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INCOMING Preview: Clout Theatre

Posted on 20 March 2014 by Katie Smith

Clout – Various Lives

Of the four members of Clout Theatre, all are present for our interview, but only three of them are in the same country. Mine Çerçi is in Turkey, and joins our interview over Skype. “We’re very used to this kind of thing,” Jenny Swingler tells me: as a result of Çerçi’s visa being denied, she directed the whole of their most recent show, The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity, via video call.

The company is made up of Çerçi, who directs, and actors Swingler, George Ramsay and Sasha Plaige, who came together after studying at the Lecoq in Paris. They are performing Various Lives as part of INCOMING; Swingler says it will “be really interesting to perform it in London to people who missed it at Edinburgh”. Clout has just returned from an R&D period in Istanbul when I meet them – and, more excitingly still, the company is about to go on to residencies at BAC, Jackson’s Lane and the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter before it performs at INCOMING.

The show itself is an intense exploration of the absurdity of life, exemplified by fascinating physical theatre. The premise of the piece is that a post-suicide group meet and discuss – and even re-enact – their untimely ends. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “You find yourself laughing at death, or suicide,” Ramsay observes, “We’re laughing about it, and then maybe there’s an echo that’s uncomfortable after that.”

By working through a devised process that Plaige calls “very democratic”, Clout has created a piece every year for the last three years, and is currently developing a fourth. “We all collaborate, we all discuss,” Plaige says of the devising process. “We all discuss the themes we would like to explore, the ideas, and then we come to something that is interesting for everyone. And then we get into the rehearsal room and each of us proposes something, and we all try it.”

Each member of the company has differing interests which cover various aspects of theatre, and the process Clout goes through to create a piece is what Ramsay describes as “finding where that unity is” between the different styles. “Some of us go more towards character, some of us go more towards movement, some of us go more towards clowns, some of us go more towards grotesque,” he explains, “Each of us has a different style, and that can be really rich.”

Clout premiered The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity at Edinburgh last year, and has gone onto develop it over the past few months, notably at BAC and then further in Istanbul, where Çerçi had to tech for a show she’d never actually seen in real life. This, she says, gave her a greater passion and drive to see the show develop further. The members of Clout all seem to agree that festivals such as INCOMING and residencies such as the one they are about to embark on in Exeter are integral to the development of emerging companies. Swingler notes that “festivals are important because it’s a chance for you to show your work, and sometimes that might sound easier than it actually is to do. I mean, a lot of the time we can make a show and then it doesn’t really have a home to go to, as it were, or an audience to reach.” Having worked in Paris after graduating, each of the members of Clout agrees that in terms of support and interest, London is a great place for young companies to develop.

As an emerging company, Clout naturally welcomes this support. The members of the company still have day jobs – they spend roughly half the year working outside the company in different areas, and then have a tight schedule of six months during which they create a show. Though developing rapidly, the company is still glad to be classed as an emerging company – Plaige notes how the label “leaves you a bit of freedom to take risks”. This allows opportunities to create the sort of show audiences can expect from Clout at INCOMING: “We’re not really ashamed of taking that kind of risk, even if it’s maybe one that’s in bad taste, some people could say? We enjoy playing around with that,” Swingler states, encapsulating the ambience and intensity of Clout’s evocative piece. “We try to do something we haven’t seen before,” Plaige adds. “It’s more of an experiment.”

Not being a full time company has by no means curbed the company’s focus or enthusiasm, and when asked for advice for other young or emerging companies, Swingler is assertive in her answer. “Just do it. Don’t second guess yourself or procrastinate. The advice would be just to go for it, to really go for it, and do 100% your creation and defend that creation as an artist, and don’t compromise, and that’s the best you can do.” It is evident that this sort of determination permeates Clout’s work – the result is work that is shocking, current, and visceral.

Just as Çerçi is about to answer a question on what the company’s multinational make-up lends Clout’s work, the video connection cuts out. But Ramsay pipes in. “I know what she’s going to say. I think she’s going to say that we have a common language from being at the same school.” When Çerçi comes back on the line she types her response on screen – and it’s almost exactly as Ramsay predicted. Being multinational is “not that difficult”, she says, “because we all share the same language, which is Lecoq.” It’s clear that the company is incredibly in tune with each other. Perhaps it’s this connection, whether through its shared theatrical language or complementary creative mindsets, that makes it the exciting company it is.

The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 22 May as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie is a student and occasional playwright and theatre director. When not frantically fitting in as much theatre as time will allow, she can often be found complaining, reading or drinking copious amounts of tea

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Feature: Jenna Watt – holding up a mirror (and a giraffe) to life

Posted on 13 February 2014 by Harriet Stevens

Flaneurs-Bannerweb

If you were witness to an act of violence, what would you do? Intervene? Move away? Or stand back and wait for someone else to get involved? Of course, largely, these decisions depend wholly on circumstance and none of us can ever truly know how we might react, until actually faced with the decision. However, a sociological phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect’ suggests that individuals are less likely to assist a victim when there are other people also nearby. “The larger the crowd, the less likely it is that someone will intervene.”

It is the shocking phenomenon of the bystander effect that forms the premise of Jenna Watt’s live art piece Flâneurs, winner of a 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award.

Watt tells me how, in 2010, a close friend of hers was the victim of an unprovoked, violent attack. What was initially shocking, and what the two of them found so intriguing later, was that there had been several bystanders to the attack who had witnessed yet not intervened.

Having studied theatre together, a theatrical collaboration became the way for Watt and Woodhouse (Watt’s friend who was attacked) to explore the ‘bystander’ phenomenon and the effect that the incident had had on Woodhouse.

What they created was Flâneurs, a live art piece written and performed by Watt and produced by Woodhouse, which tells the story of the incident, and includes video projection, audience interaction and verbatim interviews with Woodhouse himself as well as police officers in Edinburgh who are familiar with the bystander effect. “The piece is about 50% verbatim,” Watt tells me. “The rest I wrote to help move the story and the piece along.”

Watt admits that making work that tells a real life story – particularly one of a close friend – can be “nerve-wracking” as there was a constant wariness to not hurt Woodhouse in any way, and to remain respectful of him and his story. Watt describes how the whole experience has “definitely brought us even closer together” and that the project would never have worked out without each “having complete trust in the other”. After initial discussions about the attack, and after the decision had been made to collaborate on a piece of theatre, Watt tells me that she would send Woodhouse “writing tasks”, which he would respond to, and which, alongside his recorded interviews, built the base for the show. Through this method of working it was clear that Woodhouse, as the subject, was “always in control” and that “anything that he was willing to share in this way he was willing to have performed”.

Even though Watt is the only live performer, she is adamant that Woodhouse is “in the show too” not just from the use of his recorded voice but also as the story being told is his. Watt describes her intentions with the piece as “to hold up a mirror” to the audience, and to our society at large. To explore the audience’s initial reactions to the subject of the bystander effect, and to encourage them to reflect on their own experiences of violence.

Watt talks me through what she describes as the “big themes” of the show, namely, along with the bystander effect, the psychogeography of place and our individual roles as ‘flâneurs’.

Psychogeography analyses the emotional reaction that is evoked in response to a particular place, and came to Watt and Woodhouse’s attention after they discussed a fear of certain types of places that Woodhouse had developed after his attack.

‘Flâneurs’ is a term brought into popular use by nineteenth-century French poet Baudelaire and, later, by philosopher Walter Benjamin. It describes a certain type of archetypal character who is acutely aware of the urban geography of their city, which they leisurely explore as they take pleasure in their surroundings.

Although these are the concepts at the heart of the piece, Watt explains how the most recent re-write of the show (the same version which has most recently toured the UK) has been deliberately re-crafted to omit the terms “flâneur” and “psychogeography”: “I don’t want the audience to get stuck on the terms,” Watt explains. “It’s not a philosophy lecture, it’s [Woodhouse’s] story. I found that audiences sat more comfortably with it written like that. They’re taking in the story that I’m giving them, not being dragged down by the ‘big themes’.”

Although the terminology has been removed, Watt tells me that, through the piece, she hopes to explore the question as to whether we are all flâneurs, in that we all quite happily assume the role of “passive figure, wandering around and not engaging with others, yet also having a very acute sense of our [geographical] surroundings”.

Watt is also interested in the phsychogeographic connections that we build with our surrounding and whether our changed perception of our surroundings after a traumatic experience, such as experienced by Woodhouse, becomes innate or can be changed.

Ultimately, Watt hopes for the audience to examine their own gut reaction to their urban surroundings and “recognise where they stand”, particularly when placed in the position of ‘bystander’. She suggests that audiences might examine their own preconceptions about place and violence, and the stereotypes that play into these reactions: “in our society a ‘big man’ can only ever be seen as an aggressor, yet a woman is often expected to be able to diffuse a situation without violence”. The bystander effect taps into these stereotypes as “everyone looks to everyone else to be the one to intervene. You always have to weigh up the circumstance but, what a lot of people don’t realise is that maybe you are the best person to step in”.

Flâneurs is at Battersea Arts Centre on the 14 and 15 February. For more information and tickets, visit BAC’s website

 

Harriet Stevens

Harriet Stevens

Harriet is an applied theatre practitioner working with young people in London, and a recent MA graduate of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is hugely passionate about theatre and live arts, and spends much of her free time seeing as much theatre as possible.

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Feature: Spotlight on Nir Paldi – “I was just telling stories”

Posted on 10 February 2014 by Lauren Mooney

(c) Alex Brenner

(c) Alex Brenner

Meeting Nir Paldi upstairs at the Southbank Centre, I’m not entirely convinced I’m going to recognise him. After all, the last time I saw him, five months ago at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was buried in gold lamé to play Star, the abrasive drag queen at the centre of Ballad of the Burning Star.

Described as a drag cabaret musical about Israel, Ballad certainly didn’t lack ingenuity, and its unusual approach to one of the most controversial, emotive subjects of the last century won plaudits for Theatre Ad Infinitum, the daring company behind it. First and foremost a success in its own right, Ballad was also seen as a startlingly different follow-up to the company’s previous show, Translunar Paradise, a delicate, wordless exploration of grief. “We want to keep surprising our audiences,” Paldi confirms. “So they’ll think – they are doing this?!”

Unusually, the company has two artistic directors, Paldi himself and George Mann, who take it in turns to lead on their shows. Mann wrote, directed and starred in Translunar, and Paldi did the same for Ballad. “We’re very different, George and I, very different with what we want to make,” Paldi tells me. But he’s keen to underline that “each time, although one of us takes the lead on a production, we are very much involved with both – so it’s not different companies, it’s the same company. In a sense it’s not a separate creation, even if I’m leading it and it was born from my vision, or vice versa, it’s both of our creations.”

In conversation and outside the gold lamé, Paldi is a disarming figure: he has the quiet thoughtfulness of an academic, which gives way suddenly to moments of theatricality. Whenever he assists a story by slipping into Star’s voice or mannerisms, it makes me do a double-take.

Paldi is Israeli himself, though with the international outlook typical of a Lecoq graduate (Mann was in the year above him), and he had long wanted to tackle the subject of his homeland. “I had so much pain growing up and so much hopelessness,” he says, without a hint of self-pity in so saying. Perhaps the lack of a self-dramatising streak is unsurprising: Israel, Paldi tells me, is a place where “death is talked about very openly” and the military service, violence and loss experienced by Ballad’s central character were chosen for being indicative of the “simple, classic” experiences of his peers. “These are the things that we grow up with as Israelis,” he says, “just like… I wouldn’t say it’s less special, but it’s – it’s like eating fish and chips. It’s something that happens to you.”

Beginning work on the show that was to become Ballad of the Burning Star, Paldi and Mann shut themselves a way for several weeks. While Mann watched, Paldi stood alone on stage and talked: “I was just telling stories and it was an extremely emotional process, talking about history – things that had happened in Israel during my lifetime or before it – and explaining all the different contexts for everything so it made sense to someone else. Sometimes I would stand there, literally just stand there, and George would be like: start! Do something, move, talk… But I was just frozen, in tears.”

Surprising, then, that the show they ended up with is, for the most part, so boisterous and energetic. Paldi quickly realised he needed to move away from his own experiences, motivated partly by the need to throw off the restrictions of doing an autobiographical show and partly by the concern that “maybe my life isn’t interesting enough!” The urge to free himself of his own history and even his own opinions is how “little by little, Star started coming into mind, this character that was absolutely free to say whatever the fuck she wants and if you were offended she’d say, ‘Aw, that’s really sad that you’re offended, but I still think that’… Which is obviously slightly superficial, but it’s the repression, not the pain that is bubbling underneath.”

If the leap from straight storytelling to drag cabaret seems unexpected, there’s method in the madness. In his view, Paldi tells me, Ballad “is about boundaries… a man in drag is an interesting way of making people think about boundaries: is it a man or a woman?” He’s also surrounded Star with an all-female dance cabaret troupe, the Starlets: “casting the troupe, the soldiers, as female, I was playing with that – and emphasising the fact that I am a man in a dress and not a woman by having five very feminine performers on stage.”

Aided and abetted by the Starlets – “They’re trying to rebel, she’s oppressing even harder, she’s manipulating them against each other, performing for the audience as if they are the other countries of the world judging us, who’s right and who’s wrong…” – we are told the story of a little boy called Israel, growing up in the country that shares his name. There are layers of narrative complexity in here, with Paldi playing Star, who is herself playing the young boy, while the other performers multi-role as Israel’s family and classmates. Still, in spite of the huge amount of thought the creative team have put into tackling this contentious subject, it was inevitable that there would be some controversy.

During one Edinburgh Fringe performance, an audience member grabbed the back of Paldi’s dress and began vocally protesting against a statement that he had, in fact, misheard. Paldi was able to use Star to get out of it (“Is that right sweetheart? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts but I have a show to get on with…”), but after they finished the performance, Mann came to his dressing room and asked if he was okay.

“I was like, ‘yeah I’m fine, what do you mean?’ Because I thought I’d handled the dress-grabbing quite well. He said, ‘Did you hear what he just shouted?’” During the curtain call, it emerged, the audience member, “had stood up and shouted, ‘This was one-sided, it was propaganda, I just want to tell you,’ and somebody else said, ‘No mate, it was a piece of theatre, so sit down’.”

In spite of an overwhelmingly positive response to the show, there were still, Paldi tells me, quite a few such “intense reactions”. Though concerned about being seen to brush people’s responses aside, he nonetheless maintains, “if we’d wanted to have a debate, I could’ve phoned people and said, ‘let’s talk’ – but actually I took years to construct this thing, to communicate something very specific. So that’s why I had to stop it.” And is he worried about more of the same when he takes the show on tour this year? Luckily, with Star around, he doesn’t need to be: for all her flaws, “She protects us – me and the audience.”

Ballad of the Burning Star is currently on tour, including a three-week run at Battersea Arts Centre 17 Feb – 8 March. For more information, visit Theatre Ad Infinitum’s website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Dispatch from the Future of Small Scale Touring Symposium hosted by Paines Plough at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Posted on 31 January 2014 by A Younger Theatre

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Two things quickly became clear at Paines Plough’s symposium on the Future of Small Scale Touring, which drew a congregation of producers, programmers, venues, artists and companies from across the UK to Manchester this week:

1) ‘Small scale’ covered a huge range of work from National Portfolio Organisations to artists struggling on a pound an hour, work taking place in theatres, schools, chip shops and vans.

2) Discussing ‘the future’ would have to include taking stock of the present, with most arts funding at best plateauing and at worst plummeting.

The day began with Louise Blackwell and Kate Mcgrath from producing organisation Fuel talking about its New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood scheme, which asks communities what they would like to see and uses a network of volunteer ‘Theatre Adventurers’ to promote the work locally. This kicked of a theme of the importance of having feet on the ground in the communities we want to take work to. Sophie Eustace of Fevered Sleep echoed this need for “local ambassadors” and Neil Murray spoke about talking to audiences as the cornerstone of the National Theatre of Scotland’s rural touring success, allowing it to address very practical audience concerns like the need for raked seating to make work translate from venues like Edinburgh’s Traverse to village halls. Mat Fenton of Manchester’s Contact Theatre took this approach one step further, by giving the communities it works with a hand in programming, Contact attracts a diverse, young (70% under 35!) audience with a genuine investment in the work.

There were some innovative approaches to tackling the logistical challenges of touring. Tourbook, presented by Sam Eccles of The Touring Network, is a Facebook-style tool connecting rural promoters in the Highlands with each other and with performers (it might ultimately be used by audiences as well). The Roundabout, a 138 seat portable flat-pack theatre developed by Paines Plough for touring, certainly seems like an exciting solution to keeping work consistent, but with £200,000 invested, it was a bit of a leap from my personal sense of ‘small scale’.

The second session of the day on Data and Audiences raised questions about the gap between small scale NPOs and very small scale producers and artists. There were some interesting ideas from Nick Bareham from AU Insights about engaging with audiences online and from Jo Taylor from Morris Hargreaves McIntyre about thinking of audiences in terms of their values and attitudes rather than cold box office data. But for some, like Gloria Lindh of theatre company Little Mighty, barely covering the basic costs of touring, this all felt a bit too abstract, an evasion of the elephant in the room of diminished arts funding.

Sholeh Johnston’s presentation was a refreshing departure, focusing on the environmental impact of small scale touring. Bike tours won’t work for everyone, but Johnston (from Julie’s Bicycle) made a compelling case for environmentally-minded touring, for example pointing out that people’s homes are less energy intensive than hotels, but also cheaper and offer valuable connections with the communities you want to sell tickets to.

For me, the most relevant part of the day came at the end with a session on working in partnership. Mat Burman from Warwick Arts Centre spoke about its approach to working with artists, offering commissions and development time and space. R&D by the Sea at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis also offers artists space and a platform to share their work with venues in the Dorset region. The PANDA Mentoring Scheme and New Directions at York Theatre Royal both provide roots into touring and there’s a good list of similar opportunities on the National Rural Touring Forum’s website. Working in partnership is also about venues developing relationships with each other as well as with artists, represented by House in the East and South East and BAC’s Collaborative Touring Network.

The reliably emotive issue of funding found a strong voice towards the end of the day, with Charlotte Jones from ITC stating the case for subsidy as the only sustainable model for touring, imploring the arts councils to create a more level playing field, redistributing some of the returns from huge productions like War Horse and Matilda to small scale work. Julia Samuels from Liverpool-based company 20 Stories High raised concerns about the kind of elitism that will flourish in theatre without subsidy.

The absence of artist speakers felt like a missed opportunity and more inclusion of the I’ll Show You Mine debate (Mat Fenton got a cheer just for mentioning it) could have helped us probe the financial viability of touring and perhaps question distribution of funding between organisations and artists. Charlotte Jones and Mark Makin did at least raise the importance of venues shouldering some of the risk of touring to make it more viable for artists.

Vikki Heywood had opened the event saying we should probably all come away with a few good ideas and feeling a bit angry. Some left angrier than others and I boarded the train back to London equally excited about the new networks for touring and concerned about whether it can ever add up without decent subsidy. But I’m just not ready to believe that ‘touring is dead’, so I’m off to talk to some programmers and pump up the tyres on my bike.

Anna Beecher is a live artist and writer and co-founder of FAT CONTENT Theatre and Cabaret. Her new piece, Living Things, will preview at Battersea Arts Centre, 20-22 March.

 

 

 

 

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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