Lorne Campbell

Lorne-Campbell-cr-Topher-McGrillis-3

Originally written for Exeunt.

As I talk to Lorne Campbell about Northern Stage and this year’s programme at the Edinburgh Fringe, one word keeps stubbornly recurring: “conversation”. The theatre’s new artistic director, still only five weeks into the job, shows a profound understanding of the role of organisations such as Northern Stage in the many current dialogues around theatremaking – dialogues about funding, about politics, about artistic practice. As a key regional producing theatre, Campbell believes that Northern Stage has a responsibility to engage in, respond to and act as a catalyst for those conversations.

“The theatre is a regional theatre,” he says, “and for me that’s about connecting to all of that region. The theatre’s identity is a conversation with all of those multi-faceted communities and identities, rather than a clear thing that you can point a finger at.” When I ask about the importance of a theatre like Northern Stage reflecting its locality, Campbell pauses. “I think that’s quite a complicated question,” he eventually answers. “I think if a theatre like this isn’t local in profound and complicated ways then it’s completely irrelevant, so we have to find a way that our work is of the city and is of the region.”

At the point at which Campbell is taking the reins at Northern Stage, this conversation and these understandings of regional identity are particularly urgent. As he explains, “everything’s on slightly shifting sands”; the organisation is currently coping with cutbacks from the city council and Arts Council England, at the same time as bracing itself for further slashes to its funding. “In the face of all of that, it’s about trying to find the most dynamic and optimistic model you can, but it’s quite difficult to plan into the medium term,” Campbell admits.

While the necessity of protecting the theatre in the short term makes longer term visions difficult at this stage, Campbell makes it clear that Northern Stage’s community of artists is a key priority. “I’ve arrived at a very interesting moment where there is a hugely exciting cohort of artists and companies and writers and actors all coming through in the North East,” he explains, “so a big challenge for us is how we not only protect that generation of artists, but continue their momentum.” He describes the present as a “really potential-filled, optimistic moment”, but he’s under no illusions about how easily that potential could be wasted if the theatre is not able to continue supporting the development of those artists.

Another repeated word in Campbell’s vocabulary, despite the difficult times that Northern Stage and other organisations currently face, is “optimism”. He remains hopeful about the theatre’s ability to harness its resources in support of the artists it has discovered and nurtured over the years, as well as about the potential of the main stage. “We need to make more work on it,” he states, firmly and unequivocally. “More of our own work and work which tells exciting, contemporary stories about not only the present of the North East, but also the future.” He imagines this stage as “a political space, sort of inspired by Joan Littlewood and John McGrath”.

“So much of it is about exercising community,” Campbell explains as he outlines his approach. He smoothly segues into talking about St Stephen’s, the Edinburgh Fringe venue that Northern Stage first occupied last year under previous artistic director Erica Whyman, and the range of different communities surrounding that project. Linking together artists from across the North of England in an ambitious curated programme, St Stephen’s offers an overlap between different areas, companies and artistic practices, as well as opening a dialogue with other venues and with the communities of both Edinburgh and the Fringe.

Stressing the importance of engaging with the people of Edinburgh as much as with the festival as a separate entity, Campbell insists that this balance is “absolutely vital”. “I think it’s one of the great ignored truths of the Fringe,” he says. “The majority of tickets are sold to Scots who come to the festival; the tourist ticket buyers are still in the minority. So if you don’t connect to a local audience, you’re going to have a very hard time.” Having been brought up in the city and worked at the Traverse Theatre earlier in his career, Campbell has an obvious advantage here. “It feels like an old biorhythm waking up,” he laughs, adding, “it’s going to be lovely to be embedded in it”.

One way in which Campbell is facilitating this dialogue with the local area at St Stephen’s is through The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. The driving impulse behind this project, he explains, was born out of what he felt was a divide between English and Scottish artists. “I was really struck last year by the real functioning sense of community within the artists at St Stephen’s, but I was also aware that there wasn’t a huge amount of conversation with a very similar group of Scottish artists who were also in the city.”

“I wanted to try and find a project that brought those communities into contact with each other,” Campbell continues, “to talk about something in the political zeitgeist, but also to exchange practice and to be in the same room together.” His unique artistic solution was inspired by border ballads, “a narrative folk tradition that belongs as much to Northumbria as it does to the Scottish lowlands and the borders”. Campbell has commissioned six artists to write their own versions of what a border ballad might look like today, while throughout the festival another epic ballad will be composed by a range of guest artists contributing a new verse each night.

“That ballad begins with a foundling babe being discovered in a Moses basket floating down the River Tweed on the night of the dissolution of the act of parliaments between England and Scotland,” Campbell tells me, “and then the poem will tell the next 95 years of that child’s life and the next 95 years of an imagined non-United Kingdom.” Incorporating a diverse mix of artists with a range of different political views, Campbell hopes to open a lively debate about Scottish independence, which he suggests is “much more than a question about whether Scotland should be an independent country or not”. As he continues, “it’s a question about how optimistic or pessimistic we feel about the potential of our political future”.

The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project is not alone in addressing such meaty questions. Elsewhere in the programme – which Campbell explains was mostly put together by creative associate Mark Calvert before his arrival – a certain shared political impetus animates a wide and varied range of work, from Hannah Nicklin’s very personal meditations on protest to Daniel Bye’s more openly provocative How to Occupy an Oil Rig. “It feels like there’s much more of a zeitgeist running through the project this year,” Campbell notes. “You can see lots of conversations about dissent, about forms and modes of protest, about how you question where you are as an individual in relation to a system. I think it will be very exciting to see how all those bits talk to each other.”

Another strand to this dialogue within the programme is Make. Do. And Mend, a one day event that aims to gather a wide range of voices in theatre to discuss problems and implement solutions. Feeling the need to create an event that acted as well as just talking, Campbell and the team at Northern Stage “wondered what would happen if we tried to create an event which actually resulted in immediate action that day”. Campbell is determined that “you can’t just repeat” and hopes that this gathering will prevent the talking in circles that we are all too good at.

This particular event is being organised in partnership with Forest Fringe, who are back in Edinburgh this year in a new venue on the same side of the city as St Stephen’s. This in itself shifts the context in which Northern Stage’s project sits, providing yet another overlapping community. Campbell is positive about this development, saying that “the geography and gravity of having more on that side of town is great”. He also comments on the growth of curated programmes this year in resistance to the commercial drives elsewhere, stating his belief that that work “doesn’t go away, it just moves, it finds another space on the fringe of the Fringe”. If nothing else, the presence of another artistically driven venue in Edinburgh this year adds another voice to the dialogue. “It’s all part of the conversation.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

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No Place Like Home

Originally written for Exeunt.

In the immortal, celluloid-enshrined words of a ruby-slipper-tapping Dorothy, there’s no place like home. Or at least, even if our birthplace is somewhere from which we run kicking and screaming at the first opportunity, the place we come from inevitably shapes and defines us in some way, as do all the other places we subsequently call home.

So what does our local theatre say about us or about the community it is born from? Growing up in something of a cultural grey zone whose sole theatrical offerings seemed to be incessant tours of Grease and the obligatory ABBA sing-along, my loyalties as a theatregoer were aligned to London almost by default. It is a city I have yet to actually live in, but to which I feel inextricably bound by my connection with its culture. My personal experience, which I suspect is partly down to my hometown’s relative proximity to the huge variety of theatre available in the capital, is thankfully not indicative of the state of regional theatre on the whole. But even in areas with a thriving theatre scene, how much of the work is really wedded to its surroundings?

There is, of course, an immediate flipside to this argument. Just as the dearth of roles for women is not necessarily addressed by female writers, who are often wary of confining themselves to female experience for fear of being shoved in the box labelled “feminist playwright” and never allowed back out, regionality can be shunned by artists operating outside the capital. “Regional” is a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral. As Daniel Bye’s column about Northern Stage at St Stephen’s suggested, it is easy for a national theatre culture still largely centred on London to pinpoint regionality as a basis for criticism.

What Bye also proposed, however, is that we should ultimately be proud of where our theatre comes from. In his words, the programme at St Stephen’s was “marinated in its distance from the cultural centre”; whether consciously “regional” or not, work made away from London is inevitably coloured by the site of its origin, as much as London-based theatre is arguably lent a certain quality by its position in the capital. So why are we reluctant to celebrate these regional differences?

As with anything, there are startling exceptions to the picture of regional theatre that I have – admittedly very roughly – begun to sketch above. Chris Goode’s 9, for instance, programmed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Transform Festival earlier this year, worked with local people to create a series of solo performances, crafting a piece of theatre fused to its place of origin through tangible human links. Remaining in Yorkshire, Invisible Flock’s Bring the Happy chose to investigate the concept of happiness through the very specific focus of Leeds, while their current project Sand Pilotexplores an equally specific relationship with the natural environment in Morcambe Bay. In a slightly different approach to regionality, Joel Horwood’s  Peterborough was commissioned by Eastern Angles with the brief of responding to the city of its title, a place referred to by the Arts Council as a “cultural cold spot”.

Many other examples could doubtless be cited, but what British theatres often lack is a truly regional aspect to their overall programming. Compared with the system in Germany, for example, where the dramaturgy departments of individual institutions set themes for each season based on a mix of wider social issues and subjects of particular local resonance, the UK model makes a striking contrast. Thanks to the touring structure, London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location. When people complain that the theatre on offer in their local area has no relevance to them, it is easy to appreciate this perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, Lyn Gardner bravely lit the touchpaper in the ever fiery arts funding debate by suggesting that subsidy should be channelled away from major institutions and instead invested into “the bottom of the pyramid”. While this takes us into complex and thorny territory, one vital point that Gardner makes is about the participatory nature of the arts. As she stresses, for those who end up working in this industry, nearly all have found their initial point of entry through involvement of some kind, often no doubt through their local institution.

If such institutions were more attuned to their surrounding area, maybe more of those “ghost” artists that Gardner writes about would recognise the relevance of theatre to them and be able to realise their potential. A more local focus might also enable the feeding of funds into the grassroots, supporting emerging artists in the immediate region in a way that could allow major organisations and smaller companies to happily and productively co-exist.

To distil a piece of theatre down to any one element is of course reductive, ignoring the myriad influences that help to shape it. But to pursue the opposite extreme and discount location entirely is to also ignore something, something beautiful and idiosyncratic and married with a sense of community that is all too often missing from our theatres. As new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s spearheading of Birmingham REP’s centenary season recognises, theatres and artists have a vital role in serving their communities, be that through responsive programming or local engagement. And through this engagement maybe, just maybe, they can secure themselves an integral place for the future.

The Ugly Sisters, St Stephen’s

RashDash’s rock-infused cabaret restyling of Cinderella really shouldn’t be as good as it is. Reimaginings of fairytales are hardly original; almost every maligned fictional villain has now had the story retold from their misunderstood perspective. Likewise, there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about RashDash’s scruffy-punk aesthetic or the music of accompanying band Not Now Bernard. So the gloriously anarchic product, transcending its angsty teenage premise, is fairly remarkable testament to the charisma and chemistry of this accomplished performing duo.

The narrative twist that is executed by RashDash throws the Cinderella story into the midst of rabid, fame-obsessed contemporary culture and the distorted world of “reality” television. Dragged up in a world of burned out cars and used needles, twins Emerald and Pearl undergo their own rags to riches transformation when their fortunes are changed by their mother’s marriage to a wealthy single father, but this is no fairytale. As they find themselves increasingly overshadowed by seemingly perfect Arabella – dubbed “Cindy-rella” by Emerald – the girls decide to copy their stepsister by entering You Shall Go to the Ball, a nauseatingly plausible television contest to win the affection of a prince.

But it’s not the gruesome dissection of reality TV that really slices to the bone – we already know that The X Factor is an amplified freak show, the grim voyeurism of the eighteenth-century asylum made-over by the worst excesses of Saturday night entertainment. Instead it is RashDash’s cuttingly perceptive indictment of the roles that women are straitjacketed into by this media-obsessed society that remains most firmly embedded in the mind. In an attempt to match the appeal of materialist, manicured Arabella (ironically represented by a male band member wearing a tiara), the two sisters wriggle into boob tubes and totter on platform heels, pouting with hands on hips in a pose that exemplifies the anxiously conformist vanity of the Facebook profile picture – hilarious but grotesque.

There is also something fairly potent in RashDash’s approach about the nature of narrative and the power held by the storytellers. With the media under a particularly scorching spotlight at present, their turning of the tables is yet another instance of how our perceptions are determined by those clutching the pen – the implication being, of course, that it has always been this way. While such distortions now lie in the hands of profit-conscious TV producers and tabloid editors, the continued currency of fairytales illustrates that there has always been a tendency to paint heroes and villains.

Such musings, however, arose mostly after the event. The show itself carries its audience along on a momentum of charismatic, impressively physical performances and fierce vocals; a sharp and irresistible adrenalin rush of playful, cabaret-style narrative riffing that races past at a furious gallop. The intensely performative confessional of the cabaret show is an appropriate vehicle for telling Emerald and Pearl’s side of the story, but this genre is spliced with other elements. The use of foot pedal looping to create a layered musical narrative, for example, offers one of the performance’s stand-out moments of inventiveness, suggesting the noise of the various voices surrounding this story. RashDash also throw in some cheeky chunks of meta, making knowing nods to the theatrical conventions they are working within and teasing us with the prospect of intimidating audience interaction that often accompanies such performances, without ever fully committing to this strand.

Ultimately, it is perplexingly hard to articulate just why this works. There may not be a great degree of originality or distinctiveness to RashDash’s approach, but in execution it is unfailingly enjoyable. Like the fairytale it takes as its basis, it may be familiar and not all that exciting on paper, but it translates into an undeniably engaging night of entertainment.

A Thousand Shards of Glass, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

Much like the inevitable solo film trilogy, a piece that advertises itself as a one woman action adventure thriller is the sort of theatrical experience usually best avoided at the fringe. It sounds suspiciously as though it might involve a diluted Lara Croft figure and misguided martial arts. Jane Packman Company and consummate storyteller Lucy Ellinson, however, demonstrate that genre can be a tool for reinvention as well as a chain to confine.

The show’s staging, like its premise, is deliciously deceptive. Seats arranged around a circle enclosing nothing more than a ring of lights linked by fat, snaking wires, this would appear to be the height of theatrical minimalism. In a sense it is. As the piece progresses, however, the conceptual care behind each simple creative choice becomes ever more apparent. Nothing here happens by accident.

In the absence of any concession to naturalistic scenery, the tale that Ellinson spins takes place in the vast landscape of our imaginations. Seated in our circle of chairs, gazing across at one another, the audience configuration is reminiscent of the campfire – a forum for fantastical stories since stories began. As spectators, we are also fragmented, separated, identified as individuals rather than as part of an amorphous whole and thus forced to fully engage with the performance. Creeping around this circle, Ellinson conjures a flat, projected world, a Matrix-like illusion in which the human race are trapped and from which she alone can save them.

In this magical realist, two-dimensional space, there is an apt element of the graphic novel to the text’s vivid yet artificial frescos. One of the most vibrant scenes is that in which Ellinson’s character circles around Egypt in a taxi, ticking off colourful scenes of the surrounding market that summon a bustling mental picture, but one which snags uncomfortably on the corners of the mind; like the protagonist, we too can see the edges. Repeated images whirl past in aTruman Show carousel of fakery, seeming real but not quite real enough.

That my references are all to films is no mistake. It is from this art form that Jane Packman Company takes its stylistic cues, borrowing from Hollywood tropes and flitting schizophrenically from scene to scene in the manner of the scissor-happy action movie aesthetic. Lewis Gibson’s evocative soundscape, the piece’s one aid to the imagination other than the loop of flickering lights, is a nod to the surround-sound conventions of modern cinema, as noises emit from speakers dotted throughout the space and two sound boxes are passed between members of the audience.

The influence of film, among the most elaborately artificial and widely reproduced artistic mediums, also seems fitting for an imagined world constituted of signs. This flat world, this “desert of the real”, to borrow – as The Matrix does – a phrase from Jean Baudrillard, becomes an unsettling metaphor for a society which has accepted the flat, airbrushed reality of capitalism. In contrast to this steady stream of simulacra, the tricks of the production are all visible and unmasked, from the protruding wires of the lights to the sound boxes that travel from hand to hand – a method of staging that seems appealingly mutinous in itself. This may only be a story of resistance, but its rebellious sentiment is one that outlives the narrative.

At a festival where epic ambition is often traded in for intimate bite, Jane Packman Company has found a gorgeously simple way to happily marry the two. The literal space occupied by the piece is bare and compact, paced by Ellinson alone. But the cavernous realm of the imagination, unrestrained by practical limitations has far greater epic sweep than even the most immense of stages.

Oh, The Humanity and Other Good Intentions, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

A sports coach with a struggling team. Two internet daters desperate not to be alone. A spokeswoman without a script. A pair of photographers trying to capture something intangible and a couple without a clue as to where they are going. This seemingly unconnected assortment of characters all have something to get off their chests, something occasionally profound and messily human.

Will Eno’s series of short plays function like streams of consciousness, hyperreal vocalisations of the rambling, irrational, uncertain and sometimes mad thoughts that incessantly rumble through our brains. This familiar yet unfamiliar world, evoking an oddly disturbing Freudian atmosphere of the uncanny, is seemingly one in which lies are unthinkable. From the broken, ageing sports coach to the rambling lonely hearts, these characters are all helplessly compelled to tell the truth, as the private, the taboo and the mutedly mundane all trip indiscriminately from their mouths. By stripping back all artifice and laying honesty bare, Eno’s writing startlingly reveals just how many little lies and omissions cloak our everyday conversation, leaving his lines unsettlingly naked by comparison.

And the nakedness of the piece does not end with the writing. Layer by layer, Erica Whyman’s direction peels back the illusion of stagecraft, pulling away the curtain concealing the magician’s secrets. Between each of the scenes, the transitions are increasingly conspicuous, until eventually the panels of the set swing back fully to reveal the hidden, inner workings. The experience is that of watching a piece of theatre fall gloriously apart, until we are left not even with characters but with individuals dislocated in time, floating somewhere between fiction and truth. Realism disperses to unveil the reality beneath; a car dissolves back into two chairs and characters misplace their back stories.

The admission that recurs most frequently within Eno’s heightened bubble of veracity is “I don’t know”. In interrogating what it means to be alive, the piece recognises that one of the defining features of our humanity is our uncertainty, our ability to weigh possibilities and conclude the calculation with a question mark. There is also something beautifully indecisive about the performances, which can suddenly segue from calm containment to passionate outburst, as recklessly demonstrative as the emotions we suppress. Lucy Ellinson in particular, whether as frantic spokeswoman or wistful singleton, has a constantly searching, anxious quality behind her gaze that speaks of the terminal human quest for meaning.

Of the fractured scenes that we are witness to, the splinter that protrudes most strikingly at the show’s centre is the scenario featuring the two photographers, their lens focused firmly on the audience. Eno’s witty, surreal study of idiosyncrasy is swiftly turned on its spectators as Ellinson gently asks us, eyes stretched wide: “how do you want to be remembered?” Because, as the structures of theatricality drop away and the divisions between performer and audience break down, the piece’s perceptive observations extend to us all.