Monday, 16 May 2011

Making Tea

Photo by Stuart Boulton, courtesy of the Northern Echo

There's a longer post to be written - soon I hope - about the mentoring work we've been doing with other artists and companies recently. But this isn't that post. This is more like an additional programme note to Tea is an Evening Meal, by Faye Draper, and me, currently touring as a collaboration between Northern Stage and Third Angel.

If you've seen any of a particular strand of Third Angel's work over the years, or if you've been to a workshop we've run, you will have detected a passing interest with furniture. That furniture might be domestic (it often is) or might be street furniture, and it speaks of a fascination with the spaces in which people meet, spend time, relate to each other.

Last year Sheffield-based, Lancashire-born artist Faye Draper was commissioned to create a piece of work as one of forty 'conversations about Northerness' to celebrate Northern Stage's fortieth birthday. The commission included money for "a mentor", and Faye approached me; when she told me the idea, I immediately understood why.

A couple of years ago I ran a three day workshop as part of the fantastic A:CT (Access: Contemporary Theatre) programme at Leeds Met Gallery & Studio Theatre. As a way of creating a trajectory from the Friday evening to the Sunday afternoon, I worked out a plan that all of the exercises would be linked to a table in some way. Faye was one of the participants on that workshop, and so thought that I might be interested in working with her on her show staged around a large dining table, with her, the performer, sitting in amongst the audience at the table.

She wanted to talk about the way her family meet at dining tables, and had already begun gathering stories from other people, too, with the aim of exploring regional differences and identity. It felt like rich territory to me and I was keen to be involved. Now, this might be one of those things that is much more interesting to those of us involved in making the work than anyone coming to see it, but it is significant to me that we deliberately avoided defining in advance what my role would be. We called it "mentor" for contract purposes, but Faye and I agreed we would just let it be quite organic.

The project had the money for me to be involved half-time, and Third Angel was able to support Faye with rehearsal space, allowing us to keep that half time flexible and responsive. Somedays I would be in quite a lot, watching material, suggesting things to tryout, giving feedback; other days I'd be in for coffee and a chat in the morning and then leave her to it. A combination of co-devisor, director, mentor and (of no-little significance when making a piece on your own) company.

Tea is an Evening Meal is undoubtedly Faye's show, and I am proud to have helped her to realise it. But I also think that if you know our work, then you'll find a flavour of Third Angel in there - or at least see why Faye felt we were the right company to approach to help her make this piece.

After a successful run at Northern Stage last year we came back to the piece a couple of months ago in preparation to tour it. It is often telling when you come to revive a piece after a break from it - in really basic terms the question is, "Is it as good as we remember it?" We were really pleased that we felt just as strongly about it, and I was really eager to see with an audience again. I always find it difficult re-rehearsing work that has been in front of an audience previously, it feels restricted to not have that live energy to play off. This was even more the case with Tea, as the audience of just thirteen sit in for various characters in the show.

But it was also really enjoyable to do a bit of fine tuning: to formalise the physical score ever so slightly, clarify the rules of "casting" the audience - or their chairs - in to the different stories, and to update Faye's perspective on the content almost a year later - a year in which she has had a baby, and so has a new relationship to meal times and, particularly, cups of tea. One day in Sheffield we were joined by Erica Whyman and Mark Calvert, Artistic Director and Creative Associate, respectively, of Northern Stage. It was a real joy to discuss the work with such invested and talented collaborators, although three directors to one performer was maybe a bit much. Directors. Yes, this time my role has been more clearly directorial, because that's what the project needed now.

Opening the show at ARC, Stockton, it was great to play to two such different audiences (Faye is usually doing two shows a day on the tour). The first was clearly a group of people who largely knew what to expect. The second was a mainly female audience who had come along because they liked the sound of it but had no idea what to expect. It's always useful to remember that no matter how welcoming a performance is, nor how gently the audience involvement presents itself, sitting at a table for a performance, where they can be seen by other people, and are talked "about" occasionally by the performer, is a massive step for some audience members. A few of them were obviously out of their comfort zone by some distance at the start of the show, but tea, biscuits and a very friendly show meant that they had a good time, and ended up participating more actively than they were "required" to by the end.

Faye is still collecting stories and opinions about tea (the drink) and tea (the meal) - feel free to join the discussion here. And a full list of tour dates is here.

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