In a room above a pub in central Birmingham there’s a monthly show that feels like a big bunch of friends getting together. The audience conversations cut across different rows of chairs, not just along the row with the people they’ve come with. At the interval, the performers chat with the crowd and each other in a way that feels more like a relaxed party than a comedy night. This Kneejerks show had the best atmosphere of any improv show I’ve seen.
At the start of the show, the audience revealed their New Year’s resolutions and these were used to inspire individual scenes. A pledge to gain weight led to a meeting of Weight Gainers Anonymous. A desire to spend more time with friends involved an old school friend moving in with somebody he’d not seen since. A promise to learn how to knit became a scene where the wife made deliberately terrible jumpers for her husband. This last scene was revealed to be an act of quiet frustration by the wonderfully snippy wife (Kate Knight) and the longer this went on, the deeper the problems that were revealed with both the jumpers and the couple themselves.
Next up, a couple of audience members were invited to tell everyone how their day had been. Elements of these stories were combined into a small comedy drama, where a couple who’d split up ran into each other again due to his friend marrying her assistant at work. Following that were a series of fortune cookie scenes, which would start off as normal and then pause mid-way for someone in the crowd to read out a randomly selected moral for the story. The stars aligned for the rhino hunting scene, where the hunt saboteur who’d turned up with no gun but lots of attitude was given a moral that led to laughs even before the performers used it on stage. I also really enjoyed some of the smaller moments here, such as the younger brother on his PlayStation (Jon Trevor) repeatedly saying he wanted another life, which in isolation was as funny as anything else you’ll see.
The show ended with a non-stop flow of back-to-back scenes, the highlight of the evening where both the performers and onlookers had the most fun. An unwanted birthday present led to the recipient (Suzie Evans) really letting her friend know what she thought of the gift, the honesty of her reaction creating more laughs than anything silly or crazy that might be typically associated with improv. This was followed by the biggest laugh of the night for vegan who ate meat (Dan McKee), explained because he didn’t want to be stereotyped & needed to earn a living from his catering business. All four performers worked well together in this sequence, creating a moment of joy in every scene. Catch them if you can.
The Kneejerks perform the third Wednesday of every month at The Victoria.
SAT 4TH – NOTTINGHAM PLAYHOUSE
Rhymes Against Humanity: The East Midlands’ only improvised musical company interview an audience member ato inform a fully improvised 45-minute piece of musical theatre.
SAT 4TH – CRITERION FREE HOUSE
The Same Faces: Monthly Leicester show, taking ideas from you to make brilliant comedy sketches live on stage.
WEDS 8TH – THE PATRICK KAVANAGH
Fat Penguin: Free improvised comedy show in Birmingham with support by a headline act from one of the UK’s top improv troupes. Headlining this month: C3?
THURS 9TH – THE MALT CROSS
Gorilla Burger: Regular Nottingham show where everyone is welcome to take part, simply by putting your name in a hat.
THURS 9TH – THE PHOENIX
Commentary: Comedians, actors and poets interact with films and animations on screen. With some parts scripted and some parts improvised, it’s all about re-scripting, re-scoring and re-inventing cinema.
THURS 9TH/FRI 10TH – CRITERION FREE HOUSE
Chris Betts Vs The Audience: Bring your opinions, your facts, your life experiences and no matter what you say Chris will argue (hilariously I might add) the opposite.
FRI 10TH – DMU ART GALLERY
Nicholas Holt: Improvisations from dance artist Lewys Holt and comedian/writer Daniel Nicholas. Together and apart, they’ll be writing, choreographing and performing simultaneously on stage. Sometimes funny. Sometimes not.
FRI 10TH – FIREBUG
Abandoman: The year is 1993. After destroying rural Ireland’s talent show circuit, hip-hop improvisers Abandoman are teetering on the edge of international fame. This is their access-all-areas story.
FRI 10TH – ESQUIRES COFFEE HOUSE
Wow impro: Free comedy night from Coventry-based improv troupe.
SAT 11TH – THE Y
The Noise Next Door: Eight time sell-out veterans of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival bring their Uproar Tour to Leicester.
SAT 11TH – THE SOUNDHOUSE
Unidentified Flying Improv: Come and marvel at the verbal dexterity, the musical annihilation and the comic agility as UFI improvise their way out of a fun-packed paper bag.
SUN 12TH – REGENT SPORT & SOCIAL CLUB
The Same Faces: Special show as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival, creating scenes just like Whose Line is it Anyway?
MON 13TH – FIREBUG
D.A.N.C.E.: Comedians will perform their routines, whilst dancers, react and improvise their interpretation on stage with them. And then they swap. An exciting way to see different artforms working together.
WEDS 15TH – THE VICTORIA
The Kneejerks: Free improvised comedy and theatre from Birmingham’s newest group.
WEDS 15TH – MANHATTEN 34
Nicholas Holt: Improvisations from dance artist Lewys Holt and comedian/writer Daniel Nicholas. Together and apart, they’ll be writing, choreographing and performing simultaneously on stage. Sometimes funny. Sometimes not.
THURS 16TH – ISLAND BAR
Hilarity Ensues: Monthly show in central Birmingham featuring stand up, sketch and improvised comedy.
FRI 17TH – FIREBUG
Conversation Dungeon: With live musical accompaniment, enter the nerdy realm of goblins, ghouls, and dragons for a raucous and unpredictable night of fabrication, improvisation, and conversation.
SAT 18TH – BLUE ORANGE THEATRE
Dummy: Two world-class USA improvisers come to Birmingham. Winner of the iO Theater in Chicago “Best Improv Show” in 2013 and 2014.
SAT 18TH – THE LITTLE THEATRE
Knightmare Live: Every show is different, every room holds a new challenge, and YOU have the chance to wear the iconic helmet of justice and play the dungeon.
SAT 18TH/SUN 19TH – PETER PIZZERIA
Scriptless In Seattle: An improvised romcom, created entirely from audience suggestion, we tell a brand new love story with hilarity guaranteed. The most enduring of film genres hits the stage.
SAT 18TH/SUN 19TH – PETER PIZZERIA
Crime Scene Improv: Following sell-out runs at Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals, a 100% brand new whodunnit every show which solves an outlandish murder invented by the audience.
SUN 19TH – LEICESTER GUILDHALL
Lindsey & Ian’s Incredible Improv Adventure: Children’s show where you can dress up, sing-along, suggest ideas for a fantastic new story and play with award-winning comedians. Two shows on the same day allows double the fun.
SUN 19TH – CRITERION FREE HOUSE
From The Heart: 70% improvisation, 30% stories about illicit drug use, and Christian Scientists. All heart, pouring out of the head of Russell Hicks.
SUN 19TH – REGENT SPORT & SOCIAL CLUB
Improv Smackdown: 8 of the country’s best improvisers go head-to-head, in order to be declared the country’s Smackdown Champion of 2017.
MON 20TH – BLUE ORANGE THEATRE
Box Of Frogs: Monthly show in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter with all your favourite improv games. Absolutely free, with their usual cast iron guarantee – ‘laugh, or your money back!’
FRI 24TH – CRITERION FREE HOUSE
Comedian’s Cinema Club: These movies are brash, hilarious and nothing like the originals. One of the best audience participation comedy shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 according to the Guardian.
FRI 24TH – NO. 6 ON BROAD STREET
The Noise Next Door: Another night of madcap laughs. Part of a wider night of comedy at the Comedy Loft.
SAT 25TH – THE BLACK PRINCE
The Same Faces: Monthly Northampton show, taking ideas from you to make brilliant comedy sketches live on stage.
SUN 26TH – ROYAL SPA CENTRE
The Noise Next Door: Two chances to see the sell out comedy group in Leamington Spa, with the family friendly Really Really Good Afternoon Show followed by the no-holes-barred Uproar show.
SUN 26TH – REGENT SPORT & SOCIAL CLUB
The Same Faces: A second show as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival, with the usual team joined by two guest performers.
Know about a show that I’ve missed? Get in touch and let me know.
We are recruiting one or two part time freelance Creative Learning Associate/s to lead an after school Drama Club and work as an Assistant Director on a new school production.
We require an enthusiastic and imaginative person to lead a new after-school Drama Club which will take place twice a week in two different secondary schools within the Ward End area of East Birmingham. The clubs will culminate in the staging of three productions.
Following a production of The Tempest last year we are also staging a large-scale adapted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at one of the schools and so are also seeking an Assistant Director to work with the Artistic and Associate Director to deliver this exciting and ambitious project.
The posts could be offered to the same person, or to two different individuals.
The after-school Drama Club begins the w/c 27th February 2017 and ends at Easter 2018. Rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream will run from mid- June to mid-July.
Should you have any further questions please contact our Creative Learning Producer Lucy Nicholls firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications close on Tuesday 31st January.
A great chance to catch Action Hero in Birmingham…..
Wrecking Ball: a new play by Action Hero
A male photographer is taking a photograph of a female celebrity. She wants to be reinvented. She wants to be For Real.
Wrecking Ball is about consent, power, authorship and putting words in other people’s mouths. It’s about the seductive power of make-believe. That’s not a real pineapple she’s holding, that’s not his real cooler full of beers, those aren’t her real thighs, those aren’t his real feelings. But does the real really matter?
In this funny, surreal and unsettling new play for 2 performers and an audience, “maverick company” (The Guardian) Action Hero ask who’s really in control and how subtle abuses of power shape our relationships –with art, language and with each other.
Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night
The days may be lengthening but we’re still battling through long hours of darkness… And thankfully, when sleep eludes you, there’s always a soothing voice over the airwaves to get you through the night. Ahead of a run at Birmingham REP, we caught up with Francesca to find out more about her new show which blends radio, theatre and storytelling, and to hear her thoughts on making work, the power of the past and her pick of cinema’s finest female DJs.
Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night runs at Birmingham REP between 9th -18th February 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.
Stories In The Basement, a series of teaser events for the production take place at Birmingham REP between 19th January – 9th February 2017. More details can be found here.
You can find out more about Francesca on here website.
Image taken by Graeme Braidwood.
Philip: How would you describe Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night for anyone hearing about it for the first time?
Fran: It’s set up like live late night radio show that tells stories to follow the pattern of the night and the frustrations of not being able to get to sleep. The stories aren’t always about the night explicitly but small stories that are familiar, stolen, funny, and true. They reflect the frustrations and missed connections of the daylight hours that can sometimes keep us awake.
Philip: Throughout your career, you’ve made a vast range of work with all sorts of different people. Describe some of the people or companies who have had the biggest impact on you and the work you make.
Fran: There is always Pippa [Frith], who is my producer but also my best friend. I’ve known her since I was 3 and we grew up in Watford together. Without her to bounce ideas off, get feedback, fail in front of, push me and make those finances work, I don’t think I’d be in the position that I am in now.
It is often the brief interactions that have had a big impact on me, people I may only work with for an afternoon, that have a different practice to mine and have given up their time to encourage me to view my work in a different way: Ben Buretta (of Outbox Theatre), Elizabeth Freestone (Independent Director and former Artistic Director of Pentabus). In 2012 I first worked with The Jane Packman Company (now Dens & Signals), on The Wake which was instrumental in growing my practice as a writer/deviser and collaborative performer outside my own work. It encouraged me to think about working with musicians and music and the idea that a performance is an event to be hosted.
There are large venues that have taken an interest and a gamble on my work. The New Vic in Stoke gave me free rein to make a show with the backing of the brilliant staff designer Lis Evans, and Associate Director of The Hoard, Gemma Fairlie. Moving on from only myself, Pippa and a technician rocking up at a venue to having a whole production team was quite a step and encourages me to think about future possibilities. And of course, there is Birmingham Rep who have been supporting me in various ways since I finished the first Foundry Programme in 2013. From programming The Forensics of a Flat and Gold to providing rehearsal space, dramaturgy support and commissioning Stories to Tell... With the weight of this venue and its team behind me my work has continued to grow and allowed me to take risks. Just a brief meeting with Tessa Walker (Associate Director at Birmingham Rep) can spark new ideas, while going to shows and seeing the alumni of the Foundry continuing to make challenging and original work encourages me to keep driving my work and challenging my process in different ways.
There is the support network of artists and practitioners that I have met through programs such as the Foundry or just by being in Birmingham. Those conversations that happen sporadically or late at night that make me think differently with people such as Stephanie Ridiings, Lou Platt, Jo Gleave, Sam Fox, and Rochi Rampal.
Speaking with those outside of the arts are some of the most vital conversations that I have. It is easy to remain in an arts bubble and I specifically seek out people that have different views and experiences to mine. These are the people that tell me if something doesn’t make sense, or that it is too naval gazing, or that they wouldn’t go and see it. They are the people that I meet in basements or in archive rooms, on the street when I am doing research, or in shops. Also… various ex’s come to mind.
In terms of artistic influence, the people or companies whose work I always go back to, where I feel my roots are, whose work I once saw and though ‘Oh I want to do that… I could do that…’ are familiar favourites: Spalding Grey, Robin Deacon, Curious, Split Briches, Ursula Martinez, Forced Entertainment (in their less frenetic work – see The Travels).
Philip: You have also made and taken several productions out with rural touring schemes and their networks such as Arts Alive, and with rural agencies such as the Canal & River Trust. What has your experience of working in rural venues and locations been like?
Fran: Rural Touring is where I really learnt my craft. It is where audiences turn up because it is a social event and not necessarily to see your show, where you sit down and eat with your hosts and often stay a night in their house. The audiences are honest, welcoming and always full of questions and stories themselves. As a performer, alongside your technician, you adapt to spaces, technical set up, size of audience… every single venue, and every scheme is different. It takes the ego out of performing and you make the show work for them, which I think is important for any writer/performer to learn. It is about the audience. I’ve turned up to venues where the hall I was due to perform in hasn’t been built, or where the audience are wrapped in blankets because the heating makes too much noise, or where next week ‘they’ve got a proper show’ programmed. It means every show is different. It always works, no matter the show or the size of the audience. The Rural Touring schemes, such as Arts Alive, are doing such important work in supporting performance to be taken to places where otherwise people wouldn’t see it. To expand the notion that there is more to theatre than expensive tickets, the old cannon of plays, and well-known actors.
With Arts Alive I made a show (that turned into two!) that means I get to perform in the places where the people I have researched and who I talk about during the show have lived. Sometimes some of the audience know relatives of these characters.
The Canal & River Trust was particularly interesting to work with. I was Artist in Residence at The National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port. The challenge there was to create a piece of work that encouraged new audiences into the museum itself while also engaging regular attendees or those that worked there. With a subject like Canals and Boats, there are a lot of experts so it is about finding creative ways of telling new stories to these people. In a similar vein to Rural Touring, I worked with what I had to create something for the audiences that is contemporary in form but also accessible.
Philip: As a theatre-maker myself, I’m always fascinated to learn about other people’s creative processes. What main ideas characterise the way you go about creating a new show?
Fran: It usually starts with an idea, an object, or a story I hear, or have overheard or read about. Or someone has asked me to make something about a theme or idea. I go looking for stories, and oddities on the internet. There is a period where that ‘thing’ (whatever it is) sits in my head. I write about it, usually in abstract ways. I research it and discover the larger themes around it – tangents that often reoccur. I buy books online that sit and looking at me, guilty. I may mention the idea to a few people (including Pippa). It is about this time that I start to name it, give it a title, even if it is still really just an idea. It is usually a very long title (with brackets). When it has a name it somehow becomes a real thing. Then I make a list: What do I want to do? What do I want people to get from it? What do I want people to feel from it? What might it look like? What is the biggest it could be? What is the smallest it could be?
I set myself some sort of deadline by applying to a scratch night or inviting a small audience to a showing at the end of a rehearsal period.
Then I start taking action by going to places (this could be archives, museums, exhibitions, pub or places that no longer exist). I talk to lots of people, asking questions, collecting answers, writing. I wake up with half ideas. I swim or walk and think. I write lots of small, medium and long pieces that don’t obviously connect.
I then make a structure chart: a list of things that I stick to the wall of my flat. This is where I pretend I am a detective. Or a serial killer. I take that writing and structure and I spend a week or two in a room somewhere (usually on my own) with the intention of doing things, and usually I do some more writing. I stand up and say the writing aloud and start editing it. Objects in the room that were not originally involved become crucial, accidentally. I throw away some visual ideas that I was obsessed by. I either decide that this show (insert title here) definitely does or does not need a power point. Or music. But it always needs music. Or sound. I play a lot with words and ideas and spend some time laughing at myself on my own in a room. Sometimes I video or audio record myself. I call Pippa and ask if I’ve done enough work and can go home. By then I have a rough structure (usually a strong start with uncertainty later) and I invite some people in, ask them what they think, and what they want more of, and what they want less of. I do some more writing.
Then there are timelines in place and we (me and Pippa) start talking to venues and designers and technicians. At some point I learn the words, but not always exactly how they are written on the page.
Philip: Your blog for Stories includes a brilliant phrase: “the fetishisation of nostalgia” — could you explain a bit more about what you mean by that, and how it feeds into your current and previous work? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Fran: The world we live in is faced paced, hyper (in all senses), and for a lot of us it is largely digital. This leaves space for a want, a yearning for the ‘good old days’ of ink and paper, postcards, slower pace, more honest words. Or at least that is how it can appear. There are online video tutorials in how to make furniture look shabby-chic so that it looks vintage. We collect records to hang on walls but not to play under needles. A sepia tint or 70’s soft focus filter on Instagram can make the most uninspiring of dinners look delicious. Comfort is found in over-priced re-invented sweets and games from our childhood. It felt like a simpler time. Do I think it’s a good or bad thing? I bounce between scathing words and buying in. It forms questions that inform my work.
My previous work revolves around and is sold on this obsession with the past. Being in contact with documents that have been touched and written by people that lived 40, 50, 100 years ago is amazing. Just that bit of physical contact. Emails don’t carry skin cells and finger prints. These documents tell stories that cannot be Googled. And beneath the sepia tint of old style clothes and funny phrases are people dealing with friendships and family and poverty and death and change. They teach us about how we have got to where we’ve got, and about what we have and have not learnt. So… the fetishisation of nostalgia, the selling of it, is important for me to unpick.
With some of the tales in Stories To Tell… I’m looking at the friction between finding comfort in the recent past (when information was limited) and the technology of today (that informs us constantly, and connects us whilst at the same time manipulates and isolates us).
Perhaps it is my age, and that I remember when mobile phones were new (mine carried AA batteries), and the subsequent rise of text messages, camera phones, and iPhones. I am trying to work out what other time in history shared a similar pace in the advancement of technology that we are currently living through. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution felt similar?
Philip: Where have all the stories for this new show come from?
Fran: They are stories that I have been writing for 10 or 12 years. They are little snippets of things that I started, things I wrote for the page or stories that were intended for other shows. They come from working in call centres, pubs, living in cities, over heard conversations, newspaper articles, anecdotes stolen from friends (Pork Pie Holer, thanks Martin Cox), frustrations with situations and sometimes extended versions of things that have happened to me.
Part of the process for this show was going through my old notebooks, re-discovering stories and expanding them. It was a little like having a conversation with my younger self. And some of them needed a lot of editing. Some needed re-writing completely because of how technology has changed. There was always a desire to put these stories that have some over-lapping themes somewhere together, but I wasn’t sure how they fitted in with my work.
Philip: The image of a lone woman DJ working through the night and talking to listeners who may or may not still be listening reminds me very much of The Fog… Have you seen that film? What other sources inspired the show? Have you based your performance on any well-known radio presenters?
Fran: I am so glad that you picked up on The Fog! When I first started thinking about this idea I was looking at Blues Raconteurs, BB King, Howling Wolf – stories that are told in song and the talking in between. I was thinking about Iggy Pop and Ronnie Wood’s rambling radio shows… that idea of just talking into a mic. But I also wanted a feeling of uncertainty and aloneness, and then a friend of mine (one of those that isn’t part of the arts crowd!) told me to watch The Fog. It has this brilliant atmosphere, and the feel of the sea, of isolation. I was also looking at the film The Warriors, particularly the DJ who appears as just a voice and a lovely pair of lips sending warnings and music across the city. I listened to Jarvis Cocker who reads out excerpts of interviews or short stories as well as playing music and Cerys Mathews who reads out notes from her phone and things she has found out.
The writing of the stories themselves is influenced by Richard Brautigan (that was a tip from a Jarvis Cocker show), Italio Calvino, Raymond Carver, Angela Carter (always) Jeanette Winterson, John Cheever, and the adult short stories of Roald Dahl.
Philip: Another phrase on your website’s homepage really jumped out at me: “I never pretend that you are not there.” Why is it so important to you to have such a direct relationship with your audience?
Fran: Ahhh, this goes back to technology. We can be entertained digitally anywhere. We have it at our finger tips in films, games, the internet… and theatre is up against these cheaper and more accessible forms of entertainment. Theatre is unique in that it allows for a shared live experience with those people in that room at that particular moment. I believe we should acknowledge that we are in a room to tell a story/ stories, and that it is about an exchange in the live moment. That could be done in the smallest of ways. I always like a low level of house lights on the audience so I can see them and look into their eyes.
Interestingly, Stories To Tell… is the one show out of all my previous work where everything takes place somewhere slightly ‘other’. It acknowledges the audience and asks them to come with me into a place/space that is unknown. It doesn’t ask for a direct response as a lot of my other shows do, but it relies on them trusting me to take them into different places and to different people. There is some suspension of belief, without me asking them directly to do that (as I usually do). I guess this was a way to push a different way of performing on myself as the material is different to what I have worked with before.
Philip: You’ve been working with the lovely Iain Armstrong on this piece, who Little Earthquake audiences will remember as the celery-twisting doctor in our production of The Tell-Tale Heart. What has Iain’s contribution been to the show?
Fran: He has created a sound design which heightens the atmosphere of the show and assists in creating this dream-like quality. It also creates the different space/spaces I talked about above. With a simple set and simple words, the subtleties of Iain’s design make this show. His ideas both in sound and also in terms of structuring the piece were invaluable. He managed to translate some of my confused ideas about what I wanted (I’d usually try and do it with a karaoke track and power point) into something beautiful in its own right. He explored the themes of the show by manipulating Nocturnes (music to be performed at night) to create an ongoing repeated sound that signifies The Navigator (the DJ) and that takes you through the night. Every idea that I gave him he was able to find a way of looking at in a more subtle way. Every sound you hear has reference to the stories and the themes at large. And you should hear how he has turned KC and Jo Jo’s ‘All My Life’ into something distressingly beautiful (though he’s never really forgiven me for having to download that track).
Philip: What keeps you awake at night? And what do you do to help you get back to sleep again?
Fran: Frustrations, worries, anxieties. Conversations that I had years ago and that don’t matter. Things I could do better. The world and how it could be better. Targets I set for myself. Other people I think could be awake. Things I wish I’d said. Things I did say. Birds. The buses outside. A 4am wine wake-up (from drinking earlier in the evening, not to get up and drink at 4am). Ideas. Snippets of shows.
I never look at my phone when I can’t sleep. Part of me enjoys the feeling that you might be the only one awake. I try counting back from 200. Or I get up and write in a book I have that is not for creative writing or ideas, but just for writing in, to get stuff out of my head and somewhere else. I tell myself stories – some old ones or new ones. Or I look for plot holes in TV shows (Empire, Death in Paradise, Jonathan Creek). Or I go through lines.
Philip: When you were little, what was your favourite bedtime story?
Fran: Pugwash (which my Dad told me he’d written and before it had the taint of innuendo attached to it). My Mum used to tell me stories about the Little Green Man and the Little Red Woman when she wasn’t reading me Feminist Fairy Tales. She also told me a story about the Seven Sisters who made the cliffs near Seaford. Oh and a book called Fred, about a cat who had died and then it turns out he was an international cat pop star. I realise that is a list of stories, not one.
Philip: Many of our blog subscribers are theatre students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?
Fran: Keep asking yourself ‘What do you want the audience to get from this?’, ‘ What do you want them to feel?’ Make your work adaptable to different places and numbers of people.
The post Francesca Millican-Slater – Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night appeared first on Little Earthquake.
Before the Christmas decorations had even come down at Quake HQ, we were getting stuck into work on something very special — a collaboration whose seed was planted a long time ago and which is now finally beginning to bloom.
It all began on 4th December 2011 (we checked the date to be sure) at a scratch event in a simple theatre space above a pub in Sheffield. One of the acts had pretty much stopped the show (and not in a great way) with some onstage body modification that had caused some audience members to faint. Whoever came on next had a tough act to follow. And that’s when Spiltmilk Dance came on stage and into our lives.
In a little sharing of Spiltmilk Say Dance, Sarah, Adele and Jenna reignited the now nervous audience with a whistle-stop tour of social dance, mashing up the twist, the Charleston and the dance crazes of our childhood with songs and music you’d never expect to hear those dances performed to. At the back of the tiny auditorium, we turned to each other and said, “We HAVE to work with them one day!”
Flash forward just over five years, and we’ve come a long way. We’ve seen and supported each other’s shows, been rural touring conference buddies, and always been ready with a quick social media click, like and share. Now, finally, we’ve got together in a rehearsal room to start making a show.
mac supported us by providing rehearsal space, and these first two days were an opportunity to start sharing our processes with one another. To do that, we led the first day and then Spiltmilk put us through our paces on Day Two. You can read what happened below.
by Sarah and Adele from Spiltmilk
You know that first week of January when it’s cold and dark, and nobody wants to creep out of the Christmas wilderness? Well not to be smug or anything, but this year we didn’t have that. Because the first bit of work we got to delve into in 2017 was two days of playing, experimenting and exploring with Little Earthquake. A collaboration between the two companies has been on the cards for some time now, so it was a real treat to see it finally materialise.
We had two days in early January in the lovely studios at mac in Birmingham. Little Earthquake led the activities for the first day, and we at Spiltmilk led the second day. This was a great chance for us to learn more about each other’s process; to recognise the many similarities between our values and interests, identify what we can learn from each other, and dare we say it, even dream up some early ideas for what we could create together! Exciting times!
We were a little apprehensive heading to the studios the first day, mainly that we were going to be made to ‘act’. Although we speak on stage a lot, we are insistent that we are ourselves on stage, because seeing ourselves be a character would make us cringe and want to hide in a corner. But the sessions were planned brilliantly so we gradually felt more and more comfortable with stepping outside our comfort zone, so that we may have actually dabbled with characters towards the end of the day. Eek!
Over the two days we played a lot of games, and there was certainly an atmosphere of fun in the room. This playfulness is essential in our process, so we were thrilled to see it embraced by Little Earthquake too, because we believe that kind of setting is where we create our best work. One of the most memorable activities led by Little Earthquake involved us creating games based on a random given title. Players couldn’t speak, but instead had to make up the game by working together and building on ideas provided by each other. We played ‘Bushwhackers’ and ‘Contrary Fairy’, both utterly silly but surprisingly engaging games!
We also loved an activity where we had to improvise rhyming poems. Again, structured improvisation games are something we use a lot in our process although they usually look quite different as they are movement based, so we’re excited about new improvisation activities both companies could develop together to create fresh, interesting ideas in the future.
Watch this space!
by Little Earthquake
They say you should never work with your heroes because you’re bound to find them disappointing in reality. But there’s an even more anxiety-inducing aspect to it… What if you disappoint them?
The second day of our collaboration was led by Sarah and Adele, and just as they’d felt nervous about the prospect of being required to “act”, we were now feeling just as daunted at the prospect of having to “dance”. Gareth’s days of drama school period dancing are way behind him, and as much as Phil likes throwing some shapes to disco music, neither of us exactly feel like especially comfortable or confident dancers.
What is so special about Spiltmilk’s approach is that it separates value and quality from formal ideas of professional technique and training. That’s not to say they aren’t very skilled performers with well-refined craft — they definitely are! But in their hands, dance becomes something which celebrates and expresses what makes individuals unique, and then goes on to show what happens when unique individuals come together. In their hands, everyone can become an expert on their own terms. Just as we (try to) do with words and pictures, they play around with movements, positions and sequences to tell stories which are rich in detail and which challenge, surprise and entertain their audiences.
You want to know about us doing the dancing, don’t you? You’ll be amused / delighted to know that we absolutely did do some. Quite a lot, in fact. From some super-simple warm-up poses and stretches as we moved around the room, we progressed at a rapid pace. Before lunch, we were at the point of creating improvised sequences for four dancers (and we are now comfortable referring to ourselves that way — within this safe space, at least!) based on our desert island films.
And after lunch, the Randle Studio was graced with a spectacular homage to George Michael. We watched the video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and each selected four specific movements to make into an eight-count sequence. And then, under Sarah’s choreographic guidance, we built these twenty-four separate movements into an extended sequence.
Needless to say, some of us were better at learning and remembering the sequences than others. But putting the blushes and annoyance-at-self for not nailing it to one side, it was both a brilliant way to see how a seemingly simple set of movements can be developed into a scene of real complexity — and an eye-opener into how much time and effort goes into making a relatively short dance sequence look so sharp. We’ve all come away with a new insight into the way our two seemingly different companies work, and have found that under the surface, there’s a lot that we do the same. The first phase of the experiment has shown us all — we think! — that there are lots of exciting possibilities to explore, and that we definitely want to keep exploring them. We’ll keep you posted with what happens next time the four of us get together!
Once a year we gather the Stan’s Cafe board together and retreat, via a secret door and a hidden flight of stairs to pristine time-capsule that is the A E Harris & Co Ltd. board room. Here, with a view of the city centre skyline, we start our scheming.
It’s barely away and it’s only an afternoon, but nevertheless this is our away day. In 2016 the day we were away was December 16. As conventional board meetings are a maximum of two hours with packed agendas focused mostly on reporting and monitoring, advice seeking and strategising for the short – medium term it is great to have an opportunity to go long form and gaze into the distance.
As every incarnation of our board has been brimming with positivity and enthusiasm we have always looked forward to being away with them for the day, even to the extent of wishing it were a day. It is useful to thrash through a small number of the big issues facing the company in breadth and depth.
We always ask someone from outside the immediate core of the company to run the day and a few years ago we asked Ros Robins to wield the post-it notes. She did a good job, working us hard, hooking us up on the pegs and pummeling us; we got down to the brass tacks. We left as if we’d watched Rocky II whilst drinking Red Bull, we ripped into the next year full of refocused purpose.
Twelve month moths later Ros was back, she had dug out her old notes, she listened indulgently as we ran through a massive list of all the art we’d made in the last year, then she shredded us. It had undoubtedly been a magnificent year but we’d failed to change ANY of the things we’d agreed we’d wanted to change about how the company ran. The point was well made, we were all chastened, we searched our souls, we resolved to do better and we did, we started the revolution and twelve and twenty four months later Ros would be proud of us.
This year we explored ideas that are brewing for new shows. We spent time discussing how our Creative Learning work meshes with the rest of the company’s activities and finally tested our thinking about how our impending funding application to Arts Council England would look. It was very helpful.
Obviously at the end of our time in the time capsule we put everything back as it was, do the washing up in the executive kitchen, dry everything off, sweep the whole suite for fingerprints and back out of the room vacuuming as we go. Then all the notes taken during the meeting a fed to a goat, which possesses top security clearance, the goat is milked, the milk is sterilized and washed away down a flood drain without even being drunk. Nevertheless, despite all reasonable precautions industrial espionage has struck. A photograph believed to depict the company’s forthcoming artistic program is being circulated. As our enemies now have this information we believe our friends should have it too. It is reproduced above. The cat is out of the bag. If you see rip-off versions of these shows please report them to Stan HQ.