Sunday, 16 November 2014

Paradise Project 1: Watching the future happen

In our 30 minute spoken word stand-up comedy astrophysics lecture 600 People (I'm explaining what it is because for some reason* it doesn't have its own webpage yet), I talk about how astrophysicist Dr. Simon Goodwin (99.5%) convinced me that there are no other extraterrestrial civilisations in our galaxy. I won't explain how he does that as we're doing more with the show next year, but one of details of his explanation (back in 2006) was:
In 100 years, human beings will have the technology to launch a spacecraft that will be able to intercept an asteroid, or meteorite, land on it, drill into it, mine it for ore, and fuel, build a replica of itself, and then take off again.
So this week, I had the sensation of that future starting to arrive, as we were able to follow the landing of Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on our laptops and phones. The first step towards the future that Simon described to me in his office 7 years ago.

This week we've been back in the making process for The Paradise Project, our new collaboration with our good friends mala voadora. We're often asked about our making process, and our regular answer is that the making process for every project is different. And again that has been proved true. This process has been expansive and exploratory, and has been marked by the fact that each week (or couple of days) of working on it, has been a slightly different collection of members of both companies - in Warwick, Lisbon, Beirut, and Sheffield. This week has been Rachael and I from Third Angel, and Jorge Andrade and David Cabencina (the team will double next week).

This smaller group of us has allowed us to focus in on the structure and world of the show. The very nature of the theme mean we have many strands of exploration open at the moment, and we're at the point where we're picking out which strands we want to weave together. Seeking a simple structure that can exist within the field of research we've been doing.

One of the themes of the show is, well, we're wary of saying time-travel, but more about cause and effect of actions through time, and the passing of knowledge forwards through time, and what would happen if some of that knowledge slipped back through time.

The wariness of saying "time-travel" ties in with one of this weeks conversations about whether all fiction set in the future automatically becomes Sci-Fi* or at the very least speculative fiction, by virtue of it containing technology that we don't have yet.

As ever, we're simultaneously making several possible versions of the show (I'd say 3 different structures) in play. They're not entirely disconnected from each other, they overlap, but they have different focusses, and different audience relationships. There are texts that could be in any version of the show, some that contain an idea that would add to any version, and a couple that only exist in - or for - one particular version.

Each morning, it seems, one of us comes in feeling we have cracked it, with a proposal to put to the team. Project solved. Then slowly, under the scrutiny of our colleagues, we come to realise that there are now new problems with this structure, new questions demanding answers. Or things that seemed so clear at home, or in the cafe, that now seem a bit wooly...

Some of these thematic/formal discussions are now getting reframed as potential material for the show.

A strange bit of time-travel is that we're back working at The Workstation in Sheffield, for the first time in a long time. The Workstation hosted our first ever show, Testcard, and we made and showed several other pieces there (The Killing Show and Shallow Water to name two), so it's been really nice to be back. At some point on Monday we realised that the room we were working in - Conference Room 5 - used to be the home of the production offices for the northern media school, where I did my MA, and where, arguably, Third Angel was born. And when we oriented ourselves, we realised that the corner we had gravitated to work in was the corner where I had my production desk for both Testcard and With The Light On, our first two pieces of work, back in 1995/6.

*I haven't done one yet.
**I'm also vaguely aware from my teenage years hanging out at Andromeda bookshop in Brum, that there is, for the purists, a difference between Sci-Fi and SF; and another thing that Simon talked to me about was the range of soft Sci-Fi and hard Sci-Fi, but that's a discussion for another time...

Friday, 14 November 2014

Postcard From Beirut

This was originally written for the British Council's Theatre and Dance Blog (which is here).

1. Let’s start with this: I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of the political situation in the Middle East.
And then this: having spent a week in Beirut (Beyrouth) with Third Angel, mala voadora and our hosts Zoukak, I have a better understanding of what it is like to live in one of the many situations that there are in the Middle East.
2. Zoukak Theatre Company invited us to Beirut to show What I Heard About the World as part of its Sidewalks programme of residencies, for performances, talks, workshops, some early making time on a new show.
If ever a show ought to travel abroad it’s this one, to test our own assertion that this isn’t just a collection of funny stories about the world, that this is a show about how we understand the world, about how we think about other countries and the people who live in them. A show that is about the politics of what stories we tell and retell, about people in other parts of the world. Foreigners. This is a show that tries to communicate to audiences what it might be like to live through situations and conflicts that are beyond their own experience. So we owe it to ourselves, and the people we tell stories about, to see if we’re getting it right.
3. We had been told by friends and colleagues who had been part of Sidewalks before that we would have a great time in Beirut, and that we would be well looked after. But it is fair to say that just before leaving, as a group, there were some nerves about the trip. This was partly because our families were asking if it was wise. Party because people were telling us that car bombs had been going off again recently. Partly because the Foreign Office website said this: "A large-scale security operation is under way in Beirut. You should be vigilant, take extra care and minimise movements around the city for the time being. There is a high threat from terrorism… Further attacks are highly likely."
The American Government’s advice was DON’T GO THERE, and a ‘traffic light’ style danger zone map of Beirut and Lebanon suggested that we would have to pass through a red “do not travel” zone on the way from the airport.
I emailed Maya from Zoukak and mentioned our concerns. She replied: "This is regular procedure for 'western' governments, it's been like this since forever, but the places we would be moving through are safe and the taxi company take different routes to the airport. We just had artists from Australia who left two days ago and after you leave we have someone from Norway. And a few months ago when the French Embassy was asking its citizens not to come to Lebanon we had a whole company from France performing here. The country is full of tourists you just have to know where you are moving and we wouldn't take you somewhere dangerous. Of course it's worrying for the families but you will all be fine!
What I found reassuring about this is that I felt I could detect the slightest hint of exasperation in Maya’s reply. This again.
4. We arrive in Beirut at 4am. Visas are arranged in about five minutes as soon as we provide a phone number for where we are staying. We are met at arrivals by our taxi driver. 20 minutes later we greeted at our accommodation by Abdallah, bleary eyed in shorts and t-shirt, he’s got the short straw of meeting us at such an hour. But he is insistent that we have everything we need before he leaves for his bed. As we sit and drink tea and wine in the garden of our hotel/apartment, BEYt, we marvel, momentarily, at how lucky we are to have our jobs.
And so begins a week of some of the best hospitality we have encountered. Whilst we were in the making process for What I Heard About the World, we played with a running joke about what the people of each country are like. Whenever a country would get mentioned, I would say to Jorge, “What are the people like there?”, and he would reply, “They’re really nice.” We never specifically decided not to use it it, it just fell away; I think maybe I liked it more than the rest of the team. But touring internationally, with this show in particular, has proved the joke to be true.
5. On Thursday night we give a talk entitled Stories We Didn’t Tell, exploring the relationship betweenStory Map and What I Heard About the World, and the influence of the work of on the project.
We note, particularly, the importance of Worldmapper’s aim that their work helps the viewer to see “foreigners as yourself, in another place.” We talk about the how the show enacts (and explores) the problem it discusses, by representing each country with just one story – inadequate information to actually know about a country.
We are pressed to talk in more detail about our selection process for the show. We often talk about how instinctive our process was, choosing the stories that “appealed” to us. On this occasion, our audience push for clarification. They’re less interested, I think, in the logistics of our selection process, the geographical spread of countries, and more interested in our agenda for choosing the stories and how we represent them. It is clear to them that this is a political process. We are guilty of suggesting, sometimes, that the stories are chosen from the research-pool for no more reason than we “like” them. But here we confirm that the stories are chosen because of how they speak to us, because of the emotions they provoke, the experiences they describe, the experiences and lives they invite the audience to imagine living. With the encouragement of our hosts, we take responsibility for the content of the show.
It strikes me at the time – and I’ve been thinking about this a lot since – that we (I) usually shy away from labelling our work "political theatre". Partly because not all of the work we make is as overtly political as this project, but also because we suspect that using that label will put off a section of the audience (though why we think that, I’m now not sure). Theatre that is political. I’ll use that, but we (I) would usually hesitate to suggest that that was its primary focus. But I get a sense from our new friends in Beirut that they think, "well, if your theatre isn’t political what’s the point in making it?"
And it occurs to me that I agree with them. That we make theatre with the aim of getting people to stop, look at the world around them, and ask, "do things have to be this way?"
It is important to be challenged like this. And it has stayed with me (us). Because, yes, What I Heard About the World is political theatre: it deals with the way human beings treat each other on a personal level and a political, national scale. It recognises that there is an agenda to the stories that get told about “other” countries, and it tries, within the act of repeating a story about another country, to say, "yes, but what is it like to be an individual who lives this story?"
6. The shows go well. The theatre suits the piece – we are able to go ‘full widescreen’ with the set. And the ‘exotic animals’ we request turn out to be wooden cutouts, to match the Flat Daddy. A Flat Giraffe. Perfect.
Conversations after the show are fascinating. The importance of language, of naming things. In the show we refer to the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’. It is pointed out to us that that’s not what it’s called here. Here it would be referred to as the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Which of course is a name we recognise, too. But we didn’t even notice ourselves make the choice.
And one of my favourite compliments about the show, ever: I was looking at you, in your overalls, covered in blood, but I saw the woman, sitting there in Antarctica.
It’s clear from the workshop the three companies share and the conversations we have that there is a common spirit here. The way we make work. The way we explore ideas. It’s a privilege to have these conversations.
After the last show we are taken for some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Wine, beer, more conversation. The Norwegian artists have arrived. We talk about collaborations, about festivals, about residencies. Someone knows someone we know in Glasgow. More connections.
I want to ask Zoukak how they do this. I understand why, of course. Just look around the table. But how. They’re fundraising for their own work, and at the same time facilitating this amazing international exchange.
7. This has been harder to write than I expected. It’s way too long for the word count I was given. And since getting home I have of course learned much more about the “political situation in the Middle East”. Our life experience is just different. Our proximity to war and violence is just different.
On our last night in Beirut we watch the football, sitting outside a small bar on Armenia Street, drinking tea, wine and beer, and eating Lebanese tapas. Whenever there is a goal, fireworks go off in the city. It’s Germany vs Brazil and there are a lot of goals. Again, I have a moment of being amazed at where this job takes us.
At half time, Lamia tells me that the fireworks remind her of the World Cup in 2006, when Beirut was under rocket attack from Israel. Her little girl was just three years old. One night, when the sound of the rockets falling on the city woke her up, she asked:
- Are they fireworks?
- Yes, her mum told her, they’re just big fireworks.
- Goal! she murmured, and went back to sleep.
This is in their recent memory. Living in a city under attack. Some of them believe it will happen again. But here we are, drinking outside, at a bar, watching football. I can’t shake the clichĂ©: Life carries on. They hang out at bars. They bring up their kids. They make theatre. They make friends. They carry on.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monthly Film: Hang Up IRRITATIONS

So, I'm still calling these Monthly Films, even though they clearly run to their own calendar. This one is new piece. New as a short film at least. An extract from the FORTHCOMING DVD of our 1999/2000 show, Hang Up.

This section, the Irritations Section, uses a text originally written for our 1998 show Saved. But as the text for that show took focus as a semi-improvised daily diary, to fit it's varying length of 2 - 5 hours, a set-piece text like this didn't fit any more. We set it aside, thinking we'd like to do something with it. Often when that happens, we never find a way to do something with it.

In the show Hang Up, the four performers swap between characters from one section to the next. Some characters recur, like the lovers who can only use language from the 'Socialising' pages of a English/Spanish phrasebook, and others only appear once - Pizza Guy, for example. In the first two performances Rachael had a teenage prank call character, making annoying calls and calling people names. After two shows, we knew it wasn't working. It undermined the possibility that Pizza Guy was making a prank call (though I never thought he was), and it also seemed to weaken a much more sinister nuisance caller who appeared later. But mainly, it wasn't very funny.

I think by the end of that second performance Rachael already knew that she wanted to try the Irritations text instead. We put it into the next performance, and immediately it felt better, partly because it wasn't specifically about phone calls.

The documentation of Hang Up was shot at the start of the second tour, early 2000, in Forced Entertainment's studio in The Workstation. That process produced a short video piece (here), as well as full length show documentation, which will become available again as part of a new set of DVDs launching very soon.

Thanks as ever to Chris for creating this short video version.

Documentation extract from Third Angel's touring show, Hang Up (1999/2000)
Camera: Rob Hardy
Edit: Christopher Hall
Director: Rachael Walton

Devised and Performed by Juliet Ellis, Robert Hardy, John Rowley and Rachael Walton
Designed and Directed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Soundtrack by Alex Bradley
Lighting Design by James Harrison
Video Mixing by Alexander Kelly
Set Construction by Vision Works
Administration by Phillippa Yates

Commissioned by Arnolfini Live and funded by The Arts Council of England, Yorkshire Arts and Sheffield City Council. Hang Up toured the UK in autumn 1999 and spring 2000.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Clive Egginton

We heard today the very sad news that the photographer Clive Egginton has died, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

We worked with Clive on a number of projects - he documented the rehearsal process for What I Heard About the World and The Life & Loves of a Nobody as well as taking some production shots for The Machine.

Clive originally approached us about documenting the making of a show for the great Archive Sheffield project. I've just been looking through the photos of that process on Clive's Flickr pages, trying to choose a photo to put with these words.

I chose the photo above because we're just getting on with it - it's a set production meeting - we were a bit behind by this stage, and we might even have forgotten Clive was there. Because that's how he did it. He was relaxed, good humoured - it was always a pleasure to see him when he turned up, and he was always happy to talk, always interested in what was going on. And then as our thoughts turned back to the job in hand, he would just slip into the background, unobtrusive, and get on with his work. And then he would produce all these great images.

There's a Just Giving page in Clive's memory here, raising funds for Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity.

And there's more here about Clive himself and the remarkable Tactile Image project, an incredibly moving tribute for a photographer losing his sight, and a great example of something positive coming out of a terrible situation.

I only really knew Clive through work, but I will remember him fondly. He was good company, a pleasure to have in the room with us, always interested, and interesting. A generous man, who took a damn good photo. A story teller.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Psalter Lane, six years on

It feels like this is the last in the series.*

Six years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Sheffield Telegraph about the closure of "Psalter Lane" - which many people in Sheffield understand to mean Sheffield Hallam University's Psalter Lane Campus - an art school. Sheffield Hallam were moving their art teaching to be part of their city centre campus.

I was sad to see it close. I had attended Psalter Lane as an MA film student, and then did a few visiting lectures there once Third Angel was set up. But I knew it mainly from going to degree shows there - an annual cultural highlight in Sheffield. I was brought up around Walsall College of Art as both my parents taught there, and so I have an ingrained affection for self contained art colleges/campuses. And I live in this area of Sheffield. I felt I was qualified to write something. I said I was sad to see it close.

For several years after that, my walk to work would take me past Psalter Lane campus. Around the time the campus closed, Sheffield artist Kid Acne had painted YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE over the main entrance. Beautifully judged.

Being the obsessive documenter that I am, I began an annual series of updates, as the campus started to become derelict, got demolished, and has now been rebuilt. Or erased. 

I guess there is an implicit criticism or complaint in this series of posts. We should be building art schools, not getting rid of them. Hallam still has a fine art department. But there's something about the contained art college campus that gives it a different energy and atmosphere. (The same is true of performance courses, and though I have less connection with them, I instinctively miss Bretton Hall and Dartington. University of Hull @ Scarborough is next.)

You can see all of those previous visits here.

And here is a last visit. The first one where there have been other people around. I tried to have a look inside the Show Home, but it wasn't open.


*But knowing me there'll be a Psalter Lane 10 or 11 years on...

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Inspiration Exchange at Greenbelt: Story of the Day

As ever I choose too many stories in advance - more than I can possibly swap in (in this instance) five hours. That way I'm not deciding exactly what stories are told. And as ever I feel bad in advance for the stories that won't get told.

And just like last time, a newer thought occurs - to wonder about the stories that people who will come in to the Exchange will tell me, stories they don't know yet that they will think of and tell today.

We open on time, and it's non-stop for four hours.


A story told to me by a couple about their son, and contrary to my earlier thought, this is a story they knew they were going to tell me before they came in, the story they came in to share, in fact. Their late son. Their inspiration. Those of us listening know we're privileged to hear them tell it.

I swap A 6B PENCIL



I swap 01369 870212










And then there's a pause. Even Dominic, who's been with me for over three hours, has to go.

A little re-set in the tent. Stretch the legs. Stand up straight. Sunlight.

It occurs to me that today is a day of stories about determination in the face of adversity - particularly, sadly, adversity in the shape of cancer. Stories of finding what makes you happy, and what makes you who you are. About what we believe, and about what we choose to believe.

Stories about the importance of other people: friends, family, community, this place we're in, this festival. Stories about love.

(during the telling of which I double-check the maths of this statistic and am reassured)

Then, after the telling of this Story of the Day, a woman with a five year old daughter falling asleep on her lap, asks if she can hear LETTING GIRLS BE. And so the conversation carries on, and rather than stopping, the Exchange seems to wind down into the evening around it.

Thanks to everyone who came in for listening, and for your stories.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Third Angel at Greenbelt Festival

We’re really looking forward to (finally!) making it to the Greenbelt Festival this weekend, particularly as two Third Angel pieces will be there alongside two piece we’ve mentored. If you’re going to Greenbelt, and you want to seek us out, here’s where and when to find us…

photo: Elliot Roberts
Third Angel presents
An epic journey in a stationary minibus
SATURDAY 23rd 11.00am,  3.30pm & 7.00pm
THE WILDERNESS (next to The Kindred 24 Hour Café)
To an audience of just 14, Alexander Kelly recounts what he learned as he followed in the footsteps of his Grandad – on a bus trip from the Midlands to the most northwesterly point of Scotland: Cape Wrath. Heartfelt, moving and funny, and one of the hits of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Three shows on Saturday – in a minibus!
Sign up on Friday between 6–8pm at the minibus.
Age recommendation: 14 and over

Third Angel presents an
SUNDAY 24th 12.00 – 5.15 pm
Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly would like to have a conversation with you, and do you a swap: idea for idea, inspiration for inspiration. Drop in for as long or short a time as you would like, swap a story or just listen, as we follow a trail to see what unexpected places we end up in by sharing our inspiration. You can find him in a bell tent by Star Pond.
Final storytelling at 5.00pm at the bell tent (Star Pond). Suitable for all ages.


Hannah Nicklin (with Alexander Kelly):
SATURDAY 23rd 7.30pm & 9.30pm
This is a story about my dad (a retired policeman) and me (a protestor). It’s a story about fear, bravery, what it feels like to be kettled, SuperTed, the Lone Ranger, policing the people in front of you, and being sent out of class. It’s about working out what matters, and standing up to protect it. It’s about Them and Us.

It’s about me, and my dad.
There are also some jokes in it. Because serious things are worth laughing at a little bit.

Unfolding Theatre:
(Mentored by Third Angel)
SUNDAY 24th 5.30pm & 7.00pm
There is a world that can transport us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, where we are one perfect throw away from greatness, a place where we can all be champions. That world is darts. Through this noble sport, Alex Elliott asks the unfathomable question: “What does it mean to be best in the world?”

Join him on a hilarious, occasionally heroic and heart-warming journey, featuring true stories of success, live darts and celebrations of our own personal triumphs. Motivational bananas included. This uplifting show will renew your faith in life and darts. Who knows? You might be the best audience in the world.


And if you’re going, we would also recommend that you see Bobby Baker on Saturday, too.