Tag Archives: Rumblings

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’.

The post Grimm Tales Retold – Inside Rehearsal Week 1 appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: We’re Itching To Talk About… Jo Carr

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

mac birmingham has very recently welcomed a new addition to its Arts Team — the wonderful Jo Carr, who joins mac as Performances Programmer. Jo is no stranger to Birmingham’s arts scene — she’s a familiar face through her work with Untied Artists and as a producer, tour booker and project manager for companies across the region.

We checked in with Jo (sadly, not over a plate of mac’s cheese on toast, still officially the best in the city) to ask her about her new role and what exciting things lie ahead.

Gareth: Tell us about three pieces of theatre which have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.

Jo: That’s a tough one and there are far more than three that have made a big impression, but I’ll go with…

The Street Of Crocodiles by Theatre de Complicite (as they were called then) at The National Theatre. I went with my Uncle Graham who was Head of Drama at Fern Hill Secondary School and his sixth form drama students. I think I was about 14 and it was all very exciting. We got a coach to London and I fell in love with the Southbank Centre and that whole brutalist concrete cathedral to the Arts. And then I saw this show where people were climbing up walls of books and dancing with chairs. And there didn’t seem to be a beginning, a middle, and end. And then I learnt that this whole production was based on a series of short stories! What? How does that work? I thought this was a play!

This was the first time I got a glimpse that theatre didn’t have to be people just speaking to one another in a suburban living room and walking around furniture.

This was the first time I got a glimpse that theatre didn’t have to be people just speaking to one another in a suburban living room and walking around furniture. Or doing Shakespeare! Performers could dance, or they could communicate pages of text just by using movement, or they could invent their own vocabulary, or speak foreign languages with no translations or apologies. It completely blew my mind. This would have been about 1986 so we hadn’t got to the point yet where we couldn’t leave the house without falling over another “Physical Theatre Ensemble”. It felt like proper exotic stuff that belonged in Belgium or Czechoslovakia, not right there in front of little ol’ me!

Second is A Woman In Waiting, written and performed by Thembi Mtshali Jones, and directed by Yael Farber. This was an engrossing and beautifully performed one-woman show by a Zulu woman about her childhood and upbringing in South Africa. It explored Thembi’s need to understand her mother’s decision to leave her in the care of an auntie, whilst her mother went to work as a wet-nurse for a white woman in another town – just so that she could earn enough to feed and school her own children.

I was project managing this show in Edinburgh in 2000 and it was really the first time I got to know a performer from another continent. Thembi was so generous with her personal experiences both on and off stage. At the end of each show, members of the audience would be waiting to hug her and to tell her how sorry they were for the devastating impact the actions of the Apartheid authorities had had on her life. We would all just stand around crying and smiling and nodding at each other – before having to do the 15-minute get-out!

Finally, Intimate History by Jake Oldershaw. I can’t not mention this piece of theatre because it was the first time Jake (now my partner) and I worked together collaboratively, and it was also my first experience of one-to-one theatre where a show is designed just for one audience member at a time. This piece did that so sensitively. It was just gorgeous! Jake and Craig Stephens wrote six individual pieces of music theatre inspired by Theodore Zeldin’s book An Intimate History of Humanity. Each mini-show was accompanied by original music from the brilliant Derek Nisbet on grand piano, and placed the solo audience member at the very heart of the story. Themes ranged from love, travel, loneliness and anxiety, and they all featured Jake’s incredible singing.

We did a run at Battersea Arts Centre during a festival there and the audiences loved it and kept coming back and choosing another one of the six shows that were on offer. It went to the British Council Showcase and caused much emotional kerfuffle between both male and female delegates from various corners of the world!

Image: Jake Oldershaw in Untied Artist’s Intimate History.

Gareth: What is your favourite memory of mac?

Jo: I have two…

Firstly, coming here on the very last day before it closed for the refurbishment in 2008. The building was full of people, the sun was shining, Talking Birds were performing The Whale outside, and I had only recently moved to Birmingham from London. I felt very much a part of a friendly, vibrant arts community here.

Secondly, coming back here as a mum with a small child and feeling that it was a safe, bright, welcoming place that would not judge me in my snot-smeared, baggy jumper, baggy-eyed state. There was always something on at the flicks, or in a theatre, foyer or gallery that we could be part of, have a conversation about, and be saved from the many black holes of a 15 hour day trying to educate/entertain/feed a child!

[I plan on] championing regional theatre makers, musicians and artists who are creating high quality work that has something to say and has considered its audience as part of its process.

Gareth: What are some of the elements of your vision for the performing arts programme at mac birmingham over the next three years, and how would you like to use the different performance spaces available?

Jo: OK, well…

Early years and children’s work. Developing and diversifying the offer we have and making certain that families in the region think of mac first when they are looking for a theatre or arts experience for the young people in their care.

Championing regional theatre makers, musicians and artists who are creating high quality work that has something to say and has considered its audience as part of its process.

Funking up the music programme a little. And I don’t just mean by booking funk bands – I mean broadening the offer and possibly working with other music promoters in Birmingham to do that carefully.

Looking at how we can use the park and outdoor spaces more creatively in our programme.

Thinking more about how older audiences are reflected and catered for in the work that we present and collaborate on.

Trying to work out how we can offer longer runs or regular slots to some companies where the work has that potential.

And finally, to try really hard not to eat the cheese on toast here more than once every two months!

Gareth: Through our work with East Meets West, we’re interested in reducing barriers between theatre-makers and venues within the entire Midlands region. How important is it for you to support and showcase regionally produced work?

Jo: It’s really important, which is why it’s part of my plans here. We want to be flag-wavers for the excellence in, and development of, our local arts ecology. The East Meets West Symposium was a great idea by the way – you must do it again!

Gareth: What advice would you give somebody who wanted you to programme their work at mac?

Jo: OK… Don’t ring me up with a 15 minute spiel about your last / current piece of work that I can’t actually go and see anywhere. Do introduce yourself and your work in a short email and follow that up with a well considered email that shows that you know something about the venue, spaces, programme, and audiences here at mac. Include a one-page summary of the company / show, including who the creatives are, what they do, what they’ve already done and what your ethos is, and tell me a bit about what you’re trying to achieve with this one piece of work that you have to get on somehow. Send me images, short promos or films of the piece, and send me dates of where I can see the show or the work that you have on now. Also send me details of when you want to tour it. Don’t be vague, be bold!

We want to be flag-wavers for the excellence in, and development of, our local arts ecology.

Gareth: If money were no object, which artist or company would you like to bring to mac?

Jo: Oooh, it wouldn’t be just one…

Kate Bush, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Robert Lepage. Nina – Josette Bushell Mingo’s exploration of Nina Simone’s career and how it impacted on her own life. A premiere of a new Mike Leigh play. The Specials. Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

I would get James Brown’s best backing band of all time back together and book them with a different vocalist each night. For a week!

I’d also commission a new piece of work for children and programme it here for a month and then send it on a national tour. Lastly I’d have a Birmingham version of Meltdown curated by and featuring a host of brilliant Midlands artists and performers spilling out into the park and our outdoor theatre.

Gareth: As well as being a Programmer, you’ve also worked as a Producer (mainly for the wonderful Untied Artists.) How do you think your independent producing experience will influence your venue programming work?

Jo: Prior to being an independent producer and one half of Untied Artists, I was Creative Producer for an NPO company for 6 years, and before that was a tour booker / project manager for UK Arts International working with children’s theatre, performance artists, dancers, mid-scale theatre and everything else in between. So I suppose I could say I have a very broad understanding of what it takes to try and exist and develop and get booked as an artist or company – and it’s bloody hard! I also like to think I have a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t for a venue, and why. And finally I’d like to think I can say, “No thank you, that’s not for us” in a way that’s clear but not too brutal.

Gareth: Who has had the biggest influence on your career to date, and why?

Jo: All the artists I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with.

Gareth: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the independent performing arts sector at the moment, and how do you think we can overcome it?

Jo: Hmmm… Where does one start?

Funding and a lack of understanding of how a little money can go a really long way.

TV – there’s soooo much of it.

I question the validity of work that is either too derivative or too self referential.

And possibly most importantly the fact that we’ve been drip-fed a dangerously right-wing notion of what is normal and what is “good” and “bad” for us as a society by the media and the government for so long.

I question the validity of work that is either too derivative or too self referential; work that doesn’t have a story, engaging enough performances or a driving narrative at its heart; work that isn’t simply breath-taking enough in its own right to leave us astounded and / or delighted. Having said that I also like a good laugh. Honest!

Image: Pin And Needles’ production of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas.

Gareth: Amid the wealth of Christmas shows that Birmingham has to offer, mac is establishing itself as the venue in the city that caters for early years audiences and their families. Tell us about what we can look forward to at mac this Christmas.

Jo: From 30th November until 30th December, we present our main house show: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. Merry Bloomin’ Christmas! – in his own words.

Father Christmas is a Pins and Needles and Lyric Hammersmith co-production that is beautifully performed by an ensemble made up of an actor, puppeteer and musician. The design is exquisite and very true to the original book, and the narrative is accompanied by a live Foley soundtrack — which in itself is great fun to watch.

Tickets for the show are selling fast so hurry up and get yours quick! Oh, and we’re also doing pyjama galas where you can come in your pjs for the 6 o’clock shows, have milk and cookies while you watch it, and then head home all ready to be tucked up for a cosy night’s sleep. Brilliant! [For more information about Father Christmas, visit mac’s website]

Besides those two corkers we also have Barbara Nice’s Christmas Cracker, an absolute must for one of the best nights out during the festive season — even the most humbuggy amongst you will enjoy it. It usually involves messy mince pie eating races, dancing in the aisles with strangers, a mass competition between two halves of the audience, and the best/worst raffle prizes known to humanity.

For a musical treat you can enjoy The Albion Band’s annual Christmas Show — fine folk indeed! And in the cinema we will have the much-anticipated arrival (in my house at least) of everybody’s favourite old brown bear… Paddington 2.

Gareth: We passionately believe that mac’s cheese on toast should be officially recognised as the best in the city. Are you as much of a fan as we are? Or is there something else on the menu you are most drawn to?

Jo: Please refer to my aforementioned comment relating to this culinary dilemma.

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

Little Earthquake: Back To School

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

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

Carys Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, Phil is pretty great too!

Mary Garbé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Bonam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post Back To School appeared first on Little Earthquake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul O'Donnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul O'Donnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man can dream right?

Gareth: Many of our blog subscribers are theatre students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?

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

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

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

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

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

Little Earthquake: The Aggregation Of Marginal Gains (or The 1% Pledge)

Throughout The East Meets West Symposium 2017, Little Earthquake invited delegates to make a small personal pledge to do something that would improve the way we all work together and, ultimately, increase the quality of what we are doing for audiences in the region.

They were asked to improve something by just 1%. Why only 1%? Find out below.

If you’re a Theatre Maker, chances are you’ve been to your fair share of theatre conferences and Open Space events. We leave feeling excited and inspired by what has been discussed, and determined to make changes for the better. But, after a few days, that determination gets put on the back burner. And who can blame us? That funding application isn’t going to write itself. Those tour bookings aren’t going to magically appear on our schedule. It feels like too much of a commitment to start changing the world today. Maybe next year?

At our recent East Meets West Symposium we really wanted to avoid this scenario, and so we proposed a plan to help start turning talk into action. And the best thing about this plan was that nobody needed to do very much at all…

Perhaps surprisingly for a theatre conference, the idea we pitched is borrowed from the world of sport.

In 2010, Sir David Brailsford was appointed as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky. He had the unenviable task of improving the floundering fortunes of professional British cycling. He predicted that if the team changed their overall training philosophy, a British cyclist could win the Tour de France within five years. So successful was his plan, Sir Bradley Wiggins won it in just under three years.

Brailsford called his philosophy “the aggregation of marginal gains”, and it’s much easier to implement than its intimidating name suggests. All Team Sky did was look for things they could improve by just 1%. They started in the obvious places: the riders’ nutrition and the ergonomics of the saddle. But like a man possessed, Brailsford started to look beyond these obvious things to areas that could have a subtler or less direct impact: finding the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels; testing for the most effective type of massage gel; teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection.

Over a short time, these tiny changes which seemed insignificant in themselves started to build and resulted in an overall improvement far greater than the sum of its parts: the aggregation of marginal gains.

I first stumbled across this idea over on James Clear’s blog, which you should definitely read to get the full scoop on this concept. I particularly like James’ thoughts on how the aggregation of marginal changes can work in reverse.

By the end of The East Meets West Symposium 2017, we asked all of the delegates to make personal 1% pledges about what they were going to do help improve the way we all work together and, ultimately, to help put audiences in the region on top. It didn’t need to be anything huge or monumental. They just needed to improve something by 1%. With 110 delegates in attendance, we should, in theory, see a 110% improvement over time if everyone carries out their pledge.

We’ve published all of the pledges online which you can access here. There’s nothing like a bit of accountability to keep things on track! We’ve also asked some of the delegates to keep a record of how their pledges go and we’ll report back later in the year.

If you work within the Midlands theatre sector and would like to make your own 1% Pledge, you can do so over on the East Meets West section of this website. After you make your pledge we’ll be sure to add it to the list.

The post The Aggregation Of Marginal Gains (or The 1% Pledge) appeared first on Little Earthquake.

Little Earthquake: Put Audiences On Top

To open The East Meets West Symposium 2017, Little Earthquake’s Co-Director Gareth Nicholls gave a speech aimed at provoking a shared goal among theatre makers within the Midlands. The full transcript of the provocation, including images used during the keynote, is below.

Has anybody seen the brilliant episode of South Park that features The Underpants Gnomes? They’re tiny creatures who go into people’s bedrooms at night and steal their pants. The South Park boys have to do a school project about economics and business, so they visit The Underpants Gnomes for advice. That’s when the Gnomes share their strategic master plan. It goes like this:

[Here, Gareth played a short clip of The Underpants Gnomes’ plan. You can find a version of this on Vimeo]

In the independent theatre sector, we can relate to The Underpants Gnomes more than we’d like to admit. We all have interesting work we want to make. This is Phase 1: Our Commodity. The Gnomes have underpants; we have theatre.

And like the Gnomes, we can all see where we want to end up. This is Phase 3: The Return On That Commodity. The Gnomes want profit. I imagine a more sustainable and resilient ecology is what we would all aim for.

It’s that middle bit we seem to struggle with. But without defining Phase 2, we’re a little bit screwed.

Back in 2010, Phil and I felt a little bit screwed. We were both struggling to find any joy from running Little Earthquake. We’d had some success. Those who saw our worked really enjoyed it, and Arts Council England had been very kind to us. But no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t book any tours, we were still living with our parents, and desperately running out of tactics to stall those inevitable conversations about getting proper jobs. So, after eight long years of trying to make a go of it, we did what felt most rational at the time: we ran away to the other side of the world.

And there, in Melbourne Australia, I met Nick Nickolas.

Nick is one of eight magicians who busk on the Southbank of the Yarra River. Every day, rain or shine, they take it in turns to perform their 45-minute acts. Nick’s act begins with him approaching one or two people who are passing by and performing a simple coin trick for them. Within 15 minutes, he has usually attracted crowds of 500 people or more.

At the end of each performance Nick shows his empty hat to the crowd and says: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve had as much fun as I have today, can I ask that you show your appreciation by throwing some money in the hat. You see, the government don’t pay us to be here… You do. If I’ve made you smile, pop in $5, if I’ve made you laugh, put in ten. If you have any constructive criticism you’d like to make, write it on the back of a $20 bill and leave it with me”.

Those magicians worked on this “pay what you think it’s worth” model for every single show. No-one was obliged to pay anything. Audience members could simple walk away if they wanted. And of course some did. But usually the magicians’ hats were overflowing with 5, 10, 20 and even $50 notes.

I spent far too much time during our year Down Under studying those magicians. They even invited me to attempt my own street show. I drew a crowd of seven people and made $16. Clearly I had a lot to learn from this group of artists. Without the support of a venue, a marketing team, or government subsidy, they had achieved our Phase 3: a sustainable and resilient ecology for themselves.

And they achieved it by clearly defining what their Phase 2 would be:

Put Audiences On Top. That’s what those magicians focused on day after day and show after show. They knew if they all shared the same goal of putting their audiences’ experience above all else, Phase 3 would look after itself.

Now, nobody can say being audience focused is a radical idea. We all know that without an audience of some kind, theatre ceases to exist. Putting stuff on for other people to watch, or facilitating events for people to participate in, is our reason for being. And yet, I wonder how many of us really think deeply and consistently enough about audiences during every single decision we make. We may use phrases like “audience focused”, or “engaging hard to reach audiences” in funding applications (although, in my book, that second one should never be used) — but are we doing enough to follow through on these vague promises? I don’t think we can be.

Every year Little Earthquake works with over 150 students at Birmingham Conservatoire and at the University of Birmingham. At the start of every module, we ask how many of the students have seen a piece of theatre within the last six months — excluding shows that their mates are in. Usually, only one or two students raise their hands. When we prod a bit further and ask why they haven’t been to see anything, the reason is always the same: most of the theatre they’re exposed to is boring.

We’ve all sat through dull, self-indulgent work that makes us want to gouge our own eyeballs out with the spoon from our interval ice cream.

We all make or help to make theatre — and yet we totally know where they’re coming from. It’s like being stuck on a motorway, complaining about how bad the traffic is when you are the traffic! I’m bored by a good 75% of the theatre I see. We’ve all regretted sitting in the middle of a row and being unable to make a subtle retreat to the bar 45 minutes in. We’ve all sat through dull, self-indulgent work — often autobiographical — that makes us want to gouge our own eyeballs out with the spoon from our interval ice cream.

Being told that most theatre is boring by students paying to do a theatre degree should be a warning we all listen to. We can believe that theatre is great and important and should be publicly funded, but deep down we also know most of it genuinely isn’t good enough. And if we think that, how can we expect audiences to think any different?

The magicians in Melbourne were always given very clear signals if they weren’t putting their audience’s experience first. People would leave. In my case, they left in droves. But actually, how utterly brilliant is that? It’s the most useful feedback any artist can get. Every theatre in the world should have a sign above the door: “If you’re bored, you have our permission to leave during the performance as loudly as you can”. Let’s find ways of empowering our audiences to hold us to account a bit more. Feedback forms don’t cut it: after the performance, the damage is already done. Bring back throwing rotten vegetables, and we’d soon up our game.

Speculating on why young people will spend a fortune on trainers and not on going to the theatre, Peter Brook came to the conclusion that theatre has let a lot of people down over the years, and trainers haven’t. If we are to build a more sustainable and resilient future for our sector, we have to stop disappointing our audiences. They need to feel confident that the odds are stacked in favour of them having a great night out.

If we are to build a more sustainable and resilient future for our sector, we have to stop disappointing our audiences. They need to feel confident that the odds are stacked in favour of them having a great night out.

I’m sure some of you are thinking this is all well and good, but deep down, you believe we have a responsibility to create work with higher aspirations than simply entertaining people. I agree. But those two aspirations aren’t mutually exclusive. Empower the people you put your work in front of if you want to. Represent them. Challenge them. Infuriate them. Expose their hypocrisies. Involve them. Debate with them. Make them run from the room wanting to change the world. Do all of these things, but above all, do not bore them. And the easiest way to avoid boring them is to put the audience at the centre of the whole experience. Our art is for them, and them alone. I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say this, but a lot of artists today spend too much time masturbating on stage. No audience should be expected to give up their time and money to just watch you pleasing yourself.

But artists aren’t the only ones who have this crucial responsibility towards audiences. Every single person who helps an artist to put their work in front of other people must assess each and every decision they make against one simple criterion: is this putting our audience on top?

I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say this, but a lot of artists today spend too much time masturbating on stage. No audience should be expected to give up their time and money to just watch you pleasing yourself.

Is your programing team really serving your audiences, or are they really just serving their own tastes? And are you protecting your programmer’s time so they can do their job properly? Let them leave their desk, see as much work as possible, and talk face-to-face with artists. And when they are at their desk, are you making sure they reply to every single artist who emails them? I know this is a full time job in itself (hence why their time needs protecting) — but artists need programmers to engage with them and give honest feedback so they can grow and make better work for audiences.

If you don’t think their work is suitable for your venue, tell them, kindly but honestly, why you think that’s the case. Ignoring emails from a key stakeholder (and artists are stakeholders, too) wouldn’t be tolerated in any other sector, so why is it the norm in ours? It does nothing to build community or trust between artists and venues — and ultimately does nothing to serve audiences.

Are we sure that putting this work on this stage is the best place for audiences to see it? Maybe the local park would be better. Or the school up the road. If you make work for an audience on their terms, or their turf as it were, they might be more willing to start a dialogue with you. Eventually, they might even be willing to pay you a visit on your turf. As one young person in Manchester said to the wonderful Ruth Ibegbuna: “I’m not hard to reach: you just get on the number 11 bus”.

Are we investing too much money in developing new “emerging” talent rather than investing in so-called “mid career” artists, who (if you haven’t noticed) are a dying breed? Or, if you want to look at it another way, should we be nurturing Best Practice a bit more rather then Next Practice?

Are we sure our marketing campaigns are reaching the people we want to reach? The New Vic in Stoke discovered that grandparents, rather than parents, are more likely to introduce young people to theatre. But research also shows that many older people prefer not to be out after dark. So shouldn’t we rethink our traditional 7:30 evening starts to serve this audience better? This kind of understanding could transform an entire theatre culture, let alone a single marketing campaign.

These questions are just the tip of a very big iceberg, but they serve to illustrate the point. Everyday, when we sit down at our desks, or enter our rehearsal rooms, we need to ask, consciously and consistently: if we do this, is it putting our audience on top?

Public subsidy is amazing, isn’t it? We could always use more, but it’s important to remember that we’ve actually got it pretty good — Grantium aside. This funding can be our greatest ally in serving audiences, but it can also be a safety net we rely on far too often. The magicians in Melbourne had no subsidy whatsoever. They couldn’t survive more than a few weeks if audiences walked away without paying. But the lack of any safety net for them ensured they continually focused on the impact they were having on their audiences.

I’m not saying for one moment that we should get rid of — or give back — our funding to shock us into serving audiences better. But it’s worth considering how our attitude towards audiences might change if we didn’t have that money to cushion us quite so much.

It’s worth considering how our attitude towards audiences might change if we didn’t have [public subsidy] to cushion us quite so much.

On average, each of the eight busking magicians would perform their 45-minute act twice a day. When they weren’t performing themselves, they would go out and stand discreetly amongst the crowds watching the other magicians. They did this so that after the show they could feedback to those performers about the dynamics of their audience: the moments when they were most engaged, when kids got restless and pestered their parents to move on, the quiet comments between friends that the performer would otherwise never hear. The magicians would spent a good 75% of their day helping each other in this way. It was hugely generous, but ultimately it came down to self-preservation. They understood that by helping another performer create a better experience for their audience, it would ultimately result in that audience being more likely to return to see another performer on a different day. If that first act was poor, then the chances of someone from that audience coming back would be very low. It now makes total sense why they only let me perform one show on their pitch.

This philosophy of sharing responsibility for the impact we have on audiences is simple, and in relation to the independent theatre sector, very refreshing. It’s important to realise that when an artist puts their own ego above the experience of the audience, they aren’t only failing that audience, they are also failing the rest of us as well. It only takes one bad experience to put a first-time theatregoer off for life. Whenever we present work, we need to start looking a little further than the room we’re performing in to judge its true impact.

It only takes one bad experience to put a first-time theatregoer off for life. Whenever we present work, we need to start looking a little further than the room we’re performing in to judge its true impact.

There is one last lesson I’d like to share with you from those magicians. One last trick they had up their sleeve.

The conjurers working on that pitch had been doing magic for anywhere between six months and two decades. There was an unspoken rule among them that, when it came to putting audiences on top, everyone was equal. It might surprise you given his chosen career path as a busker, but Nick Nicholas is one of the most respected magicians in the world, and I was amazed to see an eighteen-year-old newbie giving him feedback on his performance from an audience’s perspective. I was even more amazed to see Nick’s eagerness to put that feedback into action during his next show.

As a sector, we collectively permit a massive imbalance of power. Today, we have a room filled with artists, producers, programmers, artistic directors, funders, and many others. I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of the artists in the room feel that they have the least amount of power here.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider what your vision of a Scale of Power would look like. Incidentally, some of you might be surprised that I haven’t put funders on top. It feels to me that venues hold the greatest power, because without them being prepared to take or support our work, our prospects of being supported or funded anywhere else are zilch.

I’m an artist, so I’m biased: but this makes no sense to me whatsoever. Going back to our three-phase business model, if theatre is our commodity, and the artists are the ones who make that theatre, surely artists should feel the most empowered?

If artists want to redress the power balance with the gatekeepers in our sector, that must begin with holding them to account and keeping them honest.

But artists are really good at encouraging this power imbalance. It’s almost masochistic. We want to be liked and we want our work to be programmed. So rather than rock the boat in public, we cling to each other and rant in private. But ranting only brings short relief. Artists should be supporting one another to lobby for a more equal slice of the power pie. Let’s call out the programmers who blank us in the street because they think we’re going to pester them about putting our work on, or the Artistic Director who emails to cancel our meeting with them an hour before it is due to happen. Our time is precious too and we’ve probably given up paid work to honor that meeting. Let’s bang on the door of our flagship venues and tell them that a lot of the work on their stages is financially wasteful, lacks imagination — and is boring. Let’s share knowledge about the touring venue far away who wants to cancel your show because they have only sold six tickets while your costly box of print is still sitting in their marketing cupboard. If artists want to redress the power balance with the gatekeepers in our sector, that must begin with holding them to account and keeping them honest when they’re not on the same page as us and not putting audiences on top.

But it cuts both ways. Us artists need to suck it up and be willing to hear the truth when our work is self-indulgent, too long, too slow — or just plain boring. We need to be braver in inviting genuine criticism from those gatekeepers, from our industry colleagues, and most importantly, our audiences. And here’s a thing: other theatre makers do not constitute a real audience. If we don’t stop performing to audiences largely made up of our mates and our peers, we’re going to implode.

And here’s a thing: other theatre makers do not constitute a real audience. If we don’t stop performing to audiences largely made up of our mates and our peers, we’re going to implode.

Things will only get better when every single one of us is more committed to change than we are to the way things operate now. At the moment, we’re in danger of reaching an impasse before we’ve figured out a solution.

But with our shared goal in place, the power balance could look more like this.

And as a potential missing jigsaw piece in The Underpants Gnomes’ three-phase business model, putting audiences on top feels like a very good one.

And if we can all commit to that, maybe we can pull off the greatest magic trick of all, and bring about the more sustainable and resilient ecology we all so desperately need.

Thank you.

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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!

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Little Earthquake: An Update On Our 2017/18 Mentees

“The mentoring that we received from Little Earthquake has been an invaluable experience for us as individuals and for our company. The whole day was really well planned and catered to the company’s needs, focusing specifically on our biggest hurdles that felt a lot smaller at the end of the day! The mentoring has given a huge boost of confidence and set realistic standards of budgeting and the business side to running your own theatre company. What was particularly great about the scheme is that Phil and Gareth made us feel so comfortable, helping us to set realistic goals for the future. We really can’t praise them enough for all of their help.”
– Catherine Butler and Jessica Barber from Lynnebec

We’re a quarter of the way into our first annual Mentoring Scheme, and it’s been an eventful time for lots of the companies we’ve been working with. Between them, they have lots of productions scheduled across the coming months, and it is our great pleasure to share some of them with you! There’s been particularly good news for our two primary mentored companies just lately, with both Notnow Collective and Noctium making successful applications to Arts Council England for support for their current projects.

Notnow Collective

Fresh from their Highly Commended appearance in the Suitcase Prize strand at Pulse Festival, Notnow Collective conclude their current phase of development work on DadMan: The Bath-Time Warrior with a performance at Derby Theatre as part of DEparture Lounge, a baby-friendly matinee at 2pm on Saturday 22nd July.


Noctium, meanwhile, are gearing up to continue work on Hymns for Robots (the show formerly known as The Woman and the Wobbulator), which includes a pay-what-you-can sharing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry on Friday 22nd September.

Paperback Theatre

Paperback will be wielding their killer hockey sticks (maybe literally, maybe just metaphorically) as they take George Attwell-Gerhards’ new play We Need To Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders) to Edinburgh, where you can find them at Zoo Southside Studio every day from Monday 14th — Monday 28th August at 12.40pm.

Rogue Bones  

Rogue Bones are presenting the regional premiere of Vinay Patel’s Free Fall as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. It’s a two-hander about a girl on a bridge and the toll-machine supervisor who may (or may not) prove to be her unlikely saviour. Free Fall runs at 53two (a former car showroom now repurposed as a performance space) between Monday 24th – Wednesday 26th July.

Tin Robot

In the year when H.G. Wells’ legendary story celebrates its 210th birthday, Tin Robot returns to the Old Joint Stock with The War of the Worlds. Owing precisely nothing to Jeff Wayne or Steven Spielberg’s musical and cinematic versions, this is highly likely to be closer to the naughty brilliance of Orson Welles, whose 1938 radio re-telling terrified an unsuspecting public. Will Tin Robot cause panic on the streets of Birmingham? Find out for yourself between Tuesday 25th – Tuesday 31st October (except Sunday 29th October, when there’s no show – even Martians need a day off.)

Gritty Theatre

Phil has also been working with Dominic Thompson from Gritty Theatre through the Uprising Leadership Programme, and as part of an incredibly busy summer, the company is taking two shows to theSpace at Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh. Luke Barnes’ Bottleneck (performed by Dom) runs in rep with Tom Wells’ About A Goth between Friday 4th – Saturday 19th August. About A Goth also squeezes in a pre-Edinburgh preview at the Crescent Studio in Birmingham on Thursday 27th July.

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Little Earthquake: We’re Itching To Talk About… BAM (Babies’ Academy of Music)

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: Sam Frankie Fox (left) and Ricardo Rocha (right) during at BAM concert at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Photo: Sam Slater. All permissions granted to use images by parents and guardians.

BAM! is the name — and the sound — of what happens when the wild and wonderful voice of Wales collides beautifully with a Portuguese music-playing pioneer and his array of international instruments.

We checked in with Sam Frankie Fox to find out more about her and and Ricardo Rocha’s interactive concerts for the under-4s (and their families).

For more information about BAM, visit: www.facebook.com/babiesacademyofmusic

Gareth: Why did you decide to set up BAM: Babies’ Academy of Music?

Sam: Back in 2011, Ricardo and I performed in a childrens’ festival called Pinhal das Artes, in a pine wood forest in Leiria Portugal. Audiences regularly describe it as ‘the Woodstock for kids’. The work there was of the highest standard, not patronising at all and the atmosphere throughout the festival was magic. We learnt that in these types of settings, families really know how to party!

Ricardo has also performed as guest soloist for another project by the same organisation called Concertos para bebés (concerts for kids). These are world-class 30-45 minute shows for babes in arms, all set in the round where children are free to roam and interact with the musicians and their instruments. Short bites of well-known classical pieces are performed by a 6-piece band and mixed with the original contributions of the guest soloist.

These two shows / experiences were instrumental in inspiring us to build a show specifically aimed at babies /Early Years’ audiences, where we could draw on our range of skills and interests in music and theatre.

Gareth: What is your earliest memory of music?

Sam: Bashing about on the family piano trying to play all of the notes at once using arms, elbows and toes!

Gareth: Throughout your careers, you’ve both 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 each of you and on the work you make.

Sam: Well, we have both worked for a number of different companies both as founding members and as freelancers. Along the way there have been way too many influential people and organisations to name here, but we really must mention Teatro do Montemuro where we met and who furnished us with the opportunity to perform music and theatre pieces between both our home countries of UK and Portugal.

Projects and companies that are dear to us personally are theatre company KILN based in Birmingham (of which Sam is a founding member and Co-artistic director) and Porto music duo Lufa-Lufa and storytelling collective Cegarrega (Ricardo being one of the lead artists in both).

Gareth: Your work with BAM is very different to some of the previous work you are known for. How has that previous work influenced the way you approach working with babies?

Sam: I would say that I’m mostly known for being a small person who makes a lot of noise! Whether in theatre shows or in bands, telling stories through sound and voice is definitely my thing and this has been most notable in Music-Theatre productions The Furies and Lady GoGo Goch (by KILN). Technically you could call what I do ‘extended voice’ or ‘whole voice’ work, but really it’s just about using the voice as an instrument to thrill and surprise. So I’ve approached BAM work like I would any other project and tried to find meaningful and exciting ways to use voice and sound to create a distinctive atmosphere. I’ve found that in fact I can be even more experimental and expressive with my voice in BAM shows. Of course the babies are in preverbal stages of communication themselves so sound play with babbling and extreme range of sound (high peep sounds, low gravelly qualities of voice) aren’t weird or uncomfortable. It’s all just play and expression. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are some lovely soothing lullabies in our repertoire and lots of standard song-shape numbers, but we approach it all with a healthy experimental spirit.

I would say that I’m mostly known for being a small person who makes a lot of noise!

Gareth: In what ways has working with babies, and their parents and guardians, surprised you?

Sam: We recently did a performance in the Family Tent at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, programmed to play two slots at 11am-ish and 2pm-ish. We anticipated they might be fairly sedate affairs, with families snuggling up for some musical fun pre and post lunch. This assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth…we experienced a stage invasion, chanting, and towards the end of the second show a little boy was getting so into it that he stripped naked and danced around head-banging to Ricardo’s Portuguese accordion songs. It was all very rock and roll!

Gareth: Tell us about your favourite and your most challenging gig with BAM.

Sam: We’re just getting started to be honest, so only have a handful of gigs under our belt. We do have an outdoor gig in Mac Birmingham’s arena theatre early next month, so we’re looking forward to the challenges and delights of performing in the fresh air. *please don’t rain, please don’t rain, please don’t rain*

Gareth: A question about Ricardo’s musical heritage. We were at a wedding recently in which your band Kiriki Club were playing. The song which got the crowd most excited was a Portuguese number. How much do you explore music from international cultures with BAM, and why do you think it is so important for children to hear this from such a young age?

Sam: Yes so Ricardo and I also perform in a Birmingham-based band called Kiriki Club (Ricardo on guitar and myself on vocals and harp). Like in all our work, we relish in the performing of songs in different languages and from different cultures. We also like to get people up dancing, so that’s our general rule with that project is to get people moving and feeling the song in their bones. If the drive of the song has this affect, and people are happily having a boogie, the other job is to find ways to convey meaning through musical and physical gesture. So the audience feels like they “get” the song without literally understanding the lyrics. With BAM, we make a point of performing in multiple languages as well as made up languages. We feel quite strongly that there’s too much emphasis on language in a lot of songs and music for early years, and in our experience find that children tend to respond better to pulse, rhythm, melody, timbre etc when there isn’t the distraction of the English language dominating every song. It’s also a real treat, in a mixed city like Birmingham (youngest city in the UK dontcha know?) to see the flickers of recognition in the childrens’ and parents’ faces when we perform a song in their mother tongue or a familiar language.

We feel strongly that there’s too much emphasis on language in a lot of songs and music for early years.

Gareth: Many of our blog subscribers are performance 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?

Sam: Go out and make the work you want to make. Even if you have to rehearse in your own front room and perform it on the street, in a park or online. And all the while try to stay connected to who your audience is / might be. Don’t listen to too much feedback and let your work be diluted either. Obviously if you’re hearing the same things over and over about your work then it’s worth listening to / addressing, but mostly take risks and make the art that feels most expressive and honest.

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Little Earthquake: Meet Our 2017/18 Mentees

Image Above: Notnow Collective’s Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth | www.notnowcollective.com

We had some AMAZING applicants for our Mentoring Scheme, and after meeting the shortlisted candidates last month, the decision only got tougher… But we are delighted to announce that Notnow Collective and Noctium are our first two mentored companies!

Over the coming year, we’ll meet and work with them regularly to look at where they are now and where they want to be in the future. We’ll coax their grand plans out of them and identify what needs to happen to bring them to life. We’ll also focus on the little day-to-day things which will keep their companies ticking.

We’ll do all we can to help them take the small steps and the giant leaps to success — whatever success looks like and means for each of them! — and we’ll keep you posted about everything we get up to together! For now though, say hello to Notnow Collective and Noctium…

Image Above: Notnow Collective’s Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth | www.notnowcollective.com

Notnow Collective

Notnow Collective creates immersive, provocative and highly visual theatre about challenging what we know of parenthood, family and home. The company was founded by Tina Hofman and Kristina Gavran, both Croatian artists who found their home in Birmingham. After having children and still wanting to develop their careers as independent artists, they quickly realised that the theatre industry is notoriously inaccessible for parents and carers, both as audiences and as practitioners.

Determined to make their caring roles visible and explore ways of integrating parenthood into both professional practice and quality theatre experiences, Notnow Collective is looking to establish itself as a company championing these issues in a funny and provocative way. Their work is aimed at adults, but welcomes babies and children into the audience, thus making it accessible for parents and carers to take part.

The company is mid-way through a tour of their first full length show Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth which is touring until October, and are busy developing their next piece The Fatherhood Project.

For more information about Notnow Collective:

Website: www.notnowcollective.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/notnowcollectiv
Twitter: www.twitter.com/notnowcollectiv

Image Above: Noctium’s Animate | www.noctiumtheatre.com


Noctium is a Coventry based theatre company, formed in 2013 by graduates of Coventry University. The company strives to create engaging performance through collaboration, exploration and play. Since forming, they have created two main pieces of work, The Country Doctor and Animate, both of which have explored innovative approaches to storytelling, sound and object manipulation.

The company is in the process of developing their next show The Woman and the Wobbulator, which is inspired by the life and work of Coventry born musician, Delia Derbyshire (who created the iconic theme tune for Dr Who). You can read a bit about the development of the show on Noctium’s Blog, and you’ll be able to catch a work-in-progress extract at mac Birmingham during the First Bite Festival on Saturday 22nd April 2017.

For more information about Noctium:

Website: www.noctiumtheatre.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/noctiumtheatre
Twitter: www.twitter.com/noctiumtheatre

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