theatre build communities?

Although I am not wild about using the term, this lends theatre - and festivals, and the better buskers on
Sauchiehall Street - a religious quality. Unfortunately, this word is loaded. It suggests that performance performs a spiritual and possibly hierarchical function (in a world where religion is often criticised as anti-scientific, or obsessed with power and control), while implying that the Great Religions of the World are just a bunch of guys playing dress-up. Being a smart-ass, I'm talking about the etymology of religion, from the Latin: meaning 'rebinding.' Theatre is religious in so far as it connects together a community, both to itself and the wider cosmos.

Putting aside the image of the artistic director of Puppet Animation Scotland wearing a Pope's hat, its seems that this definition perfectly suits manipulate. Although the festival lasts for longer than a Sunday Mass (and I hear some priests are popular because they get through it in under an hour), it does draw together a diverse community with a shared interest in 'visual theatre.' And given the chance, visual theatre could generate as much explanatory literature as the concept of anatman.

Again, I'm not mad about calling theatre 'ritual,' but I'll admit it is ceremonial. There are expected responses (turning up on time, not playing the bongo drums during the speeches, applauding or booing at the end). The 'ceremonies' of manipulate draw attention to certain ideas but, like sermons, revolve around an over-arching theme.

The mixture of international and Scottish work also fits into the religious format. Torn is shown the day after Duda Paiva's Bestiares. The continuity between what happens in Edinburgh and in Europe is highlighted. And by seeing visual theatre from other countries and cultures, a new light is shone onto the local production.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Debord come up with Deideas.

This evening's selected highlight from Glasgow University library is Audiences by Abercrombie and Longhurst. Although it was published in 1988, I'm rattling through it to find out a little more about the people that so many theorists insist are essential for theatre... and then ignore.

Inevitably, the dynamic duo begin by identifying audience categories. Although it might sound insulting, the theatre audience is generally 'simple' (as opposed to 'mass' or 'diffused,' not smart or clever). The communication is direct (that is, stage to auditorium), there is a great deal of 'ceremony' (turning up on time, getting dressed, clapping at the end), it happens in public (notwithstanding the odd show where it's me and a dog in the theatre), and they pay attention. A diffused audience is one where they sit alone at a keyboard, flicking between tabs and wearing their underpants while eating nachos.

Abercrombie and Longhurst get especially interesting around page 80, when they bring in Debord. I am not sure whether I like Debord because he is kind of cool, having a 1960s' mystique and throwing about big ideas that sound a bit anarchic: but his idea of 'the spectacle' gives me problems. Debord says that the spectacle is basically what happens when the dominant ideology has so much control that there is nothing else to see: in the contemporary world, it's the way that everything is commodified. Everyone and everything is performing (not being natural, or honest, but pretending). This makes going to the theatre a bit of a waste of time. Why pay to see Sir Larry do Lear, when there is a tramp performing homelessness, alcoholism and insanity on Sauchiehall Street. And, as Schechner says - it's all performance.

My interest in the audience comes from a belief that meaning is not made on the stage, but in the minds of the observers. Okay, that's trying to give the critic a bit more power ('Sure, you put on the play, wrote it, learnt the lines and acted... but I watched it, buddy'). It turns out that this is essentially reader-response theory, which is going out of fashion in the face of semiotic and post-structuralism. Naturally.

My worry is that theatre is just another part of the spectacle: the grand spectacle of twenty-first century consumerism has episodes called 'live art' and 'drama.' I still have a sentimental hope that it is possible to see past the Big Spectacle, to get a handle on 'truth.' That truth might be ugly - like if Beckett is right, and it is all absurd - or beautiful. But I'd like a look at it, and the Big Spectacle is getting in the way.

I want the little spectacle to help me see past it.

I just need new spectacles.

Scottish Theatre (thinking out loud)

No doubt the world is waiting for the Vile opinion on Scottish Independence. Sadly, I am a Wessex Regionalist, and my opinion is firmly in the awkward shuffle category. I'm not sure whether my opinion matters, or has any force. I just like watching theatre and catching people, like the ancient mariner, and talking about myself until they wander off.

That said, I read a book. Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies, although published before devolution, deals with the nature of national identity in the medium I can understand. There are chapters on the Citizens' Theatre (in the days of Giles Havergal), explaining how the venue spent the 1970s swinging the lead with 'divinely decadent stage compositions' (Michael Coveney called them that in his history), 7:84's glorious history (this is pre-2000) and an interview with John McGrath. I'd taken to complaining that McGrath had been written out of Scottish theatre history of late, but Kieran Hurley explicitly references 7:84 when he talks about his latest, Rantin, and the description McGrath gives to Olga Taxidou of a putative National Theatre of Scotland makes him sound like a prophet. He practically calls it a 'theatre without wall.'

While I know that the line is blurred, I am more intrigued by cultural nationalism than political nationalism (and make a particular point of castigating racial nationalism). In his survey of the Citz, David Hutchinson mentions that Glasow still has 'gaps in its provision' for theatre: not enough musicals, Scottish dramatists and scripts from the English mainstream. Elsewhere, the Mighty Mark Fisher discusses the rise of Tramway, and the overwhelming impression is that Scotland, in the late 1990s, was getting plenty of international action, and was rich with what I'd now call 'visual theatre.' Havergal's style is described as being all about the image over text, and while I am not sure contemporary Scottish playwrights would have the same complaint today, the emphasis seemed to be on programming work that came from Europe and was less tied into the idea of the 'script.'

The book abounds in the myths of Scottish Theatre: that there wasn't much going on before the wars (a myth later contested through a look at the music hall); that 'tough guys' have a place in the heart of the theatre-maker (The Hard Man et al), that socialism is the common political belief of the nation. These are myths not in the sense of being untrue - although I would question the last one, since there are plenty of Labour councillors who don't appear to believe in socialism - but being stories with meaning.

Rather nicely, Femi Folorunso points out 'as Raymond Williams once pointed out, the difficulties of criticism is that while there is a general acceptance that some relation must exist between social and material environments on the one hand, and on the other the nature of artistic creativity and the changes taking place within it, this is always very difficult to demonstrate.' In other words, who knows whether theatre represents an idea that is common in society, or can reflect any particular Scottish identity. In fact, RD Laing goes further, suggesting that no-one knows anything of anyone else's experience. Can theatre be 'Scottish'? Still - the book is worth a read.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bestiares as Theology?

Duda Paiva is a perfect example of how blurred lines are far more acceptable in performance than in pop videos. Paiva was trained as a dancer (in Brazil), arrived in the Netherlands, discovered an aptitude for puppetry and mixed it all together into art that is choreography, puppetry and something beyond the two. A series of shows have developed his distinctive style, which encourages a dialogue between puppet and dancer: like a good post-modern artist, Paiva reveals the way he creates through the way he performs. And while his website boasts that he has represented the Netherlands in many festivals, it is fortunate that manipulate has a wide yet clear remit: Bestiares is unlikely to fit into a simple category.

Bestaires plugs into two competing ideas about the nature of gods and puppets: one I nicked from Grant Morrison's Invisibles, the other from Jurkowski's survey of European puppetry. Bestaires offers an evening's entertainment hosted by the god Cupid - in puppet form - and brings the gods of the classical pantheon back on stage. It's not just that, as a former classicist, I am always pleased to be reminded of things I know a little about. I think there is no better place for divinities than in a performance.

Following Morrison, Bestiares is a sharp reminder of the fiction of theology. While Morrison's post-modern mash-up of paganism, conspiracy theory and action adventure can be difficult to follow, there are repeated hints that the various gods and demons that appear are little more than masks or puppets. When one Invisible is introduced to magick (sic), the question of 'who is wearing the mask of the gods?' suggests that these gods are puppets and the strings are being pulled by people. A dancer and a puppet of cupid would be the perfect visual representation of this...

Interestingly, Alan Moore, Morrison's great rival for magus of the UK/best British comic book writer, has a similar theory. He spent some worshipping a snake god because - and here's the catch - he knew that its original incarnation was as a puppet in a Roman con-man's religious rip-off. The reminder, for Moore, that this was not an animate being, was crucial as a balance against his various encounters with what appeared to be supernatural beings. 

Jurkowski goes the opposite way: noting that the medieval church was a bit touchy about the matter of puppets, he postulates that they held a religious potency - that they represented the divine. While the idea of a puppet as an icon might clash with more familiar religious art, the mystery of the puppeteers art lends the uncanny to their performance. 

Bestaires is the start of manipulate: and what better way to begin than with a ritual that is, in both of these senses, fundamentally spiritual?

Three Festivals Coming Soon

Back when I was a cheeky young pup - as opposed to being a balding cynic - I would stamp my feet at the thought of Edinburgh as 'The Festival City.' Sure, they've got The Fringe, manipulate, the EIF but Glasgow can do it too. Celtic Connections is occupying most of the city this month; last weekend was Sound Thought and there are three festivals between now and June: Buzzcut, Mayfesto and Behaviour

. If they don't cover the gamut of theatrical experience, I'll stop making a fuss about the wonder of the West Coast.

One of my favourite books is Social Sculpture, a survey of the Glasgow Visual Art Scene under the influence of Joseph Beuys. It starts off talking about Beuys's visits (okay, to the East Coast), before examining his idea that art can perform a community function, building an atmosphere that allows creativity to thrive. The music scene is a big part of this and the traditions it mentions - the DIY aesthetic, the overlap between band members and conceptual artists - continue to inspire. Cry Parrot, the Glasgow International, Buzzcut: the connection between these events are not ones of content but aspiration. The desire, both to promote Glasgow as a place where 'art happens' and to bring international art into the city, lends these groups a rare, shared vitality.

Part of this identity keys into my ideas about curation as artistic creation - there are figures behind these names who act as curators - but the vastness of the project means that they take on lives of their own. It's possible to plot routes through Buzzcut and GI that reflect vastly different themes. The question becomes whether these events could happen anywhere else in the world.

That cheeky young pup might have learnt not to make generalisations, but the idea of a Glasgow School, sharing enthusiasms and style, is attractive. Disregarding the branding of the council (which tends to be outward facing, attracting visitors), Glasgow has a distinctive quality, a mixture of political radicalism, post-modern verve and urban hustle. Of course, it has the opposites too, but I am ignoring them. They don't support my optimism about finding an answer...

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Curation as Process etc

Today, I am pondering 'curation as an artistic process.' I noticed that Summerhall are advertising for an events coordinator, and wondered how this differed from an artistic director. I guess that the coordinator is a practical, hands-on type role, while the a.d. has a vision... one is a managerial role while the other is all about the leadership.

Recent years have seen the rise of the festival as an 'aesthetic unit': that is, an entire series of events linked and connected by a theme. The Tron's Mayfesto is coming back later this year - it began as a 'political' festival, although that definition has been stretched over time - and Buzzcut, now in its third year, has a clear identity as a place for emerging artists to experiment in the region between 'theatre' and 'performance.'

Manipulate is almost traditional in its emphasis on a festival as a place to explore a single genre - fortunately, the genre (visual theatre) is broad enough to include object manipulation, puppetry, physical theatre and even dance. There tends to be an assumption that manipulate is 'about' puppetry (probably because Puppet Animation Scotland are behind it), but the choices of Simon Hart, artistic director, are bounded only by imagination. It remains as one of the last great Scottish festivals that have an international pull and is determined to include challenging performance - although the Edinburgh International does a fair job (and I don't count the Fringe, since it lacks an overall curation).

Some part of the importance of manipulate comes from the influence it might have on Scottish artists: in Europe and beyond, theatre supports an industry of performers in more experimental practices, and the scale of companies like Editta Braun (Luvos) reveals that Germany, at least, can sustain intriguing work at a high level. While the National Theatre of Scotland is not afraid to play with form and format, and the Citizens is defining itself through radical imaginings of familiar stories, the larger independent companies tend to be in a script-based tradition.

Back in the days when the National Review of Live Art was still running, it was a truism to say that it was important not to pick and choose events, but dive in, almost at random. Manipulate and Buzzcut deserve the same advice - it might be the only way to work out how the curatorial process operates.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Notes on Political Theatre

Yet, as the companies evolved, increasing frustrations with the methodology, coupled with a broader retreat from traditional left-wing politics in the UK, saw a movement towards a more traditional script-based theatre. Red Ladder, who began life in 1968 as The Agitprop Street Players, originally formed to present a piece during a demonstration: by 1974 they had produced Strike While the Iron is Hot: although this was devised through workshops, founder member Kathleen McCreey is credited as co-author. From  the early pieces - described as 'units' rather than plays - Red Ladder moved towards a socialist-realist theatre: while The Cake Play was a simple, immediate presentation of inequality, closer to 'performance art' than a scripted play, tensions caused the collaborative approach to falter. 
Richard Seyd’s The Theatre of Red Ladder, however, revealed the problems inherent in this collaborative process: dominant personalities would hold up progress until ‘those in a minority would… make the decision unanimous… just so work could continue’ (cited in Hedden and Milling, p. 106). 

John McGrath, famous for founding the socialist 7:84 companies in England and Scotland, and co-founder of the feminist company Monstrous Regiment Gillian Hanna contrasted the democratic enthusiasm of the ‘pure’ devised theatre against the skill of the playwright. 
McGrath’s 7:84 allowed a degree of group discussion – Boom (1974) was the result of an early collection of ‘the whole company… throwing in their ideas’ (ibid, p. 111) – but maintained his status as author: ‘they are skills which need aptitude, long experience, self-discipline and a certain mental disposition in one individual’ (ibid, p. 111). Hanna, meanwhile, reflected on Monstrous Regiment’s adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as ‘a disastrous foray into the grave labelled devised writing… incoherent. Too many people had a hand in writing it’ (ibid p. 113).
John McGrath voiced his concerns about such inclusivity following a joint production between 7:84 and Belt and Braces.
There was total decentralization, a total exchange of roles… everybody could do anything on the show. It was total chaos. The gigs got fucked up because somebody didn’t tell somebody that they’d made an arrangement (cited in Hedden and Milling, p. 106).
McGrath continues with a trenchant complaint: that he wanted to make socialist, not anarchist theatre. 
British political theatre, however, drew on a rich tradition, going back to George Bernard Shaw in the early twentieth century, and had been inspired by the example of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s. The rise of The Angry Young Men after 1956, the continued work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, even Kenneth Tynan’s critical championing of the ‘engaged’ play against the absurdists: these provided the context for the rise of political theatre in the 1970s. 
Playwrights like Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths mused on the ideologies and failures of the left – even Sir Laurence Olivier found himself as a leftist patriarch in Griffith’s The Party. By the 1980s, David Hare was writing for the National Theatre and the radical fringe companies of the early 1970s were integrated in the mainstream, receiving Arts Council funding (1973 for Red Ladder, while both incarnations of 7:84 folded after funding was withdrawn).

Yet the experiments of the 1970s remain crucial for the examination of how devised performance can, through its processes, embody political ambition. The influence of the American radical theatre – companies like The Firehouse Theatre, The Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (who went as far as helping Black Panther Eldritch Cleaver escape arrest) – encouraged consideration of how political theatre could engage audiences (The Agitprop Street Player’s The Industrial Relations Act was performed at a demonstration in Hyde Park, echoing the ‘guerrilla theatre’ of Ronnie Davis from the SF Mime Theatre, which included practical skits teaching passers-by ‘how to stuff the parking meter’ (cited Sainer, 1975). And in the difficult conversations that frustrated McGrath, there was a genuine attempt to consider how a collaborative creativity could operate. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Miss Julie @ The Citizens

I tend not to know about such things -  I'm no TV, all theatre - but Dominic Hill's direction of Zinnie Harris' version of Miss Julie has got one of the stars of BBC's Sherlock in it. I do know that Harris relocates Strindberg's classic tale to 1920s Scotland, right in the middle of a strike against Miss Julie's capitalist father, and that it doesn't end well: the social and sexual tension between Julie and her dad's man-servant leads to fantastic dreams that end in a nightmare.

Press release begins:

Star of the BBC’s Sherlock Louise Brealey makes her debut on the Citizens Theatre stage .Prior to appearing in the Gorbals in the title role, Louise Brealey will be part of the nation’s festive viewing schedule when she stars as Molly in the eagerly-awaited third series of the BBC’s hit TV show Sherlock on New Year’s Day. Brealey has also played long-standing character Nurse Roxy Bird in the BBC’s Casualty and has appeared at the Bush Theatre, The Royal Court Theatre, the Young Vic and Bristol Old Vic.

Citizens Theatre Artistic Director Dominic Hill directs Zinnie Harris’ 2005 adaptation of August Strindberg’s thrilling tale of an upstairs-downstairs liaison, relocated to 1920s Scotland when the economic toll of the First World War was being felt, and the working classes were striking against falling wages and the privileges of the upper classes. 

Joining Brealy on stage will be Scottish actor Keith Fleming, who recently won praise as Macbeth in a new co-production by Horsecross Arts and Tron Theatre Company, and who starred in Dominic Hill’s award-winning Peer Gynt in 2007. Completing the cast is Citizens Theatre Actor Intern Jessica Hardwick, who appeared on the Citizens’ stage as Sonya in Hill’s 2013 production of Crime and Punishment.

Set in the oppressive heat of summer, Miss Julie follows the dangerous flirtatious games played by Julie and her father’s butler, John. As the night wears on, the couple from opposite ends of the social spectrum tease and fight towards an explosive conclusion. 

Harris’ version of the European classic, first created for National Theatre of Scotland, looks at the politics of the play through a new prism, setting the power-games played by Julie and John against a backdrop of wider social unrest. Harris has written extensively for theatre and television including the acclaimed The Wheel, Further than the Furthest Thing, Midwinter, Fall and the BBC’s Spooks.

Director Dominic Hill said: “This is a play about sexual politics: the battle of the sexes, sexual desire and the way men and women negotiate and manipulate to get what they want. For me, this is what makes the play truly timeless. I’m pleased that we’ll be presenting this landmark text on the Citizens’ main stage for the first time.”

Strindberg’s play defined a new naturalism in theatre when it was first premiered in 1888, with its shocking realism leading to it being censored. Since then, the universal nature of the themes contained in the play has lent the gripping story to a variety of settings, from the sectarianism of 19th-century Northern Ireland to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  A major film version directed by Liv Ullmann and starring Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton is scheduled for a 2014 release.

Citizens Theatre presents
MISS JULIEA new version by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Dominic Hill
Designed by Neil Haynes
Lighting Design by Stuart Jenkins

Cast: Louise Brealey, Keith Fleming, Jessica Hardwick 
(Citizens Theatre Actor Intern)
Dates: Thu 6 – Sat 15 Feb, 7.30pm (no performances Sundays & Mondays)
Post show discussion
 and Q&A with Director Dominic Hill
Tue 11 Feb

Schools Workshop Miss Julie: Inside the Rehearsal Room
Wed 12 Feb, 5.00pm – 6.30pm (followed by show at 7.30pm)
A practical insight into the making of this production led by the Assistant Director. Supports writing about ‘a play seen in production’ for Higher and Advanced Higher Drama pupils.
To book contact Louise Brown 0141 418 6273 /

Miss Julie: An Afternoon with Strindberg
Sat 15 Feb, 12.15pm (followed by show at 2.30pm)
Tickets £10 + ticket to the show. Price includes buffet lunch and refreshments. Tickets to the show sold separately.
Director Dominic Hill in discussion with playwright Zinnie Harris and academic of Scandinavian literature Peter Graves. 

Grit: An Interview with Ross MacKay

Tortoise in a Nutshell have had a good few years: 2013 saw the tour of Feral, an ambitious look at the impact of consumerism on a seaside town, while 2012's Grit gave them a public profile that must be the envy of other Scottish object manipulators. 2014 kicks off with the return to Manipulate of Grit, and the charming Ross MacKay spoke about his joy at returning to the place where it began...

What was the inspiration behind Grit - the seed that blossomed, so to speak?

I was working at a school and was really intrigued by the children's perception of war. The boys were constantly playing armies over lunch and their conversations revolved around video games and TV shows that portrayed war quite brutally. 

When I brought this to the team we started exploring the relationship between children and war. We developed this into a ten minute piece about a boy in a sandpit transforming into a child soldier as his environment changed around him. We really liked the piece and thought we could explore the themes further. 

We researched a lot and WarChild gave us access to a lot of first hand accounts.  We were aware how our ideas of innocence and childhood were often in conflict with a lot of experiences of childhood throughout the world. We wanted to examine this but we never felt we could get completely inside these stories having no real concept of what war was really like. 

This is where our story of a war photographer and his daughter become vital as it allowed us to examine the stories at a distance but still hopefully capturing the emotions we felt reading the true stories a lot of the piece is based on. 

Can you tell me a little about your process? I am studying dramaturgy at the moment, and can't get a grip on how a devising process might work - do you define as devising, or is the structure more scripted?

Our pieces are all devised but the devising process for each one is incredibly different. With Grit we started with exploring materials we were interested in. We played a lot with projection and shadow puppetry as we knew the show would be a lot about images. We also played around with paper - it's in some ways quite a fragile material but also very resilient and one we all associated with childhood - drawing and school work. From this exploration we paired up any materials or techniques we discovered with our research: combining real life stories with different techniques to create fragmented scenes. 

These fragments were then shaped, tweaked and molded to fit a narrative that we developed along the way. Our process is always bumpy and full of starts and stops, there was a lot of material for Grit which we explored but left out but hopefully it creates an interesting and imaginative piece of theatre. 

And let's go for the classic: are you 'visual theatre' or object manipulation - feel free to tell me neither, since I know that this is the sort of thing critics love to discuss and and artists hate?

Your right - we do hate this. Mainly because we are never quite sure. We always describe ourselves as visual theatre makers and I suppose for us it just means our initial inspirations are usually quite pictorial. However what we are really inspired by is responding to the world imaginatively. 

Sometimes a scene is led by an object sometimes a piece of music or an atmosphere but I'm never quite sure how to describe that so sticking to calling ourselves 'visual theatre makers' usually does the best job.  

You do have a distinctive style in all of your works... what makes you stick with the 'objects'? And who is inspiring you at the moment?
So many people inspire us- I think one of the main things that unites us as a company as that we seem to often be pulling on the same references. We all love Studio Orka who have been to Imaginate festival a few times and create these amazingly fun and imaginative worlds and we absolutely adore Blind Summit's work. 

Closer to home Shona Reppe has an imagination we are all envious of and we also love Vox Motus who really have carved a way for creating exciting visual theatre in Scotland. 

We also draw a lot of inspiration from sources outside of theatre -  we  went to Jupiter Artland  a few months back and Scaffold by Sam Durant really provoked a lot of discussion amongst us. 
Pixar seems to come up a lot in our conversations too.

And the inevitable... can you say something about your relationship with Manipulate / PAS?

We really are indebted to Manipulate - it has allowed us to seem some great international work  we never would have seen and taken part in some really inspiring workshops. We have really close ties with the festival - one of our first shows The Last Miner was part of the festival three years ago and our latest show Feral was shown there as a work in progress last year. Grit also started its life with Manipulate. Simon Hart approached us and asked if we would like to create a 10 minute piece with support from Dominic Hill. 

We jumped at the chance and started playing around with some of the ideas we were having about Grit.  We then developed the piece into a fuller show for the Fringe and a tour with support from PAS Creative Fund. Coming back now with Grit is great, it really feels like the show has come full circle and we are really pleased that Manipulate are proud enough of what we have created from their support to invite us back.

Isabella Rossellini: Green Porno

That title got my attention. 

Screen icon Isabella Rossellini comes to Queen Elizabeth Hall with Green Porno, her mind-blowing show about the sex life of insects.

 The Italian actress is best known for her roles in Death Becomes Her and in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.  In Green Porno she is able to combine her talent for story-telling with her interest in animals and animal behaviour.  Her one-woman show explores some of the weird, wonderful and sometimes dangerous antics of mating in the animal world.   

Rossellini examines the sex lives of a number of insects, from bees and flies to spiders and worms, featuring wild orgies, inexplicable acrobatics and males eaten right after reproduction.  The show features a range of crazy and colourful costumes, adding a playful approach to her tales of the bedroom antics of insects and sea creatures.

The show is based on the award-winning short films commissioned by Robert Redford for the Sundance channel, which were written and co-directed by Rossellini, and have received millions of views.

Isabella Rossellini: Green Porno
Written by Isabella Rossellini and Jean-Claude Carrière 
Sunday 9 February 2014
Queen Elizabeth Hall
£30 £25


To be honest, this isn't my thing at all: but I quite like UNESCO City of Music and Stephen Deazley doesn't usually do rubbish. So read on, if you like to sing along... 

Press release begins

Britain is a nation of great singers and choirs and, in 2014, Big Big Sing - a UK-wide celebration of singing - will work with partners across the country to inspire thousands more people to start singing for fun, enjoyment of music and for their wellbeing.
An initiative of Glasgow UNESCO City of Music, Big Big Sing is set to be one of the highlights of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme. It is funded by the Big Lottery Fund in conjunction with Spirit of 2012 Trust, Glasgow 2014, Creative Scotland, and Glasgow UNESCO City of Music. Today’s announcement reveals the first details of its UK-wide programme to promote singing in the run up to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, including the first in a series of Big Big Sing Days, the launch of the Big Big Commonwealth Songbook, and a Schools’ Songwriting Competition.
A series of Big Big Sing Days will be held across the country between February and July, welcoming participants of all ages and abilities to discover the joy of singing in some of the UK’s top music venues – no previous experience is required, singers can simply go along and enjoy a fun filled day packed with singing, workshops and a huge variety of music from across the Commonwealth.
Events kick off with Big Big Sing Days in Scotland’s largest cities before spreading across the UK.
The first venues to host Big Big Sing Days will be:
Dundee Caird Hall                              Saturday 1st February
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall             Sunday 9th February
Edinburgh Usher Hall                         Sunday 16th February
Aberdeen Music Hall                          Saturday 8th March
Big Big Sing is also in discussion with partners in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales about Big Big Sing Days between February and June which will be announced via the website and social media as they are confirmed. 
The musical backbone of the programme is the Big Big Commonwealth Songbook, which opens with a newly commissioned work from Scotland - Corrina Hewat’s ‘One Song’ - and a traditional Samoan song, L’au Lupe.  A further nine songs from around the Commonwealth will be added to the Songbook over the coming months in the run-up to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games in July. 
Available at, the Songbook includes online learning resources for each song enabling choirs and individuals to download, listen to, learn and sing the songs in celebration of the Games.  Big Big Sing is working to promote the songs to choirs throughout the Commonwealth, and they will be heard at singing events including the Big Big BIG Sing in Glasgow on 27 July 2014. This will bring together thousands of singers and some very special guests at a to-be-confirmed secret location in Glasgow for a spectacular and fun mass singing performance.
Big Big Commonwealth Songbook curator and arranger Stephen Deazley said:
“The Big Big Commonwealth Songbook is a celebration of global traditions, cultures and musical genres, embracing folk and roots music alongside songs by contemporary artists - it has been a great treat to delve into the rich choral traditions that the Commonwealth has to offer. We want to find simple and engaging ways for everyone to open themselves up to new languages, melodies and choral traditions and to make it as easy as possible for singers of all abilities to have a go themselves.
All over the country people are reconnecting with singing as a way of bringing communities together. The Big Big Commonwealth Songbook is an invitation for people to start exploring some amazing music from around the world - we hope it inspires you on a fun life-long adventure with song.” 
Schools have also been invited to celebrate the Commonwealth Games by writing their own songs for 2014 in the Schools’ Songwriting Competition. Big Big Sing invites pupils to write a song inspired by the Commonwealth Games, either individually or as a class.  The prize on offer for the winning song includes having a video of the song made and the chance to perform the song in front of thousands as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme.  One winning entry will be picked from each of the two categories (Primary School and Secondary School) by an expert judging panel.  Full details on how to enter can be found at
Big Big Sing is proud to be working with distinguished partners in the choral and wider musical world and in the voluntary arts to make this project possible. Confirmed partners include Voluntary Arts, who are encouraging singing groups across the UK to organise pop-up sings for Voluntary Arts Week 2014 (9 – 18;UK Choir of the Year with whom Big Big Sing will work to inspire community singers at all levels of experience; and Love Music Productions, whose Love Music Community Choir offers a model for excellence in Community Choirs.
The sound of choirs is so uplifting that it is easy to forget that singing is also great physical and mental exercise. Extensive academic research by such bodies as the Sidney De Haan Centre (Canterbury Christ Church University) has revealed benefits to all, from soothing babies to offering a key to lost memories for dementia sufferers. Joining a choir improves your social life, your breathing, your brainpower and even your posture. Therefore, Big Big Sing is encouraging the whole nation to make singing its New Year Resolution and enjoy the social, physical and mental health benefits in 2014.
Chief Medical Officer for Scotland and Spirit of 2012 Trustee, Sir Harry Burns said:
“Singing in a choir - indeed, any singing - is one of the simplest, most inclusive and readily available ways to improve social, mental and physical health. Socially it enables people of all ages and from all walks of life to come together, develop friendships and engenders positivity whilst, physically, it promotes good breathing, an active lifestyle and relieves stress.  Big Big Sing is a fantastic project which offers anyone looking for a fun way to improve their health and wellbeing this year with a great opportunity to get involved and start singing.”
Choir member Alison Jenkins of Glasgow choir, Merchant Voices said:
“The joy of singing is something I have enjoyed since I was in primary school. To be part of an organisation that allows you to grow week by week and create a musical event that gives such pleasure to the person taking part and hopefully to those listening is awesome. The friendships grow gradually and are a huge part of my weekly rehearsals.  I just love all aspects of singing!” 
Director of Big Big SingSvend Brown said: 
“We firmly believe two things: one is that anyone can sing and the other is that the world is divided into those people who sing and those who do not… yet! Britain is truly blessed in having many amazing organisations and individuals that are passionate and committed about singing – and we want to take the opportunity of the Commonwealth Games year to work with them to champion and boost their work. Everything we do over the coming months we do with the hope that after 2014 many more people will sing regularly than did before, and we want to make it as attractive and easy a thing to do as possible.”
Independent Director on the Glasgow 2014 Board and Chair of the Ceremonies, Culture and Queen’s Baton Relay Committee, Eileen Gallagher said:
“Big Big Sing is already an important part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme, allowing people wherever they are across Scotland to get involved in the Games experience. As it grows and spreads more and more people will get the chance to become part of a choir and improve their health whilst being part of the wonderful performances being staged as part of this exciting project.”
The Big Big Sing’s online singing portal – – provides a wealth of materials and information for those wishing to take up singing, including a searchable network of choirs, a guide on how to set up your own choir, and details on all Big Big Sing events. Further information will be added during the project, including more songs for the Big Big Commonwealth Songbook and details of specific opportunities and events.
For further details, visit and keep up-to-date with Big Big Sing onFacebook and Twitter.

Investigating a process

I was working on a hunch again. It came to me when I was reading the introduction to Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking. After a brief warning that the script, as printed, probably wasn't going to be the script, as performed, Ravenhill mentions an ‘ecstasy workshop’ that he feels he ought to attend. Right there, I guessed that something was different about the way Max Stafford-Clark directed his shows. Sure, he’s been associated with a raft of celebrated authors – Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Howard Brenton, and William Shakespeare. But the way Ravenhill puts it, something more is going on in the studio than learning lines.

Let me go back to the beginning. I’d been trying to work out what ‘devised theatre’ meant. I keep seeing it about the place – coming out of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, hanging out with the kids from the Contemporary Performance Practice course. And it has a heavy linguistic friend circle too: words like ‘problematize’ and ‘performativity,’ the kind of language to make a Latin scholar run to the etymological dictionary. There were rumours that Artaud was involved, maybe some of the guys from the San Francisco Mime Troupe – the ones who’d helped Eldridge Cleaver escape the heat in the 1960s, plus of a couple of the international heavy-weight crowd: Lecoq, even Brecht.

Like that time I decided to define ‘visual theatre’ for the manipulate festival, I was on shaky ground. Any attempt to pin down ‘devised’ to one definition only threw up exceptions that proved the rule was wrong. Using Complicite as a model, I got something close to physical theatre, based around movement: the British school of the 1990s, Frantic Assembly, DV8 supported the choreographic cross-over, but that left out things like Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess. That had been the tipping point that got me into the critical business in the first place, and damn if it didn't use text and speech more than movement or fancy visuals.

But Ravenhill’s evocation of a workshop process struck a chord. I’d been in the studio a few times already, once with The Ultimate Dancer to try and create a synthesis of dance and criticism. Ravenhill was signalling that there was a process going on here, one that opened up communication between the performers and the writer – and the director. Like Ravenhill nipping along to the rehearsal room for a wee taste, I was going to check out this Max Stafford-Clark character.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

GLASGOW SHORT FILM FESTIVAL: Churnalism, I am afraid

Back with a bang in the New Year: the press release from the GFT doing all the work and the VileArts just adding the odd cheeky comment. 

 Glasgow Short Film Festival 13-16 February 2014

I'm dividing the programme into two parts: stuff I care about, and stuff that I don't, but other people probably do.

The Arches | Thursday 13 February (Doors 20.30, concert starts 21.00) | 1h, N/C 15+| £8.
Glasgow Short Film Festival is delighted to present the World Premiere of PULSE, a dramatic collaboration between British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova and Scottish film-maker Ruth Paxton. PULSE is a noir-like expressionistic short film about peril and rescue. Travelling through the streets of Glasgow by the river Clyde to the iconic Grand Central Hotel, the collaboration pairs Tabakovas rich musical language with Paxtons bold film-making to explore the energy and diversity of life in a modern city and the driving forces behind how different societies and cultures mix. Tabakovas score for piano, percussion and gamelan will be performed live, along with performances of other original compositions.
PULSE is commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, as part of the PRS for Music Foundations New Music Biennial in 2014. Made in association with Edge City Films.

The Art School | Saturday 15 February (Doors 19.00, first set 19.30) | 3h
Best known as songwriter and drummer for Trembling Bells, and as a leading proponent of the experimental folk scene, Alex Neilson regularly plays with the likes of Jandek and Will Oldham. However, his musical projects currently extend to mixed media free jazz and unaccompanied four part harmony. With each of these projects he has recently collaborated with short filmmakers, and we are thrilled to bring them together for GSFF. The evening begins with a set by Death Shanties, including their score to Lucy Stein and Shana Moulton’s film Polventon. Next up is The Crying Lion and Oliver Mezger revisiting of the 1966 Margaret Tait film The Big Sheep. Finally Trembling Bells will perform alongside Rory Stewart’s affectionate portrait of the lovers and fighters of the Port O’Leith pub. An appropriately rabble-rousing climax for this one-night-only powerhouse supergroup appearance.

Fleming House Car Park | Friday 14 February (22.30) | 2h30m, N/C 18+
A special Valentines Day event! NITEFLIGHTS is a regular evening of film and performance curated by Glasgow-based artist Michelle Hannah, taking its theme from the fractured dystopia of Scott Walker's song ‘Nite Flights’. Hosted for one night only in a disused underground car park on Renfrew Street, GSFF14’s NITE will be a visual presentation of vocal and cosmic noise as form, featuring local and international artists whose work expands the moving image through sound, sculpture and vision.
The Art School | Saturday 15 February (Doors 22.30) | 4h30m, N/C 18
An idiosyncratic collective of anonymous dronologists and pseudo-ethnomusicologists, Zoviet France’s investigations have taken them into fictional cultures where reality often slips into the hypnagogic. They have developed a radical relationship with the cheap technologies of old-fashioned tape recorders, primitive looping and sampling devices and basic dub trickery. Support comes from Konx-om-Pax, performing an Audio/Visual live set, JD Twitch (tbc) and Rubadub’s Mark Maxwell. An unmissable rare live performance, with collaborative films especially for Glasgow Short Film Festival. Tickets only available from The Art School. £7 or £5 with GSFF ticket stub (or GSA students).

CCA Clubroom | Friday 14 February (11.00) 5h30m | £5 for all three discussions
Frances Morgan, deputy editor of The Wire, former editor of plan b magazine, and the author of Sight & Sounds Soundings column, moderates a series of conversations between filmmakers featuring in this year’s programme and the composers with whom they have collaborated. At 11am, Ruth Paxton and Dobrinka Tabakova will discuss the creative processes that led to the realisation of their Royal Philharmonic Society commission PULSE.
At 1pm, Adam Stafford will discuss his approach to filmmaking as a musician, and introduce his collaborators on No Hope For Men Below, sound designer Marcin Knyziak and composer Daniel Padden. Finally, at 3pm, Sam Firth and Fraya Thomsen will describe how their intense collaboration to create the score for Sam’s self-portrait Stay the Same helped enormously in transforming sixty hours of footage into a compelling 14 minute film.

I do like both Adam Stafford and Daniel Padden... but an after-show discussion by any other name...

CCA Cinema | Friday 14 February (21.00) | 1h30m, N/C 18+
Cinema as identity, cinema as resistance. As the state of LGBT rights in Russia continues to worsen even beyond its already-infamous 2013 law banning 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations', making queer cinema increasingly becomes an act of defiance. In collaboration with Edinburgh Film Guild New Cinema, this screening presents recent Russian films variously depicting the surprising facets of an emerging LGBT culture, proving decidedly that the attempts at its repression have yet to defeat it.

Timely, given what is going on over there at the moment... (over there? way to show international solidarity, Vile)
CCA Cinema | Saturday 15 February (17.30) | 1h30m, N/C 15+
Takashi Ito burst onto the experimental film scene in 1981 with Spacy, a vertiginous journey through a gymnasium made up of 700 still images.  Driven by a desire to create ‘fascinating nightmares’, his films seem to follow a bizarre interior logic of their own, endlessly generating new techniques as they forge ahead. This is a rare chance to see some of Itos work on 16mm, bookended by a selection of his influences and artistic descendants chosen for GSFF14 by Ian Francis of Flatpack Festival, Birmingham.

 Of less interest to Vile...

CCA Theatre | Saturday 15 February (16.00) | 2h30 | Free
It is just seven months until a vote that, whatever the outcome, will have significant ramifications for all aspects of Scottish cultural, social and political life. Yet if several of our leading producers are to be believed, the Scottish film industry might not last to see that day. Glasgow Short Film Festival is gathering key individuals from Scottish film and television production to examine and debate what independence might mean for our film culture.  

Chaired by Dr David Archibald (University of Glasgow) the session will consider whether nationhood has any bearing on an industry which is based increasingly on international collaboration. We will hear from an expert on Irish film, to see what lessons might be learnt from another small, predominantly English language film culture, placed precariously between Hollywood and European traditions. And we will examine the prospects of the many freelancers who depend on local and international productions shooting in Scotland for their livelihood. For full line-up of speakers, see

It might be pitiful apathy, or a radical anarchist stance, but I can't seem to get involved in the debate about independence (or it might be that saying something like that is enough to get plenty of people to comment on my blog). As a fan of puppetry, I guess elections ought to be far more interesting to me, since it's pretty easy to see who is pulling the strings.

Although Dr David Archibald did write a superb study of Blackwatch's politics....

CCA Cinema | Friday 14 February (19.00)| 1h30m, N/C 15+
Kicking against the grain somewhat, Irish short film has increasingly found success on the worldwide stage, with proportionally high numbers being nominated for Academy awards and other barometers of success. This first programme includes some modern greats. Undressing My Mother by Ken Wardrop was an early forerunner of a more personal approach in Irish filmmaking and notably two Northern Irish films, Even Gods by Phil Harrison and A Removals Job by Nicholas Keogh, round out a broad view of some of the recent success stories.

CCA Cinema | Saturday 15 February (19.30) | 1h30m, N/C 15+
Included in this programme are the key filmmakers contributing to the art form in Ireland. Tony Donoghue’s ethnographic yet stylised animation Irish Folk Furniture details a way of life in Ireland slowly passing away. Contemporary themes are addressed eloquently in Mairtín de Barra’s Atrophy and Ian Thulliers’ Driven. Cathy Brady has been a leading light in strong narrative drama and is represented here by Morning. Our final film presents David Quin, Ireland’s most talented satirist and animator having a day off his more usual political targets.

CCA Theatre | Friday 14 February (19.15) & Sunday 16 February (18.30) |1h30m, N/C 18+
‘Is the Next Great Hope of American Film Hiding In Florida?’ asked Indiewire magazine in November. If so, it’s probably Mayer/Leyva. Visual artist Jillian Mayer and playwright Lucas Leyva have collaborated on a series of satirical no-budget short films which defy any attempt at classification. Try Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a lo-fi day-glo remake of Chris Marker’s La Jetée starring 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell. Or #postmodem, a kaleidoscopic retro-fantasy nightmare in which the viewer is invited to upload their entire being into the digital realm, condemning worldly problems to the Vortex. Mayer and Leyva also run the Borscht Corporation, a collective of like-minded filmmakers telling Miami stories that reject the typical portrayal of the city as a vapid party town. GSFF is delighted to welcome them to Glasgow, to present a programme of their own work on Friday and a Borscht showcase on Sunday.
CCA Cinema | Thursday 13 February (19.00) | 1h30m, N/C 15+
European filmmaking has always drawn inspiration from the differences as well as commonalities between nations and filmmakers with a fascinating range of aesthetic approaches and cultural backgrounds. To mark the 10th anniversary of the cohabitation of Goethe-Institut and the Alliance Française in Glasgow this programme reflects the diverse creativity of the Franco-German film scene, whilst highlighting common themes and shared creative interests in contemporary Europe. Presented by GSFF in partnership with Alliance Française and Goethe-Institut Glasgow.
CCA Theatre | Saturday 15 February (21.15)1h30m, N/C 15+
Making its Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2013, before going on to London Pleasance Theatre, Short Com is a regular showcase of the finest independent comic shorts around, chosen from submissions. For GSFF, the programme will be compèred by the fantastic Josie Long, and will be followed by an award ceremony staged with considerable decorum and gravitas in the CCA bar. “An hour-long bill that offers some of the best underground short comedy films you’re likely to see this year.” **** Ed Fest Mag 2013
CCA Cinema | Sunday 16 February (14.15) | 1h30m, N/C 15+
Magma – mostra di cinema breve is an international short film festival based in Acireale, Sicily, and stands out as one of the best in Italy. First started in 2002 by Associazione Culturale Scarti, Magma has always focused exclusively on the short film, building a bridge between the audience and the endless forms of expression of the short format. This selection of narrative, documentary and animation from the 2013 edition presents a unique snapshot of emerging international film talent.

CCA Cinema | Sunday 16 February (18.45) | 1h30m, N/C 15+
Chris Dooks is an Ayr-based interdisciplinary artist. His practice is in part concerned with creative strategies to cope with chronic ill health. Commissioned to create a work for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013, Chris devised a series of six landscape films drawing on accessible environments just a few square metres in size. These 'tiny' geographies were made to see if there was any advantage to being unable to scale a Munro or even a small hill - and to try and make the best of limited energy.
Chris Dooks will introduce the screening.