Monthly Archives: November 2017 There’s more to improv than “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”


Thousands of people would be happier and have more joy in their lives if they really believed what I’m about to say:

There’s more to improv than “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Don’t get me wrong.  “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was great.  It ran for a decade on Channel 4.  It was funny.  It was clever.  People still remember it despite it finishing nearly 20 years ago.

Here’s what I remember.  Clive Anderson acting as a gameshow host.  Greg Proops pretending 6 foot long chili peppers were earrings, or babies, or whatever.  Ryan Stiles being a superhero with an unusual power, or hosting a party where Tony Slattery is acting like an elephant.

Scenes were short and funny.  Crazy and disposable.

Yet the improv I’ve seen in real life has been much more than that.

I’ve seen scenes ranging from five seconds to five minutes.  I’ve laughed more at what the characters have done than the clever words they’ve said.  I’ve watched sad, quiet realistic moments and expertly crafted horror and musicals.  I’ve enjoyed watching the journey of a character and seeing them get their hearts desire.

More than that, I’ve seen moments where the performers have had glorious triumphs and complete failures.  Both extremes lead to joy when there is a mood that celebrates what is happening right here, right now.  And I’ve had countless hilarious you-had-to-be-there moments, where there’s so much going on that trying to explain the joke is pointless.

There’s a hundred different flavours of improv out there.  “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was just one of them.  Treat yourself to another.

Fierce Festival: *Club Fierce Klaxon* Tomorrow night with SHOUT Festival!

There’s nothing we love more than an impromptu party and we’re thrilled to be throwing one tomorrow night for SHOUT Festival at AE Harris.

Get down to see Rachel Clerke and the Great White Male’s fab gig/show Cuncrete, then stick around afterwards for a very handsome all-female line up of DJs and performances.

We’re delighted that Lucy Hutson will be bringing her performance ‘Grindr vs The Women’s Institute’ to Birmingham for the first time and winner of the UK’s premiere Drag King competition ‘Man Up’ Manly Stanley (pictured) will really get the party started. The perfect soundtrack will be provided by Cassie-Philomena Smyth and it’s all included in the cost of a Cuncrete ticket. Show is at 8pm, party from 9pm. DON’T MISS IT.

Saturday 18th November, AE Harris. Get your tickets here.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Time In Time Critical

Traditionally theatre is a place set apart from the tyranny of time. Once ‘the curtain goes up’ at the advertised time and ‘latecomers’ have been admitted or repulsed, chronological time is banished, we are free to be suspended out of time, removed to another era, shuttled backwards and forwards through the ages. In the theatre we are released from temporal concerns; except of course we’re not.

The human bladder is resistant to theatre’s temporal slight of hand, the bum cheeks ditto. Last trains, last buses, last orders and expiring parking meters all remain resolutely rooted in a steadily marching ‘here and now’, dragging us back to glance at our ticking watches in the auditorium’s gloom. Even without these humdrum nagging externalities time is still free to torment us in the theatre; surely genuine prisoners can be no more acutely confronted by time’s implacability than the inmates of a dull theatre show.

In Time Critical we acknowledge all these tensions and do away with furtive glances at watches by placing time on stage. After my brief introduction the show runs for a precise duration, each of two performers is presented with their own allotted time measured out on the competing sides of a chess clock. Throughout the show one or other side of the clock is counting down to zero depending on whose side of the story is being cold. When a performer runs out of time they stop whether their script is completed or not.

The show is designed to allow barely enough time to zip through the material. If the performers lose their way, grow too expansive in their delivery or relax too fully into the audience’s warmth then they don’t make it to the end of their script. In Time Critical, as the title suggests, the tyranny of time is not banished from the theatre but moved centre stage.

Last week we were asked about Time’s position in the show during a post-show discussion. We we re-rehearsed these thoughts on the relation between Real Time and Theatre Time. We spoke about the show modelling the lived experience of a long life in which time appears to accelerate with age, years flashing by with ever increasing speed as your life extends. We spoke about our interest in formal constraints, the restrictions we place upon ourselves and our shows as a source of creative tension forcing us towards invention and fresh thinking. We spoke about this Theatre as Sport racing to an unpredictable conclusion. We spoke about many things, all of them valid, but what we didn’t speak about, because we forgot about it at the time, was Time Critical’s engagement with the existential nature of time.

The show’s original rationale was to celebrate our 25th Anniversary by spending 25 minutes addressing World Events from the last 25 years and 25 minutes addressing Stan’s Cafe events from the last 25 years. With the show’s revival and reworking this year we added a minute on for each side. This huge restriction clearly forced us to made radical choices about what to include in each narrative and how much time to allocate to each event. These choices reflect our choices in life. We each have a limited lifespan of indeterminate duration, we must choose how to allocate this time. We have to prioritise; we have to decide what is a ‘waste of time’ and what is an essential use of time.

In the show Craig challenges Amy/Rochi* about her decision to spend time performing the Defence’s opening statement from the OJ Simpson trial when “there’s a lot [of World Events] to get through”. Such judgements are personal, hence Amy/Rochi’s reply “It’s my time, I’m doing it”.

Of course for many OJ Simpson’s trial was a World Event but for OJ Simpson it was also a personal event and Amy/Rochi’s story is an event in the world and so a World Event, just one that is not the subject to much publicity that OJ Simpson’s story – though it is now the partial subject of a theatre show.

In the tit-for-tat battle that niggles away through Time Critical Amy/Rochi launches her own attack and questions Craig about his priorities:

R/A: Why are you going to the Isle of Wight?
C: To visit my girlfriend’s parents.
R/A: Girlfriend?
C: Yes, Charlotte Goodwin.
R/A: Why’ve you not mentioned her before?
C: We’ve only just met.
R/A: And she wasn’t worth mentioning!
C: I didn’t say that, look I’ve not got time for this.

Sometimes we don’t recognise the importance of certain moments when they happen and sometimes we get caught up in things that are unimportant at the expense of that which is of value.

Immediately after Amy/Rochi has related the appalling horror of the three day Dubrovka Theatre siege, Craig describes Stan’s Cafe spending two days pretending to be astronauts on a fake station on the Wolverhampton-Birmingham Metro Line. Amy/Rochi’s blunt question is intended to carry the weight of conscience: “Why?” Why do we spend our precious time doing this when there are so many other more serious things going on in the world? Stumped for a more articulate response Craig’s answer is despairing, disarming or defiant: “Art”.

So why do we believe in art enough to spend such time on it? In the show we spend lots of Craig’s time re-enacting moment from old Stan’s Cafe shows, why do we value it enough to allocate it this time? Because it helps us process the bombs and the famines, the inventions and disasters, the squabbling and financial exploitations; it is an escape and a reward, it is an alternative world and our own world remade, it is an endeavour to make this place better, this time better. This is why we give theatre the time.

So if the questioner from that Q&A is reading this here is your answer: “time is at the heart of Time Critical in the same way it is at the heart of our lives”.

* Rochi Rampal was part of the original devising team and performed the 50 minute version in 2016. Amy Taylor stepped into the revival and reworking of the show and performed the 52 minute version in 2017.

This post also appears as an essay in the Helpful Things section of this website.

Little Earthquake: Back To School

Back in September, Gareth spent five intensive weeks with the fourteen MA Acting students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Leading their Storytelling Module, he helped the actors explore a range of ideas around play, ensemble, spontaneity and the best ways to serve an audience. The later stages of the module saw the actors test these skills through a devising process around the premise of The Family; a thrilling saga of relationships in crisis, riddled with dangerous secrets and devastating betrayals. As each day progressed, new layers of complexity and conflict were added to the story, leading to a VERY eventful gathering of the two family clans on the final day.

We invited three members of the ensemble, Carys Jones, Tom Bonam and Mary Garbé to write a blog post about their Storytelling experience. You can read their insights from the rehearsal room below…

Carys Jones

To begin my Master’s Degree with five weeks of Storytelling with Little Earthquake felt like the best way to start my year-long course. After being out of education for a little while, it catapulted me out of the ‘Teacher Carys’ brain I had adopted for the past three years and threw me straight back into thinking like an actor. I enjoyed feeling free, unfiltered, child-like and bold. Every morning I woke up early to think about the stories and relationships that we’d been creating during our improvisations.

Little Earthquake used Guiding Principles to help us through the process of understanding and developing our acting. They range from more practical approaches such as ‘Find The Fun’, to the more psychological ‘Clarity Of Want’. All of the Guiding Principles help shape an actor’s approach to improvisational work and text. They’re almost like a check list that you can follow and I’ll certainly be carrying them forward in my career.

These scenes could either be the most awkward and forced moments, or they could be the most freeing, exciting and surprising work the group produced.

Every session challenged me in some way. The early games and exercises were designed to lead up to bigger, more adventurous activities such as long-form improvisations. These were often the most challenging. There was no backstory, no given circumstances, no character, no relationship, nada. We had to find and explore all of these through the improvisation itself by listening to our scene partners, accepting and building on the offers they made. These scenes could either be the most awkward and forced moments, or they could be the most freeing, exciting and surprising work the group produced. Over time, we developed the skills to make our improvised scenes more sophisticated and daring.

During our final weeks with Little Earthquake we applied all we had explored to a devising process, and it is during this time that I have my fondest memories. We created an intricate network of relationships within the group through improvisation and other exercises. It was so surprising how Gareth and Phil had meticulously planned every little detail. I was involved in a love triangle, which unfortunately ended with me being left sad and alone (sob, sob). Onstage my character was going through absolute hell, but I was loving it as an actor. It was exciting to come in every day and not know how it would all end.

Every day during the module Gareth inspired me to be a better actor, collaborator and theatre maker. He supported us during our highs and lows, he praised us continually, built confidence and allowed the quieter members of the group to really shine. He was there to reassure, and to empathise when we needed it.

Also, Phil is pretty great too!

Mary Garbé

Throughout the module, the element I enjoyed exploring most was the idea of not focusing on what you expect to happen! From Day One this was very obvious and was something that kept the work constantly enjoyable. I think that the fun factor made it incredibly rewarding. Learning not to worry about looking stupid or feeling foolish meant I could really let myself go. I was finally allowed to explore parts of me that I felt had been slowly taken away throughout my education and career to date.

Throughout the module we learnt not to preconceive. As someone who overthinks everything I found this very difficult at first. I found myself slipping into preconceiving as a kind of protection mechanism when I felt unsure about something, but Gareth always knew when this was the case and would use different exercises to try and help me to overcome this. One exercise involved us pulling lots of imaginary items out of a cardboard box. The first time I did this I never thought I would be able to do it fluidly, or without embarrassed laughter! However, doing a whole five minutes of it a few weeks later was like nothing I had ever experienced – so liberating and fun! As a new ensemble it was also challenging to feel confident in being your true self – but each game that Gareth taught us helped to break down our barriers in a fun but comforting way.

I do not feel like the same actor now as I did at the start of the five weeks.

In terms of how I feel I’ve developed as an actor throughout the module, I do not feel like the same actor now as I did at the start of the five weeks. I was always so worried about looking silly and not doing things right the first time. Gareth encouraged me to play and find the fun, helping me to understand that my best lesson was my last mistake. I slowly began to trust my instincts as a performer and to push myself over the obstacles that held me back.

Devising was always a scary thought for me, not feeling that I would have anything to bring to the process. However, all of the tools we were given showed me that I can be a valuable member in any collaboration. I don’t think my acting was very authentic when we began – always thinking I had to ‘act’ to show I was working hard. But, using the guiding principles and thinking about collaborating with the audience, my old habits have melted away and I now feel that I can bring fun and engaging acting to any piece.

Every time we warmed up with ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’, or I thought about Gareth saying ”you could all be working in a bank right now”, I couldn’t stop grinning!

I have so many happy memories of the module, including warming up with a exercise called ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’ every day. Every time we did this, or I thought about Gareth saying ”you could all be working in a bank right now”, I couldn’t stop grinning – this is my life!

One of my top memories was nicknamed #worldpremier. During a scene with a partner, we were allowed one line of text per person and all you could do was respond to your partner’s offer using that text. My partner and I were given a new combination of “I love you” and “I’m sorry”. This was the first time everything clicked for me and an emotional by-product was generated. I accepted and built on the offers, trusted my scene partner, and what happened blew me away! I will always remember this as a turning point. Another was an improvised ‘Skype’ call during our devising work. Gareth knew I had struggled with the earlier telephone call exercise (in which we had to improvise a telephone conversation with an off-stage character without preconceiving) and I feel like this allowed me the second chance I needed to really understand it. The material we created and the way we were able to develop our characters through this call was so special to me.

As an actor I had always been told to lead with emotion – such as being able to feel sad or happy on cue. Gareth completely disagrees with this approach, and we spent a lot of time exploring this and discovering that emotion can only ever be a by-product of chasing what you want during each specific moment. This not only surprised me but has changed everything I ever thought about acting.

Little Earthquake is exactly the type of company I aspire to work with when I graduate. The process that they use to create theatre and develop actors is incredibly special because of the nurturing, encouraging and creative environment they promote. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience working with them.

Tom Bonam

The time that I spend working with Little Earthquake was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I’ve ever had. I thought it was wonderful how Gareth was able to take a group of individuals who didn’t know one another, and start to turn us into a cohesive ensemble from Day One. Throughout the module we were constantly encouraged to push ourselves further, but this was always done in a supportive, safe and fun way.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the work was the focus on simplicity, on breaking down the craft of acting and exploring each ‘bite size chunk’ fully. We were then able to combine all of these ‘chunks’ to build a solid foundation as an actor. The skills and tools I learnt were also completely flexible, meaning that I can apply them in any scenario (and have done so already!)

Another wonderful part of the work was the focus on fun. Before this module, I was guilty of not always finding the fun in performing – it’s very easy to get so wrapped up in the details of a role, and to forget that acting is amazing and ultimately, exciting! Gareth consistently brought the fun to each session, he knew exactly which exercises we needed to either find the fun, increase our energy or increase our focus.

I will never look at a game of ‘tag’ in the same way again.

I was astonished at how much I learnt through the simple games we played. This was because each game related directly to one of the Guiding Principles that we were exploring. Gareth took the time to ensure that we were always aware of why we were doing what we were doing. (I will never look at a game of ‘tag’ in the same way again – why did I never play this before without focusing on what I wanted most in the world at each specific moment?!)

For me, the most challenging aspect of this work was overcoming my tendency to preconceive. I believe this came down to not trusting myself or thinking that if I didn’t have a ‘plan’ before performing, it would be a failure. However, trusting in the exercises that we were learning and committing to them fully meant that I slowly began to trust myself more and more. But the most amazing thing is that I was not even really conscious of this development – the work simply drew it out of me in an organic way. This is true of all of the skills we explored in the module. It never felt like they were forced on us. Instead, the seeds were planted and were allowed to grow in their own way, which was always different for everyone. I also found that by the end of the module, I was no longer afraid to fail because there was always an opportunity to learn. As Gareth would say, “Your greatest lesson is your last mistake.”

I was no longer afraid to fail because there was always an opportunity to learn. As Gareth would say, “Your greatest lesson is your last mistake.”

My happiest memory of the module was working on the improvisation work. There was an exercise called “One Liners” in which two people were asked to improvise, but they could only say one line of text each – in my case it was “I’m sorry” and my partner could only say “I love you”. Although we had the lines to use, the context of the situation and the relationship between the characters would constantly shift and alter. This was a very special exercise to me, because it was when all of the skills we were learning through games came together and created a lovely moment on stage between me and my scene partner. We really had no idea where the scene would go which made it so fun to be a part of, and by focusing on my want and the offers made by my scene partner, emotion was generated as a by-product. I was really amazed by this.

The only negative I have about this work? That it had to end.

I feel that my time working with Little Earthquake has not only enriched my life as an actor, but also as an individual. I feel like I’m now more able to set my mind free of preconceived ideas and to not censor my creativity. I feel that I can be a valuable member to any collaboration as I have learnt to trust that “the well is never dry”! This is not something that I would have thought possible in five weeks (you see, don’t preconceive!)

The only negative I have about this work? That it had to end.

The post Back To School appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Training

In recent weeks we have been back working with our friends at Theater Bonn. You may have seen in the news that Bonn is hosting a big United Nations Climate Change conference. More correctly they are co-hosting it with Fiji whose infrastructure wasn’t well suited to accommodating the thousands of delegates and attendant media, activists Etc. Anyway, there is a big Climate Change conference in Bonn, we were asked if we had an idea to contribute, we did, they liked it, we made it, it’s called What When and it’s currently sat in a park that forms the campus for the conference.

I acknowledge that it is possible that history won’t come to see What when as the point at which humanity recognised its peril and stepped back from the precipice of Eco-disaster – it’s not a piece of propaganda so that’s not it’s job – but every journey starts with a single step and continues with many steps and working on this project has changed my attitudes and behavior by one step. Continue reading

Little Earthquake: We’re Itching To Talk About… Paul O’Donnell & We’ve Got Each Other

We’re Itching To Talk About… is a series of blog posts in which we feature some of the brilliant work our theatre-making friends are creating within the region and further afield.

This month, we chatted to Paul O’Donnell, the theatre-maker and producer who’s a man on a mission to fly the flag for his beloved Coventry. We caught up with him during the initial tour of his latest project, We’ve Got Each Other, to talk about solo shows, Jon Bon Jovi and some grand plans for the UK City of Culture.

You can find out more about Paul’s own work here, and upcoming tour dates for We’ve Got Each Other here.

Gareth: How would you describe We’ve Got Each Other for anyone hearing about it for the first time?

Paul: We’ve Got Each Other is a full scale, no expenses spared, Bon Jovi musical… that is almost entirely imagined by the audience.

With the modern jukebox musical traditionally comes a multi-talented cast, a live band (or orchestra if you are lucky), opulent sets and decadent costumes, extravagant dance routines, dramatic key changes and the odd hydraulic lift or two. We’ve Got Each Other has none of these things (they cost a lot of money that independent solo artist Paul O’Donnell doesn’t have), but I still try to create this all singing, all dancing spectacle drawing upon the powers of your imagination to fill the voids.

People have described it before as an ‘austerity’ musical. That link wasn’t really intentional but I guess it does sum it up in a way.

Despite all its flaws, and its empty presentation, you still should leave We’ve Got Each Other with the sense that you ‘have’ experienced a full Bon Jovi musical show. And that is the magic of the show; you still fall in love with our principal characters Tommy and Gina, you are still blown away by the spectacle of it all, and if nothing else you certainly leave with a catchy song stuck firmly in your head. It creates the whole musical experience… on pretty much nothing.

People have described it before as an ‘austerity’ musical. That link wasn’t really intentional but I guess it does sum it up in a way.

Gareth: What is your favourite Bon Jovi lyric, and why?

Paul: “Now he’s holdin’ in what he used to make it talk, so tough, it’s tough.”

I went for this line from Livin on a Prayer (of course), because… well… it doesn’t even make sense does it? And that’s what I absolutely love about it.

You get completely swept up in the magic of this classic hit that it no longer matters that Jon isn’t even speaking English anymore. It doesn’t matter because you’re too focused on belting out whatever you’ve guessed those lyrics were at the very top of your voices.

In the same way I think We’ve Got Each Other has a similar effect. It is equally as nonsensical, and empty, and flawed, but somehow it completely doesn’t matter because you’re too busy sweeping yourself up in the magic of the full ‘musical theatre’ experience.

Paul O'Donnell

Gareth: We’ve Got Each Other was partly developed through China Plate’s First Bite and Bite Size process. How do you think that process has helped, influenced and shaped the piece?

Paul: First Bite and Bite Size were incredibly important towards the development of this piece, and also my career as an artist over the past year, particularly the guidance and advice that China Plate have offered.

I think it’s important to say here that First Bite is what I’d describe as a *meaningful* Scratch event. I sometimes get frustrated when venues or organisations offer ‘artist opportunities’ in the form of scratch nights, which essentially translates into “we offer you a spot to perform in”. That to me has a use, but is in no way meaningful or really useful in ensuring a future for the work beyond that event. First Bite goes beyond this; among other things it offers documentation in the form of photographs (to use as marketing materials), introduces you to a number of new venues (for me, Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre which is where I performed), and brought a collective of programmers and potential partners to see the work (many of whom have helped shape this tour). These are all things that support a future for this show beyond just that ‘scratch night’. First Bite also offered three of the eighteen First Bite artists a commission and support leading towards Bite Size Festival…

The project certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without this support from China Plate.

I just happened to be one of the artists to be given a Bite Size Festival commission, and this has meant that China Plate has supported me in a number of ways: financially offering a commission; producer-ly advice in that whenever I faced problems I could talk it through with folk who are a lot more experienced than I; and also with their range of contacts, helping to structure the tour and build a strong team around the show. For a start they put me in touch with Nick Walker for dramaturgical support (who I already knew but in other capacities) and lighting designer Arnim Friess, who have formed the team for this project and have enhanced the quality of what I have presented. They’ve helped me do what I’ve been doing for some time… but a lot better.

The project certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without this support from China Plate… at a guess, right now I’d probably still be scrambling for funding to support the show.

Gareth: Beyond these initial tour dates for We’ve Got Each Other, what are your plans for the show?

Paul: This is the initial tour of the show, which I hope will lead into further touring. At BE Festival this year I won the Early Ideas Award for the show, voted for by the audience, which means I get to return to perform a fuller extract of the show at 2018’s BE Festival. I am looking forward to that, and hoping I can create some international interest in my work. At BE Festival this year I was surprised to find that international audiences also really responded to the show (I think because of the Spanish references throughout it). It was a surprise to find that the musical theatre experience I’ve come to know and love is also highly recognisable across Europe.

Beyond that, I am also in conversation with Battersea Arts Centre who saw the show at Bite-Size festival and are really keen to bring the show back in Autumn 2018. I am also looking into other venues to see what future I can create for it.

I am also planning to make my first venture up to Edinburgh with the show in 2018. A scary new world, but people have said “it will do really well in Edinburgh”. I guess lets find out if that’s true or not.

I hope the show continues to tour, I really look forward to performing it. It’s a difficult show (one man on stage throughout with a lot of text to remember) but is packed with fun and energy and what feels like a real community with the audience throughout.

Gareth: Much of the work you have created so far in your career has been for you as a solo performer. Can you tell us a bit about how your work develops from initial idea to presentation? Does most of that work happen alone, or do you bring in collaborators?

Paul: Mainly… from my bedroom desk… or, The Paul O’Donnell studio (AKA: the kitchen).

I tend to start with a concept, for We’ve Got Each Other, as an example, it was the aim to create a ‘beautiful’ performance with no performers, or anything to look at, in it. I was interested in that conflict. Somehow, along the way, it transformed into an imaginary Bon Jovi musical… even I’m unsure as to exactly how. But that’s where it all began.

The audience are my final, and perhaps most crucial, collaborators. The show is made for them after-all.

A lot of the time I work alone, and often in my own head, thinking it through in the shower, on the bus, sipping a coffee or when I really should be sleeping.

However I always like to talk the work through with collaborators. I always value a dramaturgical role assisting my work. In this process it has been Nick Walker who has been incredibly useful in developing We’ve Got Each Other. In talking through stupid ideas to work out why they’re not so stupid, or talking through what might bridge the gap between this scene and that scene and so on, or helping me to cut out 45 minutes to meet festival time limits. All that has been really useful to me.

I’ve also valued the expertise of Arnim Friess (Lighting Designer) who has certainly filled a void that I simply wouldn’t have been able to fill myself. His experience in this area, especially the practicalities of touring the show (from small venues like Camden Peoples Theatre, to huge venues like Contact Theatre’s main stage) is invaluable. I really would have no clue how to make a success of this lighting-wise without Arnim’s collaboration.

Finally, every time I perform the show I learn more about how it works and what doesn’t work from the audience, and edit after every show I do. The audience are my final, and perhaps most crucial, collaborators. The show is made for them after-all.

Gareth: I remember seeing an early version of One Thing On His Mime at a Pilot Nights event a few years ago. I was struck then by how your work encourages the audience to actively engage their own imaginations to help tell the story. The same is true in We’ve Got Each Other. How conscious of this are you when making a new piece?

Paul: I refer back to your speech at the beginning of The East Meets West Symposium when you said that we should aim to put ‘audiences on top’ [you can read that speech here]. I am, and have been, very conscious of this for some time, but hearing you say it out loud refreshed it in my mind.

In We’ve Got Each Other more than any of my other shows the audience play as much, if not more, of a key role in the performance as myself.

In my shows it is not just a case of asking the audience to indulge me for an hour, but to engage their imaginations and invest themselves in the show as a ‘collaborator’ of sorts, alongside me. They not only imagine much of my work (encouraging them to be incredibly creative within the show) but also willingly block out, and accept, my shows for all their flaws, because they really invest themselves in making the show ‘a success’. They made part of it happen after all.

In We’ve Got Each Other more than any of my other shows the audience play as much, if not more, of a key role in the performance as myself. My relationship with them, and their relationship to the show, requires them to invest in it fully and believe in it, otherwise it will honestly ‘fall on its arse’.

Without you, the audience, the show would (quite literally) be nothing. And if that isn’t putting ‘audiences on top’ then I guess I don’t know what is!

“We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot for love”

Gareth: Which three artists have had the biggest influence on your work to date?

Paul: I feel like in response to this question I should reel off some really prestigious and important artists like Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch.

But inspiration surprises you, and in actual fact, as much as the above do influence my work in their own special ways, they don’t influence it half as much as:

RuPaul’s Drag Race: The costumes, the spectacle, the sassy performance style. The moments in which the acts get the audience/judges going wild.

Musical Theatre shows: Musical Theatre, despite all its flaws (I’m aware of them), does successfully manage to get across ‘important messages’ in an incredibly accessible, entertaining and heart thumping way. I love the way it creates that goose-bumpy effect via high notes and overacted passion, and that underneath it all it has a message to carry with you. Of course I don’t have the budgets to do this in the same way, but I like to explore ways in which I might be able to create these effects on my own scale. Often, as touched upon before, calling upon the audiences imaginations.

Crap shows: I love working out why a show absolutely doesn’t work for me, and why I should never, ever, do ‘that thing’ in my show. I think that’s really, really important. As much as it’s important to see really damn good work, it’s great to see some really awful stuff too and I find I get inspired by trying to do the opposite of that bad thing.

I feel that inspiration always surprises me and I can never really understand when it might creep up on me.

These are just three examples that spring to mind, but I feel that inspiration always surprises me and I can never really understand when it might creep up on me. I think my work feels ‘new’ to audiences because it often blends contemporary and radical techniques, inspired by Marina and co, with incredibly accessible and spectacular pleasantries, inspired by RuPaul and co., and somehow I make that work.

Gareth: You’re the Co-Founder and Producer of Shoot, a festival that provides a platform for the best of Coventry and Warwickshire’s up and coming talent. How did Shoot come about?

Paul: Shoot Festival started because there wasn’t anything like it in Coventry. At the time, I had just finished university and returned to Coventry to find that I was quite often travelling up to Manchester, or down to London to showcase my work. I guess in a way I was frustrated that I didn’t have a chance to show my work in my own city, to my own people, as was my partner in crime Jen Davis.

Together, with a great amount of support from Tessa Walker (Associate Director at The Birmingham Rep) and Chris and Julia (Theatre Absolute), we decided to stop just moaning about it, and do something about it. So initially it was intended to be a night for local artists to platform, and network, and perform. But we foolishly kept on applying for funding and finding support, and in our first year we somehow managed to get Coventry City Council and Arts Council England behind it, so immediately and quite violently, the festival grew for us, and still continues to.

We are the starting point for artists in Coventry and Warwickshire, and through our connections we can open doors for early career artists to a number of opportunities across the city and beyond.

It has been incredibly embraced by the community around Coventry and continues to grow with an amazing amount of support in kind from Theatre Absolute, Belgrade Theatre, Tin Music and Arts, and Birmingham Rep to name but a few. We support up and coming artists (I would proudly call us ‘emerging artists’, believing if you’re not still ‘emerging’ you’re probably not testing yourself enough… but understand that this is a contentious term) in any way we are able to, understanding their problems by having experienced many of them ourselves.

We really believe we are the starting point for artists in Coventry and Warwickshire, and that through our connections we can open doors for early career artists to a number of opportunities across the city and beyond.

Paul O'Donnell

Gareth: As the Producer of Shoot, how important do you think it is for Theatre Makers to make opportunities available for other Theatre Makers?

Paul: Well, we’ve seen an amazing success rate in the artists that have come through Shoot Festival. We have supported many artists in applications to Arts Council England which have been successful, a number of our artists have gone on to earn places on Birmingham Rep’s Foundry scheme, and many have picked up commissions and opportunities from the arts community across Coventry.

Traum by Theatre Absolute was a show that happened because Chris and Julia, of Theatre Absolute, saw a performance that merged Bboying with storytelling at Shoot Festival 2016. On top of this, a show which we commissioned this year, Beat by Ben Morley, is programmed into a run at a venue in London this month.

Right now there are also two shows which have been commissioned by Birmingham Rep that might not have happened had Shoot Festival not brokered that initial introduction: Sorry by Susie Sillett and Baby Daddy by Elinor Coleman (which won our Artist Development Award in 2016). The Death Show (which won our Artist Development Award in 2017) is also programmed into the Rep in 2018. We are a little key (constantly scrambling for funding) that hopes to open up opportunities for our fellow theatre makers in the city.

We think one of the most important things about us being Theatre Makers supporting other Theatre Makers is the fact that we understand some of the problems they face because we have faced them too, and therefore can think practically about how we might sort those out. Producers or venues, who have never themselves ‘made theatre’ might not be able to understand these as well as we (the Theatre Makers) could. From something simple like the importance of offering a small fee for ‘scratch’ work, through to supporting them meaningfully through the tech time and lead up to ensure that they have all the information they need to make the best possible work. I think that’s where Theatre Makers creating events for Theatre Makers is important – we have been through ‘that’ process, so understand the complexities of showcasing our own work first hand. An hour long tech time might suit most groups, but also might be a manic mad rush for this particular show. At Shoot Festival we try and support artists as best we can for their particular needs. Theatre Makers are aware that one size rarely fits all. That’s why it’s important we keep making things happen for one another, as only we can identify the problems we are facing in order to solve them. (“We’ve got each other… and that’s a lot for love”).

If we don’t support each other and lead each other towards opportunity, who the heck will?

Shoot Festival is one step in solving what used to be a lack in Coventry… now we alone have 37 acts under our umbrella, and many more artists who have applied, and I am sure many more who will apply in the future. The community around Coventry is paying attention to the artists that come through us and offering them opportunities too. If we don’t support each other and lead each other towards opportunity, who the heck will?

Gareth: You’re a big advocate for Coventry’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021. What impact do you think having a successful bid could have on the independent theatre-making ecology within Coventry?

Paul: Coventry already has a strong independent theatre-making ecology, with companies such as Theatre Absolute and Talking Birds placing themselves in the city. It also has some great venues for supporting the sector, Belgrade Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre, The Shop Front Theatre, Ego etc. It still certainly has gaps to fill, of course.

I cannot fathom what opportunity winning UK City of Culture in 2021 might mean… I get emotional at least twice a week about the prospect of it all, but I know it will only mean good things. And really, not just for Coventry, but for the whole region. It opens opportunities to people who are all across the West Midlands and beyond, we (Coventry) certainly can’t do this all on our own (it’s bloody huge) and will need input from creatives across the whole region. What I think is amazing is that suddenly artists from outside of Coventry might invest their time in little old Cov and realise that it’s a place where really amazing culture can happen (I’ve seen some pretty incredible work here). Which is why I would of course heavily encourage you to back the bid. [You can find out more about Coventry’s bid here and on Twitter.]

I cannot fathom what opportunity winning UK City of Culture in 2021 might mean… I get emotional at least twice a week about the prospect of it all.

Already, through the bidding process, I myself have been encouraged to think more ambitiously about the work I create both as a producer or artist. It’s very easy to get complacent as an artist and be comfortable in just getting by. What the bidding process has done for me, and you can feel it in the other organisations in the city, is it has asked ‘what more can you be doing?’, ‘How can you achieve that?’ and ‘How is that sustainable?’. It has certainly upped my ambition, and that’s only with bidding. Imagine what might happen if we actually win!

And really, that comes not just from the bid, but also from Coventry City Council’s 10 Year Cultural Strategy that has set bold aims as to what we as a city want to do culturally over the next ten years. I am sure that, whether we win City of Culture or not (I really hope we do though), I have no doubt that the ecology of Coventry in 2018 onwards is going to be incredibly different to what it is right now. For you, the only advice I can offer is… be a part of it!

Gareth: If money were no object, what amazing and ambitious project would you create for Coventry in 2021?

Paul: I’ve been thinking of a project for a while that feels a million miles away. It’s called Symphony. It would be me on stage telling you my anti-climactic completely non-eventful life story… but… backed up by a full live orchestra. A sort of concerto in which my life story is the final/main instrument. It’s not as self indulgent as it sounds, as hopefully it’s a story that speaks about a human want to feel important that we can all relate to. A piece that celebrates the ordinary, and mundane, and dull, and somehow makes it all rather incredible… with the help of a full orchestra.

I’m not sure if this is created ‘for Coventry’ per se, or just an idea in my head that I keep thinking about when I should really be thinking about the performance I’m doing right now. Somehow though it would celebrate what it means to grow up and live as a Coventrian whilst merging a one man performance with a thirty-five piece orchestra.

A man can dream right?

Gareth: 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?

Paul: Learn how to produce. Many people think ‘to be a star I must have a producer who does all the work for me’ (I certainly thought that). I would argue that a producer might be great, but it is equally as important to understand how one produces before thinking getting yourself a producer is necessarily the answer. There’s no real training for producing. It’s very much learnt on the job as you go, out of necessity. But understanding the nature of the beast you’re working in is incredibly important.

You can’t be creative without knowing the limitations of your creativity, practically.

For example: You can’t really create work sustainably without knowing what funders or programmers are looking for and building those relationships with venues and partners yourself. You can’t be ambitious without knowing the logistics of such ambition. You can’t be creative without knowing the limitations of your creativity, practically. As dull and paperwork-y and budget-y and logistic-y as producing may be, the only creatives I know who are still going and are successful, are those who understand what it means to make their own work happen and manage it as it is happening.

Don’t be afraid of it; just keep winging it till you work it out. I am.

The post We’re Itching To Talk About… Paul O’Donnell & We’ve Got Each Other appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Women and Theatre: Rocking the Wire – W&T new production at MAC

Developed from research interviews, this engaging new production presents the experiences of Birmingham women at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

Set in 2017, the stories are shared through the eyes of Deborah, who decades on remembers the women she stood with, sang with, and ’embraced the base’ with; and reflects on how events at Greenham shaped her life and provided a legacy for young women’s activism today.

Performances at Hexagon Theatre, MAC, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH.

Saturday 25 & Sunday 26 November 2017

1.30pm, 4pm & 7pm

Tickets £6 available from

or via Box Office on 0121 446 3232


Women and Theatre: Rocking the Wire – W&T new production at MAC

Developed from research interviews, this engaging new production presents the experiences of Birmingham women at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

Set in 2017, the stories are shared through the eyes of Deborah, who decades on remembers the women she stood with, sang with, and ’embraced the base’ with; and reflects on how events at Greenham shaped her life and provided a legacy for young women’s activism today.

Performances at Hexagon Theatre, MAC, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH.

Saturday 25 & Sunday 26 November 2017

1.30pm, 4pm & 7pm

Tickets £6 available from

or via Box Office on 0121 446 3232


Graeme Rose's Blog: Sleep Has Its House

Sleep has its House May 1986.jpg

A photo rediscovery; Sleep Has Its House, 2nd year devised project, Dept. of Theatre Studies, University of Lancaster. Directed by Pete Brooks, Nuffield Theatre Studio, Lancaster, May 1986.

From L to R: Holly, Kelsey Michael, Alison Wayman, Nicky Johnstone, Dave Cattermole, Graeme Rose, Kath Anderson, Johnny Brown, Jools Gilson, Sara Middens, Rosaleen Lee, Claire McCleod; Sound design by Graeme Miller and Rhys Davies; lx design by Pete Brooks and Tam Drury.

As the newly appointed Fellow-in-Theatre, Pete Brooks, introduced a new theatre language and a new world of possibility to the Theatre Studies Department at Lancaster. This was his first staged project in the Department. Performed barely a week after his company, Impact Theatre Co-operative presented their last ever performance of  The Carrier Frequency, in Warsaw – on the night that Chernobyl exploded. Pete formed a new company, Insomniac Prods. and restaged a developed version of this show – inspired by Oliver Sachs’s ‘Awakenings‘ – which he titled The Sleep, which toured the UK in 1987 featuring Sarah Jane Morris.

Inspired  and motivated by this new way of working, several of the faces in the above picture decided to form a company of our own – Kath, Sara, Claire and myself. The company was named Glory What Glory, and Pete continued to mentor us, co-directing the company’s first piece, Falling Into The Light, which toured in the late spring and autumn of 1988; Jocelyn Pook composing a powerful, driving soundtrack.