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Blog: Handlebards on tour – getting under way

Posted on 02 July 2013 by Handlebards Blog

Handlebards, a four-strong all-male troupe, are travelling 926 miles by bike, touring their take on Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet from Glasgow to London. They’ll be keeping a travel diary for AYT along the way – here, Director James Farrell tells us about getting started…

HBGlasgow

The final week of rehearsals in London was wonderful as it really gave us a chance to cement all the work we’d been doing and go into minute detail. We also had the final props and costumes, which looked great. Libby Todd, our designer, had really captured the spirit of the production with the vintage/reclaimed look we were going for – thank goodness for the charity shops of West London!

Unfortunately the reclaimed policy also led to our first, and hopefully only, disaster. The bike-pulled trailer which will be used to carry the props and costume was bought second-hand and had seen many better days. Libby tarted it up somewhat, but once we loaded it with everything, the inevitable happened and the clamp connecting it to the bike snapped, five minutes into the cycle from Battersea (where we were rehearsing) to Shoreditch (where Callum lives)…

We managed to find a replacement clamp but it wouldn’t reach us on time so it would have to be delivered to Glasgow. Using one of Callum’s shoe laces, some LX tape and a bit of sponge, we cobbled together a “clamp” of sorts that Blue Peter would have been proud of! Amazingly, this managed to get us from Shoreditch to Euston to Glasgow to the Riverside Museum, where we wait with baited breath for the replacement clamp before we set off for Falkirk on Thursday.

Our first full day rehearsing in Glasgow was brilliant, if very, very, very wet while it sounds like the rest of the country basked in glorious sunshine. But I think everyone really benefitted from being in an actual venue and finding out if all the ideas (and dreams) we’ve had will actually work. Sunday was Twelfth Night all day and today has been Romeo and Juliet (15 hours of rehearsal…), plus we met the first of the bands who’ll be supporting us en route.

It’s been a hectic and tiring first three days, but despite dodgy equipment and inclement weather we’ve made a really positive start. If the shows continue to grow on tour as much as they have over the last few days the country is in for an absolute treat!

James Farrell is the Director of Handlebards. You can find out more about their trip on Peculius’s website.

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Theatre thought: Where is the UK’s theatre blogging community?

Posted on 15 February 2012 by Jake Orr

Hello World

In Matt Trueman’s Noises Off this week on the Guardian Blogs he highlighted the spat caused by the recently launched online publication The Globe Mail in Australia over its first arts feature ‘Now Everyone Is A Critic‘. The article centres around the now not-so anonymous theatre blogger Jane Simmons, whose blog Shit On Your Play is all about telling directors, creatives and Australian producers of theatre just what she thinks, in a direct and uncensored manner. As Truman notes, it’s like “The West End Whingers, just without the camp charm”. The feature singles out Simmons as the rallying voice of reason across Australian theatre blogs, with little to no representation of other, perhaps more notable, theatre bloggers. Naturally this, along with the general damning nature of Simmons’s harsh blog posts, has put the cat amongst the pigeons. I won’t go into detail, as Trueman gives a general overview in Noises Off, but the ripples of responses have been impressive.

What becomes apparent from the reactions to the Globe Mail’s feature, is that there is an in-built theatre blogging community in Australia which is ready to lash out and defend, argue and debate in moments such as this. The Australian theatre blogging community seems prominent and ready to make its opinions heard should it need to. There seems to be a community which regularly finds its voice online, and, if the Globe Mail’s article is to believed, this community is not so much feared as respected.

It therefore seems a pity that I feel there is a lack of community here in the UK when it comes to theatre blogging. I’ve been writing on A Younger Theatre since 2009, and whilst my voice may now be part of a succession of other voices which make up what AYT has become, my own voice has stayed true throughout. I would be foolish to suggest that I’ve not felt some form of community over the past few years; this is to be expected when the online blogosphere is brought into the public space through seeing our love of theatre. Yet while friendships have formed there seems to be a demise in community online. Theatre bloggers in the UK are more prone to review theatre than add their commentary to the artistic visions, creations and funding elements that make up the arts as a whole.

It’s a subject that I’ve touched upon before, most notably in my blog The Stagnation of Theatre Blogging back in June last year, yet it seems the issue is still pertinent today. Where the Australian theatre blogging community has rallied together to offer opposing sides of the story, our UK-based bloggers are turning into mere reviewers. I long for the commentaries that seek to actively challenge the way in which our theatres are built and run. I even long for the cross-commentary that we could offer each other on subjects that become pertinent as the arts evolve across a year.

Sadly, all that the UK’s theatre blogging community has offered in recent months iare defences of the right of bloggers to review previews, and that is one topic that needs to be shut away and forgotten about. It seems almost that while other theatre blogging communities have the upper hand in their theatre communities, UK theatre bloggers are playing into the hands of producers and venues alike. It could easily be said that over the past year, the shift in allocation of ‘press tickets’ for online bloggers/reviewers has increased dramatically, and whilst this should be celebrated, have we lost our critical voice because we’re too concerned at losing those tickets? Possibly.

Regardless of the current prominent theatre bloggers churning out reviews that tend to shape the critical commentary across our theatres, there needs to be a stronger voice that rallies and challenges organisations and audiences alike. Trueman’s Noises Off is populated by overseas bloggers responding and engaging with each other together, forming communities that add a layer of critical discourse beyond just reviewing.

In the UK we have seen some excellent bloggers using their online platforms for discussions. Examples such as Daniel Bye on Opera North, Dan Rebeallato on Quentin Letts and Dan Baker’s view on the arts have given ample space for discussion [Web Ed's note: you don't have to be called Dan to have a theatre blog!], but there has not been a continuation of the responses that these generated. Even the formidable bloggers Chris Goode and Andrew Haydon have fallen quiet, and whilst there might still be the odd blogger laying out discussion, no one is picking it up and offering a dissection of the arts as a whole. The blogging community feels disjointed, and I’m not one to escape the blame either or even through A Younger Theatre I offer standalone blogs that don’t offer response to others. If the current bloggers (including myself) can’t rise to the challenge, then perhaps we need to make room for those who do and can respond, allowing the community to be joined up instead of the current disparate blogging.

Whilst I adore the Guardian Theatre Blog for fueling my need to consume commentary, I do wish that more of those being commissioned to write the pieces would take time to build the dialogue elsewhere too. My love of the Guardian Theatre Blog is clearly apparent, but we have to be careful that we don’t pander to a single establishment – that’s the beauty of the online world; new voices and critical commentaries can so readily be made… so where is the UK’s theatre blogging community ready to respond? Are you out there? Hello?

Image by Lee Barrows.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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Exit Stage Left: The message in a work of theatre or film

Posted on 05 September 2011 by Tristan Pate

Like most people, there are giant gaps in my film and theatre knowledge, and during this long and geographically far ranging tour, I have really enjoyed discussing and sharing films with my fellow cast members.

When you spend the majority of your time together reproducing the same work on stage, it is refreshing to watch something challenging which provokes discussions about acting and directing, but, more interestingly, life itself.

It is often indicative of actors that they always want to rationalise and understand a drama and all of the processes behind it. Both in a rehearsal scenario or just in the company of friends on a sofa with a DVD, we can’t help discussing what we thought “the message” of the piece was, the intentions of the playwright or film maker, the crux of the drama, or the morals we are supposed to take from it.

It strikes me that this isn’t always a clear distinction to make, and often not predictably in line with the quality of the film; in fact, the best films and plays often seem so broad it is hard to pin them down to one particular theme or agenda.

Now I may often wax lyrical about Russian dramatists in this column, but one thing I think great authors such as Tolstoy do brilliantly is to provide their audience with a hugely detailed cross-section of the lives of their characters, complete with all their contradictions, their flaws and virtues, their changing attitudes and opinions. A truly great piece of drama is often one which seeemingly has no obvious agenda, no single issue which is repeatedly hammered home for 90 minutes, but relates to its audience in a subtler, more impartial way, letting the viewer in slowly and allowing them to have their own responses.

Citing Tolstoy as an example purely through my experience of interpreting his work, I believe the truth in the drama comes from its scope and vision, the beautifully and intricately constructed worlds giving the feeling we are seeing merely a moment in the lives of the protagonists in a continuing narrative, which both begins many years before and continues indefinitely after the time frame we are spectators to. It lives and breathes beyond the page or performance because it is invested so thoroughly with honesty and truth.

Simillarly, you try pinning anything in Shakespeare’s canon down to a prominent theme – you can’t do it. He writes of life and death, love and loss, the human condition in all of its complex nuances, and still finds room for a smattering of cock jokes too. I suppose this is why so many people are adamant that one man cannot have written all of his plays – how can it be possible that one man can know the human heart so well?

But this is a discussion for another day. I recently shared a film with some friends which I had found very difficult to watch, Blue Valentine, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

The film charts the relationship of a couple both in the present day as they struggle to rekindle an unsalvagable marriage they have each given everything to, and many years in the past as they meet and their passion and love for each other conquer an equally difficult set of circumstances at the genesis of their relationship. It is a painful and uncomfortable watch, deeply moving and upsetting, but with two incredible central performances which capture perfectly this impartial, truthful level of storytelling. As actors Gosling and Williams invest hugely in their roles and with each other; it is impossible not to believe their relationship at all stages of its decline, and not to despair at the miscommunication at the heart of their separation.

What the film does brilliantly though is confound its audience into trying to extrapolate a clear message. Is it to warn us off giving ourselves completely to someone? Or to be determined to love, and love entirely in spite of all the heartache? Perhaps it is to know that sometimes a situation can be completely out of our control, that the urge to always want to fix a situation without fully understanding it can be damaging and insensitive.

It doesn’t exactly end on a life affirming tone, there is no romantic payoff. Much like War and Peace or Anna Karenina, we see a chunk of story, a section in the lives of two very carefully drawn characters which doesn’t tie up its loose ends satisfactorily, much like life.

Human beings are wonderfully flawed. We all make mistakes, and we don’t always learn from them. Sometimes, especially in relationships we continue to make the same ones again and again and again. We can surprise ourselves with our own hypocrisy, we can be all things to all people, or we can be nothing to anybody. Sometimes the only real message we can take from these collection of experiences is that we just need to keep going as best we can, trying to be the best person we can in each individual moment. And I suppose there’s maybe half a message in that.

Tristan Pate

Tristan Pate

Tristan is an actor and musician and graduated from the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010. Since then he has appeared in plays, musicals and physical theatre pieces both touring nationally, and in London. He lives in Oxfordshire with his fiancée and young daughter.

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Exit Stage Left: The flood of fear

Posted on 23 August 2011 by Tristan Pate

As well as being exciting, freeing and full of challenges, rehearsals can also be a stressful, frustrating and confusing process for any actor.

As well as getting to grips with a role, there are a lot of new people to take in, many of whom you will be working very intimately with over the coming weeks. And then there’s the producers, technical team, wardrobe and, of course, your director. It takes a while to really get to know and trust these people, and often the first impressions you will get of your colleagues will be completely inaccurate, as everyone tries to establish themselves within the group dynamic. Defenses will be up and cards will be kept clutched close to chests for a time. No one wants to look silly in front of each other, or the director. You are all working professionals here to do a job,  and it can often blind you at an early stage into being scared to ask questions or take any risks.

I’m sure anyone would agree, one of the best things about acting is getting to work so closely with other people, and learning a lot about yourself in the process. The friendships you form whilst playing against people on stage or in front of the camera are deep and long-lasting. Even if you do fall out of regular communication, or work takes you far away from each other, you always have that one shared experience which never leaves you.

A director once told me as a production was coming to a close and we were both feeling a little blue, that he thought working as an actor was a bit like entering into a string of failed marriages. You work so intensely with a group of people for a finite time, that it comes as a shock when the project comes to a close and you are suddenly brutally divorced from them. Of course, you pick up the pieces and, if you’re lucky, move on to your next courtship, but you always share that special connection with old colleagues many years later.

On day one though, none of these bonds have been formed and, crucially, you also have a director to develop a working relationship with. Understanding and interpreting the intentions of your director is a vital asset to any actor, and of course it should be said, accommodating the needs of your cast is an equally big part of directing. In the beginning stages of any ensemble, these dialogues can be stilted and fraught with trepidation. We often find ourselves not quite understanding a note, yet trying to act on it all the same, scared to ask for clarification for fear of embarrassment, or feeling insecure about putting our own personal interpretation across.

Now, every director is different, but I think it’s fair to say most directors don’t want to work from a completely blank canvas. A director who can see what you are trying to do and can then help tailor your performance to suit the needs of a piece is surely a happier director than one who was to do all the work for you?

And that is why I say be fearless, be bold, be interesting! Don’t fix your ideas but have lots of them, and get in there on the first day and put a few out there. It may feel like everyone is watching and judging you, and you may feel that they are all resenting this show-off in the room, but the truth is they are envious of your beautiful and unbridled courage.

They will all get there eventually, the group will settle, and the discoveries and inventions will begin to flow thick and fast – it really is the most exciting, electric time. But, you need an atmosphere conducive to this  so the actors are able to risk things that may fail, while the group provides a safety net of trust and mutual respect.

It’s also easy to forget that this is the director’s first day as well, and they have the focus of a whole cast on them which, no matter how experienced they are, must always be an initially daunting prospect. If you give them something to play off, it eases their assimilation into the group as well. Whether it’s something to love or inspire, or something to hate and spark debate, there are never any wrong suggestions at this stage, they are all just different avenues to explore on the road to creating a piece of theatre.

Martin Luther King Junior once said “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”. It’s an incredibly pretentious way to finish this blog, but I think prescient enough to let me get away with it. So go forth and be BOLD.

Tristan Pate

Tristan Pate

Tristan is an actor and musician and graduated from the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010. Since then he has appeared in plays, musicals and physical theatre pieces both touring nationally, and in London. He lives in Oxfordshire with his fiancée and young daughter.

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