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Feature: Spotlight on Adam Penford

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Tom Powell

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You probably won’t know the name of the director Adam Penford. But it’s pretty likely you or someone you know will see something of his work this year. Because Penford’s productions have that highly coveted attribute – they’re being seen by thousands upon thousands of people. As we speak, his revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 hit A Small Family Business is running on the National’s cavernous Olivier stage, and he’s about to commence rehearsing a touring version of One Man Two Guv’nors. Not bad, especially as his route to the metaphorical director’s chair started seemingly by accident: “I’d applied to five English courses, and on a bit of a last minute whim applied to LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. I got a place to study acting but as soon as I got there I realised I didn’t want to be an actor.”

We speak on the phone, and he’s unrelentingly warm, personable, and sincerely tries to answer each question. It’s easy to imagine him in a rehearsal room, speaking in the same considered manner. “I knew I wanted to work in theatre, but I didn’t know in what capacity – I knew I didn’t want to work on the technical side, so I suppose that meant I assumed I’d be an actor…” He laughs gently. “I must have been a very very naive 18-year-old because I didn’t really think about what other artistic roles there are.”

Two contrasting experiences of working with professional directors at LIPA – one incredible, one, erm, a bit less so – ignited and then sustained his desire to direct. Which has taken him to where he is now, overseeing Ayckbourn’s ASFB . What’s it like working with the most popular living British playwright?

Penford hesitates for a second. “You get summoned up to Scarborough, where Alan lives, to have lunch – I think all directors who do his work in the UK have to do that – and it’s basically a getting to know you lunch, but you suspect there’s a little bit of sussing out involved.” Enthusiasm gushes from his voice. “But he’s lovely, really lovely.”

It was intimidating, too, to be working on the infamous “arena stage” of the Olivier. “It’s an incredibly hard space to work in. The one thing I held on to was that Alan had specifically written it for the Olivier in 1986/87 so we knew that it had worked. But for a long time I wasn’t sure how. For a time the temptation would be for the actors to play it out – like you would if you’re in the cast of King Lear  – but what we discovered once we’d got on stage with the design was that Alan had been incredibly clever – what he’d essentially done was divided that huge space into little boxes, i.e. rooms in the house and that allows you to play it much more intimately. It took me and the creatives and the actors until we did the tech with the actual set to realise that, of course, Alan knew what he was doing.”

The play is arguably more than a domestic drama – perhaps more than other Ayckbourn plays, ASFB is steeped in its own history. It’s a play about an honest man’s choice between his integrity and protecting his family. The family, of course, are up to their eyeballs in furniture retail – a small family business. Mark Ravenhill called it the most important political play of the 1980s, and as I saw Ayckbourn interviewed on stage at the NT Platform before ASFB, the night before this interview, he’s aware and more than a little proud of how it’s been seen as a response to Thatcherism – to a culture of unfettered greed, selfishness and individualism.

Surely this resonates with the current social and political climate? “I think when Nick [Hytner] programmed it, he was certainly aware of that. You could argue that socially it’s deteriorated or that it’s just become the norm. But more than the sort of headline grabbing stuff, it’s the little things that during rehearsals kind of popped out at us – just on a very personal level – it’s…” Penford pauses to grasp for words, and then gives us his own take: “We’re all primarily programmed to be selfish, because we’re all programmed to survive, and so I think even on a personal level rather than on a big headline level, it remains relevant.”

“But I think, as with most Morality Plays, the issues it raises are timeless. Jack’s choice is between leaving his family vulnerable or taking action, he opts for the latter as I think most people would in theory. And whilst most people would condemn murder or drugs smuggling, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when you as an audience member would have made the opposite choice to Jack. The message of the play is deliberately not as straightforward as some commentators think it is and that is still the case today.”

Depending on where you stand – the stalls or the gods – Ayckbourn is viewed as a national treasure or as a purveyor of middle-brow, middle-class stuff. Penford is firmly in the former camp, and explains the latter as because, “Alan’s work, even the darker stuff, is effortlessly amusing and usually about ordinary people and there is a snobbery around that. Also, there is an idea of tortured artists slaving away for years to achieve their single masterpiece and Alan’s quantity of work (70 something plays) doesn’t fit that image.” He acknowledges that bad productions have taken their toll as well.

His advice for young directors draws directly from his own experience. “The first thing is that there is no set route. Look at any successful director, and they will have a different route.” His own breakthrough came in doing a course at the National Theatre Studio in 2009 – I get the impression that since then he’s been under the wing of Nick Hytner. Penford speaks incredibly warmly of Nick, and of Alan, with much more sincerity than someone who simply knows which way their bread is buttered.

Our time’s up. He’s off. To direct yet another massive play.

Adam Penford will be talking about A Small Family Business at the National Theatre on 15 April at 6pm. A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 27 August. One Man, Two Guv’nors will be touring to over 30 cities in the UK and Ireland and opens in Sheffield in 12 May.

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Guest blog: Tricycle Takeover

Posted on 11 April 2014 by A Younger Theatre

I’m sitting writing this article in the bar of the Tricycle where the team are busy taking down the festival decorations. It’s like the day after a party where everyone is sad it’s over, but has the chance to reflect on the fun events that have passed. The company and I would just like to thank Indhu Rubasingham and her AMAZING team at Tricycle Theatre; everyone from the Bar Staff to the Office Staff have been so welcoming and vocal in their support. Their belief in what young people can achieve has touched us all, and we just hope we made them proud and can continue to do so in the future.

The entire process has been, well… there are no words. I feel so privileged to have been a part of the Takeover Festival. I laughed at The Wardrobe, I cried at We Think its Extraordinary performed by 11-to-13-year-olds, where they talked about all the things they want to be when they’re older and how they hate being stereotyped. The entire week has reinforced for me the importance of theatre in today’s world; inspiring tolerance and understanding of one another’s experiences, from our troubles to our triumphs.

My advice to other young practitioners is to be proactive. Push yourself to the limit and then a bit more. Try things you had never considered before; directing, writing, stand-up comedy! This leads to cross-disciplines which can lead to even more exciting and experimental theatre.

Most importantly, focus predominantly on your weaknesses. Perfect your craft. I am constantly plagued with self-doubt. Is my acting convincing? Is my play interesting? Was that joke funny? We all have days where we just need to take a step back and gain some perspective. But as much as I doubt whether I’m good at what I do, I never doubt that I love what I do. There is no place I feel as at home as a rehearsal room.

My last piece of advice would be view everything as an opportunity. I spent nearly two years working in an office, wondering why I was living so far away from my family. Whilst it wasn’t in my chosen field I learnt a lot about the real world and came across some interesting people who inspired a lot of my plays and sketches. Sometimes we creative types can get stuck in our own little bubbles, but the people you come across at work, on the tube, are the people we want to engage with. I don’t want to make theatre for other theatre practitioners. I want to make it for anyone who has the faith to walk through the foyer door, whether they have heard of Bertolt Brecht or not. For me, theatre is all about telling stories about the world we live in. It’s about finding some common ground with your fellow humans. It’s about connecting. And that is what was at the heart of The Kilburn Passion.

Rachael Black is an actor, playwright and comedy writer/performer, originally from North East England. She is a graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme and Soho Theatre’s Writing and Comedy Lab.

The Tricycle Young Company took over the theatre from 30 March to 5 April for the Tricycle Takeover Festival. For more information, visit the Tricycle’s website.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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Feature: Bitch Boxer – “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit.”

Posted on 09 April 2014 by Lee Anderson

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When I ask Charlotte Josephine how she began writing for the stage, she tells me her primary motivation was one of frustration. While auditioning for drama schools, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of monologues available for women and decided to do something about it: “I used to write my own and say that someone else had written them. I’d go into an audition, nervous, and I’d get this little buzz when I’d say a fake name of a play. The panel would pretend to know who I was talking about, so I’d lie and say someone else had written it.”

This pugnacious and spirited drive manifests itself in Josephine’s debut play, Bitch Boxer; this one woman monologue, about a young boxer training for the Olympics, delivered a volley of knockout blows to audiences and critics when it bounded onto the stage more than a year ago. But as Josephine explains, those early forays into writing were crucial in exploring the kind of ‘voices’ so often lacking on stage and in the pages of anthologies: “I’d try and pick something really gutsy and strong, but I couldn’t find any contemporary monologues. So I wanted to write myself a really good part, as a woman, because I didn’t feel like I was getting them.”

Josephine began developing Bitch Boxer during a spell at the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab. At the same time, she started training at the Islington Boxing Club and this was instrumental to the evolution of her writing, in allowing her to capture an atmosphere of authenticity: “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit. It was so invaluable for the writing. The lingo and the language, the smells and the whole soundscape.”

Bitch Boxer went on to win the Soho Young Writers Award in 2012 and was produced as part of the Old Vic New Voices season in Edinburgh. Since then, the play has enjoyed success overseas, packing out the stalls down under when it performed at Australia’s Adelaide Fringe earlier this year. The furore of the Olympic games and the triumph of boxer Nicola Addams – who won the Gold Medal for Boxing – may have provided some context for the surge of interest the play received early on. Yet as Josephine explains, the play is about far more than boxing: “I don’t think I had realised quite how zeitgeisty and current it was going to be. I hadn’t realised it was going to be quite so popular as a theme. In lots of ways, it’s not really about boxing. It’s about someone’s struggle, the human heart and about fighting for what you want. It’s a really human story”.

For its debut production at the Soho Theatre, Josphine took on the role of Chloe herself. She continued to perform the role for the play’s national tour, garnering acclaim for her performance, as well as her writing. When it became apparent that the play would continue to tour, Josephine and Director Bryony Shanahan decided to audition new actresses for the role of Chloe: “Bryony was really keen to find the geekiness of Chloe. She’s very witty and self-deprecating, and we wanted to find that… As soon as Holly walked in, I was like, ‘that’s our girl!’. Because she had this natural clout that we really wanted to find.”

Holly Augustine had recently graduated from drama school when she auditioned for the role of Chloe: “I’d been warned that the first few jobs you get are going to be rubbish scripts. Then I was handed this beautiful 14-page gem of a job, and started training.” Augustine threw herself into the role with the determination and energy of a prize-fighting athlete, and as she explains, the physical dimension of the character was an essential element to tap into: “For me, it really came together when I started training properly and going to the club three times a week. Because the absolute core of steel it takes for someone to do that for a living – you can’t really put that into words.”

This muscular approach to inhabiting Chloe’s world meant undertaking an intensive, physical routine that recreated what it felt like to train as a boxer. The endurance, stamina and unbending discipline of an athlete – as they push themselves harder and further – underpinned Augustine’s preparation for the role. It was also a source of renewed energy and focus for every performance: “In a run, when you get to week three and you’re tired and your body hurts and for whatever reason you’re not feeling 100% raring to go – you have to find it in yourself. You have to dig deep.

In Chloe, we’re confronted by an unyielding resilience and fierce determination. Yet, as well as demonstrating physical and mental strength, she speaks to the audience with an expansive, emotional truthfulness. She is an athlete with tremendous heart, warmth and intelligence. As Augustine explains, this compassionate side is actually closer to reality then many might think: “Boxers are really nice. They’re a really chilled out breed and you don’t initially expect that because you’re used to seeing them so ferocious.”

On the other hand, there is never any sense with Chloe that she is waiting for a Romeo to turn up and save her. “It’s a female character that is strong, gutsy, competitive and aggressive in both the physical sense and in the ‘I wanna do something’ sense,” insists Josephine. When watching Bitch Boxer, it occurred to me that as a culture we seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of ‘gutsiness’ and ‘competiveness’ as aspects of male behaviour, but feel compelled to treat such traits as remarkable or unique when identified in women. In light of this, does Josephine consider Bitch Boxer to be a feminist play? “Those traits aren’t seen as ladylike in society. In order to be attractive I’m supposed to be passive, I’m supposed to look pretty and I’m supposed to be polite. Sorry, but I’m not going to be! It is bold and it is ballsy. So in that sense, it is a feminist play.”

Bitch Boxer is at Soho Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, visit Soho Theatre’s website

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Blog: An actor writes – How to make better films (and make actors happy too)

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Briony Rawle

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Dear film folk,

I’ve never studied filmmaking. I barely know which end of a camera to do a selfie into. But being an actor who is in need of footage for a showreel, I read a lot of casting breakdowns online for short films, so I get a fairly good picture of the kinds of films that students and new directors are making at the moment – and a lot of it makes for a pretty depressing imaginary mid-film montage. If I were making it, I’d put the Benny Hill music over it. Or the Funeral March.

Of course, many students and filmmakers are doing brilliant, innovative and interesting work. But it seems to me that for every ingenious gem there’s a real clanger that lets the good ones down and gives short-filmmaking a bad rep. A lot of the time it’s not even down to incompetence or ignorance, it’s just things that people don’t think to consider when they’re not on the business end of the camera, so to speak, as we actors are. So here are a few ways in which you can make sure you write great films that don’t make actors want to tear, maim and damage things, and also help create a richer film industry that’s not saturated with damaging stereotypes and lazy clichés.

First, we need to talk about women. If I were a Martian whose sole means of understanding the human race was the ‘Opportunities’ section on Casting Call Pro (now THERE’S a great film idea), I would assume that women are a different race from men, that they don’t really matter, and that they are mostly either strippers, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, girlfriends, broken-hearted victims, mothers or receptionists. They also only exist in relation to men.

Take a look at the last script you wrote, or film you directed. Do the women in it exist *fully* when the man isn’t in the picture? Are they just there to tell his story? Does it pass the Bechdel Test (two named female characters, who have a conversation at one point, that isn’t about a man)? I guarantee you that writing/directing properly rounded, complex, flawed female characters who aren’t entirely defined simply through love, sex or relationships, will immediately improve the quality of your films by a factor of Judi Dench.

In fact, why not consider writing a genderless script? That way, you avoid the unconscious draw of the gender clichés and focus instead on who that character really is. Then haul in a load of male and female actors for audition and just choose the one who fits the part best. Bosh.

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.

1. Sex scenes. Your film is seven minutes long. Is it absolutely imperative to the story that one of those seven minutes is spent leering over two actors who met each other that morning, awkwardly pretending to bang with their pants on under the duvet? See also: nudity. There aren’t many actresses who want footage of their own boobs for their showreels, and your ‘tasteful and artistic’ might be someone else’s ‘plain nasty’.

2. Consider carefully before stipulating about the looks of your characters in the casting brief. Just because Jessica is thin and blonde in your head, and Michael is tall and willowy with round glasses and a rakish grin, do you really want to completely eliminate a brunette actress or a bulky actor who might totally own the role of Jessica or Michael if given the chance? Is Jessica’s hair colour imperative to the story? Does Michael need to be tall and willowy in order to fit through a small gap and then reach a high shelf in the closing scene? Do they need to be attractive? Do they need to be white? Don’t limit your film by limiting the types of actors who can apply. And while we’re on the subject, there are so many briefs I come across where the female character must be slim/attractive/curvaceous/sexy/young/ pretty/size 8-10/skinny/gorgeous/cute/good hair/good figure/great smile/pixie-like features/a sad, faraway look in her eyes, and yet no demands are made about the physical appearance of the dude character at all. Don’t be that guy.

3. If you are using professional actors, you should pay them wherever possible. You are paying for their time, their skills and their training, and if you want respect as a filmmaker, you should respect your actors equally. There are many ways to raise funds for films, so find a way. Student filmmakers will, however, still find professional, fully trained actors who will do films for nothing as long as their expenses are covered, if it promises good material for a showreel. Covering expenses is considered the bare minimum, so it’s as simple as don’t make a film until you can do this at the very least.

4. Wherever possible, avoid writing extras or incidental, one-line roles into your film if you can’t pay your actors. You will get very few applications, and the actor who is eventually cast as ‘Man In Cafe’ or ‘Passerby With Hat’ won’t get anything useful for their showreel, which is the only reason they’re doing the film for no pay. Not even an unemployed actor has time for that.

5. Finally, for the love of Hitchcock, check your spelling on the casting brief. No actor fancies putting their celluloid image in the hands of a filmmaker who has managed to misspell the name of the actual film (yes I’ve seen it, so many more times that you’d even believe). Make sure you know your your from your you’re and have someone check it over before it goes out.

You are the future of the film industry, so, on behalf of all actors (and people who watch films), please stop and think before you write that next script. If it’s a no-pay film project about a man with a drug-addled, heart-broken, rape victim stripper girlfriend, who MUST have a shaved head, one leg and a sad, faraway look in her eyes, featuring an army of extras and five and a half minutes of shagging, go back and read this article again. And then maybe consider writing that one about the Martian instead.

Essential further reading for filmmakers: Casting Call Woe, or ‘how definitely not to write a film, ever’. 

Photo by Flickr user Max Chang under a Creative Commons licence.

Briony Rawle

Briony Rawle

Briony studied English Literature at Warwick University, then an MA in acting at Drama Centre London. She is an actor currently living just outside London, and is a founding member of Threepenny Theatre.

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