Author Archives: Philip

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.

The post Francesca Millican-Slater – Stories To Tell In The Middle Of The Night appeared first on Little Earthquake.

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:

The post I Just Can’t Get Enough Of… Toneelgroep Amsterdam appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: Remembering Noël

In March 2016, we collaborated with the University of Birmingham on a production of The Good Sisters, Noël Greig’s version of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs. Sadly, Noël passed away in 2009. Here, Philip along with writers Therese Collins and Carl Miller, reflect on Noël’s work with young people.

The image above is of Noël in Gay Sweatshop’s production of The Dear Love Of Comrades (1979).

Philip Holyman:

I took part in Birmingham REP’s Transmissions young writers’ programme for three successive years between 2002 and 2004. Noël, Therese and Carl led the programme in each of those years and their work went far beyond simply teaching playwriting — they were the first people who took me seriously as someone who wanted to write plays, and they were responsible for giving me my very first experiences as a professional playwright in a professional theatre environment. As far as I’m concerned, they are the reason I have the career in theatre that I now love so much.

Back then, influenced by half-absorbed books on in-yer-face theatre, I was writing what I now call my “sex plays”, with ludicrous unfathomable titles, operatic stage directions, and lots of what I probably thought were really confrontational sexual politics. I’ve been sorting boxes of archived papers in my parents’ loft recently and looked through some of these old scripts, cringing at a lot of what I wrote back then. I suspect it was as cringey for Noël, Therese and Carl at the time, but they never said so. They always made me feel as though I was on a continual journey of refinement and improvement, making good plays better, and making me a better writer along the way.

A copy of Noël’s own typewritten manuscript was emailed over… the wheel felt like it had come full circle.

I’d struggle to remember the specific exercises we did as part of our fortnightly classes, but the deeper lessons they taught me about theatre have never left me: about “being up for the creative carnage” of the redrafting process (a phrase on one of Carl’s feedback emails to me); about the importance of what actually happens onstage (as opposed to the invisible things which the writer decides are going on psychologically in characters’ heads or structurally in the play as a whole); and about giving actors something they can actually play.

They also broadened my knowledge of other writers’ work. It was Noël who first introduced me to the work of Michel Tremblay. He knew Tremblay and his work very well, and would often use him as an example to illustrate his points. When we were looking for a version of The Good Sisters to work with for this production, something made me think of Noël all those years ago. We contacted the agent who represents Noël’s estate, and they were delighted that anyone even remembered his version existed. A copy of Noël’s own typewritten manuscript was promptly scanned and emailed over, and in that moment, the wheel felt like it had come full circle. It has been a massive pleasure to work with his warm, joyous, boisterous adaptation of Tremblay’s play, and to share it with the company of actors and with our audiences. I like to think that the sight and sound of so many students devouring every twist and turn of his script would have made Noël very proud indeed.

Therese Collins:

Noël is still in my phone contacts.

He seemed to make you feel that he had been waiting his whole life to hear what you were saying.

I first met him doing the Birmingham REP Transmissions project and he soon became a very important part of my work. In fact, he soon became a very important part of our family, often staying at our house and investing lots of time and encouragement in our daughters who were then only at primary school. That’s when I noticed what impressed me about him. Unlike most people, he never gave you the impression he was waiting to speak — quite the opposite. He seemed to make you feel that he had been waiting his whole life to hear what you were saying, a rare and extremely generous quality. Quite simply, he managed to transfer that quality into encouraging young people (and not so young people) to write stories about the importance of humanity, so that not only he but also an audience could listen. As a result of this, a lot of people went on to be better writers, and a lot of people went on to just be better. Alongside all this was his own powerful writing and the difference he made in fighting for what was right. My daughters are now grown up and have been to university but still, without fail on important occasions, one of us always says, “I miss Noël”. And I would imagine many others do the same. There are some people it is impossible to let go of.

Carl Miller:

You can learn from Noël Greig’s books that he had an unequalled fund of techniques and exercises to get people working creatively. But they can’t really express how his personality drew out the potential in those with whom he worked. He had the same enthusiasm and high expectations for a fragmentary work by someone who had hardly written a scene before as he did as a professional commenting on colleagues’ plays. He genuinely believed that other people’s stories always had power and were worth telling.

He genuinely believed that other people’s stories always had power and were worth telling.

Noël’s early days in weekly rep came in very handy for the Transmissions Festival, directing a dozen short plays, from pet-shop comedies to gothic murders, in a frantic fortnight. He could draw on examples from Shakespeare or Chekhov, but he was also a veteran of experimental theatre dating back to Brighton’s pioneering Combination in the 1960s.

Watching him work, you could feel his deep faith in the power of theatre as an ancient art form, combined with a conviction that it was worth nothing if it could not communicate passionately here and now.

I’m sure Noël would be delighted to know that Phil Holyman, whom Therese Collins, Noël and I first met as a young writer on Transmissions, continues to put those hopes and dreams into practice with this production of Noël’s version of Les Belles-soeurs.

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Little Earthquake: Film Introduction: Rashomon

In October 2015, we presented Even The Ghost Is Lying, a Japanese medieval murder mystery played out on the travelators and balconies of the Library of Birmingham.

Commissioned by the Birmingham Literature Festival, the piece was inspired by a short story which gave rise to Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning film, Rashomon, which was screened alongside the performances. Philip was invited to introduce the screening, and you can read a transcript of his introduction below.

Japanese silent films were never really silent. In the early days, a benshi would stand at the side of the screen just like I’m doing now, to introduce, narrate and comment on the film. When sound came in, the benshi struggled to compete with the voices coming from the screen, and by the mid-1930s, they had almost entirely been phased out.

But in 1950, a film was released whose unconventional style and structure is said to have worried some cinema managers so much that they desperately dragged some aged benshi out of retirement so they could explain what was going on to the confused audience members.

That film was Rashomon. It was adapted by screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto and director Akira Kurosawa from two short stories by the modernist author Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Yabu No Naka (In A Grove.) The former only really contributes the title and the framing device; it’s the latter which provides the body of the film (no pun intended).

We are transported back to the forest around 12th-century Kyoto (where the film crew were plagued by leeches dropping onto them from the trees), for a medieval murder mystery which teases and tantalises us about how that body came to be lying there in the first place. Everyone seems desperate to admit responsibility. Some of the details match up. But the differences between each account are massive.

More so than the film it inspired, In A Grove sticks to its guns and makes it impossible, and in fact pointless, to try and sort this all out. The need to solve the case, to come away with a definitive answer, may be very important for us but not for Akutagawa.

The studio was expecting a fairly cheap swords-and-samurai period romp. They didn’t get one. Kurosawa and Hashimoto’s script irons out some of the contradictions, but still offers us not one unreliable narrator, but five. So… Is the film exploring the nature of truth? The subjectivity of memory? Perceptions of reality? What is it about?

Masaichi Nagata, the head of the studio, had no idea. He walked out of the first screening, took his name off the credits and demoted the executives who had given it the green light. It turned out to be a surprise domestic hit, though, and went on to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. In an echo of the film’s own conflicting perspectives, Nagata suddenly started giving TV interviews taking full credit for the film. He even kept the lion statuette for himself.

If you find yourself inexplicably thinking of Torvill and Dean during the screening, you aren’t going mad – Kurosawa was obsessed with Ravel’s Bolero, then almost unknown in Japan, and encouraged his composer to absorb bits of it into the score.

65 years later, the influence of Akutagawa’s subversive story and Kurosawa’s studio-panicking film still run deep. There’s a very sweet moment in an episode of The Simpsons where the family end up going on a surprise trip to Tokyo. Sitting on the plane as it takes off, Marge tries to get her husband excited about the holiday. “Come on, Homer,” she says. “Japan’ll be fun! You liked Rashomon.” Homer huffs, looks out the window and snaps, “That’s not how I remember it.”

Much more so than Homer did, I hope you enjoy the film. Thankyou for listening.

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Little Earthquake: Arts Professional Article: Child Power

Our year-long Young Producers project culminated in a brand new production for young people and their families, The Boy Who Became A Beetle. Philip was invited by Arts Professional to write an article about the experience and you can read the full article below, or on the Arts Professional website here.

This article first appeared on the Arts Professional website on 21st July 2015.

For a recent production, Little Earthquake passed the reins over to 100 primary school children. Philip Holyman describes the events as they unfolded.

Audiences are very important to Little Earthquake, the theatre company I run with Gareth Nicholls. We do not exist without them. This goes beyond financial considerations, as we have always believed that an audience is an audience all the time, not just when they attend a performance. Sharing a finished production is not the only (and not necessarily the best) way to build meaningful relationships with people.

Last September, we started working on the Young Producers project, in partnership with Black Country TouringArts Connect West Midlands and the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, with significant support from Arts Council England. We have given almost 100 children (from years 4, 5 and 6 in five Black Country schools) the opportunity to be centrally involved in the development and creation of a new production for young people and their families.

We were interested in making a new production with early and sustained input from its eventual target consumers.

In part, we wanted to make a show which was not a straightforward adaptation of an existing children’s book or film. The market is saturated with such work already and we were keen to offer something different. Mostly, though, we were interested in making a new production with early and sustained input from its eventual target consumers. Who better to help us make work which would appeal to young people than a big group of young people? We pitched three ideas for as-yet-unmade shows to each group in practical workshops that echo our usual process for exploring new material. Every Young Producer voted in secret  in our mobile polling station for the show they wanted us to make. Finally, the eight core producers sat around a boardroom table, with us and their teachers, and made the final decision. No adult ever got to cast a vote.

The show they chose is The Boy Who Became A Beetle, freely inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The Young Producers shared and refined ideas for characters, events and narrative structures with me in my capacity as the writer. They helped to recruit Susannah Henry, the designer, and Luke Thomas, the composer, from a field of 120 international applicants, and worked with them on how the show should look and sound. They worked with Gareth Courage, our graphic designer, to create bespoke poster campaigns for the performances at their schools, and with Natalie Kidman from Black Country Touring on the marketing, box office, front of house and stage management of those events during the pilot tour.

Initially, the Young Producers were suspicious of how much decision-making power we would actually give them. From the outset, we said that there was no such thing as a bad or stupid idea. We resolved to take every suggestion on board and never to dismiss anything that a Young Producer offered. Many of their suggestions were calculated to test the limits of that policy, or by extension, the tolerance of the teachers in the room with us.

The voting process changed everything. When the Young Producers saw professional artists absorbing and embracing their ideas, their sense of ownership and investment increased massively. Each child responded to different aspects of the process: many of those who switched off during the story generation sessions were suddenly galvanised by the hands-on business of drawing props, creating posters and composing music. None of us will ever forget the uncontainable excitement of one Young Producer during the typography session. He subsequently produced an iconic beetle boy image which found its way into multiple elements of the production, down to the fabric from which the main character’s pyjamas were made.

We also discovered early on that the Young Producers’ frames of reference were literal ones. Their engagement with virtual culture is profound and sophisticated and their attendant expectations of what can be realised on a screen are limitless, but their expectations of what could be achieved live in the same physical space as them were very low. The ambitious visions they articulated often seemed to be accompanied by a sense that we would never get close to capturing them.

Ripples of excitement passed through the house as individual children recognised their specific contributions.

It was satisfying to hear that the resultant production significantly exceeded their expectations. In June, the Young Producers and production partners came together for a gala premiere with red carpet and paparazzi, VIP passes and cupcakes. Rarely has a first performance taken place for a more engaged set of stakeholders. Ripples of excitement passed through the house as individual children recognised their specific contributions. Gratifyingly for us, many of the Young Producers (and their teachers) said afterwards that the show was bigger, funnier and better than they ever thought it would be.

This project was not a surreptitious vehicle for us to make a show our way while masquerading as an opportunity to empower our young participants. Some of our partner schools had already had their fingers burned on projects with arts organisations who promised to give their pupils a level of agency which was ultimately taken away from them. We promised them that this would be a true collaboration and we meant it.

Last autumn, when the place of cultural activity within the education system already looked so precarious, a year-long partnership between artists and schools might have seemed like an expensive indulgence. Now, faced with four groups of children who have been given a real taste of their own creative capacity, and who have mobilised their communities to support live theatre on their own doorstep, work like this has never felt more vital.

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