Author Archives: Philip

Little Earthquake: We’re Itching To Talk About… Laura Ryder & Company

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.

Photograph by Luke Galloway.

Laura Ryder is a Derby-based theatre-maker who collaborates with other independent artists to make much of her work. She is mid-way through a regional tour of The Bee Project which will soon bee buzzing into Derby Theatre (8th June 2018) and the Belgrade in Coventry (14th – 16th June 2018).

We caught up with Laura to find out more about apiary, the environmental impact of touring theatre and what makes her so proud to be an Eastie theatre-maker.

You can follow Laura on Twitter here, and The Bee Project on Twitter here.


Phil: How would you describe your work for somebody experiencing it for the first time?

Laura: A mixture of storytelling and dance — I love finding ways to tell stories through movement and physical theatre. My work is messy and rough around the edges. I enjoy exploring different ways of telling stories, particularly about environmental issues, in ways that are entertaining and engaging with audiences. My current show, The Bee Project, has a real focus on care and what it means to look after each other and the planet.

Phil: Who else forms the Company in Laura Ryder and Company?

Laura: We’re a collective of artists based in the Midlands; we’ve been working together since 2016 and work through a collaborative rehearsal process. Myself and Freya Sharp perform in the work, Maria Terry is production designer, James Varney is dramaturg and Luke Galloway is sound designer. We devise the work together, with each of us taking lead on different ideas and looking at how we can integrate our various backgrounds of theatre making into the work.

Phil: Tell us about three pieces of theatre – or theatre makers – that have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.

Laura: I love Chris Thorpe’s work. I saw his show Confirmation at Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and I couldn’t get over how it stuck with me. It made me reflect on my own opinions and politics, my own bias. It was a masterclass in making theatre which is challenging, funny and genuinely political. I recently did a workshop with him about making political theatre and I’m still processing all the thoughts bouncing round my head from that.

Key Change by Open Clasp was an astonishingly good show, it was devised with women in HMP Low Newton prison and toured male prisons. It felt like it gave a platform for voices which are often silenced, without ever feeling exploitative. The movement sections of the piece fed into it so beautifully, really lifting the stories. I think it was a perfect example of how art can be both brilliant and moving as well as useful and a tool for change.

I love Chris Thorpe’s work. Confirmation was a masterclass in making theatre which is challenging, funny and genuinely political.

I recently saw Gecko’s The Wedding at Derby Theatre which just blew me away. The end of the show had this incredible energy that I think you can only achieve in live theatre. You could feel the audience wanting to join in by the end, the whole auditorium was just alive. I’ve seen a few of Gecko’s shows and it always astounds me how they explore these huge ideas through movement and images.

Phil: Tell us a bit about your current show The Bee Project. What inspired you to make it and what can audiences expect?

Laura: The Bee Project is a piece about friendship and care as much as it is an environmental piece about bees. I’d been interested in bees for a while, I love how honey bees dance to communicate and as a dancer I thought it was brilliant. I started researching more about their environmental importance and their decline and all of a sudden the show seemed quite political and urgent. I had a really interesting meeting with a beekeeper, and the way they described their hive made it sound like an excellent party. A hive is dark and sticky, full of noise and dancing, it really sparked our imaginations. We wanted to make a piece which looked at how we can help make a difference to our environment: as a collective, we want to leave the audience with a sense of hope. Audiences can expect a story about two friends, one which looks at the importance of caring for each other as well as the planet. Oh, and also plenty of energy and glitter!

I had a really interesting meeting with a beekeeper, and the way they described their hive made it sound like an excellent party. A hive is dark and sticky, full of noise and dancing, it really sparked our imaginations.

Phil: Would you ever consider getting some bees yourself and looking after a few hives? (You could end up with some theatre honey to sell on tour!)

Laura: I would love some bees! I worked on a farm in Italy where they kept bees and it was so exciting to learn about how a hive works and how to look after bees. I helped plant a wildflower meadow when I was there to help feed the bees.

Theatre honey sounds great! One of my favourite bee facts is that they keep bees on the rooftop of Paris Opera House, I’ve always loved the idea of the bees listening to opera!

Also not all bees live in hives, you can support wild bees by planting flowers in your garden, it’s like an invite for wild bees to come and visit. I would definitely like to keep bees in the future!

Phil: What’s unique or special for you about how theatre can get people thinking and talking about environmental issues?

Laura: Theatre is an amazing place to share stories that can make us question how we live our lives, you’re with an audience sharing a space and a conversation. It’s one of the only artforms where the artists and the audience are in the same room, you have an actual real interaction with the people who are experiencing your art. I find messages stick with me way more when they’re shared in an entertaining and fun way. I think theatre invites empathy and conversation which are two things needed when looking at how we can deal with environmental issues. We try and run Q&As after our shows so we can engage in further conversations about how we can look after the planet.

Phil: Making and touring theatre often consumes quite a lot of materials and resources – there’s often a big carbon footprint in terms of travel, or mountains of posters and flyers, for example. Where have you managed to reduce The Bee Project’s environmental impact?

Laura: Our show uses A LOT of golden glitter, it’s a really beautiful element to our design, signifying a party and representing pollen. We knew from day one that using plastic glitter would be terrible for the environment and looked to find alternatives. We use biodegradable glitter made from eucalyptus in the show so that we aren’t contributing to the microplastics harming our oceans. The show’s design can fit in a suitcase so we can always use public transport when touring. We’ve created e-flyers to share so that we can cut back on paper flyers.

We use biodegradable glitter made from eucalyptus in the show so that we aren’t contributing to the microplastics harming our oceans.

Phil: Why is being based in the East Midlands and working so much in the Midlands important to you?

Laura: I think the Midlands arts scene is thriving, every networking event/festival I go to I meet artists whose work inspires me and makes me want to grow my own artistic practice. Derby Theatre’s In Good Company artists’ network have supported us so much as a company, I don’t think I know of many other schemes like it. Events such as your amazing East Meets West Symposium showed me just how generous and exciting the Midlands theatre scene is.

Phil: You’ll soon be taking part in DART, Live & Local’s development scheme to introduce artists to the wonderful world of rural touring. What’s got you interested in connecting with rural audiences?

Laura: My grandparents live in a tiny village in Yorkshire, I mean so tiny they don’t have a local shop. There isn’t a theatre near them or art galleries or anything like that but they love art. I’d go to their house and they would play the piano, sing songs and my cousins would put on little comedy sketches. I think their community would love to have more access to theatre. Rural touring means we can reach audiences who might not be able to get to the theatre and have the privilege of sharing work with those communities. We’ve only ever shown The Bee Project in cities and I’m really interested to see the reaction from rural audiences, they may have totally different responses to city audiences!

Rural touring means we can reach audiences who might not be able to get to the theatre and have the privilege of sharing work with those communities.

Phil: Beyond The Bee Project, what are you planning or working on for the rest of 2018 and beyond?

Laura: The Bee Project was our first show as a collective of artists and we’ve all found that we’ve loved working with each other. There’s a really great dynamic in the rehearsal space, so we’re looking at continuing to make work as a company. We’re looking at different ways we can possibly reach new audiences. We’ve ran workshops alongside the show and are keen to keep running learning programmes alongside any work that we make.

Looking forward, I think our process will be about continuing to see where we can take The Bee Project, and how we can make it as accessible as possible to new audiences. This may include reaching rural communities, Edinburgh Fringe and even looking at more school and student engagement.

Phil: 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 your work?

Laura: One of the main things I think I’ve learnt through this rehearsal process is how important it is to find the joy in your work. We started The Bee Project by having two weeks of play, we explored how we could move like bees, what stories might come from creating work about the environment and really let ourselves find the passion in our work. I think that has really carried the show in its various stages of development. It’s meant that however the show has developed it has maintained its original soul as well as our excitement and intentions of what we wanted the piece to be about. I think it’s important for creative processes to ensure there is space to play, fail and learn. Having space to make mistakes has been crucial for the artistic development of this show, it’s where some of the most interesting ideas have come from.

I think it’s important for creative processes to ensure there is space to play, fail and learn.

Phil: 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?

Laura: Find something you’re really passionate about and want to make theatre about. That way even when you come up against barriers or have setbacks, you will still know why you are making that work and who you’re making it for. Everyone has setbacks: first time round we didn’t get funding for The Bee Project. The day we found this out, we made some of our favourite choreography in the show, we knew we were making something we were passionate about and didn’t let the setback stop our creativity. We’ve since gone on to receive funding and it’s been brilliant to see the piece grow. Also, go see as much work as you can, get involved in your local regional theatre and let them support you.

The post We’re Itching To Talk About… Laura Ryder & Company appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: We’re Itching To Talk About… Maison Foo

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.

Image: Maison Foo’s Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin

Maison Foo is a madhouse of mischievous theatre-making, led by co-Artistic Directors Bethany Sheldon and Kathryn Lowe, who draw on puppetry, clowning and physical theatre to create work which is surreal, soulful, satirical and sentimental.

We caught up with Bethany to find out more about the Derby theatre scene, balancing parenting with producing, and a heads-up on A Thing Mislaid which they’ll be touring in Autumn 2018.

You can find out more about Maison Foo here:

Website: www.maisonfoo.co.uk
Twitter: www.twitter.com/maisonfoo
Facebook: www.facebook.com/maisonfoo/


Phil: How would you describe your work for somebody experiencing it for the first time?

Bethany: Visual Theatre… a bit clowny, a bit puppety/objecty… often absurd with a social conscience… usually mischievous with a penchant for tickling audiences’ imaginations.

Phil: You spoke on our Organisational Development panel at the East Meets West Symposium last year, and a phrase you used really stuck with us: “Theatre can be the break that makes a difference”. Can you tell us a bit about this idea and how important it is to you as both a maker and audience member?

Bethany: That is a quote from a nurse at Derby Hospital, who stopped for a theatrical brew outside the hospital entrance at Tea Bar, our street theatre pop up cafe. She said the unexpected encounter “was the break that made a difference and she would go back to work now refreshed”. It is this kind of reaction that drives a lot of our participatory and street theatre work.

Through this work, we often look at how we can make people feel more valued, feel like they matter, gift them a moment of comic surreal escapism. It’s such rewarding work when you, as an artist, can actually help someone’s wellbeing – refresh someone, lift their spirits and make their day through a totally unexpected creative encounter.

Through our work, we often look at how we can make people feel more valued, feel like they matter, gift them a moment of comic surreal escapism.

I think this ‘making people feel they matter’ is a thread throughout all our work on some level. Even when audiences engage with us in more traditional settings like studio theatre spaces, we hope they are able to escape with us into another world, to take a break to disconnect from day-to-day life, and reconnect with what it is to be human. We hope that from that break, people leave refreshed or with a slightly different perspective on the world.

Phil: Tell us about three pieces of theatre – or theatre makers – that have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.

Bethany: Hmmm… lots of things have an impact on me as a theatre maker, and more often than not it’s not theatre! It could be a documentary, or music, or a piece of art, or the philosophy behind an artist’s work that inspires me. For example, Dali and Surrealism — not necessarily the paintings, but the creative movement and thinking behind Surrealism. The absurdity of placing objects in a totally different place to where you would normally see them and what that does to the audience has definitely had an impact on me.

I’d say us Foos are like magpies; we take a pinch of this from one influence and blend it with a scoop of that from another. If I had to pick one major moment in my life, it would be seeing DV8’s Strange Fish as an A-Level Dance student way back when. That has to go down as a moment when my thinking about what theatre could be really opened up. Such a major impact and I only ever saw it on DVD (well probably video tape actually! Shhhh!)

There was one particular moment in that piece that caught the attention of my inner magpie: the character ‘Nigel’ was weaving in and out of the two female performers. He was trying to talk to them whilst they tried to ignore him and get away. His dialogue was mumbled, jumbled and nonsensical, but the emotional feeling and clarity of the unsaid was so clear and resonant. BOOM! At that moment, my world changed and I’ve been obsessed with creating physical moments that speak beyond words ever since.

I think if I had to pick a third thing, I’d probably say Charleroi Danse’s Kiss and Cry which has been a recent influence. It’s a piece of object puppetry that manipulates miniature worlds that are filmed using a live camera. That sparked such excitement in me and has led to our own live camera language that we’re developing for the new show, A Thing Mislaid.

Phil: You both have children (affectionately known as The Foolets). Has becoming parents had any unexpected influences on your work, both in terms of its creative content and the logistics of running a company and touring?

Bethany: The Foolets have highly influenced how we make work and how we run a creative process. We now work in a different rhythm. We tend to rehearse three days a week over a longer period, and some days we have to finish at 5! #shockhorror! We used to rehearse and work six days a week and stay until silly o’clock if anyone would let us.

It’s interesting thinking about the discussions happening at the moment around mental health in the sector. Again and again, you hear how people are always pushing themselves beyond their limits for not a lot of money, scared of slowing down, missing out, needing to make work a priority every second of every day.

The Foolets have taught us to let go of that fear — that it is totally okay to find your own rhythm and go at your own pace. It may take us a lot longer to make work now, but we are healthier for it, and the creative process seems a lot richer too. Working three days a week on a show allows us to maintain a work/life balance. It gives us space to breathe and gain a greater sense of clarity from one week to the next. And guess what? Nobody in the industry has shut the door on us for doing so. Partners and venues are still just as supportive.

So theatre-makers without children: if you need to give yourself permission to slow down a bit and go at your own pace, maybe it’s time to get a Flour Baby!

Image: Maison Foo’s A Thing Mislaid

Phil: Your website sections are very neatly divided up into the different rooms of a house. Would you ever consider making theatre that was performed inside your audience members’ homes? Or would you ever welcome audiences into your own homes?

Bethany: I already have when training with the London School of Puppetry! I hosted an evening of living room theatre with three other puppeteers. It was great! Us Foos love performing in different spaces. One of my favourite alternative space performances we’ve created was time travel clubbing in QUAD’s lifts!

It’s interesting thinking about the discussions happening at the moment around mental health in the sector. Again and again, you hear how people are always pushing themselves beyond their limits for not a lot of money, scared of slowing down, missing out, needing to make work a priority every second of every day.

Phil: A few years ago, you became one of the very first Associate Companies with In Good Company, the East Midlands artist development scheme. In what ways did that support benefit you most?

Bethany: Wow! I don’t know where to start…

I could talk about all the amazing support we got like cash, rehearsal space, and mentoring, but that’s all outlined on their website. I could talk about how wonderful Ruby Glaskin and Emily Coleman (IGC Producers) are. Or how grateful I am to Sarah Brigham for having the vision of IGC as an Artist support scheme and making it happen, with bells on, in our region! Or Natalie Ibu for charging in with creative gusto when setting the whole scheme up…

But I think I’m going to focus on the long-term relationships it has helped us build with other artists. Before In Good Company, artists in the East Midlands were a lot more disconnected. IGC has brought us together. And the artists that were in our ‘year group’ (LaPelle’s Factory, Spiltmilk Dance, Nonsuch Theatre and Zealous Theatre) are all now genuine theatre-making friends. The type of friends that really support each other, the type you can pick up the phone and ask silly questions to, the type that are always really excited to bump into each other.

IGC led to Maison Foo being an Associate Company at Derby Theatre, who ultimately supported us getting back on the theatre horse post-maternity leave. This helped us to learn how to juggle our real babies with our theatre baby!

Phil: What more do you think can be done to support independent artists across the Midlands?

Bethany: There is so much brilliant stuff already going on to support independent artists in the region, especially early career artists, which is blooming amazing. The difference in the region from when we began is phenomenal. It’s still tough out there though, whatever stage you are at.

So as a company in its tenth year of survival (we are now apparently ‘mid-career’ #yowsers!), it feels right to think about what companies like us are currently up against…

There is so much brilliant stuff already going on to support independent artists in the region, especially early career artists, which is blooming amazing. The difference in the region from when we began is phenomenal.

So they are probably in their 30’s, maybe have a family or are wanting to start one, or maybe looking for a bit more stability. They are at a point where they can’t ask people to work for free and can no longer work for free themselves either, as they no longer live with their parents.

They have perhaps achieved a lot of their initial early career goals, and are maybe having or have recently had the “who are we/where are we heading” wobble!

They probably find maintaining the stamina and drive to keep the creative fire ignited very hard when they’re exhausted from the long-term struggle of making it work financially.

It’s at this point that walking away to find a ‘proper job’ (as parents call them) is often the way people go.

So my ponder is… What more can be done to support these Midlands mid-career artists so they can continue for another ten, twenty, thirty years? As a sector we are in danger of losing their experience and their knowledge.

If it’s financial stability they need and that’s something venues can’t offer, what could our regional venues to do help and support these artists move towards a more sustainable future? If match funding is needed, for example: rather than a ‘sorry we haven’t got any money to commission with’ from venues as a conversation ender, how can this be turned into a conversation starter? Could venues and companies work together to find a way of leveraging the match fund from another source through the venue, that then becomes the match for the company? Or are there ways in which venues and companies can work together to achieve collective goals like developing and delivering an outreach programme together?

I think if it weren’t for Derby Theatre, we would have been one of those companies to hang up their boots at the ‘mid-career’ door. Don’t get me wrong: we are still having our wobbles and we are currently in the midst of a massive organisational restructure post-maternity, but we don’t feel alone. We feel we have a friend to wobble with and a friend saying ‘it’s okay to wobble, we are here, our door is open and we are working it through with you’. Because of that, we actually feel excited about the future. I think the more that venues can be that friend and have a more bespoke and honest relationship with artists, then the better we will all be.

So artists: let’s not be afraid to talk about it! We have a responsibility to ask for what we need. And venues: let’s continue the conversation beyond ‘sorry we want to, but we can’t’ and think creatively around our relationships and how we can work together to sustain the future of theatre making in the region.

Phil: You first came to national attention with your highly acclaimed sell-out show Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. How important do you think it is for artists to take their work to Edinburgh?

Bethany: Oh Edinburgh! Edinburgh, you insane, cruel, sexy, addictive thing!

I think it’s not the be-all and end-all but it’s not called the best showcase in the world for nothing. We’ve been twice and both times, we have benefited. The second time nearly killed us though and we will think hard before returning!

If anyone ever asks me advice about Edinburgh, my first question back is always ‘why?’ followed by a load of other questions like…

‘why do you want to go?’
‘why do think this is the right time for you to go?’
‘why is this show the right show to take?’
‘what do you want to achieve by going?’

There are hundreds and hundreds of shows at the festival, so the clearer you can be about what you want to get out of it, the more likely it is you will get something out of it, and not be lost in that epic sea of shows.

We didn’t rush into going. The year before we took Biscuit Tin to Edinburgh, we went up for a few days to research. We went and met with Edinburgh venue programmers, watched companies similar to us and then we made sure that the show was one we felt was good and was ready to put out there for critics and industry to come and see. It also gave us a year to raise the thousands of pounds we needed to invest (no, it’s not cheap!) and ask advice from those who had been there and done that.

Our advice would be — get a brilliant team behind you — invest in a good press officer (worth their weight in gold) — and a brilliant technician who can work quickly to make your show still look great under Edinburgh restrictions and with a five-minute get in!

Phil: Tell us a bit about A Thing Mislaid, the brand new show you are developing.

Bethany: A Thing Mislaid is a show about two lost clowns, who meet somewhere on the way to nowhere; and a thing mislaid, a thing without a flock, a thing on a journey to find home.

Oh Edinburgh! Edinburgh, you insane, cruel, sexy, addictive thing!

The show blends puppetry, objects and live camera with clowning and humour to tell its tale, travelling through miniature worlds and surreal realities.

The piece started life back in 2015 under the title The Granddad Project, when Kate and I looked further into a curious commonality we both shared — our migratory heritage. This set the seed for a new piece of work that built on our exploration of migration, journey and home, asking the question: where do we belong?

Excitingly, A Thing Mislaid has been commissioned by China Plate, Warwick Arts Centre, mac birmingham and In Good Company, and we shared work-in-progress performances last year at the First Bite and Bite Size festivals. We plan to tour the show throughout the Midlands in Autumn 2018.

You can see some pics and our teaser trailer here.

Alongside the show we are also developing a Refugee Friend Scheme, working with Derby Theatre, Derby Refugee Advice Centre, Attenborough Arts Centre, Journeys Festival and Talking Birds. The scheme will help break down barriers that refugees and those currently seeking asylum face through a program of creative participatory events.

Phil: What was the last thing you mislaid, and did it ever turn up again?

Bethany: A travel cot! Seriously, I can’t find it anywhere and it’s not exactly a small item either!

Image: Maison Foo’s A Thing Mislaid

Phil: 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?

Bethany: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!

We spend time finding the right people to be lost with! You can’t devise without jumping into the unknown — a lot! You need people around you willing to jump off that cliff with you daily. People that are playful, generous, big-hearted and willing to give, try lots of ideas, and not get precious about discarding the ones that don’t work. And we are not just talking performers! We work that way with our designer, musician/composer, producer… Everyone.

Phil: 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?

Bethany: Enjoy failing! It’s one of our mottos that we magpied from Improbable! To us, it means being open and honest and saying I don’t know what I’m doing but that’s okay. I may fail, but if I enjoy the process and let go of the fear of failure, then that is when the exciting stuff happens — when you put yourself out there, when you take risks. You can’t make things without trying things. I’d say about only 20% of ideas actually make it into a show.

Enjoy failing! It’s one of our mottos that we magpied from Improbable!

And don’t just enjoy failing at the theatre making bit. Enjoy failing at all the other stuff too — the marketing, the producing, the general management, the accounts, the van driving… When you do something for the first time, you don’t really know how to do it until you’ve done it. Learn from doing.

So try to let go of the fear and jump in! Don’t be afraid to ask people lots of questions as they were blagging it just like you only a few years previously. I suspect they still are, they are just a bit further down the road of blag!

The post We’re Itching To Talk About… Maison Foo appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: Gareth Joins the Board of ITC

We’re thrilled to announce that Gareth has joined the board of the Independent Theatre Council (ITC).

ITC supports and develops the professional performing arts in the UK and represents a community of over 450 companies and producers. They offer advice on management, financial and legal matters, peer learning, training opportunities and a professional network.

Of the appointment Gareth said: “I’m really excited that I’ll get to work with such an inspiring team in helping to shape the future of an incredible organisation. Huge thanks to ITC’s Communications Co-Ordinator Thea Stanton for planting the idea in my head in the first place, and to existing board member Jenny Gaskell for her awesome moral support. And a massive thanks to the legends who nominated me: Deborah Kermode (from Midlands Arts Centre), Sophie Motley (from Pentabus Theatre), and Janet Vaughan (from Talking Birds).”

As part of the process, Gareth was asked to give a short election speech at ITC’s AGM in February. You can read about how Gareth pledged to support ITC as a board member below.

“I can still remember my first nervous call to ITC. It was about Rates of Pay and Jackie guided me through that now familiar factsheet without judgement and with clarity and kindness. For over a decade ITC has supported Little Earthquake every step of the way, and now I’m excited about the prospect of giving something back.

I only have a minute, so here are three things I’d love to help ITC achieve over the next few years:

Firstly, I’d like to push for even more training sessions and opportunities to engage with ITC outside of London, and in doing so, help to increase ITC’s visibility across the country.

Secondly, I’d like to find ways of building ITC membership amongst very new artists and companies. Those theatre-makers who are still in the first two years of making work, so they are only kept awake at night by their brilliant ideas, and not the fear of neglecting their legal obligations.

And finally, I’m passionate about building a stronger sense of community and democracy amongst theatre-makers. I strongly believe that we’re all on the same team, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel that way. I’d therefore like to encourage more interaction and peer-to-peer support and learning between ITC members themselves through social events and online platforms.

Every member of ITC is independent but I don’t want anybody to feel that they are on their own. To borrow a quote from mac birmingham’s Debbie Kermode as she spoke at our recent East Meets West Symposium: “Individually, we are all unique in our offer to audiences, but together, we are stronger.”

Thank you.”

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Little Earthquake: Grimm Tales Retold – Inside Production Week

We’ve recently finished working on Grimm Tales Retold, our latest collaboration with the Department of Drama & Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham. Throughout the rehearsal period, we worked with a brilliant ensemble of students to bring Phil’s script to life and we invited the cast to write guest blog posts about the process. Find out what happened during production week below.

You can also read about what happened during week one of rehearsals here, week two here, week three here, and week four here.

George Bandy
Monday 5th February, 6pm – 10pm

The first day of Production Week invariably carries with it a certain level of stress and panic – even more so when you are up at the crack of dawn for last minute logistics checking and polishing. Despite our usual warm-ups and icebreakers, this was the rehearsal where I, for one, knew that the performances were looming over us. We were particularly looking at refining the physical theatre sequences, including both the opening ‘Fox Hoodie’ routine, and the ‘Office Twat’ transitions. Since both sequences utilised the full cast, and involved large amounts of set/prop moving, these proved quite troublesome to perfect, and so we found ourselves drilling them to precision.

It was here that it struck me quite how far we had come as a company; the progression by each of us from our first day of rehearsals, a mere four weeks prior, to the standard I could now see in front of me, was remarkable.

Playing one of the Grimm brothers, I had less of a hand in these transitions, and so for once I had the opportunity to sit and watch the work of everyone else for a large part of the morning. It was here that it struck me quite how far we had come as a company; the progression by each of us from our first day of rehearsals, a mere four weeks prior, to the standard I could now see in front of me, was remarkable. Each person in the cast had come in with their own worries, concerns, strengths and weaknesses, but seeing each of my peers working together with such cohesion made me feel truly part of something special.

It was our last rehearsal in the rehearsal room, our home for the better part of a month, and leaving was bittersweet. What lay ahead in the theatre space once terrified me, but on Monday I knew that more than anything else, I was truly excited to share what we had accomplished with an audience, as we really did have something special.

Georgiana Poteiciuc
Monday 5th February, 6pm – 10pm (Tech Session 1)

OMG it’s our final week working on this amazing play with two more days to go before our first performance. How could we not be super excited? I know I’m beyond thrilled. This evening we had the first technical session focused on Act 1 and I was enchanted by how beautifully all the elements combined. It was different from any rehearsal because having the lights focused on you while everywhere else is dark gives you the necessary concentration to connect with your character as well as with the other characters on stage without a possible distraction from “the other world”. The production team was also there and served as audience for us which also helped with the atmosphere and it was the first time we rehearsed with our costumes on too. The whole team was extraordinary and really involved in this project, always ready to help us with any need.

Grimm Tales Retold has started to take its final shape and we’re all realising that it’s going to end so soon.

Grimm Tales Retold has started to take its final shape and we’re all realising that it’s going to end so soon and none of us want that because we are a family now. However, we don’t have much time to think about this yet, as we have four performances ahead and two more days to settle all the details. I am looking forward to showing to the audience this spectacular play that I know for sure they will fall in love with from the beginning.

Charlotte Biggs
Tuesday 6th February, 6pm – 10pm (Tech Session 2)

Charlotte here again for the final blog post for Grimm Tales Retold! I cannot believe how quickly this journey has gone and how it’s coming to an end, but it’s definitely been an exciting one.

We’ve now gone into production week for the shows, and it’s all becoming very real! We cannot wait to perform for everyone!

This blog post is for the second half of our technical rehearsal, which was for Act 2 of the show. With all the costume, lights, sound and set coming together, it’s easy to say that this is going to be a brilliant show. The show looks right at home in George Cadbury Hall, and you sometimes have to pinch yourself to remind you that we’re not actually stood on the edge of an urban forest.

The technical rehearsal itself went really well, and Gareth encouraged us to use this as an opportunity to experiment further with our choices.

The technical rehearsal itself went really well, and Gareth encouraged us to use this as an opportunity to experiment further with our Wants and be bold with our choices. It was definitely helpful for me, as I had a chance before the dress rehearsal to experiment with my characters. Grimm Tales Retold has absolutely been a fantastic process, and I cannot believe that the shows are just around the corner. I’ve had the best time, and I’m so proud of the show and everyone involved.

So for the final time #QuakeGrimm #TeamSukie

Lydia Sirovica
Wednesday 7th February, 2pm – 5pm (Tech Rehearsal Notes Session)

Hello, it’s Lydia…

We have now officially finished the tech run of the show and today Gareth led a notes session in which he picked apart any issues we had during the two days of tech. Of course, we needed to look over the fox sequences. I think the fact that we can barely see anything with the masks on shows a little too much through the way we move on stage, so during this session we worked through the transitions with the fox masks and worked on how we could appear to burst on to the stage with confidence and commitment.

We were also told that remembering to breathe in the fox masks helped us a great deal with our balance, especially in the first ‘dance’ sequence.

My worst nightmare was getting the Christmas tree for the Hansel and Gretel scene upright and plugged in… however, after a few practices, the fear of bumping into anyone was not at the forefront of my mind and moving across the stage with pace and swagger got me to where I needed to be with enough time, and according to Gareth, ‘looked great!’ We were also told that remembering to breathe in the fox masks helped us a great deal with our balance, especially in the first ‘dance’ sequence.

Production week so far, although tiring, has been quite enjoyable and we are all really looking forward to doing the dress run later on tonight! I just need to remember to BE BOLD and pursue my WANT with CLARITY and COMMITMENT.

William Melhuish
Wednesday 7th February, Dress Rehearsal

‘Goodbye to all that’

This is it! The week that we’ve all been working towards! Emotions are certainly high going into this week and it’s so rewarding to see all the effort that has gone into making this performance. As we go into the final stages of preparation there is a colossal mutual sense of pride amongst the cast regarding the huge steps we have made since the first week. We have all developed as performers and as characters in ourselves!

All we wanted to do is have fun, and that is exactly what we did!

Wednesday was a big day. We had a dress-run of the show to make sure that we were in the mind-set of what it would be like for the real performance. Nerves were high but you could feel how much energy and excitement there was in all of us. All we wanted to do is have fun, and that is exactly what we did! The power of this show was certainly emphasised by the amazing work that the design, costume and technical departments has done. Everything looked incredible. Everyone was incredible. What a pleasure it has been. Bring on the show!!

Katie Webster
Thursday 8th February, Performance 1

When I found out I was given the task of writing a blog post for opening night, I thought I would be starting by writing about things like our nerves and the excited tension backstage.

However, now I’m here, all I can think to say is thank you to the audience! From the first moment we stepped on stage, we felt your support and you were so receptive, and I personally was so overwhelmed by the response. To know the audience is on your side from Scene One is special, and I know I speak for the cast and crew when I say thank you for being such a great crowd. And yes, your standing ovation made a number of us cry with joy. Thank you.

Of course, I have to mention the first night nerves. We’ve all worked so hard on this production so we just wanted to go out there and show the audience how amazing this show is. Minus a few technical hitches (not mentioning any names… Assista…), we were really pleased and maybe even had some fun out there!

all I can think to say is thank you to the audience!

Gareth has a phrase he used many times in rehearsals that really helped me tonight: ‘How do you eat an elephant? Start with the tail.’ This might seem pretty random, but he’s getting at the concept of not thinking about the huge task ahead of performing the entire play, but starting with the moment just before you step on stage. When I’ve performed before, I’ve always been a bag of nerves, rushing through all my lines before going on stage in fear of having a mind blank. However, today I just started with the tail, and it all followed from there.

Overall, opening night was a blast and we were all so pleased. The response was overwhelming and we were all so flattered by all the lovely comments. Some people even said they’re coming back! I can’t wait to get back out there and keep having fun with this wonderful play.

Bethany Hartland
Friday 9th February, Performance 1 Notes & Performance 2

Hi it’s Beth, for the last time…

Friday afternoon began with a feedback session from our first performance the previous night! Gathering in a circle with the two DSMs, Gareth and Phil for the last time was quite a bittersweet moment. Everyone was eager to talk about the excited responses from the audience the night before, but as the meeting drew to a close it didn’t quite feel real that this was nearly the end of our Grimm Tales Retold journey with Little Earthquake. We were relieved to hear that Gareth’s notes only filled an A5 page, many of them mentioning that perhaps our nerves meant that our volume was not as loud as it could be. But, overall, the feedback just meant that we were motivated to be as bold as we could be with each of our characters and put on an even better show for the Friday night performance.

The audience’s positive response to the scene meant that it was even more fun to play around with the way we interacted with each other and the spontaneity of the ‘offers’ we gave each other.

As we went to the stage in the evening for our first warm-up without Gareth, led brilliantly instead by Katie, the energy of the cast was sky high and it was clear that the adrenaline had not declined from our first night. I think because everyone was suddenly very aware of how quick the performances were going to go, we were all desperate to make sure that we did our hard work justice by giving our all to create a really great performance. My favourite part to perform continues to be the Rumpelstiltskin scene because we have the whole cast on stage at the same time and I think the scene displays how much we have all bonded. The audience’s positive response to the scene meant that it was even more fun to play around with the way we interacted with each other and the spontaneity of the ‘offers’ we gave each other.

Leaving the theatre after the Friday night, knowing tomorrow the whole experience was coming to an end, was quite surreal. But I cannot wait to enjoy another two performances and to see the new audiences’ responses to the piece.

If you came, we hope you loved it because we sure did! #QuakeGrimm

Jordan Farrag
Saturday 10th February, Performance 3 (matinee)

Hi — It’s Jordan!

Reeling from the overwhelming support from audiences at the Thursday and Friday evening shows, we hoped to continue to emulate our previous successes on the Saturday Matinee performance. We had our penultimate warm-up lead by the inspirational Katie Webster who quickly reminded us that we only had two ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite’! left in the whole process! So we proceeded to focus extra hard on enjoying what we had left!

I was particularly nervous for this performance with friends coming to watch but was quickly encouraged by all members of the cast that ‘we got this’ and that we just need to enjoy what we are doing for it to translate to an audience. After a quick pep talk in the guys’ dressing room, we were all energised and ready to smash the show for the penultimate time!

By this point I felt that we all began to find our groove and help the audiences enjoy our dark comedy of a show!

The show, I felt, was a huge success! By this point I felt that we all began to find our groove and help the audiences enjoy our dark comedy of a show! As each scene’s performance came and went the timings of the show felt faster and faster, as we realised we only had one show remaining that evening.

One particular highlight or funny moment in this show was that I (unfortunately for Will) enjoyed maybe one too many cheese and onion rolls in the final scene and when it came to the ‘push and shove’ bit between Jake and my Office Twat, a rogue piece of cheese shot from my mouth only to find its way straight into the middle of poor Will’s forehead. This will forever be a highlight of the matinee performance for me, but perhaps not for Will.

I have enjoyed this process more than any other performance project I have ever done. I think this is because of the unwavering support of both Gareth and Phil, but also the unwavering commitment from the whole cast! I have enjoyed every second of the experience and will miss the lot of you.

Over and out.

Scott Wilson
Saturday 10th February, Performance 4 (evening)

I can’t believe it’s the last show!

This has been a process that has really opened my eyes to the simple but effective approach to acting that Little Earthquake use. Learning to just trust my instincts as an actor and only worry about what I want to achieve in that moment and to be bold in doing so has really changed my approach to acting and I’ll be eternally grateful to have discovered this fantastic technique.

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a performance full of such life and potential for creativity as Grimm Tales Retold and the playful nature of the process has meant that every show so far has thrown up so many different ways of playing each moment. Personally that’s what live performance is all about for us as actors and, of course, for an audience.

The anticipation before each show starts is electric and hearing the audience reciprocating that excitement for the show to start really brought out the best in our performances, as we wanted to give them a show that they’d be talking about for a long time to come, and hopefully we’ve succeeded in doing so.

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a performance full of such life and potential for creativity as Grimm Tales Retold and the playful nature of the process has meant that every show so far has thrown up so many different ways of playing each moment.

Following our last warm up session and the final rendition of ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’, we all took a moment to take in what we have learned and achieved throughout this process as a cast. (Now brace yourselves ‘cause Jake’s emotional side is about to come out!) I genuinely could not have asked for a better group of people to have shared this process with and I have been blown away by the commitment and sheer talent of each and every one of them. This is, of course, extended to the team working backstage as well, as the work they have put into the production of the show has provided us with the perfect platform for our performance. This show has developed so much since Day One and watching everyone grow in confidence and build such a fantastic performance has been truly remarkable.

Finally, thank you so much to everyone who came and supported us in our work. Gareth has taught us that what is important, in choosing our ‘Wants’, is that it cannot be boring for the audience. Being able to respond to the audience’s reactions really helped fuel our performances and confidence in our choices. So thank you for coming and sharing this fantastic show with us. I will be forever grateful to have been part of this process and to have had the opportunity to work with Gareth and Phil and rediscovering how much fun acting can be.

It’s been a pleasure!

#QuakeGrimm #TeamJake

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Little Earthquake: Grimm Tales Retold – The Deleted Scenes

Image: Damien Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’

We’re about to open Grimm Tales Retold, our latest collaboration with the Department of Drama & Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham. Philip, Little Earthquake’s Co-Director, has written the show which features very different versions of four famous fairytales. Below Philip has opened up the Drafts folder on his laptop to let you see what nearly made it into the show but was ultimately left out.

Grimm Tales Retold runs from Thursday 8th – Saturday 10th February 2018 in Birmingham. For more information and to book tickets online, click here.

The Brothers Grimm spent almost their entire working lives editing and re-editing their collection of fairytales, adding new stories, shifting the order around, incorporating new details, sometimes even having more than one version of the same story on the go. My process for writing Grimm Tales Retold hasn’t taken a lifetime, but what we’re presenting this week is the fifth draft of a piece which has steadily been taking shape over the last year.

As it stands, there are four stories in the show, not counting the link narrative featuring Jake and Will Grimm — we’ve got Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The Musicians of Bremen never even made it as far as me putting pen to paper (but the production programme note will give you a glimpse of what I had in mind.) Through the drafting process, Rapunzel and Snow White were cut from the show in their entirety — and both Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood now appear in Version 2.0 forms, which are virtually unrecognisable now from what I originally wrote.

If this was a DVD, we’d get to include some bonus material to give Little Earthquake aficionados a chance to see some of the things that ended up on the cutting room floor. And so we’ve decided to do the next best thing: we’re popping some of our deleted scenes onto the blog, to give just a little taster of what nearly was and what might have been.

There’s a real first draft feel to most of this stuff; some of it never got redeveloped any further than what’s there now. Snow White is the only one of the four that made it as far as Draft 2, and I did get the chance to rework that one quite a bit. It fell at the final hurdle when we needed to make some tough choices in relation to running time, budget and technical complexity. It would have been quite something to see, I’m sure…

So here they are: some of the baby steps that got us to the point we’re at now — a few hours away from opening night. They’ll be full of inconsistencies, gaps in their logic, bits that go on too long or not long enough, and there’ll be some glaring typos, too. They are rough around the edges but, I’d like to think, not without some value.

I hope you enjoy them.

Read ‘Grimm Tales Retold – Cinderella’ Deleted Scene
Read ‘Grimm Tales Retold – Little Red Riding Hood’ Deleted Scene
Read ‘Grimm Tales Retold – Rapunzel’ Deleted Scene
Read ‘Grimm Tales Retold – Snow White’ Deleted Scene

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Little Earthquake: Grimm Tales Retold – Inside Rehearsal Week 1

We’re currently in rehearsals for Grimm Tales Retold, our latest collaboration with the Department of Drama & Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham. Throughout the rehearsal period, we’ve been working with a brilliant ensemble of students to bring Phil’s script alive and we invited the cast to write guest blog posts about the process. Find out what happened in the rehearsal room during week one below…

Scott Wilson
Monday 8th January, 9am – 1pm

Hi I’m Scott,

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room full of so much excitement and enthusiasm to get started on a production. It was such a great session to get used to working with each other and with Little Earthquake. The ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’ exercise was definitely the wake-up call I needed on the first day back after Christmas, and I can already feel my Christmas dinner dropping off me!

Gareth focused on making us comfortable in being as silly and creative as possible. His advice to act like a 4-year-old who doesn’t care what people think was something that I really took on board. So let’s hope everyone’s ready for 4-year-old me to come out!

We have already addressed a couple of issues with the script to work on but the list of positives was much longer, so come and see what you think!

#QuakeGrimm #TeamJake

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room full of so much excitement and enthusiasm to get started on a production.

Jordan Farrag
Monday 8th January, 2pm – 6pm

Rehearsals for Grimm Tales Retold started on the 8th of January. I think it is safe to say that both the cast and Little Earthquake shared a peculiar mix of excitement, nervousness and passion for the project. I was tasked with writing this short entry to cover our rehearsal on the afternoon of the first day of the process.

We started with an improvisation exercise that encouraged us to trust our instincts and accept the offers that we were giving to each other. Gareth stressed the importance of trusting our instincts and listening to one another, which created this sense of shared agency for our creative decisions, a sort of creative interdependency, which I think is reflective of what the piece is all about. We aim to work together to create something GREAT!

Strangely, running the whole play in the first afternoon made the task ahead feel far more manageable.

Then we were asked to run the whole play. Conveniently Gareth had just implemented this ‘working trust’ between all of us so he said, “be bold”, “trust your instincts” and “listen to each other’s offers”. We did exactly that and ran the play from start to finish. This allowed us to see what the play was really about, provided us with a deeper understanding of each character and encouraged us to start thinking about our characters’ ‘wants’.

Strangely, running the whole play in the first afternoon made the task ahead feel far more manageable and further excited the cast as we began realising the complexities of Phil’s writing. As we left the rehearsal at 6pm, our cast walked back down towards Selly Oak, all sharing stories of the day and laughing. I could not have asked for a better start, or a better bunch of people to embark on this journey with.

Charlotte Biggs
Tuesday 9th January, 9am – 1pm

Hi, I’m Charlotte! I’m a member of the cast in Grimm Tales Retold. This post is about our second rehearsal day and it’s already been so much fun! Today’s session consisted of a few warm-up activities to get us ready for the rehearsal. After this, we began to explore our characters ‘wants’ in the script. This was so useful in understanding our characters’ intentions for the scenes, even if it was something as simple as wanting to sit down on a chair.

We then began working on Act 1, Scene 1, and part of Scene 2. It was scary to think we’d only been working with each other for two days and we were already moving on to the first scene! But it was great to see the play up on its feet.

It was scary to think we’d only been working with each other for two days and we were already moving on to the first scene! But it was great to see the play up on its feet.

Gareth started the process of exploring ‘wants’ by having the actors lines ‘fed’ to them. After this was repeated a few times, the scene then had to be improvised without scripts, which was daunting to begin with, but the results were amazing! It enabled the actors to not be weighed down with a script, and allowed for some very authentic and raw moments to burst through. I’m so looking forward to the rest of the rehearsals and cannot wait for you all to see Grimm Tales Retold!

George Bandy
Wednesday 10th January, 2pm – 6pm

It was on Wednesday that we saw the set for the first time as a cast. For a production put together in only four weeks, a timeframe far shorter than most of us are used to, the idea of being on stage so soon was initially quite terrifying. Indeed, we were told that we would be entering the space ourselves in a mere fortnight, which with such an ambitious script provided some concerns.

We needn’t have worried, however, as upon entering the Production Meeting room, we were greeted by videos explaining the concepts, remarkable illustrations of costume plans for every single character in a multi-role-heavy play, and a miniaturised reproduction of the planned stage. The transformation from what I had imagined and worried about on the page was incredible; the design team have created a blend of urban and rural, placing the action of the play on the very divide of the two, melding the narrators’ room into forest land, office block and hospital in a variety of ways.

I admire the work that the design team has done so far, and am extremely excited to see it at full scale!

Here we were informed of how scene changes would take place, utilising a chorus referenced repeatedly in the script (with a twist, naturally), and I, certainly, truly began to understand how the show would fit together. As someone who is used to being on stage, but rarely behind it, I don’t envy the design team and backstage teams’ jobs, but certainly admire the work they have done so far, and am extremely excited to see it at full scale!

Katie Webster
Thursday 11th January, 1pm – 5pm

How are we already at Day 4?! Today began with another classic game of tag, which Gareth ensures is to help us focus on what we want most in the world (which to be fair it really does), but boy does it get sweaty in the rehearsal room! Definitely don’t have a heavy lunch before a Little Earthquake warm-up.

We kept working through the scenes today, section by section, really focusing on what our characters want most in that moment. We’ve reached the Cinderella scene, where I play Assista. Assista is basically Amazon’s Alexa but “100 times better”. We continued to work in the format of a read-through of the whole scene, then a run-through of a section of the scene with the lines being fed to us, then a run with Gareth stopping and starting us to really focus on our want, and finally we improvise the scene, purely working from our instincts.

This is a really useful process in working out exactly what our character wants, but also varying how we offer those wants to one another. However, as Assista, I was fairly limited in how I can speak, as she’s a machine! Or is she…?

I think it’s safe to say this scene ends in a way nobody would expect it to, and I can’t wait to hear the audience’s reaction.

I found it challenging to improvise as Assista specifically since a lot of her lines are relaying information about ordering emergency chicken, but even though I’m not physically in the scene, it’s interesting to discover what she really wants, and just how damn manipulative she is. It’s also a credit to my fellow performers that Assista truly came alive in the rehearsal room today, as the way everyone interacts with an inanimate tube is genius.

I think it’s safe to say this scene ends in a way nobody would expect it to, and I can’t wait to hear the audience’s reaction. If this scene doesn’t make you think twice about that electronic personal assistant you got for Christmas, you might want to be careful what you say…

Lydia Sirovica
Thursday 11th January, 6pm -10pm

I’m so, so excited to be a part of this production and this first week of rehearsals has been very interesting for me!

We warmed up at the start of the rehearsal with ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’ I love that we all do this together at the start of each rehearsal; I see it as a way to focus and become engaged as a group (it’s also really fun to let yourself go!) Following this we played a game in which we all stood in a circle and the aim was to walk towards someone in the circle, say a letter of the alphabet and touch them on the shoulder. In this time, however, the person who is being walked towards must say a Name, Object and Place beginning with that letter in order to stay in the circle. This really tested how quickly we could think on our feet… There were quite a few moments in which panic took over and my mind went blank. The purpose of the game was to explore how we react to an offer made by someone else, in the moment and using our initial instincts.

I’ve never used ‘wants’ and ‘feeding in’ before, and I think the key thing to note is how simple they are to apply, and for me it made a huge difference in the way I performed her.

After a series of warm-up games in this session, we continued to work through the script chronologically, which allowed us to experiment with our characterisation. In this session we worked on one of my scenes — Cinderella. When reading the script I struggled to characterise Georgia, however, using the ‘feeding in’ technique and putting this scene on its feet, I began to understand what she wanted. Using ‘wants’ I started to think about what my aim was as Georgia: for example, at one point I came up with ‘I want to calm Cassie down.’ I’ve never used this technique before and I think the key thing to note is how simple it is to apply, and for me it made a huge difference in the way I performed her. I also found myself starting to listen to what I was being offered by other characters in the scene, especially when we were told to improvise it. The session finished at 10pm so I’m not going to lie when I say I was very tired! Still, so far rehearsals are keeping me on my toes and it seems to be going very well!

Will Melhuish
Friday 12th January, 3pm – 7pm

As week one of rehearsals comes to a close there is a definite whiff (pun intended) of excitement amongst everyone involved in this production. We started the week off as you would expect every drama rehearsal to start – playing various games. However, looking back now, this seems less as a way of having fun, and more about developing an identification as a unified group who are willing to trust one another. This is, without doubt, one of the most stimulating, demanding, but also rewarding projects I have ever been involved in, and I’m sure that my co-performers agree with me on this. The level of energy going into the first week has certainly not subsided, and our abilities as actors have been pushed to the very limit.

By Friday morning, the commonplace proverb “BE BOLD” echoes in all of our ears as we approach the end of the script. Already, by having the
play acted out in front of us, we can see just how magical and disturbing it actually is. Echoes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror seem to radiate out of the rehearsal space, as neither we nor the audience know what will come next.

By achieving this sense of playfulness, Gareth’s method of ‘feeding in’ the lines, and removing ourselves from the cold grip of the script has allowed us to really play with these characters and come to rehearsals with more and more creative ideas.

Every day we move further and further away from the boring old ‘happily ever after’.

By Friday afternoon, we were exploring the Little Red Riding Hood scene which has the effect of leading the audience down a course of sadomasochistic pleasure and discovery (something which you don’t experience every day). There were fantastic juxtapositions which were literally jumping out of this scene, particularly when Katie and I discovered a tender relationship develop between the Wolf and Melinda! All I can say is, every day we successfully move further and further away from the boring old ‘happily ever after’.

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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.

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Little Earthquake: The White Rabbit In The Room

At the 2017 National Rural Touring Forum conference, Phil gave a keynote speech entitled The White Rabbit In The Room (dressed in a big bunny outfit, of course). In the speech, he encouraged delegates to be more open about recognising the value of failure when it comes to learning from those projects for children and young people which just don’t work out the way their makers had hoped. The full transcript of the speech can be found below.

Hello everyone. My name is Phil. I’m one of the co-Directors of a theatre company called Little Earthquake. I’m also a member of the NRTF Board. And I hate the term “family-friendly”.

I hate it in the same way I hate terms like “weekday vegetarian”. If you’re going to do something, make a commitment to doing it properly. If you really want to help the little animals, start eating them on no days per week, rather than just the two.

And when you say you’re family-friendly, it’s probably children and young people whose engagement with your work you want to build most. So instead of just being friendly towards them — start showing them that they are absolutely essential to what you do now and what you want to do next — with their families and without their families — all the time.

Because while you may not be able to exist in the future without them, young people are perfectly capable of seeing a future for themselves without you in it.

Making something good happen with young people is a bit like Katrina and the Waves winning Eurovision. The triumph is intense but also brief. It feels like the world is watching! But their attention wanders, because someone else is always doing the next amazing thing that outshines yours. You comfort yourself with knowing you once did something amazing, too, but soon, the memory of it shrinks into the past until only a dedicated search on your website or maybe on Arts Professional proves it ever happened at all.

Little Earthquake’s Katrina and the Waves moment was our Young Producers project which started in 2014 and ended in 2015. Teaming up with Black Country Touring, Arts Connect (the West Midlands bridge organisation) and the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, and with hefty investment from Arts Council England, we spent a year with 100 primary schoolchildren who essentially commissioned and co-produced a mid-scale family musical based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. We’ve talked about it at NRTF Conferences before. There’s a detailed case study on the project by Kate Organ – and we have little cards with the web link on them, if you’d like to find out more.

But what felt so important and urgent at the time has now largely faded into the background. Instead of clinging onto that past glory, we need to keep doing more work with young people which is important and urgent. But the trouble is… Like many people here, I’ll bet… We get it wrong as often or maybe more than we get it right. I’m fairly sure what got me onto the NRTF Board was my supposed status as a “CYP expert” but some of our failures have been catastrophic.

In preparing for today, I came to a serious realisation. It’s important to recognise and share success when it happens — but it’s just as important to be open and vocal about the times when we mean well, try hard and still fall flat on our faces. Really listening to other people’s noble and sometimes epic failures has to be one of our best ways to stop wasting public funds and most of all, to stop wasting people’s (particularly young people’s) time, money and goodwill.

In 2014, we staged Bunny Games at the Library of Birmingham, a screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with me and Gareth in these top-to-toe rabbit suits, village fete games with carrots as the prizes, and bingo with a pop-up ball machine. All the adults involved in the planning thought it was a MARVELLOUS idea. On the day, when one of the organiser’s children saw me like this and burst into tears, I feared we’d made a terrible tactical error.

Good weather and bad marketing meant we scraped 23 people into a 400 seat venue. The game of Bunny Bingo was an interminable nightmare I will never forget. It was such a sad experience that when Bob Hoskins passed away that weekend, it almost felt like we were somehow to blame. That same little girl saw me again recently, and three years on, I’m convinced she recognised me as the big white rabbit of evil.

The difference between Young Producers and Bunny Games seems clear to me. When there’s time and space for young people to be involved from an early practical stage, what we do together is a real collaboration with benefits for both sides. When young people are brought in after most or all of the decisions about them and their experience have been made, they simply become recipients of a thing which some adults have decided about on their behalf.

Speaking at the Family Arts Conference in March, Kate Organ talked about projects involving older people, which she has explored and written about in her former role as Arts Adviser to the Baring Foundation. “Participation is critical to making something that matters,” she said. “Without genuine consultation, it won’t work.”

I’m not saying it’s impossible for adults to come up with projects and schemes which will interest and excite and be a good experience for young people — but most of the time, they do just get what adults decide to give them.

It’s fine for us to be the ones who might come up with an initial idea — it’s part of our job as creative leaders — but I bet there’s always a moment when getting young people involved in shaping and developing those ideas with us, and keeping them involved, will help us to make something together that we could never hope to achieve on our own. They may not be experts in the process of making theatre — but they are experts in their own experience. And in our eyes, that should make them invaluable.

What has always encouraged and moved me about the rural network is the depth of the personal relationships, knowledge and discussion between audiences and promoters, between promoters and schemes, and, increasingly, between all of those people and artists as well.

It feels very realistic to me that a network which has already got thousands of adult-to-adult conversations at such a well-developed stage could easily turn more of its attention to having better conversations with young people, too.

HOWEVER… I often find myself overhearing or being reminded that if you ask any young person, the village hall is the last place they’d be seen dead in their free time.

People do have their own cultures and the arts don’t have a place in everyone’s lives. Young people are no different.

“We’ll never engage or attract all the young people but we must keep trying so that they can make that choice.” [TC Peppercorn, Education and Outreach Co-ordinator at Artrix, in Arts Professional, November 2013]

So if the conventional spaces are an issue, do things somewhere else. If the numbers of young people in a given place are an issue, do something with the young people you have got, or look for ways, times and places where you can do something with more of them. If the work you’re offering is an issue, offer something else.

I suspect a lot of us are scared of the Arts Council’s Goal 5 — scared that our young audience numbers aren’t high enough, or that we don’t have enough young audience members who are demonstrably engaging more, or that we don’t have enough young audience members who are living in the right postcodes.

At some recent fundraising training, Joanna Ridout gave a very profound piece of advice. Define your KPIs before your funders do. I’ve been really inspired by this idea: that we should use our expertise, experience and knowledge of the people we are working with to define what impact we’re looking to achieve, how we’ll measure it and what success will look like.

At the moment, we often let our fear get the better of our wisdom, and when it comes to Goal 5, in the rush to offer something which will help us hit the back of the net, many of us end up scoring an own goal.

Until we’re more prepared to say what isn’t working and why it isn’t working, and unless we’re prepared to ask for help in finding different approaches and solutions, we’ll all keep falling into the same old traps or, worse, for fear of failing, we’ll end up doing nothing at all.

Peter Brook once speculated on why young people will spend a fortune on trainers and not on theatre and he reached a simple conclusion. It’s “because the theatre has let a lot of people down over the years, and trainers haven’t.” Let’s make today the day when we start closing the gap in that race.

For the remainder of the session, you’ll split into two groups. You’ll spend half the time next door, being inspired by the wonderful work of The Bone Ensemble, with an extract from their brilliant show, Where’s My Igloo Gone?

And you’ll spend half the time in here inspiring yourselves and other delegates with the opportunity to hatch plans for brilliant work for children and young people which takes full advantage of what you know, what you have and what you can give.

I’d like to say a big thankyou to you all for listening — and I hope you enjoy the rest of the day!

The post The White Rabbit In The Room appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: Francesca Millican-Slater – Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night

We’re Itching To Talk About… is a new 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.

Francesca Millian-Slater
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.

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Little Earthquake: I Just Can’t Get Enough Of… Toneelgroep Amsterdam

I Just Can’t Get Enough Of… is a series of articles in which Gareth and Philip talk about the theatre-makers who have made the biggest impact on them. In this article, Philip talks about Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

The photograph above is of Bart Slegers, Roeland Fernhout, Hugo Koolschijn, Chris Nietvelt and Eelco Smits in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Roman Tragedies. Photographer: Jan Versweyveld

Sundays are the day for profound spiritual experiences, and on a wet Sunday in 2009, I had one at the Barbican in the form of a six-hour, multimedia, semi-promenade, Dutch-language, English-surtitled, modern dress mash-up of three Shakespeare plays: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra — with a cast of fifteen and a small army of technicians and stage managers to make it all happen.

The show, Roman Tragedies, was the work of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, under the direction of Ivo van Hove, who was still relatively unknown in the UK — but a lot has changed in the intervening years, and Roman Tragedies was the moment where that change really started. Since then, Van Hove has become an increasing fixture on London stages, not least with his bare-stage, blood-showered production of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic.

Like every Toneelgroep Amsterdam show I’ve seen since, Roman Tragedies massively delivers the things I love in a good theatre trip. Its acting is consistently thrilling, with a genuine feeling of people listening, responding, wanting things from each other. It makes stories which are remote from me in time, language and experience feel completely relatable. It makes me demand more of all the other theatre I see, and of the theatre I’m involved in making. And Roman Tragedies had the added bonus of a real snake, ten minutes before the end, who turned to look at one of the roving cameras following the action and waggled his forked tongue on cue. It was one of the most exhilarating and heart-stopping things I have ever seen in a theatre anywhere.

I’ve followed the company to Melbourne in the past, but not (yet) to the Netherlands (but that’s what my 40th birthday present will be…) The company turns 30 next year, and it will be making three appearances at the Barbican (which OF COURSE I’ve already booked for) — Roman Tragedies is back for three shows only in March (and I’m determined to sit on stage for at least some of it, this time); Jude Law is joining the company for a month-long run of Obsession, based on the old Luchino Visconti film (April-May — we’re going on my 38th birthday); and finally, an Ingmar Bergman double bill of Persona and After The Rehearsal in September. It’s worth no end of living on tap water and economy carrots for the rest of the year.

Visit Toneelgroep Amsterdam online here: www.tga.nl

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