Wednesday 23 June 2010

Not about running

It's not about running,
It's not about pushing,
It's not about shouting,
It's not about bombing,
It's not about petting,
It's not about ducking.
I'm currently working on a project in Lisbon called Learning to Swim. I've contributed some text and officially I am offering "dramaturgical support". We sometimes refer to this as "sticking an oar in".

The project is being made in a derelict swimming pool - Piscina Municipal Do Areeiro. When I was here two weeks ago, it looked like this:

(there are more images of the pool in it's found state on our Flickr pages here).

Learning To Swim started life in the early discussions for Off The White, a piece I made with Paula Diogo as part of Teatro Praga's Shall We Dance project. Slightly confusingly, Off The White took its name from a short story I wrote about jumping off a high diving board - because Paula liked it - which later turned up in Words & Pictures. However, Off The White, the performance, was not about diving boards but instead inspired by my obsession with Empty Benches. An edited version of it also turned up as a chapter in Words & Pictures, under the title Benchers.

(This is an extreme example of the confusion that can occur when a title has to be committed to some time in advance of making the work.)

In discussing themes for what our Shall We Dance piece might be about by email, we hit on the fact that Paula has never learned to swim. And as Off The White went off on a tangent to be about benches, we knew that there was another show we were interested in making. The texts I have contributed to Learning to Swim are my half of a series of letters to/from Paula about that initial discovery, and thoughts about water, swimming, dancing, learning, teaching, leading and following.

When I arrived at the piscina that we are making the show for on Tuesday evening, some of the performers were assembled in the pool playing a song. Listening, I was thinking that it sounded familiar, wondering if it was a cover version. Then I realised that it was one of the texts that I had written, adapted into lyrics. I was surprised how well they scanned.

When I was in the process two weeks ago, we were juggling material created at several different stages of making the work, in both swimming pools and rehearsal studios, and responding, naturally, to the environment of this particular pool. The material that felt the strongest was that which seemed to be born out of the actual site, whilst exploring our original themes.

It felt like we had a really strong opening (a tour of the site coupled with a found text of the rules for using the pool, now strange and melancholy when heard amongst the debris of the vandalised site) and ending, a generous invitation to the audience to join in a (water-free) sort-of-pool-party. In between these two was a shifting playlist of texts and material, all of which we were interested in but weren't quite hanging together. We were exploring what behaviour works in this empty pool - do we still try to treat it as a pool (like some sort of leisure-activity-reenacting society in a water-scarce future), or respond to it more as an interesting split level space which allows performers to disappear and reappear using the pool steps.

I particularly liked a moment where, all leaping in, they treated the pool as a pool, but on foot, running lengths and widths, going off at diagonals to find the steps, hanging out in the deep and shallow ends, their whooping voices echoing off the hard surfaces. We talked about allowing the audience to watch as if they were indeed spectators in a public pool, letting their attention wander across many activities happening in front of them. Finding their own points of focus. The issue was that just six performers struggled to produce enough activity for this to work.

Lessons worth learning more than once: It is always interesting being an occasional visitor to a devising process. Watching a run through on that first evening back at the pool, it felt like the show has come into focus. That they have found what it is. There's not that much that's new. In fact, there's less material there. Within the material we had, they have found the frame of the show, and stripped away the material that doesn't work within it. The work is much simpler now, purer, and responds much more clearly to the space; but also, it feels to me, that it responds more definitely to the original impetus.

They've made a few interventions into the space, cleaned just the pool itself, refined the opening tour. And they treat pool as a pool. Without water. As Paula said to me before I watched my first full rehearsal, "It's a lot about running, now."

Sunday 13 June 2010

ARENA Festival - 20 Years

Back in 1999 we took our show Shallow Water to the Arena Festival in Erlangen, having been seen at the Diskurs Festival in Geissen the previous year. Both are international theatre festivals produced by students, and my experience of both, particularly considering that the team that runs each festival changes each year, is that they are fantastic. Both festivals boast an impressive alumni of international theatre makers.

In 2001 I was invited back to Arena as a member of the jury, which was a great experience. The 20th edition of Arena opens this week, and I was asked to contribute something to a book of memories of the festival. Here's what I sent them:
I remember that it was hot that week – and the hotel staff thought I was mad to want to go in the sauna after I had been out for a run. The evenings were warm, and our jury discussions were usually outside.

I remember that every show we saw was distinct – a different genre and a different venue. I remember that I liked all of the shows. I remember the five – I think it was five? - of us sitting around a high cafĂ© bar table, wondering how on earth we could choose a “winner” out of such a varied selection. We decided that our criteria would be the show that best passed the test it had set itself. We wondered if we were “allowed” to give the prize to the co-production between Akhe and the Arena team. But we had been sent to see it, and, by the criteria we had chosen, and in fact by most criteria we could come up with, it was the “winner”. And it was a great show. I still remember the thrill of the moment the seating bank moved for the first time, and realising that this weird Russian welding show we were watching was just the first part of something much bigger.

I think back on that week fondly. A great festival.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Work in Progress at Pazz

This is a short interview and documentation with me, about What I Heard About The World work-in-progress at PAZZ Festival, from

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Mixtape: Songmap

We were invited by our friends at Unlimited Theatre to take part in their Mixtape project. It’s a lovely idea: they’re inviting a number of artists/theatre-makers/comedians to choose a song they love and create stage action/performance of some sort to accompany it.

As we were in the process of planning a show made up of shorter pieces, it seemed like great timing, and so we incorporated our contribution to Mixtape, into Words & Pictures, which initially was cross between a book reading and a theatrical short story collection. Doing something for Mixtape within the show would provide a different dynamic, and give us an audience for whatever we made.

Making something for Mixtape was a really interesting challenge for us, as using a song – or perhaps music with lyrics is a more accurate distinction – is something we have always shied away from. This is because the lyrics in a song will almost definitely be telling an at-least-slightly-different story to the one you are telling live, and, also, familiar songs carry a whole host of associations about the time and place people became familiar with them in, that as an artist you have no control over.

Of course audiences bring a whole host of other associations in with them that you have no control over, and certainly we've always tried to make work that embraces that, and allows space for those associations to become part of the experience of the work. But with songs, perhaps because they are someone else's work, I've always felt much less comfortable with including them in our live work. And often I don't like it when a song I'm familiar with is used in a theatre piece; I find it distracting.

I’m aware that there are exceptions – certain companies actually use known music well (Unlimited Theatre themselves being an example, and also Oliver Bray’s current show Villa uses popular songs really nicely, not least because Oliver can sing, and because he deliberately uses the lyrics in a tangent to their intended meaning). And also, I often really like the use of well known music in film and TV.

All images: video stills by Christopher Hall

But throughout our work with Third Angel, Rachael and I have always been keen to bring composer/sound designers (most often Lee Sykes and David Mitchell) into the process to score the work. I remember an early conversation in rehearsal for Where From Here with Lee in fact, where, penny dropping, he said to us, “You don’t want a show sound track – you want a film score.” And Rachael and I replied “Yes!” in unison, suddenly understanding our own intentions better. On the occasions when we have used found music it has nearly always been relatively-not-well-known instrumental stuff.

All of which is a preamble to saying that we knew we wanted to give our song space - let it lead the action.

What we didn't know was what song we wanted to use. We both had suggestions, and a complex multi-blackboard Venn-diagram appeared on the wall of the workspace early on. We tried several songs, and at one point were both going to be listening to a different pieces of music on headphones whilst the audience listened to a third. Then we lost our two individual songs, and began work on texts to read over Wim Mertens' Maximising The Audience.

I wrote:
We’ve been trying to understand songs.

We’ve been trying to choose a song. Should that song mean something to either, or both, of us?

How do people write songs? Where do tunes come from? How come songs can be played on different instruments to the ones they were written on? How do you write a drum part when you’re writing a song on a guitar?

We’ve known each other a long time. We have bought each other music, played each other music, copied music from and for each other, been to hear music played live together.

But despite all that, or perhaps because of it, it’s been very difficult to choose one song.

How come some songs are verse chorus verse chorus, and others aren’t? If it isn’t verse chorus, does that mean that technically it isn’t a song?

I once saw a bloke on the bus writing music in a reporter’s notebook. He’d ruled a line in biro between two pairs of lines to make three lines into five – a stave. He looked like he was playing a tune in his head – or tuning in to one, like this, trying to catch it – then noting it down. At the time I couldn’t decide if he was being a pretentious twat or just open to inspiration. Although, I quite fancied a go. But I never got any further than ruling the extra lines in biro.

I’ve started drawing Songmaps – pictograms of the dramatis personae, the locations, the events of particular songs. Trying to pin them down, so I can better find my way around them.

People talk to me about what key certain songs are in, about key changes, minor chords; they talk about things being flat, or out of tune, that sort of thing. I don’t understand what they mean – well, I understand, but I can’t hear it, even after they’ve told me.

I remember a conversation in a Chinese Restaurant Karaoke Bar about the Dark Heart of Karaoke, about how it is one of the last socially acceptable refuges of the bully. Of the delight some people who can sing, or at least who don’t mind getting up singing in front of people, which is of course a different thing entirely, the delight these people exhibit when they talk about making people who can’t sing, or who perhaps are not comfortable getting up and singing in front of other people, which is a different thing entirely, about making these people get up in front of others to sing so they (the singers) can enjoy their (the non-singers) discomfort. We’d had a bit of wine by that point.

So what about this song?
And Rachael wrote:
It’s a horrible thing, not to be a listener of music. Actually, that’s not factually correct. It makes it sound like I’m deaf. Which I’m not. I’m a passive listener.

Sound happens to me more often than not. It imposes itself on me and at times attempts to persuade me to change my state of mind.

But it’s not my passion. It’s not the thing that defines me. I do not have a collection of "my" or "our" songs on a series of carefully hand illustrated mix tapes.

It makes you feel like an outsider at first. A social inadequate. I cannot make small talk about the various albums of Bob Dylan. I can’t name a single song by the Fall; I do not know the name of the lead singer of Massive Attack – if they have a lead singer.

I have tried to keep up. I would tape things off the radio as a kid, despising those older than me who thought the top twenty unimportant and laughed in the face of adults who couldn’t name the current number one. But then the first album I owned - was bought - was Cliff Richard's Silver, so I guess I never really had a fighting chance.

When I was sixteen I quite liked Phil Collins, but pretended it was really Genesis I liked. I even bought one of their earlier albums from an older boy, but I never played it and would struggle to recognise an early hit, and the Peter Gabriel days are definitely out of the window.

And so it went on. There is a catalogue of artists I’ve dabbled with, but to list them would be for purely sentimental and very selfish and boring reasons.

My world is not silent. I like to dance – on my own mainly and not really at parties. I hear songs and sing the same few lyrics – often just ever so slightly wrong - over and over again.

I’m feeling quite upset about this whole thing now. I feel vulnerable, naked in my admission. I feel you will think there is something not quite right about me. I shouldn’t have said anything. You are going to feel sorry for me now, you are going to pity the fact I can’t name a single Smiths album.

I do not own an I pod.
I do not now how an MP3 player works or really what it is.
I have not bought any music for at least five years.
I threw my old tapes away.
I do not own a kitsch, slightly cool vinyl collection.
I can’t listen to music and concentrate.

It’s ok and I bob along to stuff, but it’s not everything, not really something, to me.

But this felt like us talking about a Mixtape piece, rather than making one. We went back to the songmaps idea mentioned in my text, and back to the first song suggested, which was The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap, which, it has to be said, is one of my favourite songs of all time. On the album that it is from, The Week Never Starts Round Here, the song writing is credited as "Most Things Musical: Malcolm Middleton, Most Things Not: Aidan Moffat."

It doesn't have a chorus, as such, although there is a sung refrain towards the end of the song. It's not sung, in fact, apart from that refrain, it's spoken. It has a lot of characters, plenty of locations and many activities and stimulants. Originally we had tried drawing the song on a wall, but that meant the audience saw our backs a lot, and not much of the drawing, either. So we revisited the video-drawing idea that we used in The Lad Lit Project (although we only used it for projected handwriting in the final show). Malcolm Middleton, Aidan Moffat and Chemikal Underground were generous enough to let us use their song and we had a* Mixtape piece: Songmap.

Words & Pictures evolved to become an autobiographical book reading piece, becoming a more focussed solo performance. In this version Songmap is acknowledged as a borrowed 'chapter' in the unwritten book of my life story.

The commission for Mixtape includes documenting the track on video. It's no surprise that when we explained this to Chris, a single camera set up was not going to be enough, and the multi-camera set up allowed for the multi-frame screengrabs you can see in the top two stills.

We premiered the short-film version of Mixtape: Songmap at Curve after a performance of Class of '76 last month, and were really pleased that the 'will he keep up with the song?' tension of the live performance seems to translate to the recorded version, too. In discussion with the audience at Curve we noted, too, that of course we had chosen a highly narrative song, that indeed works, perhaps more in the video version, theatrically.

So, thanks again to Arab Strap, and to Unlimited Theatre, particularly Jon and Kate, for the opportunity and their support.


*we did actually keep developing another Mixtape idea, that may surface in the future, too.

Songmap features The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap. Words and music by Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat. Courtesy of Chemikal Underground.

Live performance devised and performed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton.
Film version directed and edited by Christopher Hall.
Additional camerawork by Alexander Unwin
Songmap is Third Angel's contribution to Unlimited Theatre's Mixtape project.

The film is available for 3 days, 1-3 May 2015, as a #GiftForGIFT.

Supported by Leeds Met Studio Theatre, Off The Shelf Festival of Words & Sheffield Hallam University.
Special thanks to Stewart Henderson, Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat.