Bring the Happy, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

As Oscar Levant famously said, “happiness is not something you experience, it’s something you remember”. This way of viewing happiness is particularly pertinent to Invisible Flock’s latest project, an undertaking to map the happiness of an entire city. Setting up a hub at the centre of Leeds, for a period of two months this group of artists collected happy memories from local people, recording them and plotting them onto a 3D map. What emerges is as much sadness as happiness.

The performance that Invisible Flock and accompanying band Hope and Social have created from this vast compendium of memories, however, is about as joyous as theatre gets. Memories, from the mundane to the sublime to the ridiculous, are recited by the performers and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, backed by alternately raucous and contemplative music. There are odes to the hundreds of babies born in local hospitals and to the chemically enhanced euphoria of going out and getting wasted. We wave glowsticks and sparklers and are invited to waltz with strangers.

Despite this encouraged silliness and unapologetic delight, more serious threads are plucked through the fabric of contemporary happiness. There is something inherently poignant about happy memories; the very fact that they are memories indicates that those moments must be in the past and in some sense lost. For this reason, the happiest of recollections on the map are often born from the most moving of circumstances. There is also an intensely personal quality to Invisible Flock’s creation. While being specific to the city of Leeds – a city I have never visited – the piece has the gentle power to summon memories of the places that hold happy memories for you wherever you might come from, providing a delicate diversion via reminiscence.

Unsurprisingly, however, not everyone embraced the idea in the same way as the audience at St Stephen’s. The question that Invisible Flock were most frequently asked by irritated passersby was simply “why?” Why spend time doing something so twee, so ridiculous and so seemingly without a purpose? Why sugar-coat a city rather than address its problems? Why – the most aggressive complaint – is this being funded? In the time since Invisible Flock began this project, their reasons have been vindicated, though possibly not in the way they would have hoped for, by the government’s concern with happiness in modern Britain. Unlike David Cameron’s falsely smiling initiative, however, there is something profoundly heartfelt about what Invisible Flock are doing.

It is also easier than it might initially seem to conjure valuable reasons for this project. As much as it is, on the surface, about happiness, asking questions about what makes people happy also seems to inevitably reveal what makes them unhappy, uncovering more truths about modern society than might be imagined. The project presents a way of understanding how we live today and how we lived yesterday – a living document of a city.

And, of course, there is the simple but not to be underestimated joy that Invisible Flock’s resulting creation is capable of engendering. Leaving with a smile like a stain that can’t be scrubbed off my face, it’s difficult to demand any better reason than that.

Me and Mr C, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

This show, we are told from the outset, might be a bit shit. It’s improvised, you see, and performer Gary Kitching can’t make any promises. Some nights it’s good, some nights it’s bad. Unlike most theatre, we are encouraged to start from a position of deflated expectations.

To review this piece of theatre, therefore, is to tell a small lie. The performance I saw was unique to the specific number of audience members in the space, the personalities and experiences that those audience members brought into the room, the particular mood of Kitching as a performer and the thoughts that floated to the fore of his mind in that 50 minutes. It might be argued that every performance is specific to the performative moment, but improvised performance is more specific than most. So, acknowledging my limitations at the off, I would like to follow Kitching’s lead and lower any expectations from this piece of criticism.

Of two things, however, we can be fairly certain. The “me” of the title is Kitching, emerging as a lonely wannabe comedian, and the Mr C is his fiery haired ventriloquist dummy, possibly the most terrifying prop to grace a stage at the fringe this year. This pairing is a nod to comedy convention, following in the tradition of Keith Harris and Orville, but that is where the piece’s conformity ends.

Kitching’s principal trick is to upturn expectations, both comedic and theatrical. As Kitching ever more despairingly attempts to engage in conversation, the ventriloquist dummy, usually the loquacious linchpin of a comedy double act, remains obstinately silent. During the comedy club interludes in which Kitching’s aspiring stand-up comedian is steadily broken, the audience is actively invited and even taught how to heckle – in fact, we are told, we will ruin the show if we don’t – inviting ever more inventive jeers from the crowd.

The extent to which the audience truly determines the piece is, unsurprisingly, limited. There is a sort of formula to the show that Kitching has shaped, one that relies on certain inputs but that calculates these into an answer that one suspects does not greatly vary. The audience interaction that Kitching does cultivate, however, slots fluidly into the piece and rarely falters thanks to a performance that puts us oddly at ease but never lets us switch off.

Where the role of the audience really becomes interesting, though, is when the piece takes a darker turn. Viciously plucking at the sinister undertones that have lingered throughout, Kitching car crashes closer and closer to destruction, releasing a raging torrent of self-hatred. With startling suddenness, the flavour of the audience’s involvement shifts without prompting, as sensitive a barometer as any to the mood of the work. Within moments, what has thus far been lightly, intelligently entertaining is transformed into an altogether blacker and more poignant proposition. It might not smash the low expectations that Kitching sets us, but it certainly exceeds them.

What I Heard About the World, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

What do you think of when someone mentions Brazil? Israel? How about Korea? The concept behind this collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe is born from the partial knowledge that we can now boast about all the far-flung corners of the world, dinner party trivia that slots together into a fragmented vision of the globe. As Thorpe puts it, “the more we know, the bigger the world gets”, and the more knowledge is accumulated, the more that the gaps in our knowledge glare out at us.

Creating a colourful theatrical map, Thorpe, Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly and mala voadora’s Jorge Andrade relate stories and quirky snippets of facts from around the world, communicated through direct narration, through pen-scrawled pictures, through roughly assembled sketches and through electric guitar accompanied music. Eschewing the indifferent wisdom of statistics, their charming and disturbing anecdotes all veer on the wacky side of odd, from cardboard cut-out figures issued by the American military to the families of servicemen and women, to a confession hotline that promises to cleanse you of your sins at a reasonable rate.

It rapidly becomes clear that what all of these stories share is their focus on artificiality. In a newspaper in Singapore, the editors photoshop suits onto obituary photographs; in Brazil you can hire mourners, while in Germany paid-for protestors are a booming commodity. Most staggeringly, a couple in Korea allowed their own baby to starve to death because they were so fixated on caring for their virtual child that they forgot they had a real one. Everywhere, it seems, signs and substitutes abound, and anything can be bought if you know who to call. The piece skilfully traces a map of an increasingly connected yet dislocated globe, around which revolves a Baudrillardian precession of simulacra.

As a backdrop to this carousel of eccentricity, the stage at St Stephen’s is packed with paraphernalia both homely and exotic – an apt accompaniment to the driving thoughts behind the piece. A fish tank and a sofa sit in the same space as a poolside life-belt and a paper plane, speaking of a yearning for both adventure and hearth. It is, as the piece recognises, essential to our self-identity to have a sense of place, a sense of place that is as much defined by stories of the “other” as it is by the idea of home.

As Thorpe, Kelly and Andrade repeatedly emphasise, the stories they tell are all true, collected through a formidable process of research and reassembled in different formulations for each of the show’s incarnations, but the very theatricality of the piece inherently begs us to question this truth. And, of course, we are right to. For these can only ever be constructions of the truth, ephemeral simulacra in the same way as the photoshopped suits or the donkeys painted as zebras in Gaza zoo. As soon as a piece of information is passed on, it gains a new identity, clothed in a thin film of fiction.

Yet, as inaccurate and incomplete a cartography as they draw, there is something oddly comforting about the stories that this production collects in cupped hands. As one woman from the anecdotes recognises, stories are a way of staying alive, of passing down a legacy that might cross mountain ranges and oceans. Simple facts, like national borders, can melt, change and die away, but stories are ever present.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Originally written for Exeunt.

Six days, countless cups of tea and two free mojitos into my first fringe, it might be a tad early to start making any valuable observations about the small phenomenon that gobbles up Edinburgh for a few weeks every summer. One thing that is difficult to ignore, however, is the small army of reviewers who colonise the place, stamping our presence with ratings and pull-quotes as fast as they can be frantically stapled onto flyers. An exploded version of the national theatre ecosystem, the fringe is a beast that is fed and bloated by the star system.

So it feels strange to be sitting in a room, in Edinburgh, questioning what this is all in aid of. I’m at St Stephen’s, the theatrical haven crafted by Northern Stage within the stonework of the old church, participating in something of an experiment. This is the first excursion of Dialogue, Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s project to cultivate and curate discussions between critics and theatremakers. Making a change from the endless tapping at my laptop keyboard, I’m here not to write but to talk.

The loose theme of the morning is the things that we, as critics or as theatremakers, don’t tell one another. While the discussions open in a fairly free-form structure, with individuals posing questions about preparation, objectivity and expertise, this later moves into a series of provocations. In a striking display of honesty, Maddy and Unfolding Theatre’s artistic director Annie Rigby each write down and then read aloud the statements that they don’t talk about, statements that I’m forced to hastily read before running off early to get to a show, but that stick to me like barbs.

Despite emerging from the artist’s perspective, many of Annie’s points strike potently at my own concerns about how I approach and write about theatre. They speak not of anger or antagonism, but of an aching disappointment that we don’t do this better.

“How long do you spend writing a review? How soon after a show do you write it? Are you happy with this?”

“Can we make some space to talk about what you got right and wrong? Like, if you could rewrite one review, what would it be?”

“I’m giving your review 3 stars. Don’t be disheartened. 3 stars is a good review.”

“I know you’ve got a word limit, but now we’re together it would be great to talk about that sentence you wrote.”

But the statement that lodged itself most firmly in my mind was Maddy’s: “it’s not you, it’s me”. Much as it made me laugh, this also seemed to me like a bold and stark unveiling of a widely accepted lie within criticism, an extension of the fallacy of objectivity that I found myself speaking about earlier in the morning. Because sometimes, amongst all the other unacknowledged baggage that finds its way into the auditorium, a critic just isn’t in the right frame of mind to productively respond to a certain piece of theatre.

In Edinburgh this, as with everything else, is heightened. Schedules are tighter, word limits are shorter, synapses are more impaired. With perhaps as little as an hour to wrench out a review and slap on a star-rating, carefully considered analysis begins to lose its foothold. More and more superfluous stuff finds its way into the performance space: fatigue, an awareness of where to rush off to next, a creeping dread of the mounting backlog. It’s not a popular admission to make, despite the evidence of the voluminous bags under our eyes, but sometimes we’re just tired. It’s not the fault of the work, it’s a simple fact.

One of the few certainties that I do have at this early interlude in my fringe experience is a hopeless, head-over-heels, bad-poetry-writing love for the intense, bubble-like intimacy of Edinburgh at this time of the year. I love bumping into people I know, having the conversations about theatre that we usually put off, stumbling into real-life, in-depth discussions with people who I usually only engage with in bite-sized snippets of electronic communication. All of this I adore. It is only the writing, or rather my own writing and its occasional rushed inadequacy, that I am in danger of falling a little out of love with.

So there we are. It’s not you, it’s me. But I’m not ready to give up on this particular relationship just yet. Perhaps we can take a break, or maybe we can still be friends. Perhaps, as I felt in that room at St Stephen’s smashing down barriers and facing difficult truths, we can even start over.

Northernmost Stage

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There is professional fervour for the Edinburgh Fringe, as an international platform on which to present new work, and then there is pure, unfettered love for the festival in all its chaos. Erica Whyman, the artistic director at the helm of Northern Stage’s ambitious Fringe programme at St Stephen’s this year, falls firmly into the latter camp.

“I just love the energy of it,” she tells me over a snatched lunchtime phone call. Unsurprisingly, Whyman – who has also just been announced as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first deputy artistic director – is a very busy woman at the moment. Northern Stage’s pilot project at St Stephen’s is due to take sixteen separate productions up to Edinburgh, where the venue is providing accommodation for all performers involved, not to mention converting the atmospheric church into a performance space. It is a massive undertaking.

“If you’re going to arrive in Edinburgh, you need to arrive with a bit of a bang,” says Whyman by way of explanation. Her initial intention was to test this collaborative model with just three productions, but the project rapidly snowballed into a full season of work over the month of the festival. The idea was born out of Whyman’s love for Edinburgh, an existing relationship with St Stephen’s, and the feeling that artists in the North needed an affordable platform to present their work to Edinburgh’s international audience.

There was also a funding incentive. “In 2011, when we were applying for Arts Council funding for Northern Stage, I was conscious that it was important to try and demonstrate a growing relationship across the region,” Whyman explains. “It struck us that we could kill two birds with one stone. We thought that there was a lot of interesting contemporary work coming out of the North and that if we bundled that together into one venue we could have a really striking programme.”

The various pieces compiled by Whyman for the festival appear, at least at first glance, to have little in common other than geographical location. They range from RashDash’s bold cabaret transformation of Cinderella to the gentle, biscuit-fuelled audience participation of Faye Draper’s Tea is an Evening Meal. Asked about the programming, which she characterises as one of the easiest components of the whole process, Whyman admits that she did not grasp at any unifying thread or theme.

“It wasn’t terribly …” Whyman trails off, chewing over her words, before continuing: “I was going to say conscious, but that’s not quite true. We didn’t set out to find a particular kind of work.” One characteristic that the productions do share, however, is a direct relationship with their audiences, which Whyman explains was intentional. She hopes that these choices will have the power to surprise theatregoers and to subvert any clichés that exist about Northern theatre, breaking away from the stereotype of gritty kitchen-sink realism to embrace more contemporary, internationally minded work. Instead of being concerned exclusively with the region they originate from, many of the works, like Third Angel’s What I Heard About the World, exhibit “an outward-looking curiosity”.

If the programming has been relatively straightforward, the logistical challenges of transporting sixteen productions to the Fringe are proving more demanding. Northern Stage has booked a total of 59 bedrooms for its artists across the festival and is creating two performance spaces and a café within the environs of St Stephen’s – and that’s without even factoring in the coordination of marketing and press, the organisation and training of volunteers, the feat of teching sixteen separate shows. As Whyman laughs grimly, “there are a lot of spreadsheets”.

This nightmare of organisation responds, however, to what Whyman feels is a deep need within the region. Ultimately, this is a venture driven by artists. “We did a lot of listening and asking artists what made Edinburgh valuable for them,” Whyman tells me. The response was overwhelming in its enthusiasm for the artistic opportunities offered by the festival, but the associated costs, particularly of accommodation, emerged as a major barrier, even for more established companies. To lower this barrier, Northern Stage is taking on many of those costs through a collective, collaborative approach. In Whyman’s words, “this model has just shifted the balance”, spreading the load to make the festival more affordable.

Is this an approach that other venues and artists might adopt in order to take work to Edinburgh? Whyman’s answer is careful. “It’s up to every project and every region to work out what’s best for their artists,” she says, acknowledging that this is not a realistic or desirable model for everyone. She goes on to explain that “there’s a kind of logic” to the project that Northern Stage has mounted: “In the case of the North, we happen to be a venue that already presents, develops and co-produces a great deal on a small scale, which isn’t true of everybody.” Conversations sparked by the St Stephen’s season have, however, revealed an interest in other parts of the UK, raising the possibility that we may see more regional or venue-based programming at Edinburgh in future years.

Such conversations tap into a growing obsession with collaboration, a preoccupation born from the difficulties imposed by recent and forthcoming cuts to Arts Council funding. Not only is Northern Stage participating in its own collaborative activity by bringing together artists from across the North at St Stephen’s; the theatre will also be harnessing these discussions during the festival at Stronger Together, a day of debate and provocations about collaboration in the arts. Following last year’s symposium at Northern Stage’s Newcastle home, Edinburgh would appear to be the perfect forum in which to throw these discussions even wider.

This year’s conversation, I am told, will differ from 2011 in more than just location. “Unlike last year, when we were all still reeling from the funding decisions, good or bad, this year it feels like there’s a need to talk differently about collaboration and to make sure that we are in charge of it in this sector,” says Whyman. Collaboration has become such a ubiquitous buzz word in the arts that it is vital for platforms such as this to take a step back and interrogate it. “We’re posing the question that day: can collaboration change the game, and if so what game do we want it to change?”

The day will feature speakers such as David Jubb, Vicky Featherstone, Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson, as well as a case study from Globe to Globe organiser Tom Bird, offering an international lens on what collaboration can mean on a large scale. The format partly borrows from the Open Space Technology that has become synonymous with Devoted & Disgruntled, allowing attendees to put forward topics for discussion and weave freely in and out of different conversations.

Whyman explains that the day is less about the collaboration that Northern Stage has forged and more about how all artists can collaborate better – as well as when they should avoid collaboration altogether. One intriguing contribution is to come from Andy Field, who will discuss the experiences of Forest Fringe since losing their Edinburgh venue, exploring “the idea that you might move the conversation forward more effectively by resisting and by not necessarily doing what people expect you to do”. It is a provocative challenge to the popular feeling that collaboration is always positive.

Doing the unexpected and confronting new challenges brings us back to Northern Stage’s own ambitious model of collaboration. Only through execution will it be made clear whether such a model can work, but this is undoubtedly a bold move from Northern Stage and one that could mark a shift in the way in which artists approach Edinburgh in future years. Vitally, Whyman’s approach to collaboration is one that is not only asking “how can we do it better?” but also “how can we resist if necessary?”