Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard

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Originally written for Exeunt.

I can’t get the music loud enough.

Huddled on the train, freshly hurled out of Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard and into the cold, jagged, rain-flecked world, I want the music coursing through my headphones to fill me up, to vibrate through my pores. Nothing is loud enough, bright enough, vivid enough, tender enough.

The post-Ponyboy world feels like a grey but – slightly, almost imperceptibly – changed place.

So what is Ponyboy Curtis?

It’s a party.
It’s an intervention.
It’s an ensemble.
It’s a call to revolution.
It’s a fleeting alternative space, precariously carved out of the worlds of late capitalism.
It’s an invitation to intimacy.

It’s sexy.
It’s dangerous.
It’s tender.

It’s a shot to the heart.
It’s a kick to the gut.
It’s a blast to the eardrums.

It’s not quite like anything else.

“The naked actor is often the most powerful person in the room, partly because they’ve got nothing left to hide.” – Chris Goode

Let’s start with the nudity. Because there’s a lot of nudity. In its repeated acts of dressing and undressing, edges of the stage littered with clothes, this piece – show? experience? space? – feels like a thinking through of nakedness on stage. What does it do? How can that unclothedness be both extraordinary and natural at once? What dynamic does it create with an audience – dressed, distant, looking on?

On the clothed side of that divide, it’s not so much the erotic charge of all those naked bodies that I notice. It’s the astonishing expanse of bared skin: the gentle curve of a collarbone, the pulsing movement of a calf muscle. The brush of a finger against a palm, or the sweep of a hand along the small of a back. Small intimacies, not necessarily sexual, but aching with care.

There’s an ease to this near-perpetual nakedness, but also a provocation. Look at me, the performers dare, occasionally meeting our gaze with a challenge in their eyes. At moments, they appear vulnerable; at others, they are diamond-hard, invincible. Stripped to their skin, the shedding of clothes clads them in a different kind of power.

Looking on, it suddenly occurs to me that nearly all of the most heart-stealing, chest-tightening moments I’ve experienced in the theatre in recent months have circled around nudity – around bodies, tender and exposed. Peter McMaster and Nick Anderson struggling and embracing in 27. Jonah Russell and Oliver Coopersmith tentatively reaching out to one another and then drawing apart in The Mikvah Project. These beautiful, ravishingly brave boys at The Yard falling and jumping and kissing and dancing.

The texture of Ponyboy Curtis is one of nakedness and intimacy and radical energy, but also one of boybands and dance music and buddy movies. Like The Ramones, each of the performers has taken on the temporary surname ‘Ponyboy’, but huddled around a microphone, caps slanted at angles on their heads, they’re more like Take That. The polish of the manufactured pop band, but without the perfect, plastic, stage-managed sheen of One Direction.

Boyband. Gang of mates. Lovers. Men embracing to pumping music. Men strutting, naked and clothed and partly clothed. All these different masculinities. It’s hard not to think of all the characters in Men in the Cities – those broken, contorted boys and men. There’s hurt here too, in the bodies that crumple to the ground and the voices that howl, but in so many ways Ponyboy Curtis is a celebration of all the masculinities that the glass and concrete prisons of Men in the Cities disallow. Masculinities that are gentle, fragile, questioning, joyful. Masculinities founded on care rather than aggression.

Very little is said. This is a theatre of bodies and noise and feeling, not a theatre of words. Quotes, read aloud from pieces of paper tacked to the wall, occasionally slice through the pounding soundtrack but quickly become swallowed up by everything else around them, their traces dissolving. The only words that really stay with me are those of the evening’s guest, Hannah Nicklin, whose letter to her big little brother makes me think of my own three big little brothers and all the harm I worry about patriarchy inflicting on them, all the attitudes they easily absorb and reproduce. Her words make me think again about the world outside this flickering, captivating space and the sort of masculinity that is permissible there.

Then I’m out in that world again, the bright lights of Ponyboy Curtis glittering on my retinas and its music humming faintly in my ears. I don’t yet have words – let alone sentences – to describe or respond to it. Even now, I’m only fumbling towards something like that space and what it made me feel. This is a thinking through of how to write about Ponyboy Curtis, just as the performance I saw – sat alongside? inside? – last Thursday night felt like a thinking through of what this collection of people and ideas might or could be.

Thinking through. Feeling at the edges. Pushing at the walls. Starting something.

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“The Director as God is Bullshit”

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At times, Alexander Zeldin sounds more like a composer than a director. In his rehearsal room, “rhythm” is a popular word, as is “beat”. I’m watching Zeldin and his cast return to Beyond Caring, the hyper-realist snapshot of precarious labour that is transferring into the National Theatre’s temporary theatre following its premiere at The Yard last year. The show is an act of making visible – or perhaps audible. Zeldin stages the fractured daily routines of a group of zero-hours cleaners, with a musicality that draws as much on silence as it does on sound. It’s the ordinary textures of life woven into a theatrical score.

“I think in life there’s already quite a lot of theatre,” Zeldin says later as we sit in the foyer of the National Theatre, watching the everyday performances of passersby. “The theatre is a chance to be ourselves.” This is what’s so disorientating and eventually disarming about Beyond Caring, which refuses to fit human behaviour inside the stage conventions we are so used to seeing. “I think if you don’t do something that’s disturbing – I mean that in the best possible sense – you don’t really have an opportunity to be honest,” the director explains. “You need to create the conditions in which we can really exchange and we can really look at life.”

Zeldin struggles, though, to express the thinking behind this way of working, an approach that is perhaps best witnessed through the work itself. “If we could grasp it, there’d be no need to make the theatre, right?” he points out. I suggest a distinction made by Katie Mitchell between realism and naturalism, two words often used interchangeably to describe theatre. But according to Mitchell, realism is a mode based on recognisable conventions – representations of real behaviour – while naturalism attempts to precisely replicate that behaviour as seen in the world beyond the auditorium. Beyond Caring is in a similar mould, taking care over the minute gestures, pauses and phrases that make up a human life. A head is turned just so; a silence is rehearsed over and over.

Zeldin quotes a Chinese proverb: “don’t think about doing, just do”. Just doing, though, is “a very powerful, very complicated thing”. He continues: “everything I’m trying to do is just creating the conditions in which we can just do. And then we sculpt.” In creating these conditions, his role blurs between writer, director and member of a devising company, hierarchies constantly forming and dissolving. “The distance between the writer and director I feel is a little artificial,” he reflects on the slicing up of roles in much British theatre-making. “If you’re a director, inevitably you want to go and write, and if you’re a writer inevitably you’re going to want to write in the language of presence, space, rhythm.”

His role in the creation of Beyond Caring has strayed into both territories. While it was Zeldin who originated the idea and came into rehearsals with material he had already written, the show is very deliberately described as “written through devising with the company”. The piece has been shaped and reshaped over the years in close collaboration with a group of actors, as well as drawing on extensive research that started with Florence Aubenas’s book The Night Cleaner, an undercover investigation of precarious shift work in France.

For Zeldin, though, research is about experience and individual human interactions rather than about presenting a series of facts. “If you present your research on the stage, why don’t you just give the book out?” he says. “Because it’s going to be more clearly expressed.” Instead, the “meticulous” research undertaken by Zeldin and his cast – including stints working as cleaners – is subtly integrated at the level of character. One of the workers they met, for instance, talked about sleeping on a park bench, planting the seed for a character in Beyond Caring who sleeps in the factory where she works. “I’m not putting a park bench on the stage – that’s the verbatim version,” Zeldin distinguishes.

This, he insists, is where the politics of the show is located: in its form. Beyond Caring is about a controversial political issue – one that is proving to be a key point of debate in the pre-election hubbub – but its take on zero-hours contracts invites audiences to simply look and empathise rather than to engage with a series of facts and opinions. Inevitably, though, the current political context will colour its reception. “It’s a little awkward for me,” Zeldin admits, “because I’m doing a play about zero-hours contracts in the lead up to the election. I care passionately about the political issues at stake, but I hate politicians and politics.”

But he maintains that the style of the piece remains the most important expression of its politics. “I think it’s Tim Crouch who said that theatre happens in the head, not on the stage,” he says by way of explanation. “That’s such a powerful statement. And it happens in the heart; you just touch people, it’s not very complicated. I think we overthink things too much. Theatre is a precious space where we don’t need to overthink.”

Alongside music, another key aesthetic influence on the piece is photography. Zeldin explains that one of the initial inspirations for Beyond Caring was a series of photographs by Paul Graham – “it’s a kind of tribute, in a way” – and in the show he hopes to capture life in the same way that early twentieth-century photographers were able to. “August Sander, who was a photographer in the 1920s, used to go round before people knew what a camera was, so he’d point this thing at them and he’d capture them unaware,” Zeldin tells me. “There’d be a moment when you’d really see somebody, because they didn’t know how to behave in front of this strange contraption. That’s exactly what I’m interested in trying to do in the theatre.”

Achieving this involves precise and extended work with actors. “For me the root of everything I’m doing is the work with the actor,” says Zeldin. The question he is constantly asking of the performers he works with is “what’s at stake?” and his ultimate ambition is for them to achieve “presence”, a word he finds difficult to define. “What does it mean?” he asks, referring to the cliched statement that someone has stage presence. “Let’s be more specific. I think presence is something you can learn. You can develop it, you can train it.”

Beyond Caring, for instance, has been a long time in the making, and Zeldin has been working with some of the actors in the show for five years now. He characterises their process as completely collaborative, describing all of the performers as “massive contributors” to the show. “Hierarchy is dead,” Zeldin states unequivocally. “The director as god is bullshit, it doesn’t work. We’re in a room, we’re making it together, it’s got to be like that otherwise it’s a waste of time.”

“Theatre has to be alive in every second,” Zeldin continues, unforgiving in his expectations of the art form. “How can you do that? You need to create the conditions in the work where there’s a constant interrogation.” He recalls the experience of assisting Peter Brook – his greatest influence and inspiration as a director, as he stresses more than once – and being told to change something in the production every night while on tour. “It was about finding a readiness, an alertness.”

None of these working practices find a natural home in the British theatre industry, with its freelance culture and typically short rehearsal periods. For this reason, Zeldin – who is currently associate director at Birmingham Rep – aims to one day start his own company. “My ambition is to keep a group of actors together for ten, fifteen, twenty years,” he explains, brushing aside the audacity of this aspiration. His answer to practical obstacles is, perhaps, the best expression of his approach to theatre-making: “I think you have to do things that seem impossible.”

Photo: Mark Douet.

Jay Miller

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Originally written for The Stage.

There are few directors who, when faced with a lack of opportunities in their mid twenties, would start their own theatre from scratch. Jay Miller, however, is one of them. In 2011, in the midst of recession, the young director founded a theatre in a draughty warehouse in Hackney Wick. The Yard, built on a shoestring and constructed from reclaimed and recycled materials, was something of a conjuring act: bold, improbable and summoned almost from thin air.

Miller identifies three impulses behind the founding of The Yard: boredom, frustration and anger. “The boredom was with the theatre that I was seeing. The frustration was with an industry and a world that felt quite closed. And an anger because it was the time of the economic crash and I just felt angry that I’d been sold a dream by Tony Blair and graduated and entered into a world that felt like it was a trap.” When combined, this cocktail of emotions generated a determination to “just do something”.

For Miller, doing something meant creating his own alternative. So what was it that he was failing to see elsewhere in London theatre? “I wasn’t seeing a system that developed new artists in theatre,” Miller says. “I was seeing a fringe system that sought to replicate a larger subsidised model of theatre, and when it wasn’t seeking to replicate a larger subsidised model of theatre it was replicating a commercial aspect of the West End.”

Instead, the aim of The Yard was to nurture new work and to focus on the role of space in audience experience. No black box here. Building on a personal interest in architecture and roping in a few friends, Miller designed a theatre that was part warehouse, part Greek amphitheatre.

He explains that the desire was to marry something of the booming immersive theatre scene with a self-consciously theatrical design. “We wanted a space which felt like an experience, which felt inclusive and which felt very live. But we also wanted to in some way acknowledge that it was theatre.” Miller adds that “the friction between that design and its context goes some way to releasing this energy that I was seeking to find in a space”.

Right from the start of his career, Miller knew that he wanted to run theatres, which begins to explain the genesis of The Yard. “I was always really interested in spaces and the effect of spaces on people,” he says. Despite a stint at Lecoq in Paris and a range of acting and directing experience prior to setting up The Yard, he insists that his real training has been on the job. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started The Yard, so I’ve learned as I’ve gone.”

The Yard started out, Miller admits, with “a worrying lack of planning” and no real business model. “The biggest punt that I ever took in the moment when I thought ‘let’s make this happen’ was gambling that other people would be feeling similar things to what I was feeling, that people would be thinking similar things to what I was thinking,” he recalls.

Since then, both the space and the theatre it presents have evolved, scooping two Empty Space Awards and an Off West End Award in the process. “The programme at The Yard is organic,” says Miller, explaining that each new season has developed out of the previous one. Shows that have been presented as works in progress often return for longer runs, while themes emerge and reappear.

The latest development is a shift towards a mixed programme of four to five week runs interspersed with seasons such as this year’s NOW 14, which offer an opportunity for artists to show work in shorter bursts. The current autumn season, for instance, consists of two four week runs for These are your lives and The Hundred We Are, while submissions are for next year’s NOW 15 are opening later in the month.

Miller confesses, however, that the support The Yard is able to offer artists is restricted by the limited resources that they have to work with. While he insists on the importance of paying artists whenever possible, he adds that “we don’t have huge wads of cash to give out”. Instead, the theatre supports artists in a range of different ways, which often includes taking on a producing role.

The ultimate goal for Miller is “to achieve a real balance between opening our doors, developing and investing our resources in artists, and then putting on what we think is the best work in the UK”. It’s an ambitious set of aims, but one that Miller is confident of the need and desire for among the London theatre community.

“That punt, that gamble that other people must be thinking and feeling similar ways to me, paid off.”

Beyond Caring, The Yard

Beyond Care

Originally written for Exeunt.

We all know the basic facts about zero hours contracts: the headlines, the numbers, the controversy. Wisely, Alexander Zeldin and his cast don’t attempt to repeat any of this. Instead, this knowledge flickers in the background of the piece they have devised together, its political intent very much implicit but no less furious for it.

Beyond Caring depicts just five individuals caught in the ruthless cycle of modern employment and unemployment. Three women arrive for a fixed term cleaning contract at a factory, carelessly dispatched by temp agencies. One has been forced into work by Atos; it is hinted that another might be homeless. Working alongside them each night as they scrub down floors, walls and machinery is full-time cleaner Phil and boss Ian, who compensates for the disappointment of his job with small and occasionally cruel displays of power.

In presenting us with these determinedly ordinary characters, Zeldin asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. It’s also a form of spectatorship that takes a while to settle into. The punishing night shifts of the play unfold in uncompromising hyper-naturalism; silences, stutters and stumbles are all preserved, presenting us with human interaction in all its awkwardness and inarticulacy. Harsh, anaemic fluorescent strip lighting illuminates both audience and stage, thrusting us into the same drab and unforgiving world as that inhabited by these workers.

Falling into step with this sluggish, unpolished delivery demands an initial outlay of concentration, but it’s an approach that cumulatively builds in its power. By stripping away theatricality as we are accustomed to it, Zeldin focuses an audience’s attention; deprived of the dramatic conventions of naturalism, we are temporarily disorientated and made to look – really look – at these seemingly undramatic scenarios. While most stage realism aspires to a tidied up version of reality, this aspires to reality itself, jolting it out of its usual trappings and slamming it down in front of an audience.

As the piece goes on, repeating the relentless routine of shift after shift, the fine, accumulating detail becomes quietly devastating. Each performance is minutely textured, slowly amplifying the nuance of every last shrug and smile. A single gesture becomes infused with tragedy, while the corporate absurdities of a staff appraisal (“I am absorbed with ideas – agree or disagree?”) are as crushing as they are comic. Layered with Josh Grigg’s excellent sound design, which like the performances builds to an almost shattering intensity, the effect is one of blackening despair.

And yet. Somewhere in amongst the desperation and the drudgery and the alienation, there are still traces of tenderness. The title – at least in one sense – turns out to be something of a red herring; far from being beyond caring, these are individuals longing to care. The state might not give a shit, but they painfully, heartbreakingly do. And perhaps it’s there, in the foolish optimism and fleeting moments of connection, that we begin to glimpse just the tiniest splinter of possibility.

Puffball, The Yard

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Caroline Williams is inundated with owl paraphernalia. Bags, cushions, figurines stuffed with stale potpourri. Owl faces peer out from all corners of the stage, eyes wide and unblinking, feathers a variety of colours. All that’s missing is a link to a YouTube video and the hashtag “cute”.

But Williams’ show, unlike the twee figurines that she passes around the audience, only flirts with whimsy. The painted owls are the echoes of a real one, the eponymous Puffball, who Williams looked after and nursed back to health a few years ago. After she and Puffball finally parted company, Williams tells us, friends and family suddenly flooded her with owl themed items, from soft furnishings to pieces of jewellery. The problem is, she doesn’t really want them.

This flurry of well-meaning but unwanted gifts is an apt metaphor for the darker, fast-beating heart of the show, buried beneath the fluffy feathers. At the same time as Puffball was recovering from his injuries, Williams was also trying to get better, although her wounds were not visible ones. Somewhere between the laughter, the figurines and the charmingly simple Microsoft Paint illustrations that are projected onto the back wall of the Yard, Puffball obliquely but painfully conveys the experience of depression. The owl offerings – simplified and infantilising versions of the real thing – can be read in this context as misguided attempts to understand the tangled complexities of mental illness; given with the best of intentions, but unhelpful nonetheless.

This is never quite as simple, however, as a human story seen through that of an anthropomorphised animal. True, Williams offers Puffball an acute, troubled consciousness, evocatively narrating his emotions – from the paralysing terror of falling from the treetop canopy to the numb apathy of his slow recuperation. But this is countered with an insistence that what we are being told is purely the “truth” about owls, an insistence that is reiterated by punctuating the show with a series of “owl facts”, delivered in the forcefully exuberant style of a children’s nature documentary. Williams implicitly acknowledges the absurdity of projecting human experience onto an owl, an acknowledgement that gradually folds the narrative back onto her.

Despite the personal proximity of events, which seeps through in brief but heartbreaking moments of vulnerability, Williams is a warm and involving presence, effortlessly recruiting her audience to take part in some of the show’s sillier sequences. One such scene involves us all standing up and flapping our arms, feeling at once daft and oddly joyous. The participation can at times seem clumsy and slightly detached from the piece as a whole, but perhaps this dislocation is fitting. We are kept at arm’s length from the experience of depression, itself an isolating illness. The most powerful point in the narrative arrives when Puffball and his human carer look at one another, recognising what the other is, but neither can hear the other’s words. In one devastating moment, connection is suggested, attempted and cruelly denied.

Photo: Paul Blakemore.